Marty Nathan: We must all answer climate change call

Last modified: Saturday, April 26, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — What is to be done?

Last weekend I twice found myself discussing with friends the best response to the threat of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report declares that global warming and chaotic weather are occurring much more rapidly than predicted. As its effects become more apparent, I find more people want to talk about how they can act to prevent catastrophe.

Consider the following from “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.”

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased .... Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is predicted that unless we fully deploy all available methods to limit greenhouse gas emissions, global warming will increase to more than 2 degrees Celsius, at which point global feedback mechanisms — fires, melting of methane-containing tundra, decreased reflection from sea ice — will automatically kick in to raise temperatures still further without our control.

We face a scenario of massive drought and flood, crop and animal loss, species extinction, killer heat waves and hunger in decades, not centuries, to come. People who read and listen are responding. Even the media has been provoked, with the premiering of the new Showtime documentary “Years of Living Dangerously.”

What is to be done about what many people believe is the issue of our times? Both discussions I had with friends devolved to: What is more important, lifestyle changes or political action? Should we ride the bus, walk and ride bikes, insulate our houses and mount solar panels, eat local vegan and line-dry our clothes or dive into the frustrating and often corrupt mess that is politics and demand that our government face this challenge?

Both. To use a bad analogy for a doctor who cares about teeth, we must learn to walk and chew gum.

It seems clear we need to radically reform our lifestyles to limit our personal carbon footprints, because we North Americans have contributed and continue to spew way more than our share of that CO2/methane blanket that is warming us. We must carefully rethink what we do now and demonstrate to each other and the world that life is not just possible but often more meaningful and enjoyable if we stop relying on combustion engines and carbon-based heat and electricity for our every move. More consumption is not more happiness.

But that just isn’t enough. Things systemic must change. The best climate scientists say that for the earth to have any chance of not passing that 2-degree hike, 80 percent of the fossil fuels in the ground now must stay in the ground. Personal efforts, though important, won’t do it in time.

Many others much smarter and more knowledgeable than I believe it is time that all of us who care about the future enter the fray. And at this very moment a crucial battle is playing out over the granting of U.S. permission for the Keystone XL pipeline. We need to join it.

A significant portion of that 80 percent of fossil fuels that must stay in the ground is the two trillion barrels of tar sands in Alberta, Canada. It is filthier than regular oil and its extraction has devastated huge swaths of Albertan ranch and forestland, polluting soil and water with the heat and toxic chemicals needed to take this tar from the earth and prepare it for travel.

It is an expensive process and the oil quality is poor, meaning it fetches lower prices on the oil market. So in order to be able to more than break even and boost their production, oil companies must find a cheap way to get it to the specialized Gulf Coast refineries. Rail, though used, is expensive and dangerous, not nearly filling the bill. At present trains only deliver 5 percent of what a pipeline can move.

Enter the Keystone XL. It and its proposed sister pipelines are critical to make tar sands fuel profitable enough to increase production by more than a factor of four, as tar sands producers plan. If built, the Keystone XL will bring 830,000 barrels per day to refineries on the Gulf Coast for export to China. The pipeline is the tap for a flood of greenhouse gases, each barrel 22 percent more polluting than regular West Texas crude. That extra 22 percent alone is the equivalent of 5.7 million more cars on the road.

Do we need it for energy security? No. It is going to China. Will there be jobs? Yes. About two thousand over two years but only 50 permanent jobs. Could the money building it be better spent? U.S. tar sands infrastructure will need a $50 billion to $100 billion investment. That amount put into clean energy alternatives — solar and wind power development, insulation, public transit, waste management — would bring many more jobs and would reroute us from the climate disaster we face.

I have got to resist this, for my children’s sake. I am supporting folks gathering from around the country on Saturday in Washington, D.C., for the Stand in Solidarity protest (all of them taking the bus or public transit, eating as little meat as possible.)

I will participate in all local protests and will write again to President Obama and my senators demanding that the Keystone XL decision, which is now put off till after the mid-term elections, prevent this travesty. It is time to walk and chew gum.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is lives in Northampton and works at Baystate Brightwood Health Center. She can be reached at martygjf@comcast.net.