Why the Public's Reaction to the Oil Spill is Terrifying

Thumbnail image for Fla oil slick 2010-05.jpg

When you're dealing with an amorphous problem -- global warming, rising debt -- nothing focuses the mind like a crisis. But if a crisis occurs and ... nothing comes into focus? The New Republic's Brad Plumer says this is what scares him the most about the Gulf oil spill:

What the oil spill also shows is that there's no longer any guarantee that people--and particularly politicians--will change their minds as a result of an environmental disaster.

It's not hard to envision the same stubborn resistance continuing with climate change. The United States is already starting to see the effects of rising temperatures: heat waves, dwindling snowpack, shifting species habitats. In the years ahead, it's quite likely that we'll start to see even more pronounced problems: a particularly nasty heat wave, say, or a far-reaching drought. But is there any reason to think that a major environmental upheaval would change minds in Congress?

Brad's article is very good, but the fact is that the oil spill occurred at a bizarre moment in America's attitude toward energy and economics and politics. It's hard to argue for the need to revamp energy policy when gas is cheap. And it's hard to persuade independents to back a new tax on energy when 25 million Americans are under- or unemployed and the midterms are five months away. (These are potential reasons, rather than excuses, for the White House's silence on sweeping energy reform.)

When history writes on this crisis, it might conclude that the most provocative ecological disaster in American history happened when energy prices were too low and unemployment was too high for the administration to turn the catastrophe into a fulcrum for overhauling our national energy policy. But I sympathize with environmentalist writers whose collective response to this event and cap-and-trade has been: if not now, when?
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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