Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Pascal’s Wager and the Global Warming Debate

Despite the overwhelming consensus of most climatologists around the world (including those at the United Nations, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and even the Pentagon–which rates global warming a national securiy threat potentially greater than terrorist attacks!), there are many global warming deniers.  Some, like John McCain and Sarah Palin, once were on the record arguing for prompt action to stop global warming, so their change of mind seems to be purely political–their base will punish anyone who doesn’t deny its existence–or deny that humans are causing it by dumping tons of greenhouse gasses (CO2, CO1, methane, some others ) into the atmosphere mostly via the burning of fossil fuels.  The leaked emails of a few scientists who express doubt has fueled efforts of some like Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) to claim that global warming is a giant hoax–and climatologists and their political champtions like former VP Al Gore agree that the evidence isn’t 100%.  (Science seldom deals with 100% evidence on anything.) The problem is that by the time one has nearly 100% proof, it will be too late to stop the damage to the planet.  Yet the changes needed to stop global warming are expensive and potentially very disruptive of society, so many are reluctant to make them on what they see as a gamble.

So, to those who are either global warming skeptics or unsure, I suggest that Pascal’s Wager should help our society decide in a timely fashion.  Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a Christian philosopher who agreed with skeptics that the evidence for the existence of God was not 100%. So, he argued that faith for or against God was like a gamble–but one in which the benefits of gambling on God and being wrong outweighed those of gambling against and being wrong.  I think this applies perfectly well to our necessary decisions about global warming–and I would love to see Pascal’s Wager used in debate on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Consider:  If we gamble that the climatologists who warn of global warming and catastrophic climate change because of greenhouse gasses are right, what follows? Well, we have to spend much money and make major changes in our industrial processes and lifestyles that are potentially economically and socially disruptive. It will cost to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, for example. And, if the warnings were overblown this would be a negative. But, even if fears of global warming are exaggerated (something I don’t believe–I think the evidence is overwhelming that, if anything, it’s happening faster and with more severity than we believed even a few years ago), the changes made to stop it will leave us with many benefits:  Cleaner air (because greenhouse gasses are also major air pollutants) with all the benefits that makes to health in society; energy independence since every society can switch to clean, renewable sources of energy (wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydroelectric, perhaps others not yet discovered); greater national security and a more stable world (since the politics of oil will not intersect the volatile countries of the Middle East and central Asia); better public transportation (high speed trains, light rail, cleaner busses, etc.) which helps business and city planning; renewed manufacturing and ‘green collar’ jobs that cannot easily be outsourced; less destruction of the natural world in the frantic search for fossil fuels (the end of “mountaintop removal” and strip mining for coal which is destroying the Appalachian mountains in KY, VA, TN, WV, and NC at an alarming rate; no catastrophic oil spills killing sea life, etc.) ; cheap, clean sources of power which can lift much of the world out of poverty; healthier lifestyles (less consumption in the rich West, more walking and bicycling; eating local foods that don’t have to be transported thousands of miles, etc.); less habitat destruction of other species in the frantic search for oil and coal.

All of these things are good to have even if the threat of global warming proves to be overblown. 

But what if we gamble that global warming is not real (a hoax, mistaken, etc.) and are wrong?  Well, we don’t spend the money or make the social changes needed to fight global warming, so, in the short term, we have less economic and social disruption, lower energy costs and taxes, etc.  But we also become more dependent on fossile fuels, especially oil from politically unstable countries, thereby increasing threats to our national security and to world peace.  We continue to pollute the air with all the health problems that follow. Energy prices rise anyway as oil and coal become harder to find and more expensive to extract.  The destruction of habitat and natural beauty in the extraction of these fuels continues.  We do not renew our manufacturing base through green jobs since the economic incentives for renewable energy, electric cars, etc. is not there without the market signals of either green taxes or a “cap and trade” system on carbon dioxide are absent and thus the green alternatives are not economically viable in the near term. We miss out on potential scientific breakthroughs in the search for alternative fuels. We don’t invest in better public transportation or more energy efficient homes, businesses, etc.

