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Climate Change & White Privilege

Recently my daughter Rachel argued that my refusal to vote for Clinton because of her climate change policies is a reflection of my white privilege.

Her argument went this way: Because I am a relatively affluent older straight white male, I don’t have immediate concerns that poor people, people of color, women and the LGBTQ community have about a Trump presidency. Rachel did not belittle my climate-change concerns. She agreed about the gravity of environmental situation, but said I have the privilege of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, while the more vulnerable people in our country can’t afford to do that.

It makes sense that some people are more fearful than I am of a Trump victory - people whose children are in danger of being shot by a cop, whose family members could be detained and deported as undocumented or denied access to a needed abortion. However, while that argument justifies their position, it does not undercut mine.

Trump could make matters worse, but cops are already murdering young African-Americans under the current administration and there is no evidence that a Clinton presidency would change that. As Secretary of State, Clinton facilitated the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected President of Honduras, transforming that nation into a killing zone which, in turn, has created a flood of refugees we are now trying to deport. Clinton also has a long history of supporting policies that have screwed poor people.

While Trump might increase the oppression of the poor and undocumented in this country, Clinton’s neo-liberal economic policies in support of multinational corporations and extractionism will accelerate the destruction of habitats and livelihoods of tens, even hundreds, of millions of indigenous people in Latin America, Africa and Asia. A Clinton presidency is an immediate and dire threat to those people. And ask the people in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere who will be bombed to smithereens when hawkish Hillary takes over if they’d find her presidency acceptable in order to avoid Trump. It may seem insensitive, but just as I may be more insulated from a Trump presidency, at least some of the domestic poor can afford a Clinton presidency more easily than those on other continents whose lives her policies will destroy.

Finally, I will not vote for Clinton because my reading of the science teaches me that her policies will push us over tipping points that will generate positive feedback loops that will destroy the productive capacity of the planet. It may appear less immediate because of the lag between the production of greenhouse gases and their full impact, but we have run out of time. It won’t matter what color, gender or age you are when we face biospheric collapse. We are all in the same boat and we will all go down with the ship.

We need more people withdrawing support from those whose policies will spur climate chaos. Perhaps my privilege enables me to do so, but it is still imperative.  Read More 
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Should Have Been Snow

Weather forecasters are all a-dither about the “massive” snowstorm predicted for the Northeast this Saturday. Actually, one group of predictive models indicates the storm will pass far enough south to spare much of Southern New England, while a second model predicts it will wallop the entire region. Naturally, the media is hyping the latter, but as I write this it is even possible that for us it could blow harmlessly out to sea.

If the brewing storm strikes, it really should be the second of a one-two punch. That’s because last weekend’s rainstorm should have been a snowstorm. For those unfamiliar with Southern New England weather, we get lots of snow, but also plenty of rain in January. A rainstorm at my house at this time of year is far from extraordinary. To oversimplify the situation, that is because storm centers either pass to the north or south of us. If the center passes to our north, the counter-clockwise winds that circulate around low pressure draw warmer wet air from the Altantic over our region resulting in rain. When the center passes to the south, as in the classic Nor’easter, the same circulation draws in colder air from the Gulf of Maine and Quebec. In mid-winter this causes snowstorms.

In over fifty years of following weather, this is the first time I’ve seen what just happened late last week. A powerful storm developed off the mid Atlantic Coast and the storm center passed to the south of us. The winds shifted to the Northeast and North, but rain, not snow, fell the entire time. That’s because the temperatures over land were so mild and the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine was unusually warm. In fact, the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean is now 6 degrees warmer than it usually is at this time of year. I can’t imagine the amount of additional energy that has to be absorbed by sea waters to elevate the temperature that much over a thousand-mile stretch of ocean. That is a sobering indicator of global warming induced climate change.

Twenty, even ten years ago, what happened last weekend would have buried my house under a foot or more of snow. Now, we’d be bracing for another foot or two on top of that. Dealing with it would be rough, but such double-barreled snow dumps happen around here most winters, so we know how to cope.

Whenever such storms hit, they are a giant pain in the ass and last weekend’s rainstorm was easier to deal with than snow would have been. But as a weather nerd who understands its implications for our future, I find last weekend’s cold nasty rain much more worrisome than a massive snowstorm on the horizon.  Read More 
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Global Warming or Climate Change?

Global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably, but do they mean the same thing? Environmental activists’ criticisms of the latter phrase concern the lulling effect of this “more neutral” term. They point out that not all climate change is bad. In fact, what is problematic about today’s climate change is its rapid pace and searing direction. However, others hesitate to use global warming because that’s too narrowly focused on temperature. True, global warming doesn’t tell the whole story, but I’ve made it my primary descriptor to emphasize the urgency of the situation.

Mark Hertsgaard, in his book HOT: LIVING THROUGH THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS ON EARTH, does an excellent job of pin-pointing what the two terms denote.

“[G]lobal warming refers to the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change, on the other hand, refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on earth’s natural systems, and the impact that can result: stronger storms, deeper droughts, shifting seasons, sea level rise, and much else.”

More simply, the first phrase is the cause and the second the effect.

So both terms have their proper place. I will try to use them accordingly, but I’m still leery of climate change. This is because as I mentioned above, change per se, is not the problem. In fact, our planet’s climate has been evolving throughout its four billion year history. The pace of change has been uneven, but during the vast majority of the last half billion years it has been mild enough to promote evolution without causing mass extinctions.

There have been exceptions. When an asteroid the size of Mt. Everest smashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula 67 million years ago, a steamy-hot earth was plunged into “nuclear” winter almost overnight. The temperature increase over thousands of years brought about by a massive spike in the atmosphere’s methane content 225 million years ago doomed 95% of all plant and animal species alive at that time.

