The Climate in Emergency

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


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When a Felon’s Not Engaged

So, President George H. W. Bush is dead. Not a huge surprise, he was getting up there, and many men pass soon after leaving their partner. The news is predictably filled with glowing memorials and tributes. Just as predictably, my social media is filling up with indignant complaints and reminders of all his faults.

I try to stay away from partizan politics here, as well as all legitimate controversy unrelated to climate change, so I’m going to stay as neutral as possible on Mr. Bush’s legacy. The thing is, his was not a perfect record. He presided over a military that killed civilians. He may have been involved in the Iran-Contra affair as Vice-President, and certainly pardoned people who were convicted for being involved. His impact on civil rights was mixed at best. His neglect of the AIDS epidemic and his hostility to LGBT rights were arguably responsible for many deaths. He did a great deal that was useful and noble as well, and doubtless the

And yet, apparently he had friends all over, including unexpected people, like Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey. Watching George W. Bush fondly pat his father’s casket on his way up to give the eulogy was heartrending.

There are those who see in the senior Mr. Bush an irredeemably reprehensible human being, and in his friends mere apologists and collaborators. There are probably those who see his shortcomings as unimportant, or even as not actually shortcomings, who see him honestly as a human, but great man.

What I see is a man of whom both good and bad things are true.

The reason I bring all this up is that after a year of variously bad climate news and two years of rather frightening climate-related politics, it’s obvious that climate change is not only caused by humans in the generic sense, but also by specific humans–lots of us–making decisions that range from inadequate to bad to criminal. Hurricanes are bigger now, forest fires are worse, heat waves threaten more people, and the richness of our living world is being lost because individual people are doing things that could have been done a different way to better effect.

The impulse is always to either deny the seriousness–or even the existence–of shortcomings, or to demonize the person and deny anything noble or even human about them. That way, either way, lies fascism.

Fascism at best. At worst, that way also lies failure to deal with climate change.

So, let’s get in the habit of recognizing the seriousness of our shortcomings, including those that are truly reprehensible, while also talking to each other like human beings. The climate is not a simple system and neither are any of us.

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Giving Thanks

Here is my Thanksgiving post. I wrote it several years ago, but it’s still timely.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows. Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that pat up. It’s just physics.

But yes, tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful without something to be grateful for. At Thanksgiving we revel in abundance in order to remind ourselves of everything we have to be grateful for.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as a land of abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning. Often, the depletion is hidden by ever more efficient usage that keeps yields high even as the resource itself runs out. Fishing fleets use ever more powerful technology to find and capture every last fish. Ever-deepening wells chase falling water tables. Oil companies prospect in nearly inaccessible areas that would have been too expensive to bother with a generation ago. For the most part, we humans aren’t going without, yet–hunger is usually a distribution problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. But already the world is warping under the pressure of our need.

Want a visual? Check this out:

See how big we are, relative to the rest of the biosphere? Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses energy, diversity, and stability.

We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as the thing a Thanksgiving feast is meant to simulate; literally endless bounty. And because we did that, our descendants will have a smaller, leaner table to set than our ancestors did–and the more we use now, the leaner that future table will get.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. They are about abundance–about the way the illusion of inexhaustibility makes us feel. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating on a certain Thursday in November.

The psychological power of the illusion does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished.

We can do the same thing as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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Considering Damages

The fires in California are all over the news these days. The death toll keeps rising as bodies are found–two hundred people are missing, now. Generally speaking, wildfire is a climate change story, but while I want to cover current events, this story is too new, and there isn’t yet anything to say about it that I have not said about other fires before.

But if, as I suspect, the severity of this week’s fires are due in some part to climate change, then that lays the blood of the dead on the hands of climate deniers (not skeptics, there’s a difference), certain industrialists, and certain political leaders who have, decade after decade, refused to act. Same with the death and destruction of recent hurricanes, some of which have been unambiguously linked to climate change.

So, why not sue?

And, indeed, some people are suing, with varying degrees of success.

Suing for Climate

I first heard about a climate change lawsuit through social media some years ago, but since I didn’t hear a peep about the matter by any other means, I wasn’t sure it was real. Turns out, it was not only real, but what appeared on Facebook was the tip of the iceberg. There isn’t just one climate lawsuit, but many, all across the world.

If you’re interested in details, there’s actually an online database where you can look them all up. Click here to check it out.

