The Climate in Emergency

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


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About that Tango in Paris

Last week, a family member landed in the hospital. They’re out again, now. No, I will not go into any detail. Yes, that was why I was too busy, both physically and psychologically, to post.

Last week, too, President Trump announced his attention to leave the Paris climate pact. I’d been getting little notifications for a while that he was considering doing so, and that I should sign things or contact people to object. I signed nothing and contacted nobody. I felt like I was treading water, and there were other swimmers clinging to me. I could not spare the mental energy.

Would Mr. Trump have decided to stay in had I gotten involved? I’ll never know, but probably not. He’s been promising to pull out since he was a candidate, I’d be surprised if anything could have changed his mind. Anyway, to claim too much responsibility would seem both masochistic and arrogant. I’m only one person…but swallow too much of that comfort, and I’ll poison myself, come to believe I can’t make a difference at all.

The truth is I can’t change the fact that my family needed me in a very immediate way last week. Nor can I change the fact that I have emotional and physical limitations myself. Everybody does. We just have to hope that we’re not all limited at the same time in the same way, because what we’re up against does not appear to rest, or get sick, or go to sleep.

Had I posted last week, my post would have consisted only of the above, entirely glum admission.

Fortunately, in the intervening days, I have learned that getting out of Paris may be harder than Mr. Trump seems to think. And a growing number of people are deciding that even if Mr. Trump does pull out, the rest of us will stay in.

Still Politically Binding

Mr. Trump can’t just wish away the Paris climate agreement. No party to the pact can formally announce an intention to pull out until at least 2019, and such a decision won’t count as formal until at least 2020. So we’re still in until then.

To get out any earlier would require withdrawing from the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, which was ratified by the Senate–meaning that Mr. Trump can’t withdraw by executive order. He’ll need the Senate’s cooperation, which he may or may not get.

Of course, Donald Trump can simply direct his administration to ignore the agreement–this is exactly what he said he’s doing, actually–which has no real legal teeth. It was specifically designed not to have teeth, in order to avoid having to be ratified by the US Senate. It was designed to be politically binding, meaning that if a country ignores its obligations, everyone else will know to laugh and jeer at what irresponsible ignoramuses that country contains.

Well, prepare to be laughed and jeered at, because there is no mechanism whatever to get out of that one.

What Leaving Paris Means–And Doesn’t

Curiously, Mr. Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate Paris so that it is fairer to the US and doesn’t impose a cost on our businesses. Of course, that is baloney; under the agreement, each country is free to draft its own commitments. If we drafted commitments that won’t work for us (which I don’t believe, but that’s another subject), it’s hardly the fault of the negotiators at Paris.

France, Italy, and Germany lost no time in pointing out that climate action is an economic opportunity, and no, they will not renegotiate with Mr. Trump, thank you very much. They actually intend to put more of their own resources into fighting climate change, in order to make up for US negligence. Good for them.

But the reason I call Mr. Trump’s suggestion of renegotiation curious is that it indicates he feels the need to appease the environmental movement, to at least pretend to care about the climate, even as he makes it very clear that he doesn’t. That’s actually a good sign. It means he is feeling some political pressure, and if we push hard enough, he might actually back down a little. After all, Richard Nixon thought tree huggers were pretty stupid, but public pressure made him an environmentalist president anyway.

So, getting out of Paris by whatever means won’t allow us to escape our politically binding obligations, and it won’t improve the US economy. It might not even have much of an effect on individual US businesses (since we won’t be out for several more years, anyway), and it’s not really the bald-faced political shout-out to climate deniers that it seems, because Mr. Trump is trying to hedge his bets by claiming he wants to improve the agreement.

What, then, is the point?

An article on Politico argues persuasively that Mr. Trump is simply trying to thumb his nose at the global community. After all, he can’t demonstrate what a bad-boy strongman he is by building a wall against Mexico (turns out nobody will pay for it), so this is the next best thing, his demonstration that nobody can tell him what to do.

And at that, his action will be effective.

The State of the Country

In the meantime, a long and impressive list of states and other entities are signing on to Paris, or some version or equivalent of it, independent of Federal leadership.

There are three agreements involved. There is the United States Climate Alliance, which involves states individually committing to “achieving the U.S. goal of reducing emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan.” The Alliance will also act as a forum for supporting and implementing new and existing climate action generally.

The Climate Mayors’ Agreement is a publicly stated intention on the part of signatory mayors to also pursue climate action. We Are Still In is an open letter, signed by the leaders of cities, counties, educational institutions, businesses, and investors, stating a pro-climate intention in light of Mr. Trump’s planned withdrawal.

Now, the Alliance appears not to be legally binding. In fact, it can’t be legally binding, because the Constitution specifically forbids the states from entering into treaties with foreign powers or each other without the consent of Congress. Each individual state can legally commit to emissions-reductions goals on its own, something Hawaii has now done. Other states could follow.

The text of the Climate Mayors’ Agreement and the We Are Still In letter do not state any concrete goals and therefore they are not even politically enforceable, as of yet. That is, without goals, it will be impossible to tell whether the signatories are acting on their commitments or not. The signatories also appear to be individuals, not government entities or organizations, meaning that if any of these people leave/get fired/don’t win reelection, all bets are off. But we can hope that the publicly stated intention is a beginning on which more concrete actions and commitments will build.

Personally, I feel a good deal better this week than last. I have more hope.

Nationally, we have work to do. We need to get on this momentum and push it farther. For example, my state, Maryland, has not yet signed on. Marylanders can push our leaders to do so–and residents of other states that have not yet signed on can also push.

Your town, your county, your school, your kids’ school, your alma mater, your employer, the businesses you patronize, push all of them.

The other thing we have to do is make plans to ensure that none of the political leaders who have signed on fail to win re-election.

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On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

–And then? [the other asks]

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

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

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

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


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Ding Dong! The Pipeline’s Dead!

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

Today we got that victory.

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

Vote.

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

Continue to insist that the media take climate change seriously.

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

 

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