What Next? I Mean for the Planet, not Politics

Trees with fall color

My own personal carbon sink

I’m writing this a few days after the midterm elections. Not all the results are in, but what a ride, eh? I find I have plenty to say, but my thoughts are a bit jumbled, so bear with me.

Despite the midterm results (mixed, at best), my attention has been grabbed by a book I finished reading: The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth by Eric Pooley. It might have had a bigger impact on me, or at least made a bigger impression, than the elections. It was published in 2010, practically ancient history now, so when I pulled it off the shelf, I wondered if it would have any relevance. Turns out it does given that every climate initiative up for a vote on November 6, 2018 failed.

See, our inability to agree on anything as a country goes well beyond politics. Between this book, the New York Times Magazine piece “Losing Earth,” and living through the decades when we could have done something about global warming but didn’t, I find it hard to believe that anything will change.

It’s like gun control. Can it get worse than small children gunned down? How about high school kids gunned down? If those horrors can’t bring us together to solve a fixable problem, what makes anyone think rising global temperatures, rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets, raging wildfires, and starving polar bears will? Oh, and people dying, too.

The Climate War covers in often excruciating detail legislative attempts to tackle the problem, focused on December 2007 to December 2009. If you want to see the sausage making that is the U.S. Congress, this is the place. How they manage to get anything done is a complete mystery.

The book also highlights a schism within the environmental movement, with The Sierra Club opposing the economic model the Environmental Defense Fund promoted to get companies like coal-burning power utility Duke Energy to cut back carbon dioxide emissions in a way that wouldn’t raise prices for consumers. Here, it reads like a no-brainer.

A cap-and-trade system had worked to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and curb acid rain. Why not use cap and trade for global warming? Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas, but it a major one and controllable.

Still, no one has figured out how to get everyone to agree on that model for CO2. And by everyone, I really mean the U.S. Congress, whose members think in terms no longer than the next election, never mind the next generation. Nuclear energy could help, but who wants that? Other than the nuclear industry, that is.

There are always a lot of numbers thrown around when talking climate change: temperature (with little consistency in using Fahrenheit versus Celsius, which just muddles things), feet of sea level rise, tons of carbon dioxide, acres of forests. It’s mind numbing and eye glazing.

So what do we do? Why, nothing, of course.

Industry—those companies that were actually causing the problem—could have taken the lead back in the 1950s when the rise in global temperatures was first noted and carved out a nice profitable niche for themselves in switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. You are energy companies, for crissakes! Think of it that way and not just as oil or gas or coal companies, and bingo, problem solved. One person’s problem is another’s opportunity.

Instead, industry dug in to protect its turf, literally. Our representatives in Congress dug in to protect their power. Even the enviros dug in to protect their donations. That’s the takeaway from The Climate War.

Everyone knows climate change is real and that humans have exacerbated it beyond all natural influences and that it is causing dire effects—stronger storms, drier droughts, wetter rains, crazy jet streams. Some may say it needs more research, but they know the truth. A lot of money has been spent denying the truth, but they know.

The Climate War details several attempts by enviros, industry, and Congress to come up with legislation, including Lieberman-McCain (2003), McCain-Lieberman (2003; yes, there were two), Lieberman-Warner (2008), Waxman-Markey (2009), and Kerry-Lieberman (2010). All were bills that showed promise but never made it out of the sausage-making process. Add a Great Recession, a president (Barack Obama) more focused on health care, and a tireless “Denialosphere” tipping the balance despite the equally tireless efforts of a former vice president (Al Gore), and you get…nothing.

It all boils down to making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Rather than start small and work progressively harder to cut emissions, everyone said, nope. If we can’t find the perfect fix for everyone, we won’t do anything.

Climate isn’t the only thing we can’t agree on. Replace climate with guns. Rinse and repeat.

Replace guns with poverty. Rinse and repeat.

Replace poverty with addiction. Rinse and repeat.

But like Dorothy trying to get home from the Land of Oz, we’ve had the ability all along. If only it were as simple as clicking the heels of ruby slippers (or silver, as in the original story).

There was a meme going around social media awhile back. Something along the lines of: what one thing would you do to change the world if it were within your power? Lots of people say end hunger. Or improve rights for various groups. I say, end corruption. Because corruption and greed are at the root of all these problems.

The far right whines about government redistribution of private wealth through taxes. Yet, corporate fat cats won’t do a damn thing about the pollution they know they are spewing into the air without government handouts to subsidize the solution they know they should pursue.

The executives get richer and the workers, especially coal miners, get poorer and sicker.

