The Climate in Emergency

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


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Jack vs. Jenny for Climate

I could do an entire series on Presidential contenders and climate change, but barring a major change in the field I probably won’t. There is no real reason for me to cover the Republicans, unless one of them comes out strongly in favor of climate action (something I dearly wish would happen), and I’m guessing that  the Democratic field is more or less set, now. Yes, a Warren campaign would be fun to see, but she has disavowed interest for this cycle and we badly need her in the Senate right now. Her political star is rising and she will have time to run for President (and quite possibly win) at some point in the future. Joe Biden has run before but has no plans to do so now. His Presidential boat has probably sailed sailed. Martin O’Malley has shown some interest, and he certainly has his merits, but nobody outside of Maryland has heard of him and he has not announced.

So, we’re looking at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We’re also looking at the most important American Presidential election the world has ever seen. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, this is the big one. President Obama has made an important start on dealing with the problem, but he’s only been able to act through executive order, which means his successor could wipe out all his gains with the stroke of a pen–and without US leadership, much of the world’s climate response will fall apart. It’s not that the US is a shining example of climate concern–we’re rather the opposite–it’s that a huge portion of the problem belongs on our doorstep and everybody knows it. We got rich and powerful as early adopters of fossil fuel, and the only way to get countries like India and China to forgo their fair share of that wealth is for us to bite the bullet and clean up our own mess. And since the chance of getting a climate-sane veto-proof majority on both houses of Congress is roughly nil, and since we really don’t have time to wait another four or eight years  to act on this issue, the upcoming Presidential election is basically about saving the world. Or not.

So, the big question is, which Democrat should climate-sane people support? Yes, I said Democrat; the place to create a viable third party is in state and local elections. Who can go toe-to-toe with whichever champion the Kochs decide to anoint?

(The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to the male and female Democratic hopefuls; most people know that a male donkey is correctly called a jack, but less well-known is that female donkeys are jennets or jennies. I find the idea of “jenny” as a technical term for an animal completely charming. And, the unfortunate connotations of “ass” notwithstanding, donkeys make fine political mascots–they are extremely strong and sure-footed, and they have a reputation for not letting people push them around.)

Personally, I would love for Mrs. Clinton to become President. She is clearly capable of doing the job and it is simply ridiculous that the United States hasn’t had a female chief executive yet. But I hardly ever hear her speak on climate and she has a reputation (which may or may not be deserved) for political expediency. Would she really make the issue a priority if it got in the way of her ambition? Mr. Sanders clearly has no problem whatever with political integrity (if he were interested in lying to improve his image, he wouldn’t call himself a socialist) and his loyalty to liberal, progressive causes is unassailable. And while it’s true that he seems a long-shot for the White House, so did Mr. Obama, and for almost exactly the same reasons (complexion aside, of course). But those were first impressions, and the moment clearly needs more than that. So, let’s take a look at these people. And since both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have extensive experience in office, we have something other than campaign promises to look at.

Bernie for President?

Bernie Sanders’ senator’s website (as opposed to his campaign website) includes a poll on climate change. The first question asks respondent to choose between cutting Medicare and similar programs and imposing a carbon tax on “big polluters” as a method of deficit reduction, so the political bent of the poll is obvious. The point is to frame climate change as a liberal, progressive issue and to paint any objectors as big-business bullies who want to take money away from old people. I don’t really like such bald politicking, and I worry that it could backfire by further alienating social and fiscal conservatives from the environmental cause, but at least Bernie and his advisers are willing to put a lot of their eggs in the climate basket. That’s a good sign.

(I make a point of using respectful last-name address here, but Bernie likes to be called Bernie, apparently).

Bernie Sanders is a career grass-roots politician with a long record of dedication to economic and environmental issues. He has been almost continually in office since 1981, first as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then in the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate, where he currently serves. He is 73 years old, so we can expect his physical fitness to be questioned at some point, but Mrs. Clinton is almost as old as he is and both belong to a long-lived generation. He has spent much of his career advocating for the middle class and for alternative energy, especially distributed solar energy (household solar panels rather than the solar equivalent of a big power plant).

