Meeting Climate Challenges
It’s rare today to find an American, especially an Oberlin student, who isn’t aware of the serious threat global climate change poses to humans and to the environment. Agriculture, transportation and industry will be threatened by climate change. Pandemics and natural disasters will become more common and more severe. There is little question that the benefits of taking dramatic action to reorganize our economy now to mitigate climate change outweigh the costs, and every Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential race has proposed a bill that will at the very least reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, which scientists have recognized as a necessity. This is good news, but it certainly won’t be an easy task, even putting aside opposition to any real reform from the radical right.
One major impediment to reducing carbon emissions is our reliance on coal. Mining and burning coal destroy ecosystems at mine sites, create dangerous and low-paying jobs, produce smog and acid rain and are a major contributor to global warming. Why do we burn so much coal, then? It’s cheap. Electricity from currently operating coal plants (which are not required to meet many environmental standards passed into law after they were built) is cheaper than just about any other source of electricity there is.
There are much more serious costs, of course, that are not factored into the price of the electricity. That is why it is so great to see plans for new coal plants all over the country being scrapped. Under the leadership of moderate Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius, the state of Kansas rejected plans for two 700 megawatt coal plants last month. The case in Kansas drew national attention because it was the first state to block a plant specifically because of global warming, but the AP reports that in the past few months, plans for at least 16 coal plants have been rejected.
Part of the reason is that new regulations and competition for materials from China have caused the price of constructing plants to rise about 40 percent, but growing popular opposition to emitting carbon dioxide should not be underestimated. The coal industry certainly isn’t taking any chances with the power of public opinion, as it recently ran xenophobic ads claiming that Sebelius’ decision played into the hands of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Oberlin may not have the carbon emissions of Kansas, but our own community made a resounding statement about coal in the City Council elections last week. The Oberlin City Council had voted 4-3 to support a major 40-year investment in the AMP-Ohio coal plant earlier this year, and voters spoke out clearly in opposition to that deal. All four candidates running together on an (unofficial) anti-coal ticket were elected to the Council, while two of the three members who had supported the plant failed to win reelection. The new council has a majority willing to block the deal and is actively seeking other ways to increase Oberlin’s electricity supply through renewable energy. From abolitionism to women’s rights, Oberlin has always been ahead of the curve in American politics. Rejecting coal is no exception.