Monday, September 17, 2018


On Saturday September 8th, the Rise For Climate mobilisation brought more than 250,000 people outside to call for a just transition to a 100% clean energy economy.  The actions took place in more than 900 cities in 95 countries, with over 150 protesting here in St. Petersburg. The events came ahead of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco between September 12th and 14th.  While it sounds like something that alternative granola-crunchers might put on, it actually brought together so-called climate business leaders, politicians and big greens to discuss things like “inclusive” and “resilient” economic growth (based presumably in a form of magic consumerism that doesn’t deplete resources).  While talking a half decent climate talk (this week signing an executive order to make the state’s electricity zero carbon by 2045), California Governor and summit host Jerry Brown has also approved over 20,000 new oil and gas wells in his eight years, leading to hundreds of millions of barrels of climate pollution, and taken nearly $10 million in fossil fuel campaign donations.  Activists, oddly suspicious of all these contradictions, marched again and blockaded the summit to demand the apparently-too-complicated solution of leaving the shit in the ground right now.  Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, apparently attending his first environmental conference, compared the protesters to backers of the Mexico-U.S. border wall, hypocrites fighting against their own interests.  All leave for local cops was blacked out for the duration of the invitation-only summit.

Down here, things were a bit more subdued, as they often are. Activists got together in Williams Park to march and ring “climate emergency” bells, cross-pollinate information from different groups, and listen to music and speakers.  Organisations included anti-frack specialists Food and Water Watch, Quakers, Food Not Bombs, Uhuru Solidarity Movement (who have an anti-capitalist environmental event coming up on September 20th), Organizing For Action (aka Obama For America, which must be a different Obama than the one who sabotaged the Copenhagen talks), Indivisible FL-13 and The Center for Sustainable and Just Communities, whose steady-state economics and post-incarceration programs tickled my radical fancies.  The efforts of all these people and everyone that was involved inspired me to consider certain elements of the climate crisis, which I share here in a spirit of solidarity, constructive criticism and respect.

Smart environmentalists clearly understand that being opposed to the Trump environmental agenda is far from enough.  But it’s also obvious that hiding behind the usual tactics of distraction and scandal, the administration is sneakily putting the boot in to the climate at a furious pace.  In late August the EPA laid out its so-called Affordable Clean Energy proposal (or ACE) to replace the Clean Power Plan.  While claiming to rein in emissions, ACE uses a sleight of hand: in theory it obliges coal plants to become more efficient.  But this will make the fuel slightly cheaper, leading to a grid increase in its use that will probably result in higher total emissions than would have otherwise happened (known as the rebound effect).  This is why efficiency improvements without other measures such as basic limits on emissions are inadequate or worse.

The EPA’s own analysis finds that using ACE instead of the Clean Power Plan (a plan that was, at best, a slow step in the right direction) will increase coal’s share of the electricity market by 13% by 2035 and lead to up to 1,400 additional deaths from local pollution.  Climate change deaths worldwide will also increase. The coal plants will still probably die, as the precious free market has decreed (see recent announcements at our friendly local establishment for example), but they will take a bunch more human beings with them.  The administration is also planning to announce the rollback of rules forcing oil and natural gas companies to monitor and repair methane leaks in their wells, and to “streamline” oil and gas extraction in national forests.  This sort of thing might explain why the EPA has seen over 1,600 resignations since the Trump circus moved in, bringing it down to levels of staffing not seen since the 1980s.


Between the stage in Williams Park and the semi-shaded area where most are gathered is a thick band of sunlight, symbolising the difficult terrain between us and a sustainable planet.  Warming things up (or trying to distract us from the warmth) is Miami’s Earthman Lanny Smith, a family friendly artist and musician spreading a message of environmentalism.  This is the second day of his Florida Climate Action/Solutions Tour, running through the midterm elections, with a Rise Up block party in Tampa coming later the same day.  Democratic Pinellas County Commission candidate Amy Kedron also uses her time on stage to make use of music, but it seems to be aimed at a different demographic. John Lennon’s Come Together (used by Kedron as a call-and-response refrain) was a campaign song for a losing candidate who got sent to jail before election day.  It’s recognisable, but where’s the new music that symbolises invigorating political thinking? The issues that revolve around the climate battle may, on certain fundamental levels, be as old as the 1960s, industrial capitalism or humanity in general, but the art and scenes that move us need to be constantly refreshed.  The new politician -- whose views on the environment do seem promising -- then got even more modern and original by quoting the famous Gandhi line about your oppressors laughing at you.

