People are complaining about gasoline prices. This has a note of irony since many are willing to pay more per gallon of bottled water than they do for gas. Water has regularly cost more than gas even though it is only a miniscule percentage of us who can’t just open a kitchen tap and get safe water.
High-cost gasoline, however, has widespread economic effects, and it has a political impact that high-priced water does not. The president must at least look as if he is trying to tame the cost of gasoline even though we know that he can do very little in the short run to affect gas prices. Governors have suspended state gas taxes–modest help to the driving public. In a Catch-22 situation, suspending gas taxes limits income needed for road construction and maintenance. Voters, who may grumble about the rising price of gas, speak regularly about the substandard state of the roads.
These politically understandable actions, however, do not address the more important issue: gasoline-powered cars cause pollution, which harms health and contributes to the death of many. Data show that gasoline-powered cars are a major part of the problem of climate change. We should be using less gasoline, but, once again, the present crisis indicates that we are not about to give up our combustion engines.
People need cars to get to work, schools, and the grocery store. We have built a country that depends on private vehicles, and it is hard to see the path to a lesser dependence on them. Consciously or not, inexpensive gasoline has helped shape our work, housing, schooling, and recreational choices, and climate change and pollution have been the result.
We have seen a move to electric and hybrid vehicles, and that is a good thing. Newer cars need less gas than cars made a generation ago, and there is renewed talk that car companies should increase the gas mileage for their fleets. Still, even among my friends who hug trees and clean streams, many of us drive bigger vehicles with lower gas mileage than we need. We are reluctant to give up big cars and trucks. It’s our God-given right, a right encouraged by cheap gas.
Higher gas prices could be an impetus to lower our dependence on oil. Even so and even though our president and other sensible leaders believe we should act on climate change, politicians know that expensive gas can kill a political career. The governmental responses have been especially discouraging because they have not been targeted to help those most who are truly harmed by the pump prices—the non-wealthy working people with families who, in our present societal structure, must use their cars extensively.
For many of us, our cars and how much we drive them are luxuries. Higher gas prices should be an incentive for us to burn less gas. And, of course, that would mean that oil companies had reduced profits. Many politicians will avoid that hard fight. After all, oil companies give big money to campaigns. It’s easier to blame the opposing party for high prices.
The present situation is another reminder that the road to a better climate is hard and filled with potholes. Perhaps we should just give up the notion that we can stop the atmospheric devastation and figure out how to adapt to the inevitable.