When Physics Meets Politics: Text and Slides

Below is the text of a 30 minute presentation I delivered recently to a local group of Democrats. The corresponding slides, for those who are interested, can be viewed here.

[SLIDE 1] Thanks for the introduction. I wanted to speak very briefly with you tonight about where things stand in terms of the climate crisis, and to offer a few thoughts about why this issue is so politically intractable.

[SLIDE 2] As Linda said, I’m fortunate to work at Post Carbon Institute, a think tank that looks at the intersections of complex issues like climate, sustainable economics, and energy. I’m also on the board of Transition US, the national hub for the international Transition Town movement, which is a grassroots effort on the part of communities to free themselves from dependence on fossil fuels.

More important, frankly… I’m the father of two boys. [SLIDE 3] One is five and the other just turned one. When my eldest son was just a few months old, my wife and I were given an amazing opportunity to work on the climate crisis. An Inconvenient Truth had just come out and global warming seemed to be on everyone’s radar. A family friend called us after watching the film and asked, completely out of the blue, if we were willing to quit our jobs and work on climate change instead. He offered us funding for a year to make something happen. It was professionally and financially risky, but how could we say no?

I won’t bore you with the details of my personal journey, other than to say two things:

  1. At the time, I had no more qualifications that any one else in this room to try to tackle this enormous challenge. That didn’t stop me. And it’s no excuse to stop any of you from getting engaged, to whatever degree your personal circumstances and passion allow.
  2. In the five years since that call, the community of climate activists of which I consider myself a part has gone on a remarkable journey of highs and lows.

[SLIDE 4] The high probably came with the election of 2008 and the run up to the UN conference in Copenhagen in early 2009, when it seemed not only possible but likely that the US would pass some sort of climate legislation. We were wrong.

[SLIDE 5] The low? Well, the low is probably now, as we gear up for another contentious general election that, at best, seems to offer those of us concerned about climate change little by way of hope. Maybe just an opportunity to play defense.

You know, my original intention tonight was to provide an update on where things stand right now in terms of the climate crisis. What’s the science now telling us? What are our prospects for political progress? What can you, as concerned citizens, do in the context of the coming elections?

But here we are, with billions of dollars and billions of man-hours about to be spent to determine the political direction of our country, and I have to be honest. At the risk of pissing off many of you in this room, I would venture to say that little, if any of it, will make a damn bit of difference when it comes to enacting the kind of national climate or energy policies we need.

[SLIDE 6] The Obama White House… Congressional Democrats…  neither have mustered the political courage or leadership required to meet this crisis. In fact, it would be easy to argue that we’ve gone backward, not forward, on their watch.

Now there are a lot of good arguments and theories as to why this is the case. [SLIDE 7] The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression certainly didn’t help… The complex nature of the problem… [SLIDE 8] The cancerous role of money and corporate influence in politics… The seeming intent of Congressional Republicans to block any and all Democratic legislation… The fundamental contradiction of trying to enact the kind of long-term planning required by challenges of this scale in the context of 2-to-6 year electoral cycles.

Suffice it to say, the reasons why – after more than 30 years of increasingly dire warnings – we’ve continuously failed to respond to the climate crisis are as complex as the climate science itself.

I’m not here to cast blame on the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party for that matter. Nor am I here to gloss over the very real differences between the two parties. But when it comes to facing the climate and energy crisis, maybe those differences don’t matter as much as we’d like to think. [SLIDE 9] One party is trying to fix a broken car as it barrels towards the edge of a cliff. The other tries to pretend there is no cliff, or that everything will be fine if we just take our damn foot off the brake and hit the gas instead. Different, sure, but we’re still going to be airborne in a minute.

The truth is, until we get real… and I mean really real… about the nature of this crisis, about human nature and what keeps us from responding to an issue like global climate change with [SLIDE 10] the public will and [SLIDE 11] courage displayed in the Civil Rights Movement, or [SLIDE 12] the shared sacrifice shown during WWII… [SLIDE 13] Until we get real about the systemic, interwoven crises we face across all aspects of our lives – from the environment, to energy, to the economy – and what kinds of revolutionary changes these crises demand… it frankly doesn’t matter what political party is in control of Washington, D.C.

And it’s those three threads I’d like to explore briefly tonight:

  1. [SLIDE 14] Welcome to the new climate normal…
  2. [SLIDE 15] Denial. What keeps us from taking action?, and
  3. [SLIDE 16] How the climate and broader environmental crisis is inextricably connected to two other “e”s on the edge… energy and the economy.

[SLIDE 17] So, to begin, I wanted to share a short video made by a guy named Stephen Thompson, using the text of an article penned by one of PCI’s Fellows, Bill McKibben. [SLIDE 18] PLAY VIDEO.

One always has to be careful about making large-scale generalizations about climate from smaller-scale weather events, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that things are getting, well, weird and scary.

