The Climate in Emergency

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


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Three Views of Life on Earth

Stuff is happening in the world–fires in the arctic, notably, though there is other important news to cover. But for me to cover it myself would take time that I don’t have free this week for sad reasons that some of you already know. So instead I’m giving you this repost of a piece originally written for college some years ago but posted here back in April. I find it relevant today.

-C.

Just before Yule this past year, I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine, Robert, while doing some sewing. I turned to do something in the kitchen only to discover upon my return that my cat, her ulcerated tumors bleeding again, had covered my workspace, including my dress pattern, with irregular, red spots. I hustled around trying to separate my patterns so they could dry and protect my fabric without interrupting the flow of conversation, whose subject seemed bizarrely civilized under the circumstances; we were discussing the genome of the grape and the proper ways to serve different kinds of wine while I stared, transfixed, at the red, Rorschached blotches like footprints, stalking, taking, slowly, my cat.

Here, observe, three views of life on Earth.

One:

Saturday morning in January, warm, hot as May; the breeze moves, gentle, as I stand on the sidewalk waiting for the bus by the Ethan Allen furniture store and St. Phillips Lutheran Church, chickweeds growing in delicate riot by my feet, so far so good, but also dandelions, clover, greening grass, while the trees stand mute above like skeletons. This isn’t right; though the air is pleasant on my simple skin I can’t enjoy it. This weather is as apocalyptic as last summer’s heat waves when I lay, sick and dreaming, too hot to work, all thought, all feeling driven off by the eternal, heavy, heat, save one; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but this is the way it is going to be, more often now, because of us. A funeral procession drives by, headed by slowly flashing police escort, dozens and dozens of cars of mute, hard-eyed people. Most of the cars have only a single passenger, or at most, two. An oil truck cuts through the line to make a delivery to the strip mall behind me, its presence as lyric to the day as a line of poetry. I wonder, whose funeral is it?

Two:

My cat wants to go out, and I can deny her nothing, except for all the things I have denied her and all the things it simply isn’t mine to give; this leash, for example, is a compromise between her exuberance and her body, too sick to take a rabies vaccine. She has never gotten fully comfortable outside and never developed her body to its feline potential; as far as I know, she has never climbed more than a few feet up a tree. Probably, she never will, now. Maybe she might have if I had simply let her out and hoped she didn’t get bitten, or maybe I should have gone out with her more, for longer. Who am I to draw this line here? Who am I to bring a cat in out of the sun just because I have something else I need or want to do? These are judgments I do not feel competent to make and I never have felt competent to make them through these long years of one kind of leash or another hanging between us, yet make them I must. Nothing that I gave her could ever have been enough to absolve her of further desserts. We walk, and she pauses to scent-mark the bottom twig on the lilac bush, rubbing it with her nose, her gums, sniffing it delicately. I sniff it after her and compare the scent to that of one higher up, above the reach of cats and foxes. I fancy I can detect a difference. She stalks a bird in the ivy bed, and I flatten myself out behind her, trying to move forward without frightening her quarry, giving her as much range as possible with the leash, my arm, and the length of my outstretched body. The bird must have flown while neither of us noticed, for now it is no longer there. The day is fine and high and blue, and she doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. Or, at least she doesn’t favor herself, she goes full-bore, always, along her small, plucky way. I mean, what else does she have to do? It’s not like she’s going to get better, it isn’t like she has time to spare in self-pity. She just plays the cards she’s dealt. This animal is a carnivore, whose kind prune and in so pruning, create the reproductive exuberance of small rodents and birds. Fed on organic ground beef through the agency of human loyalty and partisanship, this cat has lived almost nine years. In that time, how many steers have died young for her?

