The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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A Modest Proposal

The Climate Action Network (CAN) has publicly said we need to phase out fossil fuels entirely, and soon. I’ve been saying the same in this blog since its inception. The recent climate march in New York City may have made the media sit up and take notice, and might possibly have encouraged our political leaders to take some meaningful steps, but most of those steps are still babyish.

As individuals, we can reduce our carbon footprint–and many of us have. But realistically, individual lifestyle change is a luxury of the relatively well-off. A person who is busy struggling to feed three kids and keep the heat on can’t buy a Prius or demand a job accessible by bicycle. It’s also true that even among those who are able, radical lifestyle change seldom appeals to more than a small minority of people. Individual change is therefore not enough. National and international leadership is necessary, but it isn’t enough, either. We need community-level change–towns, counties, states, and regions.

There is the Transition Movement, which I’ve written about before, but it is a fairly distinct thing–it has its own priorities and philosophy that might not appeal to everybody and might not be the best way to approach every community’s situation. I’d like to see a lot of transition movements, a lot of different interrelating approaches to the ultimate goal of getting communities off fossil fuel.

I suggest that such efforts work towards the following goals:

Oil-free Food

Modern food production has a huge carbon footprint, from agriculture itself to transportation to processing. Some people have access to gardens or farmers’ markets, but even where these options exists they don’t necessarily have the capacity to feed everybody in the area. If oil vanished tomorrow, a lot of people would starve.

A transition community can consider part of its goal met when it has the capacity to feed its entire population locally, sustainably, and without the use of factory farming or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t buy “imported” food. I’m not talking about a dictatorship, I’m talking about creating options.

Oil-free Transportation

A town should be walkable/bikeable, should have functional public transportation powered by something other than oil, and should have an economic structure such that people can live and work and shop within the town. Again, that doesn’t mean people can’t drive off, it just means they shouldn’t have to.

A Place to Call Home

A town ready for the post-petroleum age should have post-petroleum housing available. This is important, because the structure of a person’s dwelling has a huge impact on his or her lifestyle choices. For example, in a home with small, shaded windows, you can’t rely on daylight for lighting, even if you want to. In a hot, stuffy building, air conditioning might be a medical necessity in the summer. And so on.

Post-petroleum housing need not be reserved for eco-conscious people. Rather, just as building codes reflect the demands of fire safety (whether or not the people in the building care a bit about the issue), new residential buildings should make living with a small carbon footprint possible.

Besides the building materials and so forth, issues to consider include:

  • Heating and cooling; well-insulated buildings stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter with less energy. By using shade, sun exposure, and air flow properly, an architect can adjust a building to its climate and minimize the amount of extra heating and cooling residents need. Let’s shoot for buildings that can stay between 40° and 80° by themselves. If you want it warmer in the winter you can turn on the heat, but if you’ll never have to worry about the pipes freezing.
  • Lighting; lots of big windows, please. No house should need electric light on a sunny day.
  • Food storage; if a building has a root cellar, a refrigerator is a luxury, not a necessity. Refrigerators suck up electricity, since they run 24/7, and use chemicals that are also greenhouse gases.
  • Resource production; let’s put solar cells on the roof, or put them on walls between windows and put a vegetable garden on the roof. Green roofs are great for insulation.

A Vision for a Community

So, that’s my proposal; that communities work together on issues relating to food, transportation, local jobs, and affordable housing. Notice that these issues are interconnected–local food production and processing supports a more vibrant local economy, which means more jobs. Notice also these these things are all within the grasp of either local government or independent community groups.

Many communities are working along these lines already. Good for them. What I offer is a clearly articulated end-point to work for–the basic principle that the infrastructure of life should make it easier, not harder, for individuals to do the right thing.

Then more people would choose to get off fossil fuel.

 


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In the News….

