Sunday, March 30, 2014

Editorial: Don't Skimp on Climate

Conservatives have made a fetish of cutting domestic spending in the federal budget in their professed desire to reduce the national debt. The Republican obsession with debt is a relatively recent phenomenon. When outgoing President Bill Clinton in January 2001 handed new President George W. Bush a balanced budget that was on track to pay off the $5.7 trillion national debt within a decade, Bush promptly cut taxes on the wealthy while he ran two wars off the books. He nearly doubled the national debt.

Bush handed new President Obama an economy in freefall, financial markets on the verge of collapse, an unbalanced budget and a $10.6 trillion national debt in January 2009. President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed a stimulus and largely succeeded in stabilizing the economy while putting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the books, but the debt has grown to $17.46 trillion at the end of February. Now Republicans complain that it is unconscionable to pass such a debt onto the next generation.

The kids won’t thank us if we hand them a nation with negligible debt but also leave them with a climate of extreme weather and droughts that make it increasingly difficult to sustain human life — and that appears to be where we’re headed.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in March issued an uncharacteristically blunt call to action on climate change, Joe Romm noted at March 20. Its Climate Science Panel issued a report, “What We Know,” with several simple messages. Among them: Climate scientists agree that climate change is happening here and now.

Average global temperature has increased by about 1.4˚F over the last 100 years. Sea level is rising, and some types of extreme events — such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events -– are happening more frequently. Recent scientific findings indicate that climate change is likely responsible for the increase in the intensity of many of these events in recent years.

The United Nations World Water Development Report, released March 21, found that shale gas and oil production as well as biofuels “can pose significant risks” to water resources, putting energy producers against farmers, factories and providers of drinking and sanitation services.

And the World Health Organization found that air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths around the world each year. The UN health agency says pollution has now become the single greatest environmental health risk, contributing to one out of every eight global deaths.

The National Academy of Sciences reported in 2009 that burning fossil fuels costs the US about $120 billion a year in health costs, mostly because of premature deaths from air pollution. The damages are caused almost equally by coal and oil, according to the study.

It is past time to wean the world off fossil fuels, which put 32 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. This climate disruption will accelerate over the next few decades and will prove extremely costly to human society.

We should divert the $14 billion that we now spend on subsidizing oil, gas and coal production and spend it on developing sustainable energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Those fossil fuel subsidies in the US amount to $52 billion when some costs associated with defending pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf are taken into account, according to Oil Change International ( And that doesn’t include the $2 trillion the US spent fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the $2 trillion more the government expects to spend on long-term health needs of casualties of those wars.

President Obama has proposed eliminating $4 billion in oil and gas subsidies from the US budget. Congress has not approved those cuts, but the GOP House of Representatives instead proposed eliminating $4 billion in food assistance for the working poor and settled for $860 million in cuts to food stamps.

The good news is that cheaper solar panels and wind turbines now produce energy that is competitive with fossil fuels. A new study from Stanford researchers published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science finds that wind and solar not only produce enough power to be energetically sustainable but could support grid-scale energy storage as well.

The problem with solar and wind energy is they can’t provide consistent, uninterrupted power. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. An option is to develop storage systems based on pumped hydro, chemical batteries or compressed air.

Clean energy is good business, too, creating 78,600 green jobs in 46 states in 2013, according to a report from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). Solar energy was the largest generator, with more than 21,600 new jobs, up from 14,000 in 2012, reaching nearly 143,000 total workers. Solar workers installed 4,751 megawatts of new solar photovoltaic capacity, good for roughly 29% of all new US electrical capacity. Energy efficiency contractors created 12,500 jobs, up from 9,100 in 2012.

Wind energy was buffeted by uncertainty over the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC), and created just 8,500 jobs, down from 12,600 in 2012, Juan Cole noted at (3/15), but the wind industry still represents 80,700 jobs.

Austin Energy recently reached a 25-year deal with SunEdison to provide the Austin utility with 150 megawatts capacity of solar power from West Texas for just under 5 cents per kwh. Marty Toohey of the Austin American-Statesman reported that it could be the world’s cheapest solar-power deal.
The cost of solar power has been dropping in the past few years and a federal tax credit shaved about 3 cents off the price.

The SunEdison price is almost identical to what natural gas is selling for — and it’s cheaper when the cost of building a gas-fired plant is taken into account. Solar power will help the utility handle the strain that a growing population puts on the grid during peak demand times of late afternoon to early evening. Austin Energy also signed a contract in February for wind power from a 300-megawatt wind farm north of Lubbock at 2.8 to 3.8 cents per kwh.

Austin Energy told the Statesman its cost for natural gas is 7 cents per kwh; for wood chips, 9 to 16 cents; for coal, 10 cents; for nuclear power, 13 cents.

The clean energy industry needs tax incentives to compete with fossil fuels. Extension of the Production Tax Credit, which makes renewable energies more cost-competitive with coal and gas, is an annual fight.

Also needed is passage of a federal Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), which would require that a certain percentage of the nation’s electricity come from clean sources. Over half the states and the District of Columbia have adopted their own RES policies. They need to be defended while the other states need to adopt their own standards — and enforce them.

House Democrats in June 2009 passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, with a “cap and trade” system that would limit greenhouse gases. It also would set a federal RES, subsidize clean energy jobs, reduce dependence on oil and protect consumers from energy price increases. The bill died in the Senate.

The League of Conservation Voters credits the Obama administration with making clean energy and energy efficiency high priorities. That has resulted in clean car standards that will roughly double fuel efficiency by 2025 and, for the first time, require reductions in carbon pollution.

The EPA is in the the process of regulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases and holding polluters responsible for the carbon pollution they dump into the atmosphere. Big Oil and coal producers have responded by demanding a free pass to continue polluting. Their allies in Congress, led by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are pushing legislation that would permanently block the EPA from reducing carbon pollution.

If you’re truly concerned about the next generation, give them a climate they can live with. There’s nothing about the national debt that economic recovery and reasonable tax rates can’t cure. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2014
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