The Climate in Emergency

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


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Same March, Different Day

I’m sorry I didn’t post last week. I don’t know why I didn’t—it seemed as though I did not have time, but I don’t think that’s exactly true. I didn’t have all that much to do. More likely, the things I was doing took much longer than normal and took more energy than normal because I was anxious about something. What was I anxious about? I’m not sure. It is the nature of my particular version of anxiety to hide its source—but the fact that I just had my third nightmare about Donald Trump trying to kill me is probably relevant.

Seriously, what is with my subconscious? And is anyone else getting this? I hardly ever have nightmares about anything, and I’ve never before had nightmares about any public figure, no matter how much I might have disagreed with what they were doing. I didn’t have bad dreams about Osama bin Ladin, although I’ve heard that pretty much everyone else did. And three times now, my brain has sent me horror shows about this orange businessman.

Anxiety is counterproductive. Makes it hard to focus on anything constructive, including constructive responses to whatever is causing the anxiety in the first place. Is this why the opposition has not yet really gotten its act together? Are we all just insanely frightened by this guy?

In any case, I wanted to talk about the People’s Climate March at the end of April. I attended the one in Washington DC, so two trips to DC in eight days. At least this time I wasn’t cold.

My husband and I and almost forty others took a chartered bus up to the edge of the city, then we all took the Metro in (that’s that subway, for those not in the know). My husband had volunteered to be the bus captain, meaning he had to help shepherd everybody along, and couldn’t go with me to try to find a friend of mine who was also at the march, embedded within a different group.

I was irritated by this limitation, I will admit—I didn’t understand why our group needed a bus captain to begin with, and it was too hot, there weren’t any toilets, and nobody was listening to me. Eventually we met a collaborator in a small park who had brought a fifteen-foot-tall great blue heron puppet for us to carry and I realized two things: first, the puppet explained the need for a bus captain (a core group of us needed to stay together to work the puppet) and, second, that puppet would be visible from anywhere, meaning I could go look for my friend and be somewhat assured of locating my husband again afterwards.

I never did find my friend—I tried calling him by cell phone but we couldn’t hear each other over the crowd noise, and as a needle he happened to be marching in a very big haystack—but I did get to wander through much more of the crowd than I would have otherwise.

The day was sunny and very hot, more typical of late June than April, and the vast, assembling crowd felt rather more like a festival than anything else. A drum beat from somewhere. Bagpipers and other musicians were audible in passing. Families relaxed in the shade of trees near food trucks, and small-time entrepreneurs hawked t-shirts, other memorabilia, and bottled water. Banners and various giant puppets waved in the breeze. Some of the signs I saw were clearly left over from the science march the week before, but most were the standard fair I’d seen at every other climate-related march I’ve been to over the past few years. The water in one of my bottles tasted funny, and when I drank too much from the other I felt nauseous.  How was I going to stay cool? I’m prone to heat exhaustion, so I baled water onto my head from the reflecting pool with my hat.

I knew I was upstream, as it were, of my husband. To find him I had simply to walk in the same direction the march was going, but faster. I hurried along the sidewalk in places, weaved and bobbed through the middle of the crowd in others. I passed marching bands, more giant puppets, men dressed as Uncle Sam on eight-foot stilts. We followed essentially the same route as the climate march had, but in the other direction, beginning near the Capitol Building and ending near the Washington Monument. At one point, I came across a large group of people chanting Shame! Shame! And wagging their fingers in the air. Why? Nobody knew.

“We are shaming that building,” explained one woman, shrugged, and returned to shouting Shame!

“Isn’t that the Trump Hotel?” someone else guessed, and indeed, once we’d come up even with in, we could see that it was.

“I wonder what it’s like to be in that hotel right now?” I asked.

“Probably pretty embarrassing,” suggested someone near me.

I saw anti-fascist groups holding their own rallies in the middle of our march, as I’d seen the previous week, and once again I walked through the middle of opposing chants on the issue of abortion. Then, I’d thought that I was seeing a pro-choice inclusion within our march, attended by a counter-rally. This time I concluded—and I’m guessing this was the truth of the matter before, too—that there was a pro-life rally embedded within us and that when other marchers came near the rally they simply chanted responses, “my body, my choice!”

