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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Peter Sinclair: Permafrost -- the tipping time bomb

Readers, be sure to check out the second video at the bottom of this post.

by Peter Sinclair, Climate Denial Crock of the Week, February 28, 2013

New for the Yale Forum.

I spent some time trying to figure out how to translate the impact of my interview with Charles Miller of NASA JPL.

Dr Miller is lead scientist of NASA’s CARVE mission, (covered below in a Weather Channel spot, encouraging sign of better coverage for climate issues in that venue)..

CARVE stands for Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment, and it consists of an ongoing series of flights over permafrost regions in the remote Alaskan arctic, to measure at low altitude, and high resolution the offgassing of CO2 and methane from decaying permafrost.

When I spoke to him at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in December, what was most striking were the even, calm, measured tones of his responses in discussing some of the most intense and alarming information imaginable about a critical climate feedback.

The story came together with last week’s publication of new data that helps zero in on exactly at what temperature regions of continuous permafrost will begin to break down.
Geoscientist Anton Vaks of the University of Oxford led an international team of experts—including the Arabica Caving Club in Irkutsk—in sampling the spindly cave growths known as stalagmites and stalactites across Siberia and down into the Gobi Desert of China. Taking samples of such speleothems from six caves, the researchers then reconstructed the last roughly 500,000 years of climate via the decay of radioactive particles in the stone. When the ground is frozen above a cave no water seeps into it, making such formations “relicts from warmer periods before permafrost formed,” the researchers wrote in a study published online in Science on 21 February 2013. 
The details of the study reveal that conditions were warm enough even in Siberia for these mineral deposits to form roughly 400,000 years ago, when the global average temperature was 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than present. It also suggests that there was no permafrost in the Lena River region at that time, because enough water seeped into the northernmost cave to enable roughly eight centimeters of growth in the formations.
I spoke to Dr. Vaks by Skype, and included a brief clip from that in the video above. I’ll be editing, cleaning up and posting the extended interview soon.
For now, check out the video above. I apologize in advance if you don’t sleep well tonight.


Steve Horn: ALEC Sham Chemical Disclosure Model Tucked Into Illinois Fracking Bill

Illinois is the next state on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)'s target list for putting the oil industry's interests ahead of the public interest.

98 percent funded by multinational corporations, ALEC is described by its critics as a "corporate bill mill" and a lobbyist-legislator dating service. It brings together corporate lobbyists and right wing politicians to vote up or down on "model bills" written by lobbyists in service to their corporate clientele behind closed doors at its annual meetings.
These "models" snake their way into statehouses nationwide as proposed legislation and quite often become the law of the land.
Illinois, nicknamed the "Land of Lincoln," has transformed into the "Land of ALEC" when it comes to a hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") regulation bill (HB 2615, the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation Act) currently under consideration by its House of Representatives. "Fracking" is the toxic horizontal drilling process via which unconventional gas and oil is obtained from shale rock basins across the country and the world.
HB 2615 (proposed on February 21 with 26 co-sponsors) has an ALEC model bill roped within this lengthy piece of legislation: the loophole-ridden Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act.
As covered here on DeSmogBlog, this model bill has been proposed and passed in numerous statehouses to date. If the bill passes, Illinois' portion of the New Albany Shale basin will be opened up for unfettered fracking, costumed by its industry proponents as the "most comprehensive fracking legislation in the nation."

"If At First You Don't Succeed, Dust Yourself Off and Try Again"

This isn't ALEC's first fracking-related crack at getting a model bill passed in Illinois. In 2012, the Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act (introduced as SB 3280) passed unanimously by the Illinois Senate but never passed the House.
SB 3280 isn't merely an ALEC model but is a Council of State Government's (CSG) model, too, as covered here on DeSmog.
The "disclosure" standards' origins lay in the Obama Department of Energy's (DOE) industry-stacked fracking subcomittee, formed in May 2011 "to study the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and determine if there are ways, or even a necessity, to make it safer for the environment and public health."
As exposed by The New York Times in April 2012, these "disclosure" standards were originally written by ExxonMobil, first passed in Texas in June 2011, and now serve as both an ALEC and CSG model bill for the states. I say "disclosure" -- as opposed to disclosure -- because the bill includes loopholes for "trade secrets," a la the "Halliburton Loophole" written into the industry-friendly federal Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Section 77 of HB 2615, titled "Chemical disclosure; trade secret protection," also includes the same trade secrets exemption from the ALEC/CSG ExxonMobil-written model bill.
Ever persistent, ALEC has taken the late pop diva Aaliyah's words to heart with regards to chemical fluids "disclosure," at first not succeeding and dusting itself off and trying again.

