Tag Archives: Climate Change

Late Sept. 2019, phase shift

I spent minutes struggling for a title, here, because I’m not sure how to describe the national situation. “Dam breaking?” That describes how this moment feels, but what if a month from now the dam still seems to be there.

I wrote this in our newsletter for the Lakewood Democratic Club:

Trump pressured a foreign government (Ukraine) to open an unfounded investigation of a political opponent, in return for the release of funds which his administration was holding back. He also tried to block Congress from seeing a related whistleblower complaint.

He got busted, his personal involvement in this attempt to extort foreign election interference is now exposed, and a whole lot of other misconduct is being exposed as well.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced complete support of formal impeachment proceedings.

That’s the bare summary of the past week!

That’s a decent, simplified summary, I think. It leaves out a lot, but it covers the big news which seems to have precipitated a “phase shift,” in which suddenly House Democrats quit being scared, polling had a sudden jump in public support for impeachment, Trump and Republicans are on the defensive, and everything just seems different and that’s the part which seems to defy explanation.

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The technology to save Earth’s climate

Today I saw this on Twitter, and really as far as I know there’s nothing farfetched or new, here:

I got into a brief back-and-forth with someone about the suggestion that “new technology” is where to look for hope. This notion bugs me; basically, it amounts to saying “I want this hard problem resolved for me by a new factor which doesn’t currently exist.”

This is the reality of most “technology” responses to the climate crisis. They aren’t responses, at all, but instead attempts to sidestep the issue.

That said, it occurred to me that in some sense, the reality is that we do need some incredible advancements in “technology” to survive the climate crisis.

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Playing from way behind

It is strange living in this moment, watching the capture and corruption of the most powerful institutions in our society, at the same time as day to day life mostly continues as though completely unconnected.

That’s an illusion. A few weeks ago a friend, who knows better, casually said something about how “well, life goes on, anyway.” I could have made a lot of responses. One which I didn’t make, but might have, is a comparison with The Lord of the Rings films. For all that “The Scouring of the Shire” is an important part of the novel, its absence from the films combined with Meriadoc’s warning about the possibility of such an outcome is haunting on its own. He was absolutely right that the safety of the Shire was in danger, and significantly, it was in danger from something that most of its people would never even notice until it was absolutely too late.

Had Sauron secured the One Ring, it would have meant the end of the Shire. Unstoppable armies would have burned it to the ground within months, or at most a year or two, inevitably. But that fate was being decided, with finality, while most of the persons at issue were carrying on normal life in total ignorance of the peril.

In a sense, Americans have had comparatively ample warning, yet most don’t really notice it, and “normal life” carries on. Even though what’s happening right now is locking in severe negative consequences.

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Human progress as economic bubble

During recent attempts at some deep thinking about politics, civilization and history, I have pondered the long term and how present dysfunction might be little more than “reversion to the mean.”

An expectation of general progress, or of a fair society which lasts, seems hard to square with the long arc of history. My own impression is that after developing basic civilization thousands of years ago, humanity did not really “advance” much until the past 300 or 400 years.

The advances since then have included some spectacular transformations, at least for lots of people. Long lifespans, food to eat, medicine which works, flourishing science and arts.

Yet the systems powering industrial civilization are ecologically unsustainable—that’s just a plain fact—and while its product is an anomaly within human history, to date, resource burnout is not. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse explored a pattern of civilizations building prosperity upon unsustainable foundations.

What if all industrial civilization—powered by toxic fossil fuel combustion and internally resistant to alternatives despite many decades’ notice of the need—is just one more unsustainable bubble?

Yesterday, Slate reported on some similar speculation by David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth.

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Climate Change outlook update, June 2018

In the past few days, two different stories suggested that it’s worth posting a check-in on how doomed we are to disastrous climate change.

By way of some context, I have concluded for some time that the outlook is pretty bleak; I acknowledged a very limited possibility in the Paris Accord; then America got a president who withdrew from that and generally promotes policies about as climate-damaging as is possible while still having negligible real understanding of actual policy.

