The Climate in Emergency

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


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Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

I’m still thinking about Easter, some way to make a post seasonal without being trite–I’m sure there’s some way in which climate change is bad for Cadbury Creme Eggs, but really? Is that where we want to go with this holiday?

The thing is, Easter (if we ignore, for the moment, its pagan fertility rite dimensions) is the commemoration of the death of a political prisoner at the hands of the State. I’ve always found the thought of Jesus-as-activist much more intriguing than the possibility of His resurrection–which might be because I’m not Christian, but I know dedicated Christians who seem to feel the same way. It’s a fact that being a good person can be dangerous. It’s also true that we keep having good people anyway.

I’ve decided to honor the incontrovertible miracle of bravery in the face of persecution by Googling “climate change martyrs” and seeing where it leads.

“Climate change martyrs” is not, in itself, a great search term. Nothing much relevant comes up, probably because the religious dimension of “martyr” is somewhat at odds with climate science. But climate scientists are being harassed, even threatened. Some may be murdered, if the problem persists. Bravery is required.

The harassment goes back to the mid-1990’s, but has been increasing in recent years. Examples taken from the various articles I read for this piece (and have linked to) include: threats to “see to it” that a scientist would be fired; vague threats on a scientist’s children’s safety; the deposit of a dead rat on a scientist’s doorstep; the display of a noose by an audience member during a public talk by a climate scientist; and multiple, spurious accusations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

That last may seem less frightening than the physical threats, but it’s actually much more sinister. After all, it is illegal to physically attack someone, so the chance of anyone actually making good on a death threat are very low–but it is not illegal to file so many Freedom of Information Act requests or legal challenges over the use of government money that the target cannot conduct research.

Some researchers are becoming afraid to speak out on climate change, sometimes asking that their names not be associated with their work. Others labor on behind locks that have been changed and phone numbers that have been de-listed. This is happening.

Curiously, the problem is largely American. Australian climate scientists have also been harassed, but not been on the scale of what their American counterparts have had to deal with. And while Canada has had a serious problem with high-level climate denial in the past, it never bubbled over into organized harassment of scientists. Britain and continental Europe and Japan have seen little of the problem, although scientists there are very concerned for their American and Australian colleagues. Climate-denial in general is specific to the English-speaking world, at least in part because organized climate denial is propagated largely by American organizations–that speak English. That the United States is at the center of the problem should, perhaps, not be much of a surprise. After all, the United States is key to global climate action–without American leadership, meaningful emissions reduction is unlikely to happen. With American leadership, we have a chance. And since the only way to accomplish meaningful emissions reduction is to stop burning fossil fuel, if I owned a boatload of stock in the fossil fuel industries and had no conscience whatsoever, I’d try to take out American interest in climate. Wouldn’t you? And, clearly, attacking American climate scientists is part of that effort.

The recent rise in harassment dates to almost ten years ago, when two events occurred in quick succession: the release of the 2007 IPCC Report, which seemed on the verge of triggering meaningful climate action in the United States; and the election of a black man as President of the United States. The latter made possible the rise of the Tea Party, a movement that is demonstrably fueled by racist resentment rather than ideological concerns about government and yet is funded by the Koch brothers (plus Rupert Murdock), oilmen who have been accused of personal racism (do an internet search on “are the Kochs racist?”), but quite clearly have a much bigger investment in preventing climate action–they also fund the Heartland Institute, which is a major driver of American climate denial.

That the American version of hostility to climate action is deeply enmeshed with suspicion of government over-reach at the same time that the government is headed by a black man may not be a complete coincidence.

I do not raise the specter of racism simply to discredit climate deniers, but rather to suggest a mechanism whereby American conservative populism may have been hijacked and made to serve an anti-environmentalist agenda.

Some attacks on climate scientists–and by “attacks” I mean everything from threats to legal action to deliberate bureaucratic nonsense–have been perpetrated by individuals, others by organized climate-denier groups. Some of the most frightening, to me, anyway, come from government officials, including Lamar Smith, the Chair of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, and (now former) Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

Scientists themselves are not passive before all of this, and are fighting back, both individually and collectively. The Union of Concerned Scientists particularly is taking action, but needs money, and possibly other support. They need money with which to fight spurious lawsuits and stave off equally spurious bureaucratic demands which, together, might otherwise stop American climate scientists from working. I’m posting a link to their request again, here. Please support them.

Silencing inconvenient people is not an American thing to do–and when it happens anyway, the American thing to do is to stand up and do something about it.

