Climate change: Do we hear the alarm ringing?

A new book argues that there is little effective policy emerging. Northwest communities may fight an issue like coal trains, but politicians' climate stance is more like duck and cover.
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Despite Hurricane Sandy's force, some Staten Island areas suffered relatively little damage.

A new book argues that there is little effective policy emerging. Northwest communities may fight an issue like coal trains, but politicians' climate stance is more like duck and cover.

"Drill, baby, drill," said Sarah Palin. "Energy independence," say Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It seems to mean more or less the same thing. (If Romney wins, it will be more, if Obama wins less.) Both advocate more oil and gas drilling on land and sea, more use of "clean coal." Both avoid muddying the — rising — waters with talk of climate change. Nagging people about greenhouse gases won't win many votes in coal country or among citizens focused on gasoline prices, so neither candidate does it.

"The issue of being energy independent is more attractive to a lot of people and politicians than the issue of overcoming climate change," says Howard A. Latin, a Rutgers law school professor who has recently published a book entitled Climate Change Policy Failures: Why Conventional Mitigtion Approaches Cannot Succeed (World Scientific, $29.95). People often confuse the two, Latin says, but energy imports and climate change are "two different problems that don't really align."

The only countries really serious about halting climate change are the island nations that will disappear if sea level rises, and the nations of northern Europe. And even in Europe, the left hand doesn't necessarily know what the right hand is doing. Looking at European nations that do the most to combat climate change, Latin notes it's "ironic that the leading one, Norway, is paying for its cleanup with North Sea oil."

It wasn't supposed to work this way. Just four years ago, President-elect Barack Obama said: “Now is the time to confront this challenge [of climate change] once and for all. Delay is no longer an option." Virtually everyone expected Congress to pass a hefty carbon tax or a rigorous cap-and-trade system some time soon. The Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council's Sixth Regional Plan, adopted at the start of 2010, assumes a carbon tax of $47 per ton. Now, no one expects Congress to pass a carbon tax, establish a cap and trade system, or do much of anything else. Delay has turned out to be an option after all.

In the meantime, the media have been full of bad news about manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars, good news about fossil fuel production. U.S. oil output is up. Alberta tar sands output is up. We are now so awash in cheap natural gas that the industry must worry about oversupply driving the price down. Conversely, wind turbine manufacturers suffer from competition with that cheap natural gas, a slow economy, competition from China, the pending expiration of a crucial federal tax credit. Chinese manufacturers, which have come to dominate global production of turbines and solar panels, have created a manufacturing glut that has plunged them into financial crisis. There's a lousy market for electric cars.

The Pacific Northwest has, of course, become a focal point for plans to preserve and expand the fossil fuel economy worldwide. Major coal and oil companies are laying plans to ship coal through ports on Puget Sound, the Oregon coast, the lower Columbia, and oil through the ports of British Columbia. They have already shipped huge tanks for processing bitumen up the Columbia and then by highway from the Pacific to the Alberta tar sands. They hope to pipe oil from the tar sands to an oil port in Kitimat, B.C. Exxon/Mobil had planned to barge giant modules for processing Alberta tar sands up the Columbia to the port of Lewiston, Idaho, then truck them — partly on a narrow road along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers — to Canada. After court challenges, they were forced to break the modules down at Lewiston and Pasco and haul them over a slightly different route. But the modules have gone north. And the tar sands oil has come out. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would enable oil companies to refine it on the Texas Gulf and export it. The controversial Northern Gateway pipeline would enable them to pipe it to Kitimat on the B.C. coast and export it.

From Kitimat, B.C., some 250 giant tankers a year would carry up to 2 million barrels of dilute bitumen to foreign refineries, probably in China. Potentially, some could go to California or just about anywhere else. If a tanker were bound for Asia, it would negotiate Dixon Entrance, between British Columbia and southeast Alaska. If it were instead bound for California and its refinery capacity, it might head south, reaching the open ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Up to 60 vessels a year would be Very Large Crude Carriers of 320,000 deadweight tons. The project is controversial in British Columbia — thousands of people gathered recently at the B.C. legislature in Victoria to protest the plan — but the companies and the Canadian government have huge financial incentives to push ahead.

And then there's coal. If all the plans to export Powder River Basin coal through ports in Washington and Oregon actually bear fruit, up to 150 million tons will flow through the region en route to the furnaces of east Asia every year. The first scoping meeting for the proposed Pacific Gateway coal terminal at Cherry Point was held at Bellingham's Squalicum High School on Oct. 27. Hundreds of people lined up in the rain, waiting to get in. Pacific Gateway still has a long way to go.

The Cherry Point plan is only the tip of a very large iceberg. No one knows whether or not government agencies will even consider the potential combined impact of all the proposed coal ports or the climate impacts of burning all that coal in China. When the Port of Morrow, on the Oregon side of the Columbia, applied for permits that would allow it to build facilities for unloading coal, storing it, and loading it onto barges that would carry it downstream to St. Helens, where it would be loaded onto ocean-going ships, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and citizens groups who oppose the construction of coal terminals argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should do a "cumulative-impacts analysis." For the time being, the Corps will merely do an environmental assessment. The Corps left the door open to reconsider the issue. Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles says that the Corps won't discuss a cumulative impacts analysis right now, and neither will anyone else; Boyles says she can't even get a meeting with agency officials and doesn't expect to until after the election.

Most, if not all, of those fossil fuel exports would — or will — presumably be burned in the cars and furnaces of east Asia. Without enlisting the large and growing economies of China and India, Latin says, any effort to control climate change will fall flat. And neither of those countries will agree to anything that limits its development or slows its population's rise from poverty. Therefore, the world won't move closer to a solution until technologies that give them the same opportunities to keep developing are widely available and competitively priced. (In fact, if not rhetorically, it's the same for the U.S. and the rest of the developed world; virtually no one will screw today's voters for the sake of future generations, will sacrifice the short term for the sake of the long.) "Until we have technologies that can increase development and reduce poverty," he says, "we're never going to get those countries to support us. And without their support, there's no hope."

