Storm-driven hot air

Storm-driven hot air

srs-1014Local conservative group says Hurricane Matthew demonstrates need to reduce our commitment to renewable energy

As is almost always the case with natural disasters of such terrible proportions, Hurricane Matthew is sure to have major policy and political implications in North Carolina. Already, elected leaders are battling over the wisdom of a special legislative session to address hurricane-related issues and Gov. McCrory has effectively merged his reelection campaign with his tour of devastated areas. At last count, the embattled governor has issued more than 30 press releases on the subject of Matthew – many of which do little more than reiterate items already reported by major news outlets.

Setting aside, however, the immediate, near-term impacts, there are obviously several larger and much more important – even existential – issues raised by the latest major hurricane to rake the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S. To most caring and thinking people these issues are pretty obvious and have to include things like:

  • How can we combat the climate change that is warming seas and fueling more such storms?
  • How can we strengthen our public infrastructure so that it can withstand these storms as they become more frequent?
  • How can our coastal areas prepare for rising sea levels in the coming decades?
  • How can we improve our emergency preparedness and emergency response systems?
  • How can we address the crisis whereby hundreds of thousands of people living in storm and flood-prone areas subsist in flimsy and substandard housing?
  • How are we improving international aid and development efforts to assist the inhabitants of countries like Haiti?
  • What steps must the U.S. military take to protect its various bases and other installations in vulnerable areas?
  • How can we pay in a fair way for the public investments that will be necessary?

The list goes on and on. Rob Young, a professor of coastal geology and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, authored an excellent essay for Wednesday’s New York Times in which he detailed the absurdly wasteful approach that the U.S. government is taking on the question of storms and beach erosion. This is the conclusion of “The Beach Boondoggle”:

[A] 2014 report by the National Research Council concluded that we have no national vision for how federal dollars should be spent to deal with coastal hazards and coastal risk….

At some point, coastal resort communities will need to assume the risk of storm damage themselves. I would venture to guess that, when this happens, they will be quite a bit more interested in the hazards to which they are exposed.

We need to have a conversation about when it is in the federal interest to pay for shoreline protection, and when the local economy should be left to cover the costs. We can’t hold every shoreline in place forever. But, for the moment, we sure are trying.

And a lead editorial in the Fayetteville Observer had this insightful observation last week:

It [the hurricane] raises crucial questions about what measures need to be taken to protect life and property….

Even I-95 itself was flooded and impassable in places during and after the storm. What additional protection do we need for the East Coast’s most important north-south highway? Before these storms, reconstruction projects had raised the roadbed of the eastern sections of U.S. 64. Was it enough? Do many other roads need the same attention?…

However we choose to explain climate change, it’s here and altering our lives. We need some thoughtful discussion, informed by serious science, about how to proceed.

A truly bizarre response from Right-wing Avenue

And then there are the inhabitants of the so-called “free market think tanks” funded by those fun-loving fossil fuel barons, the Koch Brothers, and their not so silent junior partner from North Carolina, Art Pope. Take a gander at a column released yesterday by the Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation. In it, the author argues – we are not making this up – that the mass, storm-related electricity outages of recent days lead to one overriding conclusion:  North Carolina must reduce its commitment to renewable energy and the law (the “Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard” or “REPS”) that requires public utilities to derive a proportion of their electric load from renewables.

Here’s how the twisted “logic” train proceeds:

The author begins by lamenting the fact that so many people have been suffering throughout the state in recent days without power. He even acknowledges that high-priced power is a big burden on poor people. Okay – so far, so good.

Unfortunately, after making the case of how vital electricity is to modern life, he then makes an utterly absurd leap. After alleging that the state REPS is responsible for big price hikes for electricity in the state (something that is demonstrably untrue), he argues that it is all part of a desire to “take advantage of needy people.” Here’s the through-the-looking-glass conclusion:

As power is restored across North Carolina, we can be glad that the REPS mandate isn’t making us have to choose between one basic human need and another. Sitting in the dark without hot water, indoor cooking, and even social media isn’t fun.

But REPS is causing us more and more to choose between our need for electricity and our want for other things for our families. They’re things we could have under a least-cost environment, but unnecessarily higher-priced electricity crowds them out. Our purchasing power has fallen. And the bigger REPS gets, the more of those other things we’ll have to give up.

One mind-set thinks that’s wrong for poor families. The other mind-set says let’s cash in since it’s not a free market anyway.

Did you get that? An employee of a group that champions unfettered, dog-eat-dog casino capitalism and the selfish pursuit of profit as virtually holy phenomena – a person funded by the Koch brothers, for Pete’s sake! – is purporting to offer a lecture about beneficent policy toward poor people.

But setting aside the offensiveness of such a lecture, the author is just plain and simply wrong.

First of all, the exorbitant electric bills that plague many eastern North Carolina cities (at another point in the column, the author mentions someone in the city of Wilson) are the legacy of the outrageously expensive Shearon Harris nuclear plant that many cities were convinced to help underwrite, not renewable energy.

Second, the expanded use of renewable energy (solar, wind and improved efficiency) is saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars over time. It does this in lots of ways, but mostly by abrogating the need for lots of costly new fossil fuel plants.

But even if that wasn’t the case and consumers were somehow paying more for electricity in order to reduce our use of fossil fuels (they aren’t), the answer wouldn’t be to do away with renewable requirements; the answer would be to make sure poor people get help through “lifeline” plans, weatherization and other energy efficiency programs, tax credits and the like to keep their bills down – way down.

What’s more, reducing the use of fossil fuels through improved efficiency and use of renewables has massive benefits for vulnerable populations unrelated to their electric bills – especially by reducing air and water pollution and thereby improving health outcomes. If you doubt this, check out the situation that confronts the people living near leaking coal ash basins throughout our state or those in other states whose lives and homes have been devastated by the impacts of fracking, oil and gas spills and the like. Renewables also have a much better impact on economic development and job creation than old dirty energy sources.

And, of course, it doesn’t take a PhD to figure out which population group it is that’s been disproportionately impacted by the flooding associated with Matthew – a storm of the kind that will become more frequent in decades ahead as fossil fuel use drives further climate change.

The bottom line: North Carolina’s growing commitment to renewable energy is not a problem for the poor of our state; it is, in fact, one of the best things that state leaders have ever done to help our vulnerable populations. And it’s a scandal that groups peddling blatant untruths about such a vital initiative are taken at all seriously by anyone close to a position of power.