Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Our Choice: Green Jobs, or Gruesome Catastrophe

So much for the desperate attempts to smear clean, green energy. It looks like we will be seeing even more renewable energy projects emerge soon.

The Obama administration moved Tuesday to streamline the development of large-scale solar projects on public lands by approving 17 vast tracts across the West it says has the highest power-generating potential and the fewest environmental impacts.

As developers scramble to secure utility-scale solar sites, the plan will move the Department of the Interior away from having to consider individual projects on a case-by-case basis and instead direct development to land already identified as having fewer wildlife and natural resource obstacles. [...]

The zones cover a total of 285,000 acres, with five sites in Nevada, four in Colorado, three in Utah, two each in California and Arizona, and one in New Mexico. Originally 677,000 acres of the 253 million acres managed by the BLM had been considered. Proximity to transmission lines also was considered.

"This is a really big milestone in terms of environmentally sensitive and responsible solar development," said Helen O'Shea of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Having a roadmap for development and conservation and striking the right balance between the two is going to be critical for protecting our western landscapes as we build our clean energy economy."

As we've discussed before, Nevada stands to gain so much from clean energy investment. One only has to look at all the facts on the ground to notice the big picture. It's brighter than many think.

However, there's another picture that isn't looking all that bright now. In fact, this one is downright frightening.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast a temperature increase of 4ºC for the Southwest over the present century. Given a faster than expected build-up of greenhouse gases (and no effective mitigation), that number looks optimistic today. Estimates vary, but let’s say our progress into the sweltering future is an increase of slightly less than 1ºC so far. That means we still have an awful long way to go. If the fires we’re seeing now are a taste of what the century will bring, imagine what the heat stress of a 4ºC increase will produce. And these numbers reflect mean temperatures. The ones to worry about are the extremes,the record highs of future heat waves. In the amped-up climate of the future, it is fair to think that the extremes will increase faster than the means.

At some point, every pine, fir, and spruce will be imperiled. If, in 2007, Swetnam was out on a limb, these days it’s likely that the limb has burned off and it’s getting ever easier to imagine the destruction of forests on a region-wide scale, however disturbing that may be.

More than scenery is at stake, more even than the stability of soils, ecosystems,and watersheds: the forests of the western United States account for 20% to 40% of total U.S. carbon sequestration. At some point, as western forests succumb to the ills of climate change, they will become a net releaser of atmospheric carbon, rather than one of the planet’s principle means of storing it.

Contrary to the claims of climate deniers, the prevailing models scientists use to predict change are conservative. They fail to capture many of the feedback loops that are likely to intensify the dynamics of change. The release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost, an especially gloomy prospect, is one of those feedbacks. The release of carbon from burning or decaying forests is another. You used to hear scientists say, “If those things happen, the consequences will be severe.” Now they more often skip that “if” and say “when” instead, but we don’t yet have good estimates of what those consequences will be.

Climate change is now happening at an accelerated pace. It's even worse than forecast just in 2007! Already, we're seeing huge swaths of Western forests succumb to epic wildfires, drought, and insect infestations like never seen before. And if we lose our trees, which capture our carbon emissions, we're in store for the kind of catastrophe that was once thought as only possible in a Biblical story.

Yes, it's really that bad. Climate change has officially become the climate crisis. And if we ignore it for any longer and pretend it doesn't exist, then we're only sealing the fate of our own extinction.

Do we really want to seal the fate of our own extinction? Or do we want to keep hope alive for survival? Wouldn't we rather start adapting to our new reality and give our economy a boost while we're at it?

The weather outside is truly frightful, but it's not too late to take action. But really, we need to do something now, before this catastrophe worsens into something we can no longer survive.

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