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Electricity poles first went up in D.C. in the 1890s, and the city was mostly electrified by the 1920s. So why now, after all these years, does the power seem to keep going out? Why talk of new underground lines? The region's utilities — Pepco and Dominion Power — constantly remind us that big storms bring power outages: Isabel, Irene, Snomageddon, the derecho, and Sandy.
And scientists say storms are only getting more severe. With the indisputable rise in temperatures worldwide has come an utterly measurable rise in extreme weather. In 2011, the U.S. had a record 14 extreme-weather events, each causing a billion dollars in losses or more, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last October, Munich Re — the world's largest insurance company — reported thunderstorm-related losses in North America were what the company called a "significant long-term upward trend" marked by "increased volatility."
So while we bury more power lines in D.C., we might want to unbury our heads. Our worldwide use of fossil fuels — oil, coal and natural gas — is triggering the global warming that's triggering the extreme weather that's triggering the need to bury more power lines. The $1 billion we'd spend to bury more D.C. power lines is an act of adaptation, and we can't keep adapting this way. The World Bank is now projecting seven more degrees of global warming by 2100 and 3 feet of sea level rise. We can't just lower the power lines and raise the levees to survive that.
The real solution is to get off fossil fuels. While Pepco digs down to bury lines, it should also stop buying coal and gas-fired electricity from companies that dig down and drill for energy. President Obama should reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada, and Congress should pass an upcoming bill from Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen to cap U.S. carbon emissions and rebate the resulting revenues back to all Americans.
When it comes to extreme weather, President Obama said in his January State of the Union address: "We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the most wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it's too late."
Enough said. We need more than shovels.
Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.