Acrimonious emissions clouding energy debate
Choose your poisons:
Carbon dioxide and mercury from coal; plutonium from nuclear; environmental hazards from offshore drilling; national-security and economic menaces from foreign oil; excessive expenses and limited yields from wind and solar; lifestyle limitations from conservation.
All of the above.
That was the essence of the advice delivered by Christine Todd Whitman Tuesday in a visit to this newspaper.
OK, so Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2001-03, is now being paid, as co-chair of Clean And Safe Energy (CASE) Coalition, to make the case for nuclear energy. But the former (1994-2001) New Jersey governor didn't just persuasively pitch nuclear as non-greenhouse-gas-emitting "green power." She pitched the practical proposition that "we can't keep saying no to drilling, foreign oil, nuclear and coal."
She predicted that building 30 new nuclear plants by 2030 would merely keep its share of U.S. electricity generation at the current 20 percent. And we can't even do that without putting nuclear waste where it belongs — in the federal facility built for that specific purpose at remote Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Whitman: "It's not nuclear science that's stopping it. It's political science."
It's the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.
But political problems can have political solutions. Whitman: "Harry Reid's in trouble in Nevada."
As EPA chief, Whitman wanted to take on global warming under a president — George W. Bush — who didn't. Now, along with CASE co-chair Patrick Moore, an ex-Greenpeace director, she's pushing for a balanced energy "mix."
She said we must lead by example on carbon emissions — and must go on a conservation offensive. Yet she said, too, that we can't abandon coal, though she took no position on the controversy over Santee Cooper's bid to build a $1.2 billion coal-fired plant in the Pee Dee.
She rightly decried "zero-sum games of all or nothing." Hardheads on both extremes question not just the opposition's judgments but its motives.
Why not find a middle ground? We shouldn't hammer our already-reeling economy with draconian carbon limits that are not just economically but politically untenable. Yet we should take reasonable steps to curtail CO2.
Ponder the virtually evangelical zeal of ex-NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who also ran afoul of the Bush administration. Last October, in a visit to this paper, he called for stern CO2 restrictions, issuing apocalyptic notice that "we have already passed safe levels." Last month, he told the Guardian "the democratic process" wasn't working to counter this menace.
On the other extreme, lots of conservatives wallow in climate-change denial. A story in Tuesday's Washington Post struck back at that mindset — and one of that newspaper's own, reporting on "new evidence" that "contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979."
Whitman's take: Human activity "exacerbates," not "causes," what she calls "climate change, not global warming, because it's going to get hotter in some places and colder in other places." And: "We're not going to stop it. But we can slow it down." She rightly pointed out that CO2 undermines "quality of life" beyond its climate-change effects, citing a breathtaking experience in Beijing, where she could scarcely see two blocks. She said we need to give "the private sector equity" via a politically palatable carbon cap-and-trade system.
We also need to cool down a debate heated enough to melt any sense of proportion — or humor. Seven weeks ago in this space, a facetious column about climate change's potential production of monstrous mutants fueled a flurry of angry letters and e-mails charging that it advanced a scare-tactic conspiracy to expand government's reach. The column's comic-relief intent somehow eluded those grim folks despite an accompanying photo showing giant ants from the 1957 sci-fi hoot "Them."
Then again, keeping our lights on is no laughing matter.
Too bad Whitman didn't wield more power in the last administration. Too bad being pro-choice has precluded her from consideration as a running mate who could have given GOP tickets not just a woman but a qualified one.
And too bad our energy choices are so tough — and so poisoned by rising refusal-to-see levels.