The Climate in Emergency

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


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On Giving Thanks

Seems a difficult year to practice thankfulness, let alone construct a blog post linking Thanksgiving and climate change, and yet I intend to do both.

I’m using my traditional Thanksgiving post as a starting point, so if you’re a long-time reader (thank you!) some of this will seem familiar, but I’m doing more this time than my traditional slight re-editing. This year has not been much like any year any of us can remember, so why should my holiday posts be?

By the way, I apologize for the lack of image descriptions. WordPress has recently changed how it does things, and I haven’t yet located all the features I normally use. I’ll fix it as soon as I can.

Climate and the Meaning of the Season

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

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

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

So, yes, I’m writing about Thanksgiving and climate change, as I do every year. But this time I and my laptop face a special challenge—how to write about a holiday at all amid so much anxiety and sadness? There are familiar faces who will be missing from many gatherings on Thursday, some because of caution, some because of tragedy. And we know that any attempt to have a normal Thanksgiving will have tragic consequences.

About half of all Americans do plan to travel for Thanksgiving, a figure that is down from last year but still absurdly high given that we know these gatherings are likely to become super-spreader events. Presumably not all of these travelers are anti-maskers—many have probably taken recent COVID tests in order to assure themselves that they will not bring the virus home. But the inescapable situation is that COVID-19 does not show up on tests until several days after infection, and the contagious period begins before definitive symptoms appear. That means that some percentage of those people heading home with negative test results are actually infected and are likely to become contagious just as they sit down to dinner with medically-vulnerable relatives they don’t otherwise normally see because “hey, it’s Thanksgiving!”

So we’re all in the joyous position of having a choice; we can celebrate a major family holiday more or less alone, or we can risk not only our own health but that of those we love.

Happy Thanksgiving!

But I don’t want to spend today writing all the things I wish weren’t true. Nor do I want to write about how climate change might someday raise the price of turkey feed, nor do I want to offer tips on how to talk about climate change with your cantankerous conservative uncle. Other people, I’m sure, have covered those seasonal topics better than I could.

No, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to tell you about abundance.

What Thanksgiving Isn’t

I want to acknowledge, before we get started, that American Thanksgiving is not a commemoration of the thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims.

The historical proviso matters because an increasing number of people are aware that the happy story of the “first Thanksgiving” is more or less a lie, and it’s a lie that sanitizes and glorifies the relationship between the Pilgrims and the “Indians,” a relationship that was soon betrayed by the Pilgrims and never since made right. So there are those pulling away from the feast of Thanksgiving in much the same spirit that more and more communities are jettisoning Columbus Day. But an important part of the Lie is that the Pilgrims have anything to do with the holiday in the first place.

There is no ceremonial connection—the Pilgrims have never even been mentioned at any Thanksgiving table I’ve ever been at, and that includes several hosted by people outside my family. I rarely hear even any reference to the connection except in educational programming meant for young children. Thanksgiving is about Isn’t It Great We’ve Got a Lot of Food, as well as family, friendship, and either Alice’s Restaurant or football or both. And there is no historical connection, either.

Yes, the Pilgrims had a day of thanksgiving. But days of thanksgiving were relatively common at the time and, like our moments of silence, called for as needed for all sorts of unrelated circumstances. Our modern Thanksgiving Day doesn’t recapitulate their celebration any more than the latest moment of prayerful silence recapitulates any other silent moment.

American Thanksgiving—the annual national holiday—began with a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. Here is a link to the proclamation text. There is no mention of “Pilgrims and Indians” at all.

My guess is that the “story of the first Thanksgiving” was an attempt to shoehorn a bit of history and patriotism in for the benefit of school children. We should not let some teacher’s regrettable and inaccurate lesson plan dictate to the nation what one of our holidays means.

What Thanksgiving Is

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful as an act of will. The best we can normally do is remind ourselves of what we have to be grateful for, and hope to thereby trigger the feeling.

Surrounding ourselves with an abundance of food is a good way to start.

But what is abundance? It is not merely having a lot of something; “an abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And many of us know from sad experience that even a lot of dollars does not count as an abundance if one has big bills coming due.

No, to count as abundance, a thing must be not only desirable but also unlikely to run out—abundance is over-flow, surplus, a notable lack of a certain kind of anxiety.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. The point isn’t gluttony (though the gluttonous are generally free to indulge), the point is knowing there will be left-overs. It’s having, for one meal at least, the illusion of infinite, inexhaustible richness.

We know it’s an illusion. That’s OK. We get the feeling of inexhaustible goodness anyway. It’s a reminder of how love feels, how being blessed feels—how life itself feels for those who cultivate a grateful heart.

Thanksgiving is an exercise.

Gratitude Within Limits

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources run out if they are used faster than they can renew. Indeed, we are quickly running out of precious things that once seemed limitless—elephants, for example, or clean water.

Is consumption really the best way to celebrate anything right now?

Yes.

Because the infinite table of Thanksgiving has always been an illusion, and it’s an illusion that can be performed on a very strict budget, as many families know. The holiday is, in fact, proof that the feeling of abundance, of richness, of plenty, does not depend on waste or profligacy—it depends on careful attention to real needs and real limitations. It depends on working within reality.

We need, as a species, to start working within reality. We need to, collectively, use less. But we don’t need to give up abundance.

Thanksgiving Yet to Come

This year, we can still cultivate a grateful heart, but only in the face of want and fear. To varying degrees, there are things we want, need, and do not have. If our bellies are full, our holiday tables are not. That’s real.

The progressive loss of all that makes life possible and beautiful on our planet is also real. Killer hurricanes. Monster fires. Impending extinctions. Famine and the political instability it causes. And, yes, pandemic. They are all symptoms of a problem we understand fairly well by now; the human species is using too much energy, thanks to our harnessing of fossil fuels, and we are destabilizing the planet.

Pulling out of this nose-dive will require tightening our belts and changing our tune, and while the burden can and should be borne mostly by those who can best afford to do so, any transition is unsettling, and we will have to collectively acknowledge limits we are used to ignoring.

But if we can pull this off, if we can stop our slide into planetary entropy, the biosphere will grow. The forests will spread. The animals will multiply. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we ever will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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Caring One Iota

Introducing, for the first time, Hurricane Iota.

My introductions are belated, of course. The storm has existed for some days, and the people of Central America are unfortunately rather familiar with it by now—it made landfall last night, sweeping across Nicaragua just as Hurricane Eta did a few days ago. In satellite pictures, the storm looks bigger than Nicaragua and Honduras combined.

The “first time” part is not that this is the first introduction, but this is the first Hurricane Iota. If there have ever before been 30 Atlantic tropical cyclones, not all 30 of them were all spotted and named (until recent decades, storms that didn’t make landfall could be missed), and it’s possible this is the first 30th storm.

Climate change is involved, of course, especially considering that Iota, too, engaged in “rapid intensification,” a technical term that means more or less exactly what it sounds like. The phenomenon used to be fairly rare, but Iota is the ninth Atlantic storm to do it this year so far.

I say “so far” deliberately. The official hurricane season has almost two weeks more to run—and that only refers to when such storms typically form. I’m no meteorologist, but I don’t think this is going to become a typical year any time soon. Do you?

Biography of a Hurricane

I want to make clear how quickly this thing grew and how strong it got. I’m consulting the Wikipedia article, which is still being frequently edited because the storm still exists and the story keeps changing. I don’t usually use Wikipedia as a source, but detailed information on hurricanes on more reputable sites tends not to be archived–their focus tends to be on prediction, not history.

