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Why do we care?


– Robert Cooper

Google News fed me an interesting article last week, a Sunday op-ed in the Philly Inquirer by Jim Geraghty (Climate change offers us an opportunity, 8/28/2011).  The author accepts that climate change is real, but argues that we should welcome it because it will only harm those he does not care about (“those in the poorer, developing world”), while bringing only good to the United States.  Even setting aside, for now, advocacy of more famine in the developing world, that analysis was simply too one-sided and ignorant for me to ignore.  Worse, for someone who takes Geraghty’s claims at face value and isn’t familiar with the real research, he makes a potentially compelling argument and raises an important question: why do we care about climate change?  I decided to take advantage of my hurricane day and draft a response, which the Inquirer promptly ignored.    However, because it’s important to think about why climate matters, I’m posting a version of my response here.

The most obvious problem with Geraghty’s op-ed is that completely ignores the threats posed to America by climate change.  Would climate change swallow America in a giant fireball?  Of course not – we will survive and the Earth will survive – but climate change would cause a heck of a lot of avoidable damage, suffering, and economic losses along the way.  Perhaps more importantly for the short term, even while Geraghty invents an economic opportunity from climate change, his analysis overlooks the true opportunity for American prosperity this century.

Geraghty’s first argument is that America would see increased crop yields.  While it may be true that some crops grow better with more CO2, crops and livestock are generally not fans of extreme heat and droughts.  Just ask Texas, which has lost $5.2 billion to heat and drought so far this year, making 2011 the fourth time in six years that the state’s farmers and ranchers lost $1 billion or more.  The more greenhouse gases we emit, the hotter and drier the Western U.S. will become.  This is not a good thing in states already struggling to find enough water.

Climate change doesn’t just make America warmer, it shifts rainfall around the country.  As the West dries, northern states will see more rain.  Unfortunately, precipitation will shift in intensity as well as in space, with fewer light rains and more heavy downpours or intense snowstorms.  That means more record floods like those that recently devastated Americans living along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

It’s not just the nation’s heartland that would suffer from climate change.  Since Hurricane Irene is the news of the day, consider that her storm surge of around 3 feet could be considered a normal tide by the end of the century.  That would mean large-scale losses of coastal property.  We would have to move entire neighborhoods of coastal cities to higher ground, at huge expense.  In cities, hotter summers would mean even worse air quality, causing more asthma, lung disease, and heart attacks.

Returning now to the claim that climate impacts might be worse in other countries, let’s remember that we live in an interconnected world.  Crop failures elsewhere drive up food prices here too.  And given the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorist proselytizers, do we really want to foster global instability?  The Pentagon doesn’t think so.  Besides, if the rest of the world is flooding and starving, who are we going to sell our products to?

In my opinion though, the truly scary danger from climate change is in the unknowns.  A look back at the climate over the past million years shows a history of huge fluctuations and inhospitable conditions over much of the globe.  Over the past several thousand years, coincidentally just when human civilization arose, the climate has been unusually stable and human-friendly.  So at the moment, the climate system is a sleeping dragon.  Do we really want to keep poking it in the eye and see what happens?

Fortunately, America does have a huge opportunity this century, if we have the will to seize it.  No, that doesn’t mean waiting a decade or three until “the harmful effects … force the hands of governments, NGOs, and businesses” into the last-ditch crapshoot of geo-engineering, so we can sell cloud-sprayers or giant orbiting mirrors as Geraghty suggests.  Our real opportunity is here and now.  We can take the lead in developing clean, safe energy that poses no threats and is immune to price fluctuations.  We can use American innovation and entrepreneurship to create jobs developing and installing real solutions that will prevent the harmful effects of climate change, and export these to the rest of the world.

All we need is for our leaders to create energy policies that provide long-term support to help renewables make their final push to prices cheaper than fossil energy.  And don’t believe renewables aren’t close – why else would fossil energy be protesting so loudly?  This doesn’t mean we all have to drive Priuses and turn off our heat and A.C.  This just means ensuring stable markets and credits for renewable energy, and providing appropriate market signals to help the innovation happen.  American ingenuity created the light bulb, let’s help American ingenuity come up with the next way to power it.


