Friday, May 15, 2015

Citizen-led WA ballot initiative pushes politician climate action

If Washington Gov. Jay Inslee manages to pass his carbon cap proposal this legislative session, he will owe a debt of gratitude to Carbon Washington and its effort to place a carbon tax on the ballot.

Democratic House members this week revived Inslee’s proposal in a modified form after having run away from it in the regular session.  The House may finally stand up for a climate bill, a vital necessity to have carbon revenues considered in budget negotiations with Senate Republicans. 

This apparently would not have happened without climate action pressure from grassroots activists now seeking 315,000 signatures to place CarbonWA’s I-732 on the November 2016 ballot.  A critical point is that climate-denier Republicans are not the only hurdle to putting a price on carbon pollution. 

“Democrats have not been able to publicly say that they have the 50 votes to guarantee passage,” John Stang reported in Crosscut.  “However, Democratic leaders and Inslee have been . . . trying to create a package that would gain 50 votes out of 98 House members. Legislators have looked warily at signature gathering by the group Carbon Washington . . . I-732 would install a $25-per-ton tax on carbon emissions beginning July 1, 2017 — a much more drastic approach than proposed by Inslee and his Democratic supporters.”

Stang last month was the first to report on prospects for a carbon package revival.  “The prospect of a blunt initiative rather than a more nuanced bill has prompted legislators to huddle about Inslee’s carbon emissions tax proposal . . . “

Passing any climate ballot initiative in 2016 will require a massive public education campaign on the need for carbon pricing to rapidly move clean energy forward.  That campaign should start now.

The package announced Monday clearly points to where Democratic support must be bolstered. The message is in re-allocation of proposed carbon revenues.  For coastal and rural Democrats, over $280 million in forest industry benefits plus a $10,000 tax credit for each new employee hired for at least six months.  For business-friendly centrist Democrats, new rebates of $333 million to the fuel industry and more for other industries to offset higher energy costs (even though this reduces the incentive to switch to clean energy or use energy more efficiently).  The package would also increase education funding to $500 million annually, exceeding the $380 million originally proposed by Inslee, building support broadly in the Democratic caucus.

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, the coalition of groups supporting the Inslee bill, is also creating some pressure by announcing it is considering its own 2016 initiative effort.  But it will not announce a decision until fall.  Because the Alliance is working closely with Inslee and state legislators, a nuanced initiative similar to the current package can be expected.  CarbonWA, with its outright $25/ton price on all carbon emissions, recycling all revenues to taxpayers in the form of tax reductions and credits, seems to be the more potent driver of politician concern.

CarbonWA is definitely picking up momentum.  It just received the endorsement of Ron Sims, who positioned King County as one of the nation’s climate leaders when he was executive. “I strongly support the Carbon Washington revenue-neutral carbon tax ballot measure. It is a bipartisan approach that will reduce carbon emissions, make our state tax code less regressive, and protect manufacturing jobs. We are running out of time to address the growing threat of global climate disruption. Let’s all work together to pass Initiative 732.”

Also just announced are endorsements by Mike McGinn, former Seattle mayor and Sierra Club leader, and Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata. I-732 in addition recently added 350 Seattle and Resources for Sustainable Communities to the list of citizen group endorsers. 

The revival of the climate bill in Olympia speaks volumes about the need for grassroots climate pressure on Democratic Party electeds.  For sure there are some genuine climate champions.  But politicians are caught in a constant crossfire between many interests, business, labor, civic groups, social justice advocates.  Climate is easily lost in the shuffle unless there is an active and vocal citizen presence willing to take matters into its own hands. 

That is what Carbon Washington has done.  CarbonWA is doing this with an organizing model based on working with local climate-oriented groups such as Climate Action Bainbridge and Climate Action Olympia, and building new local groups where there are none.  This granular, social organizing approach plants a climate movement deeply rooted in communities, shaped from circles of active and caring citizens.  Once planted these circles can work on climate from multiple angles, from direct democracy to direct action.  That seems to be the typical pattern. 

The major danger confronting citizen climate politics in Washington state has been the prospect of competing initiatives.  It has created tensions between the groups, as reported in Cascadia Planet here and here.  This has caused concerns among many climate movement people caught in between.  They have expressed those concerns to the groups. That has had a beneficial effect, a joint statement by the groups announced May 4. 

“Our organizations are committed to working together, and in particular we are committed to avoiding two competing carbon pollution-pricing measures on the ballot in November 2016,” the statement says.  The two groups will work together on public opinion research to determine the most viable strategy. 

