The Heat Is Online

BHS Talk

                    To Brookline High School: (October, 2009)


I’m so pleased that Brookline High School is observing the International Day of Climate Action. That is really encouraging. So, in addition to my own gratitude, I bring you the very deepest thanks from two of my very good friends – Bill McKibben – who organized the International Day of Action -- and Al Gore who was the earliest, most visible Paul Revere to sound the climate alarm. 

           As for today’s talk, two quick points. Some people have urged me to tone it down a bit because you’re only teen agers.  I don’t buy that.  I’d rather risk talking over your heads on a couple of points than talking down to you. This subject is too important – and, given the challenge we’re all facing, your role – and that of your generation -- is just too important as well. 

          Secondly, as you listen, bear in mind the fact that we old people have no better idea of how to handle the coming changes than you do.  In fact, I think that with your imaginations – and your freedom from all kinds of mental blinders that accumulate with age – you’re probably better suited than my generation to find the most humane and productive ways of responding to the coming crisis.

          So I’m going to take the next 20 minutes to lay out what I’m talking about – and I’ll begin by telling you just a bit about who I am.

          I'm a journalist, not an environmentalist. I didn't get into this issue because I love the trees.  I tolerate the trees. I got into this issue because I learned the coal industry was paying a couple of scientists under the table to say climate change isn't happening.  And I said to myself, "If there's this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?" And there went the next 15 years of my life. 

          So the impulse that propelled me into this work has nothing to do with a love of nature.  It came from a deeply-held belief, on which I based a 30-year-career, that in a democracy we need honest information on which to base our decisions.  In this case, some very powerful interests were stealing our reality.   And I know in my bones -- and from all my experience -- that bodes very badly for the democracy.  It also, as it turns out, bodes very badly for the planet as well.

          We are standing at the threshold of runaway climate change. And the coming disruptions, which most scientists now say are inevitable, will likely lead us either into a future of totalitarianism or into a new and unprecedented era of human cooperation.  

But first a word from our sponsors.  This climate crisis has been visited on all of us by huge coal and oil companies that have blocked meaningful action on the climate in the US for about  20 years.

Most regrettably, they have a powerful accomplice in a negligent and largely indifferent U.S. press that has done a dismal job in preparing the public for this challenge.            

Nature is telling us to cut our use of coal and oil by 80 percent. And the rest of the world is listening. Holland, Britain, Germany and France are already beginning to cut their emissions by 50 to 80 percent in the next 40 years.  But this is something you'd hardly know from reading our national news outlets – which consistently fail to connect the warming to people whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose homelands are going under from rising sea levels and whose borders will be overrun by environmental refugees.   

             I won't go through all the climate impacts and scientific findings that are surfacing almost weekly. But I would like to offer three large-gauge observations about global climate change.          

 The first is its speed.  We have all been absolutely blindsided by global warming.  Global warming didn't even surface as an issue in the public arena until 1988.  That was the year the UN first began to put in place the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC.  That same year, 1988, was the year that NASA Scientist Jim Hansen went before Congress to testify that "global warming is at hand.

Today, just 21 years later, scientists are telling us that we are approaching -- or are already at -- a point of no return in terms of staving off climate chaos.  That is an incredibly short period of time -- the blink of an eye historically speaking -- for such enormous changes in these massive planetary systems. 

               The second point -- which presents one of the most difficult aspects of communicating this challenge -- has to do with lagtimes and feedbacks.  Carbon dioxide stays up the atmosphere for 100 years.  So many of the impacts we are already seeing are probably the result of emissions we put up in the 1970s and 1980s -- just as China and India were beginning to accelerate their surge of coal-fired industrialization.  This makes it virtually inevitable that we will see more events of the magnitude of Katrina and the European heat wave of 2003 that killed 35, 000 people.

            The final point involves the extreme sensitivity of earth's systems to just a tiny bit of warming.  As we know, the glaciers are melting, the deep oceans are heating, violent weather is increasing, the timing of the seasons is changing and all over the world plants, birds, insects, fish and animals are migrating toward the poles in search of stable temperatures. And all that has resulted from one degree (F) of warming.    And for context, we are looking forward to a century of 4 or more degrees more heat. 

            What we need is a rapid worldwide switch to non-carbon energy -- wind, solar, tidal and wave power and, ultimately, hydrogen fuels. And we need it yesterday.

          That does not mean we will all have to sit in the dark and ride bicycles. Those sources can give us all the energy we use today.

           The fossil fuel lobby knows this perhaps better than anyone else.  And its response has been to protect the industry at the expense of the rest of us in general -- and, more specifically, at the expense of the lifeblood of any democratic system which is honest information.

           For 20 years, big coal and big oil have mounted an extremely effective campaign of deception and disinformation to persuade the public and policy-makers that the issue of global warming is still stuck in scientific uncertainty. That campaign for the longest time targeted the science. And in so doing, it marginalized the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from more than 100 countries reporting to the U.N. in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. It then misrepresented the economics of an energy transition.  More recently, it attempted to demolish the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention.

