Thursday, July 9, 2009

Folks, it's only one planet...let's take care of it

We live on a beautiful and vibrant planet, full of awe-inspiring and breathtaking vistas and ecosystems. Just step outside your front door and you will likely see something of nature either in its "native" environment (lucky you), or participating in the man-made environment surrounding it. Take a trip to one of our amazing National Parks, or just browse the web for stunning photos and videos of those amazing places that just aren't that easy to get to, and I would bet that you would find yourself wanting to protect those places so that your children and grandchildren could experience the same things you had.

Take this a step further. When you are thirsty, isn't it nice to just go to the faucet and fill a glass with water that is both refreshing to drink, and relatively safe for consumption? Head to the local market, and you can pick up a loaf of bread for a couple of shekels. These are things that, especially in America, we take for granted. Most of the people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water or readily available nutrition...and it is getting worse every day.

I am not a climatologist, nor am I even a scientist, but I know what science is, and generally speaking I am going to side with science if and when the compelling research is presented to me. From all the research that I have been presented with and explored on my own, I have decided to believe that climate change is very real, and that there is little good that will come of it if left unchecked. I have believed this for at least the last 20 years, and others have been shouting about it even longer than that, pleading with us to listen.

Don't make the mistake to take me for someone to over-estimate the impact of man either. One of the reasons that I abandoned denominational religion and church doctrine years ago was due to the fact that I see man as just another carbon-based life form, one which participates in the never ending progression of the Earth through time. I often recall a line delivered by Danny Glover in the 1991 movie "Grand Canyon" as his character, Simon, is describing his experience while visiting the actual Grand Canyon, "Just a split second we have been here, the whole lot of us. That's a piece of time so small to even get a name. Those rocks are laughing at me right now, me and my worries..."

The point is that our planet has been through a multitude of species-ending moments due to no fault of the life-forms that inhabited it. Current science has determined that at various moments in time massive volcanic eruptions and impacts from asteroids have completely changed the environment on Earth...hell, I have even heard evidence that the Moon formed from the remnants of a collision between the Earth and another smaller planet! So, can mankind change the Earth's climate in a matter of 100 years? Damn right we can!

We are not going to destroy the planet due to the effects of our current behaviors, but we are changing it dramatically, and quite possibly just enough to make it a planet on which people can no longer exist, or at least as we do today. In Chicago we have just experienced the wettest and coldest year in recorded weather. Yes, again, that is only about 100 years of history, but if you live in the Chicago area, the weather has impacted your life more or less. Ask anyone along the Mississippi River last summer if the extreme flooding had any impact on their lives and I'd wager you will get a resounding yes in reply.

So, what if science is over-estimating the impact that humans have had on climate change? Does that really matter much? Is it too much to ask that we migrate into smarter transportation, reduced consumption, healthier eating habits, and alternate sources of energy without the threat of doomsday? How can any of those be bad things for any nation? America is a country that lives in excess. I know I do, and I am one of the more "eco-conscious" people that I know.

So, why is it that recently I have heard more than a handful of "regular" people belly-aching about climate change, suggesting it is so much garbage? I would wager a guess that it is because our leaders in Washington are currently debating the merits of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a.k.a. ACES or the Waxman-Markey Bill which on June 26th was passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 219-212...mostly along ideological lines. ACES is an example of an Emissions Trading strategy for reducing "greenhouse gases" including CO2 through the use of greenhouse gas emissions credits (GHG) as economic incentives. You have likely heard this in the mainstream media called cap-and-trade.

Simply put, cap-and-trade is a model first suggested in the late 1960s as a way to use "free market environmentalism" to control pollution. Though there are variants of the basic model, the notion is that an agency (the federal government in this case) sets a cap on the total allowable emissions of pollutants, then creates GHG credits to be sold off via auction to all the "polluting" corporations in the country. Companies with the lowest cost to comply will have surplus credits which can then be sold ("traded") to those companies for whom it will cost less to purchase additional credits, than to remain within their own allotted credits. In theory, once credits are traded, they can then be "retired" thus reducing over time the net volume of pollutants allowed across all polluters.

