Freidman for Freedom: But from what?

May 25, 2014

Tom Friedman’s Memorial Day 2050 column is worth a look, starting with the terrific quote from Washington Governor Jay Inslee,

We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.freedom is not free

Friedman rallies us to urgency and resolve, with the hope that we might yet earn the gratitude of future generations in Memorial Days to come.  He frames the fight for climate action as “our generation’s freedom struggle.”

What containment was for our parents’ generation — their strategy to fight for freedom against the biggest threat of their day — resiliency will be for our generation against the multiple threats of our day:  climate change, petro-dictatorship and destruction of our environment and biodiversity.

But “resiliency” against “multiple threats” is too fuzzy to spark a real fight for freedom.  We need to be more specific and focused about what we’re up against.  The biggest threat to our freedom — the biggest obstacle to climate solutions — is Big Fossil’s stranglehold on our democracy.

You can choose to see the fossil fuel industry as a conscious, ruthless tyrant.  Their unconscionable distortion of climate reality and their aggressive manipulation of our political system support that view.  Or you can see them as caught in a bad system – a business model that, it turns out, requires and has already banked on burning 3 to 5 times more carbon than the atmosphere can handle.  (Or you can try to reconcile the two.  See, uproariously, “…and the horse you rode in on”)

But the practical result is the same.  What’s holding us back, with its boot squarely on our grandkids’ necks, is the concentrated economic and political power of the fossil fuel industry. If we mean to fight for and win our freedom, it’s not enough to say, as Friedman does, that “the worst enemies of freedom on the planet” are “the world’s petrodictators.”

No.  The biggest threat to our freedom – the biggest obstacle to the clean energy solutions we know are possibleisn’t “the world’s” oil-funded tyrants.  It’s the fossil fuel industry, and its stranglehold on our democracy.

“The Petro States of America” in Businessweek

February 27, 2014

Are we still living in a democracy?  Or an oilgarchy, a petrocracy?  The Keystone XL decision will be a pretty good indication.

Mark Hertsgaard makes the case powerfully today in BusinessWeek, describing why it’s tough for the President to do the right thing on the pipeline:

…[T]here’s a deeper explanation for Obama’s caution on Keystone that rarely gets acknowledged. He is the president of a petro state, a country that ranks as an OPEC nation in all but name. And in a petro state, saying no to Big Oil is never easy.

The whole piece is well worth a read, here.Saving democracy

Over the long haul, delivering climate solutions will turn out to be one of the most effective things we can do to restore democracy.  We can build a powerful, virtuous circle:   implementing solutions, reducing fossil fuel dependence, eroding the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel interests, and opening the door for more and better solutions.

But first we have to make it through the short haul.  We have to prevent near-term investments like KXL that would lock in fossil fuel dependence and dangerous emission levels — betraying the promise of a clean energy economy that’s rapidly dispelling fossil-funded doubts about its viability.

And to do that, we can’t wait for a patient virtuous circle of solutions and democracy.  We have to assert some democracy.  Like this.

Candidate Obama said it’s time to “end the tyranny of oil.”  The pivotal question now is whether President Obama will use his sole discretion to stand up to that tyranny, or submit to it.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Further thoughts on oil and democracy here:  All Oil is Foreign,

…and on fossil fuels and American values here:  What’s American Energy?  Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

And Climate Solutions offers a new marketing tagline for the Nissan Leaf:  Pull up at the gas station.  Pump up your tires.  Clean your windshield.  And Leaf!

Get old. Get free. Get over oil.

February 18, 2014

I’m going to burn my driver’s license when I turn 75.  Maybe sooner.  I’d like to do it at the offices of Koch Enterprises, if I can get a ride home.

You may think this is a choice to sacrifice some freedom.  But it’s the opposite:  a declaration of independence from the tyranny of oil.Old guy on a bike

So I have twenty years – plenty of time – to build the family and community ties and the physical infrastructure for a car-free life.  Having made this pledge, I’m much more committed to mixed-use development, transit investment, and babysitting my prospective grandkids so someone will feel obliged to give me rides when I need them.   I’ll be safer, and so will everyone else, when I’m not travelling a mile a minute in 2-ton projectile when I can barely see.   If there’s a minimum age for a driver’s license, why not a maximum?