Three:

Walking through campus I can see that the remaining old elms are dying; they have brownish yellow stripes running up the grey and furrowed trunks. My Dad told me about Dutch elm disease when I was little; I have never known a time when its inundations were not part of my history, but as I’ve been watching, over the better part of thirty years, the pandemic has progressed and more of the great cambium fountains have come down. When I was little, I remember, the elms met over the walkways, across the greens. I remember walking, on Community Day, a visceral memory; the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, a grown-up hand—whose? I only remember the hand—in mine, and above an arching green roof full of multicolored balloons escaped from the careless hands of other children. The greens are open, now, the places of most of the giants taken by smaller trees, another kind of elm, I think, their stems slowly thickening into adulthood. My friend, Robert, is an ecologist who is busy mapping the community types of my state. When I brought him here, on the way to a coffee shop, he remarked that the campus probably counted as Modified Meadow or Modified Hardwood Forest. He’s grasping at straws; this isn’t altered, this is new: American Collegiate, typified by dying elms, manicured grass and a fauna of Frisbee players, grey squirrels, and playful dogs. No matter how aberrant this slow death of trees seems to me, the elms would never have died in such numbers if they hadn’t been planted unnaturally thick to begin with.

Humans are capable of a certain impartial perspective, but at heart we’re partisan animals living in a non-partisan world. Global warming and human-associated habitat destruction are surely no more radical than the asteroid that marked the KT boundary. Life recovered, growing even more diverse in time, and will again; nothing stays the same for long. Similarly, the birthrate of any given species is adjusted to its mortality rate; if it takes three dozen mice born per one that makes it to adulthood to keep even with the hunger of cats, then that is the number that mother mice produce, yet every pup is an individual. One could say each mouse deserves a full and happy life, just as every cat does, but it is the nature of both cats and mice, in their fullness, to produce more than can so live; to lower the mortality rate would require lowering the birthrate which would change the nature of the animals’ lives. Anyway, which individuals don’t get born in that case? Isn’t it better to live for at least a little while? Like climate change and disaster, death and even personal tragedy are just part of how things work; if these things did not exist, life as a whole would be different and probably the poorer for it.

Yet we are partisan, and we must behave in partisan ways; we act, we do one thing rather than another, and so we must make choices based on some judgment, some assessment of value, even if the value is a purely private priority. Mass extinctions happen, and in the grand scheme of things may not actually be a problem, but I must throw my small weight either for this one or against it, and I do not want a mass extinction on my watch, on my conscience. Plants, animals, and diseases do invade each other’s territory; humans may be causing an unprecedented invasion, but we are not causing the only one. Communities adapt and change. Diversity will recover. Nonetheless, I want my trees not to die of some imported disease, even if their gothic branches were themselves an artificial presence. And I want my Gertie to have not had cancer to begin with, I don’t care if she’s no better or worse than a mouse or a beef steer–or me, for that matter, I wanted this one, this particular one, to get the proverbial sun, moon and stars. That I, a mortal human, couldn’t reach them for her does not reduce the injustice any less.

We live in a world of change and transformation; one thing eats another, one thing subsumes another, one thing takes another’s place. Even if it were possible to pick sides, once and for all, on moral grounds, it would not be possible on physical grounds, for not only does the success of a predator mean the failure of a prey animal–and vice versa–but it is the very opposition, the very dynamism of the system, that makes the system in the first place. Under whatever happy façade of civilization or rationalization, we are incontrovertibly members of a system where things break and change and die as an inevitable matter of course, without violating the integrity of the whole. Under whatever veneer of educated perspective, however, we remain organisms who fight and try to win.

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Candidates for President on Climate, Part V: Independents, Third-Partiers, and Republicans

I spent some weeks discussing the many hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States–the review took up five separate posts (click here and here and here and here and here). But there are more people running than just Democrats, and we need to think about them, too.

I should reiterate that I’m talking only about climate, here. There are many other important issues that bear on the election, but climate change is the focus of this blog and the one issue we have to get right or none of the other issues can possibly turn out well.

The Field of (Candidate) Dreams

The remaining field of candidates includes Republicans, third-party candidates, and independents (except no independents have declared, yet)–and even a few more Democrats.

