Climate Progress at Five Years: Why I Blog

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"Climate Progress at Five Years: Why I Blog"

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books….

I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts….

– George Orwell, “Why I write”

I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to force us to face unpleasant facts (see here).

What I have learned most from the success of my blog, from the rapid growth in subscribers and visitors and comments, along with the increasing number of websites that link to or reprint my posts, is that there is in fact a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk. It is a hunger to learn the truth about the dire nature of our energy and climate situation, about the grave threat to our children and future generations, about the vast but still achievable scale of the solutions, about the forces in politics and media that impede action — a hunger to face unpleasant facts head on.

Unlike Orwell, I knew from a very early age, certainly by the age of five or six, that I would be a physicist, like my uncle, and I announced that proudly to all who asked.

I knew I did not want to be a professional writer since I saw how hopeless it was to make a living that way. My father was the editor of a small newspaper (circulation under 10,000) that he turned into a medium-sized newspaper (70,000) but was paid poorly, even though he managed the equivalent of a large manufacturing enterprise — while simultaneously writing three editorials a day — that in any other industry would pay several times as much. My mother pursued freelance writing for many years, an even more difficult way to earn a living (see also “This could not possibly be more off topic“).

Why share this? Orwell, who shares far, far more in his many brilliant essays, argues in “Why I write“:

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.

And no, I’m not operating under the misimpression that my writing can be compared with Orwell’s. I know of no essayist today who comes close to matching his skill in writing. On top of that, bloggers simply lack the time necessary for consistently first-rate efforts. I’ve written more than 3 million words since launching my blog in 2006. Perfection isn’t an option.

Orwell does, however, have the soul of a blogger. He has a brutal honesty that puts even the best modern memoirists to shame. And he confronts the toughest of truths, which I think is perhaps the primary quality I aspire to at ClimateProgress.org, a quality captured in the label that Rolling Stone gave me, “America’s fiercest climate-change activist-blogger.” Orwell asserts, “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose.”

I see more than four great motives to blog, at least for me. But let’s start with Orwell’s:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death….

Inarguable. At least Orwell notes that “Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists.” I make no pretensions to be a serious writer. I’m not certain that bloggers are journalists. I think we are, however, journal-ists. What is a (web) log if not a journal?

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement….

I dictate all of my blog posts directly onto the PC using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. For me the sound of a good phrase, the pleasure of a headline that works, is immense.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Even more so with a blog. In the event we don’t avert catastrophic global warming, I do hope that the reporting and analysis in this blog, which evolves over time, will be of use to those trying to understand just how it is that, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it, “a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself.” It will be a great source of bafflement to future generations, and I suspect that as they suffer through the misery and grief caused by our myopia and greed, a literature will emerge aimed at trying to understand what went wrong, how we did this to ourselves. Perhaps ClimateProgress.org will help.

(iv) Political purpose.… Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

Orwell goes on to say of himself (emphasis added):

By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.

His always careful word choice is telling. The Wikipedia entry on “pamphleteer” asserts, “Today a pamphleteer might communicate his missives by way of weblog.”

Orwell explains the source of his evoluton:

I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience…. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

I couldn’t dream of saying it better than that.

And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

I also blog for at least two other reasons.

Peace of mind: I would be unimaginably frustrated and depressed if I didn’t have a way of contributing to the task of saving a livable climate, a way of responding in real time to the general humbug and sentences without meaning and purple passages of those who wittingly or unwittingly spreading disinformation aimed at delaying action on climate change. I hope the comments section on the blog serves as a similar outlet for readers.

Personal growth: The act of trying to explain the science and the solutions and the politics to a broader audience forces me think hard about what I’m really saying, about what I really know and don’t know. The rapid feedback and global nature of the blogosphere mean that I get to test my ideas against people who are exceedingly knowledgeable and articulate. Through this blog I have interacted with people from every walk of life, with widely different worldviews, from many continents, whom I never would have otherwise known. And all from the basement of my home, occasionally with my daughter by my side.

It boggles the mind that I have a profession that did not exist even a decade ago, but that is, in many respects, precisely what my father did, precisely what I never expected to do.

I first became interested in global warming in the mid-1980s, studying for my physics Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and researching my thesis on oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. I was privileged to work with Walter Munk, one of the world’s top ocean scientists, on advanced acoustic techniques for monitoring temperature changes in the Greenland Sea.

A few years later, as Special Assistant for International Security to Peter Goldmark, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, I found myself listening to some of the nation’s top experts on these issues. Even a generation ago, they knew the gravest threats that would face us today. They convinced me that global warming was the most serious long-term, preventable threat to the health and well-being of this nation and the world.

In the mid-1990s, I served for five years in the U.S. Department of Energy. As an acting assistant secretary, I helped develop a climate technology strategy for the nation. Working with leading scientists and engineers at our national laboratories, I came to understand that the technology for reducing our emissions was already at hand and at a far lower cost than was widely understood — if we had smart government policies to drive those technologies into the marketplace, policies which included putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. Then I worked with some of the nation’s leading corporations, helping them to make greenhouse gas reductions and commitment plans that also handsomely boost their profits.

After my brother lost his Mississippi home in the Hurricane Katrina storm surge and asked me for advice on whether or not he should rebuild there, I started interviewing climate experts for what turned into my previous book, Hell and High Water. Our top climate scientists impressed upon me the fact that the climate situation is far more dire than I had realized, far more dire than 98 percent of opinion makers and politicians understand — a situation that, sadly, remains true today.

I made a decision I would not pull any punches — I would get “political” as Orwell defined the term. I joined the Center for American Progress in 2006 because it had become the cutting edge think tank for both policy and communications on progressive issues. I began part time, posting on this blog once a day. As readership grew and ClimateProgress.org became a leading voice on energy and climate issues, I began posting more. Now I’m a full-time blogger, writing several times a day and also featuring guest posts from some of the best writers and thinkers on the subject.  CP also has a terrific clean energy blogger, Stephen Lacey.

A key goal of this blog today is to save you time. There is far too much information on climate science, clean energy solutions, and global warming politics for anyone to keep up with. And the status quo media simply puts out too much analysis, most of it quite bad. And yet everyone needs to follow this issue, needs to have an an informed opinion on the most important issue of the decade and the century.

The terrific commenters on this blog bring facts, links, nuance — and even reasoned push-back — to what gets written here. You often direct me to a breaking story or study I haven’t seen, giving me the jump on others in the blogosphere. You are a key reason Time magazine named Climate Progress one of the 25 “Best Blogs of 2010.” And that’s why I worked to bring back the old comments system.

The ultimate reason that I blog is because it’s not too late. Just because the catastrophic climate changes we are headed toward will probably be irreversible for hundreds of years or longer, that doesn’t mean they are unstoppable.

We are going to adopt the clean energy strategies described on this blog. That is a certainty. But the question of our time is, will we do it fast enough?

Humanity has only two paths forward at this point.  “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline,” as President Obama (!) said in April 2009. Either we voluntarily switch to a low-carbon, low-oil, low-net water use, low-net-material use economy over the next two decades or the post-Ponzi-scheme-collapse forces us to do so circa 2030. The only difference between the two paths is that the first one spares our children and grandchildren and countless future generations untold misery.

As I wrote above, if I have learned anything from the blog, it is that there is in fact a great hunger out there to face unpleasant facts head on.   And that is possibly the most reassuring thing I have learned in the past five years.  Thank you all for that!

This post is a (slight) revision.

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37 Responses to Climate Progress at Five Years: Why I Blog

  1. I am so grateful that you blog. I repost most of your articles every day on Facebook and Twitter.

  2. Prokaryotes says:

    maybe some readers like to wear a Tshirt with “Climate Change” on it, exclusively designed by me. This is a new project and more designs will be released in the coming days/weeks!

    Help to bring awareness to the topic …

    Check out the new collection @ http://galaxymachine.de

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and candid list of motivations.

