A Crisis We Cannot Afford to Waste May 19, 2010Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
Tags: 2010 Oil Spill, BP, Cuyahoga River, Deepwater Horizon, Environmental Movement, Exxon Valdez, George Bush, Gulf of Mexico, loop current, Obama, Oil, Oil Spill, Tom Friedman
Regardless of BP’s lies, this spill is already well over double the size of Exxon Valdez. The surface slick is entrained in the Loop Current headed through Florida to the East Coast, and vast additional plumes of toxic oil are lurking in the water column travelling who knows where. This is an historic environmental disaster and it will get much worse before it gets better. That is a given.
While the human and animal suffering of this catastrophe have only just begun, and even though we are not yet close to even stopping the spill, one must also ask, “What happens next?”
Tom Friedman wrote an excellent op-ed on Tuesday with which I completely agree. The first line reads, “President Obama’s handling of the gulf oil spill has been disappointing.” The two following paragraphs are important:
“I say that not because I endorse the dishonest conservative critique that the gulf oil spill is somehow Obama’s Katrina and that he is displaying the same kind of incompetence that George W. Bush did after that hurricane. To the contrary, Obama’s team has done a good job coordinating the cleanup so far. The president has been on top of it from the start.
No, the gulf oil spill is not Obama’s Katrina. It’s his 9/11 — and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake George W. Bush made with his 9/11. Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those rare seismic events that create the possibility to energize the country to do something really important and lasting that is too hard to do in normal times.” -NYT, 5/18/10.
The world is constantly changing. Obviously, we as a country need to adapt to meet the challenges of that changing world. Anyone who pays attention to Washington knows that that this needed change does not happen every day, week, year, or even decade. Fundamental, systematic changes occur rarely, but they are critical to America’s continued prosperity.
Given the inertial nature of our legislature and public sentiment, most of these significant changes occur not out of educated foresight but rather in retrospective response to major crises.
For example, our financial regulations clearly did not keep pace with the changing world of investment banking. Only now, after a major crisis, can we finally attempt to implement the necessary, long-overdue changes. This is how our country progresses.
Punctuated Equilibrium: How Regulations Evolve
There is a scientific analogy to be made here. In 1859, Darwin postulated that evolutionary change occurs at a slow and steady pace. Over time, enough consistently occurring minor changes add up to allow an organism to survive – to keep up with a slowly, constantly changing environment.
In 1972, with the benefit of modern geological knowledge and a much more complete fossil record, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge realized that this isn’t quite what happens. Instead of slow, constant evolution, there are long periods of time in which there is very little change. These extended intervals of stasis are interrupted by brief, revolutionary periods in which major changes occur rapidly. This model is known as punctuated equilibrium.
Our country operates in a punctuated equilibrium. Even while the world changes around us, we continue in our old ways until a situation becomes intolerable, then we act; we don’t turn on the air conditioner until the temperature reaches 100 degrees.
America has survived so far because even though we don’t normally take steps to prevent the biggest conflicts between our old ways and a new world, we have always acted after that first, major catalyzing event. Before the problem became incurable.
A Proper Disaster Response: The Cuyahoga River
Our country’s history with environmental regulation follows this pattern. When the Industrial Revolution began in America, it was common practice to dump polluting wastes into a nearby river. It carried them away, caused no visible problems, and factories were so scarce that their pollution didn’t pose much of a health risk.
As you might expect, as factories became bigger and more common, polluted waterways became more of a problem. But even when rivers in industrial areas went far beyond undrinkable, became completely lifeless, and the water turned different colors each day depending on what a factory produced, we did not act.
The Cuyahoga River, which runs through Cleveland, Ohio, was one of these dead, oily industrial rivers. Locals joked that, “in this river you don’t drown, but decay.” It was so polluted it actually caught fire in 1868. And 1883. And 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941 and 1952. Still, we did nothing to address water pollution. The long period of inaction continued, even after the need for change had become apparent.
On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga caught fire the 13th time. It burned from bank to bank, causing millions of dollars in damage to boats, a railroad bridge, and even an office building that ignited next to the river. Finally, the situation was intolerable. The opportunity for action had arrived, and we seized this opportunity. In the aftermath of the Cuyahoga fire, Congress passed sweeping regulations in the form of one of the most important pieces of regulatory legislation in history: the Clean Water Act.
