Deep Economy

Time for Confession—and Action

THE NEWS IN mid-May was grim: Scientists announced that melt across the West Antarctic was proceeding much faster than before. In fact, they said that at this point the melt of the six great glaciers fronting Amundsen Bay was “unstoppable,” and that over a number of decades it would raise sea levels by 10 feet or more.

This is another way of saying: Given dominion over the earth, we’ve failed. We’ve taken one after another of the planet’s great physical features and wrecked them. The Arctic? Summer sea ice is reduced by 80 percent, and it’s an every-year affair now to boat through the Northwest Passage, impassably choked by ice until this millennium began. The seven seas? Thirty percent more acidic than they were in the past—and the acidity could double or triple by the end of the century. The Antarctic? It’s not just warming rapidly, but its wind patterns have been changed by the ozone hole in ways that amplify the heating. Storms are stormier, droughts are deeper, fires last longer, rain falls harder.

And all because it was a little easier and a little cheaper not to change off fossil fuels. When scientists sounded the alarm about all this in the late 1980s, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was about 350 parts per million—or what we now consider the upper bound of safety. If we’d heeded their fervent warnings, we’d have moved with great speed to convert to solar and wind power. We’d have parked our SUVs. We’d have insulated every home in the world. It would have cost money and it would have been inconvenient; on the other hand, it could have bred solidarity in much the same way that preparing for World War II transformed the U.S.

But we couldn’t be bothered. We ignored the first commandant that we’d been given: to exercise sensible, sane stewardship over this planet that God had found so good. We stood by as our addiction to fossil fuel ran Genesis in reverse.

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The Fateful Year Ahead

BAN KI MOON has summoned the world's leaders to New York in September to talk about the climate—and in the process he's also summoned all of us who care about the planet's future. We'll be there in record numbers, for the largest demonstrations about global warming yet—and there will be, I think, an unavoidable edge of anger. Because calling these guys "leaders," at least on this issue, is by now a joke.

Take President Barack Obama, for instance. He ran for office promising, in almost biblical terms, that during his administration "the rise of the oceans would begin to slow." Installed in office, he summoned environmentalists to the White House where his staff informed them that he wouldn't be talking about climate change: "Green jobs" tested better in focus groups.

And President Obama was true to his word. He hardly ever talked about climate change: He summoned no political muscle to back attempts at a climate bill in the Senate, and he watched as the Copenhagen climate talks collapsed, the biggest foreign policy failure in many years. 

When Obama run for president in 2012, he made it through the whole campaign—during the hottest year in U.S. history—without even mentioning global warming. And while he delayed half of the Keystone pipeline, he "expedited" approval of the southern section, boasting that his administration had built enough new pipelines to wrap around the equator. He has modest decreases in carbon emissions to herald—and massive increases in oil and gas drilling. On his watch the United States will pass Russia and Saudi Arabia as a hydrocarbon source.

Much the same is true of China's premier and Russia's president and many other world leaders. They're not leading, they're failing.

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Obama's Energy Fail

I'D ALWAYS HOPED that the president’s “all of the above” energy strategy was a mere campaign slogan, a way to avoid riling anyone up as he ran for re-election. But he’s made pretty clear that it’s actually his guiding light.

“The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working,” he crowed in his State of the Union address. And indeed it is, if the goal is to drill, baby, drill. In Obama’s time in office, U.S. oil production has increased 50 percent; analysts estimate that by the time he’s gone in 2016, we’ll have literally doubled the amount of oil we produce in this country. The curve for natural gas production has been almost as steep, and though we’re burning less coal in our own power plants the amount we export has hit record highs.

In political terms, Barack Obama holds us environmentalists at bay with pretty words on climate change, but when it comes time to drill he’s the go-to guy. As he told a crowd of cheering oilmen in Oklahoma during the last campaign, “over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”

Eighteen of the nation’s biggest environmental groups sent the president a letter earlier this year asking him to back off the all-of-the-above rhetoric, and to change his policies. The only reply came from one of his counselors, who fired back a peevish letter saying he was “surprised” that they would dare challenge the president, since he’d done more than his predecessors to fight climate change. But being better than George Bush is not the point—to do anything about global warming you need to meet the bar that physics sets. And that means leaving coal and gas and oil in the ground.

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Obama's Two Faces on Climate Change

PHYSICS IS IMPLACABLE—it won’t bend even to politics.

Which is why it comes as bad news to see the charts on U.S. production of fossil fuels. During the Obama years, even as the president has been touting his administration’s success in reducing our domestic carbon emissions, it turns out that we’ve been drilling, mining, and fracking for more oil, coal, and gas than ever before. In fact, we’ve passed Saudi Arabia in oil production and are about to pass Russia in oil and gas output combined; meanwhile our coal exports have reached new highs. We’ve become the world’s biggest fossil fuel producer.

