The Climate in Emergency

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


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Fiction Excerpt: Marching for the Future

Here is an excerpt from a fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. The narrator is a man named Daniel. I was actually at the climate march in New York some years ago and I wrote about it here, but this fictionalized version can bring a slightly different angle to it. To read the piece in its original contact, go here.

I was in The City for the climate march on Sunday.

I think a lot of people from the school were there, although I didn’t bump into anyone I knew except for my own group. It was a big march.

My wife and daughter and I drove down with Allen, Lo, and Alexis, and Kit and her husband. We actually parked in Long Island and took the train in. We met David, Kayla, and Aidan at Port Authority. They’d taken a bus.

The march was big enough that there were multiple staging areas, each with its own theme. We chose the one for religious groups and spent most of the day tagging along with a group of pagans. They waved banners and drummed and burned incense as they walked. Sometimes we dropped behind and found ourselves in among either of two groups of Buddhists, all ringing bells and wearing robes. Occasionally, we ran into one or another of a group of Franciscans, also in robes.

“Makes me wish we’d worn our uniforms,” Kit said, sadly.

“If we’d identified as a religious group,” Allen replied, “who would we identify ourselves as?” He has a point, since the school no longer exists.

My daughter, riding on my back in a carrier, wiggled and bounced.

“Watcha doing, sweetie?” I asked. She didn’t answer.

“She’s mugging for cameras,” my wife said. I really wish people would ask before they took pictures of my daughter, but we had dressed her up to attract attention. She was carrying a blue and green pinwheel and wearing an oversized t-shirt that read “It’s my planet, too!” Her sun-hat was covered with political buttons.

Some people carried signs in the march, I carried my baby.

Seriously, there are times I can’t even bear to think about climate change because of her. She won’t get to grow up in the same world I did. What kind of world she does get to live in depends on the outcome of this march, whether 310,000 people gathered together is enough to convince the powers that be to sign an emissions-reduction treaty with teeth in it next year.

We never used to pay much attention to politics, when I was at school. I suppose we considered it too worldly, or something. When I was a novice, we never paid much attention to climate change, either. Of course, the school itself was carbon-neutral and had been for five or ten years, but except for one or two required classes, we never talked about it. It was one more thing that belonged to the outside world. By the time I became a candidate, that standard had changed, we’d started talking about climate issues in philosophical and moral terms, but we still didn’t talk about politics. Not climate politics, nor the political implications of any of the other issues we learned about and discussed.

Now, I think the standard has changed again. Some of us are starting to talk as a group about how to engage with the world, how to do what Kit calls “the Great Magic.” Greg calls it “civic alchemy” or “applied mysticism.” We’re talking about how to use what we know and what we have to change the world. I think that if the school still existed as a school, we might begin to teach activism.

Or, maybe we had to lose the campus in order to learn how, as a community, to reach beyond it.


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Your Tuesday Update: My Day Job

Hi, all.

As some of you know, this blog is not currently funded, meaning that I have to do something else to earn a living. Specifically, I’m a free-lance writer. Many of my jobs are just that–jobs. I enjoy writing for a living, but that does not mean that everything I write appeals to my personal interests. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Among these are some of the articles I sometimes write for Teletrac, a fleet-management software company. They assign me transportation-related topics. Since the transportation industry is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, many of my articles for Teletrac relate to emissions reductions.

Recently they asked me to write about a Federal program I had somehow not heard about before, the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge. It is a voluntary pledge American businesses can take to reduce their emissions by specific amounts or to otherwise do something about climate change. Really, it is a domestic parallel of the Paris climate deal, which also depends on voluntary pledges.

Apparently, some pretty major companies have signed up to take the pledge. Please check out my article on the subject and see what I do for my day-job.


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Looking Back

It’s time for our New Year retrospective again–here is a summary of the climate-related stories that caught my attention in 2015. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive or representative list. It’s in no particular order.

Looking over this list, I feel no particular optimism, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I have a cold at the moment, which might make it difficult to remain up-beat.

Extreme Weather

The American Northeast became ridiculously snowy (although not unusually cold). California’s drought continued, as did drought in places like Texas and, for part of the summer, the Eastern states of the US. All of those places except California have also seen catastrophic flooding. Wildfires swept the Northwest of the US, from Oregon to Alaska and in to Western Canada. Several firefighters died. The planet as a whole set another heat record, and many new local heat records were set as well—few if any cold records. We saw some insanely powerful hurricanes and typhoons as well, all in the Pacific. Some of this wild weather is clearly due to our being in an El Nino, but climate change may play a role as well. It’s not either/or.

