Getting from Here to There

2014 turned out to be a momentous year for the climate protection effort, culminating in the historic march on September 21 in New York City that brought more than 400,000 people, including many from Tompkins County, to join in a demand for action from world leaders. The news on November 12 that the U.S. and China, which together account for 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, had struck a deal to limit these emissions suggested that perhaps they were listening.

Then, on December 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration would ban fracking in the state largely because of concerns over risks to the public’s health. The watershed decision came after years of citizen activism insisting that the state should leave its considerable fossil fuel reserves in the ground because of the threats fracking posed to the air, water, and soil of its communities.

The call for leaving carbon in the ground also came from a rapidly growing divestment movement. Beginning with students at U.S. colleges and universities, the movement soon encompassed, among others, higher education institutions in Scotland and Australia as well as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, and Ithaca’s Park Foundation. As a result of this campaign, according to Fossil Free, more than $50 billion in assets have been divested so far. Building on this momentum, 350.org and its partners have begun organizing a Global Divestment Day for February 13-14, 2015. Stay tuned.

At the same time, renewable energy rapidly gained traction throughout the world. As the year wound to a close, reports out of Germany indicated that the country had generated a record 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources during 2014, with wind and solar leading the way. On May 11, almost 75 percent of Germany’s overall electricity needs were met by renewable energy.

All of these impressive developments, however, took place against the backdrop of a rapidly worsening outlook for the planet’s climate. According to climate scientists, all indications are that 2014 will be the hottest year on record for the planet, marking 38 years in a row of higher-than-average temperatures.words,

In Rebecca Solnit’s words,”It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here.” But, she notes, that’s how it felt to lots of ordinary 18th-century Europeans when they contemplated overthrowing the divine right of kings and becoming citizens rather than subjects. It takes sustained, concentrated effort on the part of lots of people working together to create a new reality.

Closer to home, Cornell’s purchase of community-owned wind power, the doubling of residential solar power in Tompkins County, the growing recognition that economic development and greenhouse gas emission reductions are not mutually exclusive, and new initiatives to make our commercial buildings more energy efficient all serve as examples of how to build this new reality. May those examples continue to multiply and grow in 2015.

The President’s Call for Action

President Obama, in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, finally made clear that he was done waiting for Congress to act on the mounting evidence that climate change is already well underway. He announced a series of executive actions, none of them needing the approval of Congress, to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency for commercial, industrial, and federal buildings, and prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change.

Keystone XL Protest

As many have already pointed out, these actions do not go far enough and may very well be too little, too late. Obama still hasn’t acknowledged the serious risks posed by fracking and he clearly left himself an out on the Keystone XL pipeline. His decision will depend, to paraphrase one of his White House predecessors, on what the meaning of the word “significantly” is, as in “approval to build the pipeline will only be granted if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

Still, although long overdue, the president’s speech was a bracing call for action and has the potential to shift the dynamics of what has been a very frustrating stalemate. Perhaps the most important point made in his remarks came near the end, when he stressed that the climate challenge “is not just a job for politicians”:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

“Make yourself heard”: this is the essence of democracy. With so much at stake, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.

A Drought in Common Sense

Thousands of people from across the U.S. marched past the White House on Sunday, February 17, calling on President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline and fracking, and take other steps to fight climate change.The record attendance at the rally in Washington, D.C. highlighted the growing movement in the U.S. among ordinary citizens who sense that the point of no return for runaway climate change is fast approaching.

Coming on the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he challenged Congress to deal with the issue of climate change, the outpouring of people at the rally was good news indeed. As the president put it, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

Perhaps anticipating the demands of the thousands who would flock to Washington a few days later, President Obama struck an unusually combative tone in his annual address. If Congress refused to act, the president warned. then he would exercise his executive authority “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama will remain true to his word. But all signs indicate that he better do so, for our sake. Just one recent example: reports of a thin snowpack in the western mountains suggest that the High Plains, West, and Southwest are likely to experience a third summer of withering drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest three-month drought projections, which the agency released February 21, promises little relief. Forecasters predict that drought will continue in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, expand throughout northern and southern California and return to most of Texas, which has suffered a severe drought since 2011.

According to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, the February streamflow forecast predicts a decline in nearly every state and basin in the West. The winter snow season still has two months left, but “if the remaining season turns out dry, water supply conditions could end up in the 50 to 70 percent of average range.”

Those dry conditions and poor snowpack have also increased the risk that the Mississippi River could drop to levels later this year equal to or worse than last fall’s record dip, once again seriously disrupting barge traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway. According to Time magazine, if conditions do not improve soon, “the stoppage could last for months.”

We are fortunate, thanks to the abundance of water in the Finger Lakes region, not to have this kind of severe drought looming on the horizon. But we will not be unaffected by developments west of the Mississippi. One wonders what kind of national economic disaster it will take to finally force Congress to act on climate change, but perhaps the shutdown of a river that sees $180 billion of goods travel along it each year will do the trick.