Obama on cynicism: “Boo.” On hope: “Yay.”

June 16, 2014

President Obama is right:  cynicism is toxic to climate solutions.  But it can’t be cured just by naming it.  He has to fight it.

The President continued where his Years of Living Dangerously interview left off last week, warding off cynicism in a commencement speech at UC Irvine focused mostly on climate:bad for grads

We’ve got some big challenges.  And if you’re fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there’s no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is too just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America.

Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space.  Cynicism is a choice.  Hope is a better choice.

I’m always in the market for hope, but it’s kind of a tough sell when the ice sheets are disintegrating and the President can’t stop talking about his all-of-the-above energy strategy, even in speeches about climate.  It’s a tough sell when the science blares a 5-alarm global emergency, and the President steps on the message by announcing a $1 billion “resiliency” fund.

Look, I know the President can’t snap his fingers and turn it around.  The nauseating truth is that the far end of what’s “politically possible” doesn’t even approach the near end of what’s urgently necessary.  The President is clearly trying:  fuel economy and power plant standards are meaningful steps forward against strong headwinds.

But it’s bittersweet to hear the President rallying the grads to solutions, when he still hasn’t done the most basic thing necessary to give them a fighting chance to succeed:  stop making it worse.

The President articulated this simple idea in his climate address last June, when he said he would the approve Keystone XL tar sands pipeline only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Bingo.  At this stage of the game, how could we in good conscience do anything that “significantly exacerbates” the climate crisis?

Imagine how much more hopeful the graduates might be if the President clearly made that condition a firm and explicit Administration policy:  the federal government will categorically stop doing things that significantly exacerbate the climate crisis — particularly things that facilitate new capital investments in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure, “locking in” dangerous climate disruptionWe’ve got so much work to do to make it better.  So we’re done making it worse.  Period.

You can’t tell the next generation to be engaged and optimistic one minute and slam the door in their face with new fossil fuel investments the next.  As young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto told Secretary of State Kerry in their recent letter calling on the President to reject Keystone XL:

“The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give…solutions time to grow.  We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”

We can’t put the fire out instantly, but we can stop spraying gas on it. That, so much more than the word “hope,” would feed hope.

The best hope food in the President’s commencement speech — the clearest nod to the real fight against the power of fossil fuels — was:

“You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.”

Yes, you do.

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The whole speech:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

________________________________________________________________

For Immediate Release                              June 14, 2014

 

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT

AT UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-IRVINE COMMENCEMENT CEREMONY

 

Angel Stadium

Anaheim, California

12:10 P.M. PDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Hello, Anteaters!  (Applause.)  That is something I never thought I’d say.  (Laughter.)  Please, please take a seat. 

To President Napolitano — which is a nice step up from Secretary; to Fred Ruiz, Vice Chair of the University of California Regents; Chancellor Drake; Representatives Loretta Sanchez and Alan Lowenthal; to the trustees and faculty — thank you for this honor.  And congratulations to the Class of 2014!  (Applause.)  

Now, let me begin my saying all of you had the inside track in getting me here — because my personal assistant, Ferial, is a proud Anteater.  (Applause.)  Until today, I did not understand why she greets me every morning by shouting “Zot, Zot, Zot!”  (Laughter.)  It’s been a little weird.  But she explained it to me on the way here this morning, because she’s very proud to see her brother, Sina, graduate today as well.  (Applause.)  So, graduates, obviously we’re proud of you, but let’s give it up for your proud family and friends and professors, because this is their day, too.  (Applause.)

And even though he’s on the road this weekend, I also want to thank Angels centerfielder Mike Trout for letting me cover his turf for a while.  (Applause.)  He actually signed a bat for me, which is part of my retirement plan.  (Laughter.)  I will be keeping that.  And this is a very cool place to hold a commencement.  I know that UC Irvine’s baseball team opens College World Series play in Omaha right about now — (applause) — so let’s get this speech underway.  If the hot dog guy comes by, get me one.  (Laughter.)

Now, in additional to Ferial, graduates, I’m here for a simple reason:  You asked.  For those who don’t know, the UC Irvine community sent 10,000 postcards to the White House asking me to come speak today.  (Applause.)  Some tried to guilt me into coming.  I got one that said, “I went to your first inauguration, can you please come to my graduation?”  (Applause.)  Some tried bribery:  “I’ll support the Chicago Bulls.”  Another said today would be your birthday — so happy birthday, whoever you are.

My personal favorite — somebody wrote and said, “We are super underrated!”  (Laughter.)  I’m sure she was talking about this school.  But keep in mind, you’re not only the number-one university in America younger than 50 years old, you also hold the Guinness World Record for biggest water pistol fight.  (Applause.)  You’re pretty excited about that.  (Laughter.) 

“We are super underrated.”  This young lady could have just as well been talking, though, about this generation.  I think this generation of young people is super underrated.

In your young lives, you’ve seen dizzying change, from terror attacks to economic turmoil; from Twitter to Tumblr.  Some of your families have known tough times during the course of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  You’re graduating into a still-healing job market, and some of you are carrying student loan debt that you’re concerned about.  And yet, your generation — the most educated, the most diverse, the most tolerant, the most politically independent and the most digitally fluent in our history — is also on record as being the most optimistic about our future. 

And I’m here to tell you that you are right to be optimistic.  (Applause.)  You are right to be optimistic.  Consider this:  Since the time most of you graduated from high school, fewer Americans are at war.  More have health insurance.  More are graduating from college.  Our businesses have added more than 9 million new jobs.  The number of states where you’re free to marry who you love has more than doubled.  (Applause.) And that’s just some of the progress that you’ve seen while you’ve been studying here at UC Irvine.

But we do face real challenges:  Rebuilding the middle class and reversing inequality’s rise.  Reining in college costs.  Protecting voting rights.  Welcoming the immigrants and young dreamers who keep this country vibrant.  Stemming the tide of violence that guns inflict on our schools.  We’ve got some big challenges.  And if you’re fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there’s no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is too just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America. 

And I’m here to tell you, don’t believe the cynicism.  Guard against it.  Don’t buy into it.  Today, I want to use one case study to show you that progress is possible and perseverance is critical.  I want to show you how badly we need you — both your individual voices and your collective efforts — to give you the chance you seek to change the world, and maybe even save it. 

