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Three Strikes And We're Out

  • and Alexis Rowell, chairman, Sustainability Task Force of the London Borough of Camden
Today, Western leaders have the best chance in a generation to go to their electorates and seek support for a new approach toward energy that involves a willingness to make real short-term sacrifices.
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A scientific and political consensus now exists on the threat posed to our civilization by climate change. The problem is generating the political will to take the steps necessary to radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

The present oil shock provides the answer to that problem -- if our leaders have the courage to use it.

The price of oil is now at a level where it is having a seriously adverse effect on the world economy. Moreover, to fears of Middle Eastern stability are now added concerns over Russia using oil and gas supplies for geopolitical leverage.

As a result we have the best chance in a generation for Western leaders to go to their electorates and seek support for a new approach involving a willingness to make real short-term sacrifices.

This should especially be the case because although the latest, speculation-fueled price surge may not continue, structural factors including the rise of China and the dwindling hopes of new untapped reserves mean that, unlike in the 1980s, there seems no realistic prospect of a dramatic fall in prices.

We must not repeat our response to the oil shocks of the 1970s, which in most countries led to far less change than they should have done. Japan did by far the best in its response to the oil shocks, drastically reducing its energy consumption through the introduction of fuel-efficient vehicles, the refocusing of industry on electronics, and the enforcement of strict standards for new buildings.

Some European countries also did well. The United States did by far the worst, and failed again after 9/11.

Britain too has not done nearly as well as it should have, though the Clean Air Act of 1956 could have provided a model for decisive action. Instead, North Sea oil and gas were used to tide Britain over for a generation; and the revenues generated by that oil and gas were used to prop up government budgets, not to prepare for the day when the oil would run out and the international price of energy surge again. Neighboring Denmark, lacking fossil fuel reserves, invested heavily in wind energy.

As a result, 20 percent of Denmark's electricity now comes from wind. By contrast Britain generates a measly 1.5 percent of its electricity from wind despite the fact that approximately 40 percent of all the wind in Europe blows through the British Isles.

Today, we have a third chance to make a strategic choice concerning energy; and compared to the 1970s, we have far less excuse for not making it. For today, we know that excessive dependence on fossil fuels not only renders our economies vulnerable, but the associated release of greenhouse gases risks not only crippling the world economy but destroying modern civilization itself, if global temperatures rise by more than four degrees Celsius.

And if an additional, short-term spur were needed, dependence on Russian energy supplies is causing great anxiety in the West. Whining about this will do no good, and nor will spurious talk of European unity against Russia. If we want to lessen our dependence on Russian fossil fuels we have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, period.

As Japan has proved, the technology to bring about radical reductions in fossil fuel consumption is already present.

What is needed is collective will, summoned by courageous leadership. Instead, too many governments seem prepared to buckle to public discontent and threats of disorder from truckers and others, and do their utmost to increase and subsidize supplies.

It is true that even conservative politicians like Senator John McCain are now talking about the need for action; but incremental action, not the revolutionary changes needed if we are both to create really secure long term sources of energy and have any assurance of avoiding catastrophic environmental damage.

A cynic or authoritarian would say that this is the central, inescapable flaw of a consumerist democracy: its inability to ask for real sacrifice from its electorate, short of full-scale war against a visible enemy. There is an element of truth in this but it is also unfair: In a representative democracy, elected leaders are supposed to lead, decide and inspire support for their decisions. The "people" as such can't do anything.

However, we must also understand that if Western democracies fail to meet the greatest threat facing human civilization, historians of the future -- if there are any -- won't think much of our vaunted claims to represent the highest possible form of political order.

In fact, they probably won't see any important difference at all between us and the authoritarian systems we affect to despise.