Obama on cynicism: “Boo.” On hope: “Yay.”

June 16, 2014

President Obama is right:  cynicism is toxic to climate solutions.  But it can’t be cured just by naming it.  He has to fight it.

The President continued where his Years of Living Dangerously interview left off last week, warding off cynicism in a commencement speech at UC Irvine focused mostly on climate:bad for grads

We’ve got some big challenges.  And if you’re fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there’s no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is too just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America.

Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space.  Cynicism is a choice.  Hope is a better choice.

I’m always in the market for hope, but it’s kind of a tough sell when the ice sheets are disintegrating and the President can’t stop talking about his all-of-the-above energy strategy, even in speeches about climate.  It’s a tough sell when the science blares a 5-alarm global emergency, and the President steps on the message by announcing a $1 billion “resiliency” fund.

Look, I know the President can’t snap his fingers and turn it around.  The nauseating truth is that the far end of what’s “politically possible” doesn’t even approach the near end of what’s urgently necessary.  The President is clearly trying:  fuel economy and power plant standards are meaningful steps forward against strong headwinds.

But it’s bittersweet to hear the President rallying the grads to solutions, when he still hasn’t done the most basic thing necessary to give them a fighting chance to succeed:  stop making it worse.

The President articulated this simple idea in his climate address last June, when he said he would the approve Keystone XL tar sands pipeline only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Bingo.  At this stage of the game, how could we in good conscience do anything that “significantly exacerbates” the climate crisis?

Imagine how much more hopeful the graduates might be if the President clearly made that condition a firm and explicit Administration policy:  the federal government will categorically stop doing things that significantly exacerbate the climate crisis — particularly things that facilitate new capital investments in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure, “locking in” dangerous climate disruptionWe’ve got so much work to do to make it better.  So we’re done making it worse.  Period.

You can’t tell the next generation to be engaged and optimistic one minute and slam the door in their face with new fossil fuel investments the next.  As young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto told Secretary of State Kerry in their recent letter calling on the President to reject Keystone XL:

“The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give…solutions time to grow.  We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”

We can’t put the fire out instantly, but we can stop spraying gas on it. That, so much more than the word “hope,” would feed hope.

The best hope food in the President’s commencement speech — the clearest nod to the real fight against the power of fossil fuels — was:

“You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.”

Yes, you do.

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The whole speech:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

________________________________________________________________

For Immediate Release                              June 14, 2014

 

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT

AT UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-IRVINE COMMENCEMENT CEREMONY

 

Angel Stadium

Anaheim, California

12:10 P.M. PDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Hello, Anteaters!  (Applause.)  That is something I never thought I’d say.  (Laughter.)  Please, please take a seat. 

To President Napolitano — which is a nice step up from Secretary; to Fred Ruiz, Vice Chair of the University of California Regents; Chancellor Drake; Representatives Loretta Sanchez and Alan Lowenthal; to the trustees and faculty — thank you for this honor.  And congratulations to the Class of 2014!  (Applause.)  

Now, let me begin my saying all of you had the inside track in getting me here — because my personal assistant, Ferial, is a proud Anteater.  (Applause.)  Until today, I did not understand why she greets me every morning by shouting “Zot, Zot, Zot!”  (Laughter.)  It’s been a little weird.  But she explained it to me on the way here this morning, because she’s very proud to see her brother, Sina, graduate today as well.  (Applause.)  So, graduates, obviously we’re proud of you, but let’s give it up for your proud family and friends and professors, because this is their day, too.  (Applause.)

And even though he’s on the road this weekend, I also want to thank Angels centerfielder Mike Trout for letting me cover his turf for a while.  (Applause.)  He actually signed a bat for me, which is part of my retirement plan.  (Laughter.)  I will be keeping that.  And this is a very cool place to hold a commencement.  I know that UC Irvine’s baseball team opens College World Series play in Omaha right about now — (applause) — so let’s get this speech underway.  If the hot dog guy comes by, get me one.  (Laughter.)

Now, in additional to Ferial, graduates, I’m here for a simple reason:  You asked.  For those who don’t know, the UC Irvine community sent 10,000 postcards to the White House asking me to come speak today.  (Applause.)  Some tried to guilt me into coming.  I got one that said, “I went to your first inauguration, can you please come to my graduation?”  (Applause.)  Some tried bribery:  “I’ll support the Chicago Bulls.”  Another said today would be your birthday — so happy birthday, whoever you are.

My personal favorite — somebody wrote and said, “We are super underrated!”  (Laughter.)  I’m sure she was talking about this school.  But keep in mind, you’re not only the number-one university in America younger than 50 years old, you also hold the Guinness World Record for biggest water pistol fight.  (Applause.)  You’re pretty excited about that.  (Laughter.) 

“We are super underrated.”  This young lady could have just as well been talking, though, about this generation.  I think this generation of young people is super underrated.

In your young lives, you’ve seen dizzying change, from terror attacks to economic turmoil; from Twitter to Tumblr.  Some of your families have known tough times during the course of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  You’re graduating into a still-healing job market, and some of you are carrying student loan debt that you’re concerned about.  And yet, your generation — the most educated, the most diverse, the most tolerant, the most politically independent and the most digitally fluent in our history — is also on record as being the most optimistic about our future. 

