The Climate in Emergency

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


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Domocratic Candidates on Climate, Part III

Here we go, continuing my review the field of presidential candidates.

As in years past, I’m only going to write about candidates as regards climate change. It’s not that no other issues are important (though I do consider climate a central issue), it’s that this blog remains neutral on all other issues, so far as is ethically possible. Therefore, support of a candidate for how he or she approaches climate should not be construed as any kind of comment on his or her other positions.

So, let’s start with Democrats. There are 23 of them running.

The Democratic Field (In Part)

With so many Democrats running, I have to take the candidates in groups. Two weeks ago, I posted my first installment of the series, the first group, which included people at the current front of the pack, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Last week, I posted a second group, including the majority of the female hopefuls, plus Jay Inslee, the self-styled Climate Candidate. It’s time for another installment.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker made a name for himself as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and now serves in the US Senate. He concerns himself largely with criminal and economic justice, and the values of love, unity, and civic grace.

He has a lifetimes score with the League of Conservation Voters of 99%; in a legislative career of five years, he has cast only one anti-environment vote. He talks about climate change publicly, and does support the Green New Deal. but the issue is not being covered as a central issue of his campaign. For example, this article in the Washington Post mentions climate briefly in the introduction as among Mr. Booker’s policy interests but does not elaborate, focusing instead on his other issues. Whether the article accurately reflects Mr. Booker’s priorities is not clear. He IS interested in environmental justice, particularly in repairing the EPA and making sure polluters pay for clean ups, but does not mention climate change in that context in the reports that I’ve found.

Mr. Booker seems unlikely to take a leadership role in climate action, since he does not use it a lens through which to discuss the economic and social justice issues that are clearly close to his heart. He would undoubtedly support climate action if someone else takes the lead, however.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke is famous mostly for having come this close to unseating Senator Ted Cruz and for being really cool. He skate-boards, for example. All of which sounds somewhat laughable, but for a Democrat to come close to winning statewide office in Texas is impressive, and “cool” encompasses a lot of intangible skills that are important in a public figure. Think of John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton–or Teddy Roosevelt.

Mr. O’Rourke has a lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters of 95% over a legislative career that goes back to 2013. His score would be higher, but he missed three votes in 2016 that he has stated would have been pro-environment.

Mr. O’Rourke has a mixed record on climate. He acknowledges the reality of climate change, has discussed the need for climate action publicly, and speaks well of the Green New Deal, but in his previous campaign he did not run on the issue, possibly because he depends on voters who depend on the oil industry. He has accepted large campaign contributions from the industry, has supported fracking, and does not appear to favor a shift away from fossil fuels.

He has released a climate plan of his own, and while the plan is not as aggressive as some, it does appear to be serious. He may be moving towards the green side in order to compete with the other Democrats in the field.

Amy Klobuchar

Ms. Klobuchar is a Midwestern Democrat with a reputation for working well with Republicans. Her victories tend to involve “small” issues with an outsized impact, and she is pragmatic and calm under fire. She also acknowledges that she can be difficult to work for, and it’s hard to say how that might translate to the presidency.

Amy Klobuchar’s lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 96%, impressive, given that her legislative career goes back to 2007. If elected President, she promises to get the US back into the Paris Agreement and reinstate various Obama-era climate policies within her first 100 days in office, but she has not endorsed the Green New Deal, however, as she does not think we can meet its goals. She does not seem to be proposing anything new.

Andrew Yang

Mr. Yang is a businessman who has been involved in revitalizing urban centers by supporting economic development and job-related training. He advocates a universal basic income, which he says has the potential to attract attention from people who have otherwise given up on politics as irrelevant to them. He has attracted a significant following online among libertarians, including members of the alt. right–something he’s uncomfortable with and has disavowed. Given that Mr. Yang is not white, his appeal among racists is curious and may not be genuine.

Mr. Yang is concerned about climate change and favors a variety of responses, including, somewhat surprisingly, geoengineering. However, there is almost nothing to say about Mr. Yang on climate besides his campaign promises and other statements related to his campaign–and that is concerning. As a businessman, he certainly had the opportunity to get involved in some kind of climate-related project, and he didn’t.

