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David Orr on confronting climate collapse

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"David Orr on confronting climate collapse"

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“Happy talk” was not the approach taken by Lincoln confronting slavery, or by Franklin Roosevelt facing the grim realities after Pearl Harbor. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s message to the British people at the height of the London blitz. Instead, in these and similar cases transformative leaders told the truth honestly, with conviction and eloquence.

Guest blogger David Orr is one of the true environmental visionaries.  I’ve known him for years, and he sent me the new preface to the paperback edition of his book “Down to the Wire” after reading my post last night on why we need to talk about climate change.

Here is an extended excerpt:

I wrote Down to the Wire between 2007 and 2008 when many still believed that the United States was capable of making an effective national response to global climate destabilization. At the time I was involved with several dozen others in drafting “The President’s Climate Action Plan” (PCAP) a document that aimed to define the actions that the next U.S. President would have to take immediately in order to avoid the worst of what lies ahead. The numbers are stark. We have raised the temperature of the Earth by 0.8C and are committed to another 0.5 to 1°C that will bring us close to the 2C warming that many scientists have cited as a threshold we should not transgress. Time, in other words, is not on our side. Climate destabilization, we argued, was not just another issue on a long list of vexing problems, but the linchpin issue the solution of which would lessen many other problems including national security, balance of payments, economic recovery, and public health. As Bill Becker, the Executive Director of PCAP put it, “climate change is not about Right or Left; it’s about backward or forward.” Our efforts built on those of many others dating back to the early 1970s who pointed out that for many good reasons energy efficiency and deployment of renewable energy were the smartest, cheapest, and best policy options we have. The difference between the first warning about climate change given to President Johnson in 1965 and November, 2008 when the report was delivered to John Podesta, Director of President Obama’s transition team, was the accumulation of overwhelming scientific evidence that climate destabilization would most certainly threaten our security and well-being as a nation and would, in time, erode the foundations of civilization itself. The scientific evidence is clear that the magnitude of the changes ahead are greater, the speed much faster, and duration of climatic destabilization will last far longer than once thought.

The economic collapse of 2008 diverted attention from climate policy to economic recovery, but they were and remain related problems. A robust, well-thought-out climate and energy policy would have amplified the effects of stimulus funding, which by reliable accounts was about half of what was actually needed. On the other hand, the economic crisis was “solved,” but in ways that compounded the long-term climate problem. Indeed, a good fraction of stimulus funding went to projects that will directly and indirectly increase U.S. carbon emissions.

This is not to say that the administration did nothing. On the contrary, President Obama launched the largest effort in U.S. history to deploy solar and wind power and raise national standards for energy efficiency. Behind the scenes, the administration has taken significant steps, much as recommended in the PCAP report, to redirect Federal policies for purchasing, building standards, and research in advanced energy technologies. What the President did not do, however, was to use the power of the Office as a “bully pulpit” to lead public opinion when he still had the opportunity to do so. Nor did he make climate and energy policy the first priority of his administration. Instead he chose to pursue a “bi-partisan” approach with an intransigent Republican minority that would have none of it. He decided to place a politically divisive healthcare reform battle before the health of the planet. And he let Congress patch together whatever legislation it could to deal with climate issues. Perhaps the President and his advisers reasoned that climate destabilization would not be all that bad despite the scientific evidence. Perhaps they thought that the issue could be deferred to a more convenient time. Maybe they believed that it would be politically impossible to do much anyway. In fact by their failure to lead, they helped make it impossible””at least for a while. In short, whatever his many other successes, President Obama has so far failed the test of transformative leadership on what is likely to be the most important issue humankind will ever face.

In the absence of firm and decisive Presidential leadership on climate destabilization, among other factors, the two years since have not been our finest. The Waxman-Markey Bill, such as it was, passed the House of Representatives in 2009, but the U.S. Senate could muster no filibuster-proof majority on climate legislation. And had it done so the results would have been inadequate at best. We needed then, and need now more than ever, national climate and energy legislation that eliminates upwards of ninety percent of our greenhouse gas emissions and that is also fair, transparent, and straightforward. This needs to be executed with wartime urgency. Indeed, we are at war, but with ourselves and the devils of our lesser nature. At the international level, lacking vigorous U.S. leadership, climate conferences at Copenhagen and Cancun produced little progress relative to the magnitude of the looming crisis. In the meantime other countries are surging ahead to seize the lead and reap the economic advantages of a solar and wind powered world.