There is a Facebook meme going around now to the effect that the news media collectively ignored the People’s Climate March. Of course, this refers to the traditional media, newspapers, television, and radio, not websites–online media often do cover environmental protests that their traditional counterparts ignore, but many appeal to niche markets of readers and therefore cannot be considered mainstream news.

In any case, I had been afraid the media might ignore the march, so I’ve spent the morning trying to find out who covered the event and who did not. I am pleased to report than many major news outlets did cover the march.

It is possible that at least some people thought newspapers did not cover the event because the September 21st issue contained no news of the march. Of course, unless a newspaper has an evening edition–and I’m not aware of any that do, anymore–newspaper coverage is always a day behind. The march on the 21st was covered in the newspaper issues of the 22nd.

The New York Times had several excellent articles, covering not just the march itself, but also recent climate-related bad news and the UN Climate Summit and its connection to the People’s Climate March. Of course, a New York-based newspaper could hardly ignore the march, given that its local readers would know something snarled up traffic all day, but the New York Times is not simply a local paper. Arguably, the paper newsworthiness for the nation, and the Times defined the People’s Climate March as front page news.

The Boston Globe also covered the march well, with multiple articles, although the writer gave a rather deflated figure for the number of attendees (“more than 100,000,” which is accurate in as much as 311,000 is more than 100,000). The Globe did not put the march on the front page, except for a brief reference in a sidebar.

I also looked up several other local and regional newspapers, but they do not post the contents of previous print issues online. That their websites do cover the climate march does not mean much, since websites sometimes cover topics that associated traditional media do not.

On television, the PBS Newshour covered the march the day it happened, which is especially striking given that the Newshour has not covered previous climate marches and that their Sunday program is just a half an hour long. PBS’s radio relative, NPR News, covered the march, but their website layout makes it hard to tell which specific shows were involved. Monday morning I noticed that a brief mention of the march had made NPR’s headline updates, a good sign.

ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Fox News, and CNN all covered the march on their websites, and some did so very well, but I could not find archives of broadcasts for any of them. They either do not post broadcasts at all or they bury such posts three layers deep on the site where I couldn’t find them.

Almost more important than which news organizations covered the march was the tone of the coverage overall; every article or transcript I read contained the implicit assumption that climate change is real, human-caused, and important. The slippery insistence on treating climate change as a matter of opinion seems to be over. This is huge.

In other news, after the massive–and international–People’s Climate March on Sunday, there was a civil disobedience demonstration on Monday called Flood Wall Street in which participants dressed in blue to represent the sea and planned to rise up the steps of the Stock Exchange. The idea was to protest capitalism and its role in warping the climate. Although some protestors were arrested after trying to push through barricades, police allowed the protest–which I’m guessing did not have a permit–to continue. Mayor DeBlasio (who marched on Sunday) has since defended that decision on the grounds that people have a right to protest and that New York City has a responsibility to role-model government support of free speech. CBS’s website quotes him as saying–and I love this–“I think the First Amendment is a little more important than traffic.”

Flood Wall Street was also well-covered in the news.

Also, on Sunday, the Rockefeller family announced that their charitable organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, will divest itself totally from fossil fuels. The process has already begun–they have dropped both tar sands and coal–but will take some time to complete. It isn’t clear from what I’ve read whether they intended the announcement to have anything to do with the march, but they did time it to coincide with the UN Climate Summit and they are doing it for environmental reasons. That their money originally came from fossil fuel (first kerosene for lamp oil, then gasoline) lends a wonderful irony to the Rockefellers’ decision. They join a growing number of other investors, from colleges to tech companies, pulling their money out of fossil fuel.

Overall, there seems to be a kind of momentum, now. Personally, I’m starting to feel optimistic for the first time in a long time.

But if we’re going to keep the momentum growing, if this is not to be a flash in the pan, we’re going to have to keep pushing at it–going to rallies, speaking up, signing petitions, and, above all, VOTING.

And if your local paper or local news program really didn’t cover the march, write in and complain. Do it today.