Which means that, precisely in the years when it’s become clear how much damage climate change is doing—the years of Midwest drought, of Hurricane Sandy—the United States has been bucking physics. We’re going in exactly the wrong direction.

The White House might make two arguments in response. One, it’s not their fault: The oil boom in places like North Dakota is all private enterprise. But in fact Obama’s done much to grease the skids for this boom: He’s opened up big offshore tracts for drilling, and even let the oil companies into the Arctic. His Interior Department has held auctions for vast piles of Powder River Basin coal.

In truth, when he’s being frank, the president has acknowledged this. Obama, who made it through his re-election barely mentioning global warming, has boasted again and again about his efforts to boost oil production. Here he is in 2012 in Cushing, Okla., against a backdrop of oil pipes:

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Your Turn, Harvard

IF YOU WANT to understand why the climate movement missed Tim DeChristopher when he was in jail for two years, you should read the letter he sent recently to the president of Harvard.

Drew Faust—Harvard’s first female president—had just spoken for the establishment (really, the establishment establishment) by publishing a weary, soulless letter explaining that Harvard would not divest from fossil fuels despite the request of 80 percent of its student body. DeChristopher—who was imprisoned for two years after an inspired act of civil disobedience to block a drilling lease auction in his home state of Utah—had just arrived in Cambridge to start at Harvard Divinity School.

“Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral,” DeChristopher wrote. “She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.’ Or as Howard Zinn put [it] succinctly, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’”

DeChristopher is exactly right. Just as a tie goes to the runner, so “neutrality” goes to the status quo. And given that we’re in a full-on climate emergency—the Arctic melted last summer, for crying out loud—this kind of neutrality is no more admirable than defending the right of poor and rich alike to sleep beneath bridges.

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A Step Toward Healing

Walkers approach the Syncrude tar sands mine in Alberta, Canada.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben took part in the July 5-6 Healing Walk, a spiritual gathering in northern Alberta, Canada, focused on the destruction—to the immediate environment and to the climate itself— caused by tar sands oil extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S.

TO WALK, SLOWLY, across the tar sands complex of Alberta is to see our real-life equivalent of The Lord of the Rings’ Mordor. It really is as bad as everyone says. On this one eight-mile loop, we saw vast stretches of muskeg turned into dry, sandy desert; we saw dry-sandy desert that had been further converted into inky tailings lakes; and we were never out of earshot of the cannon that fire all day and all night to keep ducks from landing in the toxic waters. This goes on forever. The most comprehensive way to see it is from the air, I guess, but the best way to feel it is on foot.

Especially if you’re walking with the people who know this land best—have known it for thousands of years. Each year since 2010, local First Nations groups have organized a Healing Walk through the tar sands, and this year’s fourth iteration was by far the largest. Hundreds of people from around the continent camped for several days in a stretch of nearby boreal forest, held workshops and ceremonies, and then emerged for the hike through the industrial barrens.

The Healing Walk was designed to be almost post-political, though most of the people there—Clayton Thomas-Muller, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Crystal Lameman, Gitz Crazyboy, Bill Erasmus, and many more—had been leaders in the indigenous fight against the Keystone pipeline and the whole tar sands idea. For a weekend, though, fighting took second place to connecting, to figuring out how to help the communities devastated by this crazy bid for the dirtiest energy on earth and how to help the leaders and volunteers strung out by the never-ending battle.

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Turning Up the Heat

Climate Justice Now! supporter

STATISTICALLY, the last couple of weeks of July are the hottest months of the year. In recent decades, the fossil fuel industry has been making them steadily hotter by burning huge amounts of coal, gas, and oil: Last year was by the far the warmest year in American history, and it came complete with biblical-scale fire, drought, and storm.

But this summer it’s the environmental movement that’s going to turn up the heat. Summer Heat is what folks are calling it: a collection of actions taking on the fossil fuel industry in every corner of the country.

Some of the action will stay focused on the route of the Keystone pipeline, but the emerging fossil fuel resistance is much broader than a single project: We’ll be at refineries and power plants and proposed coal ports, and we’ll be making clear that climate change is just part of the spectrum of damage that includes everything from air pollution to political corruption.

These battles have been led on the local level for years now by climate justice groups, by farmers and ranchers, by indigenous activists—by the folks on the frontlines of the damage from fossil fuels. But they deserve backup and reinforcement from the rest of us. And, of course, in an age of global warming, all of us are potentially on the front lines: Until Hurricane Sandy broke over their heads, most people in lower Manhattan thought the world was treating them pretty well.