I chose as title, a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta. The bad-guy has the hero riddled with bullets, and yet the hero does not fall but ultimately triggers the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian government–because while the hero is not personally immortal, ideas cannot be murdered. I had occasion to remember the quote recently–a friend of mine, a political organizer and activist and a deeply religious man, wrote something on Facebook that, knowing him as I do, reminded me of the ultimate futility of trying to erase ideas by attacking inconvenient people.

I have just asked his permission to share his post with you:

A few minutes before Easter. I love this annual celebration of the underlying reality that empires can’t kill the Spirit, and that a spiritual wholeness is resurrected every time we take loving and wise action in the world around us. I see the life of Jesus as one of the most powerful patterns and examples of radical faithfulness. Miracles continue to happen. Blessed be.

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Passing Over

I have not been sleeping well lately and, as a result, find myself mentally ill-prepared for the kind of  critical and creative thinking this blog requires. And I have nothing already written on hand that I can adapt for use here. I remembered that today is Good Friday, and while I’m not Christian myself, chances are good many of my readers are, so I thought maybe I could write something Easter-related. But I couldn’t think of anything. I hopped on my favorite search engine, hoping to find something interesting I could at least recommend to you, but I didn’t see anything inspiring.

Then I thought to look up climate change and Passover.

Of course, Passover is not for several weeks, but it’s still, roughly speaking, seasonal. Easter and Passover are certainly connected. And, as it turned out, “climate change and Passover” makes a really good search term if you want to find some interesting reading. So, under the joint influence of my extreme sleepiness and my sense of duty to my readers, here are a couple of recommended links.

Passover: The Four Signs of Climate Change Action

This article uses the story of Moses as an illustration of how spiritual awakening can fuel action and then frames climate change specifically in terms of the themes of the holiday. Modern poetry and Biblical quotes give the short piece great emotional punch.

Signing on to an energy covenant as a family and as an institution becomes an ethical imperative and a sacred task. Passover shows the way — the reawakening of the Earth to new life, the reawakening of our spirit to new possibilities, the transformative recognition of self-empowerment — for we stand on holy ground…and our name is called.

The Miracles of Passover and Climate Change

This article treats the Exodus story as an allegory of our current environmental crisis. It is more literalist, less mystical, than the previous piece, but, interestingly, it refers to our dependence on fossil fuel as a form of slavery.

These past few days, I have been looking through the Passover Haggadah, preparing to lead my Passover Seder. As I sat there reading over some of the miracles of Passover, a slight shiver ran down my back. I have never looked at the ten plagues through the perspective of climate change. Could the Exodus be not just a celebration of our freedom from slavery, but a warning against our consumption of our resources?
Palms, Passover, and Climate Change
This one is an outline of an event that is both an interfaith spiritual service and a political demonstration.
The people move into the streets. Chanting and singing as they go, carrying a portable large-sized globe of Planet Earth, waving the Palm branches, they walk toward a Pyramid of Power of our own day: perhaps an office of Exxon or BP, or a coal-fired power station, or a bank that invests in a coal company that is destroying the mountains of West Virginia,  or a religious or academic or governmental institution which they could call on to end its investments in Big Carbon and invest in renewable energy companies instead.
At Passover and Easter, Remembering Climate Refugees
This one is an essay on the human rights dimension of climate change, explored through the language of both the Christian and Jewish moral traditions.
In modern Jewish social justice ideology, tikkun ‘olam (Repairing the World) has become a critical concept in inspiring people to act. It is the hope that the redemption of humanity and Creation can come through the human choices that we all make in our everyday lives. In the last part of the Passover Seder we look towards that ongoing redemptive process with hope and determination.
So while I am not myself able to write much that is coherent at the moment, plenty of other people have no such limitation.


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Fiction Excerpt: Marching for the Future

Here is an excerpt from a fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. The narrator is a man named Daniel. I was actually at the climate march in New York some years ago and I wrote about it here, but this fictionalized version can bring a slightly different angle to it. To read the piece in its original contact, go here.

I was in The City for the climate march on Sunday.

I think a lot of people from the school were there, although I didn’t bump into anyone I knew except for my own group. It was a big march.

My wife and daughter and I drove down with Allen, Lo, and Alexis, and Kit and her husband. We actually parked in Long Island and took the train in. We met David, Kayla, and Aidan at Port Authority. They’d taken a bus.

The march was big enough that there were multiple staging areas, each with its own theme. We chose the one for religious groups and spent most of the day tagging along with a group of pagans. They waved banners and drummed and burned incense as they walked. Sometimes we dropped behind and found ourselves in among either of two groups of Buddhists, all ringing bells and wearing robes. Occasionally, we ran into one or another of a group of Franciscans, also in robes.

“Makes me wish we’d worn our uniforms,” Kit said, sadly.