The FracFocus Façade

The oil and gas industry has chosen FracFocus as the entity to oversee the chemical disclosure process. An August investigation by Bloomberg News revealed that FracFocus offers the façade of disclosure while the industry tramples roughshod over communities nationwide.
"Energy companies failed to list more than two out of every five fracked wells in eight U.S. states from April 11, 2011, when FracFocus began operating, through the end of last year," wrote Bloomberg. "The gaps reveal shortcomings in the voluntary approach to transparency on the site, which has received funding from oil and gas trade groups and $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy."
In reality, FracFocus is a public relations front for the oil and gas industry, as we reported here in December 2012, explaining:
FracFocus' domain is registered by Brothers & Company, a public relations firm whose clients include America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Chesapeake Energy, and American Clean Skies Foundation -- a front group for Chesapeake Energy.
Another November 2012 Bloomberg investigation revealed that oil and gas corporations "claimed trade secrets or otherwise failed to identify the chemicals they used about 22 percent of the time," according to its analysis of FracFocus data for 18 states.

Cosponsors Tied to ALEC, CSG

Five of the 26 Illinois House co-sponsors are ALEC members: Reps. David Reis (R-119), Mike Fortner (R-95), Jil Tracy (R-93), Dennis Reboletti (R-97), and Patricia Bellock (R-94).
Further, three more cosponsors have ties to CSG. Rep. Ann Williams (D-11) and Rep. Pam Roth (R-75) both attended CSG Midwest's 2012 Bowhay Institute for Legislative Leadership Development (BILLD). Two of the sponsors of BILLD in 2012 included BP America and Enbridge Energy. Another, Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-97), is a 2005 CSG Midwest BILLD alumnus.
The bipartisan "group of 26" took a total of $53,060 before the November 2012 election, data collected from the National Institute on Money in State Politics shows.

How Will IL Regulate Fracking with 12 Inspectors?

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's 2012 budget included Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cuts to the tune of 13.5% for fiscal year 2013. The DNR is the regulatory body tasked to referee the fracking process under HB 2615, an agency which in the past decade has lost over half of its budget.
"Our agency has essentially been cut in half over the last decade. There are a lot of ramifications...You're going to see a noticeable difference in the maintenance. It won't be the fault of the people that work for us," DNR Director Marc Miller said at a Feb.ruary2012 public forum in a foreshadowing manner. "It will be because we don't have the resources."
There are 12 inspectors in IL to oversee fracking regulation enforcement, among myriad other regulatory duties, down from 28 in 2005, as revealed in a recent Freedom of Information Act conducted by ProPublica.
"What we are looking for is a sustainable solution," Miller said at the public forum. "We want to get to the point of having revenue we can count on to plan and to be able to do the programs we're supposed to do for the public."
Yet Miller believes more DNR cuts from Quinn are in the works in forthcoming budgets.
Earthworks pointed out in a September 2011 report titled, "Breaking All the Rules: the Crisis in Oil & Gas Regulatory Enforcement" that numerous states -- akin to Illinois -- are vastly understaffed, underfunded and unable to do their jobs to protect the public. Predictably, this has led to under-enforcement, lending the oil and gas industry a free pass to contaminate without accountability.
And even with enforcement, Earthworks pointed out that because the penalties for breaking the law are so minimal, the industry simply passes this off as a tiny "cost of doing business."

Bill Endorsed by Sierra Club and NRDC

Despite this reality, two major green NGOs -- the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) -- have come out in cautious support of the bill.
"NRDC is working to transition as quickly as possible to a clean energy future based on energy efficiency and renewable energy, but as long as we have to have dirty fossil fuels, our communities need the strongest rules in place," NRDC's Henry Hendersonwrote in blog post, offering the important caveat that: "Those rules are only as good as their enforcement, which needs to be robust and strict. And that is another issue that we will be following if this bill moves forward."
No concerns are raised about Section 25 of the bill dealing with setbacks and prohibitions.
This section lends the industry the ability to conduct fracking operations within 1,500 feet of groundwater sources and 500 feet of schools, houses, hospitals, nursing homes, and places of worship. It also enables the industry to frack within 300 feet of rivers, lakes, ponds and reservoirs.
These regulations do not take into account the fact that the horizontal drilling portion of the fracking process extends between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. The sobering reality: none of these things would be protected under this bill's current language.
Sierra Club, which came under fire last year for taking $26 million from gas giant Chesapeake Energy to fight against coal, sang a similar tune.
"We may not be able to decide whether fracking comes to Illinois, but we absolutely must decide to make sure we are as protected as we can be," Sierra Club's Jack Darin concluded on The Huffington Post, despite the fact that fracking has yet to begin in the state.

