JP Green House is an urban homestead in Boston.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Moderation Bedamned

I spent an evening recently in a room with a climate activist, saying "this is what the science demands..." debating a policymaker, saying "we're doing all we can do given the difficulties of getting stakeholder buy-in...". 

The forum was panel discussion between Massachusetts Energy Undersecretary Bobby Kates-Garnick and climate activist Craig Altemose of 350MA at the Brookline Public Library, part of Brookline Climate Week. Craig laid out the hard facts of what the science tells us we need to do. Bobby responded with a long list of things MA has already done, making it the most climate-progressive state in the nation, but with a lot of caveats about how hard it is to get communities to embrace wind (NIMBY-ism), the fact that the state has been repeatedly sued over the Cape Wind project, how communities face hardship when we shut down coal plants, etc. Like most of our politicians--even the good ones--she showed no true understanding of the level of urgency and the need to behave in unconventional ways in order to rise to the occasion. A liberal, in other words. They mean well...

She was right--on the terms of her own entrenched, short-sighted, incrementalist, liberal-government paradigm. But we know chemistry and physics will be uninterested in her arguments. I just wanted to walk away from the whole false dilemma and into some wholly other reality, someplace where we can speak the truth. Listening to her was like watching someone have a fatal stroke in slow motion. Horrifying, and also weirdly dull.

If you haven't yet read Wen Stephenson's classic essay on how climate change cannot be addressed with moderate thinking, here it is:

We're up against a very hard logic. Atmospheric physics and chemistry aren't persuaded to change course by the difficulties of making any headway in our political system. They aren't responsive to half-measures and good intentions. 

We've been taught to like the word "moderation". It represents a balanced, thoughtful view that every position is worth listening to, that the truth is not found in any single place. It's very nice. But niceness can be the enemy of real compassion. You can't be nice to psychopath, to a cancer, to a runaway train. Compassion--for the Earth, for our children, for the future--at this moment involves courage and a ruthless dedication to truth.

Bowing to Winter

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Watch Your Baseline

Damn this horrible weather! What a nasty winter we're having, eh?

There has been a lot of complaining about the cold and the snow this winter (2014). You can’t open your Facebook feed without hearing about the “unusual winter” and people’s personal gripes with the weather in their area. The Polar Vortex that dunked much of the country into unusually cold weather for a few weeks was, admittedly, quite an occurrence. And there have been awful stories of places like Atlanta, where they just don’t get snow, and people were stranded for hours and days in massive traffic jams caused by panic over a dusting. (We Northerners laugh at them, but the total meltdown of a city after receiving 2 inches of snow is more due to suburban sprawl and traffic-flow problems than any reaction to the snow itself.)

But this winter wasn’t unusual. Or rather, it was, if the “usual” we’re talking about is our already-changed climate, which has caused significantly warmer winters for the past ten years. Winter temperatures in New England are 4F degrees warmer than they were, on average, 30 years ago (see here: The whole planet is 1.4F degrees warmer since the Industrial Revolution. That’s a lot, actually.

Eagerly awaiting spring is different from hating the very existence of winter. I often encounter people who seem delighted with winter temperatures in the 50s and 60s, when we have them. What they're enjoying is the demise of our planet. 

There’s a phenomenon at work here that’s been called the “shifting baseline”. What we grew up with seems “normal” to all of us. When your little hometown falls victim to suburban sprawl and they put up a WalMart in the field you once played in, you feel violated. Your baseline was the old town. But for the kids growing up there now, the WalMart has always been there, and they don’t miss the field.

Here’s another great illustration of the shifting baseline: A story from Key West about how the “big fish” shrunk markedly over a 50 year span.

Your baseline tells you what’s “normal” for you, but that’s always going to be subjective, specific to you. For me, winter temperatures frequently in the 50s and 60s in Boston are abnormal, but for my kids they will be normal. Likewise, they will never know that there used to be abundant hemlock trees in New England, before they were killed off by the Wooly Adelgid, a non-native pest. They will remember skiing in Vermont and Maine, but their grandchildren may not.

If we pay attention only to our experience, and don’t follow the hard data of science, we may not notice climate change at all. It’s happening fast, but still too slowly for most of us to comprehend without stepping back for a broader view. We might have an odd feeling of fear and loss that tells us something ominous has occurred. But much can vanish before our eyes and not be missed. 

(Cartoon attribution: