The Climate in Emergency

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

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Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.

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No Gifts to Bring

Today is Christmas.

Perhaps you don’t celebrate Christmas. Many people don’t–it isn’t my primary winter holiday, either, though I join the celebrations of family and friends. But WordPress tells me that the vast majority of pageviews come from the United States, so chances are Christmas is on your mind today, whether you celebrate it personally or not.

There are the TV adds, the holiday specials, the new holiday movies, the incessant Christmas carols in public spaces. For example, I’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” at least three or four times already without having sought out the song even once and I’m basically a homebody who ignores popular culture whenever possible (except as relates to climate change and a few other political and scientific issues). I am aware that some people harbor a special hatred of that over-played song.

But I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King. So to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with him to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these important Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you. Merry Christmas.


Two Degrees of Separation

Last week, as sometimes happens, I got curious.

While writing–once again–about how the world must stay under 2° C. of warming, I suddenly realized I didn’t know where this number came from. Climate writers frequently assert that if the Earth warms more than that, we will cross a tipping point beyond which climate catastrophe will likely occur. That’s plausible, since tipping points like that do exist. But I had never encountered any explanation of why the tipping point is there or how we discovered it. So, I went hunting and found a 2010 paper cleverly titled Three Views of Two Degrees.

It turns out that 2° C isn’t a scientific limit at all, because current science gives us not just one number but rather a whole cloud of numbers. 2° C is instead, a convenient shorthand for that cloud and it is a rallying cry. And it probably isn’t enough.

Who Said Two Degrees

The 2° C limit was originally a rough estimate made by an economist in the 1970’s. W.D. Nordhous was interested in climate policy, which he approached from a perspective of cost-benefit analysis. He assumed that getting off fossil fuel would cost something and that climate change would also cost something, therefore we should craft climate policy so as to use fossil fuel right up until the point where continuing to do so costs more money than it saves. At that point, we should stop. Nordhous needed some estimate of where that that point might be, so he took a look at the fairly basic information available at the time and concluded that over the past several hundred thousand years the climate has never been more than 2° C warmer than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. He reasoned that exceeding the normal variation would be bad.

2° C itself was, of course, secondary, simply a plausible example of the kind of target Nordhaus wanted. The main point was the principle of the cost/benefit analysis. The thing is, Nordhous wasn’t the only one who needed a definite number for the sake of discussion. It’s simply easier to talk about policy, and easier to run climate models, if you have a single number to work with instead of what the research itself often presents, which is a whole group of interrelated ranges. And so, the 2° C figure has become popular far beyond Nordhous’s original discussion of costs and benefits.

That 2° C was used during a UNFCCC (United Nations Framing Convention on Climate Change) conference in Germany in 1995 probably has a lot to do with its popularity. Angela Merkel, who was Germany’s Environment Minister at the time, chaired that conference and was apparently very impressed. She was instrumental in writing the 2° C goal into the preliminary agreement signed in Copenhagen in 2010. Also, “2” is a nice, whole number, easy to remember. Note that even in America, no one refers to the limit as 3.6° F.

Is 2° C a Real Limit?

Yes and no.

More recent research has confirmed that a 2° C rise would, indeed, take us into temperature ranges the world hasn’t seen in hundreds of thousands of years. In that, Nordhaus was quite correct. However, the climate system has not one tipping point but several; some kick in above 2° C, others kick in below–and there are some, doubtless, that we don’t know about yet.

More importantly, the premise of the limit is flawed.

First, the average temperature of the planet is not the real problem–the real problem is the speed at which the climate changes. As climate deniers are fond of pointing out, Earth’s climate is always changing and has in the past been radically different than it is today. There have been forests in the Antarctic and there have been glaciers in New England; in either case, Earth had rich, vibrant ecosystems. Human society has also weathered climate changes and can obviously do so again. But adaptation, both human and otherwise, takes time. And right now, we’re not getting it.

