“Above our pay grade”? Scoping the impacts of coal export

The great coal export debate now enters a crucial phase, known in environmental policy as “scoping.”  In evaluating whether to grant permits for coal export, which impacts will decision-makers consider?

Another way of asking the question is, “Which impacts will they ignore?”  The health, safety, and economic costs of the massive increases in coal train traffic throughout the region?  The environmental damage and national economic consequences  of selling coal from public lands at a fraction of its market value for use overseas?   The “Hell and High Water” that will result from expanding coal-fired power infrastructure in Asia, which would be encouraged by coal export from the U.S.?

I know, it’s a lot.  When Cowlitz County Commissioners initially approved the Millenium coal export terminal in Longview without meaningful environmental review, The Oregonian said the Commissioners could be “excused for thinking these issues are above their pay grade.”  After all, they reasoned, it would make a lot more sense for the nations of the world to adopt responsible limits on climate pollution.  We shouldn’t expect local decision makers to have to think about that.

I have a great deal of empathy for that point of view.  The failure to forge a strong national and global commitment to forestall dangerous climate change is unconscionable.  It’s unfair, inappropriate, crazy that state and local officials are charged with decisions that have huge, irreversible global consequences, without the benefit of any meaningful national climate policy or a binding global treaty.

We can whine about this predicament all day, and I’ll lead the chorus.   But it won’t change anything.   We are standing on the tracks with a long, dirty future of coal trains coming our way.  I wish it weren’t happening.  I wish world leaders would have done what was right and necessary to forge a strong global climate deal in Copenhagen.  I wish the Senate had passed a climate bill.  I wish I wish I wish…..but here we still are, dammit.  So do we look at the real impacts, or just keep wishing?

It’d be different (and awesome!) if closing our eyes to the impacts would make them disappear.  But “see no evil” just means more evil.  And don’t fool yourself about where the impacts happen; “global” warming is a local disaster.  It will hammer Washington’s snowpack, our agriculture, our forests, Puget Sound – pretty much everything that depends on our stable, temperate climate.  It doesn’t matter if the emissions occur in Asia.  In fact, it would be worse, since their power plants are not subject to Washington and Oregon’s carbon emission performance standard.  So we’d be selling coal from public land to be burned with lower carbon emission standards than our own, when the effect of those emissions on Northwesterners will be identical, regardless of whether they occur in Centralia or Shanghai.  It’s ugly, but ignoring it will only make it more likely to happen.

This scoping issue goes to core psychology of the global climate challenge.  Nobody feels like they have any meaningful leverage on a problem this big.  Anyone can say “even if I do everything in my power, it won’t make a dent.”  And if we don’t feel qualified to fix it, why bother considering it?   If world leaders won’t get a grip, what the heck am I supposed to do about it?

Maybe it would help to look back from the eyes of our grandkids, whose lives will be dominated by the struggle to cope with runaway climate disruption if we fail to deal.  Will our pleas of impotence cut it with them?

They will know that we could have dealt with this.   We can address the problem responsibly, effectively, and economically with an aggressive global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. So if each of us says, “Yeah, but it’s not my job description; it’s not within my scope,” will that let us off the hook?

Coal export would move vast amounts of carbon into the global energy market and ultimately into the atmosphere.  At the levels currently proposed, each day’s CO2 emissions from burning this coal would roughly equal the combined body weight of every man, woman, and child in Washington and Oregon.  Measured in global climate impact, this is far and away the biggest thing we will ever do – enough to swamp all our good clean energy initiatives combined.

Teddy Roosevelt said:  “Do what you can with what you’ve got wherever you are.”  If everybody does that, and we forge a responsible plan to do it together, we can rise to the climate challenge.  If some of us do it and others don’t, we may fail.

But when our grandkids judge how we handled the climate impacts of these coal export decisions, who wants to be the one to tell them “We didn’t look at that.  It was out of our scope”?

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