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Let’s Do Something Before It’s Too Late

Global response to climate change is in tatters

William A. Collins | 8/21/2013, 12:37 p.m.
William A. Collins

It’s a logical next step, right? Now that we’ve exported our manufacturing jobs to Asia, those factories need our coal to keep running.

The scary part is that all that CO² doesn’t just hang around in Asia. It heads home to North America, stopping a moment in Hawaii to kick up the meter readings.

And everywhere it goes, that excess carbon nurtures droughts, floods, heat waves, blizzards, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.

The global response to the emergency wrought by climate change is in tatters. The most recent major disappointment came in Doha, Qatar, as the latest yearly UN-hosted global warming summit proved to be yet another dud at the end of last year.

While the alternatives that could stave off catastrophic climate change are self-evident, not enough countries and individuals are ready to implement them.

Poor, struggling nations finally breaking into the modern world see that the rich countries got where they are today by burning wood, coal, oil, and gas with abandon. Now that they’ve taken what they want from the environment, wealthy nations are ineffectively telling the less developed to “do as I say, not as I do.”

By and large, the people of wasteful nations like ours agree with the tycoons. If cutting back on fossil fuels means making sacrifices, well, maybe not now. Particularly in the United States, we love our big cars — and our air conditioning — and we weep crocodile tears over all those birds killed by ugly windmills. Besides, reducing fossil fuel use could raise prices. We’ll pass, thanks.

At the same time, those rich countries are deeply influenced by their own producers of oil, gas, and coal. These tycoons have a good thing going and aren’t about to give up their obscene profits without a fight, even if the world drowns. And as we have seen in the United States, such profits buy a lot of lobbying — just ask the Koch brothers.

This rampant inaction eventually has consequences. Scientific instruments perched high on a pristine Hawaiian mountaintop have just recorded atmospheric carbon dioxide at 400 parts per million. That’s the highest in a million years.

For reference, scientists some decades ago predicted that at 350 parts per million, global warming might already be irreversible. And that doesn’t even account for the drastic effects of the even more damaging methane let loose by fracking (and, as you may have heard, the planetary consequences of having too many corn-fed cows on Earth — the feed makes them immensely flatulent).

So life goes blithely on. Trains of coal zip from mine to generator, oil wells sink into ever riskier pools, fracking-released methane wafts unmeasured into the sea and sky, and federal fossil fuel subsidies still dwarf those for wind and sun.

Apparently, things haven’t gotten bad enough yet. Investors are getting ready to sink big bucks into the construction of a massive coal-exporting terminal in either Washington state or Oregon. That port would ship Wyoming’s and Montana’s carbon riches to Asia, where pollution restrictions are much looser and manufacturing is booming.

It’s a logical next step, right? Now that we’ve exported our manufacturing jobs to Asia, those factories need our coal to keep running.

The scary part is that all that CO² doesn’t just hang around in Asia. It heads home to North America, stopping a moment in Hawaii to kick up the meter readings.

And everywhere it goes, that excess carbon nurtures droughts, floods, heat waves, blizzards, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.