    Regarding the “great hunger out there to face unpleasant facts head on,” we flee the emotional isolation that often hits along with the unpleasant facts, and we turn to the strength of a community conversation. The comment system and “Like” option helps me to know that I wasn’t the only one appalled by loss of phytoplankton, the Arctic death spiral and the like.
    By articulating the fable of “1984,” George Orwell helped us “name the devil” and prevent or at least delay its full manifestation. Climate Progress calls attention to the dynamics that could lead to a beyond-miserable “~2084.” It’s strong work.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    You have inspired many of us, Joe. Merlin told Arthur in the movie Excalibur that the most important quality in a knight is truth.

    In the case of climate change, truth leads to some wrenching places, on all levels. That’s why too many of those who know what’s going on shy away from both fully laying out the facts and calling out those who distort them.

    Nobody anywhere does this as well as you, and it is why we depend on you. It’s up to the rest of us to act on the evidence.

    I’m grateful for the humor, too, and as you know I have made a few efforts there myself. As Voltaire said, “If you are going to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise, they will kill you”.

  5. Greg says:

    Thank you, Joe.

  6. I add my thanks Joe. I come to your site nearly every day to be informed and inspired.

    I am a lawyer in Australia and today I’m off to court to argue that a coal mine should not proceed because of the 1.3Gt of GHG that will result from the coal being burnt. The miners don’t dispute the science of climate change but simply say “if we don’t do it, someone else will”. I come to your site to remind myself of the task we face in leaving a planet livable for our children and the next 5,000 generations.

    By the way, details of the court case are available at http://www.envlaw.com.au/wandoan.html including the expert reports filed in the proceedings.

    Dr Malte Meinshausen’s report at http://www.envlaw.com.au/wandoan12.pdf is particularly interesting on the contribution the mine will make to climate change and ocean acidification based on the remaining Carbon Budget to limit temperature rises to less than 2C.

    • BBHY says:

      “if we don’t do it, someone else will”

      Yeah, that seems to be the prevailing attitude, but another way to look at it is: “If we don’t stop, then no one else will”.

    • Thanks Chris. Malte’s report is great science summary of climate impacts of a coal mine. Happens to be something I’m working on here in Canada.

  7. dan allen says:

    Bravo! I guess I just differ with you on the time scale of Ponzi-style collapse — I think it’ll happen (is happening!) much sooner than 2030. And this, of course, limits the viable options moving forward.

  8. Ed Hummel says:

    Joe,
    Just wanted to add my thanks for what you do. One of your stated reasons for doing this blog is to allow people the ease of finding the latest science in one easy place. Up until I started reading this blog a few years ago, I had to peruse the pertinent journals when I could find the time to keep up with the latest science. Thankfully, you’ve made it much easier to keep up. In addition, I’ve met some really great people online that I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. They and you have kept me from falling into total despair about the oncoming situation which we all face. Thanks again!
    PS Thanks also for bringing back the wordpress format!!!

  9. sydb says:

    Joe,
    As a regular reader, I know I’ll always find information that’s accurate and pertinent on your blog. That is why I read it.

    However, I think there is a higher purpose than just informing people like me, who understad the science and know all too well what the consequences of our greed will be on future generations. By informing those who will listen, the message will spread.

    When-as I am sure will haappen unless common sense prevails-the disastrous consequences of human greed cause calamity for later generations, and probably ours too, there needs to be proof that this course was a deliberate choice motivated by the greed of a corrupt kleptocracy. We did not crash and burn because of some unforeseen natural process but because the greedy, bribed, sleazeball politicians resolved not to act. They choose to remain wilfully ignorant, hiding behind religious and/or political bigotry, but from what I recall, ignorance of the law is no excuse, and if these people make decisions on matters concerning science, they cannot plead ignorance. It is their duty to either make the necessary effort to inform themselves or defer to those who do know and recuse themselves from the decision-making.

    It would be naive in the extreme to expect these parties will be called to accont for their crimes but these crimes must be brought to light so that, if there is a recovery from the coming disaster, our descendant will know how to avoid repeating or mistakes.

