Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Upward Spirals

Teaching about climate change – whether its the science behind the target of 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere or watching as people play the "350-challenge" (using the Pangaea simulator developed by our team from SI, Ventana Systems and MIT to discover what level of emissions reductions will be needed to bring C02 levels down to safety within the century) – means watching the expressions that cross people's faces as they begin to take in exactly where 'business as usual' is carrying us and how much emissions must be reduced to bring the climate system back to something near balance.

I saw it on the faces of Dartmouth students where I was a guest teacher recently. I heard it in the words of new staff members at SI who had their first chance to explore Pangaea the other day.

Reduce emissions by 6 or 7 percent per year around the world? Starting as soon as possible?

If that's what its going to take to stabilize the climate you must be kidding, the faces say.

And then the words begin. Look out the window - where I used to live in New Jersey, in the dorm where nobody seems to care, over in China with one new coal fired power plant following the next.

This feels impossible, the faces say. Please, tell me that it's not.

In these moments, the impulse to making everything all right, to explain how a combination of technology and hard work and co-operation can turn the trends, is close to overwhelming, especially when the faces looking out at me are young ones, the faces of people who will live the longest with the consequences of a changing climate.

What do you say in these moments? I asked my colleague Drew the other day. As he shares Pangaea with groups around the country and around the world he sees the kinds of faces I'm talking about on a regular basis.

His response: I show them pictures of my house. I show them graphs of our energy use. I show them what happened when we insulated, and when we installed the solar water heater. It's my own personal vision of 80% reductions by 2050.

I think Drew's answer is a brilliant one. Whether we think about our challenge as 80% by 2050 or 6% per year, the only place to start is where we are, using what we have at hand.

The real hope and possibility lies in the cascade of change those first steps can ignite - the economies of scale, the waves of innovation, the new ways of thinking and relating that can be unleashed when your neighbor (or your competitor, or a neighboring nation) takes a risk and tries things another way.

The other day I stumbled across some notes SI's founder and my teacher, Dana Meadows, left behind. Even as rough notes, meant for a later expansion that she never had the time to complete, they convey something very important about where our small first steps can lead:

"Greater energy efficiency makes better the greenhouse problem, urban air pollution, and acid rain. At the same time it reduces military and defense expenditures for the Persian Gulf. Enormous amounts of capital are released both from defense and from further construction of energy generators.

In the Third World that capital can be invested in human services, health and education, which brings down the birth rate. In the industrialized world it can be invested in research and development of renewable energy sources -- which further bring down pollution –- and in materials recycling- which saves still more energy and pollution by reducing the demand for primary materials. The mindset of materials cycling takes hold, creating new designs, new markets, and new jobs in materials handling and re-preparation. The careful re-use of wood and paper allow the restoration of forests, which conserve water flows, build soils, and provide habitats for wild species. The improved water regimes improves agriculture, as does the recycling of organic wastes into soil-amending compost.

As agriculture becomes both higher yielding and less dependent on imported chemicals the balance of trade of the Third World improves, debts become payable, incomes rise, further reducing birthrates, further raising income. As capital stops flowing out of those countries for debt repayment, it can invested in education and in new productive activities, energy efficient, material efficient, and with proper pollution controls. As physical constraints and economic problems ease, more and more people could have the freedom to explore who we could be and what we could do if we didn't have to grow."

Imagine that. The tiny steps of my tiny household, or Drew's, or yours, linked to global spirals of solutions. It's not just our problems that are interconnected, but also our potential to solve them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Beyond Business As Usual

In late September, the Global Carbon Project released new statistics on the 'carbon budget' including updated figures for the rate of increase in global carbon dioxide emissions from human sources during the period from 2000-2007. They report that while carbon dioxide emissions worldwide grew at an average rate of 0.9% per year in the 1990's the average rate of growth this decade has been an incredible 3.5% percent per year.

Is this a difference that makes a difference?

It might not sound like a lot at first glance. But, for anything that grows exponentially - from a bank account to the human impact on the planet – a small change in the rate of growth translates into a big difference in the growing entity. Here's a comparison in the form of two outputs from Pangaea - the global climate change simulation tool our team has been using and sharing. The red line shows future emissions in our "business as usual" scenario, at an average rate of growth for global emissions of about 1.5% per year. And the blue line show emissions growing at 3.5% per year, the rate we've just learned more closely fits our current situation.

The baseline run of Pangaea projects future growth rates in emissions based upon estimates provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These projected rates of growth vary depending upon the region of the world contributing the emissions. They range from 1% to 2% per year for the three regions that Pangaea simulates.

Since global emissions already exceed the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere that baseline run is not optimistic. It shows a world one-hundred years from now with CO2 levels of almost 900 parts per million - far above the level where several dangerous runaway warming loops could potentially be triggered.

The recent data from the Global Carbon Project mean that what we've been calling 'business as usual' - the scenario when the world doesn't respond to climate change by reducing emissions - is actually conservative. Growth in emissions is happening even faster than expected. The figure below shows the impact on CO2 levels in the atmosphere, if that growth rate holds steady throughout the simulation.

So, is this a difference that makes a difference?

Knowing that a 900 ppm world must be avoided at all costs, does it really mater that business as usual might be taking us there quicker than many had expected?

Isn't the old 'business as usual' trajectory so sobering that it already provides the motivation for individuals and nations to act strongly and decisively?

No one wants a 900 ppm world, so the likely results of what we've been calling 'business as usual' should be enough to motivate the kind of hard work and cooperation need to get emissions onto a downward trajectory. The IPCC scenario has been around, and is familiar, and credible.

On the other hand, an important goal of Pangaea is to allow all of us to ask what if questions.

And the runs I've shown here do ask an important 'what if' question: what if 3.5% per year is the new business as usual? Even if a 900ppm world is bad enough, this faster growth rate means that the degree of emissions reductions need to stabilize the climate might be even bigger than we think. We are racing a faster train than we thought.

It seems to me that all of us, ordinary people, parents, and decision makers, need to look this new reality straight in the face.

For now, I'll keep showing people 'business as usual'.

But I'm also going to start asking people if they'd like to try a 'beyond business as usual' too.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I Wish Dana Meadows Could See This

Of all the people I have met in my work in sustainability over the years none of them have believed in the fundamental goodness of human beings more than Dana Meadows, my first and in many ways, most important teacher in this field.

We don't have climate change and polluted waterways and eroding topsoil and declining fisheries because people are fundamentally bad, stupid, greedy, or lazy, she said, but because we find ourselves in complex systems that defy our intuitions and whose rules don't promote or reward the kind of care for each other and our world that most of us feel, most of the time.

That was her conclusion after decades of study, including participating in the creation of a computer simulation that explored the dynamics as our global human civilization approached and then overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth.

Her years of computer modeling left her deeply aware of how the dynamics of exponential growth, long delays, and distorted signals characterize most, maybe even all, of our major sustainability challenges and how these same dynamics fool even the most well-meaning of us into a false sense of security, a feeling we have more time to solve these problems than we really do, and a confusion about their underlying cause.

We don't need to be better people, Dana said, but we do need to challenge our intuitions, and learn to feel – deeply and without illusion – the dynamics of these complex systems.

I think Dana would be thrilled to see the recent work of some of the people she mentored in this field, Tom Fidaman and Drew Jones, especially.

With the help of others, they have created a computer simulation of the world's climate, called Pangaea. And, these last few weeks, as I have begun to help in their efforts, I've seen its potential to bring the climate system to life.

The oceans and atmosphere don't talk to us directly, at least not in ways we modern, 'sophisticated' people have been taught to trust, but Pangaea is, in many ways, the next best thing to this. While its output agrees closely with much more complex scientific models of the climate, Pangaea runs much more quickly, and on a desktop computer. With it, one can asks all sorts of questions about our options, as individual nations and a collective global society, to reach the goal of a stable climate.

What if the US froze emissions? What if the developed world started reducing emissions by 3% per year? What if all nations did so?