Anyway, check this out:

  • November 10, midnight (Nicaraguan time), a tropical wave enters the Eastern Caribbean. The next day, it starts getting organized.
  • November 13, 11AM, the system is recognized as a tropical depression (the 31st of the year).
  • November 13, 3 PM, recognized as a tropical storm (the 30th of the year) meaning wind speeds above 35 MPH. About a day later, rapid intensification begins.
  • November 15, midnight, recognized as hurricane status (wind speed above 74 mph).
  • November 15, 6 PM, recognized as Category 2 status (wind speed above 96 mph)
  • November 16, midnight, recognizes as Category 3 status (wind speed above 111 mph)
  • November 16, 12:40 PM, reaches Category 4 (wind speed above 130 mph)
  • November, 16, 11 AM, reaches Category 5, with winds of 160 mph.
  • November 17, 9:40 PM, as a Category 4, with winds of 155 mph, the eye makes landfall just 15 miles away from where Hurricane Eta had 14 days earlier.
  • November 17, noon, as a strong tropical storm over Honduras with sustained wind speeds of 65 mph and gusts up to 90 mph. Tropical-storm force winds (at least 35 mph) extend out from the center 175 miles

A few things to note, here. First, yes, Iota weakened slightly as it made landfall—the eye did not come ashore as a Cat 5, as it seemed for a while it would do. However, the definition of a Cat 5 storm is sustained winds of 157 mph or more, so 155 mph is really not a whole lot less. Second, these are maximum sustained wind speeds—gusts much stronger are possible within the storm. Third, wind speed is only one of a hurricane’s variables, and I have not tracked down information on the others. This is not a complete picture. Fourth, where I write “recognized as,” it’s because I suspect from the way the source article was written that that’s when meteorologists conformed the storm’s wind speed, but the storm could have intensified somewhat earlier. Fifth, noon today is not necessarily when the storm was downgraded, it’s when the most recent report quoted on Wikipedia was issued—it may have been downgraded somewhat earlier. Sixth and finally, I know that “Iota’s not a hurricane anymore” sounds like the storm’s all over, but 65 mph is not much below hurricane status, and the fact that it’s still that strong almost 12 hours after making landfall and passing over mountains—I’m not a meteorologist, so I don’t know how rare that is, but, I dunno, I’m impressed.

The thing you have to understand is that Hurricane Eta passed over some of the same territory with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph just two weeks ago. That means that many of the people who faced Iota last night did so with no roofs on their houses.

Last night, Dan Satterfield, the weatherman I interviewed a while back and whose Facebook page I check out regularly, posted the following:

“Pressure dropped 61 mb in Hurricane Iota in 24 hours. Cat 5 hurricane and will hit Nicaragua tonight. Damage will be catastrophic. Anyone near the ocean will drown.”

Anyone near the ocean will drown. Oh, those poor people.

An Iota of Climate Change

There’s no new news about the relationship between hurricanes and climate change—climate change is making these storms average stronger, slower-moving, faster-growing, and rainier, plus sea-level rise adds several inches to every storm-surge. We know this already. What Iota gives us is a very clear picture of what climate change does to people.

There’s little to no news coming out of the storm-zone yet, but certain things are obvious based on what we knew before the storm hit.

We know huge numbers of people are displaced, evacuated not just from coastal areas but from mountains where the heavy rains make landslides a serious possibility. We know the damage in at least parts of the storm track has been catastrophic, meaning that many of the displaced will not be able to return home for a very long time and will have to live somewhere, somehow, until then. We know these are small countries, small enough that there really won’t be anywhere that wasn’t effected by the storm, although there are areas that are not devastated. That, plus the fact that neither Nicaragua nor Honduras nor El Salvador are wealthy, means that recovery will be difficult. We know that both Nicaragua and Honduras have lost much of their crops, which means a regional food crisis is developing. We know that these are countries already hurting under waves of drought and flood due to climate change—climate is one of the reasons the region has been sending so many desperate refugees to the United States. And we know that the area where Iota came ashore, Miskito, has a large population of Indigenous and Black people (racial politics vary from country to country but descendants of slaves still bear sadly familiar stigma), meaning that once again the burden of climate change falls heaviest on the already vulnerable.

And we know that everybody impacted by Hurricane Iota is also coping with a global pandemic.

Oh, those poor people.

Don’t Blame 2020

It’s become popular to speak of all the woes of 2020 as though the year were somehow cursed, as though the fact that it is 2020 explains all the weird things going on, like an incredibly long Friday the 13th. Funny, we said the same thing about 2019 and 2018.

Of course, rationally we know no such curses exist. There is nothing magical about this year that makes it weird. Instead, we’re suffering from a number of problems—problems epidemiological, problems meteorological, problems political—that pre-dated this year and will continue after 2020 is over. The really interesting thing, though, is that we’re not looking at bad luck, here, or, at least not only bad luck. For the most part, we’re looking at climate change.

No, COVID-19 is not, strictly speaking, a matter of climate, but it is related, as I’ve discussed before. This ridiculous Atlantic hurricane season is a result of many factors, but climate change is one of them. The catastrophic fire seasons across much of the world over the past year or so also are the result of multiple factors including climate, as were the locust plagues. And the political shift towards nationalism and autocracy seen in many countries in recent years, including the United States, has multiple connections to climate, such as resentment and fear triggered by economic issues caused or worsened by climate and resentment and fear triggered by massive waves of refugees also sent moving by multiple causes including climate (not to mention the panic on the part of oligarchs deeply invested in the fossil fuel industry).

Some of these connections may seem a bit of a stretch. The reader may wonder if I’m perhaps reaching, overstating my case. I am not. I am not trying to argue that climate change is a simple, all-pervasive cause. Instead, I’m suggesting that we may be looking as systemic collapse.

I’ve described before how complex systems that are stressed by loss of energy, become increasingly unstable. I’ve also described how climate change itself is only one symptom of systemic instability caused by energy loss—the withdrawal and use of the energy embedded in fossil fuels. What I’m saying now is that the instability that has been academically obvious for years has now intensified to the point where it is viscerally clear.

The biosphere—including all human societies and the climate—are in what’s technically known as an entropic state. An organism (also a kind of complex system) in an entropic state is sick, aging, or dying. To say that the biosphere is dying is not quite accurate (it will outlive the crisis, though in a much-altered state, and possibly without us), but it’s not quite inaccurate, either. Nor is it a metaphor. Rather, organisms such as ourselves have certain structural similarities as ecosystems, societies, biospheres, and other complex systems, and we all have certain patterns and processes in common—and “dying” is the organism version of the same process the biosphere as a whole is going through now.

I’ve had occasion to watch the process of dying—several pets and several humans. I can tell you that the end stages of entropic states get weird. That’s weird as in strange, as startlingly unfamiliar symptoms develop in those heading out into unknown territory—my cat’s nose shrank, the night before she died. My dog’s breath suddenly smelled of urine. My other dog’s breath turned cold, actually cold. I will not tell you of my sister’s and brother-in-law’s deaths. But there is weirdness in the sense of disconcerting, too. In a way, the unfamiliar symptoms are familiar, we recognize them atavistically, know what they mean, and recoil.

The joking about the weirdness of 2020 suggests something similar to me. It suggests the human recognition and horror of an endgame.

Climate action now.


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Dancing in the Streets

Well, he won.

Turns out my decision to spend election night hiding under a rock was quite correct; my liberal friends who didn’t had a bad night before the various kinds of early votes started to get counted and things started to look bluer in a good way. Now everybody who wanted Biden to win (both those who genuinely like him and those who see him as merely the best available option for now) is breathing a big sigh of relief. Supposedly church bells rang in Paris in celebration that America is back, and we got the true pleasure of not only watching a truly impressive speech by Kamala Harris, but also hearing President-Elect Biden promise both racial justice and climate change among his top priorities.

But those of us paying attention know we are still in dire straits. We are not utterly defeated, and that’s about all we can be sure of right now.

Thoughts on the Transition

I may be able to go on to less overtly-political topics next week, but it seems important to stay on the election for one more post. There are a few things that need to be said. And yes, they need to be said about climate.

The American People Have Spoken

Personally, I’m very worried by the Senate.

That there was no legislative “Blue Wave” this time is not just a practical impediment to climate action, though it is that—it’s also a deeply worrying anomaly against the liberal narrative of Mr. Biden’s “overwhelming, decisive win.” Simply put, if the American people are so collectively blue now, why didn’t the Democrats sweep their House and Senate races?

The Democrats are still the majority in the House, but by a narrower margin than they used to have. The Senate could still flip, depending on the result of run-off races, but even in the best-case scenario the victory will be slim. Mr. Biden’s win is quite comfortable, both in terms of the popular vote and in terms of the Electoral College, so why isn’t the legislative map comparable?

There are two possibilities.

There could have been significant numbers of people who voted for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris while choosing Republicans for the down-ballot races—Republican voters repudiating Trumpism, in other words.

Or the disparity between the two types of races an artifact of our electoral structure—that is, most people voted a straight ticket, but because votes in different states are weighed differently in House Races, Senate races, and the Presidential races, the results ended up very different.

I’m no expert, but it looks like the latter is what happened. What it looks like to me is that very few Trump voters switched. Instead, Mr. Biden won because of much higher turn-out among people who have always leaned left. And that means the United States has not repudiated Trumpism at all.

There is still a large minority of very committed, very vocal people who like what Mr. Trump stands for. And among the things he stands for is the gutting of environmental regulation and at least a permissiveness, if not outright support, towards those who are hostile to people of color, women, LGBT folk, the disabled, and the ill. To say such hostility is wrong is not partisan, not political in the ordinary sense of the word, which is why I can say it here. It’s wrong. And lots of Americans are OK with it.