    Keep up the good work!

    Sydb

  10. i fear you’re going to have to re-up for another five–your best efforts aside, we haven’t quite solved this problem yet. but not for lack of trying on your part! thanks much

    • Bill G says:

      Dear Bill,
      You are a great guy and a hard worker. But do you really think there is a ghost of a chance to curb CO2? If you do, what is the evidence?

      Bill, I’d like to see you change direction and put your considerable organizing and persuasion skills into planning for survival. We ARE going over the falls – that is not defeatism, its realism.

      Let’s not be in Denial ourselves.
      Thank you.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Thanks for stepping up in DC, Bill- you got the world to notice.

      Don’t pay attention to Bill G- that’s just Bill Gates, trying to recruit you for one of his harebrained geoengineering schemes. Where you see danger and the need to stop it (to paraphrase the RFK eulogy), Gates smells cash.

      If you’re not Gates, Bill G, my apologies. In any case, adapting to 6C is a losing battle.

  11. ecospam says:

    Thanks for your invaluable work! It is one of the best resource I read each day. Greetings from France.

  12. Bill G says:

    I am grateful for this sane blog. But isn’t it time to change tactics?

    Does anyone think CO2 will be curbed? If yes, would you be willing to place a sizable bet? If you would, I’m interested.

    To keep acting like CO2 is going to be curbed and mocking people like Perry is a lot of fun, but a waste of effort. It is “Denial” on a higher level.

    We ARE going to experience what 400, 450, 500+ parts per million of CO2 does to planet earth. That is all but 100% certain if we are honest. It is high time, or past time, to begin survival preparations.

    Distinguished climate scientist and Royal Society member James Lovelock says uncurbed CO2 means five billion or more humans will perish.

    Begin serious survival planning now – or again find ourselves caught doing too little, too late.

    • Ed Hummel says:

      Bill G,
      I agree with you that people should prepare for a tough future since it doesn’t appear likely that we’ll avoid some pretty bad times which are already starting to manifest themselves. However, as Joe has said many times, preparing for a rough future has to go hand in hand with a continuing effort for mitigation since we can still reduce the disasters somewhat if we act now. As long as there is any chance to reduce the coming disasters we should try to do so, and that is what Joe is doing. Even people who think they’ve prepared for coming disasters can’t be sure they will survive since disasters by their very nature lead to random death just as is the case in warfare. One can improve ones chances by doing certain things, but nothing is a certainty. All we can do is keep trying to do the right thing as this blog advocates. Otherwise, we might as well be ants.

      • Bill G says:

        Ed,
        We aren’t ants, but humans with brains that can think about the future using science. I read DoD is doing some kind of survival planning, but it seems secret.

        You say we are in for “some pretty bad times.” That is putting it mildly. Lovelock and Hansen to name just two top scientists, say life is either doomed (Hansen) or confined to the poles in small numbers (Lovelock). You suggest both mitigation action and survival planning be done at the same time. Yes, but where is the survival planning? (other than possibly DoD)? I’d like to see some of the latter type of plans on the table.

  13. Cat says:

    Thanks for the use of the Orwell quote and the link to Why I Write. I’m so glad to have found it.

    And I’m so glad you’re carrying on this mission.

  14. Arne Perschel says:

    Thanks, Joe!
    The climate crocks were my initiation, CP is my essential resource.
    You’ve taught me a great deal about climate science, policy, solutions and psychology. But also about rhetoric and strategy!
    Your work is priceless.
    Also, many thanks to the other commenters!
    Greetings from Spain!

  15. John McCormick says:

    RE # 12
    Bill G. I hear you. But “It is high time, or past time, to begin survival preparations.” is not going to happen. Those same immovable idiots denying global warming are the same idiots who will resist spending any money on preparation. First, they would have to justify the expenditures and confess they have been wrong. And, they clearly do not care a fig about the future past their next quarterly earnings.

