Wednesday, December 19, 2012



Runs the title of the latest editorial in Nature, one of the planet's premier scientific journals. "The political inertia that characterizes the world’s response to global warming cannot continue. Politicians and policy-makers must follow the climate’s lead — and change." I have been citing James Hansen for years proclaiming the same thing. But others in the scientific climate community have been uneasy with Hansen, both the results of his research, which once were more dire than the consensus , and for his speaking out with ever greater urgency. The conventional wisdom goes that this is the job of activists, not scientists and policy-makers. But now voices from unexpected places are joining in, like the IEA, and now Nature itself.

Ah, but my reader may answer, Obama's eloquent victory speech highlighted climate change as something our government must tackle. Many of us had spoken quietly about the possibility that a second-term Obama, freed from the necessity of re-election, might actually become a leader in this great struggle. Quietly because we, as good Democrats, weren't supposed to rock the strategy of ignoring climate as an election issue; it might lose votes for our guy. So how will this play out, this political game with arguably the highest stakes in human history?

At a family gathering a couple of weeks after the election, I learned from a leading international zoologist and ecologist that, in a private meeting of major international consultants, a high-ranking elected official from the Democratic Party let it be known that “climate change is not on the agenda” for the new administration. We feel good when we hear our leader publicly acknowledge our issues. But in private, secretly, it's the same old smart, odds-playing photogenic waffle who has been re-elected. I was devastated by this news, overshadowing the family wedding we were attending. But the bearer of the news would not let me off the hook. Was I dedicating my life to working for political solutions? Was I doing absolutely everything possible to change my own lifestyle? The answer in both cases was no. I see myself as caring deeply, but show up for battle in the climate wars mostly when it's convenient.

And should we blame Obama? In 2009, a tiny Bolivian peasant woman confronted the towering George Lakey, a prominent Quaker activist who was speaking at a training, saying, “Why have you abandoned your president?” Politicians are more followers than leaders, and if we don't exert pressure making climate change impossible to ignore politically, then it's ourselves we have to blame, not the President. Obama's characteristic prudence makes this even more of an imperative.

Meanwhile, Hansen is disgusted with Washington's stone-walling climate change, both nationally and internationally. He wrote me several months ago that he has given up trying to influence our government, working instead with the Chinese. They are seriously considering a carbon tax, as both he and Al Gore report. May it be a bold one. With a generational change in leadership underway, it is an opportunity for a new approach. In the case of the US, with carefully designed checks and balances, a carbon tax is not workable in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this is the only future we have.

Despite a system that too often promotes gridlock, there is room for action from the executive. Last term, the President supported the EPA in setting tough vehicle emissions standards to be in place for vehicles model years 2017- 2025 (maybe too late). Then, with court backing, the EPA was able to put in place standards for power plants, cutting their allowed emissions in half. This is significant, since feeding the electric grid creates 40% of emissions. The ruling effectively kills any new coal-fired plants and opens the door to natural gas facilities, which meet those standards. But this is where the industry was heading anyway.  Meanwhile, as David Roberts outlines in Grist, NRDC has put together a clever proposal for significantly reducing emissions from old coal-fired plants, one that gets around inflexible national standards, allowing each state to create its own pathway towards achieving the mandated level of reductions on the same “fleet-wide” basis applied to automakers.

Climate change may not be on Obama's agenda, but there is clearly much he can do, chiefly through the EPA. But his leadership need not stop there. An umbrella faith-based organization, IMAC (Interfaith Moral Action on Climate), is sponsoring yet another pray-in, this one at the White House gates on Martin Luther King's actual birthday January 15. These are their demands.

1. Permanently refuse permits for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, because tar-oil is among the most dangerous of the planet-heating forms of carbon.
2. Call a National Summit Conference on the Climate Crisis that includes leaders ofbusiness, labor, academia, religious communities, governmental officialdom, science, and other relevant bodies .
3. Publicly support and advocate for a carbon fee that will generate hundreds of billions of dollars, with provisions to ensure that working families and the poor are not harmed by higher carbon prices; for an end to subsidies to the coal, oil and gas industries; and for substantial subsidies for research, development, and use
of renewable, sustainable and jobs-creating clean energy sources.

Jose Aguto, climate point-person for FCNL, writes that negotiations are in process with the White House for fulfilling number two. A request for sign-ons from leaders in all of these areas is circulating widely. The President knows what the environmental activist community thinks about the issue. Does anybody else care enough to make this a politically viable issue?

My wife Geeta and I plan to be at the IMAC pray-in, staying on through the inauguration, pressing the issue. We need not only to pressure the president, but also the Congress. Let's greet the new congress by camping out in representatives offices, Stay at it. Fill the jails if necessary. When the civil rights movement came to a  head in 1961 in Birmingham, it required an entire fleet of buses to ferry the high school students who led the action to jail. Once all the jails were filled, Bull Connor's men had to use pens at the state fairgrounds to incarcerate these brave kids. Six months later, Connor was out of office, and segregation's back had been broken.

This is the kind of movement we need to build. We need to build it now. Words are not enough.

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