Climate Awareness, Like Ice Cream, Doesn’t Last

Americans demand climate action (as long as it doesn’t cost much): Reuters poll

It takes about three weeks for Americans to stop paying attention after a mass shooting

Amazon rainforest fires: global leaders urged to divert Brazil from ‘suicide’ path

You have to wonder why something as dramatically urgent as climate change doesn’t seem sustainable in the public’s consciousness. Another way of saying this is that a majority gives it a high priority but doesn’t want to pay for the fixes. Ice cream tastes better than wormwood and gall.

Or maybe people just have shorter attention spans (though perhaps not) because they are constantly distracted with disorienting and irrelevant information. They are too busy with their freaking phones. Or being caught up in the latest cultural drivel. Or scandalized by Trump.

It’s also the enormity of the climate problem, as we have discussed, and the complex conundrum of a solution. For many, that tends to force climate onto the back burner.

The analogous situation is gun control. Philip Bump of The Washington Post analyzed Google searches interested in recent high-profile mass shootings. He found that interest always spikes high after the event and then greatly subsides after about twenty days. “People have moved on.” You and I know that finally the climate will not allow us to move on.

It’s certain that the crisis isn’t going away, and the media will necessarily cover the latest shocking events. Last week it was the fires in the Amazon rainforest and their consequences. You have a political story about the lunacy of Bolsonaro’s policies, and there’s an agricultural/environmental story about the ranchers and loggers who set the fires, and a story about the effects of the fires. A smorgasbord of climate stories.

Yet much of the major media, like The New York Times, still seems obtuse about running climate stories. I did a search query there for “Amazon fires” and the first four items that came up had to do with Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet! I guess the search editors know which side of their bread is buttered.

Artisanal Martini Wisdom on Climate Change

Elizabeth Warren thinks corruption is why the US hasn’t acted on climate change

 How One Billionaire Could Keep Three Countries Hooked on Coal for Decades

 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home

We were drinking freshly distilled artisanal martinis at Ralph’s house (he makes his gin from a small still), and so after a time the subject of climate change had to come up. We also talked about the latest Trump outrage, Rashida Tlaib and Israel, uses of CBD oil, the broken bones in Epstein’s neck. Yet climate seemed to dominate, with several expressing strong opinions as to how the Democrats could approach the issue.

None of us felt the Dems were doing justice to the climate crisis, much less scoring any political points with their “programs.” They have invariably ducked the hard issues of cost and scale and failed to get much media attention. After another martini we generated several brilliant solutions to their problems.

Bryan thought that Elizabeth Warren, the policy maven, needed to make a strong capitalistic pitch.

“She has the brains to come up with a policy that meets some of the challenges but she doesn’t know how to sell it. The economic benefits are what’s going to sell it. The government will prime the pump and money will pour into software development, clean energy companies, biomass, electric cars, agriculture, all of that. Farmers will get rich. People will breathe clean air. The trade deficit will fall. Poverty will decline. The country will come back from its present madness.

“She’s got five climate change plans now. Who knows what any of those are? This is a capitalistic country, for God’s sake.”

Bryan got a round of applause, and Ralph took another approach. À propos my last blog post, which he and others found very depressing, the third martini produced this:

“My bedrock notion is that global warming/climate change can only be moderated with less resource consumption, especially carbon-based fuels. So how do we do this? Unless the global populace really, really lowers its carbon footprint (like taking sailboats to China to visit grandkids [Ralph’s is there]) or escapes materialism in the first place (not a chance—look at India’s buying coal from Australia to generate electricity to sell to Bangladesh), disastrous levels of global warming/climate change are inevitable.

“Other than some wacko techno fixes (like nuclear-powered ice machines on American-owned Greenland), the other approach I think holds promise would be to lower the world’s population—whether as: 1) a policy (China did it actually); or more likely 2) as a result of some as yet unknown and very nasty calamity (e.g., defective nuclear ice machines make all of Greenland melt, and hence the world’s oceans become deadly radioactive).”

We stood and cheered for this ode to climate fatalism. After that, I didn’t feel so bad about writing “The Climate Change Blues.” I wanted to end on a more hopeful note and so talked about Pope Francis’s encyclical of four years ago, Laudato Si’. 

You know, no one else has written anything like it. It is a directive to all of us to wake up and recognize the oneness of life. And it’s really much more than a Catholic document. It tells us that everyone is responsible for the health of the earth; everything is connected; and climate change is both a social and environmental crisis.”

