Letter to the Editor

Averting mutually assured convection

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In my home state in the nation's heart, Kansas, a statue of a Native American atop the Capitol dome draws his bow and aims for the North Star. The state's motto is Ad astra per aspera -- "to the stars through difficulties."

It's inspiring. But not enough to overcome the difficulty Americans have in changing their lives to head off climate change. Despite the rising pile of evidence behind an alarming forecast, we remain the good ol' US of SUV.

To avoid possibly historic weather of mass destruction will require strong and innovative social pressure, at least, and probably the power of law.

Unfortunately, our lawmakers aren't doing enough, fast enough, to avert a crisis that may grow impossible to stop if warming by our emissions of carbon dioxide frees from sea beds and tundra some billions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent.

Here's an example of shortsighted heel-dragging:

An electric company wants to build two new coal-fired plants in Kansas. The state's secretary of health and environment became the first regulator in the nation to deny a permit based on the U.S. Supreme Court deciding carbon dioxide could be considered a pollutant.

The coal hit the fan, with the Legislature passing a bill to reverse the secretary and end his ability to make such decisions. The governor vetoed the bill. The Senate has enough votes to override the veto, and House leaders seek to get there too by corralling members who had drifted toward a greener future.

Legislators I heard explain their vote for the plants didn't contest that humans are causing climate change. But they said the utility had satisfied all legal requirements, and that state government can essentially do no more than get out of the way.

We hear similar talk from the Bush administration. We hear there and elsewhere, again and again, that to do otherwise would endanger the economy.

But the abundant fossil fuels that built the economy and keep it humming are going to run down. Oil, king of the hill, may already have gone over it. This demise alone will end economic growth as we've known it: Today we live on what scholar Vaclav Smil calculates is 20 times the per capita energy use of 150 years ago.

On top of this, according to forecasting by climate scientists, greenhouses gases from those fuels will shake economies by flooding coastland, spreading desert, fostering severe storms and pushing tropical diseases to temperate zones. Some places will get better. But on the whole, we'll be in the red.

Truly caring about the economy -- that is, caring about it beyond the next annual report -- requires more than a laissez-faire shrug. Government doesn't just pave roads for commerce. It sets speed limits. And it protects people from things like secondhand cigarette smoke that become recognized dangers.

Now we face an unprecedented danger, and virtually every American adds to it. There is no better case for government, whether federal state or local, to take unprecedented action.

Instead of thinking only that we must grow the economy -- to what will be an even higher fossil fuel cliff to fall from -- let's limit consumption by law. Based on science, set fossil carbon limits. Tax carbon heavily to discourage emissions, and commit the revenue to environmentally sound energy innovation. Denmark taxes and invests this way, and has reduced per capita carbon dioxide emissions almost 15 percent in 15 years while remaining economically strong.

Another avenue is rationing, which this country has done before when conservation was deemed necessary.

When the threat finally appears threatening enough, people sacrifice and work together. But requests to turn winter thermostats to 68 and don cardigans won't do it. Behavior changes when social norms change, when folks feel not left behind, but part of a community united.

That's going to take the help of rule makers. And they need our help to get the behavioral feedback loop right. They need to hear from us in bigger numbers and as well informed as the energy industry lobby. Let's convince them that to avoid catching climatic and other hell demands a difficult pull to the stars.

**-- Scott Bontz is editor of the Land Report magazine at the Land Institute, Salina, Kan. He wrote this comment for the institute's Prairie Writers Circle.

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