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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2007
Table of Contents
 
  SMART ENERGY SOLUTIONS:
Energizing America
Can Coal Be Clean?
Negawatt Power
Why Not Nukes?
The Birds and the Breeze
The Fix
 
  MORE FEATURES:
Decoder: Corn-Fed Cars
The Watched Photographer
 
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One Small Step
Lay of the Land
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Sierra Magazine
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Energizing America
Fossil fuels burned brightly in their day, but now it's time to make the leap to safer, cleaner, climate-friendly alternatives
by Bill McKibben
January/February 2007

{Editor's Note} In the following pages, Sierra explores what our nation can do to meet the challenge of global warming. "Everything hinges on our ability to somehow gracefully make the jump from fossil fuel to ... something else," says author Bill McKibben in our opening story. But to what? Shorter articles sift through the current controversies. What about "clean coal"? How much can we rely on energy efficiency? Is it time to reconsider nuclear power? How do we address wind power's problems? Then we preview the Sierra Club's "energy road map," a 50-year framework for a brighter--and cleaner--energy future. Here's the big news: Using American ingenuity and determination, we can ensure our grandchildren clean air and water, rich wildlife and wildlands, healthy communities, and a stable climate. Turn the pages, follow up on the Web, and find out how. --Joan Hamilton

EXPLORERS USED TO AMUSE their European audiences by telling of heathen tribesmen who would panic when an eclipse rubbed out the noonday sun. The natives would scream or pray or make ritual sacrifices to appease the god on whom they had always depended, a god now acting so irrationally. Our chief deity--the cheap energy that has made our lives rich and easy--is about to be eclipsed as well, and the sounds you hear (motorists moaning about the price of gas, politicians loudly insisting that sacrificing wilderness in the Far North will save the day) are no different. Except that solar eclipses pass quickly. This change is forever; fossil fuel was a onetime gift--and the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can go about the realistic task of doing without it.

Much of what passes for discussion about our energy woes is spent imagining some magic fuel that will save us. Solar power! Fusion power! Hydrogen power! But such wishful thinking hides the basic fact of our moment in time: We've already had our magic source of energy. Fossil fuel was as good as it gets: compact, abundant, and easy to handle and transport. All you had to do was stick a drill bit in the ground or scrape off a few feet of soil above a vein of black rock and you were set. Learning to use coal, gas, and oil kicked off the Industrial Revolution and, in subsequent centuries, underwrote the chemical revolution, transportation revolution, agricultural revolution, and electronics revolution. (Right now, even as you read this, fossil fuel is producing hundreds of billions of revolutions per minute.) Pretty much every action of modern life involves burning hydrocarbons, and it's modern life that we've come to like.

So it's no wonder that we start to get a little jittery when we contemplate the coming end of the fossil-fuel age. The growing recognition that we're approaching a peak in oil production is the most obvious sign, of course--our supply of petroleum is now measured in decades, and as each decade passes, that supply will become harder to find and more expensive to pump. The world's four biggest oil fields are in decline. We're using oil five times as fast as we're discovering new reserves. And just as those of us already in on modernity would like to start hoarding the remaining supply, the Chinese and Indians and lots of others are discovering that they'd enjoy taking their cars out for a spin as well.

If all we were faced with was peak oil, we might be able to keep the circus going. We could figure out ways to replace many uses of gasoline with coal, which is abundant as long as we don't mind removing all the remaining mountaintops in the southern Appalachians (a sacrifice, I predict, we would bring ourselves to make--or rather, we would bring ourselves to call upon Kentuckians and West Virginians to make). But we've got a far deeper problem than that, one coal can only make worse. Global warming, as we've come to understand in the past few years, is not a speculative, distant, or easily managed threat. It's not one more item on the list of problems, somewhere between global terrorism and failing inner-city schools. It's the first civilization-scale challenge humans have managed to create (the second, if you count nuclear weapons, but so far we've managed to keep that one under some kind of tenuous control). And global warming has pushed us into a corner: Everything frozen on Earth is melting, huge storms are growing steadily huger, seasons are shifting, forests are dying. Since the 1950s, we've more than tripled emissions of the gas most responsible for global warming: carbon dioxide. The latest estimates conclude that the catastrophic tipping point that might commit us to huge sea-level increases may be reached at atmospheric concentrations of CO2 as low as 450 parts per million. And since we're already at 380 ppm, and increasing faster than 2 ppm annually--well, you can do the math. NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, said in 2006 that his modeling showed we had ten years to start putting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or we'd create "a very different planet." And he's an optimist. British scientist James Lovelock says that by his calculations, we have already waited too long and that billions will die as a result before the century is over. Lovelock has company among those peak-oil theorists who forecast a future of angry residents of crumbling suburbs searching for scarce gasoline and fighting over the bones of our past affluence.

Energy has become, in short order, the central environmental question, the central foreign policy question, and the central economic question. Everything hinges on our ability to somehow gracefully make the jump from fossil fuel to ... something else. But we're paralyzed. At the moment, energy companies are making money ($36 billion in 2005 for Exxon), their politician friends are winning votes, and most of us are living our daily lives on one side of this energy gap, so it's hard to steel ourselves for the leap. We'll see if the new Democratic Congress has more stomach for this kind of effort. The obscurantism about global warming is likely to disappear, but it's far from certain that the Democrats will muster the courage for more than token change.

The United States' current energy plan, assembled by Vice President Dick Cheney with the help of leading fossil-fuel executives, calls for postponing the future: more drilling, more refining, more combusting, more carbon. It's the policy equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting, "I can't hear you!" over and over again. And so with every year that passes, the gap grows wider, the leap more daunting, the paralysis more profound. Last spring, when gas prices started to soar once more, the Republican Congress mulled it over and hit on a solution: mail every American $100. It's hard to imagine a much better symbol of our bankruptcy, in every sense of the word.

And so it's time to take a deep breath. We've got to make that leap from fossil fuels to whatever comes next--but it will be easier if we can narrow the gap first, so that it's more like a hop than a pole vault.

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Illustration by Matt Mahurin

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