Pulling our heads out of the sands of global warming

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Do ostriches really stick their heads in the sand to avoid danger? Having
never personally witnessed an ostrich doing such a thing, I suspect they
only do it in cartoons. I mention this because the approach of the Bush
administration and its congressional allies to energy policy makes me think
of those cartoon ostriches.

An energy policy bill that ignores global warming? A bill that ignores the
connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing
concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Even if it seems it's
only in cartoons that ostriches stick their heads in the sand, apparently
in real life, so do some policymakers.

Perhaps I'm jumping to conclusions, having not yet seen an
administration-backed energy bill in the current Congress. Given the
administration's record over the past four years, its rhetoric about
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, emphasis on drilling on
public lands and its silence on conservation-oriented measures such as
increasing the corporate fleet average fuel economy standards, I am willing
to risk the embarrassment of being wrong in print and predict that when we
do see such an energy bill in this Congress, it will ignore the obvious
fact that the wasteful ways in which we consume fossil fuels are
contributing to long-term changes in Earth's climate.

As the climate changes, ecosystems around the world, with their interwoven
communities of plants and animals and other living things, are becoming
unraveled. As ecosystems unravel, ancient human cultures are also at risk:
cultures that are interwoven into the ecosystems where they have developed,
ecosystems from which they derive material existence and spiritual
well-being.

Indigenous cultures around the world have been under assault, of course,
for centuries, and many of the kinds of assaults that present-day
indigenous cultures face are more abrupt in the ways they inflict
disruption than global warming. For example, these include massive
hydroelectric projects, deforestation, oil spills in tropical rainforests
or off the coast of Alaska and laws enacted by national governments that
permit multinational corporations to exploit the resources of indigenous
territories.

I am afraid, though, that the kinds of changes wrought by global warming
will prove even more challenging for the survival of indigenous cultures
than the various faces of industrialization and imperialism - and just as
unrelenting.

The connection between our wasteful consumption of fossil fuels and the
environmental and cultural disruption caused by global warming is
particularly frustrating because so much of the solution has been fairly
obvious, and well documented, for more than a quarter century.

What we need, what the world needs, is a national commitment by the United
States to achieve a transition to an energy economy based on efficiency and
the use of appropriately-scaled solar and other renewable energy
technologies.

Global warming is just the most recent reason why, as a nation, we should
make this commitment. Some of the other reasons include saving money,
building local self-reliance, recycling energy expenditures in the national
economy rather than shipping money overseas, creating employment and
business opportunities, enhancing national security, avoiding the
environmental impacts associated with conventional energy and, in the case
of solar design techniques for buildings, creating wonderful spaces within
which to live and work.

Twenty-four years ago, the federal research laboratory known as the Solar
Energy Research Institute (predecessor of the National Renewable Energy
Laboratory) completed a comprehensive study of the potential energy savings
through promoting efficiency in buildings, transportation and industry, and
potential contributions of renewable energy sources. That report, published
with the tide "A New Prosperity: Building a Sustainable Energy Future"
(often referred to as the SERI Solar/Conservation Study) concluded that
"through efficiency, the U.S. can achieve a full-employment economy and
increase worker productivity while reducing national energy consumption by
nearly 25 percent" and that "20 to 30 percent of this reduced demand could
be supplied by renewable sources."

In March 1981, when the SERI Solar/Conservation Study was finished, the
incoming Reagan administration attempted to keep it from seeing the light
of day. (At the time, I worked in the central office of the BIA and, having
been involved in the Carter administration's Domestic Policy Review of
Solar Energy, obtained a copy from a friend at SERI the day before it was
embargoed.) The study was subsequently published by a private company
featuring an introduction by then-Congressman Richard Ottinger who, as
chair of the relevant subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce
Committee, had requested the study in the first place.

Years before the scientific community reached its current degree of
consensus on the reality of global warming, Ottinger drew attention to what
he called "our greatest economic conflict: our economy is hemorrhaging as
we devote a larger and larger percentage of our gross national product to
the purchase of imported oil, competing for scarce capital needed to
rebuild our industrial and economic base." Among other things, this shows
that the current administration has no claim to originality in its
imitation of cartoon ostriches.

Achieving a transition to widespread reliance on solar and renewable energy
resources would require a comprehensive set of incentive programs. There
are many reasons for this, but a big part of it is that the transition will
involve millions of purchasing decisions by consumers of energy services
and buyers of buildings and products that consume energy.

Most people do not have the time to become informed about the environmental
implications of their choices, and even if they do, they typically do not
have extra money to pay for up-front extra costs of solar and renewable
energy technologies - even if they could realize substantial savings on a
life-cycle basis. Moreover, energy consumption purchases are not made on a
level playing field. Rather, the marketplace has been distorted by decades
of subsidies to conventional energy technologies and regulatory regimes
designed to promote conventional technologies.

To some extent, a transition toward efficiency and renewable energy has
been occurring, driven largely by market forces. Market forces are not
enough, though, and the enormous "external" costs of global warming are not
taken into account in the marketplace. This strikes me as a classic case in
which government policies should be fashioned to compensate for the
marketplace's shortcomings.

With a national commitment to energy efficiency and the widespread adoption
of appropriately-scaled solar and renewable energy technologies nowhere on
the horizon, what can American Indians and their tribal leaders do? While
the energy market is largely driven by federal and state laws and policies,
tribal governments can use their sovereign powers to deal with parts of the
problem that occur close to home. In fact, many tribes have been using
federal grant programs to promote solar and other renewable energy
technologies, although there has not been much effort to draw lessons from
tribal demonstration projects and publicize the results. We could do more
talking about these local experiences and drawing attention to the global
implications.

One idea for starting at home, literally, is to write tribal building codes
so that they include solar design performance standards, drawing on energy
design software that has been developed with support from the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory. This way, a tribe could make solar design the
standard in new construction. This is but one way tribal governments could
help lead the way to the widespread use of appropriately-scaled renewable
energy technologies.

The possibilities are all around us, but we have to look for them for
ourselves. We cannot afford to wait for national politicians to get their
heads out of the sand.

Dean B. Suagee is counsel to the firm Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, LLP in
Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation.