Here’s some straight talk on climate politics:
A facile explanation would focus on the ‘merchants of doubt’ who have managed to confuse the public about the reality of human-made climate change. The merchants play a role, to be sure, a sordid one, but they are not the main obstacle to solution of human-made climate change.
The bigger problem is that people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.
And from the same essay, some straight talk on energy:
Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
This Easter Bunny fable is the basis of ‘policy’ thinking of many liberal politicians. Yet when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. ““ maybe even a tar sands pipeline. Why the inconsistency?
Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan. They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics. They are reluctant to explain what is actually needed to phase out our need for fossil fuels.
Partisans in the climate concerned community are quick to badmouth or dismiss alternative policy prescriptions that–even if you disagree with these alternative options–are at least honest about the scale of the energy challenge and the geopolitical realities.
H/T: Andy Revkin
When we lived in Boulder a few years ago, we were very lucky to rent an inexpensive rickety house perched in the foothills. We felt like we were living in a huge treehouse. The views were awesome and the space was luxurious compared to our Brooklyn shoebox.
But the wildlife spooked the hell out of me. Bears feasted out of our trash cans, raccoons scampered across the roof during the wee hours, and field mice sought refuge in the winter. To a city slicker, it was like living on the set of Grizzly Adams meets Little House in the Prairie.
Then were was the never ending mountain lion alert. That truly was unnerving at times.
Now that we are safely returned to the urban wilds of NYC, we are fortunate to have friends that have a country spread in a rural stretch of Connecticut, where we sometimes retreat to on weekends. The kids roam without fear of being run over by renegade pizza delivery guys on bikes going the wrong way. It’s blissful.
You know where this is heading, don’t you?
So in today’s NYT, David Baron, the author of Beast in the Garden (which I reviewed here in 2004–when I had no inkling I’d ever be living in the mountain lion’s backyard four years later), has an op-ed about the cougar making headlines this week, in which he writes:
Thanks to the South Dakota cat and its incredible journey, residents of the Eastern United States can now experience the fear and thrill that come with living below the top of the food chain. America has grown a bit less tame.
Great. I get to experience that fear and thrill all over again next time we’re in the Connecticut countryside. Thanks a lot, David!
Henry David Thoreau famously wrote:
In wildness is the preservation of the world.
Since the late 1800s, the notion of wilderness as nature incarnate has been an animating force in American culture. A host of seminal, hugely influential environmental writers and activists, from John Muir and Aldo Leopold to David Brower and Edward Abbey, have idealized and championed wilderness.
In the 20th century, the wilderness ethos gave rise to the Sierra Club and the first wave of nature-centric environmentalism, energized the nascent conservation movement and influenced the emergent science of ecology.
The ideal of nature as undisturbed by humans and civilization was codified in the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined the characteristics of wilderness as
an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain; an area of underdeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation and which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.
Before going any further, let me just say that I’m as big a fan of wilderness protection as anyone. So is environmental historian William Cronon, who sits on The Wilderness Society’s Governing Council, but who also published this provocative 1995 essay. Here’s his thunderclap of an opener:
The time has come to rethink wilderness.
This will seem a heretical claim to many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet””indeed, a passion””of the environmental movement, especially in the United States.
And indeed, such a claim was treated as heresy of the highest order. Cronon argued that wilderness, while intrinsically valuable, was nonetheless a cultural construction that encouraged a romanticized view of nature.
The blowback at the time was fierce (which Cronon responded to here), foreshadowing a similar outcry that followed ten years later, after this larger critique of environmentalism appeared. To me, the respective environmentalist tantrums of 1995 and 2005 exhibited a green movement stuck in a state of arrested development. (For more on why this is still the case, look for a follow-up post later today that will serve as a bookend to this one.) Alas, in the uproar over Cronon’s demythologizing of wilderness, this other important point he made in his essay got lost:
…the convergence of wilderness values with concerns about biological diversity and endangered species has helped produce a deep fascination for remote ecosystems, where it is easier to imagine that nature might somehow be “left alone” to flourish by its own pristine devices.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? Later on in his piece, Cronon writes:
Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others.
Fortunately ecologists have matured, as I noted last year in a discussion of this article on urban ecology. More evidence of an important paradigm shift underway comes in this NYT piece on Emma Marris and her newly published book: The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
In the NYT interview, Marris says:
We’re at a moment in ecological and conservation thinking where this notion of the “wild pristine” gets pulled apart, and we see that wild and pristine are almost opposite. You can never have 100 percent pristine, you can only approach the pristine. It’s a little bit of any empty concept in some ways because it presupposes that there was some sort of magical moment when everything was right.
And because everything has been a moving target forever, there was no real magical moment. So “pristine” is a word that we use when we mean things looking like they did at the beginning of our cultural memory, which tends to be very short.
I’m thrilled that we’ve finally arrived at this moment in time, where our ideas of nature and ecological restoration have become more sophisticated. I just wish there was more public discussion accompanying this shift in cultural and ecological consciousness.
Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.
Given much of the recent reporting of the IPCC’s work, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a tinpot group of green zealots, rather than the greatest feat of global scientific cooperation ever seen. Its reports are approved and endorsed by every nation on the planet, making it utterly unique and authoritative.
When you can grow more food using the same inputs of land, water and fertilizer, everyone — farmers, consumers, hungry people and anyone who cares about CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere — is better off.
From a profile of an environmentally-minded owner of a California-based R & D biotech company, who says he wants to
use the the tools of plant biotechnology, and point them at saving the environment.
I guess that makes him an enemy of Greenpeace and all the other anti-GMO fanatics who call themselves environmentalists.
Joe Romm has often claimed that most people don’t read past the headlines of news stories. I’m wondering if he thinks that rule doesn’t apply to blog posts, because this doosey from him clocks in at 3947 words.
But if you’re one of those headline-only news consumers, Romm does oblige by summarizing his bloated post with this snappy title:
The Road to Ruin: Extremist ‘Climate Pragmatism’ Report Pushes Right-Wing Myths and a Failed Strategy
In his write-up at Time Magazine, Bryan Walsh characterized the same report as being written by “a bipartisan range of thinkers on energy and climate issues.” I didn’t detect any hint of extremism by this bipartisan bunch in Walsh’s description of the paper. Nor in my own reading of the Climate Pragmatism report did it strike me as the work of radicals. (I’ll have a full post up on the report later in the week.)
No matter. I’m sure the irony of labeling the report as “extremist” eludes Romm.
One of the best self-mocking anthems to fame is this classic from Joe Walsh.
Now when this song came out in 1978, the free spirited, social change-minded Age of Aquarius was giving way to the self-absorbed, inwardly focused era of crystal healing and personal gurus. The New Age movement soon became a mainstream, commercial success, brilliantly marketed by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson, among other charismatic types.
Today, these self-anointed spirit guides command hefty lecture fees and write best-selling guides on how to heal your emotional pain and tap into the universe’s cosmic harmony. They have legions of acolytes that eat this stuff up.
What I wonder is if these New Age rock stars have any awareness of the narcissistic path to enlightenment they have blazed for the next generation of huckster healers.
Take the case of Gabrielle Bernstein, a rising star in the New Age firmament. Here’s a fawning profile of her in the August issue of Elle, a women’s magazine that, like most women’s magazines, mostly recycles stories on sex, beauty and self-improvement. (Here’s a lament/plea from one female journalist who wishes that women’s magazines offered more than this standard fare.)
Now let me first say that the all-knowing universe has previously guided me to Bernstein. So when it happened again earlier today, I read with much amusement in Elle about Bernstein’s penchant for $15 coconut water, her ascendant career as a “life coach” and how she is “unencumbered by mini melodramas.” (Well, not always.)
I tend to think of these spiritual charlatans as harmless. It’s not like they’re pushing crack. People with disposable income seek them out to learn how to be happier and better adjusted individuals. What’s the harm? But then I came to this part in the profile, where Bernstein is dispensing advice at one of her “life coaching” sessions:
One evening, a girl named Stephanie says she fears falling into a depression because her job hunt is going nowhere. Bernstein locks eyes with Stephanie. “If your happiness is based on external experience, then, my darling, you are fucked.”
Pardon me, but that’s a fucked up thing to say to somebody who is understandably anxious about not being able to find a job. Going forward I hope Stephanie realizes that the universe sometimes has a way of playing sick jokes on us. And that she holds on to whatever money she has left to buy groceries and pay her rent, instead of forking it over to someone who spouts fortune cookie quotes and buys $15 coconut water.
In the 1990′s, amid widespread complaints of “gridlock” in Washington, the notion of political punctuated equilibrium “was born from dissatisfaction with the idea of everything being fixed and unchanging in politics,” [University of Texas political scientist Bryan] Jones says. Political scientists who looked at our institutions broadly saw big changes coming relatively slowly from public pressure, which led to politicians finally voting for new laws.
But in reality at the time, big changes were arriving suddenly, without big changes in voter sentiment, after long periods of well, equilibrium. A good example is the welfare reform of the mid-90′s, says political scientist B. Guy Peters of the University of Pittsburgh. “The laws and ideas behind them were put in place decades earlier with only small changes and then suddenly you had a big one,” Peters says. “That’s a punctuation.”
A more recent example is the food safety reforms of last year, Jones says. Food safety laws had dated back to the 1930′s without big changes. The basic idea is that things often continue in government with only incremental changes until something “” an idea catching fire or a scandal, the comet impact of politics “” suddenly makes big things happen. In food safety, decades of recalls had only resulted in small fixes to rules. But the food safety reform bill giving more power to the Food and Drug Administrationpassed the Senate last year by a 73-25 vote, even though it hadn’t been an issue until a salmonella scare the previous year shook things up.
