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Columnist Marty Nathan: Build stature as clean-energy community

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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Recently, a group of women friends and I were discussing the problem of climate change, and we found we were split on an issue: what to do about climate deniers.

Several wanted to pursue dialogue with those who publicly opposed the idea that climate change is occurring and is caused by human burning of fossil fuels. But an outspoken local religious leader whom I greatly admire stated bluntly that she just didn’t have time for that, that there was too much to be done and that is not where she was willing to put her energy. I agreed.

Last week Donald Trump disparaged the existence of climate change in light of the severe cold snap that we in the Northeast are facing. This standard climate-denial meme (Sen. James Inhofe’s snowball in the Senate chamber) deliberately conflates weather with climate. Weather is what is happening now. Climate is the long-term trend.

And there is no doubt among honest scientists about the character of the trend: Temperatures and sea levels are rising much faster than expected. Climate change certainly can include snowstorms and cold snaps, but the process overall is bringing us more heat waves, droughts and wildfires, more severe tropical hurricanes, melting glaciers, sea ice and tundra, flooding, and coral reef and species destruction. And 2017 was nothing if not the pudding that provided the proof, from California and Oregon wildfires to Hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma.

Say you are alarmed by what you see happening all around you. How do you spend your energy? Do you listen to and try to win over President Trump’s base, be it the uncle who sits next to you at Thanksgiving dinner or your co-worker whose pastor preaches that climate change is a hoax promulgated by blasphemers. It’s not that I think it would be wrong to gather those who refute climate science, re-present all the evidence that has accumulated over the last three decades, listen to their critique and develop a respectful dialogue. Here are the problems:

1. Time — we don’t have it. With business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, we are on course for warming the planet from nearly 5 degrees to over 7 degrees Centigrade by the year 2100. Those temperatures are incompatible with most life on earth.

2. Resources — we don’t have enough. At the moment we regular Americans and some state governments are up against the power of the federal government which, since last January, has become a fully-owned subsidiary of the insanely rich fossil fuel industry.

3. The possibility of engaging in honest dialogue is limited, particularly regarding those actively purveying anti-science. By 2018 they have self-selected for vigorously ignoring or disputing the mounds of evidence of global warming, presumably out of a vested interest in continued burning of coal, gas and oil. In my experience, one doesn’t get a whole lot of bang for one’s limited buck here.

Instead, most of those who are actively trying to save the planet from biocide are concentrating on building a movement entwined with the peace and justice uprising that is opposing the Republican Party’s theft of rights and resources from the non-rich, non-white, non-male, non-corporate classes. The first steps are simple: an immediate freeze on the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure and implementation of climate action plans in all institutions. The combination will move us toward the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero. It is doable technologically, agree the experts. What is missing is the political will, power and investment to make the necessary economic transformation.

In November, we were all presented with a local challenge to that drive to fight climate change. Columbia Gas, respected for its aggressive job plugging methane leaks in its Northampton and Springfield pipes, has offered a plan to the Department of Public Utilities that it will trade for the lifting of its moratorium on new gas hookups.

Columbia Gas says that the gas capacity of the Northampton lateral pipeline that comes off the major west-east pipeline serving our state is insufficient to allow any increase in gas consumption in either the Easthampton or Northampton communities which it serves. That was the stated reason for imposing the moratorium in 2014. The price to be paid for lifting it was permitting the now-defunct Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Energy Direct project.

Both the pipeline and the moratorium were resisted mightily here in Northampton, with a City Council resolution demanding transparency about the  true limitations of natural gas capacity. It was feared that lack of new hookups would hinder building such new projects as the Village Hill Northampton and Pleasant Street developments. Yet all three are happening, using not gas but electric air source heat pumps for heating. A small part of the large Village Hill scheme employs propane.

Dealing with the moratorium thus has become a learning experience. We were able to grow without those new gas hookups, and employ cleaner energy in the process, adapting to the new global demands to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The electricity for those heat pumps can be and increasingly will be sourced with wind and solar generation through the state Mass Energy Consumers Alliance program, the regional Rays the Valley community-shared solar or from rooftop solar arrays.

Now Columbia Gas is offering a new deal: This time, if you let us build six miles of new pipeline from Agawam to Holyoke with a parallel structure from the west-east pipeline to Agawam, we can take Holyoke off the Northampton lateral and you can have all the new gas hookups you want in Northampton and Easthampton.

Three years ago, we all might have jumped at the chance. But now? Do we need it? The city has grown remarkably without it, using alternative technology. Is there any evidence that we cannot, with some alterations in business as usual, do well with what we have?

At least as important, do we want it? Do we want to commit ourselves to 40 years (the life of the new pipes) of increased gas delivery and burning in our area contributing to dirty air, rising temperatures and rising seas?

Or do we want to build our stature as a clean-energy community, improving our public health and supporting the future of the planet? I go with the latter.

Dr. Marty Nathan lives in Northampton and is a physician at BaystateBrightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.