Our mild weather, in contrast to a foot of snow at the same time a year ago, focused my reflection on climate change and the recent gathering of 195 nations in Paris.
Climate change, for me, is first of all a practical issue of what we’re leaving for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If you accept the consensus of science, as I do, unless we reverse present practices they will not inherit anything like the beautiful, bountiful Earth that my generation has known. Drought, as in California this year or Ohio in 2012, will become more frequent. So will deluge. Hurricanes will become more powerful. Ice melt will raise sea levels, threatening Miami and Manhattan.
Continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels is a moral issue, as posed by Pope Francis in his encyclical, “On the Care of Our Common Home,” and his recent speeches at the United Nations and in Africa. This Quaker and most religious leaders endorse his counsel: “The time for seeking global solutions is running out. We can find suitable solutions only if we act together and in agreement.”
Breaking old habits of depending on coal and petroleum is an economic issue. Fortunately, alternative energy technologies are well enough developed that they are competitive in many circumstances – even in most circumstances, if we counted the current tax subsidies to fossil fuels or the economic costs of pollution and health care that are not included in the price we pay.
The economic adjustment to breaking away from polluting sources of energy would be less than the conversion to a war-time economy that my generation accomplished in a few months in 1941.
But most of all, breaking the carbon habits is a political issue. United States election rules give a huge advantage to corporations and their leaders by permitting essentially unlimited campaign contributions. In Washington, D.C., energy corporation lobbyists essentially write the rules by which they live. Their tactics are to delay and obfuscate — to put off inevitable adjustments, as the tobacco lobbyists did for several decades a generation ago.
The energy industries know the score. No new coal generating facility has been built for a decade. They’re fighting the proposed standards for reduced emissions from coal-powered plants rather than searching for possible ways to capture and sequester carbon.
The political dominance of fossil fuel interests in the United States carries over into the Paris conference on climate change. The original goal, set at the 2012 Copenhagen conference, was a treaty with binding commitments that would lead to changed practices sufficient to limit global warming to two degrees Centigrade compared to 2005 levels. But a treaty, which would have the force of law, seems impossible of ratification by the United States Senate. So, in this round of negotiations, President Barack Obama pressed for an agreement that does not require Senate ratification.
He got a deal, one which he called “a turning point for the world.” But there is still a long way to go.
China is still growing rapidly and is the only nation with total carbon pollution larger than the United States. It is outspending the United States on alternative energy and conservation measures, and has committed itself to a peak of carbon pollution by 2030. More than 180 other nations submitted plans for their voluntary contributions to the effort.
To date, Ohio members of Congress have not shown strong leadership on steps to arrest or reverse climate change. Sen. Sherrod Brown has not made global warming one of his primary issues, perhaps in deference to Ohio’s history of strong reliance on oil and coal industries. But he does not accept large campaign donations from oil (or other large corporate) donors.
Sen. Rob Portman remains quite deferential to oil and coal interests, from which he accepts campaign contributions. He has to date opposed the president’s proposed new standards for electric generation plants, suggesting that states should be able to “opt out” of these standards.
But he recently voted for an amendment declaring that climate change is real, caused by human activity, and that Congress should do something about it. He may be moving cautiously in the right direction. Rep. Jim Jordan, on the other hand, is still repeating Big Coal’s language intended to raise doubts that climate change is real.
Climate change is about the future of all our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We need to hold our elected representatives accountable.
Don Reeves is a retired Nebraska farmer living at Kendal at Oberlin. He is an active Quaker and former staffer for American Friends Service Committee and Bread for the World on policy issues related to poverty, inequality, and the environment.