The Climate in Emergency

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


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Responding to Greta

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

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

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

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

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

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

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

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

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

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

The Power of Direct Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go.

The Art of Influence

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

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

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

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

One or the Other

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

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

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One Less

My dog died yesterday morning.

Not Reilly, of whom I have written before, but his older co-dog, Una Mas. Although she’d carried a terminal diagnosis for the better part of a year, and had lately showed clear signs of failing health, I’ve seen “failing health” persist for months. 48 hours ago, I was somewhat concerned–she had fallen for no apparent reason, and seemed to be having a bad day–but I didn’t doubt she’d be around for my book launch party next month. I thought it possible she might hang on long enough to come with us to Maine next summer. Instead, her body simply began to fail in the middle of the night, and she died in the parking lot of the vet’s office in the morning. I can’t quite believe that she’s gone.

Reilly sits huddled on the couch, disoriented, perhaps, by his sudden singularity.

Those of you who know me–and even those who don’t, if you’ve been reading carefully–know this has been a rough year on my end, culminating several rough years, which may be why I have not been as politically active as I’ve wanted to be. I just don’t have the energy. And yet energy must be expended. The global emergency continues.

One of the great things about large demonstrations is that they require relatively little energy from individual participants. For the organizers, of course, it’s a different story, but for everyone else, you just have to show up–and showing up matters. If something’s on your mind and you’re having trouble focusing, that’s OK. You can still help. Even if you can’t get yourself together to do the kind of all-out problem-solving work this moment in history demands, you’re still needed–to turn up to make sure the organizing work of others makes a difference.

So, this Friday is a great opportunity for people like us, a world-wide day of action. To find an event near you, click here. To multiply your impact, reach out to others and get more people to participate.

Change can happen very fast. You wake up one morning, thinking the world will go one way, and by the next morning, there you are–missing a beagle, hit by a hurricane, living in a country you don’t always recognize anymore….

But not all changes, even all sudden changes, are bad. I didn’t know Greta Thunberg was going to come to prominence, but here she is, and people are listening to her. Maybe we have a chance–if enough people show up, if enough people get serious about climate change and act like it.

Be the change. Turn up on Friday.


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The Lonely Search for Purity

The other day, I threw a stink bomb into the middle of an online forum.

I didn’t exactly mean to do that, I meant to start a conversation, but I knew the conversation might prove contentious. I was OK with that. I did not expect the contention to be as depressing as it was–I had intended to get people talking, but what I got was more evidence that when people talk, no one listens.

I have serious concerns that when I describe this conversation, readers will get distracted by the details and get angry and again stop listening. I had considered writing this post in a vague way, in order to prevent such distraction, but vague enough to disguise the original issue is too vague to make much sense, so I’m simply going to have to risk it.

OK, here we go. Stay with me, people.

I’m talking about the Women’s March, which lost a lot of support recently when it got out that one of the organizers of the march admires Louis Farrakhan, who is both a noted civil rights leader and a vocal anti-Semite. I threw my stink-bomb by commenting that unless the Women’s March itself is anti-Semetic, this tenuous connection to Farrakhan is irrelevant.

BOOM!

I won’t march with an anti-Semite!

You white women are using this as an excuse to exclude us from OUR march!

What makes you think she is an anti-Semite? Where’s your evidence?

You non-Jews wouldn’t be so calm if this were about misogyny or homophobia!

You’re all being ridiculous! Forgive and forget! We all need to work together!

Do you even know what you’re talking about?

What’s so hard about don’t march with anti-Semites?

Of course, these are not exact quotes, I’m just summarizing the general range of comments on the thread. The important point is that none of these people were listening to each other, and few if any were really listening to me. As far as I could tell, everyone had simply retreated into absolutist positions, responding to what they thought others were saying, if they responded to others at all.

For example, no one on the thread identified themselves as a gentile, so “you non-Jews” was an assumption. And no one engaged with the suggestion, made by at least one commenter, that there might be some underlying racial complexity being overlooked.

Certainly, no one engaged with my original point, which was not that anti-Semitism is benign (it’s not), but rather that accomplishing anything important requires allies, and allies must be chosen (or rejected) intelligently and thoughtfully, not on the basis of knee-jerk reactions and blanket condemnation.