 

 


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The People’s Climate March

The logistics were terrible, I could not find my water bottle, and I was nursing a painfully injured foot–but I was bound and determined to attend the People’s Climate March. And I did it. So did my Mom. And so did over three hundred thousand other people.

Getting There

We got a late start organizing my trip to New York–various other aspects of my life got complicated this month–and by the time we looked for a ride, all the seats on the charter buses for marchers were sold out. A good sign, obviously, but how were we to get there? We don’t drive that far just for day trips, it uses too much gas. Finally, we got seats on a Greyhound, just before that bus sold out, too. On the road, two or three charter buses passed us.Everyone, apparently, was heading to New York.

New York is always a popular place, of course, so all those buses didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the march. The women sitting right behind us turned out to be fellow marchers, but our first unambiguous sign that we were involved in something big was in the subway. There, crowds gathered, waiting to get on trains headed towards the staging area, but nobody could get on because the trains were already completely full. We spotted signs, political t-shirts, and children dressed as animals in the crowd. Volunteers walked the platforms shouting directions to marchers from out of town. It is an awesome thing to realize one is part of an event, a human tide, a giant and momentous we.

Getting Started

Both times I marched for the climate in DC, the event began with a rally. We gathered together before the stage in a large, amoeba-shaped crowd. Then, as a few people at a time stepped out and began marching, we stretched out into a parade the way a weaver draws a thread from a cloud of wool. But this march in New York was way too big for us to form an initial amoeba, so the organizers had us all assemble on the route itself, with one length of street designated for people being affected by climate change already, another for scientists, another for religious people, and so on. So far so good. But despite all this planning, we soon found ourselves almost literally crushed in an ever-tightening crowd. Rumors passed in from the margins held that not the side streets feeding in to the march were also full of people. It was obvious a lot more people had shown up than even the organizers expected.

The designated started time–11:30–came and went with no sign of movement at all. We chatted with each other, squeezed together to let medics or the occasional ambulance pass (the ambulance was not for any of us, we were just in its way) and let volunteers lead us in chants to keep our spirits up. Still no movement.

If you’ve ever seen a freight train start, you’ll know why we weren’t moving; the engine goes forward, then, a few seconds later, the car behind it moves, then the car behind that…each car must wait until the one ahead of it has moved to be able to move in turn. The cars at the back might get going a full five or ten seconds after the engine starts. Our march was the same, since none of us could walk until those ahead of us gave us room. How long does it take for one person to step forward, out of the way of another? Seconds at most. And yet we stood there, waiting, for forty minutes before the movement of the crowd worked its way back to us. And we were in the first quarter of the parade. I hate to think of how long the people in the back must have stood waiting.

Moving with the Movement

It’s a curious thing about being in the middle of a protest march–there’s no way to really tell what’s going on. Everyone around starts cheering and you don’t know why because you can’t see anything, so you just go with it and start cheering, too. This happened several times before we even got going. The women next to us called it “spontaneous joy.” Chants propagate up and down the line and die away. The crowd stops and starts and stops again for reasons that could be hundreds or thousands of feet away. There is no telling. The march becomes a giant organism, a curiously gentle mob, and individual marchers can only look at each other, shrug, and laugh, and join in. The reason for the march itself is not silly, but cut adrift as they are by the sheer press of people, the marchers sometimes are.

One of the reasons to attend a political demonstration is precisely to become part of this enthusiastic super-organism. A man walking next to me reveled in the camaraderie. He told me he was from a part of New Jersey where people look at him funny if he even brings climate change up. It makes him feel lonely. Still, he stays involved. He supports–largely through money–both the Pachamama Alliance and The Hunger Project. His name is Marcus Bass and he wanted me to write about those organizations, not him. And I will, in a subsequent article.