And, since we gambled that global warming is false and lost, we get the massive climate catastrophes that come with global warming:  increased and stronger hurricanes, rising seas drowning several island nations and half of Bangladesh (with the resultant refugee problems and humanitarian and political crises), fish die offs due to rising sea temperatures, famines due to increased desertification in arid lands, etc.  And, the economic dislocation is greater than that which would have happened if we had decided to make the massive changes to prevent global warming.

So, it seems to me that the smart wager would be that global warming is real, really caused by greenhouse gasses, and can and should be prevented or minimized through massive efforts cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop green energy alternatives. The potential gains to be made even if this is wrong and the potential costs if it is right and we do nothing (or not enough) seem clear to me.

I am also puzzled as to why conservatives (self-declared) are so opposed to efforts to stop global warming. After all, to be conservative is, by definition, to be cautious. So, if something is potentially disastrous, but not all the evidence is in, the cautious, conservative thing to do is to stop the potentially bad behavior causing it while investigating further.  If I am speeding in a car toward what looks like  a cliff or wall, but could be only a mirage, the conservative  thing would be to slow down or stop while investigating further–not to step on the gas pedal in a potentially suicidal manner. But the latter is what so-called conservatives are doing regarding global warming.  It’s just not rational. It’s reckless–as conservatives always claim liberals to be.

December 12, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 13 Comments

Ecological Virtues for Facing our Environmental Crisis

If the dimensions of the crisis are even close to what I outlined yesterday, what virtues need to be cultivaed to help us live faithfully and responsibly?  I suggest nine (9) virtues that are especially needful for an era in which humankind’s powers to destroy are great and God’s Creation is fragile and vulnerable to that power–virtues to allow us to live as caretakers of Creation instead of negligent destroyers.

  1. Humility.  This is a difficult virtue for Westerners who think of themselves as “worldbeaters.”  Yet this is the key to all.  In an ecological context, humility means not overestimating human importance in the natural order, nor overestimating our ability to control events and outcomes.  Humility will make us cautious about genetic engineering new species because of the ease of destroying an entire ecosystem.  Humility means that, while technology may provide some of the answers to global warming or ozone depletion, we resist seeking a “magic bullet” that solves everything withohut any changes in lifestyle (especially consumption) in the West.  Humility means that our wants and desires may sometimes have to give way to the survival and flourishing of others–including other species and their habitats.
  2. Sustainability.  This virtue means that we live and work in ways that do not rob future generations of the ability to flourish.  Sustainability is the virtue of keeping faith with future generations– raising crops and livestock in ways that do not harm the environment, rather than with poisonous pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers.  Seeking sources of energy that are renewable and do not harm the environment–along with patterns of housing, transportation, and manufacturing that are not destructive, but viable over the long haul.
  3. Adaptability.  All lifeforms must adapt or go extinct, but humans have been able not just to adapt to our environment(s), but to adapt the environments to our needs.  This is not a bad thing in itself, but we need to recover the humility that leads us not to overreach in adapting the environment around us–lest we destroy it for future generations or other species.  We need to recover the ability to adapt to changing conditions ourselves.  We need to build flexibility into our societies so that we can respond to changing conditions wisely.
  4. Relationality.  Too often in the West, humans have thought of ourselves as completely separate from our environment, seeing it as only a stage for the drama of humanity’s fall and redemption.  We need to regain a sense of being part of the whole, of being connected to each other and to the other lifeforms with which we share the planet. 
  5. Frugality is a virtue that our grandparents knew well, but which has fallen out of fashion in a global economy organized by massive overconsumption and greed. In such a context, frugality is a subversive virtue, allowing us to “live lightly on the earth,” to “live simply that others may simply live.”  Frugality is consuming only our needs and not our most extravagant wants. Frugality includes comprehensive recycling, not just as individual families, but as companies, cities, countries.
  6. Equity or justice.  Here I define this virtue as simply dealing fairly with both other people and other species.  It resists the maldistribution of resources and patterns of production and consumption that sacrifice other habitats or other cultures in the name of corporate greed.
  7. SolidarityThis virtue realizes that “we’re all in this together,” that our lives and flourishing are intertwined with all humans and with all species.  Together with equity, solidarity rejects attitudes that ignore ecological threats to other nations or species with the belief that our species or nation or class will not be affected–that we can buy or bomb our way out.
  8. Biodiversity.  Throughout the history of our planet, biodiversity has simply been a fact:  life exists in myriad varieties. But in a time of massive species extinction (and the endangerment of the rest), biodiversity is an ecological virtue–valuing that diversity. It rejects turning forests into monocultural tree farms or breeding out the variants that lead a species to survive under less than optimal conditions.  Biodiversity is the opposite of the desire for “designer children” or designer species. This virtue values the riot of varieties that, in God’s grace, have evolved to populate this planet.
  9. Sufficiency.  The virtue of  “enough” is not only about consumption (reinforcing frugality), but about bringing about an adequate response to the ecological threats of our time.  Half-measures are not enough.

