The Climate in Emergency

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


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We Agree Not to Destroy the World

Last week, the climate conference in Paris sign an historic agreement–historic in the sense that is was signed, and might make some difference, something that was far from guaranteed. The agreement is largely non-binding and leaves emissions reduction targets up to each country to set for itself. The agreement will not go into effect until a critical number of countries ratify it, something that actually could take a couple of years (assuming it happens at all). The chance of the world reducing emissions enough to limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius is obviously pretty small.

But our chances did just get better.

Here is a summary of the agreement itself. Yes, it’s mostly an unenforceable statement of intention, but it does include a few firm guidelines. And note that it includes a mechanism to set progressively more stringent goals–we’re not locked in to only the current agreement, we have instead the basis of further progress going forward. In addition to the multilateral agreement that the conference existed to create, the event also saw the creation of a number of important side agreements, such as the International Solar Alliance and Mission Innovation  (both aimed at increasing renewable energy capacity), plus commitments by cities, regions, organizations, companies, and private individuals. This is not inconsiderable.

My Facebook feed has been full of links and posts about the inadequacy of the conference, both in terms of its process (tribal peoples and other ethnic minorities were apparently excluded) and in terms of its results. I do not intend to refute any such criticisms, only that attacking the conference is neither necessary nor helpful. Earlier, I called on everyone to not let “great” be the enemy of “good.”  But that argument has another side, not just what we shouldn’t do, but what we should.

The thing is, this agreement is probably the best we could have gotten, for now, and it’s far from clear that even this will stick. A big part of the problem is the dominance of climate denial in American politics. The reason that the current agreement is not legally binding is that the United States Senate would not ratify a climate treaty. A minority of other countries, such as Australia, the UK, and Canada, have similar problems. We’re the hold-up, we’re the reason the agreement can’t be great, but only good. And by “we” I mean everyone who votes for climate deniers or who, through inaction, allows climate deniers to be elected. In the US, the climate-sane must take both houses of Congress and the White House in this coming election.

If you don’t like the Paris climate agreement, don’t complain about the conference that drafted it; get involved in politics and win some elections.


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What Scientists Don’t Know

So, sea level rise has been in the news, recently, in part  because of recent warnings from Dr. James Hansen that we could see as much as ten feet of rise in the coming decades. The story is a little more complicated than that and has caused significant controversy. In the interests of clarity, I’ll summarize what I’ve been able to learn about Dr. Hansen’s announcement and also explore the overall topic of sea level rise.

According to Ars Technica, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues have completed a research project that involved using a computer model to explore how ocean currents would respond to various speeds of sea level rise. They could set the model to “ten feet in fifty years,” and the computer would show them ocean currents for that scenario. The study did not look at how much the sea will actually rise how quickly, only at the consequences of different rise scenarios. Then, the team submitted a paper on their research to a peer-reviewed journal, but the review process can take a long time. The team evidently wanted their results to support meaningful climate action at the Paris conference in December, and worried that the paper might not be published in time. So, they chose a journal that has an unusual public peer-review process, enabling the researchers to speak publicly about their results before the review is complete. As part of getting the word out, they also released a short summary of their research, which included speculation that the sea could in fact rise ten feet in the next several decades–something this particular research project did not address, but Dr. Hansen is entitled to make educated guesses in his area of expertise.

The problem is that the wording of the summary leaves it unclear that he is speculating, and the public media have generally reported that the study actually predicted a rapid ten-foot rise–something that is well beyond scientific consensus at this point. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the rapid rise won’t happen. It probably could, because Dr. Hansen is very much an expert on the subject, and he could turn out to be right. He is not in any way misrepresenting his research, he is just talking about something else besides his research and doing it in a way that leaves the distinction between the two unclear.

Here is an analogy:

Say that an auto-safety researcher conducts a series of crash-tests and concludes that a given model of car has a design flaw such that a particular type of crash is lethal at an unusually low speed. She then calls a press conference, presents her findings, and says “given my results, I am especially concerned about young drivers–the traffic mortality of drivers in the 16-to-21 age group may sky-rocket if the manufacturer does not correct the flaw.” The media then respond by saying that safety test predicts teen driver mortality to sky-rocket, even though that isn’t at all what the test was about.

It is possible that Dr. Hansen created the current media buzz deliberately in order to get attention for his cause–but if he’s being alarmist, it’s only because we are in an emergency that deserves the sounding of alarms. It’s not wrong to shout “FIRE!” if the crowded theater is, in fact on fire.

