Archived Huffington Post articles
The Coal War
12/01/2015 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2016
Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, recently accepted the Washington Coal Club’s Annual Achievement Award (who knew?) for his efforts to stop President Obama’s “war on coal jobs”. McConnell has pushed through the Senate two regulations that would block the Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce the use of coal in power production. The House of Representatives is expected to approve similar legislation as that passed by the Senate, and the Commander-in Chief will then veto it. And so “the war” is sure to continue. Who are the casualties in this conflict? Today, there are around 80,000 people involved in mining coal in the United States, and another 30,000 in transporting it -far fewer than are employed in either the solar or wind energy industries. Half of all the miners are in just 3 states—West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky (McConnell’s home state). So, if Obama’s war on coal jobs actually led to all coal production coming to an end—a most unlikely scenario—the impact would be miniscule in terms of national employment (a loss of ~0.1% of the US labor force). However, for those employed in the coal industry, the impact would be severe indeed, as coal mining provides well-paid jobs in areas where there are few other options for employment. Mining is a peculiarly site-specific activity, so communities near mines often rely heavily on that industry. Closing mines can have devastating social consequences, as we saw when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed dozens of uneconomic mines in the UK in the 1970s, without any plans for those affected. There are many lessons to be learned from that experience.
First, it may not be realistic to envision miners re-training for high tech, well-paid jobs—in West Virginia, for example, the average age of miners is 55, and in any case, well-paid high tech jobs are rather scarce in that part of the world. But there may be other jobs, such as environmental restoration, that could provide continued employment if funding for those activities was available. What President Obama should not do is follow Thatcher’s example, in which she ignored the social and economic reality and failed to offer alternative employment options.
Coal is definitely on the decline as a major fuel in the United States, not only because of more stringent environmental regulations, but also because cheaper options are available in abundance, a consequence of the fracking of natural gas. Obama had very little to do with that development and so regardless of whether McConnell prevails in his legislative battles, not many people are going to consider the coal mining industry for their long-term investments. So, this is a war McConnell simply can’t win, as the number of coal jobs will inevitably decline.
Nevertheless, Obama should reflect on the UK experience. In Paris, at the COP21 climate change negotiations, he will pledge billions of dollars in U.S. aid to subsidize green energy production in developing countries. This is an essential strategy to ensure that future carbon dioxide emissions are capped, to limit the societal impacts of climate change. But those arguments will carry little weight in the small communities around the U.S. where a shift in the energy production landscape will also cause direct economic and social disruption.
The administration should recognize this reality and consider a similar program of aid within the U.S. Some of this could be used to restore environmental damage from mining, while helping those displaced from an industry that has no future, to sustain themselves and their families. It’s unlikely that such actions will make Obama very popular with the Washington Coal Club, but it’s still the right thing to do.
I thank sourcewatch.org (“Coal and jobs in the United States”) for helpful statistics.
Death of an Ice Cap
02/18/2016 02:13 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2017
Thirty years ago, I flew with two of my students to the northeastern corner of the Canadian High Arctic, not far from the edge of the Arctic Ocean. The plane was equipped with skis and we landed in deep soft snow on top of a small un-named ice cap. We decided to call it the Hazen Ice Cap, as it was located on the high Hazen Plateau. It had only been visited once before, by a Canadian research group, who had written an article about how the ice cap appeared to be growing, expanding across the tundra. We wanted to study how an ice cap, cold and white, modifies its local climate, perhaps cooling the nearby air enough to create a chilly world around it, and in so doing, helping it to survive or perhaps even to grow.
It was an amazing place; we camped near the summit, setting up a network of stakes and weather instruments to monitor the snow that built up each winter, and the amount of summer melting. We suspended instruments from a large tethered balloon to see how far up in the atmosphere the influence of the ice cap extended. And we monitored temperatures around the ice cap to determine the extent to which it affected conditions on the adjacent plateau, once the winter snow had melted away. On a clear day, you could see forever in all directions — to the Greenland Ice Cap off to the east, and the British Empire Range to the west. Far to the north, the Arctic Ocean glistened in the sun that often shone for a full 24 hours. But on cloudy days — and there were many of those — we found ourselves immersed in a ground fog, which eliminated all sense of distance or direction. These “whiteout” conditions led to some eerie experiences. On one occasion, we set out to measure the stakes, which ran in a straight line across the ice cap. After stumbling along for what seemed like far too long without finding a single stake, we were startled to see footprints in the snow. Our immediate reaction was incredulity — how could there be anybody else up here without us knowing about it? Where could they have come from? Then it slowly dawned on us — without realizing it, we had walked in a complete circle, utterly lost in the whiteout. At such moments, you begin to understand how easily you can lose touch with reality.
We had many other memorable experiences up on the ice cap, and I would love to go back. Alas, that simply can’t happen. The latest satellite images of the region show the ice cap has almost completely disappeared, due to the relentless build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Half of all the post-industrial era carbon dioxide that has entered the atmosphere has done so since we were camped on the ice cap. As a result, temperatures have risen significantly, the ice has melted, and all that is now left is a small snow patch in a sheltered gulley.