An adequate ecological ethic will involve more than the cultivation of the proper virtues. It will need proper principles, cost-benefit analyses, theological reflection (re-reading Scripture from an environmental viewpoint), and public policy proposals and advocacy.  But to live out such an ethic will require people of character, shaped with the proper virtues for facing the environmental crisis of our times.

December 11, 2009 Posted by | ecology | Comments Off on Ecological Virtues for Facing our Environmental Crisis

Dimensions of the Ecological Crisis

Today begins Day Three of the Copenhagen Conference which hopefully leads to binding global treaties that will fight climate change by drastically cutting the production of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide made by burning fossil fuels (oil and coal) and methane from cow-patties due to the mass production of beef in unsustainable ways.  As we hope that Copenhagen leads to an adequate response, I thought I’d outline the full dimensions of the ecological crisis we face as a planet.  Tomorrow, I will follow up by suggesting a list of nine (9) ecological virtues we should cultivate (in churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, businesses, etc.) in global society if we are to meet the crisis and care adequately for the Creation. (Today, the bad news. Tomorrow, part of the good news! 🙂 )

I. The Pollution ComplexPollution is the poisoning of the environment. In tiny amounts, pollution has been with us throughout the history of this planet, but nature is equipped to clean up after itself  to certain degrees.  But with the advent of Industrialism, Humankind began to pollute (usually as byproduct of manufacturing processes) to degrees beyond the ability of earth’s natural processes to clean up after us.  Pollution includes air pollution (including smog from heat inversions from ozone trapped too close to the ground), water pollution, solid waste disposal in land (including radioactive waste), and noise pollution from industrial life which can severely harm plant, animal, and human life (e.g., the sonar from submarines interferes with the natural sonar of dolphins and whales and can lead them to beach themselves or fail to reproduce, etc.).  When the environmental movement began in the late ’60s and early ’70s, most attention was paid to this first dimension. In the U.S. this led to the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Real progress was made in cleaning up once-poisoned land, air and water; lakes once unsafe for swimming or eating of fish caught there became safe once more.  However, since the late ’90s, and especially in the first decade of the 21st C., many of these gains have been once more reversed and we are losing the fight against air and water pollution and landfills are overflowing.

II. Ozone Depletion:  One doesn’t want ozone too close to the ground.  It leads to heat inversions and in the lower atmosphere is a greenhouse gas that adds to global warming.  But in the upper atmosphere, ozone is very necessary. It forms a shield protecting our fragile ecosphere from the hard radiation of space.  Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) from aerosols and refrigerants slowly make their way into the upper atmosphere and deplete the ozone.  It has led to two giant holes in the Ozone layer–one over each pole.  This has led to increases in skin cancers in humans and harm to animal and plant life.  Fortunately, we have made some progress over this since the ’90s when the world became extremely alarmed at the rapidly growing ozone holes.  Most of the industrial world banned CFCs, going without aerosol cans  and using alternate refrigerants.  This has led to faster healing of the ozone layer than originally expected–a source of hope.  Yet, in much of the global South, older air conditioners and refrigerators still use CFC refrigerants and, as these machines age, they leak into the atmosphere.  The shrinking of the Ozone Holes could end up being a pause before growth again, if we are not careful.

