OP-ED: A fork in the climate change road


America appears to have reached a fork in the road, a moment of decision. While still an infant versus nearly any other nation, we're starting to feel a little unsure about our future. As with any civilization, there are of course plenty working relentlessly on next-generation improvements to things. Others blame departure from the old ways for our troubles, such as many considering Obama's "War on Coal" to be a crime against world prosperity.

The top three coal producers — Peabody, Alpha (which bought faltering Massey) and Arch — lost 75 percent, 80 percent and 80 percent, respectively, of their stock values over the past year, and 78 percent, 96 percent and 95 percent, respectively, over the past 10 years.

Youth everywhere are demanding divestment from fossil fuel-based energy for our common good. Investment firms are starting to acknowledge the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The huge Australian Abbot Point coal terminal expansion project right next to the Great Barrier Reef has lost most of its financing ... except for the United States Import/Export Bank, related to our moment of decision.

But then we also have Tesla Motors, which has made electric cars cool. Apple and Google are also interested in the production of electric cars. Our computer, solar panel and electric car technology is competitive anywhere. Our Silicon Valley is leading the charge into a positively electric future.

And then there are the traditionalist naysayers, going through stages of denial about climate change. Now admitting it exists, they shout from the rooftops that we, of course, have nothing to do with it. They dismiss, insult and twist the science to support their views. When countered, they start talking about conspiracy theories. In the Senate, Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe showed a snowball in winter as proof it's all a hoax.

None of this climate change stuff is rocket science. Combustion creates CO2, CO2 reflects infrared (heat) energy back to the Earth ("greenhouse effect"). In the space of a mere couple of centuries, we humans dug up and burned much of the planet's remains of prehistoric organic matter. Now adding 36 gigatons of CO2 to the air each year, it's caused the atmospheric concentration to jump from 282 parts per million (PPM) in 1800 to 403 PPM today (measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory), a level not seen for over 650,000 years according to NASA scientists. That extra CO2 bumps up the greenhouse effect, causing incremental global warming. That warming in turn generates climate change, including California getting stuck in a hot drought while York's 2015 winter temperatures pretty much matched that of Barter Island of northern Alaska from a slower Jet Stream getting seriously wavy.

The climate has of course changed before. CO2 and other gas concentrations would shift, the atmosphere would warm or cool to synchronize, and the oceans would go up or down accordingly — all in gradual geologic time. This sudden dumping of the underground carbon into the sky is different though, shown by innumerable hockey stick shaped long term CO2 graphs (see NASA again). Temperature synchronizes with CO2 levels, and CO2 levels have suddenly burst through the roof.

The resulting higher temperatures will lead to rising ocean levels for the billion people who live in coastal areas, mostly in developing nations. So while coal use today allows use of air conditioning and microwaves in those developing coastal cities, the children of today's coastal families will see those same cities wracked by increasingly crippling storms from that same global dependency on coal energy.

That's enough of the science. The only thing we can control is how we react to things by what opinions we decide to form. And we all want to do the right thing, based on our own perspectives.

One great civilization, the eastern half of the Greco-Roman world that gave us our foundations, went from the smartest, wealthiest and most powerful intellects of the world to a single city unable to pay for a single cannon. And so the cannon maker went to that city's enemy, leading to the end of 2,000 years of uninterrupted Classical civilization. That once-great Constantinople should have instead invented that cannon.

So how should we celebrate Earth Day? Should we invent that cannon, so to speak, by encouraging fascinating 21st century electric innovation, including exponentially growing wind and solar power, each already providing more jobs than the coal industry? We'd then gain the leading-edge R&D, manufacturing and installation jobs that would go with that electric innovation, while making progress with our carbon dependency inheritance in the process. Or should we hide behind our conspiracy theories as the rest of the world leaves us behind to wither?

We are the only ones who can control that.

— Roger Twitchell is a resident of York City and a member of the Citizens' Climate Lobby.