by Hunter Cutting
Right now heavy rain is falling from the latest Pineapple Express to slam into California, thudding and slapping up against my office window, framing a view going over and up to Twin Peaks where Sutro tower occasionally strides out of the incoming cloud banks. It’s a beautiful sight, but also a bit surreal, because there is likely extra rain in this storm, rain that shouldn’t be there. That rain comes from the extra water vapor that’s pumped into the atmosphere by global warming and then swept up into the storm by the Pineapple Express, an atmospheric current that rides the rails up from Hawaii to California.
A sharp increase in heavy precipitation over the past several decades is pretty much the story across all of North America and around the Northern Hemisphere, particularly so for the most extreme events, and the fingerprint of global warming has been firmly identified in this trend. Yet this remarkable change has yet to translate into action by political leaders of any stripe, giving the rain hitting my window a sense of urgency.
One thing about climate change is that it happens slowly, over decades. So it’s hard to see any difference, and even harder to feel it. The new normal slides in and fills the place of the old normal with little notice and no fanfare. Anyone younger than 27 years has never lived though a month in which the average temperature for the world was colder than the 20th century average. The heat has been stoked, but slowly. And while the most extreme rain and snowfall events are now more frequent, they’re still the exception, not a yearly event, not yet.
This slow transformation of the weather facilitates the age-old practice of denial by which most of us, if not all of us, lull ourselves into a comfortable sleepwalk. It’s a blinkered state that affects everyone to a certain degree. And normally it might be indulged in the name of compassion. But when the edge of the cliff is moving quickly to the front of your car, and your clueless driver has his foot settled firmly on the accelerator, somebody has got to wake up and do something, fast.
While it’s fashionable and fair to trash Republican leaders for our nation’s historic sleepwalk, Democrats haven’t shown much lately beyond lip service. The power of the fossil fuel industry is clearly bi-partisan. Though, to be accurate, it might be said that the money buys the Republicans, while it mostly just scares the Democrats.
You can see stalling on climate change by liberal leaders right down the political line from Washington DC to California to my hometown of San Francisco. President Obama, to his credit, makes no bones about his energy and climate policies. He has been clear from day one that his energy strategy is an “all of the above” plan, i.e. we should build as much renewable energy as we can and burn as much fossil fuel as we can discover (and not-so-coincidentally protect votes in coal-rich states).
In the last week alone he announced the drilling of all the remaining unleased areas in the Western Gulf of Mexico and released a report to show that the United States Export-Import Bank has financed at least $10.4 billion in fossil fuel projects overseas in 2012, a figure that dwarfs the $2.3 billion in climate finance the administration claims is going to developing countries. Over in Doha where the latest round of climate negotiations are going down this week Connie Hedegaard, the lead negotiator for the European Union, noted by tweet that the go-slow position of the Obama negotiation team hasn’t changed despite Obama’s post election pledge to take action on climate change. Obama’s “all of the above” strategy is one plan for getting the energy we need while also addressing climate change, but it’s also a plan that pretty much puts us on a path to cook the planet.
The numbers have been run, the math has been done (thanks to Bill McKibben) and it’s not pretty. We have 16 years left on the current fossil-fueled burn path, before we reach the carbon budget ceiling for the atmosphere, before the climate disruption gets really ugly, before we start creeping across tipping-point zones that we really don’t want to cross, i.e. we have 16 years left before we have to stop burning fossil fuels altogether, kaput, that’s it. The cliff is coming up fast.
Going down the liberal line to California, we find Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer who recently voted to shield U.S. airlines from Europe’s program to reduce carbon pollution. The bill was promoted in the name of national sovereignty. But it’s pretty hard to see any significant loss of national sovereignty for the U.S. in the regulation of planes flying in and out of Europe. The national mainstream environmental groups spoke up against the bill, highlighting the vote as an opportunity for senators to allow something good for the climate to go forward. But no such luck, and Obama signed the bill a few days ago.
In the meantime, the warming continues to creep forward, with each little advance locked in place because there’s no going back with warming fueled by carbon pollution, unless you’re thinking in geologic time, which is a pretty long time frame to be working in.
And then, zooming down the liberal line to San Francisco, we find the city’s mayor, Ed Lee, raising last-minute issues to challenge a new clean energy program proposed for the City, a program under which all residents get the opportunity to choose, and pay for, electricity from 100 percent clean energy. Raising issues can be a good thing when it helps to build a much-needed program, but it’s not OK to raise issues in a way that slows things down and gums up the works, not right when we need to move faster, right when climate change is accelerating.
During the course of a nation there come times when leaders fail and fail again, when progress is stalled, damned up by those working to keep things on course for business as usual. In those moments change finally comes when ordinary people start standing up and say it’s not OK. It wasn’t OK to stall research and remain silent in the face of AIDS, and people spoke up to move things along. It wasn’t OK to let the tobacco industry market cigarettes to kids, and people spoke up and put an end to that.
Now, we’ve reached that point on climate change, when debating the science on climate change is no longer responsible, when it’s not OK to slow the momentum towards clean energy and it’s not OK to double down on our investment in fossil fuels as President Obama proposes.
Not surprisingly, voices are beginning to speak up on climate change, driven by the mounting insanity of our current path. Youth are mounting a divestment campaign on campuses around the country to get colleges to divest fossil-fuel companies from their endowment portfolios. You can see it in the actions of the San Francisco City Supervisors who rebuked the mayor and approved the clean energy program. And you can feel it in morning commute conversations, where doing something about climate change is taking on the feel of a commonly understood good.
Recently U.S. Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke up to say: “… we have to face the fact that the deniers are wrong. They are just plain dead wrong. And we have to deal with that, and I think some of the courtesies that we have given to one another collegially really have to yield to the fact that some of the things that are being said in the Senate, and occasionally regrettably in this committee chamber, are just plain wrong.”
Progress is one of the best of American traditions. That tradition is both a source of hope and a political lever for moving things forward. Everyone of every political stripe, including progressives, has an important role in moving this national conversation forward. On a problem of this scale we only move forward if we move all together. We need both Republican and Democrats in this movement. And we must win conservative hearts and minds to forge that consensus.
But that rain slapping up against my window reminds me that progressives have a particular role to play in this bi-partisan production. Now is the moment to call out stalling and delay by liberal leaders, and to say, clearly and calmly: It’s not OK.
Hunter Cutting is a writer living in San Francisco. This piece was originally published at The Huffington Post and was reprinted with permission.