Yet the impact of the Cuyahoga River Fire transcended legislation. This event helped incite the Environmental Movement as a whole; the first Earth Day was held the very next year. The fire vividly demonstrated a major, needed change, but it also happened to occur when other events were pushing in the same direction: for example, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had galvanized the country about dangerous pesticide use just a few years before, and the threat of toxic waste disposal would come to light a few years later in Love Canal, New York. People were mobilized into action by these events, and they followed through.
What Not to Do: The Aftermath of Exxon Valdez
Just as evolution was not predestined to create humans, the occurrence of environmental disasters does not guarantee that the proper safeguards will be established in the aftermath of such catastrophes. Necessary change will not occur if the public is complacent and allows Congress to revert to its status quo protecting special interests who, unlike the public, pay lobbyists to apply constant pressure on our elected representatives. The equilibrium will continue, unpunctuated, even if the need for change is strong. Indeed, that is the trend of the more recent past.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill is a case study of how these opportunities can be eviscerated by special interests or even lost altogether. The Exxon Valdez, unlike many (but NOT ALL) supertankers today, has only one hull. When pierced, its toxic oil can spill out freely. After that spill, the transition to double-hulled tankers should have been swift. Elsewhere in the world, it was. In America, it was not – in fact, it has not even happened:
“You would think the change would have been almost automatic after such a disaster. But the oil industry was so powerful that Congress gave it until 2015 — 25 years — to comply. Even now, single-hulled oil tankers like the Exxon Valdez, which now operates as an ore carrier in Asia, can ply U.S. waters.” -Kris Hundley, St. Petersburg Times 5/9/2010.
Our response was so gutted that Exxon has since sailed the Valdez’s identical, single-hulled sister ship straight back through the scene of the crime! And they will continue to be able to do so legally for 5 more years!
More information about Exxon, single- vs. double-hulled tankers, and how America’s response differed from international responses here.
A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” This phrase was coined by Stanford economist Paul Romer, NOT Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Conservatives made Emanual’s utterance of this phrase the Fox News fake Obama scandal du jour, but the sentiment is actually important for our country. If we don’t act when rare opportunities arise, our country will fail to meet its future challenges. And as I’ve explained above, such opportunities normally arise only in the wake of crises. Recall that even Obama’s election, with his vaunted “mandate for change,” did not prove to be an actual opportunity for legislative reform.
My earlier air conditioning analogy is accurate in a number of ways. Our planet is warming. Climate change is undeniable and every month of this year has been the hottest on record. On top of that, oil is a finite resource that needlessly jeopardizes our national security. And then there are the real, unavoidable risks of domestic drilling (which is not an energy solution anyways). Our energy supply is an intolerable situation. Especially in regard to climate change, if we do not act now, the problem will soon be incurable.
This oil spill will prove truly catastrophic. When all is said and done, we will need to do more than make figure out who will foot the bill; we must treat this particular symptom, but the only real course of action is to cure the disease. Our heavily subsidized oil addiction is archaic, unsustainable and deeply damaging to our country. It must end.
We developed these old habits when oil was cheap, plentiful, and not used enough to warm the planet. The world has changed, but our habits are so entrenched, and the oil industry is so well protected, that we cannot break the cycle without a major crisis.
That crisis is here. So now we face a choice: will Deepwater Horizon be a revolutionary Cuyahoga River event for change or a squandered Exxon Valdez event for stasis? It is up to us to decide…but it’d be a lot easier if the President decided with us.
I’ll hand it back over to Tom Friedman to take us home:
“In the wake of this historic oil spill, the right policy — a bill to help end our addiction to oil — is also the right politics. The people are ahead of their politicians. So is the U.S. military. There are many conservatives who would embrace a carbon tax or gasoline tax if it was offset by a cut in payroll taxes or corporate taxes, so we could foster new jobs and clean air at the same time. If Republicans label Democrats “gas taxers” then Democrats should label them “Conservatives for OPEC” or “Friends of BP.” Shill, baby, shill.
Why is Obama playing defense? Just how much oil has to spill into the gulf, how much wildlife has to die, how many radical mosques need to be built with our gasoline purchases to produce more Times Square bombers, before it becomes politically “safe” for the president to say he is going to end our oil addiction? Indeed, where is “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act”? Why does everything have to emerge from the House and Senate? What does he want? What is his vision? What are his redlines? I don’t know. But I do know that without a fixed, long-term price on carbon, none of the president’s important investments in clean power research and development will ever scale.
Mr. President, your advisers are wrong: Americans are craving your leadership on this issue. Are you going to channel their good will into something that strengthens our country — “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act” — or are you going squander your 9/11, too?” – NYT, 5/18/10.
Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.