The Climate in Emergency

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

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Debating Third Parties

Last night was the first presidential debate. I’m not going to go into political commentary here overall, but a few things stand out.

Mr. Trump’s aggression, for example. I’ve watched many debates over the years, and this was the first I’ve ever seen with such unrelenting bullying. Unfortunately, such tactics have a certain amount of political power. More relevant here is what didn’t come up for discussion–climate change. I wasn’t surprised. While the candidates are beginning to treat the issue as politically important, debate moderators, interviewers, and the news media still generally treat the environment as a niche issue. That has to stop, and should have stopped already.

Curiously, the most pro-environment statement the entire night came from Donald Trump, when he denied being a climate denier. Secretary Clinton made a jab at him for claiming that climate change is a plot by the Chinese, and he insisted he never said that. He was lying, he did tweet about China inventing climate change, and while he claims that was a joke, he has a long and consistent history of calling climate change a hoax benefiting the Chinese. What I find interesting that he’s feeling the need to disavow that particular statement. It means we’re making some progress.

If we can just get a climate-sane person into the Oval Office, we might be able to save the world.

At present, that person has to be Mrs. Clinton. No one else is in striking range. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Mrs. Clinton is an insider, that her commitment to the environment (and other issues beyond the scope of this article) is not as radical or as unambiguous as we need, that the political system that she serves and perpetuates is itself our problem. Personally, I like Mrs. Clinton. I usually don’t say this sort of thing here, but I am excited for her presidency. I don’t support her merely by default. But there are those who want more than she can give, and they are not foolish to want that.

The presidential race just isn’t the most effective place to fight for third parties.

Presidential races are, by definition, national. That means that you need a huge amount of money and organizational support just to get noticed, let alone win, and you have to be able to assemble a huge and varied coalition of constituents. While there are occasional exceptions–among which I do count Bernie Sanders–the game belongs to insiders who can cozy up to the elites and appeal to the lowest common denominator of the masses. Great presidents are those who can do so and genuinely serve our country. There have been a few.

But when you’re looking to change a system, you need to look at the part of the system that is ripe for change–the first domino, so to speak. You look for a critical place where a small amount of effort can flip a switch and ultimately cause widespread change. Trying to attack the American political duopoly at the presidency is just the opposite of that strategy, and it doesn’t work. The presidency is where revolutions finish, not where they begin.

Then, too, the American President, by design, has very little independent power. Executive action without Congress is sharply curtailed by law and politically dicey. Let’s say that Jill Stein were elected President; either she would find a way to compromise and work with others just like other politicians do, or she would remain ideologically pure and totally ineffective because Congress would ignore her and the states would fight her executive actions tooth and nail in the courts. How would that help anybody?

You want a revolution? You need to go after Congress and you need to go after state legislatures.

Legislative districts, both State and Federal, are relatively small. Unless a national organization gets involved and starts pouring in money, they can be won relatively cheaply by people who have a good record of community service and little else. A much smaller electorate means much less political inertia and a much greater chance of radical sentiment gaining ground. There is much more political (and demographic) diversity in Congress than among high-level candidates for the Presidency because each Congressional district can reflect the particular politics of its residents, whereas a national campaign inevitably takes a sort of average of the nation. Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of this principle–in his district, an independent Democratic Socialist can have a relatively safe seat. That he even got close to a national nomination is a political miracle.

So, legislatures are easier to get into, and potentially they are the more powerful positions.

The Federal legislature, of course, crafts the laws which the President executes, creates the national budget, and approves, or decides not to approve, many of the President’s decisions. As we have seen, the legislative leadership can effectively block the President from making appointments to the Supreme Court. While Congressmembers must act collectively, an individual can become hugely influential within the group through political skill and seniority, and any seat in either chamber has the potential to rise to prominence that way.

And of course, from Congress, the White House becomes much more accessible.

State legislatures are similar, with the added power that these are the bodies who draw district maps–they gerrymander, for better or worse, and can and do shape national policy indirectly for generations that way. And those constituencies are even smaller, so those seats are even easier to win.