This is America.

The movement Donald Trump has spear-headed is not a lunatic fringe. It is not an aberration or a mistake. It is not a dream we will wake up from when the American people stand up and take their country back. It is the American people, or a large and vocal minority of us, anyway.

We’re going to have to plan accordingly if we are to have a chance of taking real climate action despite what amounts to an organized and committed resistance.

When Black Americans Saved the World

Joe Biden said, on the night he acknowledged having won, that “black people have my back and I’m going to have theirs.” He’d better. And I think he will. Black Americans are experts in their own lives and political situations, and if they collectively see Mr. Biden as an ally, then he is one.

By all accounts, increased turn-out among black voters made the critical difference in the election.

That means all of us owe our renewed hope for American leadership on climate to black voters. White environmentalists now must, like the President-Elect, stand ready to return the favor.

I’ve written about the racial dimensions of climate action before, and how supporting black empowerment is not just the right thing to do from a social justice standpoint, but may also be the only way to get political leadership willing to take climate seriously. That goes double now. White environmentalists simply must show up for Black Lives Matter, both because they do matter, and because if black people keep getting shot, denied proper medical care, packed off to prison, and otherwise seriously abused by society as a whole, they won’t be able to save the planet. Because climate denial is, frankly, a white problem.

There is a long history of racism among white environmentalists, a tendency to act as though whale lives matter but black lives don’t. That must end, wholly and entirely and right now.

It’s time for white greenies to show up.

Dancing in, and Otherwise Taking to, the Streets

It’s not entirely clear, as of this writing, that Donald Trump will leave office willingly. Certainly he is attempting to get votes not in his favor disqualified, and there are worrying hints that he may be taking more nefarious attempts as well. If the system works as it should, then nothing he does will cause a problem. Legally, all Mr. Trump can do is insist that the rightful winner of the election be identified—something the rest of us want, too. If he’s not the rightful winner, legal challenges and calls for more transparency won’t make him so. And of course, illegal activity is illegal and will be stopped. Donald Trump may be the most powerful man on Earth at the moment, but for the proper transition of power in a democracy, his permission isn’t necessary.

The real threat is that he has friends in high places, and if enough of those friends decide not to accept the results of the election either, we could be in a very difficult position.

Me, I like American democracy. I want it to continue. But if that sounds like too “political” a statement in this day and age, then consider the Paris Climate Accord, and all the more stringent agreements that will hopefully follow, depends now upon the Biden Presidency.

If push comes to shove, we must take to the streets. That means getting ready to do so, just in case, now.


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Waiting for the Hurricane

It’s eight days till the election, meaning that this is the last pre-election post for this blog.

Eight days from today is another Tuesday, of course, so I might be expected to post on election day itself, but honestly I will probably spend next Tuesday hiding under a rock trying not to have anxiety attacks. I’ve decided my reading public will be better served if I put off next week’s post a few days—it’s likely we will not get definitive results for many races, including the presidential race, on election night, and possibly not for several days (or weeks or months) afterwards, but by Wednesday or Thursday there should at least be enough information to know whether another climate politics post is in order, or if I can go on to other topics with a clear conscience.

Author, Joan Maloof has agreed to an interview, I’m excited to announce.

In the meantime, there are some things to say.

Vote Early and….

Does this one need saying again? I’ve said it before here and here and here. But I’m saying it again anyway. If you are an American citizen and have not yet voted, do so. If you need help getting to the polls or figuring out how to do an absentee ballot, or with any other issue, there are groups to help you. Prepare yourself to deal with any trouble you may encounter—come armed with your rights and with the contact information of those willing to help you defend your rights. If your identity or your registration are challenged when you go to vote, demand a provisional ballot—they have to give you one. If you are in line at the polling place before the place is scheduled to close, they have to let you in to vote, no matter how long it takes.

Help your neighbors vote. Help your community members vote. Not only is voting in general important, but in this election it seems likely that left-leaning citizens out-number right-leaning citizens, and that the results of the election will depend on getting as many people as possible to vote. As I’ve said before, a Democrat vote is a climate vote, and vice versa—I look forward to the day when this country has genuine political diversity on this issue, when there is a real conversation between different approaches to the problem, and when voters who disagree on the other issues important to our nation can at least agree on the need for climate action. But that day has not arrived yet.

If you despise everything else the Democrats stand for, hold your nose and vote Democrat just this once because everything else you care about won’t be around much longer if we don’t deal with climate change and fast.

My post last week included links to a bunch of election-related volunteer opportunities. You can see that post and its links again here.

Please help.

Call Your Senators

Frankly, I’m nervous. I worry that this election could be stolen through voter suppression, or possibly even through fraud, or that the long time it is likely to take to count the votes—together with the fact that initial returns are likely to favor Republicans because Democrats are disproportionately using mail-in ballots—may provide an opening for certain people to cast doubt on the results and cause serious trouble. I am worried, in other words, that the Trump campaign is not going to play fair.

Maybe you think I’m being paranoid. Maybe you trust Donald Trump and his supporters and disagree with him only on climate. I’m not going to argue with you here. This blog is non-partizan space, my worries notwithstanding. But taking steps to ensure a smooth transition of power will at least do no harm.

Look, it’s like tornado plans.

Tornadoes are very rare, where I live, and the few we’ve had in the region in my lifetime have mostly been very weak. This isn’t Kansas, Toto. In fact, the only reason that my husband and I discussed our tornado plan, years ago, was that I am paranoid about natural disasters, and kind of obsessed with tornadoes. I mentioned the fact soon after I moved in, and Chris mentioned that the thing to do if there was a tornado would be to retreat to the guest bathroom, since it has no windows, and to bring the dogs and cats in there with us. I agreed. We had our plan. And so, when we were woken in the middle of the night by a tornado warning, we knew what to do and wasted no time.

We’ve followed our plan three times, now, and at least once a tornado did touch down not far away, but our house still hasn’t been hit. Hopefully, it will never be.

But for us to get hit is possible. And if it happens, having a plan and being able to follow it quickly and efficiently could save our lives—and in the meantime having the plan will save us from panicking and creating our own problems, should the warning go off again.

So, with that in mind, today I called my Senators and said (to their staff members) that I want to know what the tornado plan is.

Even if it is highly unlikely that Donald Trump and his team will attempt to steal an election that they do not win fairly, even if the Senators are confident that our democratic (little “d”) systems will work, I want to know that there is a plan in place in case something goes wrong.

I want to know that they are thinking carefully about what to do if the unthinkable happens.

I suggest you call your Senators (call, and speak yourself to staffers, you’ll have more impact than an email message) and ask them what their emergency plan to save American democracy is. Making sure they have a plan now—before the election—can’t hurt, will at least prevent confusion and panic if things start looking bad, and could make a real difference if the worst case scenario does play out.

About that Hurricane

I named this post “waiting for the hurricane” because this quiet time of uncertain preparation does have certain things in common with battening down before a literal storm—and remember, I’ve been talking metaphorically about tornado plans, but two out of the three times we’ve used our literal tornado plan were during Tropical Storm Isaias.

But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that parts of the Gulf Coast are currently bracing for a very real hurricane—Zeta is re-intensifying to hurricane strength as we speak, and much of the area in and around the Mississippi Delta is under a hurricane warning. Again.

“Zeta” is a Greek letter, not a name, since we’ve had so many named storms this year we’ve run out of names. The use of Greek letters is rare, and this is only the second time it’s happened—a fact that is slightly less stark than it seems, because for the first few decades of naming storms there were no weather satellites, meaning some storms may have been missed. It’s possible there were years with unusually large numbers of storms and we just didn’t know. But we have had satellite tracking for a while, now, so mega-years like this are unusual, and when I was a kid they didn’t happen—I remember that the idea of just getting to near the end of the alphabet sounded strange and apocalyptic.

This is the second Zeta storm we’ve had, and the first one, in 2005, formed in late December. That means we’re running two months behind the previous most-active Atlantic storm season in history, and that’s after we lost a month or so to that plume of African dust, which tamped down storm activity for a while.

If I lived on the Gulf Coast, I’d be pretty interested in securing meaningful climate action about now.


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Vote Now, for Real

Hurricane Delta intensified from a tropical depression to a Cat 4 hurricane in just over a day (30 hours), and will likely hit the Yucatan Peninsula tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon. On Friday, it will likely become the fourth named storm this year to hit Louisiana, where evacuees from Laura are still living out of hotels. Delta is the 25th named storm in the Atlantic storm basin this year, making 2020 only the second year this many have ever been named–and our Delta formed over a month earlier than the one in 2005 did.

