The New Conversation We Must Have

Something has changed. Can you tell? It seems – perhaps – that the U.S. is at last ready to have a sober and thorough conversation about the different planetary conditions we've ushered in. It is as if someone smacked the American public upside the head, and shouted in our ears: climate change is real. Well, of course, something did thrash us, or at least, the east coast, by far the most populous part of the country. As has been well-publicized by now, Superstorm Sandy, which flooded lower Manhattan, killed dozens of people, flattened houses, and left millions without power, has been publicly tied to global warming. Meteorologists are still issuing caveats that no single storm can be definitively tied to climate change (James Hansen's new mathematical approach to analyzing this problem, aside), but – without a doubt – people are recognizing that the current rise in sea level makes storm surges all the more hazardous. Sandy had the largest combined tide and storm-surge in the recorded history of New York City. In addition, several meteorologists have suggested that the atmospheric blocking pattern which steered Sandy back toward land, rather than out to sea, as is traditional for hurricanes on Sandy's early path, seemed to result from the extreme polar sea-ice melt this summer.

Regardless, if Sandy is a harbinger of our near-future world, picture this: New York, the illuminated bastion of high-profile, climate-controlled, ultra-wealthy style, culture, and class was laid low. What could be more iconic of our predicament than people stuck in high-rises with no electricity, no water, no food?

Although, as a single event, Sandy hasn't yet rivaled 9/11/2001 in monetary cost to the city, it is becoming clear that looking at ourselves in the climate mirror is going to be a more expensive taking-stock than the War on Terror has been, thus far—and even more so if we don't act now. The International Energy Agency has calculated that every dollar we delay in spending now on alternative fuel technology and other climate change mitigation will cost $4.30 if we wait until 2020. By then, conditions will almost certainly already be such that everyone will recognize we must throw our economy at this problem, it is no longer a choice to ignore it. (I can tell you that, here in northeast Missouri, we are experiencing our third “Indian Summer,” and the odd weather patterns just continue as they have for most of this past year. We will experience another severe drought in the next few years, I am sure.)

Sandy is helping break the ice (no pun intended) for politicians to once again address global warming. This time, however, the conversation is different: fiscal conservatives like NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg are coming on the record saying the jig is up, climate change is underway, it is having severe consequences, and we must act now. This is putting strain on the Republican party, which still harbors veritable lunatics like Sen. Jim Inhofe, who still bellow that global warming is a fraud. (One wonders whether Inhofe actually understands that the wildfires which ravaged his state of Oklahoma this summer are expected to increase in frequency and intensity, as global temperatures rise.) Global accounting agency Price Waterhouse Cooper advised their business clients last week to prepare for a 6º C change in global average temperature by the end of the century.

We who know that the planet is on the brink (or perhaps just past it) of a major tipping point in the climate system have a critical moment to ignite the conversation in a new, a-political way, one that presents the undiluted truth. According to Kevin Anderson, what we must say is this: there is not time to roll out efficiency improvements, solar- and wind-powered electrical grids, shut down coal, and convert the world's fleet of vehicles to run on some other fuel than petroleum. There isn't time to develop carbon capture and sequestration.

On Nov. 6, Anderson gave a speech to the Cabot Institute in Bristol, England, and he presented the stark truth more clearly than he ever has before. Every industrialized country is pledged, morally and legally, not to allow average global temperature to rise more than 2º C above the pre-industrial average. Given that accomplishing this task of limiting the temperature rise in this way means reducing our CO2 emissions by 8% per year, industrialized countries like the U.S. have no moral or legal choice except to foment a managed economic downturn. You heard me. We have to accept significant austerity measures, rationing, cease unnecessary flying. No more unnecessary, on-demand, 24/7 electric availability. We can live with two hours of electricity a day.

Sure, we still need to leverage the fossil fuel industry to abandon its genocidal business model, we must replace coal, oil, and natural gas with wind, solar, wave, and maybe nuclear power. We need governments to enact a carbon tax (thank goodness the U.S. is talking about it again). Moreover, that tax needs to be heftier than the modest, politically anodyne proposals put forward so far. But, Anderson argues, if we can't transform or limit supply in the miniscule time-frame left (the brave, post-fossil-fuel world would need to be well off the ground by 2015 at the very latest), then we must cut the throat of demand.

