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A year of climate change letters to the editor

January 6th, 2011 · 1 Comment

For 2010, Warren S made a commitment with a New Year’s Resolution. Every day, another letter to the editor or a politicians about climate change and global warming issues. He deserves more than a tip of the hat for keeping that resolution up through the year and, as per this guest post, continuing it into 2011.

A previous Warren S guest post resulted from his conclusion that the rampant inability of traditional media institutions to link global record war temperatures, the hottest year in recorded weather history, the hottest decade in recorded weather history, major disruptive weather patterns around the globe, etc requires a form letter to ease his — and others — writing of the LTEs. Thus, the MAD-LIB letter on climate change.

After a full year of Climate Letters, I haven’t missed a day.

I’ve been published in the Boston Globe thrice, the Boston Herald twice, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and the New York Times (three times as of this week!).  I’ve been printed in the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, and local newspapers in various parts of the country.  I just got a letter in the Belfast Telegraph. The most distant newspapers to print my letters are The Jakarta Post and the Gisbourne Herald(New Zealand).  The most remote newspaper was in Nunatsiaq (Baffin Island).

I’ve attracted my very own hate mail and a few very stupid comment threads, along with a web page of Islamophobic idiocy from a teabagging conservablogger.

It’s been quite a year since I made my 2010 New Year’s Resolution: to write a letter a day on climate issues.  I’ve learned a lot, and by now I can write a pretty damned good LTE in fifteen minutes or so.  Every letter I’ve written can be read at my blog, Running Gamak, along with stuff on other subjects.

Some days I hate it.  “Time to write my goddamned letter,” I grumble on my way to the computer.  But I do it.  Every so often I’ll write a few days’ worth in advance so I can have a weekend off.  

There’s some ego-gratification in seeing print, but it’s not a critical factor for me.  I’ve written for publication since junior high, when I started an underground newspaper (using the school mimeograph machine was probably a mistake).  I would much rather be writing on music, or education, or atheism, or woodworking, or India — all subjects on which I have expounded at some length.  But I choose to write on climate, because it’s where I’m needed.  That’s where we’re all needed right now.

If a letter doesn’t get published, is it a waste of energy?  No — for two reasons.  The first is that newspapers count the letters they get.  The more letters they receive on a particular issue, the more likely it is that they’ll devote more energy to covering that issue in the future.

The second is contained in this little story Pete Seeger tells:

“Back in the 1950s there was a tiny peace demonstration in Times Square.  A young Quaker was carrying a sign.  A passerby scoffed:

“Do you think you’re going to change the world by standing here at midnight with that sign?”

“I suppose not,” said the young man.  ”But I’m going to make sure the world doesn’t change me.”

“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” p. 261

I’m writing these letters to make sure that I don’t accidentally become someone who doesn’t give a shit, someone who says, “aaaaahhh, the hell with it,” someone who’s given up.  JohnnyRook was dying, and he never said “aaaaaahhhh, the hell with it.”

Spend 365 days googling the phrase “climate change news” and you’ll often be downhearted, depressed, and dismayed.  I certainly am.  But not discouraged.  Never discouraged. I have a little girl who’ll be six in a few days.  If I can’t give her the hope of a healthy planet, I can at least give her this.

For my end-of-year summary, I went through all 365 letters and pulled out some of the comparisons I love the most; the bullet points that hit the target; the rants that vent my spleen as it needed to be vented.

If even a few of you decide to send some letters of your own, I’ll be happy.  You can always find my material at my blog, and with just a few substitutions and clause reversals, my letters can be your letters.

So enjoy…and remember to STEAL MY STUFF!

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It’s easy to deny global warming. Just look out the window and point to the snow, right? Well, if that’s how to do it, I can deny my baldness by pointing to my nose hairs.

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The only world in which corporations can reasonably expect sustained profitability is one in which humans can live sustainably.

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Yet it is a measure of how far we have strayed from simple common sense that stating the obvious (if we keep turning the world around us into trash, eventually there will be nothing left) is interpreted as being “anti-business” or “anti-capitalism.” No, it’s not; it’s the only way that Business and Capitalism will be able to survive in the long run. What good is maximizing profits over the next century if the result is a world so choked in toxic waste that no life can survive?

