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In Southern Illinois, we can extract coal or produce food, but we can’t do both

   Climate activist Bill McKibben said, “You can have a healthy fossil fuel industry or a healthy planet, but you can’t have both.” In Southern Illinois, “You can have a healthy coal industry, or you can have a healthy agricultural industry, but you can’t have both.”
pg-21-Commentary-Ron-Trimmer   Illinois is first in soybeans, second in corn, fourth in hogs. Illinois farmers are dealing with extreme, unpredictable weather and heat – severe droughts one year, flooding the next. Heat stress to hogs costs Illinois farmers $20.5 million a year. Currently soybeans are two to three weeks behind normal.  Nationally crop insurance claims are $7.2 billion a year, more than double the losses of five or six years ago.  
   Within 30 years, the new normal will be cooler and wetter planting and harvest seasons and killer heat and drought growing seasons. Warmer winters mean growing problems with bean leaf beetles and European corn borers. Corn yields will be less than half of what they are now. The only way to raise hogs will be in air-conditioned barns. The Illinois Farm Bureau is concerned. Crop insurance directors from Illinois and other states recently met with climate leaders.
   Do we really want to “bet the farm” against the laws of physics?
   Anyone who has left his or her car windows up on a hot day understands the greenhouse effect. Burning fossil fuels creates CO2 that is closing the windows of the earth’s atmosphere. The level of CO2 in our atmosphere is now at 400 parts per million for the first time in three million years. What does this mean?  In a Rolling Stone article, McKibben gives us three important numbers:

  • 2° Centigrade (3.6° Fahrenheit): the maximum temperature increase earth can tolerate without serious consequences.
  • 565 Gigatons: the amount of additional CO2 we can release and stay below the 2° C threshold.
  • 2,795 Gigatons: the amount of CO2 in the known coal and oil reserves.

   The bottom line: We have to leave 80 percent of the known coal and oil reserves in the ground in order to avoid climate disaster.  
   The Stone Age did not end when we ran out of stones. The fossil fuel age will not end when we run out of fossil fuel. It will end because renewable energy is better. Normally the market would facilitate this transition because wind and solar energy are really cheaper. Wind and sunshine are free.
   But the market fails because fossil fuels are heavily subsidized – about a half trillion dollars a year in the U.S., six times as much as wind, solar and other renewables combined. Fossil fuel companies pass on hidden costs. Coal and oil pollutants cause 13,000 deaths and add nearly a trillion dollars a year to our U.S. healthcare costs.     
   There is a solution: A revenue-neutral, carbon-fee rebate program that uses a market-based approach to transition to clean energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Citizens Climate Lobby proposes that fossil fuel companies pay a fee based on the amount of carbon dioxide in their fuel. The first-year fee is $15 a ton and increases by $10 a ton each year to provide a gradual predictable change that does not upset the economy. A border adjustment tariff, on goods from nations that lack equivalent carbon pricing, would maintain a level playing field for American businesses. The money collected is divided up equally and given to us each month. Conservative economists like Art Laffer and Greg Mankiw favor this approach because it uses market forces to solve the climate problem, reducing the need for all subsidies and regulations.
   I respect miners who work hard in dangerous and unhealthy mines to keep our lights on. They’ll have a future in this transition. There are currently 88,000 coal mining jobs. The Dept. of Energy predicts that by 2030, the wind and the solar industries will create another 840,000 jobs.
   As we move to clean energy, we’ll hear more stories like the one about former coal miner Matt Reuscher. Last year, because of the drought, he got laid off from the Coulterville coal mine. In St. Louis he landed a job installing solar panels for StraightUp Solar. Matt is making good money in a career with a future.
   Southern Illinois farmers can help grow the renewable energy industry and benefit from it. The Rural Energy for America Program provides grants to help them install solar panels. If they are in a windy area, they can lease land for windmills and obtain up to $10,000 per year, per windmill and farm right up to the base of the windmill.   
   According to Gov. Pat Quinn, farming makes up 40 percent of Illinois’ economy (probably 80 percent of our downstate economy).  U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus need to join the climate caucus to protect Illinois farmers from the ravages of climate change.
   We can replace coal mining jobs as we transition to clean energy. What we cannot replace is the productivity of our farmland, which will steadily decline in the years ahead unless we curtail emissions that are heating up our world. We can put the brakes on those emissions with a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
   Ron Trimmer is a member of the Citizen Climate Lobby and was a committee member for the Fossil Fuel Divestment and Engagement resolution that was passed by the United Church of Christ General Synod earlier this summer.

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