The Climate in Emergency

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


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BOO!

This morning, I saw an article posted on Facebook in which a woman recounted having seen two oddly-behaving men while she was out shopping with her children and mother. The two men followed them and did not appear to be shopping. The women, quite understandably, grew concerned, suspecting that the men were trying to kidnap one or more of the kids. The family managed to evade the men and report them, and there the story ended. The kids are safe, but if anything more was ever learned about the men, it wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps understandably, the author of the piece assumes that her assessment of the situation was correct; her children had been targeted by child traffickers, but had managed to escape. She provides four “warning signs,” so that other parents would be better able to evade would-be kidnappers also. She pleads with parents to watch their kids closely at all times.

The two women acted correctly; while they didn’t have enough information to be certain the men were planning an abduction, the situation was clearly freaky enough to justify getting the kids out of there. And I have to admit that, were I in her shoes, I, like the author, would likely also assume the danger was certain. That there is no proof would feel like a trivial technicality.

But it’s not trivial.

When someone cries “danger!” it matters very much whether the danger they’re warning of is plausible. If you hear a hurricane warning for your area from the National Hurricane Center, you get very busy battening down the hatches. If your friendly neighborhood three-year-old tells you the dragons are coming, you play along for twenty seconds and then go back to whatever it is you were doing. So, when a woman says “there are creepy men lurking in department stores looking to snatch kids,” it really matters whether there actually are.

And this woman can’t tell us. Her understandable assumptions aside, she really doesn’t know.

Irrational fears can actually hurt people. In his book, The Science of Fear, Dan Gardner points out that, following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans chose to drive rather than fly, presumably out of fear of hijacked airplanes. But because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes, thousands of people died in car crashes who would have been fine had they flown.

Mr. Gardner’s contention is that people are very bad at estimating risk (for reasons he explains lucidly) and that we often put ourselves at greater risk as a result. He specifically addresses the issue of “stranger danger,” pointing out that while children are occasionally abducted by strangers, it is an extremely rare tragedy. Most kidnappers are family members, for one thing. And yet, the widespread conviction otherwise has a very strong bearing on how people of my generation raise their kids.

The flip side of the danger of irrational fear is the irrational lack of fear. Not fearing car accidents, even though they are a greater danger than terrorism. Not fearing depression and type 2 diabetes, even though I’m guessing a lot of kids kept “safely” indoors develop these life-threatening problems. Not fearing all the various things that really could mess up the lives of our kids and present much more certain risk than creepy guys lurking around furniture do.

Look, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I am an aunt. There is a four-year-old hand that sometimes holds my index finger. It is just about the sweetest thing, ever. I understand that the merest hint of a child-snatcher is insanely terrifying. I also understand what loving adults are prepared to do when their kids are in danger. And I can’t help but notice that’s not being done about climate change. Not on a massive scale. According to polls last year, 68% of Americans now believe that human activity is causing climate change, and yet we have been electing consistently climate-denying governments anyway.

Today, President Trump signed an executive order intended to undo President Obama’s climate legacy. Although the undoing will be difficult and probably incomplete, and there are things that can be done to fight back, this is not good news. It is, in fact, clear and present danger for children.

I have written before of what climate change could look like over the lifetime of children born this decade. I have also explored climate change as a cause of death. There are hurricanes. There are fires and floods, wars and famines. Already, more people die from heat waves than from all other natural disasters combined.

Unaddressed climate change over the next century means more kids dying.

If climate change falls under the heading of irrational absence of fear, if it lacks the necessary emotional oomph to inspire emergency action, let me offer a more compelling visual. If climate science doesn’t do it for you, imagine that every climate-denier politician and business leader is a child-snatcher lurking around the corner of the next place your family has to be.

Meet me in Washington for the climate march and the march for science next month. And start organizing for pro-climate legislatures, both state and federal, NOW.


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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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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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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.

 


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Your Friday Update

Hi, all,

Because I wrote a full post on Tuesday, I’m just doing an update today. Specifically, I’m updating you on the upcoming climate demonstrations on the 29th of this month.

The idea is to hold coordinated demonstrations all over the world in order to demonstrate political will ahead of the Paris talks next month. As such, it is critical–the Paris talks must must must must result in a meaningful, binding agreement. Literally, the future of our species is at stake. So we all have to go and show our elected leaders that this matters to us.

The problem is that the organizers don’t seem to be doing very much. There are, for example, three separate demonstrations planned for Washington DC and two out of the three have no contact information listed for the organizers. My concern is that we will get hundred or even thousands of demonstrations that each attract a few dozen participants and that none will draw any serious media attention at all. That could be catastrophic.

So, your mission (and mine) is to pick a demonstration to attend, talk as many people into attending with you as possible, and also contact your local and regional newsmedia and ask them to cover the event. Then check to see if they do–if they don’t, write or call in and complain.

Also, contact your elected representatives and make sure they know you are going and why.

That should help. To find an event near you, click HERE.


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Ding Dong! The Pipeline’s Dead!

I have written a lot of posts on the Keystone Pipeline over the past few years. This one might well be the last; today President Obama formally and finally rejected the project. Obviously, I’m pleased, but not so much because of the pipeline itself–as I’ve discussed before, the importance of Keystone XL has been primarily symbolic. One pipeline more or less is not going make all that much difference in terms of climate change–what is going to make a difference is who gets to frame these kinds of issues, who gets to decide what energy and land-use questions means. And a victory on Keystone is an encouragement to and a vindication of those people of think the environment–and especially climate–matters.

Today we got that victory.

And the thing I’m really excited about is the way President Barack Obama explained his decision. You can read the full text of his speech on the subject here. It’s not very long, you should click on the link and read it.

But the thing about that got me going is encapsulated by just two passages:

Now, for years, the Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse.  It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.  And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.

And

America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change.  And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.  And that’s the biggest risk we face—not acting.

Isn’t that interesting? That he said both that the pipeline is mostly symbolic and that rejecting the pipeline is a critical part of exercising–and deserving–global leadership on climate change. What does this apparent contradiction mean? In means that that Mr Obama is making a symbolic statement. He intends precisely to give those who care about climate change a victory.

Which means we have to use that victory, act on it, take advantage of it and expand on it. We need to keep the momentum up–to stand behind the symbol and make sure that the United States really is willing and able to lead on that. How?

Vote.

Volunteer and donate for the campaigns of candidates with strong climate platforms.

Continue to insist that the media take climate change seriously.

And show up for demonstrations–demonstrate to our elected leaders that if they lead on climate we will have their backs. Show them that if they commit to real, radical change in Paris next month we will support them. There is another global day of action coming up on November 29th. Click here to find and join an event near you. Let’s make this one big.

 

(Note: the title of this article is the creation of my husband, Chris Seymour. He wanted me to mention that)