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.


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.


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.


Seeing red: temperature change over time and by region

February 25, 2014

Yap yap yap, it’s what a blog is for I guess.  But a good climate science picture is worth at least 997 more yaps. And an animated longitudinal data set, well, there just aren’t enough yaps to compare.

This one from NASA packs a wallop.   It’s data, but it’s alive.  53 seconds of eerie, scorching silence.


Go figure: Giant dirty oil pipeline is a climate problem

December 19, 2013

Keystone XL could dramatically increase climate pollution.  So suggests an important new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute, available here.

The authors have identified and fixed a critical flaw in how the question of net climate impact is generally analyzed.  They’ve shown that big capacity additions in global markets have price effects that tend to sustain and expand demand and therefore production over time.  Intuitively, this seems straightforward, but many economic models miss this effect.

In a sane world, this would not be news.  The pipeline is designed for the express purpose of mainlining up to 830,000 barrels per day of extremely carbon intensive fuel into global energy markets.  It should hardly be surprising or contentious that climate-wise, it sucks.Dog bites man

And yet the President raised the question in his historic June climate speech, promising to reject the permit for Keystone if it “significantly exacerbates the problem of climate pollution.”  At the time, the State Department’s scandalously flawed draft EIS had already given us reasons to worry that he would arrive at the wrong answer.

This part of the President’s speech was a big surprise – the pundits said he would avoid KXL like the plague.  But we still don’t really know what he meant.  It’s been a bit of a Rohrschach test for climate advocates.

Eric de Place at Sightline thought it means we’re toast.  This freaked me out, because Eric’s a flippin genius.  However, I remain hopeful – if only by sheer will – that the President’s climate test on KXL will turn out to be a watershed, and a good one.  Just the fact that he made climate impact a dispositive test is huge, a genie that can’t be rebottled.  Regardless of what he meant or how he intends to apply the test, it establishes and highlights a vital principle for climate action:  first, we have to stop making it irrevocably worse (the Keystone Principle).  (The principle has conspicuously not been applied to other critical federal actions, like environmental review of coal export, or coal leasing.)

The claim that KXL will not meaningfully increase climate pollution rests first on the assumption that the Alberta tar sands will be fully exploited, with or without the pipeline.  This has been roundly and repeatedly refuted.  But what bugs me most about it is the implicit fatalism.  The tar sands are one of the largest global carbon pools that must remain in the ground if we are to stabilize the climate before it spirals out of control.  Assuming that they will be fully vaporized is simply capitulating to climate disruption, and to the fossil-fueled tyranny that keeps us careening toward this cliff with no accountability, no policy, no democratic control of our institutions.  It seems like an innocent analytical assumption, but it amounts to ratifying Jim Hansen’s dire warning:  Game over.

Surely that is not what the President meant when he posed this test, toward the end of his rousing climate speech, in which he effectively said for the first time, Game On.  When he talks about Keystone now, his message is basically, “Settle down.”  He complains that everyone is overblowing it:  the proponents vastly overstate its economic benefits, while opponents exaggerate its climate impacts.  He seems irked that this has become a defining test of his resolve on climate.   He gets cover from liberal opinion leaders like Eric Chait, who contend that Keystone is the wrong fight.

Like Joe Romm, I strenuously disagree; I think it’s a fair and appropriate and vital test.  Keystone is both a conspicuous example and a powerful symbol for the single most important and immediate thing we must do to execute a winning climate strategy:  stop making long-term fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make the problem not just worse, but completely intractable.

But whether Eric Chait or Joe Romm or even the President himself thinks Keystone is the ideal test of his commitment to responsible climate action is now completely beside the point.  The emerging climate movement made it the real-world test.    The only question left is whether the President will pass or fail it.


“We can stop this madness”: Philippines climate negotiator begins hunger strike

November 12, 2013

You can donate to relief efforts for the victims of Haiyan here.

And you can do something for the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters here.  And here.


Dear John: Don’t make it worse

May 11, 2013

Talk swirls about some kind of “deal” for the Keystone XL Pipeline.  I don’t see it.

Political “realists” say Congress is incapable of passing a serious climate policy, period.  That assessment becomes more valid every time the “realists” echo it, so I’m not going there.  (I was expelled from their ranks long ago.) But a construction permit for a pipeline is nowhere near enough leverage to remove the obstacles to national climate policy.  As a political matter, the President’s opponents want to have the Keystone fight more than they want to win it.Maple syrup not dilbit

And it hardly seems necessary or wise to “trade” Keystone XL for regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act.  We already won the latter in the Supreme Court and the President as much as announced his intention to move forward in the State of the Union address.  Sure, there’s a range of ultimate outcomes on the CO2 rules; but by the time we know how hard the Administration will really push for strong CO2 regs, this year’s Keystone decision will be long gone.  If it’s supposed to strike some kind of political “balance,” it’s only on paper – the real political (economic) constituencies for the pipeline and power plant emissions are different.