Contrary to everything we fear about what happens when older folks give up driving, I’ll be freer.  I won’t be physically strapped to a small power plant in rapid motion among many.  I won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to buy, insure, and maintain the beast.  I won’t have to sit in traffic, spewing carbon and going nowhere, while the bikers whiz past me.  I won’t have to pay through the nose to park it… that’s right, just to temporarily get out of the damned thing.

And best of all, I will not have to pull up to the gas pump and open my wallet so the Koch Brothers and Rex Tillerson and the US Chamber of Commerce can vacuum it clean.  I won’t have to take my little share of my community’s wealth and shoot it to the tippy-top of the economic pyramid.  I won’t have my money used to pay for false science and political campaigns to elect climate deniers and marketing strategies that equate fossil fuel extraction with happiness and health.

I grew up in LA in the sixties and seventies.  Cars were freedom.  Cars were status.  Cars were sex.  So I get why we like (I need) cars:  Madison Ave. spent jillions cementing a linear relationship between our self-esteem and the horsepower under our hoods.  And the oilgarchs worked hard to make sure we radically underinvested in transit and built our communities around cars, so that even if we could shake our egos free, we couldn’t get anywhere without strengthening their hold on wealth and power.  Even now, cops are carpeting downtown LA with jaywalking tickets, lest the humans, who are resettling downtown Autotopia like an invasive species, impinge on car habitat.

But the gig’s up now, or it certainly will be by the time I’m 75.  Transit and ridesharing and bike infrastructure and healthy mixed-use local communities are delivering better mobility service at lower cost.  Alan Durning, who wrote “The Year of Living Carlessly” just seven years ago, told me recently “I couldn’t write that now.  People would say, ‘So what?’”

Even where cars are still necessary, they’re more and more a necessary evil, not a gift.  And if you need one after seventy-five, when your vision sucks and your reflexes are slow and you need a bathroom all the time, well, that just can’t be freedom.

Maybe one can only say this from a bubble like Seattle.   But I think this transition is gaining momentum almost everywhere.  We’ve seen enough glimpses of better ideas to confirm what should be obvious:  lashing ourselves to a big steel crate impelled by oil, the payments for which are used to trample democracy and brutalize our grandkids, can’t be the best – the smartest, the healthiest, the most elegant – way to get our decreasingly skinny asses from point A to point B.  And besides, point A would rock much harder if we got out of the damned car more.  As Amory Lovins once quipped, “Personal mobility is a symptom….of being in the wrong place.”

OK, it is possible that I’m trying to turn the tables on the relationship between cars and freedom because I’m so desperately afraid of what we’re doing to the climate.  It’s conceivable that I’m making this all up because I’d like my grandkids to, you know, survive.  I’m ok with that.

At least I’ve convinced myself.  When I have to get in a car in Seattle, I feel like a sucker.  It’s like I’m in a video game and I can hear this nasty honky-buzzy noise that means “You lost, loser!”  Whereas my bike ride to and from work is a consistently delightful part of my day.  “Ding, ding, ding!”

When I give up that driver’s license, I’ll just be burning a one-way ticket to Hell.  I only wish – given how much we keep throwing down a rathole to pave the road there – it were refundable.

Thanks to dear friend-of-all-good-things Martha Wycoff for the idea of a maximum age for a driver’s license.


Confession:  I’m already hedging.  I just leased a Leaf!  I can’t wait to pull into a gas station, clean my windshield, inflate my tires, and leave.

All oil is foreign

June 26, 2012

When the political class focuses on the perils of fossil fuel dependence, they almost always use the word “foreign” before “oil”.  This is redundant.  Oil is inherently foreign.  All of it.

Oil is foreign to democracy.  In an election cycle flooded by unrestricted political money, oil money stands out as the biggest gusher.  The Supreme Court struck down Montana’s law limiting corporate spending on campaigns yesterday, so the blowout of oil’s influence will remain uncapped for the foreseeable future.   In America and around the world, oil and freedom do not mix.  Because it concentrates wealth, facilitates abuse of power, breeds dependence, and crushes democracy, oil is fundamentally foreign to the American creed.