He is currently ranked 1st on climate leadership within the Senate and in recent years has sponsored or co-sponsored a number of important climate-friendly energy bills (that went nowhere, unfortunately). He is certainly aware of oil money in politics and openly refers to it as an adversary he intends to conquer by mobilizing massive grass-roots support–an inspiring image. He attended the People’s March for Climate Change (as did I) and is responsible for a brilliant little political move earlier this year; he amended a bill that would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline with a question on climate change, forcing Senators to go on record as to whether they believed climate change is real.

However, Mr. Sanders has stopped short of asserting that all remaining fossil fuel should stay in the ground. There is some speculation that he might say it, but he hasn’t yet. And of course there is the question of whether he can get elected in the first place, given that he is an outspoken giant-killer. Giants don’t like giant-killers and they fight back.

Hillary! Hillary! (maybe)

Hillary Clinton actually had a very good voting record on environmental issues as a Senator–87%, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a record that would have been higher had she not missed some votes while campaigning for President eight years ago. In that campaign, she included an ambitious climate action plan in her platform.  On climate alone, in fact, her record is nearly as good as Mr. Sanders’, it’s just that he talks more than she does about it. Almost more to the point, Mr. Clinton has supported exactly the same climate policies as Barack Obama, both as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 and when she was Secretary of State. That means that she has disappointed environmentalists and will probably continue to do so (as Secretary of State she championed fracking overseas, ostensibly because natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal), but she is a vocal opponent of climate denial and has stated that “the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.” Wherein she is absolutely right.

Where does this leave us?

So, where does all this leave us? In a pretty good position, actually. It means that whichever of the current two hopefuls actually get the Democratic nomination, we’ll have a major-party candidate who takes climate change very seriously and will, if elected, preserve and possibly extend Mr. Obama’s critical executive actions and diplomatic work on the issue. And it’s encouraging that they each have a passionate fan base that has been calling for their champion to run since approximately twenty-five minutes after Mr. Obama took office for his second and final term. We could win this.

The question really comes down to which one is more likely to beat a Republican and which one, if elected, is going to be better able to enact the climate-sane policies they both want.

At this time, I actually think that Bernie Sanders is the more electable of the two, and not because, or not only because, he is male. The issue is that neither of them are going to be able to win with a centrist, appeal-to-moderate-Republicans strategy–though Mrs. Clinton may try, since she seems to be temperamentally a pro-establishment moderate Democrat. The problem for her is that a lot of people really dislike her and always have. Frankly I do think sexism is part of it; as a candidate, Bill Clinton had a serious political problem in the person of his powerful, outspoken wife, who quite clearly was going to help him run the country if she could. A female President is no longer quite so scary a prospect a quarter-century later, but the venom spit on her then still clings to her career. She remains the target of an ongoing series of ad-hominem attacks thinly veiled as controversy and scandal. She can’t make people like her who don’t already. Like Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is only going to be able to draw additional votes by mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote at all–and as a pro-establishment politician, she’s unlikely to be able to do that. Bernie Sanders can and already is; radicals have been trading Bernie Sanders quotes on Facebook for a couple of years now.

But could Bernie Sanders use the Executive Branch effectively if Congress proves as intractable for him as it has for Mr. Obama? As an experienced legislator he clearly knows how to work with the Legislative Branch, but that won’t help if it refuses to work with him and that may happen (see my earlier comment about giant killers). Maybe he can, but he’s something of an unknown in that respect. Mrs. Clinton, in contrast, has extensive experience with executive power and diplomacy, and while she’s even more likely to face a hostile Congress (see my earlier comments about people disliking Hillary), it is entirely clear that she can and will play hardball when necessary. We will not lose President Obama’s climate actions on her watch.

