Sunday, May 3, 2009

Why can't we all just work together?

With apologies to Rodney King, of course, I have to report that it happened--a coalition of very different environmental groups with very different agendas came together in one booth at San Antonio's Solar Fest. For an afternoon that we think will lead into a much longer tomorrow, Environment Texas, Oxfam, Public Citizen, and the organization I'm working with, the Texas Climate Emergency Campaign, put aside their differing takes on strategies and message, and worked towards one goal--getting Congress to move forward on legislation addressing climate change. We even made overtures of inclusion towards an outlaw table from the Environmental Defense Fund, and ended up defending them when it turned out that they hadn't registered; hey, let's give 'em a break, their hearts are in the right place, I heard myself say.

And that's what this campaign should be about--working together for the lofty, oft-satirized goal of saving the planet. We shouldn't be picking apart each other's agendas, wondering aloud if the American public can latch on to the hard facts about climate change, or ridiculing a focus on jobs or clean energy. We should shove all that to the back of the campaign bus and take a lesson from the glory days of the G.O.P.--one message, one voice, one call--for change. Instead of wringing our hands over the details of the bills currently in the House--the Van Hollen bill, the Doggett bill, the Waxman-Markey--we need to find a way to celebrate the honest fact that this Congress has produced a mandate for that change. Somehow, as Lloyd Doggett believes, this wealth of interest on the topic will result in a stronger bill that truly addresses the critical demands for action. In the words of that 40's standard, we have to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

This week I'll be meeting with various groups in San Antonio to increase the depth of this movement, taking the message to communities that have not been included in past efforts, partially because they had too much else on their plates, partially because no one invited them to the table. We don't have time as a world community to allow for the old outrageous divisions among us--we can't let anything stand in our way. Climate change affects us all, from the stock trader in his ivory tower to the mom home cooking lunch for her young brood. There are no opt-outs.

We're putting together a coalition that will stand for all time--a coalition of the people on the planet, all linked by the big blue ball on which they reside. We'll show the moneyed opposition, the corporatists, that we have the numbers, even if we don't have the dollar signs. Los pueblos, unidos, jamas sera vencidos.

The people united, have never been defeated. And we are united now. Watch out, Big Oil, here we come.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Water, water everywhere...nor any drop

We all remember the verse, although we might not recall the source. "Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote those words in 1797 in his groundbreaking poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Appropriately for our subject, it was the tale of a ship driven off course by a storm, and a perilous trip home from the Antarctic. Coleridge's character of the Mariner makes a fatal error, killing the albatross, the bird which had pointed the way to safety for his crew. As punishment, or perhaps as a symbol of his guilt, he takes the body of the dead bird to wear around his neck, from which action we derive the imagery of an albatross representing a burden carried by some unfortunate individual.

In this time, in this place, we must collectively wear the albatross around our necks, the burden of knowledge that we have fouled our earth, that we have steered ourselves into our own sea of troubles, and that we have no clear path for a way "home." For some of us, this will take the form of roiling seas, of tropics warmed to produce larger and more intense hurricanes. For others, there will be freakish storms, record floods, destructive hail. For those in my part of Texas, however, we already know the travails we face as a result of climate change--we face a state of permanent perpetual drought.

Yes, the seas may rise along coastlines--the world's most prominent climatologists say at least a meter by 2100--but deep inside the great state of Texas, paralleling in some places, the I-35 divide, the drought that farmers and ranchers have been at a loss to understand--or fight--is taking permanent hold. Drive along any highway to Laredo or any part of the lower Rio Grande valley, and you'll see the wide swaths of burnt landscape extending far back into residential areas. Not new, you might say--drivers start those brushfires with their bad habits of extinguishing cigarettes outside their windows. But in the past, that phenomenon of burnt brown grass didn't achieve maximum crunchiness until July, or even August. I was seeing these fires in March, traditional wildflower season for our state's highways. In many areas, they've threatened cattle, homes, and lives--and in the Bastrop area, just south of Austin, they've led a large contingent of ranchers to decide that their multi-generational properties will not live on in their family names; they're selling out to developers--taking cattle to market and giving up.

"We can't afford to feed 'em anymore," a rancher told me on one of my trips to South Texas as he packed too many head of Brangus cattle into an ancient trailer. Unable to grow hay on his own property, he could no longer afford the cost of importing it from several counties away. And it isn't just growing hay that has become such a problem for our state's farmers and ranchers. Citrus growers expressed the frustration that they no longer knew when to plant, because the climate no longer gave them the clues they'd come to anticipate over the decades. When they did plant, they found themselves scrambing to irrigate fields well past the point where they would be expecting rain in a normal growing season. Even worse--when the rain came, it came in torrents, ripping crops out of the ground, running off so quickly across hardened, shrunken soil, that it often did more damage than the drought itself had done. "I'm not sure we'll have a cotton crop this year," one farmer in the Coastal Bend offered in a grave tone.

