Monday, February 29, 2016

Climate Change: what did we know and when did we know it?

As we get deeper into Climate Change , Howard Baker’s famous question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” (during the Watergate scandal) is starting to resonate.

The question mattered to the Watergate issue because it got to the heart of whether the President of the United State was legally culpable for crimes committed during this growing scandal. Did the President try to cover up this "third-rate burglary"? (It appears that he did.)

Now, we are starting to ask that famous question of the fossil fuel industry. What did the fossil fuel industry know about their industry’s effect on Climate Change and when did they know it?

Oil Industry Group's Own Report Shows Early Knowledge of Climate Impacts A report the American Petroleum Institute commissioned in 1982 revealed its knowledge of global warming, predated its campaign to sow doubt. A Columbia University report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute in 1982 cautioned that global warming "can have serious consequences for man's comfort and survival." It is the latest indication that the oil industry learned of the possible threat it posed to the climate far earlier than previously known. The report, "Climate Models and CO2 Warming, A Selective Review and Summary," was written by Alan Oppenheim and William L.  Donn of Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory for API's Climate and Energy task force, said James J. Nelson, the task force's former director. From 1979 to 1983, API and the nation's largest oil companies convened the task force to monitor and share climate research, including their in-house efforts. Exxon ran the most ambitious of the corporate programs, but other oil companies had their own projects, smaller than Exxon's and focused largely on climate modeling. (February 5, 2016) Inside Climate News 

It matters legally if the fossil fuel companies committed fraud. But does it matter otherwise? In other words, whether or not the fossil fuel industries knew about their industries’ effect on Climate Change, it is still the case that greenhouse gases (mostly, our burning of fossil fuels) has brought us where we are today, 1C above preindustrial rates. We are more than half-way to the agreed danger zone of 1.5 C.

I suppose, if found guilty, there might be a way to levy large fines on the guilty parties and use that money to help our country adapt to the environmental changes caused by too much manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Penalties might also send a message out worldwide that misleading the public on fossil fuel use will have consequences and maybe quicken the movement towards renewable energy.

Environmentalists Call for Investigations of Exxon What did Exxon know about climate change and when did it know it? That's what environmentalists want state attorneys general to investigate. Activists from 350.org on Tuesday presented signed petitions to the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington. Lindsay Meiman, U.S. communications coordinator for the group, said Exxon Mobil executives knew that fossil fuels were causing global climate change in the 1970s but hid that information from shareholders. "Exxon instead poured millions of dollars into think tanks and lobbyists to sow doubt and confusion among the public and government," she said. (February 24, 2016) Public News Service

This leads me to another troubling question we should be asking. This time of ourselves: Climate Change: what did we know and when did we know it? In other words, is it true as some have suggested that humanity didn’t know about human-caused climate change until recently, and therefore we shouldn’t blame ourselves? The answer is interesting and complicated and instructive.

There is evidence that beginning in the early 1800’s, many were asking just this question:   

“It was here, at Lake Valencia, that Humboldt developed his idea of human-induced climate change.”Wulf, Andrea (2015-09-15). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (p. 57). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In a wonderful new biography of Alexander von Humboldt ("The Invention of Nature"), it is clear that a very influential thinker* was changing minds on the how our environments around the world were connected. Humboldt’s painstakingly accurate observations on nature were proving to many that mankind’s actions were profoundly affecting environmental systems and that human-induced climate change was a distinct possibility.

Of course, Humboldt was probably talking about microclimates, not the whole planet’s climate, and he was not suggesting that our use of fossil fuels was the cause for warming up our atmosphere. But in the beginning of the 1800’s he was starting to realize that mankind’s environmental disruptions were having a dramatic effect on nature’s systems.