The US has more of these suits than anywhere else in the world, and it’s somewhat easier to get information on these cases, at least for an American like me. There are two main approaches–suing fossil fuel companies and suing governments.

Suing Companies

Fossil fuel companies are being sued, not just for producing fossil fuels, but also for actively obstructing climate action, as some did by spreading misinformation and fostering public doubt about the reality of climate change.

Curiously, in the coverage I’ve read, such obstruction is generally framed as a failure to warn the public. For example, one article quotes a law professor as follows:

“The industry has profited from the manufacture of fossil fuels but has not had to absorb the economic costs of the consequences,” Koh said. “The industry had the science 30 years ago and knew what was going to happen but made no warning so that preemptive steps could have been taken.

“The taxpayers have been bearing the cost for what they should have been warned of 30 years ago,” Koh added. “The companies are now being called to account for their conduct and the damages from that conduct.”

It’s important to recognize such framing is itself misleading. Climate change, and the basic mechanics of how it works and why it’s a problem, were public knowledge 30 years go. The reason I know that is I was 11 and I remember being well-informed about it. Anything a geeky but otherwise unremarkable 11-year-old knows about is not being kept secret by Exxon, or anybody else.

The truth is that the public is culpable for climate change, as a decisive majority has spent decades now in active denial of warnings that were readily available for any interested person behind. But whatever innate resistance the citizenry may have had to climate action was actively ginned up by companies who knew better and attempted to protect their business interests at the expense of everybody else.

That’s a more nuanced, but arguably more nefarious offense.

Hopefully, suits based on calling out that nefariousness will work, because suits against energy companies for causing climate change itself are not working well. Several have been dismissed already.

It’s not that anyone has argued in court that climate change isn’t real, isn’t caused by humans, or isn’t important. Instead, these suits are failing because air pollution is already addressed by the Clean Air Act, which (for reasons I don’t personally understand) means that the issue must be handled by Congress and not by the courts. It’s also difficult to pin a particular plaintiff’s woes on an individual company. Some judges have asserted that because the problem is so big that it clearly needs Federal, even international leadership, that local or regional courts have no place in the solution.

Leaving the rest of us stuck when Federal leadership fails.

But the point is that yes, there are cities suing companies over specific climate-related damages.

Suing the Government

The lawsuit I first heard about was probably the Juliana Case, in which a group of 21 children and young adults (it’s sometimes called the “children’s case”) are suing the Federal government for not protecting their right to a livable planet. There are also similar suits against at least nine states, although some of these have been dismissed.

The Federal government has been trying very hard to get the Juliana Case dismissed before it is even heard. So far, no such attempt has been successful. The process has stretched on for some three years, now. The fact that it is still going is good news, but it’s far from clear whether the young people will win, or even if they will ever get to trial.

Winning Suits for Climate

So far, I’m not sure if any of these cases have actually won in court, at least not in the US. I haven’t heard of any. What happens if and when they do?

If the Juliana Case wins, the courts could order the Federal government to cut emissions. The situation could be analogous to school integration, which also proceeded, at times, on point of court order.

If the suits against companies win, plaintiffs could get money to use for climate change adaptation (such as cities building sea walls). Perhaps more importantly, the financial losses–and threats of financial losses–could force energy companies to get serious about transitioning to climate-sane energy sources.

The problem has been that there really aren’t any immediate negative consequences for anyone who chooses to put their narrow self-interest first. Environmentalism has lacked teeth. If the electorate refuses to hold anyone accountable for destroying our planet around us, it’s possible the courts can do something.

Course, that depends on who the judges are.


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The Management Regrets to Inform You That…

…Autumn has apparently been cancelled for the Mi-Atlantic region this year.

Seriously, today was a gorgeous summer day in October. This isn’t normal. The trees aren’t turning. The soybean harvest is being delayed, according to a farmer I spoke with today, because while the plants are turning yellow more or less on schedule, without cool weather the beans themselves are not hardening. Apparently different aspects of the plant’s senescence are triggered by different factors, and this year those factors are out of step (and this in a year where the same farmer had to turn much of her fruit crop to jam before unseasonable rains rotted it). And while it would be a mistake to read to much into a warm day, or even a warm few weeks, the weirdness of this particular October is not my imagination. For almost two weeks, now, the temperature has hovered between five and fifteen degrees above the historical average for our area for this time of year.

