The Climate in Emergency

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

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What Scientists Don’t Know

So, sea level rise has been in the news, recently, in part  because of recent warnings from Dr. James Hansen that we could see as much as ten feet of rise in the coming decades. The story is a little more complicated than that and has caused significant controversy. In the interests of clarity, I’ll summarize what I’ve been able to learn about Dr. Hansen’s announcement and also explore the overall topic of sea level rise.

According to Ars Technica, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues have completed a research project that involved using a computer model to explore how ocean currents would respond to various speeds of sea level rise. They could set the model to “ten feet in fifty years,” and the computer would show them ocean currents for that scenario. The study did not look at how much the sea will actually rise how quickly, only at the consequences of different rise scenarios. Then, the team submitted a paper on their research to a peer-reviewed journal, but the review process can take a long time. The team evidently wanted their results to support meaningful climate action at the Paris conference in December, and worried that the paper might not be published in time. So, they chose a journal that has an unusual public peer-review process, enabling the researchers to speak publicly about their results before the review is complete. As part of getting the word out, they also released a short summary of their research, which included speculation that the sea could in fact rise ten feet in the next several decades–something this particular research project did not address, but Dr. Hansen is entitled to make educated guesses in his area of expertise.

The problem is that the wording of the summary leaves it unclear that he is speculating, and the public media have generally reported that the study actually predicted a rapid ten-foot rise–something that is well beyond scientific consensus at this point. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the rapid rise won’t happen. It probably could, because Dr. Hansen is very much an expert on the subject, and he could turn out to be right. He is not in any way misrepresenting his research, he is just talking about something else besides his research and doing it in a way that leaves the distinction between the two unclear.

Here is an analogy:

Say that an auto-safety researcher conducts a series of crash-tests and concludes that a given model of car has a design flaw such that a particular type of crash is lethal at an unusually low speed. She then calls a press conference, presents her findings, and says “given my results, I am especially concerned about young drivers–the traffic mortality of drivers in the 16-to-21 age group may sky-rocket if the manufacturer does not correct the flaw.” The media then respond by saying that safety test predicts teen driver mortality to sky-rocket, even though that isn’t at all what the test was about.

It is possible that Dr. Hansen created the current media buzz deliberately in order to get attention for his cause–but if he’s being alarmist, it’s only because we are in an emergency that deserves the sounding of alarms. It’s not wrong to shout “FIRE!” if the crowded theater is, in fact on fire.

I expect climate denialists will pounce on this one and paint it as an episode of deliberate dishonesty, but they would probably find a way to do that no matter what Dr. Hansen decided to say.

So, here is the overall situation with sea-level rise as we know it so far:

The world is warming, and has been for some time, now. That’s not a prediction, it’s simply historical fact. It can be difficult to measure the rise in any one location because not only does the sea go up and down, but so does the land. In much of New England, for example, the land is very gradually rising because it is still rebounding from the weight of the glaciers of the last ice-age. That makes it harder to notice sea-level rise on New England coasts. In contrast, my home area, in Maryland, is sinking, making sea-level rise seem faster than it really is. But by comparing multiple sites, measuring from satellites, and other techniques, scientists can work out how fast the seas are actually getting bigger; the water has risen about eight inches since the Industrial Revolution. Most of that rise is due to thermal expansion–warm water takes up more space than cold water. The rest is due to meltwater from glaciers.

Glaciers anywhere in the world, even those that are nowhere near the sea, raise the sea level as they melt because the meltwater eventually flows into the sea. We know how much ice is currently locked up in glaciers, so we know how much the sea could rise if all of it melted. And because all that ice takes a long time to melt, we know that even if the global temperature stabilized tomorrow, the ice would continue to melt and the sea would continue to rise until the world caught up to its new temperature. What we don’t know is how fast the ice will melt or exactly how much melting we have already committed itself to.

