2-3 million litres of oil a day are now gushing out of the ruptured pipe at the base of the BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and it could get worse before a solution is found. Attempts so far to stem the flow have failed, and oil slicks are now threatening beaches in Louisiana. The volume far exceeds the US’s worst previous oil spill – the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, but the impact of the Gulf spill will not be just about how much hits the beaches. For this disaster is not in a distant state beyond Canada, but very visibly right in America’s backyard. The Gulf fishing industry is already hit hard – if storms push the spill towards Florida’s coast, a $60 billion a year tourism industry is not going to be happy.
But what is really striking about the Gulf disaster is how it is changing thinking about oil in the US, in a way in which climate change has so far totally failed to do. Back in 2008, during the Presidential election campaign, Sarah Palin famously led Republican Party rallies in chants of her policy on how to tackle America’s dependence on foreign oil – “Drill, baby, drill!!!” But the blowout in the Gulf has now put drilling decidedly off the agenda. California’s governor Schwartzenegger has already halted plans for offshore drilling in California, and Obama has called for a moratorium on the granting of offshore drilling licenses. It is this kind of event that changes thinking, and if it has any positive side, it lie in a greater interest in alternatives to fossil fuels.
This is a reminder of how different climate change is from other environmental issues, and in particular, how it is not, and is not seen as, a conventional pollution issue. If the 25 million barrels or so of oil spilled to date from the BP well has been used in cars and trucks, around 8 million tonnes of CO2 would have ended up in the atmosphere, but this would have hardly been commented on. If the Gulf disaster teaches us anything about the larger impending disaster of climate change, it is that tackling the latter will require us to think beyond the pollution paradigm.