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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 22, 2006

Stop our self-destruction one windmill at a time

Illustration by Forest Byrd — The Enterprise

It is impossible to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, without wanting to do something — something to stop the catastrophe.

Kolbert writes in an even-handed way about the buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that threatens to melt the polar ice sheets and irreversibly change our climate.

As we continue to use fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases, scientists warn of drastic climatic change.

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences of the eight major industrialized nations issued a joint statement: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action."

Kolbert writes of watching the icebergs from the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland, four degrees north of the Arctic Circle. For the tourists at the hotel, she writes, "The icebergs are a thrilling sight: beautiful and terrible in equal measure. They are a reminder of the immensity of nature and the smallness of man."

But, she goes on, "To the people who spend more time in Ilulissat — native Greenlanders, European tour guides, American scientists — the icebergs have come to acquire a different significance."

Since the 1990’s, she writes, the fast-moving ice stream where the icebergs originate has doubled its speed. "In the process," she writes, "the height of the ice stream has been dropping by up to fifty feet a year and the calving front has retreated by several miles."

Kolbert continues, "Computer models of the earth’s climate suggest that a critical threshold is approaching. Crossing over it will be easy, crossing back quite likely impossible.

"What locals now notice about the icebergs is not their power and immensity — though they are still powerful and immense — but a disquieting diminishment."

The people who make their homes near the poles are watching their worlds disappear. Unless we, collectively, as a society make changes, eventually all of our worlds as we now know them will disappear.

Kolbert ends her book by writing, "A disruption in monsoon patterns, a shift in ocean currents, a major drought — any one of these could easily produce streams of refugees numbering in the millions. As the effects of global warming become more and more difficult to ignore, will we react by finally fashioning a global response"

"Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest" It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

As Kolbert makes the case for a global response to a global problem — she’s right, but that doesn’t ensure it will happen — we see the value of local initiatives.

It is with this mindset we eagerly embrace a small, individual effort in our midst.

The Helderbergs are windy. This comes as no surprise to locals and, for over a year now, public meetings have been held in the Hilltowns to discuss ways to harness that energy productively for the community. A grant from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority was awarded to build a tower that would collect wind data for 12 to 18 months with the goal of developing a model for a community-owned wind farm in the Helderbergs. The Pokornys on Middle Road in Knox agreed to host the temporary tower.

Knox is now considering changes to its zoning ordinance that would regulate the placement of windmills and meteorological towers, and the town board has passed a year’s moratorium on some types of towers to allow the planning board time to make recommendations.

While we commend the town for its foresight in wanting to preserve the aesthetics of a beautiful place, and urge other towns to do the same, we hope the process won’t halt a worthwhile project.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring town of Berne, one man is trying to make a difference. This individual effort can serve as a model for us all.

In February, John Pratt moved onto 42 acres on Woodstock Road. He found a site with sufficient wind and space for a windmill that will meet his energy needs.

He estimates the project will cost $80,000, and has applied to the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority to pay for half of it. Pratt is frustrated with the time NYSERDA review and approval has taken.

We can understand his frustration — he’s a doer with a worthwhile cause. A NYSERDA spokesman has told us the process typically takes about 30 days, which seems reasonable.

We applaud the program. It offers enough to jump-start projects that otherwise might never happen.

As a society, we need to shift to renewable energy sources.

Wind energy is both renewable and clean. Nuclear power, while cleaner than fossil fuels, produces dangerous radioactive waste. At this point, United States companies that produce clean, renewable energies like solar and wind power don’t receive the billions of dollars in federal subsidies given to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.

When Congress in 2004 failed to renew the production tax credit for wind power, the fledgling industry slumped. The credit has since been renewed, giving us hope more projects may follow.

If we can meet our needs close to home, using clean and renewable energy, we’ll leave a lighter footprint on the earth.

We, as human beings, are capable of understanding the harm we are doing and we are capable of changing our ways before we have doomed our civilization.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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