We have time in which to make up our minds (or to watch registered Democrats make up theirs, in states with closed primaries). What we do not have to for is to be lackadaisical about making sure that everyone gets out to vote this time. We cannot see a repeat of the recent mid-term election, when liberal and progressive voters stayed home and pro-business, anti-climate candidates swept gubernatorial and congressional races in state after state.

The Earth has to win this one.

 

 

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Retrospective

Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.


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The IPCC, Again

On Sunday (November 2nd), the IPCC released the final installment of its Assessment Report 5 (AR5), the Synthesis Report. I’ve written about the IPCC and its publications before, but this seems a good time to offer a recap before addressing the new report itself.

The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that exists to brief the UN (and everybody else) on climate change. It conducts no new research and does not advocate specific policies. Instead, it compiles existing research into various types of reports so that the people responsible for drafting policy can get thorough, accurate information without having to read thousands of scientific papers themselves. The most extensive of the IPCC’s reports. and the real heart of its labor, are the Assessment Reports, which summarize the entire body of scientific knowledge on the subject–what we’re dealing with now and what we can expect for the future under various scenarios.

The IPCC is subdivided into three main Working Groups, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of climate change. The Assessment Report as a whole consists of each Working Group’s report, plus a final Synthesis Report at the end. Over the past year and a half, the IPCC has released one of these reports every few months. Each of these installments also has an associated Summary for Policymakers, and each has gone through several drafts, some of which were leaked to the press. Over the past two years or so, all of the many news stories we’ve heard on recently released IPCC reports have been installments, summaries, or leaked drafts of this one report–the AR5.

Each of these installments has attracted controversy, including accusations from both climate deniers and advocates that the IPCC must somehow be on the take, or at least bowing to political pressure to present a less accurate, more convenient result. There are three good reasons to believe that these accusations are baseless:

  • If the IPCC were lying for money or politics, wouldn’t it have done a better job of pleasing its patron? In point of fact, it has received criticism from both sides, suggesting that it is beholden to neither
  • If someone in the IPCC wanted to lie for money, he or she would not have joined the IPCC in order to do it; members serve without pay. There are much more lucrative options out there
  • There are simpler explanations for the concerns of both sides:
    • Climate advocates have complained that the AR5 presents a misleadingly rosy view, leaving out a lot of the more dire possibilities we face. The explanations involve the rules of the IPCC, especially the fact that only papers published before a certain cut-off date could be considered for the report. Between how long it takes for research to find its way into publication and the IPCC’s own lead-time, the AR5 comes off the presses almost five years out of date. Given that what we know about global warming keeps getting worse, old news is always comparatively bright.
    • Climate deniers have complained that AR5 is extreme or alarmist–in that they are right, inasmuch as the truth is extremely alarming.

The entire AR5 is or will soon be publicly available. For those who do not wish to read hundreds of pages of very dense and technical text, there are also the Summaries for Policymakers. The Summary for the recently released Synthesis Report is available here. It, too, is dry as toast, but it’s fairly accessible and only 40 pages long.

I’m not going to summaries the Synthesis Report in detail, since it is largely a summary of the three earlier reports, which I’ve already summarized. The main points are that climate change is real, mostly being caused by human activity, and very, very dangerous. If we do not drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and cut them to zero by the end of the century, cataclysm will be unavoidable.

But the report is a wealth of information for those with an interest in the subject–almost all of the figures and ideas we’ve been seeing in climate-related internet memes, in one place, from a reliable source. It is worth reading. There are some places that might be unintentionally misleading for the general reader, though. For example:

