Climate camps

The reading I was most interested in this week was Wainwright and Mann on “Climate Leviathan.”  Categorizations like this help us to understand current debates and schools of thought about an issue as complicated as climate change and what to do about it.

A similar paper came out just this fall from Matthew Nisbet called “Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change.” Nisbet’s paper is much more U.S. based and discusses three camps: ecological activists like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, smart growth reformers like Al Gore and Jeffrey Sachs, and ecomodernists like Roger Pielke Jr. and Andy Revkin.

If I were to superimpose Nisbet’s analysis onto Wainwright and Mann’s, the ecological activists would likely fall into Climate X, while the smart growth reformers would fall into Climate Leviathan.  I don’t know where the economodernists would fall.  They seem to be most typified by an organization called the Breakthrough Institute, started by Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  I finally stopped following them on Twitter because I never saw them put forward a constructive solution, but only criticisms of why anything that anyone else put forward wouldn’t work.  At some point you have to stop attacking others and advocate something of your own.  They seem to like nuclear power, but so does James Hansen, who probably belongs in the Climate Leviathan camp more than anywhere else, since his main solution is a carbon tax.

Given these considerations, I think Wainwright and Mann’s analysis of the climate debate is more comprehensive both in terms of geography and history.  Wainwright and Mann clearly trace the line of thought they discuss back to their historical origins, not just with philosophers like Marx and Hegel, but even back to the Book of Job.  They also include a discussion of non-American responses to climate change, such as a possible Asian response through Climate Mao, or even the Islamist response which falls into Climate X because it works against capitalism.

I thought their discussion of all four possible responses to climate change was really interesting and right on point.  Yesterday’s elections certainly showed Climate Behemoth.  Now that the Republicans have taken the Senate, the worst climate denier in Congress, James Inhofe, is in line to head up a key environmental committee.  Congress is likely to put bills in front of President Obama to fund the Keystone pipeline and gut the EPA’s carbon pollution standards.

Whether Obama will stand strong and veto these measures, or try to “compromise” by passing some of what the climate deniers want, is an open question.  Certainly people who care about the environment, such as the 400,000 of us who showed up to march in New York City, will need to make our wishes known.  Now is not the time to give up or go inactive.

The Climate Mao discussion was also interesting, especially in light of actions in China since this paper was published.  Wainwright and Mann point out that the major advantage to Climate Mao is the state doesn’t need the approval of Congress or anyone else to enact laws and measures to lower carbon emissions and control pollution.  They can just do it.  China did it in Beijing just before the Olympics, and they are doing more of it to address the terrible smog and pollution problems that plague the country.  The Chinese government knows it is not completely immune to civil unrest, and it doesn’t want these problems to lead to a rebellion.

I haven’t read Naomi Klein’s new book, “This Changes Everything,” yet – that’s planned for Christmas break.  But it sounds like she would fall into the Climate X camp as Wainwright and Mann call for it.  If everything went the way Wainwright and Mann describe, and a new world order could be created based in social justice and opportunity, that would be incredible.

But honestly, I just don’t see that happening, at least not in the near term.  We can certainly use the climate crisis to try to push this agenda, whether overtly or covertly.  The Green Climate Fund seems like one mechanism to do this, but as we read, it has a lot of problems – chiefly, who is going to fund it?  So I’m not getting my hopes up about a new utopia of climate justice.

Instead, I personally put my hat in with the smart growth reformers.  For now I feel like the best hope of lowering carbon emissions is a massive switch to renewable energy and a price on carbon.  You can argue both programs within the capitalist framework that so much American identity revolves around.  Renewable energy creates permanent, well paying jobs while preserving our natural resources, and it makes us energy independent while a cleaner environment improves human health.  A price on carbon addresses the market failure caused by the externalities of dirty fuels not having to pay for the costs they impose on society, and if the money is redistributed to America families, it would boost the economy and create jobs.

All of this seems like a much more palatable way to advocate for programs that would reduce carbon emissions.  Unfortunately other than on a volunteer basis, most Americans simply don’t care if Tuvalu vanishes into the sea or millions of Bangladeshis are flooded out of their homes.  The stock issues in any election are economy and jobs.  Fortunately, climate change can be addressed through those frames, and without having even to mention climate change itself, which has become politicized beyond all recognition.

The price of solar panels is continuing to come down, and soon I hope we will start to see a shift toward their use.  Of course the utility companies will try to fight this.  But letting people derive their own energy from the sun so they can be independent appeals not just to liberal environmentalists, but libertarian Tea Partiers.  There may be new alliances to be forged.

One thing is for sure: People who care about the environment will need to think openly and creatively, and not dismiss an idea or an alliance just because they haven’t used it before.  This is a time when all hands need to be on deck and all ideas on the table.

One thing Wainwright and Mann are also right about is the Climate Behemoth stance is not sustainable.  It is reactionary, but they don’t have programs or solutions of their own.  If smart growth reformers put forth real solutions, communicate them effectively, and make alliances even within the typical base of the Behemoth, they have a chance of success.

Urgency of climate change

Tuesday’s policy chapter was on energy and environment policy, which is the area of policy I hope to specialize in while at the Glenn School.  The reason I decided to get a degree at the Glenn School is because I would like to help make a difference in this policy area.  But I also have a lot to learn first, and this chapter was really helpful. However, I do not think it gave enough weight to what I and many others see as the most pressing issue facing the country, and really our entire species, today: climate change.