III.  Global Warming:  The Greenhouse Effect and Catastrophic Climate Change.

This is the major focus of the Copenhagen Conference as it was of the Kyoto Conference and Treaty.  The basic science is well understood:  certain gasses such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO1), Methane, and (in the lower atmosphere) Ozone and some others trap heat in the planet, preventing it from radiating outward into space.  To a certain extent this is a good thing–it keeps our planet warm enough to support life.  However, massive amounts of greenhouse gasses as a result of the burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) at huge rates, has increased the greenhouse effect to dangerous levels:  if not stopped, it will melt the polar ice caps and create dramatic shifts in climate that will do enormous damage throughout the earth–indeed, this is already happening.  Scientists debate the rate of climate change, but not that it is happening, nor is there much debate over the source in industrial processes–not among the majority of climatologists (unless they work for oil companies).  The cures are also clear: We have to shift from carbon-based fuels other sources of energy (wind, solar, biodiesel, ethanol, geothermal, etc.) .  We have to use far more public transportation, more energy efficient buildings, etc. so that we can stop global warming and limit the damage of climate change.

IV. Resource Depletion.  Human overconsumption in the rich, industrialized nations is causing resource depletion:  oil, water, scarce metals, are fast running out. We have probably already reached “peak oil” the point at which production matches demand. 

V. Population Explosion.  Humankind is reproducing at too great a rate–to the point where we will soon exceed the ability of the earth to support our species. The carrying capacity of the earth is estimated to be 10-12 billion people (though not easily)–and we are already more than 6 billion and multiplying rapidly.  We can regulate our own populations voluntarily (limiting our family sizes through family planning and artificial birth control) or Nature will use its own tools for population control and they are not pretty:  famine, pestilence, and war–especially wars over resources, including water.  Most of the world (including this writer) is critical of  China’s forced abortions and sterilizations as part of its “one child” policy–but if  EVERY government is to avoid such draconian measures, then we have to be voluntarily limiting family size, now.  (If you like large families, adopt. Thousands of children suffer in orphanages around the world because of lack of parents.)

VI. Maldistribution of Resources.  This is why ecological damage effects some more than others.  The rich nations create most of the pollution, but its price is most often paid by the world’s poor.  This is where economic injustice intersects environmental degradation leading to such phenomena as environmental racism and classism (poor and nonwhite peoples are more than twice as likely to live in polluted areas, have polluted water supplies, etc.).  It’s also why the poor are often led to participate in the degradation of their own environments–e.g., poor Appalachians are hurt the most by coal mining that uses “mountaintop removal” and “strip mining” methods–paying with polluted water, incredible erosion, loss of game for hunting, poisoned land that cannot support crops or livestock, etc. (not to mention seeing their homes turn from places of incredible natural beauty to deformed wastelands).  Yet, the coal companies are often the major or even only employers and so the poor Appalachians destroy their own land (the owners live far away) in order to feed their families.  Similar stories can be told in other cultures.

VII. Loss of Biodiversity: Massive Species’ Extinction and Endangerment.  We are witnessing species die at a rate not seen in billions of years.  Habitat destruction caused by human overpopulation is leading to the extinction of species not even catalogued.

VIII. Genetic engineering.  We are creating and even patenting new life forms.  Some see this as a potential for good–hoping to manufacture bacteria, for instance, that can eat oil spills, or hardier forms of crops and livestock.  But it also introduces species into the biosphere which have no natural enemies and which can easily upset ecosystems.

All these challenges are happening at once and playing into each other.  Our response must be adequate to the challenge.  It will involve much unlearning of old habits. The changes must be individual, family, and societal.  In Christianity, especially in Western Christianity, we have too often emphasized biblical verses which talk about “subduing the earth.”  During most of human history, when Nature was powerful and we humans were weak, those verses were heard as a glad promise from God.  But since the industrial revolution, when humans are powerful and nature weak, these verses in isolation can be quite dangerous.  It can make us think that no part of creation has any value except if it benefits humans.  We need greater humility and greater realization that God considers ALL of creation “good.” Humans are to be stewards and caretakers of earth as God’s garden, not masters of all we survey.  Caring for God’s creation and valuing ALL life on earth is essential for our own survival, as well as being faithful to the tasks of caring for creation that God has entrusted to our species.

Tomorrow: The virtues that might undergird a viable environmental ethics.

