Tag Archives: Grist

We need a paradigm shift and a new article says “yes, we can”

It’s a huge, even monumental task, but we have to think big, even grandiose, if we are to avoid the “four horsemen” of apocalyptic climate change: global inequality, ecosystem depletion, “constrained depression” (low demand and high debt), and “resilience deficit” (i.e., our existing water, power, and transportation systems can’t handle coming climate disruption). David Roberts in Grist summarizes a very important article in Foreign Policy by Patrick Doherty, called “A New U.S. Grand Strategy,” that insists the U.S. can solve the monumental problems of climate change by designing our major systems–economic, industrial, civic, and political–around sustainability. As Doherty says, it’s more than a matter of  lowering  carbon emissions;  we need a “global transition to sustainability,” and the U.S. can and must begin the transition. As Bill McKibben says, “Between renewable energy and more efficient engineering, the technology already exists to stave off catastrophic global warming.” Doherty outlines the bigger picture, a strategy to create “a larger industrial, economic, civic, and political system that is designed around sustainability,” where sustainability is not just an add-on.

Roberts’ summary highlights the main features of an America leading the way globally, but first domestically, by creating walkable communities, shifting to sustainable agriculture and economics, and engaging in multilateral diplomacy.

  • Walkable communities: More and more Americans want to live in dense, walkable areas; get rid of regulations that hamper them and start building them.
  • Regenerative agriculture: Farmers can produce “up to three times the profits per acre and 30 percent higher yields during drought” with agricultural techniques that also clean water and restore soils. . . .
  • Resource productivity: “Energy and resource intensity per person will have to drop dramatically.” That imperative can drive “innovation in material sciences, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and energy production, distribution, and consumption.”
  • Excess liquidity: Channel all the corporate cash that’s sitting around in funds into long-term investments in America by taxing waste and creating regional growth strategies.
  • Stranded hydrocarbon assets: Figure out how to devalue the immense amount of carbon that’s still sitting underneath the ground without unduly traumatizing the economy.

This last–leaving the fossil fuel in the ground–is the major goal of 350.org’s divestment movement and collaborative efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, both of which campaigns are gaining momentum. And so this proposal is not just a fantasy; millions recognize that we are already beginning to shift the paradigm toward sustainability. Doherty’s article is long, but it’s clearly written and easy to follow; I recommend it. And let’s make sure President Obama and his cabinet know about it. Isn’t that the implication of the photo on the Foreign Policy website article? grandstrategy


The chance on climate change that Obama’s re-election gives us

Bill McKibben tweeted the gist of what we have to do: “What if grassroots activists joined with green D.C. insiders, got the president to kill the Keystone pipeline, and made putting a price on carbon into a national priority?”

Read Bill’s post on Grist to see why he’s optimistic, and look for ways to get involved with 350.org or other group. You can also write to President Obama, call the White House, post the story to your networks, and emphasize the positive in Obama’s press conference this week. About half of the news accounts of what he said were positive and half negative on the chances for real leadership from the White House on climate change; we may have to make him a follower of us and our grass-roots action. Let’s be ready!

Climate Change Is Hot Topic at Last

All it took was a $50 billion “super storm” and hundreds of blog posts, articles, and columns–and, let’s face it, a presidential election with the right outcome. Already on November 7, calls for Obama to put climate change high up on his agenda abounded. One that struck me: In a letter to the New York Times editor  Peter Kalmus of Altadena, CA, called for the President to make climate change his legacy: “A Green New Deal would be America’s ticket to jobs, security, economic recovery and renewing our position of global leadership. . . . Here’s hoping that Mr. Obama finally finds the courage to stand firm against the oil and coal barons and lead us, our children and future generations away from the brink of climate disaster.”

What an excellent idea: a new New Deal for the environment, with climate change as the focus. I planned to post links to many other calls for the President to make slowing global warming a priority,  by celebrities, columnists, and politicians, even some conservative ones, But Grist beat me to it by listing and quoting the highlights of the most important bandwagon-riders in a post by Lisa Hymas on November 12 titled “Climate should be Obama’s No. 1 priority, say lots of people who aren’t tree-hugging enviros.” Those quoted and/or cited include The New Yorker‘s editor, David Remnick; Republican and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman; former Obama official Cass Sunstein; and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Hymas ends by asking, “Might climate change break out of the environmental ghetto for good this time?” We can help to keep it front and center.

