President Jimmy Carter conserved energy by wearing a sweater and sitting close to a fire. But he didn’t win re-election. (Jimmy Carter Photo Source: National Archives)
President Jimmy Carter conserved energy by wearing a sweater and sitting close to a fire. But he didn’t win re-election. (Jimmy Carter Photo Source: National Archives)
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" Less use of cars? You’ve got to be kidding! "
Our Confronting the End of Everything series discusses how, politically, Maine people could contribute to avoiding the human-caused environmental disasters facing the earth. These include global warming, a million species risking extinction, and the alarming decline in numbers of insects and birds.

In the 1970s’ Energy Crisis, America’s dependence on oil was the leading villain, and the problem was largely political and economic. Middle Eastern countries restricted the supply; prices at the pump shot up. In our vastly more significant Climate Crisis, fossil fuels again are the chief villain, but the problem is not just political and economic, but existential.

The response in the 1970s by the new environmental movement and the government was to promote both energy conservation and alternative energy. “Limits to Growth” was a popular book. Democratic President Jimmy Carter famously wore a sweater in a televised “fireside chat” in which he announced solar-energy development would be a federal priority. He wore the sweater, though, to symbolize that energy conservation would be the top priority.

In a later speech, he said: “I ask Congress to give me authority for mandatory conservation and for standby gasoline rationing. To further conserve energy, I’m proposing tonight an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems.

“And I’m asking you, for your good and for your nation’s security, to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense, I tell you, it is an act of patriotism.”

Sounds downright un-American, doesn’t it, despite his appeal to patriotism? Even Democratic Congresses didn’t give Carter much of what he wanted, he was voted out of office, and Republican President Ronald Reagan took restraints off fossil-fuel production and solar panels off the White House roof (some wound up at Unity College). Reagan also beefed up the American military in the Middle East to ensure we could have our oil.

Some commentators concluded that Americans don’t like limits to economic growth, to their ability to consume the earth’s resources, and to turn those resources into as many material things as they can buy. That’s the American way. It’s actually the human way, although Americans have led the charge over the past 100 years.

And look where we are now. In a few years, our unlimited, technologically high-powered drive, in an obviously limited world, to “gather resources” — to use a biological term describing what all species feel compelled to do — may result in self-destruction and destruction of a million other species — up to 200 species are going extinct each day — according to the United Nations.

This road to world ruin is specifically caused by accelerating global warming from atmospheric carbon dioxide as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, from enormous pesticide use, from too many other kinds of pollution to tally, and from our ever-increasing population’s ever-expanding “development” everywhere.

Conservation and transportation

Have you noticed that, as politicians respond to the Climate Crisis, “energy conservation” is not much talked about — compared to “alternative energy”? That was not the case during the Energy Crisis.

Let’s examine our response to the Climate Crisis in Maine and what it may mean when conservation is not much talked about; that is, when it’s neglected. And let’s focus on transportation. At 55 percent of Maine’s CO2 emissions, transportation produces more than the industrial, commercial, electric-power, and residential sectors combined.

To set the tone: According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the average citizen of the U.S. uses almost twice as much energy as the average citizen of Europe, where the standard of living is like ours.

Let’s also define “energy conservation.” For our use here, it’s everything you can do to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels that doesn’t involve “alternative energy,” which is renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydro. Let’s put aside nuclear power as too dangerous.

In the residential sector, energy conservation means lowering the thermostat when you’re away from the house, turning off the lights, or insulating your home. For transportation, simply not using your car so much is conservation, or walking and bicycling instead of using a car.

Although riding the bus or train will for some time in the future involve fossil fuels, it’s conservation because the per-person energy use is small compared to the typical one-person car use. However, that’s not necessarily the case if there’s only one or two passengers in the bus, which is an argument for many small vans. It’s complicated, though: the energy savings of not manufacturing a car for a bus rider should be put into the equation.

For transportation reform, state government mainly has been talking about alternative energy in the form of electric cars or trucks. CO2-wise, these are a great improvement over fossil-fuel-powered cars, but they’re not without drawbacks.

