Impotence: the new face of climate denial

October 4, 2013

Whatever happened to morning in America?

The party of Ronald Reagan just drips with malaise every time they talk about climate.  With the horrific reality of climate consequences now overwhelming the denial machine, their posture is subtly shifting from steadfast ignorance to a passive slouch.wecantdoit1

The new face of climate irresponsibility is futility, ineffectuality, collective national impotence:  Even if we tried, it wouldn’t matter, because Asia’s emissions would overwhelm any progress we make.

Of course it’s not just about climate.  With the government shutdown, ineffectuality is now the prevailing zeitgeist.  But when it comes to climate solutions, the reign of impotence is especially lethal.  The climate crisis calls for bold, effective, concerted action at all scales.  If you don’t believe that’s possible, then you’ll have a hard time getting pumped about climate solutions.  And the opponents of climate policy, ever loyal to King Coal and Big Oil, are doing their damnedest to convince us that collective public action is kaput.  That they would pummel us into thinking we are collectively worthless is a measure of both their cynicism and their desperation.  It’s un-American – not in the McCarthyist sense, but in that it runs deeply contrary to the American exceptionalism that defined Reaganism and that has enjoyed bi-partisan political consensus ever since.  (You know, “Americans, not American’ts.”)

Senator David Vitter brandished our collective impotence in a written question to me, following up on my testimony on national climate policy imperatives in the Senate Environment and Works Committee in July.  (Questions from Senators Boxer and Vitter, and my full written responses, are here.)  His question and an excerpt from my response are below.

Senator Vitter:  You cited in your testimony a 2011 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) regarding your perception that the world needs to shift away from fossil fuel use.  However, that same organization issued an analysis just this year that:  “Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow… and… will catch oil within a decade” as the most utilized fuel source.  Further, the IEA’s Director stated in 2012 that:  “Coal is a staple energy source [and] will remain a key primary energy source and an important part of fostering economic growth and alleviating energy poverty.”  Do you dispute these statements – that regardless of policies being considered here in the United States, developing nations around the globe will continue to utilize coal and other fossil fuels in pursuit of their own economic prosperity?

Excerpt from my response:

Relieving “energy poverty” is necessary as a matter of global economic justice, but so is stabilizing the climate. Clean energy sources and energy efficiency can do both. Expanded coal use cannot.  Some coal will continue to be used for many years, as the IEA director suggests. But the direction of current and future energy investment is moving, and must move, in a different direction: we will engineer a transition from coal to cleaner energy sources, or face unimaginably grave human consequences from climate disruption – consequences that will fall most harshly on the world’s poor.

I am not an energy forecaster.  The purpose of my testimony was not to predict energy market trends, but to suggest a path forward through this difficult situation, a path that is consistent with both the IEA report that I cited, and the IEA quotes in the above question:  We must move steadily and unswervingly in the direction of reduced emissions, greater investment in clean energy, and long-term transition away from fossil fuels.  This transition can and must be accomplished patiently and incrementally over the course of decades; we simply can’t do it overnight.  However, in the short term and from here forward, we (meaning the people who share the Earth’s atmosphere) must categorically avoid new investments in long-lived, capital-intensive fossil fuel infrastructure.  We can’t solve the problem by making it better and worse simultaneously.  We have to stop making it irrevocably, irreversibly worse, so we can indeed make it better.  IEA’s analysis offers mathematical confirmation of this common sense proposition.

Finally, I do strenuously dispute the implication of the final sentence of the question:  the implication that what we do as Americans doesn’t matter or affect what happens in the rest of the world with respect to climate solutions.  We have emitted more climate pollution than any other nation.  And while our contribution to the problem has been substantial, our contribution to the solutions can be even greater.  America has an unparalleled capacity to innovate and engineer big solutions to big problems.  We can and must pioneer a new, sustainable path to prosperity that doesn’t result in catastrophic disruption of the climate and all the human and natural systems that depend on climate stability.   That’s our responsibility as Americans to the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters – the world’s kids, and our own.


King Coal’s tragic puppet show, part 5: “Forget the economics, the study was delayed!”

August 21, 2013

It wasn’t finished.

