How real is “political reality”?

April 16, 2014

With each new IPCC report, we find ourselves a little further out in the open water between the urgency of the climate crisis and the weakness of our response. But every time I think we’ve drifted hopelessly far from reality’s shore, Elizabeth Kolbert throws out a tether, like her terrific New Yorker piece making the case for a carbon tax. The crazier things get, the saner she sounds. She quotes F. Sherwood Rowland, who first diagnosed the threat to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons:pr 4

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

And in yesterday’s New York Times, Coral Davenport diagnoses — deadpan, Grey Ladylike — why Congress stands around and waits now:

“…[E]fforts to tackle climate change have repeatedly collided with political reality in Washington, where some Republicans question the underlying science of global warming and lawmakers’ ties to the fossil fuel industry have made them resistant to change. The rise of the Tea Party in recent years has also made a tax increase unlikely.”

Political reality,” indeed….as opposed to plain old, unadulterated, physical, non-negotiable reality.  I know we can’t wish it away, but perhaps, as a tribute to the IPCC, we could stop dignifying it by calling it “reality” at all, or at least knock it down a peg with quotation marks.

Yes, yes, I know it IS “political reality” and we have to deal with it. And I suppose “political” mitigates some of the legitimacy that “reality” might otherwise imply.

But still, it devalues the currency to suggest there’s any respectable form of “reality” that accounts for how our political institutions are caving to the fossil fuel industry.  Maybe we should reserve the unyielding quality of “reality” for describing what’s physically true, rather than for our self-reinforcing judgments about what is and isn’t politically possible.  The former won’t budge, so the latter will have to.

Bold action is urgently needed.

Solutions are available and affordable.

We know what we have to do to unleash them.

Try explaining to your grandkids that there was some other “reality” that trumped those three. How real will it seem to them, compared to what they’re up against?


Very, Very, Veritas: Harvard faculty call for divestment

April 14, 2014

The campaign to divest Harvard University’s endowment from fossil fuels took a dramatic turn last week, as 93 faculty members joined students and alumni in the burgeoning Divest Harvard campaign with a powerful open letter.Harvard Divest 2

“Our sense of urgency in signing this Letter cannot be overstated.  Humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a melting of ice the world over, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, and an extreme, wildly fluctuating, and unstable global climate.  These physical and chemical changes, some of which are expected to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents.  And because of their effects on food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases, they pose unparalleled risks to human health and life…

Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means.  The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests.  If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.”

The Divest Harvard campaign has emerged as a flashpoint in the climate movement, pitting passionately committed student leaders against a reluctant administration, caught off guard by having to answer for the consequences of their investments in fossil fuels.

Harvard President Drew Faust flatly rebuffed the campaign last October in a statement that may go down as a landmark in the literature of shirking responsibility for climate disruption. It’s like a Field Guide to the Most Common Forms of Ethical Evasion: Our Actions Won’t Make Any Difference; Divestment is Hypocritical Because We All Use Fossil Fuels; We’re Reducing Our Carbon Footprint Instead of Pointing Fingers; Divestment Would be Inappropriately Political for an Academic Institution (but Investment is Just Business as Usual); Engagement is The Answer[i].   Faust plays all the greatest hits, and well.

This generous elucidation of the excuses for complicity in the climate crisis has proved to be something of a service to the movement. By leaning into these arguments with a twist of indignation and putting them on Harvard letterhead, Faust presented a well-lit target. She kicked up the ferocity of the growing ranks of students, alumni, and now faculty who are refusing to accept these excuses.

I have never met Drew Faust. By most accounts she is a wonderful person – a humanist and a brilliant historian whose work includes some of the most penetrating historical treatments of slavery. She is not the villain in this story. But she has for now accepted and reiterated the villain’s seductive and pervasive narrative, a story that keeps us locked in a cycle of denial, shame, and evasion of responsibility.

Now, the students have disrupted that cycle. They have drawn a bright, morally coherent line. Harvard must choose whether it will continue to profit from the climate crisis by feeding the most egregious perpetrators with the resource that makes them unstoppable: capital to build the infrastructure that will lock us in to catastrophic disruption.

As mind-boggling as the climate challenge is, as complicated as the answers are, and as good a human being and university president as Drew Faust may otherwise be, the choice before her is now clear. This time, the eminent historian finds herself squarely on the wrong side of history. Her credentials suggest that she might cross over. But until she and the Harvard Corporation do, the light that students, alumni, and faculty will shine on this decision will only burn brighter and hotter.

Many words will be spoken about this is before it’s over. But none will be truer than what Harvard student Benjamin Franta said about the prospective victims of preventable climate disasters — our kids and grandkids:

“They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did…”

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[i] On this last evasion, ExxonMobil itself provided the most compelling possible rebuttal in its recent “carbon risk disclosure” statement. Bill McKibben paraphrases accurately here: “We plan on overheating the planet, we think we have the political muscle to keep doing it, and we dare you to stop it.”  To further paraphrase:  “Engage this!


…and the horse you rode in on

March 24, 2014

Guffaw!


