The hype has reached such an intensity that when the Sith Lord of Republican politics, Grover Norquist, said last week that a carbon tax wouldn't necessarily violate his sacred anti-tax pledge (something he has said before), everyone went a little nuts, so much so that his organization, Americans for Tax Reform, had to issue a follow-up statement clarifying that, no, really, it "opposes a carbon tax and will work tirelessly to ensure one does not become law."
Nonetheless, climate hawks remain excited that a policy they've come to see as their holy grail is being discussed in the context of solving America's fake problem and avoiding its fake cliff.
Polli has spent time everywhere from Antarctica to New Zealand to Taiwan, and is currently a professor in the University of New Mexico’s Art and Ecology program.
We caught up with Polli recently and talked about chaos theory, the sounds of climate change, and her artistic version of slow food.
Q.What led you to do the kind of work you’re doing now?
A. I had been working with computers all my life and creating little programs. But I never really thought of it as art until I went to grad school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I had a mentor who caught me in the computer lab late at night and said, “What are you doing? Why haven’t we seen this stuff?”
A big article came out in Scientific American in ’85, and it had code in it. So me and my friends were typing in the code and programming these fractals. I started programming chaotic attractors to create algorithmic music: I was looking at these beautiful images of the butterfly attractor, and I thought, wow, this is just a mathematical formula and it makes this beautiful image -- I wonder if it would make beautiful music.
Q.How did you start focusing on climate science?
A. The butterfly attractor and other chaotic attractors are actually models of air moving through the atmosphere. Around 2000, I went on an art-science conference workshop, and met a meteorologist there. He said we could model something that happens historically almost exactly -- like a hurricane or a snowstorm. That led me to wonder what that might sound like. So we did the piece Atmospherics/Weather Works, which was a 16-channel sonification of a hurricane and a winter snow storm. The storm data created sound that was really dramatic, and I thought, well, would climate data create a kind of ambient sound?
[I was connected] with Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate research group at the NASA Goddard Institute [for Space Studies] up at Columbia. She’s being a scientist, very careful about what she says, and she starts telling me things that were really shocking. It made me really amazed at what was happening with climate change. So we did a project together called Heat and the Heartbeat of the City that used the climate models of their group. That’s really when I think I started to become actively involved in trying to address this issue of climate change however I could.
Bill McKibben and the folks at 350.org have decided to target the pernicious financial influence of the fossil fuel industry and its front groups. On the day following the election, they kicked off a 21-city “Do the Math” tourto "mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels."
Divestment is a fine strategy, but we all know that it won't starve Big Oil, Coal, and Gas of needed capital. The goals of the divestment campaign are to make a statement and to get people to engage in the fight.
With those goals in mind, I want to set out another challenge to everyone who recognizes the need to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Moving our investments from a mutual fund that holds shares in ExxonMobil to some kind of socially responsible investment fund is important, but it’s just a baby step.
We also need to invest our capital (both financial and sweat) in community-owned, distributed, and small-scale renewable energy. Why? Because we must fundamentally remake the energy economy as if nature, people, and the future actually mattered.
Every morning, I wake up and dump three cups of Quaker brand instant oatmeal into my fish tank. It’s a lifestyle I’m comfortable with, but it turns out oatmeal does terrible things to water clarity and African cichlids positively hate it.
Now a sane person might decide, “You know, maybe I should stop dumping all this oatmeal into my fish tank.” But I am not a sane person. I am a geoengineer, and I can think of far better solutions.
So I’ve built a pump and a series of injectors to fire delicious cinnamon into my fish tank in the hopes that it will bond with the oatmeal molecules and make the whole concoction more appealing to ferrets. I’ve also purchased a skindiving ferret who I’ll introduce to the aquarium ecosystem. I’ve run the numbers on my Commodore VIC 20, and the models all point to a healthy, happy, largely oatmeal-free fish tank in under a fortnight!
That said, many sustainable food and farming groups are pushing for a farm bill before the end of the year. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and 40 other organizations have sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and the group is urging anyone interested in investing in the future of healthy farms, food, and people; protecting air, soil, and water; and fixing farm subsidies that privilege big corporate farms to let Congress know what they think by Nov. 15.
