David Orr on confronting climate collapse

Note from Priscilla: We don’t need “happy talk” about the climate, says environmental studies professor David Orr. Everyone from political leaders to next-door neighbors needs to break the climate silence and tell the truth about what is happening with the Earth. David Orr is a visionary on climate change, able to calmly see the whole picture yet speak with urgency about what needs to happen next. I look forward to meeting him in person next month when I make my quarterly visit to Prescott College, where Orr will be a keynote speaker at the Sustainability Education Symposium. Orr’s book Down to the Wire came out in 2009. This post appeared at Climate Progress on April 4.

Confronting Climate Collapse

by David Orr


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.

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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