The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere, where such assessment is possible (medium confidence). [Emphasis original]
To the non-scientific eye–that is,to most of us–all those likelys and mediums look like fudge-factors along the lines of kinda and sorta. People who use words like that often probably don’t know what they’re talking about. But scientists use these words differently, at least in a research context. The authors aren’t saying they’re not sure of their results, they’re saying that their results come in clearly defined ranges and they use these words as a kind of short-hand to say exactly what those ranges are.
In other words, they know exactly what they’re talking about.
The IPCC has now officially said that we as a species must get off fossil fuel, and soon, or face dire consequences. Or, more precisely, we–our current generations–must divest ourselves of fossil fuel or future generations will face dire consequences. A certain heroism and courage is called for here, a willingness to do something difficult for the benefit of someone else. It’s the sort of thing most of us want to believe we would do.
But none of this is new. The Synthesis Report only pulls together ideas and information already published in earlier installments. AR5 as a whole only gathers and reports on existing research. On the basis of that existing research some of us (including me) have been calling for an end of fossil fuel for years. Most recently, the call was articulated by CAN (Climate Action Network).
The big question is not what we should do but how to do it–the primary challenge is not scientific anymore but political and cultural. Today, Election Day, could determine whether we get to keep the momentum we earned with the People’s Climate March, back in September, when it seemed for a while that the media and our political leaders were starting to take climate issues seriously.
Regardless of the election results, we have to hold our leaders to task on this.


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In the News….

There is a Facebook meme going around now to the effect that the news media collectively ignored the People’s Climate March. Of course, this refers to the traditional media, newspapers, television, and radio, not websites–online media often do cover environmental protests that their traditional counterparts ignore, but many appeal to niche markets of readers and therefore cannot be considered mainstream news.

In any case, I had been afraid the media might ignore the march, so I’ve spent the morning trying to find out who covered the event and who did not. I am pleased to report than many major news outlets did cover the march.

It is possible that at least some people thought newspapers did not cover the event because the September 21st issue contained no news of the march. Of course, unless a newspaper has an evening edition–and I’m not aware of any that do, anymore–newspaper coverage is always a day behind. The march on the 21st was covered in the newspaper issues of the 22nd.

The New York Times had several excellent articles, covering not just the march itself, but also recent climate-related bad news and the UN Climate Summit and its connection to the People’s Climate March. Of course, a New York-based newspaper could hardly ignore the march, given that its local readers would know something snarled up traffic all day, but the New York Times is not simply a local paper. Arguably, the paper newsworthiness for the nation, and the Times defined the People’s Climate March as front page news.

The Boston Globe also covered the march well, with multiple articles, although the writer gave a rather deflated figure for the number of attendees (“more than 100,000,” which is accurate in as much as 311,000 is more than 100,000). The Globe did not put the march on the front page, except for a brief reference in a sidebar.

I also looked up several other local and regional newspapers, but they do not post the contents of previous print issues online. That their websites do cover the climate march does not mean much, since websites sometimes cover topics that associated traditional media do not.

On television, the PBS Newshour covered the march the day it happened, which is especially striking given that the Newshour has not covered previous climate marches and that their Sunday program is just a half an hour long. PBS’s radio relative, NPR News, covered the march, but their website layout makes it hard to tell which specific shows were involved. Monday morning I noticed that a brief mention of the march had made NPR’s headline updates, a good sign.

ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, Fox News, and CNN all covered the march on their websites, and some did so very well, but I could not find archives of broadcasts for any of them. They either do not post broadcasts at all or they bury such posts three layers deep on the site where I couldn’t find them.

Almost more important than which news organizations covered the march was the tone of the coverage overall; every article or transcript I read contained the implicit assumption that climate change is real, human-caused, and important. The slippery insistence on treating climate change as a matter of opinion seems to be over. This is huge.

In other news, after the massive–and international–People’s Climate March on Sunday, there was a civil disobedience demonstration on Monday called Flood Wall Street in which participants dressed in blue to represent the sea and planned to rise up the steps of the Stock Exchange. The idea was to protest capitalism and its role in warping the climate. Although some protestors were arrested after trying to push through barricades, police allowed the protest–which I’m guessing did not have a permit–to continue. Mayor DeBlasio (who marched on Sunday) has since defended that decision on the grounds that people have a right to protest and that New York City has a responsibility to role-model government support of free speech. CBS’s website quotes him as saying–and I love this–“I think the First Amendment is a little more important than traffic.”

Flood Wall Street was also well-covered in the news.