The answers to these questions are startling to most of the people I've watched experiment with Pangaea, even those with years of dedication to various aspects of sustainability. The simulator supports what some of the people on the planet with the best intuition about the climate - climatologists – have been saying more and more vehemently - we need to act, now, and strongly, all of us, in all the parts of the world. But there is something about discovering this for yourself through testing scenarios that is more powerful than reading the words of even the most alarmed climatologist.

Pangaea doesn't tell us what do in response to the climate crisis, or how to rise to the challenge, or what kind of people we need to be to help our societies move through it, but it does help us to begin to see which choices might be sufficient to give future generations a stable climate.

And, I think Dana Meadows would agree, we need that level of unflinching understanding in order to participate fully and whole-heartedly in the millions of efforts, large and small, that it will take to bring our Earth's climate back into balance.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Indigenous Voices: The market oriented model is the main cause for climate change

In Japan yesterday a group of indigenous leaders from around the world urged the leaders of the world's richest nations to allow them to participate in the G8 discussions on climate change. There are no indication that any of the 26 leaders had their voices heard in the closed door discussions of the G8, discussions which produced a tepid commitment to halve CO2 emissions by 2050.

By refusing to open their doors (or their ears) to the indigenous perspective, the G8 leaders missed the opportunity to move the discussion from symptomatic solutions to fundamental ones.

In the view of these indigenous leaders "the market-oriented economic model of the G8 nations is the main cause for climate change, the global food crisis, and rising oil prices."

"We believe the economic growth model and modernization promoted by the G8, which suggests that we can control and dominate nature, is flawed," reads the group's statement.

The best ecological economics supports their case. Markets uninformed by the limits of the planet or the needs of communities will ultimately undermine the very conditions they depend upon.

There is an ethical reason why indigenous people should have a voice in the world's climate negotiations: They represent communities that have done little to create climate change but are already disproportionately impacted by it.

There is also a survival reason: If ever there was a time for wisdom, a time to let go of the illusions and myths of our economic system so that we can take the kind of action required for survival of our species, now is that time.

Indigenous leaders, coming out of their own worldviews and traditions, are clearly seeing through these myths. Their words hold out no illusions that we can find a way out of climate change without re-thinking the relative importance of markets, communities, and nature. They remind us that this crisis is primarily about repairing our relationships with nature and each other. These voices, so far excluded from official discussion have essential widsom to contribute to a path forward toward a livable world.

In Copenhagen at the end of 2009 the next round of international climate change negotiations will conclude. Calls are rising around the world for those negotiations to be informed by the best science - with a target for CO2 in the atmosphere of no more than 350 ppm, the highest level consistent with avoiding the most disastrous consequences of climate change.

The voice of science needs to be loud and clear in Copenhagen. So do the voices of the world's indigenous leaders.

You don't have to be a scientist or an indigenous leader to use your voice as a citizen to demand that both perspectives – science and indigenous wisdom – and not flawed markets, provided the underpinnings of climate policy and the route back to a safe planet for all of us.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Today I did something I've never done before.

I said that I had done enough, this week, for people and the planet.

Not enough in the sense we all hope for, not enough in the sense of the ONE CRITICAL THING that changes the world and makes everything OK again, but enough in the sense of having done all that my body and my family could tolerate, for now.

After accepting on Tuesday the chance to give part of a keynote address at a sustainable energy conference, writing the speech on Thursday, and giving it on Friday, and then co-leading two workshops at the same conference on Saturday, today I had meant to act on my new found determination to bring my concern about climate change before the media and decision makers.

I learned on Thursday - during a pause in the speech-writing – that Laura Bush will be arriving Monday in the town next door to ours, to make a speech of her own about the importance of protecting our national parks.

And so on Sunday I was going to plan HOW TO MAKE A STATEMENT about the urgency of climate change.

I got a lot of coaching from one of my neighbors, now a mostly mild mannered mother and consultant, but veteran of protests from Rocky Flats to New York City.

I learned her opinion that the odds of asking a Laura Bush a question were slim at best – "why would they want to open themselves up to potentially embarrassing questions when they don't have to?"

