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WHEN IT COMES TO THE ENVIRONMENT, CITIES, STATES, AND PEOPLE ARE IN MOTION
An Editorial from our Summer 2017 issue
THE UNITED STATES is the oldest constitutional republic in the world (except for the tiny Italian microstate of San Marino). Given that durability, it’s not wishful to believe that the country’s basic political system is strong enough to withstand four years of ignorant, erratic, authoritarian rule by Donald Trump and his rightwing mob. Our electoral system, although deeply compromised by corporate money and voting restrictions, will hold up. Our legal system, even with the merciless prosecutorial policies of Jeff Sessions and the contempt-of-court insults of his boss, will remain firmly on its Constitutional foundations. Public education, already beset by the mania for standardized testing and scapegoating teachers, will outlast Betsy DeVos. Immigrants will remain in residence by virtue of their intimate role in the American economy. Planned Parenthood will be sustained through fundraising. The media, barring a Constitutional
Convention that abolishes the First Amendment, are too big to fail.
When it comes to protecting the Earth, however, there are few sheltering traditions in place. The planet has no Constitutional protections, no famous sonnets engraved on the Statue of Liberty, no media network to represent its interests — and the one U.S. agency charged with its protection, the EPA, is being censored, defunded, and subjected to a witchhunt by its own administrator. The hunger for fossil-fuel jobs and profits runs as thick as tar sands oil through our society; the denial of climate change is worn as a badge by rightwing Republicans and evangelical Christians; and now Donald Trump is promoting “America Last” through withdrawal from the Paris climate accords.
WHAT THE PLANET does have going for it, nevertheless, is science, the plain evidence of our senses, and the passionate dedication of millions who are appalled to see the Earth’s health being ruined by greed, ideology, and apathy.
Regarding science, it is especially gratifying to see its practitioners emerging from their laboratories and offices into public spaces, as they did by the thousands in cities around the globe for the April 22nd March for Science. Not since the 1946 formation of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by Albert Einstein, called urgently for the internationalization of nuclear weaponry has the activism of scientists been so begged by an issue of enormous global import. As their activism grows, we hope the March for Science becomes a Strike by Scientists, as the courageous environmental activist Bill McKibben has urged. Earth Day, 2018?
As for the plain evidence of our senses: According to an archived EPA website (the EPA’s active site says it is “updating . . . to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump"), “Flooding is becoming more frequent along the . . . coastline” from New York to Florida, with land being lost to the sea. In Canada, floods this year have caused deaths and billions of dollars in damage in Quebec and British Columbia.
Then there’s drought: “[O]ver the period from 2000 through 2015, roughly 20 to 70 percent of the U.S. land area experienced conditions that were at least abnormally dry at any given time,” says the EPA, with “more than half of the U.S. land area . . . covered by moderate or greater drought” in 2012. Fresh water is becoming scarce especially in southern Florida, and several other red states with governments enmeshed in climate change denial are nevertheless being afflicted severely by climate change realities.
According to NASA’s website, global sea level has risen over the past two decades at nearly double the rate of the entire past century, while rising oceanic acidity is making it difficult for coral reefs, the nurseries and safe spots for many sea creatures, to survive. Greenland’s and Antartica’s ice sheets are shrinking at a frightening pace, and “glaciers are retreating almost everywhere . . .”
Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. “Warming of the climate system now is unequivocal,” says the American Meteorological Association, and “is inevitable for many years [going forward] due to the greenhouse gases already added to the atmosphere and the heat . . . taken up by the oceans. ”
In short, even under the best conditions — were more governments and corporations to promote sustainable energy, encourage climate science, tax carbon emissions, and prepare for the effects of climate change — it is way, way past time to be arguing about its reality, or to be sacrificing the global environment on the altar of economic growth, as Trump aims to do.
WHICH BRINGS US to those millions of people: As the New York Times recently noted, “Over 10,000 climate initiatives are underway in cities worldwide, according to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which represents 80 major cities.” The United Nations’ Compact of Mayors (financially supported by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg) now involves 646 cities, homes to nearly 500 million people worldwide, in sharing information and using a common measuring stick to mark their progress on climate-change issues. Burlington, Vermont, has become the first U.S. city to draw 100 percent of its power from renewable sources, and San Diego and twenty other large American cities in Colorado, Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, and California have committed to do the same.
