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Column: Marty Nathan: Our planet has a fever



Thursday, August 02, 2018

I really want to write good news. Honestly and personally, I hate heat and I hate suffering. And I hate rants. I want to write joyously about how what we are doing in cutting greenhouse gas emissions is decreasing CO2 and methane levels and fulfilling the biospheric need for a stable climate.

No such luck. The reality is that the planet itself is hot and suffering and beginning to rant, if we will listen. Last month, a Washington Post weather story began with the sentence, “From the normally mild summer climes of Ireland, Scotland and Canada to the scorching Middle East to Southern California, numerous locations in the Northern Hemisphere have witnessed their hottest weather ever recorded.” Fifty-four people died in the heat wave in Canada, and the thermometer hit 90 degrees in Northern Siberia on July 5, 40 degrees above normal. That same day, temperatures seem to have risen to the highest ever recorded on the African continent, at 124 degrees in Ouargla, Algeria. The heat surpassed or tied all-time records across North America and in Europe: from Los Angeles to Denver, Burlington and Montreal, and across the Atlantic to cities in Scotland and Ireland. Quriyat, Oman, posted the highest daily low temperature ever recorded on June 28: 109 degrees.

Our planet has a fever. The inconvenient truth is that global warming and climate chaos are happening. Heat and drought have resulted in fire seasons throughout the American West that now start three months earlier than in the past. But again, it is a world-wide phenomenon: flames are incinerating towns and forests from Redding, Calif., to Athens to northern Sweden above the Arctic Circle, each fire producing more emissions and more heat to compound the problem.

Probably our ancestors’ greatest accomplishment, the one that contributed most uniquely to the survival and dominance of our species, was control of fire. Now the effort to stop the burning of carbon to carbon dioxide poses the greatest challenge to the sustainability of life.

In the face of the crisis, leaders continue to sort themselves. There are the “climate change-makers” (ironic, since they are also the deniers). Donald Trump and his administration just last week announced a full-mouth tooth extraction from the Endangered Species Act, paving the way for more deforestation, mining, building and drilling while he ushers threatened animals and plants into extinction. For the first time since the Act’s adoption in 1973, economic impact (read profit) is to be weighed in decisions to protect species at risk, and states, who have closer ties to eager developers and drillers, will have a say in the process. Local author Elizabeth Kolbert wrote The Sixth Extinction, which reviews humanity’s startlingly rapid destruction of the planet’s flora and fauna, equivalent to only five previous known episodes of species collapse in all of Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history. Responding to Trump’s plan, she quoted Congressman Raul Grijalva, who described it as “part of the endless special favors the White House and Department of the Interior are willing to do for their industry friends.”

Grijalva is right of course. The announcement and coordinated acts by Congressional Republicans augmented the news that the administration overall has drastically cut penalties for corporate wrongdoing compared to the Obama Administration. The worst decrease in fines not surprisingly came from the Environmental Protection Agency, which lowered them by a stunning 94 percent, from $29 billion in 2016 to a measly $1.9 billion in 2017. So even if regulations are broken under the new, hobbled Endangered Species Act, violators have little to fear.

The opposition to Trump’s plundering sports an admirable lineup, though. Recently Massachusetts’ Maura Healey joined six other state attorneys general demanding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the first time consider the environmental costs, including climate change, of building new gas pipelines. FERC is responsible for licensing new fossil fuel infrastructure, and to call it a pushover is to be kind. Since 1999, FERC has approved around 400 natural gas pipeline projects and rejected only two. In that time enough pipeline has been built to deliver nearly twice the average daily consumption of natural gas in the U.S., 40 billion cubic feet greater even than the peak demand per day during the 2014 “Polar Vortex” cold snap. “By determining public benefit without regard to adverse environmental impacts and without consideration of the climate harm caused by a project, the Commission is failing to meet its obligations…,” AG Healey stated in her comments.

So, Trump wants corporations to have control over saving species and the AGs want those who breathe air and desire a livable climate to have a say in building fossil fuel infrastructure of questionable value.

Then there is the case of Massachusetts House Democratic leadership and Speaker Robert Deleo. They had the opportunity this session to join the Senate in legislating crucial greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Yet so far, they have refused to step up to the plate. The Senate passed a clean energy bill that would: rapidly increase the renewable energy portion of our state’s electricity supply (the Renewable Portfolio Standard or RPS) sufficient to reach 100 percent by 2050; remove the net metering caps that are halting solar projects and killing our solar industry; provide the full benefits of solar energy to low income and renting families; increase offshore wind production by 5,000 MW and establish environmental justice principles in law. In return, the House offered up… a northingburger. What finally came out of the Conference Committee was a pitiful compromise: only a 2 percent rise per year in the RPS for 10 years starting in 2020; the possibility of 1600 MW more offshore wind power; and no action on the caps to net metering or the barriers to low-income people needing solar energy. Moreover, final bill incentivized the burning of trash as an energy source, allowing it to continue polluting Massachusetts air, usually in the poorest neighborhoods.

A group of us spent quite a bit of volunteer time last week calling voters to ask that they urge their state representatives to demand action in the Conference Committee. More than once, I heard comments like, “You mean my progressive state doesn’t have these things already?! What’s going on?”

What’s going on is a fight to the death, literally, to protect vested interests and their status quo against the survival needs of future generations.

There are a lot more of us than there are of them. How do we sort out?

Marty Nathan MD is a mostly-retired Family Practitioner at Baystate Brightwood Health Center, a mother and a grandmother. She is a steering committee member of Climate Action Now and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She offers many thanks to Adele Franks for her information and editing.