I set out from Casper first thing this morning. I took the two-lane roads across southeastern Wyoming, sailing fast and easy through this vast terrain of antelope and sage, rocky earth and subtle beauty, snaky coal trains and pumping oil derricks. Wyoming is a paradise of stunning natural extravagance, wildlife and unspoiled ruggedness. It is also a rich repository of fossil fuels, a frontier of drill sites, strip mines and economic appetite. It is a staging area for an epic American drama being played out, act by act.
I am just passing through, but the signs are obvious. Yesterday’s Casper Star-Tribune announced an energy company’s plans to drill 1,470 wells in the Casper area over the next decade, producing natural gas for about 40 years. The Bureau of Land Management—saying the development will affect livestock foraging, air quality, socioeconomic factors, transportation, and other biological, cultural and land resources—has launched an environmental impact study and has asked the public to participate.
A company spokesperson, explaining the proposal, says, “The reason is pretty clear. That is that America’s thirst for energy does not seem to be tapering off. No matter how much gas is being produced these days, the American consumers are gobbling it up. . . . It’s the American consumer and the thirst for energy that’s driving all of this development.”
Today’s Star-Tribune has an editorial about another energy company wanting to build a natural gas and carbon sequestration plant (processing natural gas while lowering carbon dioxide emissions) in western Wyoming—the largest sequestration project in the world. But the company has chosen as its site a crucial winter range for the largest elk herd in the nation. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department wants the plant instead on adjacent land that would have less impact on the elk. The company says no. The Star-Tribune says, “A lot of money is at stake with this project. The plant could generate an estimated $24 million per year for the state’s school trust. Is the state willing to lose that amount of money annually for the sake of 200 elk? The answer will help determine how we view our state’s priorities, and how others ultimately view Wyoming.”
The quandary is pretty much the same as it was in the 1970s when I was a reporter covering energy companies and the environment for a small Wyoming daily. What I learned then has stayed with me since—that it’s all about trade-offs. And the price you’re willing to pay. And what you mean by quality of life. These truths, still fundamental to Wyoming’s balancing act, are now the foundational considerations of a national predicament.
One difference today, though, is that at times we’re paying $4 for a gallon of gas and facing home heating bills two, perhaps three or more times what we paid last year. Another difference is that, despite a minority opinion that global warming trends simply reflect natural climatic cycles, most people today acknowledge that our expansive burning of fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas—produces so much carbon dioxide that a greenhouse effect is created, elevating temperatures to the point of distressing life on Earth.
More at stake
Today the energy and environmental issues the planet faces go much deeper than wildlife preservation, natural treasures and other eco-friendly niceties. They are far more important than our impact on snail darters or elk or polar bear habitats, shifting coastlines or smog. Today’s prospects just might upend human activity as we Americans know it.
Consequently, the supply and demand for energy, the effects of climate change, the threats to the global environment and the economic repercussions deriving from this perfect storm of clashing interests confront us with seismic, even cosmic challenges. It is nearly impossible these days to watch TV, skim a newspaper or scan a magazine without encountering some reference to global warming, fossil fuels, alternative energy sources or the now-ubiquitous word “green” (or, for that matter, “sustainability”). It is not “the sky is falling” hysteria to suggest that the well-being of the Earth and its inhabitants could be approaching a crucial juncture.
These are my thoughts, at least, in the summer of 2008, riding two-lanes eastward across grassy, big-sky Nebraska till I hook up with I-80 at Ogallala. I am heading home. It is June, and I’ve been driving all day, feels like I’ve been driving for weeks. By the time I return to Indiana I will have driven 3,150 miles in nine days, speaking here and there, hiking here and there, reading stuff, talking to people, watching the television news, taking it all in (and quite aware of this road trip’s carbon footprint).
The financial news isn’t good. Rising oil prices are crippling the airlines industry, costing thousands their jobs. The American automotive industry is also reeling. Sales are down, plants are retooling to manufacture more energy-efficient models and, again, thousands are losing their jobs. Food costs are way up. Cities are slicing budgets, police forces are reducing car patrols and highway departments report summer repairs will be half what they’ve been in previous years because of the high cost of oil-based asphalt. The housing industry is stalled, foreclosures are mounting and mortgage companies have fallen into crisis. The stock market, that perplexing barometer of the nation’s economic health, is swooning dismally.
