Earth to Obama: Come in please! Or do we have to take to the trees to get your attention?

Of course I knew it would be too much to expect President Obama, during the second Presidential debate on Tuesday, to actually break the great taboo of contemporary American politics and mention—Shhhh—climate change.

But I didn’t expect him to come out pandering so shamelessly to Big Fossil Fuel.

Yes, he managed to create a mild distinction between his position and his opponent’s.

Romney is 100% for exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we can possibly get them up out of the ground.

Obama, on the other hand, is 100% for exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we can possibly get them up out of the ground.

And oh yeah, he’s not against throwing a little money at solar, wind and biofuels (let’s not even talk about how destructive existing biofuels like ethanol have actually been on multiple levels—let’s give the guy a break).

While Romney just wants to hammer home the assertion that his Administration will bring us lower gas prices (no doubt as a result of all the frantic drilling he intends to support), Obama is interested in encouraging conservation by raising fuel economy standards, an idea right out of the late 1970s if I ever heard one.

A 21st century idea would be to get rid of oil subsidies and insist that the price of gas and oil reflect the true costs of its production and consumption, which are actually way higher than whatever the current price of a gallon of crude might be.

Then there’s coal, which both of these guys are apparently in favor of continuing to exploit.  Did someone say “mountaintop removal”?  Just point Romney/Obama at the mountain, and let’s go!

The nadir of the whole energy discussion of the second Presidential debate came when, in response to a little goading from Romney, Obama said he was “all for pipelines.”

In nearly the same breath, he proudly proclaimed that his Administration has supported lots of oil and gas drilling on public lands—how many leases, and what percentage of increase or decrease they may represent from the Bush years, may be a bit fuzzy, but the gist is clear: both Romney and Obama are all for opening up our public lands to drilling, in the name of energy independence from foreign fuel sources.

Oh Lord. The truth is that our dependence on so-called foreign fuel suppliers (who are mostly multinational corporations anyway) is the least of our worries.

The one thing we most need to be focusing on is the one thing that no one wants to deal with at all.

The effect of global heating, caused by the ever-escalating burning of fossil fuels worldwide.

And instead of working soberly and swiftly to turn the climate juggernaut around, our politicians are acting like easy-going traffic cops, just waving those bulldozers and oil rigs right on through.

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Take the Keystone pipeline, which both Romney and Obama were unabashed in supporting.

Did you know that right at this moment, there are dedicated Earth defenders sitting in trees in Texas, trying to block the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Daryl Hannah at Keystone XL Pipeline protest, October 2012

Why?

Well, you probably realize that the bitumen that pipeline is designed to carry is so thick and sludgy that it has to be mixed with toxic chemicals in order to make it flow.

You’ve probably heard about the damage that could be caused by a spill from a pipeline like this, if the chemicals leaked into the major aquifers that are along the way.

This on top of the destruction of the forests that is already happening on a vast scale to get those “tar sands” out.

On top of the chemical contamination of our aquifers from hydro-fracking for gas.

On top of mountain-top removal and strip-mining for coal.

On top of the whole lousy cap and trade system, by which dirty Northern-hemisphere commercial polluters can continue to pollute as long as they buy credits in Southern hemisphere forest preserves—except that what’s actually been happening is that first they buy the preserves, then they log them, then they replant with palm oil trees, heavily sprayed with pesticide, herbicide and fungicide to keep the rainforest from returning, and then they proudly collect their credits for having maintained some semblance of soylent green!

All this is the reality behind the puffery that passed for politics at the debate last night.

What is our national energy policy?  For both the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s drill faster!  Drill harder!  Drill everywhere possible!

President Obama chided his opponent at one point for thinking only of short-term prospects.

“We have to think about what’s coming in 10, 20, 30 years,” he said, the implication being that we shouldn’t entirely neglect the prospects of wind and solar energy.

But the truth is that if we continue drilling at the rate both candidates support, there won’t be a stable environment left to build an alternative energy future for our grandchildren and future generations.

They won’t be building wind turbines and solar panels in 2050, they’ll be building underground shelters and modern-day Noah’s arks.

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Still, yes, I am going to go grumbling to the polls on Nov. 6 and pull the lever for Obama.  There is no question in my mind that he is the better man.

I understand that right now he is trying to walk the centrist line and please as many American constituencies as he can.

But once re-elected, he must be pushed to take a stronger stand on environmental policy, including energy policy.

If that means that more of us have to take to the trees in protest, well, so be it.  I always did love climbing trees!

Help Wanted: Strong Leadership on Climate Change, Starting Immediately

Now if only President Obama could show the same leadership on climate change as he has just demonstrated on the divisive same- sex-marriage issue.

The same narrow-minded interests that made same-sex marriage such a boogeyman for the President are also controlling the GOP-dominated boardrooms of Big Oil, from Mr. Cheney on down.

These people seem to be motivated by one thing only: the bottom line.  And they seem to be able to think only as far as a quarter or two ahead.

They don’t see that they are driving us as fast as possible over a cliff from which there will be no recovery.  Or maybe they see, but just don’t care.

It was with great appreciation that I opened up The New York Times Opinion pages today and saw the indefatigable James Hansen offering the lead op-ed, once more displaying his vision and leadership in 1) insisting that the comfortable NYT readers pay attention to the imminent and grave threat of climate change, and 2) offering a practical solution for bringing about the swift change of course we need to avert disaster.