Eventually, I spotted the giant blue heron and rejoined my husband. I took a turn carrying part of the puppet, but the thing was unwieldy, and the extra effort set my pulse to pounding in my reddened face. I passed the huge bird wing off as soon as I could. Some of the faces in the crowd around me had gone red and blotchy, too. Ambulances weaved through the crowd along cross streets. We checked up on each other and I wondered if I could make it to the end of the route before I got sick. Gradually, more and more people were dropping out, lining the streets under shade trees, cheering and chanting and waving signs at the hardy few who kept walking.

I made it. Along the edge of the Washington Monument grounds stood long rows of portable toilets under shade trees. There was no definitive end to the march, but as we passed along those rows more and more people dropped out, slipping between the toilets out to the waiting grass, and we followed, crashing out in the shade. Crowds moved across the grounds, continuing the festival, an unstructured, apparently spontaneous rally. A kite flew high, carrying something hundreds of feet into the air—a camera. Eventually, we made our way back to our bus, all of us dazed and quiet from the heat. The driver earned a hefty tip for having fixed the air conditioning while we were gone.

Alright, interesting experience, but what did it mean?

At least 200, 000 people showed up, so I’ve heard. Aerial photographs—from the kite, I assume, as there were no helicopter flyovers, and no visible drones—show a sea of people filling the streets for blocks, our region of blue t-shirts and blue heron puppet right in the middle. It would be tempting to be reassured by such a large outpouring of pro-climate enthusiasm, but as I’ve said, the primary purpose of political demonstrations (aside from networking opportunities and a boost to the marchers’ morale) is to show elected leaders where the political wind is headed—listen to us, or we’ll vote you out! But, in point of fact, the votes have not been forthcoming. Climate denial works better than climate bravery for ambitious politicians, and nobody gets to hear much from the other kind. So, why should anyone listen to us now?

I’m not saying not to march, I’m saying we need to do something in addition to marching, and we need to do it quickly and in a very organized way.

There are also indications of a hidden ugliness to the event. Afterwards, I heard from other activists—people of color—who had been on the march, too, and were harassed repeatedly by both fellow marchers and organizers. One reported seeing an organizer insist that a certain chant stop. Why? The chant was in Spanish. I had seen nothing of the kind, but then, I wouldn’t. I’m white, and one of the most fundamental, and most pernicious, racial privileges is that if you’re white, you don’t see racism. It is therefore incumbent upon white people to seek out the perspectives of non-white people, and to believe them. I had noticed that the crowd was almost entirely white, as are many gatherings of environmentalists, and I had wondered why. Now I know.

People—specifically, white people—we have no time for that kind of garbage. Cut it out. Get it together. Now.

I’ve said that the science march was strikingly different from the series of climate marches I’ve been on, and that this one was largely a return to recent tradition. And that is true, in some ways, but not in others. Yes, there were the familiar chants (“This is what democracy looks like!”), the familiar signs, the same-old goofy, pep-rallyish mood. And yet, something was different.

There was an anger, an aggression, I had not seen before. Some of the signs were very much to the point, the point being that climate change continued means death, destruction, and pain. One showed a cartoon horrorscape of flames and cut stumps and poison smoke with the caption “Baron’s Inheritance.” Towards the end, organizers asked us to sit down, backs toward the White House, for a moment of silence—and then to get up, turn towards the White House, and produce a moment of noise. At that moment of noise, a woman beside me displayed both middle fingers and screamed “F___ YOU, YOU CORPORATE BASTARDS!!!”

I doubt she is alone in her sentiment.

Beneath the festive mood, the silly costumes, the giant puppets, there was an absence of playfulness, a presence of anger and fear. The pep rally didn’t quite work, not for me, anyway, even though that aspect of such proceedings has worked for me in the past, despite my rationalist intentions, despite my worry, even despite my occasional cynicism. It just wasn’t like this, last time I did one of these marches.

Last time, there wasn’t a climate denier in the White House.


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Sleepless in DC II: Lobbying Against Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic

The other week I wrote about my unexpected experience as a lobbyist for a day. I was one of of a group of “ordinary people” brought in by an activist group so that Congress members could put a human face on the opposition to oil and gas exploration. But my first article focused on my subjective experience. Now I want to talk about the details of what we were in Washington to do and how the process of lobbying works, at least based on my limited experience of it.

