The Climate in Emergency

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


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Why Corona Is Less Scary than Climate

A purplish sphere is partially visible in the lower left-hand corner of a black but white-speckled field. The sphere has various blue and green protuberences. The image is a representation of the coronavirus and is similar to images often used in news stories about the new coronavirus.

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

OK, to be clear? I don’t mean that you are less scared of COVID19 than of climate change. You feel however you feel. That’s legitimate. And certainly COVID19 is a more immediate problem–I know multiple people with underlying health issues such that they would probably not survive the disease. I know others on the economic edge who might not survive this recession, unless policy becomes a good deal wiser than it’s been.

And while I personally am more worried about climate, it’s not that I’m not worried about the pandemic–and it’s not that my relative health and security lead me to dismiss others’ troubles as no big deal.

What the issue is, why I say climate change is scarier, is the topic of this post.

Presenting My Credentials

You know me as a climate change blogger, but I’m also a novelist, and my second novel, Ecological Memory, explores the aftermath of a global pandemic. My fiction is heavily researched and as scientifically accurate as possible, so I have read extensively in virology, epidemiology, and the history of real pandemics. I’m no expert, but I’m no stranger to the topic, either–this is not the first time I’ve thought about what pandemics can do.

For example, my fictional pandemic (which has no name besides “the pandemic”) has certain features in common with COVID19:

  • A mortality rate that seems low in comparison to obvious nightmares, like Ebola
  • An initial infectious period without definitive symptoms
  • An initial appearance in an urban area
  • Relatively mild expression in some victims, such that some infected people don’t go to the doctor and don’t get tested
  • Symptoms that closely mimic existing common diseases, making proper diagnosis without testing impossible
  • The primary threat of the disease is not its total mortality but rather the way it puts pressure on existing societal and medical vulnerabilities (pre-existing health threats, bigotry, economic disparity, medical infrastructure problems, and overall economic instability).

It’s not that I’m prescient, it’s that I did my homework. Another global pandemic was inevitable the same way another giant earthquake in San Francisco is inevitable–and another after that. And to successfully evade the sophisticated systems already put in place to prevent pandemic, a disease has to have certain characteristics. I simply crafted my fiction as a worst-case scenario of what all the relevant experts considered likely.

(To be clear, COVID19 is not the worst case come to life, though it’s bad enough; the fictional version also featured a longer initial infectious period, a much higher infection rate, a significantly higher mortality rate, and an initial appearance in multiple urban areas simultaneously due to human nefariousness)

So I hope you’ll consider my remarks well-informed.

5 Reasons Climate Change Is Scarier Than COVID19

A large crown of people is vaguely visible, though no faces appear clearly. The lighting suggests sunlight, outdoors, presumably a political demonstration. Held above the crowd on a thin stick is a hand-made sign, written in green, blue, and red marker on white cardboard. It reads "The climate is changing so should we! #ACTNOW." The word "changing" is underlined and the symbol of Extinction Rebellion is next to it.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I hope you’ll forgive the click-baity subheading–it fits the material, and I do hope it attracts search engines.

1. Climate Change Exacerbates Pandemics

While COVID19 specifically is not caused by climate change, an increased risk of disease outbreak is a symptom of anthropogenic climate change, for various reasons. So, if you don’t like pandemics, you have to do something about climate change.

2. That Which Exacerbates Pandemics also Exacerbates Climate Change

We’re also seeing how politicized anti-science sentiment is fouling up efforts to deal with COVID19 in the United States. Our country faces the crisis without informed, organized leadership at the Federal level because President Trump disbanded the group that would have provided such leadership, undoing the lessons learned from the Ebola threat some years ago. I’m not sure why he did that–possibly it was just part of undoing President Obama’s legacy–but it was part of a larger pattern of stripping science out of the Federal government. President Trump’s response to COVID19 has, at least until recently, been to deny the severity of the problem, and even to interfere with efforts to address the problem. Meanwhile, politically conservative citizens are showing a tendency to treat the whole coronavirus issue as just another liberal plot.

The parallel with the national response to climate change is striking.