As I mentioned, this is not a new concept. Variations of the kind of cap-and-trade are already in place across the world, and even across the United States in regional or local formats. There exist many critics of ACES, some quite vocal on both sides of the aisle (though, importantly, 7 fewer critics than supporters in the House). While some critics among the economically conservative fear the potential financial ramifications of such a program, critics on the more liberal side believe that this bill is too soft, still containing loopholes for big polluters. I noticed a ridiculous amendment added to the bill by Democrat Betty Sutton of Ohio which is called "Cash for Clunkers". This amendment would give consumers $3,500 or $4,500 towards the purchase of a new "fuel-efficient" vehicle with the trade-in of a "qualifying" less efficient vehicle. Oops, Betty...what the amendment considers to be a "fuel-efficient" new vehicle is only 22 mpg for a new car, and 18 mpg for SUVs and pickup trucks...simply stupid! My Prius gets between 45-50 mpg and I get where I need to be as safely and quickly as everyone else does.

I have heard critics point to the "failure" of the European Union Emission Trading Scheme which began its Phase I in January 2005 in conjunction with the Kyoto Protocol. Two issues in Phase I of the EU ETS included the oversupply of allowances and the use of grandfathering over auctioning as a distribution method. Grandfathering uses past volume of pollutants to set initial allowances, thus stupidly penalizing those companies who had already begun reducing their emissions prior to the scheme beginning. These issues have been apparently corrected in both the EU ETS Phase II as well as in ACES.

The other nagging issue for which I do not have an answer are India and China, with about 2.5 billion people between them accounting for a little more than 35% of the entire world's population. Many critics on the right of the aisle suggest that until these two rapidly growing polluting nations agree to take steps to curb their pollution, that we shouldn't either, lest we weaken our economies further against theirs. All I can do here is quote everyone's mother and ask if Billy jumps over a cliff, would you? We are always ready to acknowledge ourselves as the world's leader in everything until it means sacrifice, and this is one of those cases where we need to take the lead, then continue to work with these emerging economic powers to ensure we are all fishing from the same boat.

So, I do support ACES as the single best strategy I have heard about to help curb pollution in America and to begin participating in what is and will continue to be a worldwide effort to save our climate. This is not a political debate for me, but one about doing what is right for our world, and finding the most cost effective way to do it. This could mean short term increases in existing energy such as petroleum and coal-based electricity, but hasn't that already been happening for the last 7-8 years? It could mean that Big Oil as well as the airlines and automobile manufacturers will have to find ways to adapt, and possibly layoff and restructure their workforces, but isn't that already happening as well?

Americans are fortunate to live in a nation whose laws allow and encourage everyone to forge their own path and make their own way to success. We need entrepreneurs right now -- lots of them! So, what if Com-Ed starts raising rates in order to help pay for additional GHG credits? Maybe, just maybe the demand for alternate energy will cause people to abandon Com-Ed for some other company offering wind or solar. Better yet, maybe those same customers will change their personal habits in order to lower their bills. Perhaps they will take their AC up a couple of degrees, or even turn it off altogether. Maybe they will ride their bike to the grocery store instead of revving up their Ford Explorer for the 1/2 mile trip? Whether now or later, we are going to have to change the way we do things. People always have, and we always will, so why not you, and why not now?

I implore all of you to resist the urge to make this about political ideology. Read as much as you can about climate change! Watch Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. He is not selling you anything, he is simply using science to show you some truths and asking you to play your part in helping our country evolve into something bigger, better, and more beautiful; to continue as a beacon after which the rest of the world can model themselves. Do the simple things...always, then take some steps to do a little more.

I am sure I will have more on this in the future, but for now, enjoy the world, and do your part to let others enjoy it too.

