Why, oming, Why? The “Equality State” goes reality-free

March 18, 2014

Has truth met its match in the Wyoming Legislature?

The State of Wyoming has blocked adoption of the new science standards contained in the national “Common Core” curriculum.  The Star-Tribune reports:coaloverkids7

“[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote’s authors. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.”

Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.”

Climate Parents are fighting back.  Stand with them here.

King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2: Coal export is wrong

March 7, 2013

When last we left our intrepid heroes, the great Northwest had woken up to find itself cast in the wrong movie, sort of like Owen Wilson playing Richard Nixon (see Part 1).  If we’re disoriented, it’s no wonder – what, with all the crap flying around trying to convince us that turning Cascadia into a conveyor belt for coal is the best idea since Boeing.  So let’s cut some of it.

Coal export from the Northwest would increase coal consumption and carbon emissions, not just displace other coal. The coal trains won’t “come anyway” and continue on to terminals in B.C. if the Cherry Point project isn’t built.  Examining the climate impacts of coal export will not threaten airplane manufacturing or wheat exports, for Pete’s sake.  (In part 4 of this post, we further deconstruct the most popular rationalizations for coal export.)wrong

But as analytically weak as these arguments are, the coal industry wins just by having them. They serve the essential purpose of diverting our attention from the first, most fundamental reason why we should reject coal export:  It’s wrong.

Even if you could demonstrate that it would have zero effect on net coal consumption (and again, you can’t), coal export is materially participating in and profiting from an enterprise that sows death and destruction around the world. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. In January, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like. And coal causes it.

If we keep pouring capital investment into fossil fuel infrastructure for just a few more years, we will be locked into emission trajectories that make catastrophic disruption inevitable.  Arguments to the effect of “if we don’t do it, someone else will” just don’t hold moral water when “it” leads to unimaginably grave human consequences. It’s not right, no matter what anyone else does.

So far, the discussion of coal export has mostly occurred outside this moral context. But closing our eyes to the consequences doesn’t make them go away.  On the contrary, ethical evasion is the essential host condition in which injustices metastasize into historic moral crimes.

“We are not responsible.”

The whole edifice constructed for the express purpose of blocking climate action is built on this single, unconscionable stance. With each new definitive finding of culpability, fossil fuel interests devise a new dodge. The bottom line is always the same: It ain’t me, babe.

First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Then it was human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway. And now we might as well shovel their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. If we don’t ship it, the trains will just “pass us by” and offload elsewhere.  If we consider climate impacts now, where do we draw the line? Resistance is futile. Responsibility is no one’s.

So coal export proponents are part of a rich tradition of moral circumvention, offering a familiar litany of shirks and jives to deflect responsibility for climate consequences. Without relieving them of their accountability for this mess, you can understand how coal export enablers would default to a position of climate adolescence.  Their failure to accept responsibility for climate disruption is, after all, the prevailing condition of American society.  Denial is an ecosystem. When the President of the United States says in the same speech that we owe it to our kids to tackle climate disruption and we need an “all of the above” energy strategy, it’s hard to know which end is up.

But now, here, we have to deal with it.  Morally and mathematically, the gig is up.  If we aim to make it better, there’s just no more room for big capital investments that make it irretrievably worse.  Going forward with coal export amounts to looking our kids in the eye and saying “we are resigned to a future of unrelenting climate disasters for you, so it’s okay to make a few bucks now by facilitating that future.”  (Here is how they might respond.)  That may not be anyone’s intent.  But it would be the result.

How can we draw this moral line against coal export (or anywhere), when we exacerbate climate disruption every time we drive a car or eat an imported banana?  By invoking the Keystone Principle:  As we begin the long, slow journey to climate solutions, we must immediately cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “lock in” dangerous emission levels.

It will take decades to decarbonize our transportation and energy systems. We can do it over time, patiently and incrementally, building stronger economies and healthier communities as we go. But we cannot make big new capital investments now that irrevocably commit us to catastrophic climate failure. Driving to the store or eating a banana is not such an investment.  Coal export is.

Romney and Obama spar for denialist-in-chief

October 17, 2012

“I had that question for all of you climate change people,” said Candy Crowley, in the post-debate coverage last night.  But she didn’t ask it because, “you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.”   (Stephen Lacey has the full scoop on the debate at Climate Progress.  Or save time and just poke yourself in the eye with a stick.)

The candidates didn’t actually contradict climate reality per se of course.  They didn’t talk about it at all.  And the moderator sat on the question.  This silence plays a vital role in the larger ecosystem of denial, at least as important as the explicit disinformation campaigns.  And competing to demonstrate who would be the most relentless fossil fuel extractor, while remaining silent on climate — well that’s a pretty potent dose of denial, even if its not overt.

OK, “climate change people” now what?  (And, WTH, is there some other kind of person?  Does everybody else gain immunity from Hell and High Water by being some other kind of people, like, what, “climate stasis people”?  Heck, let’s quit this beat!).

