Salience, or Voting as if the Environment Matters

Salience, or Voting as if the Environment Matters

The path to a green energy future and a stable climate is clearer than ever-but we do need to start voting to put ourselves on it.

The professor who taught my college introductory political science course greatly emphasized a dry little word: salience-a measure of how much people's opinions on a given subject actually influence how they vote. Issues that are immediate or the subject of great passion, such as one's job, or religious freedom, usually have high voter salience.

In the United States in the 1980s, the global environment was the definitive low-salience issue. Everyone, it seemed, agreed that the environment should be protected, but politicians did little. They got elected to address more immediate concerns, such as tax cuts. Studying global sustainability at that time was both extraordinarily exciting and extremely frustrating, because so little public attention was focused on huge problems like fossil-fuel use and the specter of global warming, the AIDS epidemic, deforestation, the global extinction crisis, and the threat of more nuclear accidents in the wake of Chernobyl. I think my Worldwatch colleagues and I sometimes felt that we were shouting into the wind.

When I arrived at Worldwatch Institute in January 1988-on the day the first issue of this magazine came out-gasoline cost about $1.46 per gallon in the United States (in today's dollars), the average car or light truck got about 22 miles per gallon (9.4 km/liter), and Americans drove about 2 trillion miles (3.2 trillion km) a year. Since then, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Internet has transformed global communications and markets, world population is up by 1.5 billion, and the global climate is warmer by about a third of a degree Celsius.

Some things, however, seem very much the same. The U.S. government is split between a conservative Republican president and a Democratic Congress. The president opposes most environmental initiatives and is closely allied to the energy industry. A presidential campaign is picking up speed but the candidates are paying little attention to environmental issues. Oil remains the lifeblood of the American economy and the average car or light truck gets about 21 miles to the gallon (8.9 km/liter). Gasoline prices have risen, but Americans are driving roughly a trillion more miles (1.6 trillion km) each year.

Blame American energy policy, which is basically to keep energy cheap no matter what the cost. Cheap oil in the 1980s and 1990s made it logical for millions of Americans to buy SUVs and move to remote suburbs, and suburban sprawl is the primary factor behind the growth in driving and fuel consumption. You can now drive 30-50 miles (50-80 km) out of many major cities and see subdivisions from which people commute to the urban core or inner suburbs. Greater New York City now reaches west and south across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, where it merges with other metropolitan areas. The conurbation loosely termed Los Angeles now stretches 90 miles (145 km) or more in some directions. In pursuit of seemingly cheap housing at the urban fringe, many people are now spending hours a day driving to jobs, schools, and shopping, and spending budget-busting amounts on cars and increasingly expensive fuel. This phenomenon is probably closely related to the sub-prime mortgage crisis that has been grabbing recent headlines.

Meanwhile, the ecological costs of our addiction to oil are becoming clearer every day. Global warming is proceeding apace. The melting in the Arctic, for example, appears to be accelerating sharply. As of mid-August, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest extent ever observed, with perhaps a month of melt left to go. Some scientists believe that we may already have reached key climatic tipping points, making the loss of the massive Greenland ice sheet inevitable. Greenland contains enough frozen water to raise global sea level by 7 meters. Antarctica contains far more.

Faced with stark evidence of the consequences of our energy policy, the political system has, so far, ducked. Most politicians seem to be fixated on magic bullets, technologies that somehow will solve all our problems. High among these are alternative motor vehicle fuels, a subject that World Watch (and I) covered extensively in the magazine's early years. Ethanol from corn has received a major boost from the U.S. Congress, in the form of high subsidies and a mandate for 7.5 billion gallons (28 billion liters) of annual production by 2012. In response, ethanol plants are being built at a frantic pace, and corn and farmland prices are up sharply. An unexpected boom has developed in the construction of grain bins, so farmers can dry and store their own grain, and sell it to ethanol plants at the times they need it the most. Worldwatch founder Lester Brown believes that ethanol production may absorb up to half of U.S. corn output by the 2008 harvest. Even if it does, ethanol would still only satisfy 6 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. Some hope that ethanol will soon be made in quantity from cellulosic sources, such as grasses or crop wastes, but the technology remains commercially unproven.

Synthetic fuels, one of the greatest boondoggles of the 1970s, are also back. World Watch covered the then-little-noticed Canadian effort to produce oil from tar sands in 1988. Since then, production has risen by a factor of six, to more than a million barrels per day, creating a boom in Canadian oil. It has also created a very large, very lightly publicized, toxic mess in northern Alberta (see "Tar Sands Fever," September/October). Most of the oil goes to Canada's southern neighbor, where national politicians (including, remarkably, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama) have proposed new federal programs to produce liquid fuels from coal. The processes involved are dirty, capital-intensive, and guaranteed to sharply increase carbon emissions, unless unproven technologies to capture and store CO2 are developed and shown to be economical.

Subsidies for alternative fuels, though they may be useful in jump-starting new markets, miss the point in a warming world. Though alternatives may reduce U.S. oil imports, if carbon emissions cost nothing there is no incentive for low-carbon energy sources-including efficiency improvements-to win out over high-carbon ones. The danger of implementing poorly thought out new energy policies with oil prices already so high is that the drive for new supplies becomes much more intense. In an era when the need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases is dire, small mistakes can rapidly become very big ones. An energy future in which U.S. coal-to-liquids plants, Canadian oil sands, and a large share of the U.S. corn crop fuel hybrid SUVs-optimized for speed, not fuel efficiency-will only exacerbate global warming.

This brings us back to the question of salience. World Watch was founded on the premise that more accessible information on the ways the environment affects our lives-and vice versa-might help inform the public debate and lead to political solutions. The relevance of global environmental health to our daily lives is obvious now in ways unimagined 20 years ago. Yet our politicians are giving us policy proposals that are little more sophisticated than those of 20, or even 30, years ago. Real pressure for them to change will have to come from the ballot box. Are Americans ready to vote as if the environment really matters?


John E. Young is an independent writer and consultant on global environmental issues.