The Climate in Emergency

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

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Debating Third Parties

Last night was the first presidential debate. I’m not going to go into political commentary here overall, but a few things stand out.

Mr. Trump’s aggression, for example. I’ve watched many debates over the years, and this was the first I’ve ever seen with such unrelenting bullying. Unfortunately, such tactics have a certain amount of political power. More relevant here is what didn’t come up for discussion–climate change. I wasn’t surprised. While the candidates are beginning to treat the issue as politically important, debate moderators, interviewers, and the news media still generally treat the environment as a niche issue. That has to stop, and should have stopped already.

Curiously, the most pro-environment statement the entire night came from Donald Trump, when he denied being a climate denier. Secretary Clinton made a jab at him for claiming that climate change is a plot by the Chinese, and he insisted he never said that. He was lying, he did tweet about China inventing climate change, and while he claims that was a joke, he has a long and consistent history of calling climate change a hoax benefiting the Chinese. What I find interesting that he’s feeling the need to disavow that particular statement. It means we’re making some progress.

If we can just get a climate-sane person into the Oval Office, we might be able to save the world.

At present, that person has to be Mrs. Clinton. No one else is in striking range. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Mrs. Clinton is an insider, that her commitment to the environment (and other issues beyond the scope of this article) is not as radical or as unambiguous as we need, that the political system that she serves and perpetuates is itself our problem. Personally, I like Mrs. Clinton. I usually don’t say this sort of thing here, but I am excited for her presidency. I don’t support her merely by default. But there are those who want more than she can give, and they are not foolish to want that.

The presidential race just isn’t the most effective place to fight for third parties.

Presidential races are, by definition, national. That means that you need a huge amount of money and organizational support just to get noticed, let alone win, and you have to be able to assemble a huge and varied coalition of constituents. While there are occasional exceptions–among which I do count Bernie Sanders–the game belongs to insiders who can cozy up to the elites and appeal to the lowest common denominator of the masses. Great presidents are those who can do so and genuinely serve our country. There have been a few.

But when you’re looking to change a system, you need to look at the part of the system that is ripe for change–the first domino, so to speak. You look for a critical place where a small amount of effort can flip a switch and ultimately cause widespread change. Trying to attack the American political duopoly at the presidency is just the opposite of that strategy, and it doesn’t work. The presidency is where revolutions finish, not where they begin.

Then, too, the American President, by design, has very little independent power. Executive action without Congress is sharply curtailed by law and politically dicey. Let’s say that Jill Stein were elected President; either she would find a way to compromise and work with others just like other politicians do, or she would remain ideologically pure and totally ineffective because Congress would ignore her and the states would fight her executive actions tooth and nail in the courts. How would that help anybody?

You want a revolution? You need to go after Congress and you need to go after state legislatures.

Legislative districts, both State and Federal, are relatively small. Unless a national organization gets involved and starts pouring in money, they can be won relatively cheaply by people who have a good record of community service and little else. A much smaller electorate means much less political inertia and a much greater chance of radical sentiment gaining ground. There is much more political (and demographic) diversity in Congress than among high-level candidates for the Presidency because each Congressional district can reflect the particular politics of its residents, whereas a national campaign inevitably takes a sort of average of the nation. Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of this principle–in his district, an independent Democratic Socialist can have a relatively safe seat. That he even got close to a national nomination is a political miracle.

So, legislatures are easier to get into, and potentially they are the more powerful positions.

The Federal legislature, of course, crafts the laws which the President executes, creates the national budget, and approves, or decides not to approve, many of the President’s decisions. As we have seen, the legislative leadership can effectively block the President from making appointments to the Supreme Court. While Congressmembers must act collectively, an individual can become hugely influential within the group through political skill and seniority, and any seat in either chamber has the potential to rise to prominence that way.

And of course, from Congress, the White House becomes much more accessible.

State legislatures are similar, with the added power that these are the bodies who draw district maps–they gerrymander, for better or worse, and can and do shape national policy indirectly for generations that way. And those constituencies are even smaller, so those seats are even easier to win.