A vote for a third party or independent presidential candidate is symbolic, but it’s not more than that. Your candidate will not get elected. You may or may not become morally responsible for the election of a climate-denier, but the best that can be said is you’ll do nothing. If you want to do something, look at the presidential candidates who have a real shot of winning and vote for the better one. And, and this part is important, vote for radical candidates for the State and Federal legislatures, or run for those offices yourself (and vote).

That’s how you can change the world.



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More Candidates!

I have already profiles the two front-runners for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, plus Martin O’Malley, who is also seeking the nomination. I have not profiled any of the Republican hopefuls because this here is a blog on climate change and none of them are serious on the issue (although their collective denialism shows signs of weakening). But there are more candidates to cover.

To be clear, our next President will almost certainly be either Clinton, Sanders, or one of the Republicans. I don’t mean to discourage anybody–I’m in favor of underdogs, and anyway limiting the Presidency to those who are already politically powerful is antithetical to democracy. But at the same time, I doubt most people will have a chance to cast a vote for Lincoln Chafee or Lawrence Lessig. I think they will probably drop out before the primary process is complete. And most independents and “third party candidates” will not have ballot access in most states.

But they are still running and should be heard–and may in some cases be able to shape the political discussion for the front-runners.

Lincoln Chafee is the Democratic hopeful no one has ever heard of. Or, at least I hadn’t heard of him until he turned up on the debate stage the other week, though he declared back in June–and while I’m not a news junkie I am pretty aware. Publicly, he seems best well-known for favoring the metric system, although that is hardly his most important or most interesting platform plank (that would be his self-identification as a pacifist, a truly radical stance for a prospective Commander-in-Chief).

He does have experience, having served in the US Senate and as Governor of Rhode Island. He is also a former Republican–he switched as a Senator, first to Independent, then to Democrat. His website paints a picture of him as an intelligent, thoughtful, and principled person. His main drawback as a potential President seems to be that no one has heard of him and therefore few people have bothered to write anything about him. He is a bit of a cipher.

As far as climate change, he certainly talks the talk, acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and pledging to do something about it. He says he would not approve Keystone, a nice and concrete promise and one not without some political risk. And while he refused to pledge not to take campaign money from the fossil fuel industry, at least he acknowledged the question, which Hillary Clinton did not. He also walks the walk, at least to some extent–in addition to a history of sticking up for environmental legislation generally, he is responsible for putting Rhode Island on track for a very steep reduction in fossil fuel use.

On the other hand, his economic plans center around the concept of “growth,” something that is logically incompatible with sustainability given that the Earth’s resources are finite. His score with the League of Conservation Voters is 78, which is not bad but is not stellar.

Would he stand up for the planet if he made it to the Oval Office? Maybe. I don’t think he’s in Martin O’Malley’s league or Bernie Sanders’, but he certainly wouldn’t be a disaster, either. His presence on the scene is encouraging.

Lawrence Lessig is a political outsider who plans to stay that way. Not only does he have no prior experience in public office (he is a writer and law professor), but he plans, if elected, to resign after just one year. Lack of experience is not necessarily a problem except that it means we more or less have to take his word on his values and intentions. His intention to resign is a problem. I expect he’s trying to underline is lack of ambition, but the job is a four-year minimum commitment. Says so in the Constitution.

Frankly, I think he should run for Congress instead. His entire game plan is to get a law passed that would get money out of politics–a noble and necessary goal, but that’s not something a US President can do. The Chief Executive can support legislation as part of his or her agenda, but the White House just isn’t where legislation happens. Mr. Lessig knows that, of course, and is almost certainly using the cachet of a Presidential campaign to draw attention to his cause, not actually hoping to win. I’d rather he simply go to Congress where he belongs and get the job done.

But he is interesting in that he recognizes that climate change is part of his one issue–that the problem of money in politics really has to be solved for our country to make much progress getting off of fossil fuel.

I wish all candidates would have an equivalent recognition–that Mr. Chafee would address climate change in terms of his primary issue (peace and security), for example…most people treat the environment as a separate issue, and it really isn’t.

Unless I get seriously distracted by other topics, in the next week or two I will post on a few of the even longer shots out there.


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.