If this fossil fuel resistance works, it will help shut down these local disasters. But playing defense is only half the battle: We also have to go on offense, showing the planet that these fossil fuel companies are the opposition to a decent future. That future isn’t impossible—Germany, for example, already generates a quarter of its power from renewables. In Portugal this winter, that figure was more than 70 percent.

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The Battle is Joined

In February, more than 30,000 demonstrated in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo by Rick Reinhard.

ALL I EVER wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I've seen it. And it looks so beautiful. It's hometown heroes like our friends in D.C. who've been fighting coal plants, and far-flung heroes like those who've been bravely blocking the Keystone XL pipeline with their bodies in Texas. It's people who understand that the fight against fracking and coal ports and taking the tops off mountains is ultimately the fight for a living planet; it's people who have lived through Sandy and survived the drought, some of whom I got to go to jail with recently.

It's the students at 252 colleges who are now fighting the fossil fuel industry head on to force divestment of their school's stock—the biggest student movement in decades. It's all of you—you are the antibodies kicking in, as the planet tries to fight its fever.

We've waited a very long time to get started, I fear. We've already watched the Arctic melt; our colleagues in 191 countries tell us daily of some new drought or flood.

Because we've waited this long, the easiest answers are no longer enough; we're going to have to make tough decisions. Our theme has to be: When you're in a hole, stop digging. Above all stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The president can do it with a single stroke of his pen, and if he does he will become the first world leader to veto a big project because it's bad for the climate. That would be a legacy—and a signal to the rest of the world that we're serious about this fight. It's his test.

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Top-Notch Theology (or Not)

Rev. Bryan Fischer, American Family Association

DIVINING GOD'S intent is incredibly easy—all you have to do is seek out his representatives here on earth, like Bryan Fischer, director of "issue analysis" for the American Family Association, "where he provides expertise on a range of public policy issues."

Indeed, Rev. Fischer speaks for the Lord on any number of topics (badness of gay people getting married, badness of Barack Obama who nurtures a "hatred of the white man," badness pretty much of anything that's changed since Fischer was born in 1951). But in the autumn, he offered the authoritative assurance that there was one thing God thought was really, really good: fossil fuel.

Fischer said that not using all the coal and gas and oil we could find was an affront to God—it would hurt God's feelings. In fact, he offered an analogy: Once "I opened up a birthday present that I didn't like, and I said it right out, 'Oh, I don't like those,'" he explained. "And the person that gave me the gift was there. And it just crushed that person. And you think, that's kind of how we're treating God when he's given us these gifts of abundant and inexpensive and effective fuel sources," Fischer added. "And we don't thank him for it and we don't use it. ... You know, God has buried those treasures there because he loves to see us find them."

That's really top-notch theology, as other similar top-notch theologians would attest. Dr. Calvin Beisner, for instance, is a founder of the Cornwall Alliance, the premier faith-based climate-change-denial operation on the planet. Sharing the microphone with Rev. Fischer, Rev. Beisner pointed out that not burning fossil fuel is really "an insult to God"—and that Jesus, too, wants us burning coal. If we didn't take advantage of all the flammable rocks on the planet, Beisner said, we would be like the "wicked and lazy steward" who was given talents by his master but simply buried them.

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Come Hell and High Water

IF IT WASN'T the year from hell for the North American continent, it was the year from a place with a very similar temperature.

It's hard to remember, but it began with that bizarre summer-in-March heat wave that meteorologists described as one of the most anomalous weather events in the country's history. Before long there were record blazes burning in Colorado and New Mexico, and then a stifling heat wave moved east, triggering a "derecho" storm that raced almost 1,000 miles from Indiana to the Atlantic and left 5 million without power. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the United States; it was also when drought descended full force on the Midwest, stunting corn and soybeans and driving the world price of grain up by 40 percent (and making sure our hellish year became traumatic for poor people the planet round). By August it was clear we were in for a record melt year in the Arctic; when the long polar night finally fell, it was clear we'd essentially broken one of the planet's biggest physical features. And all that was before Sandy piled into our greatest urban area, leaving behind an indelible image of the future.

So the question becomes, what's an appropriate response? What even begins to match the magnitude of the trouble we face? What doesn't seem like spitting in the wind?

My sense is that the time has come to take on the fossil fuel industry itself—not the members of Congress they buy in droves each election season, but the real powers. Ignoring the damage they've already caused, these people spend hundreds of millions of dollars each day looking for new fossil fuels. And they spend hundreds of millions each year making sure no government stops them. They're like the tobacco industry at this point, except that instead of going after your lungs they're going after the lungs of the planet.

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