A vote for a third party or independent presidential candidate is symbolic, but it’s not more than that. Your candidate will not get elected. You may or may not become morally responsible for the election of a climate-denier, but the best that can be said is you’ll do nothing. If you want to do something, look at the presidential candidates who have a real shot of winning and vote for the better one. And, and this part is important, vote for radical candidates for the State and Federal legislatures, or run for those offices yourself (and vote).

That’s how you can change the world.


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Trumped Up Differences

This blog is politically neutral on all issues except climate change. Because Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, is on record as a climate denier and his Democratic opponents both have good records on climate–for that reason and that reason alone, this blog will endorse the Democratic nominee. I, personally, have opinions on other issues, but this blog does not.

I will need to touch on some other issues here, however.

I am very concerned by the insistence of many progressives that there is no substantive difference between Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton. I fear that such an assumption could result in a Republican victory, should Mrs. Clinton become the nominee, as she is expected to do. At the same time, I am sympathetic to that stand because I said the same think about George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

I was a Ralph Nader supporter.

Now, to be clear, Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the election. Even if every single Nader supporter would otherwise have voted for Mr. Gore (which is not true), the claim that Mr. Gore was somehow owed those votes, that either major party ought to be left free to claim all votes on its side of the aisle by default, should be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about political diversity, competition, or free speech.  So, I still believe in the validity of third-party and independent candidacies.

I do not believe, as I once did, that there was no substantive difference between then-Governor Bush and Vice President Gore. That was a mix of logical fallacy and political naivete on my part that I now regret and I see the same fallacy in play today.

Ignore the fact, for the moment, that Mrs. Clinton is an establishment candidate while Mr. Trump is a rather vocal outsider–that right there is a huge difference between the two, but let’s focus on the fact that the two belong, to one degree or another, to the moneyed class. They are both privileged insiders in a way most Americans, especially most people of color, simply are not. Yes, it’s true that both probably agree on many issues, just as Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore probably agreed on many issues. There are people for whom the occupant of the White House seldom makes any immediate difference because their troubles fall into that category of troubles that almost anyone capable of reaching the White House in the first place must agree not to try to solve.

But to assume therefore that the occupant of the White House doesn’t make any difference to anybody is a logical fallacy, and the very same one I fell into sixteen years ago.

While campaigning for Mr. Nader, I uncritically absorbed and then repeated a series of talking points that consisted largely of rumors to the effect that both major party candidates were morally slimy.  For example, I heard and repeated that Mr. Gore had supported the financial rights of pharmaceutical companies at the expense of AIDS victims in Africa and that his campaign had accepted large donations from exactly the same corporate interests that were supporting Mr. Bush. But even if those rumors were true, the existence of slime on both parties did not prove that both were slimy in the same ways or that the differing patterns of slime balanced each other out. For example, Mr. Bush was pro-life, while Mr. Gore was pro-choice.  Had the election come out differently, the political landscape on that issue might be very different today.

Of more immediate relevance to this blog, Mr. Gore has always been a vocal climate hawk. While Mr. Bush was not a climate denier and paid somewhat more lip-service to the issue than many other politicians of the time, throughout his presidency he effectively and persistently undermined any progress on the issue. Had that election turned out differently, the US would not have pulled out of Kyoto and might have become a global leader on climate action twelve years earlier. Those are twelve years the world will not get back.

Donald Trump is running as an outright climate denier who has made an explicit campaign promise to pull out of the Paris agreement.

So, let’s say that Mrs. Clinton is as slimy as they come. Let’s say she’s an unrepentant criminal who cares for nothing but power and will happily serve her corporate masters if elected–I don’t personally believe it, but let’s just say all the bile launched in her direction over the years is deserved. She does have a good record with the League of Conservation Voters and she has vowed to protect and continue President Obama’s climate protection policies.

So, if you don’t like Hillary Clinton, don’t vote for her. Vote for Bernie Sanders, if you still have a primary to look forward to, and if Mrs. Clinton does win the nomination, vote for Jill Stein or some other alternative. But just don’t pretend there is no difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.

The difference between the two of them could well be the future of the entire planet.


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Your Tuesday Update: Look What Bernie’s Doing!

Good news: Bernie Sanders is paying for carbon offsets for his campaign. Hillary Clinton did so in her 2008 campaign and has said she will do so for this one but has not yet made payments.

