Disrupting the ecosystem of denial and building a culture of responsibility – Part 1

April 22, 2012

How can climate science denial continue to exist, in the face of so much evidence?  To get to the answer, I think we have to ask a different question:  How can the rest of us – the majority who accept the reality of climate science – continue to act as though we don’t believe it?

We’re all climate deniers now.  We’re functioning (kinda) in an elaborate ecosystem of denial, playing roles that keep the whole freak show working.   (The Discovery Channel’s Frozen Planet series  – which lavishly documents polar thawing while avoiding any discussion of the causes of climate change – is a conspicuous example.)

Since Jim Hansen’s landmark testimony to Congress on climate change in 1988, we have all had to adapt to life in the enormous chasm between what is physically and morally necessary to address the climate crisis and what we are in fact doing.  The dissonance between the conclusions of climate scientists and the scale of our response is intolerable, so something has to give.

For most people, what gives is engagement.  They just avoid the subject.  For those of us who work on climate and don’t have the option to disengage, managing the dissonance sometimes feels like walking a tightrope, with despair on one side and insanity on the other.

Every day, hundreds of things happen around us that would not be happening if we were remotely serious about preventing catastrophic climate change.  Every day, each of us does things that rational people would not be doing if they fully accepted the moral challenge that climate disruption presents.   And all those things become part of the cognitive infrastructure of our own denial and everyone else’s.

The scariest thing about the ecosystem of denial is how it reinforces itself — how each act of denial makes every other act of denial more likely and inescapable, in a vicious circle.  But the converse is also true.  Every act of responsibility helps reverse the circle, making every other responsible act more plausible.

So with this post begins a new feature of GRIP in which we’ll focus on reversing the toxic cycle of denial and inaction, replacing it with a healthy cycle of responsibility and action.

I will shine an unforgiving (but not humorless!) light on our complicity in denial.  The ecosystem of denial functions best in darkness, so relentless daylight can wither it.  (We’ll have fun with this, I promise.  Because denial isn’t just scary, it’s a hoot!  And we all do it, so we’ll be laughing with, not at each other.)

But documenting our role in denial is less than half the battle.  Denial has necessary functions that cannot be eliminated:  It is a psychological bridge, spanning the abyss between the dimensions of the climate crisis and the dimensions of our demonstrated willingness to deal with it.  So the ecosystem of denial cannot simply be named and removed;  nobody wants to dive into that abyss.

The ecosystem of denial must be replaced by something better – a culture of responsibility.    More on that in Part 2.

Disrupting the ecosystem of denial and building a culture of responsibility – Part 2

April 22, 2012

In part 1, we named some of the cognitive systems that sustain climate denial, and explored our roles in those systems.  Now let’s build a better system.

Using a conventional model of cause and effect, we act as though climate science denial were the primary obstacle to action.   Following that model, we foster understanding of facts, hoping that action will follow.

But it turns out that the relationship between denial and inaction is circular, not linear.  Inaction is both an effect and a cause of denial.

I often come back to the most illuminating result we ever got in a focus group, from the woman who said to us, “I don’t think climate change is a big issue, because nobody’s doing anything about it.”  She made the eminently logical inference that if it were really as bad as all that, the responsible authorities would be doing something.

This is roughly the logic I used to cope with the election of 2000.  I remember thinking:  “The election can’t have been stolen.  I don’t even want to look at the evidence for that, because if it were true, then we would be in open revolt.  And we’re not, and it’s not my job to declare a revolt.  So it must be ok.”  Did I really believe that, on the basis of looking at the evidence and arriving at a conclusion?  Of course not.  I refused to look at the evidence, because in the absence of collective will to deal responsibly with the implications of any other conclusion, I just couldn’t handle it.

The only thing that would have overcome my denial was engaging in a serious effort to deal responsibly with the consequences of a stolen election.   I needed a mode and a culture of responsibility to be a part of, and I didn’t see one.  (It was there, of course.  It just didn’t seem very robust, or scaled to the challenge.  Besides, denial was a lot easier, and it seemed to be working for everyone else, and I had this other big, scary, intractable reality on my hands.)