I don’t see how pandemic denial benefits anybody. Like the panic-buying of toilet paper, it’s a troubling response that has no obvious motive. I have no hypothesis to offer on the toilet paper thing, but science denial in general does have a motive; undermining public faith in science, scientists, and science-based governmental leadership has the direct effect of torpedoing any possibility of American leadership on climate change–and delaying climate action does mean money in the bank for certain people.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say pandemic denial is a deliberate part of an anti-climate plot. It may simply be that once one has accepted the anti-science, anti-government premise, any science-based warning issued by a government agency or by the “liberal media” looks like a hoax. My country’s pandemic response may be collateral damage in an unrelated fight. But it’s also possible that indiscriminate anti-science messaging has been the medium for creating climate denial, meaning that our current crisis may indeed be being deliberately used to some extent. Either way, as I’ve discussed before, climate denial is the deliberate creation of certain people with financial ties to the fossil fuel industry, and those financial ties are not likely a coincidence.

If the United States had an aggressive climate action policy in place and was already leading the way towards global decarbonization, we would not have hamstrung our efforts at pandemic response by stripping science from the Federal government.

If you don’t like pandemics, you have to support science-based government policy, and that means supporting climate action also.

3. Those Who Are Hurt by COVID19 Are Also Hurt by Climate Change

COVID19 is not like rain, falling on the just and the unjust alike. It’s more like a flood that ruins things for the already vulnerable disproportionately. It is the elderly and the already-ill who are most likely to get seriously ill, or even die, from the new coronavirus. It is the economically marginalized who are most likely to be damaged by the closures and other economic issues of our response to the virus. It is the politically marginalized who will bear the brunt of suffering caused by shortages, medical rationing, and general panic, should these be allowed to develop by short-sighted policy. I have already discussed how it is these same groups who stand to lose the most from climate change.

The problem is that our society has certain weak points, and any type of severe stress, be it increased severe weather, a public health crisis, or some other thing, collapses those weak points first. The people most exposed to those points of strain suffer as a result.

If you don’t like the suffering caused by pandemics, you have to take climate justice seriously as well.

4. That Which Mitigates Pandemic Risk Also Mitigates Climate Change

A lovely photo of a spruce-dominated forest. Sunlight streams in from the side, evidently from a nearby clearing. The shade in the forest is deep, but the understory is filled with grass and broad-leafed shrubs and saplings, all apparently taking advantage of the light from the nearby clearing. The image is quite lovely.

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

As the previous three points imply, if we had been taking the risk of pandemic more seriously, we would be further along with climate action now. And had we been taking climate change seriously, pandemic preparedness would have occurred almost as a matter of course.

Here are several major steps which my country (and likely others, though I’m less in position to comment) should have taken already taken, and could still take.

1. Decarbonize the Economy

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the step without which all other steps constitute rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You know the old saying–if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, stop digging! And the simplest, most effective way to substantially reduce emissions is to transition away from fossil fuels.

Sustainable use of renewable resources, not unsustainable harvesting of wood, large-scale use of lithium batteries, or other such problematic option, must be the future, a shift which, yes, will require a massive restructuring of the economy. At this point, such restructuring is unlikely to be fun, but the alternative is much worse.

However, it’s worth noting two likely outcomes of such restructuring.

One is that non-essential long-distance travel is likely to get prohibitively expensive. Another outcome is that as the transportation of goods gets more expensive, economies will become regional rather than global.

Less long-distance travel will make us less vulnerable to pandemic. Pandemics will still be possible, but they will spread more slowly, increasing the likelihood of successful intervention.

Regional economies will be less likely to collapse in response to disasters in other regions (long-distance shipment of emergency aid will still be possible).

A low-carbon world will be less vulnerable to the sort of crisis we are seeing now.

2. Plan for Disaster

Climate change increases the likelihood of all sorts of disasters, including flood, fire, famine, and, yes, pestilence. Unfortunately, cutting our carbon habit is not likely to save us from the effects of climate change over the next few decades, because there is a delay in the climate’s response. We have to decarbonize and mitigate the damage we’re already in line for, and that includes planning for disasters of a scale and frequency we haven’t seen yet.

Lots of disasters of all types require the rapid mobilization of resources, the efficient sharing of information both between agencies and with the public, and the prompt and proper care of large numbers of casualties and displaced or isolated persons.

All of the above is also critical in a pandemic.

3. Build for Disaster

Just to elaborate on the point about planning for disaster–part of that planning includes building facilities that can be rapidly converted to hospitals, shelters, or whatever else might be necessary. In ordinary times, such facilities could be used as convention centers, hotels, or whatever else, provided a mechanism was in place for rapid conversion as needed.

The United States has precedent for such dual-purpose preparedness–our interstate road system was designed to function as a network of emergency air strips and military transport routes in case of war. So it’s not as though a network of overflow hospitals would need to sit empty and useless between disasters.

