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GUEST COMMENTARY: It's high time to clean house

Monday, October 7, 2013 | 4:34 p.m. CDT

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report finally makes crystal clear the reality of climate change and the underlying reality of its largely human cause. With many objective scientists pointing out that human use of fossil fuels is pushing climate change to the limits of Earth’s ability to sustain human civilization, the most important discussion remaining to be had concerns how easily we can shift away from fossil fuels to far cleaner renewable energy sources and greater energy use efficiency. The report, “Energy Self-Reliant States,” published by the New Rules Project in 2010 estimates that Missouri could generate more than 9 times its current demand for electricity from wind and solar energy, and the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute estimated in 2009 that solar and wind energy generate 2 to 3 times as many jobs per $1 million spent as do coal, oil and gas or nuclear energy.    

Of course climate change won’t utterly destroy the planet. But the real questions are:  How much human suffering around the globe are we willing to cause in our effort to preserve the status quo, which climate change will not permit us to do anyway? And how drastically will human civilization be diminished by our careless gluttony on fossil fuels?  

You have doubtlessly heard that “we” can’t afford to shift to sustainable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.).  But who is “we”? In fact, this “we” is the fossil fuel industry. It is obvious that humanity cannot afford not to make the shift away from fossil fuels.  

The unsustainable costs of runaway fossil fuel consumption are already being felt.  Insurance companies are justifiably refusing to underwrite coastal flood insurance.  The costs of Hurricane Sandy (estimated to top $50 billion) are still rippling through the economy.  

Coal-fired power plants continue to wreak both subtle and horrific health impacts on society, with smoke stacks like cigarettes on steroids and wastewater lakes leaking into the nation’s arteries.  

The myth of clean compressed natural gas is belied by the devastating long-term effects of "fracking," including depletion and poisoning of precious fresh water supplies, earthquakes caused by the fracking process and leakage of long-buried methane into groundwater and atmosphere.  

Out West, over my career I’ve watched droughts and air pollution fuel tree diseases that together with the warming climate cause lethal beetle infestations. The resulting massive tree mortality creates tinderbox conditions that fuel firestorms that, for starters, threaten the power and water supplies to major cities such as Oakland and San Francisco. The direct costs alone of suppressing the “Rim Fire” which has burned over 400 square miles of forestland around Yosemite already exceed $127 million. And fire-denuded mountain landscapes are ill-prepared to retain their topsoil (essential to forest productivity) when exposed to torrential rainfall events linked in part to climate change. For example, witness the recent tragic flooding in Colorado. This is not speculation. It’s all drawn from current events with mounting price tags in human suffering and treasure. And let’s not forget that no matter where these disasters strike, we Missourians are pitching in to help pay the costs of recovery. That makes it personal.

Even — or should I say especially — the oceans are affected, as they are a major "sink" for human pollution including greenhouse gases. The oceans are gradually becoming acidified by their absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide which is converted spontaneously to carbonic acid in the oceans. As you may imagine, the increased acidity of ocean water is pretty hard on shellfish and coral reefs of limestone origin, which are fundamental to the ocean food chain and water purification.

So let’s face the facts and move to support a fundamental shift in our energy policy.  Those who would tell you that it can’t be done would also probably tell you that there’s no point in voting, that individual efforts are worthless. What do you think?  

As Margaret Mead observed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  And as Mahatma Gandhi exhorted, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world."

Johann N. Bruhn, Ph.D., is a longtime Columbia resident. He has studied forest ecology and forest health professionally for more than 40 years. He can be contacted at bruhnjn@gmail.com.


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