The Climate in Emergency

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

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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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No News Isn’t Good News

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issues its long-awaited Synthesis Report last weekend and officially stated that we as a species need to get off fossil fuel, and soon. This is no surprise, of course. That we haven’t gotten off fossils already has nothing to do with any dearth of scientific clarity–it’s not like we’ve been sitting around waiting for this report before we take action. Instead, we have been delayed by political and cultural reluctance, and we are delayed by it still.

The news out of the polling places on Tuesday was not good.

Leaving aside whatever advantages the GOP may possess on other topics, the many Republican victories could be disastrous for climate. They have taken the Senate and increased their majority in the House and will almost certainly use that advantage to try to force President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. They will increase their fight to invalidate Mr. Obama’s executive actions–including the EPA policies regulating carbon emissions–as illegal or unconstitutional. The United States will face the all-important climate conference next year with a legislature hostile to any progress at all. Our best hope may be that we just don’t lose ground.

How did this happen? In the races that I followed, the Republican candidates ran on an economic platform within which environmental regulation was implicitly recognized as part of the problem. There are all sorts of reasons why such an argument is disingenuous, not least of which being that environmental disaster–especially climate change–is extraordinarily bad for the economy. That other Republican candidates ran on an anti-Obama platform is a whole other complex topic.

In any case, the nightly news is full, not surprisingly, of post-election analysis. What isn’t on the news? The fact that hundreds of people just completed a walk across country–from LA to DC–and are now getting arrested for protesting outside the FERC building. For action on climate change.

The Great March for Climate Action was a mobile community demonstrating democratic processes, sustainable technology (they had their own solar panels for charging electronics), and non-violent protest. A core group of several hundred people walked the entire way, joined by others who walked with them a long way or a little. They stopped, here and there, for various climate-related events. In September they took a break, boarded a fleet of buses, and joined the People’s Climate March, in New York City. Then they took their buses back to their own route and kept marching. They covered about fifteen miles a day and camped at night. They arrived in Washington, DC on November 1st, as planned, and several of them went on to participate in a multi-day protest against the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), which they say “rubber-stamps” natural gas-related projects. FERC, for its part, claims that it is impossible for them to estimate the potential impact of these projects, and therefore they cannot say no to them, which certainly sounds like rubber-stamping to me.

That’s why they’re getting arrested –for blocking traffic in front of the FERC offices.

I wrote about the Great March very briefly when they started, listing it among several large and fairly dramatic climate-related protests that got no mainstream media coverage at all. And, unfortunately, the Great March has continued being ignored by the media. My husband is a current events junky and hadn’t heard of them until now, when I asked him about it. The group’s own website includes a list of media notices (including, I’m rather gratified to note, a link to this blog!) but none of them are mainstream national news outlets. Which is insane–if a group that size had walked that far for fun they might almost have gotten more attention, simply as a human interest story.

I wrote about the march again, in conjunction with my coverage of the People’s Climate March, but while I was concerned that the latter might be ignored by the media–and was prepared to take steps to combat such willful ignorance, if it happened–I did not appreciate that the former might be ignored as well. Instead, while I did try to get one of the organizers to write us a guest post (something that ultimately fell through), I largely ignored the Great March as well.

And that’s how candidates who ignore climate change win. I don’t mean that my editorial decisions themselves allowed the Republicans to take the Senate–I don’t have that kind of readership, alas–but that the collective silence of the media on the vast majority of climate-related protest largely keeps the environment out of serious public discourse in this country. Political strategy is often less a matter of winning the game than of deciding what the rules of the game are. In my own state, Republican Larry Hogan won the gubernatorial race by a large margin (he captured every county in Maryland except those immediately around Washington DC) even though ours is usually a solidly blue state. He did so by repeating, over and over again, that he would rescue Maryland from the economic disaster the outgoing Democratic administration had caused. His opponent, Anthony Brown, is the outgoing Lt. Governor. In point of fact, the O’Malley/Brown administration caused no such thing, but Mr. Hogan succeeded in defining the terms of the conversation and so he won the race.

