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Brian Till
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A Leap Toward Green

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Last week, the U.S. Navy announced plans to test various biofuels on both ships and F-18 fighters, with the hope of procuring a feedstock of the most promising formula by 2013. The aim is to design a sustainable fuel blend, half petrol and half biofuel, for the coming century.

It reminds me of Daniel Yergin's seminal book, "The Prize." He describes the years before World War I, as Germany grew more reckless and powerful, and Churchill ascended to the top civilian post in the navy. The statesman took a decision that would have consequences for the entire century to come. Churchill, with little more than the stroke of a pen, put the king's fleet on course to switch from coal to oil. He saw the shift as a matter of supreme strategic importance. Re-imagining the fleet — despite the easy access to coal in Wales and the lack of domestic crude reserves — was not an option, but an imperative.

Having a faster, better armored regiment of battle ships — both of which would be impossible if still reliant on coal — would be essential to defeating the kaiser's growing fleet. The move came with both huge costs and risks. It wasn't certain that either Royal Dutch/Shell or the Anglo-Persian oil companies would be able to supply steady, cost-consistent fuel, particularly if a war began.

But Churchill took the decision, which Yergin recalls as the "fateful plunge."

We, of course, are a still a good distance from such a plunge, and one wonders what, if anything, might push us closer to tipping point. Mikhail Gorbachev has often remarked that he thought the United States had been robbed of a rival in this century, and wondered what a social democracy in the USSR's place might have meant for the 21st century. Some of the great achievements of humanity have been made through rivalry and competition; how olive or teal might our world be today if we were dashing toward efficiency with the recklessness we chased a moon landing 40 years ago?

It's looking unlikely the Obama administration will deliver.

Virgin Atlantic, New Zealand Air and Continental have all tested biofuel blends in their planes, and Japan Airlines announced early this year it had devised a camelina that proved more efficient than Jet-A fuel.

Estimates suggest that such changes can reduce the air-travel emissions by 80 percent. Nonetheless, the Navy's slow entrance into the ring should be applauded; the U.S. military is, after all, the globe's leading consumer of oil.

This isn't necessarily to say that biofuels are the proper avenue or only path to green. In 1970, there was a single acre of arable land for each person on earth; by 2000, that figure had dwindled to half an acre. By 2050, it will be down to a third. Thinking biofuels, which primarily come from sugar cane, corn and canola oil, might step into the place of petroleum is beyond the reach of hope. It can, however, be part of a broader vision. It is a step in the right direction.

We are still miles away from the giant leap that Churchill had the foresight and the tenacity to make. We are not, however, all that far from the imperative that compelled his momentous decision. Churchill, after all, didn't have a choice in the matter. And neither do we. It's time for a leap.

The U.S. Congress needs to pass a climate bill before December's U.N. Copenhagen Summit. When you're calling your congressman to vent about health care — regardless of where you fall on the debate — ask where he or she is on climate change.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at till@newamerica.net. To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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