4. Allow Redundancy

A central value in a capitalist society is efficiency. Why have hundreds of little companies when one big one can make widgets, or whatever else, cheaper? Why build capacity we don’t need? Why offer services that don’t turn a profit, or at least pay for themselves? The push, in recent years, to turn more and more of our society over to the private sector is based on the premise that everything ought to be run like a business because businesses are efficient and everything else ought to be as well.

Of course we should avoid waste, but not all inefficiency is wasteful. Redundancy is not wasteful–it’s critical.

Redundancy is a necessary feature of all resilient systems. We have two kidneys, though we can get by with just one, and a good thing, too. Healthy ecosystems have more than one species that eats bugs and more than one species of plant for bugs to eat. Any given part of any system could fail, and when it does, there needs to be some kind of back-up. It’s not that natural systems are smart in any deliberate way, it’s that overly-efficient systems get edited out by the demands of reality. Our efficient society, dominated as it is by just a handful of large companies, just a handful of wealthy families, and fewer and fewer media outlets–and fewer hospitals–is an editing job just waiting to happen.

We could create back-ups as part of disaster-preparedness, and should, but we should also allow redundancy to develop naturally. Stop insisting that everything be run like a business. Stop cutting regulations and protections in the name of efficiency. Stop favoring policies that favor consolidation.

Community-based hospitals with extra beds and staff who aren’t exhausted will be one result.

5. Be Just

Of course justice at all levels is important for its own sake. And, as mentioned, justice is a major part of both climate change mitigation and pandemic harm reduction. But any policy that leaves behind any segment of society is not going to have the cooperation of the public–and it’s not going to work. No one should ever be forced to choose between saving the planet–or stopping the pandemic–and their own civil rights.

5. And the Biggest Reason Climate Change Is Scarier?

I’m sure you see the pattern I’m trying to draw, here; climate change is at least as scary as COVID19 because the two are closely connected. All the ways the virus can hurt you are also ways climate can hurt you, and the neglect that has left us vulnerable to the one has also given us the other.

But why did I say climate change is scarier?

Because COVID19 only kills human beings.

This is the famous image of the Earth as seen from the Apollo spacecraft on its way to the Moon. Here, it has been cropped so as to vaguely echo the image of the coronavirus used at the beginning of the post.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

 

 


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You Deserve Nothing

Confrontational title, yes?

I’m not being mean-spirited, but I’m not just trying to get your attention, either. I actually mean it. Let me explain.

Over my lifetime, I have watched the American environmental movement basically tread water. There have been a few gains, a few losses, a few bright spots of optimism, and much wringing of hands–but basically the national conversation sounds about the same as it did when I was a kid and first getting interested in these issues. Why aren’t we getting anywhere?

Because we have enemies. Climate denial isn’t a passive cultural apathy, it is an active movement being deliberately pushed by moneyed interests, as I’ve discussed before. There is an organized strategy involved, one with long-term goals and incredible reach.

Quite simply, we’re being outplayed.

As the campaign season heats up, I occasionally hear discussion of climate change, but I’ve heard no hint of large, organized strategy. Instead it sounds as though, once again, many people can’t quite believe that such a deserving cause as theirs could lose.

Well guess what?

I’m being a little vague here because I don’t want to get too far afield of this blog’s central focus. The point is that we can indeed lose. Deserving to win does not make winning more likely.

This cycle, forget about what your cause deserves. Fight to win.


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Update on the Candidates

Some months ago, I did a series of posts on the various candidates for present and how each looks from a climate perspective. Since then, the field has changed. Some people have dropped out, others have dropped in, and the Democratic part of the field has focused into a small group of serious possibilities (Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg) and a larger group of long-shot hopefuls.

I figure it’s time to update my coverage. Except where noted, I’m drawing information here from the New York Times–their page on the subject is being updated, however, so if you click on it weeks or months hence you won’t find the same information on it that I did.

The Democrats

Of the Democrats running, I have already covered Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang. This blog continues to back Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate for the climate (it remains neutral on other considerations), though the other front-runners would also be quite good.

Of those I covered, several have already dropped out: Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell.

Richard Ojeda jumped in and then out again without my having a chance to write about him at all.

But there are two new Democratic hopefuls I need to cover.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is a former Republican Mayor of New York, though he’s running for president as a Democrat with the specific, stated goal of defeating Donald Trump. His economic and cultural views suggest those of a centrist Republican–but his focus on gun control and climate change perhaps explain his current party affiliation.

His climate credentials are impressive.

