The Climate in Emergency

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

1 Comment

In the News….

There is a Facebook meme going around now to the effect that the news media collectively ignored the People’s Climate March. Of course, this refers to the traditional media, newspapers, television, and radio, not websites–online media often do cover environmental protests that their traditional counterparts ignore, but many appeal to niche markets of readers and therefore cannot be considered mainstream news.

In any case, I had been afraid the media might ignore the march, so I’ve spent the morning trying to find out who covered the event and who did not. I am pleased to report than many major news outlets did cover the march.

It is possible that at least some people thought newspapers did not cover the event because the September 21st issue contained no news of the march. Of course, unless a newspaper has an evening edition–and I’m not aware of any that do, anymore–newspaper coverage is always a day behind. The march on the 21st was covered in the newspaper issues of the 22nd.

The New York Times had several excellent articles, covering not just the march itself, but also recent climate-related bad news and the UN Climate Summit and its connection to the People’s Climate March. Of course, a New York-based newspaper could hardly ignore the march, given that its local readers would know something snarled up traffic all day, but the New York Times is not simply a local paper. Arguably, the paper newsworthiness for the nation, and the Times defined the People’s Climate March as front page news.

The Boston Globe also covered the march well, with multiple articles, although the writer gave a rather deflated figure for the number of attendees (“more than 100,000,” which is accurate in as much as 311,000 is more than 100,000). The Globe did not put the march on the front page, except for a brief reference in a sidebar.

I also looked up several other local and regional newspapers, but they do not post the contents of previous print issues online. That their websites do cover the climate march does not mean much, since websites sometimes cover topics that associated traditional media do not.

On television, the PBS Newshour covered the march the day it happened, which is especially striking given that the Newshour has not covered previous climate marches and that their Sunday program is just a half an hour long. PBS’s radio relative, NPR News, covered the march, but their website layout makes it hard to tell which specific shows were involved. Monday morning I noticed that a brief mention of the march had made NPR’s headline updates, a good sign.

ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Fox News, and CNN all covered the march on their websites, and some did so very well, but I could not find archives of broadcasts for any of them. They either do not post broadcasts at all or they bury such posts three layers deep on the site where I couldn’t find them.

Almost more important than which news organizations covered the march was the tone of the coverage overall; every article or transcript I read contained the implicit assumption that climate change is real, human-caused, and important. The slippery insistence on treating climate change as a matter of opinion seems to be over. This is huge.

In other news, after the massive–and international–People’s Climate March on Sunday, there was a civil disobedience demonstration on Monday called Flood Wall Street in which participants dressed in blue to represent the sea and planned to rise up the steps of the Stock Exchange. The idea was to protest capitalism and its role in warping the climate. Although some protestors were arrested after trying to push through barricades, police allowed the protest–which I’m guessing did not have a permit–to continue. Mayor DeBlasio (who marched on Sunday) has since defended that decision on the grounds that people have a right to protest and that New York City has a responsibility to role-model government support of free speech. CBS’s website quotes him as saying–and I love this–“I think the First Amendment is a little more important than traffic.”

Flood Wall Street was also well-covered in the news.

Also, on Sunday, the Rockefeller family announced that their charitable organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, will divest itself totally from fossil fuels. The process has already begun–they have dropped both tar sands and coal–but will take some time to complete. It isn’t clear from what I’ve read whether they intended the announcement to have anything to do with the march, but they did time it to coincide with the UN Climate Summit and they are doing it for environmental reasons. That their money originally came from fossil fuel (first kerosene for lamp oil, then gasoline) lends a wonderful irony to the Rockefellers’ decision. They join a growing number of other investors, from colleges to tech companies, pulling their money out of fossil fuel.

Overall, there seems to be a kind of momentum, now. Personally, I’m starting to feel optimistic for the first time in a long time.

But if we’re going to keep the momentum growing, if this is not to be a flash in the pan, we’re going to have to keep pushing at it–going to rallies, speaking up, signing petitions, and, above all, VOTING.

