The Climate in Emergency

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

1 Comment

This is what Democracy Looks Like

So, over the weekend, people all over the world came together to demonstrate how important climate action is to them. In Washington DC, only a few hundred people showed up.

Two of them were my husband and I.

We couldn’t get anyone from our area to carpool with us. Nobody seemed to have even heard about the event, and I would not have heard of it except I went looking for the information essentially on a hunch that there might be an event. The RSVP button on the organizer’s website didn’t work. We couldn’t find the regional carpool in Annapolis. We drove to the New Carrolton subway stop, parked, and took the train in. Then we walked around the city for a while, not entirely sure if the meeting point was really where it was supposed to be.

Finally we realized that among the hundred or so tourists milling around on Pennsylvania Avenue, two dozen seemed clumped around a banner that said something about fossil fuels. Almost equal numbers milled around what looked like semi-permanent kiosks dedicated to world peace and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring site.

We joined the climate group and introduced ourselves and the organizers gave us posters to wave and cards printed with information for another demonstration that may or may not happen two weeks from now (apparently they haven’t decided yet). Gradually, more people started trickling in, until by the time the organizers started lining us up for photos, the crowd looked about two hundred strong. Eventual police estimates were between five and six hundred, and from inside the crowd at least we seemed like a pretty big group.

We walked around the blocks that contain the White House, eventually returning to our starting point. Our group contained men and women, young and old, able-bodied and otherwise…as far as I could tell, all but one of us were white, which I found disappointing (I don’t think people of color were excluded in any way, but the homogeneity suggests some kind of failure to communicate). Organizers led various chants and songs, and eventually the pep-rally aspect of the whole thing lightened my mood and for a while I forgot to be dismal about the low turn-out.

Afterwards, we emailed the organizer about the low turn-out and learned that actually more people showed up than she’d expected. She regarded the event as a sideline to the main demonstrations in Paris.

That I consider a serious miscalculation. For one thing, most of us can’t get to Paris, so if we’re going to stand up and be counted, we have to do it closer to home. For another, in the United States, our delegates in Paris (including our President) aren’t the problem. They already understand that climate is important. It’s our congress and our news media that still need to get the message–things are moving in the right direction, but we need to keep pushing. As long as Congress is dominated by climate deniers, Mr. Obama will be strictly limited in his ability to make any climate agreement stick. We really could have used a turn out of a few hundred thousand.

There were other US demonstrations, of course, including some that did much better than DC’s, but none were really huge, and DC, being our nation’s capital, should have been one of the big ones. And we have seen that kind of turnout before–organizers who intend to draw tens or hundreds of thousands generally do, because time and again I’ve seen them successfully plan logistics for the correct order of magnitude of crowd. For example, in the two DC events we attended on the Keystone Pipeline, there were portable stages set up on the Mall for rallies. Those things must be expensive, and the organizers would not have taken the plunge if they weren’t pretty sure enough people would show up to justify it. Police also need accurate estimates for crowd size so they know how many officers to deploy and how long they will need to block off traffic from the route. This week’s event was planned to be small (megaphones rather than sound systems for the rally, moving roadblocks rather than the entire route being closed to traffic at once) and it didn’t disappoint in that regard.

Who decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate a small interest in climate in our nation’s capital?

Sometimes I think that that old joke is true, that Democracy is a system by which everybody gets what the minority deserves. But while I was mulling over such thoughts, my husband had a much more concrete concern. He missed a specific chant he remembered from last time.

“How did that go? Something about what Democracy looks like?”

He said this a few times, wistfully complaining about the chant he’d liked. I jogged his memory, and together we remembered the wording.

“SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” he shouted, after a while.

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” I responded, though I don’t quite have his vocal power. We repeated the call and response a few times, and on the third repetition three or four people around us joined me on the response. After that, fifty or sixty joined. When my husband stopped to rest his voice, someone else took up the call, this time remembering the second variation–“tell me what Democracy sounds like/this is what Democracy sounds like” and alternating between the two.

The chant died away but then bubbled up again from another part of the marching column. From then on, our chant alternated with others in regular and chaotic fashion:





And on and on. We were tickled that we’d managed to add something, that something we started just by shouting was taken up by others and rippled up and down a crowd of people we didn’t even know.

And see, that is one of the things that Democracy looks like; start something, and the people around you may start doing it, too, a pretty soon it gets bigger than you. It can happen.*




*Ok, technically speaking, successfully starting a chant is an example of mob dynamics, but the event reminded me that it’s possible to have an influence on things. So, not democracy, but the sort of optimism democracy engenders and requires. Cheered me up, anyway.


