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Commentary: Time for the Hard Part

Posted By NAEP, Friday, March 04, 2016

By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link

After the Paris climate talks concluded, an editorial in the December 15, 2015 issue of the New York Times noted, “The Hard Part Comes Now.” Another, on February 10, 2016, titled “Justices Deal Blow to Obama Effort on Emissions,” confirmed the pessimistic prediction.  One of the goals of the conference had been to develop agreement on the how to reduce atmospheric carbon through a global reduction in the use of fossil fuels, most notably coal. On December 12, 2015 the Wall Street Journal had published, “King Coal Hard to Dethrone.” The article noted the Philippines would open 23 new coal power plants over the next five years to meet demand. The added capacity is expected to double the amount of CO2 produced to 70 million metric tons a year by 2035. Similarly, Vietnam plans to double its coal plants to 40 by 2020. And China added an extraordinary 39 gigawatts in new coal-fired capacity last year, enough to power millions of homes.” And, “Japan is building dozens of new coal plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.” At least in Asia, it seems coal isn’t about to be dethroned anytime soon, despite the Paris agreement and national commitments. The Asian nations involved probably see this as a contest between living standards and carbon emissions and have adopted to address living standards first. Even European nations such as Poland, where 90% of the electrical power is generated by coal burning plants, will find it all but impossible to shift quickly to another source of energy. “The commodity is cheap and supplies about 40% of the world’s energy according to the International energy agency. “

Nations are not likely to sacrifice their own living-standards to achieve atmospheric carbon-reduction while other nations that are not dedicated to any reduction are offsetting that savings–at least, not unless the committed believe a crisis is at hand, and most do not. According to the December article in the WSJ, developed nations are willing to offer substantial financial and technical aid to assist developing nations to switch to cleaner sources of power. The U.S. share would be at last $860 million annually by 2020. I think it is fair to say that many potential recipient nations will see the billions promised as not nearly enough to enable them to approach the living standards of their developed brothers while shifting away from cheap coal. However, I suspect the developed nations will try to insist on some appropriate contribution from all nations, because few would be willing to ask for sacrifice at home only to see their hard-earned carbon reductions offset by increases in the undeveloped world by nations receiving aid.

 More than likely, not many in the developed world will see this as an outstanding opportunity to achieve massive wealth-redistribution. Successful nations believe that they have earned their living standards and have made major contributions in many other areas such as public health, science, medicine, technology, engineering and governance to at least in part offset their past carbon production. I don’t believe feelings of national guilt will prove to be a sufficient motivational factor long-term. For many, national security and improving living standards remain the top priorities. Recently, President’s Obama administration sought to use the regulatory process through the EPA to substantially change how electrical power is generated in the U.S. The process would save time by avoiding the need for congressional hearings and approval.  In what has been described as unprecedented action, the Supreme Court intervened. “In a major setback for President Obama’s climate change agenda, the Supreme court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the administration’s effort to combat global warming by simply regulating emissions from coal fired power plants.” According to the February 10, 2016 article in the NYT, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. urged the Supreme Court to reject the request for a stay while the case moves forward. He noted, “Climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our day, and is already affecting national health, welfare and the environment.” I suspect the Supreme Court recognized the importance of the issues involved, and the implications of the action desired by the government and decided that they wanted to slow the process to allow time to more carefully consider the consequences and alternatives. They may have thought that this was too important to be addressed by a simple change in EPA regulations not requiring the consideration and concurrence of congress. In any case, the Court will take a more detailed look at the government’s desired action and perhaps the process in the future. Personally, I don’t believe a simple, quick, regulatory change would produce the needed public buy-in required for the long-term success of the continuing action required to deal with climate change. 

 Where does that leave us? I think about where we were. Here in the U.S., the focus is on the presidential nominating-process. And the signatories of the Paris pact all seem to be waiting to see what the other nations are prepared to actually do in terms of the environment before committing their own nation to anything major. The nominating process will eventually come to an end and we’ll have an election. Diplomatic back-channel communications will allow nations to better understand their peers’ plans and develop their own.  Until those are accomplished, I doubt congress will do much about climate change. On the international scene, the ongoing discussion seems to suggest change will be deliberate and incremental over an extended period. Nothing as sweeping as some propose is likely to take place over night. From what I read in the media, we have taken since roughly 1850 to get us where we find ourselves and more than likely we’ll need more than a few decades to notice any substantial turn around.

 What has all this got to do with purchasing in support of higher education? What’s the point? Patience and persistence may be the most important characteristics of people seriously working toward a solution on campus and off. Despite pickets, demands and protests, this is going to take generations to resolve, partly because of the scope of the problem and the global political considerations. Several future generations of undergraduates and faculty will still be contending with these problems. A permanent solution will require lifestyle changes and, in that area, deciding who should change what is a political issue not subject to scientific problem-solving. The world’s reliance on coal, oil and gas will not be ended short-term. For example, there is no replacement on the horizon for the 40% cheap coal contributes to satisfying global power demand except more oil and gas–and neither meet the zero carbon-contribution and renewable energy tests. I think it could be decades before we see a significant decline in the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon. Clearly, a few scientific and engineering breakthroughs would help.

People like to think they are contributing, doing their share to solve problems. Are we doing our share on campus? If we are going to preach the need for carbon reduction, we’ll be more effective if we set a good example. When town folks see a climate-change demonstration underway locally, they might reasonably wonder how does a campus of, say, 10,000 students compare in overall electrical power consumption and carbon generation with a town of the same size? On campuses, it’s easy to believe the ever-increasing demand for more electrical power related to the proliferation of useful gadgets is justified. If you wonder about how many megawatts the super bowl consumed,  have you considered the combined power consumption of a season of night basketball and football games or rock concerts on campuses across the nation? Here in Florida, just about all team sporting activity at all levels takes place at night, to avoid the heat of the day. Every night, you can see brightly lighted football, soccer lacrosse, field hockey and whatever fields on the horizon. We see that as a worthwhile investment in our children. What is the carbon contribution of a weekend away skiing? If we have a story to tell, are we letting the public know what we are doing to reduce atmospheric carbon other than protesting?

What’s happening on your campus?

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