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Weekly Mulch: Kicking our addiction to AC -- why D.C. needs to step up

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This summer, Americans are cranking up their air conditioning. At the same time, Senators are letting climate legislation cool its heels in Washington. Ultimately, both of these summer trends are contributing to climate change. Air conditioning dumps greenhouse gases into the environment, and without climate legislation that caps the country’s carbon emissions, America’s share of global carbon levels will only continue to grow.

But if it’s hard for individuals to give up air conditioning on some of the hottest days in decades, it’s even harder for the country to give up fossil fuels altogether. Just yesterday, BP finally capped the well that has been spewing oil into the Gulf—it took the company almost three months. Yet even in Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the BP oil spill, workers are supporting the oil industry and pushing back against the Obama administration’s temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.

How can the country give up the controlled climate it has become accustomed to? We depend on fossil fuels to keep us cool and to keep our economy pumping. In both cases, the answer is not to go cold turkey, but to come up with an innovative solution.

Brrr, it’s cold in here!

Americans are as addicted to A/C as they are to oil. “Just since the mid-1990s, as the U.S. population was growing by less than 15 percent, consumption of electricity to cool the residential, retail and automotive sectors doubled,” writes Stan Cox at AlterNet. That cool breeze creates greenhouse gas pollution—the equivalent of 400 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Cox talks to several admirable people who live without air conditioning. They offer advice like consuming pitchers of ice water, opening your windows at strategic times, and canny use of fans.

At Care2, however, GinaMarie Cheeseman rebels. “My response to the…premise that we just have to learn to live without air conditioning is a definite, ‘Hell, no!’” she writes. Her solution? Not to give up a modern technology that improves many days, but to turn to an atmosphere-friendly product—a new-fangled A/C unit called DEVap, which is “50 to 90 percent more energy efficient than traditional air conditions,” she reports.

Highway to ‘Hell, no!’

Across the country, the response to an offshore drilling moratorium has echoed Cheeseman: “Hell, no!” After a federal judge (with a financial interest in the oil industry, of course) shut down the initial ban, the administration came back this week with a new version that “is based more on specific safety concerns and less on the simple depth of the well,” as Public News Service reports.

In The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard talked to Louisianans who disapproved of the ban altogether.

“When a airplane crashes, do you ground every plane in the country? No. You find out what caused the problem and fix it. You don’t punish the entire industry,” one fisherman told him. Hertsgaard came away with a surprising conclusion:

“It may be shocking to read in The Nation, but a blanket moratorium on new deepwater drilling may not be the best policy to pursue in the wake of the BP disaster. No state in the union is more addicted to oil than Louisiana; the oil and gas industry is responsible for roughly 25 percent of the state’s economic activity. If you abruptly cut off a hardened heroin addict, you can kill him; there is a reason physicians prescribe methadone rather than cold turkey.”

At GritTV, Hertsgaard and I discussed the problem of how to move forward, if a ban on oil drilling won’t fly.  The country needs to adopt new solutions—like Cheeseman’s A/C unit—before throwing out the old. Hertsgaard learned, for instance, that Louisiana has the strongest program for solar energy in the country.

“Louisiana has by far the strongest solar tax credit—50% off of your solar installation,” Hertsgaard said. “And if you add onto that the 30% credit that Obama administration passed earlier in his presidency, Louisiana homeowners can go solar for 80% off.”

PACE-ing ourselves

Why doesn’t every state have such a strong solar program, though? Even a disaster like the BP oil spill could not budge federal leaders to move the country towards a safer, cleaner energy future via strong policies. The version of energy legislation that now looks most likely to come to a vote in the Senate drops a carbon cap altogether. It could require renewable electricity standards which mandate that a certain amount of electricity production comes from renewable energy sources, but many states already have similar, if not better standards.

One way to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels is to improve the energy efficiency of homes and businesses. There are huge gains to be made here. Better efficiency across the economy could reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030, according to the Center for American Progress. The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans encouraged homeowners to build houses that met federal efficiency standards. But a decision last week by the Federal Housing Finance Agency essentially killed this type of assistance.

“Cities can continue to offer PACE, but then Fannie and Freddie must impose stricter lending standards on all local borrowers—even those who never intend to take out PACE loans,” Alyssa Katz explains at The American Prospect. “In effect, the new guidelines force mayors and city councils to choose between promoting energy efficiency and improving the health of their already battered real-estate markets.”

Two cities that were using the loans—San Francisco and Boulder—have stopped issuing them, Katz reports. Yesterday, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) did introduced the PACE Assessment Protection Act of 2010, which requires the FHFA to support PACE, but there’s no guarantee that legislation will pass through Congress, Grist reports.

Policy trumps innovation

That chilling effect is exactly the opposite of the sort of policies the country needs from Washington. As Christian Parenti writes in The Nation, fancy devices (like Cheeseman’s DEVap) cannot fix the climate crisis on their own:

“An overemphasis on breakthrough inventions can obscure the fact that most of the energy technologies we need already exist. You know what they are: wind farms, concentrated solar power plants, geothermal and tidal power, all feeding an efficient smart grid that, in turn, powers electric vehicles and radically more energy-efficient buildings.”

“According to clean-tech experts, innovation is now less important than rapid large-scale implementation,” Parenti explains. “In other words, developing a clean-energy economy is not about new gadgets but rather about new policies.”

It would be nice if those new policies pushed the country to decrease energy use, instead of mimicking programs states already have in place, or worse, undoing good work that’s going forward on the local level.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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