The following letter appeared in the January 1, 2016 edition of the News and Observer, Raleigh, NC
News and Observer Letter
It’s deja vu all over again reading George Will (“Another false ‘turning point’,” N&O, 12/17) and Charles Krauthammer (“Obama’s legacy of fiction,” N&O, 12/18) whine about efforts to address climate change. Neither one considers the science or the history. In this case, it’s history worth repeating, not avoiding.
When the world faced the destruction of stratospheric ozone, 12 countries sat down in 1977 to plan how to negotiate a planet-wide pact. It took 10 years, and the outcome was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed by just 24 countries. It’s strength was flexibility, proven in the eight revisions made since 1987.
Now 197 countries are party to a protocol that includes monitoring, reporting, and critically, sanctions for noncompliance. Most important, it’s working, as the rates of emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals have dropped, and since 2000, the ozone layer has begun its slow process of recovery.
International agreements can succeed in addressing a global environmental crisis. The fits and starts seen in the attempts to address climate change might work faster if those with a monetary or political stake in burning fossil fuels would cease their misinformation campaigns, aided by the head-in-the-sand antics of Will and Krauthammer.
P.S. See this article by Jennifer Morgan and Eliza Northrop, “Form AND Function: Why the Paris Agreement’s Legal Form Is So Important” for confirmation that the Paris deal holds real promise, not unlike the situation with the Montreal Protocol when it was first signed my just 24 countries. It was published online December 16, 2015 by the World Resources Institute.
One of two Prius’s (Prii?) owned by my daughter and her husband!
As the owner of two hybrid vehicles (a Prius and a Honda Civic hybrid), I take exception with Donald van der Vaart and his comparison of North Carolina to a Prius among old gas-guzzling Cadillacs. I love the old north state, and we’ve done well to reduce our power plant pollution, but we’re not so far ahead of the pack that we can’t improve. And the new federal Clean Power Plan seems a reasonable method to do so. Hence I sent the following missive, which I would entitle, We can do better, to the News and Observer:
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Donald van der Vaart, secretary of our state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, suggested (N&O 8/15/15) that asking us to follow new federal regulations governing carbon emissions from power plants was like “…asking North Carolina to make a Prius more efficient while our neighbors are driving 1972 Cadillacs.”
Examining population data with carbon emissions from coal burning for all 50 states, North Carolina ranks 25th in per capita carbon emissions from coal burning (US EIA, http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/) at 5.3 tons of carbon per person per year. Compared to our neighbors, we’re also in the middle. Tennessee stands at 6.3, South Carolina at 6.1, and Virginia at 2.6.
As a state, North Carolina ranks in the middle of a country that emits much more carbon per person than most nations on the planet. The US ranks 198th out of 215 countries in that statistic, with our total carbon emissions per person topping twice the world average. We emit more carbon per person than other highly developed countries such as Canada, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Italy, and France, among many others.
Hardly makes us a Prius in the midst of old Cadillacs. We can do better, Mr. Secretary.
The U.S. Department of Energy has for the second time decided to terminate its financial support of the attempt to demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The concept of “clean coal” depends on the ability to capture and inactivate or permanently store the carbon dioxide emissions and other contaminants otherwise released when coal is burned to produce electricity.
The following undated statement appears at the very bottom of the FUTUREGEN 2.0 page of the federal government’s energy.gov Office of Fossil Energy website under the banner, CLOSEOUT OF FEDERAL SUPPORT.
“Due to statutory restraints under The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Department of Energy initiated a structured closeout of federal support for the FutureGen 2.0 project in February 2015. Although federal support for the project has ended, FutureGen 2.0 provided tangible benefits and valuable information, particularly with regard to oxy-combustion technology and storage site characterization.”
It is unclear whether, without continued federal support, FutureGen will continue. Of course it was an open question whether “clean coal” would ever be feasible. Retrofitting existing coal-fired power plants with CCS was an expensive proposition from the beginning. Companies burn coal because it can be obtained without paying the health and environmental costs of mining it, and without paying the health and environmental costs of burning it. In other words, we mine and burn coal to produce electricity because our government has structured the energy industry in such a way that it is cheap to do so.
We could choose to make the energy industry pay those health and environmental costs of coal up front, passing the costs on to consumers of the electricity, or we could avoid some of those health and environmental costs by paying to capture and isolate or destroy the carbon dioxide and other pollutants produced from burning coal. Either choice would turn coal into an expensive and likely unaffordable source of energy, not something that would gladden the hearts of the rich industrial giants burning it.
CCS has been sponsored off and on by the federal government since 2003. It is an open question whether or not CCS would ever have been affordable. It is also an open question whether or not the very concept of “clean coal” was anything more than a wistful oxymoron that those in the know knew would never really happen.
Kaiparowits coal-burning power plant in Arizona, July 2004
The video opens with the following quote:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
This statement and its author tell us much about the documentary that follows. The focus is on action, in keeping with the title itself, Disruption. The target of the action is, clearly in this case, the fossil fuel industry and the political machine that protects and supports it. And quoting Frederick Douglass hints at the central environmental justice theme.
As a scientist, I am nervous when the discussion moves from a consideration of the science to how to achieve political goals. So, yes, I am not thrilled with the documentary’s fuzzy use of the “tipping point” concept, and avoidance of the more accurate term, “positive or reinforcing feedback.” Yes, I am anxious when specific storm events come to characterize climate change rather than global shifts in heat content of the oceans and the atmosphere. Yes, I am concerned with the touch of exaggeration I perceived when methane was described as fifty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (I believe twenty-five times is more like it). And I don’t understand why they left out sea level rise and long-term climate events like drought.
However, as a parent and a new grandparent I am more nervous with the risks we take doing nothing, or doing as little as we have done for the past decade to avert climate change. The risk is significant, the consequences likely to be severe, and many unknowns exist that could send us spiraling down paths to new unpleasant, perhaps catastrophic “normals” we could find difficult to avoid or change. I don’t want that for my children or their children.
The purpose of this documentary was not so much education as motivation. The clear goal was to spur individuals to take part in the upcoming climate change march in New York City, either directly or in their local community. Given the seriousness of the problem and especially our country’s negligence in taking sufficient steps to address climate change, I can live with a little rabble-rousing. I only wish it were done with more dispassionate logic, but passion is what they hope, and need, to arouse. On that point I have no dispute.
Next to large crowds on the streets, neighbor to neighbor efforts to share knowledge of the causes and consequences and solutions to climate change seem important as well. Consider participating in that type of activity in addition to marching in the streets.