After watching the Presidential candidates almost come to blows over who would dig, drill, and burn more fossil fuel, I woke up with a massive headache.

I spent my first hour awake in numb silence.  That never works for me.

So, Dr. Golden’s prescription after a hard night of watching our “leaders” wage climate denial:

1)      More – and more viscous – coffee.  Peets Major Dickason’s Blend.  Grrrrrr.

2)      Sign up and spread the word to Help End the Climate Silence.

3)      Crowdfund this great short video of young activists in Florida calling on the Presidential candidates to get real about climate in the final debate.

4)      Watch Bill Moyers interview with James Balog, the Chasing Ice photographer.

5)      Sign up for Do the Math, which begins November 7 in Seattle

And as always, every day is better, the more time we spend on our own little fossil fuel divestment campaigns:   I’m going for a bike ride at lunch.

Why our biggest moral challenge doesn’t act like one

July 2, 2012

Al Gore tried to invoke the moral imperative for climate action.  “It’s not about right and left;” he said, “it’s about right and wrong.”  Climate deniers cynically pounced on Gore’s leadership as an opportunity to assert the exact opposite.

(Really, it’s about both, but we’ll get to that later.  See footnote if you can’t wait.)

Why don’t Americans accept the climate challenge as a moral imperative?  University of Oregon researchers Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff tackle the question in Nature Climate Change.  Markowitz blogs their conclusions here.

Their analysis draws insights from broader research on “the moral judgement system – the set of cognitive, emotional, social, and motivational mechanisms responsible for producing our perceptions of right and wrong.”  They describe why our moral discriminators have a hard time grokking climate disruption, and offer potential strategies for activating moral intuition.  It’s interesting stuff, worth a look.  Their blog post is a good summary; I’ll just poke at couple of themes that seem to need poking.

The Guilt Trip –  Climate disruption is like my (dear) Jewish mother; it makes people (and especially Americans, say the authors), feel guilty.  From the Nature Climate Change paper:  “To allay negative recriminations, individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimize perceptions of their own complicity.”  From my adolescence:  “I can’t hear you Mom!”

This makes sense (we are guilty!), but it downplays the importance of efficacy in the development of moral responsibility.  Bob Doppelt makes the case that motivating big changes in human behavior requires dissonance, efficacy, and benefits.  Lack of efficacy often seems like the bottleneck when it comes to moral engagement on climate.  The strategies within any actor’s scope of effectiveness are not scaled to the problem.  No use accepting guilt, let alone responsibility, if you can’t do anything about it.  “May I be granted serenity…,” etc.  Moral intuition finds no traction where there is no efficacy.  (This is why we do what we do at Climate Solutions.)

The Co-benefit Conundrum –  This cartoon is a staple of climate advocacy:

To build support for climate solutions, we focus on “co-benefits” – often going so far as to shun discussion of climate altogether (which, as I’ve harangued, is a big strategic mistake.)  There’s no denying the effectiveness of this approach in building bridges to new constituencies for action.  Air quality, economic opportunity, and transportation choices are intuitively positive, accessible, tractable.  Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of GHGs is not, not, not.

But the focus on co-benefits can have a perverse effect on moral intuition – like saying “Do this because it will feel good.”  The pitch allows us to infer that we don’t need to do it unless it feels good.  Or if some other thing feels better, we can just do that instead.  It’s morally disengaging.

In a classic of motivational speech, Winston Churchill said, as he was rallying the Brits to war with Germany, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” It is the stark and pointed absence of co-benefits that underscores the necessity for action and makes the rap so powerful.

Hmmm.  Big climate advocacy problem:  Either we  a) keep pumping co-benefits, even at the expense of suppressing moral intuition, because it’s an effective way to build a broader political constituency for climate solutions, or b) downplay co-benefits and just bum folks all the way out, to make the moral imperative as naked and absolute as it must be to drive climate action at scale (the Churchill approach).

Both these options suck.  I’m no Churchill, and climate disruption seems to lack the fear-focusing power (though certainly not the destructive potential) of the Third Reich.  So I’ll keep selling co-benefits, while taking every opportunity to press the case that climate action is a moral imperative, not an amenity.  But I won’t try to reconcile this tension with handwaving about “balance” between moral urgency and marketing co-benefits, at least not today.  For now, let’s just leave it hanging out there as the conundrum it is.

Footnote:   Naomi Klein makes the case that it IS about right and left, but only the right gets that.  Radical conservatives view climate change as the ultimate Trojan Horse and organizing principle for progressive ideology.  Progressives don’t think about it that way at all.  It’s the right, Klein argues, who got the memo:  the only way to seriously tackle climate disruption would be with a broad, sweeping societal mobilization, built on a foundation of progressive values and ambitious government action.  The right can’t have that, and the left isn’t really pushing for it.