And I’m here to tell you that you are right to be optimistic.  (Applause.)  You are right to be optimistic.  Consider this:  Since the time most of you graduated from high school, fewer Americans are at war.  More have health insurance.  More are graduating from college.  Our businesses have added more than 9 million new jobs.  The number of states where you’re free to marry who you love has more than doubled.  (Applause.) And that’s just some of the progress that you’ve seen while you’ve been studying here at UC Irvine.

But we do face real challenges:  Rebuilding the middle class and reversing inequality’s rise.  Reining in college costs.  Protecting voting rights.  Welcoming the immigrants and young dreamers who keep this country vibrant.  Stemming the tide of violence that guns inflict on our schools.  We’ve got some big challenges.  And if you’re fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there’s no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is too just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America. 

And I’m here to tell you, don’t believe the cynicism.  Guard against it.  Don’t buy into it.  Today, I want to use one case study to show you that progress is possible and perseverance is critical.  I want to show you how badly we need you — both your individual voices and your collective efforts — to give you the chance you seek to change the world, and maybe even save it. 

I’m going to talk about one of the most significant long-term challenges that our country and our planet faces:  the growing threat of a rapidly changing climate. 

Now, this isn’t a policy speech.  I understand it’s a commencement, and I already delivered a long climate address last summer.  I remember because it was 95 degrees and my staff had me do it outside, and I was pouring with sweat — as a visual aid.  (Laughter.)  And since this is a very educated group, you already know the science.  Burning fossil fuels release carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide traps heat.  Levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in 800,000 years. 

We know the trends.  The 18 warmest years on record have all happened since you graduates were born.  We know what we see with our own eyes.  Out West, firefighters brave longer, harsher wildfire seasons; states have to budget for that.  Mountain towns worry about what smaller snowpacks mean for tourism.  Farmers and families at the bottom worry about what it will mean for their water.  In cities like Norfolk and Miami, streets now flood frequently at high tide.  Shrinking icecaps have National Geographic making the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart.

So the question is not whether we need to act.  The overwhelming judgment of science, accumulated and measured and reviewed over decades, has put that question to rest.  The question is whether we have the will to act before it’s too late.  For if we fail to protect the world we leave not just to my children, but to your children and your children’s children, we will fail one of our primary reasons for being on this world in the first place.  And that is to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation.

Now, the good is you already know all this.  UC Irvine set up the first Earth System Science Department in America.  (Applause.)  A UC Irvine professor-student team won the Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs destroy the ozone layer.  (Applause.)  A UC Irvine glaciologist’s work led to one of last month’s report showing one of the world’s major ice sheets in irreversible retreat.  Students and professors are in the field working to predict changing weather patterns, fire seasons, and water tables — working to understand how shifting seasons affect global ecosystems; to get zero-emission vehicles on the road faster; to help coastal communities adapt to rising seas.  And when I challenge colleges to reduce their energy use to 20 percent by 2020, UC Irvine went ahead and did it last year.  Done.  (Applause.)  So UC Irvine is ahead of the curve.  All of you are ahead of the curve. 

Your generation reminds me of something President Wilson once said.  He said, “Sometimes people call me an idealist.  Well, that is the way I know I am an American.”  That’s who we are.  

And if you need a reason to be optimistic about our future, then look around this stadium.  Because today, in America, the largest single age group is 22 years ago.  And you are going to do great things.  And I want you to know that I’ve got your back — because one of the reasons I ran for this office was because I believed our dangerous addiction to foreign oil left our economy at risk and our planet in peril.  So when I took office, we set out to use more clean energy and less dirty energy, and waste less energy overall. 

And since then, we’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by the middle of the next decade.  We’ve tripled the electricity we harness from the wind, generating enough last year to power every home in California.  We’ve multiplied the electricity we generate from the sun 10 times over.  And this state, California, is so far ahead of the rest of the country in solar, that earlier this year solar power met 18 percent of your total power demand one day.  (Applause.)

The bottom line is, America produces more renewable energy than ever, more natural gas than anyone.  And for the first time in nearly two decades, we produce more oil here at home than we buy from other countries.  And these advances have created jobs and grown our economy, and helped cut our carbon pollution to levels not seen in about 20 years.  Since 2006, no country on Earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States of America.  (Applause.)

So that’s all reason for optimism.  Here’s the challenge:  We’ve got to do more.  What we’re doing is not enough.  And that’s why, a couple weeks ago, America proposed new standards to limit the amount of harmful carbon pollution that power plants can dump into the air.  And we also have to realize, as hundreds of scientists declared last month, that climate change is no longer a distant threat, but “has moved firmly into the present.”  That’s a quote.  In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts, and fires, and storms, and floods are going to get harsher and they’re going to get costlier.  And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new $1 billion competitive fund to help communities prepare for the impacts of climate change and build more resilient infrastructure across the country.  (Applause.)