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It’s counterintuitive that planetary warming can bring unexpected snow — but it’s also counterintuitive that a starving child’s belly swells. Regardless of its importance to our politics, Washington, DC takes up a tiny fraction of the world’s surface area — 1/285,507th, to be exact. Kwashiorkor doesn’t disprove world hunger; a blizzard in Washington doesn’t disprove global warming.

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If the price of oil included the cost of cleaning up after a disaster, there would be no such thing as cheap gasoline.

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It can never be the right time when a three-decade lag between climate action and climate effect is five times longer than the elected term of a U.S. Senator, fifteen times longer than that of a U.S. Representative, and a hundred and twenty times longer than the quarterly attention span of our New Corporate Overlords.

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So-called “skeptics” are imagining the wrong movie. This isn’t the thriller where a cabal of mad scientists attempt to take over the world; this is the one where dedicated researchers try to alert humanity to a clear and present danger, but are mocked by short-sighted, profit-hungry corporate sociopaths.

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The New York Times took notice when Osama Bin Laden made a sensible statement about climate change.

It is a sad state of affairs when one of the world’s most notorious criminals speaks more accurately about global climate change than many of our own elected representatives.  Now it is absolutely certain that climate-change denialists will use Bin Laden’s words to suggest that realistically confronting the largest existential threat humanity has ever faced is somehow un-American, a capitulation to Al-Qaeda.  I remember how conservatives responded to Soviet criticism of the USA on civil rights issues in the fifties and sixties: by calling patriots like Martin Luther King “communists,” suggesting their actions were “controlled by Moscow.”  The fact that Khrushchev was a murderous thug didn’t stop him from correctly assessing American racial hypocrisy; the fact that Bin Laden is a murderous thug doesn’t mean that his statements on global warming are invalid.  It just means that American conservatives are easily swayed by irrelevant ad hominem arguments.

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The eagerness of our news establishment to downplay the most urgent threat our civilization has ever faced in favor of celebrity scandals and fashionable irrelevancies is just another version of “Now watch this drive.”

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If America (the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases) can’t lead the world in learning to think in the long term, there may not be a long term for any of us. The worst-case scenarios outlined by climate scientists can be summarized in one word: Venus.

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Uncontrolled and unregulated capitalism is the engine driving runaway climate change — a slow-motion catastrophe whose ultimate impact will be the annihilation of whole populations. Corporate climaticide’s impact on the world’s poor is the smallpox-infested blanket writ large — a toxic gift from the oligarchy to everyone else.

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This country’s rush to war in 2002 was based on evidence far less robust than that for human causes of global climate change: if the evidence of Iraqi WMD’s was as strong as that for anthropogenic global warming, our troops would have found stacks of nuclear weapons freely sold in the bazaars of Baghdad.

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Our inability to understand the scary facts of global climate change is also a failure of imagination: surrounded by exhortations to “live for the moment” and reminded daily that “it’s all about YOU,” Americans cannot conceive of a multi-decade interval between cause and effect, cannot imagine that the tragedy of climaticide will affect them in any way.

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From my first letter published in the New York Times:

Our inability to address the climate crisis is both an intellectual and a moral failure. In the 1950’s, Sputnik threatened our national pride — and America responded with an intensified focus on science education, building a space program that accomplished wonders. Fifty years later, the threat we face is not to our pride, but to our planet — and we respond by ridiculing those who sound the warning. Mr. Gore deserves the thanks of future generations, not James Inhofe’s uninformed mockery.

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It is a sad commentary on political realities that simply stating the obvious truth that we live on a finite planet is electoral suicide. But if we don’t face that inconvenient fact sooner rather than later, we will be facing a much messier suicide, as the Earth’s resources fail us.

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I firmly believe that American industries are second to none in their potential for innovation. To suggest that our business sector would be hindered by stringent climate-change legislation is a vote of no confidence in the ability of American industry to compete successfully under any conditions.