Republicans

There are currently two candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president. A third is seriously considering it. It’s interesting to note that while neither potential challenger to President Trump is a climate hawk, both are on record as believing climate change is real and should be dealt with. They are where Democrats were just a cycle or two ago. This is progress.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is running again, but since we already know he’s terrible from a climate perspective, and climate is the whole perspective of this blog, he can be safely eliminated from consideration; even if you liked everything else about him, his policies, and his performance as President, if you care about the climate and everything that goes with it, you can’t let Donald Trump win a second term.

Bill Weld

Bill Weld is making a serious attempt to challenge President Trump for the Republican nomination. He is currently practicing law, but has political experience (he was governor of Massachusetts in the 1990’s) and has run for national office (vice-president, on the Libertarian ticket, in 2016). He is, in general, a small-government fiscal conservative who favors liberal-to-progressive social policies. Despite his Libertarian connections, he not only calls for climate action, he supports rejoining Paris.

His record on climate is both minimal and a little mixed. As a Libertarian candidate in the previous election, Mr. Weld said humans were “probably” changing the climate and expressed concern about “needlessly costing American jobs and freedom,” but did support “regulation that protects us from future harm,” and he did have a good environmental record as governor. But there are signs his views continue to evolve. The primary thrust of his campaign appears to be a specific rebuttal of Donald Trump, and he has strongly criticized Mr. Trump’s anti-environment policies in terms suggesting that Mr. Weld understands climate change fairly well and accepts its seriousness–and he has invoked Teddy Roosevelt as an example of what he wants his party to be.

Is Bill Weld the Republican environmental leader the country needs? I have argued before that the US does need such a leader, since something as important as climate action should not be left to a single political philosophy. I have not been able to track down any specific policy proposals on his part relating to climate, besides rejoining Paris, but he does appear to be at least a semi-viable option.

Putting my political commentator hat on for a moment, I don’t like Mr. Weld’s chances. Aside from the fact that primary challenges to incumbents are extreme long-shots at best, Mr. Weld’s mix of policy positions puts him in a bad position. He is pro-choice, meaning he essentially cannot compete for the votes of the religious right–precisely those Republicans who might most object to Mr. Trump on moral grounds. Voters who do want a pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro-climate action president are likely to find a stronger candidate on the other side of the aisle, in, say Elizabeth Warren.

But I wish him luck.

Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford is not yet in the race, but he is seriously considering it. He is more conservative, more simply Republican, than Mr. Weld, and thus may have a somewhat larger impact on the primary process, if he jumps in. He has more recent political experience, having been governor of South Carolina just a few years ago. And he wrote an op-ed calling for Republican climate action back in 2007.

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of him saying anything at all about climate since.

Democrats

Yes, of course we’ve already covered Democrats. In fact, one of them, Eric Swalwell, has already dropped out. But Joe Sestak hopped in while I was writing the posts, and somehow Mike Gravel escaped mention though he’s been in the race since April and is now making noises about dropping out. Tom Stayer has also recently jumped in.

Mr. Sestak has some modest but real climate credentials and favors a carbon-fee-and-dividend system, plus rejoining Paris. Mr. Gavel has several strong environmentalist positions, but has a history of sometimes breaking with environmentalists. He has supported a carbon tax, and can discuss the economics of fossil fuel thoughtfully. But he doesn’t seem to have said anything about climate in some years. Mr. Stayer is a billionaire who has made a name for himself in climate advocacy, although as a candidate his major focus has been not on climate but on getting corporate money out of politics.

There are still a few others about whom buzz has developed and who have not yet ruled out a run.

Greens

The Greens have not yet entered their candidate-selection process, and do not have any high-profile hopefuls. It’s almost certain that the Green Party candidate for president will have excellent climate credentials; the question will be what his or her other credentials are and how the campaign influences the rest of the race.

Libertarians

There is a large field of Libertarians vying for their party’s nomination. Since even the eventual nominee will be an extreme long-shot, I’m not going to discuss them individually here. It’s also worth noting that Libertarian values are at odds with a President exercising much leadership in climate action anyway–when the US pulled out of Paris, the Libertarian Party Chair said that the content of the Paris Accord was less important than the principle by which such decisions are made–and that the President should not have the power to make the Paris Accord to begin with.