We talk a lot about global warming, and its consequences but nothing prepares you for something so monumental, so seemingly huge and timeless, to quietly disappear. There was no great splash, like we see when the ends of massive glaciers break off and fall into the ocean. It just melted away, leaving behind only memories in the minds of the few of us who had stumbled around in the mist, and who were blessed by the wondrous views as we skied across the endless dome of snow and ice. Hazen Ice Cap — gone but not forgotten... R.I.P.
For further information about this, see: http://nsidc.org/monthlyhighlights/2016/02/the-sad-tale-of-the-st-patrick-bay-ice-caps/
Survival of the Unfit
12/10/2015 06:17 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2016
You could (perhaps) be forgiven for misunderstanding the scientific process if you were Chairman of some obscure Congressional committee dealing with say, taxation or waste management. But it is surely not too much to expect that the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology --Congressman Lamar Smith — should understand how science works. To recap, scientists carry out their research, discuss results with colleagues, write up their results and submit them for publication. The editor of the scientific journal then sends the paper to (generally anonymous) referees who evaluate the research, provide critical comments and return the paper for any required revisions. If these are addressed adequately, the journal editor may decide that the paper is acceptable and then it is eventually published. It’s not rocket science. Well, actually — it could be rocket science... but then it would still fall under the purview of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. But apparently, Rep. Smith does not grasp the complexities of this process (despite the fact that there are none). He seems to think that it can be somehow fixed, manipulated or rushed for political reasons. He is fixated on the notion that scientists are water carriers for the White House, crushing dissent and forcing editors to publish Obama-friendly screeds. The possibility that some authors might be Republicans who disagree with the current administration policy has apparently not crossed his mind. Not content with sending subpoenas to NOAA climate scientists who published an update on global warming (in Science, the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) Rep. Smith has polished off his own climate science credentials and advised NOAA scientists what they should have done to make their study acceptable. Writing in the Washington Times, he argues that satellite data should have been used rather than surface observations, since “satellite data are considered by many to be the most objective”. Can this be the same Lamar Smith who introduced a spending bill to cut the NASA earth observations satellite budget by $300m? And who proposed to cut the NSF Earth Sciences budget by 30%? Yes, indeed it can, which demonstrates that hypocrisy is an essential trait to be a successful politician (in case you did not know that). Given that Lamar Smith was trained as a lawyer, his extensive background in climatology amounts to...well, nothing actually.
All this is a very sad commentary on the fact that the Republican leadership House of Representatives does not have the testicular credentials to remove those who clearly demonstrate complete ignorance about the very topics that they are supposed to oversee. U.S. science and technology is not well-served when scientists are harassed by unqualified bullies in Congress. But getting rid of such incumbents is not easy because they have often gerrymandered their electoral districts to ensure that they are almost unchallengeable. You could call this, “Survival of the Unfittest,” a disturbingly non-Darwinian concept. But then, those Republicans on the Science Committee who dismiss the overwhelming evidence for global warming probably don’t accept evolution either.
Don’t Blame the Witches
06/17/2015 11:22 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2016
In 1485, Pope Innocent VIII published his treatise on the prosecution of witches, Malleus Maleficarum. This addressed concerns that extreme weather events were brought about by witches consorting with the Devil to wreak havoc on the populace. Unprecedented extreme weather conditions across much of western Europe were common in the decades before 1485 and for some 300 years after, a period known as the Little Ice Age. Severe hardships were imposed on those who relied on agriculture, which is to say, most of the population. Poor harvests led to food shortages, malnutrition, disease and death. In the absence of any other explanation for why such weather extremes happened, suspicion fell on those who were thought to commune with evil spirits and bring about disaster. Pope Innocent’s recommendation was that that those responsible be tried and executed. Over the next two centuries thousands of innocent women were brutally executed in a futile attempt to restore equilibrium to the climate.
Today, we understand that these severe weather conditions were natural occurrences, often related to changes in climate brought about by explosive volcanic eruptions, compounded by small reductions in energy from the sun. These were unusual events, but they imposed crippling burdens on society in many regions, often aggravating underlying socio-economic problems, leading to despair and anger, and the search for scapegoats. People did not have the benefit of scientific understanding, or an ability to forecast how their climate would evolve in the future, so perhaps it is not surprising that they resorted to extreme measures. But we have no such excuse — we have a sophisticated understanding of the climate system and what causes it to change. This leads us to a stark conclusion: as carbon dioxide levels continue to increase in the atmosphere, we can expect more frequent and more intense weather extremes — more storms, more floods, more heatwaves.
Along our coasts, flooding will increase as sea-level relentlessly rises. Impacts will be felt around the world as rainfall patterns shift, changing the climate we have come to expect, with severe impacts on agriculture, water resources, ecosystems and transportation. Disruptions to the agricultural sector will affect everyone, pushing prices to record levels. While we in the United States have the capacity to cope with such market disruptions, less developed parts of the world do not, and there, the impacts will be more direct and the consequences will be felt more sharply. Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress has been completely impotent in stemming the driver of increasing climate extremes — emissions of carbon dioxide.
