Friday, November 13, 2015

With Paris

All eyes turned to Paris for a reason very different from the climate crisis on Friday, as terrorists attacked seven locations in the city, killing at least 120 and injuring hundreds more.

 Among the many events cancelled was the remainder of the Climate Reality Project 24 hour telethon, which Al Gore was anchoring in Paris.

In the immediate aftermath, there were acts of generosity and solidarity from around the world.  President Obama was among the world leaders who pledged support to the French people, and called the attacks a crime against humanity.

Among the images emerging is this peace sign shaped as the Eiffel Tower, reportedly first posted on Instagram by Jean Jullien.  If the recent past is any guide, other emotions will emerge, but let us recall the empathy, compassion and courage of this moment.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thirty Days to Save the World

The level of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere reached a new high last year--news but not news.  That's been the story every year for the past thirty years.

What is news is the level now reached: the dangerous threshold of 400 parts per million.  The planet's average temperature also passed the dangerous mark of 1 degree C over normal. "We are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” said Secretary General Michel Jarraud of the World Meteorological Organization, that released the greenhouse gases data.

Scientific American put these findings in context, in a succinct summary of where we are right now.  It starts with: The Earth's climate has changed.  That's has changed, as well as is changing.

Scientists who studied extreme weather events of last year were able to report that at least 14 of them were at least influenced by global heating.

A few weeks before the world turns its attention to Paris,  UK climate expert Lord Stern emphasized the critical moment for the human future, and called on European countries to significantly increase their pledges of cuts to greenhouse gases.  Various nations are positioning themselves publicly on aspects of prospective agreements.

A German delegate to the conference and an advisor to German Chancellor Merkel as well as Pope Francis, John Schellnhubber expressed optimism about the outcome. Noting that more than 80 countries will participate, he said: “That is a very telling thing - a sign of hope - because people at the top level do not want to be tainted by failure.”  He stressed the action that must follow, enabled in part by Paris pledges: a 30 year crash program in renewable energy. "Otherwise we have no chance of avoiding dangerous, perhaps disastrous, climate change.”

“The avalanche will start because ultimately nothing can compete with renewables,” he told the Guardian. “If you invest at [large] scale, inevitably we will end up with much cheaper, much more reliable, much safer technologies in the energy system: wind, solar, biomass, tidal, hydropower. It is really a no-brainer, if you take away all the ideological debris and lobbying.”

He believes that pledges will be met because nations don't want to lose face. Public pressure is “really holding the key to this”, said Schellnhuber, who has attended most of the 20 previous UN climate summits. “The last, best hope we have is moral argument.”

Meanwhile, a couple of events from last week continue to reverberate.  Did President Obama's decision to nix the Keystone pipeline "help save the world?" a New York compendium of reactions asked.  Some say yes, some say no, some say stop, and some say go go go.

The reporting that found Exxon Mobil suppressed for decades their own scientists' certainty that global heating was happening and was dangerous to the planet led to a dramatic suit by the state of New York, accusing Exxon Mobil of securities fraud in perpetuating this deception.  What may look like symbolic grandstanding may not be, according to the Reuters report on the unusual statute in New York law that applies.  More on the probe, which may spread to other energy companies.  This suit follows a similar one against Peabody Coal, which admitted wrongdoing.

Here's background on the suit from PBS Newshour. The revelations and the suit led to this past Sunday's Doonesbury cartoon, as reproduced above.

Late Updates

A live 24 hour global telethon sponsored by the Climate Reality Project and featuring a mix of celebrities and political leaders happens on Friday.

But according to a survey, it is Pope Francis who has been an effective advocate for action addressing the climate crisis, especially among Catholics, but not limited to them in the US:

Some 17 per cent of all respondents and 35 per cent of Catholic respondents said they were influenced by Pope Francis’s message that climate change is a crucial moral issue. The percentage of Catholics who said they were “very worried” about global warming more than doubled compared with spring. And the number who denied the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening declined by 10 percentage points among Catholics and 6 points among the US population in general.

Canada is gearing up for Paris big time:

All Liberal cabinet ministers have been charged with ensuring the success of the new government’s commitments on climate change, Foreign Affairs Minister St├ęphane Dion said in an interview Wednesday as he prepares to engage the country’s diplomatic corps in the international fight against global warming.

A veteran climate warrior, Mr. Dion will play a pivotal role in the Liberal government’s climate agenda, both as minister for global affairs and as chair of the cabinet committee on environment, climate change and energy. He is expected to join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna at the Paris climate summit at the end of the month..." 