In the hardcover edition I reflected on the failures of U.S. politics and have little to add except to say that it’s even worse now than it was then. After the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United (2009) the power of secret and unaccountable money is more pervasive than ever before. The “Tea Party” movement, funded by those with much to gain from public befuddlement, misdirected anger, and more deregulation, changed the political landscape””at least for the time being””and effectively closed any window of opportunity for Federal climate legislation that existed in early 2009. Too much money in politics, the power of an unaccountable extreme right-wing media, failed leadership (including first and foremost that of the Republican party), too much power in the hands of Senators representing more acres and cows than people add up to what Eric Alterman has called  “Kabuki Democracy” -a system that is rigged to prevent solutions to public problems and seemingly incapable of repairing itself. And there is, in Peter Burnell’s words “no certainty that democracies will do all that is required and in a timely fashion” anyway. But beneath the surface of U.S. politics in particular are deeply rooted beliefs that individual liberty trumps the public good and that government is most always wrong except when it endeavors to wither away””a belief with strange echoes in Marxism.

The capacity and apparent willingness of humankind to destabilize the climate conditions that made civilization possible is the issue of our time; all others pale by comparison. Beyond some unknown threshold of irreversible and irrevocable changes driven by carbon cycle feedbacks, climate destabilization will lead to a war of all against all, a brutal scramble for food, water, dry land, and safety. Sheer survival will outweigh every other consideration of decency, order, and mutual sympathy. Climate destabilization will amplify other problems caused by population growth, global poverty, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the potential impact of high consequence events that have long-term global consequences””what risk analyst Nassim Taleb calls “black swans.”

From this two large questions arise. First, how do we think about the issue of climate destabilization? Second, what do we do about it? In polite circles, the first question is seldom asked because it runs counter to the faith that climate destabilization is merely another problem to be solved by better technology and proper market signals. I hasten to say that I am all for better technology and I am for markets that accurately price things of true value””like climate stability and the wellbeing of our descendents. But climate destabilization is more than a technical or economic issue. We ought to ask why we are coming so close to the brink of global disaster so casually and carelessly. We ought to ask why the market””skewed to the advantage of corporations and the super wealthy””is allowed to trump the rights of our descendents to “life, liberty, and property” which presupposes climate stability. We ought to ask why the ideology of markets has so thoroughly saturated our language, thought, morality, and behavior so that we can hardly imagine any other standard for human conduct and national policy beyond short-term pecuniary advantage. We ought to ask why our leaders remain so deferential to predatory bankers, financiers, and corporate tycoons who nearly collapsed the global economy in 2008. We ought to ask why human nature, or just the nature of the American sub-species, is so vulnerable to the “merchants of denial.” Answers to such questions would get us close to the roots of the problem which is found in the unholy alliance between corporations, the communications industry, government, the military, and security organizations much as Dwight Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell address.

How we think about climate destabilization has a great deal to do with how we talk about it. For example, we do not face merely a “warming” of the Earth, but rather a worsening destabilization of, well, almost everything. We are rapidly making a different and less hospitable planet, one that Bill McKibben calls “Eaarth.” But as ethicist Clive Hamilton puts it “The language now used””’risk management’, ‘adapting’, ‘building resilience’, ‘no-regrets’, ‘win-win’””reflects the belief that to accommodate a warmer world we need only tinker at the edges of the system.” Moreover, among deniers the issue is often cast as a matter of belief. But climate science is not a matter of faith since physical laws are subject to rigorous and replicable proof. By comparison, few people say things like “I don’t believe in the law of gravity” for which there are simple and fairly definitive tests all of which end abruptly. Climate deniers have a double standard. Confronting a life-threatening illness, they will presumably seek medical help from physicians scientifically trained to understand the body and thereby improve their chances of survival. But warned of irrevocable planetary disaster ahead by real scientists who must live by the rigors of peer review, fact, data, and logic deniers retreat down the rabbit hole into a science-free zone where things are so because they are said to be so.