December 10, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 7 Comments

Big Oil/Big Coal Snuck in Disastrous Provisions in Cap & Trade Bill

Well,  I had a weekend to be thrilled that the Waxman-Markey cap-&-trade bill had passed the House.  Now it seems that Big  Coal and Big Oil had snuck in horrible provisions at the last moment.  If the current version were to pass the Senate and then be signed into law, it would repeal a key provision of the Clean Air Act  and it would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the ability to fight global warming by regulating greenhouse gas emissions!  So, now we have not only to fight for passage in the Senate (which would already be difficult), but must fix the bill, too. Otherwise we have to fight to kill the bill–because this form of cap & trade would be worse than nothing–it would end up with us burning more coal  a decade from now than now. (And there is no such thing as “clean coal.”) These nasty last-minute provisions turn an otherwise good bill into a disaster: we’d be better with no cap & trade and let the EPA regulate greenhouse gasses directly.

MoveOn.org and others are campaigning to fix the bill.  But it shows how truly evil the coal/oil lobbies are to sneakily turn a bill that would greatly reduce greenhouse gasses and turn it into permission to keep doing what they are doing and weaken both the Clean Air Act and the EPA.  If hell exists, it has a major place reserved for lobbyists.

June 30, 2009 Posted by | ecology, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Big Oil/Big Coal Snuck in Disastrous Provisions in Cap & Trade Bill

Sometimes Faith and Hope are HARD

Sometimes it is very difficult to trust in God’s providential care and in a hopeful  future.  Today was one of those days for me.  It started out hopeful enough.  Early this morning, I learned that the Markey-Waxman bill that fights global warming by a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions (which may help both the federal deficit and the economy as a fringe benefit) made it out of committee to the full House of Representatives.  Wow,  I thought.  If the Senate doesn’t block or water this down, we may get the first real action on climate change in this nation–after decades of doing nothing. (I don’t know whether to be angrier at the Bush administration, which claimed for 6 of its 8 years that global warming was a hoax–relenting only after the PENTAGON classified it as a bigger national security threat than terrorism–or the Clinton administration which KNEW the danger and betrayed its campaign promises by doing nothing because they were afraid of losing support from the business community.) 

But then I realized that, EVEN AT IT’s BEST, the Waxman-Markey bill would only lower carbon emissions 7-10%, lower than what the EU, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and even latecomer Australia are doing.  And, because global warming is happening faster than originally predicted, it is FAR less than what climatologists think we need to stop global climate catastrophes:  About 50% carbon emission reductions by 2030!  Yet, trying to increase the bill to that amount is simply not politically possible–the entire bill would be defeated and we’d be back to doing nothing, again.

So by the time we headed for church, I was pretty pessimistic about the future.  One of my daughters tried to cheer me up–reminding me of the huge strides we are making in some areas of justice–such as gay rights.  I wasn’t very receptive. Let’s see, I thought, “we now have civil marriage equality in 6 states. Only 42 more to go in this nation. At that rate, gays and lesbians will be able to marry just in time for massive global-warming related famines in Africa, losing several island nations to the ocean, hurricanes that make Katrina seem like a gentle breeze, worldwide refugees in the millions, increased “resource wars,” massive global species extinctions, and killer storms across the MidWest.

Fortunately, everything at church today seemed to speak to my condition, to paraphrase Quaker founder George Fox. We sang, “Do not fear to hope.”  The sermon reminded me that God chooses unlikely vessels for change and amazing outcomes.  I needed reminding.

The facts have not changed. (Please no comments trying to convince me that global warming is a hoax. I’ve read the many detailed reports of the climatologists. I’m in no mood for attempts to cheer me up by denial and might just delete any such comments. I am certainly in no mood to DEBATE the science behind the climatologists’ warnings.) We are still preparing an INADEQUATE response–one that would have been more suitable for the late ’80s or early ’90s when there was more time. (The longer we put off responding, the more extreme our actions will have to take by the time all the skeptics are convinced–and it will be too late.) It still looks like too little, too late.

But God is still GOD and I cannot believe that God has abandoned this planet–no matter how we humans have messed up our stewardship.  I have no idea how God is working to save this creation, but I know God is working.  Maybe, just maybe, Waxman-Markey, while inadequate in itself, will be the crack that opens the dam of creative political will to do what is necessary to save our world.  Maybe we can add carbon taxes to speed up the work of a cap-and-trade system.  Maybe the Waxman-Markey bill will finally show the world that the U.S. is serious about fighting climate change and helps bring in China and India to a new post-Kyoto treaty at Copenhagen.  I don’t know.

