Mitch McConnell admits we have to pick between “brownouts” & coal dependency

It’s interesting to see the coal & carbon politicians — and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is deeply carbon-centric — admit that we’re past the point of a smooth transition to a non-fossil (non-carbon) energy economy.

In this, McConnell is echoing a point I’ve been making lately, that the only path to effective decarbonation includes some form of temporary energy rationing.

Here’s McConnell, at a recent press conference with Kentucky journalists, as quoted here (emphasis and paragraphing mine):

[Courier-Journal] reporter Dr. Joe Gerth beat me to it and asked [McConnell] if coal actually does make people sick:

Gerth: “You’ve been pretty critical of Sen. Reid for his “coal makes us sick” comment. But isn’t there plenty of evidence that coal-fired emissions cause breathing problems, to black lung disease, that coal does in fact, in some ways, cause people to become ill?”

EPA: Sources of Carbon Emissions

EPA: Sources of Carbon Emissions

McConnell: “We’re burning coal cleaner and cleaner and cleaner. There’s really a war on fossil fuel across the board by these guys. And it’s important to also recognize that 40% of our electricity in America comes from coal-fired generation, 90% in Kentucky. They have no plans to replace it [coal-generated energy].

We’re looking at potential brown outs in the not too distant future if they continue down this path. So we all want a cleaner environment. I think America has made incredible strides toward a cleaner environment in a variety of different ways over the years. But this is an economic disaster for us and a power supply disaster for a lot of the rest of the country.”

On this, I agree with McConnell:

▪ There is a war on fossil fuel (though I would add, and there needs to be).
▪ 40% of our electricity comes from coal (and I would add, way too much).
▪ We’re looking at brownouts (or we stay on carbon until our kids are future hunter-gatherers).
▪ This is an economic disaster … and a power supply disaster … (and a life on the planet disaster).
▪ Which no one is addressing.

That last point is worth noting, since Obama is coming out with his new regulations for coal-fired plants in the very near future. There’s a large amount of speculation about how effective these new rules might be. There’s a nice primer here, though be careful when you read language that appears to give permission to burn carbon, just less of it.

Energy-related CO2 (source: NRDC)

Energy-related CO2 (source: NRDC)

Global warming is rising. Global mean temperature is higher than any time during the Holocene (the “era of civilization” — meaning farms and cities). That means we’re already above “peak Holocene” temperature, with no sign of stopping.

If we don’t stop “now” — move to zero carbon emissions on the fastest schedule we can — the period between 2030 and 2100 will be a chaotic mess. 2030 is 16 years away, or four presidential elections. (A personal prediction — 2016 will be the “Safe Energy for America” election. 2020 will be the “Pretend to Care About Climate” election. 2024 will be “Rich People Get All The Lifeboats” election. By then we’ll have 3°C “in the pipeline” and everyone will know it’s over. After that it’s Last Dance.)

There really is time to change …  and that time is now

As near as I can tell, it’s not over now, but it will be soon. That’s why I hate hearing statements like this (from the primer mentioned above):

Along with other steps the administration has taken, like setting higher fuel standards for cars and trucks, the new regulations could make climate change action one of Obama’s signature achievementssomething historians will cite alongside Obamacare, rescue of the auto industry, and the Recovery Act. As Jonathan Chait has written in New York magazine, “By the normal standards, of progress, Obama has amassed an impressive record so far on climate change.”

Comparing Obama’s record on climate to his health record — his massive give-away of potential under-65 Medicare customers to the profit-driven health industry (in exchange for gifts and favors, like Legacy Library donations and speaking engagements) — that comparison suggests he’ll coddle carbon profits as a trade for minimal real emissions change and little (but not zero) regard for actual outcomes (but with a nice bonus for him of gifts and favors).

For example, Obama’s most recent National Climate Assessment says this about limiting CO2 emissions:

To meet the lower emissions scenario (B1) used in this assessment, global mitigation actions would need to limit global carbon dioxide emissions to a peak of around 44 billion tons per year within the next 25 years and decline thereafter. In 2011, global emissions were around 34 billion tons, and have been rising by about 0.9 billion tons per year for the past decade.

Translation: Current emissions are more 34 billion tons of CO2 per year. If we let the emissions rate peak at 44 billion tons in 25 years instead of 10 … and then decline … we’re good.

Second translation: If we stretch the growth of carbon emissions by 30% over 25 years instead of 30% over ten, we’re good. Everyone alive today can cash out and die happy. David Koch wins, though not at the rate he wants, and Obama gets his library and world-acclaim tour.

My response: If the next cigarette is the last one, you’ll never stop smoking.

There is still time, but this cigarette has to be the last one. We’re very close to tipping points, on sea ice, on plant migrations (hint: the climate migrates faster than plants do), on ocean acidification (think plankton, the prairie grass of the food chain).

You Are Here. Heading north or south? Time to choose is now.

You Are Here. Heading north or south? Time to choose is now.

The good news is that the price in dollars or percent of GDP is likely not high at all. So cost isn’t the issue. It’s where thatprice goes. If it goes to building out a carbon-free energy infrastructure — and all-electric transportation — at Manhattan Project–rates, we’ll have jobs and middle-class wealth enough to keep everyone fed and happy.

The problem isn’t “cost” in dollars, it’s David Koch’s “cost to me” in personal future profit. That’s where the battle is.

I’ll be covering the roll-out of Obama’s new EPA coal rules as it occurs. Stay tuned. In the meantime, remember the “words vs. deeds” rule. Obama v. 2008, was very good with one of them. Obama v. 2009 was very bad with the other.

Just saying.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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