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Climate Progress at Six Years: Why I Blog

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"Climate Progress at Six Years: Why I Blog"

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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 and figure).

What I have learned most from the success of this blog, from the steady growth in page views and visitors and retweets and Facebook likes, along with the increasing number of websites that link to or reprint our 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 gravest preventable 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, a successful interior designer and CEO, also 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 my computer or laptop using MacSpeech Dictate. 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 there’s still time to act and make a difference. 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 six years.  Thank you all for that!

This post is a (slight) revision.

Note:  Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the top figure. It is probably time to update that chart, since our inaction has shifted “most informed opinion” to overlap almost exactly with “Considered Unreasonable: Not reported.”

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30 Responses to Climate Progress at Six Years: Why I Blog

  1. Dan Ives says:

    I am grateful for this blog and the work it does, even though I usually reserve my comments for criticism and “reasoned push-back” (at least, I hope that’s how my comments come across, though I’ll be the first to say that at times my emotions get too involved).
    Thank you for the work you do, Joe. I think there are many ways that this blog could be better, but I’ll save that for another time. Congratulations on your accomplishments and success over the last six years.

  2. Mark E says:

    What’s the copyright status on that graphic?

  3. squidboy6 says:

    Was your brother’s place near Bay St. Charles Mississippi? I’ve been there a couple of times recently and it’s never recovered from Katrina.

    I have a boat in storage near Kenner with a lot of equipment on it and the airport nearby (Louis Armstrong International) has reported a few gusts to near 50 mph but it’s only the 6 PM reporting and Isaac hasn’t made landfall yet. the winds have been pretty good so far with 42 mph gusts the highest until the 47 mph gusts reported an hour ago.

    There’s a mark painted on the Interstate 10 overpass near Pass Christian/Bay St. Charles where the high water from Katrina reached. It was 27′ 8″. The aldermen want it taken off since nobody’s rebuilding there.

    I just checked the wind at Louis Armstrong and it’s NE at 38 with a 55 mph gust. I can’t do anything anyway since I’m at relatives in Memphis and Kenner is in a low area although it’s got upgraded seawalls and post-Katrina protection.

    It’s difficult to break into Louisiana but the people are generous and kind, although not very progressive. More than I can say for Tennessee. They’re positively regressive in Memphis and they suppress half the population out of spite. They cut off their own noses in this spite.

    It looks like Houma is going to get hit and New Orleans may be spared.

  4. Dave says:

    Keep up the good work, Joe. Even though there’s obviously still a ton of work to be done on the climate and energy fronts, your blog is certainly helping to get the message out on the dangers of unmitigated climate change & the impacts that are already being felt.

  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    When I started commenting on blogs the consensus seemed to be that global warming was a serious, but ultimately manageable problem, even at its worst. Those who said so were deemed alamist.

    If the Joe Romms of the word were alarmist then what was I. Hence I chose the nom de doom, as Joe called it, Rabid Doomsayer.

    As science filled in the blanks the picture inevitably worsened. As the Science changed so did Joe’s tone.

    As fast as the science changed, mother nature changed faster. Faster than even my dire predictions. Time to update the graphic Joe, catastrophie is no longer the thin tail of opinion.

    Five years ago I felt I was alone, I wasn’t but it sure felt that way. Now I find out some of those who chastised my dire position actually were sayning the same things privately.

  6. squidboy6 says:

    Not Bay St Charles, but Bay St. Louis. All those saints are hard to keep track of.

  7. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Your blog is the best there is on climate change, Joe, and you are providing a service of enormous value to the world, and for that, thank you. I hope that President Barack Obama reads your blog regularly and that he will be inspired, or shamed into, making climate change a key part of his re-election strategy; and that, should he win office again, his second term will focus first and foremost on climate change action. It is certainly the most useful thing he could do. His first term was largely wasted. We should have known from his lacklustre inauguration speech that he wasn’t going to live up to the extraordinary promise of his ‘Yes we can’ campaign, but we didn’t. Maybe America will give him a chance to do the right thing this time.

    Having read George Orwell’s best-known work, 1984, I must say I could hardly find the energy to finish it, the English was so challenging and the plot seemed to be going nowhere. So I can readily attest to the fact that your blog is a much easier and more compelling read, Joe.

