How to Beat Gridlock on Climate Change

By Bill McKibben, Mother Jones - October 13, 2009

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I didn't make the trip to Thailand for the pre-Copenhagen negotiating session last week, and I'm glad I didn't. For one thing, the weather was doing its best to remind delegates what global warming feels like: Bangkok can do hot and muggy like no place on Earth. For another, nothing much was happening—the big countries continued to refrain from making any promises about how much they'd cut emissions or how much they'd fork over to help the developing world leapfrog past fossil fuel. As Kevin Grandia, editor of the invaluable DeSmogBlog put it, "At the pace I have seen here in Bangkok there is little hope that these issues will be resolved by the time the negotiations end here on Friday. If these issues couldn't be resolved in two weeks here, it would take a miracle for them to be in the can for Copenhagen."

Meanwhile, in Washington, senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer issued the Senate version of climate change legislation, which most environmentalists took as a modest improvement on the modest bill the House has already passed. It works the same cap-and-trade way, at the same all-too-deliberate speed. And it had barely been introduced before the president's climate czarina, Carol Browner, said there was no chance it would make its way through Congress in time for Copenhagen anyway. Which everyone kind of already knew—but still, if there had been any buzz to begin with it would have been a buzzkill. About the only good news: Norway announced it will aim for even deeper cuts, reducing its carbon emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 if other developed countries will go along. Given Norway's position in the world carbon league, this is akin to the guy who stopped drinking in 1967 announcing he's getting on the wagon—it somehow served only to underscore the depressing reality of climate gridlock.

In short: The scientific method has successfully identified the biggest problem the world has ever faced. It's worked great. The political method has not worked so well. In fact it's lurching toward something between abject and embarrassing failure.

And yet the game isn't quite over yet, because one team has barely begun to take the field. And that's the team you're on—the, uh, people. For 20 years we've left climate policy up to the kind of people now failing to solve things in Bangkok. We've had experts of every kind, but we haven't had—outside of, say, Norway—enough of a movement to be heard.

Which is why, all the bad news aside, I'm in a good mood. We're just under two weeks away from our global day of action at, and the movement has gone viral, turned into a monster. It's the first campaign ever built around a scientific data point (scientists now tell us that 350 parts per million is the most carbon we can safely have in the atmosphere, a number we're already past). Every day new people appear who are organizing big actions; yesterday we found out that organizers in Iran have managed to organize four actions for the October 24 day. They've even set up a website in Farsi. Ditto for events in Yemen, ditto Palestine, ditto Burundi. Thousands of actions, each more creative than the last. Artists too: Here’s Barry Lopez writing an exactly 350-word short story, the first in a series of writers that will be popping up in the next two weeks. I'm going to be in organizing mode these next 14 days, with not much time for reflecting: If you hear from me it will be in a hectoring tone. Like this: If people in Iran can get it together to organize an action, so can you.

This article is part of our Assignment 2020 project, a long-term reporting effort on the most important story of our time.

Heat is a byproduct of radiation, solar, thermal, radioactivity, whatever. The little molecules get very excited by whatever's acted on them, and they run around rapidly in little circles, giving off their little BTU's, and it's all nice and cozy. People are kind of like molecules, well, maybe bacteria, in our little petri dish of an ecosystem, and we run around in little circles and give off our BTU's also, along with hundreds and thousands and probably even millions of metric tons of garbage every year. Every year. The whole thing with CO2 and carbon footprints and all that jazz is a more complicated way of saying that we tend to defecate where we eat, unless we approach the situation with some kind of organized plan in mind. And, even then, you have issues like what happens when the sewer backs up, or, in micrcosm, what happens when the toilet breaks on the space station. In space, no one can year you cursing at the manufacturer, and getting the plumber up/out there, well, it's a dirty job, but even NASA has to have flush toilets, even if they're really fast ones.

I think you could come up with a sub-heading called 'welcome to the 21st century', when people are wringing their hands about diminishing forests, melting glaciers, and so forth, but no one will buy and wear a second-hand pair of pants, walk, or so much as slow down on the freeway, or, for that matter, shut off a light that they aren't using. And, we see a lot of examples where technology is supposed to carry the load to make up the difference in spite of people that just don't think their way through the day, and can't be bothered. Then, you have stuff like power shortages, and everyone gets really upset, and then you're into the hand-wringing, shirt-rending, seal-hugging stuff, and everyone puts on the Big Show of suddenly being very concerned with the environment, and 20 minutes later, they're back online and into their day-trading, and shopping for real estate etc.

If you're into bumper stickers, they used to have a couple that read something like: 'We treat the world like we've got a spare one in the trunk', and the more popular 'everyone wants to go back to nature, nobody wants to walk', but, truth be known, I think we like our creature comforts, our refrigerators, cable, electricity, shelf-stable food, the modern conveniences and stores that sell them, the McLifestyle, as it were. But, what to do with all the trash?

