Wednesday 12 December 2012

a green activism commitment

Last Monday night I had my eco-consciousness kicked up a notch while attending's Do the Math tour when it rolled into my alma mater, the University of Utah, for it's final stop. It was purely fortuitous that I was home visiting family on the date of the event, and I'm so glad I made the effort to attend.  In fact, it was just the wake-up call I needed to reignite the climate action fire in my belly.

You may have noticed that this post is not just a 'green fling' but a 'green commitment'. It's also a call to action on climate change. I think it's important to reconnect periodically with why we even care about sustainable fashion or eco-beauty products, and so thought I'd fill you in on the updates from the event since it had such a strong impact on me.

Feeling starstruck after crossing paths with Bill McKibben in the aisle pre-event.

The Do the Math tour came on the heels of co-founder Bill McKibben's popular article in Rolling Stone, titled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math", which famously attracted more 'likes'' than the Justin Bieber cover story in the same issue. And while McKibben refers to himself as a 'professional bummer outer', I'm thankful he's not shying away from the data and sharing it with the world.

The math
So, what is this terrifying new math?  Here are the three key numbers:  


2 degrees Celcius is about the only number that everyone will agree on, with world leaders at the (fairly disastrous) 2009 Copenhagen climate summit signing an accord agreeing to "deep cuts in global emissions . . . so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celcius." 

Currently global temperatures have risen about 0.8 degrees Celcius, and the impacts have been harsher than many scientists anticipated (warning: depressing doomsday data).
  • Arctic melting occurred at record levels in 2012, one-third of summer sea ice is now gone, and melting in Greenland's ice sheet also increased, beating records only set in 2010. 
  • Last month the earth experienced the 333rd consecutive month in which the temperature of the globe exceeded the 20th Century average.
  • The air is holding 5% more moisture than it did 30 years ago as a result of warming, causing more frequent and more ferocious storms (such as Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Bopha) and devastating floods (such as the 2010 Pakistan floods).
  • Oceans are 30% more acidic, threatening the lives of numerous underwater species and disrupting ecosystems. 
  • This year the earth experienced its hottest downpour of rain - in Saudi Arabia at 109 degrees Fahrenheit.
With stats like these (and many more available if you're interested) you can understand why experts from MIT, NASA and the World Bank all think 2 degrees is too much. Unfortunately at this stage it's the only number global politicians will agree on, so we must cling to it.
565 gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide we can emit into the atmosphere before reaching the 2 degree threshold. 2011 carbon dioxide emissions were 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2% from the previous year. If trends continue we'll exceed our 565 gigaton limit in 16 years. (16 years! Yikes!)

2795 gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide that will be expended by fossil fuels already in reserve. That's right, 5 times the amount safe to emit. Not all these reserves are out of the ground yet, thank goodness, but they are known quantities and figured into the companies' financial reports which dictate their stock prices. And despite having 5 times the safe limit of fuel in reserve, these companies continue to explore more polluting and extreme forms of extracting more fossil fuels such as fracking, deep water drilling, tar sand mining and mountaintop removal. I was so sad to learn that my own beautiful home state of Utah is likely going to be the first state to succumb to tar sand mining, and fracking is scheduled to occur along the stunning Moab rim.

So, those are the numbers of climate change's terrifying new math (McKibben wasn't exaggerating with that title!). It's happening faster than we thought, with harsher consequences than we assumed, and yet the world (and the United States in particular) refuses to give up her love affair with fossil fuels. The Do the Math tour made no attempt to hide the fact it was vilifying the fossil fuel industry - if we're serious about getting climate change under control, it is enemy #1. 

The fossil fuel industry
This is not an easy enemy. We can safely assume fossil fuel companies will fight tooth and nail to ensure their already-calculated reserves are bought and burned, and they will continue efforts to belittle and thwart environmental activities demanding a move away from dirty energy.  And I know, it sounds too easy to point fingers at the fossil fuel industry. And I'll remain among the first to call for changes in our personal lives; I still  believe (perhaps naively) that making personal changes will lead to becoming more aware and active in the movement. But as one of my personal idols, Naomi Klein, reminded us at the event, we need to get these "carbon pushers" out of our faces.  We also need fossil fuel companies to play fair, and pay fair, and we're running out of time.

The fossil fuel industry did not become "richest industry in the history of money" without learning a few tricks along the way. For instance, did you know that the industry receives $500 billion in subsidies annually? The US figure alone is $13 billion - this is what keeps the gas prices artificially low in this country, discouraging lessened use of these non-renewable resources. It's hard to swallow this level of subsidising when they earn so much money: five of the key fossil fuel companies (Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon and Conoco Philips) profits exceed $137 billion in 2011.

They use this money to continue business as usual, too. Although you may see lovely ads about fossil fuel companies 'investing in the future' the truth is only 4% of all fossil fuel industry investments are in renewables. And BP, who famously rebranded as 'Beyond Petroleum' earlier this decade, has just closed its final solar plant in order to focus on their 'core business' - petroleum of course.