A positive sign is that even conservatives are discussing the idea of a tax on carbon. See the AP story entitled “Global Warming Talk Heats Up, Revisits Carbon Tax,” which includes this news: “On Tuesday, a conservative think tank held discussions about it while a more liberal think tank released a paper on it. And the Congressional Budget Office issued a 19-page report on the different ways to make a carbon tax less burdensome on lower income people.” Stay tuned. And do what you can to keep the pressure on Obama–insist that he reject the Keystone Pipeline for starters.

Earth on the brink

It has taken me awhile to figure out how to call attention to some really scary climate news while keeping to my goal of publishing posts that are 50 percent positive. Some news, such as the record high temperatures across the US this spring, I can balance with a good-news story: the US has cut its carbon emissions significantly and is on track to hit President Obama’s commitment to reduce global warming pollution between 2005 and 2020 by 17 percent. But in the case of the June 6 paper published in Nature warning that Earth may be fast approaching a tipping-point, a shift to a much-less-hospitable ecosystem, it takes work to be optimistic. And so I follow the lead author of the study in viewing the warning itself as good news. As Anthony Barnosky, a paleoecologist, told an interviewer from Wired, “There have been big, planetary shifts before.” The difference is, we know that one is imminent. Unlike us, “the dinosaurs couldn’t see it coming.”

The study, in which 22 scientists warn of impending and irrevocable major changes in the biosphere, is behind a paywall, but summaries abound in blogs. I recommend starting with David Roberts’ post on Grist or the Wired write-up, or one of the few front-page news stories, in the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because Barnosky is from nearby UC Berkeley). Most accounts refer to a tipping point for Earth, but the paper itself uses the term “status shift”–an irreversible transition of an ecological system from one state to another. Many such transitions are localized, but there have been global ones, such as the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago. It’s not just the warming of the planet that is leading to a status shift, say the scientists; it’s the explosion of population, which means ever-more resources for the extra billions to consume. More people means habitat destruction, the disappearance of plant and animal species, over-exploitation of energy resources, and more carbon emissions, producing more warming.

Here’s a video of lead author Anthony Barnosky, of UC Berkeley, on the findings:

James H. Brown, a macroecologist who is one of the authors, is quoted in the Times‘s Green blog as saying,  “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.” How we can gently deflate the bubble is what the commentators explore in the posts. Common to all the scenarios for avoiding the brink are the need to dramatically slow population growth,  get off fossil fuels and onto alternative forms of energy, develop more efficient food production, and practice better ecosystem management.

The analysis includes reaction from climate scientists with different perspectives, such as those who would greatly expand the time frame of these changes (the paper warns that they may occur within a few generations),  To keep away from what would tip this blog toward doom and gloom I seized on the judgment of those who say this shift is neither imminent nor inevitable, which echoes Barnosky’s belief expressed in the video and in interviews that humanity can pull together and avoid the doomsday scenario. In an interview with the Green blog’s Justin Gillis, Barnosky pointed out that “while many species are threatened directly and indirectly by human activity, the number actually driven extinct in the last 200 years is estimated to be only 1 to 2 percent of all species on earth. ‘We still have almost all the species that we regard as valuable out there to be saved. . . . We as people have it in our power to do that.’”

I’ll give the final word in this post to  David Roberts, in a June 11 post in Grist, who stated the goal in larger terms–namely, that we have to conceive of ourselves as global citizens, not just as members of a family, or a tribe, as  Thunder or Heat fans. Even thinking of ourselves as North Americans isn’t  enough. We are “those who live on Earth”; our fellow tribe members are all human beings.  Only in this way will we be able to “envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.” By this, I take him to mean we ought to go beyond technological fixes like geoengineering, which has recently become a hot topic. More about this in upcoming posts.

Grist compilation of posts on climate change and politics

One site to visit, links to more than five posts that may make your head explode. It’s “Climate Primer: Global Warming Made Scintillating” at Grist:  Romney’s and other Republican candidates’ dismaying views on climate change, Bill McKibben’s welcome advice on how to fight cynicism (get angry), and more. I’m not counting a parody sketch with celebrities brainstorming climate initiatives for the Clinton Foundation (Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig, Ted Danson, Matt Damon, and others ). It’s clever but offers nothing.

Can we win arguments with climate deniers?

Should we make the effort to counter those who flat-out deny the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming? David Roberts at Grist thinks it’s a waste of time to try to persuade climate-change contrarians; but take heart, he says. They will die off, and sooner rather than later, given their age. He cites the effect of “cohort reduction“: social change comes about when leaders of an organization, culture, or profession give way to those in the next generation who have different beliefs and values and new frameworks of thought. Because the deniers are for the most part older white conservative men, this is the best hope for those of us who recognize how close the world is to the climate tipping point. He notes,  “People rarely change their minds, especially about matters core to ideology and identity. But they do die!”

