Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy's Battle Cry

Are we fighting to save our way of life, or the planet we live on?  Hurricane (and post-tropical cyclone) Sandy left lives, communities, and ecosystems scarred from the Caribbean up through the Ohio Valley.  People are measuring damage in lives lost, boardwalks destroyed, subway stations flooded, and homes without electricity.  The storm is front and center for those warning about the dangers of human-induced climate change -- weather patterns have become more extreme and unpredictable as the planet warms, leading to  frequent "100 year" events -- storms like Hurricane Sandy, the "derecho" wave of thunderstorms that knocked out power to thousands earlier this summer, the unusual rainfall in parts of the southwest, and prolonged "drought" in the Midwest.  Extreme is the new normal.

We are drowning our planet in toxic emissions, taking puffs from fossil fuels every time we turn on a light switch, or turn the key on an internal combustion engine. But are we fighting to preserve our way of life, or to change it?  Our problems are super sized -- multi-million dollar companies that have created a systematic and wasteful demand for our world's natural resources, and an abundance of destructive by-product.  Fossil fuel interests are so deeply embedded in our economy and governance that even the Presidential candidate for hope and change boasts about how much public land he has opened up for coal and natural gas exploitation.

The answer to our problem can be super sized, or a collection of many small but powerful choices.   The super sized answer will sustain the status quo -- we get to maintain an unsustainable combination of waste and "growth" if we unplug fossil fuel plants from the grid, and plug in industrial-scale wind and solar facilities.  This is another industry that answers to shareholders and executives, not Mother Nature, and it will destroy hundreds of square miles of wildlands in each state -- thousands of square miles across the planet.  This answer is preferred by Wall Street because it will sustain "growth" and keep wealth with the same companies and banks that drove us into the fossil fuel catastrophe.   We are already handing over millions of dollars to pay for new transmission lines, and financing multi-billion dollar solar and wind facilities being built on public lands.  Every time we turn on a light switch and pay our utility bill, we keep this status quo alive.    It may help reduce carbon emissions, but it will also rob us of biodiversity, kill birds and bats, deplete water resources, and alter once pristine vistas. 

This battle is about much more than the number of parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere; this is about how we view our relationship with the natural world that we depend upon for everything -- clean air and water, fresh food, wood for our homes, metals for our vehicles, rare earths for our iPads and cell phones.   Population growth and technological innovation mean we can achieve things on an enormous scale -- for better or worse.  If our solution to global warming embraces another form of widespread ecological destruction, then we have not changed our way of life, or how we view our role on the planet

Some in the environmental community have echoed the greedy cynicism of Wall Street, characterizing energy efficiency and distributed solar generation as a weak answer to climate change.  Rooftop solar is not fast enough. It's not big enough.  They're calling for the sacrifice of wildlands to the solar industry, lobbying on behalf of the American Wind Energy Association so it can slaughter birds and bats in some of the most remote wildlands of the United States.  They're advocating a trickle down clean energy policy that keeps wealth and decisionmaking with the same corporations and banks that will always put profit above nature. 

If instead we advocated for more robust tax credits for the grassroots to make energy efficiency improvements or feed-in-tariffs for homeowners and small businesses to install rooftop solar, we could fundamentally change the way we produce and consume energy.  Each rooftop solar panel, and each light bulb replaced would be among millions of cumulative choices in a flood that overwhelms the destructive status quo.  But first we have to answer the question -- are we fighting to save our way of life, or the planet we live on?


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