Sometimes faith and hope are hard.  Despair is easier.  But as the hymn says, “Do not fear to hope, though the wicked rage and rise.  Our God sees not as we see, success is not the prize. Do not fear to hope, for though the night seems long, the race shall not be to the swift, the fight not to the strong.”  Amen.  Lord, I believe–Help, Thou, my unbelief.

June 14, 2009 Posted by | ecology, faith, global warming, hope, hymns | 16 Comments

Cap & Trade Could Greatly Reduce Deficit

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has analyzed the Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” and found that it will not only fight the catastrophic climate change of global warming, but that it will NOT add to the deficit.  In fact, it will raise revenue that could greatly reduce the federal deficit.

That’s information that should published far and wide, so that Waxman-Markey gets Senate support and passes.  A way to save the planet, help rebuild the economy, AND reduce the federal deficit–that’s something that needs widespread support!

UPDATE:  Contrast this with the energy proposal of the House Republicans:  Give away billions of more taxpayer dollars to the oil, coal and nuclear industries and draft a bill that explicity refuses to recognize the impact of global warming–even on endangered species (in defiance of Supreme Court rulings–during the Bush era– that the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions as a pollutant).  The Bush-era Pentagon classified both global warming AND U.S. dependence on fossil fuels as national security threats, but the Republicans still won’t do anything useful to meet the threat.  The biggest threat to our nation right now? House Republicans and the desire of Democrats to be “bi-partisan” instead of just ignoring them and doing the right thing even if it gets ZERO Republican votes.

June 9, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 13 Comments

Fight Global Warming: Cap & Trade Carbon Emissions

Global warming, with entailed catastrophic climate change, is happening faster than projected just 5 years ago.  International climatologists now believe that we need to cut greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide, by up to 75% globally by 2050 if we are to prevent much of Southwest Asia from drowning, much of Africa from being a scorching desert, save the polar ice-caps, and prevent monster killer storms from being a regular feature of much of North America–as just some of the major of the major consequences.  One major key to getting where we need to be is a “cap and trade system” that combines regulation with market forces to rapidly reduce industrial carbon emissions. Congress is now debating such a system, but the climate change deniers (and those in the pockets of the Big Coal and Big Oil lobbies) keep trying to derail it or water it down to nothing.

Below are explanations of how cap and trade works.  It’s how we stopped the sulfur-dioxide emissions that were causing acid rain.  Watch them and then call your senators and Congresscritters and urge them to pass a cap and trade bill with a strong and hard cap and to do so without delay.  Get your church members, civic associations, etc. to visit your congresscritter and senators’ offices and register your views in person. Then write letters to the editors of your local papers supporting a firm cap and trade bill–THIS YEAR.

Here’s a 10-minute version.

And here’s a mayor who sees the jobs cap and trade will create. Watch him run the numbers.

Yep, save God’s creation (of which we are only stewards–currently pretty unfaithful ones) AND create jobs.  Or keep selling our souls to Big Coal and Big Oil at the cost of the planet and the economy.  Future generations, provided there are any,  will judge our actions now and decide on their wisdom or foolishness. 

We should have acted at the Rio Summit in ’92.  We should have signed the Kyoto Treaty in ’97.  We did neither and put the global warming deniers and flat-earthers in charge of the government after that.  Now, we are all but out of time.  We can’t wait until  the economy gets better. We can’t wait at all.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | ecology, economic justice | 2 Comments

House Climate Change Hearing

Yesterday, Earth Day,  I watched C-Span coverage of the hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on the planned cap & trade bill.  The hearings on “The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” had many odd moments.  But the strangest moments, causing me the most cognitive dissonance, were the repeated attempts of Big Coal CEOs (e.g., Jim Rogers of Duke Energy Corporation) try to explain to Congressional Republicans that electricity costs are going up NO MATTER WHAT, whether or not any cap and trade legislation is passed, so Congress might as well pass legislation to help us transition to clean energy around the nation.  The looks of disbelief on these Republican faces were comical.  They are used to trying to argue science with scientists (and never understand how dumb they look when they do this), but they expect to be considered the champions of business, especially the dirty polluters of Big Coal and Big Oil.  To have the CEOs of coal and oil companies side (at least partly) with the climate scientists (“pointy heads” as the Republicans think of them) and environmentalists (“tree huggers and granola crunchers” in the GOP lexicon) nearly caused their heads to explode.  I’d love to see similar hearings in the Senate–and watch what Sen. “In Denial” Inhofe (R-OK) does when Oil and Coal people side with the environmentalists and climate scientists.  It ought to be highly entertaining.

