Oil disaster should spark bold reform

Far from an indelible mark on our national psyche, history tells us that the Gulf spill will be forgotten soon after the well is finally controlled.

Despite a succession of environmental catastrophes, our nation suffers from a short-term memory problem that inhibits sustained attention to addressing our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. The lesson should be clear: If we don’t act now, we never will.

We were 6 years old in March 1989, when the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground off the coast of Alaska. The images that followed — more than 10 million gallons of oil gushing into Prince William Sound, birds coated in black muck, and oil-stained shorelines — remained etched in our young minds.

In elementary schools on opposite ends of the country, we learned about the spill and the cleanup, and environmental protection became the subject of countless classroom activities. Like our teachers and parents, we assumed the dire lesson of Exxon-Valdez would stay with our generation, making us lifelong warriors for a cleaner environment. But soon the images faded and, for many of our peers, the passion subsided.

Every generation experiences an environmental disaster that captures the national spotlight, occasionally forces congressional action, and then rapidly fades from public view.

A June 1969 fire in the Cuyahoga River helped spur the modern environmental movement and propelled creation of the Clean Water Act and the EPA.

March 1979 saw the meltdown at Three Mile Island, and in April 1986, Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, Ukraine, set off the worst nuclear disaster in history — killing dozens and sickening thousands more.

The power of these catastrophic moments derives from the way they put intense scenes of devastation on display, making it impossible to discount the costs of environmental negligence. The drama is critical. Polls show that issues such as jobs, the economy and national security routinely trump environmental concerns. Just three months ago, a Gallup/USA Today poll asked whether we should protect the environment if it risked economic growth, or focus on growth even if it harmed the environment. Over half (53 percent) chose the economy.

By the end of May, the numbers had reversed: 50 percent sided with the environment, and only 43 percent stuck with economic growth.

This same trend has created a rare opportunity for the prospect of a new energy bill —which only weeks ago had been left for dead. Recent polling by Joel Benenson, one of President Barack Obama’s pollsters, shows that support for clean energy and fossil fuel regulation enjoys substantially higher support now than in early May.

Energy and pollution reform suddenly appeals to voters far beyond the traditional “Green Base” of liberal Democrats. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of independents support an energy bill, as do a large minority of Republicans (45 percent — compared to 47 percent who oppose).

When major environmental disasters strike, we tend to treat them as if they accrue in our collective consciousness over time, each contributing to the overall reform cause.

But they are actually much more fleeting. They tend to provoke strong initial reactions but soon retreat from public view.

Deepwater Horizon may be the closest we’ll come to feeling the effects of our fossil fuel addiction here and now.

Now it’s time for Washington to capitalize on this moment before it passes — as it almost surely will. In time, we may erase the stain of oil from the Gulf. National support for energy reform is likely to fade much more quickly.

Katharine Wilkinson of Atlanta and Sam Gill of Minneapolis were Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford.