Don’t Just Do Something… Sit There

We’ve touched on this idea before – not the transposed smart-alecky version in the title, but the idea that someone somewhere is doing something about climate change. And because they are, everything will be cool (sorry). You might be doing something yourself – you might have biked to work today, or bought a diesel SUV that gets better mileage, switched out your soft white 75s for CFLs… whatever is, we’re all doing some of these things, which means we’re all doing something, in our way. Which come to think of it, is our way. More on that in a minute.

When it comes to government-level actions to tax carbon or enact a cap-and-trade regime, things are also moving – that is, people are doing things. You have the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the house in June. And the senate version, leaked yesterday and released today, uses healthy doses of legislative lingo (I won’t say gibberish) to show boldness at reducing emissions while obscuring the polluting that will be allowed and the billions of dollars in emissions permitting that will be given away… ahem. This is the game, and one reason, among many, that you cannot merely be sanguine about the fact that someone in Washington (our capital) is doing something. There are many issues, among them – what is cap-and-trade? How is it different from a carbon tax?

Grist has a good interview with James Hansen of NASA, discussing the merits of these bills, what’s at stake and, reading between the lines, why we all need to understand the two questions above in order to hold solid opinions on whether someone is actually doing anything. Grist/Hansen:

One of the places most recently where you’ve been rather blunt is on the proposed Waxman-Markey climate bill. How would you summarize the problems that you see?

You can summarize the problem and prove that the bill is inadequate in a very simple way. You just look at the geophysical constraints on the problem and you look at how much carbon there is in oil, gas, and coal. And you see that the oil and gas is enough to get us into a dangerous zone for atmospheric carbon dioxide but not so far that we couldn’t solve the problem. But if you add coal and put that carbon in the atmosphere, then there is no practical way to solve the problem. So you just have to look at the proposed policy and see if it allows coal to continue to be used and emit the CO2 in the atmosphere.

You’ve got to cut off the coal source. Not only does [Waxman-Markey] assure that we will continue to run these coal plants that we have but it actually gives approval for additional coal plants. That simple test tells us that this bill is not adequate.

The basic point—the fundamental problem—is that because of government policies, fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy. They are not made to pay for the damages they do to human health and the environment. As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy, they are going to be used. That’s why I say you have to address the fundamental problem and that is put a rising price on carbon emissions.

You’ve been an advocate for a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade. Why do you think a carbon tax is not getting much traction?

It’s partly because of the poor choice of words. I have a new description and that is “deposit and return.” Either a carbon cap or a carbon tax affects the price of energy and so they’re qualitatively not different. And so it’s kind of a mistake to call one a “tax and dividend,” and the other a “cap,” as if the cap does not increase the price of energy. If it doesn’t increase the price of energy, then it’s not going to be effective.

We have to begin to move to the sources of energy beyond fossil fuels. And the way you do that in a way that is economically sensible and beneficial is to do it gradually but continually. The public and the business community need to understand that the price of carbon will continue to rise in the future, and then we would begin to move more rapidly to the post-fossil fuel era.

So would it be fair to characterize the Waxman-Markey bill as business-as-usual, or is it even worse than business-as-usual?

Well, it’s a small probation of business-as-usual. It’s worse, in my opinion, than almost no policy because it does lock in, it does give approval for, some new coal-fired power. It puts a ceiling on the reductions that will occur. If you put a price on carbon emissions so that the competitors, the energy efficiency and the carbon-free energy sources, can begin to have the competitive advantage, then once you reach a certain point, things will move very rapidly and we will begin to leave the coal in the ground.

That’s what the coal companies are afraid of and they have been enormously effective in their impact on the politics, even though the truth is it’s not that big an industry and the total number of employees is not that large. But they are very powerful in terms of the number of senators and representatives they are able to influence, and apparently even the administration. It doesn’t make sense from an overall national perspective to give them such tremendous political clout. It is not in the best interest of the nation or the public.

We can move to simplified formulations to create helpful guides about the issue: if (measure x) does not increase the price of energy, it’s not going to be effective. Simple, understandable and clear – but we have to use them as starting places from which to move forward, likely toward measures that will require more of us and, just as likely, produce greater benefits that just being carbon negative or whatever. Quality of life stuff, like this new app I just found out about for taking in meaningful information on all sorts of subjects. It’s called sitting under a tree reading.