So it’s a big problem.  But progress, no matter how big the problem, is possible.  That’s important to remember.  Because no matter what you do in life, you’re going to run up against big problems — in your own personal life and in your communities and in your country.   There’s going to be a stubborn status quo, and there are going to be people determined to stymie your efforts to bring about change.  There are going to be people who say you can’t do something.  There are going to be people who say you shouldn’t bother.  I’ve got some experience in this myself.  (Laughter.)

Now, part of what’s unique about climate change, though, is the nature of some of the opposition to action.  It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist.  When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long.  But nobody ignored the science.  I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese.  (Laughter.) 

And today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change.  They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad.  One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling.  There was one member of Congress who mentioned a theory involving “dinosaur flatulence” — which I won’t get into.  (Laughter.)

Now, their view may be wrong — and a fairly serious threat to everybody’s future — but at least they have the brass to say what they actually think.  There are some who also duck the question.  They say — when they’re asked about climate change, they say, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist.”  And I’ll translate that for you.  What that really means is, “I know that manmade climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.”  (Applause.)

Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA.  I do know that the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put that debate to rest.  The writer, Thomas Friedman, recently put it to me this way.  He were talking, and he says, “Your kid is sick, you consult 100 doctors; 97 of them tell you to do this, three tell [you] to do that, and you want to go with the three?”

The fact is, this should not be a partisan issue.  After all, it was Republicans who used to lead the way on new ideas to protect our environment.  It was Teddy Roosevelt who first pushed for our magnificent national parks.  It was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act and opened the EPA.  George H.W. Bush — a wonderful man who at 90 just jumped out of a plane in a parachute — (laughter) — said that “human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and unprecedented ways.”  John McCain and other Republicans publicly supported free market-based cap-and-trade bills to slow carbon pollution just a few years ago — before the Tea Party decided it was a massive threat to freedom and liberty. 

These days, unfortunately, nothing is happening.  Even minor energy efficiency bills are killed on the Senate floor.  And the reason is because people are thinking about politics instead of thinking about what’s good for the next generation.  What’s the point of public office if you’re not going to use your power to help solve problems?  (Applause.)     

And part of the challenge is that the media doesn’t spend a lot of time covering climate change and letting average Americans know how it could impact our future.  Now, the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts spend just a few minutes a month covering climate issues.  On cable, the debate is usually between political pundits, not scientists.  When we introduced those new anti-pollution standards a couple weeks ago, the instant reaction from the Washington’s political press wasn’t about what it would mean for our planet; it was what would it mean for an election six months from now.  And that kind of misses the point.  Of course, they’re not scientists, either.

And I want to tell you all this not to discourage you.  I’m telling you all this because I want to light a fire under you.  As the generation getting shortchanged by inaction on this issue, I want all of you to understand you cannot accept that this is the way it has to be. 

The climate change deniers suggest there’s still a debate over the science.  There is not.  The talking heads on cable news suggest public opinion is hopelessly deadlocked.  It is not.  Seven in ten Americans say global warming is a serious problem.  Seven in ten say the federal government should limit pollution from our power plants.  And of all the issues in a recent poll asking Americans where we think we can make a difference, protecting the environment came out on top.  (Applause.) 

So we’ve got public opinion potentially on our side.  We can do this.  We can make a difference.  You can make a difference.  And the sooner you do, the better — not just for our climate, but for our economy.  There’s a reason that more than 700 businesses like Apple and Microsoft, and GM and Nike, Intel, Starbucks have declared that “tackling climate change is one of America’s greatest economic opportunities in the 21st century.”  The country that seizes this opportunity first will lead the way.  A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine for growth and jobs for decades to come, and I want America to build that engine.  Because if we do, others will follow.  I want those jobs; I want those opportunities; I want those businesses right here in the United States of America.  (Applause.)

Developing countries are using more and more energy, and tens of millions of people are entering the global middle class, and they want to buy cars and refrigerators.  So if we don’t deal with this problem soon, we’re going to be overwhelmed.  These nations have some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution.  They’re going to have to take action to meet this challenge.  They’re more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are.  They’ve got even more to lose.  But they’re waiting to see what does America do.  That’s what the world does.  It waits to watch us act.  And when we do, they move.  And I’m convinced that on this issue, when America proves what’s possible, then they’re going to join us.

And America cannot meet this threat alone.  Of course, the world cannot meet it without America.  This is a fight that America must lead.  So I’m going to keep doing my part for as long as I hold this office and as long as I’m a citizen once out of office.  But we’re going to need you, the next generation, to finish the job.

We need scientists to design new fuels.  We need farmers to help grow them.  We need engineers to invent new technologies.  We need entrepreneurs to sell those technologies.  (Applause.)  We need workers to operate assembly lines that hum with high-tech, zero-carbon components.  We need builders to hammer into place the foundations for a clean energy age.  We need diplomats and businessmen and women, and Peace Corps volunteers to help developing nations skip past the dirty phase of development and transition to sustainable sources of energy.

In other words, we need you.  (Applause.)  We need you.  And if you believe, like I do, that something has to be done on this, then you’re going to have to speak out.  You’re going to have to learn more about these issues.  Even if you’re not like Jessica and an expert, you’re going to have to work on this.  You’re going to have to push those of us in power to do what this American moment demands.  You’ve got to educate your classmates, and colleagues, and family members and fellow citizens, and tell them what’s at stake.  You’ve got to push back against the misinformation, and speak out for facts, and organize others around your vision for the future. 

