The Climate in Emergency

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


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April First

Today is April Fools’ Day, so perhaps I should have written a joke-post full of climate-denial drivel painted on thick. Unfortunately, the danger of somebody not getting the joke is just too great. Instead, I’m simply going to ask a question; why do we believe some things and not others? What makes a statement sound plausible–to you, say?

Rather than making fun of “gullible fools” as is traditional today, I invite each of you to consider how you yourself might be fooled? Under what circumstances might you be taken in?

Actually, I’ve noticed that a desire to not be taken in may be itself a potential weakness; “this is information they don’t want you to have” and “wake up, sheeple!” are both really common ways to present outlandish ideas.

A stick-figure lectures on conspiracy theories

An excerpt from XKCD https://xkcd.com/258/

So, how sure are you that climate change isn’t a vast, liberal conspiracy? Or, more precisely, presented with two groups of people each asserting mutually contradictory sets of facts (this is critical–these are not differences of judgment or analysis, which might be fairly called differences of opinion, this is factual disagreement), how do you know which one is wrong? Or do you?

Answer that one and you’ll be better equipped to talk to people who just happen, quite innocently, to be wrong.

 

 

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Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

I’m still thinking about Easter, some way to make a post seasonal without being trite–I’m sure there’s some way in which climate change is bad for Cadbury Creme Eggs, but really? Is that where we want to go with this holiday?

The thing is, Easter (if we ignore, for the moment, its pagan fertility rite dimensions) is the commemoration of the death of a political prisoner at the hands of the State. I’ve always found the thought of Jesus-as-activist much more intriguing than the possibility of His resurrection–which might be because I’m not Christian, but I know dedicated Christians who seem to feel the same way. It’s a fact that being a good person can be dangerous. It’s also true that we keep having good people anyway.

I’ve decided to honor the incontrovertible miracle of bravery in the face of persecution by Googling “climate change martyrs” and seeing where it leads.

“Climate change martyrs” is not, in itself, a great search term. Nothing much relevant comes up, probably because the religious dimension of “martyr” is somewhat at odds with climate science. But climate scientists are being harassed, even threatened. Some may be murdered, if the problem persists. Bravery is required.

The harassment goes back to the mid-1990’s, but has been increasing in recent years. Examples taken from the various articles I read for this piece (and have linked to) include: threats to “see to it” that a scientist would be fired; vague threats on a scientist’s children’s safety; the deposit of a dead rat on a scientist’s doorstep; the display of a noose by an audience member during a public talk by a climate scientist; and multiple, spurious accusations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

That last may seem less frightening than the physical threats, but it’s actually much more sinister. After all, it is illegal to physically attack someone, so the chance of anyone actually making good on a death threat are very low–but it is not illegal to file so many Freedom of Information Act requests or legal challenges over the use of government money that the target cannot conduct research.

Some researchers are becoming afraid to speak out on climate change, sometimes asking that their names not be associated with their work. Others labor on behind locks that have been changed and phone numbers that have been de-listed. This is happening.

Curiously, the problem is largely American. Australian climate scientists have also been harassed, but not been on the scale of what their American counterparts have had to deal with. And while Canada has had a serious problem with high-level climate denial in the past, it never bubbled over into organized harassment of scientists. Britain and continental Europe and Japan have seen little of the problem, although scientists there are very concerned for their American and Australian colleagues. Climate-denial in general is specific to the English-speaking world, at least in part because organized climate denial is propagated largely by American organizations–that speak English. That the United States is at the center of the problem should, perhaps, not be much of a surprise. After all, the United States is key to global climate action–without American leadership, meaningful emissions reduction is unlikely to happen. With American leadership, we have a chance. And since the only way to accomplish meaningful emissions reduction is to stop burning fossil fuel, if I owned a boatload of stock in the fossil fuel industries and had no conscience whatsoever, I’d try to take out American interest in climate. Wouldn’t you? And, clearly, attacking American climate scientists is part of that effort.