Also, on Sunday, the Rockefeller family announced that their charitable organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, will divest itself totally from fossil fuels. The process has already begun–they have dropped both tar sands and coal–but will take some time to complete. It isn’t clear from what I’ve read whether they intended the announcement to have anything to do with the march, but they did time it to coincide with the UN Climate Summit and they are doing it for environmental reasons. That their money originally came from fossil fuel (first kerosene for lamp oil, then gasoline) lends a wonderful irony to the Rockefellers’ decision. They join a growing number of other investors, from colleges to tech companies, pulling their money out of fossil fuel.

Overall, there seems to be a kind of momentum, now. Personally, I’m starting to feel optimistic for the first time in a long time.

But if we’re going to keep the momentum growing, if this is not to be a flash in the pan, we’re going to have to keep pushing at it–going to rallies, speaking up, signing petitions, and, above all, VOTING.

And if your local paper or local news program really didn’t cover the march, write in and complain. Do it today.

 

 


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The People’s Climate March

The logistics were terrible, I could not find my water bottle, and I was nursing a painfully injured foot–but I was bound and determined to attend the People’s Climate March. And I did it. So did my Mom. And so did over three hundred thousand other people.

Getting There

We got a late start organizing my trip to New York–various other aspects of my life got complicated this month–and by the time we looked for a ride, all the seats on the charter buses for marchers were sold out. A good sign, obviously, but how were we to get there? We don’t drive that far just for day trips, it uses too much gas. Finally, we got seats on a Greyhound, just before that bus sold out, too. On the road, two or three charter buses passed us.Everyone, apparently, was heading to New York.

New York is always a popular place, of course, so all those buses didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the march. The women sitting right behind us turned out to be fellow marchers, but our first unambiguous sign that we were involved in something big was in the subway. There, crowds gathered, waiting to get on trains headed towards the staging area, but nobody could get on because the trains were already completely full. We spotted signs, political t-shirts, and children dressed as animals in the crowd. Volunteers walked the platforms shouting directions to marchers from out of town. It is an awesome thing to realize one is part of an event, a human tide, a giant and momentous we.

Getting Started

Both times I marched for the climate in DC, the event began with a rally. We gathered together before the stage in a large, amoeba-shaped crowd. Then, as a few people at a time stepped out and began marching, we stretched out into a parade the way a weaver draws a thread from a cloud of wool. But this march in New York was way too big for us to form an initial amoeba, so the organizers had us all assemble on the route itself, with one length of street designated for people being affected by climate change already, another for scientists, another for religious people, and so on. So far so good. But despite all this planning, we soon found ourselves almost literally crushed in an ever-tightening crowd. Rumors passed in from the margins held that not the side streets feeding in to the march were also full of people. It was obvious a lot more people had shown up than even the organizers expected.

The designated started time–11:30–came and went with no sign of movement at all. We chatted with each other, squeezed together to let medics or the occasional ambulance pass (the ambulance was not for any of us, we were just in its way) and let volunteers lead us in chants to keep our spirits up. Still no movement.

If you’ve ever seen a freight train start, you’ll know why we weren’t moving; the engine goes forward, then, a few seconds later, the car behind it moves, then the car behind that…each car must wait until the one ahead of it has moved to be able to move in turn. The cars at the back might get going a full five or ten seconds after the engine starts. Our march was the same, since none of us could walk until those ahead of us gave us room. How long does it take for one person to step forward, out of the way of another? Seconds at most. And yet we stood there, waiting, for forty minutes before the movement of the crowd worked its way back to us. And we were in the first quarter of the parade. I hate to think of how long the people in the back must have stood waiting.

Moving with the Movement

It’s a curious thing about being in the middle of a protest march–there’s no way to really tell what’s going on. Everyone around starts cheering and you don’t know why because you can’t see anything, so you just go with it and start cheering, too. This happened several times before we even got going. The women next to us called it “spontaneous joy.” Chants propagate up and down the line and die away. The crowd stops and starts and stops again for reasons that could be hundreds or thousands of feet away. There is no telling. The march becomes a giant organism, a curiously gentle mob, and individual marchers can only look at each other, shrug, and laugh, and join in. The reason for the march itself is not silly, but cut adrift as they are by the sheer press of people, the marchers sometimes are.