You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.  And you’ve got to remind everyone who represents you, at every level of government, that doing something about climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.

It’s no accident that when President Kennedy needed to convince the nation that sending Americans into space was a worthy goal, he went to a university.  That’s where he started.  Because a challenge as big as that, as costly as that, as difficult as that, requires a spirit of youth.  It requires a spirit of adventure; a willingness to take risks.  It requires optimism.  It requires hope.  That day, a man told us we’d go to the moon within a decade.  And despite all the naysayers, somehow we knew as a nation that we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet that goal.

That’s because we’re Americans — and that’s what we do.  Even when our political system is consumed by small things, we are a people called to do big things.  And progress on climate change is a big thing.  Progress won’t always be flashy; it will be measured in disasters averted, and lives saved, and a planet preserved — and days just like this one, 20 years from now, and 50 years from now, and 100 years from now.  But can you imagine a more worthy goal — a more worthy legacy — than protecting the world we leave to our children? 

So I ask your generation to help leave us that legacy.  I ask you to believe in yourselves and in one another, and above all, when life gets you down or somebody tells you you can’t do something, to believe in something better.

There are people here who know what it means to dream.  When Mohamad Abedi was a boy, the suffering he saw in refugee camps in Lebanon didn’t drive him into despair — it inspired him to become a doctor.  And when he came to America, he discovered a passion for engineering.  So here, at UC Irvine, he became a biomedical engineer to study the human brain.  (Applause.)  And Mohamad said, “Had I never come to the United States, I would have never had the ability to do the work that I’m doing.”  He’s now going to CalTech to keep doing that work.

Cinthia Flores is the daughter of a single mom who worked as a seamstress and a housekeeper.  (Applause.)  The first in her family to graduate from high school.  The first in her family to graduate from college.  And in college, she says, “I learned about myself that I was good at advocating for others, and that I was argumentative — so maybe I should go to law school.”  And, today, Cinthia is now the first in her family to graduate from law school.  And she plans to advocate for the rights of workers like her mom.  (Applause.)  She says, “I have the great privilege and opportunity to answer the call of my community.”  “The bottom line,” she says, “is being of service.”

On 9/11, Aaron Anderson was a sophomore in college.  Several months later, he was in training for Army Special Forces.  He fought in Afghanistan, and on February 28th, 2006, he was nearly killed by an IED.  He endured dozens of surgeries to save his legs, months of recovery at Walter Reed.  When he couldn’t physically return to active duty, he devoted his time to his brothers in arms, starting two businesses with fellow veterans, and a foundation to help fellow wounded Green Beret soldiers.  And then he went back to school.  And last December, he graduated summa cum laude from UC Irvine.  And Aaron is here today, along with four soon-to-be commissioned ROTC cadets, and 65 other graduating veterans.  And I would ask them to stand and be recognized for their service.  (Applause.) 

The point is, you know how to dream.  And you know how to work for your dreams.  And, yes, sometimes you may be “super underrated.”  But usually it’s the underrated, the underdogs, the dreamers, the idealists, the fighters, the argumentative — those are the folks who do the biggest things. 

And this generation — this 9/11 generation of soldiers; this new generation of scientists and advocates and entrepreneurs and altruists — you’re the antidote to cynicism.  It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get down sometimes.  You will.  You’ll know disillusionment.  You’ll experience doubt.  People will disappoint you by their actions.  But that can’t discourage you.

Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space.  Cynicism is a choice.  Hope is a better choice.  (Applause.)

Hope is what gave young soldiers the courage to storm a beach and liberate people they never met.

Hope is what gave young students the strength to sit in and stand up and march for women’s rights, and civil rights, and voting rights, and gay rights, and immigration rights. 

Hope is the belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that there are better days ahead, and that together we can build up a middle class, and reshape our immigration system, and shield our children from gun violence, and shelter future generations from the ravages of climate change.

Hope is the fact that, today, the single largest age group in America is 22 years old who are all just itching to reshape this country and reshape the world.  And I cannot wait to see what you do tomorrow.

Congratulations.  (Applause.)  Thank you, Class of 2014.   God bless you.  God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)


“When push comes to shove:” When is that, anyway?

June 10, 2014

 

“Teddy Roosevelt loved to be in the middle of a fight. Not every President does. It’s partly a temperamental thing.”

– Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin

illustration by Victor Juhasz

illustration by Victor Juhasz

In his interview with Thomas Friedman in the final episode of Years of Living Dangerously President Obama is pensive — reasonable to the point of distraction:

“Science is science,….Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy.”

“…[W]e have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon.

“We have got to meet folks where they are… I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away. What we’ve tried to do is continually find ways in which we can make progress.”

Friedman tries to goad the President: “Do you ever want to just go off on the climate deniers in Congress?”

But No Drama’s dander will not get up.