The political philosophy here, according to Chairman Sarwark, is that once the government is out of the way and no longer distorting the market, market forces will prevail and individuals will do the right thing (switch to renewables).

The problem here is three-fold.

  • First, market forces are inherently amoral. Even assuming the relevant body of economic theory is correct, the “invisible hand” of the free market serves only to ensure economic efficiency in the face of consumer demand–and what consumers demand is not always the same as what citizens want for their country, even when the “consumers” and the “citizens” are the same people.
  • Second, we all know that many individuals do not do the right thing in many different life contexts. Climate action is not necessarily an exception.
  • Third, government power is not the only form of concentrated and potentially despotic power that exists. Removing government power will not result in a free society unless there is also some mechanism to prevent the concentration of power through either money or physical force. Such a mechanism could be developed, on that subject this blog remains neutral, but one does not exist yet–and moneyed would-be despots with an interest in preventing the switch to renewables already exist. Removing government from the equation will only result in their operating directly rather than through government proxies.

A Libertarian President who refrained from exercising leadership on climate would be little different, in practice, from a President who actively opposed climate action.

Independents

Somewhat surprisingly, I have not found any confirmation that anyone is actually running for the U.S. Presidency as an independent yet. Most of the likely contenders have either announced they won’t run or declared as either Democrats or Libertarians. Even Vermin Supreme is running as a Libertarian this cycle, according to his Facebook page (although his Mandatory Tooth-brushing Policy would seem to be antithetical to Libertarian principles). Of course, with the election still more than a year away, there is plenty of time for someone to declare.

The Big Picture

The big picture is that for the first time, climate is being placed at or near the center of the agenda by the candidates of one major party, and at least some candidates from the other major party also have climate messages. It’s where we should have been a decade ago, but at least we’re here now.

From a climate perspective (remember, this blog is neutral on all else), I’d be comfortable with any of the Democratic front-runners, and not too uncomfortable with several others in the race. But if you’re looking for an endorsement, Elizabeth Warren has it. She combines serious, thoughtful dedication to the issue with true political grit and real electability.

Now we just have to get some climate sane person in.


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Pledging Our Sacred Honor

Did you have a good Fourth of July? American Independence Day, of course, a day I tend not to get terribly excited about as I’ve lost my taste for fireworks, but I do still like to listen to the annual reading of the Declaration on NPR. What struck me this year was the phrase “our sacred honor,” something we don’t hear much about these days. The courage and commitment of the Founders–their various moral shortcomings notwithstanding–is also remarkable. Remember, they didn’t know they would win. They weren’t the Founding Fathers, yet. They were making it up as they went along.

So are we.

When in the course of human events it becomes obvious that the people in charge do not wish you well, and in fact have as their stated and consistent aim your failure and the destruction of all you hold dear, then by God you have a right–even a duty–to do something about that. You know where I’m going with this. I’ve argued in years past that the failure of American leadership on climate constitutes a kind of treason, a selling out of American interests to those of certain other countries. It’s time, and more than time, to take our power back.

This is the first election year in which climate change is a major campaign issue. It has become such because people are committing themselves, pledging their sacred honor, to the issue. Political leaders seldom do the right thing because they are asked nicely–didn’t work on King George–but because the people stand up and demand it.

Declare yourselves.

 


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Candidates for President on Climate, Part IV

Continuing my review the field of presidential candidates….

As a reminder, I’m only writing about candidates on climate change. It’s not that no other issues are important (though I do consider climate a central issue), it’s that this blog remains neutral on all other issues, so far as is ethically possible. Therefore, support of a candidate for how he or she approaches climate should not be construed as any kind of comment on his or her other positions.

So, let’s start with Democrats. There are 23 of them running (note that this link goes to an online document that is being updated. If you read this post long after I write it, the link might go to something very different than the document I read).

