Tag Archives: Bill McKibben

Can we be hopeful?

It’s a two-part question: can we and should we?

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Being the self-anointed EcoOptimist, these days (can I say “in the current environment” or “in the current climate” without being tongue in cheek?) can sometimes be quite difficult when, with each passing day, we hear about another legislative rollback, another record high temperature or another iceberg calving off Antarctica. Indeed, it raises the question of whether being – or attempting to be – optimistic is a good approach. In one sense, the answer is no if it encourages reducing the pressure to act by saying that we can ‘do this.’ On the other hand, as I’ve stated elsewhere, becoming an ‘Eco Pessimist’ can be akin to giving up. Since we’re doomed, a pessimist might say, let’s just enjoy things – drive, fly, be carnivores, live in McMansions – like there’s no tomorrow. Because maybe there isn’t a tomorrow?

OK, that’s taking the pessimism a bit too far, but you get the idea. The question is which is more effective: optimism or fear? The carrot or the stick?

As with much else around us, this isn’t a binary choice. We need both: fear of what can happen and the hope of solutions. One without the other is not likely to get us to the necessary results.

Greta Thunberg, whose powerful fearlessness is perhaps the most positive thing that 2019 brought us, is great at combining the two, while also shaming us into action. Speaking to British MPs, she said “The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.” I’ll skip the hardest in favor of trying to be optimistic here. (And the linked article about the speech in the Guardian was headlined “’You did not act in time: Great Thunberg’s full speech to MPs.” So, I’m being selective in my quotes.)

Project Drawdown also says we know what to do but gets specific about it. In Chad Frischmann’s TED talk he says “we have mapped, measured and detailed 100 solutions to reversing global warming. Eighty already exist today.”

Project Drawdown's top 10 solutions

Project Drawdown’s top 10 solutions. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions

In the midst of an otherwise thoroughly depressing Washington Post article titled “The 2010s were a lost decade for climate. We can’t afford a repeat, scientists warn,” a cherry-picked paragraph reads:

[Surabi Menon, vice president for global intelligence at the ClimateWorks Foundation and a steering committee member for the U.N.’s emissions gap,] draws hope from progress that has been made on the ground in the past decade, even as global leaders fell short. Global renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, largely because of improved technology and falling costs, she noted. People increasingly see climate change as a threat; a Washington Post poll this year found that 76 percent of American adults view the issue as a “major problem”or a “crisis.”

Hope and fear.

Washington Post lost decade headline screenshot

At the end of every year, we get inundated with all those year-end summary articles. You know, the ones that appear in every newspaper or TV channel and attempt to provide some insight into the events of the year but usually end up feeling like treacle-y filler: “The ten best [fill in the blank] of the year.” I mostly ignore them because, well, treacle is way too sweet.

Two of them, though, were about the positive (treacle-free) aspects of an otherwise dreadful year for environmental news. EcoWatch, one of my favorite blogs, posted “20 Reasons Why 2019 Gave Us Climate Hope” and, while not exactly an end of the year review, the Huffington Post chimed in with “We Spoke To 5 Climate Experts About What Gives Them Hope.

EcoWatch’s twenty reasons basically boil down to four:  increased public interest (reasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and part of 5), the pending slow demise of fossil fuel companies (#’s 5 and 6), increased media coverage (#’s 8 and 9), and celebrity and political candidate positions (#’s 7 and 10). Nothing that new. Celebrities, for example, have been doing this for years, usually to no avail or, worse, causing a backlash. And the downturn of the fossil fuel industry has been predicted for as long as I can remember. But perhaps the twenty reasons are significant in their totality.

Jane Fonda Fire Drill Fridays

Jane Fonda at one her Fire Drill Fridays protests in Washington, DC. Image from @janefonda Facebook page

While none of the Huffington Post interviewees got down to the specifics of Project Drawdown, they still – to state the obvious – give us hope. More or less.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA Secretary under Obama back when the EPA actually protected the environment, said “my hopeful energy comes from young people.” But that can be read as doing exactly what young activists are complaining about: kicking the can down the road. You can almost hear the “OK boomer” exasperated response.

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson sounds much like Frischmann or Thunberg. “I am certainly bolstered by the fact that we already have all the solutions we need.” Her caveat: she predicates her hopes on having a new president.

Weather and climate expert Marshall Shepherd sounds like a true EcoOptimist when he says “we are seeing a genuine ship-turning moment…. Fortune 500 companies, faith-based communities and the military recognize the ‘here and now’ threat and are acting. There are genuine bipartisan efforts now in our Congress and within states.” Forgive me if I ditch my optimism and find his faith in Congress to be unrealistic in even an EcoOptimistic mindset.

Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, pins her hopes in multiple fronts: fossil fuel companies “starting to be held accountable,” youth pressure, and presidential candidates trying to one up each other supporting the New Green Deal.  But she ends on a less than optimistic note about people losing money and the disproportionate impact on the poor.

Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist and co-creator of the famous “hockey stick graph” depicting rapid global warming, takes a measured tack, “The good news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable. The bad news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable.” He, too, however, finds hope in the youth climate movement. It’s hard, though, to accuse him of abdicating leadership and passing on the responsibility since he’s been one of our most vocal environmental advocates.

Michael Mann's "hockey stick graph."

Michael Mann’s “hockey stick graph.” Mann says we can be hopeful in spite of what the graph depicts.

Gizmodo Earther reporter Brian Kahn along with writer/activist Mary Annaïse Heglar tackle ‘the hope question’ head on. Hope, they say, is not sufficient and perhaps, given the state of climate inaction, we’re beyond the point where hope is useful. Kahn writes “I get that hope is a thing we’re all looking for amidst the worsening climate carnage, but I firmly believe hope isn’t the most useful thing to steer us away from a worst-case scenario.” EcoOptimism, however, is not ready to give up on hope as part of the path to solutions.

Heglar, in what became a lengthy Twitter thread, says the question of hope is “stale AF” and writes “my wish for 2020 is for people to stop asking climate activists what gives us hope and start asking ‘how can I help?’” This is closer to the EcoOptimist position of combining hope and fear, adding action into the mix.

Kahn’s concise version is: “Fuck hope. Long Live Action.” As with EcoWatch, he reaches out to climate activists to ask, “how can I help?” Among his respondents, 350.org founder Bill McKibben replies he’s concentrating on taking on the financial industry that bankrolls fossil fuels. Margaret Kleinman, founder of Climate Mobilization, directs us to “Break the silence: Start talking about the climate emergency and the need for WWII scale climate mobilization — in a realistic, blunt, emergency-focused way.” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance echoes Kahn, albeit in a slightly more family-friendly way: “Hope without action is like expecting a rock to float on water because you meditate.

Still, I think there is a place for hope – and that it’s actually necessary – so long as it’s in tandem with both fear and action. The realistic EcoOptimist will say that we can really only hope that the seemingly hopeless events of 2019 will result in governmental change. Will the massive heat waves and fires in Australia cause voters to depose their anti-climate change prime minister? Will China’s tepid attention to climate change expand? And the big one, will this country be able to vote out (I’m not placing any hope in impeachment – I’m not that optimistic) a president (there are too many derogatory adjectives I could have put in front of that word) who has single-handedly put us decades back in time?

We can still be optimistic while holding our breath. Better yet, let’s mix optimism with action. Anyone want to go to DC with me and get arrested with Jane Fonda? I’m in, so long as we don’t fly there.

A Grammar Mnemonic to Save the World

You’ve all heard it – at least I hope you have – starting, probably, sometime in grade school: “i before e except after c.”  (Are you listening, all you caffeinated Keiths and Sheilas? And I suppose it’s a bit too late for Einstein.) Taking some editorial license, I’d like to propose a modification for the purposes of environmentalism and economics: “i before e especially after c.”

I’m not referring to the letters i, e and c here, but rather to some words beginning with those letters. The “i” is for internalize; the “e” is for externalize; and the “c?” Well, that’s for carbon. So what I’m saying here in a more or less catchy albeit derivative way is we should internalize costs, in particular, environmental costs, rather than externalizing them as we currently do in most cases. And that this is especially important when the costs involve carbon.


© David Bergman

Let me back up a moment for those who have not had the misfortune of either an economics background or regular encounters with the word “externalize.” (If you haven’t, you may need to internalize that word so that you can toss it around in, say, dinner conversations with your climate change denying relatives.) An externality, as used in the dismal science, is often defined as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” It amounts to a rebuttal of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” because an externality is, in effect, a free lunch for the party causing the cost.

Externalities are, arguably, the primary reason our capitalist system screws the environment (and us along with it). From a business’s point of view, why care about costs that you don’t have to pay for? The obvious response is to make the person or company causing the environmental costs pay for them. In the case of climate disruption and carbon emissions, the method is some form of carbon pricing, preferably a cap and dividend system like that promoted by eco-stalwarts Bill McKibben and James Hansen, and first introduced as legislation in 2009. A carbon fee would be a more direct route, but cap and dividend would offset the increased price of carbon-emitting forms of energy. In theory, that should have been more acceptable – if not actually desirable – but our head-in-the-sand, hands-in-the-money legislators thought otherwise.

