…and How We Can Save Ourselves
Linda Marsa’s new book, Fevered, focuses on the public health implications of climate change. It is a wake-up call about how the changing climate is already affecting people’s lives and how much worse it’s going to get. By focusing on the Western world and primarily the United States, Marsa is trying to send the message that climate change “is not something that is going to happen in 20-30 years. It’s going to affect you. I wanted people to wake up.”
Marsa makes climate change personal. She explains how it “could lead to the collapse of our normally well-functioning public health system.”
For instance, the author describes the outbreak of dengue fever – an infectious disease once thought to exist only in the tropics – in towns along the Texas-Mexico border. In 2005, doctors diagnosed a patient in Brownsville, Texas, with dengue hemorrhagic fever. This event prompted health officials to research the extent of dengue infections. They found that nearly 1,300 people were infected by dengue fever at the peak of the outbreak.
Of all the public health risks that climate change will exacerbate, one often overlooked is the role of CO2 in trapping other pollution. In cities, where CO2 levels can reach up to 600 parts per million (compared to the global average of 400 ppm), CO2 acts as a “carbon canopy,” preventing health-damaging pollutants from escaping. A Stanford University study found that these “domes” might be responsible for up to 1,000 additional deaths from respiratory diseases every year. Moreover, increasing temperatures and the resulting increase in ozone levels, also increase the presence of respiratory diseases. For every 2°F increase in temperature, respiratory-related hospitalizations increase by 4.5 percent.
That’s why Marsa calls climate change a threat multiplier. It doesn’t create new problems. It makes existing problems worse. We’ve always had hurricanes and heat waves, but climate change will make them hurt more.
Fevered came up a little short in offering solutions. Marsa writes that we need a “Medical Marshall Plan” to reinvigorate our public health system and increase our resiliency to the effects of climate change. But the book doesn’t illustrate how more funding for the Center for Disease Control will help us cope with the threats that she describes. One reason that people are not motivated to support climate change action more enthusiastically is that there is a feeling that climate change is inevitable and the situation is hopeless. The book would have been better served if the author had brought to life the possibilities of a resilient health system with the same vividness that she describes the scariest threats from climate change. The solutions she proposes are also limited to adaptation strategies – there’s little mention of how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Marsa is most optimistic about how local governmental and civic institutions have responded to threats. Even in conservative areas of the country, local leaders recognize that adaptation to climate change is an imperative. Orange County, for example, has become a world leader in water management as they attempt to adapt to the desiccation of the Southwest. Considering that the U.S. government can’t even keep itself open, it’s no surprise that Marsa and others are looking to local institutions to pick up the slack. Whether or not these communities can respond at the scale necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change is unclear.
Fevered is well researched and easy to read. More importantly, it focuses on a dimension of climate change that has been under-reported. Hopefully the public health angle of the book will draw attention to climate change among new audiences.
On September 26, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its much anticipated Fifth Assessment Report, a multi-year study of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists. While there are no new shockers in the report, it stated with greater certainty man’s role in driving climate change. The IPCC stated that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of climate change over the last several decades, stronger language than was used in the group’s previous assessment in 2007.
On the same day, the U.S. government published its Climate Action Report (CAR), which details U.S. actions on climate change. The report, published by the State Department, trumpets the accomplishments by the Obama administration – such as nearly doubling fuel efficiency standards for cars, and doubling electricity generation from renewable energy – and how it plans on achieving the president’s goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020.
Despite the paralysis of Congress – which has reached an absurd new level with the latest shutdown mess – the president retains quite a bit of leverage over the trajectory of U.S. emissions. The CAR puts a little more meat on the bones of the administration’s Climate Action Plan, which Obama outlined in a major speech in June 2013. The plan relies heavily on EPA regulations on power plants, which are designed to target coal pollution. EPA’s draft rule that sets strict limits on emissions from power plants was released on September 20, and this rule remains the biggest tool the administration can use to slash emissions. Beyond these actions, the details get murkier.
Obama speaks about climate change at Georgetown University on June 25, 2013
Several of the other steps included in the climate plan provide little insight into how they might be achieved. For example, it calls for increasing funding for clean energy across all agencies by 30 percent, but does not detail how the administration thinks it will be possible to get that through Congress.