Not all ice has an effect on sea level, however. Floating ice–either sea ice, which forms when the ocean surface freezes, or icebergs, which form when chunks of glacier break off and land in the sea, can melt without changing the sea level at all. To demonstrate this, fill a glass with tap-water, drop a few ice cubes in, and carefully mark the water level. Allow the ice cubes to melt, and you’ll see that the water level remains unchanged. This is because when ice melts it shrinks and the volume it displaces when it floats is precisely equal to the volume of water it turns into. The melting of the arctic sea ice is a terrible catastrophe, but it’s irrelevant to sea level rise. The fact that sea ice around Antarctica is growing (remember that warmed-up ice remains ice until it reaches 32 degrees, and Antarctica is very cold) is also irrelevant.

What does matter is how much ice is floating in the sea, so if a glacier starts calving off icebergs faster (as many glaciers are), that raises the sea-level, even if those floating icebergs don’t melt. Also, much of the ice surrounding Antarctica is actually sitting on the sea-bed. That is, the glaciers rest on solid rock, and that rock is below sea level. If those glaciers thin to the point that they begin to float, then not only does the water that melted off them raise the sea, so does the fact that they are floating. One of the scary things about the science here is that it’s not always obvious from the surface which ice has begun to float–there are tests scientists can do, but those tests sometimes give surprisingly bad news.

We’ve had a lot of bad news from glaciers recently, some of which have moved very quickly, broken apart, or melted away quite unexpectedly because of reactions below the surface that scientists did not anticipate. We’ve never seen the world warm this quickly before, so we don’t know what ice does in situations like this. That is one reason why Dr. Hansen could be right–although the speeded-up melting he warns about has not happened yet, and nothing we know about ice suggests it is going to happen, there is a lot we still don’t know about ice.

Dr. Hansen is guessing that what we don’t know will hurt us.

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A Letter from the Pope

So, the Pope has come out with an encyclical on climate change.

On the face of it, this should not be a particularly large story. For one thing, Pope Francis hasn’t said anything about climate change that has not been said, at length, before—even by other religious leaders. When I wrote, earlier this year, on climate change and religion, all of the religious groups I covered had pro-environment messages on their websites, with the exception of some Evangelical Christian groups—and even they include some voices for climate sanity.

In any case, because 1) the Catholic Church is no longer in any sense anti-scientific (the Church actually sponsors a great deal of serious research and has for a long time—Galileo’s arrest is rather old news) and 2) scientists repeatedly assure us that climate change is really bad for humans, especially the poor, Catholics really should not need their Pope to tell them that the climate is a moral issue of special concern for Christians.

And yet, American politicians and business leaders have felt compelled to speak out against pontiff, so there must be something very important about his reiteration of the obvious.

What seems to have changed is that Pope Francis is obviously serious. I am not sure that all the previous pro-environment statements by Christian leaders have been—doubtless some are quite genuine, but if every church whose leadership claims to be “green” on its website actually prioritized the environment, the heavily religious United States of America would not have elected so many climate-denier Congresspeople. But the Pope clearly intends to make this a central part of his teaching—to make it something neither his followers nor anyone else can ignore.

Francis is a very popular Pope, even among people who are otherwise hostile to Catholicism—but he is still Catholic. He has not so much changed Church doctrine as brought a more compassionate attitude to it. His refusal to judge gay people, for example, is simply a more humble, Christlike way to treat people he still probably believes to be sinners. But no matter what you or I think of his Church, Pope Francis has something that is otherwise in short supply in our world; moral authority.

At least in the US, we have vocal subcultures who talk publicly about what they think is right and what is wrong, but these words seldom make it into mainstream public discourse except as political noise. When Americans feel guilty (for environmental transgressions, for racial wrongs, etc.), it is considered perfectly acceptable to attack others for making us feel that way. It doesn’t occur to many of us to simply mend our ways.

Jeb Bush, a Catholic, on hearing that the Pope was about to comment on climate change, said “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

We can assume the Presidential hopeful did not mean to admit that being a better person has nothing to do with politics, but that may well be what he believes. Certainly, the idea that anyone might be bound to follow a moral code in all areas of their lives is not popular right now.

