Running out of time on nation’s birthday

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Celebrating our nation’s birthday last week was a hoot with Chinese-made fireworks sold everywhere from big box stores to corner kiosks. And they weren’t limited to July 4 organized shows at fairgrounds and outdoor arenas. In Montana, where fireworks are legal, private displays started two days early and continued every night through the weekend. Well, that’s one way to show your patriotism, I suppose.

On the other hand, activists concerned about the health of the planet, as well as our small portion of it, used the holiday to further efforts to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and promote alternatives to fossil fuels.

Although these efforts have both detractors and supporters, our Independence Day celebration offers a chance to take stock of progress, or maybe the lack of same. The Live Earth global concert, actually nine concerts in 24 hours, began in Sydney, Australia and stretched to Tokyo, Shanghai. Johannesburg, Hamburg, London, Rio de Janeiro and New Jersey, winding up in Washington, DC, which was added at the eleventh hour, so to speak.

Scheduled on what many believe is the planet’s luckiest day, the seventh day of the seventh month of the century’s seventh year, the worldwide lineup included the Police, Madonna, Metallica and Kanye West among 150 artists rocking out the message. Former Vice President Al Gore, the country’s most vocal advocate for change in the way we address climate change, appeared in a video greeting at Sydney (and, I assume, the other venues).

There was, of course, the apparent anomaly of rock stars using a bazillion gallons of jet fuel to fly all over the place and wasting enough megawatts of electricity to supply a large city just to power their huge amps. Criticism came from afar and spilled over into this week with discussions on Warren Olney’s PRI radio broadcast Monday.

The Who singer Roger Daltrey, sounded off in a British newspaper before the event: “The last thing the planet needs is a rock concert.” Even so, Prince Charles announced he has embraced the carbon neutral lifestyle. Britain’s royal said he managed to cut his personal carbon emissions 9 percent simply by taking fewer chartered plane flights in favor of trains. He also runs the royal Jaguar on cooking oil (whether virgin or from the local fish and chips was not disclosed). His announcement, of course, was printed on recycled paper with vegetable-based ink. To offset the effects of long travels with considerable entourage the prince has paid to plant about $60,000 worth of trees to soak up at least his portion of carbon emissions. How this works out mathematically is anyone’s guess, but it’s an encouraging step.

Meanwhile, our leaders continue to argue over ways to speed up or postpone efforts to mitigate our use of carbon-based fuels. Most appalling is the current spat between U.S. legislators John Dingell and Edward Markey. Democratic leaders created a special panel, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, chaired by Markey (D-Mass) to spur aggressive action on climate change. Rep. Dingell, a longtime friend of Detroit automakers, has dismissed the panel’s efforts as “about as useful as a fish with feathers.” Even so, Markey is pushing hard to increase fuel economy standards, describing the panel’s mission as both climate change and energy issues. Dingell, as you may recall, challenged California and other states’ authority to regulate tailpipe emissions. The Senate finally agreed to an increase in auto and light truck fuel efficiency standards to 35 mpg. Cheers.

Alternative energy development has slowed not for lack of interest or funding but because manufacturers of wind turbines can’t keep up with the demand. New projects from California to Virginia are stalled even as European utilities are expanding. It seems some renewable energy companies in Europe anticipated the shortages and locked in orders way ahead of time. And so they are now in a position to buy up U.S. companies.

So much for alternative energy boosting our economy. Europe is at least 15 years ahead of us.

As we speak, Congress is debating not only the energy bill, but also the farm bill, which is up for renewal. Rife with subsidies that enrich only a few huge corporations and frustrate our trading partners, the legislation will be drafted by the House Agriculture Committee. Chaired by Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) the committee appears to be leaning toward continuing subsidies. On the other hand, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and others propose to cut back on subsidies in favor of “income stabilization accounts,” which would gradually be phased out. Federal farm insurance programs would remain in place. Lugar estimates a savings of $55 billion over 10 years that would go to debt relief, renewable energy, environmental stewardship, rural conservation and food stamps.

So where will we be at the end of all this? Hard to say. But there are more voices than ever calling for responsible legislation to solve the climate and energy crises. Let’s hope their will doesn’t wane.

Happy birthday, America.