“Fear” vs “Hope” in Climate Communications?

How about brutal honesty?

I live near The Breakthrough Institute (the execrable* one in Oakland), but I remain a definite fan of the The Breakthrough Institute (the admirable one in Melbourne). How could I not when David Spratt, its Research Coordinator, sends out missives like “Fear” versus “hope” in #climate communications. How about brutal honesty?

Read it. It’s basically a tweet stream and it won’t take you long, and it references an admirable chain of comments and papers, all of which any citizen of our frail civilization should be familiar with. The last is from the scientist Kate Marvel, who sums the position nicely in five words. “We need courage, not hope.”

* Is this too harsh? How about “unhelpful”? Is that nicer? In any case, an honest appraisal of the work of the BTI, over its organizational lifetime, would have to conclude that, on balance, it’s existence has been a net negative.

Why “Planet of the Humans” is crap

Mostly, Planet of the Humans is just so fucking bad. So bad that its good points are useless. It does have some good points – there seem to be a lot of rock festivals in Vermont that claim, incorrectly, to be running on solar. They totally deserve ridicule. But you would never recommend this film to anyone. You’d be carrying water for the fossils if you did. So it’s a failure on its own terms, since it wants, or pretends to want, to bring the truth about renewables to the green movement.  And it may even, judging from the ending, where both Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club are said to clarify their positions, make us a bit more careful about our tactical alliances. But boy oh boy does this guy—Jeff Gibbs is his name—know less than he thinks.

It’s too bad, because his central complaint, that the environmental movement is looking to green tech to save us, and believing quite a bit of nonsense in the process, is pretty legit, though it’s less legit every year, and you wouldn’t know it from this film.  Anyway, this kind of techno-optimism is and has always been a huge mistake, and it throws us to the mercies of the snake-oil salesman and, in general, to the corruptions of capitalist realism.  This is an excellent point, and it could have been made well.  Gibbs could have built a good bit of teaching around it.  But instead he threw so many cheap shots and so much old news into the bucket that it ruined, and I mean *ruined*, the mix.  The truth is that he doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to make his critique in a helpful way. 

Once you get beyond the pro-solar rock-concert bullshit, Gibbs’ rap against renewables is embarrassingly wrong.  Not all of it, but most of it.  Moreover, it is fantastically dated.  He seems to not even know that the net-energy analysis of renewable energy systems is a thing.  Which is odd, because Richard Heinberg is an expert in this field, and Gibbs embeds him at the center of his narrative. Heinberg, alas, has long been pessimistic about the potential for renewables to produce net energy on the scale we’ll need, and here he says that “we’re getting, in some cases, no energy from these potential options,” which is just what Gibbs wanted. *

Then, unsurprisingly, talk turns to population.  Heinberg’s provides the framing — “There are too many human beings, using too much, too fast” — and then Gibbs takes us off to the Malthusian races, wherein we’re told, by Stephen Churchill (an anthropologist who’s called out as “a scientist”) that “I don’t think we’re going to find a way out of this one.”  The mix goes on, and in it we get exactly one sentence—“our consumption has also exploded, on average ten times per person, and many times more in the western world” — that might in any way be taken as a reference to class, or to class footprints.  As if you could just multiply the number of people by their average impact and, by so doing, get to the fundamental truth of our predicament. 

Continue reading “Why “Planet of the Humans” is crap”

We’re not going back to normal

There was a great article in MIT Technology Review a few days ago that everyone should read, on how social distancing will remain a big part of our lives until “until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine.”

We will adapt, of course. But like everything else in this caste society of ours, this adaptation will, all else being equal, concentrate the pain on the poor and the vulnerable. Here’s how the author, one Gideon Lichfield, put it:

“As usual, however, the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.

Moreover, unless there are strict rules on how someone’s risk for disease is assessed, governments or companies could choose any criteria—you’re high-risk if you earn less than $50,000 a year, are in a family of more than six people, and live in certain parts of the country, for example. That creates scope for algorithmic bias and hidden discrimination, as happened last year with an algorithm used by US health insurers that turned out to inadvertently favor white people.

