Point Austin: Locally Cool

Austin embarks on a long but hopeful journey

Point Austin
Are you and I doomed? Of course. Is the Earth doomed? I don't think so.

Those postulates are by way of introduction to the group of feature articles devoted to various aspects of global warming in today's issue by a team of Chronicle writers, including Katherine Gregor, Dan Mottola, Nora Ankrum, Amy Smith, and Richard Whittaker. In the spirit and context of the city of Austin's new initiative – under the unglamorous heading, the Austin Climate Protection Plan – to address global warming at the municipal level, these writers have come together to consider various aspects of the plan and its potential to actually make an impact on what has become the overarching environmental emergency of our time.

Katherine Gregor delivers a comprehensive introduction to the city's plan, initiated by Mayor Will Wynn, endorsed by the City Council, and currently being woven into the city's ongoing daily practices. (Austin Energy's Roger Duncan should also be congratulated for becoming both a local and national leader on alternative energy and global warming matters.) Nora Ankrum gives Chronicle readers (and folks here visiting for the myriad South by Southwest Festivals) a capsule version of what each of us can do to join the larger effort. (Consult her much more detailed recommendations at austinchronicle.com.) And Richard Whittaker briefly introduces the notion of "carbon credits" and how carbon exchange may soon become as familiar as that once-mysterious practice called "downloading."

This still being Texas, the news is hardly all good. Dan Mottola, who has been covering the TXU coal-plant debacle from its beginning, considers the effects of the pending TXU sale and, more immediately for Chronicle readers, how the coal plants still on the drawing board may yet undermine (or overcloud) all of Austin's yeomen's efforts to cut down carbon emissions above our heads. Finally, in "On the Lege," Amy Smith takes a look at legislative efforts – or lack of efforts – to address global warming issues, which until now have largely been confined to insisting there is no such thing – and the Earth is flat, too.

The Bad News

I'd like to think that's an exaggeration. But already this session, veteran Texas House Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, was caught distributing to his colleagues the breaking news (from an equally learned colleague in the Georgia Legislature, no less) that evolution is bunk, the Earth is the center of the solar system, and moreover, modernist notions to the contrary are being propagated by an ancient Jewish conspiracy.

So we shouldn't look for a warm statewide embrace of Austin's scientific perspicacity. I presume that in this space, I'm mostly preaching to the secular choir, but in case any of you out there are still dismissing (or ignoring) the global warming evidence as just Al Gore's latest bid for an Oscar, let me call your attention to the February report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Climate Change 2007. It's a highly technical report by a broad consortium of international scientists (www.ipcc.ch), but its major findings are readily understandable – and but a few of those should be sufficient to pull up short any remaining doubters:

"Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide [the major greenhouse gases] have increased markedly since 1750 and now far exceed preindustrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years [650,000 years, give or take a century]."

"The primary source of the increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide ... results from fossil-fuel use, with land use change providing another significant but smaller contribution."

"Warming of the climate is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level."

"Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [i.e., greater than 90% chance] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gas concentrations."

And here's a couple of warnings of likely consequences of particular note for Texans:

"It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent."

"It is likely [i.e., greater than 66%] that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation."

Small Steps

So the news is not exactly reassuring. But I began as I did because I am reflexively skeptical of the enormous vanity of declaring my particular historical moment as the worst that's ever been – après moi, le déluge – and because even in my own time, what we charitably call civilization has thus far survived the threat of nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the "population bomb," and heavily militarized international empires even now determined to expand their hair-trigger follies to outer space. Yet I note that longtime eco-warrior Stewart Brand – once convinced that explosive population growth would starve us all by the Eighties – has come 'round to the notion that the planet is a very resilient ecosystem and that given enough care, research, and planning, we can eventually overcome environmental threats that now seem quite overwhelming.

Given enough care, research, and planning – those are crucial presumptions, and our city officials are to be congratulated for calling forcibly on themselves and all Austinites to begin doing our best to prevent, in practical and particular terms, the eventual consequences of unmitigated global warming. Can it be enough – globally and in the long run? We simply do not, and cannot, know.

In truth you and I will be long gone before anyone knows whether the small steps we take today will eventually become enough to undo nearly 250 years of industrial environmental recklessness around the globe. A man planting a tree never knows whether another will come behind him to water it when he's gone.

All we can do is plant and bring water. end story

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