California recently pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 per-cent below 1990 levels by 2030, and is about to go to court with the Trump Administration over its efforts to roll back the state’s auto emission standards. New York’s state assembly, meanwhile, has passed “The Climate and Community Protection Act,” described in The Nation as “the most progressive climate-equity policy we’ve seen . . . The bill would set a mandate of 100 percent renewable energy in New York by 2050, with 40 percent of investment . . . targeted for environmentally vulnerable low-income communities.” The law must now pass in the Republican-controlled state senate — where its prospects seem surprisingly good.
Most startling, and of no small significance, is the emergence of a rightwing constituency for environmental innovations. Debbie Dooley, for example, a Republican founder of the Tea Party in Georgia, is now preaching the gospel of green energy. At a recent sit-down at California’s Commonwealth Club with May Boeve, the executive director of the environmental activist organization 350.org, and other guests, Dooley declared that “rooftop solar is in our national security interest” and that “sooner or later Republicans [will be] coming to grips with the fact that fossil fuel is damaging our environment.” What counts at this juncture, she argued, is for environmentalists to realize that a “green” commitment can be based on a pro-capitalist, pro-marketplace, pro-innovation ideology:
[A] lot of progressives make the mistake of thinking that just be-cause . . . a conservative denies climate change . . . they don’t like renewables. That’s not true. . . . [I]t doesn’t matter why they’re advancing renewables as long as they’re advancing . . . the road you take is dependent upon the direction you’re coming from. . .
Dooley has organized a Green Tea Party, with the goal of establishing “conservation as a conservative principle.” “What I would love to see happen,” she added, “is for a lot of the renewable companies to build factories or plants in West Virginia and Kentucky [to employ] coal miners that are out of work.”
Then there’s Jay Faison, a North Carolina entrepreneur who sold his electronics company in 2013 and “used $175 million of his proceeds to start a new foundation, ClearPath, dedicated to climate and energy issues,” according to the conservative Weekly Standard. Faison became concerned about climate change through “a series of encounters with climate scientists and acquired a sense for the vulnerability of ecosystems from being a lifelong outdoorsman.” “Climate change has become very tribal,” he observes, “but it’s a long-term issue. The problem with environmentalists is they think people will support pain now for benefits later.” His foundation uses the fear of China, “let-business-take-over” moxie, and three-cheers-for-American-innovation rhetoric to try to pry conservatives loose from equating environmentalism with liberalism. “Everyone focuses on the White House,” he told the Weekly Standard, “but there are a lot of other things happening that don’t depend on the White House. You need to look beyond the headlines.”
WRITING in the May 22, 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, Brian Deese of the Harvard Kennedy School observes that even though Trump “has replaced urgency with skepticism” the Paris agreement itself will survive his disruption. “Negotiators designed it to withstand political shocks. And the economic, technological, and political forces that gave rise to it are only getting stronger. . . ." Deese continues:
[E]nvironmental activism across the world [has been] moving from the fringe to the mainstream. . . .” [G]rowing popular pressure has forced politicians to respond to the threat of ecological disaster. . . . U.S. policy cannot stop these trends. But inaction from Washington on climate change will cause the United States serious economic and diplomatic pain and waste precious time in the race to save the planet. . . . So U.S. businesses, scientists, engineers, governors, mayors, and citizens must step forward to demonstrate that the country can still make progress and . . . will return to climate leadership. . . .
Our challenge is to take the struggle for the planet yet further “from the fringe to the mainstream” by using every lever of influence we have — as consumers, as investors, as voters, as neighbors — to make environmentalism into an issue of national security, job growth, business innovation, natural beauty, animal rights, transportation and infrastructure, religious stewardship, etc. — to make it part and parcel, in other words, of all of the issues that are contending for national and international attention. In the course of that effort, progressives might learn how to have the kinds of conversations across the political barriers that we’ve been saying we want to have since the disaster of the 2016 election.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.