    John McCormick

    • Ed Hummel says:

      John,
      You got that right!

      • John McCormick says:

        Ed Hummel, glad to see you in print again. Hope Irene did not flood your garden.

        John McCormick

    • Bill G says:

      John,
      I completely agree with you regarding Washington not lifting a finger to prepare for the all but certain eventuality that CO2 emissions continue without let up. But must we wait for Washington for everything that gets done? Just as actions against coal tar mining are not government initiated, organizations like 350 or this blog could start the discussion about survival ideas and plans.

      If someone does not get that ball rolling it is easy to imagine the US and world will get blindsided when serious tipping starts – such as with sudden ocean rise or severe food shortages.

  16. Bill G.(2) says:

    I humbly thank Joe Romm for his blog. I am new to the blog but I read it every day along with the Financial Times headlines. The only thing that is missing is a sociological perspective – since sociology can be considered a study of how our society recreates itself through language and identity. I don’t think that society so much ‘chooses’ to fail but instead moves to that position through a historical process which is driven by unacknowledged sociological positions. I would not assume that people will change by just giving them facts. The manner in which people live gives them a vocabulary from which they make their decisions. Economics is really a branch of sociology. Capitalism has always been about the commoditization of nature with resulting scarcity given that scarcity creates greater value (given that wealth is based on exchange value, not use value). Hence we will have the continued destruction of blue fin tuna as these fish gain in value in scarcity. In traditional societies, this would not be tolerated. One could conceivably look at the actions of the early western explorers such as Columbus and predict our current condition. I think it has to be understood that the position that we must abide by the limits that nature has is a contradiction to our historically based way of life. That means we have to adjust the conditions of our society based on the transcendental value of humanity and nature – this is a new perspective.

  17. Many thanks Joe.

    I, and I’m sure many other folks working on climate mitigation, share many of your motivations that you so elegantly listed. I was nodding my head as I read them.

    What truly impresses me about your Climate Progress work is the quantity, quality and scope of your writings. Unique in the field and just plain amazing. Super helpful and heartening resource for us all. You certainly deserve the growth in readership and influence you are racking up.

  18. For those readers who, like me, find Joe’s work an essential resource, I encourage you to join my family in donating money to fund and help expand his Climate Progress work.

    Joe, is there a link or info on how your readers can earmark donations for your blog? Or is this not something CAP is doing anymore?

    When we donated we were told to include a note along with our donation requesting it be earmarked for Climate Progress.

  19. IANVS says:

    An innocent reading of Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change” http://www.grist.org/article/hayes to assist son #4 with a class presentation was our epiphany.

    And the mind-numbing disinformation & denial of know-nothing legions at the Houston Chron’s SciGuy website http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/category/climate-change/ drove it all home.

    While CP kept us on the straight & narrow. thx

    “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” –Ray Bradbury

  20. Sasparilla says:

    A wonderful article, thank you Joe.

    Your insight into the ability of the general public not having the ability to easily obtain the truth (except piecemeal from reading books) on climate change is right on the mark.

    I salute you and the work you have and will do.

  21. Adrian says:

    Thanks for your continued effort and the exemplary quality of your reporting and writing.

    I’ll be starting the climate change climate damage unit in my COMP/RHT classes this week, and I always use CP as a resource.

    (BTW, thanks also for going back to an open commenting system.)

  22. Spike says:

    Like many others I read this blog virtually every day and in the UK it has helped me to argue the case for intervention. It is a treasure trove of information, like Skeptical Science. And we must keep telling the truth, regardless of the times we live in, for as Orwell said

    “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

  23. I also try to follow your blog, despite sometimes is too much english reading for me and sometimes I do not understand the American politics details. But it is very interesting and I would say necessary in this moment. Thanks

  24. tim bastable says:

    thanks for your blogs, like Spike I read them every day, they’ve been an invaluable source of information. Its helped unravel, what was to many Brits, the utterly incomprehensible stance of the US right to CC. Here’s to the next 5 years – lets just hope you are writing about sanity rather than lunacy in 2016!