And since it has the money, the industry can lobby politicians and buy research, sending misinformation to the public about climate change. It also bombards our airwaves with advertisements; The New York Times estimated spending this year of $153 million to promote coal, and increased oil and gas drilling and criticising clean energy, nearly 4 times the amount spent by clean energy advertisers.

And on top of it all, they don't pay for the waste they emit in terms of carbon (yes, I'm talking about a price on carbon emissions).
We must strip the power from the fossil fuel industry. We must take away the social respectability of fossil fuel companies, like we've done with tobacco companies. Most importantly we need to hit them where it really hurts - their bank accounts.

How can we take action?
There is no way environmentalists will be able to outspend the fossil fuel giants. What we can do is remove all support of them by divesting - removing investments in fossil fuels. This is easy enough to do on a personal level (I achieve this by investing in Australian Ethical, and Generation Investment Management is an ethical investment company in the US, or you can ask your personal financial adviser). Do the Math suggests a larger divestment strategy, one on par with the 1980s divestment campaign that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa: getting industries and organisations to divest in fossil fuel companies.

The humble McKibben getting to the heart of the divestment strategy.

The starting point is university-level (the tour was held on campuses around the country) and has set up a Fossil Free website to help students and alum appeal to their universities to divest. It simply doesn't make sense for universities to have investments in companies that are guaranteeing their current and prospective students won't have a stable existence. Congratulations to Hampshire College and Unity College for being the first universities to divest.

If you're not able to assist in a university divestment campaign, you can always create one of your own to convince institutions you are involved in, like churches or other social organisations, to divest from fossil fuels. Do the Math suggests you propose a two-pronged approach: first ask that no new investments be made in fossil fuel companies, second that all existing investments are sold within the next 5 years.  I'll certainly be joining the cause by campaigning the two universities I've attended, and I hope you feel compelled to similar action.

My green activism commitment
I realise this post is a turn from most of my other posts, but I felt compelled to share this information and my reaction with you, as my eco-life is an open book (or blog!).  Truth be told, I'm feeling worried. I'm worried because climate change is falling off the radar, especially in America. From 2007 to 2011 the number of Americans who believed the continued burning of fossil fuels would cause the climate to change dropped from 71% to 44%, well under half the population. I'm continually awestruck by those who 'don't believe.' I know it's not pleasant news, but to not accept the science you may as well not go see a doctor or walk into any building because you can't trust the science of medicine or engineering even though 99% of the experts in the field accept the science. But I'm not here to convince any hardcore deniers, but simply to encourage you all to act for the climate now if you want a clean, stable environment. 16 years will go by too quickly if we don't speak up.

I'm also reaching out because our actions impact other people, as McKibben eloquently demonstrated with photos from around the globe, and typically it's those in developing nations with the fewest resources to protect themselves. And right now rich countries give 5 times more money in fossil fuel subsidies than they do in climate aid. How fair is it for people in developing nations, who have done nothing to cause climate change, be left with the horrible burden while fossil fuel companies continue to be extremely profitable?

I've also had the privilege of meeting some of these other people during this year of travel. From the warm Maldivians and their low-lying islands, to Indians already facing the reality of changing crop patterns, to Africans struggling to get by without the added worry of increased droughts threatening their delicate existence. I simply cannot accept that my life is of more value than any of theirs simply because I had the lucky fortune to be born an American.

Some gorgeous little ones on a bank of a river in Kerala, India.
My hair stylists in Arusha, Tanzania.

And even though I've previously fallen on the side of environmentalists who want to avoid the depressing stories of climate change, because we know that's not guaranteed to initiate action, I also believe there is a need to appeal to the morality of all humans to think of the other humans on the planet, current and future. We are at crisis point, and only talking about the good news of environmental action cannot get across the urgency of cleaving ourselves from our fossil fuel addictions now.

McKibben also hinted that environmentalists (particularly the younger ones) are too polite, and we all need to become more firm about what we want from our government and our institutions. I'm usually guilty of this one - if you've read chapter 5 of Sustainability with Style you'd understand why - and I've witnessed this from countless environmentalists who don't want to rock the boat. But no more. I really feel that the time for being overly cautious and quiet about the cause is over, and we must demand a clean energy future now. The fossil fuel companies won't be polite, so neither will I.

Remember, what we are not asking for is not radical. We are not mad hippies asking for the end of all things. All we want is a healthy planet like the one that existed 50 years ago. What is radical is pumping chemicals into the atmosphere which change the makeup so much that the Holocene, our current 11,000-year period of climatic stability, will end.

The good news
Don't worry, though, once we're all on the same page we can make the move to renewables swiftly. We already have the technology just not the motivation. Germany is a fantastic example of a country taking the leap to renewables seriously. The conservative nation (also the one faring best in the European financial crisis) committed to running the nation on 35% renewable energy by 2022 but are trending well ahead of schedule and forecast achieving nearly half their energy requirements within a decade. In fact, a couple days this past spring half the entire nation's energy was run off of solar panels located in their own country.

So if the fossil fuel giants are starting to get you down, or your institution won't divest or you're feeling slightly deflated after reading the above depressing statistics, take heart. Humans are amazing creatures, and when we put our minds to it, we really can achieve anything.

Photo c/o - a proud group of dedicated activists at the U of U!

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