Mark Twain once said that “denial is not just a river in Egypt”. Twain’s quip, a joke about ignoring things, pretty much sums up most people’s thoughts on the threats posed by climate change. It’s easier not to think about it.
Yet climate change is a huge problem that affects everyone in the world. Climate change threatens food production. The sea level rises. Forest fires and other disasters are more frequent. Today we see millions of climate refugees and their numbers are increasing. It is likely that people living in coastal communities around the world, including some in North America, will need to find new homes.
Climate scientists tell us that global temperatures will continue to rise for a long time. But they also tell us that we can slow down the rate of growth and mitigate its impacts. Doing nothing, they say, will lead to a global catastrophe affecting everyone. And the first thing we have to do is stop burning so much coal, oil, and gas that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
For a good example of rejection, consider the city’s proposal to build a massive new corn crushing plant in Grand Forks. There are a lot of problems with the plan. Under the city’s current proposals, the plant will be exempt and will not pay most municipal taxes for the first decades of its existence. But our tax dollars will subsidize Chinese companies. The project requires us to spend $ 100 million on new infrastructure, $ 2,000 for every taxpayer in Grand Forks, even before it’s built. Getting the money back is uncertain. The factory will dramatically increase truck and train traffic and produce the inevitable foul odors from farm plants. But the biggest problem is probably the impact the plant will have on the climate. According to city reports, the plant will double the natural gas burned in Grand Forks and could emit more than 4 million pounds of CO2 pollution per day.
What do you call people who know something is wrong but insist on doing it anyway? The obvious word is immoral. I suspect, however, that the word doesn’t really apply to those who worked to bring the corn plant to our town. Because I bet they didn’t even consider the cost to each citizen, the pollution and smells the plant will create, the quality of the jobs it will create and how it will add to climate problems. .
A member of the city council told me that if we don’t build the corn plant here, it will be built elsewhere. So, he said, why don’t we take it? This argument is truly immoral. If the plant is a bad idea here, it is a bad idea elsewhere; we can hope people all over the world refuse. Apparently, the Hong Kong Fufeng Group has succeeded in fishing and pitting a handful of small Midwestern towns against each other in a subsidy battle. Grand Forks naively took a bite of the hook.
The River Twain, climate denial, isn’t limited to city leaders. Because it’s complicated and can seem hopeless, most people would rather not think about climate change. Others, like my friend Norm, tell me that they would like to do their part to fix the problem, but not if it means a lifestyle change. Unfortunately, it was his lifestyle, our lifestyle, and the status quo that got us in trouble. To solve the problem, it will be necessary to change. Change, however, doesn’t mean our lives have to get worse, just different.
What is the best way to tackle the problem of climate change? First, individually, we must take responsibility and do what we can. Consider, for example, that today there are 16.1 million F150 pickup trucks on American roads. A typical F150 driver spends over $ 2,200 on gasoline each year and produces 13,000 pounds of CO2. If instead they drove a fuel efficient car, they could save half the money and produce half the pollution. What’s wrong with saving money and helping our planet at the same time? Yes, some people need a big pickup, but most don’t. They drive them because they love and because they haven’t thought about the cost or the damage it causes.
Second, we need our government, including municipal government, to think through every proposed action in terms of climate impact. Today the government is part of the problem when it should really take the initiative and be part of the solution. The mayor and city council should show visionary leadership instead of using business models from 60 years ago.
Dexter Perkins, of Grand Forks, is a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at UND.