If you think this is a lot to accept, now you understand why we need real, rigorous debate; particularly, we need climate activists who don't blanch and yield when the other side dismisses reality as “politically unfeasible,” or “unrealistic.” With that in mind, I'd like to describe two recent events that we at Pacing the Planet have witnessed, which illustrate well the kind of pitfalls that any of us can trip into, if we don't hold firm the context of the emergency at hand.

A few weeks ago, we brought Pacing the Planet to the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. We walked with our carts around the sprawling grounds of the school, and we met with members of the student group Coal Free Mizzou, who are working to end the burning of coal in the university's self-owned power and heating plant. The students told us that they had been in long negotiations with the university, haggling over the time-line and funding of the power plant's transition to burning solid biofuel. As it stands, the university is unwilling to pledge to a specific date when it will stop burning coal, even though Bill McKibben himself called up the president of the school, while a live audience watched, and cajoled him to come to the bargaining table with calendar in hand.

Coal Free Mizzou has been wisely pressing for 2015 as the year when the university will no longer burn coal, but the student members have been sucked into a vortex of negotiation with a university administration that has not willingly handed over crucial pieces of data that they have collected, related to the would-be transition away from coal. The administrators are not replying to certain letters of inquiry, and consequently the students have filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The school is arguing that the plan to navigate the Mizzou away from coal needs to be balanced with the other financial expenses of the university – and, to a large extent, it seems that Coal Free Mizzou has capitulated on this point.

I understand that they have made progress (they believe) with the administration, but I think letting officials dictate the context of the negotiation is a mistake. The rational position to take with the university is actually simple: if you can't run the school without burning coal, then you must stop running the school. There is no meaningful future for all of these students graduating into their various fields of expertise and employment if the world temperature rises by 6º C. Hunting for car-keys under the light because you can see there, even when you know the keys were lost in the dark, will not yield you the keys. Pretending that there is some more economically salubrious approach to saving what's left of the climate will not tack hard enough against the current that's carrying us off the cliff into desolation. It's time to play hardball. And, when the university (or whoever it is) responds: “You're not ready to have a real conversation about this, a balanced and mature conversation about this,” we reply: “No. You're not ready to face the truth. We are no longer in partnership with you.” And, we withdraw. We disenroll. We divest ourselves and our future from madness. We quit our jobs. We take care of each other, and we cut demand off at the tap.

The second event we witnessed, on Nov. 5, was a debate between Bill McKibben and Alex Epstein, president of the Center for Industrial Progress, at Duke University. McKibben presented a litany of the troubling data coming from around the world, as the planet's ecosystems come under stress from increased temperatures and the rest of climate change. Epstein offered one chart that appeared to show the rate of fatalities due to climate is decreasing, even as temperatures increase by a “small amount.” He suggested that technology is more than equipped to deal with any minor environmental change coming our way, and declared that, in calling for a moratorium on fossil fuels, McKibben is morally, if not legally, culpable for murder. McKibben's agenda, Epstein claimed, is going to starve people all over the planet.

I'll leave it to you to find the flaws in Epstein's arguments (and there are many). People: these are not the debates we should still be having. I would have been happier if McKibben, once he discovered that Epstein was going to dredge up this debunked drivel, fail to address McKibben's statistics in detail, and generally build an ad hominem attack against McKibben through repeating this one, scary message that McKibben was out to deprive poor people of food (this is such a terribly ironic and malicious projection of consequences from the fossil-fuel industry's own practices in poorer countries of the world, where they have plundered resources while decimating the environment, depriving locals of traditional food sources).... well, I wish McKibben had just walked off the stage, saying, “Let me know when you want to have a real debate.” Yes, I understand that McKibben got his two minutes here and there to present the terrible present reality of advancing climate change to those who would listen, but his ongoing participation in the “debate” lent credibility to the whole event, as if this really was a powerful, substantive combat of ideas. For shame. We climate activists need to keep our eye on the ball, and not get faked out by curveballs and change-ups that slow-pitch the true nature of this climate crisis. Good eye, good eye.