1 Comment

Your Friday Update

Hi, all,

Because I wrote a full post on Tuesday, I’m just doing an update today. Specifically, I’m updating you on the upcoming climate demonstrations on the 29th of this month.

The idea is to hold coordinated demonstrations all over the world in order to demonstrate political will ahead of the Paris talks next month. As such, it is critical–the Paris talks must must must must result in a meaningful, binding agreement. Literally, the future of our species is at stake. So we all have to go and show our elected leaders that this matters to us.

The problem is that the organizers don’t seem to be doing very much. There are, for example, three separate demonstrations planned for Washington DC and two out of the three have no contact information listed for the organizers. My concern is that we will get hundred or even thousands of demonstrations that each attract a few dozen participants and that none will draw any serious media attention at all. That could be catastrophic.

So, your mission (and mine) is to pick a demonstration to attend, talk as many people into attending with you as possible, and also contact your local and regional newsmedia and ask them to cover the event. Then check to see if they do–if they don’t, write or call in and complain.

Also, contact your elected representatives and make sure they know you are going and why.

That should help. To find an event near you, click HERE.

1 Comment

Your Tuesday Update: The Day of Inaction

First of all, I want to apologize for skipping Friday’s post. I was in the process of migrating across country, had accidentally sat on my computer, was under-slept, etc. I’m on track to post as normal this week.

I had anticipated having a lot to talk about, too. Wednesday was supposedly an International Day of Climate Action and I’d planned to attend a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire–I was in Keene, New Hampshire at the time, and Manchester was the closest event. Friday’s post would therefore have been my description of that rally.

We ended up not going. The basic problem was that we’d have to drive an hour and a half each way to get to the event and couldn’t find anyone willing to car-pool with us. How much sense does it make to use that much gas to get to a climate change rally, especially when no other environmentalists in the area seem to be going? Plus, we were tired, being in the middle of our fall migration down the Eastern Seaboard. We went back and forth on whether we should go and finally realized we had not gone. It was pitiful.

And apparently most people did exactly the same as us.

I don’t know anybody who attended an event, although I started trying to spread the word a few weeks prior. The organizers never responded to my offer to volunteer, nor did they respond to my mother’s offer. The Day of Action did not make the national news. When I went hunting for information I learned that Manchester’s rally was the biggest such gathering in the state’s history, but only because the state’s history is very poor–barely 100 people showed up. Even in New York, which should, at least, have mobilized thousands, only a hundred people came out–and I learned that from a brief notice way down the page on an activists’ website. You have to hunt for it. The organizer’s own website does not even appear to have been updated after the event–no “thank you for making this day a success!”

Because this was not a success. I am reluctant to chide other people for not doing something I didn’t do, either, but the fact of the matter is I didn’t attend because I wasn’t convinced doing so would really matter. It just didn’t seem like anyone else was going to show up or that the organizers were serious about getting anyone to show up. And I didn’t want to drive a hundred and thirty miles out of my way to go have a two-person protest that nobody would ever hear about. It is the job of event organizers to convince potential participants that showing up matters and they didn’t. So we didn’t.

We have to do better, people. Demonstrations that are big enough to make the national news are absolutely critical because they show political candidates that if they take climate change seriously as a threat then we, the electorate, will have their backs. If we fail to do that then they’ll ignore the issue and if the US Government does not get behind climate action this election cycle we may well simply be out of time.

There is another event planned in November. Let’s make sure to show up.

Leave a comment

Your Tuesday Update: An Action in Washington

A group of activists are currently part-way through an 18 day water-only fast to protest prioritization of fossil fuels by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). They hope to convince the commissioners to take their concerns about climate, due process, and justice seriously and also to draw public attention to what they see as  FERC’s failure to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. I have not researched the matter myself, but I am inclined to believe they are right about FERC.

The demonstration ends on the day Pope Francis addresses Congress about climate change. There will be an associated climate rally in Washington DC  on the morning of September 24th. There is no way I can go as I have just learned of the event today and I will be nowhere near DC, but please go, if you can. Make some noise, show Congress that we are serious (again) and somebody tell me how it goes so I can post about it on here.

To read more about both the fast and the rally, click here.

The stuff about the rally is on the second page.


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.



1 Comment


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.