I mention these because the changes scientists are predicting echo both mass extinction events. Such nightmare scenarios, rather than the “normal” climate change, are what we face now. Many species today are unable to adjust to the rate at which global temperatures are increasing. And if we continue on our current course, the predicted 6 to 7 degree Celsius rise in global temperature over the next hundred years may trigger massive releases of methane currently trapped in artic permafrost and the ocean depths that could raise temperature even further and render the air we breathe toxic.

This kind of extreme climate change is what we must do everything in our power to prevent. So, no matter how accurate the phrase climate change is in describing the effect of global warming it still does not adequately address our current peril.
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Climate Justice First: an open letter to our New Left generation

Each New Year is a time of reflection, of looking forward, of hope. For the two of us, it’s also a time to renew our commitment to progressive activism. Over the decades, this work has involved many of you and has addressed many different issues – antiwar and antinuke, civil liberties and economic justice, gender and racial equality – in our local communities and around the globe. Understanding the close connections and shared causes of these oppressions, we have always believed that activists should support each other as we each work on the issues that fire our passion.

But things have changed. Global corporate-driven industrialization and militarization are, with increasing momentum, driving our planet toward total biotic collapse. The other issues – mass imprisonment and food safety and reproductive rights and a living wage – are as important as ever, but climate change is upon us and we have entered a new and very dangerous territory. We are concerned that so few of our comrades from the sixties are actively engaged in confronting this overriding challenge. We probably won’t live to see global devastation, but we are leaving our children and grandchildren a legacy of hell on earth. If nations and corporations continue to act as they have, it is most likely that we will render significant portions of our planet uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years.

This feels both colossal and very personal. Our grandchildren, now one and five, along with their entire generation, will live much shorter and harsher lives unless we stop the corporate-led forces that are at this moment committing terracide.

There are many reasons we are tempted to avoid this fight. Fighting for climate justice compels us to learn a new scientific vocabulary, to redirect our attention to how we interact with the physical elements of our planet, the animals, plants and minerals. It forces us to face, yet again, the greed of corporations and the complicity of governments. It requires us to accept that both major political parties have deep ties to the polluters and their buddies, and cannot be trusted to make the necessary changes. This task is overwhelming, but our grandchildren’s generation is doomed if we don’t take it on.

There is hope. The scientific evidence is strong. The movements for climate justice are growing. We ask you to join us – to read the books and articles if you haven’t already, and to join the climate justice activists. Our collective work against poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, indigenous rights still matters a hell of a lot. But if we plunge our planet into an ecological abyss, it won’t matter who is on the Supreme Court, who has the right to vote or to marry whom, or what the minimum wage is.

Our generation may be graying, but we can do this. We’ve done it before. We can educate ourselves, set priorities, and work both locally and globally. We can start new groups or join existing ones. (Organizations that don’t call for changing the basic nature of capitalism include 350.org, Sierra Club, Climate Action Now. A Marxist analysis is provided in the Monthly Review and Deep Green Resistance has an even more basic critique.)

It will not be easy; those who profit from the planet-killing industries are powerful. There is no guarantee of success. But we know our friends and comrades can make a tremendous difference if we all put our minds to it. As we enter 2014, we can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than preventing the collapse of the miraculous web of plant and animal life on our majestic and fragile home.

Ellen & Robert Meeropol Read More 
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Climate Change: Adaptation or Prevention

Elli and I attended the Western Massachusetts Climate Justice Conference last month. It was designed to bridge the class divide between those working to stop global warming, and those struggling for economic justice. I was impressed with the age, race and class diversity of the more than 250 participants who included both middle-class professionals and college students who live in the smaller towns of our area, and poorer people, many of color, concentrated in the cities of Springfield and Holyoke. It was a very encouraging start to what hopefully will be a region-wide alliance of people who realize that health, environment, climate and economic justice are inextricably entwined.

But bridging class and race gaps is neither simple nor easy. Before the conference one of the organizers contacted the director of a local group that is focused on protecting the water quality of the Connecticut River. The organizer wanted to discuss participation in the conference. She was told that this group had decided not to work on issues around preventing climate change, but instead would focus their energies on mitigating the damage caused by - and adapting to - global warming.

It turns out that the Keystone Pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, provides some of that group’s funds. I don’t know how much impact this funding has had on the organization’s decision not to work directly against climate change, but I’m concerned that this environmental group is avoiding work on climate change prevention because it would force them to take a strong position against the pipeline.

This interaction got me thinking more generally about climate change “prevention” strategies verses “mitigation” or “adaptation.” (Perhaps “adaptation” is a better word than “mitigation.” The latter is ambiguous. Efforts focused on mitigating global warming can contribute to its prevention, but efforts designed only to lessen the damage merely try to adjust to climate change.)

There is a strong class bias built into strategies that primarily promote adaptation. Adaptation is expensive. The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Much of their country lies below sea level and global warming is causing sea level to rise. They have committed to spending 140 billion dollars to raise the gargantuan levies that protect them. Many millions more are threatened by rising sea levels in Bangladesh, but they can’t afford such public works. That nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2012 was only 115.6 billion dollars.

Those of us who live in wealthier communities have more resources to help us adapt: to clean up rivers or toxic waste sites or set aside nature preserves. But adaptation is at best a short term and piece-meal approach. It will protect some people and some resources, but it is more likely to bypass the most vulnerable, and will never solve a planetary problem. This is not to say we should ignore the threats to residents of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, or Staten Island for that matter, but efforts to protect them must complement rather than compete with prevention work.

We’ve reached the point where we must always take the big picture into account. To adjust the phrase, we must act both locally and globally. And that means, among other things, that overcoming our class differences has become essential. That’s why the Springfield Conference was so important.  Read More 
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