The Blog

On the Carbon Pollution Front Lines, There's No Normal Anymore

As Congress stumbles through an embarrassing year-end game of fiscal brinkmanship, the world continues its slow burn toward unchartered and dangerous territory.
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As Congress stumbles through an embarrassing year-end game of fiscal brinkmanship, the world continues its slow burn toward unchartered and dangerous territory. It’s a future that threatens us all with more cataclysmic storms, punishing drought, mind-boggling Arctic ice melts, and more ferocious fires and floods. Scientists say future years to come will only get worse as we continue to spew billions of tons of climate-altering carbon pollution into the air.

Unfortunately, our legislators have done little to slow a perilously warming planet and protect the people they represent. That needs to change. After another year of deadly extreme weather events, led by the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, now more than ever we need our political leaders to listen to the people who sent them there -- and not to the polluters who line their pockets with campaign contributions. It's time for politicians to listen to people living along the climate pollution front lines, where average Americans are increasingly aware of the fast-growing hazards around them.

New York region post Superstorm Sandy. Photo: NRDC

Over the past year, I traveled throughout America’s heartland where farmers, ranchers, Native Americans and people of all political stripes are battling a myriad of environmental threats, from a record tar sands pipeline spill in Michigan and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to a brutal agricultural drought in the Midwest and ongoing oil and refinery pollution in the Gulf. People in these communities are demanding that their voices be heard in Washington and their state capitals, where powerful fossil fuel interests wield huge political contributions and public relations campaigns. But last year's election shows most people are rejecting at the ballot box the onslaught of dirty energy misinformation. They care more about the health of their families than the corporate interests that threaten them with pollution.

Take Deb Miller, for example. A resident of Ceresco, Mich., Miller says her carpet business was devastated when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured and poured a million gallons of thick Canadian tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in July 2010. The record-setting spill closed more than 30 miles of the river for almost two years. Authorities are still cleaning up portions of the river today. But Miller and other residents of the area say they are still fighting for information about impacts from the spill, and they will not allow their children or grandchildren to go near the waters they once swam and fished in. Take a rake to the river bottom, Miller showed me last fall, and an oil sheen bubbles to the surface.

Watch this video of Deb Miller talking about the ongoing cleanup of the Kalamazoo River.

Miller is worried about pipeline expansion plans Enbridge, TransCanada and other companies have in the U.S., plans that will pump increasing amounts of carbon-rich tar sands oil to U.S. refineries in the Midwest and to the Gulf, where much of it will be exported. Not only do tar sands pipelines pose greater safety threats to residents living near them, as NRDC’s Anthony Swift has blogged, but mining and processing tar sands oil from the boreal forests of Canada boost carbon emissions due to the high levels of energy needed to extract and process the dirty oil. As climate scientist James Hansen famously wrote last year, developing the vast tar sands oil fields in Canada would be “game over for the climate.”

That’s bad news for everyone, especially for Midwest corn farmers already battling drier and hotter conditions. Kansas farmer Rod Berning says in recent years his corn crop has been battered by higher temperatures and a lack of cooling rain that normally blows in from the west. “The climate is changing, the storms aren’t coming as frequent as they did,” he explained to my colleague Bob Deans and me as he stood in a sweltering Kansas corn field last summer. “There’s no normal anymore.”

That makes sense to climate scientists like Kevin Trenberth, who we interviewed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. Trenberth and other experts say the drought that plagued America’s agricultural regions this summer -- and continues to slow barge traffic along the shriveled Mississippi River -- is directly related to human greenhouse gas emissions. “This is certainly a symptom of climate change,” Trenberth told us. “…the magnitude of the drought, the intensity of it, the duration of it is apt to be greater because of the human influence.”

Check out this video of Kansas farmer Rod Berning talking about the drought.

Hotter temperatures also mean more dangerous conditions for children and the elderly, especially for vulnerable populations suffering from respiratory ailments and chronic diseases. Last year I visited residents in Port Arthur, TX, where locals live near huge oil refineries that spit plumes of carbon pollution and other toxins into the air. That’s where I met long-time resident Erma Lee Smith, who blames her bronchitis on refinery pollution and has to take daily medication from her “breathing machine.”

Erma Lee Smith with her "breathing machine." Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, Port Arthur community activist Hilton Kelley says he expects more health problems as the Gulf coast refineries expand to accept a constant stream of tar sands crude from Canada. “What we're going to get is a continuous flow of this tar sands that is heavy in mercury heavy in metals and heavy in sulfur and what it’s going to do is increase the negative air quality that we presently have,” Kelley told me last spring while standing outside an apartment complex and playground less than a mile from the refineries.

Watch this video of Hilton Kelley talking about pollution problems in Port Arthur.

Meanwhile, out in the oil-rich Gulf, massive drilling rigs pump out record amounts of crude from the depths of the ocean floor to feed the world’s insatiable oil habit, a habit every president since Nixon has tried to kick. The 2010 BP oil disaster is now a distant memory for many Americans exposed to BP’s relentlessly rosy commercials touting recovery in the Gulf. But the perils of the oil disaster are still very real for the fishermen trying to eke out a living along the oil-damaged Gulf coast.

That’s particularly true for oil-soaked communities like Grand Isle, LA, a once-thriving beach resort and fishing community at the tip of bayou -- and ground zero for much of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed from BP’s Deepwater Horizon well 40 miles offshore. Local fishermen report catches have been cut dramatically in some areas since the spill, forcing many to wonder if it will ever return to normal. Meanwhile oily residue and tar balls continue wash in on local beaches after every storm. As Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle told me last November, “We feel like we’re forgotten sometimes.”

But we must not forget them. Like society’s sentries, they are at the forefront of our carbon pollution assault. They are the ones warning us about the dangers ahead if we continue along a dirty energy business-as-usual path. If we don’t transition to carbon-cutting renewable and energy efficient technologies, there will be more farmers standing in corn fields burnt to a crisp like over-cooked popcorn, and more elderly neighbors forced to inhale medications from breathing machines.

These are the voices politicians need to hear because these are the voices that speak for us all. We have the tools to make crucial clean energy choices necessary to build a sustainable future. Now -- for all our sakes -- we just need to get to work.

Check out this video about NRDC’s groundbreaking plan to quickly cut power plant carbon pollution.