Are you taking climate change seriously yet?

Probably you are, that’s why you’re reading this blog, which is why I want to talk about voting again. For years, now, a majority of Americans have wanted meaningful climate action, and yet collectively we elect candidates who do not deliver it–and who promise not to deliver it. What gives? Clearly there are many possible explanations, and most are probably at least a little true, but at least part of the reason must be that a lot of people don’t vote or don’t vote with climate change in mind.

This is the year that has to change

And I’m sorry, but voting for climate action means voting for Joe Biden.

I say “I’m sorry” because I really don’t like appearing to be partisan on this blog. I don’t work for the Biden campaign, and if I did I wouldn’t blog about it here because this is about climate change not politics. I’d like to say “these are the candidates who have strong positions on climate, pick whomever you like.” But that’s not the situation we’re in.

I’ve written about the issue of third party/independent voting at the presidential level before, but it’s time I do so again because there are some important things I haven’t said yet on the subject.

Look, I’m familiar with the arguments for not picking someone for president from a major party. I was a Ralph Nader voter, once upon a time, and I made those arguments. Some of them I now recognize as fallacies (for my exploration of the “there’s no major difference” argument, click here), and my thinking on the subject has evolved even over the past four years–but I still believe people deserve more than either major party is prepared to deliver.

The problem is that the general election for the office of US President is not an effective place to go get that “more”. It’s the wrong part of the cycle.

If you’ll pardon me summarizing some things some of you doubtless already know, I’ll explain why.

In a parliamentary system, people vote for whichever MPs they want and then the MPs get together among themselves and form a government. There can be zillions of parties running candidates, and several parties can all win seats. But in the process of forming a government they all organize themselves into two groups–the ruling coalition (which elects the Prime Minister) and the opposition.

In contrast, in the United States all the different voting blocs form coalitions during the primary season, eventually forming two prospective governments. At the election, one becomes the ruling coalition, headed by the President, while the other becomes the opposition. These two groups may have the same names for generations on end, but they aren’t consistently the same parties–the coalitions get re-assembled at least slightly differently every four years.

So in a parliamentary system the general election begins the process of creating a government, whereas in the American system the general election finishes the process.

The way our political system is structured, more than two people can stand for the general election as candidates for president, but only two have a shot at winning–not because they’ve been fore-ordained by shadowy powers-that-be, but because they’ve been chosen by an extended coalition-building process that includes lots of voter participation. It’s not necessarily the best system, but it’s the one we’ve got.

If you don’t like the kind of people who normally get nominated, there are a couple of things you can do about it.

  • Support and vote for candidates of a different kind in local elections (or run yourself)
  • Support and vote for candidates of a different kind for Congress (or run yourself)
  • Support and vote for candidates of a different kind (or run yourself) in the primary
  • Participate in the creation of a new major party, if you find yourself in a rare historical moment where one of the two majors can be replaced

Note that it’s fine to go third-party or independent in those first two steps because they happen largely outside of the coalition-building process that creates the two prospective governments–and indeed it was Vermont’s support of Bernie Sanders, a Democratic-Socialist, that allowed him to build the stature necessary to get very close to winning the Democratic nomination.

Alternatively, small-scale races make it possible for unusual people to win on major-party tickets who would not necessarily be welcomed by their party for a national race–and once elected, they can build the stature necessary to change who their party is willing to run. Barack Obama is a good example.

Voting for a radical candidate for local office–in hopes of someday being able to vote for them for national office–is one way to do it. Another possibility is that by supporting a new kind of local candidate one can help create the political climate that will change the parameters of who can get nominated nationally.

Consider that the election of Donald Trump–a man who was certainly not anointed by the Republican establishment and whose campaign in many ways resembled that of a well-funded independent–arguably began with the election of the Tea Party Republicans in local and state-level races. Over six years, Mr. Trump and his allies built a coalition capable of more or less becoming the new Republican Party.

There is no reason a progressive candidate could not build an equivalent coalition and pull off a similarly radical win, it just hasn’t been done this cycle.

It’s important to recognize that electing a president is a group activity.

Imagine that your company has given your department a free dinner as a reward for something or other, and that the group of you can decide where to go (let’s say this is pre-COVID). You all discuss it, and eventually determine that everybody either wants, or at least is OK with, either the pizza place on the corner or that Vietnamese restaurant you’ve heard so much about. Now, you’re deathly allergic to tomatoes, so pizza is absolutely out, but Vietnamese is hardly your favorite.

If you were alone you’d go for Moroccan, of course you would, but that’s not the situation–if you want to have dinner with the group, you’ve got to vote for one of the two options that is acceptable to the rest of the group. Doing something with a group of people often involves choosing something you wouldn’t choose if it were just you, but as long as you can prevail on your colleagues to not choose the tomato pizza, maybe you can enjoy a free evening out.

Not to trivialize the choice; it’s an imperfect metaphor.

Build the coalitions you need to build, people, but this year is not the year for anyone to dine alone–because we need you in the group.

The climate needs you.


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Voting!

This article is the latest iteration of my now-traditional pre-election post. I’ve updated the information and rewritten some passages.

This blog is apolitical in the sense of being neutral on all issues except climate change (I don’t count issues of morality, such as the principle the black lives matter, as political, even if politicians do argue about it). I have my own political opinions on all sorts of issues, but here I am non-partizan.

That means encouraging you to vote for whichever climate-sane candidate you like, but vote. If you are part of the American electorate (and I’m aware many of you are not–hello, international readers!), your vote in November is among the most important things you can do for the climate, and arguably one of the most important things you will ever do.

Why Vote

Because it’s your Constitutional right and people died so you could, that’s why!

But you know that already. If you can vote in the upcoming election and are seriously considering not doing so, it’s probably because you’re feeling discouraged, thinking that your vote doesn’t matter or that you don’t really like either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. And my jumping up and down about your civic duty and the efforts of the patriots of yesteryear is not really going to help.

Maybe something else I can say can help? Because I understand that discouragement, and while I personally like Joe (I’m from Delaware; to me he will always be “Joe”) I can appreciate that not everybody does. So if you’re reluctant to vote, I don’t think you’re dumb. I just hope you’ll change your mind. Here’s why:

Your Vote Does Matter

If your vote didn’t matter, candidates and their super-pac proxies would not spend oodles of money to try to get your vote. Nor would certain entities attempt to suppress your vote, as does appear to happen with disturbing regularity.

I know some of you are in situations where it seems your vote matters very little, either because you expect to be the only one voting for your candidates (especially galling in the presidential race where the Electoral College comes into play) or because you expect that everybody will vote for your candidate–there isn’t going to be a tie, so you won’t be the tie-breaker.

Except that if everybody used that logic and stayed home, the election would turn out very differently. It’s always a good idea to act in the way that you believe everybody should–because most of us are really not that unusual, and most people will make more or less the same decisions we do for more or less the same reasons.

Be the change.

Your Non-Vote Does Not Matter

Some people refrain from voting as a form of protest. Frankly, I don’t see that as a good form of protest, because I don’t see that anyone cares. Political campaigns typically court “likely voters,” and while some focus on increasing turn-out, that’s turn-out among their supporters. I can’t imagine that anybody in politics is going to say “Jane Doe didn’t vote this year! OMG! We’ve got to change everything!”

Can you?

The reality is that to win, a candidate only needs to get more votes than the other candidates got, not majority support of the citizenry. Votes for the other guy can cost a candidate an election, but non-votes can’t. That means if you plan to vote for one candidate, the other candidates see you as a problem, one they can attempt to solve by courting you–but if you plan not to vote, you’re not a problem so you don’t need to be solved. No courtship for you.

Inspire courtship.

No, All Politicians Are Not the Same

Yes, I, too, once thought Democrats and Republicans are the same and not worth choosing between. I’ve written about this part before here and here, but let me touch on the issue here. The argument is usually that it’s not worth choosing between two candidates because both

–are the same on most major issues

–have different shortcomings that seem equally grievous

–are both embedded in a system that itself needs to change radically

Whether each of these statements is true of our current major-party presidential contenders is beyond the scope of this blog; they do differ radically on climate change. But I’ve heard these ideas put forth both in this race and in previous races, and all three are fallacies.

Candidates may be the same on most major issues, and yet the few differences between them still matter. Candidates may be equally icky for different reasons, but while that makes the choice between them difficult, it does not mean the choice doesn’t matter. Candidates may be part of a system that hurts you and needs to change, but not voting won’t bring the revolution, and in the meantime which candidate wins still makes a difference, even if the difference is small.

If you want a revolution, make a revolution–but in the meantime, vote.

