A Sustainable Transition, by Don Matheson

I didn’t emerge from the womb alarmed about climate change. As a young man, I worked offshore in the Gulf of Mexico oil industry. A few years after that I was lured to Alaska by the promise of big money working on the North Slope oil fields. It did not enter my consciousness at the time that I was doing anything bad. As a builder in East Hampton for the last 25 years, I’ve worked on a lot of houses that were designed with little attention to how much energy they used. 

I mention that personal history to point out that I understand that many well-intentioned folks who are working hard trying to feed their families see the political issue of climate change primarily as a threat to their livelihoods. 

Jump to April 29, when I, along with a couple hundred thousand folks from around the country, went to Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate March to demand that our government take action to stop burning the fossil fuels that are heating up our planet. I’d like to discuss a couple of the signs I saw marchers carrying.

One that had a clever play on words was “It’s not the heat; it’s the stupidity.” While that may give a warm sense of superiority to activists, it is exactly the polarizing attitude that keeps us in gridlock on the issue. Most of the people who fight against action on climate are not stupid. They are just like the man I was 50 years ago: absorbed in the struggle to make a living. And they believe what they are told by the media and the political party they trust.

Another sign said, “We need leaders who are readers.” That I can agree with. Most of us do not have time to spend the hours necessary to study the science and economics ourselves. And I think we all hope that there are smart, dedicated people who listen to the experts, evaluate what is true and what is false, and move us as a society in safe directions. Why wouldn’t they?

Money. Power. A peer-reviewed study from Drexel University revealed that the fossil fuel industry spent $528 million in one seven-year period to cast doubt on the science of climate change. They know they can’t disprove the science. But they can confuse the public with relentless disinformation. That does not include the millions in campaign contributions to legislators who are dependent on that money to stay in office. Ask yourself why the Koch brothers were so open about the billion-dollar fund they had in readiness for the last campaign cycle. It posed an implicit threat to any Republican legislator who dared to endorse climate science.

Which brings me to a third sign carried by a large group of marchers in D.C., a sign that gave me hope: “Republicans for Action on Climate Change.” Science always wins in the end. At some point in the past, new evidence overcame outmoded beliefs, and public opinion showed that people grasped the fact that the world was not flat. The same thing is happening with climate change.

A blue-ribbon group of Republicans, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and the former head of Walmart, among others, are pushing for legislation on what they call “a conservative climate solution.” Their proposal would not only reduce fossil fuel emissions, it would add jobs, increase gross national product, and save lives. These men understand that the fastest growing segment of the economy is clean energy. Clean energy jobs in America now outnumber fossil fuel jobs by five to one.

Energy from solar and wind is now cheaper than fossil fuels in many applications, and the economies of scale and technological innovations continue to drive the price lower each year. India, which has been cited as a drag on conversion, recently announced a policy to ensure that every new car sold in that country will be electric rather than gasoline-burning by 2030. China has canceled hundreds of planned coal plants and last year alone deployed more solar power than exists in America. 

The Long Island Power Authority, not usually considered to be a stronghold of liberalism, has canceled all plans for building fossil-fuel-burning power plants and is committed to a 90-megawatt wind farm 30 miles off Montauk. That is more electrical power than is used by the entire Town of East Hampton. Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls for 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, which is enough to power 1.25 million homes.

There is understandable and legitimate concern in our fishing community as to how offshore wind will affect their livelihood. In Europe, there was the same concern when this technology was introduced, but today the alarm has subsided, despite thousands of offshore wind turbines there. 

A compilation of studies that can be found on the IOPscience website done on the many offshore wind farms in European waters confirms fears about noise during construction causing temporary changes in marine mammal behavior, but also confirms the reef effect of the structures, as they provide welcome habitat conditions for some species, including cod. No negative effects on fish were found from electromagnetic fields emanating from buried cables. Further study is encouraged, as are careful strategies to lessen the effect on the marine environment, but there was no conclusion that offshore wind systems should be rejected. 

While many fishermen would agree that the catches today are small compared to when their fathers fished, how many are aware of the threat to fishing posed by burning fossil fuels? Most of the CO2 we emit ends up in the ocean. It is changing the pH such that it dissolves the shells of sea creatures, and that includes phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain. And the slight changes in water temperature are already having dire effects, for example, the bleaching and death of coral reefs, which are the incubator for a large percentage of sea life.

Scientists tell us that continued burning of fossil fuels could gradually lead to the collapse of fishing worldwide, a sobering prediction, since 20 percent of the world’s protein comes from the sea. If you find that far-fetched, you might ask yourself how the buffalo-hunting industry or the commerce in flamingo tongues is doing these days, not to mention the lobster fishing in our waters.

It has been said that we should avoid offshore wind farms to protect fishing, that we should be putting solar panels on roofs. But the sun doesn’t always shine. When a northeaster here blocks the sun, for example, wind turbines will be cranking like crazy. That’s why technologists tell us that wind in conjunction with solar and battery storage and other emerging technologies is a necessary combination that can function as a seamless system to provide the power necessary to run the modern world.

Deep Water Wind, the company building the wind farm off Montauk, is eager to work with the fishing community and resolve issues in a cooperative way. The firm has impressed local officials with its commitment to careful implementation. It employs a system of observation and stops construction when migrating marine mammals are nearby. Aware of the world around them, company officials employ state-of-the-art procedures to minimize disruptions. 

The public should be aware of the many considerations involved in this issue. Fishermen are right to get involved and work to safeguard their way of making a living. But we will all see changes in the way things are done in the future. Continuing all things as we did in the past will spell doom for everyone.

As we contemplate the options before us, it is necessary to remember that the reason we are making this transition is that climate change threatens to bring mega-catastrophe if we continue with business as usual. The choices we make now will determine how much of the world that sustains us will remain to sustain our children.

Don Matheson is a member of Citizens Climate Lobby. He lives in Springs.