And if your local paper or local news program really didn’t cover the march, write in and complain. Do it today.




The People’s Climate March

The logistics were terrible, I could not find my water bottle, and I was nursing a painfully injured foot–but I was bound and determined to attend the People’s Climate March. And I did it. So did my Mom. And so did over three hundred thousand other people.

Getting There

We got a late start organizing my trip to New York–various other aspects of my life got complicated this month–and by the time we looked for a ride, all the seats on the charter buses for marchers were sold out. A good sign, obviously, but how were we to get there? We don’t drive that far just for day trips, it uses too much gas. Finally, we got seats on a Greyhound, just before that bus sold out, too. On the road, two or three charter buses passed us.Everyone, apparently, was heading to New York.

New York is always a popular place, of course, so all those buses didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the march. The women sitting right behind us turned out to be fellow marchers, but our first unambiguous sign that we were involved in something big was in the subway. There, crowds gathered, waiting to get on trains headed towards the staging area, but nobody could get on because the trains were already completely full. We spotted signs, political t-shirts, and children dressed as animals in the crowd. Volunteers walked the platforms shouting directions to marchers from out of town. It is an awesome thing to realize one is part of an event, a human tide, a giant and momentous we.

Getting Started

Both times I marched for the climate in DC, the event began with a rally. We gathered together before the stage in a large, amoeba-shaped crowd. Then, as a few people at a time stepped out and began marching, we stretched out into a parade the way a weaver draws a thread from a cloud of wool. But this march in New York was way too big for us to form an initial amoeba, so the organizers had us all assemble on the route itself, with one length of street designated for people being affected by climate change already, another for scientists, another for religious people, and so on. So far so good. But despite all this planning, we soon found ourselves almost literally crushed in an ever-tightening crowd. Rumors passed in from the margins held that not the side streets feeding in to the march were also full of people. It was obvious a lot more people had shown up than even the organizers expected.

The designated started time–11:30–came and went with no sign of movement at all. We chatted with each other, squeezed together to let medics or the occasional ambulance pass (the ambulance was not for any of us, we were just in its way) and let volunteers lead us in chants to keep our spirits up. Still no movement.

If you’ve ever seen a freight train start, you’ll know why we weren’t moving; the engine goes forward, then, a few seconds later, the car behind it moves, then the car behind that…each car must wait until the one ahead of it has moved to be able to move in turn. The cars at the back might get going a full five or ten seconds after the engine starts. Our march was the same, since none of us could walk until those ahead of us gave us room. How long does it take for one person to step forward, out of the way of another? Seconds at most. And yet we stood there, waiting, for forty minutes before the movement of the crowd worked its way back to us. And we were in the first quarter of the parade. I hate to think of how long the people in the back must have stood waiting.

Moving with the Movement

It’s a curious thing about being in the middle of a protest march–there’s no way to really tell what’s going on. Everyone around starts cheering and you don’t know why because you can’t see anything, so you just go with it and start cheering, too. This happened several times before we even got going. The women next to us called it “spontaneous joy.” Chants propagate up and down the line and die away. The crowd stops and starts and stops again for reasons that could be hundreds or thousands of feet away. There is no telling. The march becomes a giant organism, a curiously gentle mob, and individual marchers can only look at each other, shrug, and laugh, and join in. The reason for the march itself is not silly, but cut adrift as they are by the sheer press of people, the marchers sometimes are.

One of the reasons to attend a political demonstration is precisely to become part of this enthusiastic super-organism. A man walking next to me reveled in the camaraderie. He told me he was from a part of New Jersey where people look at him funny if he even brings climate change up. It makes him feel lonely. Still, he stays involved. He supports–largely through money–both the Pachamama Alliance and The Hunger Project. His name is Marcus Bass and he wanted me to write about those organizations, not him. And I will, in a subsequent article.

