Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Climate Change: It’s No Laughing Matter

By Jim Vaughan, Senior Fellow

My Rotary Club has a weekly news feature designed to provide a little information and a lot of laughs. The format is always the same—weather forecast for the week, sports scores for area colleges and pro teams, current stock averages followed by several news items of interest and a closing joke.

Rotary News is presented by a former television personality who operates a marketing firm and writes a humor column in a local magazine. And while he always gets a chuckle out of me—sometimes even a laugh out loud—I am troubled by how easy it is for him to make light of the big issues of the day.

Topics like climate change, peace in the Middle East, providing affordable health care—you get the idea.

Maybe it’s just easier to laugh about the big issues than to address them, or perhaps it’s because we have heard the topics so many times and seen, seemingly, so little action.

Take climate change. The New York Times and other media organizations reported on March 31, on a sobering report by a United Nations panel that climate change “is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans and the problem is likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.”

The chairman of the panel said, “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” Fortunately, the co-chair of the working group that wrote the report said “dealing effectively with climate change is going to be something that great nations do.”

Not just nations, but companies too.

A 60 Minutes broadcast on March 30 featured Tesla CEO Elon Musk who is building all-electric automobiles and soon the longer-range, lower cost batteries that will make the cars more competitive.

Musk said his goal in starting Tesla was to reduce greenhouse gasses that threaten the world. Based on the accolades the car is getting (Five-star rating for safety) and its popularity (there is a 1-3 month waiting list) the $62,400-$85,900 vehicles are going to reduce greenhouse gasses and perhaps change a whole industry.

To extend driving range, a problem for electric vehicles, Tesla is building a network of charging stations where the driver pays nothing for a fill up. Musk hopes to make the stations largely solar powered one day.

“You can drive for free, forever, on pure sunlight,” Musk said.

And the company plans to build a $5 billion factory in the U.S., called Gigafactory, that will “make more lithium ion batteries than all the other plants on the earth combined” and reduce battery cell costs by more than 30 percent.

Another company that is changing its business model to reduce its impact on climate change is none other than Florida Power & Light. The company has built the first power plant in the nation to generate electricity from both solar and natural gas.

When the sun is shining, the plant makes good use of the Sunshine State’s greatest asset, but also uses natural gas to ensure its plant produces power at full capacity. At night and on cloudy days, natural gas ensures that FPL customers can still rely on the power they need to live their lives.

So much for the argument that solar is a good idea but not dependable for widespread use.

And what is the natural gas industry saying about the FPL plant? “This high-tech power plant reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 62,000 metric tons” annually.”

In the early 1990s, when I was president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, I met Paul Hawken, cofounder of several businesses and author of “The Ecology of Commerce.” Hawken’s radical notion was simple: Business has contributed to the problems of environmental degradation and it is the only institution in the modern world that is powerful enough to reverse it.

The Greater Waco Chamber built the nation’s first “green chamber building” as a symbol of its commitment to sustainability. When a regional utility proposed building more than a dozen coal-fired electric plants in Central Texas, the Chamber advocated for official standing in the permitting process which contributed to the utility’s decision not to build the plants. And its strategic plans—developed with Market Street Services—focus on the holistic nature of economic and community development and a sustainable future.

In spite of the laughter at my Rotary Club, global climate change is no laughing matter.

Fortunately, start-up companies like Tesla, old-line companies like Florida Power & Light and chambers of commerce like in Waco, are doing something about it.