“If we’d identified as a religious group,” Allen replied, “who would we identify ourselves as?” He has a point, since the school no longer exists.

My daughter, riding on my back in a carrier, wiggled and bounced.

“Watcha doing, sweetie?” I asked. She didn’t answer.

“She’s mugging for cameras,” my wife said. I really wish people would ask before they took pictures of my daughter, but we had dressed her up to attract attention. She was carrying a blue and green pinwheel and wearing an oversized t-shirt that read “It’s my planet, too!” Her sun-hat was covered with political buttons.

Some people carried signs in the march, I carried my baby.

Seriously, there are times I can’t even bear to think about climate change because of her. She won’t get to grow up in the same world I did. What kind of world she does get to live in depends on the outcome of this march, whether 310,000 people gathered together is enough to convince the powers that be to sign an emissions-reduction treaty with teeth in it next year.

We never used to pay much attention to politics, when I was at school. I suppose we considered it too worldly, or something. When I was a novice, we never paid much attention to climate change, either. Of course, the school itself was carbon-neutral and had been for five or ten years, but except for one or two required classes, we never talked about it. It was one more thing that belonged to the outside world. By the time I became a candidate, that standard had changed, we’d started talking about climate issues in philosophical and moral terms, but we still didn’t talk about politics. Not climate politics, nor the political implications of any of the other issues we learned about and discussed.

Now, I think the standard has changed again. Some of us are starting to talk as a group about how to engage with the world, how to do what Kit calls “the Great Magic.” Greg calls it “civic alchemy” or “applied mysticism.” We’re talking about how to use what we know and what we have to change the world. I think that if the school still existed as a school, we might begin to teach activism.

Or, maybe we had to lose the campus in order to learn how, as a community, to reach beyond it.


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Climate Change and Food: Red Meat

I have talked about climate and food before in terms of how climate change influences the food supply, but what about the other way around? How does our eating influence the climate? As many readers are probably aware, a significant amount of our collective carbon footprint (about one quarter) comes from our food system and meat-based foods have a larger footprint than plant-based foods. But how much difference between foods is there? What is the best way to cut carbon emissions out of one’s personal diet? Does it matter whether the meat is local or free-range?

I didn’t know either. So I’ve done some reading.

The numbers don’t look good for meat

The short answers are that the difference is huge, the best way to cut emissions is to eat less meat, and free-range and local do matter but, as far as the climate goes, not very much. There are some complications and nuances, of course.

I found an article that includes a graphic showing the carbon footprints of various food types (chicken, beef, eggs, lentils, etc.) expressed in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of food. “Carbon dioxide equivalent” means all greenhouse gasses taken together and expressed in terms of their impact on climate. So these figures include methane. Logically, the numbers would be exactly the same with any other measure of weight–the point is there is a ratio between amount of food and amount of emissions.

The simplest thing is to read the article, which you should do anyway because it’s fascinating. Here is the link. But I’ll summarize the most striking parts–for simplicity, I’ll give a single numbers for this; instead of writing “5kg of CO2e per kg of food,” I’ll just write “five.”

Lamb is the most carbon-intensive meat by far, at 39.2. Less than five of that is transportation and processing, which presumably means that if you raised your own lamb in your back yard, killed it yourself, and then had a carbon-neutral barbecue, it’s number would still be around 36. The next-closest competitor is beef, at 27, and then the other animal-based foods on the list cluster between 13.5 and 4.8. In contrast, the various plant-based foods on the list all cluster between just under three and just under one. The importance of transportation and processing varies, but only in potatoes is it the majority of the total figure.

I can think of several possible complications (besides grass-fed vs. grain-fed, which I’ll get to later).

  • What if the animal is a by-product of another industry? For example, if a flock of sheep are managed for milk and wool as well as meat, so that only excess ram lambs are slaughtered, then the carbon footprint of the flock is the same as it would be if those excess animals were not eaten (letting them live as pets would actually increase the carbon footprint of the operation, aside from the other ethical questions involved). In such a case, the same kilogram of CO2e has to share meat, milk, and fiber,and the whole operation is much more efficient than it might seem, right?
  • Do the figures for animals include emissions from transporting animal feed?
  • Why is the footprint of cheese six times that of yogurt given that most of them are processed milk?
  • The study focused on food in Britain; are these numbers different in other countries, such as the United States?
  • What is the footprint of highly processed foods, such as candy or fast food?
  • Since different kinds of food have different nutritional profiles, how would this comparison work if the unit of comparison were nutritional value, rather than weight? Nutrition is complex, so it might be impossible to do that kind of study, but the issue could still be important.

I do not have answers to those questions.