Those who deny climate change offer up simplistic and often syllogistic explanations for why it can't be happening. If we say it's too dry, they'll point out some recent catastrophic flood. If we cite as an example, warming temperatures in a particular region, they'll find one where it was thirty degrees in July. What they don't understand is that these are all expected manifestations of climate change, which takes the form of damaging rains in some areas at some times, and causes drastic drought in others. Whether it was a Houston deluge filling up the freeways like they were stoppered bathtubs, or a record high temperature further scorching the median of highway 35 headed to Laredo, it's all the same thing--the results of man-made climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

My hometown of San Antonio has done an admirable job of cutting back on water use, proving many predictions made in the 1950's wrong. Not only have we not run out of water, but now, as the nation's seventh-largest city, we have kept our water consumption far below anticipated levels and consistently shown that we can use less and less water on a per capita basis. But San Antonio is growing, blessed with an economy that defies the nation's recession and an improving image for hi-tech and other state-of-the-art industries. If current computer models which point to increased aridity in this region hold, no amount of conserving water will be enough. No simple answers will aide in an increasingly complex and dire situation. There is only one answer--for the storms of Houston as well as the drought of San Antonio--we must cut carbon emissions in order to mitigate the effects of man-made climate change.

The Ancient Mariner was forced to wander the earth for the remainder of his days, to tell his story to all those he encountered, as a warning and a message to all. Let us hope, for the sake of the next generation, that we can solve our climate problems so that our albatross falls from our necks, and so that we can be at peace with the legacy we have left for our children and grandchildren to come.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Houston, we have a problem

For the last few days, it seems that everytime I look at my inbox, I find another "breaking news" report from the Houston Chronicle, warning of another set of tornados, flash flooding, underwater underpasses, electrical outages, and general weather havoc. Co-habitating in my inbox is a thread of discussion on a progressive political list-serv in which numerous contributors continue to question the validity of climate change. The list-serv originates in the Bayou City. Houston, we have a problem.

Posters debate what is not debatable, question science of which they have no knowledge, accept at face value that which they've heard on talk shows, and repeatedly, say that you have to make up your own mind on climate change, it's just not that certain that it's happening. The occasional voice of reason begs for reconsideration, but is dismissed for being willing to accept "propaganda."

For this apparent conundrum I have one thought--look out your window. The intense storms, the ravaging floods, the frequency of all of it--these are but one aspect of climate change, and according to prominent scientists like Dr. Ron Sass (Rice University), who is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Dr. Richard Seager (Columbia University), who is with the prestigious Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, this is precisely what is anticipated for the Houston area, and indeed, the East Texas region. While climate change will present with symptoms of increased aridity in regions of Texas west of IH 35, it's predicted by the experts that all of East Texas will suffer the results in precisely the way they're experiencing them now. And in case you missed the reports that came out a few weeks ago from preliminary talks on climate change--leading up to the Copenhagen meetings--this is here to stay for at least a thousand years. Such are the wages of carbon "sin."

And what is on the "other side" of this argument? The fossil fuel industry, that's what, disguised as a think tank here, or concealed as a scientific expert there, all while receiving fat paychecks from the industry itself. It's the tobacco industry all over again, paying a handful of scientists to refute the obvious truth while thousands of scientists not so associated blew the proverbial whistle on the industry. Have we forgotten how that played out? If so, we're experiencing a repeat. Seems that the system has had a few leaks, however--even the industry's scientists were warning that climate change was for real, as Andrew Revkin recently wrote about in the New York Times. The tragedy of it all is that as the industry's front groups continued to obfuscate the discussion about climate change, and specifically, about the role of emissions in the form of greenhouse gases, the point-of-no-return loomed closer and closer, and the masses remained unmoved, lulled into complacency by clever industry propaganda and a deliberate campaign to belittle those voices calling for action.

Houston is not my favorite city--too much traffic, too much smog, too high a humidity, and too many hurricanes. But its residents, many lured by its rich artistic and cultural life, its melting-pot sense of opportunity for all, deserve the truth about climate change and its short-term and long-term effects on the city. Ringed by the very symbols of the fossil-fuel industry, it would suffer a very ironic fate were it to register high on the scale of victims of our drastically changing climate. That's what scientists are predicting for the nation's fourth-largest city, however--and that's a problem for us all.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How I invented "wonderland"

Oh, I wonder, wonder, wonder--so begins one of the great rock-n-roll standards of the 50's, only they were wondering who wrote the book of love. That I'm not wondering about--I just assume it was not a woman.

What am I wondering about is a great river--the River of Denial, and how so many people seem to be floating down it mindlessly and not giving a thought to what we're doing with the earth. At an Earth Day celebration in Alpine, Texas, this weekend, I had a visitor to my table tell me that she really didn't care if the seas rose and enveloped coastal cities like Galveston and Corpus Christi, because she considered them "trash" anyway. On how many levels is this wrong? Well, let's see--first of all, dear lady, you are not the center of the universe, and these two sparkling cities by the sea do not exist to please you. Second, the coast does not exist in a vacuum, sealed off from the inland areas by a fortress strong and true. What affects Galveston is more likely going to affect you in one way or another. Liked that Hurricane Ike, did you? Hope so, because you're up to bat next if you live inland and the oceans deposit their hurricanes right at your doorstep now instead of having them wade through the lowlands to get to you.

Oh, and this is all going to happen on somebody else's watch? Your daughter's generation, or your granddaughter's? We won't even deal with how selfish that would be, to care only that things remain the same for your own generation. We'll just drop this on you instead--scientists have consistently been wrong about one aspect of climate change--they've underestimated the damage, over and over again. Underestimated the destruction of the arctic ice shelf. Underestimated the time it would take to see the Siberian permafrost melting. Underestimated the severity of drought and the intensity of storms. Wouldn't it be a grand sort of karma if the generation most responsible for all this ended up getting caught in its maelstrom?

We're not getting out of this world alive, surely. But the least we can do in our short time on our home planet is leave like we found it. And we've got some major work to do to ensure that comes about.