If it sounds as if I’m talking about a violation of the separation of church and state, I am not. Neither Pope Francis, nor the 17th Karmapa Lama, nor any other religious leader who has called for climate action has worldly authority over US policy. What they can do, what they have done, is to say, unambiguously, that doing something about climate change is right. That is what I’m talking about when I say moral authority.

The Pope has said that wonton environmental destruction is a sin. That means you can’t do it and call yourself a good Catholic at the same time. You just can’t. Maybe climate action is inconvenient. Maybe it’s uncomfortable. Maybe it requires giving up something you’d rather keep (like, for example, funding for your Presidential campaign). But none of that matters within a Christian context because moral good always trumps worldly value.

And there are a lot of Catholics, so even if other religious leaders weren’t joining the Pope on this one, the encyclical is politically very relevant.

That’s assuming, of course, that actual Catholics pay attention to it–and many of them already ignore the Vatican on other issues, notably birth control. The Heartland Institute, for one, has been doing what it can to ensure that the Pope is ignored. But at least some Catholic archdiocese are responding to the encyclical already. More will likely follow. Hispanic Catholics is the US already take climate change quite seriously, and will likely give the movement much-needed momentum.

Meanwhile, there are other reasons, besides climate denial, that some Catholics might resist the Pope’s message; in speaking out on climate only months before the critical climate conference in France, Pope Francis does appear to be trying to influence the UN. And while Catholics as a group might be happy to accept climate change as real and important, the rest of the UN’s apparently very liberal agenda is more of a sticking point.

Do we really want to give these people legitimacy by working with them? some Catholic writers are asking. Environmental activists often support abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage!

Yeah, well, frankly, a lot of environmental activists are probably asking the same kinds of questions right now. Many may actually be battling the Church on other fronts even as they welcome the encyclical. The movement desperately needs socially conservative leadership so that socially conservative voters stop picking climate-denier candidates as proxies in the culture wars. And anyway, if we all agree to work together on this one issue for now, maybe they’ll be a later in which we can discuss other issues.

There won’t, otherwise.

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Racing Bad Weather

I don’t mean to brag, here, but I’m sitting on an island off the coast of Maine. The air is pleasantly cool, foggy with a light breeze. It’s nice.

Elsewhere, I know, things are not so nice. Much of the East and South of the country are way too hot, to the point of danger in some areas–as in the heat could kill you. Towns in Vermont were recently flooded with water and mud, with a bridge and some homes lost. Parts of California, too, have flooded recently, while other parts of that state continue to burn–and the floods don’t necessarily mean the drought is over, either.

This seems like a good time to remind everyone that climate change is still happening–and if we don’t like having years that set records for every possible type of bad weather all at the same time, we’d better do something about it.

At the moment, the most important climate fight in the United States is probably the fight to elect a President and a Congress who take climate issues seriously–in practice, that means Democrats. I’ve written before on the Presidential hopefuls from that party. Personally, I’m leaning towards Bernie Sanders, but Mrs. Clinton and Mr. O’Malley have impressive climate credentials as well. Could they be better? Yeah, they could–and they should get better. And maybe they will if they get enough public pressure. But the important thing is that they have shown themselves willing to act on the issue to at least some meaningful degree, whereas their Republican counterparts have done the opposite.  If we elect a Republican-dominated government this time around, we’re going to have to foment a serious revolution because our chance of making meaningful progress otherwise will be about zero.

And revolutions, I hear, are really hard.

This is why I get so upset when I read about people attacking Bernie Sanders from the left. To be clear, I have to personal allegiance to him yet, nor do I think America owes him any particular trust–he has to earn it just like other candidates do, and if he fails to do so then he’s not the right person for the job. But what bothers me is two-fold–that the attacks take the form of complaining that he’s not perfect and that none of these people are offering an alternative.

Of course he’s not perfect. He’s human–and, worse, he’s electable. Being President involves making deals, period. It involves working with other politicians who fighting for very different things, and many fight dirty. Anyone who expects the election of a single man or woman to any office, even our highest office, to fundamentally change anything is naive. At the same time, anyone who doesn’t recognize the distinction between a good president and a bad one is worse than naive–at the moment, the future of life on Earth may quite literally rest on that incremental difference.

