Shell and high water: Will Seattle take a stand… or a cut of the Arctic drilling action?

February 19, 2015

Not long ago, Seattle’s business, environmental, labor, education, and multicultural leaders, led by the Chamber of Commerce, crafted a “Shared Regional Vision of Sustainable Prosperity”. The Port embraced this vision, branding itself the Green Gateway, and celebrating its “commitment to be a model of sustainable growth, to seek the greatest environmental benefit from our efforts, to see our sustainable practices as a competitive advantage…”

It’s not just green fluff. The community and the Port are working hard to deliver on these commitments, and prospering because of them.shell and high water

So why, all of a sudden, are we rolling out the green carpet for an Arctic oil drilling fleet?! What the Shell?

You’d think the Emerald City would be the last to bite when Big Oil offers a cut of the deal on a dangerous, climate-destroying Arctic drilling scheme. But the Port swallowed it hook, line, and drilling rig. Port CEO Ted Fick signed a lease last week that would make Seattle the staging area for the most reckless, extreme oil drilling adventure ever.

But, but….what about the likelihood of devastating impacts on the very Arctic ecosystems that President Obama just protected? Not our problem, said Port CEO Ted Fick in his letter rebuffing citizen groups who called for environmental review; such matters “are outside the Port’s authority.” What about the climate chaos that would be unleashed if we don’t leave Arctic oil in the ground, unburned? How does this jibe with Seattle’s commitment to a science-based carbon budget and an ambitious clean energy agenda? Rest assured, says Fick, “The Port remains committed to full compliance with all applicable environmental regulations.” Climate? Not “applicable,” apparently.  It’s a global thing; let the global people deal with it, right?

Is narrow legalistic compliance with “applicable environmental regulations” all we can expect from the Green Gateway?   Is this “shared vision” that’s so central to our culture, our identity, and our economic strategy so easily expendable? When Big Oil throws a few bucks our way, do we just fold?  “Port of Seattle:  Where a Sustainable World is Headed”Kidding!  We’re into Arctic drilling now.

We stand with our friends in labor to deliver on the promise of sustainable, broadly-shared prosperity. We actively support worker protections, good jobs, greater equity, and a just, gradual transition to a healthy clean energy future. We work closely with Seattle businesses to build a successful clean energy economy. And we’re moving in the right direction, toward our shared vision. So now – before we pull a 180, and before Big Oil gets its hooks any deeper into our community – is the time to ask ourselves: Is this the right thing to do? Is it good for working families, the community, our economy, our kids? Will we let Shell bully us into thinking this is the best we can do?

All five Port Commissioners say they are against Arctic drilling, as well they should be. A new study in Nature makes it clear that there is no decent, livable future (let alone a healthy Arctic) in a world where we use Arctic oil. But a majority of the Commission declined to step in and review the staff’s decision to ink the deal. Several were heard to suggest that the lease would have no effect on the prospects for Arctic drilling. They assumed that if Seattle doesn’t capitulate to this, someone will, so there’s no point in trying to stop it here.

We are not responsible. It’s beyond our authority. There’s nothing we can do. It’s a staff decision. We all need oil, right? Someone else will do it if we don’t. Resistance is futile. Such is the fatalism that keeps us locked in to civilization-threatening-fossil-fuel-dependence-as-usual.

Shell-ArcticThis is precisely Big Oil’s game.   No one would consciously choose the dystopian future we’ll get if we burn all the oil, melt all the ice, and then drill for more where the ice used to be. So their only hope of keeping their grip on our economy is to convince us that we have no choice. And for now, the Port Commissioners seem to have accepted that verdict. Never mind that in the world where we burn Arctic oil, the Port – and coastal cities everywhere – sink under rising, acidified oceans.

You can understand the Port’s reluctance to grapple with climate impacts. We can all relate to the sense that this issue is above our pay grade.   But look: it’s late now, climate-wise. Instead of capitulating, what do you say we find out just how powerless we really are?

We all know this lease decision is not the most effective forum for dealing with climate disruption.  In a rational world – a world free of Big Oil’s stranglehold on our politics – we’d have a strong global climate treaty and a functional US Congress and carbon limits and prices and no one would be talking about drilling in the Arctic. We are fighting for those things and we’d welcome the Port Commissioners’ help.

But the Port doesn’t get to make national climate policy. Their call, right now, is whether we make a NEW commitment, in THIS community, to materially aid and abet an immense human catastrophe. They will decide whether we become financially aligned with the unbridled greed and power that keeps drill-baby-drilling us into a climate crisis. And Seattle will wear that decision on its face – our waterfront.