That’s why Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn had not, until yesterday, released the results of an economic study on coal train impacts in Seattle.

for Pete's sake

for Pete’s sake

But King Coal jerked the puppet strings, and the story turned into a petty political horse-race game, instead of a good public airing of the real economic issues.  Now that the study’s out, we can focus on what it actually says….and what it doesn’t.  As usual, Sightline’s Eric de Place has got the goods on this.

Even with a very limited scope, the study finds significant net economic harm, including declining property values, increased congestion, and adverse impacts on public health.  The study leaves out a great many impacts, including the difficult-to-quantify hit to our civic brand — the competitive edge we’ve honed from our high quality of life, clean energy, and innovative culture.

(A New York Times story this week trivialized this as an “image” problem.  We should take exception:  building a great, healthy place to live where environmental quality and economic vitality go hand in hand isn’t just our label; it’s our contents, our identity – the “sustainable prosperity” that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce touts as the foundation of its economic vision.)

It also mentions but does not quantify the impact of increased emissions of carbon pollution.  Let’s take a stab at that:

The only specific economic modeling done to quantify the impact of Powder River Basin coal export on total carbon emissions found that, for every 140 million tons of coal exported, net consumption would increase by approximately 98 million tons.  The Gateway proposal north of Bellingham would ship up to 48 million tons annually, so of that 98 MT increase, about 33 MT would be shipped through Seattle.  When burned, that much PRB coal would produce roughly 60 million tons of CO2.    The EPAs current estimate of the social cost of CO2 (using the 2020 value and a 3% discount rate) is about $46/ton.  So the annual climate impact bill would run north of $2.7 B,b,billion.

Of course, that cost would fall on everyone, globally, not just Seattleites.  Should we prorate it for Seattle’s share of the global population?  No. On account of the Golden Rule.

But hey, there are economic benefits too!  Take the $5-6 million that the Gateway project developer says would flow largely to Seattle-based firms for legal and public relations work (and nevermind that they’ve already spent at least that much, and that it flows whether the project is permitted or not.)  Think of the cornucopia of good things in store for Seattle when they drop that money:

- Some of our best communications professionals will be gainfully employed spinning the heroic yarns that will be required to persuade the Emerald City that hauling coal is good for us.  Turning the story about the economic study into a gotcha game on Mayor McGinn is a prime example of the kind of diversions, evasions, and general shenanigans we can expect.

- Brilliant local minds will bring home more bacon by denying the climate consequences of coal export, feeding the ecosystem of climate denial and making it ever-more-difficult to step up to our responsibility for solutions.

- Our legal eagles will be well fed, protecting King Coal’s profits by arguing for the narrowest possible scope of environmental review, and ensuring that under no circumstances will climate impacts be considered.

Yes, all of that counts as economic benefit in the study.

Rev. Kathleen Patton of Longview, quoting Mark 8:36, poses this economic question about coal export “…What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

As you might expect, this impact was beyond the scope of the study.


Senate EPW: “Climate change is Happening Now”. House E&C: “More fossil fuel exports!”

July 18, 2013

I’m testifying at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing today entitled:  “Climate change; It’s happening now.”  I’ll be calling for responsible limits on climate pollution, a fair price for dumping carbon in the atmosphere, and an end to federal support for new, long-term capital investments that lock in dangerous climate disruption (The Keystone Principle.)  My written statement is here.

Last month, I testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about coal exports.  Seated next to me was a witness representing the National Association of Manufacturers, who objected to the notion that federal environmental analysis of proposed coal export facilities might include consideration of the climate impacts of burning the coal.Corn, toys, and coal

He worried that such an evaluation would create a slippery slope, leading to climate impact tests for other products, including corn and toys.

A little bit of common sense should suffice here.  The export of corn and toys is not one of the leading preventable causes of catastrophic global climate disruption.  The introduction of large amounts of cheap, subsidized, American coal into the world’s fastest growing economies is.  So we might want to look at that.  As the President said in a landmark of understatement, referring to the climate impacts of Keystone XL,  “It’s relevant.”

But the concern raised by the NAM witness is, in at least one respect, legitimate.  Because we have no meaningful national climate policy, we are left to ask and answer these kinds of questions on ad hoc basis, leading to outcomes that are surely less efficient and effective than we could achieve with a thoughtful, comprehensive policy.  The issue of where and how to ensure accountability for the costs of climate pollution is indeed a very important consideration for climate policy design.  But in June of 2013 – 25 years after Jim Hansen first confirmed to Congress that climate change was a real threat requiring decisive and immediate action — we were not having a hearing on climate policy design in the House of Representatives.  We were having a hearing on how to expedite coal export.

At that same hearing, the Army Corp of Engineers announced that it would not consider climate impacts in its environmental review of proposed export terminals.  This stands in direct contradiction to the principle the President established when he said the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest if it contributes significantly to increased climate pollution.

Ironically, on that same day, the commander of the Corps called for new, stronger standards for levee design and flood protection to cope with climate disruption.

Yup, we can count on the Corps to request larger budgets for responding to climate impacts (as, sadly, they should) but not, apparently, to analyze those impacts in the context of decisions which might prevent them.  We are being set up for tons of “cure” at public expense, because we lack the responsible federal climate policies that would provide an ounce of prevention.

Hey, at least today the Senate is having a hearing on the subject!


Wyoming Governor to White House: Do coal export in the dark

April 29, 2013

Coal export is kind of like the swimming pool game “Marco Polo”:  if you open your eyes, it ruins the whole game.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead emerged as a stalwart defender of the eyes-closed rule last week, urging the White House Council on Environmental Quality to avoid any consideration of climate impacts in federal evaluation of coal exports.

coalex habitat2He called assessing greenhouse gas impacts of coal export a “novel use of NEPA as a political opinion piece on global climate change.”

The National Environmental Policy Act is primarily a guide to procedure for environmental analysis, rather than a set of substantive requirements.  Its most basic function is to provide decision-makers with a thorough assessment of environmental impacts:  Whatever you’re going to do, says NEPA, do it in the daylight.

No, says Governor Mead.  Coal export requires darkness.  Open assessment of climate impacts would be “novel”, “political.”  Using the nation’s pre-eminent environmental disclosure law to analyze the effects of the nation’s biggest fossil fuel development proposal on the nation’s biggest environmental problem would “undermine the fundamental fairness of the process.”

It’s a stunning admission, when you think about it: Governor Mead is all but conceding that coal export cannot withstand an honest evaluation of its biggest impact. It puts the lie to the coal industry’s unsupportable claims that coal export will have no effect on the amount of coal burned in Asia (see distraction 2., in “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, part 4:  Field guide to distractions”.)

In a letter to CEQ, Governors Kitzhaber and Inslee called for full disclosure:   “We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future,” they wrote.

And that’s exactly why Governor Mead won’t have any analysis of those impacts.  A full, thorough, honest review of the costs and benefits of coal export proposals will sink them.  So opponents fight on for light, while Governor Mead champions the only circumstance in which coal export has a chance:  utter climate darkness.


King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 4: Field guide to distractions

March 15, 2013

Coal export is wrong (see Part 2) and it’s not us (see Parts 1 and 3). diversion distraction

To deflect attention from these show-stoppers, coal export proponents change the subject.  They propagate arguments to have arguments  to pose, debate, rehash  so as to keep us distracted from forming clear-eyed ethical judgments about coal export.

So you shouldn’t read this post.  Really, don’t bother.

….But some of us aren’t disciplined enough to ignore these arguments.  We can’t help ourselves; we need to noodle through them.  You are one of us if you’ve read this far.  So, I offer this annotated, illustrated field guide to 6 of the most popular coal export rationalizations.  But remember: it doesn’t matter, because it’s wrong and it’s not us.

1. “If the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point isn’t built, the trains would come anyway and offload in British Columbia.” 

LUMP ITThis argument is brutal in its fatalism.  It basically boils down to:  “Well, yes, it sucks, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So, communities from Billings to Bellingham:  Lump it.”  The argument is, thankfully, wrong, but it’s remarkably persistent - almost as persistent as Eric de Place at Sightline, who just keeps slapping it down.  His posts are the go-to resource on the subject.  Bottom line:  No more terminal capacity, no more coal export.

