The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

November 19, 2012

Jim Scofield | U.S. reluctant partner in global-warming battle

— Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged the East Coast, may or may not have been caused by global warming. But it should alert us to the possibilities of more extreme weather events. 

Most scientists have concluded that human actions are altering and warming the climate. Yet our political establishment isn’t even debating this topic. The majority of  Republicans deny climate warming, and President Obama has said or done little to prepare us for what is already a serious problem  and will be even more so in the future. And the fossil-fuel industry either denies the problem or claims it is already remedying it.

Oil, coal and natural gas are cheaper up front, but the “externals,” the costs to our health and environment, make them more expensive. 

Coal, loudly and uncritically supported by our local politicians, is an example. Yet coal power-generating plants are responsible for 13,200 deaths per year, plus tens of thousands of other health problems, according to the Clean Air Task Force, and twice that according to the National Resources Defense Council. 

The amounts of carbon dioxide, a chief global-warming product, and other pollutants and dangerous chemicals from these plants, cost $62 billion a year in public health expenses, according to a National Research Council report.

The plumes of smoke from local power generators are easily visible from many sites around here. The Environmental Protection Agency, rather than the villain our politicians call it, has been trying to protect our health. 

And mining jobs are more threatened by the increased production of natural gas than by the EPA. There is no such thing as “clean coal,” and planned plant renovations that effectively capture carbon emissions are so prohibitively expensive that they have been canceled or put on hold.

Even the mining, due to the use of more-powerful drilling equipment, now more endangers the lungs and health of miners. The Massey Energy  accident that killed 29 miners in West Virginia in 2010 was in a mine frequently cited for safety violations. This is an industry more devoted to profit  than safety and jobs, much less our climate.   

Natural gas is not a solution. When burned, it produces about half the carbon dioxide as does coal, and methane leaks in its production can add significantly to this pollution. Besides, gas production may threaten our water supplies and land in other ways. Maybe natural gas is somewhat better on climate change than other fossil fuels, but it’s still a hazard.

Petroleum, in the form of gasoline, is also a major contributor to air pollution and to climate change. The Obama administration’s requirement to double auto fuel efficiency to 55 miles per gallon by the year 2025 is a good conservation step. It also used public money to encourage renewable-energy sources, but not anywhere near the $90 billion Mitt Romney cited in the first presidential debate.

That the administration might have to defend its weak efforts to stimulate alternative fuels (actually much more of this sum went to transportation and energy efficiency) shows us the shameful state of our political debate on this important subject.

Also, it’s a disgrace that the administration should be on the defensive for blocking a pipeline to carry oil derived from the Alberta, Canada, tar sands, one of the dirtiest, most-carbon-contaminating sources of oil.

Some environmentalists fear that this source alone might keep us over the    350-parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that NASA scientist James Hansen predicted will make global warming irreversible. Unfortunately, this same administration wants to expand off-coast and Alaska oil production, despite the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The power of big oil and other fossil-fuel industries over politics and public information falsifies, obscures and minimizes the problems we face. However, wind, solar and other renewables are making progress, but we need a much bigger effort. 

Also, conservation of energy  is just as important in an economy of big cars, wasteful air conditioning, heating, over-packaging, etc.

The United States alone can’t control pollution and climate problems. But we have been reluctant to cooperate since the first Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gases. Though 191 nations ratified the agreement, we  wouldn’t sign this treaty, supposedly because lesser-developed nations weren’t held to as high a standard. Other developed nations did sign, though.

Partly, our country’s public education in science is lacking. Partly, our media are either too uninformed or afraid to push the issue, and, moreover, the power of big-fuel corporations is too strong.

Can we come to understand the real costs of energy, not just its immediate costs?

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is an associate professor emeritus at Pitt-Johnstown.

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