Saturday, May 19, 2007

painting by Gino Severini.
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Where are we now, how did we get here, what can we therefore do to save the future? Brief descriptions of several pertinent new books at Books in Heat.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What the Future Needs

Update: The first version of this essay has been complimented and leads the list of "rescued" diaries at Daily Kos Saturday. It's been on the rec. list at European Tribune and led the front page at E Pluribus Media. I've revised it here so it is as it appears at the latter two community blogs.

The climate crisis is not a single issue. It is the crisis that encompasses much of what we need to pay attention to, what we must remedy and attain if we are to continue. It is for example about all our relationships to our planet, and our relationships to each other. In our separated and pinched political parlance, it's about environment, energy, economics, geopolitics, poverty, public and private health; governance, community, culture; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's the key to the future, because if we address this crisis successfully, it will require positive change in all areas, and if we do not address it successfully, it will end this show, and define it as tragedy.

What does the future need right now to address the climate crisis? We've come a long way in awareness. In other parts of the world, obvious signs of global heating have led to strong consensus on its reality. In the UK, according to the Economist, "85% of the public are now convinced that global warming is actually taking place and almost as many think that without prompt action it will accelerate." In otherwise backward US, quoting TIME magazine:
"In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed—90% of Democrats, 80% of independents, 60% of Republicans—said they favor "immediate action" to confront the crisis."

What the future needs now, in addition to even more awareness and the kind of thinking that sees the climate crisis for what it is, is leadership and focus.


It's fascinating to me that the last three men to run as the Democratic candidate for President of the U.S. (one of them successfully) are the three most prominent political leaders focusing on the climate crisis and closely related issues. It is also fascinating that only one of them currently holds political office.

That one is Senator John Kerry, who with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has recently published the book This Moment on Earth: Today's New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future. It focuses on solutions, many of them ongoing and local. Environmental action in specific local projects has long been a focus of the Heinz Foundation, and the Kerrys met at an international environmental conference. They've been working hard to spread the word about this book in recent months.

The successful candidate is former President Bill Clinton, who announced this week that his foundation will finance projects to retrofit buildings and infrastructure in 16 cities around the world, to reduce carbon emissions. These and related projects involve major banks and technology companies, and they address the climate crisis directly, in that cities account for some three-fourths of greenhouse pollution.

The most obvious former candidate is of course Al Gore, whose An Inconvenient Truth has had and continues to have global impact--that is, it is changing hearts and minds one audience at a time, whether from the Oscar-winning film or the "slide show" Gore continues to give personally, as well as those given by hundreds of trained volunteers. Gore has a new book coming out, The Assault on Reason, which takes a broader look. As he told Time Magazine, "The real reason I wrote the that I've tried for years to tell the story of the climate crisis, and it has taken far too long to get through. When the best evidence is compiled and there's no longer room for dragging out a pointless argument, we're raised as Americans to believe our democracy is going to respond. But it hasn't responded. We're still not doing anything. So I started thinking, What's going on here?"

By not being candidates for President (although Kerry had intended to be, and had apparently intended the aforementioned book to be his entry into the race), all three are reaching audiences and having an effect globally. They provide leadership in particular ways. They are a crucial part of what the future needs, just as leaders on the state and local and community levels are. But will these kinds of leadership be enough?

Al Gore tells audiences (according to Time):"I'm trying to say to you, be a part of the change," he told the crowd. "No one else is going to do it. The politicians are paralyzed. The people have to do it for themselves!" He was getting charged up now. "Our democracy hasn't been working very well—that's my opinion. We've made a bunch of serious policy mistakes. But it's way too simple and way too partisan to blame the Bush-Cheney Administration. We've got checks and balances, an independent judiciary, a free press, a Congress—have they all failed us? Have we failed ourselves?"

But Gore also admitted this: "I have enjoyed the luxury of being able to focus single-mindedly on this issue... But I am under no illusions that any position has as much ability to influence change as the presidency does. If the President made climate change the organizing principle, the filter through which everything else had to flow, then that could really make a huge difference."

