It's Time to Break The Fossil Fuel Habit

Here's a familiar-sounding story. An accumulation of findings leads scientists to inform the public that "Your addiction is having destructive, even deadly, effects. You should change your ways."

But there are great economic powers with a vested interest in the continuation of the old habits. And these powers work to sow doubts in the minds of those who consume their products: "The science is inconclusive. We don't know enough to warrant getting alarmed or changing course," they say.

Attached to their addiction, people allow themselves to be swayed by the sowers of doubts rather than challenge themselves to change. They seize upon the hope - extended to them by their manipulators - that there will be no day of reckoning, and persist in their old patterns of behavior.

I bet you think I'm talking about people addicted to tobacco who have, with growing frequency, been suing the tobacco industry for their smoking-related illnesses. But I'm not.

I'm talking about all of us who remain attached to our profligate consumption of fossil fuels, even in the face of scientific warnings about potentially catastrophic climate change.

"Wait," you protest, "the analogy doesn't hold. Back in the 1950s and '60s no one could help but know that you can't put smoke in your lungs day after day and have it be good for you."

To which I respond, is it any less folly to think that you can spew tons of gases every day into the atmosphere, decade after decade, measurably altering the composition of the air, without having an impact on the climate?

"Well," you maintain, "the scientific evidence was quite clear-cut - even several decades ago - that smoking causes serious disease. But with the problem of global warming, the scientific uncertainty is genuine. Serious scientists - not just the equivalent of the Tobacco Institute's pseudo-scientists - dispute how big the problem is, or whether there even is a problem."

YOU'RE right - but not right enough. There is a greater amount of uncertainty, but there also is a substantial scientific consensus. Enough at least that President Clinton is hosting a conference on climate change today, in preparation for a December meeting of 165 nations who consider it worthy of concern.

And at a conference in Spain last spring, 2,000 scientists from all over the world signed a consensus on the problem.

That consensus is that there is growing evidence that industrial civilization is changing the climate; that the effects of such change could be so disruptive to ecosystems that mankind's ability to feed itself is disrupted; that if we wait for certainty on these matters to do anything to avert catastrophe, it will by then be too late; and that prudence requires taking measures now to reduce the rate at which we are altering the composition of the atmosphere, measures such as capping our consumption of carbon-based fuels.

But two centuries of the carbon-fuel-based industrial revolution have created enormous economic empires - especially the oil, gas, and coal industries - that benefit from our present unrestrained consumption of those very fuels. And, just like the tobacco industry, these giants of economic power work to blind us to the voice of disinterested science.

It is important that we not lose sight of how power shapes our public discussion of matters where great vested interests are at stake.

Yes, it is true that there are reputable scientists who don't agree with the global warming consensus. But they're a small fraction of the profession, and the power of the industries that fund and publicize them. With a big enough megaphone, a few voices can almost drown out a much larger chorus.

In the case of the threat of global warming, the desire of industrial powerhouses with multimillion-dollar public relations budgets to manipulate our beliefs combines with our own desire to avoid recognizing realities that might inconvenience or discomfit us.

Although some scientists and economists maintain we can now address this challenge without inflicting great pain on ourselves, clearly it's easier and more comfortable for us to continue on our merry way, making no sacrifices at all.

Many people have pooh-poohed the suits brought by smokers against the tobacco industry. While the manipulators must bear some of the blame, it's true that those willing to be manipulated for their own self-indulgent reasons cannot escape responsibility.

But if you think the smokers bear responsibility for their own illnesses, what do you think our grandchildren - beset by the catastrophe that our continuing self-indulgence may inflict upon them - are going to think of us if we indulge our addiction when the clear voice of prudence says it is time to show some foresight and discipline?

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of "The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny," (SUNY Press, 1993).

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