WHAT OTHERS SAY: The climate change debate — pay now, or pay much more later

Friday, June 28, 2013 | 2:44 p.m. CDT; updated 3:44 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 28, 2013

In announcing to the nation bold but tardy plans to take executive action to combat climate change, President Barack Obama framed the debate in terms of future generations:

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren,” he said Tuesday.

“As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Interestingly, a Franklin County judge also used the imagery of children this year when ruling that Ameren Missouri could go forward in its plans to build a coal ash landfill in Missouri River floodplain near its Labadie power plant.

Associate Circuit Court Judge Robert D. Schollmeyer, citing testimony from an expert witness, noted in his ruling that a child could consume a coal-ash sandwich every day and not ingest enough arsenic to do him harm.

How, um, comforting.

Ameren and the coal ash landfill

Tuesday night, hours after Mr. Obama instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to develop rules that will surely make it more expensive and difficult for Ameren to burn coal in Missouri and Illinois, the investor-owned utility was before the Public Service Commission pleading its case before yet another regulatory body, asking for permission to put its coal-ash landfill in the path of whatever future flood will surely come.

The local debate over the coal-ash landfill is a good proxy for the national climate change debate because the arguments are so similar.

Let’s start with coal ash. Nobody likes it — even a kid hungry for a sandwich — but everybody knows it’s an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal. Companies like Ameren have gotten better at containing it, but it has to be contained somewhere. The question is where?

Environmentalists rightly point out that putting coal ash in a floodplain is a recipe for disaster. There have been more than 200 cases of coal-ash spills in 37 different states, according to the environmental group Earthjustice.

The Missouri River likes to flood. And, in the age of climate change, it appears to be flooding even more than normal. Allowing a utility company to put poisonous metals near a water supply is horrible public policy.

So why not put the coal ash elsewhere?

Money. It would cost both Ameren shareholders and Ameren customers more money to haul the ash to high ground. It would cost more money to store it in a way that keeps people truly safe.

Despite Mr. Obama’s clever dig at those Congressional Republicans who deny climate change — “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society” — the serious debate over reducing the nation’s carbon footprint (to the extent that there is one) is one of cost.

Who pays and when?

Missouri consumers will no doubt pay higher costs as a result of Mr. Obama’s plan because the state is still about 80 percent reliant on coal for electricity. The nation’s coal companies, such as Peabody Energy, will also pay a price. Peabody’s stock price took a dive after Mr. Obama’s speech Tuesday.

But the cost of inaction is worse, and that’s why Mr. Obama is right to finally act.

Missourians know that as well. A report released this month by the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicts that the areas at risk for flood in the U.S. will rise 45 percent by 2100.

Natural disasters like the flooding that has been happening with increasing frequency on both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the past few years cost taxpayers billions of dollars. In 2012 alone, extreme weather disasters cost taxpayers more than $100 billion.

As we write this, record wildfires are burning across Colorado, surpassing last year’s record wildfires. FEMA doesn’t have enough money to keep up.

One way or another, taxpayers, and our children, and our grandchildren, will pay for our inaction.

For too long, policymakers, including coal-state senators from both parties like Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri, have put off the costs for another day.

Ms. McCaskill is no flat-earther, but her reticence to accept the higher costs of regulation gives cover to Mr. Blunt, who at times has foolishly denied man’s role in altering the climate.

Blunt calls it 'war on coal'

Mr. Blunt, who calls Mr. Obama’s attempts to protect air and water a “war on coal,” is currently blocking the appointment of Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama’s choice to head the EPA. It’s a stubborn act that makes it harder for our government to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink.

In a more perfect union, members of Congress wouldn’t leave this problem to the president and the EPA. Developing a national carbon tax would be more efficient, less expensive, and a better fit in the free market. It’s why plenty of liberal and conservative economists prefer that path to executive branch regulation.

Like so many other topics, however, that path has been blocked in Congress. So Mr. Obama, it seems, will take matters into his own hands.

The question for Americans, as rhetoric is molded into regulation, can be summed up like this:

Do you want to serve your children and grandchildren a diet of coal-ash sandwiches, or are you willing to pay a little more to keep the lights on so future generations can leave arsenic and mercury off the menu?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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