As for Third Parties….

Most of the above arguments for not voting also seem to work in favor of voting for independent or third-party candidates–and indeed, I’m all for such votes on state or local elections where outsiders have a real shot at success. The career of Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of the principle, whether you happen to like him or not.

The problem is that presidential campaigns require too much in the way of resources for such a thing to work, and the latest passionate outsider is not going to change a pattern that has held steady for over two hundred years, now: America’s is not a two-party system because the right outsider hasn’t come along yet but because it is structured that way. Until that structure is changed, it will remain a two-party system.

It’s important to recognize that voting is not about stating a preference; it’s about directing support. It’s about forming a coalition, something that is routinely done by the multiple power blocs in other countries. It’s done in the US, too, except that our coalitions usually have the same two names. It’s about working with other people, directing your support to where it will do some good because it will be joined by the support of others.

If you want an outsider to win, get that outsider in a position to win. If you didn’t or couldn’t do that by now, throw your support to someone who is in position, and try again next time.

How to Vote

Maybe this is your first time voting (welcome aboard!) or maybe you’re an old hand but still have some questions (“what does the Judge of the Orphan’s Court do?” or “how do I make sure my vote counts?”). That’s OK, when I sat down to write the first version of this post some years ago, I didn’t know a lot of those things, either, now was I sure how to find out. I figured it out so that I could tell you.

I do that a lot. You are unbelievably helpful to me as a motivation to sit down and learn stuff.

The Questions

Here are my major questions about the process this year. I imagine they might also be yours:

  1. How Do I Learn About Candidates?
  2. What About Those Local Offices I’ve Never Heard of? What Do They Even Do?
  3. Am I registered?
  4. Should I Vote by Mail? How?
  5. If I Vote in Person, Do I Need to Bring my ID?
  6. Can I Change My Mind About Voting in Person?
  7. Who Can Help Me Exercise my Right to Vote?

Getting answers to many of the above questions begins, if you’re a Maryland voter, by visiting the handy-dandy Maryland Voter Services website. Every other state I’ve tried has some version of this site, though they are not all equally useful and not all feature exactly the same information, but generally if you do an Internet search on “how to vote in [your state]” you’ll get your choice of websites at your service.

I go to the Maryland site, type in my name, birthdate, and zip code, and the results show me the following information:

  • Whether I’m registered (I am)
  • What my party affiliation is (I’m not telling you)
  • Where my voting center is, when it’s going to be open, and how and where and when I can vote early if I want to)
  • Whether I need to show my ID to vote in person (I do not)
  • What voting districts I’m part of (different races have different districts)
  • Who my current legislators are at both the state and Federal levels
  • Who is running and will be on my ballot (social media links for most candidates are also included)
  • What referendum questions will be on my ballot
  • The name and contact information for our Board of Elections official and directions to her office
  • What the status of my mail-in ballot is (“sent”)
  • A PDF link to a sample ballot

See? Very handy-dandy. I can use the same site to register to vote, change my voter information (as long as it’s at least three weeks before the election), request a duplicate registration card, and request a mail-in ballot.

There is a phone number and email at the bottom for questions. I called with a few questions a while back and the person I spoke to was friendly, patient, and professional, and did a good job of explaining things to a confused person.

But that still leaves a few questions unanswered.

What Are Those Local Offices I’ve Never Heard of? What Do They Even Do?

My ballot this year is not going to list a lot of positions–just president, vice-president, representative in Congress, Board of Education member, and three different kinds of judge, each of whom faces a “vote yes or no for continuance in office.” I mostly know what all those positions involve. But there have been years there were lots of unfamiliar positions (Orphan’s Court Judge? I hadn’t even known there was an Orphan’s Court!), and even so I’m not sure what the difference is between the Court of Appeals and the Court of Special Appeals.

My first decade or so as an adult, I’m embarrassed to say, I ignored these positions, either not voting in those races or voting randomly. The temptation is to regard them as unimportant because they don’t make the news.

But these positions are important. These are people who have a big impact on my day-to-day life–and can sometimes find themselves in position to have a big impact on much bigger fields, too. For example, district attorneys (a position not on my ballot this year, but certainly a local race that rarely gets much press) can decide whether to go after polluters and whether to drop charges against environmentalist protestors. Local, unsung positions can also function as springboards to launch influential political careers. I remember once going to a very small “meet the candidates” event and meeting a likeable, mostly bald man running for some county-level position I’d never heard of. He won, and has since become a powerful US Senator–Chris Coons. By voting for who gets to jump on the springboard, we can help decide who gets launched.

So, what are these positions? Frankly, this is where a search engine is your friend. It may take a few tries to get an answer that makes sense and feels complete, but the answers are out there.

How Do I Learn About Candidates?

We’re concerned here with candidates’ environmental records.

The simplest way to check on the climate credentials of anyone who has ever been in Congress is to check out their score with the League of Conservation Voters. Each score reflects the number of pro-environmental votes (as defined by a large panel of environmental experts), plus the number of co-sponsored bills that didn’t reach the floor. The League divides “environmental votes” into several categories–“climate” is one of those categories, but so are “clean energy,” “dirty energy,” “drilling,” “air pollution,” and “transportation,” all of which are obviously part of the climate issue as well. If there is any way to subdivide an individual’s score by category, I have not yet found it, but it is clear that climate-related issues contribute significantly to the overall score and that an individual’s climate score cannot be larger than his or her overall environmental score.

The LCV is a great source of information both on incumbents running for Congressional seats and for candidates for other positions who used to be in Congress. For example, Hilary Clinton’s score (quite good, by the way) was very useful information when she ran for President.

But what about people who haven’t been in Congress?

Then we have to fall back on media coverage of their prior elected positions (if any), in some cases their non-political professional or volunteer work, and information supplied by their campaigns. It sounds difficult, but really all it takes is a couple of minutes poking around online. It’s true that campaign promises are easily and often broken, but someone who doesn’t bother to make environmental campaign promises is unlikely to prioritize those issues when in office.

It’s important, too, that you understand environmental issues, especially local environmental issues, so you know what positions actually are pro-environment (and which might have genuine environmentalists on both sides) and can sort out real positions from green-washing or political spin.

Should I Vote by Mail? How?

This year an unusually large number of people are voting by mail in order to avoid the threat of COVID-19 at polling places. Unfortunately, there are also questions this year about the ability of the Postal Service to handle all of those ballots, as well as a somewhat greater risk of mail-in ballots being excluded because they were improperly filled out or because of other problems. The current advice I’ve heard is to vote in person unless you have a definite reason not to (such as a medical condition that puts you at higher risk for COVID-19), and if you do choose a mail-in ballot to submit it in person if possible (many areas have drop-boxes for this purpose), rather than actually mailing it.

A majority of states had “no-excuse absentee voting” (meaning you don’t need to explain why you can’t come to the polling place on Election Day) even before COVID-19. Most of those that didn’t have temporarily changed the rules, either to full no-excuse or by allowing anyone to claim either illness or concern about COVID-19 as an excuse. To find out whether your state is one of these and what the rule actually is, click here.

For more information on absentee/mail-in voting in general, click here. If you’re not sure what the procedure is for your voting district and your state doesn’t have as handy-dandy a website on the subject as mine, go ahead and call your election officials and ask.

Can I Change My Mind About Voting by Mail?

No.

Well, at least not easily. If you’ve been planning to vote in person and have now decided to vote by mail you can go ahead and request a ballot according to your state’s procedure, but time is getting tight–it can take a while for ballots to arrive, and states vary as to the deadline by which your completed ballot must be received in order to count.

But if you have already requested an absentee/mail-in ballot, you may be committed. This is what I learned when I called and asked–your state may have a different policy, and you should feel free to call and ask. What I was told was that having requested a mail-in ballot, election officials now assume I’m going to get such a ballot and will thus be capable of submitting that ballot–it’s as though my polling place is now my own mail box. If I show up and attempt to vote in person, I will be barred from doing so because the assumption will be that I’ve already voted. If I tell them I didn’t (perhaps my ballot didn’t arrive), I will be allowed to fill out a provisional ballot that will only be counted once it’s confirmed that I didn’t vote by mail–and since processing provisional ballots is labor-intensive, voters are discouraged from filling them out “just in case” lest we clog up the system. Only use a provisional ballot if you have definite reason to believe your attempt to vote by mail has failed.

Frankly, I’d rather vote in person now, as it seems much more secure, and the risk from COVID-19 is no worse than from going shopping. But I’m stuck.

Who Can Help Me Exercise my Right to Vote?

