President Obama, climate disruption, justice, & the merchants of doubt

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, by far the most ambitious rule the United States federal government has adopted to tackle climate change. The rule will cause the largest transition toward renewable energy, less-polluting (though still less-than-idea) fossil fuel power production, and energy conservation in American history. In the face of a do-nothing and climate-change-denying congress, it’s probably about the best thing we could hope for at this scale right now. [You can watch the whole speech here.]

Obama’s speech invoked the right things and connected the dots for the public. He recognizes that humans have disrupted the climate mostly through the burning of fossil fuels. Because we are responsible for that disruption, we must do something different and better: transform our energy economy. But it’s not just the climate that we imperil, it’s us. That makes tackling climate change (disruption really) a moral obligation. Obama’s remarks reinforce what Pope Francis has said recently in Laudato Si, Al Gore said in An Inconvenient Truth, lots of ethicists have said for years (see Dale Jamieson, Don Brown, & Peter Singer for examples), and increasingly climate scientists like Michael E. Mann and Katharine Hayhoe.

Climate disruption and power plant pollution are equity and justice issues. The fact sheet, reiterated in his speech, says,

We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged. The effects of climate change are already being felt across the nation. In the past three decades, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is putting those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital. Extreme weather events – from more severe droughts and wildfires in the West to record heat waves – and sea level rise are hitting communities across the country. In fact, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the first 15 years of this century and last year was the warmest year ever. The most vulnerable among us – including children, older adults, people with heart or lung disease, and people living in poverty – are most at risk from the impacts of climate change. Taking action now is critical.

He stated that by 2030 the Clean Power Plan will “prevent up to 3,600 premature death, 1,700 non-fatal heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 missed workdays and schooldays.” Today, and historically, a disproportionate number of those illnesses and deaths happen to rural people working in coal mines or who live adjacent to them and poor minorities shunted into living in higher-pollution areas. Across the globe, the most harmed are the poor and marginalized. That leaves people who deny or seriously discount human-caused climate change in a spot.

For decades now, a small group of well-funded men have allied with big polluting industries to fight regulations. “Merchants of doubt,” free-market fundamentalists and Cold Warriors have fought against regulation of CFCs that damage the ozone layer, limits on sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain and the destruction of forests, and the regulation of tobacco. How? By undermining public trust in at least two ways: They attack the science to manufacture a controversy where there isn’t one and develop a media story that provides cover for polluting industries and their political allies. Second, they claim that the economy will be damaged, jobs will be lost, and consumers will foot higher bills. In every case, these claims have been bogus. Obama called them out saying, “Every time America’s made progress, it’s been despite these claims. Whenever America sets clear rules or smarter standards … we get the same scary stories for killing jobs and businesses and freedom.” And every time, our environment is cleaner and healthier, so are our people, and we have created innovative technologies that generate gainful labor and meaningful work.

If you are interested in this, there are going to be lots of opportunities to stay engaged over the coming year. In December, the COP21 will meet in Paris to work on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. If you are paying attention to the Presidential election you know that Barrie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both laid out climate and energy policies. Meanwhile the 5,338 Republican candidates are playing bizarro world games, twisting themselves into intellectual knots about how real or not and how human-caused climate change is or isn’t in efforts to attract the support of the Kochtopus. In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf and DEP Secretary John Quigley stated yesterday that our commonwealth will take the actions necessary to meet the goals in the Clean Power Plan by 2030. Be a responsible and responsive citizen and engage with this issue and keep our public officials accountable. There may even be opportunities to be active at the local level.

If you live near me in State College, you can be part of some good conversations about climate change in the next few months. The Penn State Reads book is The Boom, by Russell Gold, a look at the shale gas revolution and what it might mean for our energy infrastructure. Given that Wolf and Obama have both supported natural gas and that there are significant concerns about fugitive emissions, land use changes, and continued worries about fossil fuel use with natural gas, this book and our community discussion could inform our decisions.

Merchants of DoubtOn Wednesday September 9th at 7 pm, Penn State’s Sustainability Institute will host a screening of the Robert Kenner film, Merchants of Doubt at The State Theatre. The film details the “troubling story of how a cadre of influential scientists have clouded public understanding of scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda.” It’s about the guys that Obama called out in the speech. If you’re a reader, I highly suggest Eric Conway’s and Naomi Oreskes’ book of the same title. You can learn more about that event here. [Full disclosure: I’ve arranged that screening through work and the Sierra Club Moshannon, on whose executive committee I serve, is a co-sponsor.]

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