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Tamminen: Beware of Coal Pushers in Cancun

Monday, 29 Nov 2010 | 9:38 AM ET

Imagine a weight loss convention, with no more ambitious goal than agreeing that 16 ounces equals a pound, and where those who say “diet” the loudest were actually selling candy and donuts in the parking lot. As world carbon regulators meet in Cancun in early December in hopes of making progress toward an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol, there will be similar predators lurking among the delegates.

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Not a single delegate to the Cancun meeting, COP 16 as it’s called, has any doubt that climate change is happening; human-caused; and a serious threat to global economies, communities, and the future of thousands of plant and animal species. Every one of them will offer their ideas for carbon diets and demand rapid "weight loss." And every one of them will say they are unable to reduce their own carbon emissions as fast as they wish other nations would reduce theirs.

But beneath the veneer of so much apparent agreement lies the real inconvenient truth — that some of the loudest advocates for immediate action to end our fossil fuel addiction are also those pushing the most offensive carbon drug of all — coal. For example, sixty percent of U.S. states have renewable energy mandates and the federal government doles out millions annually in tax credits and R&D funding to deploy more, while our ports and rail lines are shipping tons of American coal to Canada for trans-shipment to China to power coal-fired power plants that serve factories making plastic flamingoes and other necessities to be sold back to Americans in discount stores.

The US is not alone pushing the carbon drug — according to recent reporting in the "New York Times," Canada, Australia and South Africa, are all doing the same thing. Indonesia and Colombia are both asking developed nations to pay them not to cut down rainforests in an effort to curb carbon emissions — but they are also selling coal to China that will exacerbate the problem. Adding insult to injury, each ton of coal has a greater carbon footprint than resources mined in China, because of the fossil fuels burned to deliver it half way around the planet.

Nor are flooded villages in Pakistan and drought-stricken farmers in sub-Saharan Africa the only victims of this carbon drug addiction. After celebrating the happy ending to the ordeal of the trapped miners in Chile this fall, comes news of 37 dead coal miners in China and 29 dead coal miners in New Zealand, the same number of American miners killed in April of 2010 in the Big Branch Mine (West Virgina) disaster. Yes, the true cost of our fossil fuel addiction goes beyond melting glaciers and stranded polar bears.

The increase in the number of members in the U.S. Congress who believe that climate change is neither real nor human-caused dooms any prospect of national legislation before 2013, which undermines any serious attempt to achieve global consensus on solutions. Cancun will therefore be lucky to get agreement that 16 ounces equals a pound, but the delegates will make real progress if they can shine a light on the hypocrisy of nations that say one thing and are feverishly doing quite another.

Addiction of any kind is hard to break, but the first step is acknowledging the problem and putting the pushers out of business. Cancun would be a great place to start.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).

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