Most of the signs and chants–in the parts of the march I saw, at least–were curiously generic. I heard and joined in chants like “The people/united/will never be defeated!” and “Tell me what democracy looks like/this is what democracy looks like!” and “Hey, Obama/we don’t want no climate drama!” and a few others I remember from protests past, but none specifically addressed the issue of the moment; showing political support for climate action ahead of the UN Climate Summit the next day. Few of the signs mentioned the UN. Most displayed fairly generic pro-environmental, anti-climate change messages: “Cook organic, not the Planet;” “Climate deniers have no morals;” “Can you swim?”

This apparent lack of focus may be a side effect of the “everyone in!” organizational approach of The People’s Climate March, or perhaps it is only that international policy and the procedures of the UN are hard to draw on posters and don’t rhyme with anything.

Or maybe it is just that everybody knew that what would speak to the political leaders was our sheer number; no one is going to brief President Obama on the wording of our signs. Our signs and chants were not for him but for each other. In coming together, we gave each other an opportunity to talk to like-minded people, to network, to suggest, even to criticize–there was a sizable contingent of vegetarians actively trying to get other marchers to give up meat for the climate (not a bad idea, actually; the carbon footprint of meat is huge). A march is also a chance for marchers to find and call attention to the connections among their different concerns–I fell to talking with a woman who has just started a company that will help people with asthma anticipate attacks based on air quality and weather. She says asthma rates are on the rise and is the single biggest health problem among children. And while no one knows for sure what the connection is, asthma attacks and poor air quality are strongly correlated. AND, poor air quality and climate change have the same cause in pollution. That’s why she came out to march. Her startup is called Wellwatch7 and her first name is Sworna–we traded email addresses but not last names.

This march was also an opportunity for people to dress up. I saw a few polar bears and so forth at the other marches, but nothing like what I saw here. There were dancing fairies in green sparkles, a woman all in blue robes and blue paint and trailing a twelve-foot train of trash and blue fabric (she must have been the polluted ocean), various animal masks, and an inexplicably tall bicycle. A man in a narwhal mask (his sign said “save the unicorns.” Narwhals are arctic creatures) and a man in a unicorn mask (“Unicorns are a myth but climate change isn’t”) met, apparently by chance, and took a picture together.

Some people appeared marched dressed, not in playful costumes, but in the uniforms of unusual lives. When my foot started hurting too badly, we stopped to sit for a while and ended up back in the section for religious groups. Most of these people looked ordinary and some might well have been strays such as me and my Mom. A few carried signs reading “Jew” or “Methodist” or “Baptist.” Perhaps their coreligionists clustered around those signs like knights rallying to battlefield standards. But there were also large, conspicuous groups marching together behind banners that took multiple people to carry. We saw two different groups of robed Buddhist monks (one wearing black, the other saffron) ringing bells as they walked, several dozen variously attired pagans beating drums and burning sage, and a large wooden ark carrying five or six Christian preachers in variously colored vestments and one man in ordinary clothes who carried his own sign “Atheist on the Ark!” Towards the end of the march I fell into step behind a tall, slim man in black robes. He looked like he could be a pagan priest but turned out to be a Franciscan brother. We discussed St. Francis for a few minutes, whom he cited as the patron saint of ecology.

With all this, the most striking thing about the march was its size–the weight of moving humanity and the length of the route. My mother, who is from New York, declared that the pavement in The City is harder than pavement anywhere else. Her feet hurt, too, and with my injury I was limping noticeably. It made the march seem much longer. There was no rally or even clear destination at the end of the march. Instead, the route simply began dividing and dividing again, like a river delta, and the march dissipated. Dehydrated and in pain, I felt dazed. My heart wasn’t in the demonstration anymore, but it didn’t matter how I felt; I’d been counted.

What It Means

The People’s Climate March succeeded in being the largest climate march to date. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people gathered that day in New York to send a message to our nation’s leaders. Among the marchers were such notables as Ban Ki Moon, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Al Gore. And in other countries almost as many again joined coordinated marches for the same reason on the same day.

