Kansas' Climate Change Debate Settled in Europe

This article orginally appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal. The Capital-Journal maintained control over all editorial decisions.

STOCKHOLM — Scrolling through slides on his laptop, Jon Möller displayed for a visitor recently myriad carbon emission targets for the governments of his Nordic home.

Cut per capita greenhouse gas to three tons per Stockholm inhabitant by 2015. Make the Stockholm Royal Seaport a fossil-fuel-free district by 2030. Expand that designation to the entire country by 2050.

“The politicians both nationally, regionally and locally, they have decided we should reduce greenhouse gases a lot,” Möller told a visitor seated at a conference table between him and a colleague in the Stockholm city government’s climate and energy division.

But it isn’t just the politicians.

A video on the Arlanda Express assures passengers that the train that runs from Stockholm’s international airport to its central train station is “running on 100 percent renewable energy.”

And forget calorie information: at Swedish fast food chain Max Burgers, the menu tells patrons how many kilograms of CO₂ are expended in making each sandwich.

If human-caused climate change is an environmentalist myth, then the people of this highly educated nation of 9.5 million people have, for the most part, bought in.

“You can find some who doubt humans are causing climate change," said Lars Hjalmered, a member of the Swedish parliament’s Moderate Party. "But I think a definite majority of people think humans do cause climate change.”

Hjalmered said his personal belief in climate change is rooted in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group with 195 member countries established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 that reviews the research of thousands of scientists worldwide.

Sweden and other European nations are formalizing carbon emission reduction targets in line with IPCC recommendations intended to limit a rise in global temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is a target the panel's scientists say would prevent some of the most dangerous events, like the melting of the glacier that covers most of Greenland.

While European nations differ on how to address the problem of climate change, most government officials there say it is happening and the amount of fossil fuels humans are burning is a factor. That is a sharp contrast to the United States, and especially Kansas, where that political debate continues.

“They’re way past the what-ifs,” W. Chris King, a retired brigadier general and academic leader of the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, said of European leaders after he gave a climate change presentation in Topeka in May. “I’ll be glad when we get to that place. I don’t know why we’re going quite as slow as we are.”


A difference in politics

One of the key differences, King said, is the influence of Green parties within European nations. To get action on climate change, he said, environmentally-minded Americans must increase their influence in the political sphere.

In Germany, the Greens hold about 10 percent of the seats in a 631-member parliament made up of five parties.

Oliver Krischer, vice chairman of the German Green Party’s parliamentary group, said he hasn’t heard members of other parties say they believe human-caused climate change is a myth.

“There might be some colleagues in the Bundestag that think so,” Krischer said. “You cannot look in their heads. But there is at least nobody that says climate change is an invention of some scientists.”

Joachim Pfeiffer, a parliament member from Germany's more conservative Christian Democratic Union party, said climate change is one factor that must be considered, among several, when making energy policy.

“(Addressing) climate change is an integral part in working towards sustainability which, in turn, is one of the three central goals for European energy policy besides competitiveness and security of supply," Pfeiffer said. "This triangle of objectives must be balanced, as the three objectives are of equal importance.”

Felix Matthes, a climate and energy researcher at Germany’s Oko Institute, worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2007-2008 and testified twice in front of U.S. Senate committees on emissions trading issues.

Matthes said there is a “major difference” in how policymakers view climate change in Germany, that is based partly on the political consequences of denying it.

“Here, 98 percent of the population says it’s a real problem, it’s a real concern,” Matthes said. “If a policymaker were to stand up here and say this is all a big hoax, it would be political self-suicide.”

That being the case, Krischer said the political landscape is clear.

“There’s no debate in a committee about this,” Krischer said.

In Kansas there is, with some regularity.

Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, has been chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee for the last two years.

Last year Hedke hosted informational hearings that included controversial out-of-state scientists Willie Soon and John Christy flying in to rebut human-caused climate change.

This year Hedke responded to President Barack Obama’s plan to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions by urging his committee to pass House Resolution 6043 to express its opposition.

Along with opposing the president’s plan, the resolution also would have stated that there is no connection between humans burning fossil fuels and the earth’s temperature changing.

