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In a recent NPR Democratic debate, candidates we’re asked to identify the “toughest issue” they faced. Senator Obama recently was quoted saying, “The issue of climate change.” Excellent answer. Now let’s see how his actions face up to his words.
According to Grist.com Senator Obama supports a cap-and-trade system, improved auto fuel efficiency, increased production of biofuels and nuclear energy as part of the general mix.
But what about the Senator’s thoughts on coal? Most environmentalists will agree that continuing to depend on coal as a primary energy source will inevitably lead to ecologically disastrous consequences. The dirties fossil fuel, coal remains king in the US and China, fueling the majority of energy demand. Obama supports “clean-coal”, meaning coal whose emissions would be scrubbed then pumped underground. In addition, he support coal-to-liquid fuels, which currently are no better, and can be even worse, then current coal alternatives. The senator supports the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act, which would all but guarantee increased emissions. Of course, Obama’s home state Illinois is rich in coal reserves, which politically Obama is not ready to give up.
Until Obama shifts the discussion away from future technologies and unproven methods, such as “clean coal,” he can’t be considered a good environmental candidate. Current renewable technologies are capable of ramping up the level of clean energy in this country. With the disappearance of subsidies for coal and oil, alternative energy sources can become economically viable. This is the direction a candidate needs to be thinking, not directly back into the pockets of big coal.
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The absurd irony of global warming is that while the wealthiest nations are disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, it is the poorest countries that will suffer the most. The effects of global warming will be most pronounced and acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, the island nations, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and low-lying areas like Bangladesh. These nations have limited resource and do not have the infrastructure to deal with the natural disasters and changing climatic shifts. Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu in a recent plea to the U.N. to take decisive action on Global Warming dubbed this gap, “Adaptation Apartheid.”
That truth is what inspired us. Growing up, Environmentalism had seemed a white, upper-middle class and decidedly un-urban cause. It brought to mind the token bearded and bespectacled Vermonter fighting the encroachment of modernity in a series of impassioned letters, and while I could appreciate it, it never moved me viscerally the way stories on Apartheid in South Africa, violence and poverty that was a result of the inequalities suffered in South Central, L.A., or genocide in Rwanda. Environmentalism did not bear the same immediate gravity. I thought it was about trees and nature shows on penguins and polar bears that featured tuba music. Earth Day was cool, but when I was ten I wanted a power to the people, fist pumping in the air day. That began to change when the realities of globalization started to bring to light once again the connection between the exploitation of natural resources and human life.
The summer of 2005 brought the issue home to me in a fundamental way. That summer I met a nine year old boy in Tamil Nadu. He had lost his father and mother in the Tsunami. He took me to his home in a fishing village, a series of tin roofed thatched houses a hundred yards from the shore. I spoke to his grandfather who described in horrifying gestures the speed and violence of the wave that washed away half the village and his daughter. Later in July, my wife and I were trapped on a bridge in Mumbai as floodwaters rose. A few hours’ earlier, kids were playing in the street delighting in what appeared to be a familiar monsoon downpour. But the rain did not stop. It was the highest rainfall in 24hours recorded in Indian history, and people drowned. Cows tied to the houses disappeared under the rising waters. Mumbai is not a rural coastal town. It is a bustling vibrant modern metropolis and it was caught completely off guard. We waded miles through the floods in the middle of the night but were able with the power of our American dollar to spend the next night in a hotel with hot water and electricity. We lay in bed transfixed to BBC watching people huddled on roof tops only a few hundred yards away. We came home to Katrina. I am not suggesting that by tackling global warming we will resolve all fundamental inequality and suffering on this planet, I am suggesting that if we don’t it will not matter too much anyway, because the stress caused by global warming will exacerbate existing tensions to an unthinkable extent.
I am an Environmentalist because it has everything to do with humanity. Global warming has changed environmentalism. The new environmental movement is concerned with protecting natural resources and species diversification, but ultimately it is about something much more basic and universal, it is about survival.