Texas shouldn’t harm the environment to create jobs

Travis Knoll

Texas and President Barack Obama are at odds again over proposed EPA regulations that would affect Texas’ coal industry. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Distrist of Columbia has just ruled that the EPA has the right to regulate Texas’ 19 coal plants such as the Fayette Power Project near La Grange, constructed in 1979.
This fight comes during a time of continuing unemployment nationally, which currently stands at 7.4 percent, and sub-2 percent GDP growth.  But it also comes as the president is trying to make good on a pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 (according to a 2013 report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, carbon emissions dropped by 12 percent from 2007 to 2012). 
Economic times are tough, although James Taylor, senior fellow for environment policy at the Heartland Institute,  argues that Gov. Rick Perry avoided the worst by capitalizing on the state's energy production. Writers like Taylor argue that times could only get tougher with regulations that in the short term run the risk of taking jobs away from some in the energy sector when jobs are most needed.
Indeed, there is an economic cost to reducing emissions. The Texas coal industry is an example of the economic perils of dealing with climate change. According to James Osborne of The Dallas Morning News in “For East Texas Coal Belt, Dread over New Climate-Change Rules,” many small towns like Fairfield, between Houston and Dallas, have been revived by coal plants but fear that these older plants will not be refitted, instead being forced to close down, costing hundreds of jobs for the town. According to Osborne, some in the industry are trying to develop what they see as viable alternatives, such as “clean coal,” which allegedly extracts the carbon pollution from the burning process, but the technology is new and untested, and might not be perfected in time to meet more stringent regulations. Recognizing the economic difficulty of transition, I still see creating jobs at the cost of environmental destruction as a Faustian bargain that  that won´t address our country´s long-term environmental problems.
The overall picture for the planet’s climate is bleak. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere reached 399.89 parts per million in May according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This measure is well above 350 parts per million, the point at which “feedback loops” begin to cause significant environmental damage. These are caused by an increase in carbon dioxide, which traps heat, and a corresponding melting of ice that would normally reflect sunlight, accelerating the rate of climate change. This acceleration could possibly cause sea levels to rise two feet by 2050, according to a 2013 report commissioned by Maryland Gov. Martin O’ Malley.

While there is a cost to addressing climate change, there is a cost for remaining idle. Natural disasters are growing more costly. According to Chris Mooney of Mother Jones magazine, 14 natural disasters cost $1 billion or more in 2011, and the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 topped $33 billion, compared to the $700 million (in today’s dollars) of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, according to the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University, and the estimated $25 billion caused by the 1992 Hurricane Andrew, at that time the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Fred Beach, a research fellow at UT’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, attributes the political gridlock on this issue to a lack of “political will [and] understanding in the general population.” He is partially right. Even conservatives recognize the reality of climate change. According to a 2013 poll by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, 62 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that the nation should take steps to address climate change, and 77 percent support renewable energy sources.

Even as voters recognize this reality, however, climate change does not resonate with the public as strongly as jobs. According to an April 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans feel that protecting the environment should be a priority for the Congress, as opposed to 79 percent who want them to improve the job situation.

Ultimately, the fault for the climate gridlock lies not with our political leaders but with ourselves, although economic interest groups help in creating a disconnect between public perception and political discourse on the issue. The U.S., and Texas, with the country’s second-largest state population, must begin to see climate change as a threat to national stability and economic well-being. Until we muster the political will to prioritize climate change over short-term economic gain, the economic costs of the rapid transition necessary will always seem to be a little more than we are willing to pay. Until climate change resonates with voters, however, we should applaud the  decision and additional EPA regulation, which should force a state with an array of energy possibilities to look toward an energy future instead of remaining stuck in an energy past.

Knoll is a first-year Latin American studies master's student from Dallas. Follow Knoll on Twitter @tknoll209K.