Other Groups Call for a Moratorium, Support Alternative Bill

Other groups are fighting for a different recently-introduced moratorium bill, SB 1418, which has one sponsor so far, Sen. Mattie Hunte (D-94).
That effort is being led by the Illinois Coalition For A Moratorium on Fracking, whose members include Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE), Illinois, Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) Chicago and Illinois, Stop the Frack Attack on IL, Rising Tide, and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) Chicago.
"The moratorium will allow two years for a science-based investigative task force to look at current and ongoing studies on fracking," the Coaliton's press release in support of SB 1418 reads. "As new research continues to uncover more harmful effects of high-volume fracturing, both in the surrounding area and to the climate, ICMF, SAFE, and many other environmental organizations are committed to supporting studies on the procedure."
SAFE, one of the Coalition members, will play host to a one-day summit called "The Fracking Truth" on March 1, in Carbondale, IL, to rally people in support of the moratorium bill.
Photo Credit: ShutterStock | Tom Grundy

Donors Trust a conduit for Koch and Exxon dirt money used to suppress climate change information

Source: The Guardian using Greenpeace data

A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as "conservative and libertarian causes," serving as "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement." Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you "wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues," you can use it to direct your money.
One of the "controversial issues" that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change," received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distancedthemselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Heartland Institute billboard
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists "deserve to be publicly flogged." Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to "debate climate change and if it is really real" without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a "hoax," as "CFACT research and commentary." The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
Koch Industries / Source: Larry W. Smith/Associated PressWhile the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years.Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
  • The Knowledge And Progress Fund, the largest known funder of Donors Trust, gave $3.2 million to the organization from 2008 to 2010. Its board is composed of several Koch family members as well as Richard Fink, the Vice President of Koch Industries. The following map, created using, illustrates the connections between Donors Trust, The Knowledge And Progress Fund, and several Koch-backed charities:Source: Media Matters using
  • Philanthropy Roundtable is an organization that brings together like-minded donors and promotes"philanthropic freedom," in part by opposing transparency efforts. One of its board members, Jeff Sandefer, is a former oilman. It is partially funded by The Charles G. Koch Foundation, and in 2011 it gave Charles G. Koch an award for "Philanthropic Leadership." In 2010, oil tycoon Philip Anschutz received the award. Philanthropy Roundtable gave $250,000 to Donors Trust in 2010.
  • Joe and Mary Moeller Foundation was co-founded by Joseph W. Moeller, who served as President and CEO of Koch Industries before becoming President and CEO of Georgia-Pacific Corp. after Koch acquired it. He is currently affiliated with both companies as well as the American Petroleum Institute. The Moeller Foundation gave $150,000 to Donors Trust in 2010, its largest grant other than a $200,000 grant to Donors Trust's Economic Freedom Fund.
  • John William Pope Foundation is run by J. Arthur Pope, a director of the Koch-funded group Americans forArt Pope is a director at the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity / Source: Katy's Conservative CornerProsperity and the CEO of Variety Wholesalers. In a 2011 profile of Pope, The New Yorker noted that his critics say that the millions of dollars he has funneled to Republican candidates have often "blur[red] the lines between tax-deductible philanthropy and corporate-funded partisan advocacy." His foundations have reportedly had inordinate influence in North Carolina, where the Republican party recently voted to slash education budgets, just as Pope's network had advocated. The Pope Foundation has given$105,000 to Donors Trust since 2009.
  • The Charles G. Koch Foundation, founded by the CEO of Koch Industries, has given $100,000 directly to Donors Trust.
CPI also noted that several other known Donors Trust funders have attended Koch fundraising parties.
Other funders of Donors Trust have also had direct connections to oil and gas corporations. The Anschutz Foundation was founded by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire who owns an oil and gas company as well as conservative publications including the Weekly Standard, the Washington Examiner, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and The Oklahoman. And the President of the Adolph Coors Foundation is a director of Energy Corporation of America.
The Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard wrote that if these millionaires and billionaires are seeking to conceal their connections to the fossil fuel industry, "It's the press's job to disappoint them."
Yet an analysis by the Checks & Balances project found that the press often cites groups that oppose climate action without noting that they have ties to fossil fuel companies with a financial interest in maintaining the energy status quo. Most of the groups that the Checks & Balances Project looked at have received funding from Donors Trust -- the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the Mercatus Center have each received over $1 million from the organization.
Analysis by Checks & Balances Project, with additional analysis and chart by Media Matters
Sociologist Robert Brulle, who will soon release a paper on what he calls the "climate countermovement," told Media Matters that the "purpose" of Donors Trust is to conceal the funding behind these organizations from the press, and by extension the public, adding, "this is certainly by design."
Note: Media Matters has received funding from the Tides Foundation, which is a donor-advised fund like Donors Trust. However, Mother Jones, whose non-profit arm has also received funding from Tides, noted that "Donors Trust's strategic intent is far narrower and more coherent than Tides'. The groups funded by Donors Trust more or less pursue the same agenda--eliminate regulations, kneecap unions, shrink government, and transfer more power to the private sector," while Tides has a more diverse list of grantees.
*Donors Capital Fund exists to process donations over $1 million, and the two organizations are referred to throughout the rest of the report as "Donors Trust."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jason Box and the Dark Snow Project, Part 2

