Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Flashback 1997: Pollution debate heats up

     Seventy-one fuckin' degrees. In February. In Chicago.
     I should just leave that sentence as the entire post.
     Because really, what else is there to say? "It's scary"? No kidding. 
Broke the old record by seven degrees? For those keeping score.
     And that was Monday. The forecast for Tuesday is sunny, windy, then rainy, high of 77 with a chance of tornadoes toward evening. I kid you not. They said that on the radio. 
     Yes, weather isn't climate. A summery day in mid-winter is no more proof of climate change than a subzero day is refutation. I used to say that the deniers were people who walk into a burning house, open the freezer, point at the ice and declare, "Ha! Look at all that ice. So much for your 'global warming.'"
     And yet. Look where we are. Where we're going. I wondered if I had ever tried to sound an alarm on climate change — for all the good it would have done — and am glad to find this, from over a quarter century ago, at least trying to put the topic on the table. Too late now.

     Many grave environmental threats have the benefit of being apparent. You can see the smog, the floating dead fish, the mountainous landfills. Others that can't be seen can be tested: lead in the water, pesticides in birds.
     Global warming is different. It may be a problem and then again it may not, because at present there is nothing obviously wrong.
     Concern over global warming is based on the conviction among many reputed scientists that the accumulation of certain pollutants in the atmosphere - carbon dioxide, sulfur - will have a "greenhouse effect" that eventually will raise the temperature of the Earth.
     Such a change would wreak havoc. Melting polar ice caps would raise ocean and lake levels, seasons would be altered, forests and farms destroyed.
     In Chicago, the two principal problems would be a rising, energized Lake Michigan and a crisis in the agricultural belt surrounding the city.
     The time frame for global warming is uncertain. Catastrophe could occur in 50 years, 100 years or - as the chorus of naysayers insists - never.
     To prevent this, the argument goes, we need to cut emissions by using cleaner technology and making it more expensive to pollute.
     "Small acts now to cut greenhouse gases make a lot of sense to reducing harm in the future," said Dr. Richard Kosobud, professor of economics and a specialist in environmental economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has studied global warming.
     Those who dismiss the prospect point instead to the enormous cost of reducing greenhouse gases, which are produced by burning fuel, particularly gasoline and coal.
     "The first thing it means is higher energy prices for virtually everything that's used," said David Montgomery, of a Washington, D.C., public relations firm promoting a study from the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. "For gasoline, an increase of about 50 cents a gallon, for residential natural gas, an increase of almost 50 percent . . . for electricity, an increase of 25 percent."
     Manufacturers argue - and have spent millions of dollars on advertising to promote their claims - that fighting global warming will hurt the United States economically while failing to address the problem, since Third World nations will continue to spew pollution.
     "What they're doing is inventing a scenario of dramatic cuts soon, which I don't think any reasonable advocate wants," Kosobud said. "The kind of cuts most economists advocate is a gradually rising set of tax increases on fossil fuels. This could be managed with a tradeable emission permit scheme."
     The world's nations are meeting this December at a United Nations climate conference in Kyoto, Japan, to hash out a plan to prevent global warming.
     On Wednesday, President Clinton announced the U.S. position concerning the conference - a middle-of-the-road compromise that infuriated critics on both sides. "The Clinton administration plan fights a five-alarm blaze with a garden hose," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.
     "The Clinton administration," a spokesman for a conservative Michigan free market group wrote, after dismissing the idea of global warming as "globaloney," "is trying to stampede the world into suicidal restrictions on energy consumption based partly on a falsified UN document."
     What Clinton proposes is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the period 2008 to 2012 and reduce them in the following five-year period.
     The plan would provide tax breaks to spur energy efficiency and would begin the creation of an international emissions trading program. Industries would be granted credits permitting their greenhouse gas emissions, and those who had excess credits - through pollution-abatement steps, for instance - could then sell the credits to those who needed them.
     Opponents of tough global warming measures find this plank of the plan unconstitutional.
     "Government designs on pollution trading are flawed in an important respect: They do not recognize the importance of establishing the things to be traded as property rights," said Jim Johnston, director and co-founder of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Palatine. "That sounds arcane, but its very important."
     He said that such a plan is a violation of the Fifth Amendment - basically seizing an asset, in this case, the right to release greenhouse gases - without compensation.
     "What they're doing is denying property rights," he said.
     Although being condemned as too strong, Clinton's plan is far weaker than that embraced by other countries. The European Union, for instance, is calling for a 7.5 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2005 and a 15 percent cut by 2010.
     Critics of the administration's plan have been trying to rally support by focusing attention on its internationalist aspects, alleging that U.S. sovereignty was being eroded by a cabal of UN overlords.
     Global warming is a vexing issue because of the wide range of opinions from entrenched groups that are not about to yield. On one side, there are those who deny the very existence of the problem. "Do not assume that the science has been settled," Johnston said. "The critics of the science are legion."
     On the other are those who are convinced, in the words of a letter sent to Clinton earlier this month and signed by 17 environmental groups, that global warming poses "the most serious environmental threat facing the planet."
     What is being furiously debated is whether we can afford to wait until we find out who's right.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 24, 1997


