Opinion: Smaller Carbon Footprint Key to Disaster Avoidance, Not Disaster Relief

Mark M. Murphy | May 29, 2013 | Opinion, Sandy
The effects of global warming are here, so are the tools we can use to curb greenhouse gases

The United States started measuring carbon levels in the atmosphere a year after I was born — 1958. This month, the Mauna Loa observatory on the island of Hawaii, which has been monitoring the steady increase ever since, registered atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels at 400 parts per million for the first time.

At that level, the experts advise that only dire cuts in carbon emissions, coupled with the ocean’s own reabsorption capacity, can stem the damaging effects of drought, deluge. and disappearing shoreline sure to come. And already here.

The rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere feed what scientists and your local weatherman alike describe as “extreme weather events.” Once-a-century storms like Sandy are gaining in frequency and severity due to carbon congestion. The tornado that destroyed Moore, OK, on May 20 is the third to touch down there in fifteen years.

We in Jersey know full well that when disaster strikes from the sky, all hands turn to rebuilding. FEMA and its state and local counterparts, public and charitable, are the focus of attention. A people so struck can be forgiven if their sole thought is how to get out from under the catastrophe.

However, the urgency of local communities to rebuild cannot substitute for a sustained national effort to get at the root cause of these events: greenhouse gases of our own making.

So how do we keep focused on the underlying “inconvenient truth”? Let’s recognize and build upon the real progress we are making.

California is the third-largest market in the world for automobiles, right behind the United States as a whole and China. Last week I spoke with Gov. Jerry Brown’s Director of Planning and Research, Ken Alex, about California’s efforts to shift their auto market to electric vehicles.

Alex described California’s goals for mass adoption of electric cars by 2025, and said they are on path to surpass this year’s target of 50,000 electric vehicles on the road. Most important for us on the other side of the country, California is vigorously addressing the three largest hurdles for mass adoption of electric cars: informing consumers on their benefits, lowering price and incentivizing purchase, and creating a comprehensive infrastructure to plug into so electric vehicles can be charged anywhere.

California car standards and sales have always moved the U.S. market, and if it succeeds in vaulting these hurdles our own affordable and available options will follow.

Those electric cars need predictable, affordable, renewable energy if they are to make a dent in our carbon emissions. In New Jersey, our largest electric utility, PSEG, is a national leader in developing solar power to meet that demand. In 2012, PSEG was again ranked third among all utilities in the U.S. by the Solar Electric Power Association for installing the most solar megawatts in its system.

Dana Drysdale is president of PSEG Solar Source, a company that now runs the largest solar farms in Delaware and Ohio. In a recent talk to my Lead New Jersey Fellows, she detailed ambitious plans to drive her industry to overtake coal plants as the largest single source of power in our country.

Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is pursuing its own goal of generating 22.5 percent of electricity in New Jersey from renewable sources by 2021. Offshore wind turbines are a key to achieving that goal. Three years ago the state DEP issued its report finding minimal environmental impact from proposed offshore sites for these turbines, and the governor signed legislation to authorize their development.

Since then, eleven offshore wind projects have been proposed. Just this week, a New Jersey Energy Link transmission proposal was announced to carry the wind power ashore. But federal regulators still must approve offshore leases. The state BPU is still figuring out how to protect the dedicated fund used to finance the return on investment that wind developers would earn from the revenue raiding to make budget that has cost existing renewable energy accounts over $700 million under the Christie administration.

There are many details to be worked out among the methods we must adopt to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. But let’s keep our message and measuring clear. FEMA is for disaster relief. Each of us reducing our carbon emissions is for disaster avoidance.