Most of the signs and chants–in the parts of the march I saw, at least–were curiously generic. I heard and joined in chants like “The people/united/will never be defeated!” and “Tell me what democracy looks like/this is what democracy looks like!” and “Hey, Obama/we don’t want no climate drama!” and a few others I remember from protests past, but none specifically addressed the issue of the moment; showing political support for climate action ahead of the UN Climate Summit the next day. Few of the signs mentioned the UN. Most displayed fairly generic pro-environmental, anti-climate change messages: “Cook organic, not the Planet;” “Climate deniers have no morals;” “Can you swim?”

This apparent lack of focus may be a side effect of the “everyone in!” organizational approach of The People’s Climate March, or perhaps it is only that international policy and the procedures of the UN are hard to draw on posters and don’t rhyme with anything.

Or maybe it is just that everybody knew that what would speak to the political leaders was our sheer number; no one is going to brief President Obama on the wording of our signs. Our signs and chants were not for him but for each other. In coming together, we gave each other an opportunity to talk to like-minded people, to network, to suggest, even to criticize–there was a sizable contingent of vegetarians actively trying to get other marchers to give up meat for the climate (not a bad idea, actually; the carbon footprint of meat is huge). A march is also a chance for marchers to find and call attention to the connections among their different concerns–I fell to talking with a woman who has just started a company that will help people with asthma anticipate attacks based on air quality and weather. She says asthma rates are on the rise and is the single biggest health problem among children. And while no one knows for sure what the connection is, asthma attacks and poor air quality are strongly correlated. AND, poor air quality and climate change have the same cause in pollution. That’s why she came out to march. Her startup is called Wellwatch7 and her first name is Sworna–we traded email addresses but not last names.

This march was also an opportunity for people to dress up. I saw a few polar bears and so forth at the other marches, but nothing like what I saw here. There were dancing fairies in green sparkles, a woman all in blue robes and blue paint and trailing a twelve-foot train of trash and blue fabric (she must have been the polluted ocean), various animal masks, and an inexplicably tall bicycle. A man in a narwhal mask (his sign said “save the unicorns.” Narwhals are arctic creatures) and a man in a unicorn mask (“Unicorns are a myth but climate change isn’t”) met, apparently by chance, and took a picture together.

Some people appeared marched dressed, not in playful costumes, but in the uniforms of unusual lives. When my foot started hurting too badly, we stopped to sit for a while and ended up back in the section for religious groups. Most of these people looked ordinary and some might well have been strays such as me and my Mom. A few carried signs reading “Jew” or “Methodist” or “Baptist.” Perhaps their coreligionists clustered around those signs like knights rallying to battlefield standards. But there were also large, conspicuous groups marching together behind banners that took multiple people to carry. We saw two different groups of robed Buddhist monks (one wearing black, the other saffron) ringing bells as they walked, several dozen variously attired pagans beating drums and burning sage, and a large wooden ark carrying five or six Christian preachers in variously colored vestments and one man in ordinary clothes who carried his own sign “Atheist on the Ark!” Towards the end of the march I fell into step behind a tall, slim man in black robes. He looked like he could be a pagan priest but turned out to be a Franciscan brother. We discussed St. Francis for a few minutes, whom he cited as the patron saint of ecology.

With all this, the most striking thing about the march was its size–the weight of moving humanity and the length of the route. My mother, who is from New York, declared that the pavement in The City is harder than pavement anywhere else. Her feet hurt, too, and with my injury I was limping noticeably. It made the march seem much longer. There was no rally or even clear destination at the end of the march. Instead, the route simply began dividing and dividing again, like a river delta, and the march dissipated. Dehydrated and in pain, I felt dazed. My heart wasn’t in the demonstration anymore, but it didn’t matter how I felt; I’d been counted.

What It Means

The People’s Climate March succeeded in being the largest climate march to date. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people gathered that day in New York to send a message to our nation’s leaders. Among the marchers were such notables as Ban Ki Moon, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Al Gore. And in other countries almost as many again joined coordinated marches for the same reason on the same day.