I get the temptation to lean on well known tracks in your actions and campaigns.  With the internet allowing all scenes to operate at the same volume simultaneously it’s difficult to identify styles and conscious artists that resonate with the largest number of people.  Music today is struggling to express its frustration and open new territory, just as we in the same time period have struggled to move forward in dealing with the climate crisis. The promise of a bright future that was present in so many musical movements of the past has stalled and innovation decelerated, despite technological developments that have allowed more people to record music than ever before.  At the same time the actual future looks dark. So the music is not always pretty, or easily translated into political rallying cries, even though much intelligent music is being made.  I’d suggest putting in the effort to make it work though, because without generational engagement we are doomed.  It’s not as if modern artists are unaware or unwilling to engage with these topics. St. Pete’s ukulele punks Community Couch had to reluctantly cancel a date in Richmond this weekend due to the threat of Hurricane Florence, losing an opportunity to promote their new album I Am Breaking Up With Myself: a title that could easily apply to the biosphere.


There’s a lot in St. Petersburg that serves to humble any attempted demonstration of power: cars being prioritised over pedestrians and sidewalks, an overemphasis on keeping tourists smiling, and the heat.  Oh, the heat! In these conditions your slow march becomes less physically daunting towards potential targets (the sight of our bedraggled bodies approaching wouldn’t exactly have filled the executives at Big Bend coal power station with fear), but in this case it does highlight the relevant issue and demonstrate teeth gritting determination.  Organisers made the welcome decision to cut some blocks off of what was already a relatively short route and head us back towards Williams Park. Scientists predict that by 2030 climate change protests in St. Pete will take place within a single block around city hall, activists begging on all fours for the mayor to divert some of the effort used to encourage people to fly down here and rent cars into installing total surface area citywide misting tents.

While I’m not adamantly demanding that we move to immediately abandon St. Pete and the modest advances we’ve made towards decarbonising it, I’m not entirely joking.  I think many in this movement understand that massive issues require consideration of massive questions. If you can’t gather with minimal movement in a park in September without losing your mind, your community is arguably already becoming unlivable.  Heat tolerance levels are somewhat subjective, but only to a point: as Physicians for Social Responsibility state in the pamphlet they’re giving out today, heat waves currently kill more than 1,300 people per year, damaging lungs and hearts, spreading disease-carrying insects and aggravating issues such as asthma and bronchitis.  According to Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, daytime temperatures may be up an average of eight degrees by 2100 compared to now.  Perhaps this area has always been unlivable.  In his 2010 book Losing Our Cool (review here), Stan Cox writes that there is no conceivable way Florida would be so populous today without the invention of air conditioning, and that the curtailment of energy use that is necessary to deal with climate change demands some combination of adaptations to higher temperature, including migration.

As bay area thermometers rise we will be ever more dependent on AC, creating a receding target for our purported goal of 100% renewables, making for a real goal of a 115% or 130% increase in generation, as if it isn’t hard enough.  As sea levels rise (possibly by as much as 2.5 feet by 2050 and 7 feet by 2100, according to the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel), our offshore wind turbines and solar farms will become ever more difficult to maintain.  Meteorologists are now discussing the inevitability of a Category 6 hurricane (a level that doesn’t officially exist yet), with Tampa at major risk of storm surges of 17 feet, which would put most of it underwater.  A major economy, tourism (itself an unsustainable driver of carbon pollution due to travel and consumerism), will completely dry up as the area becomes more hostile to relaxation.