Did it matter? Predictably, the media coverage has been minimal. I’m gathering information on that and plan to organize “comment bombs” for media outlets that didn’t cover the demonstration at all. But climate change as a subject is all over the news now, not as a controversial topic that “some” environmentalists care about, but as a real thing worth talking about for its own sake. Today I walked into the farmer’s market and was greeted by a volunteer gathering signatures for a climate-related petition. President Obama spoke boldly on the subject yesterday and seems entirely serious about it.

So, yes. We might have changed the world.

 


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The Science of Climate Marches

So, this coming weekend is it–the march in New York City in support of DOING SOMETHING about climate.

It’s still up in the air whether I can go, personally. It depends on whether I can get various logistical issues sorted out in time. If I do go, it will be my third climate change demonstration, the other two having been in Washington, DC. In the lead-up to the others, I sometimes encountered friends who said some version of “marches are pointless. The political leaders will do what they do, and there is no changing that.” No one has said that yet this time around, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does. It’s an old debate.

So, let’s hash it out, shall we?

First, I want to get any and all cynicism out of the way. One part of the “marches are pointless” argument is the assertion that any political activism is pointless, that the political process is sealed against any and all influence by ordinary people. Anyone who believes that needs to stop complaining and foment a revolution, because for the people to influence the government is the whole point of democracy.

But whether protest marches and demonstrations are a useful form of activism is a separate and important question.

Much ink has been spilled here, most of it by authors who simply assert their stance, for or against, as a statement of fact readers are supposed to take on faith. Obviously demonstrations work, or obviously they don’t. The author then goes on to explain his or her “fact,” again without giving the reader any reason to believe the explanation is accurate. This rhetorical strategy is ironic as applied to climate change marches, because science is so very much an issue with climate change and arguing based on unverified assertion is so very much not scientific.

There are a lot of popular ideas about what science is and is not, and most of them are completely wrong. As usual, XKCD says it best.

That means that is someone says a thing is so, a scientist will ask “how do you know?” If a person can’t produce a well-reasoned argument based on well-documented observation, the answer is that we don’t know yet. So then we can go find out. That’s what makes the arguments of competing climate “facts” so ridiculous (the climate is warming! No, it’s not, it’s in a “pause.” No it isn’t! Yes it is! No it isn’t! Is! Isn’t! Is! Isn’t! Rabbit season! Duck season–fire!*). If everyone were in the habit of asking the scientific question, “how do you know?” then most of these arguments would disappear.

So, do protest marches work? As it happens, somebody actually did a scientific study on it, and the short answer is yes, they work. You can read the whole thing here.

What the authors (four people from Harvard: Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott) did was actually pretty elegant. They looked at the first big Tea Party protests on April 15th, 2009, because it happens to be pretty easy to collect data on the Tea Party. Their challenge was you can’t just look at whether the protestors got what they want, because that might happen for some reason unrelated to the protest. Nor can you just look at whether large protests get what their organizers want more often than small ones, because maybe a lot of people showed up at the protest because the issue was popular, and because the issue was already popular it did well politically–and would have even if there had been no march. So, what Madestam et. al. did was to look at each area that held a Tea Party rally that day and see whether nice weather there predicted an increase in Republican votes in that area at the midterm election in 2010.

Isn’t that great? Here’s how the logic works: if the weather is nice, more people are likely to come out to a protest than if the weather is unpleasant, and since the weather on the 15th had nothing to do with how popular the Tea Party cause was before the rallies, and nothing to do with any other part of the political process, the only way the weather could predict an election would be if something happened at the rally that changed the election.

The authors further noted that a lot of Tea Party organizers hadn’t known each other before the rallies but worked together after, suggesting that the rallies worked because they introduced people.

But, if course, part of the objective for the New York climate change march is on a tighter timeline than that–the idea is to show political leaders than they should act now because the political will is there to cover them later. Does that tactic work for a march? Madestam et. al. didn’t address that aspect of things, so in proper scientific fashion, we have to say “we don’t know. Let’s go find out.”