Second, even if climate catastrophe itself begins only after 2° C of warming (which is questionable), there is a lot that can go very seriously wrong–and some of it has already happened–short of catastrophe. Sea level rise provides the most clear-cut example, since it is unambiguously caused by global warming and higher seas unambiguously cause more severe coastal flooding. Whole nations are at risk of going out of existence. We are also losing glaciers that provide drinking water to huge human populations, seeing increases in dangerously extreme weather events…arguably, global warming may already be contributing to food insecurity, and hence to social and political tension, in the Middle East. A mass extinction is underway. All this is pretty catastrophic, if you happen to be in the middle of it. Nordhous’s original proposal, that we allow the climate to warm up until the 2° C limit so as to make more money off of fossil fuels until then, is heartless in the face of people who are dying of climate change already.

Is 2° C a Useful Goal?

Of course, 2° C is no longer being considered as the amount of warming to allow before getting off fossil fuel. Instead, it represents the course of immediate, aggressive emissions reductions–the closest thing to stopping greenhouse gas emissions today that anybody considers plausible.

Some are calling even this goal unrealistic, arguing that 2° C be abandoned as pointless an unattainable.

It’s not that cutting emissions is not technically feasible. If humanity collectively turned off the machines today, the post-petroleum age would begin tomorrow (greenhouse gas emissions would not stop quite so fast–natural gas wells would still leak, for example–but these would have minimal effect). We just don’t want to do that.

There are good reasons for not simply turning the machines off–I expect that such a sudden shift would cause widespread panic and economic collapse, for one–but not all the reasons out there are good. The fact of the matter is that some people want power and money and luxury and are willing to delay climate sanity and climate justice to get it.

But the thing is, the atmosphere doesn’t care what is politically or technical feasible–if the planet warms by more than 2° C, then whatever happens will happen, be it climate catastrophe or not. We have the option to let go of a goal, but we do not have the option to decline the consequences of our actions.

The fact we are faced with is that we must, as a planet, get off fossil fuel and address other causes of anthropogenic climate change (cement production, deforestation, etc.) as soon as possible because people are dying and ecosystems are collapsing and will continue to do so as long as we keep warping the sky as we are. If 2° C  works as a rallying point towards that end, a finite shorthand to use instead of the more amorphous “immediately,” then well and good. If some other goal works better, then let’s use that instead.

Because while 2° C is not itself a scientifically based deadline, the urgency that now informs its use does have a basis in science.

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One Less Thing to Worry About

This is a repost from the original version of this blog–now, rewritten somewhat.

There are plenty of things to lie awake at night worrying about.

What if I lose my job?
What if I can’t pay my mortgage?
What if all my teeth fall out?

Some of these worries are sensible, as worries go (did I turn the oven off before I went to bed?) and some are less so (what if I just somehow don’t die of old age, so when the sun turns into a red giant and eats the planet, I’m still on it?). But be reassured that one thing you don’t to worry about is the possibility that we are all being held in bondage to intelligent machines, as the The Matrix movies.

Don’t get me wrong; if intelligent machines do take over the world, I wouldn’t trust them not to put us in bondage, but the thing of it is human beings make terrible batteries.

(If you have not seen “The Matrix” and want the first twenty minutes to be a surprise, don’t read any further. Go see the movie, then come back.

You ready?

In that trilogy, it turns out that what we know as reality is actually a virtual-reality program used to keep human minds busy while their bodies are used as a power source for intelligent computers. It seems that war has broken out between humans and the machines, and that because the machines were, at the time, solar-powered, humans “scorched the skies,” blotting out the sun somehow with permanent thunder-clouds. To survive, the machines plugged humanity into their power-grid, raising whole generations in little pink tanks, harvesting the heat and electrical power of millions of bodies. The living, we are told, are fed on the dead, a gruesome, unwitting, cannibalism.

The reason we don’t need to worry about this is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be recycled. Every time energy changes form, some of it is lost. For example, say you make electricity by burning fuel to run a steam turbine and then use all of that electricity to boil water, you’re never going to be able to boil as much water as the original power plant did.

In other words, this

Won’t work (as the author of the comic well knows).

This is why perpetual motion machines don’t work; all systems need fresh influxes of energy or they wind down, inevitably. It’s also why a gas stove has a smaller ecological footprint than an electric stove, if the electricity is derived by burning gas.

