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My View: Revised energy policies should help

Science debate aside, reversing warming would have benefits


Many years ago I belonged to a little Christian drama troupe, six college friends in an old van touring the country. In one of our skits, a young woman, looking to dodge a commitment, prays, “God, if you want me to do this, send me a boy wearing an engineer’s cap and carrying a purse.”

The words were hardly out of her mouth before a boy with an engineer’s cap came on stage, asking if the purse he found might be hers. Stunned, the young woman says, “What an amazing coincidence!”

Climate skeptics are a lot like that young woman. For decades scientists have warned that if we keep pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our climate will change drastically. Now we find polar ice rapidly melting and sea levels rising, and Arctic forest falling over in melted tundra. Rising temperatures have forced farmers in the Southern Plains to abandon wheat growing.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we’ve surrendered areas of the East Coast to rising seas. In Oregon, bark beetles, previously limited by winter cold snaps, chew their way through our forests. More ominously, the Klamath River area has experienced drought even when rainfall is near normal because snow packs didn’t form during a warm winter.

Still, skeptics insist the Earth isn’t warming. Like the woman in the skit, they read the longtime warnings, look at events and cry, “What an amazing

coincidence!”

More gallows humor: A drowning man is going down for the last time. Not two feet away, a complacent fishermen says, “Only a miracle can save him now.”

I can’t judge whether we should be optimistic or dejected. I’m only saying there’s still hope. Just as climate skeptics refuse to act, climate doomsayers howl that it’s too late, only a miracle can save us now.

Yet, somewhere between the clouds of denial and despair, there’s clear sky showing.

Temperature increases over the last few decades have been toward the lower end of predictions. In part, this is because the measures we have taken, while not yet enough, have made a difference. In the United States, greenhouse gases have dropped to levels last seen 20 years ago.

Another bit of good news: Some measurements indicate that overall temperatures haven’t increased in several years. This has happened several times since the atmosphere began warming 150 years ago. Though this plateau likely will also prove temporary, it gives us more time — if we have the wits to use it.

A philosopher once said that we might as well believe in God, because even if wrong, we’ve done ourselves no harm, and if right we’ve escaped damnation. We’re in much the same position on global warming.

If the nearly unanimous judgment of climate scientists is correct, we need to act, and soon. It’s not a hopeless task. The price, though initially steep, is affordable, especially compared to its alternative. And if America takes global leadership on this, our economy will boom from the establishment of new industries, even as old ones benefit from greater efficiencies.

Looking at the other side of the philosopher’s coin, what if all those scientists are somehow mistaken? In that case, for an affordable investment, we will enjoy cleaner skies, water and soil. We will have a more efficient economy. Our acidic seas will recover their balance. Defense outlays will drop because the fate of our economy will no longer be tied to the most unstable region in the world. Tensions with China will ease as we no longer compete with them for energy. And that’s if we’re wrong.

Regarding energy policy, it’s been said, “We’re always either in a daze or in a panic.” We can break this cycle and rediscover our best American traditions of optimism and bold vision. We can once more be a people who face challenges head on and take decisive action. That’s who we have been at our best and can be again.

Portland’s Steve Holgate is a member of the Center for Earth Leadership in Portland. He is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, a congressional staffer and led the staff of the Oregon Senate Committee on Natural Resources.