Fossil Fuels

The public process by which new offshore areas, including parts of the East Coast, could be opened to oil exploration has begun.

After years of largely symbolic political maneuvering, President Obama finally said No to the Keystone Pipeline.

A number of oil trains crashed. Same as last year. I hate that those two statements go together.

Shell Oil pulled out of its attempt to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska—which looks like a victory, but it is likely to ramp up pressure to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge instead.

Electoral Politics

The US Presidential campaign is now well underway. And while the Democratic candidates at least are all climate-sane, the media has not been treating that aspect of their campaigns as important. I’ve been covering this issue because we have to win this next election, “we” being the climate sane, and the Democrats look like the vehicle to do it. This blog is neutral on all other issues.

ExxonMobile

We have learned that the energy giant knew about global warming decades ago, despite its more recent denialist rhetoric. Given that I knew about global warming decades ago, too, and I was a child whose father simply read a lot, I don’t see how this is a surprise. Still, there have been called to prosecute the company for fraud and I support those calls.

Paris Accord

The world’s leaders got together and decided that destroying the world would be a bad idea. Ahead of the summit, we in the US organized a series of demonstrations in support of a strong climate agreement and nobody noticed. I sound cynical and facetious. Actually, I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris climate accord. I am only cynical, at present, about the American political process necessary for meaningful action on the subject.

The Pope’s Letter

Pope Francis released an official open letter to his Church (called an encyclical) quite correctly describing climate change as a serious problem with a moral dimension.

Jellyfish Blooms

For the second year in a row, large numbers of jellies were seen in Maine waters, suggesting a deep ecological imbalance that is possibly climate-related—except nobody knows for sure, because we have no baseline data on jellyfish populations.

Syrian Refugees

Syria has blown up in all sorts of horrible, awful ways, from a massive refugee crisis to the formation of a really scary international terrorist organization that likes to behead men and sell girls as sex slaves in the name of God. And yes, climate could have played a role. These stories go back before this year, but it was in 2015 that they became dominant in American news (finally).


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We Agree Not to Destroy the World

Last week, the climate conference in Paris sign an historic agreement–historic in the sense that is was signed, and might make some difference, something that was far from guaranteed. The agreement is largely non-binding and leaves emissions reduction targets up to each country to set for itself. The agreement will not go into effect until a critical number of countries ratify it, something that actually could take a couple of years (assuming it happens at all). The chance of the world reducing emissions enough to limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius is obviously pretty small.

But our chances did just get better.

Here is a summary of the agreement itself. Yes, it’s mostly an unenforceable statement of intention, but it does include a few firm guidelines. And note that it includes a mechanism to set progressively more stringent goals–we’re not locked in to only the current agreement, we have instead the basis of further progress going forward. In addition to the multilateral agreement that the conference existed to create, the event also saw the creation of a number of important side agreements, such as the International Solar Alliance and Mission Innovation  (both aimed at increasing renewable energy capacity), plus commitments by cities, regions, organizations, companies, and private individuals. This is not inconsiderable.

My Facebook feed has been full of links and posts about the inadequacy of the conference, both in terms of its process (tribal peoples and other ethnic minorities were apparently excluded) and in terms of its results. I do not intend to refute any such criticisms, only that attacking the conference is neither necessary nor helpful. Earlier, I called on everyone to not let “great” be the enemy of “good.”  But that argument has another side, not just what we shouldn’t do, but what we should.

The thing is, this agreement is probably the best we could have gotten, for now, and it’s far from clear that even this will stick. A big part of the problem is the dominance of climate denial in American politics. The reason that the current agreement is not legally binding is that the United States Senate would not ratify a climate treaty. A minority of other countries, such as Australia, the UK, and Canada, have similar problems. We’re the hold-up, we’re the reason the agreement can’t be great, but only good. And by “we” I mean everyone who votes for climate deniers or who, through inaction, allows climate deniers to be elected. In the US, the climate-sane must take both houses of Congress and the White House in this coming election.

If you don’t like the Paris climate agreement, don’t complain about the conference that drafted it; get involved in politics and win some elections.