Moreover, there’s a principle at stake (the Keystone Principle).  It’s neither scientifically defensible nor morally acceptable to continue using scarce capital and time to invest in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.  Regulating climate pollution from power plants is a vital step forward, and potentially a very big one.  But in no world where we actually step up to the climate challenge does it justify a big, irreversible step in the wrong direction, like Keystone.  There’s no symmetry, no justice there – just political games, and losing ones at that.

I was proud to join a big group of Heinz and Goldman prize-winners – including a bunch of personal heroes – in making the case to Secretary of State Kerry this week. We wrote:

May 8, 2013

The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State  

Dear Mr. Secretary,

As recipients of Heinz Awards for our work in environment, energy, and public policy, and the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, we write to you with an urgent appeal to affirm America’s commitment to climate solutions by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  

We are deeply honored and humbled to have been recognized for our achievements. But we are acutely aware that despite your best efforts and ours, the climate crisis is now upon us. After a year of unprecedented weather extremes and disruption, this is no longer only about impacts in the future. It’s about social, economic, environmental, and moral consequences, now.

We do not lack for viable solutions. Public and private leaders in America are demonstrating that energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation choices, and a range of other strategies are practical and economic. We are using them to build healthier communities and stronger local economies. We can say this with confidence: sustainable, broadly-shared economic opportunity is possible as we make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and efficient energy systems.

But we cannot make the transition overnight. It will take many decades of patient commitment and investment to complete it. And while “winning” a safe climate future is a long game, we can lose it very quickly — within President Obama’s second term. Continued investment in capital-intensive, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like Keystone XL will “lock in” emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. This is the hard bottom line of the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that without an immediate shift in energy infrastructure investment, humanity would “lose forever” the chance to avert climate catastrophe.

Critics of the effort to stop the pipeline suggest that this is not “the right way” to deal with climate. It is certainly not sufficient, and it would arguably be unnecessary if we had a responsible national and global climate policies. You fought for such policy as a Senator, and we desperately need one. But stopping the pipeline is necessary to ensure that the problem remains solvable — that we don’t become irrevocably committed to emission trajectories that guarantee failure before we mobilize for success.

There is a strain of fatalism among some opinion leaders regarding Keystone (characteristic of prevailing attitudes toward climate generally): “Canada will develop the tar sands no matter what we do.” “We’ll get the oil from somewhere, so it might as well be North America.” “They’ll just find another route.” These objections are neither analytically defensible nor morally responsible. We can’t do everything to address climate disruption, but as the world’s biggest economy and the largest historic emitter, we can and should do a great deal. As a nation with unparalleled capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship, we can do even more. Facilitating accelerated investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is flatly inconsistent with this responsibility, and with the diplomatic effort to build our standing as an international leader and facilitator of global cooperation to tackle the climate challenge.

Keystone XL is a big, literal, conspicuous example of exactly what we must not do if we are genuinely committed to climate solutions. It is a fundamental element — a “keystone” if you will — of the industry’s plan to expand production of this carbon-intensive fuel from 2 million barrels per day to 6 million bpd by 2030. And as significant as its direct consequences are, Keystone XL is much more than a pipeline. It is a test of whether we will indeed, as the President said in his inaugural address, “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The human consequences of unchecked climate disruption are almost unimaginably grave. We cannot continue to ignore — or, worse, aggravate — these consequences by considering decisions like Keystone outside of this moral context. Approving the permit would amount to affirming moral evasion, at exactly the moment that you and the President have argued so passionately for moral engagement.

We believe in the power and promise of climate solutions. We know they work; we know they are economically viable; and we know we can implement them. We believe it’s time to look our kids and grandkids — the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters — in the eye and say, “We will do what must be done to protect you. We will make this better.”

But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse. That’s why we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

With hope and determination to build a healthy future, and the deepest respect for your leadership,

Sincerely,

KC Golden, Policy Director Climate Solutions, 2012 Heinz Award in the Public Policy Category

Lois Gibbs, Executive Director Center for Health, Environment & Justice 1990 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

John Luther Adams, Composer 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jane Akre, Independent News Group, LLC 2001 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science University of Washington, Department of Biology 2009 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Ralph Cavanagh, Energy Program Co-Director Natural Resources Defense Council 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Terrence J. Collins, PhD, Hon FRSNZ Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Director, Institute for Green Science Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Chemistry 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Anne H. Ehrlich, Senior Research Scientist Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Thomas FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. 2008 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jerry F. Franklin, University of Washington, College of Forest Resources 2005 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer 2009 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2012 Wallenberg Medal Winner

James Hansen, Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2001 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Richard J Jackson, MD, MPH, Hon. AIA Former Director, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Professor & Chair, Environmental Health Science UCLA Fielding School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Hilton Kelley, Executive Director & Founder Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. NPA Regional Health Equity Council: Chairman R-6 National Partnership for Action (NPA) to End Health Disparities Member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member 2009-2011 2011 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

Joanie Kleypas, Marine Scientist 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Elizabeth Kolbert, Journalist 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Peggy M. Shepard, Executive Director WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. 2004 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor on Environmental Health and Human Habitation Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard University, School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category


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.


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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 72 other followers