Best of Times, Worst of Times: The Presidential Climate Action Project

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"Best of Times, Worst of Times: The Presidential Climate Action Project"

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”¦

After two-and-a-half years of work and $2.5 million of investment in research and writing, the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) will shut down on April 30. We will end the project in a political and social climate much like that described by Charles Dickens.

Of all the important changes that have occurred since we began PCAP in January 2007, the biggest of course was the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President. We now have a leader who understands the threat of global climate change; who believes that the path out of economic crisis is green; and who has begun to rally and prod the Congress and the American people to action.

That type of leadership was PCAP’s fondest aspiration. We’ve tried to help by producing hundreds of proposals for how the President could jump start federal climate leadership in 100 days and, longer term, reinvent the federal policies and programs that were created by and for the industrial era. At risk of overwhelming the new Administration with ideas, we set out to demonstrate that climate action can and must involve much more than a cap-and-trade bill in Congress, as important as that bill is.

To create the action plan, we contracted or corresponded with more than 400 people in the energy, climate and environmental fields, including some in Obama’s election campaign and some who now are part of the Administration. In the process, I’ve discovered a few principles that I believe should guide national policy. I’ve summarized them for political leaders, policy wonks and posterity in a two-part presentation on the web, titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now”. I hope you’ll find some good ideas there; I know you’ll find conclusive evidence that I do not have a career in film.

Of course, PCAP has been just one of scores of groups producing climate and energy ideas for the Obama Administration. As an ad hoc project headquartered far outside the beltway at the University of Colorado Denver, we have been an uninvited newcomer among the many well-established environmental NGOs that have carried the green banner so well and so long. But we were blessed with an amazing group of national advisers, generous contributors, and the license to push the policy envelop, and the feedback we’re received from kindred groups as well as members of the Obama team persuades us that we made a difference. That has made all of the working weekends, pre-dawn starts and cold suppers worthwhile.

And yet, if President Obama’s overt and active commitment to climate action makes this the best of times, this also is the worst of times for many of my friends and colleagues who are sacrificing their budgets and family lives to create the political will for genuine progress in reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s the worst of times because they are heavily outnumbered in the climate wars on Capitol Hill. As has been widely reported in recent weeks, there are more than 2,300 lobbyists working the climate issue in Congress, a 300 percent increase over the past five years. Only one in eight of them represents the green side of the climate issue.

The Center for Public Integrity, which generated these numbers, estimates that lobbyists spent $90 million on climate issues last year – and the evidence suggests that the forces of stasis had the bigger budgets. What evidence? Look at how energy, economic and climate issues are being framed in congressional debate and, by extension, the media and the public arena:

  • The energy debate keeps regressing to arguments over more domestic oil drilling, or gas drilling, or oil shale and tar sands development for “energy independence”. But the real issue, as I have written in the past, is not how much carbon we can take out of the ground; it’s how much we can put into the sky. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon, not proven or potential reserves of fossil fuels, are the correct frame for the energy debate.
  • The economic debate in Congress dwells on how investments in a green economy are placing a horrible debt on our children. But as I’ve written before, the more important issue is carbon debt – the irreversible, catastrophic, costly damage to public health and safety that we are imposing on future generations with every ton of new greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Opponents of carbon pricing dwell on the impact of higher fossil energy prices. But those costs can be mitigated through tax relief and other financial mechanisms. The correct frame for the carbon pricing debate is not the cost of fossil fuels; it’s the much higher cost of doing nothing. To put it simply, a future filled with flooding, drought, wildfires, coastal inundation, new disease vectors, heat waves, resource wars, national security threats and other climate-induced maladies is much more expensive than a future in which we have mitigated those impacts and adapted to those that already are inevitable.
  • A key part of federal economic recovery strategy has been to bail out corporations that are “too big to fail”. Let’s hope that in the upcoming debate over climate bills in Congress, we hear the argument that if we want to restore prosperity and security, it’s the biosphere that’s truly too big to fail. The CEOs in charge of its health right now are the world’s leaders, including the members of the United States Congress.

If the green lobby were winning the battle on Capitol Hill, they rather than the lobbyists for the old energy economy would be framing the national discussion over climate and energy policy with the right questions. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Times also are difficult for climate activists because of the recession. Growing recognition of the climate crisis and the 2008 presidential campaign spawned many start-up NGOs in recent years. These young groups typically don’t benefit from endowments and a longstanding stable of sponsors, and it has become increasingly difficult for them to find funding. Some reportedly are in danger of shutting down at precisely the moment we need them most.