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On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

First, my apologies for not posting yesterday; I sometimes have anxious or depressed episodes and they make it difficult to focus enough to work. This has not been a good week. Of course, if one is going to be anxious, this would be the week, given that the world’s leaders are discussing whether to avert the end of the world and at the same time the presumptive Republican front-runner for the US Presidential election is doing a really good imitation of Hitler. I don’t know whether the fact that I’m not crazy to feel like this makes me feel better or worse….

Anyway, we’re kind of waiting to see what comes out of Paris, although there is a petition to sign (please!) asking certain recalcitrant national leaders to quit dragging their feet on what really looks like a viable deal.

While we’re waiting, I’m thinking about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore. Her writing is excellent, not just because it is extraordinary in terms of craft, but also because much of her fiction going back to the late 1960’s seem to imply an understanding of climate change. Her sci-fi books, set in the distant future, often have an overtly environmentalist message and refer to Earth having warmed significantly since our time. One, published in 1969, clearly describes the natural greenhouse effect (yes, there is one; what we’re causing is in addition to that) and repeatedly links environmental catastrophe specifically to industrial revolution. Her fantasy novels frequently address spiritual and magical themes that could be read as ecological principles. I don’t know if Ms. LeGuin actually knew about anthropogenic climate change in the late 1960’s, but it is possible; some scientists were beginning to investigate the matter, and of course the idea was first discussed in the nineteenth century.

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

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

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

–And then? [the other asks]

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

All of this is simply to put the quote I’m thinking of in context–the quote that gives me some meaning and comfort as I wait to hear back from Paris. As the protagonists sail towards their meeting with the wizard, which either will save the world or won’t, one of them sleeps while the other keeps watch and thinks about the future.

…..They will praise me more for that in afterdays than anything I did of magery….If there are afterdays. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…. For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars….Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”

He’s right; no darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. The biosphere can recover from a major extinction–it takes ten million years, but it can do it, and has done it before. But there are things I should like to see, and so I hope for good news from Paris.


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Don’t Let Great Be the Enemy of Good on Climate

I’m feeling very guardedly optimistic about the climate conference in Paris. I believe that the key delegates, at least, are serious about coming to an agreement and that it is just possible it will be a turning point.

I am not encouraged by messages I see in social media condemning the agreement–that isn’t even written yet–as inadequate, complaining that the process and its leaders are hypocrites and sell-outs. Look, people; President Obama has had to fight tooth and nail to get any climate action through at all. And he has been fighting. No matter how imperfect he may be, he’s not our problem–he’s on our side. Congress is already doing whatever it can to undermine the process in Paris, though he’s already said he will veto them. Mr. Obama is the leader we’ve got.

Just as important, the Paris conference itself is far from certain to succeed, given that delegates are already dealing with a disagreement over which both sides say they will not bend. Yes, there is a corporate presence in the process that should not be there, and yes, last we heard,  nobody is really willing to cut emissions enough to get the job done. But do we want to get started in the right direction or not? Because this is our shot.

There is no good reason to protest against the delegates right now–in part because they’re busy doing their jobs and not paying a lot of attention to the protesters. I break with some authors who say we should not protest, however; we SHOULD take to the streets, it’s just that the delegates and their work should not be the target. At least in the United States, the target should be Congress, plus the Presidential candidates. We need to make up our minds to elect climate-sane candidates at all levels and we need to make it clear to our leaders that their employment depends on their taking the issue seriously. And we need to make clear to the news media that we want them to cover climate issues fairly and thoroughly so that more Americans will see evidence that this thing is real.

It’s time to step up to the plate, people.


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This is what Democracy Looks Like

So, over the weekend, people all over the world came together to demonstrate how important climate action is to them. In Washington DC, only a few hundred people showed up.

Two of them were my husband and I.

We couldn’t get anyone from our area to carpool with us. Nobody seemed to have even heard about the event, and I would not have heard of it except I went looking for the information essentially on a hunch that there might be an event. The RSVP button on the organizer’s website didn’t work. We couldn’t find the regional carpool in Annapolis. We drove to the New Carrolton subway stop, parked, and took the train in. Then we walked around the city for a while, not entirely sure if the meeting point was really where it was supposed to be.

Finally we realized that among the hundred or so tourists milling around on Pennsylvania Avenue, two dozen seemed clumped around a banner that said something about fossil fuels. Almost equal numbers milled around what looked like semi-permanent kiosks dedicated to world peace and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring site.

