The Common Good

What Good Is a Bridge If We Never Cross It?

Energy policy and climate change action are inexorably linked, like two oxen in a yoke.

The trouble with this setup is that while climate action tends to look straight ahead, energy policy is apt to veer off on any number of paths, some of them quite well-meaning, like job growth or “energy independence.”

Tuesday's State of the Union address by President Obama was, I’m afraid, one such experience for climate action, which compared to the huge bull of energy issues is a yearling at best. The yoke between energy and climate did get mentioned by the president, but the yoke pressed toward economic growth, the paradigm which many argue is responsible for our ecological crisis in the first place.  It’s enough to strain a vertebra. 

Let me explain this tension using the president’s main example of natural gas production and switching my metaphor, at his encouragement, to that of a bridge. Of natural gas, he told us, “If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” Safe extraction is a major qualifier because fracking is a polluter and leaked methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Additionally we note that less does not mean zero; burning natural gas is not carbon neutral. But what is most glaring about this statement is that he calls natural gas a bridge without explaining, expounding, or envisioning. Bridges, I’ve always assumed, are built in order to cross somewhere. What if that far shore is no different than where we are currently? And what good is a bridge if we don’t take sufficient steps to cross it?

In 2004, when my wife and I were still missionaries in India, air pollution had become so insufferable in New Delhi that the High Court unilaterally ordered all auto-rickshaws, buses, and taxi cabs to convert over to compressed natural gas (CNG).  Drivers went out on strike, commuters complained, politicians threatened, but the court held firm, and the program worked. New Delhi became a healthier, more pleasant place.

But I was in New Delhi just last December. After 2004, they had admirably built a CNG bridge of more breathable airspace, but in the end it was a bridge that they never crossed.  More than 7 million cars are now on the road in the capital region, and air pollution levels, as commonly measured on PM 10 and PM 2.5 scales, ranged in December from 400-500. (Anything above 201 is considered “very unhealthy” and anything above 301, “hazardous to health.”)

There are of course many reasons to build a bridge without ever requiring us to cross it. Maybe we are architecture aficionados. Maybe we want to keep our travel options open. And maybe we want to create jobs for the contractors and labors who string the cable and pour the concrete. (My own family is grateful for my grandfather’s job during the Depression building a bridge over the Grand River in Michigan.)

I did an exercise with the president’s speech where I took the five paragraphs that might be called his “climate change statement for 2014” and highlighted everything in yellow that seemed to talk about crossing the bridge over to a carbon neutral future, and then I highlighted in red every reference in those same sentences to job growth and everything in green that referred to independence from foreign oil. In the end, the page looked like a red/green Christmas gift with a smattering of gold tinsel thrown in for effect.         

The president said, “But the debate is settled.  Climate change is a fact.” While we welcome that declaration, it too is but a bridge statement. We have got to cross over that settled debate and go somewhere.

“The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way,” he also said. This sounds more like a crossing statement but I argue that our first (and perhaps toughest) choice will be to let climate action lead and at times trump all other considerations, of which the Keystone XL pipeline permit is our most pressing case study in presidential leadership.

Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil, and the author of Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. He watched the State of the Union address while on a trip in the Redwood forest of Northern California. On Monday, he saw his first whale off the coast of Patrick’s Point State Park.

Photo: Rebell/Shutterstock

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