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Will America's Short-Term Memory Loss Kill the Climate Bill?
By Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson,
Authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

Imagine if the Senate hearings about a climate change bill had been held a year ago.

Think of the context: $4 per gallon gas and oil over $130 per barrel. Waiting lists to buy popular fuel efficient cars. Polls in summer 2008 found 7 in 10 Americans saying there was solid evidence of global warming, and presidential candidates of both parties reiterating that it was real and had to be addressed.

It wouldn't have been an easy debate. Most Republicans were busy chanting "drill baby drill" while most Democrats were swooning at the very mention of green jobs and solar panels. But at least the public would have been engaged.

Now? Not so much. Certainly there's strong and urgent rhetoric from world leaders about the need to come up with a plan to cut greenhouse gases at the international climate conference in Copenhagen. But gas has settled back to $2 per gallon, the number of Americans who say there's evidence of global warming has dropped 14 points, and surveys show climate change and energy policy as dead last among priorities for Congress. The twin problems we face on energy -- controlling global warming and ensuring we've got enough fuel to go around -- are just not registering with the public.

"How quickly we forget" is one possible reaction, but Ronald Reagan's "There you go again," is better.  

The United States has been around the block multiple times on energy policy, much like Bill Murray living the same sequence of events over and over again in Groundhog Day. Oil and gas prices shoot up. Voters get upset. Politicians say we absolutely, positively need to change the way we get and use energy. We make a few adjustments here and there -- both in the country's overall policies and in our own personal habits. Then a couple of years later, we seem to forget the whole thing. At least Bill changed his line of attack after hearing Sonny and Cher sing "I Got You Babe" on his radio alarm for the umpteenth time.

Our boom-or-bust mind-set on energy poses a genuine hazard to our economy -- one that could last decades. The notorious energy crises of the past (for those too young to remember) were painful, but relatively brief. They were generally set off by events that caused problems somewhere in the supply system -- war in the Middle East, American diplomats held hostage in Iran, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pushing up prices because some refineries were knocked out by the weather. However troubling and unpleasant these situations were, they were temporary.

The conditions that generated the country's more recent energy problems are not going to go away quickly, even though they have been tempered by the worldwide economic slowdown. We're competing with many more people worldwide for the energy that's available. There are truly astonishing levels of growth in China, India, and elsewhere. These countries need massive amounts of energy for their factories and transportation. As they become more prosperous, people living there will start buying cars and refrigerators and microwaves and computers. All these things use energy.There's also a pretty solid expert consensus that humans are beginning to use up most of the oil that's easy to get to. It's not going to be Mad Max exactly, because the world is not actually going to run out of oil in our lifetimes, but chances are that it's going to get tougher and more expensive to find it.

Plus, if we're going to do anything about controlling greenhouse gases, we need a steady, consistent effort to change our energy mix. You can't do this by fits and starts. We need both steady investment in new technology and long-term commitment to changing the economic rules of the game so that clean energy is a reliable, affordable alternative to fossil fuels. 

Is there any hope that Americans will support (or at least not oppose) major changes in energy policy? In fact, there is some. According to research by our organization, Public Agenda, 73 percent of Americans disagree with the statement that "If we get gas prices to drop and stay low, we don't need to be worried about finding alternative sources of energy," and fully 53 percent "strongly disagree." Moreover, despite partisan debate, Americans find common ground on at least 10 major energy proposals that would provide incentives for more energy efficiency, reducing gasoline usage and supporting alternative energy have widespread support -- at least in concept. 

It's quite possible that prices for oil and gas will stay relatively low in the next few years due to the global economic shake-up, and there have been some new oil discoveries and production breakthroughs that are exciting the industry. They won't produce enough oil and gas to solve the world's long-term problem, but it may be enough to hold prices down for a while. 

This puts an even greater burden on leaders to help Americans understand that, for the sake of the planet and our economic stability, we need to get a sound energy plan together and stick with it even when the pressure is off. Besides, there are so many avenues for addressing our energy challenge. People will and can disagree over which ones are best, and no doubt the country will make some mistakes along the way. But the most damaging mistake of all would be to assume that just because energy prices are lower now, our energy problems are behind us. That would be a truly gigantic error.

©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

Author Bios
Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of PublicAgenda.org, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

For additional energy resources and supplemental material, please visit www.whoturnedoutthelights.org