So, let’s go find out!

 

*This is a reference to a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon you really should see, if you haven’t yet.

 

 


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Who Attends Climate Conferences?

Every year or so, we hear about climate conferences in the news. They are usually in exotic places, such as Rio de Jeneiro, and they promise much but deliver little, since the parties at the conference rarely come to substantive agreements.

What the news coverage rarely explains is who, exactly, is conferring at these conferences, what their authority is, or who called the conference. For those not already in the know, these events usually come as a surprise. So, as often happens when I find I am not in the know, I looked the thing up. Here is what I found.

The conferences we hear about today are the latest examples of a process that dates back to the late 1970s, when it first became clear that humans were changing the climate. The First World Climate Conference, in 1979, was called by several UN groups, such as the World Meteorological Organization, acting together following a series of conferences on other environmental and economic topics that had each made clear that climate was a major issue. Out of that first meeting came several new organizations charged with researching or otherwise addressing climate.

There have been three World Climate Conferences so far (the other two were both in Geneva, in 1990 and 2009, respectively), each was called to order by a similar mechanism and produced similar results–more organizations with more acronyms. I will not list all of them. The important points here are that these conferences are cooperative ventures among multiple UN agencies and that they do not draft policy. Also–and for our purposes, this is the biggie–the Second World Climate Conference called for an international treaty to do something about climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, is the treaty drafted as a result of that call (by yet another UN group) and presented for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (two other environmental treaties were signed at the same time, one on desertification and the other on biodiversity. The three are referred to as “Rio Conventions”). UNFCCC also became the name of the organization formed by the signatory nations in order to enact the treaty. The treaty went into effect in 1994, and the organization created the Kyoto Protocol as a legally binding extension of the UNFCCC, in 1997. The United States is one of the few countries that is a party to UNFCCC but not to the Kyoto Protocol, which the Senate refused to ratify. The UNFCCC has created several other international agreements and plans as well.

The UNFCCC is the body that has held most of the climate conferences we’ve heard about in the news in recent years. Its business is to create, support, and enforce international agreements to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to otherwise deal with the issue in concrete, practical ways. The Secretariat of the UNFCCC maintains a busy annual schedule of meetings and workshops of its various committees. Most of of these meetings are in Bonn, Germany, and most receive little media attention in the US. There is also an annual Conference of the Parties, a group of meetings of delegates from all 195 signatory nations. These are what we hear about in the news because they sometimes do result in new international agreements. Some years there are additional climate change conferences as well.

The schedule for upcoming UNFCCC events is available online.

Of course, there has not been a new legally binding treaty from one of these meetings in a long time because a minority of nations, notably the US, refuse to sign on. This year’s COP in December, in Lima, Peru, is being organized as a preliminary discussion for next year’s COP in Paris, France. The hope is that the Paris meeting will finally result in a new, effectively binding agreement, in part because of President Obama’s plan to avoid the standard treaty process (he is hardly breaking new ground by doing this; many major international agreements made over the past twenty years are not, technically, treaties).

The general thinking is that Paris, 2015 has to work. One way or another, the world must commit to an emissions reduction plan, because we are running out of time. This is why the Lima conference is being billed as a preliminary conversation, and why UN Secretary General has called a Climate Summit of world leaders (as opposed to delegates) in New York for next week. This is also why there are massive demonstrations planned for the weekend of the Summit, and why you should attend them if at all possible. If enough people show world leaders that addressing climate change is politically viable now, we have a chance.

So, to summarize, most of the climate conferences we hear about in the news are COP meetings of the UNFCCC, or other meetings called in conjunction with them. There are occasional exceptions every few years.

An important exception to be aware of is the International Conference on Climate Change, which is organized and hosted by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think think tank whose mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” The group is deeply and persistently hostile to environmental regulation and is very active in encouraging climate change denial. Much of their funding comes from oil companies and other donors with a vested interest in climate change denial.