When the media ignores climate, regardless of why they do so, the resulting illusion that climate isn’t important to Americans allows candidates to ignore the issue and win anyway–because the frame of the conversation excludes the entire topic. Much of Maryland is coastal and low-lying, and much of the state is rural. Climate change is very much relevant to Maryland’s economy, yet Mr. Hogan’s economic message utterly ignored it.

We cannot afford to keep silent on this issue, nor can we afford to be silenced. Hundreds of people just walked thousands of miles for climate change and some are now being arrested for it. Contact your news outlets–newspapers, TV shows, radio new programs–and insist that they cover these stories.



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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.




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.



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.




The President’s Plan, Part 3

President Obama has already used his executive power to tackle climate change domestically, although his plan will not be fully implemented until next year and it is far from certain it won’t be reversed by his successor. He is now trying a similar approach abroad.

Why the Creative Procedure?

The US Congress refuses to deal with climate change. Domestic bills for dealing with global warming have been dead on arrival in one or both chamber of Congress for years. Since the Constitution stipulates that treaties must be ratified by two thirds of the Senate, climate-responsible treaties are in even worse shape. Even when the Senate is controlled by Democrats, generally the more climate-responsible party, there are always enough naysayers to block a deal. Not only is there significant resistance climate responsibility itself, but there is a big chunk of the United States that is highly suspicious of the United Nations (UN). UN treaties, about the climate or otherwise, have an uphill battle through the US Senate, even if the treaty in question is based on an existing US law.

So, Mr. Obama is now trying to get things done without the help of Congress. He is, of course, taking a lot of political heat for doing so. Detractors argue that the President should not use executive authority to do things that Congress does not want done, that in side-stepping the Legislative Branch he is approaching the role of dictator or king. Supporters argue that the collective will of Congress seems to be that Mr. Obama not be President, something a majority of the American electorate disagreed with. They say that the President owes it to the people who elected him to do his job however he can.

This blog should not take sides except as relates to climate change. With that perspective in mind, therefore, I have called for support for Mr. Obama’s efforts, and will do so again. It is worth noting that his use of executive power is not unprecedented, or even particularly extreme relative to his predecessors.

It is also worth pointing out that this won’t be the first international agreement the US has brokered outside of the treaty ratification process. Many of the country’s trade agreements, including those related to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are not technically treaties and therefore were never ratified by the US Senate. Instead, Congress gave the President permission to negotiate and agreed to expedite approval of the resulting agreement through Congress, like an ordinary bill. Mr. Obama is not using this process for climate negotiations, but the point is that the US government has been quite comfortable developing new diplomatic procedure.

Arguably, the President’s plan is less of a departure from the treaty procedure than NAFTA, since he is not creating a new class of legally binding international agreement. Instead, he is using a mixture of existing treaties and new, non-binding agreements to create a plan he hopes will be “politically binding.”

What Is the President’s Plan?

The plan is to update an existing treaty from 1992 with non-legally binding international agreements. The result would combine an obligation for countries to make their own domestic emissions-reductions plans with voluntary reduction goals and voluntary pledges for rich countries to send money to poor countries to help them cope with the effects of climate change. Signatory countries would also be legally obligated to report their progress at regular international meetings—so any countries that do not meet their “voluntary” goals will take a political hit on the international stage.

The plan is set to be finalized and enacted at a conference in Paris next year, but the meeting in New York this month will serve as groundwork for the agreement.

So, What Are the Objections?

As noted, the Republicans in Congress do not like this plan. Their reasons largely boil down to an objection to any climate agreement at all. Meanwhile, there are international objections to the effect that the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

The issue is many of the countries most likely to suffer from global warming—low-lying coastal nations and those in Africa—are also among those with the fewest economic resources and the least responsibility for creating the problem. They are unlikely to commit to anything unless the United States commits as well. They need international help to deal with extreme weather, sea level rise, and famine, and they do not want to bear the costs of reducing emissions if the countries that caused the problem in the first place don’t.

Where Does that Leave Us?