Most people have heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since it comes up in some high school or college science classes, and occasionally in discussions of creationism as well. It isn’t an obscure concept, but somehow we aren’t used to thinking of it as part of our own lives. Perhaps we’re so used to thinking of “energy” in a metaphoric or metaphysical sense that we forget energy is literal, too.

Just the be clear on this, feeding a human population on their own dead indefinitely is impossible because each time one human ate another, most of the energy in the body would be lost. A 150 pound human needs to eat more than 150 pounds of food over a lifetime. Without sunlight (which the world of The Matrix no longer gets) the entire biosphere would lose its influx of energy and grind to a halt. No energy for the machines to harvest, and no food for the few human freedom-fighters.

Obviously, The Matrix Trilogy wasn’t intended as a physics treatise, but for all fiction must obey an internally consistent set of rules or the plot gets hard to follow. If a movie has talking animals or flying people, that’s fine, but if these elements appear with no warning in the middle of an otherwise realistic movie, it’s jarring at best. That the unexplained violation of the laws of physics it The Matrix does not seem to have distracted many people is worrisome.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is central to many conservation issues. For example, an apex predator living on the meat of smaller predators needs a huge amount of land—enough land to grow enough plant matter that after five steps of energy loss there is still enough fuel left to support a breeding population of active animals. Without a visceral understanding of energy flow, it’s hard to think clearly about how much land really needs to be set aside for large predators.

Humans are also large animals, and we need a certain amount of land to maintain ourselves. We not only consume energy by eating, but also for heating, transportation, and everything else. Although as humans we can get very creative with what we use energy for and where we use it, our activities are limited by the total amount of energy coming into the planet as sunlight, and also by the energy needs of the other components of the biosphere; if we use more energy than our ecosystem can spare, the ecosystem begins to collapse, becoming less stable and less complex. The reason that the Industrial Revolution saw such a dramatic increase in the power at our disposal was not that humans suddenly got smarter, but that we began borrowing energy from the past.

Fossil energy is exactly that; energy that fell on our planet’s surface and was harvested by plants millions of years ago. Using more energy than the sun gives us per year is only possible when we take energy that the sun gave us in the past. Except that energy is already doing something; that ancient sunlight is busy sequestering carbon. Appropriating that energy to drive to the grocery store inevitably changes the atmosphere. There is no avoiding the fact that the kind of energy use we have become accustomed to is warping our planet and is temporary. Environmental sustainability means using less energy, period.

But, at least you don’t have to worry about “The Matrix” anymore.

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For All the Beans in Lima

The results are in; after running more than a day past when negotiations were supposed to finish, the Lima conference has produced an agreement. The world is still on track to make a commitment to meaningful greenhouse gas reduction in Paris, next year. This is unquestionably good news.

And yet it is good news only in context, the context being that many countries–including, embarrassingly, mine–continue to refuse to threaten to do nothing at all. Had the agreement been legally binding, as both Europe and common sense wanted, the United States would not have signed on; Congress remains hostile to any climate progress and so American participation required a deal that could be enacted by the executive branch alone. Had the agreement included any kind of outside review of each country’s emissions-reduction plans, India would have bowed out. It is a welcome miracle that any kind of agreement could pass at all.

The text of the agreement itself is here.

The agreement itself notes “with grave concern” that the pledges being made so far are not enough to keep us under 2° C. of warming by century’s end. What we have here is a foundation for further development only–which is more than we had before, and might well be the best we can expect at the moment.

I have addressed such points before, and I still believe this agreement should be hailed as an important start. But where do these disagreements come from? Why and how did we get the imperfect document we have?

The agreement essentially consists of two parts. The first is that all nations of the world will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that each will do so by methods and in amounts of its choice. The second part is that the wealthy nations of the world will together create a fund to help pay for poorer countries to adjust to climate change–each contributor will again choose its own level of involvement.

These two parts together really sound ideal, and could fix the problem if all the relevant countries really put their backs into it, but of course everybody is dragging their feet. No one really wants to give up the perks that using fossil fuel yields. Interestingly, so-called developing countries, such as China, get more sympathy in their foot-dragging. For example, in the deal between the US and China, the latter gets to keep increasing its fossil fuel use by an additional decade in order to catch up economically. In this way, current climate negotiations echo the original Kyoto Protocol, which exempted poor countries entirely.