The Port gets to say yes or no to that.  That’s it. So far, the CEO has said: We’re in. And the Commission majority (over the objection of Commissioners Gregoire and Albro) have said: Sucks, but what can you do?

Where do we draw the line? We can no longer dither abstractly about this question. The only sane, responsible, practical answer under the circumstances is:   Right here, in a community that believes in its values, a community that succeeds by delivering on its “shared vision of sustainable prosperity.” Right here, in front of a plan that has “this is how the world ends” written all over it.

When do we draw the line?  Again, let’s be specific:  Now, for heaven’s sake, before it’s too late.

Would it make any difference? Well… think of what might happen if this community, represented by our elected Port Commissioners, simply said what we know is true and right:

“This is catastrophically wrong. We will have no part of it.”

It would ring like a bell. It would reverberate in the ears of Interior Secretary Jewell, a Seattleite who will decide on future Arctic drilling leases. It would be heard in Paris, where fateful climate negotiations in December might be buoyed by the sense that Americans are finally standing up to Big Oil and getting serious about climate commitments. It would give every other effort to protect the climate and the Arctic a shot in the arm, a reason to hope.  And it might just put the kibosh on Arctic drilling, an extremely shaky business proposition that other oil companies have already abandoned.

And wouldn’t it be worth it no matter what, as a sign of intergenerational good faith?  Our kids will be relieved to hear us say it.

 


Why bet against ourselves? Divest!

February 10, 2015

“Invest in what helps. Divest from what harms.”  – President Obama, UC Irvine Commencement, 2014

“Invest: to furnish with power, authority; to infuse or belong to”  – Dictionary.com

breaking freeThe climate challenge is big, but it’s almost as simple as this: we’re too invested in fossil fuels. We’re giving them too much of our power and authority. And money, so much money. Global Divestment Day on February 13 is a golden opportunity to start turning that around.

Even fossil fuel companies don’t have enough power to get us to consciously choose the only future they offer – a future of concentrated wealth and power, economic and geopolitical insecurity, and devastating climate disruption. But we have a devil of a time choosing otherwise, because they’ve got their hooks so deep into our economy and our politics. They’ve nearly perfected the art of persuading us that we have no choice.

Our retirement savings and university endowments are capital pools for increasingly reckless adventures in fossil fuel extraction. Our ability to go to work, buy food, and educate our kids all depend on motorized transportation, overwhelmingly powered by oil. When I put my credit card in the gas pump, I pay for industry-sponsored climate denial and further exploration for “unburnable” carbon reserves. I can’t even drive to a climate presentation or run the Powerpoint deck without making it worse. Every time we turn around, we feed the beast. So how can we square up and fight it?

Harvard University President Drew Faust generously elucidated the problem in her statement rejecting divestment (BTW, Harvard students have no intention of accepting this answer):

“If we were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers.  Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies…. I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Faust captures the sense of complicity and fatalism that threatens to render us useless in the face of the climate crisis. We let our unavoidable contributions to the causes of climate disruption erode our will, our standing to insist on solutions. As we chase our tails about “troubling inconsistencies,” we retreat into moral numbness. We somehow accept the idea that it’s okay to take a cut of the profit from increasing fossil fuel dependence – averting our eyes from the unthinkable human suffering it causes – on the grounds that someone else will do it if we don’t. We allow our institutions of higher education to invest in industries that oppose climate action by waging a war on truth and reason – a war on the defining purposes of those institutions. It’s like one of those bad dreams where you try to run from danger but your legs just won’t move.

Divestment is an opportunity to wake from that nightmare.  The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions, even as we try to implement solutions ourselves. It presents a specific opportunity to reduce that commitment, to take some of our money back. Will 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!

It’s a long road from here to solutions. We’re not going to quit fossil fuels and the jobs that depend on them tomorrow.   We need to do that patiently, incrementally, and with a firm commitment to a just transition that produces more broadly-shared prosperity. We just have to put one foot in front of the other until we do it.

tutu divestAnd we can take one bold, hopeful step forward right now. We can start winding down our investments in companies that block solutions, fund climate denial, and maul our communities in pursuit of ever more extreme fossil fuel extraction. We can stop investing in making it worse. And until we do that, nobody will believe us when we say we’re going to make it better. We won’t really believe it ourselves.

No, divestment won’t immediately, dramatically reduce fossil fuel company share prices (which, by the way, are tanking anyway – the sound of a bubble popping[i]?) And it certainly won’t, by itself, accomplish the necessary policy changes to drive the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But it will help us clear the biggest obstacle. It will deprive the fossil fuel juggernaut of some part of our complicity, our ambivalence, our license, our money. By putting a little financial daylight between us and the problem we’re trying to solve, it will feed our growing confidence that we can wage and win a clean energy revolution. Why bet against the solutions we’re trying to build?