[SLIDE 19] One of my favorite descriptions of this “new normal” comes from the British investor, Jeremy Grantham, who said:

“My sick joke is that Eastern Australia had average rainfall for the last seven years. The first six were the driest six years in the record books, and the seventh was feet deep in unprecedented floods. Such ‘average’ rainfall makes farming difficult.”

[SLIDE 20] Bear in mind, all this change comes from carbon dioxide levels of around 391 parts per million. And that most of the effects we’re experiencing now are from CO2 that was emitted decades ago [SLIDE 21] by people like my grandma on her annual pilgrimage to Reno.

What can and should we expect when carbon dioxide levels hit 450 or 550 parts per million, the two numbers that are most commonly being debated in international negotiations? I’m not sure I want to find out.

[SLIDE 22] Many climate scientists now tell us that “safe” levels will require us to drop CO2 in the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million. Folks, that’s not about going carbon neutral. That’s about going carbon negative, against the tide of ever increasing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Count me as among those surprised and dismayed at the recent news that carbon dioxide levels reached a new high despite the economic recession.

As Bill McKibben likes to say: “You can’t negotiate with chemistry or physics.” The science tells us what it does. 350 parts per million. [SLIDE 23] And that’s why groups like Bill’s, who we at PCI strongly support, are pushing not for what’s politically feasible but what’s physically required.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

[SLIDE 24] So, here we are, with mounting evidence that climate change is not only real but that it’s no longer a crisis for future generations. And yet public concern has gone into reverse. [SLIDE 25] Polls show that the number of Americans who believe global warming is primarily caused by humans is now a minority. [SLIDE 26] For the first time in 25 years, economic growth is considered a bigger priority by more Americans than protecting the environment.

In tough economic times like these, it’s of course not a surprise that people are more acutely concerned about the health of the economy – especially when one is immediate and personal and the other seems remote, and when the two issues are presented as somehow separate and in conflict.

[SLIDE 27] But there are deeper forces at work here, forces that get to some core traits and tendencies of human nature, which are critically important for us to understand if we’re to have any chance of gaining broad-scale public will or meaningful political leadership.

As I see it, there are at least three barriers at play:

  1. [SLIDE 28] Facts are relative.
  2. [SLIDE 29] People almost always discount the future for the present, and
  3. [SLIDE 30] Climate science really is revolutionary.

[SLIDE 31] Just this week I read an article announcing that the new Miss USA was one of only two contestants who believe in evolution. A victory for science, I suppose, that she won the pageant, but a reminder that what many of us consider are fundamental truths are viewed with doubt if not outright suspicion by others. Why is that? Are some of us just plain stupid? Ignorant? Or is it that we as a species value the source of information as much if not more than the information itself? Who is delivering the message is likely more important than the message itself. And that makes sense. Frankly, it was probably a pretty smart survival skill for much of our history.

But now we find that this relativity is actually compromising our survival. You’d think that the Internet and the proliferation of news sources would have broken open the doors on access to information. And yet I think the opposite is actually true. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of noise and information, people narrow their sources of trusted information.

Another important survival skill we’ve developed over millennia, that now counteracts our ability to respond to a crisis like climate change, is something in evolutionary psychology called “steep discount rates.” Steep discount rates are essentially the degree to which people devalue or discount risks or rewards based upon their value and distance in time.

[SLIDE 32] For example, would you rather have one candy bar right now or two tomorrow? Would you rather have a 30 minute massage tomorrow morning or an hour long massage next week?

Again, this makes a lot of sense. For 99.9% of our history as a species we were forced to live in the here and now. Treats like sugar and fat, these were scarce. Why pass up the opportunity to have some now for the possibility that you could have more later? And distant risks like drought, fires, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns…? Please.

The bottom line is that we’ve become amazingly adept as a species in gathering and processing complex information, in forecasting, in analysis. We just stink at acting on it, especially when the risks and rewards are remote.

[SLIDE 33] Last week I had the chance to hear the author Naomi Klein talk a bit about the research she’s been doing to understand the political landscape in the US when it comes to addressing climate. She’s spent a lot of time going to meetings and conferences of climate deniers, in order to better understand how they think.

She shared this commonly heard joke: [SLIDE 34] “Why is an environmentalist like a watermelon? Because he’s green on the outside and red on the inside.” Ha ha, right? But this is no joke. Rather it’s the expression of a surprisingly common-held belief: That environmentalists are part of some cabal, out to radically restructure every aspect of society.

And you know what… as Naomi Klein herself said… they are right.

Okay, they’re wrong. There is no grand plot. No one world order agenda. At least not one that I’ve been invited to participate in. But tackling the climate and energy crisis does require transformational change. Revolutionary change. It’s going to require a fundamental shift in our economic system… in our beliefs about the relationship between humans and the environment… in the role of the free market vs. collective planning… in the course of globalization and free trade… in international cooperation.