For liberals to attack liberal candidates for not being liberal enough–without offering a competing candidate of their own–is unconscionable. It amounts to campaigning against the closest thing to your own side that you have. No one in the halls of political power is going to wake up one day and say “Jane Smith didn’t vote this year! She’s growing cynical! Well, we’d better fix everything, then.” No. If you’re not for something or someone, you cease to exist politically and the oil barons have a party because they have one less adversary to deal with.

Let me say this very, very, clearly; if we end up with some Kock-addled yahoo in the White House because too many people decided a socialist environmentalist from Vermont wasn’t liberal enough, I’m going to be pissed.

I recognize that not everybody likes Democrats, and that not everybody likes the particular Democrats who are running. That is fine. But if you can’t find a candidate you’re comfortable voting for, for Gods’ sakes, don’t boycott the election and don’t spend your time spewing negativity all over Facebook about how mainstream you think Bernie Sanders secretly is! Instead, find somebody else to vote for. Be heard. Write in your own name as a candidate, if you have to–or, if you’re not a native-born US citizen over the age of 35, write in my name, because I am those things. I haven’t a clue how to run a country, but since I honestly don’t think I’ll win, so I’m not worried about it.

Seriously, people, we have to win this one.

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Mini Ice Age? Not Likely

Could the Earth be heading for a new ice age?

In a word, no, the insistence of the Internet last week notwithstanding. In fact, any suggestion that scientists have announced otherwise is a bald-faced lie. What scientists—or, rather, scientist, singular—have announced is that in about fifteen years the sun could enter a period of dramatically reduced sunspot activity, a condition last seen during the coldest part of the so-called Little Ice Age.

Valentina Zharkova gave a presentation on solar variation to a group of astronomers last week in which she described her prediction regarding sunspots. Although her research is not new—it’s material she published last year—apparently someone just now realized its potential to cause climate confusion. The logic is that since a lack of sunspots also means a very slight reduction in solar energy output, the Maunder Minimum, as it is called, caused the Little Ice Age and a new minimum will repeat the process.

But I have yet to find any suggestion that these dots were connected by scientists. Dr. Zharkova herself made no claims concerning climate. She had no idea her research would be taken this way; she meant only to talk about sunspots. This is why I’m calling the “scientists say” claims a bald-faced lie.

(Curiously, Dr. Zharkova is a climate doubter, but I have not encountered any suggestion that she is working to foster doubt among other people. She appears to be innocent in this.)

There is a good reason why scientists aren’t running with the mini ice-age idea—it’s full of holes. Most obviously, the Maunder Minimum began about three hundred years after the Little Ice Age started. Perhaps the Minimum deepened the Ice Age, but it obviously did not trigger it. The trigger may have been a series of volcanic eruptions followed by changes in ocean currents.

More subtly, the reduction in solar energy we’re talking about is extremely small. If everything else were equal, it would cool the Earth, but everything else is not equal, and the effect of solar variation on the climate is now completely swamped by the greenhouse effect—at most, we’re looking at somewhat slower warming for a few decades. A new Maunder Minimum can’t save us.

In fact, our current enhanced greenhouse effect makes it harder for anything to trigger a new ice age, and the more greenhouse gas goes into the sky, the higher the ice age threshold will rise—making it less likely the next glaciation will happen at all.

I was not surprised to find that this mini ice age prediction is erroneous. It sounded fishy the first time I heard it because I already knew what sort of things trigger ice ages and I knew that none of them are likely to work in the near future.

I don’t mean to set myself up as something special. I’m sure a lot of people, maybe even most people who aren’t climate skeptics or deniers, had similar suspicions. My point is that if you have a basic understanding of a given scientific field, then you can make pretty good guesses about what’s right and what isn’t in that field. It’s never a sure thing—even scientists are sometimes surprised by their work (they really like surprises, actually). But it’s like knowing a person well; some years ago, a friend of mine was charged with a crime and I knew he had not done it, because I know him. Sometimes people do commit crimes that shock their friends, but that’s pretty rare. In fact, the charges against my friend were dropped for lack of evidence.