Today, fossil fuels own us in part because we own them.

So tomorrow, divest.

Find out what’s going on in your community on Divestment Day HERE.

You can divest as an individual too! Find out more HERE. The pledge allows you to wind down your fossil fuel investments over time. Your interest in divesting will make it possible for more and better fossil free investment vehicles to be offered for individuals and retirement plans.

[i] There is a strong financial and fiduciary case for divestment – a growing body of evidence suggesting that the “carbon bubble” may already be popping, as global will for climate solutions grows and the clean energy revolution gains steam. I’m not going to make that case here, because, dammit, we should divest anyway. But check it out, e.g., in this terrific post from a Reagan appointee to the SEC, Bevis Longstreth, and also here.


Good news! Check out ClimateCast: The Week in Clean Energy Solutions

December 9, 2014

Hey, need a great weekly climate news digest, with an emphasis on solutions?  Check this one out, edited by Seth Zuckerman at Climate Solutions:

ClimateCast:  The Week in Clean Energy Solutionsclimate cast 3

Seth and team have a great approach to this – a good survey of the week’s news, crunched into a few strong themes, and served up with some pop.   It’s a super-economical way to scan the scene, and there’s a refreshing sense of motion to it!


It’s on: US-China, KXL, and the wild ride of a real climate battle

November 16, 2014

Dizzy? Disoriented after the US and China reached a breakthrough climate deal the week after James “Greatest Hoax” Inhofe became the presumptive chair of the Senate Environment Committee and some Senate Democrats lined up to pre-emptively surrender on Keystone XL? You should be.

Next week promises to be another wild ride, with the Senate vote on KXL Tuesday.   To help you get your bearings, 3 quick reads:

I got to watch my wife laugh her ass right off her barstool over Bill McKibben’s Salon piece taking Senator Carper to task on KXL:

“He’s the guy who joins Weight Watchers and somehow figures that makes it OK to eat a pan of brownies. He buys a membership at the gym but spends all weekend in the recliner watching ESPN. He’s the guy — like too many of the Democrats in Congress — who wants it both ways. We should applaud him for his theoretical enlightenment, and he should never have to actually cast a hard vote that might annoy the fossil fuel industry. (Uh-huh.) There are days when I’d rather deal with Jim Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma and a world-famous climate change denier. Yes, he’ll wreck the planet, but at least he’ll tell you he’s doing it, straight up….

Read more at “Congress is about to sabotage Obama’s historic climate deal.”

The U.S.-China climate agreement is a huge deal — a cornerstone of the solutions context in which our small efforts make sense.  Here’s my take on the politics of the deal and the KXL vote that would undermine it (from my post in Crosscut “Celebrate the US-China climate deal, and watch your back“):

The deal suggests that Democrats — like Secretary of State John Kerry and top Obama aide and prospective Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, chief architects of the agreement — have figured out that standing up to the fossil fuel industry and delivering real solutions is good politics.  (It turns out that people, especially the “rising” but depressed electorate, actually prefer planet Earth to planet Toast by very wide margins!)

So take heart.  I mean it.

…But watch your back. Because next week the U.S. Senate plans to vote on a bill to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. Ironically, the motivation appears to be a desperate attempt to help Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, keep her seat in a runoff election against Bill Cassidy, the guy who wrote the bill approving Keystone in the House, the very same bill that Landrieu wants the Senate to pass!

Landrieu’s desperate attempt to claw her way back by passing her opponents’ bill might suggest why voters see her as something less than a model of strength and integrity. By joining Republicans and caving to oil, Democrats would win exactly nothing politically, while showing their willingness to make themselves indistinguishable from the opposition if that’s what it takes to win … or even just to lose by a little less. And they wonder why voters stay home.

The President seems to be responding to the bald adversity of the mid-terms by getting his game on. It seems a lot more likely that he can win the fight when he’ll have it.  From the G20 meeting in Australia:

“Barack Obama tells G20 a global climate change deal is possible and vital”


2 billion human steps in the right direction

October 2, 2014

Yes, Dr. King, I do believe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.  But at the end of so many days in the struggle for climate solutions, I find myself muttering “Where is that damned ARC already?”

Not so much, though, since the People’s Climate March.  I’ve shared a few quick thoughts on the march here and here.  But I want to be sure you see some of the most deeply moving things that emerged from the march — points that connect, unmistakably, the arc.

  • The shattering highlight of the UN Climate Summit, a 7 minute speech and poem from Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner:

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.

—————————————————————————————————-

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.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

 

 

 

 


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