On to Climate

Absolutism–including the search for ideological and moral purity–is a feature (or rather, a bug) of human thought generally, or at least of the parts of humanity that I frequent. I suspect the root cause is our tendency to seek the simple, the complexity of actual reality be damned.

And there is no way to do much good if your starting principle is to ignore reality.

We see the problem in the environmental movement often. Most pervasive, maybe, is the concept of “going green,” where certain products or activities are said to be “green,” and people assume that by doing or buying these things they can save the planet. Reality is more nuanced. The “right thing” is context-dependent. “Green lifestyles” can be pointless or even harmful to the planet, if entered into thoughtlessly.

Then there are the absolutists who, for example, insist that anyone who really cares about climate change must be a vegetarian. While it’s true that meat-heavy diets have much larger carbon footprints, there are people with special circumstances to consider, and there are other people who, yes, really don’t have any excuse, but they eat meat anyway and do good work, and do we really want to reject their efforts out of hand?

Finally, there are the cultural, economic, and racial issues that have a dramatic effect on how and why people do what they do–and yet tend to be ignored by at least some people in the environmental movement. Vilification and alienation result.

If we’re going to win this thing, we need all the help we can get–including the help of people who might be doing things in other contexts that we find deeply wrong. Some of these differences are going to be the kind that dissolve with better communication and more understanding, but some won’t be. Remember, Churchill and Roosevelt worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Imagine if they had not?

Listen. Think. Black-and-white thinking is not green.


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Looking for Marches

I admit I got spoiled.

For a while, there, information about political demonstrations simply came to be on Facebook. Friends posted announcements, as did groups I had signed up for. All I had to do was decide which marches I wanted to go on. Last year sometime, the flow of information stopped. I don’t know why it stopped, and I wasn’t clearly aware that it had stopped at the time. It was like the beginning of a drought, when you slowly, belatedly realize that it’s really been a long time now since it rained.

As I’ve mentioned, I was also badly distracted by a protracted family emergency. I had no emotional energy left over for political engagement, however necessary or noble, let alone for research into how to politically engage. So I took much longer to respond to the situation than I might have–and when I did respond I did so slowly, vaguely, without commitment.

I posted comments to various groups–has anyone heard about any marches or rallies coming up for the next few months? No one responded. Months went by. I asked again. I put off checking back on my messages for months. I saw major demonstrations on the news that I had known nothing about.

I have more energy now. I’m sleeping better. I’m more awake. And it suddenly occurred to me this week that  this is not a case of just vaguely not hearing much news lately. Facebook, as we all probably know by now, is not a passive medium, like some online equivalent of a community cork board. Instead, the service actively prioritizes what we see and what we don’t based on an ever-changing and somewhat mysterious algorithm. When I don’t see messages from one or another friend but my husband does see those messages, or the other way around, I know the algorithm is involved. When a message of mine seems to disappear down a dark well, or, alternatively, suddenly gets attention from everybody, I know the algorithm is likely involved. At long last, the conclusion became inescapable:

Facebook’s algorithm must no longer favor the kind of political information I want to see.

The idea feels creepy, Orwellian, controlling. It isn’t, necessarily. It’s possible Facebook is, in fact, trying to impede the flow of propaganda and trollwork and my marches and petitions are collateral damage. It’s also possible that fewer of my friends have been “liking” these posts, perhaps being tired of politics, so the algorithm isn’t showing them as widely. But regardless of why, it’s time to be more proactive.

So, I spent today looking around online and found a number of interesting events–a Science March later this week, a youth-led climate march in June, and another climate rally in September. I posted them here on my page. I also posted several civil-rights-related events, a tax protest, and an anti-gun violence event. While this site is focused on climate change only, I also post information on other issues that may interest visitors. Among other reasons, if I expect devotees of other issues to show up for my favorite cause, I’d better show up for theirs.

There is a danger, here. I was talking to my friend, Zeke, last night, and he expressed concern, not for the first time, with the political and philosophical bubbles we tend to confine ourselves within. He is familiar with the fact that politically conservative hunters do a lot of environmental conservation work, yet are often socially excluded from the politically liberal environmental movement. That’s bad for the planet because it turns potential allies against each other. The only way to build effective coalitions is to form alliances with people we don’t completely agree with. That gets difficult when the people who do agree with each other spend a lot of their time at political rallies shouting about their common passions and their shared antipathy to everything else.