Must-read landmark in psychology of climate

March 19, 2014

“What were they thinking?”   We invoke this question on behalf of our descendants to shine a certain unforgiving light on the dissonance between our “understanding” of the climate crisis and our actions.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thought-provoking answer to this question than Zadie Smith’s essay in the April New York Review of Books, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.”Hedgehog messenger

Don’t let the title fool you.  It does have some moving nostalgia about the wonderful, local things we’re losing to climate disruption.  But that’s not what it’s about.  It’s about our failure to deal, and how we still might.  I’m not sure how much of it I agree with, but I find it haunting.

I quote the end at length.  Yes, it’ll give away the punch line.  But I bet once you read it, you’ll read the rest.

Oh, what have we done!  It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar – essentially religious – cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation.  This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help – the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse.  In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved.  Like when the seasons changed in our beloved little island, or when the lights went out on the fifteenth floor, or the day I went into an Italian garden in early July, with its owner, a woman in her eighties, and upon seeing the scorched yellow earth and withered roses, and hearing what only the really old people will confess – in all my years I’ve never seen anything like it – I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?


Why, oming, Why? The “Equality State” goes reality-free

March 18, 2014

Has truth met its match in the Wyoming Legislature?

The State of Wyoming has blocked adoption of the new science standards contained in the national “Common Core” curriculum.  The Star-Tribune reports:coaloverkids7

“[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote’s authors. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.”

Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.”

Climate Parents are fighting back.  Stand with them here.


Dispatches from the clean energy revolution

March 16, 2014

The analogy between the energy revolution and the information revolution is far from perfect.  Energy technology transformation may well be slower, weighted down as it is by Titanics of sunk capital and powerful incumbents with strong incentives to forestall change.fast forward green

But the revolution is clearly underway.  4 recent items:

1)      The Minnesota Public Utility Commission issued a Value of Solar Tariff that includes, among other things, the federal government’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon.”  Solar’s worth more because it’s better… because you don’t have to pay for it with disaster relief and mass extinctions and stuff.

2)      Amory Lovins has a good rundown of how a growing number of states and countries are running their power systems on a high percentage of renewable power.  The idea that renewable energy penetration is inherently limited by intermittency is becoming obsolete.  (Energy demand is intermittent, but no one is suggesting we can’t deal with that.)  The need for “baseload” coal and nuclear is waning fast.   Resource diversity, better forecasting, distributed storage, dispatchable renewables, and demand response are all being used to integrate larger and larger percentages of renewable power — and that’s before you even get to the big storage solutions. Per the savant of Old Snowmass:

“After all, half the world’s new generating capacity added each year starting in 2008 has been renewable; solar cells are scaling faster than cellphones, probably surpassing windpower’s 2013 additions; and Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects solar power to compete with retail grid power in three-fourths of world markets in another year or two. The first part of the renewable power revolution—scaling production—is already well underway. Next comes the interesting part: ensuring that all the moving parts mesh properly.”

3)      Austin Energy signed a long-term deal for 150 MW of solar from a big PV station for $.05 per kilowatt-hour.  5 cents.  A nickel.  Seriously cheap.  Greentech Media reports:

Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation….This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”

4) It’s happening…. if we’ll just give it a chance, as a group of young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto urged Secretary of State John Kerry to do in a letter opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.  They called on Kerry to summon up the courage and moral clarity he used to help end the Vietnam War, when he asked Congress, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”   Say the whipper-snappers to the Secretary:kid fist

“As young American leaders, we are confident in our ability to engineer solutions over time, and we enthusiastically support the Obama Administration’s commitment to advancing these solutions. The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give those solutions time to grow. We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”

Read the letter here.


BC motto: “Splendour without diminishment.*” BC policy: No free carbon dumping

March 12, 2014

The price of gasoline should be higher.  There, I said it.

I will be shunned (again) by the school of political “pragmatists” who believe we must never ask anyone to do anything hard about climate disruption.  But everyone who’s thinking in practical terms about climate solutions knows it’s true.

We’re just not going to do climate solutions right, at scale, in a market economy as long as the exorbitant costs of climate disruption remain external to the price of fossil fuels — that is, as long as we keep foisting those costs off on our kids and grandkids.

Freeloading is not good economics, and it’s even worse ancestoring.  It’s particularly galling when it poses as an answer to poverty, since it is the world’s poor who do the least to cause climate disruption and are slammed hardest by its consequences.

And remember, the point of higher fossil fuel prices is not to pay for more fossil fuels.  On the contrary, it’s to avoid them altogether.  It’s to free ourselves from their lethal grip….Sightline bc carbon tax chart

This graph shows how British Columbia’s carbon tax is helping the province do just that.  Six years in to the BC carbon tax experience, Alan Durning and Yoram Bauman are reviewing the promise, pitfalls, and progress to date (having planted the seeds in the first place).  Read the first installment of their analysis here, and sign up for the whole series while you’re at the Sightline site.  Heck, sign up for everything; their stuff is the best.

Climate solutions are many, varied, and complex.  But this part is super simple:  without responsible limits on climate pollution and an end to free carbon dumping, we’re not going to get those solutions done well and soon enough.

It’s time.

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* No.  Seriously.  That’s the translation of:  Splendor sine occasu


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