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A Climate Truth-Tellers Honor Roll of 2013 | The Nation

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Wen Stephenson

Wen Stephenson

The climate movement, culture and politics.

A Climate Truth-Tellers Honor Roll of 2013

350.org climate protest in Washington, DC

350.org founder Bill McKibben with other activists at the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, DC, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s the closing weeks of 2013 and The Boston Globe, the recently acquired real estate of proud Red Sox owner John W. Henry, still publishes climate denial on its Opinion page. This puts Mr. Henry in fine company, so to speak, as shown in an important new study of the climate-denial funding machine from Drexel University’s Robert J. Brulle and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Of course, Henry’s funding of his op-ed page can’t be compared with the billion-dollar ocean of right-wing anti-science money. But still.

If it’s hard to accept—at this late date, given what we know about the imminent threat of catastrophic warming—that one of America’s great newspapers still runs columns denying the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, consider for a moment some of the other forms that denial still takes, many of them far more subtle and yet, perhaps, no less dangerous.

Indeed, you find them in places you’d least expect, such as Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall. As Tim DeChristopher put it in a guest post on this blog in October, when Harvard President Drew Faust issued her public statement rejecting students’ call for fossil-fuel divestment, she revealed, not outright denial of climate science, but a failure to acknowledge what the situation requires. Here’s DeChristopher:

[Faust] touts all the great research on climate change that is done at Harvard, but she ignores the fact that the fossil fuel industry actively works to suppress or distort every one of those efforts. To seriously suggest that any research will solve the climate crisis while we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy is profoundly naive. Faust never admits whether or not she agrees with the basic science of the carbon budget, which is the foundation of the understanding that the current reserves of the fossil fuel industry cannot be burned without condemning us to an unlivable future. If she accepts the science, she should explain how her plan of cooperation will convince the industry to leave those assets in the ground.

But here’s the truly scary thing: Drew Faust is utterly conventional in her failure to connect climate science with our political and economic realities. And I’m not talking about conservatives here. Remarkably, you see it across a broad swath of the center-left and left, from mainstream to radical, where climate is too often completely absent from any analysis—whether it’s Peter Beinart, to take just one example, in one of the year’s most talked-about pieces, arguing that millennials are giving rise to a “new new left,” while leaving out of his generational analysis the existential threat looming over today’s young people; or whether it’s Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara, whose recent “Letter to The Nation From a Young Radical” described a “Next Left” that’s apparently oblivious to climate science. (To be fair, Jacobin has published some searching essays on climate and left politics by Alyssa Battistoni, with another forthcoming in January.)

Even as well-informed a writer as Paul Krugman, reviewing William Nordhaus’s The Climate Casino in The New York Review of Books, seems unable to admit the full magnitude of the climate threat. “Facing up to global warming,” he writes, “would involve virtually eliminating our use of coal except to the extent that CO2 can be recaptured after consumption; it would involve somewhat reducing our use of other fossil fuels…” Wait. What? It’s not clear how Krugman imagines us avoiding the worst-case scenarios—and stabilizing global average temperature at the internationally agreed-upon target of two degrees C—while only “somewhat reducing” our use of oil and gas in the coming decades. (It’s hard to believe Krugman is unaware of analyses like UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson’s, spelled out in this classic post by Grist’s David Roberts.) But then, he also notes that Nordhaus believes the acceptable warming limit can be raised to 4C, if the near-term costs of emissions reductions are too high—without ever telling readers that a 4C planet, as the World Bank reported last year, is likely beyond adaptation. In other words, he fails to note that Nordhaus is talking blithely about civilizational catastrophe within the lifetimes of today’s children.

If even the smartest writers, who obviously get the reality of climate change, don’t acknowledge what “facing up” to it would actually mean—essentially, global emissions peaking by 2020 and then plummeting to near zero by 2050, leaving something like 80 percent of fossil-fuel reserves untapped—then where are the truth tellers? What does “facing up” really look like?

Well, here’s one example—and my pick for 2013’s climate truth-teller of the year award.

Back in October, in “How science is telling us all to revolt” in The New Statesman, Naomi Klein highlighted “a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems—particularly the climate system—is leading them to…transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions.” Foremost among them is the aforementioned Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and one of Britain’s leading climate scientists. “In recent years,” Klein writes,

Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous… Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies—all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned—that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else….

what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

Anderson and Bows, Klein notes, have “laid down something of a gauntlet” for fellow scientists, essentially arguing, as Klein puts it, that “in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research.” She quotes Anderson, who wrote this past August:

Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” [his emphasis].

(On December 10-11, the Tyndall Centre hosted a conference on “radical emissions reduction,” at which Anderson and Klein spoke.)

Now, ask yourself what our national conversation on climate would sound like—including (no, especially) on the left—if this kind of brutal honesty broke through with any regularity.

For one thing, it might sound a lot more like Bill McKibben’s latest piece in Rolling Stone, “Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story,” in which McKibben writes:

If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we’ve begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.

As McKibben points out, “All this new carbon drilling, digging and burning the White House has approved will add up to enough to negate the administration’s actual achievements” on climate.

Or, at least among activists on the left, an honest conversation might sound a bit like Occupy organizer and Wildfire Project founder Yotam Marom’s must-read essay “Confessions of a climate change denier” (Waging Nonviolence and openDemocracy.net), a heartfelt and provocative call to fellow activists who have tended to see climate as an issue separate from their own work. “It wasn’t until I was out organizing on New York City’s outer beaches after Hurricane Sandy,” he writes at the outset, “that I understood my sluggishness on climate justice was nothing short of climate change denial.”

Then again—though this may be far too much to ask—it might sound like James Hansen, recently retired as NASA’s top climate scientist, and seventeen co-authors, who just this month released a major study concluding that warming of 2 degrees C—that internationally agreed-upon limit—would itself set in motion “disastrous consequences” beyond humanity’s control. Instead, Hansen and his co-authors write, we should do everything we can to stay as close as possible to 1 degree C—which means our global carbon “budget” should actually be half of what the international community committed to at Copenhagen (i.e., half the budget on which Kevin Anderson’s already grim analysis is based). It may sound unreasonable. But as Hansen et al. write, “There is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.”

But maybe, in the end, truth-telling might also sound at least a little like these parting words from Dave Roberts of Grist, in his farewell post at the end of August, as he prepared to take a year off, exhausted from writing about climate and needing to unplug entirely. (I’m glad Dave had the wisdom to pull back and take care of himself, but his absence has been the most conspicuous feature of the climate conversation these last few months of 2013.) “It looks like things are going to get bad, possibly really bad, even within my children’s lifetimes,” he wrote in August. “The decisions we’re making today will reverberate for centuries, and so far we’re blowing it.” But he went on, “Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory.…”

The outcome of the climate crisis depends not just on physical forces but on human beings, complex economic, social, and technological systems, and complex systems are nonlinear….

History unfolds along the lines of what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.” Things can appear stable for years and years while tensions gather beneath the surface, hairline fractures develop, and the whole system becomes highly sensitive to small perturbations. (The butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, etc.)….

We don’t know when history might unlock the door, so we have no choice but to keep pushing on it.

Indeed. And I’d only add: we need a lot more of us out there pushing—and pushing a whole lot harder.

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