The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships. But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

Climate Emergency Summit – David Spratt’s Science Update

David Spratt has been on the case for some time now, and he knows the science cold. So it’s well worth your time to read this brief “state of the science” summary he wrote for the amazing Australian Climate Emergency Summit that just took placein Melbourne. Do note one of the key takeaways, emphasized in the graphic here — we will hit 1.5C around 2030.

While we’re on the subject, here’s the conference declaration. It’s very much in the “emergency mobilization demands bipartisan action” camp, which doesn’t strike me as particularly realistic these days, but what do I know? I haven’t been to Australia since the fires. No way I can make meaningful short-term political judgements.

So I’m definitely not going to argue with comms expert Peter Lewis, who recently offered this in the Guardian:

“The idea of pushing for centrist, reasonable and sensible policies may chafe when the world is on the brink. It does not dispel the need to campaign hard at the margins – climate rebellions and school strikes are essential to shifting the window to make other policy change possible. But the risk is to confuse the movement with the moment. If political change is the answer and Australia can’t wait until 2022, then locating the Overton window and finding a way through it now seems the only viable way forward.”

The Overton climate window sure is open now! New polling indicates that 64% of Australians support “Setting a zero-carbon pollution target for 2030”.

Fair Shares in the Climate President Action Plan

Over 500 US groups have signed onto a comprehensive common ask: The #CLIMATEPRESIDENT Action Plan: Ten actions that the new administration (assuming of course that there is one) should take in its first ten days.

It’s a great list, and of particular interest to us because fair shares has finally made the cut. It’s last, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with being the bottom line. The short version is: “Rejoin the Paris Agreement and lead with science-based commitments that ensure that the United States, as the world’s largest cumulative historical emitter, contributes its fair share and advances climate justice.”

The text of all ten demands is worth reading in full. Here’s the text for number ten:

“Vastly increase the United States’ emissions reduction commitment (Nationally Determined Contribution) to slash U.S. greenhouse emissions below 2005 levels by at least 70% by 2030 and reduce them to near zero by 2040 — in line with what science, equity, and climate justice demand. Include deadlines to halt all oil, gas, and coal production in the U.S. commitment and ensure that future agreements set limits on fossil fuel production consistent with meeting the 1.5°C target.

The actions in this report will form the backbone of the plan to achieve this commitment. However, because these domestic reductions alone are insufficient to fulfill the U.S. fair share of global climate action, the President must leverage their full executive authority and work with Congress to appropriate funds for large-scale financial and technological support to enable poorer countries to reduce their own emissions, as well as to support crucial adaptation measures so that vulnerable communities can survive the climate disruption already underway.”

A Key British Report: “Our Responsibility”

I met Laurie Laybourn-Langton late last year, and was immediately struck by his honesty. He had just released an earlier report, This is a crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, and while its conclusions were grim, he was perfectly up front about the fact that he and his co-authors had soft-pedaled them, if only just a bit.

Soft-pedaling is an understandable sin these days, and this despite the fact that the Extinction Rebellion folks have popularized signs that say “Tell the Truth.”  It’s a great slogan, one for the ages, but do note that the real prime directive, stated precisely, would be something like “tell the whole truth, and do so in a helpful manner.”  The problem is that, given the unforgiving nature of our predicament, the “whole truth” can only be helpful if it comes together with believable strategies and transition stories, and that’s quite a hurdle. We’re not there yet.

LLL’s new report, Our responsibility: A new model of international cooperation for the era of environmental breakdown, moves us a bit closer, and it’s required reading if you believe, as I do, that the fair shares approach to global climate mobilization is essential to any plausible international transition story. Moreover, Our responsibility is notable for more than just the good sense it shows in leveraging the Climate Equity Reference Project approach to fair shares. Its real virtue is the clarity of its larger context. Its real topic is the real challenge — international cooperation itself, in the context on the now threatening “environmental breakdown.”

Here’s the report’s summary para:

“Environmental breakdown is accelerating and poses an unprecedented threat to international cooperation. This challenge comes at a time when the multilateral order is fracturing. A new positive-sum model of international cooperation is needed, which should seek to realise a more sustainable, just and prepared world. This necessarily requires communities and countries to better recognise their cumulative contribution to environmental breakdown, and their current capability to act. Wealthy nations and communities not only contribute most to the stock of environmental breakdown, they preside over and benefit from an economic development model founded on unsustainable environmental impacts and global power imbalance.”