I expect climate denialists will pounce on this one and paint it as an episode of deliberate dishonesty, but they would probably find a way to do that no matter what Dr. Hansen decided to say.

So, here is the overall situation with sea-level rise as we know it so far:

The world is warming, and has been for some time, now. That’s not a prediction, it’s simply historical fact. It can be difficult to measure the rise in any one location because not only does the sea go up and down, but so does the land. In much of New England, for example, the land is very gradually rising because it is still rebounding from the weight of the glaciers of the last ice-age. That makes it harder to notice sea-level rise on New England coasts. In contrast, my home area, in Maryland, is sinking, making sea-level rise seem faster than it really is. But by comparing multiple sites, measuring from satellites, and other techniques, scientists can work out how fast the seas are actually getting bigger; the water has risen about eight inches since the Industrial Revolution. Most of that rise is due to thermal expansion–warm water takes up more space than cold water. The rest is due to meltwater from glaciers.

Glaciers anywhere in the world, even those that are nowhere near the sea, raise the sea level as they melt because the meltwater eventually flows into the sea. We know how much ice is currently locked up in glaciers, so we know how much the sea could rise if all of it melted. And because all that ice takes a long time to melt, we know that even if the global temperature stabilized tomorrow, the ice would continue to melt and the sea would continue to rise until the world caught up to its new temperature. What we don’t know is how fast the ice will melt or exactly how much melting we have already committed itself to.

Not all ice has an effect on sea level, however. Floating ice–either sea ice, which forms when the ocean surface freezes, or icebergs, which form when chunks of glacier break off and land in the sea, can melt without changing the sea level at all. To demonstrate this, fill a glass with tap-water, drop a few ice cubes in, and carefully mark the water level. Allow the ice cubes to melt, and you’ll see that the water level remains unchanged. This is because when ice melts it shrinks and the volume it displaces when it floats is precisely equal to the volume of water it turns into. The melting of the arctic sea ice is a terrible catastrophe, but it’s irrelevant to sea level rise. The fact that sea ice around Antarctica is growing (remember that warmed-up ice remains ice until it reaches 32 degrees, and Antarctica is very cold) is also irrelevant.

What does matter is how much ice is floating in the sea, so if a glacier starts calving off icebergs faster (as many glaciers are), that raises the sea-level, even if those floating icebergs don’t melt. Also, much of the ice surrounding Antarctica is actually sitting on the sea-bed. That is, the glaciers rest on solid rock, and that rock is below sea level. If those glaciers thin to the point that they begin to float, then not only does the water that melted off them raise the sea, so does the fact that they are floating. One of the scary things about the science here is that it’s not always obvious from the surface which ice has begun to float–there are tests scientists can do, but those tests sometimes give surprisingly bad news.

We’ve had a lot of bad news from glaciers recently, some of which have moved very quickly, broken apart, or melted away quite unexpectedly because of reactions below the surface that scientists did not anticipate. We’ve never seen the world warm this quickly before, so we don’t know what ice does in situations like this. That is one reason why Dr. Hansen could be right–although the speeded-up melting he warns about has not happened yet, and nothing we know about ice suggests it is going to happen, there is a lot we still don’t know about ice.

Dr. Hansen is guessing that what we don’t know will hurt us.


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A Letter from the Pope

So, the Pope has come out with an encyclical on climate change.

On the face of it, this should not be a particularly large story. For one thing, Pope Francis hasn’t said anything about climate change that has not been said, at length, before—even by other religious leaders. When I wrote, earlier this year, on climate change and religion, all of the religious groups I covered had pro-environment messages on their websites, with the exception of some Evangelical Christian groups—and even they include some voices for climate sanity.

In any case, because 1) the Catholic Church is no longer in any sense anti-scientific (the Church actually sponsors a great deal of serious research and has for a long time—Galileo’s arrest is rather old news) and 2) scientists repeatedly assure us that climate change is really bad for humans, especially the poor, Catholics really should not need their Pope to tell them that the climate is a moral issue of special concern for Christians.

And yet, American politicians and business leaders have felt compelled to speak out against pontiff, so there must be something very important about his reiteration of the obvious.

What seems to have changed is that Pope Francis is obviously serious. I am not sure that all the previous pro-environment statements by Christian leaders have been—doubtless some are quite genuine, but if every church whose leadership claims to be “green” on its website actually prioritized the environment, the heavily religious United States of America would not have elected so many climate-denier Congresspeople. But the Pope clearly intends to make this a central part of his teaching—to make it something neither his followers nor anyone else can ignore.

