Sustainable WNC

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Archive for May, 2008

Who Owns The Air? Who Owns the Atmosphere?

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

I am searching for the strongest metaphor. The one that I can’t ignore any longer tightens the gut and is difficult to speak but is the best to use because of its shocking truth. It may be the only one that gets our attention — may inspire us to act because it is a matter of life and death. We are “gassing” and killing ourselves in a not so subtle and suicidal Holocaust.

We are poisoning our air with mercury, ozone and microscopic particles. We are poisoning our atmosphere with CO2. Too much too fast is destabilizing our delicate climate system.I am not the first to use this horrific metaphor. Jim Hansen, the USA’s preeminent climate scientist, compared the coal cars lined up at our electric power plants to the boxcars leading to the crematoriums in Germany. The effect will be the same, genocide on human cultures and ecocide on planetary ecosystems. Understanding our predicament, it becomes very appropriate and even urgent to finally ask the fundamental questions: Who owns the air? Who owns the atmosphere?

Our shared delusion is that we live on the earth, but in reality we live within the biosphere — the shared complex interdependent dynamic matrix of the living earth. We are aware of the weather, especially when it changes, or is at its extremes of too hot, too cold, too wet and too dry. But on most days the air, atmosphere and the long-term trends of climate are invisible and insensible to us.

Being mostly out of our awareness has meant that in a remarkable sense we are air that has forgotten it is air. We don’t have to think to breathe, to remember to inhale and exhale. It all comes naturally. For all but the last few generations of humanity, each breath brought the grace of just the right amount of pure air to nurture us. But now, each breath is a guarantee that we inhale harmful particulate matter and ground level ozone that damages our lungs and even prevents the normal development of our children’s lungs.

It has taken us a long time to understand that the air and atmosphere, despite their invisibility to our ordinary senses, are not finite and indestructible. We are well into danger zone of causing the climate to “tip” into irreversible heating, and climate experts like Hansen believe we must have a moratorium on any new coal-fired power plants until and unless they can successfully sequester CO2.So if we are forced to breathe poison, questions about who owns the air and atmosphere deliver us to the heart of our democratic process.

Simply put, the air and atmosphere are being used as a dump for an antiquated and self-destructive energy policy determined for the most part by corporate America. In North Carolina, because of the power and monetary influence of so-called “public” utilities on our governor, legislature, Utilities Commission and Department of Air Quality, Duke Energy received a permit to build Cliffside #6. We are now subsidizing future contracts for trainloads of coal that will eventually destroy us.

CEO Jim Rogers’ PR machine manages to get national and international attention by talking green, but when the rubber meets the road we get a new Cliffside power plant that will add 6 million new tons of CO2 to our atmosphere every year. This is the equivalent of 1.5 million new cars. Duke Energy has admitted that rate payers will be seeing an increase of between 40 and 70 percent when carbon is finally priced into the costs of producing electricity. So not only are we going to be poisoned, but we are going to be paying more for such a horrible privilege.

We are at a defining moment in our history. Our government was formed to promote the general welfare … To Ourselves and Our Posterity. We are not living up to the promise and potential of our Constitution. We are not in denial. Polling consistently shows citizens want clean, renewable energy. But we are complacent and politically lazy. Most of us don’t engage in our democratic processes. We allow wealth in the form of corporate influence to rule.

Climate change is the biggest challenge our democracy has ever faced. For democracy to work effectively for the general welfare and our Posterity, we must engage now. Who owns the air — the atmosphere? Is it Duke Energy? They will claim it if we allow them. To learn more about how you can help, log on to