I am not arguing in general for adaptation over mitigation; until we can adapt our way out of global famine and an atmosphere like Venus, mitigation remains the superior option.  But in our goal of mitigation we have to consider whether we wish to focus our finite efforts and financial resources in an area that is incredibly vulnerable to already locked in climate change.  We cannot pretend that climate migration applies only to places where other people live. If, for six to eight months a year, you spend your free time inside a home or car with working AC because it’s too hot to go out, you may as well have already left town.  That’s not a community by any traditional standard: it’s a recipe for maximum energy use and social isolation. At the very least, we need to move away from the policy obsession with getting more people to come here, whether seasonally or permanently, because it’s likely going to happen anyway.  Without local population growth the main argument for continued economic growth and the destruction that it guarantees falls away.

The truncated march wasn’t without noteworthy moments.  Not far into the route was a sign that read “No Parking: Replacing Bike Loops” -- well that’s more like it!  Gradually replace the parking spots with bike infrastructure and the cars, with nowhere to go, will start to disappear from the roads pretty quickly.  Minutes later I have a conversation with a fellow activist who was recently hit by a car while cycling (the violence on the roads being an issue I researched a few weeks back for a fundraiser against distracted driving).  Despite the physical pain she was still marching, putting moaning about the hot weather into some perspective.  The crowd gets a better idea of its not inconsiderate size when it gathers on the steps of the Museum of Fine Art.  Photos are taken under a banner for the current “This Is Not A Selfie” exhibit.


It might have been hard to hear the people onstage from across the sunlight barrier, but there is at least no difficulty in seeing Earthman Lanny Smith as we return to the park.  He’s wearing an impressively large paper lantern of the planet, designed somehow to allow him to still deliver his eco message over funky licks and harmonica beats. I’m just glad that I’m not attending another rally with another guy with another damn acoustic guitar.  Nothing against that style, but in this context it’s been done to death more than our planet’s biological limits. I will take this other age extreme of children-friendly music.

Earthman’s song Act of Love shouts out, once again, to Gandhi and his struggle against the English empire.  As with singing classic songs, it’s a reasonable move, but a safe one unlikely to invoke much fresh inspiration (at least Lanny is making original music).  Combined with the fact that the climate movement is fond of asking what future generations will think of us, it’s strange that historical figures like Gandhi are evoked more often than the current struggle against the American empire, of which the climate justice movement certainly needs to be a part.  In direct opposition to our objectives, the point of empire is to snatch and secure resources for use. This goal was openly stated by one of the least hawkish modern presidents in the Carter Doctrine.  There is no other reason to have over 800 bases in 80 countries, and troops or military personnel in 160.   The military is also one of the world’s largest climate criminals, and its technology cannot be reformed.  U.S. fighter jets that use thousands of gallons of jet fuel per hour and around a quarter of the global total will never be made eco-friendly.  

In Guam - a U.S. colony located between Japan and Indonesia - we can see both of these forces at play.  The military is currently planning to build a live firing range that could poison Guam’s main aquifer, harm local endangered species, and disturb historic indigenous sites, not to mention further provoke potential competitors for resources in this region, far away from U.S. national territory.  One speaker today does point out that the vast cost of this military spending could be deployed in the domestic low-carbon economy, reducing the desire for fossil fuel interventions, and this is a good point. But unless we challenge the notion of empire itself, the jets will still be deployed to secure the materials for our solar panels and smart homes.  Inspiration from the past is all well and good, but without making the obvious parallels to similar power structures that must be confronted in the present it rings hollow. And we want to rise up ringing!

To reiterate, I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade (though a little rain would have been welcome) and am sure many participants are aware of this information in general.  I am glad to have been involved and happy that it happened -- I would not have considered compiling these thoughts had the event not sparked them, and I hope that they will be issues worth considering as the movement, you know, moves forward and plans new actions.  In defense also of the organisers and participants, it is, again, hard to act or even think on a particularly deep level when your brain is being fried like an egg inside your skull.  The relaxed delivery of the music of Earthman Lanny transitions into a short meditation event to close things out here in Williams Park, extremely welcome after a physical sun beating.  Rise up and go outside while you still can.


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