On energy thinking, a narrowing gap?

Hydrocarbon extraction and energy conservation can both be done in ways that protect the environment and the bottom line.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
The Comanche Solar facility stands near an Xcel Energy coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, Colo.

Where you stand on climate change depends largely on where you sit. If you sit on the Pacific island chain of Kiribati or on the coastal regions of Florida or the Carolinas, you regularly watch the ocean batter the shoreline and wash over roads and fields. Your next move might be to higher ground. If you work at an oil company in the Rockies or a plastics plant in India, you know that lowering carbon emissions could add expense and cost business and jobs.

The fundamental tension in the climate change debate is between environment and economy. Even with the ongoing gains of renewable energy, hydrocarbons still power the global economy. The US Energy Information Administration forecasts that the use of renewable energy will grow faster than the use of fossil fuels over the next 15 years but that fossil fuels will still account for 78 percent of energy used in 2040.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Amanda Paulson shows how that dichotomy plays out in side-by-side communities in northern Colorado. Weld and Larimer counties coexist in a state that is both urban and rural; a state that has shops that sell western wear and shops that sell marijuana; a state where mountain bikes and hybrids share the road with dual-wheeled pickup trucks; a state with oil wells, solar arrays, wind turbines, and coal mines. And also a state where red and blue America seem to be increasingly at odds. One of Amanda’s most jarring points is that the gap between Democrats and Republicans on the subject of climate change has more than doubled in the past 15 years. Skepticism has grown.

Climate change doubters come in two basic types. One views climate science as at best flawed, at worst a hoax, and rejects the hypothesis that the planet’s temperatures are warming. The other accepts that warming is occurring but doesn’t believe human activity is the primary reason. Climate change believers also come in two basic types. One views anthropogenic warming as fact and wants governments around the world to keep hydrocarbons in the ground through whatever means necessary. The other sees the evidence as persuasive but understands that transitioning out of a hydrocarbon economy must not be too abrupt or painful, especially in the developing world and especially when jobs could be lost and quality of life disrupted.

If those are the polar views, there is common ground at the mid-latitudes. Hydrocarbon extraction can be done in ways that are more sensitive to the environment, more efficient, and therefore more profitable. Energy conservation isn’t just about doing without: Smart technology that activates lights, heat, and air conditioning when needed saves both BTUs and money. Wind turbines and solar panels are beneficial not just because of their low carbon footprint but also because they work way out on the range, far from the electrical grid. And sustainable development can mitigate the boom and bust of the business cycle.

Economy and environment can coexist. Weld and Larimer counties really aren’t that far apart.

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