If you want to feel optimistic about the possibilities for climate action in the wake of the election, here are the tea leaves to read.
Nineteen percent of voters were beneath the age of 30, something no one in D.C. expected. Young voter translates into "not primarily obsessed with my Medicare, hence able to think about the world." So the pros know this is the demographic that cares about climate.
Meanwhile, 41 percent of voters told exit pollers that the response to Sandy was an important factor in their vote. The climate silence of the campaign was broken by ... the climate. And then Obama got about the biggest cheer of his victory speech with a reference to wanting to save America from the destructive power of a warming planet.
Of course, if you want to feel pessimistic, there’s always: Sandy, which demonstrated we’ve waited a long time to get started. Not to mention the warmest year in American history, now concluding. Not to mention our epic drought. Or the small fact that this was the year we broke the Arctic.
While Grist gamely speculated on what a Romney administration would have meant for food and farm policy (short answer: nothing good), we haven't spent all that much time considering what an Obama second term will look like. His win didn't exactly leave us shell-shocked, but even so, I best make up for lost time.
When Obama was first elected, food reformers dreamed big. As Michael Pollan wrote just after the 2008 election in his open letter to the next "Farmer-in-Chief," Obama had an opportunity to make agriculture less fossil-fuel dependent, re-localize food systems, and rebuild America’s food culture.
But those pleasant dreams dissolved in January 2009’s cold winter light. First came Tom Vilsack as Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary -- not a disastrous pick, but disappointing for many critics of agribusiness. And then, after unsourced reports held that sustainable agriculture leader Chuck Hassebrook’s selection as Vilsack’s deputy had been quashed by unhappy farm-state senators, president-elect Obama seemed to respond by putting forward one traditional agribusiness nominee after another to populate food and farm positions in the administration.
This clutch of appointments -- which included former pesticide lobbyist Islam Siddiqui to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, former Monsanto executive Mike Taylor as the FDA’s food safety czar, and biotech proponents Roger Beachy and Rajiv Shah as the USDA’s research chief and head of the State Department's international development agency, respectively -- still grates on food and farm activists' nerves. One notable exception -- indeed the great triumph of reform -- remains the appointment of sustainable agriculture advocate and experienced D.C. bureaucrat Kathleen Merrigan as Vilsack’s second-in-command.
Last week, I wrote a post about a familiar dynamic in climate communication: Whenever there's an episode of extreme weather, one set of people works vigorously to tie it to climate change, while another set of people sets about scolding the first set for exaggerating or misleading.
The post elicited lots of interesting responses -- check out the (mostly critical) journalist Curtis Brainard and the (mostly supportive) blog The Way Things Break -- but looking back on the discussion now, I didn't state the main point as clearly as I might have liked. So with your indulgence, I'm going to have another go at it.
Let's step back from the internecine disputes and look at the big picture. As I see it, there are two moral obligations facing those who communicate about climate change: first, to convey the facts about climate change accurately, and second, to insure that their audiences understand and care about those facts.
These obligations have some overlap, but are not the same. Indeed, they can sometimes come into considerable tension. Everyone who has ever spoken or written about climate change knows the unique difficulties of satisfying both obligations at once. Most attempts fail at one or the other. What bothers me about the scolds is that they often seem to dismiss or ignore the second obligation.
I believe that both obligations are real -- neither automatically trumps the other -- and both deserve consideration. To get our heads around how this works, let's consider a metaphor.
Imagine for a moment that planet Earth isn’t running out of anything. We have plenty of food, plenty of oil, plenty of rare minerals, and plenty of air. In this little utopia, the only constraint is space. We can breed like bunnies, and everything is fine -- until we hit what I call Peak Elbowroom.
This is more or less the idea behind a series of experiments conducted by John B. Calhoun in the 1960s. Calhoun offered a group of rats a limitless supply of food, water, bedding, and everything else healthy, happy rats could want -- except space. He kept his rats confined in “rat cities” -- elaborately partitioned boxes designed to simulate the urban environment, which he built in his basement in Washington, D.C.
So what was the rat response? Turns out they all died. Well, they went big, then died. The population spiked and plummeted in a blaze of rodent self-extermination.