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Updating power is a part of life

When I was 6 months old, we moved into an upstairs apartment in a two-family house that had been designed for gas lights. The lights had already been converted to electricity before we moved in. Though I was too young to remember moving in, I do remember that we were always afraid that those converted fixtures hadn’t been fully sealed and gas could leak out. There was a big coal furnace in the basement and dad used to shovel the coal to keep the house warm. Dad also used to drive me out to see where the big coal-fired railroad engines were decoupled and replaced by oil-fired engines for the ride into New York City – because the coal polluted too much to allow the old steam engines to puff their way into the city. And I also remember the pantographs and the electric engines that pulled many of the passenger trains. As a child, I loved the big muscular steam engines but the engines that rolled by our house were much more modern and much cleaner.

Later, my wife and I spent three years living in St. Louis. Shaw’s Garden, a wonderful and famous botanical garden, had bred a nature reserve outside the city because “coal smoke in St. Louis threatened the Garden's live plant collection.” By the time we got there, Shaw’s Garden was again functioning just fine because St. Louis had curbed its use of coal.

We moved to Albany in 1979 and bought a house where we spent several wonderful decades raising our family. In the basement was a monster of a furnace – designed for coal and probably installed when the house was built in 1917 but converted to oil by the time we bought it. You should have seen the workmen struggling to take that iron monster apart and get it out of the house in pieces when we finally replaced it with a more efficient furnace.

In other words, changing fuel supplies in response to environmental change has been a normal part of life over the past century – from coal and gas to oil and electricity. Without making light of the expense, it’s not that hard.

With historic heat waves and floods and fires it has to happen again – fast. New coal and gas fired engines, furnaces and cars need to be banned. The old ones need to be replaced. We need to be prepared to help those who do not have the resources to make that change – I know some people are averse to doing anything to help the poor whom they presume are unworthy, but it’s help them or perish ourselves.

Also, roads and roofs need to be white hereon out to reflect the sun rather than absorb the heat, push climate change, and bake us even when the sun’s down.

Are those changes too radical? It’s got to be done. “Resilience” and rebuilding aren’t enough to deal with climate change. We have to stop burning the fossil fuels that are seeding the change.

Did I mention that my dad grew up having to use an outhouse in Brooklyn. And we had a typewriter – remember those? The world changes and we have to change with it, to deal with it, not cry about it. And we need government to unite us behind that change so that it happens relatively quickly – our survival, our country, our partners, children, grandchildren, friends and all those we care about depend on it.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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