For the US and Europe to bear more of the cost of climate change is quite fair, for obvious reasons. But for the principle of fairness to become a roadblock to a real solution is intriguingly counterproductive.

From Yahoo News:

The Lima agreement also encourages countries to come up with ways to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of global warming, like sea-level rise or droughts. But this, too, is vague. The US and Europe have long opposed any deals that would require wealthier nations to compensate poorer countries for “loss and damages” caused by global warming (say, low-lying islands that vanish under the rising seas). So this will continue to be a point of contention.

In the meantime, wealthier nations have pledged to provide (voluntary) climate aid. Under a separate deal, nations agreed to raise $100 billion per year from public and private sources to help poorer countries adapt and adjust to a hotter planet. It’s still unclear where this money will come from, however.

That the US and Europe are so far content to leave low-lying nations to their fate (a fate that we unquestionably created) is reprehensible. That the wealthy countries of the world are willing to contribute to the fund is at least a step in the right direction–it indicates some glimmerings of a sense of responsibility.

But the longer we, as a species, go before actually getting off fossil fuel, the bigger the price tag for damages will get and the faster those damages will accrue. China, for one, stands to loose much of its fresh water supply as glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau melt and disintegrate. If China hopes to lift its entire population out of poverty by using fossil fuel for a few more years, it will fail. If the United States hopes to assuage our guilt to the world’s poor by allowing China to keep polluting, then we will fail.

If humanity does agree to forgo fossil fuel entirely by 2050, as we must in order to have a prayer of staying under 2° C. of warming, it is right and proper for the countries that have had such fuels longer to make the deeper and earlier cuts. That is fair. But that isn’t what we’re doing, yet. Collectively, we’re still limiting our emissions reductions to what we can manage without having to make radical economic changes at home. Getting as much energy as we want is still the priority. And China, understandably, wants more energy–it wants what we have, and the world accepts that, in fairness, China should get it.

All of this shows that, collectively, we still don’t believe that global warming is real.

China can’t get what the United States has, because there isn’t enough wealth on the planet to go around. The US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, the wealthy countries of the world took more than our fair share of a limited supply of matter and energy and that supply is mostly used up now; the atmosphere where we send the exhalations of our industry is full now. Pretending that the entire planet can and should come up to our standard of living before our species gives up fossil fuel–in defiance of the laws of physics–will help no one.

That the US is simultaneously clinging to its fossil fuel economy and paying into the climate fund suggests a related disconnect. These payments should be framed as damages–the US has become very wealthy and powerful by reaping the benefits of a rapacious economic system while forcing other countries, its own poor, and the people of the future to shoulder the costs. We should pay damages. But, so far, the US government refuses to admit it. In so refusing, of course, our representatives fail to acknowledge either guilt or debt and so retain the option to make only those payments we can afford–prioritizing our own wealth yet again. Our payments to the climate fund thereby appear as a kind of charity, one paid off the dividends of rendering certain people in need of charity to begin with.

I have a vague memory of a wonderful Henry David Thoreau quote–something about how when people ask him why he does not give money to the poor, he answers “how do you know you didn’t take that money from the poor to begin with?” I can’t find that quote, however, so I can’t see if I’m remembering it correctly. I don’t have a copy of the relevant book. An online collection of Thoreau quotes does supply a passage with a similar sentiment, however:

It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Thus, by not committing to getting off fossil fuel, the would has not only delayed a true solution to the problem but also, subtly but definitely, transformed the principle of fairness into one more excuse for the powerful (including China’s leaders) to take advantage of the powerless.
This does not mean we should collectively reject the results of Lima; on the contrary, we could be looking at the beginnings of a real solution, and the political leaders responsible should be rewarded in their home countries and rewarded lavishly. They just shouldn’t be allowed to rest on their laurels.
We, each of us, need to demand of our leaders even greater cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and even greater pledges to the climate fund. The United States, and other countries in a similar position, must accept responsibility for paying reparations–thereby shouldering the true cost of our own actions.
Take to the ballot boxes. Take to the streets.

