In January, we learned that 2016 was the hottest year on record, the 40th in a row above average. If years were coins, the chance of flipping 40 straight heads would be one in a trillion.
In February, the Arctic was 50 degrees warmer than average.
And in March, an African drought threatened 20 million people, a humanitarian crisis that has been called the worst since World War II.
March Madness, anyone?
If I said coal use in the United States dropped 20 percent in the last two years, slashing carbon dioxide emissions and future climate change, some people would roll their eyes. If I said the same drop in coal use and air pollution will save 3,000 lives this year—and every year after if we stick with it—people might notice. Both statements are true.
After two centuries of data and all these years, we’re still arguing over the reality of climate change and what’s making our seas rise. We’re missing the boat. We live in a society that embraces progress and the energy landscape is changing under our feet. We should embrace it.
When DC politicians talk about restoring coal jobs, they forget that energy employment is up, not down. About 175,000 full time workers mine, move, and burn coal across the United States. In comparison there are 475,000 jobs now in solar and wind power. We created an astonishing 100,000 new solar and wind jobs last year alone. Wherever the coal mines are closing, families and communities need help. Economy-wide, though, the low-carbon economy is a winner.
We’re winning in other ways, too. Cooling water for power plants is responsible for almost half of all fresh water withdrawn in the United States. New combined-cycle natural gas plants use half or less the water that a coal plant does. Renewable wind and rooftop solar use no water at all; they’re zero carbon, zero water, and low pollutant technologies. In contrast, coal-fired power is responsible for about half of all U.S. emissions of mercury, a hazardous air pollutant, and sulfur dioxide, another “big-six” criteria pollutant that causes acid rain.
There’s a lot more to celebrate in energy progress. Our cars and trucks are twice as efficient as they were a few decades ago, yet the current administration is threatening to roll back fuel efficiency standards. Why would we want to throw away our money and harm our health and natural security? Consumer Reports estimates people will save about $4,500 over the life of their car if the current standards are fully realized. Half of Americans live in towns and cities that fail to meet air quality standards, driven in part by ozone and particle pollution from vehicles. We’re still importing three million barrels of oil a day from OPEC. Eviscerating the fuel efficiency standards is a bad idea for our health, our pocketbooks, and national security (not to mention our climate).
While arguing over whether fracking is “good” or “bad,” we’re losing chances to make our infrastructure leaner and safer, and help the climate as we go. When you walk down a street and smell a natural gas leak, you aren’t pondering greenhouse gas emissions. You’re worrying about safety—the rare fires and explosions that cost $100 million and kill ten or so people in a typical year.
My research group has mapped gas leaks across cities like Boston, Washington DC and Manhattan. Cities that replaced their old, leaky pipelines had one-tenth the number of gas leaks per mile than the places listed above. Kudos to the companies, public utility commissions, and local governments that made this happen in states like Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina. Massachusetts passed an accelerated pipeline replacement program a few years ago based in part on our work. Costing households only a dollar a month, it’s making the system safer from fires and explosions and reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a side benefit.
So here we are. The administration is to scrapping methane leakage rules from oil and gas wells, promoting coal use, and cutting energy efficiency standards, the single most powerful tool our businesses have used to cut costs and compete in the global marketplace. We have administrators in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy who are scornful of the institutions they direct. Neither Republicans nor Democrats deserve this.
We should be embracing energy efficiency and the low-carbon economy as fast as we can. Pick whatever reasons you like: jobs, national security, human health, money. Even pick the environment. But leave climate change out of it. We don’t need it. Any of it.