Culture, Curiosities, and Humour
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt triggered a predictable wave of outrage last week when he expressed doubts over the settled science of climate change. But Vox climate specialist David Roberts says the uproar missed two bigger problems: The Republican Party’s deregulatory agenda, and the erosion of “shared institutions and norms that bind us together and contain our political disputes.”
Roberts writes that he could have scripted Pruitt’s remarks to CNBC last week and the wide-ranging response they produced. But “in the end, who cares what he believes? He is a functionary, chosen in part to dismantle EPA regulations on greenhouse gases. If it weren’t him, it would be some other functionary.”
The bigger problem, he adds, is the Republican Party’s wider mission to “block or reverse any policy that would negatively affect its donors and supporters, who are drawn disproportionately from carbon-intensive industries and regions. That is the North Star—to protect those constituencies. That means, effectively, blocking any efficacious climate policy (which, almost by definition, will diminish fossil fuels).”
Climate denial enters the picture because “they can’t just say that,” Roberts notes. “So they have to retrofit a set of beliefs that justify inaction on climate change.” Those beliefs vary by audience and circumstance and can be maddeningly difficult to tie down, because “the beliefs are not the point. The party’s institutional opposition to action is the point. The beliefs are retrofit, on an opportunistic and sometimes case-by-case basis, to support the conclusion, which is: do nothing.”
The second conclusion Roberts draws from the latest round of science-versus-denial is that it turns on a basic trust or mistrust of scientific institutions, not on the facts.
“When we say we ‘know’ human beings are causing climate change, virtually none of us mean we know that in any direct way,” he writes. “Most of us don’t possess the skills to analyze primary data or construct climate models. What we mean is, ‘that’s what the scientists say.’ We are implicitly appealing to the authority of scientists—of science itself.”
Trust in science isn’t unconditional—scientists’ procedures and results “are always open to democratic dispute,”—but collective acceptance of the scientific process “is how we establish a common foundation of facts and understanding, without which it is virtually impossible to have coherent political debates.” Without that basic agreement, Roberts warns, “epistemological chaos ensues, persuasion becomes impossible, and politics devolves into a raw contest of power.”
U.S. conservatives “have never established any serious corruption or wrongdoing in the institutions and norms of climate science,” he notes, but they’ve still “simply chosen not to accept the results of climate science.” And that means “piling on more facts is beside the point. It’s not about facts any more, it’s about the authority of the institutions.”
Eventually, Roberts concludes, Americans are “going to have to grapple with this crisis of authority. Until then, more facts and periodic outbursts of outrage are futile.” (h/t to Fred Heutte for pointing us to this story)
A car-counting game designed to keep kids occupied on a long highway drive turned into an object lesson in how quickly and widely plug-in hybrids are going mainstream in southern California, reports correspondent Kyle Field at CleanTechnica.
“I’ve convinced my kids that counting plug-in cars on the highway is a game,” Field writes. “it’s actually quite entertaining, since there’s a sufficient quantity of them to keep us on our toes while still not so common as to overwhelm us…but that’s starting to change.”
The 78-mile road trip to Field’s in-laws takes 90 minutes to four hours, depending on traffic, and just a few years ago, those visits “used to net game-winning scores in the teens,” he writes. “Then we hit a milestone at 50 last year, which we were extremely proud of…then, on our recent trip, we hit 68, but we knew there were more out there that we just couldn’t identify.”
On one level, it’s just a game. On another, “this is huge, folks,” he writes.
“This is a critical point in the journey towards electrifying transportation, the point where plug-in vehicles go mainstream. This is the point where my former co-worker, who’s now driving two hours each way to work, started with a Prius but then upgraded to a Volt, because it just makes sense. This is the point where people are switching to the technology en masse because it’s simply better on just about every level.”
Even if it means Field’s kids have trouble spotting the “normal-looking” cars that they could and should be adding to their electric and hybrid vehicle count.
American scientists and scientific organizations are pushing back against a lawsuit demanding that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) release 8,000 pages of drafts, email discussions, and peer review critiques leading up to a 2015 study that debunked the notion of a “hiatus” in global warming between 1998 and 2012.
“Now more than ever, it is critical that we defend climate scientists and their research,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF), one of the organizations responding to the lawsuit by the conservative organization Judicial Watch. “Forcing the disclosure of scientists’ private emails is invasive, unnecessary, and hugely detrimental to the scientific method.”