This is the true challenge that no presidential candidate has yet taken: to make climate change the organizing principle. That's the kind of leadership that gives the future a chance.


That's the focus that the future needs. I've recently returned from two lovely weeks visiting with family in western Pennsylvania. Though I checked my usual Internet news sources fairly regularly, I was far enough outside my usual context to see things a little differently. And what I saw was that the news over this period wasn't new: Gonzales, Wolfowitz, Iraq. They also moved on a completely predictable story trajectory, and not far along it at that.

Yet this is what absorbed the attention of news outlets and progressive political blogs. They are all important of course, but how will the future view them? Especially in light of news that gets less play--for example the various studies that show the effects of global heating being more pronounced, appearing sooner and more thoroughly, than predicted.

I feel strongly that what the future will say about Gonzales, Wolfowitz and the rest of Bushcorps continuing and characteristic machinations is that they demonstrated how vulnerable the U.S. has become to dictatorship. That's going to come into play as the climate crisis worsens.

About Iraq, the future is likely to also point to the incredible waste of resources and attention that crippled our ability to confront the real challenges facing us, and the profound limitations in our thinking this entire geopolitical tragedy reveals, that suggests just how difficult it's going to be to deal with those challenges.

And the future is going to say that we were mired in tragic distraction, paralyzed by narrow but powerful centers of selfishness, and crying out for leadership and focus at a critical time in the life of our species and our planet. Because the climate crisis will dominate that present we now call the future. All of our concerns today will be filtered through the climate crisis. What we talked about, what we did and didn't do, will be evaluated by the climate crisis realities of the future. We need to see this now as well--to look at our time from the perspective of the future.

Perhaps the ultimate question is not what the future needs, but what it wants. I think the history of the human species is coming to a critical point. We're at the brink of fulfillment, and on the eve of self-destruction. We've taken western-style technology and organization to the crucial point where some of the insights and premises we rejected, already being rediscovered and adapted, must be re-incorporated in appropriate form. The future wants synthesis. The future wants us to become better, to move closer to fulfilling our potential.

The future is telling us that we must re-acknowledge our deep dependence on our planet, our relationship to the rest of life as we know it, as well as to dimensions and possibilities we must be humble enough to explore. The penalty for not giving the future what it wants will likely be the end of this fitful line of development in our species, and perhaps the end of humanity as we know it.

That's what's at stake. What the future needs above all is attention, and care.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

golden green late afternoon in western PA, a cardinal in
the tree. (Click on the photo to enlarge it and actually see
the bird. )Familiar from my childhood there, cardinals
don't make it this far west.
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The Climate Crisis

Coal Goal and Melt Felt: Hansen Speaks

Excerpts from an interview with James Hansen, the NASA scientist who is perhaps the preeminent expert on the Climate Crisis, in Grist:

Q.What needs to happen, in your opinion, in the next few years if we're going to prevent reaching that point of no return?

A. A moratorium on coal-fired power plants and phasing those out over the next few decades. I think that's perhaps the most important thing.... We had been going from coal to oil to [natural] gas, each one being less carbon-intensive. But now all of a sudden we're leaping back toward coal. That is the big concern, because that's where the huge potential CO2 amount is.

Then we also need to conserve the liquid and gas fuel so that we can develop the next phase of the industrial revolution because we're going to have to find energy sources that don't produce CO2. In order to give us time to do that, we need to use oil and gas, which are precious fuels, as if they were precious.

Another one is addressing this ice-sheet issue. For example, if the National Academy of Sciences would issue a report on this, that would help draw attention to the fact that we are so close to a major tipping point.

We're probably going to pass the dangerous level of atmospheric CO2, and we're going to have to figure out some ways to draw down atmospheric CO2. That tells us we should have greater emphasis on good agricultural and forestry practices and perhaps even burning biofuels in power plants that capture CO2.