Those of us who have been thrown into gloom by the prospect of Canada scraping down the boreal forest to exploit their tar sands will be somewhat heartened by the strong language Hansen uses to condemn this approach to “solving” the peak oil crisis.

Alberta, Canada: from boreal forest to tar sand devastation

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

This is not some crazy Armageddon-spouting evangelical talking here.  This is James Hansen, senior scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The way to head off this catastrophic scenario, as Hansen and many other scientists have been telling us now for at least a decade, is to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense, and Hansen has an easy, no-nonsense solution for forcing Americans to change our ways and start doing what we have to do to save our planet and our civilization.

“We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny,” Hansen says. “This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

As Hansen observes, in practice what we have been doing is just the opposite: “instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.”

These subsidies must stop.

Canada and the US must stop playing poker with the future of our children and our planetary epoch.

All of us, from President Obama and Prime Minister Harper right on down to each one of us ordinary folks who drive cars, heat our houses and run our air conditioning, need to stop pretending that business-as-usual can continue any longer.

De-coupling our wagons from the locomotive of global capitalism

There is a clear spectrum of response to the urgency of the environmental and economic challenges that face us.

On the one end is the Deep Green Resistance movement, calling for a complete take-down of industrialized civilization, violently if necessary (and it would be necessary, of course–industrial civilization won’t go down without a fight, unless it’s wiped out by natural disasters).

On the other end are those who believe we will be able to find our way into a sustainable world order via technology, ie, renewable energy sources that will keep the capitalist engines burning bright.

On this spectrum, I would have to locate myself somewhere in the middle.  While I see the necessity of deindustrialization, I don’t really want to live through the violent havoc a strong de-civ movement would cause.

But I know things can’t go on as they have been.  We must shift from an economic model built on endless growth to one that seeks to maintain a steady state, both for human societies and for the natural world (as if there were a separation between these two).

We must also shift from the capitalist system of accumulated wealth for the few based on the commodified labor of the masses, to a system in which people’s labor is more directly connected to their well-being, and wealth is not allowed to concentrate in a few disproportionately powerful, distant hands.

The only movement I’ve found so far that is actively working to accomplish a vision similar to what I’ve sketched out above is the Transition Town movement.  The brainchild of UK visionary activist Rob Hopkins, the movement describes itself as follows:

“The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis.

“Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and “environmental” groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.

“They succeed by regeneratively using their local assets, innovating, networking, collaborating, replicating proven strategies, and respecting the deep patterns of nature and diverse cultures in their place.

“Transition Initiatives work with deliberation and good cheer to create a fulfilling and inspiring local way of life that can withstand the shocks of rapidly shifting global systems.”

What appeals to me about the Transition Town movement as a strategy for change is that it’s locally based and collaborative.  The first step is getting to know your neighbors, finding out what skills you can share, and taking stock of how you can prepare intelligently to cope with whatever environmental and economic shocks may lie ahead in our future.  It doesn’t dictate a one-size-fits-all model, but rather gives communities credit for being smart enough to figure out their own, locally adapted solutions.

As a society, America seems to be in collective denial about the reality of climate change.  We don’t want to hear that if we continue down the path of capitalist growth based on fossil fuels, the planet will heat up past the point where we could expect life as we know it to continue.  We don’t want to put the pieces together, because if we do, we will be forced to face the fact that we need to change. 

If we could accept this fact, we could begin to talk seriously about directions to take to make that change happen.  It would be nice if we could count on our world leaders to step up and face the challenge squarely, in a concerted effort.  But given the reality of global politics, still based on competition and armed power struggles, it seems very unlikely that we can look to the United Nations, or individual national governments, for the kind of decisive leadership we need now.

So we need to turn to each other, on the local level, and begin asking, as the Transition Town movement envisions, what can we do right here, together, to become more resilient?  What resources do we have, right here, that are not dependent on current systems of international or long-distance national trade?  How can we plan together for a sustainable future?

In a way, it’s an effort to de-couple our personal wagons from the locomotive of capitalist growth, which is proving so destructive to everything in its path, and seems to be on the verge of careening out of control.

I’ve been hearing a fair amount of fear expressed about “going backwards.” When people imagine stepping down from the capitalist growth model, they picture having to give up modern conveniences like advanced medical technologies, ready access to electricity, indoor plumbing, etc.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We have to work on developing new ways of generating those conveniences, that are less destructive to the planet (the technological fix) and also work swiftly to dismantle those features of industrial civilization that are throwing our whole ecological system out of balance (de-industrialization).

The Transition Town movement calls this “the great re-skilling” approach.  We need to remember older, more sustainable ways of doing things, while also keeping the best of new technologies and learning how to apply them in smarter, more efficient and ecologically sound ways.

There are over 100 full-fledged Transition Town initiatives in the U.S., and hundreds more worldwide, along with many start-up groups forming all the time.  Although all of us seem to have so much to do, and so little time these days, this is really a movement we need to be focusing on now to prepare for the decade ahead.

Given the lack of effective top-down leadership, should we really be wasting our time worrying about national elections, for example?  Or bothering to go to international conferences on climate change?

Or is the smarter thing to do to begin, quietly and with determination and hopeful good cheer, to make our own preparations for a very different sort of future, in our own transition towns?

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