Because the issue is unlike any we have ever faced before, it would be difficult enough to handle without deliberate distortion and outright lies. The consequences are global and, beyond some threshold, they will be irreversible and catastrophic. The science is complex as are the myriad of related social and ethical aspects. Climate and energy issues divide the wealthy against the poor, nation against nation, and the present generation against its own posterity. Furthermore, the worst effects are still hidden from view, the possibility of rapid climate destabilization invites procrastination and denial.  Anything like a proper response at this late hour will require unprecedented wisdom and a manner of comprehensive thinking and acting at a scale and immediacy for which we have no good examples. It is indeed, the “perfect problem,” or what in policy circles are known as “wicked problems.”  Yet we continue to talk about climate destabilization as if it were an ordinary issue requiring no great vision, no unshakable resolve, no fear of the abyss.

Instead, many continue to believe that our failure to respond adequately is the result of our failure to present a positive image. We have, they assert, marinated too long in “doom and gloom.” Their advice, instead, is to be cheery, upbeat, and talk of happy things like green jobs and more economic growth, but whisper not a word about the prospects ahead or the suffering and death already happening. Perhaps that is a good strategy and there is room for honest disagreement. But “happy talk” was not the approach taken by Lincoln confronting slavery, or by Franklin Roosevelt facing the grim realities after Pearl Harbor. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s message to the British people at the height of the London blitz. Instead, in these and similar cases transformative leaders told the truth honestly, with conviction and eloquence.

I believe that the same standard should apply to us. We must have the courage to speak the truth and the vision and fortitude to chart a plausible way forward. The truth of the matter is that even in the best scenarios imaginable, we would still have a long and difficult road ahead before climate stabilizes again, hopefully within a range still hospitable to us. It is also true that we have the capability to make the transition to economies powered by sunlight and efficiency. The point is not to be gloomy or cheery, but to be truthful and get to work.

With no prospect for Federal climate legislation anytime soon, however, what’s to be done? The short answer is that, whatever the prospects, we must keep pushing on every front to: change Federal and state policies, transform the economy, improve public understanding of science, engage churches and civic organizations, reform private institutions, educate for ecological literacy, and change our own behavior. Even without a coordinated, systematic national response, maybe enough small victories in time will suffice.

I ended Down to the Wire on a personal note by describing the Oberlin Project, a joint effort by Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin to create the first working example of “full-spectrum sustainability” and a network of similar projects, sites, and cities which I will describe in a subsequent entry.

David Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Special Assistant to the President of Oberlin College and a James Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont. He is the recipient of five honorary degrees and other awards including The Millennium Leadership Award from Global Green, the Bioneers Award, the National Wildlife Federation Leadership Award, a Lyndhurst Prize acknowledging “persons of exceptional moral character, vision, and energy.”

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31 Responses to David Orr on confronting climate collapse

  1. Mark says:

    Excellent summary of where we stand and what we need to do. I will look forward to reading about the joint effort of the town of Oberlin and Oberlin College to create a working example of full spectrum sustainability.

  2. joyce says:

    Thank you, David Orr.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This is, in my opinion, a fine summation of the problem. I’d dissent, however, from the emphasis on ‘economic recovery’ through greater, albeit, ecologically sustainable growth. The essential problem, I believe, is the destruction wrought by economic growth under capitalism. Anthropogenic climate destabilisation is by far not the only ‘wicked problem’ we face, and, moreover, the biosphere degrading or destroying economic growth that capitalism absolutely demands (indeed it, like cancer, dies without constant growth)emphatically does not lift up humanity, as capitalist apologists mendaciously assert. Indeed in recent years global poverty and inequality have reached utterly unprecedented levels, as the fruits of destructive economic growth have been misappropriated by a tiny stratum of hyper-rich parasites. We are, in short, destroying our one home to feed the insatiable avarice of the top 1% or less of humanity.
    So, tinkering around the edges will not do. Talk of a coming ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’, of violent disputes over dwindling resources and for survival might distress the morally sane fraction of humanity, but to the ruling elites who, with their total indifference to the suffering of others, absolute lack of human empathy, ready resort to lying, violence and intimidation to get their way,plainly qualify as psychopaths, such a world suits them fine. Their private armies and militias, their fortified ‘gated communities’ and the panoptical surveillance and ‘counter-terrorist’ states that their political stooges have created will, they imagine, keep them safe as the rabble that they so despise (us)descend into a hell of desperate struggle for survival.
    In short, unless the system is destroyed, never to re-appear, and one based on human solidarity, equality and moral decency, where sufficiency replaces greed, where collaboration and co-operation replace ruthless, ‘winner-takes-all’ competition, where we ponder the effects of our actions on posterity and future generations before acting, and where willful destruction of nature is banned, outright, is established in its stead, we are stuffed, royally. It is really not so hard to contemplate such a future. A fair and just distribution of global wealth, where no-one is allowed to hold more than, say, one million in wealth, (surely enough for a comfortable life), where greed is seen as the vice that it is, not the virtue that capitalist brainwashing has made it appear and where even the poorest are guaranteed a decent sufficiency of life’s goods, would be not only a sustainable world, but a more peaceful one. I know that this is the sheerest Utopianism, that greedy bastards would still exist, still live to steal, cheat and defraud, but at least, if society treated them as pariahs, not role models, we’d have a hope of slowly expunging that tendency from ‘human nature’. The alternative, capitalist ‘business-as-usual’, ie the triumph of all that is malignant in humanity, means auto-destruction within decades, and the disappearance of a species that imagined that it promised much, but suffocated in the mire of its own shit, too greedily obsessed to even go on a diet and change its habits as the brown tide rose higher and higher. What an epitaph!

  4. Bill G says:

    Hello – I am not surprised that there is not an adequate response. I would be surprised if there was a significant response. To truly respond to the climate crisis would require a complete change to our way of life – it means that we would have to become self-reflective and responsible. This society is built on illusion and hope. Obama ran on the message of hope. And if one seriously studied sociology from someone like Pierre Bourdieu, one would understand how social agents respond mechanistically given their conditioning, and they will unconsciously reproduce their identity. Nothing will change seriously until there is a complete disillusionment with the illusion. And a possible awakening to a higher nature. Otherwise we are consumed by money and material.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    I post this here, because the disaster in Japan has created a real world “Black Swan ” for the Japanese. They have lost 20-25 % of their electrical power, and 20-25 % of their refining capacity. The energy choices they must make going forward, will have lessons for us all.

    What Japan’s disaster tells us about peak oil

    OurWorld 2.0: Life for survivors after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami gives a clue to what a peak oil world would look like

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/04/japan-disaster-peak-oil

    The earthquake and tsunami affected six of the 28 oil refineries in Japan and immediately petrol rationing was introduced with a maximum of 20 litres per car (in some instances as low as 5 litres).

  6. scas says:

    I’ve read literally hundreds of books on climate change and energy. It seems that Lovelock got it right. Orr is bang one. What’s happening is unprecedented in human or Earth’s history. The Siberian Sea is spewing methane and Saudi Arabia is soon entering depletion. And let’s not even think about water and soil issues.

    As a young person, I know my generation is doomed. No better time than now to join the army I guess. How many soldiers will it take to prevent Africa from turning into Easter Island?

  7. Wally says:

    I agree with Mark @ #1 and Joyce @ #2. Professor Orr has pretty much identified where we are and the urgency that’s calling people of good will and good sense to act.

    I’d like to think that President Obama knows that it will be hard to win re-election without a few fat cats in his corner, ergo, his friendship with the bankers, but its hard to know what really goes on in his head. Hopefully, addressing the climate crisis is higher on his 2nd term agenda.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    That is a beautiful piece of prose. It does, however, contain one certain weak spot.

    Try saying “the science is complex’ to the ordinary bloke in the street – it is an automatic turn off. They cease listening immediately.

    Because of the state of our education systems, many do not know how GHGs work. When you say ‘the basic science is simple and known for over 150 years, CO2 traps heat so the more CO2 we put up, the hotter it gets’, they understand.

    If everybody understood that one simple fact, the deniers would have a much more difficult task, ME

  9. Michael Tucker says:

    Of course Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Churchill were not moved to confront anything until after disaster was upon them. Well Churchill was so moved but no one wanted him in power until after disaster struck…then look how fast he was dumped…Japan had not even surrendered yet.

    I think we are incapable of doing anything meaningful to limit or end GHG emissions until after we have suffered a great deal. No one listened to Churchill’s warnings even though the danger was clear; warnings are not sufficient.

