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….not to be confused with 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.


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


Up4Climate#: Senators pull all nighter to talk reality

March 10, 2014

In a frontal assault on the ecosystem of denial, at least 28 Senators will be up all night tonight, talking about climate.

Up4Climate

Up4Climate

Yakkity-yak, you say, why don’t they do something about it?  Because too many Democrats and all the Republicans are afraid.   On the D side, they’re afraid of Big Fossil’s money, which is poised to pin them on the wrong side of jobs if they act on climate.  On the R side, a few of them are proud climate deniers, but most of them know better.  They too are afraid of Big Fossil, and the prospect that talking like anything but a nut about climate will win them an oil-funded primary challenge from the Tea Party.

So they won’t act on climate.  And if you can’t act, why talk?  And since everybody stopped talking, it reduced the pressure to act.  And so on, til we’re toast.

The Senators are breaking that vicious cycle of silence and denial and inaction.  They are talking.  And the more they talk — the more they spend time and words on the unimaginably grave consequences of doing nothing — the harder it becomes to sit still.The ecosystem of denial cannot, ultimately, withstand direct daylight.

Encourage them here.


Obsoleting Bertha: Viaduct traffic plummets

March 4, 2014

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry has a terrific post on the astounding decline in traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct since Seattle’s Big Dig II began.  Trip volumes are down 40% in just 3 years!  Clark analyzes the remarkable trend and concludes:

At this point, nobody knows if [tunnel-boring machine] Bertha will ever get moving again, let alone complete her job. But given these figures, maybe it doesn’t matter. Seattle has seamlessly adapted to losing the first 48,000 trips on the Viaduct. No one even noticed. No one even noticed that 40 percent of the Viaduct’s traffic just disappeared! Could accommodating the loss of another 62,000 be that hard if we, I don’t know, tried even a little?Stop digging

Every day it seems clearer:  if we can stop the momentum of expanding-fossil-fuel-infrastructure-as-usual, we can figure out better ways to make energy and better ways to get our butts from point A to point B (and maybe make point A so awesome that our butts will be happier there.)

Of course, none of this is painless or automatic.  Car trips on the viaduct are down in part because of long-term investment in transit and increased congestion in spots.  Some who don’t have convenient alternatives are facing longer commutes.  A planned transition from a freeway on the waterfront to better mobility strategies surely would have been more efficient and effective.  But the point is, it’s doable, and much of it is being done essentially by accident.

Even if it causes some inconvenience — big changes always do — we must immediately stop making long-term capital investments that lock us in to chaotic, irreversible climate disruption.  This isn’t an “environmental agenda,” it’s a survival imperative, an existential thing, supported by the most exhaustive body of peer-reviewed science in the history of peer-reviewed science.  It is what our minds know we must do.  It is the Keystone Principle, the reason 398 people were arrested at the White House last Sunday.  And for every one of them, 200 more have pledged civil disobedience if necessary.

Mathematically and morally, we simply can’t afford more big, capital-intensive steps backward on climate….especially as it becomes increasingly clear that they’re unnecessary, wasteful, obsolete!  This may seem like reading too much into our little tunnel saga, but no single decision looks big in the context of the whole climate challenge.  These are exactly the kind of choices that must now be made in the full light of climate consequences.

Is there really any doubt what they should name the mammoth whose tusk was found buried under Downtown Seattle?  Whoever writes this stuff is slathering on the irony:  we just happened to discover an enormous, perfect fossil of an extinct beast — its spectacular, ostentatious digging tool — buried under downtown Seattle while the tunnel-boring, fossil-fuel-dependence-perpetuating machine ground to a halt nearby.

That mammoth has got to be named Bertha, if only to remind us again that we can still choose a better fate.

Here’s Clark’s amazing-but-true chart:

viaduct traffic

Thank you Clark and Sightline Daily, for being so gritty and brainy at the same time!


Rise. Shine. Truth. Jail.

March 3, 2014

1. 398 young people were arrested yesterday at the White House, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.  Jamie Henn of 350.org has a quick dispatch here.

“An entire movement has thrown itself into in this Keystone fight, from local frontline groups to big national green organizations,” 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben wrote in an email. “But this weekend shows the power and bravery of some of the most crucial elements: young people, and activists who understand the centrality of environmental justice.”KXL protestors

2. Joe Romm has an important, Oscar-inspired post on climate communications today.  He argues:

The two greatest myths about global warming communications are 1) constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy and 2) that strategy doesn’t work and indeed is actually counterproductive!

These two items are related.  Nothing can break through the fog of denial about the scale of the problem like the courage and resolve of young people going to jail to make the case.  Especially when it’s so difficult to get a reliable read from the news media, one of the best ways to calibrate a threat is by observing the level of urgency with which people respond.  By that measure, we’ve got a long, long way to go to close the gap between what we know about the climate threat and how we’re acting.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the protestors for jumping into the breach.


“The Petro States of America” in Businessweek

February 27, 2014

Are we still living in a democracy?  Or an oilgarchy, a petrocracy?  The Keystone XL decision will be a pretty good indication.

Mark Hertsgaard makes the case powerfully today in BusinessWeek, describing why it’s tough for the President to do the right thing on the pipeline:

…[T]here’s a deeper explanation for Obama’s caution on Keystone that rarely gets acknowledged. He is the president of a petro state, a country that ranks as an OPEC nation in all but name. And in a petro state, saying no to Big Oil is never easy.

The whole piece is well worth a read, here.Saving democracy

Over the long haul, delivering climate solutions will turn out to be one of the most effective things we can do to restore democracy.  We can build a powerful, virtuous circle:   implementing solutions, reducing fossil fuel dependence, eroding the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel interests, and opening the door for more and better solutions.

But first we have to make it through the short haul.  We have to prevent near-term investments like KXL that would lock in fossil fuel dependence and dangerous emission levels – betraying the promise of a clean energy economy that’s rapidly dispelling fossil-funded doubts about its viability.

And to do that, we can’t wait for a patient virtuous circle of solutions and democracy.  We have to assert some democracy.  Like this.

Candidate Obama said it’s time to “end the tyranny of oil.”  The pivotal question now is whether President Obama will use his sole discretion to stand up to that tyranny, or submit to it.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Further thoughts on oil and democracy here:  All Oil is Foreign,

…and on fossil fuels and American values here:  What’s American Energy?  Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

And Climate Solutions offers a new marketing tagline for the Nissan Leaf:  Pull up at the gas station.  Pump up your tires.  Clean your windshield.  And Leaf!


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