The Democratic Field (In Part)

With so many Democrats running, I have to take the candidates in groups. Four weeks ago, I posted my first installment of the series, the first group, which included people at the current front of the pack, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Three weeks ago, I posted a second group, including the majority of the female hopefuls, plus Jay Inslee, the self-styled Climate Candidate. Two weeks ago, I posted a third installment that included the majority of non-white hopefuls. Last week I posted a piece about some of the remaining candidates, people with very little name recognition and few resources. Now, I’m finishing the series with a final group of long-shots.

As with last week’s group, we can be almost (but not entirely!) sure none of these long-shots will get the nomination, let alone the presidency, but that does not make them irrelevant. Some may use this year’s presidential run as a platform to do something else of note, including running for president again and maybe winning. Some may be tapped for cabinet positions or become the nominee’s running mate. And any of them has the potential to shape the conversation and influence the public positions of the other candidates.

Bill de Blasio

Bill de Blasio is the current Mayor of New York, and apparently a large majority of New Yorkers do not support his candidacy. He is perhaps best-known for launching a universal pre-Kindergarden program in his city, but he is claiming some serious climate-action chops.

New York City has its own Green New Deal–a group of recently-passed city laws called the Climate Mobilization Act (and branded, yes, as the Green New Deal, despite having no direct connection to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’ proposal) is aimed at keeping the city on track with the Paris Climate Agreement, largely by mandating a combination of greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy use by most of its larger buildings. It’s an ambitious and exciting step, not least because the city will now act as a logistical and political test case for serious climate action plans. Mr. de Blasio himself was initially skeptical, but has embraced the Act, possibly because it allows him to directly challenge President Trump, whose properties are among those the Act targets.

New York is also one of the places most obviously vulnerable to climate change, as Superstorm Sandy made tragically clear. It makes sense that the city’s mayor should have the issue on his radar, and Mr. de Blasio has proposed a way to “climate proof” Manhattan (also branded as part of the Green New Deal) by building up a raised berm around the edge of the island. The plan has been criticized for its vagueness and for the possibility that excluding water from Manhattan could make flooding worse in surrounding areas. Personally, I wonder where rainwater is going to go if the island becomes bowl-shaped. Has the city’s storm-water management system been designed for climate-change-related rainstorms?

Mr. de Blasio has also been criticized for ignoring opportunities for local clean power generation in favor of Canadian hydropower–and Canadian hydropower has a poor environmental record and a terrible environmental justice record.

It appears that Mr. de Blasio is both talking the talk and walking the walk on climate, but the questions raised about his various plans are worrying.

Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet is a centrist Senator whose primary interests include healthcare, which seems fitting as he had to delay his own campaign for health reasons earlier this year. His lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 90%, disappointing in a Democrat these days, but his score for 2018 is 100%, a puzzling disparity. He has released a climate plan of his own, of which the League of Conservation Voters heartily approves, noting that he is taking the challenge of climate change seriously. That his climate plan was the first policy proposal of his presidential campaign is a good sign that the issue really is a priority for him.

On the other hand, he has a history of supporting natural gas development, voted for the Keystone Pipeline, and seems generally reluctant to antagonize the fossil fuel industry. It’s worth noting that he favors natural gas as a pragmatic bridge fuel, since its use is less carbon-intensive than coal–it’s possible he’s a genuine environmentalist whose disagreements with most climate hawks are a matter of strategy, rather than of differing goals.

Eric Swalwell

Eric Swalwell is a California Congressman interested in gun control. His lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 95%, not bad, but his 2018 score is 89%, putting him well behind the rest of the pack. He touts his own environmental record as a legislator (meaning he does care about environmental voters), but so far I have not found evidence of him offering real leadership on the topic.

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock is Governor of Montana and is running for President on a campaign of ending unlimited campaign contributions and “dark” money in politics. He (quite correctly) points out that all other progressive and liberal issues will remain unsolvable until the playing fields gets closer to fair. He has not qualified for the first debate, but is notable for having won (by 20 points) a state Mr. Trump carried, and he has demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle, getting his Republican legislature to pass traditionally Democratic issues.