           From the perspective of an investigative reporter, the central drama underlying this issue is crystal clear. It pits the ability of this planet to support civilization versus the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in human history. The oil and coal industries together generate more than a trillion dollars a year in commerce. In this battle, their resources are virtually without limit. 

          A few recent examples.

          In the early-1990s, the coal industry launched a disinformation campaign using a few skeptical scientists -- three of whom received about a million dollars under the table from the coal industry which was never publicly disclosed until we published it.  The campaign featured a widely-circulated $250,000 video designed to persuade us that global warming is good for us.  That was in the early-90s.

           Understand that these people are extremely persistent. 

          We obtained  a new memo about a year ago from a group of coal companies about the launch of yet another disinformation campaign -- producing a major movie to counter Al Gore's film, increasing support for Sen. James Inhofe, who calls global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and raising more money to buy more air time for more skeptics.  

As recently as this summer, the American Petroleum Institute planned to set up bogus “citizen rallies” – made up of employees of Chevron and other oil companies -- to demonstrate against the climate bills in front of Congress. 

          This manufactured denial is by far the biggest obstacle facing all of us at work on this issue.  Launched almost 20 years ago by the coal industry, it has been carried forward more recently by the oil industry which spent more than $25 million since 1998 to bankroll these skeptics and their institutions.

           ExxonMobil has been an especially active player in this game. In 2001, the head of the IPCC, Dr. Robert Watson, suggested the US was doing less than it might to address global warming.  Exxon then sent a memo to President Bush telling him to get rid of Watson. In short order, Watson was out of a job.

           ExxonMobil also made clear that it strongly opposed any US involvement with the Kyoto Protocol. So when President Bush formally withdrew the US from Kyoto, the White House sent several notes thanking ExxonMobil for its "active involvement" in helping shape the administration's climate policies.

           Shortly thereafter, the company moved to further distort public policy.  A couple of years ago, 86 Evangelical ministers urged strong action on global warming for two reasons: to help preserve God's creation -- and to protect the most vulnerable among us – poor people in developing countries -- from climate shocks.

That was followed six months later by a statement from a separate and previously unknown group of evangelicals who proclaimed climate change is God's will -- and said it won't be that bad anyway. It turns out this new coalition received $3 million from ExxonMobil. In essence, this new group was created and paid for by the oil company. 

Then, of course, Vice President Cheney declared we need* a "big debate" to determine the real cause of climate change – as though it had not been settled by more than 2,000 scientists more than a decade earlier.

The "big debate" we need, of course, is not about the cause of climate change. It needs to be about how we organize ourselves in anticipation of a coming era of collapse.

And this is what I’m going to want to talk specifically to you about in a few minutes.

 At this point, regrettably, that “big debate” is still on hold because several key constituencies have not yet exhibited the courage to face up to this reality.

 To be sure, the climate crisis is generating a supercharged sense of desperation among climate activists as well as some of the world's most prominent climate scientists.

 But the activists are telling us only one part of the truth, while a number of scientists are proposing schemes that are half-baked, unrealistic and, in some cases, reckless.

          And while both groups are focusing on the environmental consequences of intensified warming, few are bothering to consider its potential impacts on the democratic process.

In the US, virtually all of the national and grassroots climate groups are pushing hard to reduce carbon emissions – as they should.         

But even assuming the wildest imaginable success of their initiatives – that humanity began tomorrow to replace its coal and oil with non-carbon energy sources -- it would still be too late to avert major climate disruptions. Al Gore did a superb job in bringing the climate crisis to public attention. But Gore, like many activists, continues to peddle the notion that we can solve this problem.

          We can't.

          We have failed to meet nature's deadline.

          In the next few years, this world will be experiencing progressively more ominous and destabilizing changes.  These will happen either incrementally – or in sudden, abrupt jumps.

          Under either scenario, it seems inevitable that we will be facing food and water shortages, increasing damages from extreme weather events, an increase in the spread of infectious disease and, potentially, by a series of breakdowns in our civic lives.

          Despite this reality, the activists are still focusing on the causes — and NOT on the consequences -- of the crisis.

 In fact, we may already be witnessing the early stages of runaway climate change in the melting of the Arctic, the startling collapse last year of a massive chunk of an Antarctic ice shelf, the increase in storm intensity, the recent eruption of methane from the ocean floor, the accelerating extinctions of species and the prolonged nature of recurring droughts.

 Given this reality, the hollow optimism of the environmental establishment is diverting us from focusing on the survival requirements of the human community.

 Among scientists, the panic is expressing itself in several extremely questionable geo-engineering proposals which would allow us to continue burning coal and oil.

Several scientists, for example, propose spraying aerosols – tiny particles -- into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting earth. 

Unfortunately, seeding the atmosphere with sun-reflecting particles would create widespread drought, according to other studies.