Well, garbage. The news tells about a Gigantic Swirling Sea of...Stuff, floating out there in the Pacific, somewhere, has seagulls and dead sea life all snarled up in it, unused remote controls and probably a couple sofas and 6-pack rings and all that kind of circling around, waiting for water friction and a couple millenia to take their toll on the situation, eventually solidifying into a large island which, like the Flying Dutchman, will haunt coastlines all over the world, Frito wrappers flying proudly in the wind, leaving AIDS needles and used condoms and Deity only knows what else(and frankly, we don't want to) in its' wake, along with the festering corpses of all the sea critters that just can't well digest any of that stuff. There's a mental picture that makes you consider writing Congress to resume nookilur testing...but, garbage disposal, dirty job though it is, has to be done. Maybe Korea, master shipbuilders that they are, will address themselves to the task, and build a gigantic floating barge-ship that can mechanically digest, and then incinerate any material harvested up with some kind of chain-feed 'baleen' sifter. Of course, an apparatus like that would take BTU's to operate, and we're trying to reduce global warming, not add to it.

But, what's that, you say? Mother Nature has her own heat sources, independent of pesky, noisy, polluting, soda-swilling hyoooomannnz? Yeppers. Solar radiation, Volcanoes(even ones on the bottom of the ocean, and the Seagrass in drydock, so no way to go down there, and adjust the thermostat on those babies), natural geothermal, coal seam fires that've been burning as long as people have been wearing shoes, if not before, and then there's the simple fact that we basically live on the outer candy shell of a large ball of molten rock(see 'volcanoes' above), that, from time to time, sees fit to change its' general disposition, sometimes violently, without any antagonism or prompting from soda-swilling hyooomanz.

Should we strive to learn about and attempt to reduce our environmental impact? Soooitinly! But, should you sulk around in a tree, tearing holes in your hempen garments, beating yourself in the face with your leather sandals, tying knots in your hair, and shaking your fist and yelling and screaming at passerby? Well, maybe not. I mean, it's a great draw for tourists, and people will gather, and take your picture(especially the police), but, your net positive impact on the whole thing will be pretty minimal. Instead, there's educationers. MUCH better than knee-jerk emotionalism, because the same 'nology that helped create the problem will inevitably have to help build solutions. However, even the best technology cannot by itself entirely substitute for couch 'taters AND others seeking to amend their habits a little, which isn't just eco-groovy, but will also probably help said 'taters' live a little longer. Especially if they stop eating quite so many tater CHIPS. Ah, yes, consumption. The MurkenSumir(american consumer), statistical character of legend, supporter of Con Me's both foreign and domestic, both hailed and reviled, the bipedal veal calf of corporate expansionism, and ultimately, hapless victim, is the linchpin, more or less, for a lot of this stuff.

My thinking? Don't be a veal calf. Shut the television OFF(they don't call it 'programming' by accident), and go for a 5-minute walk. Burn 20-30 calories. See the trees, flowers, and chirping birds, take a 'hit' off your allergy inhaler, and when you go back in your consumer cubicle, leave the idiot box OFF. For an entire DAY. Sure, you'll get withdrawal pains, and the D.T.'s, but a couple cold showers and a cup of coffee, and you'll be good as new once they pass. You CAN survive without up-to-the-minute advertising. You can ALSO survive without a 'credit card'. Imagine using a plate more than once!(GASP!). Imagine refusing plastic products, or recycling them. Credit cards can be recycled, too. They make great guitar picks!

Take a minute, and look at the cute red-eyed froggie:-------> Froggie sez: Cut that credit card up, and go find me a fly! I'm hungry! Now!

Well, probably, froggie can get his own fly,probably doesn't speak english, and you can buy your own car insurance without the advice of an animated lizard, choose dog food and so forth without talking animals of ANY kind, heck, you take that 1 day with no TV, and stretch it out to a month or so, before you know it, you'll be doing your own thinking, and maybe YOU will construct the garbage-eating ship Of The Future...hey, anything can happen, right? But, only once SOMEbody puts the remote DOWN, and slowly backs away...LOL

Klaatu marachas necktie

It is so FASHIONABLE to be on this bandwagon that plodding along with both feet on terra firma seems, well, nerdish. Okay, I am a nerd. That's why I wanted to see the actual data and review it and look at the models and....guess what I found out? This whole thing is a HOAX of the same kind as The Population Bomb and the DDT Scare. Very popular. Very plausible. And....uh....incorrect?

Problem Number One: The actual surface temperature of the earth and the oceans is dropping, not rising, and has been for ten years.

Problem Number Two: The glaciers aren't melting any more than they normally do, they just aren't being replenished with new snow and ice. Ergo, the earth is demonstrably COOLING and DRYING, not warming and melting.

Problem Number Three: Even one substantial volcanic eruption causes more air pollution of all kinds, usually including carbon dioxide emissions, than all the pollution man provides.

Problem Number Four: The planet has a perfectly good checks and balances system in place. If we produce more carbon dioxide, Mother Earth provides more plant growth.

Problem Number Five: The dingbats at Hadley CRU who started this whole "crisis" cherry picked their data source and were using dendrology -- the "scientific study of tree ring growth" to extrapolate their results.

Well, let's all get together and read tea leaves, and if we don't like the pattern, let's just selectively read the leaves we want to read.....and see? It's a bunny!!!

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