Other strange moments: Rep. Barton (R-TX) repeatedly claimed that cutting carbon emissions will lead to the de-industrialization of the United States. No, moron, it means switching to different forms of energy like hydroelectric, wind, solar, and geothermal (and, if certain waste problems could be solved, nuclear)–all using off the shelf technologies. 

Rep. Blackburn (R-TN) accused EPA Director Lisa Jackson of deciding to regulate carbon emissions “with or without Congressional approval.”  Jackson rightly replied that the Environmental Protection Agency had been ORDERED to regulate CO2 emissions last year by the Supreme Court of the U.S. and the Bush admin. refused to obey the order.  Blackburn looked like she failed to comprehend the significance of this–as if Supreme Court rulings are mere suggestions.

Rep. Terry kept claiming that without a breakthrough in carbon capture and storage technology  that a cap on carbon emissions would raise coal and oil prices.  No kidding.  That’s the POINT.  A cap-and-trade system rewards low-carbon power and pushes high-emission polluters to find ways to pollute less.  If the carbon prices don’t rise, it removes the economic incentives to pollute less. 

Republicans can’t seem to fathom how these kind of regulations lead to innovation and savings–even though they’ve seen it done with aerosols and refrigerants that deplete the ozone.  One CA legislator had to show how CA regs on refrigerators have resulted in lower prices and less energy use even though refrigerator sizes have  increased.  Secretary of Energy Chu testified that contemporary refrigerators use only 1/4 of the energy they used in 1975.

In all, the Democratic members of Congress seemed excited and optimistic.  They see this as a way to get off our dependence of foreign oil, create green jobs, save the planet, and help the economy all at the same time.  The Republicans, by contrast, see this as a disaster. They believe nothing can be done and many of them still won’t acknowledge the science of global warming.  Or they say the U.S. can do nothing until China and India make 3 times the sacrifices. One Congressman even claimed we had to wait until Yoruba (!) did something.

Another GOP talking point was to call the cap and trade bill an “energy tax.”  No, that’s different.  Energy taxes directly tax sources of energy (usually very dirty ones) directly.  Pollution taxes tax emissions.  Both can be helpful incentives to getting corporations to pollute less.  But a cap-and-trade system sets a limit (a hard cap) on emissions and gives credits to those who emit less and allows them to trade off with those who emit more.  It uses market forces to cut carbon emissions.  Europe has used it for over a decade under the Kyoto Protocol and has greatly cut their greenhouse gasses.  America and the rest of the world used it to stop acid rain and stop destroying the ozone layer by cutting out those chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.

In point of fact, I wish Congress would impose direct carbon taxes in addition to a cap and trade system because of the lost time.  If we had put  cap-and-trade system into place after the Rio Earth Summit of ’92 or in signing on to the Kyoto Protocols (Clinton did not push ratification through the Senate, to Al Gore’s extreme frustration), then, perhaps cap-and-trade would be sufficient. But the pace of global warming is faster than originally predicted and scientists now believe the world must cut greenhouse gasses by 70% over the next century (with the biggest cuts coming within the next decade) to avoid total climate catastrophe.  So, I’d want to combine cap and trade with direct carbon taxes in order to give maximum incentives to cutting emissions.

By far the strangest comment Rep. Shimkus (R-IL) called clean energy and climate legislation the “largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country I’ve ever lived through” and claimed that he feared passage of this law more than  war and terrorism!!

The law, with plenty of teeth, is sure to pass the House.  I worry about it getting past filibuster in the Senate, though, especially if the Republican senators are as out of touch with reality as the Republican Representatives!

