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Economist: global warming means tough choices for WV

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Eban Goodstein. Photo courtesy of the University of Charleston Eban Goodstein. Photo courtesy of the University of Charleston

A hotter planet, an economist visiting West Virginia said, is just something that will be a part of the lives of young people today.

"The reality is, especially for young people in their 20s or 30s, a hotter planet is just going to be a defining feature of their world," said Eban Goodstein, director of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, who spoke Feb. 22 as part of the ongoing "Energy: Who's Got the Power" speaker series at the University of Charleston. "That means more floods, more droughts and there is going to be a lot of pressure on the coal industry as a consequence."

That could be bad news for a state accustomed to raking in profits from the very resource — coal — that is catching a lot of the blame for global warming.

"Despite the politics of the moment the science is clear — that's what's causing the problem. That and gasoline," Goodstein said just before speaking at the University of Charleston event. "So, I think folks in West Virginia have just got to sort of accept those facts. You can obviously fight them for a while, but they're going to catch up with you, and find a new way forward."

Though there are industry officials and politicians who would like to ignore the evidence, Goodstein said widespread consensus among climate scientists, along with mounting evidence, is making global warming as a consequence of human action increasingly difficult to ignore.

"It's going to keep getting hotter, year in, year out," Goodstein said. "It's going to be increasingly difficult for people to be confused about this."

The evidence, Goodstein said, is not just measurable by the thermometer. Species are migrating, seas are rising and ice is melting.

"The impacts are already here, and it's going to get worse," Goodstein said. "At the low end, it's a challenging, but manageable problem. At the high end, it becomes a challenge to civilization. It's a very extraordinary time that we're living in to really determine the future."

The people of Earth have already gone too far to just stop global warming, Goodstein said. The planet, he said, is already set to warm four to 12 degrees in coming decades and has already warmed a degree and a half over the past century.

"We have choices to make, really, about what the future is going to look like. In my mind, we need to work hard to hold warming to the low end of four degrees," Goodstein said. "It's only warmed about a degree and a half Fahrenheit, so our kids are basically locked into three times as much warming as we've had in the last 100 years."

In his books about climate change, Goodstein has painted the picture of a number of potentially catastrophic scenarios. In addition to gradual global warming, there is potential for major step changes in global climate. One of those ways include the release of methane, a greenhouse gas, from frozen ice into the atmosphere or major collapse of ice sheets that would suddenly raise sea levels.

"Are there hidden traps in the climate system that would accelerate the process that we've initiated that would lead to runaway global warming?" Goodstein asked rhetorically.

While West Virginia has enjoyed a history of being an energy leader, it may not for long.

"You can't really say, you know, that because you're a leader in fossil fuel production, that you're going to be a leader in clean energy," Goodstein said. "There is not necessarily a link."

West Virginia's opportunities to lead in clean energy industry or in other any industry following a post-fossil fuel economy, he said, is determined by the creativeness and innovation of its business leaders and policymakers.

"Finding a way forward is really just a matter of business entrepreneurs and government policy makers looking for that new road and creating the clusters and innovation opportunities," Goodstein said.

Goodstein points to the Northwest where restrictions on the timber industry were viewed like tightening restrictions on coal in West Virginia. He said residents and employers there found a brighter economy alongside an improved environment.

That's not say that coal has no chance of cleaning up its act, Goodstein added.

"You can definitely clean up the emissions from coal plants, for example with integrated, combined gas systems, but the challenge is carbon dioxide," he said. "What are you going to do with the emissions that cause global warming? People have talked about capturing those emissions and injecting them into underground caverns that are now empty and containing it that way."

Sequestering the carbon deep underground, however, does prevent its own challenges, namely cost.

"There are a few experiments underway in that respect, but I think everyone thinks it will be expensive and might render coal not competitive with renewables, which are on a downward price curve," Goodstein said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, less than affectionately referred to often as the "job-killing EPA" by Mountain State business leaders and politicians, is not the problem, Goodstein said. The market and science may prove a bigger threat to the coal industry.

"What the EPA does or doesn't do is really not the primary driver of job creation or loss," Goodstein said. "It's really about how creative and engaged business people are, and the macro economy."

Goodstein is not inherently against coal. He says technology could one day clean up coal to the point it does not provide a threat to the stability of the Earth's climate.

"I never discount technology, because you never know which direction it is going to go," Goodstein said.

West Virginia's fairly new favorite industry — natural gas — could prove tobe a bridge fuel to renewable energy, Goodstein said, but only if it is done responsibly. In addition to water and geological concerns, there has been some doubt cast on a phenomenon known as "fugitive emissions."

Methane is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. So, despite natural gas releasing less carbon dioxide, if methane is leaked in enough quantities, natural gas no longer appears to be a viable alternative from an environmental perspective.

"As people start to look at these gas developments, they are finding leaks," Goodstein said. "If three or four percent of the gas is leaking, and not being captured, it eliminates the benefits of gas as a bridge fuel. "

Of course, every bit of methane leaked is methane not sold on the gas market, and therefore methane that doesn't earn a profit.

"The good news is that companies have an economic incentive to prevent those fugitive emissions," Goodstein said.

The problem is global, Goodstein said. Countries such as Germany are leading the way in renewable power generation, while other countries such as the U.S. lag behind.

China has been increasing emissions over the years, but has also recognized the problems and begun taking steps towards reducing their carbon footprint. The change and success of preventing global warming, Goodstein said, will happen "from the bottom up" at state and regional levels.

"This is a global problem," he said. "Everybody's got to lead – bottom line – or we don't solve the problem."

Goodstein speech was part of UC's ongoing discussion about energy. The next event, "The Power of Natural Gas" is March 8 and will feature David Porges, CEO of EQT. 

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