The second video in a series about Dr. Jason Box and his “Dark Snow Project” - an effort to enlist the power of crowd sourcing and citizen science to pursue some of the most critical issues affecting arctic melt and sea level rise.

In the first video we heard from Bill Mckibben, whose article in Rolling Stone jumpstarted interest in Dr Box’s research. Following the shocking melt over nearly the full surface of the Greenland ice cap in July, 2012, it was clear that Dr. Box and his team had published a stunningly prescient paper, predicting melt over the whole surface of Greenland, within 10 years – What was stunning is that the melt materialized mere days after the paper came out.

Mckibben wrote:
Box had conservatively predicted that it might take up to a decade before the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted all at once. That it actually happened in just a few weeks only underscores how consistently cautious ice scientists have been in forecasting the threat posed by global warming. Now, however, that caution is being replaced by well-founded alarm. “Greenland is a sleeping giant that’s waking,” says Box. “In this new climate, the ice sheet is going to keep shrinking – the only question is how fast.”

The new data from Greenland matters for every corner of the planet. Water pouring into the North Atlantic will not only raise sea levels, but is also likely to modify weather patterns. “If the world allows a substantial fraction of the Greenland ice sheet to disintegrate, all hell breaks loose for eastern North America and Europe,” says NASA’s James Hansen, the world’s foremost climatologist.
In this new video, you’ll see Dark Snow team member Dr. Tom Painter of NASA JPL explain his work on dust in the Rocky Mountain snow fields, and Phd student Mckenzie Skiles describe how samples will be obtained – IF a large enough cohort of citizen scientists, activists, and just plain folks go to and kick in a tax deductible donation. Now is a critical moment, as commitments must soon be made for all the moving parts that go into making an expedition work. This science will have to be done – someone will have to do the ground truth sampling to tease out the secret of the ice.

If not us, who? If not now, when?

Forecasting Change: A Meteorologist and an Artist on the Climate Crisis (Cynthia Hopkins & Paul Douglas)

by Paul Schmelzer, Walker Art Center, February 27, 2013

Paul Douglas. Photo courtesy Paul Douglas

Paul Douglas considers himself an “albino unicorn.” A moderate Republican, he’s also a meteorologist who believes climate change is real. That position was met with scorn by some of the right, who called him a “RINO [Republican In Name Only] climate poser,” a “global warming hoax promoter,” and worse.

Theater artist and musician Cynthia Hopkins didn’t need much convincing about the dire consequences we face if we don’t address the climate crisis, but two events were pivotal in pushing her to take up the subject in her art—a talk on sustainability at the 2009 Tipping Point conference and a residency with Cape Farewell, a program that aims to “instigate a cultural response to climate change.” In 2010, she joined Cape Farewell’s Arctic Expedition, in which artists and marine scientists experienced the very environment most threatened by global warming.

The Noorderlicht nears a glacier on Cape Farewell’s 2010 expedition. Photo: Cape Farewell

While their career paths are sharply divergent, Douglas and Hopkins share twin tools when addressing climate change—science and spirituality. A longtime fixture in Twin Cities media, Douglas is founder of the Media Logic Group, which runs several companies dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and presenting weather data. He’s also an evangelical Christian, and biblical principles of environmental stewardship shape his stance on global warming. While deeply informed by research, Hopkins aims for a “wider, vaster lens” in her new work, the Walker co-commissioned music-theater piece This Clement World, which she says looks at both the spiritual and scientific sides of the issue. In advance of the Midwest premiere of This Clement World, Douglas and Hopkins sat down with Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer to discuss their personal climate journeys and ways that art and science can cooperate in changing minds about a changing planet.