Mr. Bloomberg is a billionaire who has been funneling large amounts of money into various climate-related projects. He has bankrolled the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal and Beyond Carbon campaigns, organized America’s Pledge, a formal effort by cities, states, and businesses to keep our commitments under Paris, and filled the budget shortfall at the UN left when President Trump pulled funding for most climate work there. And more. He is unquestionably a climate champion.

He is, however, having trouble getting support from activists, in part due to disagreements about strategy, and in part because of concerns over whether a pro-business billionaire is electable this cycle. After all, the Democratic Party is otherwise dominated by a progressive movement suspicious of the super-wealthy. It’s not just a case of people complaining that he’s not perfect enough; the worry is that if Mr. Bloomberg pours his money and attention into a doomed campaign for president, he might have less attention to give to climate–and clearly he does not need to be President of the United States to have an impact. He might better serve his cause by supporting a more viable candidate and making sure Democrats take the Senate.

Whether he progresses as a candidate or not, it is good to know he is out there.

Deval Patrick

Is a former governor of Massachusetts, and is running now on a call for unity, rather than on a particular issue or group of issues. As far as climate goes, he is a bit of a paradox; on the one hand, he has real credibility thanks to his leadership on renewable energy while governor, but on the other hand he is a former oil executive. His environmental work is more recent and can be taken as a better indicator of his current thinking. He has tossed around some interesting ideas, such as building manufacturing ups for solar cells and wind turbines in coal country to replace some of the lost jobs (somebody please do that!), though it’s not clear he knows how a US president might accomplish such a thing.

Ultimately, the paradox of Patric is less a matter of uncertainty about him–he was the driving force behind Massachusetts becoming the most energy-efficient state in the US with the eighth-highest solar capacity (pretty good for a small state with long, cloudy winters)–and more about whether he is electable given such an oily political liability?

The size of the Democratic field is a liability. The more energy the party expends fighting internally, the less will be available for the fights that matter–so is the thinking, anyway. And at this point in the process, additional candidates have to prove not just that they are credible as nominees, but also that they are worth the added complication their presence brings. But unlike most of the field, Deval Patrick is not just advocating for climate action, he has already accomplished it–and unlike Mr. Bloomberg, he has accomplished it as an elected official, and as a chief executive at that.

Mr. Patrick bears watching.

The Republicans

Of the Republicans running, I have already discussed Mr. Trump and Mr. Weld. Mr. Sanford, whom I discussed as well, has dropped out. But now we have another contestant for the Republican nomination in Joe Walsh.

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh is current;y a conservative radio show host. He was also one of the Tea Party Republicans elected the the US House of Representatives in 2010, but he only served one term. In the past he was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, but has since not only turned against the president but also expressed regret for some of his own anti-Obama language. His primary motivation for running is to deny Mr. Trump, who he describes as completely unfit for office, a second term, but he also wants to reduce the national debt and restrain executive power. He is a more traditionally Republican Republican than the President is.

Mr. Walsh’s score with the League of Conservation Voters is terrible–4%. In fact, so solid is his anti-environmental voting record that one wonders whether those few pro-environment votes were mistakes. Perhaps he was feeling poorly on those days? Not quite himself? But he has recently gone on record as recognizing that climate change is at least “impacted” by human activities and that the Republican Party needs to acknowledge the problem.

Change of heart? Transient illness? Or is at least a pretense of climate sanity becoming a political necessity for Republicans?

Big Picture

The big picture has not changed much since the last time I wrote on these topics. Donald Trump is still the candidate to beat–who must be beaten if we are to have a chance for the planet–and his most serious opponent will almost certainly be one of the four Democrats currently polling at the head of the pack. It’s possible that one or more of the Republican challengers will run as an independent and that they could complicate the race in interesting ways.

There is an outside possibility that either Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Patrick could change the picture, if either can gain enough traction.


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If I Had a Dollar For….

October was, in many ways, a bad month for climate news, with much of California being on fire. Again. But here at Climate in Emergency, there was a small note of encouragement–November was the second-busiest this blog has ever had, and the third month running that broke 300 visitors.

300 visitors might not seem very much, in the grand scheme of things (actually, “views” are always somewhat higher and have been close to 400 for each of the past three months), but it means I’m averaging over ten visitors per day–or more than 70 visitors per post.

“If I had a dollar for….” is a tried-and-true way of expressing the scale of something. If I had a dollar for every gray hair I’ve gotten in recent years, I’d be rich–but if I had a dollar instead for every hair that isn’t gray yet, I’d be even richer. If I had a dollar for every visit to my blog, I could make a student loan payment. You know how it goes.

