The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Longest Day of the Year

Today is the summer solstice. Right around the time I post this, actually (12:24 PM, Eastern Daylight Time), the Earth will reach the point in its orbit when the North Pole points most directly at the sun. If you were standing at the North Pole, you would see the sun make a complete circuit of the sky, without dipping noticeably towards the horizon at any point (though in fact it must dip because the Pole never points directly at the sun). At lower latitudes like mine, we get the longest day of the year*.

Fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes at my latitude, not counting twilight.

The winter solstice, in December, gets more attention. I have written about it here, myself. There are songs and lights and stories and a big fuss generally made, but there is an absence of fuss today. It’s a curious thing, and it’s not because there are just more holidays in December. The winter solstice gets Yule (on the solstice itself), Christmas, Hanukkah, and several others. The summer solstice gets Litha (on the solstice), St. John’s Day (on the 24th), Juneteenth, Father’s Day–this year, Laylat al-Qadr also falls around now, although the Muslim calendar moves with respect to the Gregorian calendar of the secular world. And yet who can quickly articulate the transcultural themes of this solstice?

The problem, I suspect, is that while the winter solstice lends itself to celebrations of hope and renewal (the return of the light), at the summer solstice, the light is about to start going way. This day reminds us that all good things are temporary, all triumphs limited, all joy shadowed by the eventuality of loss. It’s just not an appealing source of metaphor.

And yet.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favorite books of all time. It is generally marketed to children, but I think that is because reading it first in childhood gives you the best opportunity to have the time to read it the 257 times (at least) necessary to fully understand everything in its slim and deceptively simple pages. I am hardly the only one to see depths in this book, and I’ve talked about her work at length in this blog.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a series of six books (five novels and a collection of short stories). Structurally, these look to be two interlocking trilogies, rather than a sextet, since the first three differ radically in theme and mood from the latter three. The third book, the culmination of the first trilogy, most fully explores the idea introduced by the epigraph I’ve quoted–that life and death are reciprocal and inextricable. As I wrote in a previous post:

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

Ms. LeGuin may not have intended to write about climate change–but given the depth of her subject matter, it’s fair to say her topic included environmental issues, and she clearly knew about climate change at the time she wrote it, because she described the concept in a novel published three years earlier.

To avoid environmental disaster, we must accept and respect limits. Not that sustainability involves everybody “freezing to death in the dark,” the straw-man attacked by some, nor does it really involve accepting any greater limits than any other lifestyle does–the limits are real, and we run up against them no matter how we live. But the pro-industrial, fossil-fuel dependent way of life to which many of us have become accustomed is predicated on the assumption that all limits can be transcended, so that if going after what we want creates problems, we assume that if we pursue our desires harder, those problems, too, will be solved. And that isn’t how the world works.

Acknowledging limitation allows us to make intelligent choices about how we will use the resources we actually have. Since we must bear some cost, let’s live our lives in such a way that it is a cost we can bear with a clear conscience, not something we must pretend does not exist, or something we’d rather shunt off to be borne by the people of some other country, ethnic group, generation, or species. Since the long days of summer are few, this solstice tells us, let us choose to spend them outside playing in sprinklers, or sitting in the shade with a cool drink.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

 

*Of course, I live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, and the summer solstice occurs in December.


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About that Tango in Paris

Last week, a family member landed in the hospital. They’re out again, now. No, I will not go into any detail. Yes, that was why I was too busy, both physically and psychologically, to post.

Last week, too, President Trump announced his attention to leave the Paris climate pact. I’d been getting little notifications for a while that he was considering doing so, and that I should sign things or contact people to object. I signed nothing and contacted nobody. I felt like I was treading water, and there were other swimmers clinging to me. I could not spare the mental energy.

Would Mr. Trump have decided to stay in had I gotten involved? I’ll never know, but probably not. He’s been promising to pull out since he was a candidate, I’d be surprised if anything could have changed his mind. Anyway, to claim too much responsibility would seem both masochistic and arrogant. I’m only one person…but swallow too much of that comfort, and I’ll poison myself, come to believe I can’t make a difference at all.

The truth is I can’t change the fact that my family needed me in a very immediate way last week. Nor can I change the fact that I have emotional and physical limitations myself. Everybody does. We just have to hope that we’re not all limited at the same time in the same way, because what we’re up against does not appear to rest, or get sick, or go to sleep.

Had I posted last week, my post would have consisted only of the above, entirely glum admission.

Fortunately, in the intervening days, I have learned that getting out of Paris may be harder than Mr. Trump seems to think. And a growing number of people are deciding that even if Mr. Trump does pull out, the rest of us will stay in.

Still Politically Binding

Mr. Trump can’t just wish away the Paris climate agreement. No party to the pact can formally announce an intention to pull out until at least 2019, and such a decision won’t count as formal until at least 2020. So we’re still in until then.

To get out any earlier would require withdrawing from the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, which was ratified by the Senate–meaning that Mr. Trump can’t withdraw by executive order. He’ll need the Senate’s cooperation, which he may or may not get.

Of course, Donald Trump can simply direct his administration to ignore the agreement–this is exactly what he said he’s doing, actually–which has no real legal teeth. It was specifically designed not to have teeth, in order to avoid having to be ratified by the US Senate. It was designed to be politically binding, meaning that if a country ignores its obligations, everyone else will know to laugh and jeer at what irresponsible ignoramuses that country contains.

Well, prepare to be laughed and jeered at, because there is no mechanism whatever to get out of that one.