Which is too bad, because I had a good question in mind:

"Mrs. Bush, you have spoken here and in other places about your love for your daughters, your love of the national parks, and your concern for the well being of children. I share your same loves and concerns. They have lead me to pledge to do what I can to convince national leaders to enact climate policy consistent with what the latest science tells us is needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Would your family join me in that pledge?"

In my neighbor's opinion standing anywhere near her motorcade with a sign of any sort I'd likely be asked to set my sign down.

Which was also too bad because I had such a good one in mind.

"Mrs. Bush, Loving our National Parks Means Loving the Climate. 350ppm!"

The strategy with the best chance of success made sense once my friend educated me a little bit more. I should gather a group together, and find a place to stand somewhere in the town, but not in the way of the official route. We should bring our signs, and make them big. We should let the press know that thirty minutes before Mrs. Bush's remarks, "local activists will urge Mrs. Bush to act out of her commitment to our national parks by encouraging the administration to take specific actions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change."

It all made sense and was possible in theory.

But when I found myself being short with our seven-year old (who we'd left with friends during all the speech-making and workshop leading) for the second and then for the third time as I sat at the computer and tried to draft a press release and figure out where to fax it, it suddenly became just too much.

Laura Bush won't face my questions or signs tomorrow, though I imagine some of my fellow Vermonters will make their voices heard.

Giving up, slowing down, taking Sunday as a day of rest, didn't come easily. But in this strain that I feel everyday, between living life at a pace that seems to be fast enough to, maybe, get in front of the march to disaster, and living life at a pace that is in itself an answer to that march to disaster, I feel pretty sure that today, for me, and my family, I made the right choice.

I weeded the beans and planted some basil. I helped clean the bunny's cage and played a board game. It took a few hours of turmoil and regret, and (I'll admit it) a little resentment about the obligations of parenthood, but by the end of the afternoon, when the sun came out and the soil was moist with an inch of badly needed rain, I could remember again that doing this work is important, but that it is a job for the long-haul, and that, no matter how urgent it all feels, we need to pace ourselves.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

$4.00 Per Gallon Gasoline

I just had an article posted on the progressive news website Common Dreams. Here's the start, click here for the full article....

$4.00 per Gallon Gasoline and Climate Change Both Call for the Same Solution: Collective Investment in Clean Energy

“What do you have to say about global warming to the whole segment of Americans who are just waking up to energy issues with $4.00 per gallon gasoline?”

That question came from the audience during a workshop on climate change I led recently.

There is an assumption behind this question, one that seemed to be everywhere I turned last week — in the press, on talk radio, and even on the floor of the US Senate. The assumption goes like this: now that energy prices are rising we can’t afford to charge the costs of greenhouse gas pollution because that would place an unacceptable burden on people already struggling to meet high energy costs.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

On Climate Change, Our Reasoning Should Be The Exact Opposite of the US Senate

"What do you have to say about global warming to the whole segment of Americans who are just waking up to energy issues with $4.00 per gallon gasoline?"

That question came from an audience member at a workshop on climate change Phil and I presented at last week, and it's the same question that comes up again and again in the news coverage of the blockage last week of the Climate Security Act in the US Senate.

Any economist will tell you that markets only serve us when they include all the costs of a good or service. We find ourselves so close to the edge of climate catastrophe because, for several hundred years, our energy markets have failed us by not charging the costs of preventing climate change or repairing the damage it causes. That may have been understandable in the days before the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that human greenhouse gas production is its cause. But today, with the world's leading climate scientists telling us that we have already exceeded safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, allowing the distorted signals of the energy market to persist is like knowing that tobacco causes lung cancer and dithering about putting warnings on cigarette packages, charging a tax to support public health and education, or banning second-hand smoke.

The CSA act, while not going far enough in its targets to provide safety against the most dangerous impacts of climate change, was a step towards rectifying the distortions of energy prices, because it introduced a cost for the production of climate pollution, and made plans for using some of revenues for supporting the transition to a cleaner energy system. It would have also used some of the revenues to help consumers switch to cleaner energy alternatives.