Cynthia Hopkins performing This Clement World. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Cynthia Hopkins in This Clement World. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Paul Schmelzer:

As soon as someone takes on “political” themes in their art, the perception of the work’s goals often seems to change: it’s not art for art’s sake but includes an element of advocacy. Cynthia, do you notice that audiences or critics respond to the premise of this piece differently than past works? What is your aim with the work as a whole, and how does advocacy—the changing of minds—factor in?

Cynthia Hopkins

I’m always baffled when I hear this issue is politicized. I think it’s only politicized insofar as politics is so influenced by the financial markets, and I think that’s sad and horrifying. I don’t think of it as a political issue. I’m just transmitting a disturbance I’ve been learning about. I’m filtering that information through my own perspective and experiences and transforming it into a work that hopefully inspires people to learn more on their own. I wouldn’t call it a political piece. In terms of effect, I make a strident effort to ignore any idea of how something might come across when I’m making it because I find that to be a poison that can destroy the process. I think that is the advantage of art as a form of communication, in distinction from political, journalistic, or even scientific communications, because there isn’t an agenda. I’m in service to the work itself, and the work is like an organism. It’s not a means to an end.


The Keeling Curve, which since the 1950s has measure the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. Graphic: Scripps CO2 Program

Paul Douglas:

I was skeptical in the ’80s. In the ’90s, I saw evidence—just tracking the weather day in and day out—that something had changed, and these changes were consistent with what climate scientists have been saying for 20 or 30 years. Then I dug into the peer-reviewed research and came to the conclusion—independently, before Al Gore made his movie—that, hey, this is real. This is a real trend, and we ignore it at our peril. My politics are moderate. I’m fiscally conservative and socially progressive. I’m also an evangelical Christian and I’m concerned about climate change—which basically makes me an albino unicorn. I feel like that some days. “Wow, you’re a freak!” But, you know what, there are a lot of Republicans out there, especially anybody under the age of 30 or 35, who still respect science and the scientific method.

A lot of this comes down to science literacy, and the fact that many Americans really aren’t willing to dig into the science. It’s much easier to turn on a cable news show with bloviating talking heads going back and forth, and it’s kind of sad. You know what’s ironic? Mother Nature is now accomplishing what climate scientists have had a hard time doing—getting people’s attention. The past two years have been the most extreme, weather-wise, in America’s history. In 2011, four out of five Americans surveyed personally witnessed severe weather. One out of three were personally injured by severe weather. We’ve had $188 billion in severe-weather damage in the last two years, so Mother Nature is accomplishing what climate scientists cannot, and that is, convince a majority of rational, god-fearing people that something has changed. It’s not your grandfather’s weather.


Environmentalists of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s came to understand the power of imagery as a rhetorical tool. Striking photography of photogenic animals coated in oil, toxic rivers on fire, and formerly pristine forests clear-cut played a key role in changing minds on the environment. It was argued around the turn of the millennium that the gradual nature of climate change—as well as the distance we are from places where its effects are most prominent (the Arctic, say)—meant that those tactics were less effective. Perhaps that’s changing again, with dramatic events such as Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, and with social media making us more connected. Take the movie Chasing Ice, about photographer James Balog, who documented Arctic glaciers melting using 25 time-lapse cameras over three years. One scene—showing the “calving” of a glacier the size of the island of Manhattan—went viral, getting more than 3.7 million views on YouTube. Could you talk about that—about how activists and artists have a new set of tools, which is a dramatic set of images and videos?


I’ve seen that. It’s breathtaking. But I think the most effective image, especially for a denier over the age of 55 or 60, is a photograph of their grandkids. There are nearly 1,000 references in the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—to caring for God’s creation. A thousand. For me, that’s powerful. Are you looking out for your kids or your grandkids, or is it, “Hey, let’s get the most we can grab right now and to hell with future generations.” We’re accountable. My dad taught me that actions have consequences. You can’t pump trillions of tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere and pretend it’s not going to come back and bite us. It’s biting us in the weather.

[German philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer said something once that really resonates with me: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” And we are now coming out of phase two. And it’s because—as Cynthia said—so much money is on the line. You’ve got the largest corporations that have ever been on the planet, and their business model is in danger. They feel threatened. They don’t want to be regulated out of existence, so they’re fighting back. They’re keeping this confusion going, and they’re funding this ongoing confusion. It’s not just springing up organically. We’re talking about tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars going into these think tanks, the Heritage Foundation–type enterprises that made the news last year, that are keeping confusion going. It’s like the tobacco debate that Philip Morris had in the ’70s times 10,000, because there’s so much more money on the line. That’s why we have so much push back right now in this country.