The Issue

Although the United States Government is generally supportive of fossil fuel use, there are limits–permits companies must obtain, leases they must take out, and regulations they must abide by. And not all places are even available for energy exploration. What we were doing in Washington was attempting to keep the Atlantic out of consideration for fossil fuel.

It’s not that that any of us really want new oil and gas exploration anywhere, but as residents of the Atlantic coast we have special standing to object to it on our doorstep. The mid-Atlantic coast specifically is an important stop for migratory birds–it’s almost not an exaggeration to say that the avian population of half of Canada funnels through here every spring and fall. We also have the densest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs in the world every spring. We see whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles from our beaches. Maryland’s coastal economy depends entirely on fishing and tourism. An oil spill would be very, very bad here. The relevant regulatory agencies talk about ensuring safety, and they may well be sincere in their efforts, but even if the chance of a major accident is low for any given installation in any given year, given enough installations and enough years, a big spill is almost inevitable. And minor leaks, the kind that don’t make the news, are actually close to routine. We don’t want any.

It is true that Maryland’s coastal shelf is not being considered for oil and gas exploration–but Virginia’s is, and spilled oil does not respect state lines.

Maryland’s waters are under consideration for seismic testing, a method of searching for possible gas and oil deposits by blasting the seabed with very loud noise–it’s a kind of super-intense sonar. These noises are loud enough to kill marine animals who find themselves in the way. Others may be injured or disoriented and die later as a result. Unlike drilling, which in theory does not pose an environmental problem (the problem occurs when accidents happen, as we know they will), seismic testing definitely and inevitably kills animals, including marine mammals who are otherwise legally protected–part of the permitting process for the procedure includes a permit to kill these animals. We do not want this, either.

I admit I do not sound like a journalist at the moment. While I do not attempt the ritualistic objectivity practiced by newspeople, I seldom write about my personal opinion as such. This blog does not comment on matters unrelated to climate change and seldom takes a position on matters that fairly require judgment. So why am I writing now about pollution and animal welfare (important issues usually outside the scope of this blog) and who is this “we” I write of?

“We” is the group of people who have been involved in the protests I’m talking about. We’re not a formal, organized group (although several such groups are involved), but this isn’t something I do on my own, so it feels weird to say “I” when discussing it. As to why I’m talking about these issues–no, the topic is not carbon emissions, but without fossil fuel extraction there would be no fossil fuel use and anthropogenic climate change would not be an issue. Or, put it another way, the price of abundant energy includes not only the devastation of climate change itself but also oiled birds, gummed-up marshes, and deafened dolphins somewhere. Oil spills and climate change are inextricably linked.

The Process

Every five years, the Federal government issues a list of which areas are available for oil and gas extraction and which are not. These are large-scale decisions, lumping the coastal waters of many states into single blocks. The process is always one of reduction. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, begins by making a list of regions to be considered for inclusion. The governors of states within those regions can then opt out and some do. BOEM then solicits public feedback on the map of remaining areas and based on that feedback, more areas might be excluded from consideration. Then BOEM submits the new proposal to Congress, which approves it (Congress has the power to say no, but apparently never does), whereupon BOEM solicits public feedback again and then uses that feedback to write a final plan.

Even within that plan, BOEM does not lease out every acre, only certain blocks. And energy companies don’t drill everywhere in their leased blocks. They may actually lease a block and then decide not to drill there. At each step, the area available for drilling gets smaller–but at each step it gets harder and harder to get areas removed from consideration.

Last year, I joined a group of other activists at a scoping meeting facilitated by BOEM as part of the initial feedback process. Our purpose was to demonstrate our opposition publicly and to educate ourselves about the details of the situation (formal feedback was collected online, not at the meeting). As far as we can tell, BOEM decided not to alter the plan based on our feedback, but in the months since what had been sporadic resistance has become a vociferous movement all up and down the middle and southern reaches of the Atlantic seaboard. Whole towns have disavowed the plan. With such grassroots support, an environmental group called Oceana decided to ask members of Congress to intervene by asking members of BOEM, or others in the Administration, to drop the Atlantic from the plan before submitting it to Congress.

I was among the group of a few hundred people who converged on Washington several weeks ago to ask individual Congressmembers to get involved.