One of the reasons to attend a political demonstration is precisely to become part of this enthusiastic super-organism. A man walking next to me reveled in the camaraderie. He told me he was from a part of New Jersey where people look at him funny if he even brings climate change up. It makes him feel lonely. Still, he stays involved. He supports–largely through money–both the Pachamama Alliance and The Hunger Project. His name is Marcus Bass and he wanted me to write about those organizations, not him. And I will, in a subsequent article.

Most of the signs and chants–in the parts of the march I saw, at least–were curiously generic. I heard and joined in chants like “The people/united/will never be defeated!” and “Tell me what democracy looks like/this is what democracy looks like!” and “Hey, Obama/we don’t want no climate drama!” and a few others I remember from protests past, but none specifically addressed the issue of the moment; showing political support for climate action ahead of the UN Climate Summit the next day. Few of the signs mentioned the UN. Most displayed fairly generic pro-environmental, anti-climate change messages: “Cook organic, not the Planet;” “Climate deniers have no morals;” “Can you swim?”

This apparent lack of focus may be a side effect of the “everyone in!” organizational approach of The People’s Climate March, or perhaps it is only that international policy and the procedures of the UN are hard to draw on posters and don’t rhyme with anything.

Or maybe it is just that everybody knew that what would speak to the political leaders was our sheer number; no one is going to brief President Obama on the wording of our signs. Our signs and chants were not for him but for each other. In coming together, we gave each other an opportunity to talk to like-minded people, to network, to suggest, even to criticize–there was a sizable contingent of vegetarians actively trying to get other marchers to give up meat for the climate (not a bad idea, actually; the carbon footprint of meat is huge). A march is also a chance for marchers to find and call attention to the connections among their different concerns–I fell to talking with a woman who has just started a company that will help people with asthma anticipate attacks based on air quality and weather. She says asthma rates are on the rise and is the single biggest health problem among children. And while no one knows for sure what the connection is, asthma attacks and poor air quality are strongly correlated. AND, poor air quality and climate change have the same cause in pollution. That’s why she came out to march. Her startup is called Wellwatch7 and her first name is Sworna–we traded email addresses but not last names.

This march was also an opportunity for people to dress up. I saw a few polar bears and so forth at the other marches, but nothing like what I saw here. There were dancing fairies in green sparkles, a woman all in blue robes and blue paint and trailing a twelve-foot train of trash and blue fabric (she must have been the polluted ocean), various animal masks, and an inexplicably tall bicycle. A man in a narwhal mask (his sign said “save the unicorns.” Narwhals are arctic creatures) and a man in a unicorn mask (“Unicorns are a myth but climate change isn’t”) met, apparently by chance, and took a picture together.

Some people appeared marched dressed, not in playful costumes, but in the uniforms of unusual lives. When my foot started hurting too badly, we stopped to sit for a while and ended up back in the section for religious groups. Most of these people looked ordinary and some might well have been strays such as me and my Mom. A few carried signs reading “Jew” or “Methodist” or “Baptist.” Perhaps their coreligionists clustered around those signs like knights rallying to battlefield standards. But there were also large, conspicuous groups marching together behind banners that took multiple people to carry. We saw two different groups of robed Buddhist monks (one wearing black, the other saffron) ringing bells as they walked, several dozen variously attired pagans beating drums and burning sage, and a large wooden ark carrying five or six Christian preachers in variously colored vestments and one man in ordinary clothes who carried his own sign “Atheist on the Ark!” Towards the end of the march I fell into step behind a tall, slim man in black robes. He looked like he could be a pagan priest but turned out to be a Franciscan brother. We discussed St. Francis for a few minutes, whom he cited as the patron saint of ecology.

