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look out, here comes the flood

One of the many ironies in the debate over global warming is that the chickens have already come home to roost but few have noticed, except climate scientists of course, but then it’s clear that almost no one is listening to them anyway.

The epic and record-breaking Nashville flood in the U.S. this past spring is only one of the most recent, yet virtually invisible examples of climate change hitting home. “But wait,” I can already hear you saying.  “You can’t connect any one extreme weather event to climate change.”   That line is a well-worn argument, a blunt weapon that skeptics have used to bully climate advocates for years, ever since Katrina.  It’s also wrong.

The record-breaking “once in a thousand years” precipitation that drove the Nashville flood is part of the long-term trend of increasing heavy precipitation events in the Southeastern United States that has been documented and firmly attributed to climate change.  Maybe you can’t say this single event was caused by climate change, but you sure can say it fits the trend.  It’s also an example of the kind of flooding science tells us that we will see even more frequently in the future if global warming goes unchecked.  However, (and here’s the silver lining) it’s also the kind of poster-child event that could help get America to finally wake up and smell the coffee.

It’s clear the current political logic in the U.S. (and elsewhere) must be changed in order to secure the scale of change required to avoid a planetary train wreck. It’s no short-term task, to be sure, which is a scary prospect given that science also tells us that global emissions absolutely must peak in the next few years and then rapidly decline.

An important step in that direction will be to put a face on climate change, to help create that “BP moment” for global warming.  One of the tools needed for that task is a global database of climate change impact reports: the science reports but also the newspaper stories, photos, and eyewitness accounts that make the event come alive.

The major challenge in mounting such an initiative is finding, tagging and collecting all the reports.  However, social media may provide the answer.  Check out, a global database of climate change impact reports set-up [by yours truly] to be crowd sourced through social bookmarking.  Anyone in the world affiliated with the project can submit a climate change impact report simply by bookmarking it from their browser.

The site is in beta mode at the moment.  But testers are welcome.


the heat on climate negotiators

As delegates negotiate here in Bonn, India is suffering through a record heat wave pushing thermometers towards 125° and setting new temperature records – a hallmark of climate change. Hundreds have died, a tragic reminder that adaptation has its limits. Pakistan, too, has lost lives to the heat wave gripping South Asia.

Other countries are also suffering this week through events that make for a grim fit with the trend of ever more extreme weather driven by global warming. Tropical storm Agatha has ravaged Central America, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands and taking over a hundred lives in epic flooding driven by record heavy rains, another classic fingerprint of global warming which draws more moisture into storms. The mounting death toll has made that storm one of the top ten deadliest Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones on record. In Alaska, temperature records are tumbling and wildfires are raging in an unprecedented early start to the 2010 Alaskan fire season that has already witnessed 193 fires and emptied every smokejumper base in the state. Again, the change in timing and intensity of the fire season speaks to the changing climate.

With negotiators now staring at each other over the tables in Bonn, six months removed from Copenhagen, the question of the day is whether they have a political mandate from their home capitols to get a move on, or whether we will witness two weeks of rhetoric and no action. The climate has already delivered its mandate, but will politics trump science?


California: The Next Climate Battleground

With the climate train now limping out of Copenhagen, the question becomes what’s the next stop?  The next major international negotiation meeting isn’t scheduled until December in Cancún.  In the meantime, many advocates are looking to Washington DC and gearing up for the battle to move a climate bill through Congress.  But in 2010 the real play is even further west, in California where a strategic battle is brewing over clean energy and climate protection.

The cards have already been dealt for federal climate policy making this year, and even the most optimistic acknowledge we won’t be clearing the table on this go around (assuming that climate legislation even makes it to a vote, an outcome increasingly in doubt). Meanwhile, key cards for the next round of federal policy making are being laid out 3000 miles away.

Lasting change typically comes from the bottom up, and climate policy is no exception to the cliché. Rarely do federal policy makers move beyond the ambition of state governments and the grassroots movements that usually set the ceiling for the possible. The 2006 victory to enact California’s AB-32 climate law helped set the bar and paved the way for the current crop of federal proposals, and the outcome of several key battles in California in 2010 will likely define where those proposals are able to go.

This same bottom-up political logic ruled the day in Copenhagen.  By the time the December negotiations had rolled around the die was already cast.  Weak pledges from countries going into the negotiations ensured a weak deal coming out.  And the likely logic of the next round of negotiations is that without a strong U.S. policy there will be no strong international treaty.

How can we dramatically strengthen U.S national climate policy?  One critical battleground this year lies in California, where there is an opportunity to establish climate policy as an important driver of economic growth – currently a weak spot in the federal policy debate.  There are three strategic battles brewing in the state, each with the potential to define the course of federal politics.

