Sept. 3, 2014

By Kevin Lefebvre, MS

Smoking Gun

This is 2014, right? We are in the 21st century, right? I’m just checking because on June 24, Indonesia had to threaten tobacco companies with fines and jail time to compel them to put warning labels on cigarettes. I’m not sure about what I am more shocked: that Indonesia is still fighting this battle (they still have television commercials promoting smoking) or that upwards of two-thirds of all men in Indonesia still smoke! 

It’s weird – it kind of harkens back to the back and forth we watched between the federal government and the tobacco industry in the United States during the last century. Remember how the tobacco industry insisted there wasn’t conclusive evidence linking smoking with lung and heart disease?  

Right, 1930s cigarette ad.

They pointed to scores of celebrities that smoked all their lives that were wildly successful and living into their 80s, 90s and even hitting 100! And then, of course, there was the politics involved – tobacco is a big crop in some states – regulating its use and sales, we were told, would cripple the economies of those states – as if no one could ever learn another trade. 

Naturally, some denied the statistics on tobacco related health impacts because not everyone agreed on the methodology nor did everyone who smoked die from smoking. 

Carbon Addiction

Sounds kind of like the discussion we are having now around climate change. Some in industry feel reports that tie human activity to climate change aren’t enough evidence to make changes because earlier studies did not make the same connections or they aren’t 100 percent certain or because the reports cannot absolutely predict the impact of carbon. 

I cannot absolutely predict when I’ll need my seatbelt but I wear it because it doesn’t harm me when I don’t need it. And it could save my life when I do. (Plus it’s cheaper than a ticket – the state has no problem regulating that.) Clinging to the notion of “we don’t know for certain” is akin to that of the tobacco discussion. 

In the meantime, reducing carbon output is not going to harm us. 

Job Killer?

However, there are some politicians who feel that if we reduce our emissions it will kill jobs because we will not be able to burn as many fossil fuels to power our world. Gosh, that’s true. It could reduce the number of fossil fuel based jobs. Then again, taking lead out of gasoline reduced jobs. Taking asbestos out of insulation reduced jobs. Banning certain pesticides reduced jobs. The digital camera put filmmakers out of jobs. The mobile phone put the pay phone makers out of jobs. The automobile put farriers out of jobs. But wait, every one of those industries did something else or turned to new technologies!

We learned and we changed. Even Texas, oil rich Texas, now generates more wind-energy than most other states. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the 2009 construction of a 100 MW wind energy facility in Colorado has an economic “ripple effect” of 495 new local jobs created during construction, and $136 million in economic benefits and 21 local long-term jobs over construction and 20 years of use1. At the end of 2013, Texas had over 10,000 MW of wind energy2. Do the math.

Above, Cows graze at a wind farm on the Texas Coast, courtesy of Eddie Seal/Texas Tribune.

But, by all means, let’s get twisted up around the questions instead of looking at the answer.

What if..?

How about this. Let’s pretend all the treehuggers are wrong BUT we reduce carbon emissions for no good reason. What will happen? Energy prices may go up (at least that’s what we’ve been told – keep in mind how much wind we have in Texas and the price we pay – not much of an increase).  

We may reduce our dependence on oil through higher fuel efficiencies, which may also reduce our grocery and travel bills. We may develop new technologies to replace carbon-based technologies and bring manufacturing and jobs back to the United States. And we’ll still do all the same things we’ve been doing but we’ll do them with a smaller carbon footprint. Ouch.

On the other hand, let’s pretend all the naysayers are wrong BUT we continue to emit more and more carbon because it’s cheaper? What might happen? Continued trapping of heat within our atmosphere? More intense weather patterns? If the ice caps melt, sea levels will rise and that will flood coastal areas, cut off tourism, put people out of work and cost us millions, if not billions, in reconstruction expenses. (Check out the Florida Climate report3)

If the oceans warm, sharks and other predators swim beyond normal hunting grounds and spawning areas for other marine life shrink costing us more for seafood. The chemistry of the oceans can also shift, harming reefs and impacting tourism.

Above, Flooded cabs in Manhattan following Hurricane Sandy. Courtesy KeystoneUSA-ZUMA / Rex Features.

More intense heat waves reduce outdoor worker productivity and increase healthcare considerations and can lead to brown-outs and grid overloads that’ll reduce worker productivity as they wait in the dark. More intense precipitation events lead to flooding and require more rescues, which eat into municipal budgets and use resources. Drought damages crops and kills off livestock, raising our grocery bills.

Then there are higher insurance rates from property losses due to weather damage. You think the insurance companies are going to just absorb the cost of replacing homes and businesses torn apart in tornadoes or cars pulverized by hail or flooded out? Yeah, me either. 

But, by all means, let’s not do anything that could cost the fossil fuel industry or raise our electricity a little each year to reduce carbon. Let’s keep paying more for groceries, water, fuel, insurance and who knows what else because we do not want to reduce carbon emissions on our planet because some are a bit worried the science is not 100 percent conclusive. As a matter of fact, let’s not make plans for the 4th of July weekend because we’re not 100 percent sure it will be sunny.

It’s time to stop entertaining the ridiculous distractions and start addressing what we can see happening around us. The world isn’t flat and climate change is real. And if you still believe it isn’t, what would it hurt if we acted like it was? We make decisions that we hope will make our lives better all the time – what’s keeping us this time?


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Kevin Lefebvre earned his masters in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins and his bachelors in biology from UTA. He works to promote sustainable living and writes a monthly opinion piece for the city of Dallas’ ‘Green Times.’

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