The statement concluded, “Because of the ongoing activities of both groups, we are not currently endorsing each other’s efforts. But we have no objections to individuals or groups supporting or working with either or both groups (or making a joint endorsement). We respect each other’s efforts to build a strong movement for climate action and will stay in close contact in the months ahead as the Alliance completes its research work and as Carbon Washington moves forward with its signature-gathering campaign for I-732.”

This represents significant progress.  Alliance members had been sending negative messages about I-732, both public and private.  That proved unacceptable to many people, and the Alliance proved responsive.  Now a prospectively more consultative relationship is developing.  It is hard to say how the two groups will thread the needle if indeed CarbonWA is successful in gaining enough signatures to place I-732 on the ballot.  But at least the two groups are talking to each other now, which is what climate-concerned citizens were demanding.

There is room for further collaboration.  If any climate initiative is to make it against the deluge of fossil fuel money that would be thrown against it in 2016, a massive public campaign should be undertaken now.  We should not wait until fall or 2016. The campaign should focus the promise of clean energy and climate solutions to create a better world and healthier economy. Such a campaign can and should be agnostic on the specific carbon pricing tools, whether a direct tax or a cap-and-trade.  But it should make the carbon pricing connection, how a price on carbon is needed to tip the balance to clean energy rapidly enough to avoid disastrous global warming.  

A public campaign should include everything – social media, earned media, public meetings, outreach to civic groups, developing and providing educational materials to citizen groups of all sorts.  It should empower volunteers to act, and seek to be viral.  It should reach into every community.  

The Better Future Project has built one of the nation’s more successful public engagement models.  Organizing 350 Massachusetts since 2012, Better Future has provided the paid staff infrastructure that has joined hundreds of citizen volunteers working through nine community nodes around the state. They are engaged in a series of campaigns both to keep fossil fuels in the ground and bring on clean energy solutions.  Efforts have shut down all coal plants in the state, and supported offshore wind development.  Citizens are opposing a gas pipeline and forwarding state divestment from fossil fuels. 

People power is what it’s going to take to win the climate struggle, people on the ground talking to their neighbors, presenting to local groups, being a face-to-face climate presence in their communities. But volunteers can’t do it all on their own.  They need materials, training and guidance. The combined resources of the Alliance and CarbonWA can provide what citizens need to propel a public education campaign

It is now 16 months and some days until the November 2016 election. Let’s get a deep-rooted, citizen-driven public campaign going now to demonstrate the viability of clean energy and the need for carbon pricing to rapidly drive it forward.  There is no time to waste.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

From the Greenland Coast to the Jersey Shore: Dead Cities Walking

This is the second part of the story that I began several weeks ago about a journey to the New Jersey shore in 2009.  In the first part, Ocean City, Cities in the Ocean, I wrote of sharing my youthful shore experience with my daughter, and of sensing the fleeting nature of the shore towns in the face of rising sea levels.  Here my muse connects to another journey I took much earlier that came to mind during the Jersey journey, flying over the melting glaciers of Greenland nine years before.   

By 2009 I had been working full time as a professional climate advocate for over 10 years.  I had been aware of the global warming threat and calling it out in my writing since the 1980s.  I had written many articles and papers on climate science and solutions, even co-authored a book. But the Jersey shore trip with its visceral sense of death and inevitable loss opened a new dimension. I started writing poetry and songs for sunken cities.  The shore inspired a Springsteen-ish lyric I called “Dead Cities Walking.”

Seen the rotting casino towers
fall before the rising tide
Their salt corroded skeletal remains
relics of a reckless age
crumble into the sea

Seen the rising tides devour
the Trump and Harrah towers
One day the ocean got an urge
sent the shore a big storm surge
Where the lights were once so pretty
now a real Atlantic City
Where the city         now the sea
Wrecked remains now underneath

We take tours out there by submarine
to see what’s left of the gambler’s dream
Cruise old shore town Ocean City to Cape May
Drowned boardwalks where they used to play
Where they used to tour old homes of ghosts
now we tour the ghosted coast

They’re building New Atlantic City
up north there on Kitantitty
They’ve moved the roulette wheels
and one-armed bandits
beyond the reach of the sea

New Philadelphia rises out toward Phoenixville
They’re building New New York
where Yonkers used to be
now that the City’s submerged
They’ve saved the Lady
Deconstructed her
Put her back together up there
in New Times Square
We see the old skyline
dying in the sunset

Driving down ghost highways
Garden State Parkways
Memories of former days
Old Led Zepp playing
Signs are saying
Ocean City     Cape May
Driving on my way
to dead cities walking

My venture into the poetic was partly inspired by an incident driving down the Garden State Parkway to the shore. Flipping the radio dial we caught Don McLean’s “America Pie,” the obtuse one-hit wonder about ‘60s rock.  It is the subject of intense hermeneutical debate over which lyrics refer to which stars. As I listened it recalled an epiphany that came to me flying over the west coast of Greenland one August afternoon in 2000 on the top-of-the-world route from Amsterdam to Seattle. 