Did it matter? Predictably, the media coverage has been minimal. I’m gathering information on that and plan to organize “comment bombs” for media outlets that didn’t cover the demonstration at all. But climate change as a subject is all over the news now, not as a controversial topic that “some” environmentalists care about, but as a real thing worth talking about for its own sake. Today I walked into the farmer’s market and was greeted by a volunteer gathering signatures for a climate-related petition. President Obama spoke boldly on the subject yesterday and seems entirely serious about it.

So, yes. We might have changed the world.



Who Attends Climate Conferences?

Every year or so, we hear about climate conferences in the news. They are usually in exotic places, such as Rio de Jeneiro, and they promise much but deliver little, since the parties at the conference rarely come to substantive agreements.

What the news coverage rarely explains is who, exactly, is conferring at these conferences, what their authority is, or who called the conference. For those not already in the know, these events usually come as a surprise. So, as often happens when I find I am not in the know, I looked the thing up. Here is what I found.

The conferences we hear about today are the latest examples of a process that dates back to the late 1970s, when it first became clear that humans were changing the climate. The First World Climate Conference, in 1979, was called by several UN groups, such as the World Meteorological Organization, acting together following a series of conferences on other environmental and economic topics that had each made clear that climate was a major issue. Out of that first meeting came several new organizations charged with researching or otherwise addressing climate.

There have been three World Climate Conferences so far (the other two were both in Geneva, in 1990 and 2009, respectively), each was called to order by a similar mechanism and produced similar results–more organizations with more acronyms. I will not list all of them. The important points here are that these conferences are cooperative ventures among multiple UN agencies and that they do not draft policy. Also–and for our purposes, this is the biggie–the Second World Climate Conference called for an international treaty to do something about climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, is the treaty drafted as a result of that call (by yet another UN group) and presented for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (two other environmental treaties were signed at the same time, one on desertification and the other on biodiversity. The three are referred to as “Rio Conventions”). UNFCCC also became the name of the organization formed by the signatory nations in order to enact the treaty. The treaty went into effect in 1994, and the organization created the Kyoto Protocol as a legally binding extension of the UNFCCC, in 1997. The United States is one of the few countries that is a party to UNFCCC but not to the Kyoto Protocol, which the Senate refused to ratify. The UNFCCC has created several other international agreements and plans as well.

The UNFCCC is the body that has held most of the climate conferences we’ve heard about in the news in recent years. Its business is to create, support, and enforce international agreements to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to otherwise deal with the issue in concrete, practical ways. The Secretariat of the UNFCCC maintains a busy annual schedule of meetings and workshops of its various committees. Most of of these meetings are in Bonn, Germany, and most receive little media attention in the US. There is also an annual Conference of the Parties, a group of meetings of delegates from all 195 signatory nations. These are what we hear about in the news because they sometimes do result in new international agreements. Some years there are additional climate change conferences as well.

The schedule for upcoming UNFCCC events is available online.

Of course, there has not been a new legally binding treaty from one of these meetings in a long time because a minority of nations, notably the US, refuse to sign on. This year’s COP in December, in Lima, Peru, is being organized as a preliminary discussion for next year’s COP in Paris, France. The hope is that the Paris meeting will finally result in a new, effectively binding agreement, in part because of President Obama’s plan to avoid the standard treaty process (he is hardly breaking new ground by doing this; many major international agreements made over the past twenty years are not, technically, treaties).

The general thinking is that Paris, 2015 has to work. One way or another, the world must commit to an emissions reduction plan, because we are running out of time. This is why the Lima conference is being billed as a preliminary conversation, and why UN Secretary General has called a Climate Summit of world leaders (as opposed to delegates) in New York for next week. This is also why there are massive demonstrations planned for the weekend of the Summit, and why you should attend them if at all possible. If enough people show world leaders that addressing climate change is politically viable now, we have a chance.

So, to summarize, most of the climate conferences we hear about in the news are COP meetings of the UNFCCC, or other meetings called in conjunction with them. There are occasional exceptions every few years.

An important exception to be aware of is the International Conference on Climate Change, which is organized and hosted by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think think tank whose mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” The group is deeply and persistently hostile to environmental regulation and is very active in encouraging climate change denial. Much of their funding comes from oil companies and other donors with a vested interest in climate change denial.