I’m going to talk about one of the most significant long-term challenges that our country and our planet faces:  the growing threat of a rapidly changing climate. 

Now, this isn’t a policy speech.  I understand it’s a commencement, and I already delivered a long climate address last summer.  I remember because it was 95 degrees and my staff had me do it outside, and I was pouring with sweat — as a visual aid.  (Laughter.)  And since this is a very educated group, you already know the science.  Burning fossil fuels release carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide traps heat.  Levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in 800,000 years. 

We know the trends.  The 18 warmest years on record have all happened since you graduates were born.  We know what we see with our own eyes.  Out West, firefighters brave longer, harsher wildfire seasons; states have to budget for that.  Mountain towns worry about what smaller snowpacks mean for tourism.  Farmers and families at the bottom worry about what it will mean for their water.  In cities like Norfolk and Miami, streets now flood frequently at high tide.  Shrinking icecaps have National Geographic making the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart.

So the question is not whether we need to act.  The overwhelming judgment of science, accumulated and measured and reviewed over decades, has put that question to rest.  The question is whether we have the will to act before it’s too late.  For if we fail to protect the world we leave not just to my children, but to your children and your children’s children, we will fail one of our primary reasons for being on this world in the first place.  And that is to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation.

Now, the good is you already know all this.  UC Irvine set up the first Earth System Science Department in America.  (Applause.)  A UC Irvine professor-student team won the Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs destroy the ozone layer.  (Applause.)  A UC Irvine glaciologist’s work led to one of last month’s report showing one of the world’s major ice sheets in irreversible retreat.  Students and professors are in the field working to predict changing weather patterns, fire seasons, and water tables — working to understand how shifting seasons affect global ecosystems; to get zero-emission vehicles on the road faster; to help coastal communities adapt to rising seas.  And when I challenge colleges to reduce their energy use to 20 percent by 2020, UC Irvine went ahead and did it last year.  Done.  (Applause.)  So UC Irvine is ahead of the curve.  All of you are ahead of the curve. 

Your generation reminds me of something President Wilson once said.  He said, “Sometimes people call me an idealist.  Well, that is the way I know I am an American.”  That’s who we are.  

And if you need a reason to be optimistic about our future, then look around this stadium.  Because today, in America, the largest single age group is 22 years ago.  And you are going to do great things.  And I want you to know that I’ve got your back — because one of the reasons I ran for this office was because I believed our dangerous addiction to foreign oil left our economy at risk and our planet in peril.  So when I took office, we set out to use more clean energy and less dirty energy, and waste less energy overall. 

And since then, we’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by the middle of the next decade.  We’ve tripled the electricity we harness from the wind, generating enough last year to power every home in California.  We’ve multiplied the electricity we generate from the sun 10 times over.  And this state, California, is so far ahead of the rest of the country in solar, that earlier this year solar power met 18 percent of your total power demand one day.  (Applause.)

The bottom line is, America produces more renewable energy than ever, more natural gas than anyone.  And for the first time in nearly two decades, we produce more oil here at home than we buy from other countries.  And these advances have created jobs and grown our economy, and helped cut our carbon pollution to levels not seen in about 20 years.  Since 2006, no country on Earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States of America.  (Applause.)

So that’s all reason for optimism.  Here’s the challenge:  We’ve got to do more.  What we’re doing is not enough.  And that’s why, a couple weeks ago, America proposed new standards to limit the amount of harmful carbon pollution that power plants can dump into the air.  And we also have to realize, as hundreds of scientists declared last month, that climate change is no longer a distant threat, but “has moved firmly into the present.”  That’s a quote.  In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts, and fires, and storms, and floods are going to get harsher and they’re going to get costlier.  And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new $1 billion competitive fund to help communities prepare for the impacts of climate change and build more resilient infrastructure across the country.  (Applause.)

So it’s a big problem.  But progress, no matter how big the problem, is possible.  That’s important to remember.  Because no matter what you do in life, you’re going to run up against big problems — in your own personal life and in your communities and in your country.   There’s going to be a stubborn status quo, and there are going to be people determined to stymie your efforts to bring about change.  There are going to be people who say you can’t do something.  There are going to be people who say you shouldn’t bother.  I’ve got some experience in this myself.  (Laughter.)

Now, part of what’s unique about climate change, though, is the nature of some of the opposition to action.  It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist.  When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long.  But nobody ignored the science.  I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese.  (Laughter.) 

And today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change.  They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad.  One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling.  There was one member of Congress who mentioned a theory involving “dinosaur flatulence” — which I won’t get into.  (Laughter.)

Now, their view may be wrong — and a fairly serious threat to everybody’s future — but at least they have the brass to say what they actually think.  There are some who also duck the question.  They say — when they’re asked about climate change, they say, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist.”  And I’ll translate that for you.  What that really means is, “I know that manmade climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.”  (Applause.)

Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA.  I do know that the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put that debate to rest.  The writer, Thomas Friedman, recently put it to me this way.  He were talking, and he says, “Your kid is sick, you consult 100 doctors; 97 of them tell you to do this, three tell [you] to do that, and you want to go with the three?”

The fact is, this should not be a partisan issue.  After all, it was Republicans who used to lead the way on new ideas to protect our environment.  It was Teddy Roosevelt who first pushed for our magnificent national parks.  It was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act and opened the EPA.  George H.W. Bush — a wonderful man who at 90 just jumped out of a plane in a parachute — (laughter) — said that “human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and unprecedented ways.”  John McCain and other Republicans publicly supported free market-based cap-and-trade bills to slow carbon pollution just a few years ago — before the Tea Party decided it was a massive threat to freedom and liberty. 

These days, unfortunately, nothing is happening.  Even minor energy efficiency bills are killed on the Senate floor.  And the reason is because people are thinking about politics instead of thinking about what’s good for the next generation.  What’s the point of public office if you’re not going to use your power to help solve problems?  (Applause.)     