The recent rise in harassment dates to almost ten years ago, when two events occurred in quick succession: the release of the 2007 IPCC Report, which seemed on the verge of triggering meaningful climate action in the United States; and the election of a black man as President of the United States. The latter made possible the rise of the Tea Party, a movement that is demonstrably fueled by racist resentment rather than ideological concerns about government and yet is funded by the Koch brothers (plus Rupert Murdock), oilmen who have been accused of personal racism (do an internet search on “are the Kochs racist?”), but quite clearly have a much bigger investment in preventing climate action–they also fund the Heartland Institute, which is a major driver of American climate denial.

That the American version of hostility to climate action is deeply enmeshed with suspicion of government over-reach at the same time that the government is headed by a black man may not be a complete coincidence.

I do not raise the specter of racism simply to discredit climate deniers, but rather to suggest a mechanism whereby American conservative populism may have been hijacked and made to serve an anti-environmentalist agenda.

Some attacks on climate scientists–and by “attacks” I mean everything from threats to legal action to deliberate bureaucratic nonsense–have been perpetrated by individuals, others by organized climate-denier groups. Some of the most frightening, to me, anyway, come from government officials, including Lamar Smith, the Chair of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, and (now former) Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

Scientists themselves are not passive before all of this, and are fighting back, both individually and collectively. The Union of Concerned Scientists particularly is taking action, but needs money, and possibly other support. They need money with which to fight spurious lawsuits and stave off equally spurious bureaucratic demands which, together, might otherwise stop American climate scientists from working. I’m posting a link to their request again, here. Please support them.

Silencing inconvenient people is not an American thing to do–and when it happens anyway, the American thing to do is to stand up and do something about it.

I chose as title, a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta. The bad-guy has the hero riddled with bullets, and yet the hero does not fall but ultimately triggers the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian government–because while the hero is not personally immortal, ideas cannot be murdered. I had occasion to remember the quote recently–a friend of mine, a political organizer and activist and a deeply religious man, wrote something on Facebook that, knowing him as I do, reminded me of the ultimate futility of trying to erase ideas by attacking inconvenient people.

I have just asked his permission to share his post with you:

A few minutes before Easter. I love this annual celebration of the underlying reality that empires can’t kill the Spirit, and that a spiritual wholeness is resurrected every time we take loving and wise action in the world around us. I see the life of Jesus as one of the most powerful patterns and examples of radical faithfulness. Miracles continue to happen. Blessed be.


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Your Tuesday Update: Prosecute ExxonMobile

As some of you will have heard, Exxon knew that climate change was real and largely caused by fossil fuel use back in the eighties. The company then publicly denied climate change for decades, working through many of the same PR experts who had previously worked for the tobacco industry.

In a way, this should not be news. After all, I knew about climate change in the eighties. And I was a little kid at the time, not one of the leaders of a major corporation. Of course Exxon’s leadership knew.

But for Exxon to use climate research to plot corporate strategy (such as deciding to pursue drilling in the Arctic because the warmer climate would make doing so cheaper) while simultaneously insisting to the public that these same studies were unreliable…it’s just insulting, is what it is.

And, as it turns out, the whole strategy may be illegal under the RICO statutes–the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally passed in order to tackle organized crime. The tobacco industry was successfully sued under RICO for exactly the same strategy of willful disinformation–so why not EXXON? The settlement could be big enough to fund some serious climate adaptation and mitigation and could discourage other professional deniers. This could be big.

I don’t suggest specific actions very often, but this seems important; please click here to sign a petition asking President Obama to sue ExxonMobile under RICO for climate denial.


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Syria

The Syrian refugee crisis is starting to get scary. I mean, obviously the Syrian refugees themselves have been terrified for a long time, that’s why they have become refugees, but what I mean is that this is not a run-of-the-mill humanitarian disaster. This one has the potential to change the world, but not in a good way. The people are running from violence, primarily, and also poverty. For four years, now, people have been coming out–more than four million already. Mostly they go to neighboring countries, but many–more than three hundred and fifty thousand this year so far alone–make their way into Europe. Some are now being sent on to the United States.

To put this in perspective, Syria’s total population is now less than 24 million people, meaning that about one in every seven people in that country has recently left. Forced migrations on this scale leave scars that last for generations and radically change the cultures that take in the migrants–I’m thinking here of the Irish Potato Famine, which killed a million people and displaced a million, far fewer than in the Syrian crisis, but then Ireland was a much smaller country at the time. The whole world was much smaller. Almost two hundred years later, the Irish Diaspora continues to enrich the rest of the world–and the great-grand children of Irish refugees continue to take their history personally. I do, anyway.