So did we know before the mid-1900’s that Climate Change was caused by humans burning fossil fuels? Not specifically. We did consider that how we treated the land, exhausting the soil and destroying forests, would accelerate and amplify desertification which might have an influence on weather patterns. We were given many warnings by early naturalists that our way of life, even before we launched the Second Industrial Revolution in the United State, was dramatically changing our environment. Even if we didn’t know the exact cause of Climate Change, our destructive way of life has made Climate Change the mother of all problems. Instead of being cautious with our life support system, we went for broke.

I’m not suggesting that we sit around wringing our hands, blaming our ancestors over Climate Change. Much of what makes the developed countries desirable is a result of our predecessors’ responding to a biological urge to make the world better for us.  I am suggesting that ‘we’ (humanity, for we have to be as one on Climate Change) take full responsibility that we have knowingly brought ourselves to this state of affairs, where dangerous warming and a full blown catastrophe is only a few decades away. If no other past event can convince us that we are the cause of Climate Change, the Paris Agreement convincingly makes the case that most of us now know that Climate Change is true and that we are the cause. This crisis has been building up for a long time no matter how many times we try and convince ourselves these environmental emergencies have just suddenly appeared.  

This self-knowledge about our own culpability in Climate Change should spur us into action. We should make sure that our government ratifies the Paris Agreement on Earth Day this year. We should understand that there are no single solutions to adapting to and mitigating Climate Change because the impacts are systematic and interrelated. This is to say, we have been living unsustainably for a very long time within what appears to be a very sensitive environment. Despite the benefits we have realized from a fossil fuel paradigm, our continual indifference to the evolving environmental sciences has gotten us into a state of impending existential collapse unless we immediately change direction.

We demand of our leaders and our industries that they own up to what they knew about their transgressions and when they knew so that we can determine the point from which the consequences of their bad actions lead us down the wrong path. So we can right ourselves.

Humanity should do likewise on Climate Change where we hold ourselves accountable for learning what we knew and when we knew it. It will help us to unravel the thread of bad choices and their consequences that has led to this dire situation, so we can make our way back (like Theseus in the Minotaur’s labyrinth) to a sustainable existence.

If we don’t, we will continue business as usual, thinking that bettering ourselves without considering the whole environment, will solve this worldwide crisis with only a few adjustments (carbon pricing, changing our light bulbs, altering our eating habits, making our buildings more energy efficient, or driving only electric vehicles). In truth, we’re going to have to do ‘all of the above’ to address Climate Change and then some.

It’s not hopeless if we act. Watch Al Gore’s incredible TED talk on ‪Climate Change: “The case for optimism on climate change
Time passes.

* Although most have not even heard of Humboldt (I’ll admit until I just read this book, I didn’t either), his ideas on nature were extremely influential. The author says:

“On 14 September 1869, one hundred years after his birth. Alexander von Humboldt’s centennial was celebrated across the world. There were parties in Europe, Africa and Australia as well as the Americas.”  “In Cleveland some 8,000 people took to the streets and in Syracuse another 15,000 joined in a march that was more than a mile long.” Wulf, Andrea (2015-09-15). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (p. 6). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Will pricing carbon emissions save us from Climate Change?

The quick answer as to whether carbon pricing offers a quick and relatively easy way to save us from Climate Change is no. Climate Change is too complicated for such a simple solution. But carbon pricing may be the way to save Capitalism.

Here’s a recent news story that highlights the continued effort to pass carbon pricing and the continual push back to stop it:

Lawmakers consider putting price on carbon Lawmakers in the state of Washington this month began discussing a measure that could make the state the first to tax residents and businesses on their carbon emissions. You can watch the two-hour work session, or watch this video, which explains everything you need to know about carbon pricing in three minutes. (February 19, 2016) Innovation Trail

Capitalism’s successes have always been delusional in that its accounting ignores environmental costs incurred in the production and distribution of goods and services.  In actuality, those costs have been carried by people getting sick from bad air and our ecosystems crashing.  Capitalism must learn to adopt accurate accounting, or it will die a painful death, and may take human civilization with it.