Julián Castro

Julián Castro is a former mayor of San Antonio and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Hillary Clinton seriously considered him as a possible running mate. Given who he is and where he is from, it is not surprising that he’s concerned about immigration policy. He’s also championing universal pre-kindergarden. He has committed to visit all 50 states during the primaries, and has already visited Puerto Rico, something no other Democrat in the field had done at the time.

Mr. Castro has a very clear record of putting the public good over his personal interest on environmental issues. He tells a story about when he was mayor in San Antonio, and quit his job as a lawyer so that he could vote against allowing a client of his (former) firm to build a golf course that could have contaminated the city’s drinking water. He wasn’t independently wealthy and needed that job.

He supports the Green New Deal, has pledged not to take donations from fossil fuel companies, and approaches climate action largely through economic development and the creation of jobs in renewable energy. As mayor, he took a number of pro-climate actions, including directing the city to source 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. He also supported fracking, though.

He does not appear to have discussed possibilities for climate action from the White House in detail, nor has he made the news on the subject recently. He has released a detailed plan for dealing with lead contamination in drinking water, so environmental issues in general seem to be on his mind.

Thoughts

Most likely, Andrew Yang is simply not serious about addressing climate change; if he were, he would have done so before running for office, it’s not as if the issue is new. The others in this group seem either ambivalent on the issue (Beto O’Rourke) or somewhat distracted by other issues, though all of them are eager to be seen as strong on climate. All, with the possible exception of Mr. Yang, seem genuinely interested in making at least some meaningful progress on climate. Again, the worst of the field this year resemble the best of the field a decade ago.

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The Democratic Field Part 2

It’s election season again, and so I am continuing my review the field.

As before, I’m only going to write about candidates as regards climate change. It’s not that no other issues are important (though I do consider climate a central issue), it’s that this blog remains neutral on all other issues, so far as is ethically possible. Therefore, support of a candidate for how he or she approaches climate should not be construed as any kind of comment on his or her other positions.

So, let’s start with Democrats. There are 23 of them running.

The Democratic Field (In Part)

I’m not going to write about all 23 people seeking the Democratic nomination in a single post. You and I both have other things we want to do today, right? Instead, I’m taking this in a few chunks. Last week, I presented Chunk Number One.  Here is Chunk Number Two.

Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee, the current governor of Washington State, has carved out a niche for himself as the climate change candidate. He does care about other issues as well; he supports gun control, is very concerned about the anti-vaccination movement, and wants to expand immigration. However, climate change is his central, most-important cause, and many of his other stances bear on that one. For example, he wants to get rid of the filibuster as a move to make climate action bills easier to pass. Sadly, I have not heard much else about him. He doesn’t make the news very often.

Mr. Inslee has, surprisingly, received some criticism on environmental and environmental justice issues. Not that is record is particularly bad, but he has not been very effective in environmental leadership in his home state, and has been slow to oppose, or actually supportive of, a few industrial projects that environmentalists oppose. He has been slow to the table on environmental justice particularly. He does tend to come around, and appears to be learning from his mistakes, but the fact that he’s following, not leading, is puzzling.

His climate plan, though, does have a few interesting features. For example, the plan devotes a lot of attention to immigration and to foreign policy, on the understanding that climate change will increase the flow of refugees and put more countries at risk for destabilization. And the climate plan has a sister-plan focused on economics that includes a “green G.I. Bill” aimed at helping fossil-fuel industry workers transition to other industries. Mr. Inslee is using climate as an organizing principle to approach foreign policy, economic policy, and economic justice (and, I’m guessing, other issues). It’s a smart, deeply reality-based approach–whatever his shortcomings, Mr. Inslee is paying attention. His interest in climate is no mere political window-dressing, but the real deal.

Significantly, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Mr. Inslee’s plan among all those as yet proposed by presidential hopefuls.

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard is a current House of Representatives member from Hawaii, the first Hindu Congressmember, and a military veteran–she also grew up as an avid surfer. According to her own campaign materials, concern for the environment is what got her into politics to begin with. Her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is an impressive 96%.