“Substantial amounts and types of real-data evidence clearly indicate a complete disconnect between anthropogenic emissions of CO₂ and the temperature of the earth,” the resolution stated.

The committee voted to remove the climate change language before sending it to the full House, where it never received a vote. Hedke was re-elected in this month's primary and is unopposed in the general election.

As a contract geophysicist whose clients include dozens of regional oil and natural gas companies, Hedke has a financial stake in the continued burning of fossil fuels.

So does Marc Hoelling, the manager of an ArcelorMittal steel production plant in Hamburg at which energy bills make up abut 20 percent of the company’s total costs. But when asked about what role climate change should have in policy-making, Hoelling didn’t express skepticism that humans are causing the climate to change, so much as skepticism that his country can do something about it.

“If you just look at China and what’s going on there with the increase in CO₂ emissions, even if we would stop industrial production in the whole of Europe, this won’t have a big effect on the climate whatsoever,” Hoelling said. “If you just say OK, Germany is the savior of the world, this is never (going to happen).”

Similar arguments are made against emission regulation in the United States, but Möller said pointing at the world’s growing industrial powers does little to solve the problem.

“People here in Scandinavia and Europe, we say the same about the U.S.,” Möller said. “Why don’t they, with all their power and resources, do something? We always have to fight U.S. politics to take steps at the international level.”

Hjalmered, the Swedish parliamentarian, said Swedes have to be “humble” about energy policy because they are blessed with natural resources that make it easier to produce large amounts of emission-free hydroelectric power.

If there is to be a solution to global climate change, Hjalmered said, it will take buy-in from countries with larger, more fossil-fuel-hungry economies.

“We ourselves in Sweden or in the European Union cannot solve the issue,” Hjalmered said. “We have to have countries like the U.S., China and India, etc., be part of some U.N., solution hopefully next year in Paris.”


A political question

Such buy-in from the United States appears unlikely.

A Pew Research Center study released last November showed only 67 percent of Americans believe there is “solid evidence” the earth is warming at all.

The results varied widely by political party, with 84 of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans saying there is solid evidence of warming.

When asked whether human activity is causing it, the affirmative answers dropped to 66 percent of Democrats and just 24 percent of Republicans.

The pollsters said there was evidence that the issue is splitting the Republican Party, a split former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate John Huntsman decried in a New York Times op-ed published in May.

“So obtuse has become the party’s dialogue on climate change that it’s now been reduced to believing or not believing, as if it were a religious mantra,” Huntsman wrote, then referenced a debate between four Republicans vying for one of North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seats who “chuckled at a question on climate change — as if they had been asked about their belief in the Tooth Fairy.”

Huntsman called his party’s approach to climate change “shortsighted” and urged a return to the conservation-minded leadership of Teddy Roosevelt.

Republicans in Congress have said Obama exceeded his executive authority in instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the CO₂ emissions coming from new power plants.

They were partially vindicated by a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in June, but the ruling still left room for some EPA action.

King, the retired brigadier general, said it is time for America to act, in part to prevent displacements of large populations living on low ground as sea level rises. A report released in May by military researchers found that such displacements could cause widespread instability.

“At the most fundamental level, climate change has the potential to deny billions of people their basic human needs: food, water, freedom from disease, basic safety," King said. "Climate change can affect all of those in multiple ways.”

The military is researching it, King said, because the military will have to respond, as the "9-1-1 when it gets too big."

“We see it as a major threat to peace and security," King said. "Anything that has the ability to destabilize large groups of people, create mass migrations and refugee situations, they’re dangerous.”

King said places of high poverty in coastal regions of developing countries will be least able adapt to absorb the changes and their problems will have "spillover" effects worldwide.

The consequences of permafrost melt and sea level rise are making their way to U.S. shores as well, he said, pointing to the Yu'pik tribes of Alaska that have watched their homes become permanently flooded.

King said he has read all 2,200 pages of data from the IPCC's latest report, released last year, and he has no doubt humans are contributing to the changes.

"It's undeniable," King said.

But not everyone agrees, and the debate rages on in both Kansas and nationally.

Meanwhile, other countries are acting, and watching to see whether the United States will take action on climate change.

“My party is looking with interest in what’s happening in the U.S.,” Hjalmered said.



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