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Butter Battle Warming

The following is a rewritten version of an article I published on the original Climate Emergency website, on the occasion of the climate conference in Durban three years ago. The Durban conference laid the foundation for the current conference in Lima and for next year’s conference in Paris–it was the beginning of a multi-year process of negotiation that will (hopefully) result in meaningful change. And yet, it was and is disturbing that this late in the game we should count a mere agreement to keep talking a success. I wrote this article in protest and in anger. I re-post it now in order to put the current talks in a larger context.

When I was little, the big thing to be afraid of was nuclear war. This was the early eighties, and I was old enough to understand the threat of nuclear annihilation, but young enough that I was still getting some of my political commentary from Dr. Seuss. Anybody remember The Butter Battle Book? Adjacent populations of furry, orange people get into an arms race over an obviously pointless controversy, and end up simultaneously inventing bombs capable of blowing up both countries. As both sides square off, bombs in hand, a child ask his bombardier father “Who’s going to drop it? Will you or will he?” The adult answers, “Be patient. We’ll see, we will see.”

Of course, global warming was already a threat then, and nuclear weapons still pose a serious threat now. The world’s nations still face each other tensely across boarders and bargaining tables. Only now we are locked into an entirely different form of Mutually Assured Destruction.

M.A.D., of course, was the principle that as long as two countries were equally capable of destroying each other, neither side would actually press the button. It was a stalemate that ensured the status quo, and kept the bombs from going off.That was a good thing.

Now,we face stalemate over climate. Developing countries are understandably reluctant to bear the cost of fixing a problem they have done little to cause. Meanwhile, rich countries won’t sign a treaty that does not include the developing world doing its fair share. When climate conferences end with no agreement to reduce emissions we call it a success because at least no one left the negotiating table. Again, stalemate is maintained, because no one wants to take the risk to move first.

The big difference is that now sticking with the status quo is very, very bad. “Doing nothing” about the climate is actually a misnomer in that we are actually all working very hard on the climate all the time–we are warping it. If humanity really did nothing on climate change, that would mean letting all the fires in all the power plants and combustion engines in the world go out, mixing no more concrete, building no more air conditioners and refrigeration units, cutting down no more trees….Being in stalemate locks us into doing exactly what we should not do.

That climate change is a thing we are doing also means it is a thing we can stop doing. In principle, ending anthropogenic climate change is actually very simple–we just have to turn the machines off. But doing that is not without its risks and difficulties and no one wants to do it until the other guy does.

Stated that way, the impasse sounds as stupid as going to war over butter, but in real life the challenges we’re looking at are all quite real. We’re looking at problems of justice and fairness and survival on both the personal and the national levels. A certain reluctance to change is understandable–everyone “deserves” the comfort and power that fossil fuel buys.

Ok, so who’s going to drop it? Will you, or will he?

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Please Notice

Normally, I might write about the typhoon.

The Philippines have just been hit by another typhoon, known internationally as Hagupit and in the Philippines as Ruby. Normally, I’d devote an entire article to the storm, since keeping track of natural disasters with a climate dimension is one of the things we do here. Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby hit Tacloban, among other places, the same city that was devastated by Supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda  just last year. Because Hagupit was never quite so powerful and thanks to massive preparation efforts this year’s storm was not a catastrophe, but it is still certainly news. It has been downgraded to a tropical storm and is en route to Vietnam, where it could crash straight in to Ho Chi Minh City.

But the United States is also reeling from a series of non-indictments in the highly suspicious deaths of black people. Simultaneously, the climate conference in Lima continues, an obvious must for this blog to cover.

These two seemingly very different topics find common ground in ostensibly representative bodies ignoring and exacerbating social justice.

I will not go over the current racial justice protests, and the reasons for them, in detail here. Readers who do not know what’s happening should consult writers with more expertise in that issue. I will point out that the problem is at least two-fold: one folding is the specific issue of black people being shot, strangled, or otherwise done-in and no one even getting arrested for it; the other folding is that the first one is hardly news, yet major swaths of the American populace (like, for example, me) have only just now started to notice. Even now, many seem to define the problem as the inconvenient and occasionally frightening protests, not the fact that it really looks like black lives still don’t matter in this country. The invisibility of the problem to those who do not experience it directly is absolutely entrenched.