The annual International Conference on Climate Change is not only different in origin and philosophy from the other conferences and meetings discussed here, it is different in structure. While the other events are organized around creating and enacting international agreements and supporting research and other practical programs, the Heartland event is essentially a public speaker event marketed to a non-expert audience. There is nothing wrong with speaker event, of course, but is a very different kind of thing than a conference where experts and leaders go to discuss issues and make plans with each other.

The Heartland event is generally and properly ignored by the media, but its efforts to bill itself as the equal of other climate conferences creates potential confusion. Let’s not get confused.


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Some Good News

It’s been a big week for all sorts of news, from Joan Rivers’ death to President Obama’s formal commitment to going after ISIS/ISIL. Somewhere on that scale falls a Massachusetts District Attorney’s decision to drop charges against a pair of global warming protestors because, as he explained, he agrees with them.

On May 13th, 2013, Ken Ward and Jonathan O’Hara used a lobster boat to try to physically block a coal freighter from docking. The lobster boat carried banners reading “#coalisstupid” and “350” and bore the evocative name Henry David T. The freighter, the Energy Enterprise, carried coal for the Brayton Point Power Plant, in Somerset, Massachusetts. Mr. Ward and Mr. O’Hara stated that climate change is a moral issue and they want the power plant shut down immediately. They were both arrested and charged with conspiracy, failure to avoid a collision, and other crimes. They faced up to two years in jail, plus serious fines.

This past Monday, Bristol County DA, Sam Sutter formally dropped the charge of conspiracy and settled the other charges out of court. The two men will pay $2000 in restitution each. In an interview on National Public Radio’s Here and Now yesterday, Mr. Sutter was careful to say that, all headlines to the contrary, he did not drop all charges, he dropped one of them and converted the others to civil infractions. The two are not getting away with breaking the law. He supports their cause, but does not agree with their methods. If someone else broke the law in his district for similar reasons, he might or might not do the same thing again.

Mr. Sutter did not simply take the law into his own hands and he did not act without precedent. As he explained, the Massachusetts legislature actively encourages DAs to settle cases out of court as much as possible in order to save taxpayer money. Although Mr. Sutter’s motives in this case were larger, by settling he did save the state money by avoiding a trial and the $4000 in restitution will cover what the state has already spent. He did his job.

And as a commenter on Here and Now’s website put it, it’s quite possible that the two men would have gotten off with probation alone had the case gone to trial, since no one was hurt. As crimes go, this one was pretty minimal.

What made Mr. Sutter’s actions unusual was not what he did but why he did it and the way he used the event as an opportunity to acknowledge the seriousness of global warming and the failure of most politicians to take any leadership on the subject. He openly admires Bill McKibbon, and plans to attend the march in New York in a week and a half.

Prosecutors routinely make decisions that are, in part, moral. While it is not a DAs job to decide guilt or innocence, they can and must decide which plea-deals to offer to whom and, sometimes, what types of penalties to seek. Famously, the gangster Al Capone was charged with tax evasion because prosecutors wanted to charge him with bootlegging and murder but couldn’t. He was too good at covering his tracks. Not everyone who fails to file properly gets charged, because there are only so many hours in the day and prosecutors don’t bother going after every single possible infraction. They went after Al Capone because he was a horrible person who needed to go to jail for something before more people died. Prosecutors aren’t supposed to be robots, reflexively pursuing charges without thought; for a DA to use his or her discretion is normal.

What isn’t normal is for a DA–or any politician–to treat climate change as real.

The Brayton Point Power Plant is closing in 2017. That isn’t the immediacy Ken Ward and Jonathan O’Hara called for, and the closure is not a direct result of their actions, but it still represents a victory. The power plant simply isn’t profitable anymore, in part because the New England power grid has largely replaced coal with natural gas, but also in part because of environmental regulations.

Coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than any other fuel. Coal plants are closing, and will continue to close, because of regulations that exist because people like Ken Ward, Jonathan O’Hara, and Sam Sutter make it obvious that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important.


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A Way Forward

It’s hard to get someplace if you don’t know where you’re going.

Sometimes I think that part of the reason that so many people are doing so little about global warming is that we don’t have a clear idea of what the post-petroleum world will be like. We know what the climate-change apocalypse might look like, but the alternatives seem vague, blank, or even scary.

Of course, the future is impossible to predict for certain, but some clear thinking might make our options seem a bit more manageable.

A World without Fossil Fuel

I have said before that we need to stop using fossil fuel. In this, the Climate Action Network (CAN) agrees with me. As the old saying goes, if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first step is to stop digging.

I will even go a step farther; it is time for an end to the Age of Cheap Energy. That is, while we certainly have a lot of alternatives to fossil fuel, we should not look for another source of energy as abundant and as cheap (in the short-term). Renewables may or may not have that much potential. Cold fusion and other such possibilities may or may not be real. But if we did discover some new source of abundant energy and used it, we’d end up back in another version of the same fix we are now.

Anthropogenic climate change is one symptom of biosphere-scale entropy. Mass extinction is another. Human activity has removed more energy from the system than it can afford and it is destabilizing. An ecosystem, an organism, or any other complex system will do exactly the same thing—become simpler and less stable–if its energy balance goes negative. It doesn’t matter why or how the energy is lost, the result is the same. And it’s a result we really don’t want.

Of course, if enough people read this blog, somebody is probably going to accuse me of “wanting to bring us back to the stone age.” Or, with more historical accuracy, back to the 1700’s.

We don’t have to worry about this. The cultural and scientific progress of the past two hundred years is not going to vanish just because fossil fuel does. We won’t forget about antibiotics, reinstate chattel slavery, or spend the rest of eternity limited only to ideas and technologies that existed prior to 1800.

We will learn to live within a different set of limitations and we will use our brilliance as a species to live well.

Thinking about Specifics

We’re looking at a world with less energy. We will still have cars and trucks and so forth. Engines will burn ethanol or biodiesel, or run on electricity generated by sun, wind, and water. But running such engines will likely be expensive, something not done lightly. Two-week vacations to the other side of the country will become a luxury of the super-rich. The high cost of transportation will make exotic foods and many other goods unprofitable. Society and commerce will be, once again, mostly local or regional.

We can look at this as an inconvenience, and indeed it probably will be, but there will also be advantages. We could see our communities grow stronger, our local businesses grow more diverse and more successful. National and transnational corporations will not be quite so powerful. And yet we need not fear the shadow-side of localism. We won’t be culturally isolated, because we will still have the internet in some form.

Obviously, petroleum-derived products such as plastics will get hard to come by, except for what we can make from recycled plastic. Asphalt is a petroleum product. Cement is not, but it has a very high carbon footprint anyway. We’ll see less of both. Cities of the future might look very different. Metal might get more expensive, too, since processing it requires a lot of heat and that energy must come from somewhere and can no longer come from either coal or the vast quantities of wood burned to make charcoal for metalwork in the past. From this challenge might rise an unexpected benefit; the end of planned obsolescence. You’ll be able to buy electronic devices that last twenty years.

I do not know how much energy we’ll have or exactly how much energy each technology or activity needs. Even if I did, this kind of prognostication is rarely precisely accurate. But we’re probably looking at doing some prioritizing. We’ll give up some luxuries and conveniences so we can have enough energy for the really important things. Imagine a farmer taking crops to market by ox-cart–and while she’s in town, she stops at the clinic for a routine check-up of her artificial lungs.

What Are Our Alternatives?

The issue is that keeping the world we have isn’t an option. We can have some version of climate change apocalypse, or we can have something else. We need to start imagining what that something else is and how we can get there from here.