This economic uncertainty at home and the burgeoning development abroad, the growth of global markets and manufacturing, the volatility of oil prices and international politics, the conflicting forces of energy and the environment, climate change and the economy may well be creating conditions that will significantly alter the way we live. Whether or not we emerge on the other side of this transition in better shape or worse depends upon our response.
A stormy summer
Right now I am tired and stiff and want to cover more miles. Up ahead, though, is a giant black wall looming big across the eastern horizon. Mountainous clouds pile high into the heavens. Rain, gusting winds and wet pavement soon usher me into a roiling storm. A large metal building has been ripped open, its aluminum roof peeled back and crumpled. A grove of trees appears to have been whacked off mid-trunk, blonde flesh splintered and exposed. I figure it’s from another storm I drove through a week or so ago.
For 360 westerly miles across South Dakota last week I drove in torrential rain. Radio warnings cited 60-mile-per-hour winds, hail and “deadly sky-to-ground lightning.” Towns were flooded, bridges closed. But I forged ahead, hydroplaning like a speedboat, stopping only once for gas and filling my tank while standing ankle-deep in water. So today I keep rolling, too, encouraged by the bright, arching rainbow glimmering dead ahead against the ominous clouds.
But I soon drive into the deluge. Sheets of rain envelope me. My wipers flap madly. I drive as if under water, with cars stacked on the shoulder, in the median, their red flashers hardly visible. Even semis have plowed through grass off road. I wade steadily into eastern Nebraska, my car rocked by fists of wind, till I can’t do it any longer.
The motel lobby is packed with wet people, vacationing families, bikers, truckers, a documentary film crew. I make a comment about the rain; the reply speaks of tornadoes. Exhausted, hungry, I get a room, turn on the TV. It is a night of horror.
Tornadoes have hit a Boy Scout camp nearby. The newscasters’ adrenaline-rush urgency makes the events feel as if they’re unfolding just outside my open window where the storm has left the landscape black and wet and damaged. I watch the live reports. Trees and limbs block roads near the camp. Emergency crews are on the way. Ninety-three stranded souls at the Little Sioux Boy Scout Ranch. Mostly teenage boys. I think of the parents. Four boys are known dead. Others are airlifted to nearby hospitals. Some of the injuries are critical, life-threatening.
One station says 40 tornadoes have been reported; another says 32 confirmed. Winds at 145 miles per hour. SUVs and trucks hurled helter-skelter. Buildings demolished. All those boys. All the witnesses trying to explain. All those parents, in terror, praying to be reunited with their sons.
The next morning, driving through Omaha, I listen to the radio as the names of the deceased— three of whom are from Omaha—are carefully enunciated and spelled. Eilerts, Fennen, Thomsen, Petrzilka. Aaron, Josh, Sam and Ben. There is something about being in the moment, in the immediate proximity, that brings the events home with a stinging poignancy.
Later that day I drive through Des Moines, see the tops of flooded buildings, the roofs of submerged cars. Iowa City is flooded, too, and Cedar Rapids. Homes in other towns I’d never heard of—covered in water. Chapman, Kansas, was destroyed by last night’s tornadoes, maybe 57 in a four-state area. Kansas State University in Manhattan—$20 million in damage. Closer to home, Columbus, Indiana, is under water. Water is spilling out of levees along the Mississippi.
Four months ago a swarm of tornadoes in the South killed 57 and wreaked $214 million in property damage. More than 1,700 tornadoes in the United States so far this year—hundreds more than last year. Fires in California, droughts in the Southeast and West. A tsunami in 2005 that killed 170,000 in Sumatra and 31,000 in Sri Lanka. The death toll is simply unfathomable. Or the cyclone that killed 84,000 in Myanmar and left a million persons homeless—a cataclysm made even more tragic by the unconscionable stonewalling of the government there.
Or even Katrina in my home state of Louisiana. More than 1,800 initially killed, thousands more lost in the days, weeks and months later. Even then, the climatologists said to expect more such ferocious storms in the near future. Global weather patterns are changing, they said; the planet is heating up.