Tim De Christopher Goes to Jail Over Climate Change


-by Derek Gideon, Editor

Would you be willing to risk jail time to fight climate change? That’s what Tim De Christopher, an economics student at the University of Utah did. When public lands in Utah were being auctioned for oil and natural gas drilling during the last months of the Bush Presidency, Christopher decided to disrupt the auction by entering it and outbidding everyone despite not being able to pay. He says he did so with the full knowledge he would probably face jail time, and sure enough, last Thursday a federal jury convicted him. Depending on the judge’s ruling, De Christopher may now face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Says De Christopher, in the interview posted above,

“The climate movement has been really creative in trying a lot of different methods for how we can create this radical shift that we need without anybody really making any sacrifices or taking any personal risks and none of that’s really worked. And I think now it’s time we tried the path of actually putting ourselves on the line… I think it could take far fewer people than we think to do that.”

SURGE doesn’t advocate breaking the law, but I consider this blog to also be an open forum to discuss the climate movement. So, readers, what do you think? Do there need to be more acts of civil disobedience to solve the climate crisis? And if so, who should be on the line? I encourage you to watch the full video of De Christopher and leave your thoughts in the comments section.


Petition to Defend the Clean Air Act and other Eco-News


Defend the America. Defend the EPA.

Last week I blogged about the House of Representatives attack on the EPA. You can sign this petition from the 1Sky Campaign to support the agency that keeps our country safe from polluters.

Other Eco-News

Bill Mckibben takes on the US Chamber of Commerce; announces “The U.S. Chamber Doesn’t Speak for Me” campaign.
A writer from the Kentucky coal fields explains why he’s fighting to save his community.

Use Facebook? Tell them to get off coal.

Defending America


-by Derek Gideon, Editor

Imagine living in an America where the rivers are so polluted they catch fire. Imagine an America where the smog in New York City is so bad that hundreds of people die in a single incident. Imagine an America where companies can dump as much toxic waste into the Hudson as they please.

All these things happened in America before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Prior to then, there was no single agency tasked with keeping America safe from environmental disasters. But today, the Republican house is trying to declaw the EPA, voting 249-177 to stop the agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

Read more…

A Sunday Afternoon Wake Up


-by Regina Wang

On a Sunday afternoon in Princeton, most students are busy worrying
about some of the most important aspects of their lives – their
academic and social needs. I wasn’t sure if I could tear myself from
those things to make it to the Awakening the Dreamer symposium this
Sunday, but I’m definitely glad that I did.

As one of three Princeton students who attended the entire event, I
definitely felt like an integral part of the experience, and I now
feel awakened to really do something.

The WakeUp was organized by Generation Waking Up, an organization
based in California which seeks to “awaken” young people to the
challenges of our generation in creating a sustainable, just future.
Princeton’s WakeUp was coordinated by Princeton freshman Leland
Baldwin and included several members of Generation Waking Up (in fact,
they outnumbered us Princeton students nearly two to one).

The symposium alternated between videos and discussion about our
reactions, educating us while allowing us to engage and share. If
focused on four main questions: Who are we? Where are we? How did we
get here? And What’s possible for the future?

The event started with everyone introducing themselves as individuals,
followed by a group effort to define our generation. We then watched a
video about our generation, which highlighted our passiveness in
taking action to bring necessary change, contrasting our belief that
we can’t bring change with the activism of the 60s against war,
segregation, and gender equality, among other things.

Next, we focused on where we are now in terms of the issues we face
today. Most of the information we learned wasn’t entirely new to us –
I’m pretty sure most Princeton students know about the huge disparity
between the rich and the poor as a tiny fraction of the population
owns a majority of its wealth and the majority of the world does not
have access to everyday conveniences most of us don’t even think twice
about. Animals are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the
incredible amounts of waste and pollution we produce each day are
anything but sustainable. However, as we discussed after the video,
most of had forgotten about or unconsciously ignored these global
problems in favor of the comparatively inconsequential matters that
fill our lives.

