As the Pipeline Turns: Obama’s inescapable drama

January 28, 2014

“Keystone: A central cohesive source of support and stability; lynchpin; crux; principle” — The Free Dictionary

No one would have written it this way. No one, that is, except a xl

The Keystone XL decision – a permit for a pipe – turns out to be the moment of truth for the most powerful person in the world, the leader of the nation with the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis and the greatest capacity to deliver solutions. And it arrives at the last hour, or certainly the last Presidency, when we can change course before we become locked in to catastrophic climate disruption.

Thoughtful voices worry that Keystone is the wrong fight, that it’s “only symbolic,” that it has eaten up too much time and attention at the expense of battles that might have delivered more substantive results. They are being too literal-minded. Keystone is a well-chosen pipeline in the sand on climate, and a source of momentum and inspiration for climate action generally.

Part of the power of this battle is that – unlike, say, national climate legislation or ratifying an international treaty – it is the President’s decision alone. One of the toughest nuts to crack on the way to climate solutions is that responsibility is everyone’s, so, as a practical matter, it often ends up being no one’s. Keystone is a focused moment of accountability on the single human with the greatest power to effectuate solutions – the person whose evasion of the challenge would make all other efforts seem pointless.

To his enormous credit, the President put the Keystone decision squarely where it belongs: in the context of the imperative to stop aggravating the climate crisis. Now we will find out whether he has the integrity to do what is right and necessary when the decision is his.

But Keystone isn’t just symbolic – a gratuitous test of Presidential will, or an organizing stunt. The pipeline is an enormous piece of long-lived capital infrastructure that would mainline one of the world’s biggest carbon pools to the world’s hungriest energy markets. It is both a powerful symbol and a honking concrete example of exactly what we must not do if we are to avert climate calamity. As the IEA has repeatedly warned, we cannot keep feeding the climate beast with capital and hope to slay it. An up or down decision on a permit to build this pipeline is an excellent test of whether we got that memo.

This is a bare-naked question of whether the President will observe the most central principle for climate action – the Keystone, as it were, for solutions: Will we stop making it irrevocably worse, now, before it’s too late?

But ultimately, the most important reason Keystone is a (not the) right fight is because we’re having it. And lo and behold, that turns out to be the first condition for winning. We have slipped and slithered and dithered and dodged for well over a quarter century since it became clear that we had a five-alarm fire on our hands. And yet only now, in the context of Keystone XL, is climate emerging as a fight with the level of intensity it deserves, the passion needed to overcome the raw economic power standing between us and solutions.

One may very well be able to make a hypothetical case for why another defining battle would have been better. But that’s just it: this one’s not hypothetical.

The President says we should just all settle down – that both sides of the Keystone battle are overblowing it. But calmness in the face of calamity is part of what’s killing us.

No matter: as much as the President may wish his climate legacy would not be defined by the Keystone XL decision, that’s not his call anymore. It was the climate movement’s.

Spark! Financing energy efficiency with blessed unrest

January 26, 2014

Spark — crowd-financing for community-based energy efficiency projects — is here!

The anti-bodies are kicking in!

When the coal industry desperately tries to stave off its demise by ramming a new supply line through the heart of Cascadia, communities steadfastly resist.

Though the oil/auto/asphalt cabal continues to dominate the politics of public investment in transportation, a better new alternative to driving alone (and paying for tyranny) seems to pop up every day.

And now, instead of playing roulette in the stock market or investing your retirement savings in CDs with returns equivalent to stashing it under the mattress, you can fund local energy efficiency projects.  You can earn decent, safe returns.  You can create jobs.  You can help local schools and businesses.  You can finance climate solutions.  A thousand Sparks of light?  Oh never mind, you get where I’m going.  Go Spark!

I’m not giving up on big transformation through public policy change because a) I don’t know how we get to solutions at scale without it and b) it feels like capitulating to the oilgarchs and c) it would render most of my professional skills obsolete.

But I have to ignore much of the available evidence and political wisdom in order to maintain this posture.  “Hope,” as Frances Moore Lappe said, “is a stance, not a calculation.”   I smoke what I gotta to keep plugging away for sweeping policy change, but in the meantime, it’s the Sparks that keep me standing up.

It’s a hard rain’s gonna fall…..but look what’s growing up in the moisture!

Senators: No climate news is bad news

January 16, 2014

Nine US Senators have sent a letter to the heads of four broadcast networks expressing “deep concern” about their failure to cover the climate crisis.  Darkness is the essential host condition in the ecosystem of denial, and broadcast news organizations have been furnishing plenty of it.Denial habitat

Media Matters did great work documenting the non-news.  The Senators’ letter gets to the real issue:

“We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of moneadvertising on your networks. We hope that this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.”