It is impossible, of course, to indict global warming for any one hurricane, cyclone or violent flock of tornadoes. But the computer models have long forecast, as a byproduct of global warming, storms of increased frequency and violence. State to state, people talk about the weird weather, the milder winters, the tempestuous rain, searing droughts and scorching fires. Lake beds are drying up, polar ice caps melting faster than scientists had predicted, ancient glaciers disappearing. Less snowfall at higher elevations, further depleting water supplies. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment says 400,000 square miles of Arctic sea ice have melted in the past 30 years. The U.S. Geological Survey says Glacier National Park will have no glaciers by 2030.
Whether due to natural climatic cycles or the spoils of the human race, the meltdown has shipping companies eyeing trade routes through long-impassable Arctic regions. It has competing nations reviewing national boundaries in the Far North as they plot the exploitation of thawing, resource-rich lands in an energy-starved era.
“This was the year,” wrote McKenzie Funk in Harper’s in 2007, “that we began to believe in global warming—not in the abstract science of the prospect, which most people could already passively accept, but in the fact that there was money in it, power to be won and lost, scraps to tussle over, profit to be wrung from crisis. We stopped wondering whether climate change was real and started grappling with the consequences.”
The competition for valuable resources has many wondering about the prospects for human solidarity as hot lands become hotter, as arable land becomes scarcer and as greater demand is placed upon diminishing resources. Many observers, including Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, attribute Darfur’s violence to drought, driving farmers and herders to clash over land and water. It is but one example. Ethiopia and Somalia are others. “Many of the challenges we face,” the secretary-general has said, “from poverty to armed conflict, are linked to the effects of global warming.”
Even a natural resource as basic as clean water will become threateningly precious. More than a billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water. The United Nations estimates that number will grow to 5 billion by 2025. Major rivers central to greatly expanding human populations are in danger of drying out, as are groundwater reserves. Even in the United States, arid regions can no longer assume the flow of abundant water for long into the future.
What these various omens suggest is that the future is now. “Some day maybe” is upon us. What once seemed to be futuristic prognosticating will certainly have real meaning for our children’s world, even ours.
“Only in this decade,” wrote Sharon Begley in a July Newsweek, “have ‘attribution’ studies managed to finger greenhouse gases as the chief cause of the rising mercury, rather than hotter sun or cyclical changes. (The last two produce a different pattern of climate change than man-made warming does.) Now the same ‘whatdunit?’ techniques are being applied to droughts, downpours, heat waves and powerful hurricanes.” And she adds that these techniques, according to Gerry Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, indicate that today’s specific extreme weather can likely be linked to “human activity.”
“Hurricanes,” Begley notes, “have become more powerful due to global warming,” and severe tornadoes have been occurring 8 percent more often each decade since the 1970s. Average annual temperatures in the United States in six of the past 10 years have been among the hottest on record. By midcentury, scientists predict, days so hot they now occur only once every two decades will hit the continental United States once every three years, and “100-year storms” are now striking some areas once every 15 years. “As a result,” she adds, “some climatologists now say global warming is to blame,” citing the director of the National Climatic Data Center as saying that rising temperatures increase the chances for “the type of events we are seeing in the Midwest.”
Although some refute Begley’s assertions, insurance companies are responding to the signs of these times. A September 2007 Washington Post article noted that wildfires had increased fourfold since the 1980s and that since the 1970s the number of hurricanes intensifying to Category 4 or 5 had almost doubled, costing insurers tens of billions of dollars. Lloyd’s of London, the piece reported, “has warned: ‘The insurance industry must start actively adjusting in response to greenhouse gas trends if it is to survive.’”
“Ten years ago,” the article explained, “Peter Levene, chairman of Lloyd’s of London, was skeptical about global warming theories, but no longer. He believes carbon emissions caused by human activity are warming the Earth and causing severe weather-related events.” As a result, the Association of British Insurers has called on governments to “stem ominous weather-related trends” by cutting carbon emissions, and leading U.S.-based companies AIG and Marsh have urged Congress to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 60 to 80 percent by midcentury.
AIG’s policy statement on climate change, the article says, “recognizes the scientific consensus that climate change is a reality and is likely in large part the result of human activities that have led to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.”
During a radio interview in South Dakota I was asked about global warming, and I related a conversation I’d had with someone who suggested the storms just might be a taste of God’s retribution. I would never associate such natural disasters with any kind of divine punishment, I said, but I do believe they are evidence that bad things happen when you don’t take care of the environment.
The brisk flow of traffic I’ve enjoyed eastward on I-80 comes to an abrupt halt somewhere in Illinois. Brake lights glow, cars and trucks stop. We all ease into line, join the caterpillar crawl in the glaring afternoon heat. I do not know if it’s construction or a collision up ahead. We’re all stalled together in this fumy congestion with seas of waving green corn on each side of us, vast blue sky overhead. I am flanked by semis and SUVs, hybrids, minivans and a flatbed truck hauling a giant propeller. I am struck by how many of us sit in a vehicle alone.
Then again, there’s just about one automobile per person in this land of 300 million people.
Modern America was made to accommodate the automotive lifestyle—sprawling cities and suburbs, drive-through restaurants, shopping centers and those corporate and industrial “parks” constructed in green areas far out from urban cores. Ninety percent of Americans drive to work. We consume (with about 4 percent of the world’s population) about one-fourth of the 85 million barrels of oil produced around the world daily. The United States now imports about 70 percent of the oil it uses (up from 24 percent in 1970), costing America about $700 billion a year. We’re gluttons for oil, and our dependence on foreign oil is a big reason our economy is ailing.
Trouble is, demand worldwide is up 60 percent since the 1980s. China and India have now embraced the automobile, and all those drivers are now giving Americans a run for their money when it comes to importing oil. It’s a crisis of supply and demand, and a barrel of oil that cost $75 on July 18, 2007, cost $131 on July 18, 2008.
One solution, obviously, is for the United States to produce more oil. Many believe the current crisis is ample reason to begin drilling in protected Arctic regions. Many were buoyed by President Bush’s move to lift the ban on offshore drilling. Others are mystified, even disgruntled over the record profits regularly reported by Big Oil.
About the time this debate over domestic drilling made the rounds on cable news this summer, the Associated Press reported, “The five biggest international oil companies plowed about 55 percent of the cash they made from their businesses into stock buybacks and dividends last year, up from 30 percent in 2000 and just 1 percent in 1993,” also noting, “The percentage they spend to find new deposits of fossil fuels has remained flat for years, in the mid-single digits.”
The truth is, we’re in a fix. There is no easy passage through the mountains, no single path through this labyrinthine snarl. The issues are too complicated and too important to revert to good-guy/bad-guy finger-pointing or simplistic solutions. Experts predict that offshore drilling would not begin to affect the price of gas until 2030. Experts call for expanded exploration and development of domestic reserves. Each has its proponents, its detractors, its agenda.
Fuel or food?
I have been driving across the bountiful midsection of agricultural America, pumping ethanol into my gas tank where this alternative fuel has been a boon to local economies. But I’ve also been reading articles saying that not only is ethanol not especially clean or energy-efficient but that it also cuts deeply into food production, inflating prices and worsening world hunger.
A single person could be fed for 365 days “on the corn needed to fill an ethanol-fueled SUV,” reported Time magazine in April, lamenting the hundreds of thousands of acres of South American rain forest being converted annually to the biofuel market—vast seas of vegetation so essential to combating global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Gasoline consumption and auto emissions are not the only culprits, however. There’s coal. The United States sent almost 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2005. More than 2 billion tons of that came from generating electricity. Almost three-fourths of America’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels—about half from more than 500 coal-fired plants.
“Besides contributing to global warming,” writes Gwyneth Cravens in the May 2008 Discover magazine, “their pollution has a serious health impact. Burning coal releases fine particulates that kill 24,000 Americans annually and cause hundreds of thousands of cases of lung and heart problems,” as “U.S. coal combustion produces some 100 million tons of toxic material annually.”
Cravens is an advocate for nuclear power. A nuclear fuel pellet the size of your fingertip, she says, contains the energy equivalent to 1,780 pounds of coal. It’s clean and much safer than widely perceived, she writes, and disposing of the waste, largely because there is so little, is not as fraught with peril as most imagine. Others disagree.