What Leaving Paris Means–And Doesn’t

Curiously, Mr. Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate Paris so that it is fairer to the US and doesn’t impose a cost on our businesses. Of course, that is baloney; under the agreement, each country is free to draft its own commitments. If we drafted commitments that won’t work for us (which I don’t believe, but that’s another subject), it’s hardly the fault of the negotiators at Paris.

France, Italy, and Germany lost no time in pointing out that climate action is an economic opportunity, and no, they will not renegotiate with Mr. Trump, thank you very much. They actually intend to put more of their own resources into fighting climate change, in order to make up for US negligence. Good for them.

But the reason I call Mr. Trump’s suggestion of renegotiation curious is that it indicates he feels the need to appease the environmental movement, to at least pretend to care about the climate, even as he makes it very clear that he doesn’t. That’s actually a good sign. It means he is feeling some political pressure, and if we push hard enough, he might actually back down a little. After all, Richard Nixon thought tree huggers were pretty stupid, but public pressure made him an environmentalist president anyway.

So, getting out of Paris by whatever means won’t allow us to escape our politically binding obligations, and it won’t improve the US economy. It might not even have much of an effect on individual US businesses (since we won’t be out for several more years, anyway), and it’s not really the bald-faced political shout-out to climate deniers that it seems, because Mr. Trump is trying to hedge his bets by claiming he wants to improve the agreement.

What, then, is the point?

An article on Politico argues persuasively that Mr. Trump is simply trying to thumb his nose at the global community. After all, he can’t demonstrate what a bad-boy strongman he is by building a wall against Mexico (turns out nobody will pay for it), so this is the next best thing, his demonstration that nobody can tell him what to do.

And at that, his action will be effective.

The State of the Country

In the meantime, a long and impressive list of states and other entities are signing on to Paris, or some version or equivalent of it, independent of Federal leadership.

There are three agreements involved. There is the United States Climate Alliance, which involves states individually committing to “achieving the U.S. goal of reducing emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan.” The Alliance will also act as a forum for supporting and implementing new and existing climate action generally.

The Climate Mayors’ Agreement is a publicly stated intention on the part of signatory mayors to also pursue climate action. We Are Still In is an open letter, signed by the leaders of cities, counties, educational institutions, businesses, and investors, stating a pro-climate intention in light of Mr. Trump’s planned withdrawal.

Now, the Alliance appears not to be legally binding. In fact, it can’t be legally binding, because the Constitution specifically forbids the states from entering into treaties with foreign powers or each other without the consent of Congress. Each individual state can legally commit to emissions-reductions goals on its own, something Hawaii has now done. Other states could follow.

The text of the Climate Mayors’ Agreement and the We Are Still In letter do not state any concrete goals and therefore they are not even politically enforceable, as of yet. That is, without goals, it will be impossible to tell whether the signatories are acting on their commitments or not. The signatories also appear to be individuals, not government entities or organizations, meaning that if any of these people leave/get fired/don’t win reelection, all bets are off. But we can hope that the publicly stated intention is a beginning on which more concrete actions and commitments will build.

Personally, I feel a good deal better this week than last. I have more hope.

Nationally, we have work to do. We need to get on this momentum and push it farther. For example, my state, Maryland, has not yet signed on. Marylanders can push our leaders to do so–and residents of other states that have not yet signed on can also push.

Your town, your county, your school, your kids’ school, your alma mater, your employer, the businesses you patronize, push all of them.

The other thing we have to do is make plans to ensure that none of the political leaders who have signed on fail to win re-election.


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Nuclear Opinions

I’ve been thinking.

I’ve just watched a documentary from last month in which Miles O’Brian explored nuclear power. It was an interesting show, full of detailed but easy-to-understand descriptions of various types of reactors. The basic thrust of the piece was that resistance to nuclear power is wrong-headed in light of the threat of climate change and the existence of new, much safer, reactor designs.

My immediate impulse is to be suspicious of such claims. Like many people, I have a very negative association with anything nuclear–which may be deserved, but is knee-jerk nonetheless. I am suspicious of the jerking of knees. You’re never too smart to be dumb, as Jimmy Buffet says, and I doubt my emotional impulses are any wiser and more reliable than anyone else’s.

What I have heard is that the potential harm of a nuclear accident is so great that even a small chance of that accident happening is too great. That even a properly functioning nuclear power plant produces large amounts of radioactive waste that nobody knows what to do with. That although a nuclear power plant is free of carbon emissions in the sense that it has no smoke stack, huge amounts of fossil fuels are used to build the plant, to mine and mill the fuel, to transport it, and to decommission the plant afterwards. So nuclear power is actually carbon-intensive.

But I have heard all these things from people who are already opposed to nuclear power.

I am not a nuclear physicist. Neither am I an engineer. I do not understand the operation of nuclear power plants unless someone explains it to me in very simple terms, and I am not equipped to differentiate the accurate descriptions from the inaccurate ones. I am reduced, therefor, to deciding whether to accept the message based on whether I trust the messenger. I have friends whom I trust who are anti-nuclear activists. They aren’t physicists, either, but they are highly educated in other fields and seem to know what they’re talking about. Therefore, I am anti-nuclear as well. When I hear Miles O’Brian on television implying that nuclear power might be a good idea, my impulse is to distrust him, to wonder if perhaps he is on the take somehow (despite the fact that I generally admire his work).

Pay attention to how this works:

  1. I do not understand a topic, but I feel the need to have an opinion.
  2. I therefore adopt the opinion held by people I like and trust, even though my trust in them has nothing whatever to do with their expertise in the relevant topic
  3. Because I am now emotionally invested in my adopted opinion, the mere fact that someone disagrees with me is enough to make me question their competence and their professional ethics.
  4. Miles O’Brian is not a physicist, but he is a professional science journalist who has obviously spent several years intensively researching the nuclear energy field, including talking to a lot of physicists–and yet my impulse is to assume he is deliberately lying because he contradicts people who, so far as I know, have no more real expertise in the matter than I do. Thus have I made myself impervious to learning on an important topic.

This is exactly the same psychological process that causes some people to doubt the reality of climate change.

Now, the fact that I’ve apparently taken leave of my senses is not proof, all by itself, that I’m wrong about nuclear power being bad news. As they say, just because you’re paranoid is no proof they’re not out to get ya. But the jerking of my knee is a good indication that I need to open my mind back up, even if I have to do it with a crow bar.

Offhand, the new reactor designs do sound promising. Whereas the water-cooled reactors build in the 1960’s and ’70’s more or less have failure as a default mode, other designs exist that simply turn themselves off if anything goes wrong. For example, some use liquid fuel that expands if it gets too hot. In an expanded state, the uranium atoms are too far apart to sustain nuclear fusion, and the reactor cools back down again. Sounds perfect.

Except I don’t know what happens to the spent fuel afterwards or what the environmental cost of uranium mining and processing is. So maybe not so perfect. But it’s worth noting that the environmental cost of fossil fuel mining and processing is truly awful, so it might come out even.

I should do some research on this, but have not yet done so. My point is not to argue in favor of nuclear in this post. I can imagine that I might do so in the future, depending on what else I learn–while I doubt nuclear power can ever be rendered truly safe, the small risk of local or regional disaster might be better than the absolute certainty of global disaster we face otherwise. But I’m writing this post today because I’ve had an even more unsettling thought.

I’ve long maintained that we don’t need nuclear power and its various risks and costs, nor do we need new technological advances in renewable energy and alternative fuels. All of those approaches make saving the planet conditional on our getting “enough” energy by other means, but we’re never going to get enough because the human capacity for consumption has no lid. Some of us use tens or hundreds of times the energy our fore-bearers did, and, given the opportunity, I’m sure we could find some use for tens or hundreds of times more than what we use now.

Rather than committing ourselves to filling our hunger for energy and then engaging our ingenuity to find ways to live sustainably anyway, we should commit to living sustainably and then engage our ingenuity to fin ways to keep our luxuries and gadgets anyway. We should just turn the polluting machines off. Today.

But of course, I know we’re not going to. Hell, the United States of America doesn’t seem capable at the moment of electing people who think climate change is real, let alone mounting a grass-roots movement to radically re-shape our way of life. Ideal solutions are important to hold on to for perspective and as a useful starting point for brain-storming, but I’m in no way suggesting that we reject partial and imperfect solutions when they come along. We must cope with political reality just as we must cope with physics.

And herein lies the disconcerting thought.

Are we in a position where nuclear power, whatever its costs and hang-ups and difficulties, may be the best we can get?

 


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6 Steps to Save the World from President Trump

This post includes a lot of material that actually showed up in the last two posts, but as my list has evolved and gotten more useful, I thought I’d share the updated version. It’s less a discussion and more of a simple to-do list. These items are listed in rough order of priority, since some have deadlines coming up soon. Please pass this around. Thank you.

1. Maybe Keep Mr. Trump Out of Office

No, getting Trump impeached is a bad idea. For one thing, that would give us President Pence, and that would be worse. But there are other options–all long shots, but still viable.

  1. Demand a recount. Jill Stein is organizing recounts in several key states. The Clinton campaign has joined the effort. Neither Dr. Stein nor Ms. Clinton expect to change the outcome of the election this way (and Dr. Stein does not care whether Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton is president), the objective is only to stand up for fair play. But there is a chance. Check Dr. Stein’s website to see if she needs money or other assistance.
  2. Ask Republican electors to vote for Hillary Clinton instead. So-called “faithless electors” must pay a fine or other penalty in some states, but their votes are still valid, and this flexibility is exactly why the Electoral College exists. There is no official process for contacting the electors, but many are public figures and do have offices. Since the electors don’t have a responsibility to listen to “constituents” anyway, I don’t think it matters whether you live in their state or not. Just call as many as you can. Be polite and friendly, and focus on talking points likely to appeal to Republican party leaders, since that’s what most electors pledged to Mr. Trump are. Remember, a lot of Republican leaders don’t like Mr. Trump, anyway. It’s a long shot, but if we can get just 40 of them to switch, Mr. Clinton will be president. Here is a partial list of current Electoral College members.

2. Block the More Extreme of  Mr. Trump’s Appointees

I discussed how and why to block political appointees last week.  The short version is to sign whatever petitions you want to, but the real power lies in calling your senators and also those senators on the relevant committee. Start with Myron Ebell, the climate denier Mr. Trump wants to head the EPA. If your focus is on human rights, remember that it is always the disenfranchised who bear the brunt of pollution and climate change, and that of all the mistakes our government could make, allowing environmental disaster would be far the hardest to un-do.

Here’s the process, in brief:

  1. Look up Mr. Trump’s appointees. Here is a list that looks like it’s being regularly updated. Focus on those appointments that require Senate confirmation.
  2. Identify appointees you want to protest.
  3. Look up which Senate committee (or committees) has jurisdiction over that person’s prospective job. Use this link.
  4. Do an internet search for that committee’s web page. It will list the committee’s current membership with links to each member’s page—which will list the phone numbers for his or her office. Remember to CALL, not email. Remember that each Senate committee has its counterpart in the House. Don’t get the House committee by mistake. The US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has jurisdiction over the EPA. Here is a link to its page.
  5. Make a call list with all the members of the committee and your two Senators on it. Remember to remove any Senators who are leaving office in January and remember to call their successors when they come in. Fortunately, none of the members of the Energy and Natural Resources committee are leaving, so you can call all of them now.
  6. Make your phone calls.

