Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 20, 2014 at 12:01 pm •  Published: May 20, 2014
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Houston Chronicle. May 16, 2014.

Climate change is real: Debating the reality of climate change is a waste of time. Debating what to do is not

The recent report on climate change from the U.N.-chartered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a sober reminder that what we as individuals happen to "believe" about global warming — unless we happen to be climate scientists — has absolutely no bearing on whether the phenomenon is a vast hoax perpetrated by 99 percent of the scientific community or a looming crisis that, as the report underscores, will affect everybody on this planet.

Skepticism on most issues is, indeed, healthy, but in any number of areas, whether it's relying on M.D. Anderson for cancer treatment or a Texas A&M-trained civil engineering fund to erect bridges and skyscrapers, we have to trust the experts. So it is with measuring and assessing the evidence of climate disruption. As conservative columnist Michael Gerson pointed out in the Washington Post recently, "Our intuitions are useless here."

The report from the scientists, economists and other experts on the IPCC panel is about as sobering as it can get. The panel warned that the planet is indeed warming, that humans are primarily responsible and that we are not anywhere near prepared for the dire consequences.

What's coming if we can't or won't change our ways are low-lying island nations disappearing, coastal cities going the way of Venice (at best), abnormal weather patterns and growing seasons and tropical pathogens migrating into formerly temperate zones.

In Texas and elsewhere, change already is upon us. We're seeing increased rates of water loss, depleting water resources, increased wildfires and the spread of invasive species. Our grandchildren and their children will see a rise in sea level from 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century.

"Climate change is no longer a future issue," Katherine Hayanoe, director of Texas Tech's Climate Change Science Center, told the Chronicle recently. "For the United States as a whole, climate change will affect our lives through its impacts on our health, our water resources, our food, our natural environment and our economy."

Debating the validity of climate change — or whether we believe in climate change — is a waste of time; debating what to do in response is anything but a waste.

According to the IPCC report, emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases grew faster between 2000 and 2010 than over the previous three decades. That disturbing statistic is despite real progress being made in some parts of the world. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel has laid out a plan to fill more than 40 percent of her nation's energy needs from renewable sources. The United States has reduced its carbon emissions by nearly 10 percent since 2005, in part because of stricter automobile fuel economy standards but also because of the lingering recession. Progress, though, pales in contrast to the increase in emissions by China and other rapidly industrializing countries.

We know what needs to be done, but if we can't summon the political will and the sense of worldwide urgency to implement some kind of carbon tax or to develop new technologies that limit future carbon emissions, then we need to begin preparing for the worst. That means reassessing where we live and where we build, how we feed ourselves, how much water we use, among numerous other major adjustments. Gondolas in Kemah, anyone?

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Austin American-Statesman. May 19, 2014.

An outline for preventing another West

In retrospect, we often come to understand that many tragedies could have been prevented if only certain procedures had been followed or a few safety devices had been in place beforehand. We gain clarity by looking back, but the clarity is wasted if it doesn't lead to a meaningful attempt to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring.

It is the debt we owe the dead. It is what we do so others might live.

Last week, the State Fire Marshal's Office released its investigation into the deaths of the 12 men who were trying to put out the fire at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17, 2013. The fire caused 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility to explode.

The explosion killed 15 people: 10 volunteer firefighters, two civilians who were helping the firefighters, and three residents of West. More than 200 people were injured and a 37-block area of the farming town near Waco was destroyed or damaged.

The firefighters reacted heroically and did what they could to battle the blaze, but they were facing a large, dangerous fire they weren't prepared to handle. The investigation report includes a handful of photos of the fire taken by passersby. The photos accentuate the report's understated, bureaucratic description of the fire as one "significantly beyond the extinguishment phase."

The West fire was in a wood-frame building where fertilizer was stored in wooden bins. One volunteer firefighter, Brian Renegar, a former employee of West Fertilizer Co., told investigators he feared a potential explosion of the ammonium nitrate and warned West Fire Chief George Nors Sr. and another firefighter they needed to pull back. But Nors, who, like Renegar, survived the blast, and other firefighters were dealing with conflicting information about the threat of an explosion.

Amid the uncertainty about the risk firefighters were facing, events happened quickly. At 7:51 p.m., about 22 minutes after the fire was reported, the building's roof collapsed onto the now-unstable ammonium nitrate, acting as a detonator. The resulting explosion was massive; debris from it was found 2.5 miles away.

To overcome the "systemic deficiency in training and preparation" that contributed to the firefighters' deaths in West, the report reasonably recommends the state develop training standards for volunteer firefighters and allow counties to enact fire codes. Facilities that store ammonium nitrate should be retrofitted with sprinklers, and areas where ammonium nitrate is stored should be made of concrete, metal or other fire-resistant material.

The State Fire Marshal's Office has identified 46 facilities statewide that store ammonium nitrate in wooden bins similar to the ones used in West. State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has been leading the effort to try to prevent another deadly disaster like the one in West, meeting with owners of fertilizer businesses to discuss their handling of ammonium nitrate and touring dozens of towns statewide with fertilizer facilities to preach "best practices" for safely storing ammonium nitrate.

We commend Connealy's efforts, but he has only powers of persuasion. He doesn't make policy. Only the Legislature has the power to turn recommendations into law.

Lawmakers don't meet again until January, but what they shouldn't do is rely on voluntary compliance to prevent another West. Voluntary compliance will prove inadequate. It often does.

And it's not just a matter for state lawmakers. Congress and federal officials must join the effort to streamline, strengthen and enforce a fractured and confusing collection of agencies and rules that govern the storage of ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals.

Meanwhile, the cause of the fire that triggered the West explosion remains under investigation. Investigators have identified three possible sources: a defective battery on a golf cart stored in the same building at the ammonium nitrate, a malfunction in the building's electrical system, or arson. Given the devastation the explosion caused, investigators might never determine the cause.

But the cause of the explosion is known. And it seems likely the explosion could have been prevented.

Relatives of those killed in West were given the state fire marshal's report during a town meeting. Carmen Bridges, widow of firefighter Morris Bridges, told the Associated Press after the meeting, "Everybody's going to learn something from this."