Q. You have a new paper that will be coming out on the implications of peak oil in the climate debate. Can you tell us a little about the conclusions of that report?

A. The main point of that paper, which I think is fairly important, is that gas and oil already have enough CO2 in them to take us to approximately the dangerous level, and perhaps beyond the dangerous level. It's pretty clear we're going to use those fuels, and it's not practical to capture the CO2 in oil since it's used in mobile sources. Some of the CO2 from gas used in power plants, you could capture the CO2, but there are no plans to do that yet.

That means that the only way to keep CO2 from exceeding 450 parts per million would be to say we'll have no more emissions from coal, and that would mean that we should not be building any more coal-fired plants until we have the sequestration technology. A molecule of CO2 from coal, in a certain sense, is different from one from oil or gas, because in the case of oil and gas, it doesn't matter too much when you burn it, because a good fraction of it's going to stay there 500 years anyway. If we wait to use the coal until after we have the sequestration technology, then we could prevent that contribution. I don't think that has sunk in yet to policy makers, because there are many countries going right ahead and making plans to build more coal-fired power plants.

Q. Do you think the politicization of science is going to continue? Are you hopeful about political changes making a difference as far as climate policy?

A. Unfortunately, it's likely to continue because the scale of the economics of what's involved is so huge.

Obviously, there's a lot of change in the air. It seems like there will be some action in the next couple of years, but it's a question of what that action will be and whether it will be commensurate with the problem. The fact that now some of the industries that were denying that there was a problem are coming around and coming to the table is more a reflection of the fact that they want to help determine what is done. And if they succeed in making what is done negligibly small or much less than what is needed, then that will be very unfortunate. But it remains to be seen. It's going to be interesting in the next few years.

Monday, May 14, 2007

statue of Roberto Clemente at PNC Park, Pittsburgh--
voted the best baseball park in the U.S. by ESPN.
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Today is my last in western PA--I fly out in the morning. Just time to post this summary of Al Gore's plan as expressed in his congressional testimony--summarized in the current issue of Sentient Times...

Al Gore’s Ten Point Plan for Global Warming

1. Immediately freeze carbon at the existing level; then implement programs to reduce it 90 percent by 2050.

2. Reduce taxes on employment and pro-duction, instead taxing pollution (especially CO2). These pollution taxes would raise the same amount of money, but make us more competitive by encouraging employment while discouraging pollution.

3. A portion of the revenues must be ear-marked for low-income and middle-class people who will have a difficult time making this transition.

4. Negotiate a strong global treaty to replace Kyoto, while working toward de facto compliance with Kyoto. Move the start date of this new treaty forward from 2012 to 2010, so the next president can start to act immediately, rather than wasting time trying to pass Kyoto right before it expires. We have to try to get China and India to participate in the treaty. If they don’t immediately participate, we have to move forward with the treaty regardless, trusting that they will join sooner rather than later.

5. Impose a moratorium on construction of any new coal-fired power plant not compatible with carbon capture and sequestration.

6. Develop an “electranet”—a smart grid that allows individual homeowners and small businesses to create green power and sell their excess power to the utility companies at a fair price. Just as widely distributed information processing led to a large new surge of productivity, we need a law that allows widely distributed energy generation to be sold into the grid, at a rate determined not by the utility companies, but by regulation. The goal is to create a grid that does not require huge, centralized power plants.

7. Raise CAFE standards for cars and trucks as part of a comprehensive package. Cars and trucks are a large part of the problem, but coal and buildings must be addressed at the same time.

8. Set a date for the ban of incandescent light bulbs that gives industry time to create alternatives. If the date is set, industry will meet this challenge.

9. Create Connie Mae, a carbon-neutral mortgage association. Connie Mae will defer the costs of things like insulation and energy-efficient windows that cut carbon but are often not used by builders or renovators because they add to the upfront costs of homes, only paying for themselves after several years of energy savings.

10. The SEC should require disclosure of carbon emissions in corporate reporting.