3. Call the House Oversight Committee and Ask for a Bipartisan Review of Mr. Trump’s Financials and Conflicts of Interest

Honestly, I’m not sure if this will do anything useful, but since we are fairly sure Trump is slimy, knowing the exact depth of his slime probably can’t hurt. The number is (202) 225-5074

4. Attend Protest Marches, Especially Large Ones

There is a big demonstration planned on women’s rights in DC for just after inauguration. So far, the organizers seem to be communicating largely through Facebook, and the details are not set yet. Stay tuned. The objective here is to demonstrate that women and their allies DO matter politically and DO have power—both to put Trump and his cronies on notice and to let women who are afraid right now know they aren’t alone. Men and genderqueer folk are apparently welcome. I’m going.

I do hope to see a similar large demonstration on environmental issues soon, especially since Trump has signaled he’s open to having his mind changed on that one.

5. Donate Money

Mr. Trump has more or less promised to use his power to try to do horrible things to the environment, to Latinx and Muslim immigrants, and to anyone who needs affordable healthcare. Women, LGBT folk, and people of color are justifiably worried as well. And, since the election, bigots of all stripes seem to have felt emboldened, making everything many of us do that much harder already. Fortunately, there are groups already established that know how to fight this sort of thing and they are gearing up to respond. They need cash.

If you want suggestions and handy links, here are a few:

  1. The Environmental Defense Fund is currently matching donations two-to-one AND is focusing particularly on protecting President Obama’s climate legacy against Mr. Trump.
  2. The Sierra Club Foundation  funnels donations into a variety of conservation and environmental education-related projects and has an excellent rating from various charity-watchdog groups.
  3. The Natural Resources Defense Council  supports various conservation projects with a particular focus on pursuing polluters through legal challenges.
  4. Earthjustice works through the courts to push for environmental progress.
  5. The League of Conservation Voters supports the election of pro-environment candidates at every level.
  6. The Union of Concerned Scientists supports independent conservation science and stands up for climate scientists currently facing harassment.
  7. The ACLU defends the civil rights of individuals in court.
  8. Planned Parenthood is famous for its contraceptive services and controversial for its abortion services, but it provides much more, from basic gynecological care to cancer screenings and anonymous HIV testing to periodic men’s sexual health clinics, whether or not the patient can pay. The tragedy about attempts by Congress to de-fund Planned Parenthood for its abortion services is that the law already bars Federal money from going to abortion; “de-fundin Planned Parenthood” has no impact on abortion, but will deny low-income people life-saving healthcare.
  9. The Southern Poverty Law Center fights hate and extremism in court, supporting LGBT and immigrant rights, among many others, and works for criminal justice reform.
  10. The Delaware Alliance for Community Action. Yes, this organization is pretty local, but local organizations do important work. If you don’t live in Delaware and want to find something closer to home, go ahead.
  11. The Newspaper. Seriously, high-quality journalism is under threat right now, largely for economic reasons. Buy a subscription to a high-quality paper that still does true investigative journalism. A free press is not free and needs our collective support.

6. Be Kind and Be Brave

This is a BIGGIE. As I said there are a lot of newly emboldened deplorables out there now who think it’s ok to treat other people badly. We have to show them otherwise. If you see someone being treated badly, say something. If you are treated badly, fight back. If you see someone who is hurting or afraid, ask how you can help. Find the people in your community you don’t normally talk to and ask them what’s going on. There’s a lot of information online about how to do this. Seriously.

 


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What to Do Next

As readers know, Donald Trump is an outspoken climate denier. He’s also going to be the Next President of the United States, which is a very serious problem because President Obama’s climate legacy is almost entirely the result of executive action, and what one President can do with a pen and a telephone, another can undo the same way.

Or, almost.

Legally, the US can’t pull out of Paris for four years (and I really hope we’ll have a different President by then!), but Mr. Trump can simply decline to act on the terms of the agreement.

But we can hope that if enough pressure is brought to bear, Mr. Trump will realize that not honoring the agreement is stupid. In bringing that pressure, we may have help from abroad. Already, leaders attending climate talks this week are working to strengthen the world climate response, to hopefully compensate for the possibility that the US might pull out.

International readers! If you’re a citizen of somewhere other than the USA, please ask your leaders to pledge to hold the US accountable on climate! We need you!

From within the US, there also things we can do. Here is a list of concrete actions to take, about Paris and about other issues. Please note that where I say to contact your elected officials, that means to call, instead of or in addition to emailing. Emailing is super-easy and they know it. Here is an article on how to get the most impact for talking to your Congresspeople. You can look up your Members’ names and the correct phone numbers online easily, if you don’t happen to know them.

  1. Ask world leaders to keep the pressure on the US about climate–here is a petition.
  2. Contact your Congresspeople and tell them you support continued climate action (do this AFTER the new Congress is seated, too).
  3. Call your Senators (and other people’s Senators) and ask them to block Trump’s pick for EPA head, the climate-denier, Myron Ebell. Block any and all climate deniers he might try to put in that position.
  4. Donate money to major environmental groups: the Environmental Defense Fund is currently matching donations two-to-one AND is focusing particularly on protecting President Obama’s climate legacy against Mr. Trump.  Other highly relevant organizations include the Sierra Club Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Note that some of the above are also involved in the various anti-pipeline fights, which not only are environmental issues but also are human rights struggles through the potential impacts of those projects on various Native American nations.
  5. Donate money to the ACLU–Ok, this is not directly about climate change, it’s just plain important. These are the people who can fight many of the abuses that Mr. Trump has more or less promised.
  6. Support local, state, and non-profit environmental programs and campaigns. I hope to be able to provide specific recommendations here, but remember that some states and even regions have their own anti-climate change policies that need support–especially if the Federal government turns hostile, and it seems determined to do.