So don’t just do something…

Open Up the Till

And give me the change you said would do me good.

Picking up on a trend that came up last week, another energy company decides the Chamber is just not the disco floor it once was:

Exelon, one of the country’s largest utilities, said Monday that it would quit the United States Chamber of Commerce because of that group’s stance on climate change. It was the latest in a string of companies to do so, perhaps a harbinger of how intense the fight over global warming legislation could become.

“The carbon-based free lunch is over,” said John W. Rowe, Exelon’s chief executive. “Breakthroughs on climate change and improving our society’s energy efficiency are within reach.”

En garde, Monsieur Rowe; them’s librul fightin’ words if ever there was any. What might have starched these corporate britches?

What appears to have touched off the utilities’ withdrawals from the chamber was a recent article in The Los Angeles Times that cited chamber officials who called for a “Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century” about the science of climate change. The Scopes trial was a clash of creationists and evolutionists in the 1920s.

Well, that would do it. One thing Leading Companies of Today™ cannot countenance is looking like yahoos – and I don’t mean a second rate search engine. Roy wrote recently about a new book on the Republican Party’s embrace/implosion at the hands of fundamentalist Christians, and this can be thought of along similar lines. What’s a healthy dose of the crazy, and how long can you ride it? The advantage gained to a political party, or a group of companies, by riding herd on the rabid willingness of zealots to say and do anything in pursuit of shared ideological goals can be measured in months. [This especially true when the shared goals are orthogonal – that is, mine aren’t yours and yours aren’t mine but they intersect in a way that we look like friends… even though I know you are crazy.] Corporations, far more nervous than politicians, know this, enter into such pacts far more cautiously and are quick to flee as the dial gets turned up. While it may have appeared that the GOP had secured the future of the country just a few short years ago, what they had actually secured was the limits of very finite, though quite enthusiastic, support. Politically, it was crazy from the go.

It’s not as though coporations are or should be considered paragons of ecological virtue. They just don’t want to look like idiots in a way that costs them money. And that, my friends, is what we call a teachable moment.

Being Cool about Warming

The whole idea that some morning arrives when everyone sees the light on climate change is all very… hopeful, especially as we harbor so much know-nothingness in our midst, and ring it with the implicit honor of supporting various points of view when it should rather be ridiculed into the obscurity it more properly deserves. When Inhofe goes to Copenhagen and makes a complete jerk out of himself, will that be the last straw? Will his fellow countrymen (you know, us/them) finally have seen enough of such antics? The question is almost self-refuting. Here’s Krugman today:

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

It’s a pity that we can’t just drift back into politics on this, and rely on the responsible parties within government to act sensibly, with an eye toward the future. But to do so is to redirect oneself toward the conundrum, to see this is actually where a great amount of the stupidity, cupidity and brazenness is coming from. Our politics allows this to be just another right/left food fight, and so there’s little to avail there – and a great number of Amur’cans do refuse to support anything endorsed by Al Gore. That’s just our dumbness coming through. We’ll have to wait until it shows up on our one actual and true radar – we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it-on-TV, in the cool, detached aura of advertising. Unless or until global warming becomes a pitch device for corporate advertising, the one true and knowing entity in our culture remains neutral on the subject. As long as that persists, we can be sure there’s no need to make a decision.

But here’s the thing: what if the big multi-nationals don’t really have our best, long term interests at heart? Is there any history of that? When will they let us know that climate change is real? What is the window of remove, of detachment, on an existential question?

Say it with me: savvy enough to break through the idiocy.

When Re-Assessments Collide

As the well-documented nuttiness of climate change denialism spirals towards the outward bounds of making any sense whatsoever, Pacific Gas & Electric (of Erin Brochovich fame) decides even it has had enough and will not sign on to the craziness otherwise endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

In a letter to the Chamber, PG&E Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Darbee wrote:

We find it dismaying that the Chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored. In our opinion, an intellectually honest argument over the best policy response to the challenges of climate change is one thing; disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality of these challenges are quite another.

