The Old Man and the CO2

Some people think climate change might be the god-awfullest thing humans have ever had to face.

I’m one of them.

P1-1 LAST GREAT ICE AGE.jpgOh, yes, Dear Reader, I know other god-awful things are in the warm-up pen – like rogue nations using nuclear weapons. And, yes, there’s the distinct possibility that terrorist attacks and cyber wars will wreck civilization before climate change even gets the chance. But my vote for the god-awfullest thing still goes to climate change.

I operate on this premise: the rise of human civilization was entirely owing to the unusually favorable climate conditions that followed the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago. The retreating glaciers stirred up the earth’s surface creating deep, fertile valleys and rivers flowing with fresh water. Humans had the brains and gumption that it took to invent agriculture and the rest is history – literally. What chance does civilization have if these favorable conditions disappear and the climate turns on us?

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It’s dreadful to contemplate the likelihood that we ourselves are responsible for this adversity. As New Yorker science writer Elizabeth Kolbert observes in her book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

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The British astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, who is like the smartest guy alive, thinks the species’ only hope for survival is the colonization of space.[1] He may be right but I can’t imagine how we’re going to cram three billion people onto spacecraft.

I’ll bet the only people who actually make it aboard will be celebrities, politicians, Fortune 500 CEOs, and billionaire climate deniers like the Koch brothers. I doubt there’ll be any room for an old guy like me whose only claim to fame is fifty years spent busting my ass to warn people about the dangers of screwing up the environment. I’ll be left here on the devastated and uninhabitable earth to take my chances, and they don’t look good.

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Is it any wonder I can’t sleep nights? I keep having nightmares about drowning polar bears, oil-slicked oceans, ravaged West Virginia mountaintops, drought and wildfires in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma, and “Biblical” floods in Colorado, North Dakota, the Northeast, and the Lower Mississippi. Variations on the Ten Plagues of Egypt disturb my slumber – lice, flies, locusts, and all that. Except in my version the frogs, instead of multiplying uncontrollably all over the place, go extinct.

Just last night I tossed and turned for hours, fretting about how pesticide use may be why whole flocks of birds are dropping dead from the sky, entire colonies of bees are mysteriously disappearing, and why – worldwide – use of synthetic chemicals is causing a 50% drop in human male sperm counts. (The birds, the bees, the sperm! This is hitting below the belt!)

Present at the Creation

I’ve got a right to sing the green blues.carson.jpg
Over fifty years ago, I helped create the environmental movement. Indeed, I remember distinctly the precise moment when I myself became an environmentalist. One night in 1963, I was in bed reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when from the depths of my soul these words sprang into my consciousness: something must be done! And there and then I vowed to do something, whatever it took (and it has taken one hell of a lot).

In the late 1960s working as a community organizer for the Conservation Foundation, I travelled around the country organizing grassroots groups to fight air and water pollution, helping to lay the groundwork for Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In the last twenty years or so I’ve worked – in one way or another – to get the federal government to compel actions that would reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Kiddo, let me tell you, for all the good that did me, I might as well have stayed home in bed and watched soaps all day long. The environment is far worse off than it was when I started my labors fifty years ago. This is especially true in terms of planetary ecological systems, the forests, the oceans, and, of course, the climate. This is the thanks I get?

Despite herculean efforts on my part, worldwide emissions of CO2 keep rising

Look at the facts. In 2014, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere reached 400 parts per million.
(The upper safety limit for atmospheric CO2 is 350 parts per million.) This concentration is substantially higher than the 280 ppm concentration present in pre-industrial times and is higher than at any time during the last eight hundred thousand years, or in the past twenty million years, depending on how you count things. By my calculations (admittedly crude) this concentration is even higher than it was in the first ten minutes after the Big Bang. What gives? Can the collapse of civilization be far behind?

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Frankly, I think the United Nations ought to dismantle the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) they set up in 1988 and that’s been blabbering incessantly about global warming ever since. It seems like every time you turn around IPCC has issued some new report about how dire the situation is. Why do they bother? These guys always come to the same tired, predictable conclusions.