The plan also commits to developing fuel economy standards for cars made later than 2018. Not only is it unclear how such an achievement would have any measureable impact before 2020, but vague language like “commits to” doing something does not really inspire confidence. And in order to sequester carbon, the plan calls for “preserving forests” by “identifying new approaches to protect and restore forests.” While this is an admiral goal, it is all but a throwaway line.
Still, other steps are also similarly undeveloped, but could have an enormous impact. The administration hopes to reduce carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons by 2030 through efficiency standards for appliances. And tackling other greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and methane emissions are rightly top priorities as well. These arcane and mundane steps won’t make front page headlines, but are hugely important. It will be up to the White House to vigorously pursue these initiatives further.
The CAR shows a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005. However, without further action, the U.S. will merely return to 2005 levels by 2020 (see chart). For all the hoopla over the shale gas bonanza and how it is cleaning up our air, there is simply no way the U.S. will meet its climate targets without much more aggressive government action. And with the landmark IPCC report once again warning countries around the world to take action on climate change, the administration’s plans to reduce emissions, though encouraging, look rather unambitious.
“There’s no way they’re going to run coal trains through the city of Seattle. There aren’t enough police to keep those tracks cleared day after day after day.” As reported by The Seattle Times, environmental activist Bill McKibben headlined a protest in Seattle on September 21, 2013, vowing to block coal export terminals on the West Coast.
Coal mining companies have proposed to build several export terminals in Washington and Oregon to ship coal to energy hungry countries in Asia. However, the projects have run into fierce local opposition. Plans to build six terminals in the Pacific Northwest have been scaled back to only three.
Trains would carry coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to the coast in Washington and Oregon. The trains would consist of 150 uncovered cars full of coal, stretching about 1.5 miles, with as many as nine trains making the trip each day. Two export facilities in Washington would ship a combined 90 million tons of coal each year, with an Oregon port shipping an additional 9 million tons annually. Local communities are concerned about increased traffic, accidents, and pollution blown off from the uncovered cars.
Facing an increasingly unprofitable market within the United States, coal companies are looking overseas, but would need new export terminals on the West Coast. Domestic demand for coal will likely undergo a long period of decline. The Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed greenhouse gas limits on new power plants on September 20. The proposed rules would effectively make building a new coal-fired power plant impossible, without costly carbon capture technology. The EPA is expected to come out with much more significant regulations on existing power plants next year.
Coal companies are trying to reach countries like China, which alone consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined.
Yet, there are signs that even the rapidly growing Chinese market for coal may be plateauing. According to a July 2013 report from Goldman Sachs, coal consumption in China will only grow by one percent a year from 2013-2017. That is a significant decline from the seven percent annual growth rate over the last five years. The recent slowdown in the Chinese economy is partly to blame, however. China is also making large investments in renewable energy and even hopes to kick off a greenhouse gas emissions trading program in 2015. These trends are colluding to close the window on the profitability of coal exports, according to Goldman Sachs.
In Washington State, local opposition is the most immediate threat to the coal export terminals. Washington environmental groups and indigenous tribes have organized against the projects. Political leaders are also hardening against exports – the September 21 rally featured
Mayor Mike McGinn
, who has made his opposition to coal exports a central pillar of his reelection campaign.
Opponents of coal export terminals scored a significant victory in July when the Washington Department of Ecology issued a wide range of requirements for the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the projects. The EIS will include the impact of coal exports on global climate change, a higher level of scrutiny than the coal companies wanted. In June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided not to include climate change impacts.
The combination of environmental regulations, slowing demand for coal overseas, and strong opposition against coal exports in the Pacific Northwest have already scuttled half of the proposed six projects – and may yet kill off the remaining three.
More than 100 people showed up at the State Department early Monday morning to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama and the State Department have been considering the approval of the pipeline since 2011, repeatedly delaying their decision. In a recent speech, Obama said that the pipeline will not be approved if it has a significant impact on climate change.
