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Climate grief and the stark choice that confronts us

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Climate grief and the stark choice that confronts us

Nov 28, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Rob Schofield
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Climate grief and the stark choice that confronts us
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A coal-fired power plant belches emissions - Photo courtesy of the Michigan Advance

If the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, Americans can be found at all points along the continuum when it comes to global climate change and the environmental crisis that accompanies it.

Like many who’ve contemplated a grim healthcare diagnosis that seems to belie of how they feel in the moment, millions of people – even, at times, those who know better – still cling to the notion that this is all some kind of big mistake.

After all, the leaves continue to change. Stories of Rocky Mountain blizzards still populate TV weather reports. Football fans still bundle up during late season games. “Maybe things aren’t really that bad,” goes the thinking.

And anger? One need only glance at any of the oversized, gas guzzling trucks and SUV’s barreling down our highways sporting “MAGA” and “Climate Change is BULLCRAP!” bumper stickers to see it in action. (Never mind, of course, that insurance giants, the U.S. military and even giant oil companies have all long since acknowledged the reality of human-driven global warming.)

Meanwhile, though they acknowledge the situation, aspiring bargainers look for cheap, pain-free ways out of the fix we’re in – think of those too-good-to-be-true clickbait ads found on Facebook feeds and in the bowels of webpages promising miraculous energy “solutions.”

And sadly, as journalist Josh Kurtz of news outlet Maryland Matters recently reported, climate anxiety and depression have become a boom industry for the nation’s therapists.

But what of “acceptance”? What does that mean and how is it relevant in this context?

Thankfully, as science continues to demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be merely about resigning ourselves to a grim and hopeless future.

Yes, the situation is serious – even dire. And even in a best-case scenario, things like sea-level rise, severe weather, drought, wildfires, crop failures, species extinction and forced mass human migration are going to get appreciably worse.

But as an NC Newsline report authored by States Newsroom national energy reporter Robert Zullo detailed last week, we still confront hugely important policy decisions that will make an enormous difference in determining the habitability of the world we’ll hand to our children and grandchildren in the decades to come.

And as seems so often to be the case these days, a lot of these decisions will come down to whether we will embrace intentional public solutions, and are willing to foot the bill, and perhaps endure some sacrifices.

At issue is a federal EPA plan to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from electric power plants. These plants spew about a quarter of all climate change inducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

And in this case, it truly is a “pay a lot now” or “pay even more later” moment.

As Zullo reports, EPA’s draft rule creates new emissions targets for gas and coal plants in the coming years that depend on their planned retirement dates and capacity factors – a measure of how much power a plant produces over time relative to how much it could have produced at full operation. The basic idea is to require coal and gas units that don’t plan to retire in the near term and are operating at higher capacity factors to undertake more rigorous carbon reductions.

Not surprisingly, however, some power industry officials and electric grid regulators complain that it will involve huge costs, require difficult technology advances and impose big challenges on the grid – especially at a time when we’re moving to power even more things – our cars, our furnaces – with electricity.

According to Jim Robb, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the U.S. “is a country that hasn’t proven its ability to develop infrastructure to support” ambitious changes of this kind. He and some other experts – though not all – worry that getting the grid up to speed and effectively integrating big new infusions of wind, solar and stored battery power will be hugely expensive and technically challenging and could lead to reliability problems.

And you know what? Both sides — the EPA architects of the plan and their critics — are undoubtedly right.

Yes, slashing power plant emissions and weaning ourselves from carbon fuels right away are utterly essential.

And yes, to do so will require big new infrastructure investments and ambitious technological advances and, almost certainly, cost billions upon billions of dollars in taxes and rate hikes.

But it’s also true we simply have no other choice. If we don’t rapidly end our addiction to carbon fuels by, among other things, constructing a sustainable electric grid, we’ll soon be paying trillions of dollars to deal with the disastrous consequences and rapidly spiraling costs of climate change – in everything from food prices to storm recovery to defense spending.

The bottom line: Yes, the climate crisis is massive and daunting. Humanity has never before faced – much less successfully tackled – a challenge of such magnitude and importance. The grounds for grief are plentiful.

But the sooner we get over the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and resign ourselves to facing up to (and dealing with) the facts, by far the better off we’ll be.

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