At the risk of generalizations, one of the biggest failures of the environmental community has been their unwillingness to acknowledge this. They’ve attempted to pretend that we can have our cake and eat it, too…. That we can fix the car in motion, in time to turn it away from the cliff. It was an understandable calculation. But it was wrong. It was wrong on the facts. And I think it was wrong in the strategy, because people instinctively know that a crisis of this size and complexity is going to require more than switching our light bulbs.

Which gets me to the last thread…

[SLIDE 35] Bad news folks. The environment is not the only thing in crisis. There are two other “e”s I want to briefly, all too briefly, discuss – energy and the economy – focusing on how they are interrelated. I’m going to cover a lot of ground very quickly here, with apologies. And will be happy to point those of you interested in the bigger, more complete story with all kinds of resources.

[SLIDE 36] Let’s start with energy. [SLIDE 37] The US consumes over 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy a year. Take my word for it, that’s a lot. About 85% of that comes from [SLIDE 38] this stuff and [SLIDE 39] this stuff, and [SLIDE 40] this stuff. Hundreds of millions of years of compressed organic energy that we could easily dig up and burn.

That wasn’t always the case. [SLIDE 41] For 99.9% of our history, we as a species lived off renewable energy. Essentially, whatever the sun produced, both in terms of food and fuel. But why keep using this stuff [SLIDE 42] when we could use [SLIDE 43] this stuff? Why farm this way [SLIDE 44], when we could [SLIDE 45] farm this way?

[SLIDE 46] It’s estimated that one gallon of gasoline has the same energy as a person working full time, forty hours a week, for six weeks. Even at current prices – that’s still only $4 FOR SIX WEEKS OF LABOR. Which we gripe about.

[SLIDE 47] Especially in the early days, for every barrel of oil we burned, we got the equivalent of 100 barrels out. And so no wonder we mechanized… well… everything. And in the blink of a human eye, [SLIDE 48] we completely transformed the world.

But this picture is changing. Not only have we come to discover that there was an environmental cost of our use of fossil fuels, it’s simply become more difficult and expensive to get energy. In the early days of oil, [SLIDE 49] this is what production looked like. [SLIDE 50] This is what it looks like now.

[SLIDE 51] Last year the Gulf of Mexico experienced the worst environmental disaster in US history. But little discussed was why we were drilling 18,000 feet down in deep water in the first place. We’ve picked the low hanging fruit.

[SLIDE 52] Good riddance, right? Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Alternatives to fossil fuels are crucial. Both in order to minimize our impact on the climate AND because fossil fuels are depleting anyway. But as we saw in Japan [SLIDE 53], there is no such thing as a free lunch.

[SLIDE 54] A couple of years ago, we at PCI undertook an analysis of 18 different energy sources, based on 10 criteria. Perhaps the most crucial is this: [SLIDE 55] Energy return on energy invested. As I mentioned before, in the early days of oil we were seeing returns of 100 to 1. Now fossil fuels are increasingly providing smaller energy returns on investment. And, more important, no current renewable sources provide anywhere near the same bang for the energy buck.

Our conclusion? [SLIDE 56] There is no credible scenario in which alternative energy sources can make up for fossil fuels once declines begin. And we are there. So when we lament the lack of political progress on the climate crisis we have to understand the full picture of what we’re dealing with. We can’t fully replace fossil fuels with the time and alternatives available to us. And less energy, or more expensive energy, means less economic activity, at least the way we currently measure it.

In a sense… and this will not make me popular to say… asking Obama or any other political candidate to call for the kind of revolutionary changes the climate crisis requires is for all intents and purposes asking him or her to call for the end of economic growth. What politician in their right mind is going to do that?

But here’s the good and bad news. As Bill McKibben says, “chemistry and physics don’t negotiate.”

Believe it or not, I didn’t come here tonight to depress the hell out of you. Trust me, that’s the last thing I want or [SLIDE 57] THEY need. Rather, I’m here to urge all of you not to vacate the political field. Not to give up on influencing the national conversation or the Democratic Party. But in addition to those things, to channel your energies into building resilience here at home.

If I’ve convinced you of anything tonight, it’s that we live in uncertain times. And uncertain times call for creativity, community, flexibility… [SLIDE 58] Uncertain times call for resilience. Resilience is the ability of a person or community to withstand shocks and keep their essential identity.

What does this mean? For starters, building our local economy, and getting as much of our energy and food from sustainable, local sources. In the context of the economic uncertainty and an age of extreme energy, extreme climate, and extreme politics, building local resilience just makes sense.

[SLIDE 59] So what if I’m wrong? What if I’m just a Chicken Little? Under the best of circumstances, we’ll have “wasted” our time creating a more vibrant, healthy, connected community. Or shown the nation how communities can respond to the full scale of the challenges we face in a way that’s achievable.

And if the worst happens – that we as a nation and an international community can’t or won’t come together to tackle these crises – we’ll have at least attempted to take matters into our own hands. We’re faced with the biggest opportunity of our lifetimes. Let’s seize it.

Thank you.


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