For information on your rights at the polling place and what to do if those rights are challenged or infringed, click here. The site also includes links to resources for voters with various disabilities or who do not understand English well.

As for how to get to the polls, if you’re going there in person and anticipate trouble with transportation, you may be able to find organizations in your area offering free rides with volunteers. In 2018, both Lyft and Uber offered free or discounted rides for riders who “face significant obstacles getting to the polls.” I have not been able to find such offers this year, but then I have not spent very long looking. You may get better results.

But Vote

 


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Poetry

Balance-Day

September 22, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas,

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Amman invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.

But

there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know

enough.

Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local-beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce

regard.

 

Note: I wrote this poem almost ten years ago, back when I attended parties with scientists more regularly–hence the reference to Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General of the UN at the time. That year, the equinox was on the 23rd, but I changed the date just now to match this year.-C.


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Mustang Sally?

A photograph of a single palm tree standing by itself in a field with low trees behind it and some distance away. The dark gray, misty quality of the scene suggests heavy rain.

Photo by Siednji Leon on Unsplash

Yeah, there’s a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico right now named Sally. It’s been about 15 inches away from making landfall for approximately 4 1/5 years, now, which I imagine is wearing on the nerves of people who live there, among other problems. And, naturally, it keeps reminding me of that song.

Given that Sally already seems to have slowed down plenty, the song may be quite appropriate.

“Slow,” here refers not to windspeed (which is not slow) but to forward movement. Although we categorize these storms by their maximum sustained windspeed, that’s only one part of what makes a storm dangerous, and it’s not necessarily the most important part; case in point, a storm that sits in one place and rains heavily for several days can do more damage than a windier storm that moves through quickly and drops only a moderate about of rain. And as I alluded to by hyperbole a moment ago, Sally is a slow, rainy storm.

So, let’s check in with Sally, shall we?

Introducing Sally

Late on September 11, a storm just to the east of southern Florida received recognition as a tropical depression, meaning it derived its energy from evaporating hot water (not air masses of different temperatures) and had an eye, but did not yet have sustained surface winds over 38 mph. The next day, September 12, it crossed the southern tip of Florida, dropped a huge amount of rain, moved into the Gulf of Mexico, and intensified over 38mph, qualifying for tropical storm status and the name “Sally.” On September 14, it intensified enough to qualify as a Category 1 hurricane, briefly became a category 2, weakened again, and commenced to lurking just off the coast of Alabama. It’s there right now, as of this writing.

That sort of sounds like the storm hasn’t actually struck anything yet (except Florida) right? Well, these storms are very big, and while the convention is to treat the location of the eye as the location of the storm, Sally currently covers most of the Southeast and has for most of the day. Florida has been under now for about three days. That’s a very long time to be under a storm. And because the eye is still over water, Sally can still get stronger–and at least as of an hour ago, it was doing so.

What’s Sally Doing?

So, what’s going on under that big pinwheel of cloud?

That’s frustratingly hard to say. Or at least, it’s hard for ME to say. I can look up a nearly current radar image of the storm online, but apparently reading weather radar images is one of those things non-experts like me really ought not to do (we’re bad at it). I could tell you the pressure at the storm’s center, its forward speed, and a few other numbers (accurate as of 10 PM), those numbers are easily available online, but they don’t mean anything to me, and I doubt they mean anything to you. I want to know how much rain has fallen where. I want to know know if flooding (either storm-surge or rain-driven) has begun. I’m sure at least some of that information is being collected, but nobody’s putting it in any of the places I’ve looked so far. Mostly news sites are talking about what the storm will be. They’re saying it will be bad.

Frankly, I think the problem is it’s dark out, things are happening quickly, and half a story right now is not nearly so good as a whole story later.

One of the reasons I delayed writing this post until the middle of the night is that I was really hoping there would be a story to tell by now. Apparently, there isn’t yet.

Climate Change?

OK, if the question is climate change, the answer is nearly always yes. There’s some nuance to that “yes,” but basically it’s everywhere. The reason I decided to post about Sally (aside from the fact that it’s shaping up to be the kind of story I usually cover), is that this is one of those stories that just seems so disturbingly weird.

Operative word here is “seems.” I’m not a meteorologist, so I’m not qualified to assess the bizarreness of a given weather event in any rational way. Take this for what it’s worth.

But when this storm hit Florida, it didn’t even have a name yet, and two days later it was a Cat 2 hurricane. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Like, the sort of odd the reminds you the rules have changed?

I may return to this topic next week, when there is more of a story to tell, but I strongly suspect that by then it will be time to talk about fire again.


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About That Revolution…

A photograph of a small motorized boat done up to vaguely resemble a Viking longboat.or so people onboard, though they are difficult to see clearly. The boat is seen almost directly head-on, and it is motoring slowly (there is no wake, and only a little froth at the bow) through quiet, blue-gray wayers. In place of a sale, it is flying a yellow banner with the Extinction Rebellion logo, a stylized hour glass, and the words "act now" in black.

Published in the Extinction Rebellion Newsletter, used by permission.

I wrote rather sympathetically last week about the activities of Extinction Rebellion in the UK. This week, I am pleased to hear there is also a “rebellion” underway in New York City and in other cities in many countries around the world.

I am less happy that I had to learn about the New York activity from a Brit.

Why Can’t I Hear You?

I am unhappy that Extinction Rebellion isn’t making the American news, at least not the PBS Newshour, which I watched last night. You’d think that organized street protests, including civil disobedience, in one of our largest cities would be an important story. You’d also think that semi-coordinated protests in multiple countries, including the UK, Poland, and Sweden would be considered important, too. Apparently not.

The failure to cover this sort of thing has, intentionally or otherwise, direct practical results; those of us who care about climate change end up thinking we’re alone. And we all know how hard it is to stand up when nobody else does.

I am also unhappy that I didn’t hear about the New York rebellion ahead of time from organizers. It’s true I’m not part of the US branch of XR. It’s also true that I have not gone looking for this sort of news in the last few weeks. But time was that I didn’t have to look–I didn’t have to be on the right lists. Invitations to upcoming marches circulated freely through the more liberal corners of Facebook or arrived through aggressive SPAM emails. That time appears to be over.

XR is a little different that the People’s Climate March, of course in that XR is all about civil disobedience, which requires careful organizing, special training, and at least some degree of secrecy from the authorities before hand. I wouldn’t expect an XR action to be widely publicized ahead of time, nor would I expect open invitations to go out to just everybody.

But why is XR acting alone?

Why isn’t 360.org, or other similar organizations, organizing conventional demonstrations simultaneously as a form of signal boosting? Why aren’t we all out in the streets–and why aren’t the people with the ability to call for mass demonstrations not doing so? Do we want our leaders and our neighbors to believe Americans don’t care about climate?

Can You Hear Me?

I’m not an organizer, OK? I don’t have the gift for that sort of leadership. But I do have a blog. I can say a few things, and I might be heard.

And what I have to say is we are not using all our available tools to the fullest.

Mass Demonstrations

There are those who say mass demonstrations, such as protest marches, don’t change anything. Well, they don’t change anything all by themselves, no, but historically they’ve been a big part of the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement (hello? Pride!), the Arab Spring, and the successful Estonian bid for independence from the Soviet Union. Somewhat less sympathetically (from the perspective of most readers of this blog, I suspect), public marches have been a time-honored tool in the arsenal of terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and public rallies played a role in the later electoral success of the Tea Party.

Simply put, the proposition that “marches don’t matter” is not supported by the evidence.

Mass demonstration serves to show political will to leaders, offer encouragement to participants and sympathizers, and create networking opportunities for participants. After the People’s Climate March, the American news media started taking climate change much more seriously, presumably because journalists realized people really wanted to know about climate.

But for some reason, there are no more big climate marches. There have been a few events in DC that were not well publicized and whose leaders clearly did not expect large turn-outs. And there have been a number of distributed events consisting of hundreds of small, local events–with the result that each local news program treated its local event as an isolated story while ignoring the existence of the others.

Even those stopped with COVID-19. Black Lives Matter did not stop, but that’s because BLM is seen as a matter of life and death.

Climate change is a matter of life and death, too.

Civil Disobedience

The term “civil disobedience” is applied to any non-violent political action that involves deliberate risk of arrest,  but there are actually two kinds and they are very different.

Upping the Ante, Upping the Volume

Two people could stand in front of a business and accuse it of “greenwashing” (performing a few pro-environment actions to distract from deeply anti-environmental policy) without anyone really noticing–or caring. Now, if those two people instead get almost naked and bathe in a tub of green water in front of said business, they will make the news (weird naked people usually do) and probably get arrested. Folks will notice. Folks may even care.

