Costly gas could save environment


By Scott Patterson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 12, 2005

"The miserable have no other medicine/ But only hope." William Shakespeare

Hurricane Katrina is one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States. The catastrophic storm left hundreds of thousands homeless. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin expects the death toll to rise to 10,000. Infectious diseases such as the West Nile Virus and the often-fatal E. coli bacteria pose a genuine threat to those remaining in the region. Experts have issued a warning to not even touch the floodwaters. This is the "miserable."

The American government has set aside $62.3 billion for relief efforts in hurricane-affected areas. States across the country are setting up refugee camps for evacuees, including our Tucson Convention Center, which has close to 1,000 cots available to those in need. International aid offers are raging as well. Even Honduras, Latin America's second poorest nation, offered assistance. This is the "hope."

There is another beacon of hope that most people overlook: higher gas prices. Before you go jumping in your gas-guzzling oversized vehicle in a vain attempt to run me over, hear me out. Thanks to higher gas prices, it may become possible to prevent what appears to be an inevitable, uncontrollable global warming process that threatens to decimate our planet.

Global warming is no myth. Man-made carbon dioxide emissions create a greenhouse effect, which has pushed temperatures up by as much as three degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

To put three degrees into perspective, the end of the last ice age was triggered by an increase of only three degrees. Moreover, the last such increase occurred over a period of 5,000 years. This squashes the notion that global warming is a "natural phenomenon." Polar ice caps have shrunk by 15 percent. Sea level has risen by 10 inches.

Hurricanes have also been gathering more strength. Kevin Trenberth, a climate expert for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, asserts, "The strongest links between hurricane intensity and climate change are a long-term rise in ocean temperatures and an increase in atmospheric water vapor. Both processes are already under way and expected to continue."

Kerry Emanuel, a meteorology professor at MIT, analyzed records of tropical cyclones since the 1950s. He found that the energy released in these events has increased markedly since the mid-1970s. Both the duration of the cyclones and the largest wind speeds they produce have increased by about 50 percent over the past 50 years.

Hurricane Katrina, in fact, may be something we ourselves created. The hydrocarbon triad of oil, natural gas and coal produces 85 percent of the world's energy, with a 40 percent chunk belonging to oil, the major component in gasoline production. At current rates of output, by 2100 temperatures are estimated to increase by 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which could potentially push our planet beyond the "point of no return."

At this point, however, alternative sources of energy - solar, wind, etc. - are unproven and more expensive than what exists today. As a result, businesses are not willing to absorb the economic costs of taking steps to save the planet. If gasoline prices rise high enough (meaning crude oil prices are increasing), something may change. As costs of raw materials (i.e. crude oil) increase, costs of substitute goods decrease, making investments into alternative fuels more attractive.

The oil shortages of the 1970s led to unprecedented investments into alternative sources of energy but came to a screeching halt as the embargo came to an end. Unfortunately such a shortage has yet to repeat itself, meaning to this day R & D in cleaner fuels remains laughable.

At $70 a barrel for today's crude, we still have a ways to go to hit the $90 a barrel experienced in the 70s. Each increase in price, however, is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, we will wise up and it won't take a few more killer hurricanes to push us in the right direction.

Scott Patterson is an international studies senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.