Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Coal Industry Challenges Lower Carbon-Emission Targets: Human Nature on Full Display

With heat-waves underway and glaciers melting, climate-change was undeniable in the summer of 2015. Human nature itself was on full display. It was almost as if the human race could not summon itself into action even as the hardships of a warming world were a foregone conclusion.

"We're the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it," said Obama on August 3rd when he announced a new set of regulations for U.S. power plants that call for a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030. The EPA also issued final rules for new power plants that call for phasing out new coal-fired units unless there is technology in place that can capture and store carbon emissions. Obama said the rules would reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 870 million tons, the equivalent of what is produced by 108 million homes or 166 million cars.[1] He acknowledged a battle lurked ahead, as industry groups were already gearing up to fight the rules in court.

                            Penguins face receding ice and rising waters. (Natacha Pisarenko of AP)

On the same day, the World Glacier Monitoring Service released a study providing new evidence that the world’s glaciers had melted to the lowest levels since the late nineteenth century, and the ice-melt in 2015 would likely be twice the rate in the 1990s and three times the rate the decade before that. "Globally, we lose about three times the ice volume stored in the entirety of the European Alps every year," Michael Zemp, director of the WGMS and lead author of the study said.[2]  On July 20th, “James Hansen, the former NASA climateologist who brought climate change to the public’s attention in the summer of 1998, [had] issued a bombshell: He and a team of climate scientists had identified a newly important feedback mechanism off the coast of Antarctica that suggests mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted: 10 feet by 2065.”[3] Coastal Florida, including its vast commercial and residential real-estate, hang in the balance. Meanwhile, Californians, in the fourth year of the worst drought there in a millennium, witnessed a 50-acre brush fire swell seventyfold in just a few hours, with many other fires raging too.[4]

In spite of the clear indications that the Earth’s atmosphere was warming at an uncharacteristically high rate, the National Mining Association of coal-mining companies requested a stay in court on the EPA’s new rules while the courts have the opportunity to determine the lawfulness of the agency’s attempt to commandeer the nation’s electric grid."[5] Doubtless the focus on the EPA's power-grab did not include the fact that that July was the hottest globally since record-keeping began in 1880. The first seven months of the year were the hottest January-to-July span on record. In fact, from ice-cores scientists determined that the planet was its warmest in at least 4,000 years.[6]

Because coal-fueled power plants made up about 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the U.S. at the time, the companies were playing with fire in that their legal opposition to the rules could make an appreciable difference in how much climate change results from emissions. Put another way, a point of law could conceivably decide whether the lives of future generations of people are just uncomfortable or impossible.

"[T]he Rule . . .  aims at nothing less than the comprehensive 'transformation' of the American electric power grid," wrote Hal Quinn, the NMA's president and chief executive officer, in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy. "Congress, however, did not give EPA the power to restructure how the nation produces and consumes electricity."[7] Even if reducing carbon emissions by a third from power plants constitutes a restructuring of the power grid, Obama’s point about his generation then in power being the first to perceive the impacts from global warming and the last to realistically keep the world’s ecosystem from getting away from us dwarfs the matter of a regulatory agency overreaching.

Of course, the matter may be as simple as that of a narrow private interest being indifferent to the general welfare. Implementing the rule, Quinn wrote, "will irreparably injure the coal mining industry, coal mining workers, and coal mining communities" and "has no purpose other than to reduce the use of coal for electric generation as a means of reducing power sector [carbon dioxide] emissions."[8] The harm to the coal-mining industry in terms of lost revenue was Quinn’s real concern. That the human race could stand in the balance in just a few generations makes the sordid nature of the industry’s self-interest transparent. In fact, the increased demand for electricity for air-conditioning could mean that the mining industry had a financial stake in global warming even though in just a few generations demand for electricity decreases due to more climate-related deaths. 

James Jansen and his colleagues warned that if carbon emissions were not cut soon, the social disruption and dire economic consequences of the sea-level rise along could be devastating. “It is not difficult to imagine,” the scientists wrote, “that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”[9] That such a prospect was rendered realistic given the clear signs of global warming already extant makes the narrow focus of the coal executives even more astonishing. To be sure, business and societal norms and perspectives can be expected to differ, and even clash, for business is but one component of society. For a part to seek to maximize its own gain at the expense of the continued viability of the whole in the foreseeable future renders the strategy highly unethical, not to mention problematic from the standpoint of society. The latter arguably has an ethical right—obligation even—to constrain the maximizing tendency of the hypertrophic part.

Beyond business and society, human nature itself, particularly in its preoccupation with instant gratification even at the risk of self-preservation in the long term, can explain why such a genetically-successful species could also be that species that alters its ecosystems to the extent that the species itself goes extinct. The force of reason pales in comparison with selfishness. On August 3, 2015, the generation that could grasp the actuality of climate change was both doing something about it and putting up obstacles. Human nature was on full display. The question is whether such nature is compatible with its own survival.

[1] Kate Sheppard, “Obama On Climate Rules: ‘This Is Our Moment To Get This Right’,” The Huffington Post, August 3, 2015.
[2] Nick Visser, “World’s Glaciers Melting At Fastest Rate Since Record-Keeping Began,” The Worden Report, August 3, 2015.
[3] Eric Holthaus, “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here,” Rolling Stones, August 5, 2015.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kate Sheppard, “Coal Interests Prepare To Challenge Obama’s Power Plant Rules,” The Worde Report, August 3, 2015.
[6] Nick Visser, "It's Official, July Was Earth's Hottest Month on Record," The Huffington Post, August 20, 2015.
[7] Sheppard, "Coal Interests."
[8] Ibid.
[9] Holthaus, “The Point of No Return.”