They’re expensive; thus, many people may hang onto their gasoline-powered cars for another 15 to 20 years; electric cars require a new infrastructure of charging stations; if they’re adopted in large numbers, they would cause a big increase in demand for electricity generation; and then there’s the inhuman exploitation of desperately poor Congolese miners, including tens of thousands of children, to mine the cobalt needed for their batteries (see the Washington Post’s stunning investigation of the miners’ plight, “The Cobalt Pipeline.”). The batteries also have to be safely disposed of, and their materials are in limited supply.

To promote the purchase of electric cars, governments are beginning to subsidize them. There’s a federal rebate ranging from $2,500 to $7,500. The administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is allocating $5.1 million from the state’s legal settlement with Volkswagen — for cheating on its car-emissions tests — to help public agencies purchase about 100 electric vehicles and private citizens, through rebates, purchase about 900. Additionally, federal VW-settlement money will fund chargers around the state.

But 1,000 cars are few compared to the roughly 1.5 million internal-combustion vehicles in Maine, a bigger number than our population. Electric cars, of course, could be more heavily subsidized — for example, if public utilities were required to own the cars’ expensive batteries, an idea expressed in my May 23 Deep State column on public power.

Specific reforms

Energy conservation in transportation not only could reduce emissions going into the atmosphere, it could insert more cash into a Maine family’s budget quicker than many alternative-energy possibilities, which often require considerable up-front expenses.

Several relatively easy-to-implement conservation reforms could be undertaken. One is the expansion of high-speed or “broadband” internet, which would encourage more telecommuting and less driving. In August, the Legislature rejected a bond issue for this purpose, but the state will divert some telephone-bill taxes to expand broadband. The subject will be taken up in next year’s legislative session.

Another action, which could be accomplished rapidly with little expense, is to lower vehicle speed limits. From 1974 to 1987, as a response to the Energy Crisis, the top interstate speed nationally was 55 m.p.h. A study shows that fuel savings did not amount to much, but the speed limit was poorly enforced.

According to a federal General Accounting Office report, “at speeds over approximately 35 to 45 m.p.h., if a vehicle reduces its speed by 5 m.p.h., its fuel economy can increase by about 5 to 10 percent, because air resistance, or drag, increases exponentially as a vehicle goes faster.”

Raising gasoline and diesel taxes could discourage driving, and the tax receipts could pay for more mass transportation. But this move would put a huge burden on those lower on the income scale, unless compensating measures, like rebates, were enacted.

Discouraging driving implies better mass transportation, which is probably the most important conservation reform to lessen transportation CO2 emissions. The still-small but significant expansions in Maine of the Downeaster Amtrak train and Concord Coach bus line show that there’s demand.

When my wife and I go to Boston from Augusta, we never drive anymore, considering how quick the train and bus are and the expense of gas, tolls, and parking, plus the pleasures of no traffic headaches, of reading en route, and, in the train, of a coffee or a beer in the café car.

Trains and tracks, though, take time to build. There’s a good argument for them, but a network of many more (preferably, electric) large or small buses and bus routes — both within and between towns — could be brought up to speed much more quickly.

The Acadia Center, a regional environmental group based in Rockport, recommends 500 new inter- and intracity electric buses for Maine at a cost of $750,000 each.

The center’s Jordan Stutt told me that this very large expense ($375 million, plus the cost of electricity-charging stations) could be financed by a “cap-and-invest” (a.k.a. cap-and-trade) agreement with oil companies similar to the existing emissions-trading agreements between power plants and 11 Northeastern states, including Maine, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The polluting power plants essentially pay to pollute, as the critics of this kind of system like to say, in place of meeting declining government-set pollution limits, with the proceeds largely going to curb energy use and pollution somewhere else. In the 2017 fiscal year, Maine spent $10.7 million of RGGI proceeds for home weatherization and other energy-efficiency projects.

Another organization of 12 mostly Northeastern states plus the District of Columbia, called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), is trying to establish a similar deal with oil and gas companies in order to finance electric-vehicle subsidies and other climate-related reforms.

Hannah Pingree, Mills’s chief climate advisor, emailed me, “We are now monitoring TCI and attending the meetings.” The Acadia Center’s Stutt commented, “It’s criticaly important that Maine is part of this program.” But it isn’t certain the state will be.

“Given we haven’t seen the proposal and the governor hasn’t weighed in, and it’s a multi-year process that will involve multiple states agreeing and the legislature likely approving it,” Pingree observed, “I wouldn’t assume anything.”