She has not endorsed the Green New Deal, saying it is too vague (although the GND is not a policy proposal but rather a proposed commitment to develop policy. It’s supposed to be vague), and has not–as far as I can gather–released her own climate plan yet. She does talk about the importance of climate action often. She has also proposed an ambitious House bill aimed at reducing emissions from both transportation and electricity generation.

She is definitely on the right side of the issue, but it’s not clear how she would use the office of the presidency to help.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand, a lawyer by training, is the current Senator from New York, having succeeded Hillary Clinton. She has drawn some fire among Democrats for socially conservative positions she has held in the past–and has since repudiated. She has made a name for herself largely as an advocate of women’s empowerment and by speaking against public figures accused of sexual harassment. Her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 95%–and her score for 2018 is 100%.

Ms. Gillibrand has backed the Green New Deal, saying the country needs a “moon shot” on the issue “as a measure of our innovation and effectiveness.” She is calling for some form of carbon pricing program (she has not yet proposed details), saying that “if you’re a polluter, fair enough, but you’re going to have to pay a lot more,” to cover the public costs of such pollution.

An online search shows that she speaks publicly about climate change often, but she has not yet released her own plan. It is not clear whether she has developed any ideas about how she might use the office of the presidency to lead on the issue.

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is a current senator from California, and is a former State Attorney General. Her multi-ethnic background means she has scored multiple “firsts;” her state’s first black AG, first Asian-American AG, and first female AG are all her. She has not yet become strongly associated with any particular issue (indeed, she regards her lack of a unifying political theme as an advantage), but her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is actually 100%. Pretty impressive!

Although, since she’s been a legislator for less than two years, her scorecard is based on comparatively few votes thus far.

She has signed on to the Green New Deal and is considered a reliable ally on environmental issues, including climate change, but has not yet positioned herself as a leader on the subject. An online search shows she speaks publicly about climate, but does not seem focused on the issue at all.

Some Thoughts

So far, in the course of reading up on the candidates, it looks as though we may have passed an important political watershed among Democrats; candidates may no longer ignore climate, and the weakest in this year’s crop resemble the climate hawks of, say, 2008. If that’s the score, then we’re in a good position, since even an opportunistic climate wishy-washer could be persuaded to take meaningful climate action by an engaged, vocal electorate.

Personally, I’d prefer a real climate go-getter, someone who recognizes the gravity of the situation and treats it like an emergency, but it may be that the choice of best option will hinge on other criteria. After all, anyone who isn’t actually invested in some form of climate denial can be pushed into signing bills and even a couple of executive orders–if there are bills to sign.

The real champion must prove themselves capable of defeating the climate denial movement, working across the aisle, and engaging culturally conservative voters in Middle America, otherwise he or she is unlikely to win the general election and will be incapable of accomplishing anything once in office.

If such a champion arises but has less than stellar climate credentials, I’ll be OK with that. Let the President bring the nation together–let Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and others light the fire that keeps the unified nation going in the right direction.

 

 


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Catching Up

There’s this thing that happens when I do several weeks of re-posts and excerpts for whatever reason–so many things happen that I could be writing about that it all builds up and then when I come back to writing new posts, I don’t know which topic to pick up. I can’t decide.

So to clear the decks, here’s what we’ve missed.

Severe Weather

January and February brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of South America and Australia (Australia’s heat waves were so bad that infrastructure was damaged and wild fruit bats fell dead out of the trees) as well as floods in some areas and severe droughts in others. The Northern Hemisphere, meanwhile, had bitter cold in some areas and record-breaking warmth in others, due to a destabilized polar vortex, possibly climate change-related–and some areas had massive snowfalls, which is not generally a sign of unusual cold (it doesn’t have to be very cold for snow) but simply a wintery version of a flood.

The American Midwest flooded severely through March, largely as a result of huge snowfalls, causing major damage to stored crops and to farm lands and equipment–much of which isn’t covered by any existing disaster relief program because this particular kind of disaster has never happened before.

