The Perils of Blinking At Global Warming

By , Bruce Piasecki, author of ``Beyond Dumping and America's Future in Hazardous Waste Management,'' is a research fellow at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Peter Asmus is a California writer specializing in energy and environmental affairs.

IN Shakespeare's ``Macbeth,'' the witches claim that Macbeth's ambitions and pride will rule until the forests move. Macbeth's downfall occurs when an approaching army cuts down the trees of a nearby forest, and using them as camouflage moves the forest closer and closer to Macbeth's castle. They take the arrogant Macbeth by surprise when they strike unsuspectingly from close range. In a sense, the modern industrial world has been reliving Macbeth's tragic blindness. Forests are moving, claims a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on global warming, and the implications of this accelerated relocation of resources does not respect manmade political boundaries or ambitions.

Since the last ice age, oak trees migrated northward at about 60 miles per century from the southeastern US as glaciers receded. Temperatures rose slowly enough so that forests could adapt to climate changes. The EPA warns, however, hemlock and sugar maples ranges could move as much as 400 miles north by the year 2050, which would probably cause these classic trees to be pushed to near extinction in the US. More importantly, the fertile Great Plains corridor will also move, perhaps carrying billions of dollars in economic dislocation with it.

Global warming's impact on agriculture is one small part of the picture. At a recent three-day conference in New York sponsored, in part, by IBM, Xerox, and the National Governor's Association, politicians, scientists, and celebrities worked together to disclose the immense policy challenges lying before America and the rest of the world. ``Our energy system is working against itself, as symbolized by acid rain, the closing of the Shoreham nuclear power plant, and global warming,'' warned New York Governor Mario Cuomo. ``We need a national energy policy.''

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Use of fossil fuels, and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide, are believed to cause about half of global warming. (Other causes include deforestation and population increases.)

Perhaps one of the most dramatic symbols of human arrogance toward world resources is Exxon's Epcot Pavilion in Orlando, Florida. A favorite tourist attraction for millions of people from all over the world, Exxon's impressive display of the history of the world is actually a prime example of the corporate delusions that continue to fuel ominous global warming trends.

Tourists are channeled into carriages that seat six to eight people and are ``driven through time,'' starting with panoramic views of the prehistoric dinosaurs. Visitors are informed that the smell of the prehistoric swamp that pervades the setting is a petrochemical developed by Exxon and manufactured exclusively for this special effect. The plants and dinosaurs, over time, decay into the coal and oil that are the resources Exxon now utilizes, visitors are told.

As the visitors are shuffled through ``time,'' they see the image of the world spun by the paws of a tiger, Exxon's corporate icon. The subliminal message of the show, ``The Universe of Energy,'' is that through its clever capture of fossil fuels, Exxon is above the world, and there is nothing that nations or individuals can do about it. The cynical message of the program is conveyed by the firm's sportive appropriation of non-petrochemical-based fuels. The millions of tourists who view the slick presentation are told that they have been conveyed through this history of hydrocarbons by solar-powered carriages.

Exxon has captured the history of the world seen through a hydrocarbon lens, a narrow view that needs to be rejected. Recent estimates show that the folly that Exxon and the other large oil companies have created will not be stabilized until the year 2050, if we can replace 50 percent of current fossil fuel use.

News from California proves that this mission is not impossible. Fifteen years ago, the Golden State was dependent upon oil and natural gas (fossil fuels) for 80 percent of the state's electricity. Today, that figure has been sliced almost in half. California currently gets roughly 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources of energy, and it is estimated that by the year 2000, this figure could rise to 50 percent.

California's success is fairly isolated, however. The US federal government has slashed solar funding by 80 percent since 1981, allowing the Germans and Japanese to surpass US funding levels for photovoltaics last year. We will be witnessing a major energy revolution in the 1990s, and if American manufacturers don't want to see solar technologies go the route of cars, VCRs, and other current imported technologies, then federal R&D efforts need to be expanded to the whole range of alternative energy paths.

We need to get off the petrochemical treadmill. Exxon, and the rest of the multinational major oil producers, have displayed the type of blindness that not only struck Macbeth, but threatens all of us right now.

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