In particular, my partner and I shared how the video reminded us of
the almost superficial nature of almost all our immediate concerns.
The video showed us how many people today are obsessed with stuff as a
means of satisfaction, without realizing that material possessions are
not bringing happiness. We both reflected on how easy it is to get
distracted by stuff so that one forgets about larger issues.

The next video and discussion focused on the challenges we face today
in bringing the change we want to see. We discussed some underlying
assumptions (many of them untrue) that prevent people from taking
action, including the ideas that individuals cannot do anything,
technology will solve all our problems, and some people just don’t
care and cannot be convinced to care. Video clips featuring Van Jones
and other activists discussed the idea that from a rationalist
standpoint, an individual really can’t do anything, but it takes an
individual to get anything done. He provided the example of the
standing ovation in a crowd of people – one person has to stand up
first, and then the crowd follows. Similarly, young people today need
to realize that nothing will happen until one person takes action.

Finally, we discussed the possible actions we can take for the future.
By intersecting things we love with things we want to see in the
world, we found actions each of us could take. We also wrote plans for
individual and group-based actions we planned to take and when we
planned to act.

Altogether, the experience really reminded me of what I already knew
but had pushed behind my own selfish, superficial worries. The
awakening really reminded me to care and take action for something
bigger than myself.

Carbon Dioxide or Water Vapor?


SURGE’s Rob Cooper takes on a pressing climate science question.

Cleaning Up the Morning After a Tea Party, Part II: What is to Be Done


-by Derek Gideon

“We left—onto the freeway shoulders—

under the tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffs
I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
“What is to be done.”
-Gary Snyder, “I Went into the Maverick Bar”

Get used to me posting poetry on this blog. Because those of us who care about national climate change policy going to need it to keep us going. As I blogged in Part I, the day after the election, things are not looking good for a national climate policy in the US. But that doesn’t mean the climate movement has to lose hope. In this post I’ll give my take on where we should go from here.


In a lecture at Princeton this past September, Van Jones noted that if Congress will not take action on climate change, the Supreme Court has ruled that the EPA has the authority to do so. I am quite aware that, taking a conciliatory tone with the new Republican House, the Obama Administration might be reluctant to have the EPA begin regulating carbon. But if we want to start tackling the pressing issue of climate change, something’s going to have to happen. If it comes to a fight between the president and congress over the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon, the climate movement needs to be ready to vocally support the EPA, and prepared to drown out the tea party din.

There are also a number of state and regional initiatives we should continue to support, including the Western Climate Initiative, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Long Term

If we want to stop changing the climate, we need to change the political climate. Why did Joe Manchin see it as politically expedient to appear in an ad shooting the cap-and-trade bill? Why were climate-friendly politicians and initiatives triumphant in California but not in West Virginia?

This article at Worldchanging provides many  useful links on the boom of green jobs in California, even back in 2006. Meanwhile, West Virginia is the second largest producer of coal in the nation, and produces nearly all of its own power with coal-fired plants. And people tend to vote along their percieved self-interest.

In those parts of the country that have not yet seen the emerging green economy, we need to work on it from the ground up. Everyone can work on this in some way at the community level. Those of us with a mind for entrepreneurship can work on starting green businesses, from wind power installation to sustainable food. Those of us who are good at politics and policy can run for office starting at the local level, as was suggested in a recent series of posts on It’s Getting Hot in Here. Those of us who are good at environmental education should do environmental education. We need‘s successful “Get to Work Day” to become a sustained effort to build a sustainable future for our communities.

That also includes continued organizing and action. I highly recommend this “Open Letter to 1Sky from the Grassroots” in response to 1Sky’s initial open letter to all groups fighting climate change (also highly recommended). The letter from the grassroots highlights how many of the most successful  campaigns against coal plants and other dirty fuel sources have been led by grassroots coalitions centered around environmental justice.

In short, when the political climate doesn’t favor the best policies, we need to change it. Because I for one much rather change the political climate than the actual one.