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To be a “consumer” can no longer reflect a positive American value, because the word implies a “taking out” without a corresponding “giving back.” In the nineteenth century, “consumption” was a euphemism for tuberculosis: a wasting disease, almost always fatal. For the long-term health of our planet, human beings in general (and Americans in particular, since we are the examples held up to the rest of the world) must stop taking out without giving back. We have seen the results of ungoverned consumerism emerge in the catastrophic synergy of environmental degradation, oceanic acidification, soaring GHG levels and an ecosystem under assault from thousands of varieties of toxic trash — and we can no longer afford it. Granted, our population may not be emotionally ready to end consumerism as it exists today…but make no mistake, if we don’t end it, it will surely end us.

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If ninety-seven out of a hundred inspectors called a restaurant unsanitary, you’d be crazy to eat there. If ninety-seven out of a hundred counter-terrorism experts told you that Al-Qaeda was planning a major operation, you’d be crazy not to take it seriously. But if ninety-seven percent of climatologists say that global warming is a real and present danger, they are mocked and derided by G.O.P. denialists.

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With gigatonnes of Arctic methane starting to melt and enter the atmosphere, and an increase in oceanic acidification beginning to threaten the food chain that supports over a billion people, there is no time to waste. We need strong and effective climate legislation, and we need it soon. But since forestalling these outcomes may require Big Energy to relinquish a few percentage points of profit in the next quarter, we can expect another type of pollution instead: corporate-funded disinformation touting the benefits of atmospheric CO2 levels last seen when dinosaurs walked the earth.

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The fact that rising greenhouse emissions increase the already very real possibility of a global climate catastrophe should be enough to force us to change our energy usage drastically. And yet, there is another element to be considered.

We wouldn’t turn a thousand-year-old sequoia into toothpicks or dismantle Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid and grind their stones into gravel, for to do so would be to disrespect their antiquity. Fossil fuels, as their name suggests, are the transformed remains of ancient life. We squander a precious and limited resource every time we burn the sunlight that fell on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, turning it into CO2 and dissipating it into the atmosphere. To burn oil and coal is to spend our principal, to eat our seed corn, to waste our inheritance.

Renewable energy sources are the ecological equivalent of a “pay as you go” policy; a change in our energy use patterns is not just good environmental and fiscal policy, it is also morally sound and philosophically correct.

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Global climate change is a crisis of environment, because human activity is on the verge of making our relatively benign biosphere a lot less welcoming. It is also a crisis of perception, because for the first time human beings must abandon “local thinking” in both time and space, and take responsibility for one another everywhere on the planet, and across the centuries to come. Are we up to the challenge?

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Part of my letter to Dick Cheney right after the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

Mr. Cheney, the environmental and economic disaster our nation is now facing is one that can be laid at your feet. If you had a moral bone in your body, you’d be out there on the coastline right now, helping with the cleanup.

I remember way back when you said that “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” A genuinely “sound and comprehensive” energy policy would include projected cleanup costs for oil disasters like the Deepwater Horizon — costs that would explode forever the myth that fossil fuels are “cheap.”

The damage you have done, sir, is incalculable. Because you wanted to spare your Big Oil buddies from having to buy a few switches, we are now facing what’s likely to be the worst oil spill in history, with costs estimated in the hundreds of millions.

This must be a very special and proud moment for you. Savor it.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders

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The Chinese coal ship foundering on the Great Barrier Reef is not just a sad story about oily birds, or a sea-captain’s dereliction of duty. The disaster off the coast of Australia also warns us to acknowledge the huge hidden costs of so-called “cheap energy.”

The Shen Neng 1 could just as easily be a million cases of black lung disease or the imminent loss of the polar ice cap, for these tragedies are all consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels. If we are to survive and prosper in the coming centuries, we must acknowledge the truth: oil and coal are only “cheap” when we ignore their health, ecological, and environmental costs. Any realistic energy policy must include these factors; to disregard them is to perpetuate a lie — and with catastrophic climate change looming on the horizon, lies about “cheap energy” are a luxury we can no longer afford.