“Yeah, absolutely,” the president said with a laugh. “Look, it’s frustrating when the science is in front of us. … We can argue about how. But let’s not argue about what’s going on…”

He sides with the truth, but there is little sense of consequence for being on the other side.

The interview concludes with Friedman asking the President about cynicism – the dangerous gap between the scale and scope of the climate crisis and the scale and scope of our confidence in our own capacity to mobilize for solutions. “That may be the biggest threat,” says Friedman.  The President agreed,

“The most important thing is to guard against cynicism.  I want to make sure that everybody who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that, well, we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s a lot we can do about it. It’s not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we like, but, if we are persistent, we will make progress.”

Cynicism may well be the greatest threat, and opponents of climate action are busy feeding it. If it takes a national culture of futility and lack of faith in democratic institutions to keep us strung out on fossil fuels, well, business is business.

This is where we need a president to show, not tell. We have just watched a documentary that graphically depicts the devastating physical and human consequences of climate disruption, including the looming displacement of tens of millions of people in Bangladesh. The President is right to worry that we might be feeling somewhat discouraged about the prospects at this moment. But what does he offer to rally us?

“There’s a lot we can do about it”? “If we are persistent, we will make progress”?

Where’s the heat? Where’s the finger in the sternum of the opposition? Where’s the determination to overcome (or at least name) what’s really standing between us and solutions – the concentrated economic and political power of the fossil fuel industry? Where’s the bigness? Where’s the fight?

The President concludes:

“When push comes to shove, we respond.”

How much further does push have to go before it encounters shove? How much more climate catastrophe do we have to bear? How much more aggressively do the fossil fuel industries have to pollute our democracy, attack reason, and undermine solutions?

And how can we ward off cynicism without a muscular, inspiring, aggressive national response – something big and bold to believe in and a president who will fight for it?

Here’s to showing more of what that might look like in the second season of Years of Living Dangerously ….and in the second half of the President’s second term.

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Re presidential leadership and the big bold national mobilization for climate solutions we need, this Robert Kuttner essay in American Prospect is worth a read:

The Hidden History of Prosperity

 

 

 

 


Divest. Separate. Win.

May 12, 2014

Go Fossil Free took a big leap forward last week as Stanford University announced that it will purge coal stocks from its endowment portfolio. And Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, in a commencement address at Amherst, set his sights on a “future free of fossil fuels.”

Divestment is more than a tactic in the climate battle. In a broad sense, it’s the whole game. Because what’s holding us back is our own money and power, turned against us. Our buildings and vehicles and 401ks siphon our money to our opposition and sap our will for change. We’re too invested in dependence on fossil fuels.breaking free

Of course the “real” solutions – the most important things we need to do – are the policy changes that will drive a clean energy revolution: steadily improving performance standards for energy production and use, clean energy R,D&D, and a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure investments that “lock in” dangerous emission levels. Above all, we need a commitment to do the whole job: responsible limits on climate pollution, and carbon prices that tell the truth about carbon costs.

We haven’t won enough of those policy changes yet because we’ve been stymied by the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel industries. And why do they have so much power? Because they’ve stolen ours, and they keep stealing it. The money they use to pay for climate science denial and opposition to climate policy is our money.

The fossil fuel industry does not have enough money or power by itself to stop climate solutions. It only wins by continuously arrogating our power and using it against us.

We buy and burn their product. We need their stuff to chill our beer, light our homes, and get from point A to point B, because they have systematically blocked the path to better alternatives. Our retirement savings are their capital pools, and only now are fossil-free investment vehicles beginning to emerge. We feed the beast because it’s hard not to, …because the beast feeds us.

This puts us in a compromised, confused, and ineffectual position when it comes time to break free. Harvard University President Drew Faust elucidated that position in her statement rejecting fossil fuel divestment.

“I find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.”

Even as we resist the power of fossil fuels over our future, we underwrite it. We hesitate to fully commit ourselves to the fight because we are in some sense on the other side.

And wait, the circle gets even more vicious. We know we feed the problem, so we feel implicated. The cycle of involuntary complicity is locked in place with psychological cement: guilt. Zadie Smith explains in “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons”:

“I don’t think we have made matters of science into questions of belief out of sheer stupidity. Belief usually has an emotional component; it’s desire, disguised. Of course, on the part of our leaders much of the politicization is cynical bad faith, and economically motivated, but down here on the ground, the desire for innocence is what’s driving us…

For both ‘sides’ are full of guilt, full of self-disgust…and we project it outward. This is what fuels the petty fury of our debates, even in the midst of crisis.

Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar — essentially religious — cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation.”

This is the ultimate stranglehold, the perfect heist of our power. Instead of anger, we harbor regret. Instead of resolve, we exhibit futility. Instead of engaging, we evade. Instead of hope, we feel shame.

To turn this power-sucking cycle around, we need to divest. We need to take our money and our power back. We need to separate ourselves from what’s holding us back, so we can move on.

As a power-building strategy, divestment is particularly efficient, because it takes back power that we currently give away. It’s a two-fer: we get more and our opponents get less. And, crucially, we start to build the power that comes from getting clearer about which side we’re on.