Meanwhile, Southern Africa also saw catastrophic flooding in March, the result of a cyclone (the same kind of storm is called a hurricane in the Atlantic) that made landfall just days after unrelated rainstorms caused regional flooding. Cyclone Idai was an odd storm. Though only a Class 2, which seems minor by American or Asian standards, it was the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, and it developed mostly between Madagascar and Africa–apparently storms in that area don’t usually become powerful, but this one had an unusually warm pool of water beneath it, a story we should find familiar. The fact that the area between Madagascar and Africa is not large also suggests to me that Idai underwent rapid intensification, another familiar sign of the new normal.

Migrants continue to head north from Honduras, partly because worsening droughts and rising temperatures are destroying their farms back home. Even if the US were better prepared to handle the crisis well, the flood of refugees would be a challenge.

Then there was the night in April when the entire US Eastern Seaboard was under a tornado watch and some tornadoes dropped down–I’m not bothering to link to a source on that one because I spent part of that night huddled in the guest bathroom with my dogs listening to weird noises on the roof. I am my source.

Of course, it’s still difficult to be sure that a rash of weird weather is actually as abnormal as it seems. Ours is a big world, and there’s lots of room for bad luck in it, while good luck occurs in other places–and I still have not found any figures addressing changes in the number of extreme events over time. But not only is extreme weather symptomatic of climate change in general, but many of these events involve types of extreme weather specifically linked to climate change, such as rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones, heat waves, and a destabilized polar vortex.

Climate Protests

I talked about the recent series of climate protests in Europe, mostly led by teens and children, last month. Well, there’s been another one, this time in London, and it was huge, involving the arrest of 1000 protestors (mostly for protesting in places they didn’t have permits for), and organized by a group called Extinction Rebellion that is less than a year old. They are deliberately disruptive, with an aim towards calling attention to the emergency we are in. Greta Thunberg participated, and addressed Parliament (I’m unclear as to whether she literally spoke within the halls of power or if she delivered her speech elsewhere, trusting they would learn of it).

The action was part of a planned world-wide week of protests, but I have been unable to find any confirmation of events outside of London. Either they didn’t happen or they have been hushed up. Somehow. Coverage of the London events have been quite minimal.

Politics

The Green New Deal continues to percolate through the national conversation–there are articles about it published this week, and various alternatives are being proposed and debated. Great!

Meanwhile, approximately 187 people are now running for president, and more may soon declare, and I’m going to have to write about all of them with respect to climate sooner or later.

So, What’s the Story?

Obviously, there is plenty to talk about. And I’m going to talk about a lot of it. You should, too. We need to keep climate change in the public eye.


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The Power of Individual Action?

This past week, I saw an interview with a man who encouraged individual efforts towards personal sustainability, but also asserted that it won’t do anything–but voting will.

I agree about the importance of voting, but why encourage the pointless? And is individual action pointless? I think not.

Here’s why.

First, individual lifestyle choices, like individual votes, add up. If enough people decide to prefer certain business practices over others–less carbon-intensive practices–industry will follow suit. Such principle-driven market choices obviously can’t solve the problem alone (or they would have already), but boycotts have changed history before.

Second, lifestyle choice can become an important point for discussion, both as a way to educate others and as a way to explore what kinds of policy changes might help. If low-carbon transportation is not a practical option in a given area, for example, perhaps sustainable public transit would be an important policy goal?

Third, trying to make one’s own life as sustainable as possible is an important exercise, a way to practice commitment and a way to develop one’s own environmental consciousness.

That has to be worth something.

But yeah, don’t get distracted. VOTE.


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The Lonely Search for Purity

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

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

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

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

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

BOOM!

I won’t march with an anti-Semite!

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

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

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

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

Do you even know what you’re talking about?

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

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

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

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

On to Climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Cost of Fire

So, the national fire Preparedness Level (PL) has gone to 5.

PLs are a way of defining the current draw on wildfire fighting resources. The higher the number, the more resources have been committed and the less-prepared we are for additional fires without additional help. Each region has its own PL, and then the US as a whole has a PL. If the national PL is 1, that means that all fires can be handled locally, without outside assistance. As the PL rises, the response to fire is organized at larger and larger scales, until at PL 5, teams are being called in from all over the country, and sometimes even from other countries, because local and even regional resources have been overwhelmed.

