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Energy Economics


When Al Meets Abe

April 21st 2008

Al Gore 2
Al Gore

Earlier this month, Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection launched a $300 million advertising campaign aimed at mounting pressure on political leaders to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its scope, the largest ever for a public policy issue, is on par with the size of the movement Gore has helped create. In fact, over the short history of the 21st century no issue perhaps other than terrorism has risen from near obscurity to the center of our public discourse as global warming. What started as chatter among concerned scientists and diehard environmentalists has turned in just five years into one of history’s fastest growing mass movements, one that consumes increasing bandwidth of governments and world leaders.

The launch of Gore’s campaign coincided with a much less noticed event: the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Abraham (Abe) Maslow, one of America’s foremost psychologists, the father of humanistic psychology. Maslow saw human beings' needs arranged like a pyramid. The most basic needs--air, water and food--are at the bottom. Then come shelter and security. Once these have been attained, it's time to strive for more spiritual needs like love and acceptance. At the top of the pyramid people begin to focus on self-actualization and on solving problems outside of themselves. This is where concern for the planet’s health would be found. Maslow believed that unfulfilled needs lower on the pyramid would prevent a person from climbing to the next step, while backsliding in the pyramid forces us to redefine our priorities and refocus on the self at the expense of the global. In other words, we care about issues because we can afford to do so.

What does all of this have to do with Gore?

Despite its current popularity, Gore’s climate movement may be close to its zenith and in the not-so-distant-future it might lose its allure. The challenge will not come from the so called climate skeptics but rather from the millions, currently sympathetic to the movement, whose priorities are about to change as a result of what now seems to be an inevitable global energy crunch.

The world today is facing a massive increase in energy demand. By 2025 the world’s population will need 50 percent more energy than it does today. It is hard to see how such demand could be met without burning a gigantic amount of hydrocarbons, even taking into account significant expansion of nuclear power. Yet, production of new energy doesn’t seem to keep up with the burgeoning demand. Oil production in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico is in decline while OPEC members refuse to intensify their pumping. In fact, major OPEC producers like Venezuela and Iran are producing less and less oil every year. Consequently, oil prices today are nearly fivefold the price at the beginning of the decade. At the same time, environmental restrictions keep over half of America’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas reserves off limits, while non-conventional and carbon intensive alternatives from oil shale and coal in the U.S. accounts for 60 percent of the world’s endowment of oil shale and 25 percent of its coal are fiercely opposed by environmentalists. Yet, our transportation system is still 97 percent petroleum dependent and, barring key policy change, the millions of cars and trucks we put on the road annually, as well as our planes and ships, will be capable of burning nothing but petroleum.

When it comes to our electricity supply the situation is not much better. While demand for electricity is growing by leaps and bounds, supply is lagging behind due to onerous environmental regulations and insufficient investment in new capacity. New coal fired power plants are being blocked, nuclear power plants have not been built in the U.S. in three decades and our transmission system, to put it mildly, is not what one would expect from a superpower. To make things worse, for years now, our energy industry has been holding its breath in anticipation of federal climate change legislation that would aim to reduce carbon emissions. Uncertain about the regulatory future, energy companies prefer to hold back on their investment until it becomes clear what exactly Congress has concocted. The result of years of near paralysis of our energy policy is increasing energy costs and higher than ever risk of supply disruptions.

In such a constrained energy environment, millions of environmentally conscientious citizens are likely to slide down the pyramid of needs, forcing them to choose between affordable, albeit non-renewable, energy and no energy at all; between their quality of life and that of polar bears and caribous. How enthusiastically green will soccer moms be when they can no longer drive their kids around due to an oil shortage or prohibitive prices?

When crude is priced at $200 a barrel how opposed will they be to using $60 oil made from liquefied coal or oil shale? When our air conditioners go off in mid-summer because our utilities lack generating capacity, which would be then at the top of our mind: the temperature in our living room or that of the planet?

For the fast growing emerging markets where over a third of humanity is now rising from poverty the answer is clear. Despite all the hype about renewable energy both China’s and India’s energy basket will be, for decades to come, dominated by cheap and abundant coal, and most of the 100 million new cars that will roll onto China’s roads in the next two decades will run on fossil fuels. Americans aren’t different. With recession at the gate and looming supply disruptions the green we are likely to care more about is the one with Benjamin Franklin’s picture printed on it, not Al Gore’s.

None of this is meant to say that we should not pursue with vigor the move to next generation energy. Many of the technologies that allow us to do so are already available. Flex fuel plug in hybrid electric cars powered by a variety of alternative fuels and electricity made from renewable and decentralized energy and, in some places, nuclear power tied to a smart grid is probably where the future lies. But getting there cannot be done through faith-based energy policy, one that ignores market realities and permits no new energy unless it is renewable energy--and that, only if it does not block key politician’s sea side views. If we are to continue our economic development, we must find the right balance between environmental concerns and the world’s growing needs. If Maslow were alive today he would have probably saluted the environmental movement for its efforts on behalf of planet earth, but he would have also warned that in the absence of cheap and abundant energy to power our energy intensive lifestyle, a backlash that could wipe away the momentum that has been created thus far is already in the cards. After all, nature may be changing but human nature isn’t. This too, is an inconvenient truth.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and co-chair of the Set America Free Coalition, and a frequent Cutting Edge News contributor.

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