Fifty years ago I was about to turn 15, it was 1957, and the central issue of our times was clearly seen to be the Cold War, the struggle with the Communist Soviet Union and its allies such as China. In retrospect, at least from the US perspective, that was probably accurate, although expanding civil rights and economic opportunity to those other than (straight) white men probably runs a close second. Fifty years from now, in 2057, when today's 15-year-olds are my age, when people look back at the beginning of the 21st Century, what do you think they are going to see as the central issue of our times? And how are they going to think we did?
I am willing to bet that it will not be the struggle with Islamic extremists, or even with terrorists generally, as the Bush/Cheney regime and its sycophants believe. Rather, it is much more likely to be the intertwined problems of the end of fossil fuels and global climate collapse. And depending on what we do in the next 5-10 years, they may be wondering why we didn't feel more of a sense of urgency, why we didn't do something while there was still time, why we threw so much money and effort at a crazy, endless war in the Middle East while the temperatures and sea levels rose around us.
While both major parties saw the struggle against communism as the central issue in the 1950's, it has been devastating to the cause of mitigating climate change that the GOP and its patrons have not only denied the urgency, but fought the effort tooth and nail for the first six years of the Bush presidency. But that began to change, as so much did, with Katrina, then with last summer's fires and heat waves, and now this summer's extreme weather events, all of which have cost many lives on all our coasts and the interior.
While Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" was seen as a political event, last night's Tom Brokaw special on the Discovery Channel was global warming 101 for the mainstream. A poll taken a year ago reported 70% of the public convinced that global warming is happening, an equal amount having become more convinced over the previous two years, with severe weather being a major factor in that change. This summer's severe rains and floods probably increased the number.
With a sufficient segment of the public now convinced theere is a problem, we sorely need real leadership on the issue. Based on the 1970's gasoline shortages and our experience here in Califonria with periodic shortages of water and electricity, I firmly believe that the public will respond favorably to clear direction and mandates for change. In parts of the country without such leadership many people do not do more because they believe that if the problem were real, the government would be doing something. Thus, we need first and foremost a clear statement that the problem is real, serious and must be addressed.
Second, people need to understand that while climate change cannot be arrested at this point, it can be mitigated, and that a little effort actually can go a long way. One of the most informative graphics in the Discovery Channel show depicted the carbon dioxide output of various activities and machines of a typical family as blocks of soot above the house. An amazing amount can be saved through conservation and efficiency around the home with negligible change in lifestyle. The California Flex Your Power website claims that if every household replaced one incandescent bulb with an energy-saving CFL bulb it would be the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road. (Flex Your Power is a model partnership of utilities, residents, businesses, institutions, government agencies and nonprofit organizations working to save energy formed during the 2001 energy crisis here. Its website has a wealth of ideas for saving energy.) In fact, addressing energy use in buildings and construction is at least as important as addressing conservation through better means of transportation, a point also made by the Discovery Channel special. Municipal, residential and business lighting is another area ripe for conservation. A fascinating article in theAugust 20, 2007 New Yorker discussed how improved outdoor lighting not only saves energy and allows more enjoyment of the night sky, but is actually safer as well. Tucson has long set an example in this area.
Finally, it is obvious that even as we conserve, we need to develop new technologies for building, transportation and power generation. Rather than costing jobs, this could become the next entrepreneurial frontier, if there were more incentives (such as fuel efficiency mandates, seed money and regulatory changes that mroe fairly internalized, rather than externalized, the costs of existing fuel sources).
Concern for the environment is one major area where young voters are disenchanted with the GOP. Along with the traqgic blunder that is Iraq, I believe that GOP denial of global warming and refusal to confront it as a major problem may prove the undoing of conservatism as an appealing ideology even to an extent in the ultra- conservative parts of the country. Certainly that would be the case if the Democratic Party leadership and candidates made addressing global warming and coping with declining supplies of fossil fuels through conservation and innovation a major part of their platform. Not to do so is to be wrong, colossally wrong, about the central issue of our time.