"In addition to calling for improved fuel efficiency, which he repeated last week in a speech in Detroit, Mr. McCain said he supported an effort to develop an automobile battery that can travel 150 to 200 miles without a charge and would finance the research and development for that." New York Times, October 17, 2007
Now that Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential aspirants who come in his wake are getting serious about climate change. Even the Republicans. To his credit, John McCain arrived at this destination long ago, but now even Fred Thompson, who previously made jokes about it, admits "climate change is real, and we have to take it seriously." Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney are both so vague on this issue that it's hard to know what they think. But Giuliani's law firm, now Bracewell & Giuliani, lobbied to relax restrictions on coal-fired power plants, and the candidate's own idea of "energy independence" seems to consist mainly of building new nukes and expanding U.S. oil drilling.
But let's get back to what McCain had to say. We don't need R&D to deliver us a battery that can take a car that far -- we already have lithium-ion cells (they're in your laptop). Tesla, California's Silicon Valley electric sports car startup, says it can use them to get 245 miles on a single charge, and that's in a little road rocket that has the enthusiasts drooling. If our best minds were actually working on it, they could deliver, right now, a really great zero emission electric sedan -- even an SUV -- that consumers would love.
Yes, lithium-ion has some challenges, including cost, durability and safety (a little problem known as "thermal runaway," meaning they can catch on fire). But it won't take 10 years of R&D to overcome them. Tesla addresses the safety question by using more than 6,000 individual cells, isolating them so that in the unlikely event of a fire it won't spread.
It's time we stopped "studying" energy and climate solutions. That's shorthand for avoiding the issue. The public is ready. A survey issued by the Civil Society Institute this week shows that four out of five Americans want climate action now, and 88 percent agree with the idea that it is time to phase out fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable sources, including wind and solar, plus hybrid and clean diesel technology for cars. Three of four also want tougher federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.
We have a small window, a decade at best, to actually get serious about reducing greenhouse gas admissions. In scenarios advanced by America's preeminent climate scientist, James Hansen, business-as-usual takes us over 560 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100, a truly frightening prospect.
As Al Gore points out in An Inconvenient Truth, we're already observing the accelerating melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. If either were to collapse, it would raise sea level by 20 feet. "We're already very close to the tipping point, and what we're seeing in the Arctic is a sign of that," Dr. Hansen said in a conference call this week. Calculate the effect on coastal America, from the beaches of Miami and vulnerable Manhattan on the east coast to Malibu and Puget Sound in the west, and understand why we have to get really serious, really fast about getting Americans out of fossil fuel-burning transportation.
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