Oil is foreign to the atmosphere, air, and water. Burning oil releases about 85 billion pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere per day, all of which has been foreign to our climate for many millions of years.  The planet that existed when that carbon was aloft was a very different place, as foreign as, oh, Jurassic Park.  And some oil doesn’t get burned because it leaks out along the way, causing the waterways of home to turn toxic, hostile, and foreign (see Inside Climate’s blockbuster story on the underreported “Dilbit Disaster” in Michigan.)

Oil is foreign to economic security.  The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, about 2% of proven conventional oil reserves, and consumes about 20% of the oil produced.  Prices are set on world markets and heavily influenced by oilogopolistic producers, regardless of where the oil comes from.  Those producers have us over a barrel as long as we need the stuff.

Oil is foreign to local economic vitality.   The overwhelming majority of Americans live in communities that are hemorrhaging economic resources in order to pay for oil.  Here in King County Washington, for example, our economy will lose north of $5 billion this year to fetch oil – roughly the size of the entire County budget.  A tiny handful of Americans live in communities where oil brings in more money than it sucks out.

Oil is foreign to the intergenerational contract.  Any economic value derived from expanded oil trafficking is confiscated from the many generations who will have to pay the exorbitant costs of living in an unstable climate.  They will not be amused.  Estimates of the economic value of unchecked climate change are enormous but fuzzy;  there is no satisfying way to monetize the intergenerational abuse.

Regardless of where they poke the holes, oil is not yours.  It’s not mine.  It’s not “America’s“.  It’s ExxonMobil’s and OPEC’s and the Koch’s.  Wherever the next fix happens to come from, they will use it to extract record profits, destroy the climate, and maul our democracy.

Drill here, drill there, it doesn’t matter.  The whole damned business is foreign to our national interests, to our values, to our future.

Yergin fertilizes ecosystem of denial

June 12, 2012

I pop out of bed early on Sunday morning.  I have to get the jump on two things before my household gets moving:  solving the theme of the New York Times crossword, and responding quickly to any major climate news in the Sunday paper.

Thanks to Joe Romm, however, I can enjoy my coffee and focus on the puzzle.  Because by the time I read anything egregious in the Sunday NYT, Joe will have already eviscerated it….

…as he did with this Daniel Yergin oped, which celebrates a new, extraction-heavy energy “reality” without reference to climate (or coal, for that matter).  This is denialism by omission, all the more potent because Yergin is not a climate denier.  Ignoring climate reality in the context of informed discussion of America’s energy production arguably plays a more important role in the ecosystem of denial than active denial does.  It creates respectable intellectual habitat for the climate-destroying “all of the above” energy policy.

Romm concludes:  “Until well-informed centrists like Yergin confront the [climate] dilemma, they are essentially failing humanity in its time of greatest need to hear the truth from across the political spectrum.”

Read the rest at “Dan Yergin’s Dilemma: Energy ‘Reality’ Vs. Climate Reality

Also see Seth Kaplan’s insightful review of Yergin’s book The Quest at Doctor Yergin’s Dilemma

Yes and No for climate solutions: no ambivalence necessary

June 11, 2012

David Roberts at Grist and Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress kicked off a good discussion last week about the roles of “Yes” and “No” in climate work.  This would-be schism dominates Climate Solutions’ strategy sessions, so I must weigh in.

Climate Solutions is a Yes outfit.  Roberts nailed our MO:   We’re all about “forging of opportunistic coalitions.”  We accept “compromise, tedium, and endless setbacks.”  Roberts says “it’s just more fun to rage against The Man,” but we’re actually to the point where we revel in “the boring of hard boards.”  Our mission statement even makes it sound romantic, adventurous:  “….galvanizing leadership, growing investment, and bridging divides”!

Here’s the thing though:  With no meaningful climate policy commitment – no binding emission limits, no carbon pricing, not even a clean energy standard – the awesome work of building a clean energy economy is proceeding in parallel to the unfolding disaster of climate disruption, rather preventing it.  We can say “Yes” ‘til we’re blue in the face, but we can’t call it “climate solutions” unless we stop the beast.

A local example:  Here in Seattle, we made a commitment in 2000 to power our community with zero net carbon emissions.  We sold our share of a big coal plant (which is now on its way to retirement).  We let our gas combustion turbine contract expire.  We doubled down on efficiency.  We made the anchor investment in the region’s first big wind project.  For the little remnant of emissions we couldn’t eliminate (utility maintenance vehicles, spot market purchases, etc.), we bought high-quality offsets.  Saying “No” to carbon in our power supply was a launching pad for saying “Yes” to a clean energy economy.