With all this, the most striking thing about the march was its size–the weight of moving humanity and the length of the route. My mother, who is from New York, declared that the pavement in The City is harder than pavement anywhere else. Her feet hurt, too, and with my injury I was limping noticeably. It made the march seem much longer. There was no rally or even clear destination at the end of the march. Instead, the route simply began dividing and dividing again, like a river delta, and the march dissipated. Dehydrated and in pain, I felt dazed. My heart wasn’t in the demonstration anymore, but it didn’t matter how I felt; I’d been counted.

What It Means

The People’s Climate March succeeded in being the largest climate march to date. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people gathered that day in New York to send a message to our nation’s leaders. Among the marchers were such notables as Ban Ki Moon, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Al Gore. And in other countries almost as many again joined coordinated marches for the same reason on the same day.

Did it matter? Predictably, the media coverage has been minimal. I’m gathering information on that and plan to organize “comment bombs” for media outlets that didn’t cover the demonstration at all. But climate change as a subject is all over the news now, not as a controversial topic that “some” environmentalists care about, but as a real thing worth talking about for its own sake. Today I walked into the farmer’s market and was greeted by a volunteer gathering signatures for a climate-related petition. President Obama spoke boldly on the subject yesterday and seems entirely serious about it.

So, yes. We might have changed the world.

 


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The Science of Climate Marches

So, this coming weekend is it–the march in New York City in support of DOING SOMETHING about climate.

It’s still up in the air whether I can go, personally. It depends on whether I can get various logistical issues sorted out in time. If I do go, it will be my third climate change demonstration, the other two having been in Washington, DC. In the lead-up to the others, I sometimes encountered friends who said some version of “marches are pointless. The political leaders will do what they do, and there is no changing that.” No one has said that yet this time around, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does. It’s an old debate.

So, let’s hash it out, shall we?

First, I want to get any and all cynicism out of the way. One part of the “marches are pointless” argument is the assertion that any political activism is pointless, that the political process is sealed against any and all influence by ordinary people. Anyone who believes that needs to stop complaining and foment a revolution, because for the people to influence the government is the whole point of democracy.

But whether protest marches and demonstrations are a useful form of activism is a separate and important question.

Much ink has been spilled here, most of it by authors who simply assert their stance, for or against, as a statement of fact readers are supposed to take on faith. Obviously demonstrations work, or obviously they don’t. The author then goes on to explain his or her “fact,” again without giving the reader any reason to believe the explanation is accurate. This rhetorical strategy is ironic as applied to climate change marches, because science is so very much an issue with climate change and arguing based on unverified assertion is so very much not scientific.

There are a lot of popular ideas about what science is and is not, and most of them are completely wrong. As usual, XKCD says it best.

That means that is someone says a thing is so, a scientist will ask “how do you know?” If a person can’t produce a well-reasoned argument based on well-documented observation, the answer is that we don’t know yet. So then we can go find out. That’s what makes the arguments of competing climate “facts” so ridiculous (the climate is warming! No, it’s not, it’s in a “pause.” No it isn’t! Yes it is! No it isn’t! Is! Isn’t! Is! Isn’t! Rabbit season! Duck season–fire!*). If everyone were in the habit of asking the scientific question, “how do you know?” then most of these arguments would disappear.

So, do protest marches work? As it happens, somebody actually did a scientific study on it, and the short answer is yes, they work. You can read the whole thing here.

What the authors (four people from Harvard: Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott) did was actually pretty elegant. They looked at the first big Tea Party protests on April 15th, 2009, because it happens to be pretty easy to collect data on the Tea Party. Their challenge was you can’t just look at whether the protestors got what they want, because that might happen for some reason unrelated to the protest. Nor can you just look at whether large protests get what their organizers want more often than small ones, because maybe a lot of people showed up at the protest because the issue was popular, and because the issue was already popular it did well politically–and would have even if there had been no march. So, what Madestam et. al. did was to look at each area that held a Tea Party rally that day and see whether nice weather there predicted an increase in Republican votes in that area at the midterm election in 2010.

