Tough action needed on climate change

Rolf Westgard, Professional member of the Geological Society of America and guest faculty member on energy subjects for the U‘s Lifelong Learning Program

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled the latest Obama administration plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, especially coal burners — the country’s single largest source of the heat-trapping gas.

The new program bypasses Congress and uses President Obama’s authority under the Clean Air Act to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. It will likely raise threats of lawsuits, claims of job losses, higher energy prices and references to the recent pause in global temperatures dating from the beginning of the 21st century.

The Obama program on climate change stresses extreme weather events as a primary motive for action on climate. Such events include storms with “heavy downpours, an increase in wildfires, more severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise.”

The EPA directives will allow states to set up their own systems to achieve mandated cuts in CO2 emissions, including setting an overall “carbon budget” for states and leaving it up to them to meet the limits. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rules will give states “flexibility to develop plans on how to achieve those reductions in a way that’s economically beneficial to them.”

The current 21st-century pause in global warming has given ammunition to skeptics who will oppose the EPA rules as not necessary. But climate scientist John Abraham of St. Thomas University explains the reason for the current global warming pause. Much of the missing heat is being absorbed by the oceans, he notes, so that the Earth overall is still warming.

Additional CO2 is making oceans less alkaline than in the recent past. This affects the oceans’ many calcifiers, coral reefs and shellfish that build structures and shells from calcium carbonate, a process that suffers in more acidic sea water.

Warmer oceans will warm us in the future, much as the periodic El Niño induced warmer Pacific surface waters, resulting in a warmer Earth.

I suggest that we humans are engaged in a great environmental experiment as we burn millions of years’ worth of stored hydrocarbon fuels, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere from which it came at a thousand times nature’s carbon storage rate.

I would feel better if I heard more about tough measures like carbon taxes and using new, safer nuclear plants, such as the Westinghouse AP1000. Four of those plants are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, and several more in the works in China. We also need more.