This is my working definition of science literacy; knowing enough about a given field to be able to make intelligent guesses about which stories are true and which spurious. I am literate in both ecology and climatology. I am probably close to literate in botany, zoology, medicine, astronomy, and physics. I am not remotely literate in chemistry. I know a little, of course, since there is overlap between it and the fields I know about, but you could very easily construct some chemical malarkey that I’d believe.

How does a person go about becoming science literate in this sense? I wish there were a simple, unambiguous way to do it, but I know of none. A master’s degree helps, but they’re expensive. There are plenty of books and websites out there, but in the beginning it can be difficult to tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience—especially since mainstream opinion is sometimes wrong. How do you tell the difference between a brilliant new theory and something somebody just made up?

I’ve touched on that before and I will again. For now, I’ll just say that in the beginning it is better to go with mainstream scientific ideas, since the scientific process is pretty good at weeding out malarkey whereas the popular press has no such protections at all. Writing a book about how your pet fantasy is “a ground-breaking truth mainstream scientists don’t want you to hear” is easy. Making it through the peer-review process to get published in a reputable journal is hard.

So what does trigger ice ages?

Short-term cold periods can be triggered by volcanism, changes in ocean and air currents, or possibly, yes, solar variation. Human history can also play a part; large-scale reforestation in the wake of the Black Death in Europe (which killed about a third of the population, leading to crop field abandonment) may have helped deepen the Little Ice Age, which was then only a few decades old.  It also may not be a coincidence that after a brief warming, the Little Ice Age returned and deepened dramatically after a series of pandemics dramatically reduced the population of the Americas (again causing large-scale crop field abandonment and reforestation) since changes in land-use patterns can alter the carbon cycle.

But the really big glacial advances are generally caused by changes in Earth’s orbit.

The Earth’s orbit varies in three ways: the shape of the orbit shifts from strongly elliptical to nearly circular and back again; the tilt of our axis varies; and which hemisphere has summer while the Earth is closest to the sun changes. All three cycles are very long, in the tens of thousands of years. All three influence the climate, but major glacial advances happen when the cold part of all three cycles coincide.

Or, more precisely, when all three cycles together make Northern summers relatively cool. The Northern Hemisphere has much more land in high latitudes than the Southern Hemisphere does, so when snow on those land masses doesn’t completely melt in the summer, the resulting glaciers get large enough to trigger feedback loops and drop the global temperature still further.

The process takes a long time; from an interglacial to the deepest part of a glacial advance takes tens of thousands of years. It would make a very boring disaster movie. Melting, which happens when the three orbital cycles move out of alignment again, is comparatively quick, but still takes thousands of years. The climate change we are causing now is freakishly fast (and still makes a boring disaster movie).

These orbital variations are not new, of course, but in the last few million years, changes in the shape and arrangement of continents (the creation of the Isthmus of Panama and the Himalayan Plateau)have shifted air and water currents in such a way as to balance the planet precisely between freezing and thawing. Slight shifts in solar energy caused by the orbital variations are enough to shift the balance one way or the other.

The thing is, the warmest part of our current interglacial happened five thousand years ago—we’d been gradually cooling since then, until human activity reversed the trend. Could the Little Ice Age have actually been the onset of a true ice age, interrupted by the Industrial Revolution? I have not been able to find out. But the thing is, anthropogenic climate change is already occurring against what should have been a cooling trend. I was suspicious of the mini ice age because I knew that we’ve already put enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to overpower and delay the onset of normal glacial advance.

Which is pretty horrific, if you think about it.

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Green Fragility

I’ve been reading recently about “white fragility,” a phenomenon where white people refuse to listen to black people talk about racism unless that talk is carefully couched in terms that don’t make the white people feel bad.

