Energy & Environment

What to do about climate change?

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Of the many pressing issues that confront Washington these days, few pose a larger dilemma than what to do about climate change. Intractable positions on global warming, staked out by rural members of Congress, have been driven by the sentiments of their voters. In coal country, representatives must answer to a constituency that rightly believes that it is they who will be required to shoulder the largest burden of the federal government’s aggressive climate change policy.

{mosads}Some regions of this country can afford to be worried about climate change, and sadly, there are others that cannot. I hail from a congressional district that cannot. I also happen to believe that human activity is warming the earth, and left unchecked, portends unimaginable implications. Perhaps that is one reason my constituents chose to replace me in 2010. In retrospect, my support for “cap and trade” sent a subtle message to my voters that I did not have their backs. Of course that is not how I saw it, but I can certainly understand the lack of trust my vote engendered.

Warnings and admonitions about the dangers of global warming fall upon the ears of many rural Americans who simply cannot afford to care. My progressive friends, with whom I share sentiments on this issue, should be mindful of the extraordinary pressure exerted on their colleagues from coal country. Natural predispositions against wide-scale energy reform in rural areas are amply reinforced by well-organized industry-sponsored public relations campaigns. The catchphrase “War on Coal” strikes directly at the heart of a culture that has, for generations, made a living off coal. Moreover, to lose the advantage of affordable energy would cripple regional economies perpetually set reeling from depressed wages, high poverty and crumbling infrastructure.

Beyond matters of self-preservation or cultural bias, there are indeed sound arguments that can be leveled against the rapid transition to wind and solar generation. The wholesale movement away from fossil fuels would drive energy prices skyward, propagate poverty in rural and urban areas, and place our nation at a severe competitive disadvantage in the world economy. Compounding all this is the realization that even the most aggressive efforts to promote the build-out of advanced energy would have a negligible effect on global carbon emissions. Given current world affairs, many rural Americans, understandably, find laughable the notion that if we lead on this issue, other countries will follow. And underscoring all this is the technical reality that it is virtually impossible — now and into the foreseeable future — to meet our nation’s enormous demand for power without utilizing our abundant coal reserves.

At the very heart of our national dilemma is the sense that the clear and present danger of aggressive climate change action seems, to many here in coal country, every bit as disturbing as the distant specter of climate change itself.

So, what are we to do about climate change? For starters, Congress can begin looking to coal country as a part of the solution, rather than as the problem. This requires an acknowledgement of the inherent unfairness in demanding that poor, rural regions bear the brunt of reform, and a realization that coal must necessarily be a major component of a diverse energy policy. Federal investments in advanced power projects could include incentives tailored to promote manufacturing of wind turbines and solar panels in coal regions to help offset the economic impact of reform. In addition, promising new technological advances make carbon capture and sequestration viable, particularly given that most of our nation’s shale reserves overlay coal country. This coincidence of nature presents an opportunity for sustainable business models that reduce overall emissions and promote our energy independence by using captured carbon to enhance natural gas production.

The science, and frightening consequences, of global warming are impossible for me to ignore. But neither can I ignore the fact that current measures proposed to confront this problem fall inordinately on some of the poorest regions of our country. Bending the curve of carbon emissions to acceptable levels will necessarily require policies that address the injustices — both perceived and real — that currently cloud the debate.

I understand that not all objections to climate change action are founded in regional inequities. There are those whose ideological underpinnings — or those of their constituents — cannot tolerate what is perceived as obtrusive governmental interference in market conditions. Some simply do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. While others cannot justify unilateral efforts without assurances of reciprocal action in other countries.

However, Congress can still achieve the critical mass necessary to affect reform by confronting the impact of that reform on those who can least afford it. Entrust rural Americans as partners in combating global warming and account for the economic implications that energy transformation will impose on coal country. In short, empower us with the tools we need to bear the weight that change will inescapably bring.

Space served in the House from 2007 to 2011. He is a principal for Vorys Advisors LLC, a wholly owned affiliate of the law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP in Ohio. He is also a director of the CoalBlue Project, a nationwide coalition of Democratic leaders dedicated to a vibrant economy and a healthy environment. 

Tags Climate change Coal Fossil fuels Global warming Politics of global warming war on coal

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