Bringing a religious document into the discussion produced more discussion, of course. But who has a better grasp on reality—the Pope or Bill McKibben?

The Climate Change Blues

The Green New Deal isn’t big enough

Climate change will force 120 million people into poverty

What I learned writing about climate change and the US south for a year


The outlook is full of distressing signs. A climate change blues plays in heavy rotation on our interior Spotify. It echoes the rainstorm that never quits, the drought that never ends. Try applying analytical reason or talking about solutions, and you confront boundless examples of human inertia, narcissism, bias and denial.

One problem is the vast scale that a viable solution requires. The Green New Deal by itself can’t stave off calamity even if the US adopted it. It’s not nearly enough because the problem is global and historic. The U.S. and other wealthy nations will have to kick in vast amounts of money in “climate finance” to mitigate emissions in developing countries, not to mention their own. Electorates show no sign of being willing to do this.

The leaders of developing nations aren’t suckers, and they know how dire the problem is. They have something rich countries want (emissions reductions), and they’d be fools to just give it away for free, even if they could. If we want them to succeed, it’s going to cost us, and we’ll need to move quickly. The science is clear: We do not have another decade to waste.

Likewise, Philip Alston, author of a devastating UN report, finds that

mainstream discussions about climate change are remarkably out of touch with the scale of the crisis and the economic and social upheaval it will bring. Political leaders have failed to put forward a vision for avoiding catastrophic consequences or protecting those most affected. . . . 

[Climate change] will impoverish hundreds of millions, including middle class people in wealthy countries. It will push 120 million people into poverty by 2030 alone, and could lead to a “climate apartheid” scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.

While American attitudes toward the climate crisis vary significantly, many people in rural regions like the South have powerful interests in promoting denial. A climate reporter for The Guardian comments:

A Pew survey indicated that white evangelical protestants are the least likely to profess a belief in climate change. Power companies, developers and conservative politicians have a vested interest in deregulation and maintaining the environmental status quo, and many paint environmental concerns as nothing but liberal pagan ideas.

In a region that recapitulates decades of delay and denial, some plan to stick it out at any cost and go down with the ship. Is it really any different with the rest of the country? Although their scale and threat have dramatically increased, floods, famine and extreme weather events have always been with us. Bessie may help us remember that “when it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow /there’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”

No Agreement on Climate Solutions

The World’s Climate Emergency Is Getting Harder to Ignore

Climate change requires big solutions. But baby steps are the only way to go.

Implementing The One Viable Solution To Climate Change

Greenland glaciers melting

The accepted way to solve a big problem has always been to break it down into smaller components and work on them. Most solutions to the climate crisis seem to rely on this approach which, for the most part, hasn’t shown much promise. Climate defies rationality. We don’t have the proper language to express it.

But it forces its way into our consciousness and will keep intruding on our carbonized dreams until we pull our collective heads out of the sand. The first step to awareness is recognizing how current events are sending an unmistakable message. Consider:

    • the heat wave in Europe that has now moved to Greenland to vastly accelerate glacial melting
    • the crazy variability in weather everywhere, with more weather-related disasters
    • the weakness of most current plans to reduce global heating
    • the political atrocities of deniers like Trump and Bolsonaro.

Some of these things are outlined in a recent Washington Post piece by reporter Ishaan Tharoor, who is not a climate scientist. While he sounds a few hopeful notes, he thinks massive public awareness finally will not activate the changes required—though it may move the political pendulum.

Solutions offered have ranged from the cosmic to the incremental, from the Green New Deal to a carbon tax. I can’t see that either approach will finally pay off. A couple of recent proposals illustrate how far apart our climate pundits remain.

Ted Nordhaus in Foreign Policy wrote in favor of “baby steps” to resolve the crisis. He seems to feel that big solutions, like the Green New Deal and a carbon tax, will simply be rejected by consumers and government. These things are too politically difficult and economically costly. He proposes a “quiet climate policy” of incremental change.

Ultimately, the choice we face is between some action and no action. Neither economists’ dreams of rationalizing environmental policy through the power and efficiency of markets nor progressive environmentalists’ hopes of heroic state-led mobilization to save the planet are likely to do much to address the problem.

Ted, the problem is too big and too pressing to solve incrementally. There is no time left to wait for your solutions to take hold.

In another camp we have Steve Denning, an Australian management guru, who proposes what seems to be the only viable solution to climate change, an Apollo-type moon shot program that brings to bear the human talent for innovation and a commitment to bold collective action. I think he’s right.

