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What the UN Climate Summit is teaching us about environmental action

This year’s UN Climate Summit — hosted in Bonn, Germany through tomorrow, 11/17 — is almost over, but the clear leaders have emerged, and they’re not the United States. Now that Syria has agreed to sign the Paris agreement on climate change, it left the United States as the sole country refusing to adhere to the emission reduction goals in the agreement — all of which are voluntary, rather than mandatory.

In a recent Op-ed for The Guardian, President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands points out, “For women, fighting for justice — including climate justice — can be downright dangerous.” For indigenous women and rural communities, organizations like the Women and Gender Constituency are one of the sole parties looking out for their interests, since projects like the Green Climate Fund are mired in dubious corporate interests, with little concern for small island nations like Kiribati.

If sustainability was declared the social justice issue of the new century in 2010, it certainly is still an issue as we approach 2018. Almost serendipitously, upon visiting the Social Work Today site, it looks like environmental justice has again made their front page.

So how can we influence the conversation around climate change? Part of the problem seems to lie in the disconnect between the way scientists speak about scientific certainty, uncertainty, and probability. The scientific method deals in percentages and likelihoods. However, black-and-white, simplistic thinking shapes the way public discourse around issues of import is perceived.

What We Know So Far…

Scientists know “with very high confidence,” according to Union of Concerned Scientists, “that human-induced warming influences physical and biological systems throughout the world,” and “sea levels are rising.” However, because they can only write that “It is very likely (greater than 90 percent probability) that human activities are the main reason for the world’s temperature increase in the past fifty years,” naysayers point to that 10 percent uncertainty and insist that it’s all up in the air. This is part of the problem: we are speaking past each other because scientists and the general public speak two different languages. There’s also the fact that fossil fuel companies have a vested interest in making sure the public perception of climate change is one of greater uncertainty than certainty. That is, they’ve harped upon that one word — uncertainty — and twisted it to their advantage.

That’s the nature of a good lie, though, isn’t it? A convincing lie is always one that is grounded in a miniscule amount of truth — and then twisted, obfuscated, and manipulated to make it seem as if the opposite or a concept or idea that is far from true is instead put forth as a legitimate possibility.

So far, the fossil fuel companies are winning. However, the facts still speak for themselves. The renewable energy industry made up of solar, wind, and geothermal energy companies and manufacturers is still growing at a much faster pace than the rest of the U.S. economy. Although wind and solar companies are denied the same subsidies as oil, coal, and gas companies, they’re still coming out ahead, in terms of job production.

California, Oregon, Washington, and New York, as well as climate activists and companies like Tesla, Honda, Toyota, and Patagonia, are emerging as U.S. leaders in corporate social responsibility and renewable energy. Will we allow the backwards policies of the Trump administration to control our plan of action regarding renewables, or can forward-thinking legislators, business people, social entrepreneurs, and public administrators take the helm in making sure we follow a progressive plan of action that prevents further warming and acidification of our oceans and rising sea levels on our coastlines?

I dearly hope that my hometown of Carpinteria will still be intact in 20 or 30 years from now — forget 50 or 100. It’s sad that it’s come down to quibbling over predictions. However, as it stands, I’m not too sure what the future holds. There may be some hope, however, since Dr. James Hansen and his granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan recently spoke at a press conference at this week’s COP-23 conference in Bonn, Germany.

The video of their presentation is eye-opening, since it first shows a clip from 1992 — 25 years ago. They make the point that almost nothing has changed, despite all the climate summits, policies, and technology that have developed and emerged. What is the bottom line? As Hansen emphasizes, Earth’s atmosphere is out of balance, and the three-degree increase we are trying to prevent is likely to decimate coastal regions due to ocean levels rising. In order to extract the necessary four tons of CO2.

The children currently hold the most hope for our future’s climate, water, and land. The Our Children’s Trust lawsuit is interesting in that it is grounded in the U.S. Constitution, and the right to “life, liberty, and property,” which are fifth amendment rights. The Trump administration has asked the Court of Appeals to intervene, and the case may be delayed beyond February 2018 — but it is still scheduled to occur. The goal is for the government to enforce an effective plan — unlike the Kyoto protocol—that would be enforced by the justice department, the courts — one that is in line with science and improved agriculture and forestry practices.

Earlier This Week…

Although President Trump insists that the deal is “bad for America’s economy,” nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, solar-energy jobs alone are growing at 12 times the rate of other jobs in the current U.S. economy.

This discrepancy is baffling considering that the Trump administration’s justification for failing to bring representatives from the solar and wind power industries is bringing a “rational discussion to the table,” according to David Banks. Listening to Amy Goodman’s conversation with Banks at the UN Climate Summit in Bonn felt like witnessing a clueless, climate change-denying uncle attempt to defend the virtues of coal, gas, and nuclear power at a family reunion — rather than the White House special assistant for international energy and environment.

The awkward exchange was an eye-opening window into the Trump administration’s tactics of trying to make it seem as if a climate summit focusing on renewable energy solutions is the right time and place for a discussion of the virtues of coal, gas, and nuclear power. Corporate interests like Peabody Energy were more fully represented than the renewable energy industry.

When Goodman pressed Banks about the lack of representation and subsidies for renewables — subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were conveniently left unmentioned — he denied and obfuscated the effect on U.S. competitiveness around the world. Her case in point was China. To Banks, a “rational discussion on technology innovation” includes nuclear and coal-based power, rather than solar and wind energy, since “renewables are everywhere in the COP, right?” (COP refers to COP23 — the 23rd annual UN Climate Summit)

Continuing with the crazy uncle theme, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg perhaps put it best when he said, “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” It’s as if Trump’s advisors are scrambling to defend a crazy uncle who makes nonsensical statements at the dinner table — or, for our purposes, via Twitter.

Going Forward….

As Neil Degrasse Tyson says, “The great thing about science is, whether you believe it or not, it’s true.” Let’s remember that concept as we follow progress made by other countries and U.S. leaders in renewable energy policy and manufacturing. Let’s not allow corporate interests to win the information war, out there — because that’s what this has become: a war against critical thinking, complex reasoning, science, and reason, as well as the climate, the environment, and all our natural resources.

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