Point Austin: Back to the Future
On the foresight demanded by the challenge of climate change
The silliest local response to the Obama Administration's announcement of its "Clean Power Plan" – the latest federal attempt to resume chipping away at the U.S. contribution to global warming emissions – came from our would-be Elmer Gantry, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who mounted his soapbox, noted President Obama's virtually boilerplate statement concerning climate change – "No challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations" – and emitted: "I find that statement incredible. The greatest threat to America is terrorist attacks in our homeland and an open border that continues to allow potential terrorists and criminal gangs to enter our country illegally."
Patrick (along with the rest of the GOP) has a deep political stake in fear-mongering and immigrant-bashing, but crying, "The terrorists are at the door!" on environmental issues is transparent demagoguery. Much more common was the chamber-of-commerce-style response that trying to clear the air of excess carbon dioxide will "cost too much" and "do too little." Patrick also pounded that drum, and that was the gist of Attorney General Ken Paxton's similar press release, accompanied by his inevitable declaration that "Texas will fight ... this overreach in court."
Paxton's announcement was also self-contradictory: "Texas has demonstrated that it can clean its air without destroying the energy sector," going on to note that nitrogen oxide and ozone levels have declined even as the economy has boomed. He neglected to mention that the primary reason our air is less polluted is government regulation, especially federal – despite reflexive doom-and-gloom predictions from official and industrial quarters, as the state's air quality improved, the economic sky remained in place, and in fact Texas flourished.
The Sky Won't Fall
In his announcement, Obama recounted the same historical pattern. He recalled successful efforts against acid rain, leaded fuels, toxic plastics, and for more fuel-efficient cars – all opposed as "impossible," "job-killing," "economically devastating." The president effectively called hogwash. Not only will the Clean Power Plan create jobs in the growing renewable energy sector and related industries, it will have beneficial health effects, especially in central cities – the expectation is thousands of preventable deaths and significant reductions in respiratory illnesses, especially in children.
Even without those ancillary benefits, climate scientists are increasingly alarmed that unless we soon bolster serious national and international efforts, the progression of global warming and its devastating material effects will become unstoppable. The plan – which would set state standards to reduce carbon emissions 32% from 2005 levels by 2030 – is frankly quite moderate. (The backlashers, who prefer inaction, also sneer at the potential climate benefits.) But it is an attempt to jump-start a process that is expected to increasingly become self-reinforcing.
Will it save the planet? Hardly – that can only happen with increased international efforts, most particularly from the industrialized and industrializing nations – but we have no choice but to address the global problem as best as we can, with limited but real knowledge and despite our polarized, sclerotic politics. The Dan Patricks of the world will never see beyond their own short-term political interests; the rest of us have to gather enough foresight to imagine, and fight for, a livable future.
Local response to the president's announcement, as the city of Austin has tried to maintain a leadership position on climate change, was more encouraging. Environmental organizations applauded it, and Mayor Steve Adler said, "Austin's clean energy economy is growing as a result of our commitment to renewable and affordable energy. The Clean Power Plan will help cities across Texas benefit from cleaner air, affordable power and a new generation of family-supporting green jobs by cleaning up the dirtiest sources of carbon pollution." Adler added a certainly futile call to Gov. Greg Abbott (who has already denounced the plan as "unilateral executive overreach") to collaborate with local governments.
Austin Energy issued a cautious statement, applauding the plan but concerned that Austin might be penalized for being proactive on climate protection, and expected to redouble efforts that already outstrip the rest of heavily carbon-generating Texas. "Our customers should receive credit for being ahead of the curve," read the release. Understandable, in the Texas context – but in reality, we're all very far behind the curve, and losing ground.
The president observed that our science and our industries are certainly up to the task of creating the new energy solutions necessary to address the crisis. It is our politics – the legacy of decades of partisan turf wars (and real wars) as well as an increasingly inequitable social structure – that may not be sufficient to the challenge.
"We can solve this thing," insisted the president. "But we have to get going. It's exactly the kind of challenge that's big enough to remind us that we're all in this together." And we need to do so with the wisdom that most of us will not live long enough to learn if he is right.