The initiative would pursue the options already on the table, such as carbon capture and storage, nuclear fusion, storage of nuclear fission materials, as well as incremental efforts in wind, solar, batteries, and reforestation, taxes, subsidies, regulation and deregulation, where they are scalable enough to make a difference.

All this would require a massive bipartisan effort “with the best minds, agile management and adequate funding to find the best technology for creating non-polluting energy for the planet.”

If we don’t make the effort, history will not be kind—if there are any historians left.

Trump’s Climate Vendetta

The Trump Administration Takes Climate Denial to New Heights

Would Trump’s Re-election Doom the Planet?

Trump’s Failure to Fight Climate Change Is a Crime Against Humanity

Climate change didn’t come up in the Mueller hearings, but maybe it should have. Of all the high crimes and misdemeanors Trump has committed, his continued sabotage of efforts to understand and ameliorate the climate crisis may finally be judged the worst and most permanent of his crimes.

He rips away established environmental protections at EPA and other agencies by installing industry cronies and lobbyists to run them. We’ve seen it many times. Jeffrey Sachs has particularly harsh words for what happened in Puerto Rico:

Trump’s mishandling of [the] Puerto Rico disaster in the wake of Hurricane Maria is grounds itself for impeachment and trial. Thousands of citizens died unnecessarily on Trump’s watch because the administration could not be stirred to proper action before, during, and after the hurricane.

Two independent, detailed epidemiological studies, using different methodologies—one led by researchers at Harvard University and the other by researchers at George Washington University—have estimated that thousands died in the aftermath of Maria.

Then this burlesque gesture:

The Trump administration has dug us ever deeper into the hole of fossil fuel dependence and is happily pushing toward a point of no return. As early as December 2016 his transition team demanded from the Department of Energy names and professional associations of all employees working on climate change. The Department refused. But that was before climate genius Rick Perry took charge.

At Interior, Trump cohorts still intimidate and fire those who try to report the truth. All government agencies have now gotten the message. Politico noted that “The Agriculture Department quashed the release of a sweeping plan on how to respond to climate change that was finalized in the early days of the Trump administration, according to a USDA employee with knowledge of the decision.” Department stooges purge scientific reports of any mention of climate change. Sounds very much like they are trying to replicate the Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels.

While the Democrats dither over impeachment, our time for attending to the climate crisis is inexorably running out. “Another four years of Trump would probably render futile any efforts to limit planetary warming to 1.5 [degrees Celsius], which is necessary to avert ever-more catastrophic climate change impacts.” Thus Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State.

To translate science like this into terms the public can understand is a major challenge. The media has been lagging in the effort though they may finally be stepping up to the plate. But ultimately we will get nowhere without political change. And political change is impossible unless you can believe in it. More believers wanted.

The Unreality of Climate Change

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Ganges delta flooding

For many of us, climate change is simply beyond imagining. These two excellent books offer quite different ways of understanding what it is, how the threat grew, and what if anything we can do about it.

Ghosh is an acclaimed Indian novelist; McKibben has been writing for at least thirty years about climate and fighting for recognition of the crisis. In these books, Ghosh is the Platonist, looking at the history, artistic rendering and power politics of climate change through a meta lens. He moves us through vast areas of space and time to uncover trends and events that we never suspected controlled the evolution of climate.

McKibben is the Aristotelian here, writing a detailed story of his investigation about why and how we’ve failed to do anything. A reviewer sums up the message:

“Our lives now are only part biological, with no clear split between the organic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon,” McKibben writes partway through. That transition feels like the heart of the book, which he frames as a look at what he calls the “human game”: How do we balance technology and the natural world? What dark, selfish parts of human nature got us here? And what are the options that might make things better, from installing solar panels to genetically engineering more altruistic babies?

McKibben’s book is more accessible; Ghosh writes of grand, sweeping trends, connections you never thought of. For instance, he explores how literature moved from concern with the epic and the supernatural, the presence of unpredictable nature, to exploring the personal, the subjective, and how that has kept us from seeing climate change developing.

Politics has undergone a similar change, becoming focused on identity and personal (moral) development rather than pushing for the collective action that is essential. The economics of capitalism created the carbon economy, but so did the 19th-20th century drive for empire. Industrialism came late to China and India but their vast populations rapidly brought the crisis to its present peak.

For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.

