State of the Union: pushing forward and backward on climate

February 13, 2013

“They deserve a vote.  They deserve a vote.”

President Obama repeated the phrase over and over, in a powerful appeal to Congress to curb gun violence at the end of last night’s State of the Union address.

His approach to climate and energy was different.  Senator McCain’s pained grin said it all, as the President gently chided Congress for its unwillingness to consider the kind of climate legislation that presidential candidate McCain had proposed – back before fossil-fueled denialism consumed his party.sotu 2 2013

The President went on to offer the rough outlines of an agenda for climate action through the use of existing executive authorities.   He slammed climate denialism and spoke frankly about the reality of climate impacts.  He spoke in broad terms of research and development investments and endorsed accelerated deployment of renewable energy.  He issued a “new goal for America” to cut energy wasted in our homes and businesses by half, and offered federal support for states that lead the way.  And he proposed to use oil and gas revenues to fund “an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”  That’s good:  “for good.”

And yet even as he suggested some meaningful actions to advance climate solutions, he stepped all over the message – as he has for several years – by focusing heavily on increased oil and gas development.  And he certainly did not elevate the issue to the level where he was willing to challenge Congress to do its job and adopt a national climate policy.  The victims of Sandy Hook surely do “deserve a vote,” but apparently the victims of Sandy do not.

The President is on the right track in terms of using existing executive authority to reduce climate pollution and accelerate investment in energy efficiency and clean energy.  (And the Northwest is in an ideal position to lead that national effort by leveraging our existing federal power infrastructure to drive the next wave of clean energy development.)

But he’s also stuck on the wrong track at the same time – expanding domestic fossil fuel production, waffling on the Keystone pipeline permit, and essentially giving away billions of tons of coal on public lands to support development of fossil fuel infrastructure around the world.

Simultaneously moving in the wrong direction and the right direction won’t do the job.  Business-as-usual investments that “lock in” emissions growth – even if they are combined with near-term investments in efficiency and clean energy – will result in catastrophic climate disruption, with unthinkable consequences for humanity.

The President’s right – we do know how to respond to the climate challenge while sustaining prosperity.  We can look at the victims of Sandy – and our kids, the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters – and say “we know how to make this better, and we will.”  But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse.

The President – and America – can no longer go backward AND forward on climate.  We don’t have enough time.  We don’t have enough money.  We have to choose.

That message will be delivered to the White House loud and clear, this week.   You can amplify it at Forward on Climate.

And today, some of our most courageous leaders will be risking arrest at the White House.  Hear them, support them here.

Romney and Obama spar for denialist-in-chief

October 17, 2012

“I had that question for all of you climate change people,” said Candy Crowley, in the post-debate coverage last night.  But she didn’t ask it because, “you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.”   (Stephen Lacey has the full scoop on the debate at Climate Progress.  Or save time and just poke yourself in the eye with a stick.)

The candidates didn’t actually contradict climate reality per se of course.  They didn’t talk about it at all.  And the moderator sat on the question.  This silence plays a vital role in the larger ecosystem of denial, at least as important as the explicit disinformation campaigns.  And competing to demonstrate who would be the most relentless fossil fuel extractor, while remaining silent on climate — well that’s a pretty potent dose of denial, even if its not overt.

OK, “climate change people” now what?  (And, WTH, is there some other kind of person?  Does everybody else gain immunity from Hell and High Water by being some other kind of people, like, what, “climate stasis people”?  Heck, let’s quit this beat!).

After watching the Presidential candidates almost come to blows over who would dig, drill, and burn more fossil fuel, I woke up with a massive headache.

I spent my first hour awake in numb silence.  That never works for me.

So, Dr. Golden’s prescription after a hard night of watching our “leaders” wage climate denial:

1)      More – and more viscous – coffee.  Peets Major Dickason’s Blend.  Grrrrrr.

2)      Sign up and spread the word to Help End the Climate Silence.

3)      Crowdfund this great short video of young activists in Florida calling on the Presidential candidates to get real about climate in the final debate.

4)      Watch Bill Moyers interview with James Balog, the Chasing Ice photographer.

5)      Sign up for Do the Math, which begins November 7 in Seattle

And as always, every day is better, the more time we spend on our own little fossil fuel divestment campaigns:   I’m going for a bike ride at lunch.

What’s “American Energy?” Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

May 30, 2012

It’s the name of the game.

President Obama is into it – check out his agenda for Securing American Energy.  His opponents are all over it too:  the American Energy Alliance is running ads attacking the President’s energy policy.  But on this much they agree:  American Energy is the good kind.

But how do we know which energy is American?  The distinguishing factor seems to be the physical location where the energy is extracted or collected.  So, oil from Saudi Arabia is not American, but oil from North Dakota is.

It can get a little confusing:  Oil from tar sands in Alberta is North American, so it’s pretty much “American.”  Oil from Venezuela is South American, so it’s not really “American” at all.