Climate Change, the mother of all problems, is making the burning of fossil fuels a major threat to our existence. We could dramatically curb our carbons emissions if we put a price on those emissions because it would be cheaper to use clean, renewable options. Carbon pricing would put the environmental equation back into the cost of burning fossil fuels where it always should have been.

Would pricing carbon be difficult? Yes. We waited too long to begin and now the industries that haven’t paid the true costs of their products are too used to not doing it. They got a lot of money using our environment for their profits and they are not going to want adjust for this tragically unfair mistake.

Would pricing carbon make tremendous strides towards addressing Climate Change? It would. Folks would use less fossil-fuel intensive products and services and use more of those that rely on renewable energy. This would quickly change everyone’s buying habits so that our economy would really mimic the very environmental system it needs to be in compliance with. We and our environment would fare better; not just the polluters.

Would pricing carbon save us all? No. Pricing carbon would go a long way to making it clear the days of using our life support system as an invisible hand to prop up an economic system are over. 

Making our environment healthy would pay better than making it sick. But there are many other aspects to Climate Change that carbon pricing would not fix. Carbon pricing would not provide leadership on adapting to the consequences of a warming planet, nor would it help to address this crisis equitably. There is no one solution to a problem that will engulf all aspects of our existence. That will take leadership and a pervasive attitude towards stewardship of our planet. We have a lot of work to do.  Carbon pricing will help a lot. It won’t save us. But it might save Capitalism.


Why would carbon pricing save Capitalism? Filling this tremendous flaw in Capitalism, where our environment was not factored into this theory from the beginning, might just give this economic system a way to make itself viable. Providing humanity with a financial incentive to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, instead of sending them through the roof, might just change a lot of people’s behavior in a short amount of time without too much disruption and inconvenience. If not, we’ll have to try something else.   

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Worrying about sustainability via Climate Change

For most of humanity’s existence we have not thought or worried ourselves much about sustainability.  Homo sapiens, like all of the other life forms on this planet, concerned themselves (consciously or not, mostly not) with survival. We ate, drank, procreated, hunted, gathered, and eventually died. We climbed trees, moved under their branches hand over hand, straddling one tree while we shifted our weight on our new evolved pelvic bones to another tree. At some point we came down from the trees, freed up our hands for gathering stuff and evolved our two other appendages for walking and running—and started worrying.

Once out of the trees and on the ground we began to worry where our food and predators were. Up in the trees our food was relatively easy to get at. However, because of climate change there were fewer trees so we had to get creative at acquiring food. On the ground there were more predators too. They were often larger than us, faster, stronger, so we got running. Opportunities for worrying grew exponentially once out of the safety of the trees. Our brains grew in proportion to our worries and became very large indeed. Because we shared our worries with each other, our social skills increased and we were able to hunt together for those creatures who worried us so. (I suspect, since most animals are wary of humans on their first encounter, our predators began worrying about us in return.)    

Besides worrying, our large brains made it possible to think about ways to keep ourselves warm as the climate changed. We learned how to control fire. We learned how gather up all kinds of eatables and hunt for all kinds of animals. We learned to cook many of our foods, a sort of pre-digestion tactic, which dramatically increased our food choices. We still worried about dying and finding enough food. But we also addressed our worries by increasing our ability to plan ahead for better hunting and gathering and even storing and planting for more food for the future.

We began to worry about how much food we could accumulate to keep our families and whatever ruling groups (chiefs, kings, high priests) we institutionalized. We worried about storms. We worried about the seasons and what time of year to start moving to better hunting grounds. We worried about when to sow and when to reap.

These sustainability worries were not simply aimless, fruitless concerns. We acted on our worries. We made stronger houses, developed better weapons, developed better hunting stills, communicated more effectively for more efficient gathering teams, and found ways to predict some disasters like floods and dangerous seas.