Francis is a very popular Pope, even among people who are otherwise hostile to Catholicism—but he is still Catholic. He has not so much changed Church doctrine as brought a more compassionate attitude to it. His refusal to judge gay people, for example, is simply a more humble, Christlike way to treat people he still probably believes to be sinners. But no matter what you or I think of his Church, Pope Francis has something that is otherwise in short supply in our world; moral authority.

At least in the US, we have vocal subcultures who talk publicly about what they think is right and what is wrong, but these words seldom make it into mainstream public discourse except as political noise. When Americans feel guilty (for environmental transgressions, for racial wrongs, etc.), it is considered perfectly acceptable to attack others for making us feel that way. It doesn’t occur to many of us to simply mend our ways.

Jeb Bush, a Catholic, on hearing that the Pope was about to comment on climate change, said “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

We can assume the Presidential hopeful did not mean to admit that being a better person has nothing to do with politics, but that may well be what he believes. Certainly, the idea that anyone might be bound to follow a moral code in all areas of their lives is not popular right now.

If it sounds as if I’m talking about a violation of the separation of church and state, I am not. Neither Pope Francis, nor the 17th Karmapa Lama, nor any other religious leader who has called for climate action has worldly authority over US policy. What they can do, what they have done, is to say, unambiguously, that doing something about climate change is right. That is what I’m talking about when I say moral authority.

The Pope has said that wonton environmental destruction is a sin. That means you can’t do it and call yourself a good Catholic at the same time. You just can’t. Maybe climate action is inconvenient. Maybe it’s uncomfortable. Maybe it requires giving up something you’d rather keep (like, for example, funding for your Presidential campaign). But none of that matters within a Christian context because moral good always trumps worldly value.

And there are a lot of Catholics, so even if other religious leaders weren’t joining the Pope on this one, the encyclical is politically very relevant.

That’s assuming, of course, that actual Catholics pay attention to it–and many of them already ignore the Vatican on other issues, notably birth control. The Heartland Institute, for one, has been doing what it can to ensure that the Pope is ignored. But at least some Catholic archdiocese are responding to the encyclical already. More will likely follow. Hispanic Catholics is the US already take climate change quite seriously, and will likely give the movement much-needed momentum.

Meanwhile, there are other reasons, besides climate denial, that some Catholics might resist the Pope’s message; in speaking out on climate only months before the critical climate conference in France, Pope Francis does appear to be trying to influence the UN. And while Catholics as a group might be happy to accept climate change as real and important, the rest of the UN’s apparently very liberal agenda is more of a sticking point.

Do we really want to give these people legitimacy by working with them? some Catholic writers are asking. Environmental activists often support abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage!

Yeah, well, frankly, a lot of environmental activists are probably asking the same kinds of questions right now. Many may actually be battling the Church on other fronts even as they welcome the encyclical. The movement desperately needs socially conservative leadership so that socially conservative voters stop picking climate-denier candidates as proxies in the culture wars. And anyway, if we all agree to work together on this one issue for now, maybe they’ll be a later in which we can discuss other issues.

There won’t, otherwise.


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Climate Change and Black Protestants

This is the fifth installment of my series on climate change and religion. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestant Christianity, mainline Protestant Christianity, and Islam. I am neither a member of any of these traditions nor a religious scholar. I write, not as an expert, but as an interested outsider who knows more than she used to and wants to share.

A Matter of Definitions

Pollsters who study religion in America sometimes subdivide each religion by race or ethnicity, writing about white and Hispanic Catholics as separate, for example. That is not what I mean by black Protestants–Protestants who happen to have some admixture of African heritage. Instead, I’m referring to the historically black churches, a group of interrelated religious traditions with close ties to the evangelical movement, yet distinct in its doctrine, its practice, and its culture. Generally, the black churches have a much stronger focus on social justice and a more community-based concept of salvation. There are black members of both evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but they are not what I’m talking about here. There are also white members of historically black churches.

The black churches do not derive their historical identity from segregation alone, the way the Negro Leagues or the historically black colleges did–as places black people could go because they were not welcome elsewhere. Instead, the black churches generally split off of their own volition, in part because white preachers tended to justify racism and even slavery from the pulpit. The fact that many traditionally white churches now welcome black members has not caused the black churches to evaporate because these religious traditions have developed a particular doctrinal viewpoint that reflects the African-American experience.