Despite the provocative headline and opening gambit, Roberts knows that we can’t wait for this cohort to be replaced. They can do too much damage, as witnessed by the leaked plans of the nonprofit group the Heartland Institute to undermine teaching about global warming in public schools. If the group’s plans to insert any part of this body of non-evidence and pseudo-science into the curriculum succeeded and climate change was discredited, the aging cohort’s denialism would live on after their demise, just as science educators still have to fight attempts to require the teaching of the unscientific theory of creationism.

There’s no time to waste while waiting for the shift to happen through attrition, especially given the funding available to the deniers and the dysfunctional Congress that supports their cause. Roberts recommends several actions climate hawks should take: ratchet up the intensity of argument, build political coalitions, organize those who have shown they “get” climate change,  and don’t spend any effort on arguing with a group “unmoored from reality.” (Roberts describes in more detail how we can  mitigate the damage done by these contrarians in a 2011 Grist post.)

To this I’ll add the opportunities for the non-scientists among us to become knowledgeable about climate change through films and DVDs, books and blogs, and courses like Open Climate 101, a course taught at the University of Chicago by David Archer that the university has made available on line for free. Watch a video lecture and read a sample chapter from his text at the Dot Earth blog; then go to the course website to register for free.

There’s No Reason to Build the Keystone XL Pipeline–and Many Reasons Not To

There are many reasons to oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline to get oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries, such as likely environmental damage from spills, the energy required to get the oil out, and the threat to aquifers along the route, but the biggest threat the Keystone pipeline poses is the catastrophic amounts of carbon that will be released if this oil is extracted and burned. As Bill McKibben of 350.org has said frequently, citing NASA’s Jim Hansen, if the world’s second largest deposit of oil is tapped, the amount of carbon released will essentially doom all mitigation efforts: it will be “game over” for the climate. Given the lack of political will to act on other than short-term interest, even this warning is not likely to stop the project at a time of high oil prices and growing demand. Indeed, NPR reported on Morning Edition on January 18 that extraction of the tar sands oil continues, with much of it traveling on huge tankers and existing pipelines to the American West Coast and with plans to expand pipelines to the East Coast.

But Republicans’ and the oil industry’s claim that the project would provide jobs has been thoroughly debunked, at least on the blogs, which is the only place you are likely to find the story. On January 11 Danielle Droitsch of the National Resources Defense Council punctured claims that the pipeline will provide thousands of jobs. She showed that linking Keystone XL to job creation is a scam–a pretense to get the oil to international customers, for the US is already reducing its oil imports and the tar sands extracted oil would glut the market, lowering the price and thus oil companies’ profits. A subhead neatly sums up her contentions:  The Oil Goes to China, the Permanent Jobs Go to Canada, We Get the Spills, and the World Gets Warmer. (Note: I’m linking to the January 13 repost on Climate Progress because of the number of substantive comments it received there. Also, a video from CNN posted there has an interview with an executive of  TransCanada conceding that permanent jobs created will number only in the hundreds; some thousands would be hired, but only on a temporary basis, to construct the pipeline.)

Droitsch argues that not only would few jobs be created (under 100 permanent ones); building the pipeline would hinder the creation of  jobs in the  renewable energy sector, which is where they are growing exponentially. She asserts, “The evidence shows the future of job creation is in global clean energy markets,” and  “approving Keystone will set that task back decades.” On January 18, with news outlets reporting that Obama was set to reject the pipeline, Sarah Laskow confirmed Droitsch’s claim on Grist.org. Although mainstream media continue to report Republican claims that rejecting the pipeline makes Obama a job-killer, they ought to cite the evidence provided by Laskow that proves clean energy policies create more jobs than Keystone. Her figures, borrowed from Think Progress, derive from an independent study of job creation caused by programs such as the Energy Department’s loan guarantees and the EPA’s new mercury emissions rule.

This won’t stop the extraction of tar sands oil. But there are a couple of ways to slow it: decrease demand for gasoline and increase production of energy from alternative sources. As the Morning Edition reporter said, “by raising fuel efficiency standards, as the Obama administration recently did, . . . you stand a much better chance of slowing production in the oil sands.” Opponents of Keystone  will take heart from today’s decision, for building one pipeline opens the gate to many more, and stopping this big one for now buys time for activists to work on the other front: reducing consumption of fossil fuels in as many ways as we can think of.