The feeling bad part is understandable. It is difficult to stand accused of complicity in the entire racist system and not start sputtering “wait a minute! But I voted for Barack Obama. Doesn’t that count for something?” And, indeed, whether and how different people are culpable for racism is an interesting and important question. But then there are people saying “hey, my son is dead now and nobody seems to care. Why is this conversation about YOUR feelings all of a sudden? My baby is dead!”

I could write a lot about this, but other people (who know a lot more about it than I do) already have and you should go read their work. My topic, at least for this blog, is climate change. And the thing is, I see fragility here, too.

I want to be very clear that I’m not trying to steal the thunder of those who are talking about race. Instead, it is their work that has given me new and better language to discuss a problem I’ve been seeing in other contexts for a long time.

I see it in the self-described environmentalists who refuse to hear any suggestion that their behavior should change unless that suggestion is couched in the most gentle and complimentary terms. I see it in the behavior of environmental activists who have, for decades, struggled to shape their message into something reassuring and positive for fear of “making people feel guilty.” I see it in the writings of environmental educators who have insisted, for decades, that switching out a few light bulbs can and will save the Earth when the reality is the moment requires a lot more of us.

It’s not that how a message is delivered shouldn’t matter–having a righteous cause is not an excuse to treat other people badly, and the effective activists are the ones who can develop ways for allies to get involved and feel good about getting involved. All that is true.


If someone ran up to you and shouted “You idiot, your house is on fire!” would your first response be to chew them out for calling you an idiot? Or would you sniff around for smoke?

The fact of the matter is that fragility is not unique to the racial context—and it probably is not unique to white culture either. Somehow, we seem to see reality as optional, as though it were possible to make suffering go away by ignoring it. And when the scale of a problem is huge—and climate change is even bigger and more dire than racism—facing it feels almost existentially difficult. There is no way to relieve the sense of guilt, no way to earn a gold star for a job well done, because the job isn’t going to be done. The world is going to demand all we have and then keep on demanding more.

None of us is ever going to be good enough, measured against these (and other) issues.

The thing is, we have no time in which to argue about our personal self-worth. I don’t mean not to stand up for yourself if a person with a great cause happens to also be a jerk. I mean make a personal commitment not to make your recognition of reality conditional upon how you feel.

Your house is on fire. Stop worrying about whether or not someone else thinks you’re an idiot and put the fire out.



Ok, now Canada is on fire. As of two days ago, at least, British Columbia had all of its firefighters working, and still needs more help. Alberta’s resources are likewise becoming strained and the province has invited in firefighters from Mexico to help–the teams from Jalisco have partnered with Alberta before and the two groups have coordinated their training programs.  Saskatchewan and Manitoba are also struggling with many major fires, and the smoke has triggered serious air quality warnings in parts of the United States. Virtually all of the US is now smoky to some degree; I saw a thin, grey-yellow haze in Maryland last week. This is not the first time I’ve seen continent-wide smoke, but it’s still a startling thing.

When disaster strikes, it’s reasonable these days to wonder how the problem relates to climate change.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the fires in Alaska. The international boundary between Alaska and Western Canada is essentially a figment of human imagination, so it’s not surprising that most of what I wrote about fire in Alaska also applies on the other side of the boarder. I have not been able to find much in the way of detail on the ways global warming might be causing these fires (or, more precisely, making them more likely); generally, the farther from the equator an area is, the more its climate is changing–and the changes involve not just increasing average temperature, but increased extremes. That includes more extreme droughts and heat-waves, which promotes more fires. So, while there are other factors in play, fires in Alaska and Canada are getting worse, and climate change is one of the reasons why. Fire is the new normal in Western Canada, that much is clear.

What is even clearer is that these fires also exacerbate climate change, not only by releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide but also by accelerating the melting of permafrost–that will eventually release huge quantities of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. Then we could fall into a nightmare scenario, where more warming melts more permafrost, releasing more methane, which causes more warming….