And part of the challenge is that the media doesn’t spend a lot of time covering climate change and letting average Americans know how it could impact our future.  Now, the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts spend just a few minutes a month covering climate issues.  On cable, the debate is usually between political pundits, not scientists.  When we introduced those new anti-pollution standards a couple weeks ago, the instant reaction from the Washington’s political press wasn’t about what it would mean for our planet; it was what would it mean for an election six months from now.  And that kind of misses the point.  Of course, they’re not scientists, either.

And I want to tell you all this not to discourage you.  I’m telling you all this because I want to light a fire under you.  As the generation getting shortchanged by inaction on this issue, I want all of you to understand you cannot accept that this is the way it has to be. 

The climate change deniers suggest there’s still a debate over the science.  There is not.  The talking heads on cable news suggest public opinion is hopelessly deadlocked.  It is not.  Seven in ten Americans say global warming is a serious problem.  Seven in ten say the federal government should limit pollution from our power plants.  And of all the issues in a recent poll asking Americans where we think we can make a difference, protecting the environment came out on top.  (Applause.) 

So we’ve got public opinion potentially on our side.  We can do this.  We can make a difference.  You can make a difference.  And the sooner you do, the better — not just for our climate, but for our economy.  There’s a reason that more than 700 businesses like Apple and Microsoft, and GM and Nike, Intel, Starbucks have declared that “tackling climate change is one of America’s greatest economic opportunities in the 21st century.”  The country that seizes this opportunity first will lead the way.  A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine for growth and jobs for decades to come, and I want America to build that engine.  Because if we do, others will follow.  I want those jobs; I want those opportunities; I want those businesses right here in the United States of America.  (Applause.)

Developing countries are using more and more energy, and tens of millions of people are entering the global middle class, and they want to buy cars and refrigerators.  So if we don’t deal with this problem soon, we’re going to be overwhelmed.  These nations have some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution.  They’re going to have to take action to meet this challenge.  They’re more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are.  They’ve got even more to lose.  But they’re waiting to see what does America do.  That’s what the world does.  It waits to watch us act.  And when we do, they move.  And I’m convinced that on this issue, when America proves what’s possible, then they’re going to join us.

And America cannot meet this threat alone.  Of course, the world cannot meet it without America.  This is a fight that America must lead.  So I’m going to keep doing my part for as long as I hold this office and as long as I’m a citizen once out of office.  But we’re going to need you, the next generation, to finish the job.

We need scientists to design new fuels.  We need farmers to help grow them.  We need engineers to invent new technologies.  We need entrepreneurs to sell those technologies.  (Applause.)  We need workers to operate assembly lines that hum with high-tech, zero-carbon components.  We need builders to hammer into place the foundations for a clean energy age.  We need diplomats and businessmen and women, and Peace Corps volunteers to help developing nations skip past the dirty phase of development and transition to sustainable sources of energy.

In other words, we need you.  (Applause.)  We need you.  And if you believe, like I do, that something has to be done on this, then you’re going to have to speak out.  You’re going to have to learn more about these issues.  Even if you’re not like Jessica and an expert, you’re going to have to work on this.  You’re going to have to push those of us in power to do what this American moment demands.  You’ve got to educate your classmates, and colleagues, and family members and fellow citizens, and tell them what’s at stake.  You’ve got to push back against the misinformation, and speak out for facts, and organize others around your vision for the future. 

You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.  And you’ve got to remind everyone who represents you, at every level of government, that doing something about climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.

It’s no accident that when President Kennedy needed to convince the nation that sending Americans into space was a worthy goal, he went to a university.  That’s where he started.  Because a challenge as big as that, as costly as that, as difficult as that, requires a spirit of youth.  It requires a spirit of adventure; a willingness to take risks.  It requires optimism.  It requires hope.  That day, a man told us we’d go to the moon within a decade.  And despite all the naysayers, somehow we knew as a nation that we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet that goal.

That’s because we’re Americans — and that’s what we do.  Even when our political system is consumed by small things, we are a people called to do big things.  And progress on climate change is a big thing.  Progress won’t always be flashy; it will be measured in disasters averted, and lives saved, and a planet preserved — and days just like this one, 20 years from now, and 50 years from now, and 100 years from now.  But can you imagine a more worthy goal — a more worthy legacy — than protecting the world we leave to our children? 

So I ask your generation to help leave us that legacy.  I ask you to believe in yourselves and in one another, and above all, when life gets you down or somebody tells you you can’t do something, to believe in something better.

There are people here who know what it means to dream.  When Mohamad Abedi was a boy, the suffering he saw in refugee camps in Lebanon didn’t drive him into despair — it inspired him to become a doctor.  And when he came to America, he discovered a passion for engineering.  So here, at UC Irvine, he became a biomedical engineer to study the human brain.  (Applause.)  And Mohamad said, “Had I never come to the United States, I would have never had the ability to do the work that I’m doing.”  He’s now going to CalTech to keep doing that work.

Cinthia Flores is the daughter of a single mom who worked as a seamstress and a housekeeper.  (Applause.)  The first in her family to graduate from high school.  The first in her family to graduate from college.  And in college, she says, “I learned about myself that I was good at advocating for others, and that I was argumentative — so maybe I should go to law school.”  And, today, Cinthia is now the first in her family to graduate from law school.  And she plans to advocate for the rights of workers like her mom.  (Applause.)  She says, “I have the great privilege and opportunity to answer the call of my community.”  “The bottom line,” she says, “is being of service.”

On 9/11, Aaron Anderson was a sophomore in college.  Several months later, he was in training for Army Special Forces.  He fought in Afghanistan, and on February 28th, 2006, he was nearly killed by an IED.  He endured dozens of surgeries to save his legs, months of recovery at Walter Reed.  When he couldn’t physically return to active duty, he devoted his time to his brothers in arms, starting two businesses with fellow veterans, and a foundation to help fellow wounded Green Beret soldiers.  And then he went back to school.  And last December, he graduated summa cum laude from UC Irvine.  And Aaron is here today, along with four soon-to-be commissioned ROTC cadets, and 65 other graduating veterans.  And I would ask them to stand and be recognized for their service.  (Applause.) 