Climate change thus remains something beyond our ken, something uncanny, to use his word. Language—and our present use of it—has become inadequate to deal with its strangeness. Finally, however, Ghosh has found ways to describe our great derangement, our divorce from the natural world and, just maybe, turn our despair into at least a wisp of hope.

The scale of the climate challenge is beyond enormous, and Ghosh is not an easy read because he forces you to think in complex new patterns. If you make the effort, you’ll find the patterns make sense and some of the clouds will part.

Entombed in Plastic

US Produces Far More Waste and Recycles Far Less of It Than Other Developed Countries

We’re Buying Into a Giant Lie about Plastic

Microplastics Have Invaded the Deep Ocean—and the Food Chain

As many of you know, I live in Oaxaca, Mexico. Saturday morning was garbage day, and I watched a brand new truck pull up in front of my house for one of three pickups a week—better than most communities here get. The truck had big plastic bags attached to sort cans, glass and plastic bottles. The truck also collects flattened cardboard boxes.

From its collection points, the truck proceeds to an enormous, long over-capacity dump on the outskirts of the city. The dump has been the site of frequent controversies, closings, political fights and fires. Its history is documented here. One way the dump manages to survive is through the presence of “pepenadores” who sort and salvage the stuff they can sell to recyclers. They make far less than a living wage and their efforts, in terms of the local and global problem of plastic and garbage generally, are like shoveling shit against the tide, as the saying goes.

We need to be particularly and regularly reminded of the problems that plastic is causing in all our environments. Recycling was never the panacea for the problem; no country but maybe the US has the resources to deal with it. And US waste is the biggest culprit:

    • Last year, the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
    • The newest hotspots for handling US plastic recycling are some of the world’s poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation. . . . 
    • Reflecting grave concerns around plastic waste, last month [May 2019], 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic trash. A few countries did not sign. One was the US.

You may not know that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic trash gets recycled because it’s too expensive. China won’t take it anymore, so most gets dumped in the ocean or burned or put in over-burdened landfills. You may be familiar with what this dumping is doing to the ocean and its inhabitants, an abominable story with enormous consequences.

Like climate change itself, there is no real solution to this but to stop producing plastic and work on source reduction, as it’s called—like not burning fossil fuels in the first place. How to bring industry and consumers and politicians to this state is the conundrum of the age.

Recognizing the severity of the problem is the first step. Mexico’s giant supermarket chain Chedraui recently decided, without much fanfare, to just stop giving customers plastic bags. This I discovered last month with happy surprise on a shopping trip. Such bags are banned in at least 68 countries worldwide, but not in the US. Bangladesh, victimized by plastic and trash dumping, has banned them since 2002. Neither bans nor charges for bags are much more than quick fixes. But they are small and necessary steps forward.

Hansen’s Recent Thoughts on Climate Change—and Some History

Saving Earth (June 27, 2019)

Thirty years later, what needs to change in our approach to climate change (June 26, 2018)

Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (August 1, 2018)

Once one of the few scientific voices crying out about climate change, James Hansen has become a renowned, and sometimes vilified, spokesman. That trek took him more than thirty years, as he documents in a Boston Globe editorial. He’s a controversial figure still—both in his political views and in his opinions on nuclear power (with which I concur; see below)—but to many he is the father of climate change awareness.

A journalistic history of the climate change threat, its people, politics, and science is parsed in Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy New York Times piece, “Losing Earth,” published a year ago. It is a dramatic account in which Hansen is naturally a principal figure. I list it here as essential background reading on Hansen’s role in how the climate issue developed.

I got an early copy of “Saving Earth” forwarded from a friend. It struck me immediately as the most authoritative yet personal view of where the climate change arguments came from and how they need, in Hansen’s singular view, to be implemented.

It’s eleven pages long in pdf form and I doubt most of you will plunge into that. So I’ve excerpted some of the more significant passages.

It is wonderful that more people are waking up to the fact that we have a climate emergency. The emergency was clear more than a decade ago when it was realized that the long-term safe level of atmospheric CO2 was less than 350 ppm. Already, we were well into the dangerous zone. . . .

[The threat of an ungovernable planet] derives mainly from two large-scale climate change impacts. First, low latitudes during the warm seasons could become so hot and inhospitable to human livelihood as to generate an unstoppable drive for emigration. That potential future is emerging into view for regions as populated as India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and huge swaths of Africa. The tragedy would be that these regions are, in a ‘less than 350 ppm climate,’ among the most spectacular and livable regions on the planet.