2. “Coal export wouldn’t increase net emissions; if we don’t ship it, Asia will just use other coal.”  Vic Svec, VP of investor relations for Peabody Coal, went so far as to tell National Geographic:  “It’s safe to say that not one more pound of coal will be used in Asia because of this terminal.”  It doesn't matterThis argument defies the basic principles of economics.  Asia won’t buy the coal unless it’s cheaper than the alternatives, and if it’s cheaper, they’ll burn more.  There wouldn’t be compensating emission reductions in the U.S., because coal is already in steep decline here (mostly because it can’t meet clean air standards and gas is cheap).  That, in fact, is why the industry is so desperate to beat an export path through our front yard.  See and hear:

3. “Powder River Basin coal is cleaner than the coal that China would otherwise use.” 

lipstick-on-pig“Clean” and “coal” never belong in the same sentence.  Yes, PRB coal is lower in sulfur, but that’s another reason why they would use more of it.  We all deserve clean air, but no one deserves the catastrophic climate consequences of encouraging fast-growing economies to stake their energy future on coal.  (If you think carbon capture and sequestration is the answer, then you don’t want to export coal now because it will lock in more coal infrastructure that lacks CCS capability.) See:

4. “We need the jobs; in a weak economy, that takes precedence over environmental concerns.” take this job

Coal export means a few jobs for some, but it’s a terrible jobs strategy for Washington.  If ships leaving America loaded with coal pass ships coming from Asia carrying solar panels and wind turbines and flat-screen TVs, who’s getting the jobs?  See:

slipperyslope15. “If we look at the climate impacts of coal export, what’s next?   Airplane manufacturing?  Wheat?” 

This is sort of a microcosm of the whole climate conundrum:  If everyone’s responsible, is anyone?  I haven’t seen much written on this yet.  OK, you talked me into it; I’ll post more on this later.  Initial thoughts:

- Before we get into the legal debate, let’s start with common sense.    In both sheer magnitude and direct causal relationship, coal export is, as Governor Inslee recently said, “the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint, ….nothing comes even close to it.”  It’s one of the top threats globally among projects that would make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. Are we really afraid that the slippery slope of analyzing climate impacts is more dangerous than the slippery slope of ignoring them, while aggressively exacerbating them, as the climate crisis deepens?

- The Keystone Principle is a useful screen here.  Shipping wheat may cause some emissions; but it does not materially increase long-term capital infrastructure decisions that lock in dangerous climate disruptionCoal export does.

- The same people who insist that climate impacts must remain outside the scope of the environmental review also argue that there are no climate impacts (see 1. above).  Hmmm.

Where exactly do you draw the line?  The courts will sort out the legal answer.  But there’s a right answer:  “Here.  Now.  Before it’s too late.”

6. “Stopping coal export isn’t the right way to deal with climate change.  We need to reduce demand for fossil fuels, develop better alternatives, limit and price carbon pollution…”  tHE RIGHT WAY

This is the saddest of the diversionary arguments, because it is so exasperatingly true.  Having devoted my professional life to those “right” ways of responding to the climate crisis, it’s a poignant reminder of how far we haven’t come yet.  And it’s a particularly bitter pill when administered by people who purchase political outcomes to prevent those solutions from happening.

But it’s still a distraction. This isn’t a hypothetical choice between rejecting coal export and adopting an effective global climate treaty. It’s a real, fateful choice between facilitating coal export and…not.  Stopping coal export certainly won’t deliver the climate solutions we need.  But if we don’t stop coal export (and other major new infrastructure investments that lock-in catastrophic emission levels), then all those solutions will be too little, too late.

I join those who wish we had made responsible policy choices that might have prevented this whole damned fight, and invite them to help us make those choices going forward.  But that’s not an answer to the coal export question.  We are where we are, and we’ve got an up or down decision to make.

We all need to be part of the climate solution, because we’re all part of the problem.  But condoning a massive expansion of global coal commerce – inviting it into our communities, spending public money to facilitate it, squandering our brand on it – would be more than playing a part.  It’d be auditioning to star in King Coal’s climate-destroying puppet show.