Carbon offsets are interesting. The idea is to cancel out one’s own carbon emissions by paying to reduce emissions or sequester carbon somewhere else. In practice, it’s a little more complicated. For one thing, are some kinds of offsets better than others, and how do we tell? Does it matter if the person buying the offsets has really exhausted his or her ability to reduce his or her own emissions first? Is it theoretically possible to make humanity as a whole carbon-neutral by buying offsets for everybody, and if it isn’t do offsets really work to begin with? Maybe they’re just a form of greenwashing?

I’m inclined to believe that offsets do not represent a real climate solution but are probably harmless and do direct much-needed funds to important projects. This is only a brief Tuesday update, so I’m not going into it in depth, but I’d say that the important thing is to reduce one’s own emissions first and then, sure, buy offsets. Why not?

Has Bernie Sanders minimized the carbon footprint of his campaign before buying offsets? I don’t know. At the very least, he’s putting some of his campaign money into climate-friendly projects and that is a good sign. This blog does not comment on any aspect of any electoral campaign besides climate policy, so this should not be considered an overall endorsement, but Mr. Sanders is taking climate change seriously and it is good to see.

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Racing Bad Weather

I don’t mean to brag, here, but I’m sitting on an island off the coast of Maine. The air is pleasantly cool, foggy with a light breeze. It’s nice.

Elsewhere, I know, things are not so nice. Much of the East and South of the country are way too hot, to the point of danger in some areas–as in the heat could kill you. Towns in Vermont were recently flooded with water and mud, with a bridge and some homes lost. Parts of California, too, have flooded recently, while other parts of that state continue to burn–and the floods don’t necessarily mean the drought is over, either.

This seems like a good time to remind everyone that climate change is still happening–and if we don’t like having years that set records for every possible type of bad weather all at the same time, we’d better do something about it.

At the moment, the most important climate fight in the United States is probably the fight to elect a President and a Congress who take climate issues seriously–in practice, that means Democrats. I’ve written before on the Presidential hopefuls from that party. Personally, I’m leaning towards Bernie Sanders, but Mrs. Clinton and Mr. O’Malley have impressive climate credentials as well. Could they be better? Yeah, they could–and they should get better. And maybe they will if they get enough public pressure. But the important thing is that they have shown themselves willing to act on the issue to at least some meaningful degree, whereas their Republican counterparts have done the opposite.  If we elect a Republican-dominated government this time around, we’re going to have to foment a serious revolution because our chance of making meaningful progress otherwise will be about zero.

And revolutions, I hear, are really hard.

This is why I get so upset when I read about people attacking Bernie Sanders from the left. To be clear, I have to personal allegiance to him yet, nor do I think America owes him any particular trust–he has to earn it just like other candidates do, and if he fails to do so then he’s not the right person for the job. But what bothers me is two-fold–that the attacks take the form of complaining that he’s not perfect and that none of these people are offering an alternative.

Of course he’s not perfect. He’s human–and, worse, he’s electable. Being President involves making deals, period. It involves working with other politicians who fighting for very different things, and many fight dirty. Anyone who expects the election of a single man or woman to any office, even our highest office, to fundamentally change anything is naive. At the same time, anyone who doesn’t recognize the distinction between a good president and a bad one is worse than naive–at the moment, the future of life on Earth may quite literally rest on that incremental difference.

For liberals to attack liberal candidates for not being liberal enough–without offering a competing candidate of their own–is unconscionable. It amounts to campaigning against the closest thing to your own side that you have. No one in the halls of political power is going to wake up one day and say “Jane Smith didn’t vote this year! She’s growing cynical! Well, we’d better fix everything, then.” No. If you’re not for something or someone, you cease to exist politically and the oil barons have a party because they have one less adversary to deal with.

Let me say this very, very, clearly; if we end up with some Kock-addled yahoo in the White House because too many people decided a socialist environmentalist from Vermont wasn’t liberal enough, I’m going to be pissed.

I recognize that not everybody likes Democrats, and that not everybody likes the particular Democrats who are running. That is fine. But if you can’t find a candidate you’re comfortable voting for, for Gods’ sakes, don’t boycott the election and don’t spend your time spewing negativity all over Facebook about how mainstream you think Bernie Sanders secretly is! Instead, find somebody else to vote for. Be heard. Write in your own name as a candidate, if you have to–or, if you’re not a native-born US citizen over the age of 35, write in my name, because I am those things. I haven’t a clue how to run a country, but since I honestly don’t think I’ll win, so I’m not worried about it.