When you donate, consider donating as a group–get people from your workplace, your community group, or anything else you belong to, to all donate to the same place together. This not only encourages other group members to donate, but also lets the recipient know that your group exists and that your agenda is important (if you’re a big enough group). Your group does not need its own bank account for this to work–just ask each member to donate in the name of your group.

A variation on this idea is to donate in the name of a public figure, so that he or she receives a thank-you notice from the group. This way, not only do you raise money for a good cause, you also demonstrate your support of the cause to the public person. This is not necessarily a friendly thing to do. It’s closely related to the idea of donating to the League of Conservation Voters in the name of your climate-denier relative. It’s a bit of a screw-you. Only you can decide if this is really a good idea.

 


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A Climate for Dragons

An original climate-fiction piece, for your reading pleasure.

Diana Minakshi Cartwright lay at the bottom of the bowl of the sky and could not rise. Since the hang-gliding accident 15 years earlier, nothing much below her armpits had worked properly. The air, for so long her friend and playmate, had suddenly—and quite literally—let her down. Humanity was in the same boat, in a way, though she didn’t blame the atmosphere for climate change, of course. And she had long since forgiven the sky about her legs. She still loved to lie in the grass and look up at it.

But she could not lie there forever. Today was the big day and she had to get up and be an adult in it. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked around for her assistant.

“Dashawn?”

Dashawn Harris called himself her grad student. The phrase was a complete misnomer, first because he knew more than she did about his work, and second because grad schools, as such, hadn’t existed in twenty-five years. Civilization had fallen when a global pandemic terminally disrupted the distribution of both food and oil. A new civilization, of sorts, was growing up in its place, one without fossil fuel and without many of the institutions Diana had taken for granted back when she was young and could still wriggle her toes.

But the new society had its own institutions and rules, and one of these stipulated that professionals in certain fields had to go through an apprenticeship process in order to be taken seriously by their colleagues. Dashawn was a self-taught roboticist, one of the best in the country, but could not make the new rules bend. He had offered Diana his services in exchange for professional legitimacy. On paper, therefor, he was her apprentice, something like a grad student, yes. In reality, he was her business partner, her friend, her aid, and, on bad days, her nurse.

“Dashawn?”

He appeared, gently scooped her up out of the grass, and carried her over to an equipment tent where he undressed her and helped her put on her robotic exoskeleton. She hated to wear the thing, but thanks to a neural access plug on her spine and the exo’s own microprocessors, it put her in command of her own body again. She put her clothes and her dignity back on and joined Dashawn at his field control center. He handed her a cup of coffee substitute and consulted a series of screens, frowning.

“How’s it looking?” she asked.

“Oh, fucked up as usual,” he began, then rolled his eyes and amended himself. “Ok, it’s not completely fucked up. Sections E and F aren’t logging on to the cell towers, but it’s probably just a relay being retarded or some shit. We’ve still got 27 minutes before the media fucktards start crawling around. Plenty of time.”

Dashawn was habitually irreverent to the point of genuine offensiveness. He would not be talking to said media.

“The, um, ‘media fucktards’ are here already,” said a woman’s voice. Diana jumped and the servos in her exo whined as they moved her legs and recovered her balance.

“Elzy, why don’t you knock?” she said, and turned around to face her publicist.

“Because you don’t have a door,” the younger woman replied.

“Hey, you’re a cop,” put in Dashawn, still attending to his computers. “Arrest the reporters for trespassing. Fuck ‘em up.”

“I only fuck up badguys,” Elzy Rodriguez explained, lightly. “Anyway, I left my badge at home. I’m wearing my environmental education hat today. Why don’t you just buzz them with your toy birds?”

Dashawn tensed, then stood up slowly. He was a big man, bushy as a pirate, and he did not seem quite sane. A lesser woman than Elzy might have been intimidated. But when he turned around he was grinning like a friendly retriever.

“I don’t build toys,” he said. “I fly dragons.

“Children, children,” Diana chided, playfully. But her accent was coming out, as it always did when she was stressed. It made all her words sound musical and precise. “Elzy, we’re having an issue with the relays, just keep the reporters busy for the moment, ok?”

“But they want you.”

“Tell them I’ll be out when I am ready!”

“Yes, Dr. Cartwright.” Elzy left the tent as soundlessly as she’d entered it.

“I’ve actually got things covered in here,” Dashawn told her, “if you want to go out and act all famous and shit.”

“I’m just not looking forward to explaining the difference between climatology and meteorology 42 times in a row.”

“So don’t bother. Who gives a shit if they think you’re the weather-lady? Give ‘em a couple a’ sound-bites, talk about the science, yada yada yada, you’ll be fabulous.”

“Of course I’ll be fabulous,” snapped Diana. She finished her fake coffee, clipped on an earpiece so Dashawn could call her if he needed to, and walked out into the busy sunshine.

These days, the green floor of Carter Notch, in New Hampshire, was a dairy farm, but it still had wide, flat open areas where the tourist parking lots used to be. The place made a good launch site. Today, the cows were sequestered in their barns and in the pastures rested rows upon rows of blue and white aerial drones. Each was about the size and shape of a turkey vulture, pale beneath and covered with dark solar cells above. Retractable props provided thrust when the machine was not soaring and a dozen tiny cameras and sensors peered out from ports and windows in the head and belly. Each sat on its own portable launch ramp and dozens of techs moved among the rows, making last minute adjustments and consulting tablet computers all keyed in to Dashawn and his electronic nerve center.