Lobbying

Before this event, I’d heard the phrase “lobbying on Capitol Hill” before, but it was like one of those words, like “admixture” or “indigent,” that you think you know, of course you know, but cannot actually define. I’d been to Washington DC before, but only to join political protests or to visit museums. I’d had little sense of how the place works, either as a human community or as a group of interrelated institutions. So, again, there was this sense of vague familiarity, of having seen all these grand buildings many times without really clearly knowing what people do inside them (except in a very general way–I do know how the US government works!).

In case I’m not alone in this confusion, allow me to share a few points:

“Capitol Hill” is, in fact, a low hill upon which sits the Capitol Building and several other rather august buildings, and a residential neighborhood. The offices of the members of Congress are distributed among the Capitol Building itself and two unusually attractive office blocks, all linked by a system of underground passages and above-ground ordinary sidewalks. To work “on Capitol Hill” means to have legitimate business in those buildings.

“To lobby” originally meant to stand around in the lobby of a certain hotel waiting for government officials to make themselves available so you can try to talk them in to one thing or another. The word “lobbyist” has a rather nefarious connotation, but while I’m not saying all lobbying is benign, some of it clearly is. Lobbyists are professional relationship-makers. Their job is to know the members of Congress and their staff personally, to know what constitutes “polite and friendly” behavior in such circles, and to know how to present issues in terms of each member’s actual interests. A good lobbyist knows who cares about the environment for its own sake and who cares more about the economic ramifications of an oil spill. A good lobbyist also knows which Representative is utterly focused on his or her district and who is looking for statewide support ahead of an upcoming Senate race. Without that knowledge and skill, the chance of being listened to on Capitol Hill is very slim–not because lobbyists themselves are manipulative, but simply because they are pleasant to talk to and they get to the point.

“Our” lobbyist, the Oceana employee shepherding our group from office to office, was Will, a charming, confident young man in a stylish black suit and coat. I assume that Will is short for “William,” and so the entire time I was in his company I had “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill,” from Schoolhouse Rock, stuck in my head. As a gesture of respect I decided not to tell him so. I’m sure he gets it a lot.

The Event

So, on a snowy day in January, a few hundred of us from all up and down the East Coast collected in a conference room of one of the Capitol Hill office buildings for welcoming speeches, a briefing, and some fruit and baked goods. Then we broke up into groups by state, with each group led by one or two lobbyists or experienced activists. All of the meetings had been prearranged, but some of the arrangements changed at the last minute because of the snow and other issues.

Our Maryland group set out to communicate with both our Senators and also with those Representatives whose distracts included coastline. In all but one case, we met with staffers, not the actual Member (I noticed that members of Congress are always called Members, with an audible capital M and no modifier). The staffers were not mere functionaries; their responsibilities include deciding whose request has which priority, so if you want the Member to hear about you sometime before 2027, you have to be nice to the staffer. But being nice to the staffers was easy–they’re all friendly, energetic, personable folks.

Will suggested we be discrete about talking strategy while we were in the halls of government. Nothing we were doing was actually secret, or, as I understand it, unusual, but he did not want the details of our conversations to enter the local rumor mill–apparently, Capitol Hill is like one of those small towns where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Our being talked about was a complication our cause didn’t need. I am following the same suggestion now by being a little vague.

So, we talked to staffers and one Member–a personable fellow who impressed me by knowing where Newark, Maryland is, something most people who live five miles up the road can’t manage–and found everyone friendly and helpful. Our message wasn’t news to anybody, thanks to Will, who had been carefully laying groundwork. I had expected that if the Member disagreed with us his or her office might be coolly polite or even hostile and that if the Member already supported us his or her office might be impatient. Like, yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time! I was wrong on both counts.

Those who agreed with us wanted us to keep up the pressure, even intensify it, in order to give them the political cover to do what they wanted to do anyway. They’re public servants, so doing what their constituents want is their job. Those who disagreed wanted us to stay involved and to speak to their interests because, again, it is their job to be responsive. We did tailor our “ask” to our audience–in some cases we asked that the Member call someone in the Administration to request active intervention in the plan-writing process, in other cases we merely requested he or she keep an open mind towards us. We gave each Member a packet on information on the issue and how it related to his or her constituents. Mostly Will did the asking. Our job was to speak briefly and movingly of our homes and what would happen if they were covered in oil.