So, Thursday, Vox‘s David Roberts informed us that the cost of drawing carbon out of the air has fallen considerably in the past several years, to the point where “DAC starts to look viable.” (DAC is “direct air-capture,” i.e. sucking carbon out of the air.)

This comes with a lot of caveats, and the tl;dr conclusion is that DAC is not a “get-out-of-carbon-emissions-reductions free” card. (As can also be said for geoengineering.)

Meanwhile, the very next day, Mr. Roberts had this to report:

In 1998, coal represented 38 percent of global power generation. In 2017, it represented … 38 percent of global power generation.

In electricity, a sector that absorbs 40 percent of the world’s primary energy and produces more than a third of its emissions, the past 20 years have been running to stay still. No net decarbonization progress has been made.

So, basically, as of June 2018 I think the climate prognosis update is this:

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First 15 Lives of Harry August

It has been another interesting year, and broader notes about that are coming.

Among the many interesting experiences in 2015, though, I feel like recalling one remarkable book in particular: The First 15 Lives of Harry August, by Claire North aka Catherine Webb.

This was excellent on multiple levels. First, I found it a simple compelling page-turner. It’s also very cinematic; I can picture vividly the lead-in scene as the first few seconds of a movie trailer. “I almost missed you, Dr. August. I need to send a message back to the past…”

Beyond this, the conceit is one of those things that comes close to being something new under the sun. North basically asks “what if a small number of people all experienced something like Groundhog Day, except for their entire lives rather than 24 hours?” The consequences are challenging; you basically have to imagine a series of timelines in sequence, which mostly follow the same course except that certain individuals always begin their lives remembering all that they experienced in each previous timeline. It pretty much works, though. The resultant world and its more detailed, human consequences are fascinating.

What impresses me most of all, though, is how these have stayed with me now for many weeks since I finished the book. Themes and ideas have kept coming back to me, and I have gradually concluded that—by explicit intent or not—The First 15 Lives of Harry August is an insightful metaphor for life itself.

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Paris Climate Deal: a real start?

I have, as I’ve pointed out, spent most of my life watching arguments about climate change and various, mostly failed, confabs intended to work out a positive response. Cancun, Copenhagen, Kyoto… the whole sorry trail of broken promises and crushed hopes. All through the months and weeks of build-up to Paris-2015, I have kept this in mind as I read suggestions that “this is going to be different” and that “there’s a new optimism this time.” I was fully prepared for another travesty of resentment, finger-pointing and inaction. I was fully prepared to feel disgust and resignation.

That isn’t quite my reaction, strangely. Having now digested the initial reports and analyses of the outcome for about a day, I’m still not entirely sure what my reaction ought to be. Which is new; uncertainty is new, and I just don’t know if it is or should be interpreted as any more than that.

This much I know: the perils, expenses and injustices of anthropogenic climate change are not solved, and are far from being solved.

Yet, as frustrating and absurd as I found advance forecasts that “Paris will not be the end of the road but merely a beginning,” the fact that this appears indeed to be the best one can say may not, after all, entirely preclude the possibility that humanity has made useful progress.

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00s flashback: peak oil

I know that the previous decade wasn’t that long ago, obviously. But it’s starting to feel that way now and then. Consider, for example, “peak oil.”

I can’t be the only one who recalls this meme, but again, it sure can feel that way. I swear that it has been years since I’ve seen any reference to peak oil. Which on one hand is not so mysterious; for various reasons, oil prices proved no more a one-way phenomenon than did house prices. But we still reference the housing bubble now and then. Peak oil, for all that I’m sure there are corners of the internet where it remains a hot topic, seems all the same to have vanished down the memory hole about as completely as anything does these days.

This is at the very least curious given that it was such a popular theory, particularly on the internet. I could probably find other looks-back at the issue, if I searched for them, but again it seems odd that I have not come across one. I read quite a bit of online crap, and I don’t recall seeing even one headline.