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Looking at the smug arrogance of oil and coal executives, one is convinced that a fossil fuel economy is inherently biased to reward the nasty and stupid. Don Blankenship, whose Massey Coal Company has never met a regulatory corner it couldn’t cut? Tony Hayward, who reassuringly tells us that the environmental impact of Deepwater Horizon will be insignificant? Exxon? Chevron? Leaving aside the likely impact of catastrophic global climate change, the huge costs of post-disaster cleanups, and the multiple other factors that make fossil fuels our most expensive energy source in the long term, the behavior of these companies and the individuals who head them is reprehensible at best and stunningly vile at worst. That fact alone should motivate us to move to a new energy economy. If corporations are worthy of personhood, we must ask, “What kind of person threatens the lives of others without thought of the consequences?” Oil and coal reward criminal sociopathy. Which is yet another reason that the world needs to stop rewarding Oil and Coal.

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For decades, fossil fuels have been considered both unlimited and inexpensive.  Both notions are wrong; “peak oil” demonstrates the limit to the world’s supply — and a long succession of disasters demonstrates that carbon-based energy sources are anything but cheap.  Sure, their initial cost is low, compared to renewables — but by the same token we could conclude that cigarettes are cheap, compared to food.  When a realistic cost analysis takes into account such things as long-term health and environmental effects, cleanup expenses and the catastrophic effects of global climate change, it becomes ever more obvious that fossil fuels are among the most expensive energy sources we have.  How much longer are we going to continue fooling ourselves?  When will we stop burning, and start learning?

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I have observed that oil, among its other malign side effects, appears to make people in positions of power act stupidly.

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Even if climate change were not a Damoclean sword over our heads, the unique combination of malignity and incompetence that has characterized Big Oil’s collective actions over the past half a century should be a more than adequate reason for us all to end our dependence on fossil fuels. Why give money to a rude, destructive, irresponsible boor?

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Jonah Goldberg asserts that “If you remove the argument over climate change from the equation,” fossil fuels are environmentally friendly and economical. Indeed. Let’s follow his example. If you remove the argument over lung cancer and emphysema from the equation, cigarettes are healthy. If you remove the argument over lifelong emotional and physical trauma from the equation, child abuse is just another way for adults and kids to bond. If you remove the argument over radioactive fallout, mutations and millions of deaths, nuclear holocaust is just a good fireworks display. With the devastating effects of climate change manifesting globally, and the scientific evidence for anthropomorphic global warming now completely incontrovertible, there are only two reasons for Goldberg to “leave it out of the equation” — foolishness or knavery. Neither makes a convincing argument.

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It is long past time for our politicians and our media to stop playing rhetorical games on climate issues, and start confronting the facts with clarity and respect for science. When the debate is whether climate change will destroy the livelihoods of sixty million vs. two hundred million people — that’s no longer a debate. We can no longer afford to remain ignorant of the facts.

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Ever since Ronald Reagan took the solar panels off the White House roof, discussion of conservation has been ridiculed by politicians and the media, and the word is now vocabula non grata in “serious” discussion. Which is, to put it bluntly, stupid. In every single area of our national patterns of energy usage there are opportunities for significant reduction in demand, most of which would actually improve our quality of life. If Americans decided to make carpooling into the rule rather than the exception, petroleum use would diminish drastically and traffic congestion would ease. The fact that these measures are not now the norm in our country shows how the disdain for conservation has crippled our ability to respond to circumstances like B.P.’s destruction of the Gulf of Mexico. When Dick Cheney sneered, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy,” he illuminated the mindset that has brought us to this pass. The likelihood of catastrophic climate change may not be a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive conservation policy, but it should be.

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The survival of our economic system is predicated on the survival of our species; even the largest multinational cannot outlast humanity. That’s why it makes absolute sense for business to embrace the disciplines of sustainability at every level, whether it’s implementing a careful recycling policy, adhering to green building practices, or supporting strong legislation to fight global climate change. Can someone tell the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

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Conservative politicians and their media enablers have expended extraordinary amounts of energy in obscuring the simple facts of global climate change. A social movement this dedicated to ignoring reality does not bode well for the rest of the world. It’s a pity we can’t run generators on obfuscation, misdirection and mendacity.

