How real is “political reality”?

April 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bold action is urgently needed.

Solutions are available and affordable.

We know what we have to do to unleash them.

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


Very, Very, Veritas: Harvard faculty call for divestment

April 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?


Dispatches from the clean energy revolution

March 16, 2014

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

But the revolution is clearly underway.  4 recent items:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the letter here.


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.


“The Petro States of America” in Businessweek

February 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Get old. Get free. Get over oil.

February 18, 2014

I’m going to burn my driver’s license when I turn 75.  Maybe sooner.  I’d like to do it at the offices of Koch Enterprises, if I can get a ride home.

You may think this is a choice to sacrifice some freedom.  But it’s the opposite:  a declaration of independence from the tyranny of oil.Old guy on a bike

So I have twenty years – plenty of time – to build the family and community ties and the physical infrastructure for a car-free life.  Having made this pledge, I’m much more committed to mixed-use development, transit investment, and babysitting my prospective grandkids so someone will feel obliged to give me rides when I need them.   I’ll be safer, and so will everyone else, when I’m not travelling a mile a minute in 2-ton projectile when I can barely see.   If there’s a minimum age for a driver’s license, why not a maximum?

Contrary to everything we fear about what happens when older folks give up driving, I’ll be freer.  I won’t be physically strapped to a small power plant in rapid motion among many.  I won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to buy, insure, and maintain the beast.  I won’t have to sit in traffic, spewing carbon and going nowhere, while the bikers whiz past me.  I won’t have to pay through the nose to park it… that’s right, just to temporarily get out of the damned thing.

And best of all, I will not have to pull up to the gas pump and open my wallet so the Koch Brothers and Rex Tillerson and the US Chamber of Commerce can vacuum it clean.  I won’t have to take my little share of my community’s wealth and shoot it to the tippy-top of the economic pyramid.  I won’t have my money used to pay for false science and political campaigns to elect climate deniers and marketing strategies that equate fossil fuel extraction with happiness and health.

I grew up in LA in the sixties and seventies.  Cars were freedom.  Cars were status.  Cars were sex.  So I get why we like (I need) cars:  Madison Ave. spent jillions cementing a linear relationship between our self-esteem and the horsepower under our hoods.  And the oilgarchs worked hard to make sure we radically underinvested in transit and built our communities around cars, so that even if we could shake our egos free, we couldn’t get anywhere without strengthening their hold on wealth and power.  Even now, cops are carpeting downtown LA with jaywalking tickets, lest the humans, who are resettling downtown Autotopia like an invasive species, impinge on car habitat.

But the gig’s up now, or it certainly will be by the time I’m 75.  Transit and ridesharing and bike infrastructure and healthy mixed-use local communities are delivering better mobility service at lower cost.  Alan Durning, who wrote “The Year of Living Carlessly” just seven years ago, told me recently “I couldn’t write that now.  People would say, ‘So what?’”

Even where cars are still necessary, they’re more and more a necessary evil, not a gift.  And if you need one after seventy-five, when your vision sucks and your reflexes are slow and you need a bathroom all the time, well, that just can’t be freedom.

Maybe one can only say this from a bubble like Seattle.   But I think this transition is gaining momentum almost everywhere.  We’ve seen enough glimpses of better ideas to confirm what should be obvious:  lashing ourselves to a big steel crate impelled by oil, the payments for which are used to trample democracy and brutalize our grandkids, can’t be the best – the smartest, the healthiest, the most elegant – way to get our decreasingly skinny asses from point A to point B.  And besides, point A would rock much harder if we got out of the damned car more.  As Amory Lovins once quipped, “Personal mobility is a symptom….of being in the wrong place.”

OK, it is possible that I’m trying to turn the tables on the relationship between cars and freedom because I’m so desperately afraid of what we’re doing to the climate.  It’s conceivable that I’m making this all up because I’d like my grandkids to, you know, survive.  I’m ok with that.

At least I’ve convinced myself.  When I have to get in a car in Seattle, I feel like a sucker.  It’s like I’m in a video game and I can hear this nasty honky-buzzy noise that means “You lost, loser!”  Whereas my bike ride to and from work is a consistently delightful part of my day.  “Ding, ding, ding!”

When I give up that driver’s license, I’ll just be burning a one-way ticket to Hell.  I only wish – given how much we keep throwing down a rathole to pave the road there – it were refundable.

Thanks to dear friend-of-all-good-things Martha Wycoff for the idea of a maximum age for a driver’s license.