That failure to notice is not exclusive to the issue of American racial violence. Right now in Peru, the world’s leaders meet to discuss the most important issue of our times and they make space to converse with oil company leaders but not the indigenous people of Peru–who are also, not incidentally, fighting for their lives against illegal loggers whom the government does not seem able to adequately control. That these people are being threatened and killed for attempting to protect their rainforest has an odd resonance with the conference in Lima, which intends to offset its rather large carbon footprint by protecting rainforest. Empowering the people who live in the rainforest to protect their homes would seem to be a good way to meet that pledge, but Peru has a poor record of doing that.

In essence, the conference in Lima aims to address climate change using the same political and economic mechanisms that created the problem in the first place–a global structure that prioritizes the needs and interests of the powerful over those of the powerless. That’s not an inherently bad idea, of course; the global structure is unlikely to change any time soon, so it makes sense to work within the systems as much as possible.

But operating from the perspective of the powerful makes it look as though fossil fuel use is a legitimately controversial thing, a good and necessary practice that unfortunately has some bad side effects. The issue looks very different from other perspectives, for example those of many American communities of color. Coal-fired power plants are disproportionately sited in communities of color, which may be why the incidence of asthma in black children is almost double that of American children as a whole. Dense urban cores, where the concrete and asphalt collect and re-radiate heat and few people can afford air conditioning, are also disproportionately black–so a Los Angeles resident’s chance of dying in a heat wave doubles if he or she is black. The seriousness of climate change is just one more thing that the privileged are free to ignore if they want to. Solving the problem depends, in part, on such people giving up that ignorance.

This week is also the occasion of the People’s Summit, an alternative climate conference in Peru that brings together all the people that the delegates in Lima might well forget–indigenous groups, feminist groups, and labor organizations from many different countries. Solving the problem also depends on as many people as possible making so much noise that there is no way their perspective can be ignored.


Asking for Help


As some of you already know, the Climate Emergency blog has lost its funding. Ostensibly, the situation is temporary–basically, someone else is having unrelated financial issues and has had to cut costs, so if their finances improve I may get back on the payroll. But there is no guarantee when, or even if, that will happen.

This blog is not going to go away. That much I have decided.

But the project could take a hit. This was, frankly, grocery money, and taking on additional paying work to make up the difference will bite into the time I have available for volunteer projects. If Climate Emergency could fund itself, that would be better. So I am thinking about ways it can do that.

(I should probably explain that the ads you sometimes see on my site don’t bear me any revenue–that money goes to WordPress, for hosting this site)

I could, possibly, look for grants, sell climate-themed artwork, launch a Kickstarter campaign, or host a bake-sale, but all of those options have problems. For example, to be eligible for grants, you need tax-exempt status, and to get tax-exempt status you first need to incorporate. And to incorporate you need bylaws and officers and a board of directors and various non-refundable fees…and if I could pay those fees, I wouldn’t need the grant.

Basically, I’m looking at a scale problem. None of those methods of raising money are free–you have to get yourself over an initial hump, an investment of time and money, in order to get anything back. If you’re an organized charity with a cash flow in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, then that initial hump is a mole hill, a speed bump. It’s a chore you take care of to make your life easier later. But if, like me, you’re a writer looking for grocery money, that hump might as well be the Himalaya. It’s possible to cross the Himalayas, but it’s a hell of a way to pay for groceries.

Honestly, the best way to do this is probably for me to stick a “donate” button up on my site and ask you to kick in some change for the cause. You’ll probably see such a button appear in the coming weeks–it’s simple, straight-forward, and the initial investment on my part matches the scale of the return I expect to get.

The problem is that I don’t yet have enough readers for that donation button to do much good.

That’s where you come in. Obviously, you like what I do, or you wouldn’t be reading these words. If each of you can turn a couple of your friends or colleagues onto the blog, then readership will get up to the point where asking for donations might actually be enough to pay for my time to do this. To be clear–I’m not asking for money (yet). I’m just asking you to tell your friends about me, post links to your social media pages, etc.