Isn’t that great? Here’s how the logic works: if the weather is nice, more people are likely to come out to a protest than if the weather is unpleasant, and since the weather on the 15th had nothing to do with how popular the Tea Party cause was before the rallies, and nothing to do with any other part of the political process, the only way the weather could predict an election would be if something happened at the rally that changed the election.

The authors further noted that a lot of Tea Party organizers hadn’t known each other before the rallies but worked together after, suggesting that the rallies worked because they introduced people.

But, if course, part of the objective for the New York climate change march is on a tighter timeline than that–the idea is to show political leaders than they should act now because the political will is there to cover them later. Does that tactic work for a march? Madestam et. al. didn’t address that aspect of things, so in proper scientific fashion, we have to say “we don’t know. Let’s go find out.”

So, let’s go find out!

 

*This is a reference to a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon you really should see, if you haven’t yet.

 

 


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Can-Do

The Climate Action Network (CAN) has issued a position paper calling for immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a complete end to fossil fuel use—to be replaced by “sustainable energy available to all” –by 2050.

CAN points out that only by STOPPING fossil fuel use entirely do we have a realistic chance of keeping the temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees—that’s the limit beyond which catastrophic effects, including runaway feedback loops, become ever more likely. The 2050 transition is possible with current technology and “politically feasible if we so choose.” Can refers to the recent UN report on climate change as further proof of the seriousness of our situation and points out that the existing energy infrastructure is inefficient and expensive, anyway. Switching over could bring a lot of benefits in addition to averting the end of the world.

In all of this, CAN is correct. Plans to merely reduce fossil fuel use will not be enough because burning these fuels, by definition, involves adding greenhouse gasses to atmospheric circulation and that means further warming.

Basically, if you have a bucket that is almost full of water and you do not want it to spill over, you have to stop adding water to the bucket. Adding water slowly is not going to prevent it from spilling.

Of course, any reduction is good—it buys us time and exercises political muscle in the right direction. We should not waste energy by protesting half measures, rather, we should thank the people who take those partial steps and keep fighting for more.

But CAN’s phrase, “politically feasible if we choose” is the rub. The reality is that we don’t need another report, another plan, another timetable. CAN is only saying what has been more or less clear for thirty years, now. Had the world taken definitive, assertive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions then, instead of allowing emissions to increase dramatically, we could have gradually shifted over to an all-renewable energy infrastructure and the transition could have been nearly complete by now. Greenhouse gas emissions would certainly be a lot lower and we would not now be hearing about exploding permafrost in Siberia. Think of all the oil spills, coal ash spills, coal mine disasters and air quality alerts we might have been spared as well.

That ship of possibility sailed without us, not because world leaders didn’t have a plan or a timetable and not because they lacked a specific level of warming to avoid or a specific carbon budget to follow but because, frankly, the fossil fuel industry is politically powerful and doesn’t want to lose its business. Meaningful climate negotiations have so far failed because the governments of certain countries—notably the United States—made sure they would fail. Individuals, such as Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and now President Obama, have worked very hard to provide meaningful government leadership, but have consistently been blocked by Congress and undone by their successors. The reality is that public figures fear they will not be re-elected if they support action on greenhouse gases, and they may be right. Other industrialized countries are, to varying degrees, in the same situation.

CAN is right to advance their uncompromising outline for action, but there is no reason to believe a goal alone will change anything. The political climate must change first.

Climates don’t change unless something changes them. We don’t need to fight atmospheric climate change; we need to stop changing the atmosphere. We do need to fight to change the political climate, and the upcoming march in New York is a great way to do that. We need legally binding greenhouse emissions reductions, with real consequences for violators, both at home and abroad, in every industrialized country on Earth. And we need to show our elected officials that if they do this for us we will reward them at the polls. If they don’t, we won’t.

Even in the United States, where a large percentage of the population does not believe global warming is real, enough people do that if all of us voted for public officials who were serious about climate change (including at the local level)–and refused to vote for those who were not—it would be very hard for anyone to get elected without us.

We can do this.