We joined the climate group and introduced ourselves and the organizers gave us posters to wave and cards printed with information for another demonstration that may or may not happen two weeks from now (apparently they haven’t decided yet). Gradually, more people started trickling in, until by the time the organizers started lining us up for photos, the crowd looked about two hundred strong. Eventual police estimates were between five and six hundred, and from inside the crowd at least we seemed like a pretty big group.

We walked around the blocks that contain the White House, eventually returning to our starting point. Our group contained men and women, young and old, able-bodied and otherwise…as far as I could tell, all but one of us were white, which I found disappointing (I don’t think people of color were excluded in any way, but the homogeneity suggests some kind of failure to communicate). Organizers led various chants and songs, and eventually the pep-rally aspect of the whole thing lightened my mood and for a while I forgot to be dismal about the low turn-out.

Afterwards, we emailed the organizer about the low turn-out and learned that actually more people showed up than she’d expected. She regarded the event as a sideline to the main demonstrations in Paris.

That I consider a serious miscalculation. For one thing, most of us can’t get to Paris, so if we’re going to stand up and be counted, we have to do it closer to home. For another, in the United States, our delegates in Paris (including our President) aren’t the problem. They already understand that climate is important. It’s our congress and our news media that still need to get the message–things are moving in the right direction, but we need to keep pushing. As long as Congress is dominated by climate deniers, Mr. Obama will be strictly limited in his ability to make any climate agreement stick. We really could have used a turn out of a few hundred thousand.

There were other US demonstrations, of course, including some that did much better than DC’s, but none were really huge, and DC, being our nation’s capital, should have been one of the big ones. And we have seen that kind of turnout before–organizers who intend to draw tens or hundreds of thousands generally do, because time and again I’ve seen them successfully plan logistics for the correct order of magnitude of crowd. For example, in the two DC events we attended on the Keystone Pipeline, there were portable stages set up on the Mall for rallies. Those things must be expensive, and the organizers would not have taken the plunge if they weren’t pretty sure enough people would show up to justify it. Police also need accurate estimates for crowd size so they know how many officers to deploy and how long they will need to block off traffic from the route. This week’s event was planned to be small (megaphones rather than sound systems for the rally, moving roadblocks rather than the entire route being closed to traffic at once) and it didn’t disappoint in that regard.

Who decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate a small interest in climate in our nation’s capital?

Sometimes I think that that old joke is true, that Democracy is a system by which everybody gets what the minority deserves. But while I was mulling over such thoughts, my husband had a much more concrete concern. He missed a specific chant he remembered from last time.

“How did that go? Something about what Democracy looks like?”

He said this a few times, wistfully complaining about the chant he’d liked. I jogged his memory, and together we remembered the wording.

“SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” he shouted, after a while.

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” I responded, though I don’t quite have his vocal power. We repeated the call and response a few times, and on the third repetition three or four people around us joined me on the response. After that, fifty or sixty joined. When my husband stopped to rest his voice, someone else took up the call, this time remembering the second variation–“tell me what Democracy sounds like/this is what Democracy sounds like” and alternating between the two.

The chant died away but then bubbled up again from another part of the marching column. From then on, our chant alternated with others in regular and chaotic fashion:

SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE/THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE/TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY SOUNDS LIKE/THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY SOUNDS LIKE!

THE PEOPLE/UNITED/WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!

HEY, OBAMA/WE DON’T WANT NO CLIMATE DRAMA!

WHAT DO WE WANT? CLIMATE JUSTICE! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW! IF WE DON’T GET IT/SHUT IT DOWN! IF WE DON’T GET IT/SHUT IT DOWN! IF WE DON’T GET IT/SHUT IT DOWN! IF/WE/DON’T/GET/IT, SHUT/IT/DOWN!

And on and on. We were tickled that we’d managed to add something, that something we started just by shouting was taken up by others and rippled up and down a crowd of people we didn’t even know.

And see, that is one of the things that Democracy looks like; start something, and the people around you may start doing it, too, a pretty soon it gets bigger than you. It can happen.*

 

 

 

*Ok, technically speaking, successfully starting a chant is an example of mob dynamics, but the event reminded me that it’s possible to have an influence on things. So, not democracy, but the sort of optimism democracy engenders and requires. Cheered me up, anyway.