This cost for greenhouse gas pollution was framed by many Senators – aided by the news media and fueled by a campaign by the oil and coal lobbies – as a tax that would place an added burden on working people already struggling to cope with rising gas and food prices.

According to Senator Mitch McConnell (from the coal producing state of Kentucky): "At a time when the economy is struggling, when the price of gas, food and power bills are skyrocketing, this giant tax would be an unbearable new burden for Americans.”

At its most stark, this way of thinking says: "We've gotten used to the lie our energy markets have being telling us, we've gotten used to the mistaken impression that energy use has little cost, and, frankly, even though we now can see that this has never been true, we can't imagine how we will go on if that distortion is removed."

If we accept this framing without thinking about it, then trying to correct our energy markets to protect ourselves our communities, the ecosystems we depended upon, the agriculture that feeds us, the mountain snow pack that provides irrigation and drinking water starts to feel like a politically impossible task.

The good news is we don't have to accept this framing. If we stop to think about it, stop to push on it, even a little bit, we see that it has deep flaws.

Americans don't need cheap gas and electricity from coal. We need what cheap gas and electricity from coal have come to provide - affordable convenient ways to get to work in the morning, ways to get around our communities, access to food we can afford that is good for our bodies and our children, homes that are comfortable, activities that interest us, use our minds, muscles, and hearts and make a difference.

Americans are burdened by the rising cost of fossil energy not because of some immutable human need for fossil energy, but because we haven't yet created the shared infrastructure that will allow us to meet our primary needs without fossil fuels. We are burdened not so much by a gasoline price crisis as by a forethought crisis. The only way to make up for this lack of planning in the past is to do what could have been gradually over decades much more quickly now.

Oil supplies are dwindling, but reserves of coal, tar sands, and oil shale are vast. There is more than enough carbon dioxide locked up within these reserves to send our Earth into a period of irreversible warming, should we, in our race to meet our 'needs' dig up and burn those reserves. With so much at stake, we can't allow the voice of the oil and coal lobbies to tell us what our needs our.

Yes we need to get to work and put food on the table. AND, to have jobs to get to and a farming system to grow that food we need a stable climate.

These needs intersect in one place: the creation of a shared, clean, renewable energy infrastructure.

At this intersection advocates for climate protection and people hurting from $4.00 gas are, in fact allies, not the opponents McConnell and the coal lobby would have them be. By calling for affordable ways for people to get to work without depleting their bank accounts or the resiliency of the climate, by staying oriented to the common cause that can be found when we orient towards our true needs, perhaps we can find the power to repair the disorted incentives of our energy system while there is still time.

Friday, June 6, 2008

To Lead, Politicians Need the People

Yesterday morning, Phil and I spoke about some of the latest signs and symptoms of climate change before a group of Massachusetts legislators and their staff.

We did our absolute best to share clear, accurate information. We told them:

-- Climate change is already dangerous, for people around the world, including those suffering in 12 out of the 13 regions where the UN operated major humanitarian relief operations in 2007 - because 12 out of 13 of 2007's major disasters were 'climate-related'.

-- Current levels of greenhouse gas (at 385 ppm) haven't yet had their full impact on temperature and will take hundreds of years to do so.

-- Prolonged exposure of the planet to current levels of CO2 increases the likelihood of runaway warming, where warming feeds upon itself.

We told them we were convinced by the analysis of James Hansen and his colleagues that CO2 levels should be brought as quickly as possibly to 350 ppm or below, and that this would require dramatic action, on the order of phasing out coal use worldwide by 2030 and ending deforestation by 2015, and avoiding the temptation to tap tar sands or oil shale.

Such changes are ambitious, we said, but feasible, given the collective will to act.

It is, for me, always a strange feeling to share this information. We stood there speaking in ordinary tones, as people sat in chairs, took notes, sipped coffee. Did any of us believe what we were saying, what we were hearing? Twenty-two years to phase out coal, on a planet with billions hungry, in need of better shelter, schools, and health care? Seven years to end deforestation? There were no gasps of shock (except when we showed the graph of Arctic ice melt last summer), no muttering about the magnitude of the challenge being laid out.