The Judicial Watch suit “was inspired by a Congressional subpoena from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who denies the science of global warming and the need to take action,” InsideClimate News reports. The accusations against NOAA had already been refuted, but were amped up last weekend by the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid that has since been disavowed by Wikipedia as an unreliable source.
On the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) blog, Director of Science & Policy Peter Frumhoff says the 2015 study, published in the journal Science, was one of several that refuted claims that the rate of global warming had slowed down or paused in recent decades. The Daily Mail “screed”, he said, came from David Rose, “a writer with a history of inaccurate reporting on climate science.”
The article was an example of a “very old strategy,” Frumhoff writes. “Repeated and amplified through the climate denial echo-chamber, Rose’s allegations of misconduct have now been taken up by Rep Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science Space and Technology Committee. Smith, who has long used his perch to harass NOAA scientists, issued a press release reiterating these unsubstantiated claims and accusing [retired NOAA climate scientist Thomas] Karl and colleagues of manipulating data for political purposes.”
The amicus brief from the CSLDF, the UCS, and the American Meteorological Society argues that “groups across the political spectrum have attempted to discredit scientific studies they dislike…by seeking to use the scientists’ emails and preliminary drafts against them.” Frumhoff warns that, “along with other recent high profile attacks on prominent climate scientists and science agencies, this may well be part of a larger political strategy to intimidate federal scientists, justify cuts in agency budgets, staffing and missions, weaken support for U.S. and international climate policies and, most fundamentally, erode public trust in science and evidence so central to a functioning democracy.”
InsideClimate reports that it’s unclear whether the Trump administration would defend its own researchers against the lawsuit. But Michael Halpern, deputy director of the UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy, said the new regime “might not want to set a precedent that all government information should be public.”
Chile has received an infusion of emergency financial aid, firefighters, and equipment to stem at least 58 wildfires that were burning as of January 30 and had killed 11 people, including four firefighters and the pilot of a single engine air tanker, destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, and burned more than 400,000 hectares.
Support was coming in from Spain, France, Portugal, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, and the United States, Wildfire Today reports.
After a wildfire season that began in November and a bigger crisis over the last two weeks, President Michelle Bachelet said authorities had arrested 43 people suspected of “stoking some of the deadliest forest fires,” the Santiago Times reports. “Most of the suspects were apprehended in the hardest-hit regions of O’Higgins, Maule, and Biobio. They could face a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.”
The paper notes that “fires are common in Chile’s parched forests during the southern hemisphere’s summer. Most are caused by human activity. But this year it has been worse than usual because of a drought attributed by environmentalists to climate change.”
“Chile has had a rain deficit for well over a decade, though it has been extra dry for about five years,” writes science communicator Greg Laden. “Drought experts call it a ‘mega-drought.’ Droughts tend to have climate change links, and this one is no exception. A study from just one year ago links anthropogenic climate change to the drought.”
The Times says the international relief effort has “turned into a competition between U.S. and Russia,” with both countries sending firefighting brigades and supertanker aircraft. But meanwhile, despite a proud culture of volunteer firefighting, The Guardian reports that “those on the frontline are struggling to maintain their morale.”
“I get really frustrated because the situation is so extreme there’s often nothing we can do except watch as the flames devour some houses we can’t reach,” said City of Chillan fire brigade chief Gustavo de la Fuente Ortiz. “The plantations have appeared over the last 40 years,” but “it’s much easier to control a fire in a native forest. They’re more humid, and so a fire spreads more slowly.”
California’s first geostationary satellite, named Moonbeam as an homage to ex-state governor Jerry Brown, rocketed into history January 27—January 27, 2027, that is—and will soon begin sending back “a constant stream of climatology, seismology, and emergency services support data,” The Nearly Now reported last week, in one of a series of faux dispatches from the near future.
With the launch, the first of three on the state’s drawing boards, “California has joined a very exclusive club: governments that own satellites,” writes planetary futurist Alex Steffen.
“These launches are part of a larger state-wide campaign to use ‘best in world’ sensor arrays, data collection, and modelling to provide comprehensive monitoring of the ecological health of the state,” Steffen explains.
Just 10 years before the time stamp on Nearly Now’s rather anticipatory report, Brown vowed that California would “launch its own damn satellites” if President Donald Trump made good on his threat to defund NASA climate research. A decade later, Steffen has the state tracing a record of success back to the “California resistance” that emerged during “the darkest days of the Trump years.”