Except nobody is going to pay me for having gray hair. So let’s talk about funding, just for a minute.

Always Free, But….

This blog will always be free to read, but it’s not free to write. It costs me time that I could otherwise dedicate to paid work. How much time varies, but the posts that depend on a lot of research run me about six to ten hours. I also have plans to expand this project that I literally can’t afford to put into practice because they would require too much time.

I’ve had a “donate” button on my blog for a long time, but until recently readership was too low for me to expect much of anything from that button. That’s changing. It’s getting to the point where even a small donation from every reader would add up to enough to make a difference for me–and for this blog.

And maybe for the planet.

The Vision

The vision is for this website to become a major platform for climate-related news and information. This blog will continue, with its mix of news, science, commentary, and personal musings, but you’ll also be able to come here for a curated list of links to climate-related news and articles on other sites and information on calls for political action and activism. You’ll be able to see who is doing what in this important fight, and who needs your help.

To make all that happen, I’ll need to budget about 16-20 hours per week, mostly for research. That’s about twice the time I can afford to donate, so I’m looking at raising about $150 per week to cover the difference.

The Numbers

WordPress tells me I’m getting just over 70 visitors per week. It’s hard to know what that actually means; I might have 70 people who read every post, or 60 of those visitors might be electronic passers-by who don’t come back. Or something in the middle. I also have 81 followers, but I am unclear as to how many of them are active readers or whether their reading is recorded in the site visitation stats.

But clearly I have at least a few dozen regular readers, and I could have over a hundred, plus some number of curious people who just drop in occasionally. I want to see those numbers increase, and I’m taking steps in that direction. The point is that if you’re reading these words, you’re part of a small but growing crowd. If you find the work I do valuable and would like to buy me a coffee now and then (I don’t actually drink coffee, but you get the point), you’re not alone.

If everybody who’d like to kick in for the occasional coffee clicks on that donate button, this blog will grow right before your eyes.

What’s at Stake

President Trump just initiated the process of taking the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a process that takes a certain amount of time and can be cancelled at any point–specifically, if Mr. Trump is re-elected, we’ll be out of Paris. If someone else is elected instead, the new president can put us back in.

Whether the world can fight climate change effectively without the help of the US is doubtful.

Between now and the election, American voters will see a vast amount of propaganda, much of it on social media, much of it subtle, to the effect that voting Democrat is pointless or evil, that the problems we face can best be solved with more anti-environmentalist nationalism, and that climate change is either a hoax or irrelevant. Those will be lies bought and paid for by moneyed interests, mostly people with huge fossil fuel investments. We have to combat those lies. We have to get the truth out and keep it out in front of voters’ eyes all the time.

The truth is that no matter what other issues matter to you, climate change will make them worse. The truth is that unless the United States has a climate-friendly President AND Congress, this coming cycle we will likely lose this thing. The truth is that if everyone in the United States who believes climate is important votes like it next year, we will have a chance.

People are dying. They die in wildfires and hurricanes.  They die in wars over dwindling resources. They die in boats or refugee caravans trying to escape farms that won’t produce anymore or crime and chaos made worse by climate-related woes. We have to fight back.

And the way I can fight back is by writing. But I can’t do it alone.


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Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.

Go.

The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!


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I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of them  drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


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About that Climate Strike

The organizers of the climate strike are offering tools that allow websites to participate in the strike. Unfortunately, in order to use them, I’d have to upgrade to a paid version of WordPress, which I’m not able to do.

Instead, I’m going to get creative and make my own tools.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to get involved and to tell everyone you know to get involved–because a lot of people who might otherwise be interested haven’t heard these events are even happening.

The brief explanation: while the worldwide event is being billed as a “strike,” and will, indeed, include widespread walk-outs, actually walking out of school or work is not considered necessary. There are many organized demonstrations you can join, and, whether or not you can attend an event, you can also use social media and any websites or blogs you might be involved with to demonstrate your solidarity with the movement.

To find an event near you, click here.

To find tools to participate online, click here.

The reason this is important is three-fold:

  1. We have to show up to show other people who care about the climate that they are not alone. It is hard to care about something if you believe no one else does–and we need people to care and to act.
  2. We have to show the news media that we are interested so that they will report on climate stories and show the undecided that this stuff is real and important. Seriously, I’ve seen a bump in climate coverage every time there is a really big demonstration.
  3. We have to show politicians that we care and that if they show real leadership on climate, we’ll have their backs in the voting booth.

We have to show up now so that other people do, too.