The ironic thing here is that as sensitive as Canada is to climate change, the Canadian government has been very poor at doing anything about the problem. Canada has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world, it pulled out of the Kyoto Treaty, is not on track to meet its Copenhagen obligations, and is allowing the exploitation of the tar sands at horrible environmental and human cost.

Not to pick on Canada; it’s not like it’s the only country in the world that needs to get it’s act together on climate.

What strikes me in all of this is that we live in extraordinary times and by and large fail to notice that fact. Much of a continent lies veiled in smoke, half of Canada is rapidly exhausting its firefighting capacity, and science can tell us to expect more of the same. And yet, many people go on with life as before, continuing to talk about whether global warming will happen at some future point!

Recently, I’ve been watching The Abolitionists, on The American Experience. I can’t help but think that the timing of this rebroadcast is not a coincidence but instead represents a partial response by PBS to the deaths of Freddie Grey and others like him and to the recent violence against a string of black churches, beginning with the shooting in South Carolina. It is startling to watch the courage, dedication, and, in some cases, short-comings of the abolitionists against the context of current events.

However, I am also struck by how familiar the impatience of people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown seems to other contexts. While other people in their society either insisted slavery wasn’t that bad or seemed content to let the trajectory of history “bend towards justice” with glacial slowness (apparently many white abolitionists were primarily concerned with the souls of white slaveholders and saw the welfare of actual black people as a kind of foot-note to the movement), they became insistent that slavery end now. Every minute of delay, they knew, was another minute of suffering and pain for millions of people. They were conscious of an emergency, and, each in their own way, acted on that knowledge.

Yes, I’m comparing slavery to climate change.

Some readers may accuse me of appropriating somebody else’s fight, of attempting to use the imagery and energy of the resurgent civil rights movement for my own ends. That’s a reasonable charge and I respond to it, with respect, thus; first, climate change is a social justice issue, since it hurts the disenfranchised first and most deeply, and second, the intersectionality of various issues leads to common and interrelated problems, so why not recognize the solutions as related as well? The fact of the matter is that human beings should be braver and more intellectually honest than they are, whether in light of churches burning in the South or forests and tundra burning to the North. I find the abolitionists inspiring. They rose to the occasion of their lives, and so should we.

Every moment of delay before a real solution is a moment lost.

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Hi, everyone.

I’m traveling this week, which means insanity and no time for doing anything, including keeping up with my blogs. HOWEVER, some weeks ago, one of my free-lance clients gave me an assignment near and dear to my heart–fuel economy and how the trucking industry is actually working to reduce its emissions. The piece I wrote for them has now been published on their website. So please, hop on over to my client’s website, where you can read my work in a brand-new context. And I’ll be back with an original post later this week or early next week. Thanks!

Click here to go to the article.

And as the Eagles said,

Take It easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy.

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We Hold These Truths

It’s been an interesting week for freedom.

In the wake of the Charleston shooting, America has begun discussing the Confederate flag, grappling with the paradoxical legacy of a second declaration of independence organized specifically around retaining the “right” of slavery. The aftermath of the same tragedy gave us the unforgettable sound of the President of the United States of America, the most powerful man on Earth speaking–and singing–as a black man, in a country where that is still not a safe thing to be.

We also got the wonderful news that the US Supreme Court had ruled in favor of same-sex marriage–and almost at the same moment, certain conservative forces began plotting how they might exercise a different kind of freedom by ignoring or subverting the ruling.

And now, American Independence Day itself is fast approaching, a time I like to use, not for patriotic veneration of the Stars and Stripes, but for contemplation of history, especially of how and why our cultural ancestors acted as they did and made this country.

In this spirit, then, I want to call the reader’s attention to a different Declaration of Independence, written by Alec Loorz as a means to call for action on climate change:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to rid themselves of an energy system that has been found to threaten their lives and liberties, it is only decent that they should declare the causes of separation from the dependence on Fossil Fuels.