Seriously, people, we have to win this one.


Jack vs. Jenny for Climate

I could do an entire series on Presidential contenders and climate change, but barring a major change in the field I probably won’t. There is no real reason for me to cover the Republicans, unless one of them comes out strongly in favor of climate action (something I dearly wish would happen), and I’m guessing that  the Democratic field is more or less set, now. Yes, a Warren campaign would be fun to see, but she has disavowed interest for this cycle and we badly need her in the Senate right now. Her political star is rising and she will have time to run for President (and quite possibly win) at some point in the future. Joe Biden has run before but has no plans to do so now. His Presidential boat has probably sailed sailed. Martin O’Malley has shown some interest, and he certainly has his merits, but nobody outside of Maryland has heard of him and he has not announced.

So, we’re looking at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We’re also looking at the most important American Presidential election the world has ever seen. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, this is the big one. President Obama has made an important start on dealing with the problem, but he’s only been able to act through executive order, which means his successor could wipe out all his gains with the stroke of a pen–and without US leadership, much of the world’s climate response will fall apart. It’s not that the US is a shining example of climate concern–we’re rather the opposite–it’s that a huge portion of the problem belongs on our doorstep and everybody knows it. We got rich and powerful as early adopters of fossil fuel, and the only way to get countries like India and China to forgo their fair share of that wealth is for us to bite the bullet and clean up our own mess. And since the chance of getting a climate-sane veto-proof majority on both houses of Congress is roughly nil, and since we really don’t have time to wait another four or eight years  to act on this issue, the upcoming Presidential election is basically about saving the world. Or not.

So, the big question is, which Democrat should climate-sane people support? Yes, I said Democrat; the place to create a viable third party is in state and local elections. Who can go toe-to-toe with whichever champion the Kochs decide to anoint?

(The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to the male and female Democratic hopefuls; most people know that a male donkey is correctly called a jack, but less well-known is that female donkeys are jennets or jennies. I find the idea of “jenny” as a technical term for an animal completely charming. And, the unfortunate connotations of “ass” notwithstanding, donkeys make fine political mascots–they are extremely strong and sure-footed, and they have a reputation for not letting people push them around.)

Personally, I would love for Mrs. Clinton to become President. She is clearly capable of doing the job and it is simply ridiculous that the United States hasn’t had a female chief executive yet. But I hardly ever hear her speak on climate and she has a reputation (which may or may not be deserved) for political expediency. Would she really make the issue a priority if it got in the way of her ambition? Mr. Sanders clearly has no problem whatever with political integrity (if he were interested in lying to improve his image, he wouldn’t call himself a socialist) and his loyalty to liberal, progressive causes is unassailable. And while it’s true that he seems a long-shot for the White House, so did Mr. Obama, and for almost exactly the same reasons (complexion aside, of course). But those were first impressions, and the moment clearly needs more than that. So, let’s take a look at these people. And since both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have extensive experience in office, we have something other than campaign promises to look at.

Bernie for President?

Bernie Sanders’ senator’s website (as opposed to his campaign website) includes a poll on climate change. The first question asks respondent to choose between cutting Medicare and similar programs and imposing a carbon tax on “big polluters” as a method of deficit reduction, so the political bent of the poll is obvious. The point is to frame climate change as a liberal, progressive issue and to paint any objectors as big-business bullies who want to take money away from old people. I don’t really like such bald politicking, and I worry that it could backfire by further alienating social and fiscal conservatives from the environmental cause, but at least Bernie and his advisers are willing to put a lot of their eggs in the climate basket. That’s a good sign.

(I make a point of using respectful last-name address here, but Bernie likes to be called Bernie, apparently).

Bernie Sanders is a career grass-roots politician with a long record of dedication to economic and environmental issues. He has been almost continually in office since 1981, first as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then in the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate, where he currently serves. He is 73 years old, so we can expect his physical fitness to be questioned at some point, but Mrs. Clinton is almost as old as he is and both belong to a long-lived generation. He has spent much of his career advocating for the middle class and for alternative energy, especially distributed solar energy (household solar panels rather than the solar equivalent of a big power plant).