I had been in Europe at the Ardennes Forest summer retreat of Ecola, the Green Party of French-speaking Belgians, to speak about global Green Party statements to the Kyoto and Buenos Aires U.N. climate summits.  As a co-chair of the U.S. Association of State Green Parties, predecessor to today’s Green Party of the United States, I had been asked in 1997 by Ralph Monoe, chair of the European Federation of Green Parties, to lead author the Kyoto document.  With signatories from six continents it was the first global statement ever by the world’s Green parties.  I was asked back to do the same for the follow-up conference in Buenos Aires in 1998.  In the region where the great World War II Battle of the Bulge took place, I spoke to the Belgian Greens about the statements and the great struggles that would face us to overcome the political corruption that held back needed action to address the climate crisis (and still does today).

Returning home, some six or seven miles above the west coast of Greenland jagged fjords stretched hundreds of miles north out the window to the horizon beneath a deep blue sky. Rocky brown earth along the coast pushed back miles to the white line of the ice pack. On this late summer day fleets of icebergs were sailing in lines out of the fjords into Disko Bay west of Godhavn and then into the Davis Strait, the passage between Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea. Dozens of white glacial fragments freshly calved from the ice pack were sharply outlined against in the dark blue waters.  Though they seemed small from six miles up, their fractal, crystalline shapes were clearly visible, indicating just how massive these immense ships of ice were at ocean level.

Iceberg in Disko Bay, Greenland, by Peter Prokosch
Aboard the plane the last moments of the movie were playing, “American Pie” with Madonna.  The memory of that moment came back while listening to the original McClean version riding down the Parkway. Her version formed the soundtrack to the scenes unfolding outside the plane window.
“Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.”
By coincidence, or synchronicity, I’d been reading Brian Fagan’s Floods, Famines and Emperors. Waiting at Schipol Airport before the flight I had just gone through his narrative about cold snaps that ensue when too much fresh water suddenly invades the Labrador and Greenland Seas. The saltiness of waters flowing north makes them heavy and causes them to sink to deeper levels, thus pulling water north and driving the North Atlantic circulation. Too much fresh water shuts down the Gulf Stream circulation that brings that warm water to the Jersey shore and far north of it.  This happened during a great glacial outflow flood at the end of the last ice age, plunging the planet back into cold conditions for many centuries.

Was I seeing the modality for the end of the world as we know it?  Scientists now tend toward the conclusion the planet is overall too warm for a new The Day After Tomorrow-style ice age to break out, but that does not mean a shutdown of North Atlantic circulation would not have serious impacts, mucking with weather systems in ways that bring drought across the planet and make Superstorm Sandys a common event.
As the jetliner winged forward and Greenland faded to the rear the tune was concluding:

“And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.”

The soundtrack keyed to the sight of the Greenland coast slowly receding to the rear, framed by the wing and engines determinedly plowing forward across the curvature of the Earth

“And they were singing bye-bye Miss American Pie . . . “

”This’ll be the day that I die ....”. 

As the thrum of the jet engines drove beyond the Greenland coast making their own full complement of greenhouse gases I thought about rock’n’roll, automobiles, the fossil fuel age, the exuberant expressions of our technological adolescence mostly made in U.S.A., and all the excrescences of that time now up here inexorably warming the atmosphere and melting those glaciers.  How much we are at the end of that age, I thought.  Bye Bye, Miss American Pie indeed.  The day the music died, the day our happy world of pleasant summer days at the shore began to end. 

Flying over Greenland in August 2000 I was indeed seeing the early onset of ice melt that has only accelerated since.  I was flying just north of one of its ground zeros, the Jacobshavn Isbrae glacier, one of Greenland’s three biggest. Jacobhavn, the largest, is a 400-mile long ice river that drains seven percent of the subcontinent and “for some decades . . .  the world’s most prolific producer of icebergs,” Fred Pearce notes in his With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, cover appropriately decorated with a picture of ice falling from a polar glacier front and splashing into the sea.  My beach reading at Ocean City.  See, I told you I was a curmudgeon. 

“Jacobshavn was the likely source of the most famous iceberg of all – the one that sunk the Titanic in 1912,” Pearce reports.  “But is has been in overdrive since 1997, after suddenly doubling the speed of its flow to the sea.  It is now also the world’s fastest moving glacier, at better than seven miles a year.”  The white stream could now be dumping the equivalent of a Nile River into the sea every year.  It is sending a message that polar ice does not behave in a gradual manner, but abruptly change. 