Then, too, there is hydroelectric power and solar energy, geothermal and natural gas, which (although a fossil fuel) burns relatively clean and is abundant in the United States. My father worked for a natural gas company in Louisiana throughout his lifetime (enabling me to work college summers on gas pipelines in Mississippi and Louisiana). Louisiana’s economy is closely knitted with the oil and gas industry, and most people there are eager for offshore drilling. Even in north Louisiana, much of the talk this past summer was about the Haynesville Shale, believed to be one of the largest untapped natural gas fields in the world. Many homeowners were happy to talk about lease arrangements with energy companies.
In the wind
Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens pitched his wind power plan on TV all summer, hawking its ability to drastically cut America’s dependence upon foreign oil and to supply the nation’s power grid with clean, inexpensive, sustainable energy. There’ll be major initial investments and turbines throughout the countryside, mainly the “windbelt” from Texas to North Dakota, he predicts, but plenty of promise. Besides, what’s better than harnessing the wind, or catching the sun, or converting flowing waters into electricity? All good thoughts.
Here’s the deal. There is no single, “magic bullet” solution. It will require all of these technologies—and others not imagined yet. It will also mean some tough, tough decisions about fossil fuels. Despite the clear benefits, we know the ways they’re not good for us. But it will take time and sacrifice to kick our habits. It will also mean personal, corporate and societal conservation. Getting to a better tomorrow will almost certainly mean cutting back today. It will mean that business leaders, environmentalists and government officials, private citizens and makers of public policy will have to work together—even while each represents competing causes and agendas—to hammer out compromises for the greater good. And that greater good must no longer be defined through the lens of expediency or short-term profit, but the long-term health of the planet and its people.
We Americans do lead lives of abundance, even excess. “Sharing the wealth” is a notion that Americans, even Catholics, have had some difficulty with, philosophically and practically. It’s an almost countercultural concept in a land that so prizes individual drive and achievement. And conservation is an unnatural strategy in a nation that grew powerful by exploiting abundant resources.
But the two most recent popes have both decried the crass materialism and wanton consumption of the West, and many of the economic and environmental issues facing us today are intimately bundled into the tussle between those who take and those who lose, developing nations and Third World countries, expanding populations and diminishing resources. Spiking fuel costs may present some of us with an expensive inconvenience this winter, but others worry that they’ll be unable to heat their homes. And countless others around the world are dying because they have no food or water.
Fortunately, the challenges we face beg for scientific, technological and practical remedies. They’ll be good for business. Good for the workforce, good for the economy. But there will be many times when the bottom line must defer to a higher calling. When doing the right thing will cost more. When comfort and convenience get sacrificed for virtue. When “paper or plastic?” presents us with dilemmas, but might lead to creative solutions.
Item One: Lisa Margonelli, writing in The Atlantic this past May, explained how “the U.S. economy wastes 55 percent of the energy it consumes,” adding that “the amount lost by electric utilities alone could power all of Japan.” By recycling that waste energy, including steam, furnace gases, heat and pressure, industry could reduce the country’s fossil-fuel use by almost 20 percent. “More than $50 billion floats into the air each year, unclaimed by American businesses,” she says. “What’s more, the technologies required to save that money are, for the most part, not new or unproven or even particularly expensive. By and large, they’ve been around since the 19th century. The question is: Why aren’t we using them?”
Now someone is. Tom Casten is chairman of Recycled Energy Development. His company went into an East Chicago, Indiana, steel mill recently and helped the plant cut in half its purchases of coal-fired power, reduce its carbon emissions by 1.3 million tons annually and save $100 million.
Item Two: Americans drank more than 8.25 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006, spending $10.8 billion for something they could get free. But it’s not just about the water. It takes oil to make the plastic bottles, as it takes oil to make anything plastic (including the 100 billion plastic shopping bags U.S. consumers use annually). It also takes oil to transport the water from source to consumer, and that means greenhouse gases—about 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide generated just by producing and importing bottled water from Fiji, France and Italy.
