NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 5, 2012

Pick one: fossil fuels or green energy

As I See It
John Harwood

---- — Climate change is accelerating like a three-tone, ‘50s V-8 muscle car with fins, while we are being left farther and farther behind in our ‘37 Dodge sedan, color black.

We’re helpless in the face of too much water — Sandy on the East Coast — and too little water — barges on the mighty Mississippi being tied up because of drought in the Midwest.

During the campaign that ended Nov. 6, the elephant in the room — on the trail and the debate stage — was climate change, which received mockery from the loser and only a passing mention from the victor.

How many Katrinas and Sandys, how many Plum Island close calls, how many droughts and wildfires do we need to realize that individual actions — even state actions — are no longer enough?

National and international leadership are now required, but therein lies a problem.

Our federal government — Congress, president and Supreme Court — is helpless to represent us in the face of the deluge of money and the drought of public service that the Supreme Court unleashed in its 2010 decision known as Citizens United.

Stimulus legislation, which presidents proposed and Congress approved — has included funds for the green energy industry — solar, wind, hydro, non-ethanol biofuel — giving emerging technology companies the boost needed to become viable producers of clean energy.

At the same time, we’re still subsidizing fossil fuel corporations despite their record profits, permitting pipeline construction to allow Canada to export its fossil fuels to other continents, allowing water-hungry hydraulic fracturing — known as fracking — to expand to more than half of the states and blowing off mountain tops to get at coal, while destroying water supplies.

In climate change terms, we can’t go full speed ahead with extracting fossil fuels in ever more damaging ways that help to cause the globe to get warmer and warmer, while paying to fix the damage from more and more extreme weather events more and more frequently with more and more new debt on top of what has already been borrowed for repairs.

A Vermont fellow named Bill McKibben led a nationwide tour into Boston Nov. 15 — 20 cities in 20 days — that packed the Orpheum Theater with about 2,250 college students and 250 oldsters. I was one of the gray hairs. McKibben has been a terrific writer for years and has become a folksy speaker that might remind previous generations of Will Rogers or Sam Clements.

However, he says the time for just writing and talking is past; we have to add action to the mix. So far, we haven’t been able to persuade Congress to stop subsidizing fossil fuel companies and start charging them for the carbon and methane they release into our atmosphere.

Therefore, we’ll take the fight to the people by asking organizations with investment portfolios — like schools, churches and governments — to divest from fossil fuel companies and invest in green energy.

We’ve used divestment before in this country, when we convinced South Africa to end apartheid by withdrawing our dollars from firms that did business with the apartheid government. Of course, individuals can join this movement as well, using their own funds and by supporting divestment drives by organizations with which they are affiliated, including as alumni of colleges and universities.

McKibben’s international climate change organization is called 350.org. This year, folks formed 350 Massachusetts. The name refers to the parts per million of carbon that climate scientists have determined we can handle in our atmosphere without causing more and more severe weather.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the 350 ppm of carbon was a level we were heading toward at a modest rate, one like the speed my grandmother used to drive that ‘37 Dodge with me on board to push the cart when we reached the grocery store. When she was young, we were at 275 ppm.

Unfortunately, we’re in the back seat of that V-8 with fins, with climate change at the wheel and the pedal to the metal, having passed the 350 ppm sign a while back. Leaning forward from the back seat, we see the speedometer is on 392 ppm and we’re still accelerating, screaming toward a gasoline-fueled death, too young to die, old enough to know better, wise enough to make better choices.

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John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community newspaperman and a patriot.