A photo of two people, naked except for underwear and hats, standing in a blue bathtub filled with green water outside a building. One of the people is facing the camera and appears to be a woman. The other is bending over, butt towards the camera. Gender is not discernable. Several others crowd around, including someone wearing a suit and an oversized mask possibly resembling the British Prime minister. A sign on the tub reads "clean up your act" with an Extinction Rebellion symbol. Other signs are visible but hard to read. Lettering on the building reads BARCL, but is partially obscured by the masked figure. Presumably, it reads Barclays.

Photo published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission

Such a bath occurred this past week as part of the UK’s Rebellion.

Public protest is all about getting attention, and a small number of people can get a lot of attention through what amounts to street theater. Getting arrested, or risking arrest, is simply a way of forcing the authorities to join in the show and further amplify the signal. If legal peaceful protest can work, then so can can illegal peaceful protest.

But it’s important to recognize that they are basically the same strategy.

Defeating the Empire by Ignoring It

“We will defeat the British Empire by ignoring it” is a quote from the movie, Michael Collins, in which it is written by Eamon DeValera from prison. Whether DeValera actually originated the quote I have not been able to confirm–there are people online who think he did, but I don’t know whether any are authoritative. Anyway, it’s a great quote.

DeValera (the character, if not also the real man) didn’t mean peaceful civil disobedience; Ireland fought for independence quite violently. What he meant was that he and his colleagues would act with the authority of a real government over a sovereign nation regardless of whether the British government considered them such.

In a very similar way, Rosa Parks acted like a human being when she refused to give up her bus seat, as did John Lewis and his colleagues who sat down at segregated lunch counters and waited to be served. They did not wait for the white power structure to acknowledge their humanity, they just acted on it.

To defeat by ignoring means to act as though one has already won, and to keep doing so regardless of how violently your enemy objects. Whether you are violent or non-violent in the process makes a difference morally and perhaps strategically, but John Lewis had more in common with Michael Collins than with the public bathers I mentioned earlier.

It’s not that such strategic ignoring will always win. It won’t. In fact, people who engage in it tend to be beaten bloody and/or shot to death. Sometimes they win anyway, sometimes not, and historically the wins have often been mixed–only part of Ireland won its independence, and the success of the American Civil Rights movement is still incomplete.

But demonstration is all about getting attention. If you can’t, then you lose. But when you ignore the Empire, if it ignores you back, you win.

Lifestyle Changes

The 50 simple things YOU can do are not going to save the Earth, although they may help. But large-scale or deep efforts to ignore the Empire also involve lifestyle change. Rosa Parks not getting up was a lifestyle change on her part. The transition towns are another example of lifestyle change.

A transition town is, ideally, a community that has made whatever changes are necessary to get off fossil fuel entirely. In practice, it is a community that has an active movement working to make those changes.

For an individual or a family to get off fossil fuel usually requires money–money to buy land, money to purchase food and other resources through alternative sources at premium prices, money to avoid most kinds of paying work. And such individuals end up becoming oddities whose lifestyles don’t spread very far. The power of the transition town concept is that it creates a new world that everyone can participate in, including the powerless and disenfranchised. A fully-realized transition town would be a place where a low-carbon lifestyle is simply the default option, the simplest, easiest, cheapest way for residents to get through the day.

I don’t think there are any fully-realized transition towns yet. I think that the minute a community of any size does fully transition, the Empire will notice and will act.

Electoral and Legislative Politics

The end game for climate action requires government leadership. There are indeed people, in multiple countries, working both to both elect real climate hawks and to usher meaningful climate legislation through the system. We have had some successes. We have had some failures. The best demonstrations and “ignorings of the Empire” have worked to support such efforts.

Coordinated, Multi-Pronged Effort

A coordinated, multipronged effort–the use of all the tools together–is the real tool I don’t see in use.

What I’d like to see, personally, is a widespread, insistent transition town movement, defended and furthered by civil disobedience of both kinds–including actions to shut down pipelines, mines, propaganda machines, and other examples of that which we ought not to tolerate. I’d also like to see mass demonstrations providing political cover for both their less-than-legal colleagues and pushing for meaningful climate legislation.

I’d like to see more active cooperation between environmentalism and other movements, in recognition that virtually all other causes (human rights, healthcare, the economy, national security, world peace, etc.) depend on a stable climate for ultimate success.

I’d like to see the same kind of disciplined, organized long game played by our adversaries, frankly. The Nazis and the Climate Denialists have together made amazing strides to normalize the previously unthinkable and to cast doubt on the previously obvious until the future of American democracy and even life on Earth are in serious doubt.

Why are they beating us?

 


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You Say You Want a Revolution

A photo of a protest march through the streets of a city. The streets are broad, the buildings relatively low, and the sky is a mix of blue sky and cloud. Very few people are in the shot as they are marching widely spaced. Some of them carry flags with Extinction Rebellion symbols on them. Two carry between them a wide black banner that reads "life or death extinction rebellion" in bold white letters. One of the buildings they are passing is partially wrapped in a giant rainbow flag.

A march in Cardiff. Photo by David France, published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission.

News reports (like this one and this one) are beginning to trickle in to the effect that rebels have taken to the streets in the UK. I can’t say I’m surprised, as I happen to know some of the participants—anyway, the plans for the major demonstrations have been public for some weeks, now. Most of it is legal, or not very illegal, anyway. They aren’t rebels in the sense of Guy Fawkes.

More like V for Vendetta, maybe.

It’s not what they want to change that’s the issue. It’s what they want left unchanged; the climate of Planet Earth.

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why the Hell Not

This is Extinction Rebellion, and the language of rebellion, the practice of referring to participants not as activists or protesters but as rebels both is and is not meant to be taken literally. Yes, the group’s primary tactic is a form of non-violent civil disobedience. As of the publication of that BBC article I linked to earlier, 90 people had been arrested by the end of the first day. More will follow. For some rebels, especially in earlier actions last year, getting arrested was part of the point, a deliberate tactic. And it’s true that they are attempting to dictate policy to Parliament, something that would indeed have been considered rebellious in a less-democratic age. But this is not a revolution in the traditional sense of the word; it’s not the British government these people are rebelling against.

They are rebelling against extinction. Quite simply, these are people who don’t want to die of climate change.

Do you?

A photo of a group of people holding a pink banner that reads "we want to live" in black lettering and also has heart-shapes and the Extinction Rebellion symbol (a stylized hour glass) on it. Several people in the crowd also hold colorful flags with the Extinction Rebellion symbol on them. There are trees and buildings in the picture, too--the setting appears to be a leafy urban area--and there is a lot of sunlight but also smoke or fog. The image looks very up-beat, serious yet playful.

Photo by Marina Illiara, published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission

The History of XR

There is a wonderful article on the history of Extinction Rebellion (fondly referred to as XR by its members and friends) here. I recommend reading it. In the meantime, here is my somewhat shorter version of the story—unless otherwise stated, my sources are that article and the individual rebels I know.

XR grew out of conversations within a loose group of experienced British environmental activists who had been winning small victories but were frustrated by the lack of overall progress. They felt the need to scale up. In 2017, those conversations created a loose network of activists interested in non-violent civil disobedience—the group called itself Rise Up (the same name belongs to a Ugandan-based group, and I am currently unclear as to what the relationship between the two is. They may or may not be the same. I need to do more research, but not today). Early in 2018, members of Rise Up created Extinction Rebellion as a decentralized movement fighting climate change that would appeal to people across the political spectrum.

XR invested itself heavily in outreach, and very quickly got very big.

In October and November of 2018, brief, largely symbolic actions drew thousands of participants to block roads and bridges, briefly shutting down parts of London in support of meaningful climate action. In April of 2019, XR declared its first “rebellion,” demonstrating across London for two weeks. The rebellion was quite successful, inspiring wide-spread public support and the ear of government officials, who began talking about the climate crisis in a way they hadn’t before.

A second period of rebellion occurred in October, but problems occurred. Some of the actions interfered with working people’s lives a bit too much, triggering backlash. Also, many people of color felt excluded from XR by strategies that centered around provoking mass arrests; while white, middle-class people can get arrested for minor issues (such as disturbing the peace) without serious long-term consequences, non-white people usually can’t. The perception that XR was for and by those with a certain privilege further cost the movement public goodwill. Meanwhile, serious internal disagreements over strategy cost the movement some of its focus.

Over the following months, XR continued to cope with internal disagreements but tried to learn from its mistakes and honor the criticism it had been given. A third rebellion was planned for May, 2020, but COVID-19 happened, instead.