    “…the issue is unlike any we have ever faced before…”

    And I think it will take leadership unlike any we have ever had before.

  10. Dano says:

    o Realization
    o Galvanization
    o Motivation
    o Organization
    o Dedication

    These are the stages of societal action. A voting majority has the realization, but not the galvanization.

    With the entrenched oligarchy controlling information, it is doubtful anything will get done until many disasters strike and people start to lead. The rich are now too powerful to allow action unless the rabble rises up.

    Best,

    D

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree Dano, including your implication that it’s circular- the people are unlikely to rise up because they know a lot more about the Kardashians than they do about climate change, thanks to our media.

    Thanks to David Orr and Bill Becker, though. It’s good to know that there are warriors who are in this for the long haul.

  12. Great piece.

    The inevitable natural philosophic ethic imperative:
    1) Live carbon negative
    2) Do not multiply

    Sounds like poverty and chastity. But I bet you can have fun while taking serious the defining challenge this century poses to our species.

    Munga, Dano, etc. you know to galvanize. Write a manifesto. There is an obvious and self-explanatory call for forming some sort of a positive parody of a religious order (for which I haven’t yet found a good name). It is indeed possible to life by 1) & 2). Use biochar! Find a happy investor in sustainability (their number is growing) as a cash cow and provider of land whose soil can be enriched using biochar. Or teach the Haitians not to burn char coal but use it to restore their wasted soils. Time to get serious.

  13. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bravo to David Orr! — and also (please note), ‘Free Markets, Externalities, and A Question of Integrity’

    Bravo to David Orr for this great piece. Well put, David!

    A question and request: A month or so ago, I wrote a short piece — a proposed blog post — titled, ‘Free Markets, Externalities, and A Question of Integrity’. Its central point is a very important one, I believe, and eye-opening, and it has to do with some of the great (and necessary) questions that David raises in his series of “We ought to ask why …” questions.

    That said, at this point, it (the proposed blog post) may need a place to run. I’ve not heard back from CP, and Joe is understandably quite busy (and doing a great job at that), so I have a proposed blog post, on an important matter, that I’d like to have someone consider, and have it run somewhere where many can read it, if CP will not be able to run with it. Of course, I have a preference for a large audience or at least an audience of folks who can then repost it and expand the audience. So, if not CP, then Huffington Post, or elsewhere?

    Would anyone (who has a blog and/or a connection to one) like to see and consider it? Can anyone suggest how to get in touch with Huffington Post in an effective way? Or David (Orr), would you be willing and interested to read it and perhaps suggest a blog for it? Again, it’s a finished piece (although subject to editing if necessary) titled ‘Free Markets, Externalities, and A Question of Integrity’. Yet it’s not the same-old rehashing of the first two aspects mentioned in the title. Instead, it is an additional (and valid) way of seeing those, leading to the “Question of Integrity” that the title mentions.

    If anyone (with a substantial blog or potential platform) would like to see it and consider it, please get in touch with me. You can reach me via my website, which you can reach by clicking on my name above.

    Again, thanks for the great post, David!

    Be Well,

    Jeff

    Jeff Huggins
    Los Gatos, CA
    U.C. Berkeley, chemical engineering class of 1981
    Chevron, 1981-1984
    Harvard Business School, class of 1986, Baker Scholar
    McKinsey & Company, 1986-1990
    The Walt Disney Company, 1994-2001
    Deeply concerned citizen and parent
    Bob Dylan fan
    www DOT thewindingriver DOT org

  14. Peter Sergienko says:

    ME, completely agree and read that passage with the same concern (people not actively engaged with this stuff nodding off).

    I think what was meant is something like this:

    The science of predicting the future effects of climate change is complex but one thing is certain: if we continue with business as usual, a climate catastrophe is inevitable.

  15. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent,David Orr. It gives the true picture of abating climate change. Many thanks for the excellent post.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  16. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent piece and the points about “happy talk” are spot on.

    As many others have said, it seems likely that we’ll need undeniable continuous catastrophes to push action on climate change back into reality at the federal level in the US (the entrenched monied interests and their political lackies are too powerful unless there is a huge cry out from the general citizenry – and its got to be an in your face continuous problem for that).

