What is perhaps the greatest challenge to humanity in our lifetime? Climate change. It threatens our security, our health, our families and our economy. Over 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that humans are causing it primarily by burning fossil fuels and deforestation. Most say that we have little time left to reverse the trend. Because the full effects of climate change appear incrementally and affect different parts of the world in different ways, it’s easy to deny that it is happening. Ignoring the signs and trends is a very serious mistake. The recently published U.S. National Climate Assessment, released on May 6, 2014, reminds us how serious the consequences of climate change will be.
The root of the problem is that carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal cause of warming, is an unregulated gas most places and in the U.S. CO2 contributes to extremes in weather because it stays in the atmosphere: it’s like putting on extra wool blankets at night and not being able to take them off. The more CO2 our industry emits, the warmer the planet gets: it is this relationship between the carbon burned and the average surface temperature, averaged over a several decade period, that shows the earth is warming because of increased CO2. The earth surpassed 400 parts of CO2 per million in 2013, the highest concentration in human history. With these levels of CO2, climate disruption is inevitable. It’s real and it’s expensive: already the cost of climate change to US taxpayers in 2012 was more than $96 billion in storm clean-up, emergency response and crop loss payments, about $1,100 for each citizen.
The best place to start reducing carbon is with the biggest polluters: electric power plants. In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed carbon pollution limits for future power plants. These protections are the initial step of the National Climate Action Plan. In June, the EPA will issue guidance for states to design their own cutbacks on carbon. Here in Arkansas, we may need to shutdown one or two of our state’s most polluting coal-fired plants.
The Independence and White Bluff coal plants are 35th and 42nd on the list of 50 dirtiest coal plants. There are multiple problems from coal plants, and several problems at once could be solved by taking some out of commission. For example, the White Bluff plant’s coal ash particulate in the air contributes to the death of about 61 people a year, and nationwide, results in 13,200 deaths and contributes to 60,000 serious, expensive illnesses per large plant. The roughly 220 maintenance jobs could be transitioned to jobs in renewable energy.
In 2012, the worst drought in 50 years led to 29 states’ becoming disaster areas, where heat cracked the earth, shriveling crops and profits to zero. Arkansas farmers are worried about what is happening, but they must realize that climate change in the U.S. is related to the decisions that Congress makes about what fuel to subsidize. Solar and wind energy don’t cause climate change, yet, they receive far less support than fossil fuel energy. One thing we do know: more of the same energy policy will yield more of the same results.
For Arkansans in the next 20 years, the most serious effects will likely be extremely severe weather and chaotic food costs and supplies: in 15-20 years, it may not be possible to raise vegetables in Arkansas or the South, after temperatures increase 2-4 degrees. Agricultural leaders are looking for chickens in Africa that can stand more heat. The fruiting range of temperatures for tomatoes will illustrate the problem: low 70s at night to 90 by day or forget it. In forestry, tree beetles become more prevalent and destructive as the earth warms and droughts occur.
Residents of Mayflower and Vilonia just experienced the losses from repeated large tornadoes. In Eastern Arkansas, floods wiped out new crops our family was trying to raise to adapt to drought. In West Texas, another Dust Bowl is brewing: Barnhart and San Angelo are in their third year of extreme drought and their water reservoirs are mud holes. The main beef producing plant has closed, thousands are out of work, and the ranchers are selling their cattle for a song. The towns are boarding up and people are leaving.
In California, wildfires are constant now. Thousands of homes and millions of acres of forests that once absorbed carbon dioxide are burning up. Conversely, colder temperatures play havoc with weather, too: the polar vortex dips down from the arctic with colder air than normal, a pattern blamed for Hurricane Sandy and scores of tornadoes, floods, and snowstorms. These weather events are not “natural”: they are associated with what’s happening to the Jet Stream and the Gulf Stream as a consequence of climate change. See evidence of climate change at “Ten Indicators of a Human Fingerprint on Climate Change” at www.skepticscience.com.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has a proposal for carbon reduction for each state, and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby has practical solutions, as well. Economists show that transitioning to renewable energy can be done with a cost of only 1 percent of utility industry profits. So when the utility companies cry, “too expensive”, we just have to bite the bullet and deal with the problem before it costs us considerably more to mitigate than to prevent. Utility bills will not increase by ridiculous rates: the Public Service Commission will see to that.
Please contact your congresspersons asking them to extend subsidies to solar and wind, as they have for oil, coal and gas. Tell them to be courageous and make thoughtful decisions to take action soon against climate change! The change to sustainable energy sources can create thousands of newer and better jobs, but Arkansas could be moving much faster to develop renewable energy. We, the voters could change this impasse with lots of letters and a little money to counter the “Clean Coal” contributions.
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Dina Nash is a former college professor who lives in Maumelle.