Guest column: There is nothing funny about climate change

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is working overtime to save Americans from the threat of cleaner air.

“I will be working with my Senate colleagues in pursuing legislation to protect American taxpayers from (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s) aggressive regulatory agenda,” Inhofe said in response to new ground-level ozone standards introduced by the Obama administration.

The EPA’s “aggressive regulatory agenda” includes lowering the acceptable level of surface ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, resulting in a lawsuit by Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal companies.

Inhofe is also considering a trip to Paris to crash the upcoming United Nations climate change talks as a “one-man truth squad” in an attempt to convince other nations that cleaner air is bad for their citizens, too.

Environmentalists also were less than pleased by the new rule, arguing that scientific studies and the EPA’s own independent advisers make a convincing case for a more protective 60-parts-per-billion standard. If energy company executives’ heads are exploding at the 70-parts-per-billion level, can you imagine what might happen with a stricter standard?

The goal of all these climate talks has been to hold the increase in global average temperature below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. This doesn’t mean two degrees is safe, only that it will forestall the most calamitous consequences: rapid sea level rise, global crop failures, the collapse of coral reefs and more as climate systems careen out of balance.

To keep us within a safe range, a new scientific paper argues, humanity must limit how much additional carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere to about 765 gigatons. That may seem like a lot, but even if nations follow through on all their commitments, this “carbon budget” will be used up by 2030 with China, the United States and the European Union accounting for almost all of the emissions.

Humanity’s long-term viability as a species demands that we think beyond the fourth-quarter profit statement of any given coal company.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which has the coal industry even more up in arms than the ozone regulations, might have been a decent starting place at the beginning of his first term. Seven years later, it is far too little and far too late.

But even that effort is too much for the coal industry and its supporters, who seem unable or unwilling to understand the depth of the danger humanity is facing.

This unfolding crisis demands serious action by serious people. It will require painful sacrifices that will do real harm to fossil fuel industries, especially coal.

That harm flows not from animosity toward coal on the part of President Barack Obama or anyone else, but from pure, simple necessity. The threat from unchecked carbon dioxide emissions is real and is anything but trivial. Humanity’s survival could ultimately be at risk.

It is impossible to burn coal without releasing carbon dioxide, which means transitioning from coal is a global imperative. That’s not good for coal companies, but it is essential for everyone else.

As amusing as they may seem, there is no room for Inhofe’s antics in this discussion. He cannot be taken seriously, but this debate must be serious. Far too much is at stake.