The fact that I’m talking about Syria here suggests that climate change is involved somehow–and indeed it might be. The connection is that from 2006 to 2011, parts of Syria were in a very serious drought. Huge numbers of farmers were forced off their land and into the cities looking for work. The Syrian government severely mishandled the crisis, triggering the present civil war. The drought, of course, is just one more event made more likely by climate change. No less an entity that the US Defense Department warns that climate change is a destabilizing influence, capable of creating exactly the sort of mess currently exploding in the Middle East and into Europe.

The climate-deniers have, of course, cried foul, questioning the science of the drought attribution point by point. It is a mistake to argue science with those whose real objection is cultural or ideological, so I’m not going to offer a detailed rebuttal–but the point is not a direct causal chain, anyway. The point is that large areas of the Middle East and Africa are extremely poor, huge numbers of people living just above the poverty line–if anything goes wrong, they fall off into the abyss. Climate change simply makes it more likely for things to go wrong.

For rich countries, like the United States or most of Europe, a serious natural disaster (and we’re having two at present, the California drought and the related western fires) hurts us but does not destabilize us. We have enough of a safety margin that we can not only continue to take care of our own, we can simultaneously offer aid to other countries and take in refugees.

The reason the Syrian crisis is scary is that its scale hints at the possibility of a world where we will no longer be able to do that, where even if the United States remains comparatively rich, the number of things going wrong will rise so high that we will no longer be able to take our stability as a country for granted. Fourteen years ago today, many Americans made the unsettling discovery that we are not immune from attack. I did not–I never thought that our country was special in that way. It’s true we don’t get attacked very often, but that’s not because we live in a protective bubble. It’s not because we’re immune. But I gotta say, I’ve gotten kind of used to this national stability thing.

For weather to contribute to a civil war is nothing new. Weather and climate have always been one of the drivers of history–as James Burke elegantly demonstrated almost twenty years ago. Where crops fail and where they succeed, where floods and fires occur and where they do not, even something as simple as where the weather is pleasant, all these things have always been one of the several facets of historical events. The only thing that has changed is that weather, that thing that has always shaped events, is becoming ever more chaotic.

And the problem is that as long as we keep pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, there will be no new normal to adapt to. Stability will not be available.


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What Scientists Don’t Know

So, sea level rise has been in the news, recently, in part  because of recent warnings from Dr. James Hansen that we could see as much as ten feet of rise in the coming decades. The story is a little more complicated than that and has caused significant controversy. In the interests of clarity, I’ll summarize what I’ve been able to learn about Dr. Hansen’s announcement and also explore the overall topic of sea level rise.

According to Ars Technica, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues have completed a research project that involved using a computer model to explore how ocean currents would respond to various speeds of sea level rise. They could set the model to “ten feet in fifty years,” and the computer would show them ocean currents for that scenario. The study did not look at how much the sea will actually rise how quickly, only at the consequences of different rise scenarios. Then, the team submitted a paper on their research to a peer-reviewed journal, but the review process can take a long time. The team evidently wanted their results to support meaningful climate action at the Paris conference in December, and worried that the paper might not be published in time. So, they chose a journal that has an unusual public peer-review process, enabling the researchers to speak publicly about their results before the review is complete. As part of getting the word out, they also released a short summary of their research, which included speculation that the sea could in fact rise ten feet in the next several decades–something this particular research project did not address, but Dr. Hansen is entitled to make educated guesses in his area of expertise.

The problem is that the wording of the summary leaves it unclear that he is speculating, and the public media have generally reported that the study actually predicted a rapid ten-foot rise–something that is well beyond scientific consensus at this point. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the rapid rise won’t happen. It probably could, because Dr. Hansen is very much an expert on the subject, and he could turn out to be right. He is not in any way misrepresenting his research, he is just talking about something else besides his research and doing it in a way that leaves the distinction between the two unclear.