  8. bill mckibben says:

    As much as I admire this blog, I sure hope we’re not all doing this six years hence! But if duty calls I know Joe will be the first to answer

    • Carol says:

      Bill,
      If things keep on as they are . . I hope we are here six years hence!
      I think there is enough energy/brilliant minds/creativity/passion to move this out of the realm of words/blogs/facts to . . ACTION!
      Bill . . Joe . . others?? Let’s figure out what we can DO!?
      The facts are there, time to focus on action steps while there is time . . .
      Carol

      • Hey Carol (and Bill too if you are ‘listening’)- Is it time to convene a National (Continental) Climate Change Congress? I just came from Al Gore’s (Climate Reality Project) 3 day climate leader’s training. I have participated with 350.org. I do my own local climate activism. How about 1 or 2 years from now- the entire spectrum of climate folks (From Gore, Kerry, Hansen, Mckibben, Romm to delegates from every state in the union) gather in a citizen’s congress in order to 1) Issue a unified Declaration of Climate Sanity 2) Issue a unified, unequivocal call for a Green Apollo Program 3)Create unified strategies around climate education and activism (E.g.- an effective targeted media strategy where articles by ‘mainstream’ media that practice false equivalency, etc. are immediately ‘called out) 4) Confer upon climate change the gravity and legitimacy that a congress infers. Is it time to come together in such a unified show of focus and support? I would be thrilled to co-ordinate such a project!

        • Mark E says:

          Note that the TeaParty organized from *within* the GOP and then seized the agenda…. and how did they do that? (1) Money, (2) Media, (3)… and this is where you come in…. running candidates for local and state offices in the ____GOP primaries_____. Time for an ecological/climate revolution from within the ranks of the democrats.

          Notice that it would pull a lot of Greens (like me) back into the fold.

        • Carol says:

          David,
          Thank you! Excellent ideas!
          This is what we need.
          I am working with a public radio station in the midwest in addition to working with members of the Robert M. (fightingbob) LaFollette organization based in Wisconsin.
          Bill M. will be a featured speaker at fightingbobfest in Madison on September 15.
          Last year the event drew nearly 10 thousand people!
          I’ll make sure your points are brought up at this event.
          Let me know how I can stay in touch with you as one of the Midwestern representatives for such an endeavor.
          Carol

          • Hey Carol:
            I am glad for the enthusiasm. You can contact me at dagold56@hotmail.com just a bit about me: Stanford University Grad 1985 (International Relations). Climate Activism: *)I put up a response billboard to the Heartland ‘UniBomber’ billboard- got some media coverage for that. *) Developing a TedTalk interweaving my personal health story with the ‘story’ of climate change (go to: http://www.itsphysics.org ), my climate website for more details. *) Made a VERY satirical Youtube video about climate change denial here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvF97cf6x6c

            I really would LOVE to co-coordinate such a National Climate Change Congress. I think it is time- certainly in the 1 or 2 years it would take to organize – things could be mighty interesting in the climate sphere.

  9. Carol says:

    Joe,

    Thank you for this post and for sharing the journey that brought you here.

    With all the grim news of late, this was a bright spot.
    I think it is very important to keep in mind what makes us human (in a GOOD way) and why we do the things we do.

    Fortunately there are people like you—-brilliant, brave, compassionate souls—- who are trying to make the world a better place.

    As Rabid Doomsayer writes above, I too, felt alone with my concerns about climate change but less so after discovering your blog.
    We are social creatures . . we do need each other!

    You may not have all the answers and I must admit — this site can be VERY depressing but thank you, thank you, thank you for doing what you do!!

    Carol
    PS There is a new book on Orwell (his diaries)—-any of these quotes from the book?

  10. John Mason says:

    A lot of that echoes with me, Joe, and I’m sure many others too. It would be hard to find rest without knowing that I was doing something to help, however small my part. And – yes – it is important to maintain a record of these strange times – the leaps forward in understanding yet at the same time the ever-present forces of denial. Thanks for all the good work.

  11. quentinp says:

    Joe,

    You totally rock. Yes to everything you said and more. As Jared Diamond commented at the end of Collapse – we have an exponentially increasing ability to make things worse, and an exponentially increasing ability to understand that. The question is which exponent has the higher power.

    You are a major part of the second trend and we have network effects upping our power!

    I was honored to (twice!) shake the hand of Bill McKibben and just got back from Al Gore’s training and the message I am seeing everywhere is “They lied. Just like tobacco did. They fooled us once. Not this time. Call out the destroyers of our planet. We KNOW how to fix this.”

    No more toning it down for the childrens’ sake. We need to STOP toning it down – for the childrens’ sake

    Thank you for everything you do. If I had to choose whether Orwell was born or you were – it’s no contest.