The point is, you know how to dream.  And you know how to work for your dreams.  And, yes, sometimes you may be “super underrated.”  But usually it’s the underrated, the underdogs, the dreamers, the idealists, the fighters, the argumentative — those are the folks who do the biggest things. 

And this generation — this 9/11 generation of soldiers; this new generation of scientists and advocates and entrepreneurs and altruists — you’re the antidote to cynicism.  It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get down sometimes.  You will.  You’ll know disillusionment.  You’ll experience doubt.  People will disappoint you by their actions.  But that can’t discourage you.

Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space.  Cynicism is a choice.  Hope is a better choice.  (Applause.)

Hope is what gave young soldiers the courage to storm a beach and liberate people they never met.

Hope is what gave young students the strength to sit in and stand up and march for women’s rights, and civil rights, and voting rights, and gay rights, and immigration rights. 

Hope is the belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that there are better days ahead, and that together we can build up a middle class, and reshape our immigration system, and shield our children from gun violence, and shelter future generations from the ravages of climate change.

Hope is the fact that, today, the single largest age group in America is 22 years old who are all just itching to reshape this country and reshape the world.  And I cannot wait to see what you do tomorrow.

Congratulations.  (Applause.)  Thank you, Class of 2014.   God bless you.  God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)


“When push comes to shove:” When is that, anyway?

June 10, 2014

 

“Teddy Roosevelt loved to be in the middle of a fight. Not every President does. It’s partly a temperamental thing.”

- Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin

illustration by Victor Juhasz

illustration by Victor Juhasz

In his interview with Thomas Friedman in the final episode of Years of Living Dangerously President Obama is pensive — reasonable to the point of distraction:

“Science is science,….Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy.”

“…[W]e have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon.

“We have got to meet folks where they are… I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away. What we’ve tried to do is continually find ways in which we can make progress.”

Friedman tries to goad the President: “Do you ever want to just go off on the climate deniers in Congress?”

But No Drama’s dander will not get up.

“Yeah, absolutely,” the president said with a laugh. “Look, it’s frustrating when the science is in front of us. … We can argue about how. But let’s not argue about what’s going on…”

He sides with the truth, but there is little sense of consequence for being on the other side.

The interview concludes with Friedman asking the President about cynicism – the dangerous gap between the scale and scope of the climate crisis and the scale and scope of our confidence in our own capacity to mobilize for solutions. “That may be the biggest threat,” says Friedman.  The President agreed,

“The most important thing is to guard against cynicism.  I want to make sure that everybody who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that, well, we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s a lot we can do about it. It’s not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we like, but, if we are persistent, we will make progress.”

Cynicism may well be the greatest threat, and opponents of climate action are busy feeding it. If it takes a national culture of futility and lack of faith in democratic institutions to keep us strung out on fossil fuels, well, business is business.

This is where we need a president to show, not tell. We have just watched a documentary that graphically depicts the devastating physical and human consequences of climate disruption, including the looming displacement of tens of millions of people in Bangladesh. The President is right to worry that we might be feeling somewhat discouraged about the prospects at this moment. But what does he offer to rally us?

“There’s a lot we can do about it”? “If we are persistent, we will make progress”?

Where’s the heat? Where’s the finger in the sternum of the opposition? Where’s the determination to overcome (or at least name) what’s really standing between us and solutions – the concentrated economic and political power of the fossil fuel industry? Where’s the bigness? Where’s the fight?

The President concludes:

“When push comes to shove, we respond.”

How much further does push have to go before it encounters shove? How much more climate catastrophe do we have to bear? How much more aggressively do the fossil fuel industries have to pollute our democracy, attack reason, and undermine solutions?

And how can we ward off cynicism without a muscular, inspiring, aggressive national response – something big and bold to believe in and a president who will fight for it?

Here’s to showing more of what that might look like in the second season of Years of Living Dangerously ….and in the second half of the President’s second term.

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Re presidential leadership and the big bold national mobilization for climate solutions we need, this Robert Kuttner essay in American Prospect is worth a read:

The Hidden History of Prosperity

 

 

 

 


Back off, cahbon!

June 2, 2014

Climate policy question #1 is simple: Will we put responsible limits on the largest sources of climate pollution?  Until we say yes to that question, it’s kind of hard to take ourselves seriously.back off 2

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped up to answer that question by proposing new rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants.

The draft rules are not very aggressive but historically significant.  (See 8 Things You Should Know About The Biggest Thing A President’s Ever Done On Climate Change).  They would reduce power sector emissions 30% by 2030.  In the Northwest, we should be coal-free by then, and closing in on 90% emission reductions.  But with these rules, the US of A is finally showing up in a big way for the climate fight.  It’s hard to overstate how critically important and overdue this day is.

And EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s speech announcing the draft rules just plain rocked.  Here it is:

Administrator McCarthy, Remarks Announcing Clean Power Plan, As Prepared

About a month ago, I took a trip to the Cleveland Clinic. I met a lot of great people, but one stood out—even if he needed to stand on a chair to do it. Parker Frey is 10 years old. He’s struggled with severe asthma all his life. His mom said despite his challenges, Parker’s a tough, active kid—and a stellar hockey player.

But sometimes, she says, the air is too dangerous for him to play outside. In the United States of America, no parent should ever have that worry.

That’s why EPA exists. Our job, directed by our laws, reaffirmed by our courts, is to protect public health and the environment. Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks not just to our health, but to our communities, our economy, and our way of life. That’s why EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

I want to thank Janet McCabe, our Acting Assistant Administrator at the Office of Air and Radiation, and the entire EPA team who worked so hard to deliver this proposal. They should be very proud of their work; I know I am.

Today, EPA is proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut carbon pollution from our power sector, by using cleaner energy sources, and cutting energy waste.

Although we limit pollutants like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source. For the sake of our families’ health and our kids’ future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate. When we do, we’ll turn climate risk into business opportunity, we’ll spur innovation and investment, and we’ll build a world-leading clean energy economy.

The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction keep piling up.
Rising temperatures bring more smog, more asthma, and longer allergy seasons. If your kid doesn’t use an inhaler, consider yourself a lucky parent, because 1 in 10 children in the U.S. suffers from asthma. Carbon pollution from power plants comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, putting our families at even more risk.

