It is astonishing how little perspective many people have about our place in expanse of the universe. There’s only one planet in the universe that supports life as we know it. Our interplanetary probes in this solar system have proven we are alone on Earth. And we don’t have the technology yet to search other solar systems. That means humans can’t all hop on spaceships and go elsewhere if Earth becomes uninhabitable for us. Yet we are willing to risk losing our home in service of our economy and our belief that public opinion somehow provides us with scientific facts.
Mr. Feeney accepts a Heritage Foundation Report that warns of the dire economic impacts of following President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The Heritage Foundation touts endorsements of Rush Limbaugh and Ted Cruz, neither of which is a pillar of the scientific community or a noted economist. Actually, the Heritage Foundation’s report is an ideological statement, not a factual document.
Paul Krugman, 2008 Nobel Laureate in Economics and op-ed columnist for the New York Times, published an insightful column titled “Interests, Ideology, and Climate” (June 8, 2014) in which he details the economic impact of carbon reduction. He says the costs are modest. For example, nine Northeastern states have had a cap-and-trade carbon containment market since 2009 and so far their emissions have dropped sharply (18%) while their economies grew more than the rest of the country (8.8%). Krugman also says that the dramatic loss of jobs in coal is a myth. The coal industry has reduced their labor force by two-thirds since 1970, mainly because they now recover coal by mountain top removal and use “haul trucks” and giant earth moving machines rather than using coal miners. Now only 1/16 of 1 percent of Americans are coal workers, accounting for fewer jobs than were lost per week during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
The modest costs Krugman notes are associated mainly with developing and building new energy-generating facilities. The coal plants we have been depending upon are old—many were built in the 1950s and almost none have been built recently, mainly because it is too expensive. I suspect few readers of the Memphis Democrat seek to replace their old car, refrigerator, or computer with one of the earliest versions available. Why would we replace our energy-generation with 1950’s technology? That technology dirties our air (e.g. China now), damages the development of our babies (mercury pollution), and damages our health (increases of asthma and heart attacks from fine particulate matter).
Clearly costs of complying with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan are less expensive for some states than for others. Wind and solar west of Missouri and hydroelectric in the Northwest are abundant sources of energy. Missouri is a state that relies heavily on coal for our electricity so it will be expensive for us to comply but it doesn’t have to be that way. Missouri and Illinois sit in the middle of the US and are becoming “pass-through states” for Clean Line Energy, the Grain Belt Express, Ameren, and others. Rather than accepting payments for the use of farmland and a bit of property tax for counties, why don’t we demand these corporations deliver at least a portion of their energy to us in return for right-of-way across our state? This is something each of us can do—put the pressure on our elected officials now to make certain we establish precedents that benefit us. My heart goes out to those whose long-time family homes are in the path of these energy behemoths—if nothing else they should have free energy for as long as they own their home!
To put things in perspective though, our modern human economy is only one small part of considerations that should be important to us as we face risk. Polling companies with their error margins testing belief in one thing or another have no standing when it comes to facts and risk. In other words, your lack of belief in Earth being a globe has no impact on the reality of the planet. Your belief in whether the road is slick during a rainstorm won’t keep you from hydroplaning. Lack of belief in your doctor’s diagnosis of diabetes won’t protect you from the horror of the disease. Lack of belief in climate change won’t protect us from the risks posed by it.
The public “debate” about climate change is tiresome and distracts us from important issues. Something so important as the livability of our one planet shouldn’t be a political football, tossed about for political gain for either party. The majority of American youth are extremely concerned about climate change, mainly because they will have to live with the consequences of our actions. If we build more coal-fired plants and if we cling to old technologies, their lives will be vastly different than ours.
My research in paleoclimate has been funded by the National Science Foundation and by National Geographic. From doing that work and from 30+ years of reading leading scientific journals, I can tell you a bit about the climate system. It is a chaotic global system with many tipping points that can have huge impacts, only some of which are well known. Climate is the sum total of heat, moisture, wind, and evaporation characteristic of an area. Climate determines which complex of plants and animals can live in a given area like cactus in deserts or polar bears in the Arctic. In contrast, weather is what’s happening around us on a daily basis. For example, Missouri is having an exceptionally wet summer that is interfering with the crops normally planted here. The sequence I studied in the fossil record extended over more than a million years leading up to and during the Ice Ages. When the climate was about to change to a new equilibrium in that long span of time, we consistently found lots of record weather events leading up to the major climate changes.
Look around you now at the record weather events that are occurring every day. Shelby County reported that May & June rain had more than twice the normal rainfall for the county. California is in a record drought. Texas got flooded horribly this spring. Snow in the east brought whole cities to a standstill. Katrina and the eastern hurricane. Need I go on?
Regardless of whether you believe it or not, one of the tipping points for climate is the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and our burning coal adds to it. So the question is, why risk our future on this planet? Why risk our ability to raise food? Why risk increasing the strength of mega-storms? Why risk spending larger and larger portions of our economy on defensive costs of repairing storm damage? Why risk our health and the health of our babies by demanding we continue to burn coal? Why continue to believe public opinion polls have any bearing on facts?
We have choices and those choices should not be tied to any political party. America desperately needs to upgrade our energy infrastructure. We should demand prompt action from all of our elected officials, starting at the local level all the way to the top of our government. And one thing we can do now is to demand that if wind and solar energy is going to travel in high-voltage wires across our state, we will get a piece of the action.
Karel Rogers, PhD
Grand Valley State University