Could the tyranny of fossil fuel money in politics also explain why just 9 US Senators signed on to a letter that asks only for a little daylight on humanity’s most urgent challenge?

Here’s the whole text:

Dear Mr. Ailes, Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Sherwood, and Ms. Turness:

We are writing to express our deep concern about the lack of attention to climate change on such Sunday news shows as ABC’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and “Fox News Sunday.”

According to the scientific community, climate change is the most serious environmental crisis facing our planet. The scientists who have studied this issue are virtually unanimous in the view that climate change is occurring, that it poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community, and that it is caused by human activity. In fact, 97% of researchers actively publishing in this field agree with these conclusions.

The scientific community and governmental leaders around the world rightly worry about the horrific dangers we face if we do not address climate change. Sea level rise will take its toll on coastal states. Communities will be increasingly at risk of billions of dollars in damages from more extreme weather. And farmers may see crops and livestock destroyed as worsening drought sets in. Yet, despite these warnings, there has been shockingly little discussion on the Sunday morning news shows about this critically important issue. This is disturbing not only because the millions of viewers who watch these shows deserve to hear that discussion, but because the Sunday shows often have an impact on news coverage in other media throughout the week.  

A study published today by Media Matters for America reported that Sunday news shows devoted 27 minutes of air time in 2013 to climate change coverage.

Although it is a modest improvement over the eight minutes of coverage in 2012, given the widely recognized challenge that climate change poses to the nation and the world, this is an absurdly short amount of time for a subject of such importance.

We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of money advertising on your networks. We hope that this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.

Thank you very much for your interest in this matter. We urge you to take action in the near term to correct this oversight and provide your viewers, the American public, with greater discussion of this important issue that impacts everyone on the planet. We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.


Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT)

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)

Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT)

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

60 Minutes’ clean tech bash-fest: hardly a moment of journalism, not a second of climate reality

January 7, 2014

“I’m not afraid to fail because the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing” – Clean tech investor Vinod Khosla, on 60 Minutes

Most of the blowback to the 60 Minutes mugging of the clean tech industry this week focuses on the shockingly bad reporting.  The segment, “Clean Tech Crash,” makes no mention of the explosive growth in key clean energy technologies like solar, LED lights, and electric vehicles; the 97% success rate of the DOE clean energy loan program; or historic and continuing subsidies for fossil fuels.

Andy Rooney time for broadcast journalism?

Andy Rooney time for broadcast TV journalism?

“Clean tech is dead.  What killed it?”  That’s the first “question” correspondent Leslie Stahl reportedly asked Robert Rapier, chief technology officer at Merica International, in her interview.  So it’s not surprising that much of the buzz has been about how 60 minutes, the citadel of broadcast journalism for decades, managed to plunge further from its post-Benghazi low to this new nadir of hackery.

But the show was more than a case of sloppy journalism.

It was laced with anti-government rhetoric…

“The [LG Chem] plant was built with $151 million from the stimulus to make batteries for electric cars that people never bought.  So the plant went idle and workers were paid tax dollars to sit around and do nothing.”

…and spiced with mild (if incoherent) Sinophobia:

“And so the irony: that taxpayer money for Cleantech and jobs ended up with a Chinese company creating Cleantech and Jobs… in America.[sic]”

This drumbeat of government ineptitude and collective impotence is one of the most potent meta-barriers to climate action.  Surely a government that pays people to sit around doing nothing while throwing taxpayer money to rapacious Chinese can’t be trusted to do anything meaningful about a problem as formidable as climate disruption.

But futility in the face of the climate challenge was only an unspoken subtext of the story.  Because, most disturbing of all, the segment contained not a single reference to climate, carbon, emissions, fossil fuel dependence….you know, that whole existential crisis.

Doing a story about a “clean tech crash” without mentioning climate is symptomatic of a form of denial that may be more destructive than straight-over-tackle lying about climate science.  Denial is a remarkably resilient ecosystem, and this kind of silence is the essential host condition in which it continues to thrive.

Simply not talking about climate disruption in the context of a story about government-supported clean energy technology development is startling – almost aggressive – in its deliberate avoidance of the thing that matters most about the topic.

In the context of climate, the failures and successes of federal support for clean tech is a salient, relevant, vital subject.  But without that context, all we get is a snide, petty exercise in gotcha journalism, complete with radical distortion of the available evidence in order to achieve its pre-determined conclusion.

When Khosla says “the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing,” we are left to wonder:  What’s so bad about that?  Is there something we’re supposed to be doing?