Delaying Clean Energy

This spring and summer California officials will hold a series of public meetings to hammer out the rules for California’s climate program, enacted by the groundbreaking AB32 bill. A critically important battle is shaping up over the rules limiting the use of offsets (a controversial pollution trading practice), and the California limits are likely to help set the bar for the federal standard.    The offset provisions currently in federal legislation have the potential to postpone domestic pollution reductions another 20 years (by allowing polluters to substitute in reductions made overseas), delaying much needed domestic investment in low carbon and clean energy technologies.   The size of the federal offset provisions are creating a problem so severe that many advocates have begun to question the value of the federal bill. The battle in California will help set the national standard in the U.S., and a strong outcome would help plug the loopholes in federal legislation.

Killing Public Power

The June ballot in California will host Prop. 16, the second important showdown between climate advocates and the powers-that-be, in this case California’s largest power utility, PG&E, which backed a successful signature gathering campaign to qualify the ballot initiative that would “limit the ability of California cities to go into the public power business…[and] force local governments that want to compete with PG&E to win the approval of two-thirds of their voters first.”  The measure is opposed by cities that want more clean energy for their residents than PG&E has been willing to deliver.  Here, too, with cities taking action, the bottom up approach has the power to set an important trend.  And it’s a threat that PG&E is taking seriously, spending nearly $4 million to get the initiative on the ballot.

Counter-attack on Climate

But the stakes will be even higher for climate advocates come November in the race for California governor, an election battle that will polls say will pit Republican Meg Whitman against Democrat Jerry Brown.  Whitman has made the fight against climate legislation a cornerstone of her campaign, calling AB32 a jobs-killer and pledging to enact a moratorium in her very first day on the job as governor.  A victory for Whitman will embolden the opponents of federal climate legislation, providing them with a clear game plan for torpedoing climate policy, and would put a dagger into the hearts of those who tout the economic benefits of clean energy and climate protection.   Recently opponents of AB32 have launched a signature gathering campaign to qualify an initiative for the state ballot that would suspend the initiative until unemployment falls below 6% for a full year – an obvious attempt to link unemployment and climate protection.

Alternatively, a defeat for Whitman due at least in part because of her position on climate and clean energy would be a major victory for climate advocates, highlighting in no uncertain terms that there are political consequences for opposing climate legislation.  The key to tripping up Whitman and others like her lie in the fact that her ideological assault on climate would kill California innovation in favor of the status quo. She is championing the economic interests of a narrow set of corporate interests (e.g. the fossil fuel industry), rather than the innovation companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in California who believe that AB32 will drive their business model of providing low carbon goods and energy services.

The political challenges we are seeing in Copenhagen, in Washington and other national capitals all beg the same question:  which country will overcome the status quo voices of their fossil fuel industry and move forward on climate protection and sustained economic growth driven by a modern low carbon economy? For the U.S. in 2010, a critical piece of the answer will be found in California.


This piece co-authored by Gary Cook, the former director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, and a climate and energy policy consultant, also based in California.


genius of the vernacular

There’s has been a lot of chatter recently about Obama’s use of the vernacular, reaching another high point with today’s NPR story.

Over and Jack and Jill Politics, some have referenced Dr. King’s use of vernacular, called “genius” by Michael Eric Dyson, in discussing Obama’s way with words.

The tradition of using the vernacular to convey the essential goes way back, and was  (in)famously employed by Mark Twain to write what some call the first great American novel.

There is an interesting academic side to this communication thread, most notably the work of James C. Scott at Yale, who argues that if you listen closely in places like the parking lot at church, at your cousin’s backyard BBQ, or in the drop-off line at the community day care, you will hear a whole different conversation going on, one much different than what you hear in the mainstream media.  Scott dubbs it the “hidden transcript.”  And most of those conversations are held in the vernacular.

What’s particularly notable for communication geeks about the hidden transcript is that hidden conversation reveals that most folks are well aware of the nature of the problems and contradictions facing common peoples.  What they don’t see are the solutions.

In that context, talking about the problem almost amounts to talking down to people, and misses the point.  Folks get that there’s a problem.  What they don’t get is what the solutions might be.

The silver lining is that if you can speak to those solutions can rally the support of folks otherwise alienated by the “public” debate.  Obama, of course, is that blazing nova of the moment, exemplifying that approach.  And when he employs the vernacular, part of what he is doing is letting folks know that he, too, gets its. He’s been part of the hidden transcript, and he doesn’t need to talk about the problems, he’s ready to talk about solutions.

July 2018
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