There was much to like in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's Another Voice column on a "do-it-all" approach to expanding our energy portfolio. She argued in favor of ending government subsidies to big oil companies, using the savings to finance reduction of American dependence on foreign oil; she advocated for increased fuel efficiency in our vehicle fleet; and she called for promotion of renewable energy.
But, as President Obama did with his "all of the above" approach, she also proposed continued drilling for oil in the United States. In doing so, she ignored (as does Obama) the huge elephant in the room -- the carbon dioxide that we release when we burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal).
We've already managed to raise our atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentration from safe, preindustrial levels below 300 parts per million to nearly 400 ppm today, and we're on target to exceed 500 ppm by the end of this century. Among the predicted consequences are ocean acidification, global warming, more frequent severe heat waves, desertification of most of the Western and Midwestern sections of the country, more frequent severe storms and floods and submersion of coastal cities and farms as sea levels rise.
Each of these predictions is already coming true, but will get much, much worse if we continue burning fossil fuels. The economic and social consequences of increased carbon dioxide are vastly larger than any effects of increased gas prices.
Climate scientists tell us that if we are to have any hope of preventing climate disaster, we need to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Here are two things we can do right now to encourage the essential transition to 100 perCent renewable forms of energy.
First, we can immediately prohibit the opening of new wells or mines for oil, gas and coal. This will accomplish a steady decline in fossil-fuel use that will give us time to introduce renewable energy sources at an achievable rate.
Second, we can learn from our neighbor, Ontario, and introduce a Feed-In Tariff to encourage the development of renewable energy here. The tariff programs are neither taxes nor permanent subsidies. They provide guaranteed (usually for 20 years) prices to renewable energy producers at levels that permit the producers to make small profits. Prices for new contracts are decreased each year as renewable manufacturing and installation costs decrease. The guaranteed prices permit financing for manufacturing and installation to be obtained at moderate rates.
Ontario started its tariff program in 2009. By July 2011, it had attracted $20 billion of new investments and 20,000 new jobs to the province. So much renewable energy has been installed that Ontario is on schedule to completely phase out its coal-fired electrical plants by 2014. With Gillibrand's help, New York and the United States can do at least as well.
Joel Huberman, of Buffalo, is a retired scientist. He is a member of the Energy Committee of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.