In any case, clearly generally similar diets, such as two different versions of mostly-plant-based omnivory, might have extremely different carbon footprints. The study that released these numbers found that while the difference between eating a lot of meat and eating a little is huge, the different between eating a little meat and none is small.

What is so bad about meat?

The clear take-home message here is that giving up beef and lamb (except possibly where these are byproducts of dairy production?), and cutting way back on other animal-based foods, is one of the most powerful steps a person can take to address climate change (aside from voting!). So, why are meats so bad for the environment? We have to be very clear, here; this is not about animal rights, which is an important but separate issue.

I have not seen this issue addressed directly, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not to mention public tastes in food, is almost certainly relevant.

The Second Law states, in essence, that every time energy moves or changes form, some of it is lost. This is why, for example, a ten pound house cat needs to eat more than ten pounds of meat in its life. This is also why ecosystems always have more plant-eaters than carnivores and more plants than plant-eaters. Most of what an animal eats does not become meat–what happens to it? Some of it becomes bone or other tissues we don’t want to eat. Some of it is never digested and simply passed as feces–which decomposes into carbon dioxide or methane–or as flatulence, which is also methane. But most of that missing food is exhaled as carbon dioxide.

One way to think about this is that all carbon that is taken up by plants is ultimately either interred in long-term storage as fossil fuels, or released again to the atmosphere when the plant rots or burns or is metabolized and exhaled. Eating food is the exact chemical equivalent of burning fuel. So, when a human eats a pound of plant matter, “burning” that “fuel” results in carbon emissions. But when we eat a pound of meat, that meat represents all the plants that animal ate to grow that meat–and all of that plant-fuel is “burned,” whether in the meat-animal’s body or in the human’s. More plant-fuel burned means more emissions released.

Cattle and sheep are both ruminants, meaning they don’t actually eat food directly. The food they swallow is eaten by bacteria in their guts, which in turn create food for the cattle. So you get another layer of energy transformation and thus another layer of energy dissipation–the bovine gets less energy out of the food and has to eat more, so more plants are “burned” as “fuel” for somebody. And the waste product of these bacteria is methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

So, meat has a larger carbon footprint than vegetables and ruminants (cattle and sheep) have a larger carbon footprint than other animals (pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc.).

Does grass-fed matter?

Most animals raised for the industrial food supply spend at least part of their lives–and sometimes all of them–in some version of a small cage being fed some kind of grain-based, heavily processed diet. There are all sorts of reasons why this is a terrible, horrible thing and why if you are going to eat meat, you should really choose only free-range animals (please note that “free-range” is a legally slippery term and that finding meat that lives up to the intent of the phrase takes some research). Is the climate another such reason?

The answer to that one depends who you ask.

An animal’s personal freedom has no particular bearing on carbon emissions. What makes the difference is whether it is grazing or browsing, as opposed to being fed corn (as would happen in a cage or cage-like feedlot). Logically, feed carries a larger carbon footprint because it must be transported and processed, whereas pasture is eaten where it grows. In fact, one of the best ways to keep open land from being converted into housing developments is to put cows on top of it. All of that argues for grass-fed meat having either a smaller carbon footprint, or possibly a slightly negative footprint, if pasture sequesters more carbon than cattle release.

On the other hand, cattle, at least, have to live longer to get to slaughter weight if they stay on pasture. More time living means more time farting, which could mean a larger carbon footprint. And while cattle are healthier eating grass, they get more energy from eating grain (which must be why they gain weight faster that way). So a day eating grass presumably means more farts than a day eating grain, too.

Which argument is actually true seems unclear at this time and might depend on the details of the cattle operation in question. And I have not found anything on how free-range living might influence the carbon footprint of other food animal species.

Wait–haven’t there always been cattle?

This question was posed by one of my Facebook friends and it’s a good question. How could cattle be a factor in increased climate change given that cattle themselves are hardly new?

This was my answer:

xkcd land mammals

From XKCD, https://xkcd.com/1338/, used in accordance with the cartoonist’s policy

 

This graphic shows that almost half of the land mammal compliment of the planet, by weight, is cattle. The vast majority is either humans or animals that humans eat. The reason it makes sense to do this comparison by weight rather than by head is that weight is a good proxy for how much animals eat and, thus, how much plant “fuel” they burn and how much CO2e is released. Consider that the energy in a pound of mouse meat is probably similar to the energy in a pound of hamburger–about the same number of calories. There are some potential complications here, but two thousand pounds of mice probably eat very roughly the same amount as two thousand pounds of cow. So, the fact that our planet has a huge number of tons of cattle right now means that a huge amount of plant-fuel is being “burned” by cattle these days.

Now, I am fairly confident that while there have been cattle for millennia, there have not been THIS MANY cattle until very recently.