Selling off our equity stake in the most egregious perpetrators of the climate crisis is a terrific way to start separating our own will, our intention, and our money from the problem. And since the fossil fuel industry wages war on truth in order to preserve our dependence, our institutions of higher education — which exist to serve truth — are the perfect place to begin divesting.

FAQs

If we divest our portfolios, don’t we have to divest our energy supplies right away too? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical to drive to the store in an oil-powered vehicle?

No, for Heaven’s sake, lighten up!  We start from where we are.  Every time we take a little of our money and power back, we make it a little more possible to get the rest. We move forward.   (But we draw a bright line against new, long-lived capital infrastructure investments that make the problem intractable. Like Keystone XL.)

President Faust’s “troubling inconsistency” is exactly the point of divestment.   The campaign shines a bright light on our unwitting commitment to empower the forces that block solutions. Divestment presents a specific opportunity to reverse that commitment, to take some of our money back.   Should we decline to do that because we are not yet in a position to take ALL of it back immediately? We’ll never get anywhere that way!

Should we feel guilty about our continuing complicity in the climate crisis in the meantime?

Feel whatever makes you most determined to stand up and fight for solutions. Maybe for some people that’s guilt. Not me; as the son of a Jewish mom, guilt just turns me into an adolescent. I pout and withdraw.

Personally, I’ll take freedom. I don’t beat myself to a pulp with recrimination every time I fill up at a gas station. But mostly I get around just fine on my bike and on transit. And I’ve got a 2-year lease on a Nissan Leaf, which I fill up with carbon-free Seattle City Light electricity. Now, I go to the gas station, fill up my tires, clean my windshield….and Leaf!

Do I feel smug about that? Righteous?

Not a bit. I still consume way more fossil fuel than the average human can if we’re going to have a future. I feel trapped and implicated and pissed because most of the practical, available, affordable technology and lifestyle choices still require too much fossil fuel.

But steadily, I’m finding more ways to shake free — fewer trips to the gas station, less carbon in my power supply, more ways to get the grip of climate-destroying fossil fuels off me, off my grandkids’ future.

And when I divested my 401k from fossil fuels, I stood up a little straighter, saw a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t affect fossil fuel stock values. But it deprived the coal and oil industries of some part of one person’s ambivalence and confusion and demoralization.

Am I saying that because I want you to feel bad if you haven’t done any of those things yet?

No. I just want to tell you how good it feels when you do. I notice a strong correlation between my divestment from the problem and my sense that we might win solutions. It builds mojo.

Yes, but that’s “just symbolic,” right? Isn’t divestment kind of a distraction when we should be devoting all of our finite resources to winning a comprehensive climate policy?

The road to big policy solutions is blocked. We’re having trouble clearing it in part because we’re standing in it ourselves. Map the power:

Why don’t we have a comprehensive climate policy now? Because the fossil fuel industry has too much power.

Why? Because they stole our power.

How? By blocking solutions so that every time we try to break free, we end up chasing our tails about “troubling inconsistencies.”

What will happen when we propose a cap and a price on carbon? Big Fossil will attack it with a $ zillion ad buy accusing us of raising gas prices, punishing poor people, stealing jobs. And it will work because we are stuck in a cycle of “pervasive dependence” on fossil fuels. Pricing carbon is too easily portrayed as blaming and penalizing us for living our lives.

How will we position ourselves to prevail in the face of that? By asserting our freedom, taking our money and power back. By establishing that the only way to avoid being the victim of high fossil fuel costs is to break free of them, and that carbon pricing is a vital part of how we cut the chains. The point isn’t to pay more for fossil fuels. It’s to pay — and need them — less. As the Metro Bus ads in Seattle say: Gas is cheap when you don’t use it.

For now though, they own us in part because we own them.

Hence, today, divest.

 


Obsoleting Bertha: Viaduct traffic plummets

March 4, 2014

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry has a terrific post on the astounding decline in traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct since Seattle’s Big Dig II began.  Trip volumes are down 40% in just 3 years!  Clark analyzes the remarkable trend and concludes:

At this point, nobody knows if [tunnel-boring machine] Bertha will ever get moving again, let alone complete her job. But given these figures, maybe it doesn’t matter. Seattle has seamlessly adapted to losing the first 48,000 trips on the Viaduct. No one even noticed. No one even noticed that 40 percent of the Viaduct’s traffic just disappeared! Could accommodating the loss of another 62,000 be that hard if we, I don’t know, tried even a little?Stop digging

Every day it seems clearer:  if we can stop the momentum of expanding-fossil-fuel-infrastructure-as-usual, we can figure out better ways to make energy and better ways to get our butts from point A to point B (and maybe make point A so awesome that our butts will be happier there.)

Of course, none of this is painless or automatic.  Car trips on the viaduct are down in part because of long-term investment in transit and increased congestion in spots.  Some who don’t have convenient alternatives are facing longer commutes.  A planned transition from a freeway on the waterfront to better mobility strategies surely would have been more efficient and effective.  But the point is, it’s doable, and much of it is being done essentially by accident.