Green and Other Colors

While I’m specifically defining black Protestant in religious rather than racial terms, it seems disingenuous at best to avoid the subject of race in this article. Full disclosure; I am white and I grew up almost exclusively among white people. I was raised specifically by white liberals and sent to liberal private schools where our teachers diligently taught us about the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement–but never taught us to think about race in the present tense. Our student body was less than 10% black, half what our local public school system had, and I never heard anybody talk about why. I am gradually learning to leave such possibly willful ignorance behind.

I was always under the impression that environmentalism is a white-person thing, the kind of preoccupation that might turn up in one of those satirical “Stuff White People Like” books. I went hiking and saw only white people on the trail. I joined trail crews and met only white people there. I joined environmentalist organizations and got a degree in conservation biology and again–all white. Or, not all white, but in each of these cases, those brown faces I encountered usually belonged to Africans, Caribbeans, or otherwise not United States black people.

However, while researching for this series I found polls showing clearly that religious identity has much less to do with attitudes towards climate than does racial identity, at least among Christians. White Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants all show essentially identical numbers–none have much concern over climate. Black Protestants (apparently the pollsters did mean Protestants who are black) and Hispanic Catholics were both dramatically different–they believe in climate change and care about it. It seems as though climate denial is among the “stuff white people like.” I even found a serious article saying so.

Generally speaking, if the mainstream environmental movement has alienated non-whites, it is because of its persistent refusal to acknowledge social justice and racial justice issues. To a certain extent, that translates into a white environmentalist avoidance of environmental justice issues that are more relevant to many communities of color. But more insidiously, racism, both overt and systemic, exists within both environmental organizations and related government agencies such that is very hard for people of color to get higher level jobs in these industries–and the liberal white people who do get those higher level jobs tell each other that black people just don’t care about the environment.

Black Protestants and Climate Change

One reason why black Protestants tend to care so much more about climate change than other Protestant groups may be precisely that so many of them are black; environmental disasters are disproportionately likely to happen to black people. Partly, that is because disadvantaged people tend to be shuffled towards dangerous places, such as those parts of New Orleans that were below the water level of the adjacent canals. Everybody knew those canals were going to burst; as a child in Newark, Delaware, I knew virtually nothing about New Orleans–I could not have found it on a map–but I knew those canals were going to burst and flood the place. So why were people there? Second, when disasters happen, society tends to get a lot more honest, for better or worse. In New Orleans again, certain white residents used the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to go sport-hunting black people. Many of those murders were simply never investigated. Climate change shows its face to humans largely through an increased risk of natural disasters–that risk is personal for Black Americans in a way that it simply isn’t for most white Americans.

The black churches themselves, like other climate-conscious churches, discuss environmental responsibility as a religious duty in terms of both stewardship of God’s earth and the social justice component of Christian teachings–including the idea that “as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.”

Or, at least, so said one website on the subject. I have found lots of information on how climate-friendly the black churches are, but no sites on which self-identified black churches talk about climate. I imagine I would have to look up specific denominations, as I did for mainline Protestants. I’m not going to, because it seems very likely they would say much the same things that the mainline Protestant websites do. The entire Protestant continuum works with the same doctrinal raw material and therefore finds much the same reasons to care about climate. What makes the Black churches different is that more of their members actually do think climate is important.

Into Action

It would be interesting to list climate action projects organized or sponsored by historically black churches. The numbers on climate attitudes among both parishioners and preachers suggest that these exist, and there are interdenominational climate action initiatives of various kinds. However, to do that story properly, I’d need to go considerably beyond the scope of this article. But there is a more obvious example of black Protestant climate concern in action.

President Obama is the first American President to make climate sanity a major part of his policy and the first to fight deniers on the subject as fiercely as he has. If the conference in Paris later this year does sign a politically binding agreement to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, the American most directly responsible will be Barack Obama. He’s also a Protestant. And he’s black. Is this a coincidence?

Whether the President is also a black Protestant in the sense I have used in this article is outside of the scope of this article–it may not even be a meaningful question, because of how fluid Protestant religious identity is. Mr. Obama did attend an African-American church in the past and caught serious political flake over certain comments by its preacher during his first campaign. As President, however, he invites spiritual council from a variety of sources.