Latin doesn't think there's any less hope because Congress hasn't passed cap and trade or a carbon tax that would have simply funneled money into the Treasury or back to the people. He argues in his book that most of the emission reductions already being made or contemplated — under the Kytoto Protocol or in Europe — couldn't possibly avert disaster. It's an imperfect analogy, but Latin basically views human-caused climate change as a freight train barreling down the track. We want to stop that train. Whether we open the throttle wide or open it less doesn't really matter. Either way, that train isn't going to stop.

Latin argues that rather than merely slowing the increase of greenhouse gas emissions, we must do away totally with the main sources of greenhouse gas, such as coal-burning power plants and internal combustion engines. We must replace them with green technologies. And, yes, we must impose heavy carbon taxes — with all revenue earmarked for the development of those technologies. He doesn't think a tax by itself will deter big corporations from continuing to make big profits from business as usual. It will only work if the tax revenue subsidizes change.

"It is not easy to modify the way people think about a problem once they have internalized a mistaken conception widely shared by others in their field," Latin writes in Climate Change Policy Failures. "Climate policymakers need to stop believing that any reduction in business-as-usual [greenhouse gas] emissions will correspondingly reduce climate change risks. They need to stop thinking that if many people reduce their carbon footprints by some extent, those decentralized ... cuts would produce significant progress toward mitigating climate change dangers. ... These leaders also need to stop believing that 'every little bit helps,' and instead they must recognize that more ambitious mitigation efforts with high worldwide costs" — Latin is not among those who envision a change in energy technology without major social dislocation — "will be required to achieve any meaningful climate change progress."

Latin doesn't see the recent spate of bad news about alternative energy companies as a sign that the needed technologies lie far down the road. He thinks that the real barriers are political. "These things are failing not because they don't work," he says. "They're failing because they're not being supported as they need to be supported." Yes, demand is currently disappointing. But that's not the whole story. True, "there's not enough demand for new technologies at impossibly high prices compared to traditional fossil fuel combustion products." But "we're still heavily subsidizing oil and coal."

Take the slow sales of electric cars. Why should anyone buy a car that can't go from Seattle to Portland without recharging, especially since one is hardly sure to find a spot at a recharging station — or even to find a station on the way? At this point, Latin says, "the electric car industry enjoys no economies of scale. The government isn't buying them. It isn't creating recharging stations." Basically, "you're taking a new, developing, frail technology and pitting it against the most established companies in the world. . . . And people talk about 'the free market.'  "

"It all comes down to economics and politics," he says. "We're not giving a chance to these better alternative technologies."

The Northwest is at least doing a little to encourage those technologies. Washington law still requires utilities to get at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources other than hydro by 2020. And — except, of course, in transportation — no one suggests burning a lot more fossil fuel. Even in these brave new economic times, regional power planning isn't likely to change much. The Sixth Northwest Power Plan calls for meeting 85 percent of increased power demand by 2020 with greater efficiency, rather than building more generating facilities of any kind. (The Council staff estimated that increasing efficiency that much would create 47,000 new jobs by 2030.) The Council cranks out plans on a five-year cycle; it will start working on a seventh plan next year. Presumably, energy efficiency will still look pretty good. The number may be too low — some people argue that it is — but under federal law, the new plan will price greenhouse gas emissions at $21 a ton.

Nationally, whether you believe Latin or trust the half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none emission reductions that he deplores, this year's political campaigns have offered little encouragement. What about the concrete effort that the federal government has made to date? "I could call it half-assed," Latin says, "but it's more like quarter-assed." The EPA may start to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants, but "that only applies to new coal-burning power plants," Latin says, while older plants remain "the worst soures of GHGs [greenhouse gases] in the world." Stopping coal will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, he says, and understandably, government "agencies do not want to be the fall guys for creating social dislocation. They want Congress to do it."

So does he. "Congress should deal with this the way it dealt with the Marshall Plan, the way it dealt with the space program, the way it dealt with the interstate highway system," Latin says. But he doesn't expect our elected representatives to do much on their own. "If we have to depend on Congress," he says, "I would not, if I were you, buy any real property in the state of Florida."

"I believe we have the technologies," he says. "We just don't have the required political will and insight." What would it take for the body politic to develop that will? Is Hurricane Sandy enough? Some New Yorkers think it should be. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama as the candidate more likely to do something about climate change.

"It is small comfort to sodden and stranded New Yorkers that Hurricane Sandy’s flooding of the city’s infrastructure . . . was predicted in grimly precise detail by scientists in the latest state and city climate studies" The New York Times observed. "Deeper and more frequent flooding from Rockaway to Lower Manhattan and the city’s transit tunnels has been a repeated warning that largely went unnoticed by the public and most politicians. But now, with the floods from Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene last year on his watch, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pointedly stressing what he considers the inevitability of more such disasters. 'Climate change is reality,' the governor said." However, the editorial added, "Mr. Cuomo admits that he does not have all the answers nor enough government money for all the proposed solutions."

"President Obama and Mitt Romney seemed determined not to discuss climate change in this campaign," wrote Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "So thanks to Hurricane Sandy for forcing the issue: Isn’t it time to talk not only about weather, but also about climate?"

Maybe so, but ... the presidential candidates' responses to Sandy did not include ringing calls for a war on climate change. "We probably need a Katrina times five," Latin said shortly before Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, "a natural disaster so striking that people will wake up and say 'we can't continue.'  "


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.