PG& E’s communications director attributed the pullout not just to craziness on the part of the chamber but also to the fact that other companies had recently made similar decisions.

In the past several weeks, two high-profile companies – Duke Energy and Alstom – publicly gave up their membership in the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy in protest over its opposition to federal climate change legislation.

Other companies that similarly favor climate change legislation faced uncomfortable questions this summer over their memberships in similar groups that have mounted aggressive campaigns to defeat pending climate bills.

So, something resembling a kind of consensus appears to be building among a group of American energy companies, if not a larger plurality of Americans and American businesses who are at least beginning to not pretend to not see the light. Alas, this does not include the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) has announced to National Review that he will be personally leading a “truth squad” to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, where he will make it clear to international leaders not to believe that the United States will pass legislation to deal with the issue.

“Now, I want to make sure that those attending the Copenhagen conference know what is really happening in the United States Senate,” said Inhofe. “Some people, like Senator Barbara Boxer, will tell the conference, with Waxman-Markey having passed in the House, that they can anticipate that some kind of bill will pass EPW.”

The extent to which reality has not penetrated our House of Lords would be unremarkable were it not for the solid case it is making for its obsolescence, to which we should listen and copiously note. Really, the inordinate and out of proportion voting power senators have, unless you are one, resembles nothing more than perceived nineteenth-century robber baron impact on killing ‘savages’, crushing strikes and building railroads wherever their interests took them. That senators from North Dakota and California or New York have equal say on matters that affect tens of millions of people in the latter vs. hundreds of thousands in the former is just what it sounds like: an anachronism. But one that is marching backward on practically every issue of the day. It brings into question the whole bi-cameral nature of our legislative branch – it was conceived in a vastly different time and functions poorly in our present one. Saying that doesn’t seem nearly as outrageous as Inhofe going to Copenhagen to shriek nonsense about March snow storms in Oklahoma.

Climate Week

As though, with all of this rain, we hadn’t noticed. The local news shots of flooded interstate corridors are beginning to resemble dystopian feature films about impending climate catastrophe. And even those are going meta, with narratives set in the future where an activist looks at footage from this decade and laments our diddling. Hmmm…. we could be watching the same footage.

In New York this week, leaders of the world’s nations gather to re-outline the tough choices they don’t want to make, in foolhardy flank maneuver to defend future economic growth from the ravages of reduced carbon emissions(!). Sad, but one viable solution has been rolled out:

Urban Environmentalism

It doesn’t immediately come to mind – not when we usually think of vast forests at risk, the shrinking beaches/rising oceans axis, plus the gazillion acres of row crops used to feed us and our cows or grow transportation fuel(!) as the case may be. But, as usual, the cities are where the action is:

It’s the environmental movement’s own inconvenient truth, and it has tragic consequences. Blacks die from asthma twice as often as whites, and have higher cancer mortality rates than any other group. Nearly 30 million Latinos — 72 percent of the US Latino population — live in places that don’t meet US air pollution standards. Native American homes lack clean water at almost 10 times the national rate.

As a chilling reminder, this week marks the fourth year since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, leaving behind it a path of destruction that decimated poor and minority neighborhoods. Many Americans bore witness to the sad truth that the people hit hardest in my hometown of New Orleans were from the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and it remains a tragic example of how our most vulnerable populations often bear the burden of our worst environmental threats.

That’s EPA chief Lisa Jackson making the case for the case for urban environmentalism to be made, and to be made more stridently, more passionately, more urgently. She leaves out a lot – transit, cities are not just about the poor – but tying environmentalism to social justice will be one of the more powerful cudgels to wield against the massive disinformation campaigns that will accompany attempts to pass climate change legislation. The healthcare debate is the warm-up. Wait until you see the kinds of stupid demagoguery that is on the way: Inflated tax numbers, telling you not to let the government get between you and your driveway or whatever… it will be humbling, but should be taken as a precursor (the forced humility that would be part and parcel to resource scarcity). But, on the upside, it should be open season for mockery. So Python up.

Opponents of climate change legislation are on the wrong side of the issue, and hence, of history – I know, I also sense a pattern. The sleazy tactics are already wearing thin, but this should be taken not as a reason to slack off but as notice to become more emboldened, more explicit about what is at stake. Read about it, learn more, sharpen your points for whenever this comes up with friends, family or at the post, because opportunities to confront bizarre notions will be on the rise. Green means fecund.