But he is a deeply–and largely privately–spiritual man. It is difficult to believe that fighting Congress on climate as he has is not something he prayed over. Is it possible that the African-American religious tradition specifically supports his conviction that this issue matters?

The timeline of the climate crisis is such that meaningful greenhouse emissions reduction has to happen now. And global climate politics depends upon the leadership of the United States because everybody in the world knows we caused the problem in the first place. Is it possible that the world hinges now on the fact that America elected a black man?


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Two Degrees of Separation

Last week, as sometimes happens, I got curious.

While writing–once again–about how the world must stay under 2° C. of warming, I suddenly realized I didn’t know where this number came from. Climate writers frequently assert that if the Earth warms more than that, we will cross a tipping point beyond which climate catastrophe will likely occur. That’s plausible, since tipping points like that do exist. But I had never encountered any explanation of why the tipping point is there or how we discovered it. So, I went hunting and found a 2010 paper cleverly titled Three Views of Two Degrees.

It turns out that 2° C isn’t a scientific limit at all, because current science gives us not just one number but rather a whole cloud of numbers. 2° C is instead, a convenient shorthand for that cloud and it is a rallying cry. And it probably isn’t enough.

Who Said Two Degrees

The 2° C limit was originally a rough estimate made by an economist in the 1970’s. W.D. Nordhous was interested in climate policy, which he approached from a perspective of cost-benefit analysis. He assumed that getting off fossil fuel would cost something and that climate change would also cost something, therefore we should craft climate policy so as to use fossil fuel right up until the point where continuing to do so costs more money than it saves. At that point, we should stop. Nordhous needed some estimate of where that that point might be, so he took a look at the fairly basic information available at the time and concluded that over the past several hundred thousand years the climate has never been more than 2° C warmer than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. He reasoned that exceeding the normal variation would be bad.

2° C itself was, of course, secondary, simply a plausible example of the kind of target Nordhaus wanted. The main point was the principle of the cost/benefit analysis. The thing is, Nordhous wasn’t the only one who needed a definite number for the sake of discussion. It’s simply easier to talk about policy, and easier to run climate models, if you have a single number to work with instead of what the research itself often presents, which is a whole group of interrelated ranges. And so, the 2° C figure has become popular far beyond Nordhous’s original discussion of costs and benefits.

That 2° C was used during a UNFCCC (United Nations Framing Convention on Climate Change) conference in Germany in 1995 probably has a lot to do with its popularity. Angela Merkel, who was Germany’s Environment Minister at the time, chaired that conference and was apparently very impressed. She was instrumental in writing the 2° C goal into the preliminary agreement signed in Copenhagen in 2010. Also, “2” is a nice, whole number, easy to remember. Note that even in America, no one refers to the limit as 3.6° F.

Is 2° C a Real Limit?

Yes and no.

More recent research has confirmed that a 2° C rise would, indeed, take us into temperature ranges the world hasn’t seen in hundreds of thousands of years. In that, Nordhaus was quite correct. However, the climate system has not one tipping point but several; some kick in above 2° C, others kick in below–and there are some, doubtless, that we don’t know about yet.

More importantly, the premise of the limit is flawed.

First, the average temperature of the planet is not the real problem–the real problem is the speed at which the climate changes. As climate deniers are fond of pointing out, Earth’s climate is always changing and has in the past been radically different than it is today. There have been forests in the Antarctic and there have been glaciers in New England; in either case, Earth had rich, vibrant ecosystems. Human society has also weathered climate changes and can obviously do so again. But adaptation, both human and otherwise, takes time. And right now, we’re not getting it.

Second, even if climate catastrophe itself begins only after 2° C of warming (which is questionable), there is a lot that can go very seriously wrong–and some of it has already happened–short of catastrophe. Sea level rise provides the most clear-cut example, since it is unambiguously caused by global warming and higher seas unambiguously cause more severe coastal flooding. Whole nations are at risk of going out of existence. We are also losing glaciers that provide drinking water to huge human populations, seeing increases in dangerously extreme weather events…arguably, global warming may already be contributing to food insecurity, and hence to social and political tension, in the Middle East. A mass extinction is underway. All this is pretty catastrophic, if you happen to be in the middle of it. Nordhous’s original proposal, that we allow the climate to warm up until the 2° C limit so as to make more money off of fossil fuels until then, is heartless in the face of people who are dying of climate change already.

Is 2° C a Useful Goal?

