By Karl Dockstader
Buffalo, New York – In the midst of the latest polar vortex in the first week of this January, 2014, renown environmental activist Walter Simpson addressed a crowd of more than 50 people that weren’t deterred by the frigid Buffalo weather.
Weather is a topic that is common in a city boastfully proud of its hardy ability to persevere in extreme weather but when Walter Simpson addressed the weather it was with caution. With an image of a science fiction like wall of snow crashing across the Buffalo cityscape and the words “Knife Edge Snow Storm” showing, Walter openly questioned why there wasn’t more press about how obvious the connection was between climate change and the deadly November, 2014 Buffalo snow storm.
As part of the Sierra Club Niagara/Western New York’s Writers Circle, Walter Simpson shared his “Case for Renewable Energy” and encouraged everyone to think beyond the usual dollars-and-cents approach to thinking about energy. He talked about externalities and the unintended consequences of continuing to drag our feet about the man made changes to our planet.
Every year, 13,000 Americans die from respiratory illnesses as a result of burning coal, Mr. Simpson shared. That’s four times the amount of people that died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, an event that dramatically changed American policy across the board. And yet little is done to significantly curb the societal addiction to carbon dioxide emission.
Coal tailing ponds are subject to rupture, such as last year’s 2014 Elk River, West Virginia rupture that contaminated the drinking water of a quarter of all West Virginians, explained Simpson. In 2008, unexpected rain caused an overflow that resulted in the destruction of the ecosystem of several square miles. These areas get written off as what Walt Simpson calls “national sacrifice areas.”
New York is generating 38 per cent of its electricity from coal burning and steadily decreasing that number. Even with American efforts to try to achieve reduction there is the elephant in the room that much of the skyrocketing emissions in China are a result of US demand for products.
America’s addiction to fossil fuel fueled the need to go to war in the Gulf War and the Iraq War. All evidence that the Iraq war was about Weapons of Mass Destruction or Al Qaeda have been completely refuted. Walter Simpson shared that even Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve across four administrations, was quoted as saying in his memoirs; “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war was about oil.”
Greenspan may have backtracked on these comments when confronted by the media, but it does little to give meaning to the staggering 100,000 + Iraqi lives that were lost, the more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers killed or the 31,000+ US war injuries sustained. This was a 4 trillion dollar war that spanned two decades over eight years for oil, Walter Simpson presented, and yet one of the criticisms of renewable energy is the cost.
Walter Simpson’s whole presentation wasn’t gloom and doom. He shared his success story of transitioning the University of Buffalo to an energy efficient institution. Simpson famously covered his salary and created a budget friendly set of recommendations that drastically reduced the University’s energy bills and carbon output. Walter Simpson took an institute that was using 170 million kilowatt hours annually, worked with planners who were increasing the building square footage by 20 per cent, and created facilities that reduced the total consumption to 160 million kilowatt hours. Simpson’s description of his revisions was that, “these are like money machines that are helping the environment!”
After delving into the misnomer about natural gas being “the clean one,” with an image of a nearby Pennsylvania resident with flames bursting from their water tap because of fracking, Walter Simpson continued to make the point that transitioning to renewables is important but it is most important to curb demand as much as possible.
“We have to leave a lot of it in the ground,” Simpson told the audience, “and that requires a paradigm shift.”
There are clean and green technologies that are more widely available and being adopted on a larger scale than ever but the carbon output of humanity has also never been higher. There are very promising signs that wind, geothermal power, and solar becoming are more and more commonplace. Countering that though is that discovery that a safe level of carbon parts in the air is 350 parts per million, yet the current level is feeding the potential for catastrophe at 400 parts. This was the back and forth analysis of Simpson’s case. While clear irrefutable scientific consensus is showing the problems and the solutions to this crisis, is there a will in society to change policy in time?
There was an air of uncertainty when Simpson tried to conclude on a note of hope. In the follow up discussion there were all too many people familiar with the knowledge of what needed to be done. The unanswered question about a will to change clung to everyone like the bone clinging chill of this time of the year.
Is it important enough to make this switch in the way we do things?
Time will tell…one way or the other.
Karl Dockstader is a writer for the Niagara Energy Alliance, a Renewable Energy Project Developer at Welland’s EnerDynamic Hybrid Technologies Inc. and graduate of Niagara College’s Renewable Energy Technician Program.
(NOW IT IS YOUR TURN. Niagara At Large encourages you to share your views on this post. A reminder that we only post comments by individuals who share their first and last name with them.)