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Bright lines

In This Series

  • A little something to take home with you

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    It is within the capacity of U.S. environmentalists to refocus our energies on a tougher, more realistic climate agenda. We have the necessary resources, skills (in alumni as well as current staff and leadership), political power, and principles of action. The things we lack -- a national structure, institutional support services, strategic planning, a dedicated environmentalist core -- could be put in place if it were a priority. Cost, it must be emphasized, is not the problem. U.S. environmentalists are spending between $100 and $150 million on climate, according to an unpublished foundation report, more than enough to launch the sort of effort presented here.

    The problem is nicely illustrated by comparing this challenge to the effort to shift from petroleum to renewables. Just as it is extremely difficult to replace fossil fuels by developing renewables when energy demand is rising, so it is tough for environmentalists to drop a program that is financially rewarding, familiar, and effective (at least by comparison to the last decade). U.S. environmentalists are proceeding on a self-reinforcing, linear trajectory, just as fossil-fuel extraction companies are.

    The environmentalist "market" is dominated by a few major players, employing familiar fundraising and advocacy technologies, competing in three narrow areas (political access, membership support, foundation funding), all of which cut against alternative approaches. Economies of scale have been achieved for our present agenda; indeed, the market is experiencing explosive growth and each additional increment of investment reaps tremendous benefits. To the extent that a pan-environmentalist culture exists, our worldview does not accept the precautionary climate science view. That being said, environmentalists are not oil company executives and our organizations cannot continue much further on our present track -- the already significant contradiction between climate science findings and environmentalist solutions will shortly become to large to bridge.

  • What to do now

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    How climate change is handled in few key areas within the year -- particularly congressional action in 2008 and 2009 and the 2008 presidential election -- will likely set the terms of the U.S. political debate, which for all practical purposes, within the constraints of Hansen's standard and timeframe for action, will determine the outcome.

    Therefore, a Bright Lines plan of action must accomplish three things:

    • polarize debate in Congress and the presidential election;
    • strengthen the narrative now being advanced by climate scientists; and,
    • build a climate action core and financial base.

    Six campaigns and programs are outlined for the critical 14 month period from April 2007- May 2008.

    1. Climate Civil Defense Preparedness. The story told by congressional action in 2007-2009 will be that climate change must and can be addressed by vigorous action to cap carbon emissions and win U.S. energy independence, tempered by the necessity of not over-burdening the U.S. auto (Rep. Dingell), oil (Sen. Bingaman), and coal (Sen. Byrd) industries. There is little room to challenge this narrative, but it may be possible to add to it.

  • How to build a real climate movement

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    Campaigns and programs crafted to advance the Bright Lines strategy must also fit real world constraints and political realities on the ground, and take account of external roadblocks to effective action. The following objectives address these issues.

    1. Tangible risk. Climate change is like world hunger: it's an issue of concern when media attention is high, just as coverage of periodic famines raises concern about world hunger. Most Americans do not see climate change as an immediate or personal risk, yet, like world hunger, they view it as a problem so immense that it is impractical to think that it will ever be solved.

    NGO relief efforts and international governmental aid are widely supported, but are seen as altruistic, charitable actions. Climate policies and programs now advanced in the U.S. are so small-scale they can only be understood in similar terms, as altruistic and charitable acts like huger relief. Measures like Governor Corzine's initiative in New Jersey, for example, take aim at an intangible, global risk with essentially symbolic action.

    The problem must be dealt with by establishing the scale of global response and role of the U.S. in advancing a solution, but should also be tackled by defining tangible, local risks. By advancing climate change assessment and remediation, several objectives are achieved:

  • Environmentalists need to fundamentally change their climate change strategy

    Pro-fossil fuel forces are pursuing an effective strategy that engages the attention of climate action advocates and obscures the vigorous expansion of fossil fuel supply now underway.

  • Here’s what we have to accomplish

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    The supply-side solution developed in the Bright Lines exercise, drawing on Bill Hare's Greenpeace International paper "Climate Protection: The Carbon Logic" (PDF), won little support from first readers. It is included in this proposal as a concept to be explored because no other solution could be determined to meet the dictates of the climate timeframe -- and the strong responses it provokes are evidence of its strong narrative value.

    A supply-side response -- imposing a cap on extractions in 2015 with 10 percent reductions at 5 year intervals until emissions are stabilized at pre-industrial levels, as shown in the accompanying chart, for example -- is the ideal climate policy. A cap and phase-down would set clear market parameters for fossil fuels phase-out and establish future economies of scale for renewables and efficiencies, encouraging early investment and driving innovation. Capping extractions would, in effect, move forward the global response to exhaustion of oil and gas reserves, a great challenge even if climate change were not a problem.

    Supply-Side Extractions Cap & Phase-Down

  • It’s time to accept dire climate realities

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    A review of recent climate science findings finds that Jim Hansen's bright-line standard and timeframe for global action [1.0ºC limit on further increase in global temperature / 475 ppm cap on atmospheric carbon with <10 years for global action] is, if anything, not conservative enough. A rash of recent reports identify major climate forcings wholly unaccounted for in IPCC models -- such as a five-fold increase in methane releases from Siberian peat bogs -- that support the view of rapid, discontinuous climate change predicted by Hansen.

    Energy market projections show that current climate policies will barely dent the ramp-up of fossil fuel use and emissions. U.S. Energy Information Administration (DOE) International Energy Outlook 2006 projects energy-related carbon emissions to increase by 57%, from 25,028 million metric tons in 2003 to 43,676 million metric tons in 2030. Emissions reductions attributable to national environmental policies adopted in furtherance of the Kyoto agreement reduce the EIA reference case by just 58 million metric tons (<1%). Energy market sector leader emissions projections are in the same range; Exxon-Mobil projects an increase from 28 billion to 40 billion tons in the next 25 years (43%).

    An increase in carbon emissions in the range 43-57% is more than sufficient to push global temperature above the bright line, roughly between 2020-2030. When the level of atmospheric carbon passes 475 ppm on an upward trajectory, we must assume that Hansen's simple and terrible story -- rapid collapse in Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves, resulting in sea level rise too high and too fast for either civilization or most species to adapt -- will be initiated within the lifetime of our children.

  • The basic approach of the Bright Lines project

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    After a decade of brutal political trench warfare, the surreal debate in the U.S. on the reality of climate change is over. A Democratic Congress looking to put climate in play in 2008, serious buy-in for federal regulation from a band of corporate heavyweights, and a rash of climate conversions from the likes of Pat Robertson and Frank Luntz (author of the infamous strategy memo advising Bush administration operatives how to muddle the climate change debate) demonstrate that a significant and probably permanent shift in climate change political gravity has taken place within the last year.

    U.S. environmentalists have a very brief opportunity to reshape our climate agenda in order to meet the demands and seize the opportunities of new circumstances, and the stakes could not be higher. It is likely that the actions of U.S. environmentalists in the next two or three years –- more so than any other group of people on the planet -– will determine whether a functional global response to abrupt climate change is advanced.