The Acadia Center’s report, “Building a Stronger Maine,” says that $37 million a year for the bus system could be brought in by the emissions trading. The report also lists proceeds from the TCI as financing many other reforms, such as walking and biking trails and intercity rail lines, all adding up to more than $1 billion that could be invested over 11 years.

Changing habits

When my wife and I are in Boston, we go around the city with the subway, buses, cabs, and — more often now — ride-sharing programs such as Uber and Lyft. The expansion of ride-sharing in Maine is another relatively inexpensive mode of transport that governments could run directly or subsidize via nonprofits.

Governments already subsidize, in a skeleton way, the Community Action Program (CAP) bus and van networks and similar regional outfits. Considering the growing number of elderly people and the great number of poor people in Maine, building these options would also help the folks who need help the most. A state Public Transit Advisory Council report notes: “By all accounts, Maine has a weak, underfunded public transportation system.”

For great numbers of people to reduce their car use, it would be important to make any bus or other mass-transit experience inexpensive, which government subsidies also could do. The subsidies could go so far as to make bus rides free, which several European cities have done.

Dylan Voorhees, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s climate and clean-energy director, said he was “not aware of a lot of discussion” about an expansion of ride sharing, “but it could be really important.”

To create an appealing mass-transit system of any type, attention also needs to be paid to making it a pleasant experience. That could be accomplished partly through small amenities (Concord Coach’s free movies and pretzels come to mind).

And perhaps people need to be told through advertising that it’s a pleasant experience, especially middle- and upper-middle-class people who currently wouldn’t think of taking a city or town bus. Their constant car use makes them heavy emitters of CO2. On average, the more money you have, the greater your carbon emissions.

When I have ridden the Kennebec Valley CAP buses in Augusta, I’ve been struck by how few middle-class people ride them. And by how infrequent the schedule is. And by how limited the routes are. Those are other reasons buses aren’t much patronized by the middle class.

Voorhees has a different and plausible take on how to get people to use mass transportation, a version of the build-it-and-they-will-come logic. “We have more important tools than a p.r. campaign,” he said. If we created a good alternative, “people would adapt.”

His viewpoint is supported by James Wood, KVCAP’s transportation development director, who has been with the agency for 45 years. Use is “all related to convenience,” he said. “People take the path of least resistance.”

Wood thinks the mass-transit needs of young adults should be kept in mind. When they get out of college, they’re often burdened by huge debt. But they need to get to a job and can’t afford a car. So “they head to the cities,” he said.

If you really want to try a mode of transportation that, in most places in Maine, has few middle-class people in it, try walking. I don’t mean fitness walking, which is mostly done, speaking from my experience as a longtime runner and writer about fitness, by a certain set of the educated middle class. I mean utilitarian walking, such as to and from the supermarket. You may not see anyone else doing it except the very poor.

That kind of stigma-by-association takes a little getting used to. Several of our children did not want to walk the three-quarters of a mile to the high school because “only the really poor kids walk to school.” And they were athletes! We refused to take them (though we sometimes faltered).

As everyone knows, walking is great for your health. Besides global-warming emissions, you will be combatting another killer, obesity. Same with everyday adult bicycling, which is practically a religion in northern Europe. In Amsterdam, 50 percent of commuting is done by bicycle.

Over the past few decades, the feds, the state, towns, and nonprofits have cooperated to create walking and bicycling trails and lanes, although relatively few people use them and many more could be created.

A Danish friend recently described to me how in Danish cities bicycle lanes are set off by curbs, not just the far-less-safe white strips we are beginning to see in our communities. And Portland has created what may be the state’s first “parking protected” bike lane along Park Avenue. The bikes are separated from traffic by parked cars.

Those are needed reforms. While cycling is healthy, it’s not safe. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, you have twice the fatality risk of riding in a car. I had two friends die in bicycle accidents.

The National Complete Streets Coalition says walking or biking could be substituted for 41 percent of short car trips. But for the most part, the inexpensive, safe infrastructure that walking and biking need, including better sidewalks, has yet to be created.

Car drivers won’t like street or road space taken away from them. But if it is, they too will be safer, at least in the cities. Studies show that on narrower streets people drive more slowly. And their cars are emitting less CO2 because they’re driving slower.