Over the past couple of years, I have started to become increasingly concerned with climate change.  The science is clear: The planet is warming, humans are responsible, the cause is carbon being put into the atmosphere mostly from burning of fossil fuels, and if we do not drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels in the next decade or so, we are likely to tip the planet’s environment into something totally different from what human civilization evolved in.  It will likely be beyond our ability to adapt, and beyond the ability of most other species.  We will be headed to the earth’s sixth mass extinction, with our own species as endangered as the rest.

This is not hyperbole.  If anything, the scientific community has been too conservative in how they estimate and express the threat.  But it is very real.  Much of the research on climate change has been done right here at Ohio State at Byrd Polar Research Center.  This center has sent scientists all over the world to drill ice cores in glaciers and ice sheets.  Gas bubbles trapped in these cores tell us what the atmosphere was like on earth going back 800,000 years.

At no time has there ever been as much carbon in the atmosphere as there is now, and throughout this time, temperature closely tracks carbon.  In the past 150 years – a blip in geological time – carbon has shot up beyond all previous measurements.  Temperature is following and will also go beyond previous measurements if we do not stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

Already the planet has warmed 0.7⁰C since the Industrial Revolution, and because carbon hangs in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, we have about another degree of warming in the pipeline.  That puts us perilously close to the 2⁰C threshold that scientists have said we cannot not go beyond.  (Even that threshold seems high, given the effects we’ve seen at less than 1⁰C.)

And yet, the science is being ignored.  Just this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the synthesis report for its Fifth Assessment, using the strongest language yet.  Climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and the natural world unless carbon emissions are cut sharply and rapidly, according to the report.

Yet, the reaction of the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) was to shrug it off as “nothing new.”  The House Science Committee is full of climate change deniers who are anti-science.  They dismiss the IPCC as baseless – thousands of scientists from all over the world who put in five years going through 30,000 pieces of research in a review process that incorporated 143,000 expert comments.  All of this work was on a volunteer basis.

Climate change denial has become a litmus test for Republicans, which is terrifying.  It’s like turning gravity or e=mc2 into a political issue.  It’s not political.  It’s science.  But what has happened over the past several years is that corporations and interest groups that don’t like the ramifications of the science have spent millions of dollars to raise doubt and impugn scientists.  The most definitive study found that a staggering $1 billion a year has been spent on climate change denial, mostly in untraceable dark money from front groups whose donors are secret.

Last week saw another key event.  A recording was leaked of a presentation by a particularly notorious front group king pin named Richard Berman at a conference of the oil and gas industry.  Berman was caught on tape telling corporations like BP, Anadarko Petroleum, Devon Energy, and others that they have to wage “endless war” by digging up dirt on environmentalists.  “You can win ugly or lose pretty,” Berman said, adding that they could donate $3 million to his front group attacking environmental groups, and he would keep their payments absolutely secret.

I personally am so happy to see Berman’s chicanery exposed to the world.  For years he has been running front groups paid with dark money to attack animal welfare groups, teachers unions, MADD, the CDC and the EPA, among others.  He has dozens of front groups, all run as nonprofits that funnel “donations” to his personal PR firm.  It’s a shady business that has made him millions, and is shockingly legal in this country.

The exposure of Berman marks a turning point in the climate wars.  No longer do we need to continue dealing with front group attacks on climate science.  Climate denial is no longer a tenable position, regardless of what Republicans think.  The problem is real, and dealing with it has been delayed for so long that it’s now extremely urgent.  There is a legitimate debate on what to do about climate change, but there is no more legitimate debate over whether it is happening.

Fortunately, a whole bevy of solutions are available and in the works.  Renewable energy is more affordable than ever.  The cost of solar has fallen from $76.67 per watt in 1977 to $0.74 per watt in 2013.  Research and development is underway for better battery storage and projects like solar roadways and solar panels that can act as windows.  Hybrid and electric vehicles are becoming common place.  Not every development will pan out, but a lot of them will, and none too soon.

Unfortunately the fossil fuels companies are not on board.  Scientists have calculated that in order to stay below the 2⁰C threshold for warming the planet (again this is high), the carbon budget for humans to burn from 2000 to 2050 is 886 Gigatons.  But from 2000 to 2010, we already used 321 Gt, leaving us a maximum of 565 Gt for the rest of the century.

Yet the fossil fuel companies have identified and made plans to extract and burn 2,795/Gt of carbon, worth $27 trillion dollars.  That is five time more than the allowable amount to keep a semi-livable planet.  And they are spending lots of money to extract increasingly extreme forms of fossil fuels such as tar sands, deep sea drilling, mountaintop removal mining, and fracking.  The fact is, if humanity is to survive beyond the next couple of generations, most of that carbon must be left in the ground.

The next 10 to 15 years are going to be a critical time for our country and for the world.  Time will tell if we can make the enormous switch from fossil fuels to renewables.  It is a switch often compared to the civil war years when so much of the country’s physical labor was performed by slaves.  One way we ended slavery was by switching to fossil fuels, and now we need to take the next step to renewables.  I want to spend the second half of my life helping to make that happen.