Even worse, many in Congress have vowed that actions by the Executive branch to limit emissions from power plants will never be implemented. Without such measures, the U.S. will have no credibility in international negotiations to reduce global emissions. This will drive us inexorably towards a world of increasing weather extremes, with immense ecological and societal costs, and uncertain geopolitical implications. Who will those who suffer the most, blame for such effects?
This time, it won’t be the witches.
A Climate of Indifference
06/18/2015 04:01 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2016
“The climate is a common good — of all, and for all“.
With these simple words from his recent encyclical, Pope Francis has opened a new front in the debate over global warming and environmental degradation. Speaking of the need to change lifestyles, as well as methods of production and rampant consumption, he went on to warn that if the current trend of rising temperatures continues, “this century could witness unprecedented climate change and unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us“.
Pope Francis clearly understands the solution to this problem, but he also acknowledges the core problem that we have yet to face: “In the coming years the emission of carbon dioxide and other heavily polluting gas [must be] reduced drastically...Many of those who hold more resources, and economic or political power, appear to be concentrated on masking the problems and hiding the symptoms, rather than trying to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change“.
Predictably, these sentiments elicited a swift reaction from right wing politicians in Washington who scrambled to dismiss his message. Global warming Denier-in-Chief, Senator James Inhofe, growled, “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.“ But speaking with wisdom and concern for all people, and the earth that sustains them, is indeed Job 1 for Pope Francis. Uniquely, he has no political agenda. He speaks from the heart (not the Heartland) with unimpeachable moral authority. Who else can address this issue without the taint of politics? Moreover, Pope Francis has a particular responsibility to those without a voice at the centers of power in affluent countries. As he noted, “Many poor people are particularly affected by phenomena related to global warming...they have no financial or other resources that enable them to adapt to climate impacts or deal with catastrophic situations, and have little access to social services and protection“. For billions of people in the developing world, the truth of his words will resonate with their own experiences.
Dealing with global warming and related environmental problems is fundamentally a moral and ethical issue. Pope Francis urges those who focus on short-term political agendas to step back and consider their broader responsibilities. “We are one human family. There are no political or social borders and barriers that allow us to isolate ourselves, and for that reason there is no space for the globalization of indifference...if you have the courage to do so, [you] will again recognize the dignity that God has given [you] as a person and leave, after [your] passage in this story, a testimony of generous responsibility“.
We can only hope (or pray) that those in the Congress who are currently obstructing meaningful action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take this to heart.
The Drought of Climate Change Support
09/19/2014 06:50 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014
This summer, we’ve seen a continuation of the record-breaking heat and drought in the Southwest that began several years ago. In parts of Texas and Oklahoma, it’s as bad as it was during the “Dust Bowl” years of the 1930s. Crops have withered, water restrictions are in place, and air conditioning costs are going through the roof. None of this is good for people, livestock or the local economy.
Is this just a natural variation, or is it connected to global warming? Certainly, there have been unusual episodes of drought in the past that were unrelated to global warming. But we also know that because of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels, temperatures have been steadily shifting to higher levels. This means that when we get unusually hot, dry conditions, it starts out from a higher base, which makes things a lot worse. Even minor fluctuations push us into more and more extreme territory. Across the globe, we’ve loaded the atmosphere with so much pollution from burning fossil fuel that the climate is warming up everywhere, and our weather and climate is changing to a “new normal.” The conditions we were used to are a thing of the past, and this is especially true for Oklahoma, Texas and the southwestern states.
Almost every study of what the future has in store for us shows that this region is Ground Zero for climate change, as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. People living there will experience higher temperatures, less rainfall and more extreme weather in the years ahead. In other words, the “unusual conditions” that the region has experienced over the last few summers will be more like normal conditions in the future. So the message is pretty clear — get used to it.
Remarkably, congressional leaders from the region — led by Senator James Inhofe and Texas Congressman Joe Barton — have refused to accept what almost every climate scientist who has studied this problem can see as plain as day. They insist that global warming is a myth, that the climate isn’t changing and that carbon dioxide pollution has nothing to do with the changes we have all experienced. You have to wonder who they are really representing on this matter. Is it the farmers who are losing their shirts to the increasingly common droughts? Or those blasted by tornadoes and severe storms? Or the hard-working families of the region who face ever higher electricity bills as they try to stay cool in the sweltering heat? If that’s who they represent, they have a strange way of showing it.
Senator Inhofe and Congressman Barton have blocked legislation that would help turn down the temperature dial by controlling heat-trapping pollutants. Only big oil and gas companies benefit from this, and they don’t seem to need all that much help right now. It’s time to apply some pressure to those in Congress who can help put the brakes on the rate of climate change. That’s not a lot to ask — for them it’s all indoor work and no heavy lifting.