Amtrak is another tax-subsidized, mass-transit network. If you’ve ever spent time in Europe, you know how much better the heavily subsidized train systems are there. Subsidy is another word for tax dollars, and — putting it bluntly — to fight global warming more money will have to be taken from the rich and their corporations.

Both now are beneficiaries of low tax rates and many tax breaks. Middle-income people in Maine pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than rich people, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Doing this extraction of wealth in our ever more income-and-wealth-unequal society, in which wealth is invested in keeping things the way they are, will be the defining battle of our time. Losing the battle will mean vast environmental destruction — losing the world that we know.

A key battleground will be about limiting the contributions of rich individuals and corporations to politicians, as well as limiting the political advertising they finance in notoriously “dark” ways.

It probably goes without saying that the last people who want to conserve the earth are many of the people nowadays known as “conservatives.” Economically speaking, they want to conserve their wealth and our profligate ways from which they derive their profits.

I remember the president of the Central Maine Power Co. admitting during a Public Utilities Commission hearing years ago that, if there were demand for heating the outdoors, CMP would try to meet it. In a sense, that attitude has led — though not in the way he meant it — to global warming.

The implementation of conservation measures also requires another kind of income consideration. Each reform must look at its impact on people with limited means. I suggested earlier that raising gasoline and diesel taxes without bearing in mind how it would affect people who don’t make a lot of money would present problems.

To see this, look at the huge “yellow vest” protests in France by working people after President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to raise car and truck fuel taxes in part to combat global warming. He was forced to back down.

Referring to how a Climate-Crisis movement would need to fully engage working people, the Maine AFL-CIO’s communications director (and columnist for The Free Press), Andy O’Brien, told me: “The big picture is that you need a diverse coalition to build a movement, and unions have always been one of the most important pieces in building these broad-based coalitions. Solutions that don’t address income inequality will fall flat.”

The union movement, though, has weakened enormously over the past 50 years. But it could be rebuilt via political decisions made in legislatures and Congress. The past and possible future of unions provide an example of how, in fundamental ways, dealing with the Climate Crisis is a question of the organization of our economy, society, and politics.

Most professional environmentalists, though, don’t have much to do with such questions or with grassroots movements. They’re also wary of asking people to change their way of life. The words “energy conservation” have largely been supplanted in their vocabulary by words like “efficiency” because conservation, they think, implies sacrifice — and look what happened to Jimmy Carter.

How politically tough will it be to dramatically alter our wasteful transportation habits? Small example: When I was emailing with Paul Merrill, the public-affairs director of the Maine Department of Transportation, about making the state’s transportation system greener, he volunteered: “Remember that all of these discussions are happening in an environment in which we are struggling to put together enough funding to do basic highway maintenance.”

State gasoline taxes, he noted, haven’t increased in over 15 years (they’re 30 cents a gallon), and Republican Gov. Paul LePage stopped them from being indexed for inflation in 2012.

Although the Legislature’s August special session passed a $105-million bond issue for highway projects, Merrill said, “We still have an annual shortfall of about $200 million.” The NRCM’s Voorhees sees this need as competing with mass-transportation projects. (The bond issue will be voted on Tuesday, November 5.)

If there’s legislative resistance to public money for necessary highway maintenance, how hard will it be to do all the many costly things — such as subsidies to change the way we live — necessary to curb global warming?

But shouldn’t the rich, at least, be asked to sacrifice? Including the many who own stock in the oil companies? Apparently, Janet Mills doesn’t believe so. Once again, I must note as I have in several previous columns, that she has promised no new taxes, which includes retaining LePage’s tax cuts for the rich.

Her promise points toward why the true conservatives, those who want to conserve the earth — for example, the radical proponents of the Green New Deal — say a nonviolent political, social, and economic revolution is needed. “We need a whole new way of thinking,” says 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the world’s leading climate activist.

Meanwhile, Americans are driving more miles each year. It’s no illusion that cars are getting bigger, and big cars use more fuel. Greenhouse gasses from transportation continue to increase. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2050 new sales of all types of electric vehicles will amount to only 19 percent of vehicles sold.

But the United Nations scientific panel on climate change has said that we have only about 10 years before a tipping point could be reached and the climate really begins to go wild.