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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/13/20

The World Has Reached Decision Time on the Climate Crisis

Message Bill McKibben
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From New Yorker

Mumbai Floods.
Mumbai Floods.
(Image by YouTube, Channel: India Today)
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This, it now seems clear, is the year when karma stops playing nice and gets down to brass tacks. Either we acknowledge science and put on a mask, or we are going to kill people and cripple our economy. Either white Americans acknowledge our racist history and get to work on repairing its effects, or the country will be further divided into fearful and angry camps. These aren't situations where we get a second chance.

And, as this week demonstrated, either we seize the suddenly vivid possibilities for a rapid energy transformation, or we watch the world disintegrate. On Ellesmere Island, in the Arctic, Canada's largest remaining ice shelf (an area significantly larger than Manhattan) collapsed over the course of two days. "Above normal air temperatures, offshore winds and open water in front of the ice shelf are all part of the recipe for ice shelf break up," the Canadian Ice Service tweeted. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, where the coronavirus may have already infected half of the people living in the city's vast slums, record rainfall produced misery almost impossible to imagine. An "astonishing" 82 inches of rain fell on the city between July 10th and August 7th; the monsoon often produces flooding, but not like this. One of the city's English language newspapers ran a front page that simply said "spirit of mumbai: tired and beaten."

We know the path forward. Dave Roberts, the ever-reliable energy analyst for Vox, laid it out beautifully in an interview with Saul Griffith of Rewiring America. The rapid adoption of the technologies that are discussed again and again in this column -- like air-source heat pumps and electric motors -- show that it's possible to cut America's emissions by 70 to 80 percent by 2035. In other words, there's nothing quixotic about the Green New Deal. It's on the shelf, waiting to be taken down. Waiting, in fact, to be financed: the key role of the federal government here is not to pay for rebuilding people's houses and buildings but to prime the pump so that private capital can do the job, allowing most of us to reap real savings from radically reduced energy bills.

That still requires government leaders to take the initiative. Obviously, we have to elect Joe Biden. (Our decompensating President said last week that Biden is "against energy," which, in context, is a strong endorsement.) But electing Biden is insufficient. If he wins, Biden must be pressured to use the climate crisis to heal our economic woes. Environmentalists are increasingly maneuvering to make sure that the advisers in a potential Biden Administration understand both the peril and the promise of the moment: we either go big or we go under. Moses reminded the Israelites of the paths God had set before them: "life and prosperity, and death and disaster." In 2020, biology, history, and now physics are making the same call.

Passing the Mic

Sarah Lunnon served as a county councillor in Gloucestershire, England, as a member of the Green Party; she's now a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, the climate-protest movement that sprang up in response to the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The group is supporting a Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which, if passed by the British Parliament, would result in, among other things, the convening of a "citizens' assembly" on climate, similar to the gatherings that the French leader Priscillia Ludosky described to me in a recent column. (In Washington State, similar plans are also under way). My interview with Lunnon has been edited for length and clarity.

How will the citizens' assembly work, logistically?

Citizens' assemblies are being used around the world. Different countries are running them in slightly different ways, but the basic design is the same: a body of people are chosen so that they reflect the population of a country, state, or county, by age, ethnicity, education, gender, etc. The aim is to bring together a cross-section of society. This group, with independent support, hears from a range of expert advisers and stakeholders, asks questions and uniquely deliberates, discusses, and reflects on what they have heard. They then give their recommendations regarding a set of issues that shape government policy.

Citizens' assemblies are a form of deliberative democracy, a process in which ordinary people make political decisions. Public hearings, ranging from citizens' juries with less than 20 people to citizens' summits of more than 700, can transform policymaking. This was seen in Ireland, where a citizens' assembly considered changes to the country's abortion law, which received widespread public support in a following referendum.

Is the idea that it might show lawmakers that they've been working with too narrow a range of possible solutions -- that they can and should think more broadly?

Rebecca Willis, an expert lead for the Climate Assembly UK, has studied how U.K. politicians think and talk about climate change. She concludes -- and this is probably true of most democracies -- that politicians are almost embarrassed to campaign on climate change, scared to be seen as zealots, and find it difficult to relate action on climate, and probably wildlife and ecological loss, as improving the well-being of those who vote for them. Voters seeing life carry on as normal, seeing climate and wildlife as unimportant in the national conversation, conclude that it's not actually an emergency and don't press politicians for change.