The second climate impact is sea level rise, which is an ominous threat on multi-decadal time scales. This sea level threat may be less immediate than the low-latitude, over-heating, climate-change threat, but it is more ‘non-linear,’ implying that it has the potential to grow exponentially, becoming unstoppable and irreversible. Note that the sea level threat is near-global, because most of the world’s large cities and infrastructure are located on coastlines. Nations that would be devastated by large sea level rise include the greatest economic powers of the 21st century, the United States and China. These two climate impacts are the heart of the ‘existential threat.’ . . .

Most of the warming still ‘in the pipeline’ is associated with deep-ocean warming. Thus most of this ‘in the pipeline’ warming will not occur this century. This permits the possibility of avoiding most of that warming, if we reduce the amount of gases in the air on the time scale of a century or two. . . .

Faced with realization that we could hand young people a climate system running out of their control, political leaders took the easy way out. With the Paris Agreement in 2015 they changed the target for maximum global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C. A temperature ‘target’ approach is ineffectual. It has practically no impact on global emissions.

Global energy policies remain inconsistent with professed emission targets. Emission targets will never overrule the desire of nations to raise their standards of living. Effective energy policies, not professed targets, are the crucial requirement for phasing down fossil fuel emissions. . . .

The two essential energy policy requirements are: 1) honest pricing of fossil fuels, i.e., the price must rise to include the cost of fossil fuels to society; 2) government support of breakthrough technologies, including clean energy research, development, demonstration and deployment programs. . . .

The missing technology for China, and now for India, was a clean source of power to replace coal in massive energy requirements for electricity and industrial heat.

Later this century, when scholars look back at what went wrong, the single sentence likely to stand out will be one uttered by President William Jefferson Clinton in his first State of the Union Address, almost three decades ago: “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.”

How could such a spectacularly bad decision have been reached? Readily available empirical data showed that nuclear power was the safest energy source, with the smallest environmental footprint.

The potential for inexpensive, modular, ultrasafe reactors – built in a factory or shipyard – has not been developed. Support for research, development, demonstration and deployment – lavished on renewable energies for decades – only recently has been initiated in a small way for modern nuclear power. . . .

The most urgent task is to phase down fossil fuel emissions. There is no one simple solution to this. It will take a lot of positive actions, and also pressure on the fossil fuel industry, from multiple directions, pressure on them to become a clean energy industry. . . .

The legal approach is slow and no panacea, but it is an essential part of the solution. [It] must be pursued simultaneously with the political approach. . . .

[Voting Trump out of office is not the answer.] The public has tried that recourse. They voted in Barack (‘Planet in Peril’) Obama and Albert (‘Earth in the Balance’) Gore. The accomplishments by those Administrations in addressing climate change, to use a favorite phrase of my mother, “did not amount to a hill of beans.” Democrats and Republicans are both on the take from special interests, the fossil fuel industry. Both parties work with industry, approving and subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and use.

I wanted to write something today about the impact of tanks on the environment but then thought better of it.

Where Is the Climate Debate?

Don’t Overthink a Climate-Change Debate

Climate change got just 15 minutes out of 4 hours of Democratic debates

The Debates Showed America Still Doesn’t Know How to Talk About Climate Change

Tom Perez, the DNC Chair, says he won’t allow one because if he gave in to Jay Inslee’s request he’d then have to permit every other candidate to have a debate on their favorite issue.

Tom, that’s called begging the question. Which is that climate change has become the dominant issue for American voters—even if they balk at paying for the prescriptions. As the first debates demonstrated, it’s a dominant issue for most of the candidates—even if their plans aren’t always intelligent or intelligible.

As on other matters, Democratic leadership is behind the curve and moving rapidly behind the eight-ball. Perez on the debates is taking a position like Pelosi does on impeachment. No wonder there is a split between progressives and moderates.

How to generate momentum for a climate debate: first, the push has to come from the candidates themselves. Maybe they should just pull rank and produce their own debate forum. Will the DNC intervene to stop that? A better idea might be to prevail on DNC leaders that each major candidate supports the need to schedule a climate crisis debate.

There is also a crying need for both candidates and debate moderators to get up to speed on climate issues. Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow asked some silly and confusing questions in the few minutes they gave to the subject. And the candidates are going to have to improve on their shallow responses.

The climate crisis is supremely complicated, but that doesn’t preclude the need for a major public discussion.