Who knows when this capacity of ours to worry about our future, to endure, to live sustainability, began. It might be hardwired into all creatures intent on survival. But as a conscious worry sustainability only occurs in modern humans. Other creatures just do it or die.

When we created large communities and began farming on a large scale, we started worrying on a much greater scale. We worried that some other group might take our stuff and jeopardize our ability to endure and so we went to war with those groups. We started gathering as much land and water as we could, thinking perhaps if we acquired enough land and water we and our descendants would never perish.   

At some point, some of us began to worry about our effect on our environment, on our life support system. Native Americans, who probably suffered the effects of over-hunting, starting thinking more about their actions and their long-term survival. Seven generations sustainability is a conscious effort to be mindful of at least seven generations after you go. This kind of thinking creates the communal habit of thinking about where your peoples’ next meal will come from. But the majority didn't heed this wise advice. 

In 1864, George Perkins Marsh wrote a very influential book—“Man and Nature”--about how many European societies failed because of their lousy treatment of their environment. In this book, Marsh warned Americans and future generations to take it easy on nature if you want it for a tomorrow. He wasn’t against development and getting ahead. He just thought we should live more sustainably so our wants would last and last. Marsh’s warnings and the counsel of many other early naturalists after him help slow down our some of our wasteful and damaging effects on our air, land, and water. But not much. The Industrial Revolutions unleashed a lot of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Around the same time we developed an indifferent and amoral attitude towards our environment called ‘economics,’ which created a great estrangement between us and our life support system. Heedlessly we struck hard at the core of our environmental vitals.  

From the mid-1800’s our development and our negative effects on our environment took off like there was no tomorrow. We chopped down forests of forests, dammed every river and stream we could, and dumped old and new toxins into our air, water, and land.

It got really bad. Some of our rivers caught on fire they were so polluted and so the public rose up in the millions to protect our home planet on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Sustainability was becoming a worldwide worry a planetary scale. With the advent of nuclear weapons and incredible jumps in human population, the nations of the world started to come together to address what sustainability actually meant and how we would achieve it. 

We decided sustainability was about us, humans and our desire for more stuff.  The rest of creatures and plants were on their own.

 “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report)

Then, in the mid-1990 the climate talks began one after another until the 21st in Paris resulting in Paris Agreement. The world has come to understand that all our problems with sustainability are intertwined with wildlife and plants and soil and poverty and justice and all dependent on addressing Climate Change.

This Earth Day the world comes together to celebrate our environment and watch our leaders sign the Paris Agreement that will make the agreement official.

Our worries about sustainability are far from over. In a way, they’ve just begun. In the sense that we are just beginning to truly understand how humanity must curb its own selfish tendencies to attain sustainability, the road ahead is clear.


Be worried. Be very worried.  

Monday, February 08, 2016

The COP21 Paris Climate summit remembered in Ithaca

For all of Homo sapiens’ braininess perhaps our short attention span will be remembered as our most defining characteristic. It’s not just that our minds often wander during boring speeches; collectively we tend to lose focus on really important stuff before that stuff has time enough to play out. The historic COP21 Paris Summit is barely two months old and is already fading from the public’s attention. It has certainly vanished from local media’s awareness. However, in Ithaca the other day, Climate Change came to the forefront when six panelists spoke about their experiences at the Paris summit to an overflow audience earnestly attentive to what these experts had to say. 

Panelists review Paris climate summit at Ithaca event Six panelists, including Cornell faculty members, who attended the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris last fall recalled the historic proceedings for a spirited audience that spilled into the hallway of the Tompkins County Public Library’s BorgWarner Room Feb. 3. The panel, “COP21: Reflections on the Historic Climate Agreement,” was co-sponsored by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, local government agencies and community groups. Topics discussed ranged from methane emissions to agriculture to civil disobedience, but panelists agreed that the COP21 made history by producing a 195-nation commitment to combat climate change that, while not nearly strong enough, they said, was a remarkable achievement nonetheless. (February 4, 2016) Cornell Chronicle 

The article above and these short videos from two of the panelists-- Colleen Boland and Sandra Steingraber-- capture some of the tone and content of the event in Ithaca. I’m not going to go over all that they said, except to say Climate Change has not faded from their attention. Not in the least.

