Columnist Marty Nathan: Positives and a negative concerning the climate emergency 


  • In this July 19, 2007 file photo, an iceberg melts off the coast of Ammasalik, Greenland. AP

Published: 1/6/2021 2:16:09 PM
Modified: 1/6/2021 2:15:59 PM

I admit it: this column on the climate emergency is usually pretty depressing.

Today, though, I want to offer a bit of respite and hope. Though 2020 is on course to be either the hottest or second-hottest year on record; though the polar regions are still warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world, spelling disaster for low-lying coastal regions threatened by rising seas; though the 2020 Gulf hurricane season was the most active in recorded history; and though drought-induced Western wild fires in the last year burned over 8 million acres, there are glimmers of optimism as we enter 2021.

The first, of course, is the eviction of a shameless science-denying fossil-fuel toady from the Oval Office and his replacement by a team that recognizes climate change as the existential threat that it is. Though President-elect Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” as a climate/recovery plan is not perfect — overall not as ambitious as needed — it is a great start. And the process of electing him helped hone a grassroots movement that now gives the administration force to establish the legislation and executive orders we need to cut emissions in a Biden administration.

Second is news you probably hadn’t heard. It involves a scientific rethinking of our biosphere’s future if we are successful in stopping the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the air from the drilling and burning of fossil fuels. Previous understanding was that what goes into the atmosphere now affects temperatures for 25 to 30 years. Thus, it was thought, our emissions past and present have already baked decades or even centuries of warming into our future.

Instead, though, “There is less warming in the pipeline than we thought,” said British climate scientist Joeri Rogelj, a lead author of the next major climate assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “It is our best understanding that, if we bring down CO2 to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two.”

Famed U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann called the new understanding “game-changing.”

Key, though, to translating this discovery into reality is the necessity of bringing our emissions of greenhouse gases to zero. The new findings mean nothing unless we transition to a clean and efficient energy economy. And that means cutting emissions in half by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The third positive bit of news came late Sunday. For 12 years, Springfield has been fighting to stop a biomass electric-generating plant proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy in a low-income, environmental justice neighborhood of East Springfield. If constructed, the Palmer plant’s 275-foot smokestack would billow tons of pollutants per year to affect not just that neighborhood but everywhere within a 90-mile radius.

Everyone thought public resistance had killed it in 2019. But then, ironically, the Legislature revived this zombie in a House Climate Bill that included new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions by publicly-owned utilities (municipal light plants). Good idea. The bad idea was language in the bill that would allow municipal light plants to buy biomass-generated electricity, like that proposed by Palmer, to meet their obligations under the new law. This gave Palmer a new lucrative market to make the Springfield plant financially viable.

The measure was a rejection of science. Rather than being, as the bill designates it, “non-carbon-emitting,” biomass burning instead produces half-again the CO2 of coal for an equal wattage of electricity generated. And it certainly isn’t clean: Its smoke is laden with lung-destroying particulate matter, as well as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic chemicals, mercury, lead and hydrochloric acid. All this to be pumped into a city which was named the “Asthma Capital” of the country for two years running.

The Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and Partnership for Policy Integrity led organizations and individuals all over the state, but particularly in our valley, to call their legislators to request removal of the “biomass as non-carbon-emitting” language from the final climate bill.

Sunday the bill came out of conference committee. It contains what Sen. Michael Barrett calls a “moratorium” on the designation of biomass as non-carbon-emitting for five years. During that time, another study on the climate and public health effects of biomass will be undertaken by the state.

Hooray. Organized resistance won this battle against industrial profit.

Unfortunately, though, the zombie did not die. The Baker administration last month amended the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards to permit inefficient biomass like Palmer’s to qualify for $13 million to $15 million per year in subsidies taken from your electric bills. The administration, like the House bill sponsors, is willing to ignore climate science and sacrifice the health of the people of Springfield in the interest of a polluting industry.

No rest for the weary. Call your legislator and say the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards amendments on biomass must be stopped and you want a hearing in the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy for public input immediately. Springfield will not be a sacrifice zone.

Marty Nathan is a retired physician, mother and grandmother who writes a monthly column on climate change.

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