But there is an emerging culture of responsibility for climate solutions.  It’s everywhere.  It rocks.  You can build it, today.  You don’t have to extinguish denial first. It’s not like a 12 step process, where you have to get all the way through step 1 before beginning steps 2-12.  Fully having the problem may not be possible until we get real about solving it.  I know, it sounds like a Catch-22.   Just start.   Ask questions later.

So this feature in GRIP will focus both on exposing our own role in denial, and celebrating the growing profusion of a culture of responsibility.  Our global and national institutions don’t seem to be up to the task, but in communities everywhere, people are finding ways to just do solutions.  Their efforts are delivering more than carbon reduction, more than the many economic, environmental, and social “co-benefits” of solutions.  They are defying and disrupting the ecosystem of denial.  They are making it more possible to believe that the problem and the solutions are real.

Will this growing, distributed uprising of solutions “add up” to carbon reduction at scale?  No.  But it can multiply up.  It will help reverse the vicious circle of denial and inaction, turning it into a virtuous circle of responsibility and solutions.   Each action will make every other action more plausible, more likely, more hopeful.   And if we can build a fully functioning culture of responsibility, it just might make what’s necessary seem possible.

More to come.

RePower Bainbridge: You can’t keep a good island down

April 16, 2012

There’s something prophetic about Bainbridge Island’s brilliant community energy project, RePower Bainbridge.  Watch a short, sweet video on it here.

Faced with the prospect of needing a new power substation to handle peak loads – a big, costly, ugly piece of conventional energy infrastructure – the community mobilized for something better.  They insulated.  They retrofitted.  And most of all, they connected in ways that made costly new energy infrastructure unnecessary while making life on the island better.

As the clean energy revolution gets underway, we will face many choices like this, where the old way means adding expensive new capacity.  Traffic volumes will increase, so there will be pressure to build more roads.  Growth in energy consumption – especially in Asia – creates pressure to add new power plants.   And most of the traditional answers involve huge expenditures of capital on equipment or infrastructure that lasts for a very long time.

Trouble is, we are out of time for that.  The International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook  sounds an urgent alarm on this point:  continued expansion of long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure will make it impossible to prevent catastrophic, irreversible climate disruption.

So we must all do what Bainbridge is doing.  Every time we run up against the “need” for a major new piece of conventional energy or transportation infrastructure, we need to rethink the problem and find a better way.

And every chance we get, we need to spread the good word when people do.  RePower Bainbridge and more great Solution Stories are profiled here.

Dad, seriously, WTF is up with coal export? Are you in it to win it?

April 16, 2012

….because adults aren’t allowed to say it, and kids can’t afford to leave it unsaid….


I’m worried about you.  You are up against some beasts in this coal export battle.  Are you and your green buddies up to this Pops?

I mean, these coal dudes may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but they got some nerve on ’em.  Just look at what they’re proposing to do!  They want to dig up half of Montana, load it on trains and run it through the heart of Ecotopia, right over your organic butt, and ship it all off to Asia and burn it…. 140 million tons a year of black rocks — over 100 lbs. a day for every man, woman, and child in the state of Washington.   X-treme carbonicity!

If you and your renewable energy pals were serious about competing at this level, you’d be trying to turn all of Oklahoma into a national solar park, and reassigning Senator Inhofe to an internship with  Jim Hansen!  And while you’re at it, maybe you could bring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back to Rain City, so they can throw down sick dunks like this on Mr. Peabody when he tries to come into our house!

For real Daaad, who you gonna beat with stuff like this hefty tome analyzing how coal export will substantially increase global carbon emissions?  OK, so you did your homework, but do you actually think anyone is going to read that?  The coal guys don’t get an economist to analyze the impacts of their decisions.  They just trot out some marketing flak to make stuff up.  Here’s Peabody’s Senior VP for Investor Relations, quoted in Nat Geo of all places:  “It’s safe to say that not one more pound of coal will be used in Asia because of this terminal.”

