Friday, February 15, 2013

Forward on Climate

Dear all,
Now that Valentine’s Day has wound down, I’d like to draw your attention to this coming Sunday for the Forward on Climate rally.  If you are in the DC area, please go. If not, please send a message to your political leaders.

The environmental movement has not done well. It has not done well for a couple reasons. One has to do with the “holier than though” attitude the movement has tended towards. Beyond the 20-30% of us that are hard-core tree-huggers, many feel we talk down do them and it re-enforces that “liberal elite” label. We need to be honest with that fact and figure out different ways to communicate. That’s one reason we have failed and I'll say more on that in a later post.

But second, and perhaps more confounding, is the nature of the problem and what I'd like to share today. The problem of Global Warming is so big and, all the science aside, so abstract, it’s hard for most of us to connect our personal behaviors and consumer choices to what is happening. Even if we admit that it’s a problem, the solution seems too far away or complicated to solve. Katrina and Sandy have started to change that. Those events are bringing the reality of what might be with a warming climate to our homes. But those not directly affected won't "feel" the impact.

But this is not the first time, as a society, we've struggled with abstract science. Until the great tobacco litigation settlements a decade or so ago, the tobacco industry hid behind its own science. “Sure, it’s possible that smoking caused that persons emphysema or lung cancer, but there are so many possible factors that can contribute to emphysema or lung cancer that there is no way to be certain that smoking is what killed your father. In fact, some people smoke and never get lung cancer.” 

Case dismissed.

Likewise, did global warming cause Sandy? Maybe, but how do you know it wouldn't have happened anyway? And we don't know. At least we don't know with 100% certainty.

So, did global warming cause Sandy? I think that is the wrong question. Because in this world certainty just doesn’t exist. Think of these personal examples:

Wearing seatbelts: Will a seatbelt guarantee you’ll survive a crash? No, but it improves your odds.
Having a good diet and regular exercise: If I eat well and exercise I’ll will live longer, right? Will live longer? More like 'should live longer,' but it’s still not a guarantee.
Good schools: Sending my kids to the best schools will make them better people. Yup, a good chance it will, but not a guarantee.

During the last administration we learned of something called the Cheney Doctrine. The Cheney Doctrine basically said that if an event had at least a 1% chance of happening we needed to take action. Dick Cheney was talking about terrorism specifically, and geo-political threats more generally, and used it as part of a justification for wars and a tremendous increase in U.S. military spending.

And back to tobacco: The tobacco industry finally lost when inside documents revealed that they did know that smoking increased, without a doubt, the probability of developing one of a number of chronic health conditions diminishing quality and life expectancy. Yet, it’s still possible you may smoke your entire life and live a good long time. But I won’t bet on it.

Which leads me back to Global Warming. Sure, we can continue our current use of carbon-based fuel sources and pump CO2 into the atmosphere and, who knows, maybe it will all work out. Maybe there is some unknown climate affect that will balance it all out that we haven’t yet discovered. Or maybe this is a natural cycle and it’s just a coincidence that the extra CO2 in the atmosphere is corresponding to temperature increases and retreating polar ice. But I’m not going to bet on that either.

At this point in the essay would be a good time to get into data regarding the scary climate corner we are painted into. But I’m just going to give you three numbers and then ask you to read this article. Here are the numbers:

+2° C (3.6 F): Rise in global temperature before it gets really bad.
565 Gigatons: Amount of additional CO2 we can release into the atmosphere before exceeding +2° C
2795 Gigatons: Amount of CO2  that will be released by current oil/coal/gas as proven reserves are consumed.

And that last number is the scariest one. Since this comes from industry’s proven reserves it is coming out of the ground. It is factored into the industry’s asset valuations and reflected in their stock prices. To not take it out of the ground will require the petroleum industry to radically change. And like we saw with tobacco it took many years and lots of litigation.

The science is no longer disputable and we are way past the time when the Cheney Doctrine should have been invoked. Historically we have been a nation that took on big problems. Our list of great inventions that have altered and benefited the course of humanity is long. Why don't we think we can solve this problem too? Our political leaders have done very little to develop a coherent strategy to move beyond carbon-based energy sources and lead us into our future. But, maybe, the obstructionists’ time in Congress is finally coming to an end. We can hope. But hope isn’t enough. It’s time for action and we, the people, need to lead the nation forward.

If you can, please join us on the Mall this Sunday. If not, pick up the phone, or email your Congressional Representative and Senators.


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