I also suspect that this massive pile of mooing would not be possible without fossil fuel–and it certainly wouldn’t be economical. Feed could not be cheaply moved in to feed lots and beef (grass-fed or grain-finished) could not be distributed widely enough to meet enough consumers to justify the size of the herd. If this is the case, then excessive cattle farts are simply another symptom of fossil fuel use.

But, even if the huge herd of cattle is new, surely something else was eating all those plants before, and releasing a corresponding amount of waste and flatulence? Like, all the wild animals we’ve squeezed out of existence lately? Maybe and maybe not. Perhaps a lot of those plants used to just not get eaten and to enter into long-term storage on their way to becoming fossil fuel. Or maybe the wildlife released more carbon dioxide and less methane and so had a lower carbon footprint. There are possibilities. Or maybe the farts of cattle are actually irrelevant to climate change and the real carbon footprint of food is only the fossil fuel use and the ecological degradation associated with it?

That one I do not know.


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Um–YAY!

I was just scrolling through my email in-box and social media accounts, not expecting to see very much, when I clicked on something I thought was probably spam. It wasn’t.

You know that whole struggle I’ve been talking about for a year to get the Atlantic taken out of consideration for oil and gas exploration? The subject of this post and this one and this one and this one? Well, we just won.

To quote from the celebratory letter I just received from Oceana:

Today is not only an incredible day for the oceans, but also for democracy. It’s proof that good old fashioned grassroots organizing makes a difference.  Local leaders make a difference, no matter if you are a private citizen, business owner or elected official, without you this would never have happened.

When the administration was asked to consider input from East Coast stakeholders and local residents – they did. When the administration was asked to listen to fishing and tourism interests along the coast – they did. When the administration was asked to support local constituents instead of Big Oil – they did.

As of today, 110 East Coast municipalities, over 100 Members of Congress, more than 750 state and local elected officials, and  roughly 1,100 business interests have all publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic blasting, citing threats to marine life, coastal communities and local economies….All of your hard work and voices have been heard. Every single call, email, letter to the editor, press conference, rally, sign on letter WORKED. Every single community gathering mattered in this historic fight, from organized statehouse meetings and community rallies to strategic stakeholder meetings and strategy meetings in town halls or church basements.

The related issue of seismic testing continues–these tests, which pose a serious threat to marine life, have not yet been banned in the Atlantic, and the whole question may recur on the next five-year planning cycle, but as the email-writer pointed out, “this is a day for celebration.”

I know most of the issues in this fight, which has centered around pollution, might seem a little far afield of climate change, which is the sole focus of this blog. However, if fossil fuels can’t come out of the ground, they can’t be burned. This is an example of think globally/act locally. The threats to the entire planet are scary, but a little diffuse. Most of us do not have the power to act on a global scale anyway. But we can act on local or regional scales, and what the fight against climate change looks like on the ground is often a long serious of arguments about things like the possible impact of pollution on a single salt marsh or the type of street lights installed in a single neighborhood. Win enough of these, and we win the world.

The other reason I’m psyched right now is that this is evidence that getting involved matters. It’s easy to get discouraged and cynical, to believe that “they” are simply in charge, the game is rigged, and none of us have a chance to make a difference. But none of that is true. Sometimes the system does work. Other times it can be changed. And we do have friends and allies who can jump in this fight with us, including not only the many people who got involved in this particular fight at ground level but also many of the Congress-members we lobbied and President Obama himself. There are victories.

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t.


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Let’s Do This

Hi, all. Sorry I missed yesterday’s deadline–I was occupied by my day job. Which brings up an important point I’ve been meaning to write about, namely, the finances of this here blog.

The short version of the story is that I need money and I want your help to get it. This is always a difficult admission for a writer to make, because there’s this misconception that writers should be motivated by our muses (and our concern for issues, like climate change) and not by money. We say “it’s a labor of love,” as though there were something noble about not being able to pay the rent. Where does this bizarre idea come from? Frankly, I suspect it is a remnant of European class consciousness, but that it another topic for another blog. I’m tired of not having enough time to do important work, like write this blog, because I’m too busy doing unimportant work to pay the bills.

So, this is where I ask you for help. There is a lot you can do, ranging from the quick and simple to the impressively involved.

Spread the word

For a donation drive to really work, I need a lot of readers. The more readers I have, the lower the average donation could be and still allow me to do this work full time. Also, of course, this topic is important and more people should read it! Where you can help is by posting links to this blog on your social media and my emailing links to friends you think might like to read it. It takes two seconds, costs nothing, and would help an unbelievable amount. Really.