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Voters are regularly told that experience in business is a political plus; the notion of running the state or the country “like a company” is extolled. But tobacco companies conspired to hide a fact: their product killed people who used it, and oil companies have likewise conspired, hiding the reality that their product is rendering our planet uninhabitable. Apparently corporations are not only prepared to ignore facts if they get in the way of a healthy quarterly report, but they haven’t yet figured out that killing your customers is bad for business. If we elect corporate CEOs to public office, we should not be surprised if they behave like corporations, employing mendacity, avarice, and short-sightedness to the detriment of our common welfare. The fossil fuel interests’ fixation on denying the existence of the gravest threat humanity has ever faced makes the big tobacco companies look like a bunch of pikers.

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Measuring the impact of climate change in human terms gives us terrifying numbers: of drought refugees, lives lost to flooding and fires, of millions of acres of dessicated cropland. Measuring it in monetary terms is equally scary: the long-term economic impacts of global climate change will easily amount to many trillions of dollars. In this context, it’s clear that those who resist action on the grounds of cost are terribly short-sighted. When floodwaters are rising, only a fool claims sandbags are too expensive.

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The Tea Partiers and their Republican enablers are of one mind when it comes to denying the impact of climate change on our country and the world. And what a mind it is. Joining a reflexive American distrust of intellectuals with an incoherent Biblical literalism into a word salad of libertarian tropes, their opinions on global warming don’t need no stinkin’ logic. Meanwhile, of course, they are thinking and doing exactly what their corporate funders want them to do: elect Republicans who will put the kibosh on any attempt to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. These frightened men and women have been suckered. The Koch brothers and other greedy and short-sighted oil barons are manipulating them into voting against everyone’s best interests — even that of the oil companies, which will surely experience a sharp drop in profits, should our species fail to survive the coming centuries of climate chaos.

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If our media presented climate denialists in proper proportion, we would be hearing from ninety-seven very worried climatologists for every glib, dismissive, industry shill.

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It seems inherently unjust, unreasonable, and unbelievable that all of us who have benefited from the complex consumer culture of the West should suddenly find ourselves complicit in the existential threat posed by global climate change. We don’t want to melt the icecaps; we just want to keep living the way we’ve been living. Alas, the greenhouse effect is unaffected by our desire for continued convenience; what the world needs from Cancun is not a sensible treaty but an unreasonable one.

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What we hear from scientists is equivalent to a cardiologist’s unequivocal statement to a heart patient: change your habits immediately, or die. And from our climate negotiators? Denial and bargaining. Just as you can’t make a deal with coronary artery disease, there is no bargaining with the greenhouse effect.

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The spill in the Gulf may have poisoned multiple ecosystems beyond recovery, but the behavior of Republican politicians demonstrates that oil kills rationality, logic and accountability just as thoroughly as it wipes out fish, turtles and sea birds.

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Unable to refute the facts, global-warming deniers resort to conspiracy theories of ever-greater intricacy in their efforts to explain away a worldwide consensus of experts. Some paranoid constructions insist that climatologists seek to profit on so-called “green technologies”; others claim that attempts to mitigate global warming’s effects herald an attempt to impose a One-World Socialist Regime. Religious framings often assert the inevitability of the Biblical Armageddon simultaneously with the notion that “God won’t let climate change happen.” Finally there is the claim that humanity will be fine when atmospheric CO2 levels reach 600 or so, since they were much higher at earlier points in Earth’s history. Only this last theory, which suggests scientific misunderstanding rather than willful obduracy, is worthy of response. While CO2 was indeed much higher in the Mesozoic Era than it is today, this accumulation took millions and millions of years, allowing life an opportunity to adapt. Anthropogenic global warming will accomplish the same transformation in a century or so. Abrupt changes can be catastrophic. Just ask anyone whose car has hit a wall.

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In the face of the gravest threat humanity has ever confronted, ignorance attains profound moral dimensions, along with human and environmental costs we cannot afford.

