Fossil Fueled Extreme Weather and the Executives of Climate Change

Stephen Smith | July 12, 2012 | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Extreme Weather

“Welcome to the rest of our lives.”

This is a quote from an interview with Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, as he describes the extreme weather we are experiencing with rapidly increasing frequency and intensity across our country and the world. Faced with shocking numbers of record high temperatures and natural disasters, experts are saying that there has never been anything like it in recorded history.

Welcome to climate change in action. What we are seeing is not only a change in the day-to-day weather we experience, but rather the cumulative result of the increasing destabilization of our planet’s climatic systems; the same systems we all depend on for our very survival.

Nashville 2010 Thousand Year Flood Photo
Downtown Nashville flooded in 2010.

Never in my lifetime have I seen such an apocalyptic parade of extreme weather events. Who can forget the 1,000 year flood in Nashville in 2010, the killer Tornado that swarmed across the South in 2011, and this year’s missing winter in the South? Videos of these catastrophic events – such as this one from last year’s tornado disaster – are found all over the internet, and it seems like every week brings another catastrophe worthy of news attention. Climate change alters the conditions in which our weather forms, and significantly increases the opportunity for these extreme events to unfold with devastating consequences.

Now it’s summer once more, and we’re facing an extraordinary heat wave; already we have broken over 2,116 high temperature records in a one week period between July 2 and July 8. Even before this poignant example of the effects of climate change, Climate Nexus was already finalizing a study on the topic of extreme weather. Their recently released report, Climate Signals Extreme Weather Guide, details the reasons behind these extreme weather events.

These four maps illustrate the potential for future drought worldwide over the decades indicated, based on current projections of future greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are some highlights from their research:

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports an increase in billion‐dollar weather disasters across the U.S. in recent years, with an astonishing 14 weather disasters totaling over $50 billion in damages in 2011 alone.
  • Four out of five Americans live in counties where natural disasters have been declared since 2006.
  • While natural variability continues to play a key role in extreme weather, climate change has shifted the odds and changed the natural limits, making certain types of extreme weather much more frequent and more intense. Sixty years ago in the continental United States, the number of new record high temperatures recorded around the country each year was roughly equal to the number of new record lows. Now, the number of new record highs recorded each year is twice the number of new record lows, a signature of a warming climate, and a clear example of its impact on extreme weather.
  • The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has found that within 20 to 30 years, areas in the U.S. will face unprecedented drought at levels far beyond the worst of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s if carbon pollution continues at only a moderate pace.
  • The 2011 Dixie outbreak produced the largest swarm of tornadoes on record (175) and was ranked the deadliest outbreak of the modern era. Seven tornado outbreaks in 2011 each incurred over a billion dollars in damages, for a total of $28.7 billion.

These are just a few of the more astonishing findings of the report, but all of them are evidence of the following realities:

Reality #1: We are seeing the effects of climate change occur at a faster rate than many thought possible.
Our future and our children’s futures are looking more uncertain and foreboding with each passing month.

coal plant fossil fuelsReality #2: We know why this is happening.
Burning fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – release carbon dioxide (CO2) that is collecting in our atmosphere in increasing concentrations. Today’s CO2 levels, now 395 parts per million (ppm), is significantly higher than at any other time in recorded human history; it has been consistently less than 300 ppm going back over 600,000 years. This significant increase in CO2 is “trapping” the heat energy from the sun in our atmosphere, making it impossible for that heat to radiate out into space, and subsequently causing an increase in our temperatures.

These raised temperatures are changing the balance of our climate and fueling the extreme weather we see playing out in real time. That is why I call these extreme weather events, “Fossil Fueled Extreme Weather.”

Reality #3: We have the power to change this future.
Like someone with high cholesterol, we must make changes to our habits to reduce our risk of unhealthy living. The best scientific minds agree that we must return our CO2 atmospheric concentrations to 350 ppm. To reduce unhealthy levels of CO2, we must significantly reduce the amounts of coal, oil and gas we burn.

In the South, coal is known for having been a dominant fuel for electricity production since the middle of last century. Even in a “down” year, Southeastern coal plants produce around 500 million tons of CO2, in addition to other harmful pollutants. However, utilities are now slowly moving away from their oldest coal plants. Duke, TVA and, to a lesser degree, Southern Company have set targets to close their older coal plants.

While this is a good start, the speed of the extreme weather events we are witnessing make it clear that these targets are simply not enough. If we want to get back to safe levels of CO2, then utilities must do much more than what they are currently projecting. We need a plan to cut coal-burning power plants’ CO2 emissions to over 50% below 2010 levels by 2020 and establish a guideline to phase out coal by no later than 2050.

There are, however, very wealthy people who have profited and continue to profit from the business-as-usual approach to energy production and consumption. Their money and influence pollutes the public policy and political process as they and their companies spend extraordinary sums to perpetuate misunderstanding and undercut, obstruct, and mislead those who are attempting to take action to address the source of climate change. I call these people the Executives of Climate Change. They are a big part of the problem–we need to know who they are.

The Executives of Climate Change Tom Fanning Charles McCrary Paul Bowers
The Executives of Climate Change - Tom Fanning, Charles McCrary, and Paul Bowers.

Southern Company and its affiliates have been slow to address their role in reducing carbon pollution. They stubbornly cling to coal and continue to invest in high risk new nuclear and coal projects. Now that American Electric Power (AEP) has announced thousands of megawatts of coal retirements, Southern Company is moving up to be the number one utility in burning carbon-intense coal in the United States. This company, its CEO, Tom Fanning, and its leadership team, which includes Charles McCrary of Alabama Power and Paul Bowers of Georgia Power, have continued to steadfastly resist the ideas of significantly reducing their use of coal and supporting clean safe alternatives. Not only that, but they are also fall behind other regional utilities when it comes to energy efficiency investments and targets. They even fight private efforts to invest in renewable energy in their service areas. Southern Company outspends other utilities by putting millions of dollars toward lobbying against protective standards to reduce pollution.

The Executives of Climate Change Charles Koch David Koch Rex Tillerson
Charles and David Koch and Rex Tillerson.

They join other Executives of Climate Change like Charles and David Koch, who continue to be major players in obstructing action to address the cause of climate change. Of course, Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, also makes the list. Just a few days ago, he basically said, don’t ask my company to change its business plan in order to stop disrupting our planet’s climate; it’s manageable and people can adapt.

Given the realities of looming catastrophic climate change and the stubborn dogma of those fighting for the status quo, it must be our imperative to demand better from our utilities and public officials, and ensure that they are working for the general well-being, not just looking out for shareholder profits or political clout. At some point, when summers are even more scorching hot than the current heat wave and the wells have run dry, even the staunchest of climate deniers will wonder if they were on the wrong side of the climate debate. It’s up to us to make sure that they never have that opportunity by pushing them to take action now, before it’s too late.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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