As Los Angeles was once again being buffeted by high winds, with early morning sunlight giving an overcast sky of smoke and haze an eerie, ominous gray-orange glow, I found myself thinking back upon John Anderson and the path not taken back in 1980. Later that morning, I peeled back the pages of the newspaper and found John Anderson's obituary.
In his quixotic campaign for the Presidency back in 1980, liberal Republican John Anderson surfaced a great idea for charting a course back toward energy independence--after the oil embargo of 1973 had nicked the economy and sent us into a period of hyper-inflation. He proposed a virtual tax on gasoline. The tax would be scheduled to ramp up significantly in future years, and thus influence present buying decisions without exacting a huge penalty in the present moment.
Imagine for just a moment if that had been done. We would not then have had the Hummer madness, the Ford Extinction, and the other aspects of automotive excess. General Motors would not have turned its back on the EV-1, which would likely have meant GM leadership in hybrids rather than Toyota. We would have realized that it was foolish to turn out the lights on solar energy as Reagan did. The technology that now populates rooftops in Germany was available to us in the eighties. The major oil companies all bought their own solar energy companies in order to be part of the new era. After Reagan, they got sold off again, left to fend for themselves.
Oil companies would have seen their dominance of the economy diminish, and the OPEC countries would not have seen their treasuries swell to the same degree. Priorities might have been different, with earlier concern about transitioning to a non-oil future, and with less zeal for funding terrorism. By the arrival of the 21st century, there would not have been quite the lust for control of Iraqi oil resources. Israel would have had less leverage over our foreign policy as the aspiring Middle Eastern hegemon.
Today's severe wind in Los Angeles brings me back to appraise the present moment. There have been times recently when the wind was so strong that one could not move forward against it. That is new. Winds have been getting noticeably stronger over the past several years. That is what is expected with global warming. Weather patterns simply get more severe--in both directions. Extreme cold spells do not subtract from the case for global warming. They add to it. They are part of the same story of increased atmospheric turbulence and variability.
We now know that the majority of the acreage lost to major fires in California over the past several years is attributable to power-lines, yet another consequence of strengthening winds. Wind strengths are transgressing technologically relevant thresholds. But matters are even worse.
Last spring my wife and I were hiking in the local mountains, surrounded by fields of spring flowers as far as the eye could see. One would have expected this bounty to be enjoyed by lots of insects. But there were hardly any to be seen. It was, however, a windy day, and for the first time I confronted the reality that insects face a very different threshold with respect to wind than we do. On another day, we experienced the same. Vast fields of flowers without insects. It was once again a windy, no-fly day.
Shortly thereafter, I read in Science Magazine, the premier science journal of the American scientific community, that Germany has already lost 80% of its insects. This is the land in which environmental sensitivity is a matter of national policy. So perhaps the insects I was looking for weren't merely hunkering down. Perhaps they were not even there.
When do we start to worry that perhaps matters are veering out of our control? We don't have another degree of headroom left in terms of rise in earth temperature. Things are bad enough already. We may make policy linearly, but nature responds non-linearly.
It's a few decades late, but we need a virtual tax on carbon that ramps up steeply, forcing the policy changes that must occur in any event, but without delivering too much of a shock in the near term. The carbon tax should be sufficient to fund the conversion to the carbon-free energy future that we badly need.