And we’re getting another hurricane later this week. And yes, as predicted by recent research, it seems to be undergoing rapid intensification. I’m not sure if that link will still work after the hurricane has passed, so the short summary is that at noon, GMT, on October 8th, it was a tropical storm and by 9 PM GMT on the 9th it had become a cat 3. It will downgrade once it hits land, track across the southern US, dumping rain on places just flooded by Hurricane Charlotte, on its way to rejoin the Atlantic near my house, where it will re-intensify into a tropical storm and erode our beaches. Lovely.

This seems a good time to release the new IPCC Special Report, which says we have until 2030 to avert catastrophe, and it’s going to take a lot of effort and change and dedication, which, by the way, the President of the United States has no interest in helping with whatsoever. I have argued elsewhere in this blog that he was, in fact, hired to prevent meaningful climate action.

I worry that this blog might sometimes seem unpleasantly negative at times, all doom and gloom–although, truth be told, I often find comfort in the words of someone else acknowledging the problem. In any case, a friend of mine confessed recently to a sleepless night in response to the IPCC report. And I’ve felt more or less asleep since President Trump’s election, for similar reasons. The truth is difficult to deal with, these days.

So, let’s focus on solutions. How do we get to sleep and then wake up and do something?

Atticus Finch, the fictional, but admirable, father from To Kill a Mockingbird, defines courage as  “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

So, I’ve been thinking–I’m feeling dis-couraged, so how do I re-courage? Where does courage come from?

I had made up my mind to ask a wise man I know, and actually had asked, when someone else posted a picture on Facebook that seemed utterly unrelated, and was probably intended to be utterly unrelated, except it wasn’t.

The picture depicts a man sitting on the porch of a rather idyllic-looking cabin, in company with a large dog and an adventurous-looking tortoise. The man, my friend, is playing a banjo–badly, as he later explained, and “it is no practical use to society,” but he loves playing.

On the contrary,” I wrote, “doing things one loves is how one stays sane enough to be of practical use.”

I had no intention of writing any such thing until I wrote it, and it answered my question. That’s where courage comes from–it comes from love. It comes from joy. Not necessary from loving that which is endangered–that can be highly motivating sometimes, but absolutely debilitating at other times. I’m talking about anything that brings joy. Joy edges despair out.

So, I have taken up playing the tin whistle again. And today I mailed off a donation to the League of Conservation Voters.

You?

 

 


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I Have a Dream

Some days ago, I heard someone on NPR (I forget which program) assert that a central weakness of the environmental movement is its lack of tangible vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., this radio person reminded listeners, invited us to imagine, to anticipate, black children and white children joining hands in sister-and brotherhood. The image is specific, personal, and easy to see as real.

In contrast what sort of vision is “take care of the Earth”? What does that even mean? No one, this commentator said, is giving us a goal we can really grasp.

I beg to differ, because here, as tangible as you like, is my dream.

(Before I get into the poetic part, I should say I’m talking about a future in which fossil fuel use has ended, largely through a dramatic reduction in our collective energy use, plus the use of alternative energy sources. The human population has shrunk dramatically through peaceful attrition, allowing widespread reforestation and a reduction of our collective use of all resources. Most of the reduction of consumption involved the wealthiest socioeconomic groups, while the least-wealthy have become less impoverished. Environmental regulations and ethics are robust, and conservation and restoration are prioritized at all levels of both public and private activity. MLK didn’t need to provide such a preface, because everybody in his audience knew what he meant.)

Close your eyes and open them in the future, where we’re all going. I dream of what you experience as you move around.

The climate of your childhood is with you still, and you will keep that familiar climate as you grow old. If it snowed on Christmas when you were little, it will snow on Christmas again. If you chased lightening bugs through the cool of a summer evening, the Junes of your great-grandchildren will have that same purple, shining cool.

When the weather grows extreme—and it will, on occasion—you may rest assured that things will return to normal afterward. If a city has stood on a seaside plain for a thousand years, you may expect it to stand for a thousand more. If a farm has belonged to your family for seven generations, know that rising seas will not sow your fields with salt, nor will warming skies bake your soils dry. The same carefully husbanded heirlooms will grow for your progeny for seven generations more.

The air smells good—everywhere. The water tastes clean in all places. All rivers and ponds and beaches in the world are safe for swimming, and if you fish, you may eat what you catch without fear.