Even if it causes some inconvenience — big changes always do — we must immediately stop making long-term capital investments that lock us in to chaotic, irreversible climate disruption.  This isn’t an “environmental agenda,” it’s a survival imperative, an existential thing, supported by the most exhaustive body of peer-reviewed science in the history of peer-reviewed science.  It is what our minds know we must do.  It is the Keystone Principle, the reason 398 people were arrested at the White House last Sunday.  And for every one of them, 200 more have pledged civil disobedience if necessary.

Mathematically and morally, we simply can’t afford more big, capital-intensive steps backward on climate….especially as it becomes increasingly clear that they’re unnecessary, wasteful, obsolete!  This may seem like reading too much into our little tunnel saga, but no single decision looks big in the context of the whole climate challenge.  These are exactly the kind of choices that must now be made in the full light of climate consequences.

Is there really any doubt what they should name the mammoth whose tusk was found buried under Downtown Seattle?  Whoever writes this stuff is slathering on the irony:  we just happened to discover an enormous, perfect fossil of an extinct beast — its spectacular, ostentatious digging tool — buried under downtown Seattle while the tunnel-boring, fossil-fuel-dependence-perpetuating machine ground to a halt nearby.

That mammoth has got to be named Bertha, if only to remind us again that we can still choose a better fate.

Here’s Clark’s amazing-but-true chart:

viaduct traffic

Thank you Clark and Sightline Daily, for being so gritty and brainy at the same time!


War on truth: Which side is Harvard on?

November 9, 2013

College students across the country are calling on their schools’ endowments to divest from fossil fuels.  The campaign is taking off.Harvard Divest

But Harvard University President Drew Faust has rejected the idea, without responding to student requests for a public forum on the issue.  In doing so, she turned her back on the institution’s mission:  truth.

The fossil fuel industry, supported in some part by the Harvard endowment, has stooped to a particular form of political manipulation that poses a direct, existential threat to the purposes of academia.  They fund and disseminate climate disinformation and corrupt our democracy in order to undermine political will for solutions.  They have, with an alarming degree of success, prevented our institutions from acting on the basis of what our brains know about the dire, objective reality of our circumstances on the planet.  They are at war with the truth.

By investing its assets in fossil fuels, Harvard is feeding a conscious and cynical strategy to separate human agency from knowledge and reason.  The direct target of this strategy is the essential good that Harvard exists to serve:   the unique human capacity for rational action based on intellectual discovery.

President Faust argues that divestment would have no practical effect.  Harvard’s share of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies is too small to matter, she calculates.

This analysis sells Harvard short.  Calibrating the potential impact of divestment based on Harvard’s share of the capitalization of coal and oil companies is a bit like judging Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil rights based on the physical proportion of the segregated facilities in the South that she occupied when she sat in the front of the bus.  At stake here is truth – the institution’s purpose – and our capacity to act upon it.  If Harvard won’t stand up for that, who will?  And if Harvard did stand up for that, how big a blow would that strike for truth?

Faust worries that divestment would be inappropriately political.  But investing in fossil fuels is every bit as political as choosing not to.  By shunning divestment, Harvard is not just missing an opportunity to shed light; it is financing darkness.

The illumination that Harvard could offer now by divesting would be clear and penetrating.  The controversy surrounding the issue adds the wattage needed to make a dent in the prevailing darkness.  If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, its more conventional academic contributions to climate solutions will gain a sense of integrity and hope that would surely increase their effectiveness.

What the world needs from academia right now is no more or less than what’s emblazoned on Harvard’s crimson shield, the institution’s motto and purpose:  “Veritas” – truth – and the courage to take a stand for it.

______________________________________________________________________________

Above, I focus on a specific reason why academic institutions in particular should divest from fossil fuels – because such investments directly undermine truth, their mission.

But President Faust’s statement rejecting divestment reads like a compendium of popular misconceptions and evasions about divestment in particular and climate action in general.  Faust has offered sort of a non-deniers’ manifesto for shirking climate responsibility, so a thorough response would be something of a handbook for the opposite… if I get time.

In the meantime, and in case I never get to it, Jeff Spross has an economical debunker: Harvard’s Four Reasons For Not Divesting From Fossil Fuels, And Why They’re All Wrong.

Joe Romm follows up with a specific response to one of Faust’s most insidious arguments – the idea that divestment is hypocritical because we consume fossil fuels.  This particular mode of tail-chasing is a maddeningly potent deterrent to climate action.  I hope to focus on it soon.  Says Joe:  The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels

For a wonderfully thorough fiduciary case for divestment, from former Reagan SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, see:  “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries”

And whatever else you do, don’t just sit there, DIVEST:  “Extracting Fossil Fuels from your Portfolio: A Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment.”  


What’s “American Energy?” Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

May 30, 2012

It’s the name of the game.

President Obama is into it – check out his agenda for Securing American Energy.  His opponents are all over it too:  the American Energy Alliance is running ads attacking the President’s energy policy.  But on this much they agree:  American Energy is the good kind.

But how do we know which energy is American?  The distinguishing factor seems to be the physical location where the energy is extracted or collected.  So, oil from Saudi Arabia is not American, but oil from North Dakota is.