See how it works Dad? While you put everybody to sleep with your thorough analysis, the coal dudes just go “It’s safe to say…!”  So what if it defies the laws of economics, all the available evidence, and any shred of moral responsibility?  It’s clear.  It’s definitive It’s short.  And it helps everybody forget about this nasty subject and talk about something else.  Snap!

Moxie, Dad, cajones.

If you even want to play on the same court with these guys, you need to rethink your obsession with the truth.  Coal folks know that nobody likes coal.  So — like the elephant that wore a green felt hat so it could sneak across pool tables without anyone noticing — they talk about other stuff!  Here’s the website for their proposal to build the largest coal terminal in North America.  “Coal”?  What coal? I don’t see any coal.  Just a “new and highly efficient way to ship dry bulk commodities.”  Sweet!

But they’re not just shifty.  They’re mean.  These guys will mow down the hopes and dreams of anyone who stands in their way.  In Bellingham, they say folks are “desperate” for jobs.  So just chill B’ham and take a few hundred jobs shovelling coal, and kiss the 10,000 jobs that might come with a proposed waterfront redevelopment goodbye, because nobody’s going to build it in a dirty old coal town.

This is Bellingham they’re talking smack to!  Where the biggest business association is Sustainable Connections!  Repeat winner of the Green Power Leadership award!  A proud NRDC Smarter City!  Nah nah, say the coal guys, put away those green dreams and just get used to life as a resource colony for Asia’s industrial sector.  You’re so down and out, you need to cash it all in and settle for a future that looks like Newport News, VA, or Newcastle Australia.

Oh, and Dad, in case you thought your opponents have any shame, now they’re trying to market coal export as a green thing because U.S. coal has less sulfur and ash (sort of)!  Wow.  I stand in awe.  They’ve got the nerve to say it’s good for the environent when they ship mountains of coal to support construction of power plants that will foreclose “forever” any hope of preventing catastrophic climate change .  (Hey, I know, let’s send American plutonium to Iran so they won’t have to deal with so much dirty processing and nuclear waste!  Mondo Eco, dude!)

Does King Coal have a brain?  A heart?  Not clear.  But tell you what, they got a pair!

Dad, please. buck up.  These guys aren’t screwing around.  They’ve got a gun pointed straight at the future’s head.  Are you just going to stand there in your little beanie with the solar-powered propeller on top singing Pete Seeger songs, or are you going to DO SOMETHING?

With love despite my deep doubts about your generation’s commitment to mine,

Your kid

Book it: Billy and Dev’s “Making Good”

April 16, 2012

Whenever I speak at high schools or colleges, I quote Van Jones:  “Only your generation is diverse enough, loving enough, determined enough, and connected enough to meet the true moral challenge that we face.”  I believe that.  But I also feel a little like a heel when I say it — like I’m making excuses for my generation’s failure to deal!

But now I can deliver more than exhortations to Gen Next.  I tote copies of Making Good:  Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World.  

When I think of Van’s “Only your generation….” quote, I think of Billy Parish, one of the co-authors of Making Good.  He’s also a founder of Solar Mosaic, a crowd-financing tool for solar that shows how distributed solutions and social networking can disrupt old systems and dissolve barriers to energy transformation.

Making Good is a powerful antidote to cynicism and a great practical resource.  I’m sending copies to my kids and young friends.  I hope I understand half the new ways they’ll create to win collectively and thrive individually.  And for the other half, I’ll try to stay out of the way!

Home is where the solutions are

April 16, 2012

Of all Amory Lovins’ memorable quips, this might be my favorite:   “Personal mobility is a symptom….of being in the wrong place.” 

In “Circumference of Home:  One Man’s Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life,”   Kurt Hoelting makes a very strong case that the Pacific Northwest is not the wrong place.  Kurt’s a commercial fisherman, a kayak guide, and a seeker who couldn’t abide the contradiction between his professed commitment to climate solutions and his fossil-fueled mobility.  So he spent a year within a 100 miles of his home on Whidbey Island, travelling by bike, foot, kayak, and public transportation.

He found a lot more than a lower carbon footprint.   He discovered something you won’t generally find in “Stabilization Wedges” or other descriptions of climate solutions.  He found home, and his story of how he got there leaves you with a strong sense that the road from here to real climate solutions starts and ends there.

Kurt’s website Inside Passages, continues his journey home, exploring the personal, political, and spiritual dimensions of climate solutions.

Purple orca: “Our coal is cleaner”

April 14, 2012

Give them an A for audacity and an F for factiness.

Coal export proponents are making the case that shipping vast amounts Powder River Basin (PRB) coal to Asia will improve air quality, because it’s lower in sulfur and ash than most of the coal Asia currently uses.  Seriously.

Now, I can see the sense in a good healthy discussion about the job impacts of coal export.  Coal export opponents should welcome that discussion, because blighting our communities with huge volumes of low-value, high-impact resource export traffic is a lousy jobs strategy.  Still, it’s a legitimate debate, so let’s have it.

But are they really going to try to sell coal export as a green thing?   King Coal has a bottomless “communications” budget for this effort, but there’s not a marketing consultant in the world who could sell that load of, um, coal.

Sightline Institute examined the “cleaner coal” claim and found that all coal is, by any reasonable standard, dirty.  (See p. 5 of Coal Export FAQ here. Then read the rest of it.)  While PRB coal is somewhat lower in sulfur and ash than other types of coal, it is also lower in energy content, so you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of work done.

So if Asia displaced some of its current supplies with PRB coal, sulfur dioxide emissions would be reduced a little.  But this herring is beyond red.  (Wait, maybe we shouldn’t use herring, since the Cherry Point terminal would hammer their most important spawning grounds.  Anyway, herring are way too small to convey the scale of the deception.  Hence Purple Orca.)

I don’t want to diminish the importance of local air quality, but honestly, it’s just not in the same league as the devastating global climate disruption  that will be unavoidable if the fast-growing Asian economies continue to build out coal infrastructure to power their growth.  And opening up a mainline to PRB coal would certainly encourage that outcome.  Justifying this on the grounds that it will reduce sulfur emissions is almost like saying we should ship plutonium to Iran because our enrichment facilities have much better environmental safeguards then theirs.

And let’s be clear, coal export means that more coal will be burned.  I know what you’re thinking:  “If we don’t sell them our coal, won’t they’ll just get it from somewhere else?  Won’t it be a wash, climate-wise?” It’s a fair question, but the answer is no.

Former University of Montana Economics Chair Tom Power explains why here.  We can expect the industry to hire consultants to argue otherwise, but I don’t think they’ll want to talk much about this:  The notion that it doesn’t matter whether we let our region become a hub for global coal trafficking isn’t just economically unsound; it’s ethically indefensible.  We are talking about whether to feed a practice that we know to be an epic disaster in the making.   No matter what anyone else does, it’s not right.

No one wants Asians or anyone else to have to breathe sulfur dioxide pollution.  Does Asia “deserve” the chance to develop using coal, as we did, without choking their cities with pollution?  Well, they certainly deserve it as much as we do.  But as Clint Eastwood said in The Unforgiven, “’Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”  If they develop long-lived, capital-intensive coal-powered energy infrastructure for 2 billion more people, we are all toast.

So look, there are at least 2 ways to approach cleaning up the air in Asian cities:

1) Send them low sulfur coal, which may have a modest near-term local benefit, while facilitating infrastructure investments that will make it impossible to avert catastrophic climate change.


2) Invest in efficiency and accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy here, in China and India, everywhere.  This would do a much better job of cleaning urban air.  Oh and BTW, it would open a pathway to sustainable prosperity instead of foreclosing any hope of a secure future with a safe climate.  Nice bonus!