Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sununu on coal: reposting of previous blog with an addition

Republicans these days never seem to have met a toxin they don't want to protect from the big bad EPA -- an agency originally proposed by Richard Nixon and created with large bipartisan support in 1970. Recently John Sununu, one of the Boston Globe's increasingly large stable of conservative columnists, decided to take up arms against new EPA regulations on coal and mercury.

Mr. Sununu has degrees in engineering and business from MIT and Harvard. As a New Hampshire Republican he served in the House of Representatives, and was also Senator for one term (2002 - 2008); he was defeated by Jeanne Shaheen whom he had defeated in 2002. His politics are generally fiscally very conservative, though he has taken moderate stands occasionally on matters of technology and even conservation.

Of course, Republicans these days have to attack anything that Democrats and especially Obama do. Thus, Sununu has used his platform at the Globe to do just that, and continually; last week he published a column attacking various EPA proposals to control the burning of coal and increase the regulation of mercury. Here is the column: A vendetta against coal. (I wonder whether the Supreme Court will rule, in the spirit of Citizens United, that minerals have rights too...)

Here's a slight expansion of a letter which I wrote (unpublished) in response.

There are so many errors in John Sununu's article "A vendetta against coal" (Globe: 4/9/12) that it's hard to know where to begin; however, I'll deal with a few. First he claims that "both US CO2 emissions and global temperatures have been flat since 1998." Both statements are deliberately misleading. The trend in US CO2 emissions has been upward for many decades, and any leveling-off occurred around 2008 and was due to the Great Recession (and some regulation). At best the per-capita emissions were flat, but the population was increasing. Even if emissions were flat, that simply means that CO2 was piling up in the atmosphere at a serious but not increasing rate. To make a simple analogy: if someone were poisoning you by adding the same amount of non-excretable toxic substance to your bloodstream each day, you would surely die from its accumulation even if the daily dosage didn't increase. The second claim, about global temperatures, is absurd. The years Sununu refers to contained 11 of the 13 hottest in the entire history of record-keeping; 2012 will almost certainly belie his claim dramatically. The temperatures were roughly "flat" only because they were so unusually high. Is that supposed to comfort us?

Starting with the EPA's estimate that reducing mercury emissions by 0.4% would save 11,000 lives, the ex-Senator claims "that math" proves the "preposterous" claim that eliminating all mercury emissions would save 3 million lives. First of all, Mr. Sununu is confusing his numbers. The 0.4% reduction is a reduction in global emissions, while the 11,000 lives saved are only in the U.S. In fact, the EPA rules would reduce power plant mercury emissions about 90%, which would in turn reduce total US mercury emissions by around 50%. Thus, even if Mr. Sununu's understanding of the math were correct, doubling reduction of total mercury emissions from 50% to 100% in the U.S. would save about 22,000 lives here, not 3 million. But his understanding of the math is not correct either: it is mired in a high-school-level misconception. Not every cause-and-effect is " linear": doubling the cause doesn't necessarily double the effect. When you grow twice as tall you don't merely double your weight; similarly, doubling your age more than doubles your risk of heart attack. Basically, Mr. Sununu is telling us that every graph is a straight line, which is nonsense. Things are more complicated in real life and real science -- but not in the mind of the dabbler or the ideologue trying to prove a point.
Finally, it's nice that John Sununu feels so bad about the miners who might be laid off as we try to avoid the serious hazards of coal -- a source of energy that even he admits will never be clean. He should note that his party has fought against more safeguards for these same miners, and against enforcement of current ones. After numerous fatal accidents and severe pollution, coal mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations -- for miners and, indeed, for all of us.

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