Spread the word.


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Why Hope For Lima?

Yesterday, a conference on climate change began in Lima, Peru.

The body meeting in conference is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The name refers to both an international treaty and to the group formed by the parties to that treaty. I wrote at greater length about these conferences and what they are for several months ago. In brief, the UNFCCC treaty does not itself do anything about climate change, but as the name implies it provides the framework for other treaties that do reduce emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was the creation of UNFCCC, although some UNFCCC members declined to sign or withdrew from Kyoto. For many years now, the international community has been trying to create a successor to Kyoto, a new treaty that is both more ambitious and more inclusive. The conference in Lima is part of that effort.

Lima itself will not produce a new treaty; hopefully, next year’s conference in Paris will do that. Instead, these two weeks in Peru are another stage in preparing the ground for the new treaty.

The signatories have already agreed to the rough outline of a plan–each country will commit to reducing its emissions by an amount of its choice and some countries will commit to giving a certain amount of money to a fund to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change. The United States, and some other countries, are unlikely to agree to a new, legally binding treaty. The US Senate, for one, is hostile to climate action. Instead, the world will likely extend existing treaties and combine them with voluntary commitments that will be politically rather than legally binding. This solution takes advantage of the American President’s authority to make certain kinds of agreements without using the formal treaty process, as per a law passed decades ago. President Obama intends to use the authority that Congress gave him to make climate sanity work.

Over the next few months, the signatories will announce what their voluntary commitments will be.  This way, by the time the Paris meeting rolls around, there will be little left to do on the agreement besides signing the thing. The plan for the conference in Lima is to work out these details on what information these announcements have to include.

Several signatories have already announced historic plans for greenhouse emissions reduction. It’s enough to make a person optimistic about the future.

Of course, it isn’t actually enough to avert catastrophe. As a recent UN report points out, current plans to reduce carbon emissions are neither deep enough nor rapid enough to keep us below 2° of warming, the cut-off point after which scientists are fairly sure the climate gets horrific (the uncertainty is whether it will get horrific before then). It’s important to recognize that the problem isn’t solved, yet.

But it’s also important to treat what we’re seeing as progress, to not reject what we’re given simply because it’s demonstrably inadequate.

The thing is, we’ve been here before on other issues. In the forties and fifties, some political leaders recognized American institutional racism as a problem and wanted to do something about it, but no civil rights bill could get past Congressional filibusters. Finally, one bill got through by the simple expedient of being so weak and watery that the segregationists allowed it to pass.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was ridiculous. The only thing it did was to create a temporary commission charged with writing a report on voting rights. The group could subpoena witnesses and record testimony, but it couldn’t actually change anything. And because the Commission was supposed to be “balanced,” several of its members were actually segregationists. The Civil Rights Commission may have contributed some momentum in the right direction, but it was, as it was designed to be, essentially powerless.

And yet, some bill had to be first. Would it have been better if powerful legislation had passed earlier? Yes, of course. But if the more progressive elements in Congress had held out for a bill with teeth, would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have passed when it did? Possibly not.

The historical point is debatable. Certainly, the activity of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the death of John F. Kennedy were both more important. Of course, the importance of any legislation might be debatable, too, considering that fifty years later the courts don’t seem sure that killing black people is a crime. I am neither black nor old enough to know for myself what America was like back before 1964. But I’d bet that strong civil rights legislation was a game-changer, even if the game hasn’t been won yet. And I’d further bet that the first civil rights bill to pass could never have been strong. Something had to break the hold of the Congressional segregationists. Something had to prove that America wouldn’t fall into chaos if civil rights legislation passed.

Where we as a species are with climate change now is where America was with racism in 1956, with growing popular support for change but with entrenched and often wealthy opponents effectively blocking any meaningful policy shifts–once again, the US Congress is functioning as a blockade. We need something to run that blockade.

That something will be the climate agreement in Paris, in 2015. We need to be the organized popular movement that then forces our political leaders to do the right thing and get off fossil fuel entirely by 2050.