EDITORIAL: Yes, climate change is real -- and damaging

April 1, 2014 

A flock of geese flies past a smokestack at the Jeffery Energy Center coal power plant near Emmitt, Kan.


Faced with overwhelming evidence, climate-change deniers resort to cherry picking and spinning. Global warming will reduce cold-related deaths, they say, and plants will grow bigger with more carbon dioxide in the air.

Seriously, that's the deniers' response to the latest report, released Sunday in Japan, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reviewed more than 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies.

The mountain of evidence is clear.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth's atmosphere were stable for millennia at 280 parts per million, then rose with the Industrial Revolution until the 400 ppm mark was broken last year. The last time concentrations were that high was between 3 million and 5 million years ago, when the Earth was much warmer.

The consensus of the 12,000 studies is that we are headed toward more intense wildfires, drought and flooding; animal species moving to higher latitudes and toward the poles; and a more acidic ocean, higher sea levels and decreasing snowpack — all with real human impacts.

Yes, the world might have fewer cold-related deaths, but that benefit pales in comparison to the harms. The negative impacts of climate change on crop yields are more prevalent than positive impacts. So what to do?

The world's biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions comes from burning coal to produce electricity at 7,000 power plants worldwide, including nearly 600 in the United States. More than 40% of the world's electricity comes from coal.

Charles Mann writes in Wired magazine that every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by coal produces more than 2 pounds of carbon dioxide, compared to 1.2 pounds for natural gas and zero for nuclear and solar.

Yet, until the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it would set standards for carbon dioxide emissions at coal-fired power plants, the United States had no limits on carbon dioxide emissions for power plants.

The daunting reality, as former U.S. secretary of energy and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu points out, is that conversion to renewable energy from sun, wind, waves and geothermal sources will likely take a century. Until then, he believes, carbon capture and storage is the only way to deal with the 10.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants emit worldwide each year.

He also points out that two-thirds of the world's coal reserves are in the United States, India, China and Russia. It is up to us to take a leadership role in figuring out what to do about coal in the long transition to other energy sources.

Yet, as Mann's piece points out, research, innovation and scaling up solutions will be "time-consuming, unglamorous and breathtakingly costly." Neither the U.S. coal industry nor environmentalists have shown much interest.

With no push from either camp, in January, the Obama administration proposed blocking construction of new coal-fired power plants unless they do carbon capture and storage.

The Republican-majority House, with help from 10 Democrats in coal states, voted predictably to block the president's plan.

Nearly 83% of Americans say the United States should take action on climate change, "even if it has economic costs," according to surveys late last year by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change. Six in 10 said the United States should reduce its carbon emissions regardless of what other nations do and 63% supported regulations on existing coal-fired power plants.

We need to stop burying our heads in coal and face the reality of climate change.

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