Like I said, required reading.

Good Ideas Department: Let’s implement a luxury carbon tax, because not all carbon is created equally

Philippe Benoit, a research scholar at Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia, has a good idea, a luxury tax on carbon. As he explained it in an op-ed in The Hill:

You’ll get no argument from me!

For $250,000, the super-rich will soon be able to visit sub-space. Meanwhile, back on earth, American workers will drive pickup trucks to their jobs and families will keep their thermostats low to save on heating costs.

All three will generate greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists explain that the climate impact of carbon emissions is the same irrespective of why and where they are created. That, in part, is why many economists want to tax all carbon the same. 

But does it make sense from a policy perspective to ignore why and how the carbon was created? Is it sensible to treat the emissions from highly discretionary and luxurious consumption by the rich the same as those generated to meet basic needs of middle-class and poorer households? There is an argument to say no.

Maybe not all carbon is created equal. Unsurprisingly, just as there is income inequality, there is inequality in carbon emissions. In the United States, the richest 10 percent emit four times more than the bottom 50 percent; the disparity is even greater at a global level and for the top 1 percent. Billionaires and millionaires enjoy a lavish carbon-heavy lifestyle that isn’t accessible to middle-class families. Flying transatlantic first class in the front of the plane generates four times more carbon than riding in the back in tightly-packed economy.

Or consider high-end sports cars or yachts or private jets (remember the criticism leveled against Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for taking private jets while advocating for action on climate).

The luxury emissions market is big and getting bigger. Americans purchase 2 million luxury vehicles a year, while luxury yacht sales total $5.7 billion globally and is expected to grow to $10.2 billion by 2025. 

Soon there will be space tourism, a novel but GHG-intensive activity restricted to the super-rich. And the potential for luxury emissions is growing as the number of millionaires worldwide increases from 42 million today to a projected 63 million in 2024. 

Yet, we all share one common carbon budget, estimated at below 1,100 GtCO2. In contrast to incomes where “more is better” and even extravagant spending by the rich can produce jobs for working-class families, carbon is a “zero-sum” game: the more the rich emit through their lavish lifestyles, the less there is for everyone else.

While wealth globally keeps increasing, the carbon budget keeps getting smaller, eaten up in part by the high-carbon extravagant activities of the rich. A luxury carbon tax could be used to charge the rich for this climate extravagance, one that wouldn’t apply to the emissions generated by working families in making ends meet.

And in deciding how much to charge, we don’t need to follow the traditional approaches of tying the tax to the “social cost of carbon” or using a uniform rate based on carbon content. Instead, we could apply a tax rate well above the carbon impact of these extravagant emissions precisely because they constitute a wasteful use of our common carbon budget. 

How much should we tax someone for spewing carbon on their $52 million visit to the International Space Station? A lot.”

Climate Change is not World War

I am no fan of Roy Scranton’s 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (which sported the fashionably dark subtitle “Reflections on the End of Civilization.”) But, as Bob Dylan says, Things have Changed. At least a bit. Scranton’s still doggedly dark, but these days his lessons are more useful. 

In mid-September, just before Climate Week in Manhattan’s UN districts, he published an excellent piece in the Times under the title Climate Change is not World War. It should be required reading, especially by those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of incanting the phrase “World War Style Mobilization” when talking about what a true climate mobilization would be like. As if it would somehow be win / win all the way down the line:

Here’s a sample:

“[M]uch of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet.”

Here’s another

“[M]obilization during World War II was a national mobilization against foreign enemies, while what’s required today is a global mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world — against itself?”

Here’s a third:

“Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like America’s total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that it’s difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. “

There’s more, and not saying I agree with all of it. In particular, I think  anything like a true climate mobilization would have to be accompanied by a profound turn towards economic justice, which I’m betting Mr. Scranton would consider naive. But if we want to be tough minded about the realities we’re now facing, and it seems we do, there are insights here that have to be reckoned with. 

This is not going to be easy. 