Fewer than a fourth of all those bottles get recycled, so another environmental effect of this American indulgence is that 2 billion pounds of plastic gets dumped into the landscape each year (not to mention the health issues now being linked to drinking from plastic containers).
I think about these two very American stories as I roll down my windows. I’m tired of sitting in my car, inching monotonously along. It’s odd being caught in traffic like this. I always feel like saying hi to the people stuck next to me, the ones I creep past who then pass me a few minutes later. Back and forth. We’re all in this together. Don’t know if it’s construction or a collision ahead. Of course, there are always those people who race past everyone to get ahead, who merge at the last possible moment or who seem to think that forming a single line is a personal affront—the kinds of people who put their own wants and desires ahead of the needs of others. Traffic studies have shown that optimum flow would be attained if drivers would merge at the first sign of lane closures and not try to beat out others.
The next day
It is the morning after. I got home late last night. I’m tired, still lying in bed, sorting through this global warming story. It’s overwhelming, discouraging—and late. My own actions feel so inadequate, fail to meet my good intentions. I don’t doubt our ingenuity, know-how or technology. I question our will.
America’s take of the Earth’s resources and our spoiling of the planet’s environment far exceeds our share, given our portion of the world’s population. In many ways, the world now suffers from the feeding of our appetites. As a nation, we have done little to join the world community in combating the problems. And now, even if America took a sharp and immediate turn into a clean and sustainable energy future, the actions of other countries could eclipse any good we would achieve.
For example, the worldwide demand for coal is expected to rise by 60 percent through 2030, most of it going to electric power plants. Coal has already fueled development in China and India that has lifted millions of people out of poverty and made poor Chinese farmers rich. But air pollution in China also costs $68 billion annually in health care and the acid rain takes $4 billion in crops each year. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution worldwide kills more than 3 million people a year. Yet at least 35 new coal-fired plants are on line in China, with more being built every week.
It takes about a week for the pollution from China to reach the United States, where it shows up as mercury in fish in Oregon rivers and causes health problems here as well as in Korea and Japan. The days when nomadic tribes or isolated villages could foul their nests and move on are over; the world is one entangled family. But what can one person do? Each step seems so inconsequential, like a bucket of water pulled out of the sea. What does it matter?
Despite my own “green” derelictions, this is what I come back to, this is what it comes down to: I believe in a Creator and I believe in the sanctity of Creation. I believe that—by whatever mechanism it came to be—Creation was given us to take care of. I believe that Creation is a way to know the Creator, that it provides us not only with our physical needs but it also offers spiritual sustenance, a window to the holy. It is a gift to be shared wisely, benevolently. To do that gift harm, to squander it, to ravage it for personal gain is to dishonor God. It’s a sin.
So our treatment of this planet and its creatures—from the cars we drive to the houses we own, from the electricity we use to the trash we discard or recycle—becomes a moral issue, guided by this theological, environmental ethic. And you do what you do—not because it will ultimately change the course of our species’ future—but because it is the right thing to do.
One of the lessons inscribed into the natural world by its Creator, I think, is the importance of fitting in, knowing one’s place in the intricate web of life. It’s also one of the Genesis lessons—Adam’s arrogance, ambition and self-indulgence bringing his fall from grace and the loss of Eden.
Too often are matters of faith and morality left out of the discussion about the environment, but the Catholic Church has not been silent. In 1991, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement, “Renewing the Earth,” which said, “It is to the Creator of the universe, then, that we are accountable for what we do or fail to do to preserve and care for the earth and all its creatures.” Caring for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the USCCB has also advised, “is a requirement of our faith,” noting, “This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.”
That, essentially, is what I take from this summer’s travels, from the reading and research on energy and the environment, from the drive across conflicted Wyoming through the storms and floods of the heartland and throughout the Mississippi Delta, and from all the debates over this and that. It all comes down to taking care of the gift of Creation and all who share this planet with us.
It doesn’t really matter if this global warming trend is man-made or a natural cycle, or even the duration of this climate change now occurring. The steps we should be taking to resolve these pressing challenges of finite resources, expanding population and a healthy environment are the very same steps we should be taking regardless, as wise citizens of the world and as Catholics of good conscience. We’ve heard the call before. The urgency is greater than ever.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.