          Sir James Lovelock, a leading British ecologist, recently proposed installing deepwater pipes on the ocean floor to pump cold water to the surface to increase the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide.  Others suggest dumping iron filings into the ocean to increase the growth of algae which, in turn, would absorb more carbon dioxide.  Neither of these proposals remotely considers other potential impacts on ocean dynamics or marine ecosystems. 

What these scientists are really offering are technological expressions of their own desperation. (One widely-discussed plan to capture carbon emissions and bury them underground is basically a fantasy which, if adopted, would amount to little more than a full employment act for corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel.)

 In trying to geo-engineer our way around nature's roadblock, they are failing to acknowledge their ignorance about unintended consequences.  Almost inevitably, when we tamper with nature in ways we don't understand, nature comes back to bite us in the backside.

 To be fair, the reality that faces us all is extremely difficult to deal with – as much from a political as from a scientific point of view. 

 The U.S. Army War College, for example, recently declared that climate change is a top national security issue because it will destabilize American military operations around the world.   

  An increasingly inflamed climate will also put our tradition of democracy, corrupted as it is, at even further risk.  When governments are confronted by breakdowns, they are forced to resort to totalitarian measures to keep order in the face of chaos. And since carbon dioxide stays up in the atmosphere for 100 years, it is not hard to imagine a short-term state of emergency morphing into a much longer state of siege.                  

So one frequently overlooked potential casualty of accelerating climate change may be the democratic process itself.                   

Add the escalating squeeze on our oil supplies, which could intensify our meanest instincts, and you have the ingredients for a long period of repression and conflict.  

The antidote to that kind of future lies in a strengthening of our civic ties and a revitalization of government – an elevation of public mission above private interest and an end to free-market fundamentalism with its mindless belief in the divine power of markets. In short, it requires a system of participatory democracy which reflects our fundamental social and moral values rather than the priorities of the corporate state into which we have slid.        

          There needs to be another kind of vision which centers neither on the profoundly dishonest denial promoted by the coal and oil industries, the misleading optimism of the environmental movement or the fatalistic indifference of the majority of people who just don't want to know.

           That vision needs to be framed by the truly global nature of the problem.  It starts with the recognition that this historical period of nationalism has become a serious impediment to our collective future. We all need to begin to think of ourselves – now -- as citizens of one profoundly distressed planet.  

             One hopeful accident of timing is that the climate crisis does coincide with other trends. Like it or not, the economy is becoming globalized. The globalization of communications now makes it possible for anyone to communicate with anyone else anywhere else in the world. That, to someone my age, is a breathtaking development.  And, since it is no respecter of national boundaries, the global climate makes us one.

           At the most concrete level, the coming changes clearly suggest that, to the extent possible, we should be eating locally and regionally grown food. We should also be getting our energy from decentralized clean energy sources that are best suited to their natural surroundings – e.g., solar in sunny areas, wave and tidal power in coastal areas, geothermal in appropriate areas and wind-farms almost everywhere.  (It should even be possible to maintain a low-level coal-fired grid -- say about 20 percent of current capacity -- as a back-up for days the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine).  But it seems critical to stop thinking in terms of centralized energy systems and to begin thinking in terms of local, decentralized technologies.

           At the level of social organization, the coming changes to me imply the need to conduct something like 80 percent of our governance at the local grassroots level through a consensual democratic process – with the remaining 20 percent conducted by representatives at the global level.

For some years, I have been promoting three specific strategies as one model to jump-start a global transition to clean energy. Those policies are spelled out in my book Boiling Point and on the main page of my website  in an essay titled, “Moral Leadership in the Greenhouse.”

Without going into detail, they involve taking about $250 billion in government subsidies in wealthy countries away from coal and oil and putting the same amount of money behind clean energy; they involve creating a large fund – about $300 billion a year – to transfer clean energy to poor countries; and they involve a mandatory timetable mechanism that would accomplish this global energy transition within about a decade.

The initial impulse behind these strategies was to craft a policy bundle to stabilize the climate – and at the same time create millions of jobs, especially in developing countries.        

They would, we hoped, turn impoverished and dependent countries into trading partners. They would raise living standards abroad without compromising ours.          They would jump the renewable energy industry into a central driving engine of growth for the global economy. Ultimately, they would yield a far more equitable, secure and prosperous world.

Unfortunately, given all the years of apathy, indifference and hostility to the climate threat, nature has now relegated the initial goal of climate stabilization to the rear-view mirror.

 But this kind of global public works plan, if initiated in the near-term, could still provide a platform to bring the people of the world together around a common global project that transcends national alliances and antagonisms – even in today's profoundly fractured and combative world.  

 It would accomplish other goals as well. If the US were to launch this kind of program, it would restore the America’s moral leadership in the world. 

 A global public works program would also provide a predictable flow of capital to counteract the wild swings of the market and bring much more stability to the global economy.

 Finally, a coordinated global  program to rewire the globe with clean energy would, as I mentioned, create millions of new jobs in the developing world and that, in turn, would provide the basis for a truly effective, long-term anti-terrorism policy – by providing jobs for would-be terrorists.