Climate inaction is costing us more money, in more places, more often. 2012 was the second most expensive year in U.S. history for natural disasters. Even the largest sectors of our economy buckle under the pressures of a changing climate, and when they give way, so do businesses that support them, and local economics that depend on them.

As our seas rise, so do insurance premiums, property taxes, and food prices. If we do nothing, in our grandkids’ lifetimes, temperatures could rise 10 degrees and seas could rise 4 feet. The S&P recently said climate change will continue to affect credit risk worldwide.

This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps. This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs.

The time to act is now. That’s why President Obama laid out a Climate Action Plan—to cut carbon pollution, build a more resilient nation, and lead the world in our global climate fight.

Today’s proposed Clean Power Plan is a critical step forward. Before we put pen to paper, we asked for your advice. Our plan was built on that advice—from states, cities, businesses, utilities, and thousands of people. Today kicks off our second phase of crucial engagement.

Shaped by public input, present trends, proven technologies, and common sense, our Plan aims to cut energy waste and leverage cleaner energy sources by doing two things: First, setting achievable, enforceable state goals to cut carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity generated. And second, laying out a national framework that gives states the flexibility to chart their own, customized path to meet their goals.

All told, in 2030 when states meet their goals, our proposal will result in 30 percent less carbon pollution from the power sector across the U.S. when compared with 2005 levels. That’s like cancelling out annual carbon pollution from two thirds of all cars and trucks in America. And if you add up what we’ll avoid between now and 2030—it’s more than double the carbon pollution from every power plant in America in 2012.

As a bonus, in 2030 we’ll cut pollution that causes smog and soot 25 percent more than if we didn’t have this plan in place. The first year that these standards go into effect, we’ll avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks—and those numbers go up from there.

That means lower medical bills and fewer trips to the emergency room, especially for those most vulnerable like our children, our elderly, and our infirmed. This is about environmental justice, too, because lower income families, and communities of color are hardest hit.

Now let me get into the details of our proposal.

This plan is all about flexibility. That’s what makes it ambitious, but achievable. That’s how we can keep our energy affordable and reliable. The glue that holds this plan together, and the key to making it work, is that each state’s goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever way works best for them.

First, to craft state goals, we looked at where states are today, and we followed where they’re going. Each state is different, so each goal, and each path, can be different.

Second, the goals spring from smart and sensible opportunities that states and businesses are taking advantage of right now. From plant to plug.

Let me tell you about the kinds of opportunities I’m talking about:  We know that coal and natural gas play a significant role in a diverse national energy mix. This Plan does not change that—it recognizes the opportunity to modernize aging plants, increase efficiency, and lower pollution. That’s part of an all-of-the-above strategy that paves a more certain path for conventional fuels in a carbon constrained world.

States also have the opportunity to shift their reliance to more efficient, less polluting plants. Or, instead of low carbon sources, there’s always the opportunity to shift to “no” carbon sources like nuclear, wind, and solar. Since 2009, wind energy in America has tripled and solar has grown ten-fold.

Our nuclear fleet continues to supply zero carbon baseload power. Homegrown clean energy is posting record revenues and creating jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.

Those are all opportunities at plants, but what about at the plug? Existing technologies can squeeze the most out of every electron, helping us use electricity more efficiently in our homes and businesses.

More efficiency means we need less electricity to cool our refrigerators or charge our phones. For the fuel we burn, let’s get the most bang for our buck.

All of these options are not new ideas. They’re based on proven technologies, proven approaches, and are part of the ongoing story of energy progress in America. Our plan doesn’t prescribe—it propels that progress already underway.

And like I said, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. States can pick from a portfolio of options to meet regional, state, and community needs—from ones I mentioned, or the many more I didn’t, and in any combination. It’s up to states to mix and match to get to their goal.

If states don’t want to go it alone, they can join up with a multi-state market based program, or make new ones. More players mean more flexibility and lower costs. States have flexibility not just in means and method, but in timeline, too. Under our proposal, states have to design plans now, and start reducing so they’re on a trajectory to meet their final goals in 2030. That kind of flexibility means a smooth transition to cleaner power that doesn’t leave investments behind.

The flexibility of our Clean Power Plan affords states the choices that lead them to a healthier future: Choices that level the playing field, and keep options on the table, not off. Choices that reflect where we are today, and look to seize opportunities for tomorrow. Choices that are focused on building up, not shutting down, so we can raise the common denominator for a cleaner, low carbon economy that’ll fuel growth for decades to come.

What’s special about the flexibility of our plan is that it doesn’t just give states more options—it gives entrepreneurs and investors more options, too. It’ll deliver the certainty that will unleash market forces that drive even more innovation and investment, and spur even cleaner power and all sorts of new low-carbon technologies. Our plan pulls private investment off the shelves and into our clean energy revolution, and sends it in every direction, not just one or two. The opportunities are tremendous.

The good news is states, cities, and businesses have already blazed the trail. Our clean energy revolution is unfolding in front of us. Just in the past few weeks, I went to Salt Lake City, where the mayor and utilities are teaming up on efficiency. I went to St. Paul, where a science center is recycling energy waste, saving money and teaching kids what we adults are just learning. I’ve seen fortune 500 companies revamp strategies to lower business risk by meeting the demands of a carbon constrained future.

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it’s the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

EPA has had a longstanding partnership with states to protect public health. We set goals, and states are in the driver’s seat to meet them. So releasing the Clean Power Plan shifts the conversation to states. If you’re a teacher, scientist, mechanic, business person—or just someone with a good idea—share your thoughts with your state leaders. Help them see how they can build a plan that will better our future.

I know people are wondering: can we cut pollution while keeping our energy affordable and reliable? We can, and we will. Critics claim your energy bills will skyrocket. They’re wrong. Any small, short-term change in electricity prices would be within normal fluctuations the power sector already deals with. And any small price increase—think about the price of a gallon of milk a month—is dwarfed by huge benefits. This is an investment in better health and a better future for our kids.