By selling our share in that coal plant, we scrubbed about 400,000 tons of coal a year out of our energy footprint.  Sweet.  But if the current coal export proposals in the Northwest are fully developed, we would ship over 400,000 tons of coal A DAY through our communities to be burned in Asia (a third of it right through the middle of our iconic Olympic Sculpture Park on Seattle’s waterfront).  Our clean energy economy, as my colleague Ross Macfarlane colorfully says, would be but “a hood ornament on the Hummer of fossil fuel addiction.” Our brave local “Yes” would be a joke.

The point here is not just that the bad stuff will overwhelm us if we fail to stop it (though that point alone is plenty to justify No).  It’s that unchecked expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure undermines the credibility of solutions.  “Yes” to climate solutions without “No” to these “game-ending” investments comes off as silly, sentimental, tokenistic.

We work with a lot of state and local elected officials who take on climate commitments.  Almost invariably, skeptical reporters ask them something to the effect of, “C’mon, what difference will it make?  Our emissions are a miniscule fraction of the problem.  We could reduce our carbon footprint to zero and we’ll still have the same climate impacts.  Isn’t this local action just symbolic?”

A good answer goes something like, “We’re not fighting climate change alone.  Our city is joining with umpty-ump other communities, nations, and businesses around the world to deliver solutions.  We’re doing our part and pressing our national leaders for stronger action.  We’re proving up solutions that can work everywhere.   And we’re making this a better place to live and work by [fill in co-benefits here].”

This is a beautiful story and we’ve done much to make it true.  But nobody is going to hear it over the din of coal trains rumbling through town all day.  If we take all the coal we don’t burn, and a couple of orders magnitude more, and ship it through our communities to promote global fossil fuel dependence, how can we say with a straight face that we’re serious about solutionsYes is bunk without No.

Yes also feeds No.   It’s like an immune system booster – building resilience and increasing our capacity to resist fossil fuel development.  In Bellingham Washington, for example, the largest and most powerful business association is not the Chamber of Commerce but Sustainable Connections.  This community has such a strong investment in “Yes” that the idea of becoming a coal export hub seems like an alien invasion.  In a terrific NPR story, Julie Trimingham of Coal Train Facts says movingly:  “It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”

Even in Longview, Washington, an industrial port community targeted for coal export, “Yes” holds a powerful allure.  The vision statement in “Turning Point,” their local Economic Development Strategic Plan, says the community “will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”  The coal export battle there will test the resolve and hope in that community for the Yes they’ve imagined.  If they believe in it, they’ll say No to coal export, which is roughly the exact opposite of their vision statement.

Yes and No are interdependent, but they are not symmetrical with respect to the pace and scale of the climate challenge.  The climate “game” must be won over the long haul.  The winning strategy is a zillion Yeses, driving an inherently slow transition.  But the game can be lost very quickly – Jim Hansen’s point in “Game Over for the Climate,” and the bright bottom line in the IEA’s World Energy Outlook.   Yes is a patient, incremental thing.  But the No we need to muster on tar sands and coal export is immediate and uncompromising.

Yet, while their roles and applications differ, Yes and No aren’t competing philosophies or alternative psychographics.   Our political culture drives us toward niches, pressuring us to identify as Yes or No types.  But if you want to be an effective climate advocate (or parent), you have to wield both.  Yes and No are the interdependent and mutually reinforcing faces of responsible action.

The more successfully we say No to fossil fuels, the more we open space for the growth of the clean energy economy we envision.   And as we open it, we need to fill it.  We have a better idea than Peabody and ExxonMobil about what a good future is, and we have to keep delivering on it.

When we affirm and invest in our vision, we fortify our defense against the fossil fuel onslaught.  The more “Yes” we say and do, the more credibly we can fight fossil fuel development with the claim:  “We can do better” – a core message in the coal export campaign.

Yes without No is lame.  No one will believe in the power of our clean energy vision if we let the fossil fuel juggernaut mow us down and wreck the climate.

And No without Yes is adolescence.  The only way to prove we can do better is to….do better.

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…..)