1 Comment

For All the Tea in China

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just made an historic agreement to dramatically cut carbon emissions for both countries!

Except that the agreement isn’t legally binding, would not reduce emissions enough to meet the IPCC’s recommendations, Mr. Obama has virtually no support from Congress, and the Chinese office of President is ceremonial. It’s complicated.

Basically, the agreement is excellent news and could represent a starting point for some truly critical work in the years ahead. But it is important to put the agreement in context, to understand how this starting point might be used as a foundation of progress. I also want to explore China’s climate politics a bit, since I have already explored America’s. Eventually, I want to do profiles of all the major climate players.

First, to be clear, while the Chinese Presidency is an almost purely ceremonial position, President Xi is not a mere figurehead. In China, it is possible for one person to hold several political offices simultaneously and Mr. Xi does. It’s the equivalent of a single American simultaneously serving as President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I don’t mean that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are each headed by the same person, because China’s government branches according to different principles than the American one does. I mean that China’s initial attempt to divide power so as to prevent to rise of another such as Mao Zedong has been effectively undone some time ago.

To someone used to the U.S. system, the Chinese government looks chaotic, despite the actual fact of its tight internal control. Part of the reason is that in Chinese politics personal relationships are primary and official title is secondary; it’s who you know that’s important. I have not been able to find information on whether President Xi faces substantial opposition at home or whether he has the political ties necessary to make the new policy stick. So far, it is a non-legally-binding promise only. But given Mr. Xi’s status as China’s ultimate authority and the fact that the Chinese government still controls much of that country’s economic development, he does have advantages that Mr. Obama does not.

Not that I wish the U.S. had a dictatorship–I wish our democratically elected Congress cared about climate. But that is another topic.

The deal was essentially President Obama’s idea. He and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated and pursued months of negotiations that concluded successfully almost literally at the last moment. But the Chinese government has been facing political pressure over the thick, dangerous smog blanketing much of the country because of its reliance on coal for energy. Many wealthy Chinese people even leave the country because the air is so bad. In recent years, China has invested heavily in clean, renewable energy, and regards such investment as a sound business strategy. Its government has everything to gain politically by literally clearing the air.

In brief, China has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 (or sooner) and to shift to at least 20% non-fossil fuel energy sources, also by 2030. The U.S. has agreed to cut its emissions 26-28% below what they were in 2005 by 2025, extending existing goals by almost half again. Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. At least as important, the United States is a developed country while China is a developing country, meaning that the old deadlock of which type of economy should cut emissions first may be easing. Finally, both the U.S. and China have been intransigent on climate for a long time, now. Once we stop blocking the flow, further work on the subject is possible.

By the end of the current century, these agreements would result in about 20 billion tons less carbon dioxide going into the air every year, over a projected “business-as-usual” scenario. That’s about 10 billion tons better than existing U.S. and EU pledges. If other countries follow China’s lead by making similar pledges, global greenhouse gas emissions could start to slowly edge down in the next decade or two, bringing us to just under 40 billion tones per year by the end of the century.

Which is, of course, still way too much. We need to phase out fossil fuel use entirely well before the end of this century in order to avoid climate catastrophe. The IPCC emphasizes this point and they are hardly the only ones calling for a complete phase-out. But this is a beginning. If these deals can stick politically, they may pave the way for more aggressive reductions in the future. They’ll help get the ball rolling in terms of developing green energy infrastructures as well. These small but historic deals are a foot in the door of the future.

Predictably, the American Congressional leadership is on the attack. They charge that this deal will hurt the U.S. economy and that China will not have to change as much as the U.S. will. Neither charge is true. The U.S. could actually see an economic boost out of this, since new regulations will indirectly spur growth. Green energy tends to be better for the economy than fossil fuel, since it tends to require more employees per unit of energy–an equation that suggests why industry leaders are so dead-set against it–more jobs mean narrower profit margins. Unfortunately, truth is seldom important to those resisting climate sanity.

If this deal sticks, we have a chance for more and better deals in the future. If it does not, we might not. Mr. Xi more or less has China covered, for better or worse, but Mr. Obama needs the support of his people and he desperately needs a successor and a Congressional majority serious about climate change.

Support the new EPA rules. They are the primary instrument by which President Obama can hope to reduce American emissions and the political opposition to them is fierce. You can make an official comment in support of the rules through this link until the end of November. Continue to attend any climate demonstrations that come up–large marches do have real political impact, the bigger the better.

And please stay politically involved. Vote, next time you can.