The annual International Conference on Climate Change is not only different in origin and philosophy from the other conferences and meetings discussed here, it is different in structure. While the other events are organized around creating and enacting international agreements and supporting research and other practical programs, the Heartland event is essentially a public speaker event marketed to a non-expert audience. There is nothing wrong with speaker event, of course, but is a very different kind of thing than a conference where experts and leaders go to discuss issues and make plans with each other.

The Heartland event is generally and properly ignored by the media, but its efforts to bill itself as the equal of other climate conferences creates potential confusion. Let’s not get confused.


Marching Orders

A (hopefully) huge climate march is coming up this September 21st in New York City. Being there could make a difference.

The People’s Climate March, as it is being billed, is not the product of a single organization’s efforts. Instead, it is a cooperative effort of many groups–eight hundred and fifty of them, at last count. The organizers are still soliciting more partners, so if you have a group of your own, sign on and see how you can help.

The reason it is in Manhattan, rather than Washington DC, is that the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Ban Ki Moon, has called for a special international conference on climate change in New York for that week. Unlike most meetings of the UN, this one does not involve UN delegates but rather heads of state.

The march is not to be a protest but rather a show of support; world leaders (especially those of the United States, who are both democratically elected and vulnerable to lobbying by the fossil fuel industries) need to be able to see that the people will support efforts to do something about climate change. They need to know there is political will backing them up. Only then can they act.

The organizers are helping to coordinate both transportation and housing. You can go to their website for more information or to sign up for email updates. An interesting possibility involves The Great March for Climate Action, a separate event that began in March and will continue until the beginning of November–a march that literally crosses the country. They will take a break from their own route to join the march in New York, traveling in a group from Indiana and then returning. If you want to join the Great March for a while, you can therefore get to NYC by hitching a ride with them. Conversely,if you go to NYC for The People’s March, you can go Indiana with the Great March and join their trek for a while.

Obviously, you would need to speak to event organizers about this.

Besides the NYC march itself, there will be other, related events in the days before and the days after the 21st of September. If you cannot get to the United States, there will be other coordinated events in other countries–their website has information on that, too. So far, there do not appear to be coordinated events in other parts of the US, but you could probably organize one yourself. If getting to New York is difficult for you, do an internet search for “people’s march for climate [your state]” and see if any local organizations are chartering buses in your area.

If you cannot get to New York, call the White House AND your Congresspeople on that day. If it’s busy (and hopefully it will be) call back.

This is about sending a signal. I have friends who poo-poo marches and other public demonstrations as ineffective, and it is true that public figures can generally ignore them. A march cannot force action. Using a whole bunch of gas to drive to New York seems counterproductive as well (although, public transportation and chartered buses and trains should help with that!).

However, in the United States, the electorate can force action, and a really BIG march is an indication of what the electorate will do. Large demonstrations can bring a lot of pressure to bear even in non-democratic countries (as in the Arab Spring) and they have been effective in the United States in the past even when most of the marches effectively could not vote (as in the civil rights marches).

Marches matter if people show up to march in them.

I have covered other demonstrations on this blog before. In the process I’ve discovered that a lot of people who might want to go typically don’t find out about the march in time and that media coverage of the demonstration itself is generally very minimal. I therefore humbly offer the following suggestions:

  • Encourage your friends and associates–everyone you know–to go to the march
  • If you belong to a political or activist organization of some type, get involved as a group
  • Go on the march, if you can
  • If you cannot, on the day of the march, contact your elected representatives to tell them to act on climate change
  • Encourage everyone you know to also contact their elected representatives on that day
  • After the march, check your local newspapers and news broadcasts and for favorite online news sources. If any do not cover the march, write in or email them to complain. Your letters could get published, making YOU a journalist covering the event.

There are people who don’t want to do anything about climate change for various reasons. Many of them probably cannot be convinced. However, it is easy to forget that a lot of people DO take the issue seriously. A demonstration is a good time to stand up and be counted.