In 2030, the Clean Power Plan will deliver climate and health benefits of up to $90 billion dollars. And for soot and smog reductions alone, that means for every dollar we invest in the plan, families will see $7 dollars in health benefits. And if states are smart about taking advantage of efficiency opportunities, and I know they are, when the effects of this plan are in place in 2030, average electricity bills will be 8 percent cheaper.
This plan is a down payment on a more efficient, 21st century power system that cuts energy waste, cuts pollution, and cuts costs. It’s a proven path—a lot of states have been doing it for years. Think about it like this: we set historic fuel efficiency standards that will double the distance our cars go on a gallon of gas. That means you fill up less often, and save more money. Efficiency is a win for our planet and our pocketbooks. And given the astronomical price we pay for climate inaction, the most costly thing we can do; is to do nothing.

The critics are wrong about reliability, too. For decades, power plants have met pollution limits without risking reliability. If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

Despite all that, there are still special interest skeptics who will cry the sky is falling. Who will deliberately ignore the risks, overestimate the costs, and undervalue the benefits. But the facts are clear. For over four decades, EPA has cut air pollution by 70 percent and the economy has more than tripled. All while providing the power we need to keep America strong. Climate action doesn’t dull

America’s competitive edge—it sharpens it. It spurs ingenuity, innovation, and investment. In 2011, we exported almost 33 percent more cars than we did in 2009—a clear sign of a competitive industry. And our fuel efficiency standards strengthen that.

Companies like Best Buy are investing in low-carbon operations. Bank of America pays its employees to cut carbon pollution, because investors see climate risk as business opportunity. Any business will tell you eliminating waste means more money for other things, like hiring employees. Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles—it’s all hands on deck.

And even without national standards, the energy sector sees the writing on the wall. Businesses like Spectra Energy are investing billions in clean energy. And utilities like Exelon and Entergy are weaving climate considerations into business plans. All this means more jobs, not less. We’ll need thousands of American workers, in construction, transmission, and more, to make cleaner power a reality.

The bottom line is: we have never—nor will we ever—have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

There’s a reason empty allegations from critics sound like a broken record. It’s the same tired play from the same special-interest playbook they’ve used for decades. In the 60’s, when smog choked our cities, critics cried wolf and said EPA action would put the brakes on auto production. They were wrong.

Instead, our air got cleaner, our kids got healthier—and we sold more cars. In the 90’s, critics cried wolf and said fighting acid rain would make electricity bills go up and our lights go out. They said industry would, quote, “die a quiet death.” Wrong again. Industry is alive and well, our lights are still on, and we’ve dramatically reduced acid rain. Time after time, when science pointed to health risks, special interests cried wolf to protect their own agenda. And time after time, we followed the science, protected the American people, and the doomsday predictions never came true.

Now, climate change is calling our number. And right on cue, those same critics once will flaunt manufactured facts and scare-tactics, standing in our way of our right to breathe clean air, to keep our communities safe, and to meet our moral duty as stewards of our natural resources. Their claims that the science-driven action that’s protected families for generations would somehow harm us flies in the face of history, and shows a lack of faith in American ingenuity and entrepreneurship.

I don’t accept that premise. We can lead this fight. We can innovate our way to a better future. It’s what America does best. Yes, our climate crisis is a global problem that demands a global solution, and there’s no Hail Mary play we can call to reverse its effects. But we can act today to advance the ball and limit the dangers of punting the problem to our kids.

It’s no accident that our proposal is a key piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan—and key to American leadership in our global climate fight. Although there’s still much work to do to get carbon pollution down to safe levels, I’m hopeful when I see the progress we’ve made. I’m hopeful because I see the pattern of perseverance that defines America.

From the light bulb to the locomotive; from photovoltaic cells to cellphones, America has always turned small steps into giant leaps. We’ve cured diseases, we’ve explored the stars, we’ve connected corners of the globe with the click of a mouse, because when critics say it can’t be done, we say—watch us.

That’s what America is made of. We don’t settle. We lead. And that’s how we’ll confront our climate crisis.

When it comes to our Plan, we may not agree on details of how we do it, but we agree on why we do it. When our kids ask us if we did everything we could to leave them a safer, cleaner world, we want to say, yes, we did. When we think of our children—kids like Parker from Cleveland, Ohio—it’s easy to see why we’re compelled to act.

As governors and mayors, as CEOs and school teachers, and most of all, as parents, we have a moral obligation to ensure the world we leave behind is as safe, healthy, and vibrant as the one we inherited. Our Clean Power Plan is a huge step toward delivering on that promise.

Thank you very much.


Freidman for Freedom: But from what?

May 25, 2014

Tom Friedman’s Memorial Day 2050 column is worth a look, starting with the terrific quote from Washington Governor Jay Inslee,

We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.freedom is not free

Friedman rallies us to urgency and resolve, with the hope that we might yet earn the gratitude of future generations in Memorial Days to come.  He frames the fight for climate action as “our generation’s freedom struggle.”

What containment was for our parents’ generation — their strategy to fight for freedom against the biggest threat of their day — resiliency will be for our generation against the multiple threats of our day:  climate change, petro-dictatorship and destruction of our environment and biodiversity.

But “resiliency” against “multiple threats” is too fuzzy to spark a real fight for freedom.  We need to be more specific and focused about what we’re up against.  The biggest threat to our freedom — the biggest obstacle to climate solutions — is Big Fossil’s stranglehold on our democracy.

You can choose to see the fossil fuel industry as a conscious, ruthless tyrant.  Their unconscionable distortion of climate reality and their aggressive manipulation of our political system support that view.  Or you can see them as caught in a bad system – a business model that, it turns out, requires and has already banked on burning 3 to 5 times more carbon than the atmosphere can handle.  (Or you can try to reconcile the two.  See, uproariously, “…and the horse you rode in on”)

But the practical result is the same.  What’s holding us back, with its boot squarely on our grandkids’ necks, is the concentrated economic and political power of the fossil fuel industry. If we mean to fight for and win our freedom, it’s not enough to say, as Friedman does, that “the worst enemies of freedom on the planet” are “the world’s petrodictators.”

No.  The biggest threat to our freedom – the biggest obstacle to the clean energy solutions we know are possibleisn’t “the world’s” oil-funded tyrants.  It’s the fossil fuel industry, and its stranglehold on our democracy.