It can get a little confusing:  Oil from tar sands in Alberta is North American, so it’s pretty much “American.”  Oil from Venezuela is South American, so it’s not really “American” at all.

But when the President and his opponents pump “American” Energy, they are trying to connect to something more than where the holes get drilled.  They are invoking our national values.  They’re appealing to a word and a symbol – America – the core meaning of which is found not on a map, but in our creed.

So, what if we had an energy policy defined by American values?  What if when we said “American Energy,” what we meant was not lumps of coal or barrels of oil extracted from U.S. soil, but the kind of energy that embodies what it really means to be American?

In that world, American Energy might be about:

Freedom:  We would avoid energy sources like oil that prop up dictatorships and subject Americans to the abuse of concentrated economic power.  Energy efficiency and conservation, in contrast, liberate people from volatile energy costs, market manipulations, and the inexorable price pressure of rising demand for finite resources.  With more efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances, we can do more while using less:  the ultimate energy freedom.

Democracy:  Fossil fuel industries have accumulated unprecedented wealth and power.  Their money pollutes our democracy as aggressively as their emissions pollute our air.  Solar energy, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, and the fuel is free.  The sun delivers more energy in an hour than humans use in a year.  We can collect and finance solar energy together on our homes and businesses.  If we put our energy dollars into solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and public transit, maybe ExxonMobil won’t have enough money to buy so many politicians.  Renewable energy is available everywhere, but its resilience against economic and political tyranny is quintessentially American.

Responsibility:  America pioneered a fossil-fueled path to prosperity, and if the whole world follows it, we are all toast.  So now we can and must blaze a clean energy path to prosperity.  When we do, America can proudly lead the world economy and Americans can do right by our kids.  (The Island President makes an irresistible case for this kind of American energy.)

Dependence on fossil fuels is crippling our nation – bleeding our economy, destabilizing the climate, eroding national security, and undermining our ability to control our institutions.   No matter where they drill and dig, those resources belong to Big Oil and King Coal – not you, not me, not America.

Clean energy, transportation choices, and energy efficiency can free us.  America has what it takes to build a clean energy economy and take back our democracy from the fossil fuel industries who use our energy dollars to corrupt our political process.   We have the resources, the technology, and the ingenuity to control our destiny and build a better future.

That’s American energy.  Fossil fuel addiction is American’t.

(….with props to Van Jones and Rebuild the Dream for the American/American’t bite…..)


Don’t be silly. Go see The Island President.

April 7, 2012

How often does Jon Stewart get choked up by something other than laughter?

Deposed President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives did it to him.   Same way he did it to everyone at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.  Same way he’ll do it to you when you go see the new documentary about him, The Island President.

The movie is only screening in a few places now, but do yourself a favor and watch the Daily Show interview with him.  Watch both parts.

The guy is mind-bogglingly humble, incredibly brave, smiling into the teeth of a coup and a climate crisis that is literally drowning the archipelago where he served as the first democratically elected President.

His call for America to be accountable is absolutely irresistible.   He’s positive, solution-oriented, and unyielding.  Of America’s failure to get a grip on climate reality, he says “Don’t be silly.”  This is a seriously nice man.

His words rang in my ears as I read accounts this week of the political wrangling over gas prices during the Congressional recess.   We have seen this movie over and over:  gas prices spike, politicians point fingers, prices moderate a bit and we all go back to sleep.

This time, Democrats are focusing on speculators as the culprit.  Reining in oil market speculation might help a little, but it diverts attention from the fundamental problem.  Whether its speculators, rising global demand, Iran, OPEC, Big Oil’s greed, you name it; as long as we’re strung out on the stuff, we’ll be at somebody’s mercy, and we’ll keep taking high gas prices on the chin.

Republicans focus on the market fundamentals of supply and demand, but then they squander their effort on the half of that equation where we have the least leverage:  supply.  (Of course, they are not really wasting their time.  They are doing their paymasters’ bidding as Steve Coll chillingly documents in the New Yorker.)   Oil prices are set on world markets and no credible energy expert thinks expanding U.S. production will have a meaningful effect on them.  And the idea that this oil is somehow more friendly because we drill it here is naive.  I’m not drilling.  You’re not drilling.  No matter where they poke their holes, it’s Big Oil’s resource, not America’s.

And, of course, even if we could help consumers by expanding oil production, we’d be killing them that much faster with climate disruption.  High gas prices tell a vital truth:  fossil fuels are too damned costly and dangerous.  We’re driving right up to the edge of runaway climate change now, and expanding investment in capital-intenstive fossil fuel infrastructure is, well, stepping on the gas, as the IEA has urgently warned.

Which brings us back to President Nasheed’s plea to end the silliness.  Trying to drive down oil prices by expanding production is both ineffectual and wrong. It’s unconscionable that one of America’s great political parties completely rejects climate science.  But is it that much better that the other one acknowledges the science and then pursues an “all of the above” energy strategy that essentially eliminates any hope of addressing the problem responsibly?  When your country is drowning, you can’t afford that kind of politically calculated intellectual dishonesty.

There isn’t a leader on the planet who speaks to the climate crisis with more moral authority than Mohamed Nasheed.   I repeat, do not miss this interview.