A citizens' assembly allows those we recognize as our peers to be educated on the full nature of the emergency and then make recommendations, legitimizing the required radical response to the crisis. It not only broadens the possible responses but it justifies politicians in acting, as they are doing what has been requested by the people. A citizens' assembly would provide our politicians with the plan, the justification, and the shield (against political pushback).

Extinction Rebellion is getting ready for a September offensive -- can you describe it in a bit more detail?

It is clear to the people of the U.K. that the British government is failing to do what's necessary to keep us safe. They ignored the warnings about coronavirus and let tens of thousands die. Now millions face economic ruin. They've been doing the same for the climate crisis for decades. The social contract (that citizens are protected and in return abide by the law) between the government and its people is broken. Enough is enough. We have an opportunity as we emerge from the pandemic to make the change necessary, but business as usual is fighting to regain its hold. We can't let that happen. People feel compelled to be heard in this moment, and the only way we can really do that is by taking our own action.

Beginning on September 1, Extinction Rebellion will take to the streets again. On that day, the U.K. Parliament starts re-sitting after the summer. We will peacefully protest outside the U.K. Parliament, in London, demanding that the government passes the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. The rebellion will not just be focused on London, though. Welsh rebels will join us in rebellion by causing disruption in Cardiff, with rebels in the north and Scotland formulating plans as we speak.

Climate School

"" I already linked to one piece by David Roberts above, but he has an equally insightful recent analysis of Microsoft's plans for reducing emissions. Roberts concludes that the software giant is serious, but that its commitment is marred by the fact that it keeps selling its expertise to oil and gas companies to help them recover yet more hydrocarbons.

"" Mike Roddy offers a compelling case that American home builders rely far too much on subsidized timber, instead of using steel, like many other nations. Not only does this keep logging at a high pitch in our forests but it also produces houses that burn down in forest fires. Roddy is currently leading an effort to rebuild Paradise, California, with less vulnerable homes.

"" Somini Sengupta offered a truly powerful piece of reporting on the inequities emerging on our overheating planet. From the poor neighborhoods of Athens and Houston to the Nigerian delta scorched by flaring gas wells and the drought-stricken fields of Guatemala, she paints a much-needed portrait of a world crossing the brink.

"" A new season of the wonderful "Mothers of Invention" podcast, which "gives focus to black, brown and indigenous women and girls around the world pioneering ways to withstand and innovate around climate change," is available. The former Irish President Mary Robinson, a hero of the climate fight, is one of the hosts; the first new episode features the Brazilian activist Daiara Tukano.

"" Some students at the University of Nebraska have been trying to gauge the effects of climate change on the Cornhusker State. Here's a topnotch report on the growing sense of "eco-anxiety" among young people in the heartland.


"ï A hundred economists penned a letter pointing out that the pandemic gives us an unparalleled chance to construct our civilization along new lines. "As we seek to rebuild our world," they write, "we can and must end the carbon economy." They call out the finance industry, in particular, noting, "Institutions of financial power must end their fossil fuel investments and funding. When our largest banks, most influential investors, and most prestigious universities place bets on the success of the fossil fuel industry, they provide it with the economic and social capital necessary to maintain the dangerous status quo." The letter was organized by Harvard divestment activists and was timed to coincide with the election of new members to the university's board of overseers. Several candidates are running on a platform centered on divestment.

"ï On August 6th, Marquita Bradshaw won the Democratic nomination for Tennessee's Senate seat. Among other things, she's an environmental-justice organizer with the Sierra Club.

"ï Sixteen new coronavirus cases have been reported in the rural Montana county where pipeline workers were brought in to build the Keystone XL pipeline. On July 28th, two workers from a Canadian company that is helping construct the pipeline tested positive for the virus.

"ï India, in pursuit of energy "self-reliance," plans to cut down 40 forests to make way for new coal mines. "Why cannot India be the world's largest exporter of coal?" the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, asked. Perhaps because Mumbai is already underwater (see above) from record rainfall.

Warming Up

The hymn that captures this week's theme -- that the time for choosing is upon us -- is "Once to Every Man and Nation." It was inspired by James Russell Lowell's great abolition poem "The Present Crisis." Here's a version from the King's Heralds that enunciates every stinging lyric.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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