Thu February 2, 2006
Commentary: Hottest Year Should Be Wake Up Call
By Walter Simpson
Buffalo, NY – While walking in our neighborhood this weekend a neighbor greeted us, "Welcome to South Carolina." It was springtime in Buffalo, in January.
We all joke about Buffalo weather. But where's the cold and the snow? A few years ago we had seven feet of snow between Christmas and New Years. I shoveled our entire roof because I was afraid it would collapse. Then this year there's not enough snow to brush off the car. Of course, crazy weather is one thing and climate change is another.
For ten years the vast majority of the world's expert climatologists have been sounding the alarm -- our extravagant use of fossil fuels and the consequent releasing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is changing the climate. The consensus is that there could be as much as a ten degree Fahrenheit increase in average global temperature over the next hundred years. Even a more modest increase of a few degrees would cause climate chaos, not just deadly heat waves.
If you thought Hurricane Katrina was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet. Imagine a continuous stream of category 4 and 5 hurricanes as ocean water continues to warm fueling giant storms. Why are we rebuilding New Orleans? It's called denial and we are in it big time.
Nineteen of the hottest twenty years on record have occurred since 1980. 2005 tied for the hottest year ever.
But global warming is more than a looming catastrophe. It's a terrible inconvenience to a way of life based on consuming and wasting as much as we can. We Americans are 4% of the world's population who consume 25% of the world's fossil fuels, making us by far the largest carbon dioxide polluter.
Defending the status quo is the Bush Administration, ally to Exxon Mobil which just announced it made over $10 billion in profits in the fourth quarter of 2005. In December, defending the interests of Big Oil, Bush Administration operatives were active in Montreal doing what they could to undermine a United Nations conference to initiate negotiations for a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Then just this past week the White House made the news for trying to muzzle James Hansen, distinguished director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who deviated from the Bush know-nothing policy on global warming by calling for prompt cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Raising the green flag is our own Governor, George Pataki, who recently announced that New York and 6 other northeast states had achieved a historic agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
But throwing soot on that good news is the City of Jamestown which plans to build a new coal burning power plant. All fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide when burned but coal is the worst. Jamestown's proposed new coal plant would generate less acid-rain producing emissions than the older coal plant it would replace, but the new plant would produce almost the same amount of carbon dioxide - thus continuing to fuel global climate change.
Ethically, Jamestown could take a giant leap forward by championing energy conservation and efficiency instead of polluting coal. Jamestown has not done serious electricity conservation since 1991, so the savings potential is huge. After reducing its electrical load, Jamestown's energy needs could be met by clean renewable energy technologies which don't put carbon into the air.
But this is not just about one environmentally challenged city. What about Buffalo? A study was done on Buffalo's greenhouse gas emissions a few years ago but its recommendations were never acted on. Will someone please put this report on Mayor Byron Brown's desk. It's also time for Amherst and other municipalities to act.
Everything we do should be measured by whether it helps stop global climate change or just makes things worse. As individuals we need to reassess our own personal energy use and cut it in half if possible. Businesses need to do the same, as do institutions like UB.
How can UB, already a leader in energy conservation, further reduce its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% or more? Can we show real leadership and go further than that and become climate-neutral? My personal opinion is that we should be committed to these goals and that they should be an integral and critically important part of UB's on-going 2020 planning process. It's time for the University to recognize that it exists on a planet with a biosphere. Academic excellence must be defined in terms of social and environmental responsibility.
A little over a week ago six former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrators, five of them Republicans, rebuked the Bush Administration for its failure to address global warming and climate change. That rebuke could have been leveled at all of us.
"Reality Check" with Walter Simpson is a monthly feature of WBFO News. Simpson is Energy Officer at the University at Buffalo.
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