Unfortunately, his record on climate is terrible, since he fought against President Obama’s climate action policies in order to protect Montana’s coal industry. He wants the US to rejoin Paris, but it’s difficult to see how he expects to meet our obligations under the agreement without rapidly phasing out coal, something he does not want to do.

Mr. Bullock has recently brought Montana into the US Climate Alliance, a group organized with the aim of lowering emissions in accordance with Paris on a state-by-state basis. He appears to be actively courting climate voters, at least. Strictly speaking, that’s good–but he’s not the savvy climate hawk we need right now.

Seth Moulton

At just 40 years old, Seth Moulton is young for a presidential candidate. A military veteran, he told CNN that “I do think that it’s time for the generation that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to step in for the generation that sent us there.” He has also been very open about his struggles with PTSD (successful, thanks to therapy). He has not qualified for the debates.

His score with the League of Conservation Voters shows the same odd deterioration as Eric Swalwell’s: lifetime is an impressive 97%, but in 2018 he scored only 89%. His plan to address climate and college affordability involves a large-scale national service program similar to the old Civilian Conservation Corps, aimed at projects designed to either mitigate or respond to climate change (through disaster response, for example) and tied to some serious money for college or vocational training. Frankly, it’s an excellent idea, for any number of reasons. It can’t lower national emissions by itself, so if green service ends up being Mr. Moulton’s only response to climate that’s a big problem, but in and of itself it’s a great idea.

He lists climate change as a core issue for his candidacy and was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, though he has also criticized the proposal. He also supports nuclear energy, which many environmentalists very much don’t–but nuclear is a legitimate point for debate on environmental strategy. He might have a point.

Wayne Messam

Mr. Messam is a former football star, an entrepreneur, and, currently, the mayor of Miramar, Florida, a large and rapidly-growing suburb of Miami. He was initially elected as mayor by only four points, but he won re-election in a landslide, suggesting he’s doing a very good job. He boasts of his ability to put together teams to get things done, and lead the fight against construction of an oil well in the Everglades. He has asserted that climate change is an important issue and he was one of the mayors to openly criticize President Trump’s withdrawal from Paris.

Unfortunately for him, he’s having trouble attracting either political support or money for his presidential campaign. He did not qualify for the first debate and has lost important staff because his campaign cannot afford to pay them.

Mr. Messam has a number of interesting policy proposals on a variety of topics. Unfortunately, climate change is not one of those topics. He says nothing the other candidates do not say.

So, Here We Are

23 Democrats! Personally, I suspect the number is about to start shrinking, now that we’re past the first debates.

For our purposes, we can eliminate a few more names, people who are just not serious candidates on the question of climate. That the majority of Democratic hopefuls are serious about climate is good news, though it does make endorsement rather daunting. Rather than pick one favorite at this point, I’m dividing the field into three tiers: climate champions; qualified climate candidates; and unqualified on climate.

Unqualified on Climate

I highly recommend not voting for any of these in the primary, though should any of them win the nomination, they would all be better than the current president:

  • Beto O’Rourke
  • Andrew Yang
  • Tim Ryan
  • Steve Bullock
  • Seth Moulton (he’ll graduate to “qualified” if he releases a plan that can actually lower emissions)

Qualified Climate Candidates

These people are not as strong on climate as I’d like to see, but I’d be comfortable with any of them in the White House. President Obama would have been in this category, and he did quite well.

  • Joe Biden
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Tulsi Gabbard
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Kamala Harris
  • Cory Booker
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Julián Castro
  • Marian Williamson
  • John Delany
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Bill de Blasio
  • Michael Bennet
  • Eric Swalwell
  • Wayne Messam

Climate Champions

These are the folks who make me happy. To be clear, climate hawkishness is not the only factor, here; a merely qualified person who is a skilled and effective politician would be far better than an ideologically pure limp-along. But these are the folks standing up to lead on climate.

  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Jay Inslee