P.S.:  Two things worry me.  1. Although environmentalism is now mainstream and a major concern of most of the nation, the PRIORITY always lessens during economic hard times because people put their short-term economic survival first.  2. Polling shows that many people strangely think that just because they voted for an administration that wants to stop catastrophic climate change that the ecological  news is getting better. Part of this may be that people can take in only so much bad news and with the steady drumbeat of bad economic news, war news, etc., have tuned out the ecological news–news which is pretty bleak.   Combined, I worry that this means people won’t put enough pressure on Congress to pass this legislation in a strong enough form.

April 23, 2009 Posted by | ecology, U.S. politics | 8 Comments

House Minority Leader Downplays Global Warming, re: Cow Farts!

Congratulations, Rep. Boehner (R-OH), just before Earth Day you’ve eclipsed Sen. “In Denial” Inhofe (R-OK) as the biggest idiot on climate change in Congress, and that takes some doing.  Today, Boehner called the scientific consensus (which is overwhelming and international) that CO2 from humans burning fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming “comical.”  Boehner’s proof that this is comical is that people exhale CO2 and cow flatulence contributes to it.  Seriously. We have the next SNL skit right there.

Look Congressman, yes CO2 is found in nature from human exhalation, cattle gas, and other sources.  But this natural amount is easily absorbed by plants in photosynthesis where it is replaced with oxygen.  Burning fossile fuels puts far TOO MUCH CO2 into the air creating the now famous “greenhouse effect.”  Check out the planet Venus for the end result.

The Supreme Court of the U.S.–which is dominated by Republican appointees, including 2 Bush appointees, ruled last year that the Environmental Protection Agency could regulate CO2 as a pollutant.  Bush’s EPA wouldn’t, but Obama’s will–especially if you good Congressfolk fail to do your job and give us a good cap and trade law on CO2.  You should WANT to use a capitalist market tool like cap and trade as a way of cutting greenhouse gasses. It is market based (isn’t that the Republican god, the market?) and it was successfully used end acid rain and to quit destroying the ozone layer with aerosols and freon.

The “trade” from cap and trade will help the economy, too, as it spurs innovation to help us heal the planet, become independent from foreign oil, and create green collar jobs.  Which one of those things is a laughing matter?

BTW,  you were trying to be funny, but METHANE from cow patties IS another greenhouse gas–one more reason why the overbreeding of cattle for beef is bad for the environment (along with clear cutting rainforests to create grazing lands, etc.).  So, I’m betting that it was the oil and coal lobbies that paid for your bad humor, and not the beef industry, huh?

April 20, 2009 Posted by | ecology, U.S. politics | 3 Comments

I Love Mountains Day

mountaintop-removalToday is “I Love Mountains Day.” This is the day when citizens throughout states with Appalachian regions, but especially West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and here in Kentucky, lobby there state legislatures for an end to mountaintop removal: the coalmining process that is so evil that it makes strip mining seem like an ecologist’s dream come true.  About 40% of Eastern KY’s mountains have had their tops blown off for the profits of (mostly out of state) coal companies that own the mineral rights to land that belonging to the poor of Appalachia.  This not only destroys mountain beauty, but farmland (nothing grows afterward) and rivers.

Unfortunately, King Coal owns the legislators of both parties in KY, WV, NC and TN.  The legislators will refuse to come see the destruction for themselves, citing the sanitized reports of the coal companies against any independent ecological or economic impact statements.  Legislation banning mountaintop removal FINALLY cleared committee last year in KY, but it died in the full legislature–for economic reasons.  Instead of finding ways to attract eco-friendly development to Eastern KY–giving alternatives to the coal mines, our legislators would rather trade short-term profits for an eternity of ecological devastation–and that to burn one of the leading causes of global warming.

My  beloved wife, Kate, a native of East Tennessee mountains, is today with a group from our church in Frankfort (along with KY author Wendell Berry and the actress Naomi Ashley Judd, a KY native) to try to get the legislators to do the right thing.  I pray for their success. Come see KY’s beautiful mountaiins–while  they’re still there.

Update: My wife says that our wonder U.S. Congressman, Rep.  John Yarmuth (D-KY) is introducing anti-mountaintop removal legislation at the federal level to compliment our efforts at the state level! Good News!

February 17, 2009 Posted by | ecology, economic justice | 3 Comments