Above, the sky warmed towards noon and real, flesh-and-blood vultures soared upwards in huge circles. A pair of ravens gamboled in thin air, tumbling together for thousands of feet and then rising to wrestle and flirt all over again.

Diana knew each of the three hundred flyers was coming awake around her, flexing and testing various flaps. She could visualize them trying out their robotic senses, tasting the air for wind speed, direction, temperature, and trace atmospheric gas composition. She could also visualize a sixth of the machines steadfastly refusing to communicate with the cell tower network. Without that network, the drones not only wouldn’t be able to report their data and accept new commands, they would be unable to correct any navigation errors. The last of the GPS satellites had stopped working years ago, just like the communications and research satellites before them. It was all just so much space-junk, now.

Those satellites could not be replaced. Without fossil fuel, technology could still be blisteringly intelligent, but it lacked the brute force necessary to hurl a rocket into space. Without satellites, much of climatology and meteorology were essentially flying blind. That was the central problem today was meant to solve. If the launch went off well, other launches would follow in other parts of the country. Over a thousand drones, flying continuous transects within set altitude ranges, would collectively replace the satellites, at least in American airspace. But if sections E and F would not or could not communicate, ten years of work and the best of her legacy would stay grounded with them.

Diana reminded herself that, in all likelihood, the problem would be fixed soon, in minutes or hours, or a few days at most. Last-minute technical glitches were pretty run-of-the-mill. The trouble was that Elzy, quite sensibly, had encouraged the project’s major funders to use the launch as a publicity opportunity. A delay now would embarrass the very people whose money and good will Diana could not do without.

Representatives of the major project partners, the colleges and meteorological societies funding the program, plus the firm that built the drones, were due in about two hours for the press conference and the equivalent of a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but half a dozen reporters had jumped the fence and wanted soundbites now. If she could keep them happy without letting on that there was a problem, it was possible Dashawn would get the drones launched on schedule after all.

Techs were still assembling the low stage for the ceremony, but Elzy had improvised and was holding court from the tailgate of one of the ox-carts that had transported the drones. She looked incredibly comfortable inside the knot of insistent reporters–she actually had them all laughing now–which was part of why she made a good publicist. But she was right; it was Diana these people wanted to talk to.

With as much grace as modern technology could offer, Diana climbed up onto the cart. Elzy clasped her hand for a moment like a 20th century biker (the gesture had recently become popular among cops) and hopped down.

Diana gave the reporters an abbreviated version of the statement she’d prepared for the event later. In a few quick sentences she explained what the drones were and why they were necessary and what parts of the country these 300 would fly over. She graciously acknowledged the expertise of Dashawn Harris in designing and flying the drones and of Elzy Rodriguez for so much of the funding and public goodwill the project required. She thanked all her institutional partners by name and then reiterated the importance of accurate climatological assessment or crafting public policy. “With these data, we will no longer have to rely on guesswork and anecdote to understand the pace of climate change,” she finished. Then she asked if anyone had any questions.

“Dr. Cartwright?” said a very young man with a reddish Afro and a lot of orange freckles. “Did you say ‘climate change’? What climate change are you referring to? Fossil fuel use stopped 25 years ago.” The other reporters looked at him, some with disdain for asking a stupid question, some with gratitude because now they did not have to ask. Diana fought the urge to roll her eyes. Hadn’t these people attended high school?

“Fossil fuel use stopped, yes,” she explained, “but there are other emissions types—natural gas leaks, chlorofluorocarbons from broken refrigeration units, deforestation—these things do not stop simply because one civilization falls.” She felt bad for the man-boy with the Afro; he’d probably never seen a working air conditioner in his life, but he still had to live with the environmental cost of the machines.

A middle-aged woman asked whether the drones were meant to monitor the recovery from climate change. She seemed to be having trouble with the concept that no, climate change wasn’t over. Diana reiterated as gently as she could.

“But haven’t CO2 levels been falling?” the woman asked.

“Yes, carbon dioxide levels have been falling, as have methane levels and some of the shorter-lived chlorinated gasses,” Diana explained. “But average global temperature has not. In fact, global temperature is still rising because there is a lag in the climate system of several decades. The problem is that this additional heat could be enough to trigger positive feedback loops, such as self-maintaining forest dieback in the Amazon, or the release of the remaining methane trapped in frozen tundra in the extreme Arctic. If that happens, we will see carbon dioxide and methane levels start to rise again. That is why it is so critical that we have access to accurate atmospheric data as soon as possible.”

“What will you do if those feedback loops happen?” asked the boy with the Afro, sounding desolate, as well he might.

“We don’t know,” Diana told him. “We hope it never comes to that. But we don’t have to wait for feedback loops to start to take some action. These drones can identify localized methane or CFC release plumes, such as from leaking fossil fuel extraction sites or from landfills or industrial ruins. With that information we may be able to go in and cap those leaks. We may also be able to identify areas where planting programs or soil or wetland restoration can speed up natural reforestation. All these steps can lower emissions or enhance carbon reuptake and may be able to buy us more time.”

There were other questions, all of them intelligent and well-thought-out, but most of them at least sixty or seventy years out of date scientifically. Why was Diana having to do basic science education for issues that should have become common knowledge a generation or two ago? The thought depressed her terribly. Worse, no one asked what should have been the obvious question; how could drones flying over the United States shed much light on what was going on in the Arctic or the Amazon? The answer was they couldn’t—but the new Federal government still had not opened up diplomatic relations with any foreign countries and explicitly discouraged both international travel and the repair of international computer networks. The problem was that America still had no army, and the newly elected suits in Washington were quietly hoping the rest of the world would not notice. So if there were scientists in Brazil or Ecuador, in Canada, or the Republic of Alaska—or even back home in India–they had no way to talk to Diana Cartwright.