Similar examples can be found in seminal environmental legislation, such as 1964′s Wilderness Act, of which was the culmination of decades of groundwork by an influential group of advocates, writers, and interest groups (such as The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society).
One piece of legislation that has transformed the science of archaeology, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), also seemed to come out of nowhere in 1990. But it sprang from a long-festering history and a series of smaller events in the early to mid-1970s.
With respect to climate change, the du jour environmental issue of the day, I suspect that something similarly momentous will happen in the near future, despite the increasingly polarized state of U.S. politics.
Last week, when news broke about NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s $50 million donation to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign, I noted that his rationale was based largely on public health considerations and NOT global warming. I wrote:
One of the climate moralists I cited in that passage was David Roberts of Grist. He’s become a favorite target of mine for his sneeringly sanctimonious droppings. What a shame, too, because he’s obviously smart and is a gifted writer.
Anyway, after Revkin tweeted my Bloomberg post, Roberts sent Revkin a disapproving message:
@Revkin Kloor’s vapid, snotty point was refuted by the VERY PRESS RELEASE HE CITED. Don’t get why you give that guy so much exposure.
No it wasn’t.
Regardless, let’s turn to today’s article in Time magazine by Bryan Walsh, who writes (my emphasis):
[W]hen I spoke to Bloomberg before his donation became public, climate change wasn’t foremost on his mind. He saw coal pollution first and foremost as a public health issue, one that is directly hurting Americans through higher rates of asthma and heart disease. He was certainly worried about the greenhouse gases those coal plants were spewing “” coal is responsible for about 20% of global carbon emissions “” but what really motivated him were the mercury emissions, the particulates, the arsenic and all the other conventional poisons created by burning coal. “Coal kills every day,” Bloomberg told me. “It’s a dirty fuel.” So it is with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has succeeded more by motivating individual communities over the local health effects of coal pollution than by appealing to the broader risks of global warming.
If we’re smart, this approach might be the new way to attack climate change: by identifying actions that can provide a wealth of benefits “” including on carbon emissions “” rather than simply focusing on global warming alone. That’s the message of a new paper called “Climate Pragmatism” that’s being published today by a bipartisan range of thinkers on energy and climate issues. The best way to deal with climate change, as it turns out, is not to deal directly with climate change. As the authors write: “Policymakers today are likely to make the most progress to the degree that they refrain from centrally justifying energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather and pollution reduction as ‘climate policy.’”
Let me stop there for a second and just remark that very smart people can sometimes be rigid, dogmatic moralists. Now back to Walsh:
It sounds a bit confusing “” if we’re going to deal with climate change, why not just directly deal with climate change? The answer is simple: we can’t, or at least, we refuse to. Over the past several years, even as the scientific case on manmade climate change has gotten stronger, the international system has failed again and again to reduce carbon emissions. The effort to produce a global carbon deal failed decisively in Copenhagen in 2009. In the U.S., a carbon cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate a year ago, and there’s little chance it will be revived. Even Europe “” home to the governments and citizens that seem to care about climate change the most “” has gradually scaled back its ambitions on reducing carbon as the cost and complexity of those policies has become clearer.
The failure of the global deal is an inevitable consequence of what Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado and one of the authors of the “Climate Pragmatism” paper, calls “the iron law of climate policy.” Any climate policy that is viewed as obstructing economic progress will fail “” especially in large developing countries that are counting on rapid economic growth to lift citizens out of poverty. Take China, for example “” while the country has emerged as a world leader in terms of clean energy investment, its leaders remain reluctant to sign onto any kind of meaningful carbon reductions. The economy comes first, with renewables supplying just a tiny portion of China’s overall energy mix. Coal is and will be far more important, with coal imports in China and India slated to grow 78% in 2011.
In case you haven’t gotten the gist of the article, it’s titled
Fighting Climate Change by Not Focusing on Climate Change
Here’s a link to that Climate Pragmatism paper, which I’ll do a separate post on later this week.
When I lived in the affluent, liberal, eco-friendly universe of Boulder, Colorado in 2007-2008, I noticed that bikes and SUV’s were ubiquitous.
Similarly, here’s an observation from a reader who resides in another well-to-do community:
I live in a very “˜eco friendly’ community just outside of Seattle. Styrofoam cups have been banned, various street signs are solar powered etc etc etc.
The community soccer field is about 1/2 a mile down the road. I’ve never seen even a single econobox parked in that parking lot. It’s GMC Yukon city at soccer practice time. There are plenty of “˜no war for oil’ bumper stickers on the back of those GMC Yukon’s.
That’s political reality. The very demographic that should be the most supportive of action on climate change (upper middle class, educated, liberal) is completely blind to the fact that their lifestyle’s are the problem.
Until someone figures out how to make a vehicle as safe, convenient and comfortable as a GMC Yukon that doesn’t guzzle fossil fuels, action on climate change is going to be limited to “˜feel good’ measures.
This generation really needs someone like Phil Ochs, my all-time favorite folk singer.