Here is an analogy:

Say that an auto-safety researcher conducts a series of crash-tests and concludes that a given model of car has a design flaw such that a particular type of crash is lethal at an unusually low speed. She then calls a press conference, presents her findings, and says “given my results, I am especially concerned about young drivers–the traffic mortality of drivers in the 16-to-21 age group may sky-rocket if the manufacturer does not correct the flaw.” The media then respond by saying that safety test predicts teen driver mortality to sky-rocket, even though that isn’t at all what the test was about.

It is possible that Dr. Hansen created the current media buzz deliberately in order to get attention for his cause–but if he’s being alarmist, it’s only because we are in an emergency that deserves the sounding of alarms. It’s not wrong to shout “FIRE!” if the crowded theater is, in fact on fire.

I expect climate denialists will pounce on this one and paint it as an episode of deliberate dishonesty, but they would probably find a way to do that no matter what Dr. Hansen decided to say.

So, here is the overall situation with sea-level rise as we know it so far:

The world is warming, and has been for some time, now. That’s not a prediction, it’s simply historical fact. It can be difficult to measure the rise in any one location because not only does the sea go up and down, but so does the land. In much of New England, for example, the land is very gradually rising because it is still rebounding from the weight of the glaciers of the last ice-age. That makes it harder to notice sea-level rise on New England coasts. In contrast, my home area, in Maryland, is sinking, making sea-level rise seem faster than it really is. But by comparing multiple sites, measuring from satellites, and other techniques, scientists can work out how fast the seas are actually getting bigger; the water has risen about eight inches since the Industrial Revolution. Most of that rise is due to thermal expansion–warm water takes up more space than cold water. The rest is due to meltwater from glaciers.

Glaciers anywhere in the world, even those that are nowhere near the sea, raise the sea level as they melt because the meltwater eventually flows into the sea. We know how much ice is currently locked up in glaciers, so we know how much the sea could rise if all of it melted. And because all that ice takes a long time to melt, we know that even if the global temperature stabilized tomorrow, the ice would continue to melt and the sea would continue to rise until the world caught up to its new temperature. What we don’t know is how fast the ice will melt or exactly how much melting we have already committed itself to.

Not all ice has an effect on sea level, however. Floating ice–either sea ice, which forms when the ocean surface freezes, or icebergs, which form when chunks of glacier break off and land in the sea, can melt without changing the sea level at all. To demonstrate this, fill a glass with tap-water, drop a few ice cubes in, and carefully mark the water level. Allow the ice cubes to melt, and you’ll see that the water level remains unchanged. This is because when ice melts it shrinks and the volume it displaces when it floats is precisely equal to the volume of water it turns into. The melting of the arctic sea ice is a terrible catastrophe, but it’s irrelevant to sea level rise. The fact that sea ice around Antarctica is growing (remember that warmed-up ice remains ice until it reaches 32 degrees, and Antarctica is very cold) is also irrelevant.

What does matter is how much ice is floating in the sea, so if a glacier starts calving off icebergs faster (as many glaciers are), that raises the sea-level, even if those floating icebergs don’t melt. Also, much of the ice surrounding Antarctica is actually sitting on the sea-bed. That is, the glaciers rest on solid rock, and that rock is below sea level. If those glaciers thin to the point that they begin to float, then not only does the water that melted off them raise the sea, so does the fact that they are floating. One of the scary things about the science here is that it’s not always obvious from the surface which ice has begun to float–there are tests scientists can do, but those tests sometimes give surprisingly bad news.

We’ve had a lot of bad news from glaciers recently, some of which have moved very quickly, broken apart, or melted away quite unexpectedly because of reactions below the surface that scientists did not anticipate. We’ve never seen the world warm this quickly before, so we don’t know what ice does in situations like this. That is one reason why Dr. Hansen could be right–although the speeded-up melting he warns about has not happened yet, and nothing we know about ice suggests it is going to happen, there is a lot we still don’t know about ice.

Dr. Hansen is guessing that what we don’t know will hurt us.


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A Letter from the Pope

So, the Pope has come out with an encyclical on climate change.