Divest. Separate. Win.

May 12, 2014

Go Fossil Free took a big leap forward last week as Stanford University announced that it will purge coal stocks from its endowment portfolio. And Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, in a commencement address at Amherst, set his sights on a “future free of fossil fuels.”

Divestment is more than a tactic in the climate battle. In a broad sense, it’s the whole game. Because what’s holding us back is our own money and power, turned against us. Our buildings and vehicles and 401ks siphon our money to our opposition and sap our will for change. We’re too invested in dependence on fossil fuels.breaking free

Of course the “real” solutions – the most important things we need to do – are the policy changes that will drive a clean energy revolution: steadily improving performance standards for energy production and use, clean energy R,D&D, and a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure investments that “lock in” dangerous emission levels. Above all, we need a commitment to do the whole job: responsible limits on climate pollution, and carbon prices that tell the truth about carbon costs.

We haven’t won enough of those policy changes yet because we’ve been stymied by the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel industries. And why do they have so much power? Because they’ve stolen ours, and they keep stealing it. The money they use to pay for climate science denial and opposition to climate policy is our money.

The fossil fuel industry does not have enough money or power by itself to stop climate solutions. It only wins by continuously arrogating our power and using it against us.

We buy and burn their product. We need their stuff to chill our beer, light our homes, and get from point A to point B, because they have systematically blocked the path to better alternatives. Our retirement savings are their capital pools, and only now are fossil-free investment vehicles beginning to emerge. We feed the beast because it’s hard not to, …because the beast feeds us.

This puts us in a compromised, confused, and ineffectual position when it comes time to break free. Harvard University President Drew Faust elucidated that position in her statement rejecting fossil fuel divestment.

“I find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.”

Even as we resist the power of fossil fuels over our future, we underwrite it. We hesitate to fully commit ourselves to the fight because we are in some sense on the other side.

And wait, the circle gets even more vicious. We know we feed the problem, so we feel implicated. The cycle of involuntary complicity is locked in place with psychological cement: guilt. Zadie Smith explains in “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons”:

“I don’t think we have made matters of science into questions of belief out of sheer stupidity. Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised. Of course, on the part of our leaders much of the politicization is cynical bad faith, and economically motivated, but down here on the ground, the desire for innocence is what’s driving us…

For both ‘sides’ are full of guilt, full of self-disgust…and we project it outward. This is what fuels the petty fury of our debates, even in the midst of crisis.

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 the ultimate stranglehold, the perfect heist of our power. Instead of anger, we harbor regret. Instead of resolve, we exhibit futility. Instead of engaging, we evade. Instead of hope, we feel shame.

To turn this power-sucking cycle around, we need to divest. We need to take our money and our power back. We need to separate ourselves from what’s holding us back, so we can move on.

As a power-building strategy, divestment is particularly efficient, because it takes back power that we currently give away. It’s a two-fer: we get more and our opponents get less. And, crucially, we start to build the power that comes from getting clearer about which side we’re on.

Selling off our equity stake in the most egregious perpetrators of the climate crisis is a terrific way to start separating our own will, our intention, and our money from the problem. And since the fossil fuel industry wages war on truth in order to preserve our dependence, our institutions of higher education — which exist to serve truth — are the perfect place to begin divesting.

FAQs

If we divest our portfolios, don’t we have to divest our energy supplies right away too? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical to drive to the store in an oil-powered vehicle?

No, for Heaven’s sake, lighten up!  We start from where we are.  Every time we take a little of our money and power back, we make it a little more possible to get the rest. We move forward.   (But we draw a bright line against new, long-lived capital infrastructure investments that make the problem intractable. Like Keystone XL.)

President Faust’s “troubling inconsistency” is exactly the point of divestment.   The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions. Divestment presents a specific opportunity to reverse that commitment, to take some of our money back.   Should we decline to do that because we are not yet in a position to take ALL of it back immediately? We’ll never get anywhere that way!

Should we feel guilty about our continuing complicity in the climate crisis in the meantime?

Feel whatever makes you most determined to stand up and fight for solutions. Maybe for some people that’s guilt. Not me; as the son of a Jewish mom, guilt just turns me into an adolescent. I pout and withdraw.

Personally, I’ll take freedom. I don’t beat myself to a pulp with recrimination every time I fill up at a gas station. But mostly I get around just fine on my bike and on transit. And I’ve got a 2-year lease on a Nissan Leaf, which I fill up with carbon-free Seattle City Light electricity. Now, I go to the gas station, fill up my tires, clean my windshield….and Leaf!

Do I feel smug about that? Righteous?

Not a bit. I still consume way more fossil fuel than the average human can if we’re going to have a future. I feel trapped and implicated and pissed because most of the practical, available, affordable technology and lifestyle choices still require too much fossil fuel.

But steadily, I’m finding more ways to shake free — fewer trips to the gas station, less carbon in my power supply, more ways to get the grip of climate-destroying fossil fuels off me, off my grandkids’ future.

And when I divested my 401k from fossil fuels, I stood up a little straighter, saw a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t affect fossil fuel stock values. But it deprived the coal and oil industries of some part of one person’s ambivalence and confusion and demoralization.

Am I saying that because I want you to feel bad if you haven’t done any of those things yet?

No. I just want to tell you how good it feels when you do. I notice a strong correlation between my divestment from the problem and my sense that we might win solutions. It builds mojo.

Yes, but that’s “just symbolic,” right? Isn’t divestment kind of a distraction when we should be devoting all of our finite resources to winning a comprehensive climate policy?

The road to big policy solutions is blocked. We’re having trouble clearing it in part because we’re standing in it ourselves. Map the power:

Why don’t we have a comprehensive climate policy now? Because the fossil fuel industry has too much power.

Why? Because they stole our power.

How? By blocking solutions so that every time we try to break free, we end up chasing our tails about “troubling inconsistencies.”

What will happen when we propose a cap and a price on carbon? Big Fossil will attack it with a $ zillion ad buy accusing us of raising gas prices, punishing poor people, stealing jobs. And it will work because we are stuck in a cycle of “pervasive dependence” on fossil fuels. Pricing carbon is too easily portrayed as blaming and penalizing us for living our lives.