Basically, they say: (1) The problem is even worse than it was the last time we reported; and (2) The really bad shit is going to happen a lot sooner than we last reported. I yearn to yell at them, “Oh, lay off, IPCC! What the fuck else is new?!”

In this context, who can blame me for concluding that the federal government’s helplessness in the face of the climate challenge constitutes a national disgrace, a crying shame, and even a repudiation of the idea of democracy? Can a free people discipline themselves enough to address and combat long-term threats to society? Must we surrender our freedom in order to survive as a species?

Oh, how my faith in human nature has been tested! For decades, I’ve lamented this state of affairs. I’ve raged against it; I’ve moaned; I’ve groaned; I’ve wept crocodile tears. But no more. Lately, I’ve changed my tune. Why?

Finally, I saw the light. Get this: The federal government’s failure to combat climate change actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise. No kidding! I’ve wised up. What wised me up was the ill-fated cap-and-trade bill passed by the House of Representatives in 2009, but which never even came to a vote in the Senate.cap-and-trade.jpg

Basically cap-and-trade is a good idea, but what emerged from the House was a perversion of the good idea – a monstrous bill 1,468 pages long. James Madison must have been spinning in his grave. We should recall his admonition: “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

What was in these 1,468 pages? Special interest exceptions and exemptions, that’s what, and so many of them that Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace both denounced the bill as worse than nothing.

environmental-issues-industrial_pollution-pollutant-factory-industrialist-big_business-amrn531_low.jpgThese provisions – no surprise – were put in the bill by the lobbyists who swarm over Capitol Hill, dispensing campaign contributions like manna from heaven. (Members of Congress now spend three out of every five working days raising money.) Alas, money, not votes, is the greatest source of power in a democracy. So what used to be a nation governed by law is now a nation governed by lobbyists.

Many of these lobbyists represent Big Oil, Big Gas, and Big Utilities. Many represent agribusiness, the automobile/highway industrial complex, the housing construction/real estate industrial complex, and on and on. No doubt the bulk of them represent some aspect or other of the fossil fuel economy, which is to say the economy. Is it any wonder that fossil fuel lobbies have Congress by the balls?

Finally I caught on: so long as lobbyists call the shots in Washington, DC, advocates of climate action are completely screwed. Our legislative options have boiled down to two choices: (a) Congressional gridlock, meaning nothing passes; and (b) Congressional action, meaning something passes that’s worse than nothing.

This is all our political system produces – or can produce – these days: two rotten outcomes, but one worse than the other. This being the case I choose nothing. And this turns out to be a remarkably astute choice for an aging do-gooder like me whose zeal (not to mention energy) has petered out.

Jumping Jehosaphat, who would have thunk it?! Advocating nothing is a piece of cake! It’s a breeze! And if advocating nothing keeps truly bad stuff from happening then it’s a tremendous achievement. Lucky me! Here I am putting a big dent in climate change and I’m not really trying! Why did it take me so long to catch on?

Let’s revisit cap-and-trade again, and I’ll show you what I mean. Remember that Congress took up cap-and-trade when political conditions were optimal for federal action on climate. In 2009, Democrats controlled the Presidency, 257 seats in the House, and 60 (filibuster-proof) seats in the Senate. What’s the chance of this happening again? Practically nil, I’d say – not so long as gerrymandering hands control of the House to Republicans.

Of what use is politics in combating this situation? I’ve sworn off. I ask, if environmentalists couldn’t get any climate legislation passed in 2009, what makes them think they can do it in the future? Congress is a graveyard for climate action and it’s going to remain so.

So here I am: an environmentalist who opposes federal action to combat climate change. But for once in my life I’m ahead of the game. I may not be lifting a finger, but even so I’m making a signal, if unorthodox, contribution to the fight against climate change.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is way too much responsibility for a lone individual to take on, however selfless and dedicated he might be. “Wow,” you’re saying to yourself, “what a brave, noble character this fellow Kennard must be.”