Therefore, if only for my own benefit, I’m preparing this brief examination, because: as much as I can be certain about anything, and to the extent that these words have any non-wriggly firm core meaning, “peak oil” scenarios were way, way wrong.

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That far shore

I have very possibly lived half my life, now.

I don’t know why birthday #37 has prompted so much reflection on the finite, but it has. In addition to realizing that “young adult” status is now firmly over, it has dawned on me recently that this is probably as close to the midpoint of my life as it’s ever going to be possible to determine, in advance.

Obviously one can’t know with precision, so there’s little point getting into arguments, but the suggestion that I have something like four decades remaining to me does not seem wildly unrealistic either way.

In some ways it’s a relief, too, honestly. When I suggest that the prospect of living through 10 more presidential campaign seasons is horrifying enough that I don’t even want to imagine another 15 or 20, any humor in the remark is incidental rather than fundamental. I’m tired, of many things.

The idea of significantly extended lifespans is usually more a dread than a dream, nowadays… which is why it seems just as well that I won’t see them.

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What next for the Democratic Party?

Let’s indulge hope, just for a moment, and play pretend. Let’s imagine possibilities, precisely because we’re pessimists and expect that even an illusion of encouraging circumstances is usually short lived, and so one might as well daydream when one gets the chance.

Along these lines, then, let’s ask what liberals/Democrats should do next?

The prompting for this bit of whimsy is, obviously, the Affordable Care Act’s most recent Houdini Act. Plus a couple of recent articles that more directly considered the idea that the Democratic Party might be about due for a new project.

This is, on a basic level, not actually all that fanciful. It does seem possible that the years-long effort to implement and defend the Affordable Care Act is, at least, ready to shift from war-of-survival to maintenance-program. I think it isn’t completely delusional to suggest, as Vox has, that Republicans are just running out of ideas to disembowel the ACA with one stroke. More importantly, perhaps, I suspect that they may also just be running out of steam a little bit. At some level. Certainly the fact that, by the time the Supreme Court finally ruled on King v Burwell, many many elected Republicans were actually quietly relieved that they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of a “victory” suggests that they may be ready to redirect resources to some other issue.

So perhaps the Democratic Party ought to be thinking the same thing. Significantly, and strange as it is to suggest, “Obamacare” arguably completes the several-decades-long project of safety net programs. Compared with e.g. a European welfare state, America’s redistributive social programs are still a net, indeed, i.e. full of holes. But as a skeleton, an outline, they do seem basically complete: old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and, finally, a program that at least aspires toward universal health care access (however short it falls at present). There is no longer any obvious, complete void to demand patching over as priority one.

At the same time, I might add, it looks (from my point of admitted privilege) like social equality is making reasonable progress. Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. still certainly exist, but the space in which it’s okay to be noticed practicing these -isms seems to get narrower every year. Maybe, as I will speculate with some other issues as well, progress from the bottom up is now self-sustaining here without top-down pressure. Perhaps.

All of this suggests both an opportunity and a challenge. A once-in-a-generation chance to think big and dream of something more than just building a floor is kind of exciting, in theory. At the same time, however, a description I read a few years back of legislative reform in America having “limited bandwidth” has only seemed more and more apt with time. It seems likely that Democrats will mark eight years in the White House with precisely one major legislative achievement to show for them (health care reform). It seems just about as likely that accomplishing even that much in the next decade will be a tall order. Yet that’s all the more reason to prioritize. Chance is always a factor, but for the most part this generation shouldn’t expect much further in the way of big, national progressive reform without a sustained, focused campaign for it. Plus, a party ought to have some national agenda to run on in a national election, however dim that agenda’s prospects, right?

So: what to place first in that low-bandwidth download queue? (Note: as this is primarily a look at what should be done, even if there is limited support, it won’t be constrained by present congressional malapportionment, etc., because what do several more years of locked-in gerrymandering matter when it may take 10, 15 or more years to build your case for action anyway? That said, I am going to “score” each issue and will examine political prospects therein, briefly.) Read More →