Meanwhile, new scientific findings in Greenland add urgency to Paris action. The Washington Post:

"As the world prepares for the most important global climate summit yet in Paris later this month, news from Greenland could add urgency to the negotiations. For another major glacier appears to have begun a rapid retreat into a deep underwater basin, a troubling sign previously noticed at Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier and also in the Amundsen Sea region of West Antarctica."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Red, the Whites and the Blue

"The whole business stopped making sense some time ago."
Ann Davidson in the New Yorker, on the Republican presidential race.

Echoing my own opinion expressed some months ago, Jonathan Chiat observes: "But now [Ben] Carson actually is running for president. Or is he? It is hard to tell. Conservative politics are so closely intermingled with a lucrative entertainment complex that it is frequently impossible to distinguish between a political project (that is, something designed to result in policy change) and a money-making venture.

"Declaring yourself a presidential candidate gives you access to millions of dollars' worth of free media attention that can build a valuable brand. So the mere fact that Carson calls himself a presidential candidate does not prove he is actually running for president rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to build his brand. Indeed, it is possible to be actually leading the polls without seriously trying to win the presidency. And the notion that Carson could be president is preposterous."

In recent weeks, the media consensus seems to be that neither Trump nor Carson are serious contenders, although Frank Rich for one doesn't believe their lackluster performances in this week's debate will rattle the polls much (and weirdly enough, Fox News agrees.)  Yet there's also conventional agreement that they are expressing deep anger that's not going away.

That anger is found mostly in the white working class, in the Red States. Election results last week renewed the impression that despite then-Senator Barack Obama's bravado proclamation in 2004,  America is largely divided into red states and blue states, with further divisions just as stark within them.

Population losses and gains as well as movement (sometimes to blue states for jobs or for a sympathetic community; sometimes to red states for lower housing and other costs) are reinforcing the division.

The anger and the reasons for it--leading to political paradox and frustration--are pretty ably analyzed in this post-election piece by Christian Science Monitor staffer Patrick Jonsson.  That government has let such people down should be sobering to those who support public solutions to common problems.  The reason for Trump and Carson can partly be found in the impression that this segment of the electorate is suspicious of both parties, including Republican ties to big business.

The plight of the lower middle class is real, and has not been successfully addressed by either party, or by either public or private sectors.  That's one very sobering message.

There were other factors in this particular election.  Lots of post-election day political stories blaming President Obama for GOPer gains in various places, like Kentucky.  But as other analysts show--particularly Chiat in a very perceptive column--as well as John Cassidy in the New Yorker) the results are kind of like global heating--a powerful force that exaggerates normal variations.  The normal weather variations include gains by the out-party in a President's last term.  Global heating is the ongoing demographic division of America and its political consequences.  It's at least as old as Blue States and Red States of 2000, though likely trending that way 20 years before that (i.e Reagan), and it's getting more permanent and pervasive.

Democrats and progressives did make gains this year, but in Pennsylvania for example, a presidential Blue State that has enough of a white lower middle class and a strong enough centrist tradition that state government usually switches parties every 4 or 8 years.  An unusual number of vacancies in the state Supreme Court led to a highly contested election, and the Democratic candidates won all the open seats, and with young judges, so a progressive cast seems guaranteed for years to come.  Pennsylvania is a light to medium Blue State that may be becoming a dark Blue State. There were similar victories in places like Colorado, transitioning to Blueness.

Of course, it is in a sense President Obama's fault as his color makes it easier for GOPer candidates to exploit racial hatred and xenophobia.  The deep Red deep South spreads into what used to be called border states, and Kentucky and Tennessee are absorbed completely.

The national political parties are another factor. As Cassidy's piece points out, GOPers have done a better job for some years in identifying and supporting young leaders, and generally building local politics.  Labor unions used to be a big factor in cultivating young leaders and organizing locally, but since their decline, the Dems haven't done so well.  Barack Obama and other individual candidates inspired new people to become involved, but that enthusiasm and loyalty wasn't always transferred.

There are some unsettling and worrisome factors beneath all this.  The split between rich and the rest has layers.  The ultra rich are GOPer primarily.  Some of them have as extreme views as this year's leading GOPer candidates.