  1. Regardless of where your beliefs are on the political spectrum, don’t we ALL breathe air and drink clean water? How short-sided can greed be?

    1. They think technology will save them. By living on a space station, maybe. Or they are looking forward to the End Times (I kid you not).

  2. Earths climate is changing and overall the temperature of the atmosphere and the surface of the oceans has risen. These are indisputable facts. industrialization has increased the rate of temperature rise. The US government has done relatively little to mitigate this . The Biden administration is the first to pass significant legislation , as part of the Inflation Reduction Act to slow our countries increased use of fossil fuels. Thats right slow the increase! Not reduce consumption.

    No one is sure what continued increased temperature rise will bring but we have evidence of the effect it will have on the weather and human migration. There is no evidence the Great Lakes water level will rise due to melting polar ice and the idea the earth will burn is preposterous.

    The solutions to this problem are not popular and unlikely to become policy. you can't get elected by supporting decreased consumption. The pandemic gave us a taste of what decreased consumption looked like and didn't significantly slow warming even after a couple years of drastic reduction of use of fossil fuels.

    I mentioned in the post about the amazon Rivian vans, use less. Not a popular notion but likely the only solution. using different things that cost more just aint going to get it done.

    Thinking others need to reduce consumption while we jet around the world for vacations to get a break from watering the lawn around our 2500 sq ft. air conditioned homes where we grill beef raised on land that once was the amazon rainforest we bought at the Whole Foods in our suv ...

    1. we are not going to get rid of fossil fuel for quite some. Certainly after we are long gone. And we are always going to need oil even if we go to battery operated cars or hybreds Besides there are ton's of things that use oil.

  3. I feel like the earth is getting hotter every day.

  4. The level of Lakes Michigan & Huron [they are just one lake hydrologically] are down substantially this year, as seen by the way the stone edge of the Lincoln Park lagoon is now more visible. A few years ago, the water was over the top. Melting ice caps won't raise the Great Lakes & even if something else did, Chicago could petition the Great Lakes Compact states & Canada to increase the amount of water sent down the Chicago River to the much higher amounts that used to be pumped that way.

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  6. We've gone from global warming to climate change, and now to climate disruption. Which is apt because it puts the onus on human activity.

  7. Today's weather is predicted to be not just "record-breaking" but "record-shattering"!

  8. With regard to climate change, I've assumed ever since we watched "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2006 that we're screwed. After laying out the various aspects of what was and will be happening (some more accurate than others), Al Gore tried to put an optimistic spin on the matter by saying something to the effect that what's required is political will, and that's a renewable resource.

