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Water Resources Law Blog

Congress' denial on carbon emissions is risky: Oliver Houck

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While Louisiana struggles toward protecting itself from stronger storms and rising seas, a strange debate is unfolding in Washington that could moot the question.  To leaders of this debate in both houses of Congress, climate change is not happening; if it is, then humans have nothing to do with it; and even if they do, the phenomenon is God's will, and we have no business interfering with his plan.

If these legislators prevail, Louisiana stands to lose more of its future than any state in America, and most countries of the world.

On one side of the debate are scientists representing thousands of experts in all related disciplines around the world, backed by years of studies and data. Behind them is last week's report from the National Academy of Sciences that without "steep cuts" in carbon emissions, atmospheric contamination will soar "to levels not seen for 34 million years." You need only scan the paper for news that Greenland ice is calving at 10 times predicted rates, that snows are gone from the high Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro, that Western rivers are running on dry and that forests in many states are only waiting for the next spark to explode. 

U.S. military generals and admirals are now calling climate change a "serious threat to world security." What do we do when several million refugees from Bangladesh start pouring over the Indian border, bomb them? 

Congressional leaders, however, know better. One member accuses "nefarious" scientists of "whipping up a global frenzy." Oklahoma's Sen. Jim Inhofe warns of "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on America." Rep. Joe Barton from Texas reasons that carbon dioxide cannot possibly be a pollutant, because "humans expel it when they breathe." (The thought that we also expel pollutants after we eat does not seem to occur).  

A Minnesota congressman explains that God has "given us a creation that is dynamically stable," seconded by a colleague from Illinois who asserts "the Earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over." The stated gospel is that scientists mistake the nature of "God's wise design and powerful sustaining," viewing humans as a threat rather than "the bearers of God's image, crowned with glory and honor." Where does a debate go from here?  

Congress summons Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson -- raised in the Lower 9th Ward, schooled in chemical engineering at Tulane University, deeply committed to the survival of this region and deeply aware of the threat -- to bash her in committee after committee about environmental protection in general and the agency's most critical initiative: first-ever controls, long called for by law, on carbon emissions. 

You would think she was burning the Bible and the American flag. 

What is clear is that the attack on climate change controls, in the name of "sound science," has nothing to do with science except to contradict it. These attacks are driven by faith, funded by carbon industries and fueled by media misinformation that has most Americans now believing, according to a Gallup poll, that they know a great deal about climate change, that much of it is caused by aerosol spray and by nuclear power plants. 

There are few combinations more lethal than being convinced about something and dead wrong.  

Nor is this coming from a need to balance the budget. These are the same leaders who insist on retaining windfall tax breaks for American billionaires and provide monster subsidies to the carbon industries. 

Nor is this truly conservative. Even were there a chance that the world's best scientists are wrong, even if that chance were 50 percent, who would play Russian roulette with global systems in play? What is happening instead is the most non-conservative, risk-taking behavior in the world. You might even call it, its trappings of religion aside, immoral. 

Which would mean little more for Louisiana than (mostly) men acting badly, but for New Orleans and our coast. We cannot survive the high end of sea level rise, no matter what we try to do. We cannot afford to trash EPA carbon controls. If others believe that God will save us all, I welcome their prayers. But if they sell our future to this belief and to the carbon industries, we should not follow. 


Oliver Houck is a professor of law at Tulane University. His e-mail address is ohouck@law.tulane.edu.  This op-ed was originally published in the March 24, 2011 edition of The Times-Picayune. 

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