The protestors were planning to block the entrance to the State Department and risk arrest from the Washington, D.C. metro police. In the past, Keystone critics have been arrested and these arrests brought attention to the environmental risks of the pipeline. However, on Monday, the police did not oblige and the protest received little attention.
Nearly a month ago, 54 people were arrested inside the lobby of the D.C.-based firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM). The group was protesting the consulting firm’s involvement in putting together the State Department’s report on the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline. The report found that the pipeline would not lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that the tar sands moved by the pipeline would be extracted whether or not the pipeline is approved (here is the best analysis I’ve seen on the possible impact of the pipeline).
In addition to challenging the content of ERM’s report, the protestors claimed that ERM did not acknowledge a conflict of interest. Analysts that worked on the ERM report had previously worked for TransCanada – the company building the pipeline. The Department of State is now conducting an inquiry into whether or not that conflict exists.
As a supporter of more aggressive steps to address climate change, I’ve been thinking about the effectiveness of these actions while reading “Waging Nonviolent Struggle,” a tome by Gene Sharp on the history of civil disobedience. Sharp considers the history of nonviolent social movements, different tactics used, and their effectiveness. I think his key point is the following: “The persons who are at any point the rulers do not personally possess the power of control, administration, and repression they wield. How much power they possess depends on how much power society will grant them.” According to Sharp, nonviolent action is a movement’s way of taking back that power.
These Keystone protests and the climate movement in general sometimes differ from many of the nonviolent case studies in Sharp’s book: the Russian Revolution, Indian Independence Campaign, California Grape Worker’s Strike and Boycott, Ending Bus Segregation in Montgomery, etc. The actions taken in Sharp’s examples tend to directly express the protestors’ vision of the change they would like to see. In India, for instance, people collected and traded salt in defiance of British law. Grape pickers in California refused to work. Pipeline opponents have been arrested for actively blocking the construction of the pipeline. In comparison, the protestors at the ERM building were arrested for unlawful entry.
Indians wanted independence from the British, so they protested their laws. The situation for climate advocates is more complicated. Their goal is not to overthrow Obama. Instead, they want to change a carbon-based energy infrastructure on which we all depend. To get to the climate protests, activists drive, take trains, and even fly – all acts that emit carbon and work counter to their end goal. These actions do not undermine their cause. They simply illustrate our country’s total dependence on energy from carbon sources and the absence of alternative transportation choices.
The ideal climate nonviolent struggle would be an economic boycott of carbon (like the divestment push), where participants refused to use energy from carbon sources. Doing so would directly reduce emissions and take away power from fossil fuel interests that profit from carbon consumption. Some people have chosen this route, and I’m sure that most of the arrestees consciously reduce their carbon impact. But it’s nearly impossible to participate in American society without using carbon. For the millions living in suburbia and rural areas, cars are a necessity. Every time I turn on a light (or the computer used to write this blog), the electrons come primarily from carbon generating sources. In most cases, giving up carbon would mean withdrawing from society. Plus – and perhaps more importantly – no one would notice the act of not emitting carbon.
So climate advocates are left with options for nonviolent action that are less illustrative of their goals than those in Sharp’s book. A lunch counter sit-in actively demonstrates the change the protestor wishes to see by breaking the law he or she wants to remove. Being arrested at ERM shows protestors’ anger at the company’s role in encouraging the pipeline to move forward, but the act itself doesn’t illustrate what the protestors want. The law being broken – unlawful entry – isn’t the one they want repealed.
Climate change advocates are working in a complicated, complex setting. A great article I read last week expressed how nearly impossible it is to evaluate advocacy. Change from advocacy is non-linear – little or nothing might happen for decades, followed by a huge breakthrough (see marriage, gay). David Roberts writes a lot about the importance of social proof – demonstrating to the general public that it is socially acceptable to have a particular opinion – and these protests provide that proof. Keeping climate in the news cycle changes minds and generates interest.
And advocates have made huge strides. The pipeline decision still sits on Obama’s desk, years after it became an issue. The President released an ambitious climate plan in a speech where he explicitly encouraged climate advocates (by using the word “divest”). The integration and importance of carbon in our lives means that it’s likely to be a long, uphill fight. But in Sharp’s words, advocates are slowly taking back power from the fossil fuel industry.