Paul Hampton

A coal-fired future would be pretty bleak

The Buffalo News

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Noted scientist Paul Hampton, channeling Al Pacino channeling Michael Corleone

I was going to give it a rest but it looks as if I must return to toil in the orchard of cherry-picked facts to answer the question: “If the climate’s changing, who made all these snowflakes?”

This week’s contestant is Sam Britton of Laurel.

Britton is no Joe Six-Pack sitting around in his boxers listening to Alex Jones. He’s the public service commissioner for the Southern (our) District of Mississippi.

And he seems like a reasonable enough fellow.

So he should know better.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Britton’s appearance at the Council of Governments meeting Wednesday. Full disclosure: I didn’t know it was at the Council of Governments until I got there. I just went because I thought maybe he would say something about the always-newsworthy Kemper power plant being built by Mississippi Power.

“The odds of me being public service commissioner if it wasn’t for Kemper is pretty small,” he said in a refreshing display of honesty for a politician.

He also helped get a lot of Kemper documents online and a longer comment period for ratepayers to talk about the plant. So he deserves props for that.

Then he left the rails. And broke out a PowerPoint.

Say 97 one more time

Britton, for one thing, takes issue with the statement that 97 percent of scientists agree humans are causing the climate to change.

“We’ve all heard this statement: ‘97 percent of scientists’ — and then you hear, ‘agree that’ — then there are several things it will say but it all usually comes back to fossil fuels are bad.”

That, in the parlance of the scientist (master of science from Letters to the Editor 2016), is what is known as a straw man.

What 97 percent of scientists are often said to believe is humans are causing the climate to change. You can quibble about the percentage, but it is clear the overwhelming majority of scientists who are actively studying the climate believe we are mucking it up.

Britton, though, accuses those folks of cooking the books.

“But when you dig down deeper into the true studies,” Britton said, “what they’re quoting is not what the actual study really says. What they did not agree on was that changes in the climate are man-made.”

Now, at the bottom of the slide Britton started this part of his talk with was the credit “University of Queensland.” That’s the home of Global Institute for Climate Change and John Cook, who published one of the most widely cited papers on climate change.

If you drill down into that study, you’ll find this conclusion: “Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.”

Britton also said the scientists didn’t agree on whether climate change is dangerous. Of course not. That’s not what the study was measuring.

However, earlier this year, 31 nonpartisan scientific societies released a letter that, among other warnings about climate change, said, “There is strong evidence that ongoing climate change is having broad negative impacts on society, including the global economy, natural resources and human health.”

Stone-cold facts

Still, Britton asked, “What are the facts?”

“The Arctic ice is melting, we know that for a fact, we see it,” he said. “But then you start looking. Antarctic ice is at a new maximum. And that comes from NASA.”

True enough. But what NASA also said is there is a net loss of ice between the two.

“The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming,” said Claire Parkinson, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent.”

And Britton ends up defending fossil fuels as a safe and economic energy source, at one time arguing both that electricity rates have skyrocketed because of President Barack Obama’s policies against coal and have basically stayed level, thanks to prudent decisions by utilities.

Britton says he was wanting to assure everyone he, and the PSC, would make decisions based on facts and logical thinking.

Here are some facts about coal and climate change I hope he knows. When power plants burn coal, they emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, soot and heavy metals.

They are huge contributors to climate change. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about “clean coal.” I wish my mother and grandmother, who scrubbed coal dust and grime out of their houses for decades, were alive. They’d have some fun with that idea.

The head of DTE Energy, who runs a company that has 3,500 MW of coal plants, wouldn’t disagree with them, either.

He’s planning to retire eight of DTE’s last nine coal plants in the next 15 years. Likewise, Southern Company, parent company of Mississippi Power, is diversifying its portfolio with renewable energy.

Even China, the mega-polluter often cited as a reason to throw our hands up in despair and give up on efforts to heal the Earth, is turning away from coal as an energy source.

Turn out the lights, Mr. Coal.

Paul Hampton: 228-896-2330, @JPaulHampton