The current rebellion has as its stated aim to force Parliament (which began its new term yesterday) to consider certain demands–essentially, meaningful climate action immediately. COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, but organizers are encouraging everybody to wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay safe. Anyway, since climate change is still here, too, the general feeling seems to be it’s time to get back in the saddle and ride.

Identity and Structure

XR isn’t an organization, it’s a movement.

One doesn’t join XR in the sense that one can join, say, the ACLU or the Democratic Party. There are no membership lists. There are no authority figures—if you and a few friends want to stage an XR action you can go ahead and do so, provided you operate within certain ethical precepts. You do not need permission, and there is no one to ask permission of.

At the same time, XR obviously is an organization, because it organizes things.

A group of people dressed in simple white clothing stand well-spaced in a plaza in front of a large building. There is a tree in the background. Several of the people are holding up a giant puppet that looks like a yellow bird with a brown, human face--a bird beak sticks out above the face--and the branches of an orange tree spreading across its front. The birds wingspan is about 20 feet.

An action in Manchester. Photo published in Extinction Rebellions newsletter. Used by permission.

Thousands of people do not all suddenly begin a series of coordinated events across multiple British cities without some group decision-making process. These are not simply public gatherings, either. Many actions are complex performances of street theater, complete with costumes, props, and choreography. Others are sophisticated non-violent attacks on infrastructure, temporarily shutting down roads, airports, meetings, and other instances of business-as-usual (these tend to also include street theater). Big actions come complete with medical staff, food service, toilet facilities, and internal but serious journalism. There is a helm, and somebody is at it.

This paradoxical organization/non-organization is because while XR lacks the kind of top-down control structure many of us take for granted, there are other ways to organize things.

XR is a network of interacting cells or groups, some of which further subdivide into smaller groups. Each group has its area of focus (such as maintaining the website or providing legal help), and each is run by consensus through one or more coordinators who serve rather than govern. Although the groups themselves are autonomous and sometimes rather isolated (to the point that some members of one group might not know another group even exists), people move fluidly from group to group as their interests and abilities shift. Information and resources flow, too, with each group working with and serving the needs of those other groups with related tasks. For example, groups charged with drafting strategy pass guidance along to action organizers, who in turn pass information about their actions on to groups charged with creating newsletters and blog.

Cutting across this network of networks is the fact that XR is, as rebels put it, a “movement of movements.” Many countries all over the worlds have their own XR groups, plus there are local XR chapters, a youth wing (for young adults and teens), a family wing (for families with young children), and semi-distinct XR movements with more specialized concerns, such as the environmental health of oceans. And there are allied groups, such as Black Lives Matter, the school strike movement, Beyond Politics, and others that do not use the XR name but do share similar tactics, philosophies, and at least some goals. All of these groups both work independently and cooperate on actions. Or don’t cooperate. Sometimes they argue, split, merge, inspire each other, cause problems….

Photo by Gareth Morris, published in the Extinction Rebellion Newsletter, used by permission.

XR is not really a movement—it is an iteration of, or a corner of the activist wing of the environmental movement itself (an earlier generation of which founded such groups as Green Peace, Sea Shepherd, and Earth First!), which in turn has ties to the Civil Rights movement, the Labor Movement, and others. There are no hard boundaries, and little that is radically new–only new approaches to older ideas and concerns. 

What all this suggests to me is what my grad school professors would call a self-organized, complex system. That is, it’s structure is close to that of an organism or an ecosystem–and thus able to grow, repair, and direct itself, of itself. As such, it could prove both more stable and more resilient than simpler systems with the command-and-control structures we’re more used to.

Issues

There are issues, of course.

XR must have broad support to hope to succeed, and that means tackling not just climate change but all of the other causes that rebels and potential rebels consider important, such as social justice and biodiversity conservation. The catch is that the more causes a movement includes, the more opportunities there are for internal disagreements or external backlash–trying to be universal risks throwing existing disagreements into even sharper relief.

In XR’s case, the major division is between those who want to work within existing governmental and economic systems, and those who want to tear down what they see as inherently problematic structures and rebuild fresh. Both agree on the importance of climate action, but each tends to want to undermine the strategies of the other.

Another issue is that not having institutionalized authority roles doesn’t prevent individuals from amassing power, it just makes it virtually impossible to hold such individuals accountable. The problem is nicely illustrated by Ursula K. LeGuin’s book, The Dispossessed, which largely takes place in a (fictional) peaceful anarchic society—the society mostly works quite well, but a few people do amass and abuse power on a small scale, and there is no way to deal with them. They can’t be fired since there are no bosses, can’t be arrested because there are no police, and can’t even be publicly called out for abusing their power because officially they don’t have any. I’m not saying that anyone within XR is abusing power, but there are certainly those who hold power, and they do so with an almost total lack of transparency. There are dedicated rebels, seasoned hands (or as close to seasoned as anyone can get in an organization barely two years old!) who don’t know what XR’s underlying strategies are, why those strategies have been chosen, or even who chose them.

And, honestly, sometimes I question those strategies. Given the marvelous opportunity XR has made for itself—the wonderful momentum it has built—I very much hope that its energies are being directed by top-notch strategic thinkers.

The fact that I don’t personally know that the thinking behind the rebellion is sound is not, in itself, a bad sign; top-notch thinkers need not prove themselves to sympathetic bloggers in order to be real. But I’d feel a lot better if some of them did prove themselves, frankly.

And yet not all issues are problems. My favorite XR issue is embodied by the individual rebels I have met. Put simply, they’re good people. They don’t come off like radicals–which is to say they show no sign of retreating into a self-referential counterculture, as many of the radicals I’ve met over the years do (and I say this as someone who sometimes identifies as a radical and tends to enjoy the countercultures radicals create). They seldom discuss ideology or visions (stirring or otherwise), but instead quietly go about their work, one foot ahead of the other. They are less likely to shout “strike for God and Country!” and more likely to remind each other to wear sunblock and carry a water bottle while protesting in the streets. And they do not waste time or energy on hatred—I have never heard a rebel mock or denigrate any polluter or climate denier by name.

They are kind. Every rebel I have met—not a large sample size, I admit, but still—will begin every interaction by asking “how are you?” and listening to the answer.

None of this is by accident, for it is precisely these values of kindness, acceptance, and pragmatic positivity that XR’s published materials emphasize. This is a group that seems to genuinely walk some excellent talk.

These people must be doing something right.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I chose to write about XR for two reasons. One is that when thousands of people take over parts of three UK cities in the name of climate action, I kind of have to cover the story, just as I couldn’t let Hurricane Laura blow by without some kind of acknowledgment. But the other reason is that there will doubtless be people in the press and elsewhere attempting to paint the rebels as pointlessly lawless, as fringe-group radicals, as something less than serious shapers of their country’s future—and that’s to the extent that they make the news at all. In recent years I’ve seen even widespread climate demonstrations buried well behind the headlines, at least in the US.

And that’s not fair. These people deserve to be heard and listened to, if not uncritically that at least sympathetically and honestly.

I am not convinced that XR is going to fulfill its potential. I’m not convinced that it is the movement we’ve been waiting for, the one that will save us by offering us the strategies, resources, and leadership to save ourselves. But I am convinced that someone needs to be taking to the streets for climate, and no one else is at the moment. Massive marches with the proper permits might be better, who knows, but there aren’t any, not for some years, now, and none on the horizon. Well-organized, fully intersectional efforts to get climate hawks into office would certainly be excellent, but no one seems to be doing that, at least not in the United States–climate is being treated as a secondary issue mentioned occasionally by candidates running largely on social justice and economic reform (as if either were really separate from climate). Somebody has to do something—and XR is doing something.

I’ll tell you what I think.

I think it’s possible that XR, together with the various other assertive, confrontational branches of the modern environmental movement, may or may not be able to drive the change it seeks—but it may nonetheless be the change it seeks.

Kind, practically-minded people self-organizing into a society willing to care for each other and the planet at whatever cost? If that gets big enough, it may not need to persuade anybody or force anything, it may simply become the world.

And then we win.

The photo shows what appears to be a tea party in formal dress, except table, chairs, and humans are all in about two feet of water out in what looks like a large harbor. The sky is partly cloudy and gorgeous. The table has a cheery red table cloth with a square of white lace on top and what looks like various cakes and other fancy food stuffs. There is a green and blue banner above that reads "stop global warming" in red letters and there is a tall pole with a short cone on top nearby. The people are all posed very elegantly as though they were upper-class people taking tea together. Most of them are wearing masks to prevent COVID-19 transmission, including one woman who is pretending to sip her tea.

Originally published in the newsletter of Extinction Rebellion. Used by permission.