I often ask people, “How much evidence is enough? How much do you need?” The North Pole Arctic ice has lost four-fifths of its volume since 1979. Ninety percent of the world’s glaciers are shrinking. Sea level has risen 8 to 12 inches depending on the location. The oceans are warmer, the oceans are more acidic, coral reefs are dying. We’ve got all these fingerprints out there. For me, it’s been an accumulation of coincidences.


Cynthia, tell us about your trip to the Arctic. I’m curious, with Paul’s reference to the photo of grandchildren, how being near these massive ancient glaciers gave you a long view of the planet or of our humanity.


One of the tricky issues with comprehending climate change is that it stretches beyond the scope of my lifetime or your lifetime or any human lifetime. It’s difficult enough to grasp one’s individual mortality—that’s challenging for most people, because it’s scary—and it’s even more difficult to grasp the mortality of us as a species and of the clemency of the planet. It’s clear that the clemency of the planet is not only unstable, but it’s being directly influenced by our actions, which is really hard to conceive.

One of the things that struck me about being in the arctic landscape was, because it’s a place that has never been inhabited by humans, it’s a very stark reminder that we haven’t always been here and that, in fact, perhaps we won’t always be here. It really brings that home in a visceral way. The initial thing that made me want to make a piece about climate change was the Tipping Point conference and one of the speeches that was given was by a guy named Jeffrey Sachs, who writes about sustainability. He said that the way art can contribute to this issue is that it can communicate in a different way than science or journalism can. And I think that art can communicate a shift in consciousness or it can enact a shift in consciousness. In other words, it can widen the scope of your mind to encompass future generations and past generations. It can open up the scope, in terms of time and space. This piece goes to the end of the earth, in terms of the imagery, and brings people to a place that they wouldn’t normally be able to see, which is one of the poles. But, it also has a character from outer space, who’s not from Earth. It has a character from 200 years in the future and a character from 200 years in the past. So, that’s something that can be accomplished in a fictional scenario that wouldn’t wind its way into a scientific paper, because it’s fiction. But, in other words, what my hope is that it widens the perspective of the audience to include this larger time scale, which is what is involved in this issue.


You also play a Native American character. That strikes me as another use of fiction …


One of the things that character represents is a civilization that once flourished and then was decimated. So, it represents the mortality of a way of life. What I hope is that it makes it really palpable that our way of life is not stable or set in stone or the way that it’s always going to be or should be. I was interested to hear Paul’s reference to the Bible and the stewardship of the earth as a holy and sacred practice. The Native American character, too, brings up a way of life and a spiritual practice that honored and revered the earth with a recognition of the interdependence between ourselves and the natural world. To me, modern civilization, or a capitalist society, without a conscience is suicidal.


Amen to that.


And it’s tricky, because we do have these financial cycles that everybody’s beholden to. What happened with the financial crisis in some ways fills me with horror, but in other ways fills me with hope. I make this analogy in the piece to alcoholism and drug addiction. I’m an alcoholic in recovery, so that’s one of the ways that I relate to this issue. I see a way of life that’s not sustainable, but that we’re enthralled in it, so it’s very difficult to change. It’s a habitual way of life. Our whole structure is embedded, and if you’re an oil company, or someone who works for an oil company, you’re really deeply embedded in and invested in it. And so, in terms of that metaphor, what causes a person who is an alcoholic or drug addict to change their behavior? It’s usually that things get so bad that any alternative is worth trying. And so when I’ve been working on this project, over these years, I keep thinking we need to find a way to hit bottom.

There’s a song in the piece where I elaborate on that metaphor. The first half of the song has to do with an individual recovering, the second with this societal recovery. In the first half I sing, “Things went wrong faster than I could lower my standards.” And that’s one definition of bottom. You can’t justify any more. You can’t lower your standards fast enough. And then in the second half of the song I say, in terms of society, we’re lowering our standards faster than things are getting worse. Like, right now we’re saying, “Yeah! We’ll go a hundred miles into the ocean to get this stuff. We’ll spend billions of dollars to inject chemicals into the ground to get gas out of it.” That’s lowering our standards. We’re going to go to the end of the earth to get this stuff that’s getting harder and harder to get, and spending unbelievable amounts of money to do that in order to continue burning it, when we know that burning it is causing our planet to become a less hospitable place. That’s insane behavior!