It’s true that I don’t post events for all issues on my site–I wouldn’t post a clearly racist demonstration for example, although some racists may be conservationists. It’s a line that has to be drawn somewhere, clearly, but where?

I’m not sure frankly.

Finding the information wasn’t easy. My second query to Facebook groups yielded surprisingly little. Visits to the websites of the organizations that often sponsor marches yielded nothing, either. The pages were poorly organized and out of date, a hodge-podge of notices and calls-to-action for events and campaigns over the past three years.

Finally I resorted to internet searches for “climate protest 2018” and “climate demonstration 2018.” I tried “climate march” first, but that tended to yield climate-related events in March. But I got enough that I likely have a full picture, at least for Washington DC.

The way I see it, it’s time to revert to a variation of old-fashioned social networking–I look up the information I want and then share it–individually, by email, PM, or tagging people–with people I think may be interested. Other people do the same. Pass it on.

 


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Going to Carolina in My Mind

Yesterday my area had lovely spring weather, including temps of nearly 80 degrees–not really normal for this time of year, the old normal, that is. My husband commented that we’re becoming the Carolinas, which in terms of climate is more or less true, from what we’ve read.

So, what are we doing about it?

I attended a political meeting over the weekend. The meeting was largely introductory–the group is still quite new, and while there is a lot of great energy, it hasn’t really had a chance to do anything yet. We can optimistically assume this will change, and that we are part of a groundswell of progressive activism that will sweep the current mess away and replace it with something better. A small minority of the group is committed to climate sanity, and we could really do something.

And yet I’ve seen groups with similar promise in the past fizzle. I’ve seen proud declarations come to nothing, climate deniers winning time and again, at the ballot box and elsewhere, despite whatever optimistic chants at rallies.

Do not get me wrong, I don’t mean to discourage anybody. That little group has as good a chance as any to make a difference, and I intend to help it along, if I can. There is no reason to get discouraged. It’s just that I’m discouraged anyway right now.

In fact, sitting in that meeting, my discouraged awareness so got the best of me that I quietly had an anxiety attack. I have not had the energy to do much with this blog this week–I normally post on Tuesday and just couldn’t. If you’ll excuse the personal admission, I’m just feeling so overwhelmed.

That’s just me. I’ll feel better eventually, and even if I don’t, I’ll keep going. Because whether a fight is winnable isn’t an important question. The important question is whether a fight is worth fighting (and whether your current tactic gives you the best available chance) and this one is worth it.

So, as James Taylor sings (in a very different context), “you must forgive me if I’m up and gone to Carolina in my mind.” If I’m distracted, in other words. I guess I’m gone to Carolina right now.

Next week, I’ll go to DC, and then to DC again.

We’re talking about the March for Science, on the 22nd, and the newest People’s Climate Change March, on the 29th. There are satellite marches for each in many areas, so if you can’t get to DC you should still be able to attend somewhere–but if you can get to DC, do so. The more people march together in one place, the bigger the event each will be and the louder and clearer a message we will send. We need to make the evening news, and then some. We need to show that we must be taken seriously.

Bring friends. Bring neighbors. Spread the word. The bigger the march, the louder the voice. Make it your personal responsibility to make sure everyone you know knows about these events and has the means to participate.

Give me a reason to hope.


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Let’s Do This

Hi, all. Sorry I missed yesterday’s deadline–I was occupied by my day job. Which brings up an important point I’ve been meaning to write about, namely, the finances of this here blog.

The short version of the story is that I need money and I want your help to get it. This is always a difficult admission for a writer to make, because there’s this misconception that writers should be motivated by our muses (and our concern for issues, like climate change) and not by money. We say “it’s a labor of love,” as though there were something noble about not being able to pay the rent. Where does this bizarre idea come from? Frankly, I suspect it is a remnant of European class consciousness, but that it another topic for another blog. I’m tired of not having enough time to do important work, like write this blog, because I’m too busy doing unimportant work to pay the bills.

So, this is where I ask you for help. There is a lot you can do, ranging from the quick and simple to the impressively involved.

Spread the word

For a donation drive to really work, I need a lot of readers. The more readers I have, the lower the average donation could be and still allow me to do this work full time. Also, of course, this topic is important and more people should read it! Where you can help is by posting links to this blog on your social media and my emailing links to friends you think might like to read it. It takes two seconds, costs nothing, and would help an unbelievable amount. Really.