“We fought the Trump regime in the courts and in the streets and at the ballot box. California defended the American way of life, and we have prevailed,” said Gov. Michael Jimenez. “California has spent the last seven years inventing the economy of the future: not just better solar and wind power, cheaper batteries, electric autonomous vehicles, but also the highest green building standards in the world, machine learning for energy efficiency, the new farmtech startups, clean custom manufacturing, better forestry. We’re moving fast,” at a pace “more like tech than 20th century industry.”
Moana, a film inspired by Pacific Islanders’ fight against climate change, has received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song.
“Our protagonist, the teenage daughter of a Polynesian chief, lives on an island that’s slowly dying: the fish are gone, the crops are failing, and even the coconuts have mysteriously turned black,” reports Grist Assistant Managing Editor Kate Yoder.
“Moana then takes a jaunt to the United Nations to raise awareness of the need for meaningful climate action!” she writes. “No! This is Disney. She embarks on a seafaring mission to return a magical stone to its rightful place and defeat a giant lava demon, actions that will ostensibly restore the world to ecological balance.”
It might not be an evidence-based account of what it’ll take to stabilize the global climate, Yoder adds, but “frankly, we’ll take it.”
This is the day we’ve been waiting for. Though not in the way we usually mean it.
With Donald Trump now sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, it is the day most anyone with an interest in climate change and energy has been anticipating, preparing for, and significantly dreading, ever since we awoke November 9 to an unfathomable election result. For some of us, it will be a moment we’ve been training for for most of our lives.
We didn’t ask for this. Most of us (maybe all of us) would have quite happily never seen this day. But here we are at the starting gate.
It’s going to be a long and difficult race.
But never forget this—the odds are still in our favour.
Because for all that a Trump administration threatens chaos and disruption, disappointment and heartbreak for anyone with any connection to this work, the last chapters of the story have not yet been written. Any more than they had been when the polls closed November 8.
Now, as then, it’s up to us to write them. Same as it ever was.
Beyond Huffing and Puffing
Trump surely represents a radical change in tone and a drastic reordering of American politics and policy. But his presidency does little to change the basic facts that guide our work—realities that Donald Trump and his cabinet can’t control, however they might huff and puff.
Climate change is still the challenge of our lifetimes, even as climate deniers consolidate their control of the U.S. government.
Renewable energy prices are still plummeting, with electric vehicles and energy storage never far behind. We still hear debates back and forth about how quickly the next generation of energy technology will fully deploy, with the occasional delusional projection looking to fossils to meet 77% of energy demand in 2040. Those arguments will settle themselves before much longer, and if the fossils are really that far behind in their reading and analysis, they’ll be in for a nasty shock.
A “negawatt” generated through energy efficiency is still likely to be more practical and affordable than producing a new unit of energy, renewable or not. And efficiency is as under-appreciated now as it was on November 8.
An ‘Impossible Balancing Act’ for Fossils
The fossil industries still face an impossible balancing act, caught between rising production costs, ever-tougher competition from clean energy, and immutable limits on the atmospheric space available for greenhouse gas emissions, all adding up to the multi-trillion-dollar stranded asset risk that senior analysts like solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney have been warning of for many months. Coal miners in the United States are about to learn how little substance there was behind the glibly misleading campaign promise that “Trump Digs Coal”, and some of them are already preparing to jump ship as soon as the promise is well and truly broken.
The community of climate and energy protest movements—the nation Naomi Klein has named Blockadia—is finding its voice and hitting its stride, with First Peoples at the forefront from North Dakota to British Columbia to Quebec. Court action is looking more and more like a potent weapon to defend local communities and the global climate, as U.S. environmental groups bulk up their legal departments and California hires ex-U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to carry the fight. Before long, we’ll likely see legal defence as a key tool in the toolbox to protect U.S. climate science and climate scientists.
In Canada, we still have a mountain of work ahead to give life and substance to a national climate plan that includes a floor price on carbon, has the support of premiers representing 93% of the population, but still drives toward a Harper-era greenhouse gas target that desperately needs to be rethought and toughened up. And we’ll still be contending over pipelines—soon to include Keystone XL v.2—at least until financial backers begin to realize that the low oil and gas prices that make fossil infrastructure a riskier investment are a feature, not a bug.
