Coal Tattoo

Can West Virginia talk about climate change yet?

In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, dust is carried by the wind behind a combine harvesting corn in a field near Coy, Ark. A brutal combination of a widespread drought and a mostly absent winter pushed the average annual U.S. temperature last year up to 55.32 degrees Fahrenheit, the government announced Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. Breaking temperature records by an entire degree is unprecedented, scientists say. Normally, records are broken by a tenth of a degree or so. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

According to this week’s announcement by the National Climatic Data Center at NOAA:

In 2012, the contiguous United States (CONUS) average annual temperature of 55.3°F was 3.3°F above the 20th century average, and was the warmest year in the 1895-2012 period of record for the nation. The 2012 annual temperature was 1.0°F warmer than the previous record warm year of 1998. Since 1895, the CONUS has observed a long-term temperature increase of about 0.13°F per decade.

Seth Borenstein, the great Associated Press science writer, explains:

Scientists say the U.S. heat is part global warming in action and natural weather variations. The drought that struck almost two-thirds of the nation and a La Nina weather event helped push temperatures higher, along with climate change from man-made greenhouse gas emissions, said Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She said temperature increases are happening faster than scientists predicted.

“These records do not occur like this in an unchanging climate,” said Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “And they are costing many billions of dollars.”

Global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — which sends heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the air, changing the climate, scientists say.

Just last evening, a new paper co-authored by legendary scientist and thinker Paul Ehrlich warned of dire consequences if our society doesn’t act:

Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size. In many, if not most, cases, overexploitation of the environment was one proximate or an ultimate cause.

But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption.

The paper, titled “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?“, goes on to explain:

Unfortunately, essential steps such as curbing global emissions to peak by 2020 and reducing them to half of present levels by 2050 are extremely problematic economically and politically. Fossil fuel companies would have to leave most of their proven reserves in the ground, thus destroying much of the industry’s economic value. Because the ethics of some businesses include knowingly continuing lethal but profitable activities, it is hardly surprising that interests with large financial stakes in fossil fuel burning have launched a gigantic and largely successful disinformation campaign in the USA to confuse people about climate disruption and block attempts to deal with it.

Some otherwise smart and thoughtful people in West Virginia cling to the notion that there’s been no warming of the planet’s climate for the last 16 years — a dubious bit of misinformation that’s been widely debunked and totally discredited by the U.K. Met Office that was claimed to have been the source. But of course, most of West Virginia’s elected officials and business leaders buy into the idea that global warming isn’t real or even if it is, that it’s not an urgent issue in need of action. Remember the silence from our leaders when they were asked about climate change in the wake of Hurricane Sandy? Or the ridiculous things they said when asked about the issue during last year’s political campaign? (Governor Tomblin, for example: Once again, there are differences of opinion as to whether we’re in global warming now.)

There are obviously many, many reasons all of this matters to West Virginians, including some reasons that don’t get mentioned as often on this blog or elsewhere in our state media coverage.

First, West Virginia is in the midst of the shale-gas drilling boom, and one of the big selling points some folks make about natural gas is that it’s better for global warming than coal. But there’s an important scientific discussion going on about whether natural gas is really all that much better than coal when it comes to greenhouse emissions (see here, here, here and here for the latest).

Next, as Pam Kasey at The State Journal recently noted, work to perfect and deploy carbon  capture and storage technology — the coal industry’s only real hope in a carbon-constrained world — continue to fall behind.The International Energy Agency recently warned that “high cost and simultaneous lack of incentive policies” are delaying the technology.

And finally, as Bill Howley has been writing on The Power Line blog, these somewhat confusing efforts by American Electric Power and FirstEnergy to divest themselves of coal-fired power plants are about more than just electricity rates (see here, here and here). As WVU law professor James M. Van Nostrand recently explained in a paper on integrated resource planning for West Virginia utilities, discussions about these matters are vital “to place the State on a foundation that is sustainable, not only from the perspective of a “cleaner” energy supply but also in the resilience of a more diversified economic base that is better positioned for the future.”

Or, to quote Sen. Jay Rockefeller:

… The shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.