The i-before-e rule can be applied to many industries. It’s most often talked about in terms of power plants. But here’s another example to ponder: if airlines or aircraft manufacturers had to pay a fee for the carbon emissions of their planes, that would have at least two effects. It would increase the costs of air travel so passengers would make more accurate decisions about when and where to fly (and could choose to use their carbon dividends to pay the higher but environmentally correct costs). Perhaps more significantly, it would shift the responsibility and the incentive to develop less polluting planes and engines to the industry. The same would hold true for manufacturers of products ranging from cars to cable boxes. (I hate that the cable boxes we’re forced to accept from the cable TV monopolies are huge suckers of vampire energy. I recently asked Time Warner if they had Energy Star-rated boxes – which do exist – and got an apathetic “nah” for a reply.)

The original “i before e except after c” is usually followed by the disclaimer “or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Aside from the fact that there’s a, um, surfeit (that seemed to be the appropriate word to use here) of exceptions, it’s a somewhat unfortunate addition when added to our version since we’re referring to weighing the cost of carbon in order to promote better communities among neighbors. Okay, so that last part’s a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think it means I have to forfeit the idea, unless you’re going to get feisty on me. The fact that the English language is a mess, breaking rules left and right and undoubtedly causing externalities of its own, shouldn’t keep us from adopting this eco-mnemonic.

Don’t Argue the Science

The facts of climate disruption and resource depletion are abundant and the logic is clear, yet we keep losing the argument in the realm of public opinion. As a result, pundits and bloggers have been advocating that we drop the scientific approach and instead make the case by promoting other benefits.

A recent example: Bill Chameides writes in The Green Grok (gotta love a Heinlein reference):

When it comes to climate, “just the facts, ma’am” doesn’t seem to cut it for some.

[I]f  you’re a scientist, [you] provide the unconvinced with more evidence, more data, and surely they will come around. Problem is, scientists continue to do just that and continue to make little or no progress or, worse, lose ground.

[F]or some, it appears, personal beliefs and cultural associations trump scientific facts.

Bill McKibben was on Real Time with Bill Maher last week. He was his usual masterfully informative self, as David Roberts of Grist acknowledged. In his post, though, Roberts

Bill McKibben, to the right of Maher. Link to clip here








“Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks” (his description) and says he wishes McKibben, instead of following the standard environmentalist’s response to the claim that “the science isn’t in” by petulantly answering “yes, it is,” had said

this kind of uncertainty isn’t a reason to sit back on our laurels and wait for more information. It’s the opposite! After all, if there’s a 50 percent chance things could turn out better than our best estimates, there’s also a 50 percent chance they could turn out worse. And if you’ve seen our best estimates, you know that “worse” should give you nightmares.

From there, it’s an easy leap to the fire insurance argument. (If you know there’s a chance your house might catch fire, do you wait for it to happen or do you get fire insurance and also try to minimize the chances?)

But in the same way that Roberts says McKibben is almost but not quite on the mark, I think Roberts misses an important part of the argument as well. (Before I get further into this point, let me say that I’m a big follower of both McKibben and Roberts. And just as Roberts couches his criticism of McKibben, acknowledging that he’d be hard pressed to do better than McKibben did, I want to note that my critiquing here of Roberts – who writes terrific posts —  is not meant to indicate I disagree with him in any big way.)

Roberts starts to make what I think is the better argument in writing “when the response to “it’ll cost too much” is “but we have to do it,” climate hawks implicitly concede the cost argument.”  (His emphasis.) He’s absolutely right, but then he lets it go.

We shouldn’t concede the cost argument, or the sacrifice one, because neither of them is true.

As I’ve often written here, when accurate and full “true” costing is calculated, the bottom lines almost always tell us that, in the big picture, environmental regulations do not cost more but, in fact, save money.

And the other premise of EcoOptimism is that we can implement these changes – whether they be regulations or corrections to our free market accounting – without diminishing the quality of our lives. Quite the opposite, as I hope we’ll continue to explore here; we have the opportunity to improve how we live while diminishing our demands on the planet. As I like to put it, we can not only stop biting the hand that feeds us, we can bandage and heal that hand – and still eat well. If we don’t, well that’s when we end up sooner or later without food (metaphorically as well as literally) at all.

But getting back to Roberts’ point about how to best make the environmentalist argument, here’s what EcoOptimism advocates: showing that we can do this without economic disaster and without social upheaval negates most of the anti-environmentalism argument. Combined with the fire insurance metaphor, it disarms hoaxers and deniers by saying, even if this is all a hoax or not true, it doesn’t matter because it will take us to better places in any case. It says there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.