    Quentin

  12. Spike says:

    This blog will surely have an honoured place when the history of the Great Climate Disaster is written. I hope you never tire of it Joe.

  13. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    This blog provides my daily dose of climate sanity. I thank you, Joe, for that. At the end of his recent TED talk, Jim Hansen said, “Now you know what I know.” Yes, I do, though not nearly as in-depth, and in large part it is due to your blog.

  14. Mike Roddy says:

    Joe Romm, you are a national treasure, please don’t even slow down.

    Speaking of Orwell, I strongly recommend Homage to Catalonia, about his time as a Loyalist volunteer during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was seriously wounded in the neck and returned to England, but the book is notable for other reasons.

    It turns out that the Loyalists were defeated by Franco because of internal strife. There were two major factions and one minor one, and they turned their guns on each other, demoralizing the troops and energizing the fascists.

    There’s a lesson for us here. I’ve heard people quibble on blogs about their allies’ approaches, personalities, and politics. We don’t have time for that. The mission, and the facts, are clear, and we have to work together against our common enemy: the fossil fuel companies, and their allies in government and media. They are soft targets, and will collapse if we succeed in getting the real story to the American people. It’s been a frustrating journey, but I feel privileged to be able to fight for a cause that dwarfs things like wars and ideologies.
    It is also a privilege to have been able to meet and work with so many dedicated warriors from all over the world.

  15. fj says:

    This is a very good post and Joe Romm for many years, has been one of the most outspoken individuals pushing for immediate action on climate change.

    Climate Change will have profound effects on virtually every aspect of civilization including transportation, yet tragically, transportation advocacy for positive change barely mention climate change; even though net zero mobility solutions have terrific potential in greatly reducing emissions and material waste.

    For this reason I have posted a link to this most important post on Streetsblog.Org.

  16. climatehawk1 says:

    Thanks for the continued inspiration and passion, Joe. I promise to keep doing what I can to be part of your echo chamber.

  17. Spike says:

    My favourite Orwell quote, hugely applicable to Joe’s writing here:

    “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
    George Orwell

  18. Polymerase says:

    I have been a daily reader of climate progress for about 4 years. In that time, this blog has been a primary and valuable source of climate change news for me. Thank You.

    I’m also a big fan of Orwell. When drawing inspiration and guidance from his writings, however, it is important to keep in mind how different the social and political milieu of Europe in the 1930-40s was from our own current situation, especially in regard to climate change.

    In “Why I Write”, Orwell says, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”

    Unfortunately, in light of the record-breaking heat waves, drought, and ice cap melting this summer, we appear to be moving faster than we thought we would to a time when it will be nonsense to write about any major social or political issue without addressing climate change. For now, however, almost half of all Americans appear ready to vote for a presidential candidate who denies the dire severity of climate change and openly shills for a wonton and suicidal expansion of unmitigated fossil fuel use. The vast majority of these American voters are not the kind of totalitarian fascists whom Orwell fought against and wrote about. They work alongside of us at our jobs. They are often our neighbors, and may even be our friends. We frequently have pleasant and rational interactions with them. There are no brownshirts in the streets of our neighborhoods and bombs falling from the sky. The shared threats that we and our children face from climate change are for most Americans still too abstract and distant to motivate meaningful action to address the problem, or even serious discussion about it.

    As such, I regard the challenge of building political consensus for immediate action on climate change to be much more like the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, when it was relatively easy for the majority of Americans to look away from the self-desctructive evils of racism. While there much from Orwell to draw on, we should with an equal share look to the teachings of Martin Luther King for guidance on how to loosen the powerful grip that the fossil fuel companies have on our political system, and to rally our friends and neighbors to act with us to save our children from the real and present dangers of anthropogenic climate change.

  19. Andy G says:

    Thanks for all that you do, Joe. Those of us working to return our country to evidence-based decision making need the knowledge and inspiration that Climate Progress provides.

  20. A. Michael says:

    I’m relatively new to this blog but am already a devoted follower, and for the exact reasons that Joe cites: “a great hunger … for the bluntest possible talk,” and the way the blog distills the best (and worst) of all things climate-related. Please keep up the good work. You do Orwell proud.

  21. Paul Zehrer says:

    Thank you Joe! Terrific work.

  22. horse dave says:

    Thanks Joe.

  23. Timo Jarvensivu says:

    Joe, as a regular reader (who so far has never written a comment on your blog), I want to use my first comment to offer you my humble gratitude for your efforts.

    Your work keeps me informed in a way none other source does. The information that you collect and contribute is immensely important for my work toward a better future here in Finland. Thank you.