This hybrid, semi-voluntary agreement may be the best the US can do at the moment, and it is clear that if the US does not come on board, little to no international movement is possible. The United States, China, and India are the lynchpins of the whole process. It is easy to say the plan isn’t enough; we need an international treaty obligating the whole world to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions immediately, to phase out fossil fuels entirely by 2050. Or else. But that might not be an option.

It’s a bad idea to let “great” be the enemy of “good” when “great” isn’t available.

The problem is that certain people don’t want to reduce fossil fuel use at all. If we refuse to take small steps because they are too small, those people win.

Once again, the meeting in New York City this month, and the associated demonstrations, offer a wonderful opportunity to show political support for the best chance we have at meaningful progress on climate.


Marching Orders

A (hopefully) huge climate march is coming up this September 21st in New York City. Being there could make a difference.

The People’s Climate March, as it is being billed, is not the product of a single organization’s efforts. Instead, it is a cooperative effort of many groups–eight hundred and fifty of them, at last count. The organizers are still soliciting more partners, so if you have a group of your own, sign on and see how you can help.

The reason it is in Manhattan, rather than Washington DC, is that the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Ban Ki Moon, has called for a special international conference on climate change in New York for that week. Unlike most meetings of the UN, this one does not involve UN delegates but rather heads of state.

The march is not to be a protest but rather a show of support; world leaders (especially those of the United States, who are both democratically elected and vulnerable to lobbying by the fossil fuel industries) need to be able to see that the people will support efforts to do something about climate change. They need to know there is political will backing them up. Only then can they act.

The organizers are helping to coordinate both transportation and housing. You can go to their website for more information or to sign up for email updates. An interesting possibility involves The Great March for Climate Action, a separate event that began in March and will continue until the beginning of November–a march that literally crosses the country. They will take a break from their own route to join the march in New York, traveling in a group from Indiana and then returning. If you want to join the Great March for a while, you can therefore get to NYC by hitching a ride with them. Conversely,if you go to NYC for The People’s March, you can go Indiana with the Great March and join their trek for a while.

Obviously, you would need to speak to event organizers about this.

Besides the NYC march itself, there will be other, related events in the days before and the days after the 21st of September. If you cannot get to the United States, there will be other coordinated events in other countries–their website has information on that, too. So far, there do not appear to be coordinated events in other parts of the US, but you could probably organize one yourself. If getting to New York is difficult for you, do an internet search for “people’s march for climate [your state]” and see if any local organizations are chartering buses in your area.

If you cannot get to New York, call the White House AND your Congresspeople on that day. If it’s busy (and hopefully it will be) call back.

This is about sending a signal. I have friends who poo-poo marches and other public demonstrations as ineffective, and it is true that public figures can generally ignore them. A march cannot force action. Using a whole bunch of gas to drive to New York seems counterproductive as well (although, public transportation and chartered buses and trains should help with that!).

However, in the United States, the electorate can force action, and a really BIG march is an indication of what the electorate will do. Large demonstrations can bring a lot of pressure to bear even in non-democratic countries (as in the Arab Spring) and they have been effective in the United States in the past even when most of the marches effectively could not vote (as in the civil rights marches).

Marches matter if people show up to march in them.

I have covered other demonstrations on this blog before. In the process I’ve discovered that a lot of people who might want to go typically don’t find out about the march in time and that media coverage of the demonstration itself is generally very minimal. I therefore humbly offer the following suggestions:

  • Encourage your friends and associates–everyone you know–to go to the march
  • If you belong to a political or activist organization of some type, get involved as a group
  • Go on the march, if you can
  • If you cannot, on the day of the march, contact your elected representatives to tell them to act on climate change
  • Encourage everyone you know to also contact their elected representatives on that day
  • After the march, check your local newspapers and news broadcasts and for favorite online news sources. If any do not cover the march, write in or email them to complain. Your letters could get published, making YOU a journalist covering the event.

There are people who don’t want to do anything about climate change for various reasons. Many of them probably cannot be convinced. However, it is easy to forget that a lot of people DO take the issue seriously. A demonstration is a good time to stand up and be counted.