The biggest paradox of the moment is Americans complaining about high gasoline prices while climate change is growing worse.
The average of more than $4 a gallon nationally, and even higher in parts of Seattle, may be enough to cost the Democrats control of Congress this year and even the White House in 2024.
Yet carbon — of which Happy Motoring is among the worst offenders — needs to be priced high enough to keep it in the ground instead of burning it into the atmosphere. This is essential to preventing global catastrophe.
Nobody is going to lose an election because of failure to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is preparing to release a landmark report warning that without immediate action, the planet could see a rise in temperatures of nearly 5.76 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That’s more than twice the goal nations committed to holding with the Paris accords.
The panel is composed of 278 climate scientists representing 195 countries. Politics is another matter. Squabbling between the United States and China, the two biggest polluters, are among the backstage dramas delaying release of the report. Developing nations resist change.
Compared to other regions, Puget Sound has avoided the worst of global warming so far, with Seattle even coming off a cold winter. But the region has suffered through smoky air during the summer from forest fires in British Columbia and even Siberia.
In addition, higher summer temperatures are causing enormous strain on Columbia River salmon. Orcas and the winter Chinook they depend on are at risk, too. Abnormal heat waves cooked the Pacific Northwest this past year.
Elsewhere, canaries are dying in coal mines.
When I lived in San Diego in the 1980s, winter and spring weather was boringly predictable — around 62 degrees high in April. But the city has experienced several days of 90-degree weather in recent months, including one forecast this week. That’s new and ominous.
California’s snowpack is 39% below average, while large and more frequent wildfires ravage the state and dry soil can’t absorb rain, adding to flooding. (Western Washington is doing better, with the central and north Puget Sound and upper Columbia regions seeing snowpack above average; southern parts of the state are below average).
The Southwest is suffering its worst drought in at least 1,200 years. Levels at Lake Mead on the Colorado River are so low that it has a white “bathtub ring” around the edges, showing its former height. Upstream, water in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam has fallen so low that it’s endangering the dam’s ability to generate electricity.
At the center of this crisis is Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-most-populous city, surrounded by a sprawling metropolitan area that is adding people at an astonishing rate. The overnight summer temperatures there have risen more than 10 degrees in my lifetime. And that’s largely from local warming, paving over citrus groves and desert, removing shade trees and cooling grass. The prospect from human-caused climate change is grim.
Meanwhile, Florida is expected to experience significant sea-level rise in coming decades. More severe hurricanes are coming to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
Yet as I write, chief executives of major oil companies are testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about high gas prices, not their companies’ role in carbon emissions. Democrats accuse Big Oil of “war profiteering” at the expense of American consumers. They also say the companies have increased dividends and stock buybacks to reward shareholders, instead of lowering prices at the pump.
Republicans blame President Joe Biden for canceling a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a temporary pause to new drilling leases and the Green New Deal (little of which has been enacted, especially thanks to blocking by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-Coal). In fact, oil companies aren’t drilling on half of the 13.5 million acres of public land they already have leased.
The biggest culprit in rising gas prices is the economy’s rapid rebound from the pandemic and the resulting strain on supply. Second is sanctions cutting off oil from Russia because of its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Even though the United States gets a tiny portion of its imported oil from Russia, crude is traded on world markets and big producers such as Saudi Arabia have declined to make up the difference and lower prices.
Won’t electric cars save us? Washington state has set a goal of eliminating gas-powered cars by 2030. But this is easier said than done. For one thing, poor people will have a hard time affording electric vehicles; and even with subsidies, replacing the fleet will take years.
Another is that electric-vehicle makers such as Tesla and others (GM wants to phase out gas-powered cars by 2035) continue car culture and its companion, sprawl, which destroys habitat and valuable farmland.
As Conor Bronsdon wrote on the Planetizen blog, “Electric cars might look great in your driveway, but they’re also a symbol of a systemic problem: a consumer and car-based approach to addressing transportation’s climate impacts. Not only that, they’re [an] ineffective solution to climate change.”
Huge investment in electric cars crowds out funding transit and encouraging density, which are better ways to address global warming.
A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that two-thirds of respondents say the government should be doing more to address climate change. Some 90% support more tree planting and 80% want tougher restrictions on power plants. As for driving, 71% want tougher fuel efficiency for cars. But the results aren’t borne out by politics or behavior.
For the first time, the latest UN report is expected to advocate measures to reduce greenhouse gases such as planting trees and carbon capture and storage, including by machines.
Costs are coming down for solar and wind energy, although these require large fossil-fuel input to make. And progress on this front will be fighting against continued rising emissions, with transportation being the largest contributor.
Meanwhile, most Americans will keep driving, complaining about gasoline prices and acting as bystanders to the growing costs of climate change.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the rise in temperatures projects in a forthcoming United Nations report.