Of course, 2° C is no longer being considered as the amount of warming to allow before getting off fossil fuel. Instead, it represents the course of immediate, aggressive emissions reductions–the closest thing to stopping greenhouse gas emissions today that anybody considers plausible.

Some are calling even this goal unrealistic, arguing that 2° C be abandoned as pointless an unattainable.

It’s not that cutting emissions is not technically feasible. If humanity collectively turned off the machines today, the post-petroleum age would begin tomorrow (greenhouse gas emissions would not stop quite so fast–natural gas wells would still leak, for example–but these would have minimal effect). We just don’t want to do that.

There are good reasons for not simply turning the machines off–I expect that such a sudden shift would cause widespread panic and economic collapse, for one–but not all the reasons out there are good. The fact of the matter is that some people want power and money and luxury and are willing to delay climate sanity and climate justice to get it.

But the thing is, the atmosphere doesn’t care what is politically or technical feasible–if the planet warms by more than 2° C, then whatever happens will happen, be it climate catastrophe or not. We have the option to let go of a goal, but we do not have the option to decline the consequences of our actions.

The fact we are faced with is that we must, as a planet, get off fossil fuel and address other causes of anthropogenic climate change (cement production, deforestation, etc.) as soon as possible because people are dying and ecosystems are collapsing and will continue to do so as long as we keep warping the sky as we are. If 2° C  works as a rallying point towards that end, a finite shorthand to use instead of the more amorphous “immediately,” then well and good. If some other goal works better, then let’s use that instead.

Because while 2° C is not itself a scientifically based deadline, the urgency that now informs its use does have a basis in science.


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Please Notice

Normally, I might write about the typhoon.

The Philippines have just been hit by another typhoon, known internationally as Hagupit and in the Philippines as Ruby. Normally, I’d devote an entire article to the storm, since keeping track of natural disasters with a climate dimension is one of the things we do here. Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby hit Tacloban, among other places, the same city that was devastated by Supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda  just last year. Because Hagupit was never quite so powerful and thanks to massive preparation efforts this year’s storm was not a catastrophe, but it is still certainly news. It has been downgraded to a tropical storm and is en route to Vietnam, where it could crash straight in to Ho Chi Minh City.

But the United States is also reeling from a series of non-indictments in the highly suspicious deaths of black people. Simultaneously, the climate conference in Lima continues, an obvious must for this blog to cover.

These two seemingly very different topics find common ground in ostensibly representative bodies ignoring and exacerbating social justice.

I will not go over the current racial justice protests, and the reasons for them, in detail here. Readers who do not know what’s happening should consult writers with more expertise in that issue. I will point out that the problem is at least two-fold: one folding is the specific issue of black people being shot, strangled, or otherwise done-in and no one even getting arrested for it; the other folding is that the first one is hardly news, yet major swaths of the American populace (like, for example, me) have only just now started to notice. Even now, many seem to define the problem as the inconvenient and occasionally frightening protests, not the fact that it really looks like black lives still don’t matter in this country. The invisibility of the problem to those who do not experience it directly is absolutely entrenched.

That failure to notice is not exclusive to the issue of American racial violence. Right now in Peru, the world’s leaders meet to discuss the most important issue of our times and they make space to converse with oil company leaders but not the indigenous people of Peru–who are also, not incidentally, fighting for their lives against illegal loggers whom the government does not seem able to adequately control. That these people are being threatened and killed for attempting to protect their rainforest has an odd resonance with the conference in Lima, which intends to offset its rather large carbon footprint by protecting rainforest. Empowering the people who live in the rainforest to protect their homes would seem to be a good way to meet that pledge, but Peru has a poor record of doing that.

In essence, the conference in Lima aims to address climate change using the same political and economic mechanisms that created the problem in the first place–a global structure that prioritizes the needs and interests of the powerful over those of the powerless. That’s not an inherently bad idea, of course; the global structure is unlikely to change any time soon, so it makes sense to work within the systems as much as possible.

But operating from the perspective of the powerful makes it look as though fossil fuel use is a legitimately controversial thing, a good and necessary practice that unfortunately has some bad side effects. The issue looks very different from other perspectives, for example those of many American communities of color. Coal-fired power plants are disproportionately sited in communities of color, which may be why the incidence of asthma in black children is almost double that of American children as a whole. Dense urban cores, where the concrete and asphalt collect and re-radiate heat and few people can afford air conditioning, are also disproportionately black–so a Los Angeles resident’s chance of dying in a heat wave doubles if he or she is black. The seriousness of climate change is just one more thing that the privileged are free to ignore if they want to. Solving the problem depends, in part, on such people giving up that ignorance.