We, the youth of these United States, know that some truths are self-evident: that all people are created Equal and that they have certain inalienable Rights: especially the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Because of our addiction to fossil fuels, the Earth has been pushed out of balance and suffers from Global Warming.  The effects of that warming include extreme weather shifts, more frequent natural disasters, melting ice caps and glaciers, global sea level rise, diminishing food and water supplies, and habitat loss.  These problems put the Children of this and every Nation, thousands of entire Species of animals and plants, and Future Generations in danger of losing their rights to Life, Liberty and Happiness.

So, when the burning of fossil fuels has been shown to cause Global Climate Change, it is time for those most affected to stand up and to demand change. We call for change from our cities, our states, and from our Nation.  And we commit to change ourselves.

Therefore, We, the youth of the United States of America, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of this Country, solemnly publish and declare, that we, as a Community, ought to be Free and Independent from lifestyles and forms of energy that cause Global Climate Change.

We Implore our Leaders to build of a Secure Future, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent People may of right do to build a more Sustainable and Just Society. And for the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge our Commitment, our Passion and our sacred Struggle for Equality and Justice.

Moving, no?

But without in any way criticizing Mr. Loorz’ work, I find it important to point out certain differences between his document and the one it was clearly intended to echo.

The first paragraph of each is essentially equivalent to the other; Thomas Jefferson acknowledged that when a people does something as radical as to unilaterally declare its independence, some explanation is in order. Mr. Loorz used similar wording to likewise offer an explanation. Mr. Jefferson goes on to assert what was at the time a very radical principle–that sovereignty rests with the people, whom government exists to serve, not the other way around. The Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels contains no such iconoclasm, but that is because it didn’t need any–the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness provide justification enough. Both documents enumerate a list of reasons for taking action, although Mr. Loorz’ list is much shorter.

But the critical difference lies in the fourth paragraph: “when the burning of fossil fuels has been shown to cause Global Climate Change, it is time for those most affected to stand up and to demand change. We call for change from our cities, our states, and from our Nation.” Structurally, its equivalent in the original is “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled…do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”

See the distinction?

Both writers used the because of A, B, and C, we therefore do D structure common to most legal declarations, but where Mr. Jefferson’s D was to unilaterally declare independence, Mr. Loorz simply asked somebody else to do a better job of leadership. In other words, it’s not a declaration at all: it’s a request. And, so far, the request has been denied, as most such requests are.

There is nothing wrong with making such a request, indeed, the signers of the original Declaration of Independence sent several requests for better treatment to their King, before finally deciding to take matters into their own hands. As Mr. Jefferson  acknowledged, revolution is such a major step that it should not be taken lightly, but only when there is no other reasonable choice. Then, too, Mr. Loorz was a teenager when he penned his request, and he was writing on behalf of other teenagers and of children. He and his colleagues could not reasonably declare unilateral independence from what amounts to the American economy since they were themselves still dependent on their parents (most of whom, we can assume, are still embedded in that economy). An impassioned request was probably their best move.

But what would a true declaration of independence from fossil fuels look like? I mean, aside from its literary form.

First, to declare independence, one must actually be independent. As John Adams later described, American independence was not something one on the battlefield but rather something that grew in the hearts and minds of the people. Britain tried to stop the independence, failed, and then admitted that they had failed by recognizing our government  as legitimate–but that recognition did not create our independence, it only ended the war. To declare independence from fossil fuel, one must first become independent from these fuels. Some individuals have done that–and some communities are in the process of working towards it.

Have any communities of significant size achieved independence? I do not know. If and when some do, it’s possible they’ll be some push-back–gunboats blockading New York Harbor seem unlikely, but expect lawsuits, arrests, jail time. Being opposed by “the establishment” is a sign that one is having some success.

The point is that one does not, cannot ask to be independent from anything–one simply becomes independent, and then announces that fact to others. As Mr. Jefferson wrote, it is decent to let the world know why this step is necessary–especially since the very fact that the declaration is necessarily suggests that the principles on which it rests may not yet be universally understood and accepted.

And so, let me say this; the radical truth that we hold self-evident is that short-term economic gain does not outweigh the good of the disenfranchised, the people of the future, or than planet as a whole. Indeed, it is the other way around.