My husband goes west to fight fires at PL 5. We are now on alert. All our plans, from family get-togethers to vet appointments, must now be organized around the possibility that he could get the call. When you watch news coverage of catastrophic fires, remember the news is personal for some people.

This year’s fires are scary. Three firefighter have already died, as have several civilians. July is the first month of California’s fiscal year, and the state has already spent a quarter of its fire budget–and the worst part of its fire season is still months away. Fire seasons are trending worse, now, for all sorts of reasons, climate change among them. Not only are fire seasons longer and more intense, largely because of changes in precipitation patterns, but hotter weather makes fires less predictable and renders firefighters much more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I’ve described these mechanisms before. They remain important to know about and think about.

But I’m also thinking about politics.

This years’ fires have involved extensive property damage–“1000 homes and businesses,” according to one article, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what that means, clearly communities have been damaged. Recovery from such damage takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Who pays?

I’m having trouble finding descriptions of the long-term effects of community-scale loss to fire, but I have information that offers suggestions. I can look at other kinds of big disasters, such as major floods. I can look at recovery from isolated house fires. I can look at short-term recovery from community-scale fires. Clean-up and rebuilding seem to take two or three years, assuming the survivors can get money to rebuild, assuming that work is not delayed by labor shortages, price hikes, or fraud, and assuming that no new disaster occurs to set the process back. But those are some big assumptions. Some families might not be able to rebuild at all, and might well find themselves knocked down a socioeconomic rung or two permanently. Mental and physical health issues can persist. New construction might simply recreate the vulnerabilities that made the disaster so bad in the first place. The community will likely never recover completely.

So, that means reduced economic activity and increased demand for social services over time, costs that must be largely invisible when we look at the already-large price tags of these fires. Who pays for these costs? Somebody has to.

Firefighting itself is generally covered by the US Forest Service and the BLM, since most wildfires happen on their land. These agencies have an annual firefighting budget based on the average firefighting costs over the past ten years. When that budget is exhausted, as sometimes happens, the extra money is taken from other budgets, usually from money set aside for mitigating fire risk (thinning forests, for example, or doing proscribed burns), so bad fires beget more bad fires. Curiously, wildfires are not legally considered “natural disasters,” meaning FEMA is not involved. Individual survivors must depend on private insurance.

As fires and other disasters become more frequent with climate change, the United States may lose the ability to pay for so many large-scale, multi-year recoveries. That is a huge problem. But it’s not the only problem.

Between the costs survivors must bear directly, state and local taxpayer burdens, and Federal budget problems that result in more fires (with their hidden, long-term costs), the bill for wildfires lands mostly on the people who live in or near the places that burn. We’re talking about public health, economic issues, damaged lives. And a share of that bill can be placed at the feet of climate change–which the Federal government is doing fundamentally nothing about.

What I want to know is why fire-prone states aren’t all electing climate hawks to Congress? Why didn’t all these states go Democrat in the last presidential election? Why isn’t this part of the story part of the public conversation on climate change?


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To the Point

My time has been highly limited this week so far because I had medical appointments two days in a row–nothing serious, don’t worry, I just needed new glasses and also had some questions for my MD. Just somehow the two appointments ended up being back-to-back, so now I’m behind on everything. Rather than skip this week’s climate post or try to squeeze it into Wednesday, I’m going to just take a few minutes right now to say….

Where are the climate protests? I have a friend who intentionally got himself arrested the other day protesting the healthcare bill, which is absolutely admirable, and it one of many worthy issues that deserve phone calls and emails to elected representatives. But it made me realize that I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the climate movement lately.

Either there are actions going on that aren’t well-organized enough for me to hear of them and don’t make the news, or nobody’s doing anything, and I don’t know which one is worse. So, I say again, climate change is the central issue, both because it can hurt us on a scale like almost nothing else and because the fossil fuel industry is currently the primary driver of most of our other political woes. Follow the money; no matter where you start, you’ll end up in oil.

So. There are heat waves and droughts and famines and fires afoot right now. Let’s get climate change back in the news.