At the end of part 1 of this post, I proposed that after part 4,  “we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.”  Be it therefore resolved…


King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 3: Coal export just isn’t us

March 11, 2013

Who are we, anyway?  We had better decide.  Because accepting the coal industry’s plan to turn the Northwest into a mainline for delivering lethal doses of coal into the global energy system would answer the question.  But I’m pretty sure it’s not the answer we’d consciously choose.who are we 3

In Part 2 of this post, I argued that coal export is wrong, because it would materially contribute to fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable (the Keystone Principle).   But it’s not just generally wrongIt’s wrong in specific ways that make it particularly objectionable to us, here, now.  Coal export would violate our identity, partly because it’s so (did I mention this?) wrong, but also because it’s so, so,….retrograde.

We’re working toward broadly-shared, sustainable prosperity; coal concentrates and removes wealth, leaving poverty and destruction in its wake.  We’re about a high quality of life;  coal systematically degrades quality of life.  The Northwest honors its past and looks forward to a brighter future.  The coal industry tears up the past and burns up the future.  We have staked our reputation and our economy on innovative technology, clean energy, healthy communities, and renewable natural resources.  Coal is the opposite of all that.

Thanks to our abundant renewable resources and sustained investment in energy efficiency, Washington is now in position to become the first coal-free state in the U.S..  Seattle City Light divested from coal in 2000 and completely zeroed out its carbon footprint in 2005.  Washington and Oregon achieved agreements last year to phase out our coal plants and we’re moving toward retiring the plants in the Mountain West that serve our energy demand.

So how ironic, how tragic would it be for the Northwest to pull a violent 180 and become North America’s biggest coal depot?  It doesn’t just negate our energy strategy.  It’s an affront to our vision, our values, our identity as people and communities.  Beyond the quantifiable impacts – climate disruption, ocean acidification, air pollution, noise, congestion, public safety, water contamination, etc. – there’s a deeper sense that coal export would be a turnabout, a one-way ticket away from our best future.

That sense comes into sharper and louder focus with each new voice rising in opposition from Northwest communities – and they are legionHear them out:

Julie Trimingham of Communitywise Bellingham memorably said to NPR, “It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”

Edmonds City Council member Strom Peterson wrote,  “Our futures are brighter and our communities are stronger because we are building vibrant local economies – great places where people want to live, work, shop, and play.  Coal export is the direct opposite of that vision.”

Sustainability is a core value, an organizing principle, and a prosperity driver for communities like Bellingham.  But what about Longview, a hard-working community known for heavy industry, gritty port operations, and raw log exports?  You might think coal export would work for them.  But they’ve got something better in mind.  Here’s the vision statement from the Cowlitz County Economic Development Plan, “The Turning Point”:

“Cowlitz County will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”

Coal export would bury that vision.  Reverend Kathleen Patton, rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church worries, “If Longview winds up becoming a coal-export facility, I really do wonder if that’s the last 135 jobs this town will see.  Who else would be attracted to come here? I don’t see how we can justify saying a few jobs here makes it all worthwhile when we’re jeopardizing the health of not just the planet but even the people who are supposedly going to benefit from this export facility.”

Defending the region’s identity against the coal onslaught might seem like a luxury if you don’t have a job.  But the Northwest’s commitment to quality of life and sustainable prosperity isn’t just a cultural amenity.  It’s one of our most important economic assets, our competitive edge.  Our existing job base and our ability to sustain and attract good jobs going forward depend on it.

As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:

“Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract.  We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource.”  And it’s not just fisheries.  It’s all the jobs and benefits that flow from the fact that this is just one hell of a fine place to be in so many ways that coal export would defile.

The tribes get the last word; no one speaks with more authority to the power of our regional identity.  In a powerful, prophetic ceremony last fall, the Lummi Nation burned a blank check at Cherry Point, a proposed coal export site.  Even King Coal doesn’t have enough money to compensate them for losing their culture, their home.

“No deals, thank you,” said Fran James, 88, a revered tribal elder called as a witness to the ceremony. “All of our elders have always told us: ‘Take care of this place.’”

Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner.

Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner.

The Northwest will be safe from coal export when we stand as firm and proud for our regional identity as Lummi Councilman Jay Julius:  “The Lummi Nation will not step out of the way.  We will protect with our every breath the ancient lifeway on these waters and honor our ancestors buried at Cherry Point.”

