Environment Forum

Happy about high gasoline prices?

A California Highway Patrol officer travels south with commuters on Interstate 5 as they make their way through heavy morning fog near San DiegoI have a confession to make — I’m glad gas prices in the United States, as elsewhere, are rising. And I’m quietly hoping they’ll keep going higher because there may possibly be no more effective way to promote conservation and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
 
Higher pump prices might be the only way that we Americans will ever even begin adjusting our driving habits and reducing fuel consumption — when it hits you in the pocketbook. The price of gas in the United States may be cresting at over the $4 per gallon level but it is still far lower than it many other countries where fuel taxes are much higher.

In Germany, gasoline is now up to about 6 euros ($9) per gallon. German think tanks have forecast that it would take prices of 10 euros ($15) per gallon to radically change driving habits.
 
Certainly there are fewer mass transit options in the United States than in Europe and elsewhere. And higher fuel prices are especially problematic for people with low or no income. What’s nevertheless disheartening in the United States is that any suggestion of alleviating the price squeeze in the United States through the conservation of fuel by driving less or by driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars or by using public transportation seems to get drowned out by a strange political debate about temporarily suspending the federal fuel tax for a few months during the summer holiday season.

That seems to be sending the wrong message to Americans, who already use about one quarter of the world’s gas. It’s a wasted opportunity, in the age of climate change, to help a global campaign for conservation.
 
I spent an illuminating week recently driving around in California. It was amazing that so many people are still driving enormous SUVs even though fuel prices are high and rising. It was also amazing that people drive their enormous SUVs and other gas-guzzling cars at such high speeds and with such jack-rabbit acceleration.

I was in my mother’s 10-year-old sub-compact and tried to keep to the 60 mph speed limits on the freeways. It sometimes felt like I was standing still. Speeding cars, trucks and busses were passing on the left, on the right and some wanted to run right over me (it seemed). Even at 60 mph I was evidently a traffic nuisance. An attendant fills a car up with gasoline at the petrol kiosk in Manila May 14, 2008. Asian stocks struggled to make gains on Wednesday as the benefits of a firm dollar were offset by weakness in the financial sector, oil prices near $126 a barrel and dashed expectations of more U.S. interest rate cuts. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco (PHILIPPINES)
 
Some especially fast cars can go from zero to 60 in 10 seconds or less. Admittedly I’m a bit obsessed with saving fuel. It takes me about 40 seconds to get to 60 mph. Even getting to 30 mph takes about 20 seconds. To save fuel, I try to avoid braking and never step hard on the gas. I got nearly 50 miles per gallon with that car.

A relative who lent me her mid-sized car was amazed when I went twice as far (600 miles) on a tank as she does. She wanted to know the secret. It’s no secret. It’s just common sense. But with political leaders tripping over themselves with promises of a summer fuel tax holiday, few in America seems to be getting that message. 

So what happened to global warming?

An enormous iceberg (R) breaks off the Knox Coast in the Australian Antarctic Territory, January 11, 2008. Australia’s CSIRO’s atmospheric research unit has found the world is warming faster than predicted by the United Nations’ top climate change body, with harmful emissions exceeding worst-case estimates. Picture taken January 11, 2008. REUTERS/Torsten Blackwood/Pool (ANTARCTICA)So what happened to global warming?

It’s not just that it’s disappeared from media headlines this year – shoved off by the credit crunch and natural disasters, for example. It can’t be ignored that 2007 came and went as another very warm year – the 7th hottest on record since 1850 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

But it wasn’t a record. In fact that was 1998, a full 10 years ago — the year of an exceptional El Nino, a Pacific weather pattern which heats the whole globe. So is global warming not living up to the hype?

Two weeks ago Leibniz Institute’s Noel Keenlyside stirred an academic hornet’s
nest by saying that we may have to wait longer – a decade or more – for another
peak year, because a natural weakening in ocean currents may be cooling sea
temperatures
.

Way better than the subway

vectrixpeople.JPG

There are plenty of ways to get around New York City, not all of them savory — subway, bus, car, taxi, bike, shoe-leather — but few offer the environmental cachet of the plug-in electric motorbike. Sleek, slim and silent, the Vectrix two-seater owned by filmmaker Michael Bergmann is definitely preferable to rocketing around town under almost any other kind of power. The ride from the East Side to the West Side one recent evening was an absolute pleasure, with less ambient noise than a golf cart as we zoomed across Central Park.

“I’ve always felt that enjoying life in New York to the fullest requires a way to get around New York,” Bergmann said later in an e-mail. “A way that’s quiet and up on the surface so you can enjoy the varied life and changing neighborhoods as you travel. That requires a vehicle that’s street legal (so I don’t worry about being stopped or having it confiscated), always available, that isn’t hard to park, that doesn’t contribute to congestion or pollution (air or noise), that can carry the amount of stuff one ordinarily carries, and carry a passenger as well. So as soon as I found out about the Vectrix I wanted one.”

Vectrix, headquartered in Rhode Island, first started selling its electric plug-in motorbikes in Europe and is now expanding in the U.S. market. The company bills its plug-in model as “an advanced zero-emission, battery-powered motorcycle,” with comparable performance to a 400cc gas-powered motorcycle.

Essential Earth Science — from your garage

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and will be a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. Reuters is not responsible for the content — the views expressed are the author’s alone.

The root cause of all environmental problems-from beer cans floating on a lake to global warming-can be explained using the following two contrasting scenes:

Emissions well out of an exhaust of a car during traffic on a street in downtown Berlin on March 23, 2005. Members of the ruling German Greens party discuss a toll for vehicles entering the centre of major cites such as Berlin, Munich and Duesseldorf to reduce exhaust gas pollution. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz TOB/MADScene 1: We are sitting in an automobile inside a small, closed garage.

You are in the passenger seat and I am at the wheel. We are waiting for a third passenger from inside the building. Suddenly I reach for the ignition and turn the engine on. Alarmed by the thought of being poisoned by the exhaust, your eyes widen in amazement as you say, “What are you doing?” When you reach to turn the ignition off, I block your hands and soon a life-and-death struggle begins for control of the vehicle. You are screaming: “Are you crazy! You’re going to kill us both!”  If we manage to survive the episode you will seek to have me put under psychiatric care. Heck, I might even end up in prison for attempted manslaughter. My days as an ordinary law-abiding citizen are over.

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