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  1. Dave, I commend you on a well written post! I have a couple of things that I want to point out to you though. First of all, Al Gore. When he left the White House, his net worth was estimated at around $2 million. Now, his net worth is estimated at $100 million, with most of this money coming from sales and speaking engagements from his video. So, my point here is that he does have something to sell you! Secondly, the English school system introduced his video into their curriculum. They have since removed it because the English government had their scientists review it, and found that a lot of the material in the video is not based on scientific fact, and therefore should not be taught as science. Having said that, there are a number of scientists that disagree with the theory of global warming being caused by CO2 emissions. Al Gore is not a scientist. He has a personal agenda.

    I think it's very dangerous to make major policy changes based on things that aren't established as scientific fact. It's interesting to me that what was previously termed "global warming" is now being called "climate change", mainly because they recently determined that the planet is not heating up, but is rather cooling down. There was also recent news (last week), that the EPA is withholding information on cooling temperatures because it doesn't fit within the agenda they are pursuing. Doesn't that scare you?

    I also think it's dangerous to look at things from such a myopic poitn of view. I've only been alive for 38 years. Who am I to say that I am destroying the environment? How do we know that what we perceive as climate change is not just the normal ebb and flow of the earth?

    The other thing that really gets me is the political "solutions" to this perceived problem. The current cap and trade system, if implemented, is estimated to lower global temperatures by 0.07 degrees celcius by 2050. To give you an idea what this means, it's basically scientifically unmeasureable. So, having said that, shouldn't we be cautious before we have a major change to our lifestyle and economy? I mean, these proposed changes are going to cost each of us lots of money, jobs, and some of our freedoms.

    I don't think it's prudent of our government to cry wolf and scream that we have to pass something immediately or the world will be destroyed. This is the same cry we heard from our previous President, and our new President, in regards to the stimulus bills. And, as you can see now, neither of them are working.

    I think what we need to do here is to slow down, debate the issue, determine the facts, and make our decisions going forward in a coherent and well thought out way. This shouldn't be a problem that politicians solve. It should be one that science solves. Where are the scientists Dave? Why are they not on television, presenting this information to the public?

  2. David: thanks for the commentary.
    Mr. Tom Kelly: thanks for the response.

    It will quickly be clear on which side of this debate I stand.

    Whether one believes the planet is heating up or cooling off, it's apparent that humans do have an impact on the environment. Check out "smaller" evidence of impact like deforestation-induced flooding, industrial sites still leaching hazardous chemicals into the soil, the air quality of cities like Houston, or even the land surrounding Chernobyl. In the case of Chernobyl, we're 23 years on from the disaster, and it is still illegal for anybody to live or conduct commercial activities within 30km of the facility.

    I'll never turn down a good debate, but the debate should be on how to optimize the improvements we're going to take on. There should be no question that we can - and indeed should - do more and better by the planet we call home.

    To recommend a further slow-down for additional debate is to trot out a Luddite response to the issues at hand. And, yes, the issues are complex... They involve science, philosophical perspective, economics, international relations, ethics, and more.

    Mr. Kelly, I believe your erudite response misses the mark. To argue that the C&T system proposed will only lower temps by 0.07C is to ignore the fact that the debate you so want has taken place. The small degree of change which may actually be projected is not a reason not to proceed. It is the outcome of the cautious, measured response produced by our political system.

    The debate will continue, and it is imperative that it does. Anybody with an opinion should contribute. Let's leave the histrionics out, though. And, let's please acknowledge that the solution absolutely must be political. How else do we as a society progress to the resolution of difficult problems?

    These issues aren't new to me, you, or most other enlightened folk. They are, however, central to the consideration of how we as a nation will expend our resources, govern and guide behaviors, and what legacy we will leave for future generations. This is the "big stuff."

    I applaud David and you for voicing your perspectives, and on this one, I'm firmly on David's side. Let the debate continue, but not at the expense of action!