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As scientists attempt to warn residents of the American southwest that potentially catastrophic droughts are all but inevitable in the coming decades, the area’s politicians are locked in an ideological trap that makes it impossible for them to respond sensibly. Since the rise of the Tea Party movement, inflexible denial of the very possibility of climate change is now the only position open to Republican legislators who wish to avoid primary opposition. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time they’ve refused to admit the relevance of warnings from other sectors of society. If I recall correctly, “nobody” anticipated the breach of the levees in New Orleans, the absence of Iraqi WMDs, the collapse of the housing market, or, for that matter, that Osama Bin Laden might attempt a terror attack in the United States. The word “nobody” seems to be a sort of conservative shorthand for “people who understand the problem.”

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It is a curious irony that the Republican champions of American exceptionalism currently poised to take over the U.S. House of Representatives are opposed to any sort of meaningful action on climate change — because it is “too hard” on businesses, taxpayers and consumers. Trumpeting the notion that America is the only country that has a “can-do” spirit, they simultaneously assert that American industries are too fragile to participate in a world economy with rules have drastically changed by environmental exigencies. Apparently, since its participation in World War II was crucial to an Allied victory, America deserves a lifetime free pass from the rest of the globe. While it’s unfortunate for the likelihood of a genuine emissions agreement that climate change is represented by massed statistics rather than mustached dictators, the deaths and tragedies brought about by this more insidious enemy will exceed all of humanity’s wars combined.

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And finally…

The New Yorker ran a beautifully written and profoundly depressing piece by Ryan Lizza outlining all the contributing factors to the failure of climate change legislation in this Congress.  It’s a must-read…but if you give a shit, it’ll make you furious and depressed.

I employed maximum possible erudition in my letter, the better to tickle their editorial fancy.  They didn’t publish it, but I’m proud of it anyway.

Ryan Lizza’s exposition of our politicians’ failure to address climate change is gutwrenching.  Responsibility for this potentially species-fatal incapacity can be assigned to many factors, including the ludicrously attenuated attention span of the average American consumer, the profit-fixated corporate entities which seek ever-greater control over all aspects of our distorted version of market capitalism, the pathologically negative response patterns of Republican politicians, the Big Lies peddled every day by Fox News, and the readiness of politicians of all ideological stripes to embrace what the liberal blogger “Digby” once pithily summed up as “Irrational Fear of Hippies.”

We have never encountered anything like this before in human history.  In the past, existential threats to our nation, our allies or our species were effectively immediate: a civil war, an epidemic, a crazed dictator, a nuclear Armageddon.  Now, confronting a danger which many respected scientists predict could end in a vast planetary die-off, we are stymied — because our politics is incompetent, structurally unable to respond to events which move on time-scales grander than those underlying our elections.

Our media establishment’s handling of this issue, by contrast, is perfectly competent, but shamefully disingenuous. By hewing to a specious doctrine of false equivalence, in which evidence compiled and correlated by hundreds of working scientists must be “balanced” by the dismissive pronunciamenti of a paid corporate shill, print and broadcast outlets have buried the threats we face from global climate chaos under a pile of irrelevancies, statistical misinterpretations, ad hominem attacks, strawmen and flat-out lies. “Those who can make you believe absurdities,” goes Voltaire’s apothegm, “can make you commit atrocities.” It seems, alas, that those who can make us disbelieve reason and evidence are making inevitable an atrocity of planetary dimensions.

Our descendants, if descendants there be, will not be kind in their assessments of our politicians, our media, and ourselves.  On the other hand, given the likelihood of increasingly hostile climatic conditions in the new Anthropocene Epoch, they’ll probably be far too preoccupied with the daily struggle to survive to spend much time assigning blame.  That is comfort, I suppose, of a sort.

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My hope for activism in 2011 is to continue doing daily letters, continue producing Climate Concerts, and to initiate some other kind of semi-regular action.  I’d like to organize some sort of vigil at a heavily-trafficked local intersection; I’ll have to get a few other people involved, because I won’t be able to do something like that by myself.

And what about you?  In the War on the Environment, what will you do to help the Defense?

Make a New Year’s Resolution for the Environment in the comments, if you like.

Tags: Global Warming · climate change · environmental

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 frflyer // Jan 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Good work. It inspires me, and hopefully others, to do more.

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