Donate money

I have a donate button already. Just click on it. Imagine if this blog were a magazine–would you buy a copy? How much would you pay?

Become a partner of this blog

When I started out, I had a partnership with an environmental organization that gave me a modest stipend to support my work. That partnership ended some years ago when their finances took a hit and they could no longer afford my stipend, but the collaboration had a lot of mutual benefits and I’d like to do something like that again. Could you be this blog’s partner?

The way it works is that you, or your organization, commits to providing a portion of my funding every month because you recognize that my mission (ending anthropogenic climate change) is also your mission. We’re talking something between fifty and a few hundred dollars, an actual chunk of money, but less than if you had an employee covering the same topics for you. I would retain ultimate editorial freedom, but you could request posts on particular subjects and I would publicly acknowledge you as a sponsor or partner. If this sounds interesting to you, shoot me an email; cailanthus@gmail.com.

Ideally, I’d have two or three such sponsors, both for security in case one had to withdraw and so that each sponsor’s donation could be smaller and still cover my expenses.

So, what happens next?

So, what would it look like if this blog were funded? What are my actual financial needs for the project? It’s a fair question–if I’m asking for money, you should know how much money I need, what I’d use it for, and how this blog would benefit from being funded.

My primary expense is time; when I’m working on this blog, I am not working on other projects that could earn me money. I also have to pay for Internet and electricity, and I’d use slightly less of either if I did not write this blog. I sometimes have other expenses, such as when I travel to climate rallies and then write about them. But, basically, we’re looking at the opportunity cost I pay when I work for free.

Right now, I spend about ten hours per week on this project, writing and researching. As a free-lance writer, I make about $15 an hour, which is about the minimum living wage in most areas. There are writers to get less. The finances of my industry are seriously twisted. Anyway, $150 per week, or $675 per month, would cover the opportunity cost I currently pay. As a reader, you wouldn’t see much difference, except that I’d be a lot better at meeting deadlines, but it would make a real difference in my life.

So, what if I got more? $300 per week, or $1350 per month, would allow me to double the time I spend on the blog to twenty hours per week. That you would notice, because I’d be able to edit every post (most of my posts are first drafts) and I’d be able to research stories in much more depth. You’d see consistently excellent writing and you’d see more interviews, more posts covering ongoing stories at depth, and more posts covering topics that you might not otherwise find out about. Real investigative journalism.

What if I got more?

I’d be unlikely to go full time with this one project, because the universe is big and exciting and I have a lot of interests. I could, of course, pay myself more than $15 per hour, but I probably wouldn’t. Instead, if I could raise $600 per week or $2700 per month, I’d continue putting about 20 hours of my own time into this blog and I’d pay someone else to help me (part time). What would my helper do? There are lots of options. Maybe my helper would review the scientific literature on climate change and compile monthly summaries of any developments so I could pass those stories on to you. Maybe my helper would be a marketer and expand my readership into the tens of thousands. Maybe my helper would manage an online book store focused on climate-related literature. Maybe my helper would be a fundraiser and transform this little operation into a small but fully funded team doing all sorts of great things.

What would success look like?

As far as I can tell, I have between twenty and forty regular readers, plus occasional readers who come and go. I have never met, or even heard from most of you, but I appreciate all of you just the same. Let’s say that when the next post comes out on Tuesday, each of you posts the link to your social media and emails it to a couple of interested friends. This blog will then be exposed to hundreds, maybe thousands of new readers. Some of them will like what they see and visitation will jump. Maybe my readership will double or triple. That would be great for climate sanity. I will let you know how it goes.

So, if all of you help spread the word, I could go into April with somewhere around a hundred regular readers. If each of you then decides to kick in $5, my opportunity cost for the month will be almost entirely covered. That would be great. I’ll be able to work for the environment and make a student loan payment.

And let’s say that among those new readers there are two or three who are willing and able to become sponsors. Three people who each decide to put up $500 per month for climate-focused environmental journalism. That, plus ongoing small donations from readers, would take me up around the level I’d need to not only make this my real part-time job, but also to hire a part-time assistant.

We’re talking quality writing, in-depth reporting and discussion, and the expansion of this project into a major resource for climate sanity, all because you shared a link on social media a few times.

Let’s do this.


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Sleepless in DC II: Lobbying Against Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic

The other week I wrote about my unexpected experience as a lobbyist for a day. I was one of of a group of “ordinary people” brought in by an activist group so that Congress members could put a human face on the opposition to oil and gas exploration. But my first article focused on my subjective experience. Now I want to talk about the details of what we were in Washington to do and how the process of lobbying works, at least based on my limited experience of it.