And you will catch fish, you will fish and hunt and gather fruit and honey, if you please, for the table of the Earth will groan with permanent Thanksgiving, its bounty not literally infinite but so long as you receive with gratitude, humility, and care, it might as well be. You will have enough. All of you will.

Some of you may be poor, but your poverty will be a paucity of luxuries, not a lack of necessities. You will never worry about access to food or water or medicine. The halls of justice and of government will never be closed to you and the gates of academe will never be barred. No matter your color or your ancestry, your creed or ability, your risk of cancer or poisoning or want will never be greater than for your wealthier fellows, and that risk will be low and getting lower all the time.

Wealthy or poor, young or old, you will not have to travel long distances or endure expense and hardship in order to experience beautiful places and the company of fantastic, wild animals, for all places are beautiful and all lands and waters are rich with wildness. Should you want to travel, you will need no permit to seek the solitude of pathless places, for the forests and the prairies and the deserts will gape huge with possibility, and all places, both distant and urban, will be quiet enough to reveal the singing of a multitude of birds. The only sounds humans add to the landscape will be those that can improve on silence, and we will improve on silence often with our music and our words.

You might choose not to travel far, for transportation will never be both cheap and fast again—though either alone remains a possibility. What that limitation means for you is that the friends of your childhood will be the village of your parenting and the tribe of your old age. And yet no parochialism will limit you, no minority identity will isolate you, for you will reach across distances with radio, with microwave transmission, and with the internet. This world of yours is primitive in the best way, but in no other way could it be called so. Your technology keeps your future on its toes.

In this world of slow, deliberate movement, of precious, careful cargo, the products of your hands will be art, and the tools of your trade will be art, and the objects of your daily life will also be art, and nothing you make or buy or sell will be made to be thrown away. Your hands will be powerful and your mind strong, for should a tyrant arise among you the scope of the king’s jurisdiction or the industry boss’s beat will never reach farther or faster than your capacity to organize. You and your colleagues and neighbors shall have the world, for to the mighty you will be the world, no outsources will be economic, no offshoring will be available, and you will negotiate and win.

You will set your table with local fare in season, but neither will you fear the fortunes of the weather, for if the crops fail, or if the harvest already home is lost, help will come with the speed of clean electricity, the power of biodiesel, the focused intelligence of the latest, most complex computers possible. Your doctors will work wonders with medicines as yet undiscovered and surgical techniques as yet unsuspected. New organs will grow in nutrient baths, bones will be printed to order, new nerves will knit together across old scars and the lame will walk and the halt shall dance.

For the losses imposed by limitation shall be only that which you are happy to lose anyway, the ugly, the cheap, the slapdash. What is important to you to keep, you will keep and improve upon a thousand times. And in the opening created by that limitation shall grow the unlimited, and in the space after the ending of the un-checked, you shall have the endless. You gave given up the dross and slag and kept the treasure. Because you have let go your grasping after chaff, the good wheat is yours, forever.

There is no wound that cannot eventually heal. There is no moment that is not better than more dire moments as an opportunity to turn the world around.

I have a dream today.


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Solar Impulses

This past week, I saw a documentary on the flight of the Solar Impulse 2, the first airplane to circumnavigate the globe without fuel–the plane is solar powered. It’s a great story.

The visionary behind the project, Bertrand Piccard, is the latest in a long line of brilliant dare-devil explorers who have been building and piloting record-breaking balloons and submarines and the like for generations. His great-uncle, Jean Felix Piccard, was the historical inspiration for that Star Trek captain with a very similar name, and the real and fictional Piccards actually bear a bizarre physical resemblance; Bertrand looks like a relative of Jean-Luc. The airplane itself is one of those objects everybody insisted could never be built, could never work–to have enough solar cells to generate enough power, the plane would have to be very big, but big planes need even more power to fly, so the plane would have to be even bigger, which would mean…unless the plane were absurdly light and under-powered (and still big), in which case it would be hard to fly and prone to break if a cloud looked at it funny. Impossible. But Captain Piccard assembled a team, said “make it so,” and they did, and it worked, and there you go.

Just to give everyone due credit, the plane had two pilots who took turns, Mr. Piccard and Andre Borschberg, and a large team of engineers and other mission-support personnel, without whom the project would not have worked.