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Confession:  I’m already hedging.  I just leased a Leaf!  I can’t wait to pull into a gas station, clean my windshield, inflate my tires, and leave.


As the Pipeline Turns: Obama’s inescapable drama

January 28, 2014

“Keystone: A central cohesive source of support and stability; lynchpin; crux; principle” — The Free Dictionary

No one would have written it this way. No one, that is, except a writer.no xl

The Keystone XL decision – a permit for a pipe – turns out to be the moment of truth for the most powerful person in the world, the leader of the nation with the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis and the greatest capacity to deliver solutions. And it arrives at the last hour, or certainly the last Presidency, when we can change course before we become locked in to catastrophic climate disruption.

Thoughtful voices worry that Keystone is the wrong fight, that it’s “only symbolic,” that it has eaten up too much time and attention at the expense of battles that might have delivered more substantive results. They are being too literal-minded. Keystone is a well-chosen pipeline in the sand on climate, and a source of momentum and inspiration for climate action generally.

Part of the power of this battle is that – unlike, say, national climate legislation or ratifying an international treaty – it is the President’s decision alone. One of the toughest nuts to crack on the way to climate solutions is that responsibility is everyone’s, so, as a practical matter, it often ends up being no one’s. Keystone is a focused moment of accountability on the single human with the greatest power to effectuate solutions – the person whose evasion of the challenge would make all other efforts seem pointless.

To his enormous credit, the President put the Keystone decision squarely where it belongs: in the context of the imperative to stop aggravating the climate crisis. Now we will find out whether he has the integrity to do what is right and necessary when the decision is his.

But Keystone isn’t just symbolic – a gratuitous test of Presidential will, or an organizing stunt. The pipeline is an enormous piece of long-lived capital infrastructure that would mainline one of the world’s biggest carbon pools to the world’s hungriest energy markets. It is both a powerful symbol and a honking concrete example of exactly what we must not do if we are to avert climate calamity. As the IEA has repeatedly warned, we cannot keep feeding the climate beast with capital and hope to slay it. An up or down decision on a permit to build this pipeline is an excellent test of whether we got that memo.

This is a bare-naked question of whether the President will observe the most central principle for climate action – the Keystone, as it were, for solutions: Will we stop making it irrevocably worse, now, before it’s too late?

But ultimately, the most important reason Keystone is a (not the) right fight is because we’re having it. And lo and behold, that turns out to be the first condition for winning. We have slipped and slithered and dithered and dodged for well over a quarter century since it became clear that we had a five-alarm fire on our hands. And yet only now, in the context of Keystone XL, is climate emerging as a fight with the level of intensity it deserves, the passion needed to overcome the raw economic power standing between us and solutions.

One may very well be able to make a hypothetical case for why another defining battle would have been better. But that’s just it: this one’s not hypothetical.

The President says we should just all settle down – that both sides of the Keystone battle are overblowing it. But calmness in the face of calamity is part of what’s killing us.

No matter: as much as the President may wish his climate legacy would not be defined by the Keystone XL decision, that’s not his call anymore. It was the climate movement’s.


Spark! Financing energy efficiency with blessed unrest

January 26, 2014

Spark — crowd-financing for community-based energy efficiency projects — is here!

The anti-bodies are kicking in!

When the coal industry desperately tries to stave off its demise by ramming a new supply line through the heart of Cascadia, communities steadfastly resist.

Though the oil/auto/asphalt cabal continues to dominate the politics of public investment in transportation, a better new alternative to driving alone (and paying for tyranny) seems to pop up every day.

And now, instead of playing roulette in the stock market or investing your retirement savings in CDs with returns equivalent to stashing it under the mattress, you can fund local energy efficiency projects.  You can earn decent, safe returns.  You can create jobs.  You can help local schools and businesses.  You can finance climate solutions.  A thousand Sparks of light?  Oh never mind, you get where I’m going.  Go Spark!

I’m not giving up on big transformation through public policy change because a) I don’t know how we get to solutions at scale without it and b) it feels like capitulating to the oilgarchs and c) it would render most of my professional skills obsolete.

But I have to ignore much of the available evidence and political wisdom in order to maintain this posture.  “Hope,” as Frances Moore Lappe said, “is a stance, not a calculation.”   I smoke what I gotta to keep plugging away for sweeping policy change, but in the meantime, it’s the Sparks that keep me standing up.

It’s a hard rain’s gonna fall…..but look what’s growing up in the moisture!


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