How will we position ourselves to prevail in the face of that? By asserting our freedom, taking our money and power back. By establishing that the only way to avoid being the victim of high fossil fuel costs is to break free of them, and that carbon pricing is a vital part of how we cut the chains. The point isn’t to pay more for fossil fuels. It’s to pay — and need them — less. As the Metro Bus ads in Seattle say: Gas is cheap when you don’t use it.

For now though, they own us in part because we own them.

Hence, today, divest.

 


The “Inevitability” Trap

May 7, 2014

Paul Loeb has updated his terrific book:  The Impossible Will Take a Little While:  Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times.

I was honored to have a short essay in the original version, and sobered by how little updating it needed for the new version!

Paul includes the essay in his new post on Huffpo, here.  It’s a broadside against “inevitability,” a foot in the face of fatalism.Inev 2

Yes, I know there’s already a lot of hurt in the pipeline, climate-wise.  But the difference between what happens if we fold and what happens if we fight and win the clean energy revolution, is, well, all the difference.

We’ve just begun to get real about climate solutions.  The only way to find out if something’s inevitable is to fight like hell to change it.  Until then, “inevitability” is just a weak guess, a lame excuse, a gimme for the perpetrators.

________________________________________________________________

Here’s the piece:

The Inevitability Trap
By K.C. Golden

It’s time to rally around an embattled concept: free will.

Having aligned myself against a battalion of seemingly irresistible forces over the years, I’ve become a student of “inevitability.” How do environmentally destructive choices become inevitable? Near as I can tell, it starts when the people who will benefit from these choices simply begin to assert their inevitability. We’re especially receptive to inevitability right now. We’re comforted by the notion that amid all the uncertainty and confusion, from the economy to climate disruption — some larger forces are at work toward pre-determined outcomes. We’re sort of relieved to hear that something’s inevitable, even if it’s not necessarily something we like. It clarifies things. It’s more pragmatic to be resigned to the inevitable than to chart a new course through the chaos. Plus, it spares us the disappointment of pinning false hopes on dysfunctional democratic institutions–or working to change them. So the myth of inevitability spreads and the prophecy fulfills itself. If the proponents of a particular course can get a critical mass of folks to believe that it’s a foregone conclusion, pretty soon it will be.

Those who assert that conservation and renewables will never replace fossil fuels are using the only strategy available to them. They propound the myth of inevitability because they know that few of us would actually choose more waste, and eternal dependence on coal, oil, and gas extracted in ever-more risky and destructive ways. Having little chance of convincing people that these outcomes are desirable, they tell us we have no choice in the matter.

Think about the arguments that have blocked serious U.S. action on climate change. First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Now maybe it is human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway–never mind the American corporations whose manufacturing facilities get counted in their carbon impact. So we might as well shovel and ship their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. Responsibility is no one’s. Resistance is futile.

But inevitably we do have choices to make. Failing to make them consciously isn’t failing to make them at all; it’s just falling for the inevitability trap. It’s just giving ourselves an excuse for allowing the wrong choices to be made, and a feeble excuse at that. Among all the reasons for continuing to choose the path of evading responsibility for climate disruption, I think the least satisfying, the least noble, the hardest one to forgive ourselves for is: “It wasn’t up to me.”

Well, it’s up to somebody. Who’s it gonna be?

 

 


Denial on trial in Years part 3

April 28, 2014

For the record, I chose the title for this post BEFORE Rep. Grimm was indicted on fraud charges

Did the producers of the Showtime docu-series Years of Living Dangerously have to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement before airing their show? They should have, because it’s profoundly disruptive to the ecosystem of climate denial.

The third episode aired last night, featuring mind-bogglingly frank discussion of the political cowardice that plays such a vital role in the health of the denial ecosystem.

Much of the episode centers around the heartbreaking experience of Pat Dresch, a constituent of Representative Michael Grimm, who lost her husband and daughter in Superstorm Sandy. Grimm shows tremendous compassion for Dresch and a fierce resolve to expedite federal disaster relief, even when it means battling his Republican colleagues in Congress.

Grimm undergoes something of a conversion experience on the facts of climate disruption, after a riveting on-air conversation with former Congressman Bob Inglis. Inglis, a staunch conservative, lost his seat to a Tea Party candidate in the Republican primary for acknowledging the reality of climate disruption.

Yet after all that – the immense human suffering, the remarkably honest conversation with Inglis – Grimm steadfastly resists the idea that he should do something about it.

“There’s no oxygen in left in the room in Washington for another big debate,” he says.

“Political constraints are real.” (Inglis came out for climate action, and look what happened to him.)

“Washington is not real life. You’re talking the substance and the science… Irrelevant. Irrelevant!”

None of this is news. It was already clear that climate science denial in Congress is just cynical politics. Thinking Republicans avoid the subject like the plague, because they don’t like either of what they perceive to be their choices: talk like an ignorant science-denier, or face a bitter primary fight with a fossil-fuel backed Tea Party challenger (see Heads in the Sand.)

But last night, in living color, the backstory of politically-motivated climate science denial was the front story. You would like to think these things can’t survive the daylight. Denial is a nocturnal thing.

Yet Grimm remains resigned to the “political constraints” that prevent climate action. He will offer up more of his constituents to the harsh fate of still-preventable superstorms, rather than risk the political wrath of Big Fossil. He will fight for disaster relief again, but not for solutions, not for prevention.

The genius of the show was it allowed you to be furious at Grimm, and yet also to sympathize with him for seeming small, overwhelmed, caught in a political system that keeps him on the wrong side of history. The contrast between Grimm’s earnest passion for helping the victims and his lame excuses for Congressional inaction becomes excruciating to witness.

Finally, in his parting gesture of futility, Grimm says,

“I don’t think that humans in America, Americans, have the will to do it [tackle the climate challenge].”

We don’t know that yet. All we know for sure is that the fossil fuel industry has the will to stop us from finding out.  A lot of “humans in America” are still searching for the kind of leadership that will stand up for us and defend our kids’ future. The political market for such leadership remains largely untested.


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…”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 

[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!


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?


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