The Issue

Although the United States Government is generally supportive of fossil fuel use, there are limits–permits companies must obtain, leases they must take out, and regulations they must abide by. And not all places are even available for energy exploration. What we were doing in Washington was attempting to keep the Atlantic out of consideration for fossil fuel.

It’s not that that any of us really want new oil and gas exploration anywhere, but as residents of the Atlantic coast we have special standing to object to it on our doorstep. The mid-Atlantic coast specifically is an important stop for migratory birds–it’s almost not an exaggeration to say that the avian population of half of Canada funnels through here every spring and fall. We also have the densest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs in the world every spring. We see whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles from our beaches. Maryland’s coastal economy depends entirely on fishing and tourism. An oil spill would be very, very bad here. The relevant regulatory agencies talk about ensuring safety, and they may well be sincere in their efforts, but even if the chance of a major accident is low for any given installation in any given year, given enough installations and enough years, a big spill is almost inevitable. And minor leaks, the kind that don’t make the news, are actually close to routine. We don’t want any.

It is true that Maryland’s coastal shelf is not being considered for oil and gas exploration–but Virginia’s is, and spilled oil does not respect state lines.

Maryland’s waters are under consideration for seismic testing, a method of searching for possible gas and oil deposits by blasting the seabed with very loud noise–it’s a kind of super-intense sonar. These noises are loud enough to kill marine animals who find themselves in the way. Others may be injured or disoriented and die later as a result. Unlike drilling, which in theory does not pose an environmental problem (the problem occurs when accidents happen, as we know they will), seismic testing definitely and inevitably kills animals, including marine mammals who are otherwise legally protected–part of the permitting process for the procedure includes a permit to kill these animals. We do not want this, either.

I admit I do not sound like a journalist at the moment. While I do not attempt the ritualistic objectivity practiced by newspeople, I seldom write about my personal opinion as such. This blog does not comment on matters unrelated to climate change and seldom takes a position on matters that fairly require judgment. So why am I writing now about pollution and animal welfare (important issues usually outside the scope of this blog) and who is this “we” I write of?

“We” is the group of people who have been involved in the protests I’m talking about. We’re not a formal, organized group (although several such groups are involved), but this isn’t something I do on my own, so it feels weird to say “I” when discussing it. As to why I’m talking about these issues–no, the topic is not carbon emissions, but without fossil fuel extraction there would be no fossil fuel use and anthropogenic climate change would not be an issue. Or, put it another way, the price of abundant energy includes not only the devastation of climate change itself but also oiled birds, gummed-up marshes, and deafened dolphins somewhere. Oil spills and climate change are inextricably linked.

The Process

Every five years, the Federal government issues a list of which areas are available for oil and gas extraction and which are not. These are large-scale decisions, lumping the coastal waters of many states into single blocks. The process is always one of reduction. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, begins by making a list of regions to be considered for inclusion. The governors of states within those regions can then opt out and some do. BOEM then solicits public feedback on the map of remaining areas and based on that feedback, more areas might be excluded from consideration. Then BOEM submits the new proposal to Congress, which approves it (Congress has the power to say no, but apparently never does), whereupon BOEM solicits public feedback again and then uses that feedback to write a final plan.

Even within that plan, BOEM does not lease out every acre, only certain blocks. And energy companies don’t drill everywhere in their leased blocks. They may actually lease a block and then decide not to drill there. At each step, the area available for drilling gets smaller–but at each step it gets harder and harder to get areas removed from consideration.

Last year, I joined a group of other activists at a scoping meeting facilitated by BOEM as part of the initial feedback process. Our purpose was to demonstrate our opposition publicly and to educate ourselves about the details of the situation (formal feedback was collected online, not at the meeting). As far as we can tell, BOEM decided not to alter the plan based on our feedback, but in the months since what had been sporadic resistance has become a vociferous movement all up and down the middle and southern reaches of the Atlantic seaboard. Whole towns have disavowed the plan. With such grassroots support, an environmental group called Oceana decided to ask members of Congress to intervene by asking members of BOEM, or others in the Administration, to drop the Atlantic from the plan before submitting it to Congress.

I was among the group of a few hundred people who converged on Washington several weeks ago to ask individual Congressmembers to get involved.

Lobbying

Before this event, I’d heard the phrase “lobbying on Capitol Hill” before, but it was like one of those words, like “admixture” or “indigent,” that you think you know, of course you know, but cannot actually define. I’d been to Washington DC before, but only to join political protests or to visit museums. I’d had little sense of how the place works, either as a human community or as a group of interrelated institutions. So, again, there was this sense of vague familiarity, of having seen all these grand buildings many times without really clearly knowing what people do inside them (except in a very general way–I do know how the US government works!).