What’s the equivalent of that, if you’re an alcoholic or drug addict?


You’re living on the street and you’ve got nothing, so you’re going to rob your grandmother’s purse so you can continue to get this stuff that’s killing you.


Paul, as a Republican, what do you think the government’s role should be in addressing climate change? Subsidies? Regulation of carbon emissions?


Government has to set the parameters and somehow put a price on pollutants. We did that with the ozone hole, with chlorofluorocarbons. Scientists of the world got together and said, “These chemicals are eating away at the ozone layer.” This was in the ’70s, and we came up with a treaty and we banned certain chemicals. The ozone hole is still there, but it’s not as big as it was then. Same thing with acid rain in the ’70s and ’80s. The Republicans passed a version of cap-and-trade for acid rain, and those pollutants have come down. Once we find a way to put a price on greenhouse-gas pollutants—whether it’s a tax, cap-and-trade, or a revenue-neutral kind of tax—the markets will figure it out. I’m optimistic that once the government comes in and finds a creative way, one that doesn’t blow up the economy, to put a price on carbon, the markets will react and come up with solutions. I’m not a policy wonk. I’m a bewildered meteorologist; I don’t have all the answers. I just know things are changing, and we ignore these changes at our long-term peril.


Cynthia, how much did scientific data or facts play a role in the creation of your work?


For me, the information played a vital role. The funny thing about the whole debate and misinformation around this issue is that if you really do research for, like five minutes, it becomes pretty clear what’s happening. Even just the Keeling Curve—the fact that CO2 is measured in the atmosphere every year over a period of years and there’s more and more of it every year. It’s been proven that CO2 is emitted when fossil fuels are burned. It’s not—


It’s not rocket science! It’s basic physics!


It’s really not rocket science. It is a complex issue and there are a lot of factors involved. But on the other hand, it doesn’t take a huge amount of research to understand what’s going on. My feeling, in terms of what I do, is that this information is out there in vast volumes, so I feel like what I can do is more on the spiritual side or this vaster, wider lens. What I make are pieces that have music and they exist in time. They’re time-based pieces, so they’re experiential and they have a visceral effect and an emotional effect, as well as an intellectual effect. I feel like that’s what I can contribute—a communication that fires on all those multiple levels.


Interesting. I have a presentation with 100 slides showing the data, showing the trends: the ice is not on the lakes as long; it’s not getting as cold in the winter; we’re now in a new climate zone. We’re in Climate Zone 5 in the Twin Cities—stuff’s growing here that wasn’t growing 40 years ago. But at some point, people tune out. Their eyes glaze over. So we need new, effective ways to reach people and to get them to internalize this.

Maybe that’s where the spiritual comes in. We’re addicted to fossil fuels and we’re addicted to debt, $16.5 trillion in debt. I acknowledge that this is a huge issue. But what about environmental debt? What we’re bequeathing to future generations. I often close my talks with this: “I’m a weatherman, I’m wrong a lot.” It’s a steep learning curve. But here’s a forecast with 100% accuracy: at some point, your kid or your grandkid will come to you and say, on this subject—climate change—“What did you know, when, and what did you do? Did you sit on your hands? Did you continue business as usual? Or were you part of the solution?” I want to pass the red-face test with future grandkids—that I did everything in my power to let people know that this is a real issue, that there are solutions. I applaud Cynthia for what she’s doing because it’s pretty obvious to me now that the current methods of trying to reach people—hitting them over the head with science—some people respond to that well, others tune out. We need find other, effective ways to reach people where they live and to personalize this in a way maybe science can’t do now.


In your Huffington Post piece of March 2012, you mentioned a climate conversation you had with John McCain.


Yes, in Minneapolis. We were welcoming Iraq War vets back and it was a banquet in their honor, and I was sitting at the table with John McCain, who’s always been something of a hero. I knew at that point, in 2007, there was very little debate, even among Republicans, and John McCain was like, “Yeah, we’ve got a problem. Climate change is real.” So I tested him over dessert. I said, “Senator McCain, is it possible, is there even a chance that this could be a natural cycle, that this could be a fluke, an aberration?” He looked at me, rolled his eyes, and chuckled. “Paul, I just got back from the Yukon, where a village elder presented me with a 4,000-year-old tomahawk that just melted from the permafrost. This is no natural cycle. Next question.”