Finally the reporters ran dry for the time being and wandered off to edit their dispatches. Diana sat down on the tailgate and closed her eyes. The top of her exo pinched and rubbed against her ribs and beneath her breasts. She could feel that, and the constant discomfort dragged at her. She’d elected not to wear her ugly circulation boots today and knew her moment of vanity had been a mistake. Her feet were probably swelling. She wished cacao trees grew in North America because she could really use a chocolate bar right now, but she’d happily settle for whisky if anyone offered her some.

The cart shifted on its shocks as someone else sat down on the tailgate. Knuckles rapped on the wood—Elzy was knocking, as requested. Diana smiled.

“Nobody likes a smart-ass, Elzy.”

“Good thing I don’t care,” Elzy replied, amiably. “How’s it going?”

“If I have to tell one more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed reporter that we’re all doomed I am going to have to take up drinking.”

Are we doomed?”

“No, but when I describe climatology to the public it always sounds like we are. Elzy, I am tired.”

Elzy shrugged. She was too pragmatic to get upset about things she could not help.

“I don’t think they really look like dragons,” she said, changing the subject. “I still think the drones look like toy birds.”

“How do you know what dragons look like?” asked Diana, opening her eyes.

“I don’t,” Elzy confessed. “But there was this man—you know when you’ve known somebody about fifteen minutes and you think you’re in love?”

“At my age, we don’t call that love.”

“I didn’t really, either, but I’d gone all oogly inside. Anyway, we stayed up all night watching the stars and telling stories. He was a professional story-teller and he told me about dragons. European dragons, Chinese dragons, Indian dragons, Mexican dragons, even, maybe, an Australian dragon. He said that dragons embody the fertility and wealth of the land—that’s why they hoard gold–but also the land’s fierceness, its danger. So dragons should look, I don’t know, like a hailstorm, not all blue and rounded like these.”

“I wish I were a dragon,” said Diana. “I wish I could breathe fire and protect the world. I wish I could fly.”

Elzy was about to reply when Diana’s earpiece came to life.

“Hey, boss-lady,” said Dashawn. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“Go ahead.”

“E and F signed on, but I’ll be damned if I know why they were off in the first place and until I know we can’t launch. If they cut out again before they gain altitude we could lose the batch.” The drones could navigate visually, but only if they were high enough up to see major landforms. Until then they depended on the cell networks to stay oriented.

“If they don’t get airborne soon, we’ll have to reschedule anyway,” Diana warned. “I don’t want the night glide to begin at less than ten thousand feet.”

“I know, I know, I’m working on it.”

“Do you need me to come over?”

“Not unless you’ve learned how to read relay code.”

“Not in the last 45 minutes, no. Ok, I’ll stay here, then. Let me know when you have a launch time.”

“Will do. Later, gator.” A slight click and the connection shut down again.

“Keep an eye out for the media, will you please?” Diana asked Elzy.

“Do you want me to get you out of your exo?”

“No, it’s too much of a hassle to get back in again. But my feet are swelling.”

“Let me fetch one of the packing crates. You can put your feet up.”

“That sounds good.” Diana never said thank you for such assistance. Long ago she had realized that only two groups of people get to move through this life waited on by others: cripples and royalty. She had decided to be one of the latter.

She dozed for a few minutes, sitting in the ox-cart with her feet up, until a fly bit her neck and woke her. It was just as well, since the hum of distant voices and the occasional snort or nicker of a horse told her the VIPs, the rest of the reporters, and who knows how many curious locals, were arriving. She checked her cell; one o’clock, right on time. Except, would the drones actually work?

Diana and Elzy greeted and schmoozed and stalled for as long as they could, but eventually they’d have to either begin the press conference or explain why not. Diana chose the former, hoping Dashawn would get the glitch worked out in time. But no voice came to her through her ear-piece.

She stepped on to the stage, recited her statement, and answered questions. She waited, wondering if she was doing the right thing, while the President of Appalachian Mountain College and the Directors of the White Mountain Weather Research Bureau and the Portland Manufacturing Alliance all gave professionally self-aggrandizing speeches. She wondered whether all of this effort would turn out to be for nothing.

Then, from her seat on the low stage she saw, beyond the dignitaries and behind the crowd, every one of Dashawn’s techs simultaneously stop what they were doing and put a hand to an ear. Then they were off, moving again, swarming around the drones in one corner of the field, adjusting things. Her heart leaped.

“Good news, boss-lady,” said Dashawn’s voice in her ear. “We’ve got it covered. Nothing wrong with the relay code after all—those units have an older model security card than the others and it doesn’t play nice with the new cell protocols. We’re switching them out with spares. Launch in fifteen minutes, if you’re ready.”

“We might be,” Diana replied, in a whisper. “Keep me patched in, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay-dokay, artichokey.”

The VIP sitting next to Diana looked at her sharply, as though she were passing notes in class or something.

Twenty minutes later, Diana and the VIPs stood on the edge of the launch field. The rest of the crowd had turned in place to watch. Two press-drones hovered above, taking video and staying out of the way.

“Now,” said Diana. Her whole career turned on this moment.

“Launching Section A,” said Dashawn, and fifty propellers started to spin, every second drone in the nearest third of the field. In seconds, the light-weight machines were all airborne.

“Banking left,” said Dashawn, and they all did, turning obediently in a large circle thirty feet above the spectators’ heads.