Gee, that’s nice of you. I appreciate the sentiments, I really do. But, frankly, I don’t deserve any special praise. There’s no way I could pull this off by myself. I’ve got a passel of collaborators; and, to tell you the truth, they do all the work while all I do is lay low and count every day that passes without Federal action on climate change as a blessing. It would be ungracious of me not to acknowledge these collaborators.climate change denial.jpg

Naturally, the climate denial crowd deserves pride of place. Those guys have accomplished wonders. Without them federal action on climate might actually get somewhere. Advocates of doing nothing are in their debt.

Next up, I must acknowledge the tremendous contribution of the Tea Party.   Climate denial is an article of faith for Tea Party members.

Tea-Party-Movement.jpgThey view efforts to address climate change as a conspiracy to impose socialist world government on society while wrecking the economy. According to a recent poll, 88% of the all Tea Party activists believe that global warming is a hoax. Another recent poll revealed that 92% of all Tea Party activists believe that if global warming turns out to be real, it is God’s punishment of society for allowing gays to marry. (Okay, so I made this up, but you get my point.)

I ask you, with support like this how can I lose? But lots of ordinary people help out too. Consider public disgust with the gridlocked Congress. Everybody knows that Congress is gridlocked by partisan and ideological hang-ups and that it seems incapable of dealing with crises of urgent immediate concern like immigration, the deteriorating infrastructure, and so on. How then can anyone expect Congress to grapple with long-term crises like climate change?

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What a powerful ally public disgust is! For example, a recent Gallup Poll shows that public approval of Congress now stands at just 7 percent. (Seven percent! Sacre bleu! The French approval rating of Louis XVI was three times that on the day they cut his head off.)

But Congress is just part of the problem. There’s also the public’s disdain for the federal government in general, largely as a result of its reliance on big bureaucracy to pursue its objectives. Today, thirty-seven percent of likely U.S. voters now fear the federal government, according to a recent Rasmussen survey. Fifty-four percent consider the federal government a threat to individual liberty rather than a protector.

Similarly, the over-reliance and over-use by liberal Democrats of government as a tool for solving social problems have blunted its effectiveness. Government is expected to solve every problem that comes along, no matter how intractable. But a kind of institutional schizophrenia sets in. The same government that is supposed to reduce air pollution is also expected to protect the jobs of coal miners. When there’s a conflict between environmental protection and jobs, guess which one wins out?

With such attitudes prevalent, even citizens who are concerned about climate change and who want the crisis abated will think twice about handing the job to a federal government that is so feared and distrusted. Imagine that! Even citizens who support climate action by the Federal government fear that it lacks the competence to do the job. This fear too contributes to the do-nothing strategy – yet another reason why it can’t miss.

Sure, you can argue endlessly that federal bureaucracies do in fact accomplish much good (for example, food safety, airline safety, etc.). And I won’t differ. But so what? Given the public’s hostility to federal bureaucracy, is it prudent to expect that the political support will be there for federal assumption of new and heavy responsibilities for climate action? Kiddo, it ain’t in the cards.

takeiteasy.jpgIn sum, doing nothing turns out to be a hell of a lot easier than doing good. I’m not kidding. And doing good gets you nowhere, while doing nothing prevents the situation from getting far worse. Boy, have I lucked out! 

Listen, I used to work twelve-hour days seven days a week, but now all I do is call the office once in a while to see if by any chance the environmentalists have managed to wrest control of Congress from the lobbyists. If they haven’t, I go to the gym, have a leisurely lunch, and catch an early movie. My doc has taken me off the blood pressure meds, and I don’t mind telling you that I’m having more and better sex. That’s not bad for a guy who’s about to turn eighty.

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Here’s the really good news, the icing on the cake you might call it. Time is on my side. With any luck at all, I’ll be dead and safely buried before the worst of the climate shit hits the fan. Unlike you, Dear Reader – who probably has decades of life yet to experience – I can look forward to the future with equanimity. I know I shouldn’t brag about this, but compared to you, kiddo, I’ve got it made.

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[1] If this happens, I recommend we colonize at least two separate planets, one for conservatives and one for liberals. As it is, they already inhabit different worlds so segmenting them shouldn’t be too difficult.