Sisyphus or Hercules?

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I recently spent a beautiful spring day among the historic confines of the University’s Miller Center as an audience member during the second public meeting of the Virginia Commission on Climate Change held on March 27.

From my seat in the Forum Room, it dawned on me that the Commission potentially faces a Sisyphusian task—they have a huge amount of work to do, which may amount to nothing in the end if they focus too much on preventing future climate change.

The Commission’s duties are laid out in Executive Order 59 issued by Governor Tim Kaine on December 21, 2007, and include the development of a Climate Action Plan to address climate change in Virginia that identifies “the actions…that need to be taken to achieve the 30 percent reduction goal,” that is, to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by the year 2025, bringing them back to 2000 levels.

This will be quite a challenge given the Commission’s make-up. Its membership largely consists of conservationists, planners, energy managers, policymakers, politicians, and a smattering of scientists. But what it needs to be made up of is inventors. Because it will be nearly impossible to meet the Governor’s aggressive emissions target without bringing some major new greenhouse gas-free energy source into the mix (especially given the disdain for conventional nuclear power plants, which, by the way, do not produce greenhouse gases).

Even if the Commission does manage to struggle its stone to the top of the hill and achieve its goal through conservation, improved efficiencies, more renewable energies, etc., the stone will come rolling back down again as the sum of the Commission’s actions will result in absolutely no impact on global (much less Virginia’s) climate.

Climate change is a global phenomenon—greenhouse gases do not confine themselves to state, national, or even continental boundaries. Thus emissions and emissions reductions in Virginia needed to be set against global totals to appreciate their potential impact. Virginia presently emits about 175 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year or about 0.6 percent of the total global emissions of about 28,000 MMT per year. Fueled primarily by rapid economic growth in China, global emissions are increasing annually by an amount that is six times the total emissions from Virginia. This means that if the Commission were to halt all Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions now and forever (that’s all fossil-fuel based electricity, transportation, home heating, etc.), the effect would be subsumed by global emissions growth within just two months. Sadly, even the most drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia would result in no meaningful climate effect.

Certainly stepping up conservation efforts, improving energy efficiency, and further developing renewable energies (if done right, e.g., not through burning our food a la corn ethanol) are useful in their own measure—saving money, reducing foreign dependency, stimulating the economy, winning popular support for appearing to be “doing something” about global warming, etc., but actually altering the future course of climate isn’t among this list.

If the Commission wants its stone to remain perched atop of the hill, and actually produce something beneficial from its efforts, it should focus less on piecemeal emission reduction measures and focus more on another of its assigned duties: “Identify what Virginia needs to do to prepare for the likely consequences of climate change.” A positive outcome on this task would transform the Commission’s labors from Sisyphusian to merely Herculean.

Chip Knappenberger is a 1986 graduate of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. He has been a Charlottesville/Albemarle resident for the past 25 odd years and works for a small environmental consulting company primarily engaged in examining climate change science, impacts and regulations.

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