Click here for Part 1 of this series, “Live onstage in the great Northwest:  King Coal’s tragic puppet show”

Click here for Part 2, “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2 – Coal export is wrong” 


King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2: Coal export is wrong

March 7, 2013

When last we left our intrepid heroes, the great Northwest had woken up to find itself cast in the wrong movie, sort of like Owen Wilson playing Richard Nixon (see Part 1).  If we’re disoriented, it’s no wonder – what, with all the crap flying around trying to convince us that turning Cascadia into a conveyor belt for coal is the best idea since Boeing.  So let’s cut some of it.

Coal export from the Northwest would increase coal consumption and carbon emissions, not just displace other coal. The coal trains won’t “come anyway” and continue on to terminals in B.C. if the Cherry Point project isn’t built.  Examining the climate impacts of coal export will not threaten airplane manufacturing or wheat exports, for Pete’s sake.  (In part 4 of this post, we further deconstruct the most popular rationalizations for coal export.)wrong

But as analytically weak as these arguments are, the coal industry wins just by having them. They serve the essential purpose of diverting our attention from the first, most fundamental reason why we should reject coal export:  It’s wrong.

Even if you could demonstrate that it would have zero effect on net coal consumption (and again, you can’t), coal export is materially participating in and profiting from an enterprise that sows death and destruction around the world. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. In January, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like. And coal causes it.

If we keep pouring capital investment into fossil fuel infrastructure for just a few more years, we will be locked into emission trajectories that make catastrophic disruption inevitable.  Arguments to the effect of “if we don’t do it, someone else will” just don’t hold moral water when “it” leads to unimaginably grave human consequences. It’s not right, no matter what anyone else does.

So far, the discussion of coal export has mostly occurred outside this moral context. But closing our eyes to the consequences doesn’t make them go away.  On the contrary, ethical evasion is the essential host condition in which injustices metastasize into historic moral crimes.

“We are not responsible.”

The whole edifice constructed for the express purpose of blocking climate action is built on this single, unconscionable stance. With each new definitive finding of culpability, fossil fuel interests devise a new dodge. The bottom line is always the same: It ain’t me, babe.

First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Then it was human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway. And now we might as well shovel their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. If we don’t ship it, the trains will just “pass us by” and offload elsewhere.  If we consider climate impacts now, where do we draw the line? Resistance is futile. Responsibility is no one’s.

So coal export proponents are part of a rich tradition of moral circumvention, offering a familiar litany of shirks and jives to deflect responsibility for climate consequences. Without relieving them of their accountability for this mess, you can understand how coal export enablers would default to a position of climate adolescence.  Their failure to accept responsibility for climate disruption is, after all, the prevailing condition of American society.  Denial is an ecosystem. When the President of the United States says in the same speech that we owe it to our kids to tackle climate disruption and we need an “all of the above” energy strategy, it’s hard to know which end is up.

But now, here, we have to deal with it.  Morally and mathematically, the gig is up.  If we aim to make it better, there’s just no more room for big capital investments that make it irretrievably worse.  Going forward with coal export amounts to looking our kids in the eye and saying “we are resigned to a future of unrelenting climate disasters for you, so it’s okay to make a few bucks now by facilitating that future.”  (Here is how they might respond.)  That may not be anyone’s intent.  But it would be the result.

How can we draw this moral line against coal export (or anywhere), when we exacerbate climate disruption every time we drive a car or eat an imported banana?  By invoking the Keystone Principle:  As we begin the long, slow journey to climate solutions, we must immediately cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “lock in” dangerous emission levels.

It will take decades to decarbonize our transportation and energy systems. We can do it over time, patiently and incrementally, building stronger economies and healthier communities as we go. But we cannot make big new capital investments now that irrevocably commit us to catastrophic climate failure. Driving to the store or eating a banana is not such an investment.  Coal export is.


Live on stage in the Great Northwest: King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 1

March 4, 2013

You could it see it coming a mile away.

King Coal rumbled into town with carloads of money, but they needed local cover.  Opportunistic PR and legal firms welcomed the business.  Sure, it carried some environmental freight, but it was okay because they appeared to be erring on the side of jobs – the only coin of the political realm at the time.