Finally, it is the worst of times because we are running out of time to prevent climate change from careening out of control. Greenhouse emissions by industrial nations including the U.S. must peak by 2015 and begin a rapid decline. That’s six short years from now. Some members of the science community believe we already have crossed the 2 degree threshold of warming that gives us only a 50-50 chance of avoiding the worse consequences of climate change. And as a NOAA study reported last January, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, we’re in for 1,000 years of damages from the emissions in the atmosphere today.

On March 19, I attended a seminar in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Wildlife Federation and organized by Dr. Lise Van Susteren on the “Psychological Aspects of Climate Change”. I expected a discussion about how the continuing onslaught of frightening science is producing documented cases of “climate blues” among children.

What I heard instead is that the climate blues is infecting climate activists whose intense workloads, sense of urgency, constant exposure to the issue, financial stress and battle fatigue are taking a tough toll on personal lives and emotions.

Climate scientists are affected, too. Among the findings that emerged from a gathering of scientists in Copenhagen last month is that “being a climate scientist these days is not for the faint of heart.” According to one news report:

What haunts scientists most, many said, is the feeling that – despite an overwhelming consensus on the science – they are not able to convey to a wider public just how close Earth is to climate catastrophe”¦It’s as if scientists know a bomb will go off, but can’t find the right words to warn the people who might be able to defuse it.

For my own therapy, I followed the Washington conference with 10 days of speechmaking and networking in London and Paris. As happens each time I visit the European Union, I met an extraordinary number of individuals fighting the good fight with enormous energy and stamina. Among them has been Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist who is leading a project to quantify the economic value of the many services provided to human beings by the environment and who now is working with the United Nations Environment Programme to design a Global Green New Deal. Another is Tony Manwaring of Tomorrow’s Company, one of the UK’s great green networkers and conveners whose “think and do tank” is engaging the business community in becoming leaders in the emerging green economy. Another is Clare Dakin, whose efforts to help reforest India were featured in one of my posts last year.

On the latest trip, I met with Alex Grayson of the Omni Group, who heads its Empower Community initiative to help communities and organizations operate more sustainably; Nicky Gavron, a member of the London Assembly and former deputy mayor of London, who remains a force of nature in the movement to create sustainable cities; Lord Harry Renwick, who doggedly advocates a process to sequester carbon in dolomite; Patrice LeFeu, who organizes the impressive and important World Investment Conference each summer in France, where he convenes corporate leaders to build trans-Atlantic alliances for green technologies; David Wasdell, director of the Apollo-Gaia Project, whose research indicates that the mainstream science community doesn’t fully understand how far climate change has progressed; Sean Kidney of the group Climate Risk, who is quantifying the scope and pace of the global green industrial revolution necessary to head off the worst of climate change; Prof. John Fyfe, who has dedicated much of his illustrious career to helping communities in the UK find new futures when their coal industries closed down; and Adam Lent, head of Economic and Social Affairs for the Trades Union Congress, an expert on a “just transition to a low-carbon economy”.

Largely because of the networking genius of Mr. Manwaring, I talked to or met more than 200 people over three days in London last month, coming away renewed and convinced that for the sanity and the success of the climate-action movement, we need the following:

  • Much more collaboration across the Atlantic with colleagues in the European Union. We should be sharing energy, ideas, strategies and inspiration. Perhaps the Climate Action Network, which boasts membership of 430 NGOs worldwide, can do more to facilitate trans-Atlantic partnerships and support groups between small as well as large kindred organizations.
  • More mutual support between climate-action groups here in the U.S. Competition is a good thing even among climate-action advocates, but it may be time for some of our bigger and better endowed NGOs to come to the rescue of the startups who are serving important niches in the national effort.
  • More participation by the mental health professions and their national organizations in identifying and dealing with the psychological impacts of climate change, wherever those impacts are being felt.
  • A White House Conference on Climate Change, convened and attended by President Obama to focus the nation’s attention on the real issues at stake with global warming. This should be a one-day meeting before Congress begins serious work on carbon pricing, open to the media and attended by invited climate scientists, economists and policy experts. Topics should include the issues I raised above: the latest in our rapidly evolving understanding of the true impacts of climate change, the costs of doing nothing, and how global warming already is underway in the U.S., affecting the health, safety and financial security of the American people.

