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Viewpoint: Denial worsens climate change

For a good example of denial, consider the city’s proposal to build a huge new corn milling plant in Grand Forks.

Dexter Perkins.jpg
Dexter Perkins, of Grand Forks.
Submitted photo

Mark Twain once said that "denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Twain’s quip, a joke about ignoring things, pretty much sums up most people’s thoughts about the threats posed by climate change. It’s easiest just not to think about it.

Yet, climate change is a huge problem affecting everyone in the world. Changing weather patterns threaten food production. Sea level is rising. Wildfires and other catastrophes are more frequent. Today we are seeing millions of climate refugees and the number is climbing. It is likely that people living in coastal communities worldwide, including some in North America, will have to find new homes.

Climate scientists tell us that world temperatures will continue to rise for a long time. But they also tell us that we can slow the rate of rise and lessen its impacts. Doing nothing, they say, will lead to global disaster affecting everyone. And the number one thing we must do is to stop burning so much coal, oil, and gas that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

For a good example of denial, consider the city’s proposal to build a huge new corn milling plant in Grand Forks. There are plenty of problems with the plan. According to current city proposals, the plant will be exempt and not pay most city taxes for the first decades of its existence. But our tax dollars will subsidize the Chinese-owned business. The project includes us spending $100 million on new infrastructure, $2,000 for every taxpayer in Grand Forks, even before it is built. Getting the money back is uncertain. The mill will greatly increase truck and train traffic, and it will produce the inevitable stinky odors that come from agricultural plants. But probably the biggest problem is the impact the plant will have on climate. According to city reports, the mill will double the natural gas burned in Grand Forks and may emit more than 4 million pounds of CO2 pollution a day.

What do you call people who know something is wrong but insist on doing it anyway? The obvious word is immoral. I suspect, however, the word does not really apply to those who have worked to bring the corn plant to our town. Because I bet they did not even consider what the cost is to every citizen, the pollution and odor the plant will create, the quality of jobs it will create, and how it will add to climate problems.

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One City Council member told me that if we don’t build the corn plant here, it will be built somewhere else. So, he said, why don’t we take it? This argument is truly immoral. If the plant is a bad idea here, it is a bad idea somewhere else; we can hope that folks everywhere turn it down. Apparently, the Hong Kong Fufeng Group was successful in fishing for and pitting a handful of small Midwest cities against each other in a subsidy battle. Grand Forks naively took the bait.

Twain’s river, climate denial, is not limited to city leaders. Because it is complicated and may seem hopeless, most people prefer not to think about climate change. Others, like my pal Norm, tell me they would like to do their part to address the issue, but not if it means a change in lifestyle. Unfortunately, it is his lifestyle, our lifestyle, and business as usual that has gotten us in a mess. To solve the problem will require change. Change, however, does not mean that our lives need to get worse, just different.

What is the best way to tackle the climate change problem? First, individually we need to take responsibility and do what we can. Consider, for example, that today there are 16.1 million F150 pickups on U.S. roads. A typical F150 driver spends more than $2,200 on gasoline every year and produces 13,000 pounds of CO2. If instead they drove a fuel-efficient car, they could save half the money and produce half the pollution. What’s wrong with saving money and helping our planet at the same time? Yes, some people need a large pickup, but most do not. They drive them because they like to, and because they have not thought about the costs or the harm it causes.

Second, we need our government, including city government, to think about every proposed action in terms of its impact on climate. Today, government is part of the problem when it really should take initiative and be part of the solution. The mayor and City Council should show some visionary leadership instead of using business models from 60 years ago.

Dexter Perkins, of Grand Forks, is a professor in the UND Department of Geology and Geological Engineering. 

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