    While I doubt an ice free arctic will matter to enough people in the US to push forward federal action on climate change in the US…the North American weather consequences of a summer ice free (or nearly ice free) arctic may be crazy enough (and be “in people’s backyard” enough) to create a unifying cry of the citizenry to make action possible (and push it forward) in the US at the Federal level. Time will tell, its about the only plausible angle I can see for action in the US at the Federal level during this decade.

  17. paulm says:

    Words of wisdom. Great book too.

    We need a Churchill to start the action going.

    We have a hero down under in Julia Gillard who has come out with all guns blazing.

    It’s so refreshing to hear her always steering the debate and discussion back to the ‘most critical problem to face the biosphere’, global warming and what should be done to address it. Too often discussions are distracted in to menial areas. It’s something that needs to be done by all concerned – constantly drive the criticality of the situation home.

    Let’s face it life’s going to get tough adapting or mitigating. We need to face the music and get on with it.

  18. This is a great posting. Thank you so much.

    I propose a contrary notion: in our situation a sense of hope is toxic. Hope keeps us from changing by fostering delusional adherence to the status quo – as in “hoping that something will come along.”

    Instead without hope, there will is no fear of change. Hope is such a weed of human emotions, that there will be plenty of it anywhere, anytime. But by suppressing the emotion of hope, we can ruthlessly move through the needed scientific changes.

    After we – as a civilization of humans – decide that we will survive, then we can make the needed changes.

  19. Roger says:

    A couple of points:

    1)Thank you, David, for this wonderful summary of our situation. You and I think a lot alike. It must be our shared interests in Ohio and Vermont.

    2)A key conviction we share is the need for US presidential action. As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, “Focus on Obama. Given what is at stake, he can, and should, be doing much more than he is doing, and doing so will multiply our impact by several orders of magnitude relative to spreading our attention among hundreds of other elected officials.” (Joe could do a piece on the physics of focus sometime.)

    3)I have it on good authority that Obama does “get it.” We simply need to give him the political support he needs in order to go further. To some degree this was demonstrated by the mass of calls in the past week.

    4)I once asked Nassim Taleb of “black swan” fame if he thought climate change could be the mother of all black swans. He replied that he feared this to be the case, and that he would have more to say soon.

    5)Mulga, I must say, no one I know has written more eloquently of the demise toward which we seem to be drawn. Small comfort, but it’s somehow comforting to know that great minds still function along the way.

    Warm regards,
    Roger

    PS: For anyone who wants to help put pressure on Obama to do more, I hear that plans are afoot to hold a rally in front of the White House on the morning of April 18th, in conjunction with Power Shift 2011.

  20. Tom Lewis says:

    We are passengers on a Titanic that is gashed, down at the bow and taking on water. I share Mr. Orr’s vision in this respect (in fact I seconded it in my own little book, Brace for Impact). But in my view now is not the time to be giving advice to the captain, or to be electing a new one based on whether he believes in shipwrecks.

    The good news is that we have at hand the materials and the technology to build effective lifeboats for ourselves and our families. We need to stop wasting our time trying to save the ship, which is not possible, and start doing the one thing we can possibly accomplish in time: put our families on a solid footing of sustainable living in a safe place.

  21. dan allen says:

    The Speech Obama Needs to Give: http://www.energybulletin.net/50370.

    Sigh.

  22. ToddInNorway says:

    Some collected thoughts on this.
    We need to mobilize our survival instinct as when faced with immediate threat of harm. I am NOT sure that the war analogy is what works best here.
    If we should not “hope”, we should at the very least BELIEVE that effective, carefully and swiftly executed change will deliver what is needed.
    For some the changes may be painful, but for others they will be gratifying. Kinda like suddenly eating healthy foods and exercising outdoors after years of eating junk and sitting still indoors.

    Who are the most important agents of change?
    1)The President of the USA?
    2)CEOs of the biggest fossil fuel companies?
    3)CEOs of electric utilities?
    4) CEOs in the car manufacturing community?
    5) The masses of consumers whose product choices ultimately create GHG emissions?
    6) The investment community that picks technology winners?
    7) Legislators and regulators who set technical standards of energy use and emissions levels?
    My votes go to 3,4 and 6. I have given up on 1, 2 and 5. Still unsure about 7.
    Please reply as to which “change agents” you would expect to be most effective.