This week is also the occasion of the People’s Summit, an alternative climate conference in Peru that brings together all the people that the delegates in Lima might well forget–indigenous groups, feminist groups, and labor organizations from many different countries. Solving the problem also depends on as many people as possible making so much noise that there is no way their perspective can be ignored.


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Why Hope For Lima?

Yesterday, a conference on climate change began in Lima, Peru.

The body meeting in conference is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The name refers to both an international treaty and to the group formed by the parties to that treaty. I wrote at greater length about these conferences and what they are for several months ago. In brief, the UNFCCC treaty does not itself do anything about climate change, but as the name implies it provides the framework for other treaties that do reduce emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was the creation of UNFCCC, although some UNFCCC members declined to sign or withdrew from Kyoto. For many years now, the international community has been trying to create a successor to Kyoto, a new treaty that is both more ambitious and more inclusive. The conference in Lima is part of that effort.

Lima itself will not produce a new treaty; hopefully, next year’s conference in Paris will do that. Instead, these two weeks in Peru are another stage in preparing the ground for the new treaty.

The signatories have already agreed to the rough outline of a plan–each country will commit to reducing its emissions by an amount of its choice and some countries will commit to giving a certain amount of money to a fund to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change. The United States, and some other countries, are unlikely to agree to a new, legally binding treaty. The US Senate, for one, is hostile to climate action. Instead, the world will likely extend existing treaties and combine them with voluntary commitments that will be politically rather than legally binding. This solution takes advantage of the American President’s authority to make certain kinds of agreements without using the formal treaty process, as per a law passed decades ago. President Obama intends to use the authority that Congress gave him to make climate sanity work.

Over the next few months, the signatories will announce what their voluntary commitments will be.  This way, by the time the Paris meeting rolls around, there will be little left to do on the agreement besides signing the thing. The plan for the conference in Lima is to work out these details on what information these announcements have to include.

Several signatories have already announced historic plans for greenhouse emissions reduction. It’s enough to make a person optimistic about the future.

Of course, it isn’t actually enough to avert catastrophe. As a recent UN report points out, current plans to reduce carbon emissions are neither deep enough nor rapid enough to keep us below 2° of warming, the cut-off point after which scientists are fairly sure the climate gets horrific (the uncertainty is whether it will get horrific before then). It’s important to recognize that the problem isn’t solved, yet.

But it’s also important to treat what we’re seeing as progress, to not reject what we’re given simply because it’s demonstrably inadequate.

The thing is, we’ve been here before on other issues. In the forties and fifties, some political leaders recognized American institutional racism as a problem and wanted to do something about it, but no civil rights bill could get past Congressional filibusters. Finally, one bill got through by the simple expedient of being so weak and watery that the segregationists allowed it to pass.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was ridiculous. The only thing it did was to create a temporary commission charged with writing a report on voting rights. The group could subpoena witnesses and record testimony, but it couldn’t actually change anything. And because the Commission was supposed to be “balanced,” several of its members were actually segregationists. The Civil Rights Commission may have contributed some momentum in the right direction, but it was, as it was designed to be, essentially powerless.

And yet, some bill had to be first. Would it have been better if powerful legislation had passed earlier? Yes, of course. But if the more progressive elements in Congress had held out for a bill with teeth, would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have passed when it did? Possibly not.

The historical point is debatable. Certainly, the activity of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the death of John F. Kennedy were both more important. Of course, the importance of any legislation might be debatable, too, considering that fifty years later the courts don’t seem sure that killing black people is a crime. I am neither black nor old enough to know for myself what America was like back before 1964. But I’d bet that strong civil rights legislation was a game-changer, even if the game hasn’t been won yet. And I’d further bet that the first civil rights bill to pass could never have been strong. Something had to break the hold of the Congressional segregationists. Something had to prove that America wouldn’t fall into chaos if civil rights legislation passed.

Where we as a species are with climate change now is where America was with racism in 1956, with growing popular support for change but with entrenched and often wealthy opponents effectively blocking any meaningful policy shifts–once again, the US Congress is functioning as a blockade. We need something to run that blockade.

That something will be the climate agreement in Paris, in 2015. We need to be the organized popular movement that then forces our political leaders to do the right thing and get off fossil fuel entirely by 2050.