He is currently ranked 1st on climate leadership within the Senate and in recent years has sponsored or co-sponsored a number of important climate-friendly energy bills (that went nowhere, unfortunately). He is certainly aware of oil money in politics and openly refers to it as an adversary he intends to conquer by mobilizing massive grass-roots support–an inspiring image. He attended the People’s March for Climate Change (as did I) and is responsible for a brilliant little political move earlier this year; he amended a bill that would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline with a question on climate change, forcing Senators to go on record as to whether they believed climate change is real.

However, Mr. Sanders has stopped short of asserting that all remaining fossil fuel should stay in the ground. There is some speculation that he might say it, but he hasn’t yet. And of course there is the question of whether he can get elected in the first place, given that he is an outspoken giant-killer. Giants don’t like giant-killers and they fight back.

Hillary! Hillary! (maybe)

Hillary Clinton actually had a very good voting record on environmental issues as a Senator–87%, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a record that would have been higher had she not missed some votes while campaigning for President eight years ago. In that campaign, she included an ambitious climate action plan in her platform.  On climate alone, in fact, her record is nearly as good as Mr. Sanders’, it’s just that he talks more than she does about it. Almost more to the point, Mr. Clinton has supported exactly the same climate policies as Barack Obama, both as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 and when she was Secretary of State. That means that she has disappointed environmentalists and will probably continue to do so (as Secretary of State she championed fracking overseas, ostensibly because natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal), but she is a vocal opponent of climate denial and has stated that “the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.” Wherein she is absolutely right.

Where does this leave us?

So, where does all this leave us? In a pretty good position, actually. It means that whichever of the current two hopefuls actually get the Democratic nomination, we’ll have a major-party candidate who takes climate change very seriously and will, if elected, preserve and possibly extend Mr. Obama’s critical executive actions and diplomatic work on the issue. And it’s encouraging that they each have a passionate fan base that has been calling for their champion to run since approximately twenty-five minutes after Mr. Obama took office for his second and final term. We could win this.

The question really comes down to which one is more likely to beat a Republican and which one, if elected, is going to be better able to enact the climate-sane policies they both want.

At this time, I actually think that Bernie Sanders is the more electable of the two, and not because, or not only because, he is male. The issue is that neither of them are going to be able to win with a centrist, appeal-to-moderate-Republicans strategy–though Mrs. Clinton may try, since she seems to be temperamentally a pro-establishment moderate Democrat. The problem for her is that a lot of people really dislike her and always have. Frankly I do think sexism is part of it; as a candidate, Bill Clinton had a serious political problem in the person of his powerful, outspoken wife, who quite clearly was going to help him run the country if she could. A female President is no longer quite so scary a prospect a quarter-century later, but the venom spit on her then still clings to her career. She remains the target of an ongoing series of ad-hominem attacks thinly veiled as controversy and scandal. She can’t make people like her who don’t already. Like Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is only going to be able to draw additional votes by mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote at all–and as a pro-establishment politician, she’s unlikely to be able to do that. Bernie Sanders can and already is; radicals have been trading Bernie Sanders quotes on Facebook for a couple of years now.

But could Bernie Sanders use the Executive Branch effectively if Congress proves as intractable for him as it has for Mr. Obama? As an experienced legislator he clearly knows how to work with the Legislative Branch, but that won’t help if it refuses to work with him and that may happen (see my earlier comment about giant killers). Maybe he can, but he’s something of an unknown in that respect. Mrs. Clinton, in contrast, has extensive experience with executive power and diplomacy, and while she’s even more likely to face a hostile Congress (see my earlier comments about people disliking Hillary), it is entirely clear that she can and will play hardball when necessary. We will not lose President Obama’s climate actions on her watch.

We have time in which to make up our minds (or to watch registered Democrats make up theirs, in states with closed primaries). What we do not have to for is to be lackadaisical about making sure that everyone gets out to vote this time. We cannot see a repeat of the recent mid-term election, when liberal and progressive voters stayed home and pro-business, anti-climate candidates swept gubernatorial and congressional races in state after state.

The Earth has to win this one.