But when the President and his opponents pump “American” Energy, they are trying to connect to something more than where the holes get drilled.  They are invoking our national values.  They’re appealing to a word and a symbol – America – the core meaning of which is found not on a map, but in our creed.

So, what if we had an energy policy defined by American values?  What if when we said “American Energy,” what we meant was not lumps of coal or barrels of oil extracted from U.S. soil, but the kind of energy that embodies what it really means to be American?

In that world, American Energy might be about:

Freedom:  We would avoid energy sources like oil that prop up dictatorships and subject Americans to the abuse of concentrated economic power.  Energy efficiency and conservation, in contrast, liberate people from volatile energy costs, market manipulations, and the inexorable price pressure of rising demand for finite resources.  With more efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances, we can do more while using less:  the ultimate energy freedom.

Democracy:  Fossil fuel industries have accumulated unprecedented wealth and power.  Their money pollutes our democracy as aggressively as their emissions pollute our air.  Solar energy, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, and the fuel is free.  The sun delivers more energy in an hour than humans use in a year.  We can collect and finance solar energy together on our homes and businesses.  If we put our energy dollars into solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and public transit, maybe ExxonMobil won’t have enough money to buy so many politicians.  Renewable energy is available everywhere, but its resilience against economic and political tyranny is quintessentially American.

Responsibility:  America pioneered a fossil-fueled path to prosperity, and if the whole world follows it, we are all toast.  So now we can and must blaze a clean energy path to prosperity.  When we do, America can proudly lead the world economy and Americans can do right by our kids.  (The Island President makes an irresistible case for this kind of American energy.)

Dependence on fossil fuels is crippling our nation – bleeding our economy, destabilizing the climate, eroding national security, and undermining our ability to control our institutions.   No matter where they drill and dig, those resources belong to Big Oil and King Coal – not you, not me, not America.

Clean energy, transportation choices, and energy efficiency can free us.  America has what it takes to build a clean energy economy and take back our democracy from the fossil fuel industries who use our energy dollars to corrupt our political process.   We have the resources, the technology, and the ingenuity to control our destiny and build a better future.

That’s American energy.  Fossil fuel addiction is American’t.

(….with props to Van Jones and Rebuild the Dream for the American/American’t bite…..)

President Obama and the ecosystem of denial

May 17, 2012

America’s resistance to climate reality is like an Altoid Mint: curiously strong.   Nowhere else is denial so rampant, so acceptable and so overrepresented in government.

Call me a romantic (you won’t be the first), but I have to think the President of the United States has a role in battling this national psychosis. 

No, I’m not waiting for the President to ride in on a white horse and make everything right. (I stopped doing that after Copenhagen).  But he shouldn’t allow denialism to flourish in an official Presidential communication void.

….which has been the norm for the better part of President Obama’s first term.  Silence isn’t quite as bad as outright denialism, but the combination of the two has proven lethal to the nation’s climate conversation.  One political party is off in anti-science la-la land, and the other fears (weakly and incorrectly) that climate doesn’t poll well enough to talk about.  They are both filling vital niches in the ecosystem of denial.

Ironically, fossil fuel interests are pushing climate and energy back on to the national agenda, with a firestorm of attack ads on the President.  If anybody has enough money to convince the public that night is day, it’s Big Fossil.  But persuading Americans that clean energy is bad and science is bunk is a tall order.  And by pushing the politicians they support to embrace these extreme positions, they may well be leading their friends in public office to a slaughter.

There’s every reason to believe that political proponents of clean energy and climate reality can win this fight…but only if they’ll fight it.

So it’s encouraging to see the President starting to feel his way back into the politics of climate reality and clean energy.  His political team seems to be sensing the tremendous vulnerability of opponents who deny climate science and cozy up to fossil fuel interests.

You have to hope there is a political price to be paid for militant resistance to facts, especially when the fact in question is a civilization-threatening emergency.  Given the relentless negativity of politics generally and the Citizens United-juiced 2012 cycle in particular, maybe the only open door back to climate reality is the political exposure of those who shun science and shill for fossil fuel interests.

I’ll take it.


Much was made of the President’s remarks on climate in his recent Rolling Stone interview – (too much, in my view, and I’m a glass is 10% full kind of guy.)  But the President’s comments on climate and the Keystone Pipeline are worth discussing.  So I do, here.

The President, the Pipeline, and the first rule of the climate game: “Don’t lose”

May 13, 2012

I don’t trust any explanation of anything that begins “President Obama doesn’t get it.”  He’s not perfect, but he is scary smart.  I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid that it won’t all be okay if he would just read my blog!

But in his public observations about Keystone (in this Rolling Stone interview and elsewhere), the President is either missing or parsing his way around an essential truth:  the imminent prospect of economic lock-in to dangerous climate change.  The President told Rolling Stone:

“The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem.”

It’s true that Keystone became a defining battle in part because we were failing to have a serious climate discussion, and Keystone was a good way to restart one.