  23. Lewis C says:

    Tom at 20/.

    “We need to stop wasting our time trying to save the ship, which is not possible, and start doing the one thing we can possibly accomplish in time: put our families on a solid footing of sustainable living in a safe place.”

    Saving the ship is a political issue, not a technical or physical one – as Joe Romm has been to great lengths to describe. Your conjecture that effective political change is not possible is just that – conjecture – not an evidence-based assessment, and it is plain wrong to present your opinion as fact rather than just the expression of despair.

    I’m unable to distinguish whether your comment is merely uninformed of the nature of global climate destabilization – there are no ‘safe’ places nor any prospect of a ‘sustainable living’ for our families if it is not controlled -
    or whether it is actually just more covert denialism in the form of defeatist propaganda written to discourage activists from striving for the necessary action to acheive the essential climate treaty.

    Either way, your promotion of a callous disregard for those you want to leave behind to face the climate wrath does you no credit. Perhaps you should reconsider your position ?

    Regards,

    Lewis

  24. Larry Gilman says:

    Praise for almost all of this piece, but strong disagreement here: “He decided to place a politically divisive healthcare reform battle before the health of the planet.”

    I detect a mild case of Great Issue Myopia here: the tendency to see one awful problem as the universal master key, the one sole real issue of our day, thus any time spent on anything else merely wasted, or even damnable (because counterproductive).

    The buzzphase “politically divisive,” here applied by Orr to healthcare, could just as aptly, and just as foolishly, be applied to climate change, because, as Orr points out, the Republicans “will have none of it.” The divisiveness is not in the issue itself in either case, but in those Republicans who would contradict Obama if he proposed that the Sun rises in the East.

    Moreover, there is a close parallel between how Obama muffed healthcare and how he muffed climate. On neither issue did he shown a fiftieth of the spunk and energy he displayed when the great goal was to get his own butt into the Oval Office. In neither case has he used his bully pulpit to fire up the people who got him elected. Instead, he and his appointees have closeted themselves with industry insiders in the time-honored fashion, predictably producing the time-honored, “business-friendly” non-results. He scraped single-payer off the table before even beginning the healthcare fight.

    To blame Obama’s half-assed, industry-friendly climate efforts on his half-assed, industry-friendly healthcare efforts, as Orr here does in passing, is a misstep. The same kinds of opportunity were, in fact, wasted in much the same way on both fronts. There can and should have been a synergy between them. He can and should have gone to the people instead of his appointed insiders. A whistle-stop tour of the country, as many such tours as necessary, speaking impassioned reformism on climate/energy AND healthcare AND economic justice AND building down the Empire, etc., the whole caboodle, to stadiums full of ecstatic multigenerational crowds.

    It didn’t happen. But of course, nobody who listened to what candidate Obama actually _said_ (and looked at his funding sources) would have _expected_ it to happen . . .

    We must totally eschew the mindset that sees time spent on anything but climate as time wasted. That sort of single-issue thinking sheds allies awfully fast and smells too much like true-believerism.

  25. John McCormick says:

    David wrote a cogent, pointed, articulate piece that is so familiar to us.

    A joke about prison jokes: There are only a few filtering through the lock down and too often repeated. So, a prisoner decided to assign each joke a number. When he yelled through the bars “NUMBER 6″ there was laughter throughout.

    David’s piece and many of these comments are repeats. What we desperately need is a high council, or call it what you will, who can actually put our right foot just a bit ahead of our left and have a backup plan to move the left foot up a bit.

    Folks, we are crying in our beer repeatedly on this blog but we have yet to hear from the likes of NRDC, ED, UCS. et.al. about how we can mobilize a mass rather than our neighbors to G…DAMED put some skin on the line and go from rhetoric and appeals to reaction.

    David’s, next to last paragraph makes my point:

    “With no prospect for Federal climate legislation anytime soon, however, what’s to be done? The short answer is that, whatever the prospects, we must keep pushing on every front to: change Federal and state policies, transform the economy, improve public understanding of science, engage churches and civic organizations, reform private institutions, educate for ecological literacy, and change our own behavior. Even without a coordinated, systematic national response, maybe enough small victories in time will suffice.”