In case I’m not alone in this confusion, allow me to share a few points:

“Capitol Hill” is, in fact, a low hill upon which sits the Capitol Building and several other rather august buildings, and a residential neighborhood. The offices of the members of Congress are distributed among the Capitol Building itself and two unusually attractive office blocks, all linked by a system of underground passages and above-ground ordinary sidewalks. To work “on Capitol Hill” means to have legitimate business in those buildings.

“To lobby” originally meant to stand around in the lobby of a certain hotel waiting for government officials to make themselves available so you can try to talk them in to one thing or another. The word “lobbyist” has a rather nefarious connotation, but while I’m not saying all lobbying is benign, some of it clearly is. Lobbyists are professional relationship-makers. Their job is to know the members of Congress and their staff personally, to know what constitutes “polite and friendly” behavior in such circles, and to know how to present issues in terms of each member’s actual interests. A good lobbyist knows who cares about the environment for its own sake and who cares more about the economic ramifications of an oil spill. A good lobbyist also knows which Representative is utterly focused on his or her district and who is looking for statewide support ahead of an upcoming Senate race. Without that knowledge and skill, the chance of being listened to on Capitol Hill is very slim–not because lobbyists themselves are manipulative, but simply because they are pleasant to talk to and they get to the point.

“Our” lobbyist, the Oceana employee shepherding our group from office to office, was Will, a charming, confident young man in a stylish black suit and coat. I assume that Will is short for “William,” and so the entire time I was in his company I had “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill,” from Schoolhouse Rock, stuck in my head. As a gesture of respect I decided not to tell him so. I’m sure he gets it a lot.

The Event

So, on a snowy day in January, a few hundred of us from all up and down the East Coast collected in a conference room of one of the Capitol Hill office buildings for welcoming speeches, a briefing, and some fruit and baked goods. Then we broke up into groups by state, with each group led by one or two lobbyists or experienced activists. All of the meetings had been prearranged, but some of the arrangements changed at the last minute because of the snow and other issues.

Our Maryland group set out to communicate with both our Senators and also with those Representatives whose distracts included coastline. In all but one case, we met with staffers, not the actual Member (I noticed that members of Congress are always called Members, with an audible capital M and no modifier). The staffers were not mere functionaries; their responsibilities include deciding whose request has which priority, so if you want the Member to hear about you sometime before 2027, you have to be nice to the staffer. But being nice to the staffers was easy–they’re all friendly, energetic, personable folks.

Will suggested we be discrete about talking strategy while we were in the halls of government. Nothing we were doing was actually secret, or, as I understand it, unusual, but he did not want the details of our conversations to enter the local rumor mill–apparently, Capitol Hill is like one of those small towns where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Our being talked about was a complication our cause didn’t need. I am following the same suggestion now by being a little vague.

So, we talked to staffers and one Member–a personable fellow who impressed me by knowing where Newark, Maryland is, something most people who live five miles up the road can’t manage–and found everyone friendly and helpful. Our message wasn’t news to anybody, thanks to Will, who had been carefully laying groundwork. I had expected that if the Member disagreed with us his or her office might be coolly polite or even hostile and that if the Member already supported us his or her office might be impatient. Like, yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time! I was wrong on both counts.

Those who agreed with us wanted us to keep up the pressure, even intensify it, in order to give them the political cover to do what they wanted to do anyway. They’re public servants, so doing what their constituents want is their job. Those who disagreed wanted us to stay involved and to speak to their interests because, again, it is their job to be responsive. We did tailor our “ask” to our audience–in some cases we asked that the Member call someone in the Administration to request active intervention in the plan-writing process, in other cases we merely requested he or she keep an open mind towards us. We gave each Member a packet on information on the issue and how it related to his or her constituents. Mostly Will did the asking. Our job was to speak briefly and movingly of our homes and what would happen if they were covered in oil.

Do I paint an overly rosy picture of the halls of government? Perhaps–I’m giving everyone I met that day the benefit of the doubt, certainly. But at the same time I do not mean to describe Capitol Hill as a place of warm and wise cooperation among everybody. I do not mean to deny the disproportionate influence of money or the existence of backdoor deals. What I wish to deny is the common misconception of Congress as a monolithically corrupt place full of people who have the power to do exactly what we want but choose not to for nefarious reasons. Reality is more complex, more nuanced than that. More than anything else that day I was struck by how human, how interpersonal. a system it is, and how much might depend on people simply being nice to each other–not in the sense of quid pro quo or wheeling and dealing in favors, but simply because nice people are more fun to talk to. If you talk to someone they can tell you what they want and why and you might end up agreeing with them.

Lobbying on Capitol Hill means getting to know people and talking to them.