But the Keystone decision isn’t just symbolic.  Like coal export terminals, Keystone would be a major new link in the chain of transactions and physical infrastructure that connect the world’s largest carbon supplies to the world’s fastest-growing energy markets.  Bill McKibben calls them “fuses” that run from the match of global demand to the giant “carbon bombs” in the Alberta tar sands and the Powder River Basin coal fields.  Because they are so long-lived and so capital-intensive, they would be essentially irreversible commitments to dangerous climate change.  Keystone and coal export would violate the first rule of any viable plan to “win” the climate game:  “Don’t lose.”

Delivering climate solutions and extracting ourselves from our current fossil fuel infrastructure is great work, but quick it is not.  It will take 50 years of patient, sustained, strategic investment and action to “win” the climate solutions game and build a sustainable prosperity.  But we could lose it in a heartbeat.  We can’t keep making long-term infrastructure commitments that expand fossil fuel dependence while we invest in building a new energy economy.  We don’t have that much money.  We don’t have that much time.

The President has no doubt heard this from his science and energy advisors.  But he falls back on climate denialism’s most insidious secret weapon:  inevitability.  (The weapon is so lethal because climate deniers have somehow tricked the rest of us into aiming it at ourselves.)  Again from the Rolling Stone interview:

“…It’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do. That’s their national policy, they’re pursuing it.”

If we concede that the sum of existing national policies is our climate future, then we’re planning to leave a devastated planet to our kids. They are not amused.  Even if it were true that this would happen “regardless of what we do,” there’s no excuse for condoning, let alone facilitating it.

….”Regardless of what we do…..” 

Isn’t that the climate challenge in a nutshell?  Every individual, every mayor, every governor, every company, every nation that ever made a commitment to climate solutions has had to push past the sense that it could all be futile if others don’t act.  We have to buy into a culture of responsibility: we do the right thing and then use that as a stance from which to invite and challenge others to join, as Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed did so valiantly when he committed his low-lying nation to become carbon neutral in 10 years.

But building that culture of responsibility is tough when the POTUS dismisses huge investments in accelerating climate devastation as inevitable – and then poses for photo ops in front of the pipeline.

Don’t be silly. Go see The Island President.

April 7, 2012

How often does Jon Stewart get choked up by something other than laughter?

Deposed President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives did it to him.   Same way he did it to everyone at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.  Same way he’ll do it to you when you go see the new documentary about him, The Island President.

The movie is only screening in a few places now, but do yourself a favor and watch the Daily Show interview with him.  Watch both parts.

The guy is mind-bogglingly humble, incredibly brave, smiling into the teeth of a coup and a climate crisis that is literally drowning the archipelago where he served as the first democratically elected President.

His call for America to be accountable is absolutely irresistible.   He’s positive, solution-oriented, and unyielding.  Of America’s failure to get a grip on climate reality, he says “Don’t be silly.”  This is a seriously nice man.

His words rang in my ears as I read accounts this week of the political wrangling over gas prices during the Congressional recess.   We have seen this movie over and over:  gas prices spike, politicians point fingers, prices moderate a bit and we all go back to sleep.

This time, Democrats are focusing on speculators as the culprit.  Reining in oil market speculation might help a little, but it diverts attention from the fundamental problem.  Whether its speculators, rising global demand, Iran, OPEC, Big Oil’s greed, you name it; as long as we’re strung out on the stuff, we’ll be at somebody’s mercy, and we’ll keep taking high gas prices on the chin.

Republicans focus on the market fundamentals of supply and demand, but then they squander their effort on the half of that equation where we have the least leverage:  supply.  (Of course, they are not really wasting their time.  They are doing their paymasters’ bidding as Steve Coll chillingly documents in the New Yorker.)   Oil prices are set on world markets and no credible energy expert thinks expanding U.S. production will have a meaningful effect on them.  And the idea that this oil is somehow more friendly because we drill it here is naive.  I’m not drilling.  You’re not drilling.  No matter where they poke their holes, it’s Big Oil’s resource, not America’s.

And, of course, even if we could help consumers by expanding oil production, we’d be killing them that much faster with climate disruption.  High gas prices tell a vital truth:  fossil fuels are too damned costly and dangerous.  We’re driving right up to the edge of runaway climate change now, and expanding investment in capital-intenstive fossil fuel infrastructure is, well, stepping on the gas, as the IEA has urgently warned.

Which brings us back to President Nasheed’s plea to end the silliness.  Trying to drive down oil prices by expanding production is both ineffectual and wrong. It’s unconscionable that one of America’s great political parties completely rejects climate science.  But is it that much better that the other one acknowledges the science and then pursues an “all of the above” energy strategy that essentially eliminates any hope of addressing the problem responsibly?  When your country is drowning, you can’t afford that kind of politically calculated intellectual dishonesty.

There isn’t a leader on the planet who speaks to the climate crisis with more moral authority than Mohamed Nasheed.   I repeat, do not miss this interview.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 71 other followers