Not too long ago, the world watched in disbelief as hundreds of thousands of Chinese were enveloped in dense smog that stopped traffic, forced pedestrians to don masks and left a layer of black gunk over everything outdoors.
The Chinese government told its people not to worry; this was an anomaly caused by weather patterns on the day that the government said to turn on winter heat sources. Yes, China tells you when you need heat and when you don’t.
But it has happened before, and it will happen again. And if the world isn’t careful, many more millions will be subjected to dangerous pollution, which causes cancer, respiratory distress and death. And, as usual, it will be the poor who suffer the most, those unable to buy expensive air-filtration equipment that the rich and powerful take for granted.
That is why an action the beleaguered Obama administration took a few days ago is heartening. The Treasury Department announced that the U.S. will no longer support new coal-fired power plants financed by the World Bank and other international organizations.
Not surprisingly, the energy industry erupted in anger, calling the president hypocritical. In Africa, Obama promised to help developing nations on the continent double their access to electricity. Coal is a big part of that.
Despite the stubbornness of some politicians who refuse to concede that science is right, the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, which eventually, unless thwarted, will dramatically change weather patterns and already is causing extreme weather to become more extreme: more devastating droughts, more hurricanes, hotter weather in some places and much colder weather elsewhere. Agriculture in many global breadbaskets will cease.
Nine out of 10 scientists agree this is one of the worst potential calamities humans have ever faced. People who scoff that the world has survived carbon burning for millennia without destroying the environment don’t realize how much more carbon we are putting into the atmosphere.
California, Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia are convinced. They have just announced a new compact to use cleaner-burning fuels in transportation, push for zero-emission vehicles and tax polluters who contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change.
Obviously, four regional governmental bodies, even if they actually can put into practice their promises, can’t make much of a dent in a global problem.
But the compact will make others realize that, yes, there is cause for concern in how we are treating our environment. We don’t even have the tired old excuse that somehow future technology will solve the problem; climate change is already occurring. Re-creating the ozone layer is not possible. Thus, it is not just our grandchildren and their grandchildren who will suffer; we will be affected and so will our children.
Ironically, the Obama administration is permitting new coal-fired plants in the United States if they meet strict new antipollution standards, which, of course, are costly and still being challenged by industry. If developing nations can afford to meet them, the United States presumably would support new coal plants with new technology, although that is not yet clear.
Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced in June, will be extremely difficult to implement and almost certainly will not happen in his remaining three years in office.
But it is historic and will show future historians and scientists that we knew early in the 21st century of the dangers of climate change.
We have seen enough science fiction movies to know how fragile our ecosystem is. I, for one, do not want to go hurtling through space searching for an atmosphere that can support life.
Certainly, our next home won’t be Kepler 78b, a newly discovered Earth-like planet 400 light years away. Its temperature is as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Rocks melt at that temperature. But the debate over coal wouldn’t be an issue.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email email@example.com.