Here’s the thing: if John McCain made the movie instead of Al Gore, would we be where we are today? Would Democrats be denying the science, if John McCain made the movie? I don’t think so. I hope not. It’s ludicrous. There’s still that reaction, that it’s got to be some Democratic plot to regulate us to death and expand the government. It’s not. It’s a threat and it’s an opportunity. It’s a chance to reinvigorate and reinvent our economy. At some point, even the cynics will figure that out. I just don’t know how long it will take or how many more Sandys it’s going to take to shake people out of this sense that we can continue as is indefinitely. Because we can’t. The whole addiction thing really resonates with me. We’ve become a planet of fossil fools.

I refuse to believe that we have to rely on 19th-century extraction technology to power our economy in the 21st century. Really?! You’ve gotta be kidding me. We’ve gotta suck stuff out of the ground to keep the lights on? We have the technology. What we don’t have is the political will. I’m hoping that Obama will do everything he can…


President Obama mentioning it in an inaugural speech—especially as forcefully as he did—is promising, yes?


Yeah, as long as it’s backed up by action. With the logjam and the mess that has become Congress, he can’t get anything through there. But he can uphold the Clean Air Act that Congress approved 40 years ago. And do some things via the EPA. We’ll see. A big test is going to be this Keystone XL pipeline. I didn’t realize this, but the tar sands of Canada have seven times more oil than Saudi Arabia. Most of that stuff is exported out of the United States. It’s not like it’s going to bring our costs down. That, to me, is going to be the acid test, if the president is serious about his legacy.


Isn’t the extraction of oil from tar sands so intensive that it it’s kind of like the junkie robbing from grandma to get a fix?


Absolutely. It’s the dirtiest oil. I realize Canada is our number-one trading partner, but on some level you don’t want to piss off your allies. But where is that line in the sand? … In the tar sand.


The title of Cynthia’s work, This Clement World—which is taken from Carl Sagan—sounds hopeful, like the Earth is resilient and actually forgives us for all that we’ve done to it. In wrapping up our conversation, Cynthia, could you talk about the title? And then could you both weigh in on whether we can have hope facing the challenges of climate change or whether we’re screwed?


I have a great deal of hope, and I think it’s a very hopeful piece. When we were talking about data versus art in terms of communication, that’s one thing that an artistic or a narrative communication can offer: these rays of hope. I think the hard science can be overwhelming and can make you want to run screaming from it. What I hope is that what this piece can offer—and what artistic communication on this subject can offer—is a larger vision of the resilience of the Earth, but also a vision that fundamental change is possible.

In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, he’s telling the story of how we came to understand where we are in the universe. It’s basically the history of science. And he consistently refers to the Earth as “this clement world.” Part of that reference comes in distinction and contradistinction to other times in history when it hasn’t been a merciful place, or it hasn’t been a clement place. In a way, what I hope the title brings to mind is both the hope for the continuing clemency of the Earth but also the fragility of that clemency—the mortality of that clemency, which is so hard to grasp.

In terms of optimism, I also wanted to point out Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest, which conceives of the biosphere. There’s this immune system at work and a movement to become, to engender a more sustainable interdependent relationship with nature. A global movement is rising up, and you can see it in our culture and in a more universal way. We’ve seen fundamental changes. The civil rights movement, I think, is a really good example of an entrenched way of being that changed with a lot of bloodshed and sacrifice. But, it was a groundswell that was powerful enough to make change. And, it’s kind of what Paul was saying earlier, the truth is the truth. It has a power that is stronger than denial, ultimately.


One of the takeaways for me from Hawken’s book is that we can’t isolate the environmental movement. It’s related to movements for fair work conditions around the world, for the rights of women, for economic growth for all, and all of these rights are tied together.


Right. And the fundamental question is, are we part of nature or do we think nature is subservient to us, to our desires, our goals? Nature doesn’t care about our economy. I think that’s going to be a heavy lesson for a lot of people.


And where do you stand on the optimism/gloom spectrum?


Oh, I have hope. I think we’re going through [psychiatrist Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief: anger, denial … and I think we will get to acceptance. What was that thing Winston Churchill said about Americans that really resonated with me—


“If you’re going through hell, keep going”?


[Laughter] Something like that. He said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” [Laughter] We’re trying everything but the right solution, and eventually we’ll get there. It’s making sausage. But, I think the truth eventually is going to manifest itself. Imagine a puzzle where two-thirds of the pieces are in place and if you step back, almost like looking at a painting, you can see the outline. There’s enough there that most rational people who still appreciate science say, “Yep, there is enough evidence, and we should be doing these things.” The paradox is if you wait for the last puzzle piece to fall into place, at that point, it’s going to be too late to do anything.