    Knowing what a frighteningly misguided electorate we have in this benighted nation and the gimme, gimme, gimme nature of most politicians and the public at large, it was pretty clear that not much would be done to confront this deeply significant, but far from straightforward issue.

    Plenty of folks in many places have already died due to effects of the warming planet, but since it's a relatively slow-motion disaster, focus tends to wane. We can't get people to accept the beyond-obvious fact that the Biggest Loser is a liar, traitor and criminal, how are we supposed to get them to deal with something as multi-faceted as the climate crisis?

    With regard to Lake Michigan's water level, that's a very complex issue, as well. This eye-opening NYT article spells out how it's an example of the Goldilocks principle. The level needs to be just right, within certain parameters, and too high or too low both cause problems. An in-depth piece, with some wonderful graphics.

    I'll just quote the beginning: "Chicago has a weakness at its very foundations. The towering skyscrapers and temples of commerce were built upon a swamp. For generations, bold engineering projects have fought to maintain a perilous balance, keeping water in its place -- not too high, not too low. But it is a city built for a different time. The time before climate change."

    (Sorry, I'm not a subscriber, so I can't offer a gift link. I was able to access it again just by googling, but your mileage may vary, I suppose.)


    1. Only the pre WWI buildings have floating foundations, which are giant logs pounded into the ground & don't rot because they're always wet. On top of them is a raft of more lumber & the buildings are built upon that raft. All of out tall buildings have been built with caissons of reinforced concrete, that go all the way to bedrock, about 175 feet below the ground. Nothing will happen to those buildings!

    2. The article is not about the foundations of buildings or the caissons. It's about the potential for flooding as the lake level fluctuates. In 2013 the lake was at a record low. By 2020, it was at a record high. "In just seven years, Lake Michigan had swung more than six feet. It was an ominous sign that the inland sea, yoked for centuries to its historic shoreline, is starting to buck."

      Later, it discusses the days of rain culminating in the river reaching 5.12 feet above ground level on May 17, 2020. Because the lake level was so high at that time, they couldn't just reverse the river and let the extra water go into the lake, as they have often done. They had to keep opening and closing the lock gates, opening them to let water out, but then closing them when the level lowered a bit so that water from the lake didn't keep flooding in.

      "Still, it was not enough. ... The resulting floodwaters not only submerged the bustling Lower Wacker Drive, one of the city’s main arteries, but also knocked out the electrical power at the nearby Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) all the way up to the aircraft warning lights atop its tusk-like antennas. A city hotline fielded more than 1,500 distress calls from residents whose basements were flooded.
      Flooding isn’t new in Chicago. But this time was different: Lake Michigan wasn’t at the ready to function as an oversized emergency retention pond.
      It may not be the last time."

  9. Chicago's all-time warmest February day (75 degrees) was set exactly 48 years ago...on 2/27/76. So 76 or higher will be new monthly record, as well as a daily one. That takes some doing, and doesn't happen very often. Long-term, things are definitely out of whack. Tornado threats and 70- plus in February, very mild winters, not a lot of snow cover. Strange days indeed. Climate-change deniers can pooh-pooh all they like...but the numbers don't lie.

  10. As Mr. S said the daily weather is not an indicator of climate change. Weather events being more extreme and more frequent have been found to have been affected by climate change. But the links to this are still under investigation. We live on a planet with wild and dangerous weather. Somehow it supports life. It seems like the concern is that climate change caused by human activity will make it so that that one day will no longer be the case.

  11. Well I heard Tom Skilling say yesterday in one of his many interviews that scientists knew about the dangers of the Industrial Revolution when it was beginning. We were talking about it in high school when the first Earth Day was held (originating in Springfield including the logo I think). This article about policy sounds like a playbook for solutions and had we heeded the calls even 25 ish years ago, we may have had a better handle on this today and not past the tipping point. greed in the form of money and power depleting our earth's resources at an astonishing pace today.


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