Then comes the reckoning:  Sightline Institute follows the money, exposing the hypocrisy of consultants using their green reputations to hawk Coal.  The Seattle Times does a big front page expose.  David Roberts at Grist takes the gloves all the way off.  The smackdown goes viral.  The consultants get their due.King coal 2

Betrayal.  Greenwashing.  Jobs vs. the environment.  Battle lines are drawn, sides chosen.  An epic battle looms.  There is dramatic fulfillment in this, a sense that we’ve fallen into a familiar narrative structure.  That’s what we do to make sense of the world:  find an archetypal story, fit reality to it, and then play our roles.

But before we act out this whole long, sad, bloody spectacle, let me just say:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  We shouldn’t be having this fight in this community.  We’ve been hoodwinked into becoming characters in somebody else’s story.  The real villain here is the desperate and dangerous coal industry. 

We’re tackling the climate challenge and creating jobs by building our clean energy economy and reducing domestic coal consumption.  It’s great for us and the rest of the planet, but it’s an existential threat to the U.S. coal industry.  So King Coal is hell-bent on reaching new markets.  They’re willing to mow down anything in their way, including us – the folks who are on our way to building the nation’s first coal-free energy system.

For them, that irony is delicious.  For us, it’s beyond tragic.

Since the coal industry can’t publicly represent themselves, they’ve built front groups, greased palms, and hired local talent so they don’t have to show their faces.  Not surprisingly, we coal export opponents connect the dots and call out the complicity.  The consultants got too close to the villain, and got the stink all over them.  I applaud Sightline for exposing this and demanding accountability.  But the whole damned coal-sponsored drama is toxic.  Dividing and devastating communities has always been the coal industry’s M.O..

We can’t let them do it here.  The great Pacific Northwest is not a global coal depot, a pusher for fossil fuel addiction, a logistics hub for climate devastation.  We’re the last place on Earth that should settle for a tired old retread of the false choice between jobs and the environment.  Coal export is fundamentally inconsistent with our vision and values.  It’s not just a slap in the face to “green” groups.  It’s a moral disaster and an affront to our identity as a community.

We have come too far together.  We’ve done too much to make our region a proving ground for a better way forward, a way that doesn’t end in catastrophic climate disruption.  We don’t have to play out this false and fruitless drama like puppets on a stage built by and for King Coal.

I know this appeal to our common identity may sound hollow if you don’t have a job and the coal industry has promised you one. But our identity isn’t just a green cultural amenity.  It’s the meaning of our past and the driver for our future.  It propels our economy.  It’s what makes this such a uniquely desirable and productive place.   If we squander our freight capacity, our waterways, our health, our quality of life, and our regional brand on coal export, the loss of jobs and opportunity will dwarf the blip of construction jobs building coal depots.  As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company, said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:

 “Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract.  We have 15,000 fishery jobs in Puget Sound; now our marine livelihoods are at stake. A job is not necessarily a livelihood. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource. We have a moral obligation to reject this proposal.”

When this whole drama is over, I believe we will affirm our regional identity – our core, shared commitment to sustainable, broadly-shared health and prosperity – and conclude that coal trafficking is the opposite of that.   What’s so crazy and sad is that people who share those values are now commercially obligated to argue that a massive expansion of global coal commerce is the right thing for us, the right thing to do as the climate crisis deepens.  No matter how much money King Coal throws at them, they will fail.  But in the meantime, what a tragic, unnecessary setback for our community…what a godawful mess.

Yes, they got themselves into it.  And maybe the die is now cast.  But before we concede that – before anyone in our community further commits themselves to repeat the demonstrably false and irresponsible rationalizations for coal export – I’m hoping some of them might be willing to think this through again.  Because the longer we play out King Coal’s sad puppet show, the worse it gets for our community.

This will take a little doing, because the layers of rationalization around coal export are so thick.  And this post is already too long.

So in part 2 of this post, we look at the most compelling reason to reject coal export – the one that should make further discussion unnecessary:  Because it’s wrong.

In part 3, we further explore why coal export is an economically and culturally devastating affront to our identity as a region and a community.  It’s just not us.

In part 4, we: a) catalogue some of the ways in which coal export proponents try to evade responsibility for climate and other impacts; b) demonstrate that they are false, and then c) propose that we should stop having those arguments because they divert our attention from what’s really important: it’s wrong and it’s not us.

And then we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.  OK?