The worst of times is enough to scare the Dickens out of us. But the best of times – and the fact that there still is time – should give us hope. Perhaps we can take a lesson from Barack Obama, who says that tough times are the best times to be President. The truth is, it’s a privilege to be alive right now to help humankind discover the keys to healing poverty and the planet at the same time. No one said it would be easy.

— Bill Becker

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8 Responses to Best of Times, Worst of Times: The Presidential Climate Action Project

  1. Susan says:

    THANK YOU! It is exactly as you say, exhausting and we are not winning. This article will be a pep talk when I get discouraged!

  2. Ronald says:

    Psychological aspects of climate change.

    I guessed other than you did. What is the psychological aspects of changing the mind of someone who is a denier to an accepter of AGW or the selling of non-carbon fueled energy sources as opposed to carbon fueled energy sources.

    Haunting of the scientists. Have we really seen that? Why isn’t there a TV show and camera at these climate conferences like there some of the other TV reality shows going around? Just to boring? I guess.

    But somewhere there has got to be better and media coverage of this stuff.

  3. TD says:

    Identifying and dealing with the psychological impacts of climate change? In other words, how to treat sanity in an insane world.

    Maybe the psychologists should make a protocol for treating the climate change deniers.

  4. Ben says:

    “We will end the project in a political and social climate much like that described by Charles Dickens”. Human climate change is always the prevailing force …. This is everywhere in Dickens’ stories.

  5. jorleh says:

    Don`t believe EU is going to be some better than the U.S. Have a look of the post Monbiot gets for every writing in The Guardian. And I think GB is one of the greenest country in EU.

  6. Cait says:

    Re: Psychology I can’t agree with you more.

    On a personal note I find it extremely difficult to stay ‘positive’ if that’s the right word bearing in mind that we’re talking about being on the side of the fence that understands what’s happening here.

    On a broader, global level you can expect more civil unrest, and more fear as things begin to change. Fear doesn’t just lead to inefficiency and depression, it also leads to an increase in reactionary fundamentalism as more groups jump in to fill the void with all sorts of as yet unknown gibberish to placate those weakened by events.

    It’s a question of recognising that, and pre-empting it with as much damn positive change and positive action as possible, not purely to avoid the global catastrophe, in as much as we can, but to fight hard to retain structures we have now, which are of course held in place primarily by public trust in ‘organisation’ that works.

    Unfortunately at present we seem to be caught in a perfect storm. The economic downturn is an exacerbating factor that is not exactly helping on the psychological health / trust in organised society front.

  7. Just wanted to say thanks to Bill Becker and his colleagues for their incredibly hard and useful work.

  8. Bill Becker says:

    To Bill McKibben: Thanks back at you. You’ve set an incredibly high standard for insight, intelligence and hard work.

    To Cait: It seems to me that a next frontier is to engage the country in building a positive vision of the future we can create if we put our shoulders to it. As important as they are, visions of the apocalypse — for example, the Day After Tomorrow and similar films — need to be accompanied by visions of hope. Realistic hope, given the damage that’s already inevitable, but hope.

    I’ve written previously about Futurama — the GM pavilion at the 1939 Worlds Fair. GM put foward a dynamic, upbeat vision of a car-centered society that gave American’s something positive to aspire to in the final years of the Great Depression. Perhaps because it was a profoundly teachable moment, the GM exhibit had such deep impact that it has influenced urban design and transportation policy ever since.

    I think we’re in a similar moment now. So next week, the Rockefeller Bros. Fund and I are convening a meeting of 30 communications wizards and sustainable development experts from the U.S. and UK to discuss the creation of a new post-carbon societal vision, with public participation. We may agree to collaborate; we may not. I hope we do.

    Over the next year, I hope to take the same principle to the grassroots, working with some of the communities in fossil-energy country to help them envision, plan and implement post-carbon prosperity.

    During my last visit to the UK, I met with a number of people who worked with communities there when coal mines began to close in the 1960-70s. I asked one of them what the single-most important lesson was. He said, “Never tell people their present is about to end without offering them a path to the future.” We need to do that here, and now.

    I’ll write more about this soon. Thanks for commenting.