I sensed that if every community around the world responded to the Paris talks the way Ithaca did that evening, Climate Change would remain fixed in all our minds as a top priority. For as long as it takes for us to address this crisis. Even when our media does cover the Paris talks, they cannot reproduce the town-meeting effect that allows for give-and--take discussions between members of a community on issues crucial to their lives.

In fact, many of the advances in our communications technologies seem to detract from the town-meeting experience, reinforcing our inclination to silo our conversations, where like-minded people talk to each other and the rest get ignored. I suspect that even when we climate activists march in the streets to focus media and leadership attention on Climate Change, we tend to alienate the rest who view such actions as extreme.

What would a conversation with the rest look like in Monroe County? Let’s say we get 700 folks (~ .1% of our county’s population) into a town meeting setting at, say, one of our local university’s auditoriums. Let’s say we can bring in a representative demographic, and could invite some key panelists -- mayors, our governor, some local climate experts, faith leaders, business leaders, community leaders -- to speak for five minutes each on how their groups perceive Climate Change. Then, with a lot of folks with a lot of microphones running around so everyone in the audience could get heard, we’d have a long conversation about Climate Change in our region:

The governor might speak about how we must lead on Climate Change and what their office is doing about changing our energy options. Climate experts could point out some of the many consequences of Climate Change already happening, then consider what’s in store for us if we continue business as usual. Climate experts could give expert testimony on how many aspects of local ecosystems, our lakes, and our agriculture are already being affected. Our faith leaders could talk about the moral imperative of addressing Climate Change. Community leaders could express the concerns of people already disadvantaged—even without Climate Change bearing down on them. The business community could talk about their understanding of Climate Change and some of the solutions they’ve come up with themselves. Then the floor could be opened to the public. And someone would stand up and speak into a microphone:

“I cannot get a job because I cannot afford a vehicle that will take me to where the jobs are.” “Well,” a panelist might say, “We understand this problem and we are trying to update the public transportation system so that it goes to where folks have to go to keep a job.” “But my taxes are already too high.” “My taxes are so high I can hardly keep my mortgage payments going.” “There are programs to help homeowners get energy audits and get the upgrades you need with little cost.” “You talked about our drinking water being affected by more heavy rain causing more sewer overflows.” “We are working to get our waste water system more resilient so it can handle the increase.” “Won’t that cause my taxes to go up more?” “Your taxes might go up a little more or even down if the burden is shared equally.” “I hear the experts about all the changes coming with our weather and climate, but I got problems now with violence, with poor health.” “There will be opportunities for groups who can provide volunteers to grow more gardens for more local healthy food, help out in heat and flood emergencies, and much more.” “I’m a young person and I won’t be able to afford my college fees if I don’t get a good paying job immediately.” “There will be positions opening up to transition business models towards new services and products in a warming world.” “We have a great responsibility to look out and help those who cannot by themselves adapt to Climate Change.” and so on. People who have never talked about Climate Change in the same room would do just that and everyone would remember.  

One of the main conundrums of Climate Change is that the rest are actually a vast majority of the population, and they haven’t been part of the conversation. The rest are going to feel the worst Climate Change consequences sooner and to a far greater degree than those actually paying attention to this crisis because the rest didn’t understand the importance of planning.

The event in Ithaca reminded me that many folks actually understand the urgency of Climate Change (especially when too many of us are stuffed into a room designed for smaller audiences). But put in perspective, only a vanishingly small percent of our country’s population see the warming threat for what it is, as Paris summit fades away for the rest and something else catches their attention.


Time passes.