Share story

It would be ironic if the coal export terminals proposed for the Northwest were scuttled because additional trains promised greater inconvenience for drivers.

At least it would be a symbolic victory against one of the worst causes of climate change. Coal is inefficient and usually discharges more carbon-per-unit than any other fossil fuel, greatly adding to greenhouse gases.

Yet transportation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gases, and most of that comes from driving.

The Northwest coal terminals weren’t mentioned in President Obama’s recent speech, which former Vice President Al Gore called “the best address on climate by any president ever.”

Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers has said it will not consider the climate consequences of burning coal in Asia shipped from the proposed terminals.

Nor did he kill the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries. Instead, he only promised to approve the project if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

So for all the president’s courageous rhetoric, he offered relatively little in bold executive action.

Amid a list of small initiatives, one big change Obama proposed was extending regulation for new coal-fired plants in the United States to existing ones. Another would restrict U.S. funding, especially through the Export-Import Bank, to build overseas coal plants.

If the Environmental Protection Act were to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, a power affirmed by the Supreme Court, it would be a major step forward. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans are refusing to allow a vote to confirm Obama’s pick to lead the agency, Gina McCarthy.

Obama gives a good speech and has a reputation of quickly retreating into compromise that turns into capitulation.

Depressingly, he didn’t mention Amtrak, which is facing disastrous budget cuts in the House of Representatives, or funding for transit. Both are more popular than ever and a great choice to move people with less emissions.

Earlier this year, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million for the first time in 3 million years, long before the emergence of homo sapiens.

We are in dangerous new territory. Carmen Boening, a NASA climate scientist, said, ”Earth’s climate has never had to deal with such a drastic change as the current increase, which is, therefore, likely to have unexpected implications for our environment.”

Major corporations and the military are not in denial. The former are working on ways to be greener and protect the 10,000-mile supply chain. The latter is gaming out the instability and risks that drought, water shortages, competition for resources and catastrophic weather events will bring.

Yet if the nation is serious about addressing climate change, only Congress can enact a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. It shows no inclination to do so. As late as 2009, cap-and-trade stood a chance. No more.

The problem is not merely the big money poured into Congress by the fossil-fuel industry, most prominently the Koch brothers. While there is no serious dispute among scientists that climate change is human caused and happening, the timetable and specifics of its consequences are more murky.

Yes, we went through Hurricane Sandy and the Arizona wildfire that claimed 19 firefighters as part of a rising number of severe fires in the West. But is this climate change? No one can say with certainty. And if America continues to reduce its pollution, does that matter if China and other developing nations refuse to go along?

The economics of climate change are similarly unclear.

Professors Geoffrey Heal of Columbia University and Antony Millner of the London School of Economics write:

“While we are making incremental progress in characterizing the uncertainty in climate predictions, as well as how climate change impacts current economies and ecosystems, big parts of the picture are likely to remain obscured.”

This is not a call for economists to be passive. It is recognition that it’s easier to, say, count the number of potential jobs created if the Cherry Point coal terminal is built than to precisely calculate the costs to health and ecosystems from burning coal and changing the climate.

Alarmist rhetoric about climate measures being a job killer finds fertile ground in an economy with so many unemployed. Yet Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf testified in 2009 that cap-and-trade legislation would have a small effect on jobs.

The jobs that will be killed by ocean acidification or that could be created building solar panels, wind turbines or trains fail to get most people’s attention. Nor do studies showing that the costs of taking action on climate change are lower than doing nothing and hoping we can adapt.

The fossil-fuel industries have had a free pass to use the planet’s atmosphere as a toxic waste dump for the emissions of their products. This is a huge cost. It’s just not counted in conventional measures or models.

A carbon tax would help change that, keeping most fossil fuels safely in the ground while making alternative energy and conservation more attractive. American leadership in these fields could provide attractive exports to developing countries and inspire competition from China, which already considers renewable energy a strategic industry and is highly concerned about the political blowback from pollution.

We claim we’re exceptional. Why are we willing to accept defeat on climate?

Rich patrons back the status quo, yes. But it also has the support of custom, one of the most difficult things to change.

Has any nation this large, complex and divided ever faced such a challenge to transform?

So we will muddle along and hope for the best. That’s not good enough. But it may take a few more years before the costs of inaction, much less denial, become unbearable.

You may reach Jon Talton at