But no one disagreed, or quibbled with our facts. No one said the danger was less grave than we suggested.

In fact, the representative who addressed his colleagues after we had finished said he agreed with everything we had said.

But then his remarks took a, for me, unexpected turn:

You can't expect to pass legislation to protect the climate on its own merits, not without showing other benefits.

And anyway, some crops might grow better with higher CO2.

And they are building so many coal plants in China it might not matter what we do here.

And we have to be careful, to not take steps that might harm the economy.

I don't know why it played out this way, why he didn't feel free to urge his colleagues to take bold and decisive action by supporting the climate legislation currently under consideration. I don't have the background to understand the subtleties of this particular moment in Massachusetts' political landscape.

But it did not look like a lack of understanding of the science or a lack of caring about this issue.

It looked like an elected leader unable to go farther without the people urging him forward or protecting his back.

I know how easy it is for us ordinary citizens to think of politicians as the ones with power, and us as the ones without. I fall into that belief easily myself.

But, coming home from our brief foray into the world of political decision making to the news that, in Washington, Senate Republicans succeeded in blocking the global warming legislation under consideration by that body (after Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky required that all 492 pages be read into the record - a move that took 8 1/2 hours) it is clear to me that - on the issue of global warming - it is going to have to be the people who make it possible for the politicians to lead.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Science Gives Us The Numbers, We Make the Meaning

800,000 - the number of years for which CO2 levels in the Earth's recent past have been measured in a new analysis of ice core data.

180-280 – the range of CO2 levels (in parts per million) during all but the last 100 of those 800,000 years.

385 – the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

60 - the percentage of 1,598 species examined in a new study who have already been affected by climate change.

These are just numbers, the products of science and careful measurement. The most they can do is tell us what is happening. They can't tell us what to think about it. Or what to feel. Or what to do.

We all have to do that for ourselves in the ways that are right for us - in silence in the woods, in noisy debate around the kitchen table, in prayer in our faith communities, at the ballot box, and, maybe, in public when we raise our voices to say loudly, fully, clearly, exactly what we think about these numbers, what we feel, and what, exactly what, it is the elected leaders who hold the public trust need to do.

Numbers are only numbers. Data is only data. Numbers alone, without our response, don't shape the future.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Falling in Love with a Piece of the World

We picked up our older daughter from a week at camp this afternoon.

In the backseat she pummeled her younger sister for news of home. How are Tango and Ishult (horses)? How are Nikky and Ave (parakeets)? How's Dusky (hen) and Chickadee (rooster)?

And then one that surprised me - How's the maple?

How's the maple? Before asking about friends or community news?

But it shouldn't have surprised me that a tree - that particular tree – figured so prominently in her questions of home. Ever since their Dad helped them hang a rope swing in the maple at the bottom of the hill, our girls and most of their friends have been busy falling in love with that maple.

They've invented games with complicated rules played in its branches (going down has the right of way over going up). They've given it a nickname (Mape). Our younger daughter notices every maple of the same species on our drives around town and points each one out with the breathless excitement of one who has discovered treasure. They both notice how the tree changes from week to week (a rotten spot at the bottom; some bright pink leaves that don't seem 'quite right') and both speculate about its past (did the last children who played in it, when it was a much smaller tree, the ones who built a platform high in its branches, discover the same route to the top?)

The neighborhood kids who go to school have taken to swinging in it while they wait for the bus. The kids who do their learning at home have taken (when they can negotiate it) to carrying their books down to work underneath its shade.

Younger sister's report was highly detailed and focused mostly on the fact that a branch had broken (not anybody's fault) but that the rope swing and the games were mostly unaffected by the change in architecture. It makes me sad, though, she said.

There was silence in the back seat for a while, and then: Yeah, me too, it makes me sad too.

E. O. Wilson has said that we will only save what we love.

Luckily for all of us, this love lives close to surface. Twelve feet of rope and sufficient unscheduled time to touch, clamber, and explore is more than enough to call it forth.

In this time of ecological crisis, giving ourselves – child and adult alike – that time might be the most important action we can take.

We might not even need the rope.