 But there is also a split between the college educated urban upper-to- middle middle class, and the white not-so-educated, not so urban lower middle class. The former trends Dem and vaguely progressive (though there's a weird and naive brand of libertarianism among the new techies.) The latter is now defining the GOPer party as angry, fearful (with a lot of paranoia) and prone to the kind of simplistic explanations that tend to support totalitarian regimes, even while disguised as revolts or revolutions.

What awaits analysis--or at least, any I've seen--is comparing the white lower middle class with the non-white segments.

There are battles ahead between the Red and the Blue, and they could get out of control under the pressure of events--such as effects of the climate crisis. Jonsson's piece offers some hope in this regard, as he emphasizes ties to local communities as still strong in red states.  (Then again, the racist violence unleashed in New Orleans by Katrina can no longer be covered up.)  In any case, over time and mostly through elections, or in emergency situations, the Red and the Blue are in a battle for more than political power--maybe even the nation's soul.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

‘‘I don’t know if it’s a function of age or temperament, but I’m no longer seeking those major exclamatory notes of pleasure. I want a life that has pleasure contained within it.’’
Terry Gross

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Fulcrum of the Future Continued

A few more notes on Friday's news, of President Obama's decision to deny the Keystone pipeline passage through America, which I feel might be a major moment, a fulcrum of the future...

Activist organizations claimed credit for the decision with accustomed quickness, and only a few in my in-box took the opportunity to ask for money, though they couldn't resist asking for "your signature" so they could ask for money in the future.

But according to the New York Times, they might deserve some of that credit:

Both sides of the debate saw the Keystone rejection as a major symbolic step, a sign that the president was willing to risk angering a bipartisan majority of lawmakers in the pursuit of his environmental agenda. And both supporters and critics of Mr. Obama saw the surprisingly powerful influence of environmental activists in the decision.

“Once the grass-roots movement on the Keystone pipeline mobilized, it changed what it meant to the president,” said Douglas G. Brinkley, a historian at Rice University who writes about presidential environmental legacies. “It went from a routine infrastructure project to the symbol of an era.”

The announcement and its meaning had me thinking about two books.  One of them actually arrived in the mail on Friday--my copy of Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth.  It's a one volume version (with about a fifth of the pages edited out) of his Science in Washington trilogy, Forty Days of Rains, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting which is about a cast of characters-- including a President of the US-- as the climate crisis hits.

It's a domestic comedy (in the classic sense of comedy, ending with marriages), a political thriller, near-future science fiction, and much more.  But the climate crisis is the center of its world and environment.  

Published 2004 to 2007 about an unspecified near future, it is now a mixture of history, contemporary and science fiction (as the author says in the new introduction.)  Read today, it "predicts" events and situations similar to some that have already happened.  At least one of them is eerie: a "perfect storm" called Sandy that ravages the East Coast.

But what seemed most science fictional about it was positing a young President who is guided by science and sets America on a new course to not only addressing the causes and effects of the climate crisis, but to a better future.

That fictional President is not very much like Barack Obama.  But Obama's announcement on Friday was the first time I really felt this element of the fiction could be more than wishful fantasy.  Before, reading Sixty Days and Counting in particular was like watching The West Wing during the Bush years--it was an alternative reality.  Now, it seems a little closer to maybe coming true.

The other book I thought of when I heard President Obama say these words:

"And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can."

He's used a variation of that expression before: the one planet or the only planet we've got.  It reminded me of where I first heard that sentiment expressed that way, with plenty to back it up: as the title of the Paul Shepard Reader published by Sierra Books in 1996 as The Only World We've Got.

Paul Shepard remains the unsung hero of our environmental understanding, and any depth it has acquired in the past twenty years.  The breadth and depth of his work is astonishing still.  But from the beginning, as a pioneer of ecology in the 60s, he insisted on the vital importance of humanity and human institutions understanding that they exist in the context of the natural world, and the human heritage of many thousands of years embedded in that world, and formed by it, by relationships with animals and landscape that are embedded in the human being.

His work is echoed and amplified and built on in so many places, unacknowledged.  Even in Green Earth--in a very early chapter, in the ruminations of a scientist named Frank Vanderwal.  Though he is partly inspired by the primatologist Frans de Waal, one of the paragraphs of his ruminations about the persistent influences of human origins could have come directly from Paul Shepard.

Most of  Shepard's books are still in print, though ironically not this one (nor another of his best, The Sacred Paw.)  But he as well as Kim Stanley Robinson are among those who share in this moment, especially if it is seen someday as a kind of turning point, towards a better future for the only world we've got.