Selling the Hot Idea

Speaking of debris fields, Stephen Benen at WM flags an article that is brimming with all kinds of cosmic debris. The piece is ostensibly about how the current political climate is muting what enthusiasm there is for legislation to combat climate change. But it’s actually a description of the false choice between the environment and economic development which many people sincerely believe they are grappling with. For those about to choose, we… tell you to hold on a minute.

I’ll just pick out a couple of things form the article, by Jennifer Robison of the Las Vegas Review-Journal who uses data from a recent Gallup poll to get right to the point.

Recent surveys show Americans cooling to global warming, and they’re even less keen on environmental policies they believe might raise power bills or imperil jobs.

What’s more, fewer Americans believe the effects of global warming have started to occur: 53 percent see signs of a hotter planet, down from 61 percent in 2008. Global warming placed last among eight environmental concerns Gallup asked respondents to rank, with water pollution landing the top spot.

Another recent Gallup study found that, for the first time in 25 years of polling, more Americans care about economic growth than the environment.

And Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think-tank, pointed to a study from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association that showed 58 percent of respondents were unwilling to pay more than they currently pay for electricity to combat climate change.

Emphasis mine. Is that a choice? “Hmm… this is what I’ll pay for my light bill and not a penny more!” Is that how it works? Really? The ellipses are used not to cherry pick – feel free to read the whole thing. It’s a decent picture of what people have been led to believe are the underlying conditions of both climate catastrophe and economic development. She’s right in that the way global warming has been portrayed is partly to blame. Just not in the way she says.

With so many surveys revealing that Americans have little appetite for environmental policies that they think could stall economic growth or pinch consumers’ budgets, policymakers still have some selling to do, observers say.

What are they supposed to sell? That, short of new, highly exotic schemes that, not unlike the rear-view mirror, may appear more insane than they actually are, economic growth as we’ve known it is over? That should go over well. But the point is that these two have not been sufficiently connected. It’s another contradiction: despite the kinds of big expensive movies we make and support – we’re actually afraid of scaring people. Who woulda thunk it? This is not even touching on the degree to which people who sow skepticism of a warming planet turn around tout that very skepticism as one reason to do nothing. Though that phenomenon is responsible for this:

“I think there’s a huge amount of skepticism among the public. They’ve heard all these claims, and now they’ve been informed that there isn’t any recent warming,” Ebell said. “The public, without having a lot of information about it, is pretty astute. I think the alarmists are having a hard time making the case for global warming simply because reality is against them and the public has figured it out.”

Again, emphasis mine. That’s a non-sequitur, first of all. But I would choose the terms ‘reality’ and ‘hard time’ as ripe for a kind of redefinition along the lines of what our economic development has been all about and what it would take for it continue in any meaningful way. Even outside of concern for rising oceans, the connection between our rate of resource burn to our ability to grow and grow is non-sensical and we should be striving to transition away from it for that reason alone. Books will be written about this phenomenon and the brick wall awaiting us. It’s not wishful thinking or ‘fatalism as marketing’ that will determine whether we pass or fail on this front, but the thing people fear most – smarts.

With apologies to Mrs. Simmel and the Piranha Brothers – more heads stuffed with Cartesian dualism, please.

Changing Planet

I write and link here about many of the observable effects of ‘green’ marketing campaigns and energy initiatives. By hook or crook, we’re all learning the implications of societal progress on natural the world, perhaps most visible right now upon the so-called intellectual order. It is important to remember in the middle of all of this that the world is changing. Sometimes we overlook this perspective of change from the ones who will feel it the most, or at least, more than today’s adults. These people walk and crawl among you today – they’re in everything from diapers to seventh grade right about now. Their perspectives will be far different from the ones enjoyed/indulged just a few short years before – and while they may be revolted by corporate subservience and climate denierism of their elders, they will likely be more empowered to something a little more active than resentment. While we contemplate change at the margins, these folks will likely have the knowledge, gumption and evidence for the necessary actions.