    Who is the we. I’ve got to meet a personal schedule today and nobody listens to me anyway. I’m not equipped to transform the economy, reform private institutions, (my 23 year old son is finally listening to me on the ecological literacy front..progress there). However, (I),we have a several billion dollar environmental machine to call upon but I wonder if they are ready to take the call.

    It’s not what we should be doing! IT IS WHO HAS THE KEYS TO THIS TRUCK. You and I do not. Who do we have to lead, organize, whatever it is going to take to move that right foot just a bit. Lowes and Home Depot are ready to sell us whatever we demand. But we are 300 million+ consumers.

    Where are the liberal deep pockets in this, our great, calamitous and final undoing. Why do they leave it to us minions to save their bacon. We know the eco-stars out there. Can anyone get them cranked up and shouting?

    I am sick of hearing what we NEED TO DO. It aint about retrofitting our homes and the local library. It is about pulling fire alarms.

    John McCormick

  26. Tom Lewis says:

    Lewis 23:

    Of course it’s a political issue, and of course Joe Romm and others know what can be done. But with our political system locked down by the Koch Brothers and their ilk, it is not going to be done in the foreseeable future, and because the task was not undertaken 20 years ago, climate change will run its course.

    I have been writing about (National Wildlife Magazine), editing books about (Time-Life Books) and thinking about this issue long enough to know that anyone who says that there will be no safe places and no possibility of sustainable living after climate change, is not well informed. It is mere conjecture, not evidence-based assessment.

    Climate change is not the end of the world, it’s a drastic change in the world, the kind of thing that drives evolution.

  27. John McCormick says:

    RE # 26

    Tom Lewis, though you have devoted a great deal of time studying and writing on climate change, you misspoke:

    “Climate change is not the end of the world, it’s a drastic change in the world, the kind of thing that drives evolution.

    Didn’t you mean to say “the kind of thing that drives extinction”.

    Ocean acidification, methane feedback…to name just two extinction drivers.

    Tom, you and I are not on the same page.

    John McCormick

  28. Leif says:

    …”the kind of thing that drives evolution.” Tom Lewis, @ 26. Indeed! I do not know where you went to school but my understanding is that evolution takes numerous generations. I fear that most of us will not find “evolution” an answer to floods, crop failures, supper storms, acidic oceans, heat and cold extremes and more.
    Even the bottom of a s@#thouse is utopia to some life forms, does your gene pool have the “right stuff” to look at a pile of excrement and proclaim “this is indeed heaven on earth?

  29. madcitysmitty says:

    What is it about Vermont? Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders, David Orr….

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Todd #22. Yep, 3, 4 and 6 sound good and I would add the insurance industry. They are extremely well educated in this regard and have no intention of going broke. Don’t give up on 5, the general population, yet – they are only starting to get organized but it will happen, ME

  31. Stephen Watson says:

    David’s article is powerfully written and very pertinent, but like most others I’ve read, will probably be ignored by those whose hands are firmly gripping the wheel and refusing to let anyone else get in the driving seat.

    When I began giving talks about Peak Oil back in 2005 it soon became clear to me that:

    a) Democracy, as it is currently practiced, is incompatible with a healthy planet, relying as it does on telling the electorate what they want to hear to gain re-election rather than telling the truth. Of course, as Churchill found out, when the bombs are falling it’s easier to tell it like it is but by the time that the climate bombs are falling, rather than the current odd hand grenade going off, I suspect that things may be too far gone to pull back.

    b) I believe that the only solution to the huge challenges of Peak Oil, Climate Change and other seismic shifts in our lives, is an equally huge Spiritual Revolution in our relationship with each other and our relationship with the planet. Without these two, we will simply continue to repeat all the old problems using new high tech methods, “fixes” and force, desperately seeking solutions in such places as nuclear power, improved efficiency (i.e. making and buying more stuff), Carbon Capture, fracking, oil shale, tar sands, electric cars and so on.

    This is the place from which Dark Mountain has arisen: http://www.dark-mountain.net

    [Also, and completely off topic, please can we remove this hideous business speak phrase "going forward" from our speech and writing. It adds absolutely nothing, as removing those two words from the sentence at #5 clearly illustrates. It's similar to the modern, non-business, fashion of peppering every other word in a conversation with 'like'.]