Donate money

I have a donate button already. Just click on it. Imagine if this blog were a magazine–would you buy a copy? How much would you pay?

Become a partner of this blog

When I started out, I had a partnership with an environmental organization that gave me a modest stipend to support my work. That partnership ended some years ago when their finances took a hit and they could no longer afford my stipend, but the collaboration had a lot of mutual benefits and I’d like to do something like that again. Could you be this blog’s partner?

The way it works is that you, or your organization, commits to providing a portion of my funding every month because you recognize that my mission (ending anthropogenic climate change) is also your mission. We’re talking something between fifty and a few hundred dollars, an actual chunk of money, but less than if you had an employee covering the same topics for you. I would retain ultimate editorial freedom, but you could request posts on particular subjects and I would publicly acknowledge you as a sponsor or partner. If this sounds interesting to you, shoot me an email; cailanthus@gmail.com.

Ideally, I’d have two or three such sponsors, both for security in case one had to withdraw and so that each sponsor’s donation could be smaller and still cover my expenses.

So, what happens next?

So, what would it look like if this blog were funded? What are my actual financial needs for the project? It’s a fair question–if I’m asking for money, you should know how much money I need, what I’d use it for, and how this blog would benefit from being funded.

My primary expense is time; when I’m working on this blog, I am not working on other projects that could earn me money. I also have to pay for Internet and electricity, and I’d use slightly less of either if I did not write this blog. I sometimes have other expenses, such as when I travel to climate rallies and then write about them. But, basically, we’re looking at the opportunity cost I pay when I work for free.

Right now, I spend about ten hours per week on this project, writing and researching. As a free-lance writer, I make about $15 an hour, which is about the minimum living wage in most areas. There are writers to get less. The finances of my industry are seriously twisted. Anyway, $150 per week, or $675 per month, would cover the opportunity cost I currently pay. As a reader, you wouldn’t see much difference, except that I’d be a lot better at meeting deadlines, but it would make a real difference in my life.

So, what if I got more? $300 per week, or $1350 per month, would allow me to double the time I spend on the blog to twenty hours per week. That you would notice, because I’d be able to edit every post (most of my posts are first drafts) and I’d be able to research stories in much more depth. You’d see consistently excellent writing and you’d see more interviews, more posts covering ongoing stories at depth, and more posts covering topics that you might not otherwise find out about. Real investigative journalism.

What if I got more?

I’d be unlikely to go full time with this one project, because the universe is big and exciting and I have a lot of interests. I could, of course, pay myself more than $15 per hour, but I probably wouldn’t. Instead, if I could raise $600 per week or $2700 per month, I’d continue putting about 20 hours of my own time into this blog and I’d pay someone else to help me (part time). What would my helper do? There are lots of options. Maybe my helper would review the scientific literature on climate change and compile monthly summaries of any developments so I could pass those stories on to you. Maybe my helper would be a marketer and expand my readership into the tens of thousands. Maybe my helper would manage an online book store focused on climate-related literature. Maybe my helper would be a fundraiser and transform this little operation into a small but fully funded team doing all sorts of great things.

What would success look like?

As far as I can tell, I have between twenty and forty regular readers, plus occasional readers who come and go. I have never met, or even heard from most of you, but I appreciate all of you just the same. Let’s say that when the next post comes out on Tuesday, each of you posts the link to your social media and emails it to a couple of interested friends. This blog will then be exposed to hundreds, maybe thousands of new readers. Some of them will like what they see and visitation will jump. Maybe my readership will double or triple. That would be great for climate sanity. I will let you know how it goes.

So, if all of you help spread the word, I could go into April with somewhere around a hundred regular readers. If each of you then decides to kick in $5, my opportunity cost for the month will be almost entirely covered. That would be great. I’ll be able to work for the environment and make a student loan payment.

And let’s say that among those new readers there are two or three who are willing and able to become sponsors. Three people who each decide to put up $500 per month for climate-focused environmental journalism. That, plus ongoing small donations from readers, would take me up around the level I’d need to not only make this my real part-time job, but also to hire a part-time assistant.

We’re talking quality writing, in-depth reporting and discussion, and the expansion of this project into a major resource for climate sanity, all because you shared a link on social media a few times.

Let’s do this.