Thought responsible for four percent of 20th century sea level rise, Jacobshavn’s flow shot up two times between 1997 and 2003, dissolving its floating ice shelf into icebergs such as the fleet I saw out the plane window.  Scientists such as Pennsylvania State University glaciologist Richard Alley are discovering that glaciers are being speeded up and sent on their way by rivers of meltwater flowing beneath their base. 

“Greenland is a different animal from what we thought it was just a few years ago,” Alley says. “We are still thinking it might take centuries to go, but if things go wrong, it could just be decades.  Everything points in one direction, and it’s not a good direction.” 

The watchword is feedback.  As the Arctic becomes warmer it promotes processes that add to the effect.  White ice and snow repel sunlight, send it back toward space.  Blue water absorbs it.  Ice melt water plunges water deep into the heart of the ice, melting it yet more. 

There was a time 14,000 years ago, Mark Lynas notes in Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter World, when “the giant ice sheets of the last glacial age crumbled and gave way to the Holocene.”  Every 20 years sea levels escalated by over three feet. That went on for 400 years.  This was the result of climate feedbacks generated by small changes in sunlight due to orbital fluctuations.  Humanity today is also changing the degree to which the planet absorbs sunlight at a rate several times greater. “Just as they were in the past, ice-sheet changes in the future could be, to use (James) Hansen’s phrase, ‘explosively rapid.’” 

As I viewed those iceberg fleets sailing out the fjords, I sensed even in August 2000 it was already too late to prevent a severe level of climate change.  Between the physical reality of accumulating warming and the human reality of a politics blocked by self-interested avarice, there was too much inertia locked into the system, rolling like an unstoppable juggernaut or an accelerating glacier.  Nonetheless, I thought to myself, it was important to keep doing everything I was doing.  It would all be needed.  Perhaps the real project would be something other than I immediately conceived. 

Diffuse, ambiguous, it rested at the edges of my consciousness.  But I sensed it would be about planetary survival, about coming to a fundamental awareness of our new position on the planet and making a start on the tools to work with that new awareness.   If solar panels, wind turbines, clean vehicles, better ways of building human settlements and using the land, could not now prevent severe global change, they could at least mitigate its consequences and form the foundation for a way of life fitting to new conditions.

And that is the point for all of us who care and work for the future of our children and our planet.  We cannot pretend we have not left a legacy of climate disruption to our coming generations.  We cannot stop either in trying to leave the best inheritance we can of human societies and economies prepared to take the battering.  Despair is not an option.  The more we understand the conditions we have created, the more motivated we must be to act, to do the best we can.

In those bergs that day over Godhavn and Disko Bay, I sensed the end of the world as we knew it.  Now, another August nine years later I felt the approaching of that darker day driving along highways to places where that melted ice water would come. It somehow felt fitting to be reminded by the car radio of a song I rarely hear about the end of youthful innocence, the day the music died.  The day the Jersey Shore of my younger days would go under the waves. For weeks after that flight I experienced life as a temporariness.  Driving through standard, autofied urban/suburban development, the sense of passing came with an immediacy, as if this will not be here tomorrow. 

The feeling of immediacy passed, but the apparition remains.  Life is impermanent.  There is wisdom in accepting this.  Nothing lasts long but Earth and Sky, goes the Native American saying.  Holding on to what must inevitably change causes suffering, as the Buddha said.  We must accept the passing of things.  But I cannot do so without a certain sense of grief, cannot take the realities of climate change into my soul without feeling a leaden heaviness of dying pasts.  All things must pass, and we must too.  But what shall we leave, above all to our children?  From that question I cannot be detached. 

Erika’s generation will know a changed world of drowned cities and possibilities past.  At least I had a chance to share with her a little of the joy I felt in my youth’s warm summer waves and boardwalk playfulness.  I will work for her generation, to leave the best I can, as we all should.  It’s the least we can do. 

Postscript – In March Stefan Ramsdorf, one of the world’s leading scientists studying the North Atlantic circulation, wrote in Real Climate:

The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland is practically the only region of the world that has defied global warming and even cooled. Last winter there even was the coldest on record – while globally it was the hottest on record. Our recent study attributes this to a weakening of the Gulf Stream System, which is apparently unique in the last thousand years . . .

It happens to be just that area for which climate models predict a cooling when the Gulf Stream System weakens . . .  That this might happen as a result of global warming is discussed in the scientific community since the 1980s – since Wally Broecker’s classical Nature article 'Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse?' Meanwhile evidence is mounting that the long-feared circulation decline is already well underway . . .

“Another new aspect is the importance of the increasing mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet, which causes extra freshwater to enter the North Atlantic that dilutes the sea water . . . The ice loss amounts to a freshwater volume which should have made an important contribution to the observed decrease in salinity in the northern Atlantic.”