China Steps Up
On the international scene—as U.S. and international colleagues began pointing out in Marrakech within a few hours of the election result—the climate crisis and the Paris Agreement are both bigger than any one government or head of state. China is already putting some substance behind its statement, within days of Trump’s election win, that it’ll be happy to reap the economic gains and international good will of taking a solo global lead on the post-carbon transition, if that’s really the way the U.S. wants to play it.
As for domestic action in the United States, we’re already seeing cities and states, civil society organizations and 630 businesses and investors stepping up to fill the gap when the Executive Branch of the federal government abandons the field. None of which will feel fundamentally different, given the relentless Congressional obstruction that slowed down presidential action during the Obama years.
And finally, we know that in the U.S. and everywhere else, many of the most durable, effective, saleable climate solutions will be the ones that are developed through local action, dialogue, and advocacy. Particularly when they involve “unusual suspects” who’ve never thought of themselves as part of the energy system, but whose attitudes and behaviours, choices and decisions shape the demand for energy and the emissions that result.
The Silver Lining
And here’s the silver lining to Trump’s inauguration: the time for anticipation and speculation is over. For 2½ months, there’s been nothing much to do about whatever is ahead, other than rage, grieve, or prepare as best we could for a threat that was not yet fully formed. Now, for better or (more likely) worse, we’ll know what we’re up against and what, if anything, the new administration intends to do right. In response to concrete, fully-formed attacks on climate progress, post-carbon solutions, and the people and communities that depend on them, we’ll be able to mount a response and find pathways to get the work done, the policies implemented, the solutions built.
Already tarnishing the Trump administration is a tragic reality, but one we’ll be able to work with: The people the Trump administration hurts and betrays along the way will know that they’re hurting. Aided by international espionage, domestic fake news, and a deeply flawed electoral college system, Trump eked out a precarious election win by preying on America’s most vulnerable. But the signs of second thoughts are already out there: From the Obamacare opponents who didn’t realize they were voting against their benefits under the Affordable Care Act, to the Rust Belt voter who promised to “turn on him so quick” when Trump fails to deliver coal jobs. From the Tennessee Trump supporter who wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strengthened and expanded, to the polls showing Trump to be the most deeply unpopular president-elect in American history.
No Time for Told-You-So’s
The months ahead will be no time for gotchas or told-you-so’s. The recriminations will still flow on Facebook and, sure, it will be tempting to forward and amplify them. We shouldn’t. Because as the backlash to Trump builds, it will be our job to respond with open arms and the job-creating, carbon-busting solutions we know how to deliver.
So I won’t be watching the inauguration today, or reading too much about it tomorrow morning. I’m not a big fan of horror movies. I take no joy from train wrecks. And besides, there’s too much work to do. If I really need to get the odd rhythm of a rambling, senseless, two- or three-hour harangue, I can always look up one of the old newsreels from 1930s Berlin. I only know a small smattering of German, but that shouldn’t really matter: it’s becoming ever more obvious that Trump is best understood in the original Russian.
If you really have time on your hands this afternoon, you may find that the stories in today’s Energy Mix trump the Trump speech. You’ll read about the accelerating decline of coal in China and India. About the serious questions Canadians are beginning to ask about what it would take for the tar sands/oil sands to shut down. About the $500 million the Obama administration is sending to the UN’s Green Climate Fund. About the pitched environment and climate battle that is already under way in response to some of Trump’s most egregious cabinet nominees. And about the U.S. opinion polls showing near-record public concern about climate change and strong, bipartisan support for the EPA.
The Arc of Climate News ‘Really Is This Good’
And something to bear in mind: we didn’t (mostly) pick or prioritize these stories to build a response to the inauguration. Climate and energy news is always a balance between the positive and the scary, but more often than not, the overall arc of the coverage really is this good. In the age of Trump, the work will take on new urgency, we will lose some ground, and the wins will be (even) more complicated. But none of the fundamentals that have driven our success over the last several years (nor those that have threatened humanity’s survival) will disappear. If anything, they’ll be amped up by sheer urgency.
There’s a quote from the playwright and former Czech president, Václav Havel, that I’ve carried with me in my wallet for the last couple of decades. Just this morning, looking for the online reference, I found the longer essay of which it is a part—and, really, it’s a must-read (and one more great alternative to the inauguration coverage). After thinking deeply and writing beautifully about hopelessness and absurdity, about history and its dehumanization, Havel writes:
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”
So here we are at the starting gate. Let’s get on with it.