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DIRTY WEATHER DAYS IN NEW YORK CITY–CLIMATE ACTIVISM STRUGGLING TO LIFE

November 30, 2012

Below is a contribution to the Human Impacts Institute blog from L.D. Gussin, a Climate Reality Presenter and aspiring climate activist.  Take a look at his 2012 journey to find effective climate action in NYC. 

 

Nov. 5 – I return to the city and my borrowed apartment a mile from the exploded substation once it regains electricity, water, heat. The building staff had seen to the safety of upper floor residents and used a small generator to light the lobby as a place to hang out.

 

Nov. 6 – I watch election results in Times Square with friends fervent for Obama. They don’t dispute climate change—or think about. “You can’t be a one issue voter,” they chide me. I think about grass roots protest, and how the anti-Vietnam War movement was forged fighting a Democratic president. Obama wins and very briefly mentions climate change.

 

Nov. 12 – Two national activist organizations, 350.org and Climate Reality Project, are launching campaigns after staying quiet during the election. Both will be in  New York City this week, with Sandy’s memory and consequences present to help set the scene.

 

Somewhat active in both groups, I get emails daily asking me to extend their reach via social media, clicking this online billboard, that petition. I do what I’m asked but feel that there’s little that’s truly connective in any of this. That a solidarity we must find isn’t waiting online.

 

Feeling this, I’ve also begun to look for boots on the ground, local activism. I know D.C. has a model for this in the Chesapeake Climate Action Coalition, and that a New England 350 spinoff will hold its first conference in a week. What about New York City?

 

Columbia University’s Earth Institute, with a whole earth focus on climate change and sustainability, has some seminars upcoming. Today, six scientists will discuss Arctic melting. I go because, while I’m trained as a Climate Reality Project presenter, my understanding of climate change doesn’t run deep.

 

Several hundred people, at least, attend. The research scientists go broad and deep on ice quality, on new ecosystem risks from fossil fuel mining, on adaptation requirements of the Inuit (split themselves on Arctic development). There is video, and presentation slides I  hope will be online: my reach again exceeds my grasp. The audience Q&A moves with surprise from Arctic and science to what can be done to mitigate climate change and what scientists should do. Most questioners are grad students. The expected scholarly tone is being challenged. The scientists, a bit defensive, say their work is science and this sort of public outreach; one responds… “unless one wants to be like Jim Hansen.”

 

Nov. 13 – Wallace Broecker, an emeritus Columbia scientist who in 1975 coined the phrase “global warming,” is discussing climate change and the apocalypse (under auspices of a spiritual center) with New York Times reporter John M. Broder. It’s another big, packed hall and in minutes (different from yesterday) the discussion channels the audience’s worry over climate change and makes the ride even scarier. He begins with the phrase “climate emergency,” adds “it’s here now” and then says that at the end of his career he’s working on air CCS, a technology to capture the 392 parts per million (now but rising) of CO2 in our air. The essential vision is to populate the earth with CO2-eating artificial trees.

 

Air CCS is one of the “Hail Mary” ideas that could go live if, as Broecker thinks will happen, we don’t decarbonize in time to ward off some very accelerated consequences of climate change. He’s working on this approach, more speculative even than its sister technology “clean coal,” at the Earth Institute’s Lenfest Center, an indication that Jeffrey Sachs, the noted economist who directs the Earth Institute, shares Broecker’s pessimism.

 

“Solar is our eventual solution,” Broecker tells us. “Ten years ago I’d have opposed perpetuating our use of fossil fuels.” But now we are “in the emergency” and so “risk doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere with all its disastrous consequences.” The Q&A is solutions-oriented, but subdued.

In sixty hours, Broder of the Times will publish “Obama on Climate Policy: Not Just Now, Thanks,” writing, accusingly, “Rather than propose a way to bridge divides, the president seemed to punt.”

 

Nov. 14 – Al Gore’s 24 Hours of Reality: The Dirty Weather Report will broadcast from a Manhattan studio with feeds from around the world. On the Climate Reality Project presenter’s website that day I see a notice for the upcoming launch of the NYC Climate Coalition. In the studio audience, I sit by complete chance next to Tara DePorte, who’d posted the notice. It’s actually a re-launch, she says.

 

The presentations and discussions are wide-ranging and clear; the video is good; a lot can be learned and integrated. We see the initial global consequences of climate change right before our eyes. I will watch a lot of this over the next month… but what about all the people (the 70% of Americans, to be specific), which polls say believe there is a problem… but don’t engage? Will online education draw then in? Will it get local people talking? How can we rapidly drive this down into communities?

 

Nov. 15 – Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson is presenting at The New School in another packed hall. It’s a  different look at climate change, for he’s an emissary from engineering: a cool eye on challenges and  opportunities. Give me (says this orientation) a problem, a price range, and a white board. Let me sit with my team and begin from the technologies. Then I’ll tell you what we know to be achievable.

 

Jacobson, just before the 2009 UN Copenhagen conference, co-wrote the Scientific American article “A Path To Sustainable Energy By 2030.” He tells us now that the road to a global renewable energy infrastructure, in a few decades, in time to prevent catastrophe, remains. That the suite of renewable energy technologies is fast becoming good enough and cheap enough. That power system reliability can be achieved through technical management. That the public policies and business model shifts needed for a smooth transition are understood. That he’s built up these assertions from solid data.

 

I know his analysis is shared for the most part by Greenpeace, by the European Union, by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab. He shows us the Desertec deployment scenario map, which would power  Europe and North Africa. He pushes the political darkness aside and revives a “yes we can” attitude. The audience questions reflect a mood, maybe only momentary, of relief and optimism.

 

Nov. 16 – More than two thousand of us bring our fears and activist zeal to Do The Math night in New York. This tour by 350 is launching a drive to divest in fossil fuel companies—the message being that they’ll fry us if we let them keep at their business. The inspiration 350 brings seems to come from its unblinking analysis and its mission to force effective global political action through public pressure.

 

And, as things begin, Bill McKibben gives a shout out to Francis Beinecke, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council and is in the front row. This seems to signify that the advocacy groups which have been playing the inside game—lobbying politicians and business leaders directly—for decades realize now that without a broad citizen movement to partner with they will surely fail.

 

McKibben is charismatic and talks with a writer’s knack for humanizing detail. The ferocious critic of corporate power Naomi Klein is his partner tonight and speaks with a restrained militancy. Gandhi and Martin Luther King are unnamed talismans. We hear that the crisis is desperate, that we have enemies who hold kingly power, that we have to win the public, that our civil disobedience has just begun.

 

The lights come up on an energized community. The reality is hard but there’s room for hope.

 

Nov 18 – The NYC Climate Coalition event is in a Brooklyn park that looks across at the substation which exploded twice due to hurricane flooding. At least a thousand people mingle around, at a flea market and a tented holiday market, but only thirty attend the coalition launch. Tara (she has M.S. from The Earth Institute) speaks as does a state assemblyman. Just now in D.C. Bill McKibben is leading a march against Obama’s White House. This day, too, the New Yorker Magazine’s editor is demanding that the president quit his “magical thinking” and truly lead on climate change.

 

The coalition will work with the local 350 chapter on campaigns and with Climate Reality Project on education. It will work on adaptation, suddenly important locally; on greening New York (mitigation through behavior change); and on mitigation through political protest. At very best, it’s a lot to do.

 

Similar coalitions must now be trying to form or double down across the land.

 

L.D. Gussin helped to found Nest Labs in 2009 and 2010, joined the Tar Sands civil disobedience in 2011, and became a Climate Reality presenter in 2012.

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