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.