Do I paint an overly rosy picture of the halls of government? Perhaps–I’m giving everyone I met that day the benefit of the doubt, certainly. But at the same time I do not mean to describe Capitol Hill as a place of warm and wise cooperation among everybody. I do not mean to deny the disproportionate influence of money or the existence of backdoor deals. What I wish to deny is the common misconception of Congress as a monolithically corrupt place full of people who have the power to do exactly what we want but choose not to for nefarious reasons. Reality is more complex, more nuanced than that. More than anything else that day I was struck by how human, how interpersonal. a system it is, and how much might depend on people simply being nice to each other–not in the sense of quid pro quo or wheeling and dealing in favors, but simply because nice people are more fun to talk to. If you talk to someone they can tell you what they want and why and you might end up agreeing with them.

Lobbying on Capitol Hill means getting to know people and talking to them.

 


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Sleepless in DC: Lobbying Against Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic

On Wednesday, I went with a group of others to Washington DC to lobby against oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. I will write more next week about the history of the issue and the specific political processes involved, but today I want to write about the experience of lobbying–something I’d never done before and had frankly not expected to ever do.

I also need to apologize for not posting on Tuesday–I was busy getting ready to going to DC.

I ended up on the expedition more or less by accident. My husband signed us up to go but then had to back out due to commitments elsewhere, leaving me to carry the family standard, as it were, to Washington, even though I had only the haziest idea of what “lobbying on Capitol Hill” actually meant. I figured I’d go and make the crowd at least look bigger and leave the talking to others.

But while I was fuzzy on lobbying, I was familiar with our cause–keeping oil and gas exploration out of the Atlantic. Wednesday’s events were a follow-up to the BOEM scoping meeting I wrote two posts about last year.

Wednesday began early for me.

I knew I had to get up at 3:45 at the very latest in order to meet the man I was giving a ride to and get both of us to DC in time for check-in and orientation at 7:30. I tend to need more sleep than average and while I got to bed earlier than usual, I knew it wasn’t early enough–I rarely have trouble sleeping, but getting myself to bed at a reasonable hour is a persistent struggle. So I was worrying about my impending sleep deprivation when I discovered my cell phone’s battery was down. I couldn’t remember whether its alarm function would work while it was charging. I went to bed with much trepidation.

And I lay in the dark, not sleeping, worrying about my alarm clock.

I think I slept an hour or two and not all of those minutes were in a row. I asked my passenger to be my driver instead, but I could not even sleep in the car. At one point I dissolved in helpless giggles, I forget why, my wonky, sleep-deprived brain behaving very much as though I’d been drinking. Eventually I got it together, but I had some concern about my performance for the day.

Actually, I did fine. My ignorance about lobbying turned out to be unfounded anyway, because my role was specifically to be an “ordinary person.” We went around in groups to the offices of various Congresspeople and the leader of each group would present our argument and then introduce us, the little people. We’d speak briefly and movingly about the threat from fossil fuel to our homes and livelihoods. Once or twice I lost my train of thought and had to apologize, explaining that I had not slept. The staffers were very understanding.

The staffers generally were very helpful and friendly. Several even made suggestions for how we could plead our case better. What surprised me was how much the Congressmembers who already agreed with us welcomed our visits. I had thought that once someone was on our side further contact would be seen as redundant. Certainly that is how it works in ordinary discourse; if you came to me and said “oil and gas exploration are bad” and I said “yes, I know, I agree,” I wouldn’t want you to keep reiterating your point. I’d say “didn’t you hear me? I said yes!” In politics, evidently, it’s different.

The issue is that the members who already object to oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic are under constant pressure from other lobbyists to change their minds. Since being in Congress means doing what your constituents want, members are eager to hear from constituents whose views they share.

The experience of lobbying taught me many things–most of which I’ll get into in next week’s post. Basically I got a window into how politics in Washington actually work. It’s not the passionate and impersonal generalities we often see from the outside, where you’re either for climate sanity or against it and in the pocket of the Koch brothers. Instead, it is specific decisions made by specific people based on a suite of considerations. If you’re friendly and polite and you speak to a Congressmember’s own interest and priorities, he or she might just say yes.


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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.