Are biofuels fueling the environmental crisis
Alarm is mounting with the news of the Antartic ice-cap melt Unless Al Gore is biding his time because he is still a potential dark horse in the present election campaign (something I very much doubt) I think this would be a good time for him to step forward as a spokesman for the energy policy in the next administration. Perhaps Clinton and Obama could agree that whichever wins they will propose his appointment to the cabinet to carry forward a program that they both endorse.
Not surprisingly the present Administration policy to support biofuels supposedly to increase US energy independance is adding to the envirnomental crisis and creating a food crisis to boot. Paul Krugman has written an interesting piece on this in the New York Times Grains Gone Wild. The decision to use biofuels (at the present level of technology) to substitute for petroleum is environmentally unsound and is leading to more not less global warming and environmental damage as it contributes to an out-of-control escalation of grain prices.
In order to substantiate his main argument on damage to the enviroment, he first deals with other obvious causes of the price rise in food, citing bad weather conditions in Australia (the second largest grain producer in the world); greater demand from Chinese for grain-fed meat; rise in oil prices which that passed through to the food chain mailtly through rising transportation costs but also because of increased Chinese demand; and also fallout from the Iraq war (which has taken their oil production off-market as well as creating direct costs of the war).
The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a "scam."
This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly "good" biofuel policies, like Brazil's use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.
And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.
Oh, and in case you're wondering: all the remaining presidential contenders are terrible on this issue.
One more thing: one reason the food crisis has gotten so severe, so fast, is that major players in the grain market grew complacent.
Governments and private grain dealers used to hold large inventories in normal times, just in case a bad harvest created a sudden shortage. Over the years, however, these precautionary inventories were allowed to shrink, mainly because everyone came to believe that countries suffering crop failures could always import the food they needed.
This left the world food balance highly vulnerable to a crisis affecting many countries at once - in much the same way that the marketing of complex financial securities, which was supposed to diversify away risk, left world financial markets highly vulnerable to a systemwide shock.
What should be done? The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress: the U.N.'s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds.
We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake
It is clear that we need a global energy policy and not quick fixes that only make the situation worse.
There are hopeful areas to explore such as new intrinsically safe nuclear reactor designs like the High Temperature Gas Reactor, that are engineered to stop a reaction before it becomes critical by relying upon the diffusion of the gaseous medium as its temperature rises. Of course the problem of nuclear waste would also need to be dealt with.
Perhaps their are environmentally sound ways to mine coal (while protecting the miners' safety) and utilize it as an energy source while trapping CO2 emissions which are also cost effective.
Then their are developments in solar and wind energy.
But conservation remains top of the list today.
There are the gas-guzzlers on the road and the energy-guzzling mcMansions that waste a lot of energy on heating and cooling and lighting. Not to speak of the proliferation of shopping malls.
I believe that we need to take a hard look at suburban sprawl. If we lived in more urbanized environments it would be easier to provide adequate mass transit and we wouldn't need to spend so much time on the road--to work, to shop, and for recreation.
We badly need someone of the stature of Al Gore to take a leading position nationally and globally in shaping a sound energy policy. And we need to rally the country behind that program.