“Banking right….And testing autonomous execution and crash avoidance.” One of the drones broke formation and cut across the gyre and the others neatly avoided it, turning and climbing and diving, each as its own processors suggested. The whole flock danced and spun through a series of tests and then began their climb to the heights. Some in the crowd cried out in wonder, others applauded. The press drones, small quad-copters without much independence, climbed and turned under instructions from their handlers, looking for the best shots. And Dashawn launched and tested Section B.

One after another, each of the sections took to the sky, banking and dancing. The first group were up in the thermals, now, propellers retracted, turning and turning and turning on the rising air, just like the real vultures. When they reached ten thousand feet they’d each glide out, heading to their separate transects. And still flocks of drones launched.

Diana walked out among them and Dashawn, hidden in his equipment tent but watching nonetheless, directed the newly airborne drones to swoop down around her, curving and banking like dragonflies within a foot or two of her hips and shoulders. She threw her arms up to the sky and a drone flew right between her outstretched hands. She laughed, giggling like a child, and spun, dancing as if she might fly herself.


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Who Picks Up the Tab?

Some time ago, my mother and I were talking about whether to get behind a certain environmental organization, and she said “they seem to be heavily committed to carbons fees and I don’t know very much about that.”

I decided I needed a refresher on the concept, too, so here are the results of my inquiries.

Carbon fees are one version of a whole family of ideas called carbon pricing, which is itself part of a much larger effort to make the environment economically visible.

It’s important to understand here that “the economy” as described by traditional economics, is really just a model for how energy, material goods, and value move through society. It isn’t the only possible model, and it isn’t even a very good model because it leaves a lot of important things out.

Remember Ralph Nader? I saw him speak once and he had a great line; “privatizing the profits and publicizing the costs.” He wasn’t talking about climate change specifically but about pollution in general—how when a company creates pollution in the course of doing business, we consider that the money the raise belongs to them but the pollution—and its associated costs–doesn’t. This little economic slight-of-hand happens because our economic model ignores the existence of that which cannot be bought and sold. Natural resources that have not yet been extracted, natural processes, “the environment” generally, is thus invisible to economics, even though these are the ultimate source of all wealth. And, in the eyes of many, the priceless is simply valueless.

Hence the push to put a price on the priceless.

Carbon pricing aims to create a situation where everyone, from consumers to corporations to nations, will actively pursue climate sanity because it is the economically sensible thing to do. There are two main versions.

Carbon fees, or carbon taxes, put a price on carbon emissions. The idea is that since we have to pay money in order to emit, we’ll figure out how not to emit so we can save money. There are different types of carbon fee systems that vary in terms of who pays the fee, where the money goes, and how the price changes over time.

One version, carbon-fee-and-dividend, assesses the fee at the point where the fossil fuel enters the economy—at the mine, well, or port—and then distributes the fee to the public. Under this system, energy companies that use fossil fuel will pass the cost of the fees on to consumers, but since consumers will be receiving dividend payments, the increased costs won’t matter. Functionally, the cost of fossil fuel use will remain the same. But since alternative energy providers will not be paying the fee, their services will be effectively cheaper, giving them an advantage in the market place.

There are a couple of obvious potential pitfalls.

I do not know whether the system includes greenhouse gas emitters other than energy companies—cement is a huge source of greenhouse gas, as is refrigeration, agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, other industries. Agriculture particularly would be very difficult to assess fees for. Also, the system does not directly mandate emissions reductions, so it’s hard to say how far the economic nudge would really go.

But carbon-fee-and-dividend is simple to implement, can use the established tax system instead of requiring a new infrastructure, and has been used to good effect in Sweden already.

Cap-and-trade, or ETS, is the other main carbon pricing tool. Here, there is a legally enforceable cap on how much participants can emit—structured as a limited number of permits per participant. Those who need more than that number can buy them from those who use less than that number of permits.

Versions of cap-and-trade vary in how the permits are given out, who is participating, what the cap is, and how the cap changes over time. The system has the advantage of providing extra funding to those who reduce their emissions, and cap-and-trade has been used to good effect, both to fight climate change and to fight acid rain. The system can be difficult to set up and monitor, though.

Both types of carbon pricing can even be used together.

But if carbon pricing is such a good idea, why isn’t it being used on a national or international scale to fight climate change?

I got online and searched for “why is a carbon tax bad” and “why is cap-and-trade bad.” And, wouldn’t you know it, most of the hits on the first page were from energy companies or the Heartland Institute, which is funded largely by energy companies. The bulk of the remainder were from newspapers apparently reporting on the controversy. One pro-climate article explained that carbon pricing alone wouldn’t solve the problem, but the author did not object to carbon pricing being one of the options tried. Another pro-climate article ended up being a formal refutation of criticism of carbon feeds—in order words, actually pro-carbon pricing.

No major, credible environmental organization seems to have come out against carbon pricing—and some have come out very much for it. If you have vague, negative associations with carbon pricing, chances seem good that you have been exposed to propaganda paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

The fact of the matter is any effective form of climate action, including, quite definitely, carbon pricing (either form) is going to require that fossil fuel companies eventually find a different line of work or go out of business.

They don’t want to do that.

But the important thing to understand is that carbon pricing does not create a cost that doesn’t otherwise exist. Instead, these schemes make existing costs visible to the economy so we can think clearly about who should bear the costs and how. The other important thing to think about is that maintaining the economic status quo is not an option. Climate change itself will eventually dramatically alter our way of life if we don’t alter ourselves first. The wealthy will likely continue to be able to insulate themselves from those changes for a long time, while the poor and disenfranchised have begun bearing the costs of climate destabilization already.

In other words, somebody is going to pay either way.