Obviously, part of the motivation for the whole project was the coolness factor. Mountaineers climb Everest “because it’s there,” and Piccards probably invent and pilot unusual flying machines or submarines for similar reasons. But the specific mission for the Solar Impulse 2, and the thing that brings it under the purview of this blog, was to raise awareness for renewable energy. While the plane itself is far from practical (it can only carry a single person–the pilot–and only under ideal conditions), its existence suggests greater things to come and, as Mr. Piccard is fond of pointing out, everything is more difficult in the sky, so if solar power can work even marginally for an airplane, there’s no excuse for not using it on the ground.

All of this is laudable. There is a long history of impractical-seeming exploration leading to very practical technical innovation, and there is much to be said for crazy stunts as a way to get media attention. If flying around the world in an extremely fragile experimental airplane gets you on TV saying “climate change is real and important and we have to do something!” than I am all for it. These people are doing it right, making a difference.

Also, based on his appearance on the documentary, I find Bertand Piccard impossible not to like. He positively glows with a kind of driven, excitement, the kind of delighted passion usually called “childlike,” except it’s also obvious that you’d better not get in his way. He’s probably hard to live with, but as I don’t have to live with him, I’m free to just think he’s really cool. And he’s good-looking, so that helps.

I point all this out in order to make sure my next question is not misunderstood:

What was the carbon footprint of this project?

I suspect somebody has calculated the answer, but finding the number is not really the point–I’m sure the footprint was huge. Consider just two aspects of the project. First, the plane took off from Abu Dhabi, and eventually returned there, triumphant, but that’s not where it was built. The documentary clearly showed the Solar Impulse 2 arriving at the Abu Dhabi airport inside the belly of a giant cargo plane. That cargo plane was not solar powered. Second, the Solar Impulse 2 can carry only one human at a time, but it had two pilots who alternated. One pilot would land and, I assume, go sleep in a hotel for three days, and the next pilot would board and take off. That means that the relief pilot, not to mention the ground crew and the specialized portable hanger, must have flown (in non-solar aircraft) to the meeting place. Since weeks or months sometimes went by between the legs of the journey, the pilots probably flew home sometimes, too.

It’s not that the project was necessarily carbon-heavy as such things go, but it obviously wasn’t carbon-light, either, and it definitely wasn’t a flight around the world using no fuel. The airplane that doesn’t use fuel requires the support of those that do.

As I said, the value of the project was as an early proof of concept and as a stunt designed to trigger necessary conversations. As such, it was a good and important project. But I’d like to suggest a follow-up:

How about a team of people go around the world ACTUALLY with zero fossil fuel?

Or, better yet, several teams, and have them race? They’ll be walking, biking, sailing, rafting, and in some areas using plug-in hybrid cars and possibly some experimental technology. The race will provide both audience interest and an incentive for teams to innovate, rather than simply walking and sailing for three or four years. Infrastructure and technology will be tested and explored, possibly triggering useful innovations, such as bike lanes and walkable city designs. Local people will appear in interviews on BBC and PBS with translators doing voice-overs. It will be great.

Because we know that climate change isn’t really a technological problem. Better technology will help, but we could do a lot more to combat climate change with the technology we have. The problem is cultural and political, and requires cultural and political solutions.

A big, attention-grabbing demonstration of the zero-carbon transportation tools we already have might help.


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It’s Time

Funny how the tricks of the calendar can have such an effect on the mind. It’s like that old joke—you have a birthday everyone asks how it feels to be a year older. Of course, you are nothing of the kind—but it feels meaningful. Jimmy Buffet had a birthday yesterday. So did Jesus Christ, at least according to many of his followers….

And because of a trick of the calendar, those followers now feel as though the baby, Jesus has just now been born. As though everything that baby stands for is just now irrupted into the world, and for his sake many of them make a serious attempt to live love more deeply now.

What changed? Nothing, except the minds of those willing to use a trick of the calendar to foster change.

Today I’m tired, and perhaps somewhat grumpy, and I’ve spent several hours now in from of the computer, ostensibly working, unable to think of anything.

I’ve spent most of the past year mired in my own head, unable to do much of anything, despite our living in a world where so much needs to be done.

But New Years’ Day is coming up, and there are ways to make changes stick, ways to instill new habits, new practices—you can look these things up on line, there are plenty of ways to make a New Years’ resolution more likely to stick. Let’s use the time we have in which to act; make climate action a priority.

Who’s with me?