On the face of it, this should not be a particularly large story. For one thing, Pope Francis hasn’t said anything about climate change that has not been said, at length, before—even by other religious leaders. When I wrote, earlier this year, on climate change and religion, all of the religious groups I covered had pro-environment messages on their websites, with the exception of some Evangelical Christian groups—and even they include some voices for climate sanity.

In any case, because 1) the Catholic Church is no longer in any sense anti-scientific (the Church actually sponsors a great deal of serious research and has for a long time—Galileo’s arrest is rather old news) and 2) scientists repeatedly assure us that climate change is really bad for humans, especially the poor, Catholics really should not need their Pope to tell them that the climate is a moral issue of special concern for Christians.

And yet, American politicians and business leaders have felt compelled to speak out against pontiff, so there must be something very important about his reiteration of the obvious.

What seems to have changed is that Pope Francis is obviously serious. I am not sure that all the previous pro-environment statements by Christian leaders have been—doubtless some are quite genuine, but if every church whose leadership claims to be “green” on its website actually prioritized the environment, the heavily religious United States of America would not have elected so many climate-denier Congresspeople. But the Pope clearly intends to make this a central part of his teaching—to make it something neither his followers nor anyone else can ignore.

Francis is a very popular Pope, even among people who are otherwise hostile to Catholicism—but he is still Catholic. He has not so much changed Church doctrine as brought a more compassionate attitude to it. His refusal to judge gay people, for example, is simply a more humble, Christlike way to treat people he still probably believes to be sinners. But no matter what you or I think of his Church, Pope Francis has something that is otherwise in short supply in our world; moral authority.

At least in the US, we have vocal subcultures who talk publicly about what they think is right and what is wrong, but these words seldom make it into mainstream public discourse except as political noise. When Americans feel guilty (for environmental transgressions, for racial wrongs, etc.), it is considered perfectly acceptable to attack others for making us feel that way. It doesn’t occur to many of us to simply mend our ways.

Jeb Bush, a Catholic, on hearing that the Pope was about to comment on climate change, said “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

We can assume the Presidential hopeful did not mean to admit that being a better person has nothing to do with politics, but that may well be what he believes. Certainly, the idea that anyone might be bound to follow a moral code in all areas of their lives is not popular right now.

If it sounds as if I’m talking about a violation of the separation of church and state, I am not. Neither Pope Francis, nor the 17th Karmapa Lama, nor any other religious leader who has called for climate action has worldly authority over US policy. What they can do, what they have done, is to say, unambiguously, that doing something about climate change is right. That is what I’m talking about when I say moral authority.

The Pope has said that wonton environmental destruction is a sin. That means you can’t do it and call yourself a good Catholic at the same time. You just can’t. Maybe climate action is inconvenient. Maybe it’s uncomfortable. Maybe it requires giving up something you’d rather keep (like, for example, funding for your Presidential campaign). But none of that matters within a Christian context because moral good always trumps worldly value.

And there are a lot of Catholics, so even if other religious leaders weren’t joining the Pope on this one, the encyclical is politically very relevant.

That’s assuming, of course, that actual Catholics pay attention to it–and many of them already ignore the Vatican on other issues, notably birth control. The Heartland Institute, for one, has been doing what it can to ensure that the Pope is ignored. But at least some Catholic archdiocese are responding to the encyclical already. More will likely follow. Hispanic Catholics is the US already take climate change quite seriously, and will likely give the movement much-needed momentum.

Meanwhile, there are other reasons, besides climate denial, that some Catholics might resist the Pope’s message; in speaking out on climate only months before the critical climate conference in France, Pope Francis does appear to be trying to influence the UN. And while Catholics as a group might be happy to accept climate change as real and important, the rest of the UN’s apparently very liberal agenda is more of a sticking point.

Do we really want to give these people legitimacy by working with them? some Catholic writers are asking. Environmental activists often support abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage!

Yeah, well, frankly, a lot of environmental activists are probably asking the same kinds of questions right now. Many may actually be battling the Church on other fronts even as they welcome the encyclical. The movement desperately needs socially conservative leadership so that socially conservative voters stop picking climate-denier candidates as proxies in the culture wars. And anyway, if we all agree to work together on this one issue for now, maybe they’ll be a later in which we can discuss other issues.

There won’t, otherwise.


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And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.