We talk about the 1 percent, the richest of the rich, as a statistic, just numbers. But nine men (and yes, they are all men) hold more wealth than the poorest 4 billion of the rest of us. Billion.

Who are they and how did they get their billions? Ever complain about Amazon? Jeff Bezos tops the list. #2 is Bill Gates, who made his money fleecing all of us who love/hate Microsoft products; #3 is Warren Buffet who’s been a billionaire since he was 32; #4 is Europe’s wealthiest man (retail and real estate—stuff we buy); #5 is our pal Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook (remember, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product); #6, a luxury brand CEO (Louis Vuitton, Sephora, and Dom Perignon—again stuff you buy); the richest man in Mexico is #7 and owns telecom, mining, real estate, and consumer good (aka stuff you buy); #8 is Oracle software founder; and if Google drive you nuts, know that Larry Page is #9.

What do they all have in common? They got their money from us. We willingly bought their products. We’re probably invested in their companies through our retirement mutual funds (I know I am).

Sure, some of them are willingly donating their money to “good causes,” that they get to choose. Kudos! But how might the world be different if maybe those billions had never funneled up to the top 9 guys and instead had been spread around the 4 billion poorest—many, I’m sure, who have bought products from these guys.

What’s their carbon footprint? Data centers where “the cloud” is stored (think Google and Facebook as a couple) account for more greenhouse gas emissions than air travel.

Instead, we 99 percenters are told (by our government, no less) to change our light bulbs to LEDs (check), drive an electric or hybrid car (check), eat vegetarian (almost), ride a bike, bring cloth bags to the store (check) and so on.

Changes we make at the individual level are never going to be enough to stop global warming at its current pace. The only way we can stop it (and we’ll have to reverse it too) is to stop digging coal from the ground (or lopping off mountaintops to get to it) and burning it, stop drilling oil from our backyards and oceans and burning it. We have to stop saying coal can be clean because it can’t. We have to stop cutting forests. We have to grow forests. We have to use solar and wind and, yes, even nuclear power to replace fossil fuels.

The only ones with the clout to do that are those 9 guys and the next 9 guys, and so on, holding all the money and our governments who can make them do it.

Still, we’re trying at local levels, despite the fact that air pollution doesn’t respect borders. Several state ballot initiatives on November 6 could have done something. And yet…

In Washington State, voters rejected a carbon fee (aka tax if you are a polluter). Thing is, a tax or fee does nothing to reduce emissions the way a cap would (so I learned reading The Climate War). Needless to say, the oil industry poured millions into defeating the initiative. And they don’t only spend money. They lie.

Arizona defeated an attempt to get utilities to get half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. That Arizona can’t sell solar power tells you something about the clout of the opposition.

Colorado tried to keep oil and gas wells 2,500 feet away from homes, schools, and other buildings, effectively putting most of the state off limits to drilling. It failed.

Nevada did vote to get half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, but it will need another vote in 2020 because it amends the state constitution. In this case, the initiative had no organized opposition. The state’s largest utility is already committed to increasing renewables.

In better news, there are a number of scientists who will now be members of Congress. There will be a record number of women joining the ranks as well.

It serves us right (those over the age of, say, 30) that a lawsuit has been brought by 21 children and young adults against the government for not doing enough to prevent climate change. The Supreme Courts refused to stop the case, but now there’s a temporary stay anyway.

Assuming this goes forward, I expect it will be the Scopes Trial of the 21st century.

Hey, if that’s what it takes…

On a different note, this week I’m going to start a MOOC, that’s Massive Open Online Course, from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. It’s free! And it’s about nature writing, a topic close to my heart. So I expect I’ll be sharing some of that writing, and maybe another rant or two.

Enjoy today, wherever you are.


More here:

The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth by Eric Pooley (2010, Hyperion) https://www.amazon.com/Climate-War-Believers-Power-Brokers/dp/140132326X

“Losing Earth,” the New York Times Magazine https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-change-losing-earth.html

World’s richest men: https://www.businessinsider.com/worlds-richest-billionaires-net-worth-2017-6

Data center emissions: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/25/server-data-centre-emissions-air-travel-web-google-facebook-greenhouse-gas

Things you’re supposed to do to save the planet: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/ocean/earthday.html

Juliana v. United States https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02112018/children-climate-lawsuit-supreme-court-roberts-gorsuch-thomas-trump-appeal

Stories of Place: Writing and the Natural World https://iowa.novoed.com/#!/courses/stories-of-place-iwp/flyer


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