Despair Watch: Jonathan Franzen Edition

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, recently published a piece in the New Yorker that caused a bit of stir. The piece is called What If We Stopped Pretending?, and let’s just say it’s not particularly optimistic. In fact, its subtitle is “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

You should read Franzen’s piece, not just for itself but because there’s more of this kind of high-tone despair coming down the pike, lots more.  Given this, it would be good if we could all get our thoughts in order. I’ve already done so, because I’m writing a piece on the culture of climate despair. I fired off a letter to the editor, and they actually published it.

Here’s what I said:

“The most exemplary of the new books on climate change—David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Bill McKibben’s “Falter”—struggle for an honesty that does not counsel despair. Franzen’s argument, which suggests that attempts to mobilize are at odds with conservation and even with moral clarity, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The tragedy, if it comes to that, will be that we don’t do so, even though we can. “

The Green New Deal as a step towards Emergency Internationalism

It’s likely, given the ongoing political insanity, that you’ve missed a key internationalist turn in the US Green New Deal debate.  It was Bernie Sanders’ team that made that turn, though we’re hoping that others (activists as well as politicians) will soon follow along.

The details are below, but here are the two key takeaways:

  • The national emissions reductions targets that most climate emergency groups have been advocating (e.g. 100% net zero by 2030, or even 2025 in the case of the British Extinction Rebellion folks) are effectively impossible if they are conceived in purely domestic terms.  They are also insufficient.  But Sanders has embraced a justice-based global framework that allows him to advocate for a properly scaled US reduction target, in this case 161% by 2030, and to do so coherently. 
  • Sanders’ internationalism is important because it extends the (usually all-domestic) Green New Deal vision to include the US fair share of an international emergency climate mobilization. In so doing, it points a path forward that animates the Paris Agreement (and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanism) and holds out hope for an effective planetary mobilization. This is a critical move, because only a global Green New Deal can succeed.

For a bit more detail, see below.


Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal plan leverages a key idea—that a true emergency climate mobilization requires nations to do their fair share in the global effort, rather than just acting within their own borders.  And it makes a very concrete proposal for how to put this idea into play.

Sanders based his proposal, and his specific estimate of the US’s fair share, directly on ideas that EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute have developed in their joint Climate Equity Reference Project, and that the Civil Society Equity Review coalition has been promoting for years.  

I recently had a prominent piece in The Nation which tells this story.  It’s called Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet, and it argues that a fair shares approach to international cooperation is essential to any even plausibly successful global climate transition.  Specifically, it proposes that a global Green New Deal can best be kickstarted through a proliferation of national green new deals that are structured to support international cooperation as well as domestic transformation.  The side effect, a very welcome one, would be the animation of the Paris Agreement and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanisms. 

Sanders’ plan calls for:

“Meeting and exceeding our fair share of global emissions reductions. The United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.  We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent.”

These are big numbers, and they underlie another big number in Sanders’ proposal: the offer of $200 billion in support to help developing countries reduce emissions.  The Sanders team derived this figure by looking at the projects in the Green Climate Fund portfolio to estimate what it would cost to achieve that 36% reduction in developing countries.

This is a big ask, particularly given today’s political situation, but it would be more likely to help trigger global cooperation than the almost-purely-domestic “net zero 2030” target that is so prominent within the climate emergency movement, a target that suggests that wealthy countries need only reduce their emissions within their own borders.  As if by de-carbonizing their domestic economies they would have done their fair part in the planetary mobilization.

The Climate Equity Reference Project has long argued that such a view is both ethically and politically nonviable.  But Sanders’ proposal marks the first time a major American political figure has taken anything like a coherent global fair shares position, and it is particularly notable for being embedding within a visionary domestic Green New Deal, in which the effort of financing a viable global climate transition would absolutely not be freighted upon the poor people of the wealthy world.  His fair shares vision is intimately linked to other agendas for progressive taxation, reduced military spending, taxes on fossil energy, and so forth.   

It’s important that climate activists—street activists and policy activists both—engage with the core ideas here.  We need a real debate about global climate justice, and that debate has to happen no matter who becomes the next US President.  For, just as radical decarbonization won’t happen in the US without a Just Transition, it won’t happen in poorer countries without a globally fair system of both mitigation and adaptation support.

Take a look at Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet.  It’s not long, and its written to help start a conversation about the emergency internationalism that we’ll need if we’re to stabilize the climate system in time.