The Keystone Principle

February 15, 2013

The big President’s Day rally on the National Mall is more than a Keystone pipeline protest.  It’s a statement of principle for climate action.

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future.  It’s about physical and moral consequences, now.  And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement.  It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption:  Stop making it worse. stop making it worse 2

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.   Keystone is a both a conspicuous example of that kind of investment and a powerful symbol for the whole damned category.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline – even one as huge and odious as Keystone – will not literally “solve” climate disruption.  No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation.  The question – for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks – is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

Stopping Keystone nails the core principle for climate responsibility, by preventing investments that make climate disruption irrevocably worse.  Again, it’s not just that burning tar sands oil produces a lot of emissions; it’s that long-term capital investments like Keystone (and coal plants, and coal export facilities) “lock in” those dangerous emissions for decades and make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable.

Now, if you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits.  It is your business strategy, precisely.  For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water.  We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle.  It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

But it doesn’t take a supercomputer to confirm that the Keystone Principle is basic common sense.  It’s step one for getting out of a hole:  Stop digging.  A comprehensive strategy for global climate solutions called “Design to Win” put the point succinctly:  “First, don’t lose.”   The choice is clear and binary:  Do it and we’re toast.  So don’t.

In contrast, the many things we must do to advance positive climate solutions – clean energy, more efficient cars and buildings, better transportation choices – are full of grey areas.  Implementing them is inherently slow, incremental, and subject to tradeoffs based on economic and other factors.  Should new fuel economy standards make cars 80% more efficient or 90%?  Over what period of time?  The answers are judgment calls, not moral absolutes.  But when it comes to stopping Keystone and other fossil fuel infrastructure investments, the choice is stark, clear.

“Climate solutions” are millions of Yeses and many shades of green, over a long period of time.  But they also require a few bright red Nos, right now.  These Nos are, you might say, the “keystone” for responding to the climate crisis, as in “something on which associated things [like, say, all efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption] depend.”  No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now.

Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power.   Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy.  Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought.  Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean.   This is what climate disruption looks like.

Now that the faces of the victims are regular features of the daily news, what will we say to them?  And what will we say to our children – the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters?  Defying the Keystone Principle is like saying “Sorry, you’re out of luck.  We will use our laws, our time, and our money to make it irretrievably worse.”

President Obama has begun to carefully edge away from the moral bankruptcy of this position.  As he said in his inaugural address:   “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

But no one will believe him, or us, until we stop making it worse.  That’s what Keystone is about.  It’s not just a pipeline.   It’s a principle.


Lummi: “Treaty rights are not for sale”

September 22, 2012

Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner.  Here’s the link:  Burning Opposition to Coal Trains

This check represents what the Lummi people were offered to give up their treaty rights and allow siting of a coal export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham WA.

Paul Anderson, a local photographer and opponent of coal export, offered the following thoughts:

Sept. 21, 2012

“There is interesting side story to the report about the Lummi Nation opposing the proposed coal port on their ancestral lands.

Jewell James whose ancestral uncle was Chief Seattle is director of the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office for the Lummi Nation and is one of the most revered Lummi’s. He is an organizer on this community event.  Mr James is also a master carver and is responsible for the carving of many well know Totem and Healing Poles.

In 2002 James and the Lummi Nation delivered a 13 foot Healing Pole to a site north of New York City where the NYC Fire Department and several foundations held programs for 911 families.

In 2003 James and the Lummi Nation delivered an Honoring Pole to the Shanksville, Pennsylvania site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.

In 2004 James and the Lummi Nation delivered and installed Liberty and Freedom Poles in Washington D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.

And most recently James and the Lummi Nation delivered a Healing Totem Pole to the National Library of Medicine.

Today Goldman Sachs, Berkshire Hathaway, Peabody Coal, SSA Marine, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad want to build the largest coal shipping facility in North America on the ancestral lands of the Lummi.

I believe it is time for America to step up and support the Lummi Nation, I believe it is time for those that have been comforted by the the Healing and Honoring Poles carved by the hands of the Lummi People to pay back these kind and generous people who have given back to America time after time after time.

It is time America honor and support the Lummi People.

Please speak out and express your concerns during the scoping phase of the Environmental Impact Statement which begins Sept. 24, 2012″

 


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