That may sound hopeful, but take a look a this Climate Change, Wildlife and Wildlands Toolkit for Formal and Informal Educators. This is the kind of knowledge is power take on climate change that will lead to sober solutions and clear thinking about the challenges ahead. It doesn’t say but I don’t think there is any age limits on its impact or usefulness.

Untoward Digression into the Politics

As though a more graceful straying was at all an option. This little tidbit stuck out in an argument on the optimal number of Americans, which sounds loaded enough, but then:

Without more of a focus on the implications of immigration policy for population, there could be 600 million Americans by 2100, he writes. Depending on whom you talk to, that is a boon or a disaster. Mr. Chamie notes that the relatively enormous thirst for energy, food and other resources from Americans, when compared with that of the average world citizen, gives outsize importance to issues like global warming and to American trends.

Emphasis mine. Isn’t that the whole point of green, cloaking our climbdown in euphemism as though we want to curb our appetites for resources and are not doing it because of shame or peak stupid related to the “while supplies last” ironicality? Next up, discovered deep in the programmer sub-species of the Amazonian Huarani, startling new emoticons for “shrug.”

Then, just for kicks and speaking of idiotic discussions, extend the logical implications of the resistance to big-government takeovers to firefighting:

Yet if we had to have the “conversation” about the firefighting industry today, we’d have socialism-phobic South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint on the TV every chance he could get saying things like, “Do you want a government bureaucrat between you and the safety of your home?”

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio would hold press conferences and ask, “Do you want your firefighting to be like going to the DMV? Do you want Uncle Sam to come breaking down your door every time some Washington fat cat says there’s a fire?”

Oh the pain. via.

And then there’s the sedition network. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if you were so inclined, to argue that Fox News was not created to destroy the Republican Party, and hence the two-party system. I guess we should always wonder whether we are and could be sufficiently virtuous to resist what seems like help but is actually designed to quicken our demise. Oh, maybe that’s what… Rrrgh. Hate. Lessons.

Hand-made Global Warming

You know the feeling – I was reading the other night and made a note to remember to look up a word I came across. If you don’t look up strange words in books or read books with strange words, you’re probably not reading this. So I’ll never mind about that.

Anyway, anthropophagic. There, I said it. Gross, sure, but I didn’t know the term. It means, basically, cannibalistic, and I’m sure Kazantzakis what getting at something good when he used it. Sarcophagus is also kind of gross, when you realize what it means.

By the time I remembered to look it up (just now) I was on to something else, so I’m fitting it in a bit oddly, I’m afraid. The goal of eating is not cheap food. That won’t come as a shock, I hope, but it’s instructive in its way when we relate it to other activities we engage in. We have approached eating and food acquisition as activities that should be completed as quickly and cheaply as possible, with minimum effort, price and enjoyment. In doing so we have done great harm to ourselves physically but also we’ve lost many more delicious aspects of eating that has nothing to do with taste – though we’ve greatly mucked that up, too. No, here of course I mean that we have eliminated discussions and arguments about other cultural artifacts that occur during meals. This is a crucial loss, equaled only by the quality of the cheap food that we ingest, that must be farmed on a mammoth scale in order to be cheap, that require prodigious amounts of petroleum fertilizer, again, in order to be cheap. All because we no longer like to talk over dinner.

Travel is much the same. The goal of moving around seems to be cheap trips. Wrong. The goal of traveling is much more pernicious to our sense of place, pride and perfection that that. It enhances one and inhibits the others, or changes them into something more problematic and in need of further investigation and more traveling. And it can get expensive. But what moving about on the cheap does to us is the key, and especially when travel is prioritized only on the basis of its cheapness, its harmful effects are most on display. When you can move around on a whim and eat for nothing, you become impatient with all other complexities – of palate, of locale, of politics, of… sutras. You name it. When we turn to whimsical, cheap entertainments to pasturize our neglected imaginations, we greatly succeed.

And it’s hard to turn back, to break the habits of ease. We construct all-or-nothing scenarios where the choice is between McDo and hunting/gathering, and do our selves no favors by it. Put a little more consideration into where you go, how you get there, what you put into your body… pretty soon the monstrous implications of life on the cheap go away. There can be no hand-made global climate change. You just can’t do it, my friends.

You can look it up.