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Outlook: To really save the planet, stop going green

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Mike Tidwell
Executive Drector, Chesapeake Climate Action Network
Monday, December 7, 2009; 11:00 AM

Mike Tidwell executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network was online Monday, Dec. 7 at Noon ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "To really save the planet, stop going green."

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Mike Tidwell: Hi I'm Mike Tidwell and I'm happy to take questions about my Outlook piece Sunday. As I argue in the piece, we've got lots of go-green gestures in America, now it's time for the next big step: green statutes.

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Ballston, Va.: At what point to we start thinking that the US really isn't the best place to start? Sure it makes people feel better, but I would think it's the industrial nations like China and India, where pollution is basically at toxic levels, where the biggest changes could be gained for the lowest costs. What can we do to get/help developing nations to use cleaner energy?

Mike Tidwell: I agree China and India are huge problems in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Huge problems. But the reality is China and India will NEVER stop building new coal-fired power plants until America stops. We're building a new coal plant right now in Virginia in Wise County. Why should China stop? Let's get our own house in order!

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Takoma Park, Md.: Mike Tidwell's call to action makes sense, but he regrettably speaks only to his upper class friends -- those who can afford the solar panels on the roof and the Prius. With unemployment over 10% and real unemployment closer to 17%, and with more Americans going hungry every day, he says absolutely nothing about the intersection of working peoples economics and climate change. When people are hungry and out of work it is very hard to get them to focus on the bigger picture, like climate change. Sustenance for the family comes first. I applaud his analysis and call to action but respectfully suggest that he's missing perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle by failing to address the needs of working Americans.

Mike Tidwell: I agree totally that any carbon cap bill from Congress MUST protect the poor and middle classes. That's one of the tragedies of the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the US House in June. It harms the middle class. The better solution is a "cap and dividend" approach. All polluters pay to pollute the sky and the money is then returned directly in monthly dividends equally to all Americans. So carbon fuels get more expensive vis a vis clean energy, but all Americans get rebates. The poor actually MAKE money off this system and the middle either gains financially or breaks even -- all while we're phasing out carbon fuels. Learn more at www.capanddividend.org

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Arlington, Va.: I feel that many people are involved in the "green movement" because it makes them feel happy inside. Oh, I separated my glass from my plastic, I'm saving the world. However when we have a large number of people probably taking private jets to the summit, and celebrities going through more carbon in a day than the average person does in a year, it's hard to take the leaders of the movement seriously. Why should I make drastic changes, when the figureheads of the movement don't do anything substantial but give a speech?

Mike Tidwell: I agree. But if we pass a real cap on carbon fuels in America as part of a binding global treaty, then everyone will share the responsibilities and benefits together. There will be less air travel, less meat consumption, and more options for a low-carbon lifestyle that benefits everyone, improves public health and improves our national security.

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Chillicothe, Ohio: You are right-on about climate change being a moral issue. I still do not understand the mentality of people who toss cans and bottles from cars along our highways. This seems small, but is just plain morally wrong not to take care of our own voluntary purchases when we are finished with them! My wife and I walk for fitness, but pick up cans as we go. It almost prevents the fitness part, the constant stopping!

Mike Tidwell: Sounds great. I'm all for green changes in everyone's life. My son and I also pick up trash and hike it out on camping trips. We just need elected officials to take statutory change as seriously as the rest of us take personal changes in our lives. We need both.

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Winchester, Va.: I commend Mr. Tidwell for his much needed message! But since the momentum built into the system will most likely mean that no living person will see the benefits of their actions how do we keep people from becoming discouraged by the magnitude of the challenge ahead of us? Does the question ultimately become a moral one: the capacity of humans to act for the benefit of society vs. their individual self-interest?

Do we have the moral will to protect our planet, or are we toast?

Mike Tidwell: Great question. I'm not sure all scientists believe we won't see the consequences of climate solutions in our lifetime. Non-CO2 gases wash out of the atmosphere quickly, like methane. Also, reducing conventional "particulate matter" pollution from the combustion of sugar cane fields and rice fields worldwide -- for example -- will dramatically reduce "black carbon" pollution which -- when stopped -- will help quickly cool off the planet

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Columbus, Ohio: Your entire movement is a fraud. Find another religion and leave the rest of us alone.

The scientists have used phony computer models to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from the tax payers.

We are on to you.

Mike Tidwell: Okay: Is Arctic ice vanishing or not? Simple question. If you say, no, the Arctic is not disappearing, then there's no point in continuing the conversation. Satellite photos tell the story, beginning in the 1970s, of a fantastic reduction in Arctic ice equal to all the US east of the Mississippi. What's causing it? Answer: The planet is WARMING. Period. So let's be clear on that.

The Bush Admin produced four major reports on the issue -- and Bush said it in his 2006 State of the Union speech: The planet is warming, human beings are involved, and we need to fix the problem.

The whole leaked email thing DOES NOTHING TO CHANGE THE SCIENTIFIC FACT: THE PLANET IS WARMING AND HUMANS ARE DRIVING IT.

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Re: Coal: To be fair, while we may be building a coal plant, the pollution levels from ours will be nothing close to those from China etc. Its like comparing a diesel truck spewing black smoke to a VW clean diesel engine. Not all coal plants are the same. Also with the NIMBY crowd we have here in the US, the real alternative, nuclear energy is far too often shut out. You can't have it both ways, either build nuclear plants, or don't complain about coal ones.

Mike Tidwell: China will NEVER stop building coal plants if we continue, no matter how "clean" we claim ours is. I support nuclear but I don't support how expensive nuclear is. Wind power and basic energy efficiency efforts are much, much cheaper than nuclear.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What do you say to the fatalistic approach some take to this issue: that no matter how hard we try, there are just too many people, and we will never be able to reduce emissions enough to make a difference?

Mike Tidwell: There are definitely too many people on the planet for the way we live today. Definitely. But what if -- especially in the West -- we reduced our per capita impacts 1000 percent? We use dramatically less carbon energy, we adopt sustainable diets, we stop sprawling, etc. What's the carrying capacity for humans who have virtually zero impact footprints? I don't know. But here's an interesting stat: All the ants in the world -- combined -- have roughly the same mass and sheer physical weight as all the world's humans. We destroy the planet, but ants exist symbiotically in all the world's ecosystems.

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Battle Ground, Wash.: The equality of all men was already underlying law so the civil rights movement was a matter of repealing the local laws and rules that violated it. There is no underlying law about fossil fuels therefore the comparison of the civil rights movement with global warming is invalid.

Mike Tidwell: You miss the real point. Segregation violated our fundamental sense of morality, so we banned the practice. That's what drove the law. Climate change also violates fundamental moral values. It's a huge, huge human rights violation to unleash agricultural, economic, and ecological chaos on our children and all the people of the world. This is the ethical underpinning that mandates a change in US energy laws immediately.

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Arlington, Va.: You have advocated non-violent means to this end. The civil rights movement required a significant amount of protest and civil disobedience to get laws changed. At what point do you advocate for civil disobedience?

Mike Tidwell: Twice for global warming I have peacefully engaged in the time-honored American tradition of civil disobedience. I peacefully blocked the entrance to a coal plant in 2004 and I peacefully blocked the entrance to a congressional office in 2009. It's an important tactic that should be used carefully and respectfully -- but definitely used in defense of our climate. We need more of it.

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Pittsburgh: Obama can talk all he wants about climate change, but that won't move the 40 Republicans in Senate, most of whom want to destroy his administration and think climate change is a crock. They can and will filibuster any climate change bill. There is nothing you can do to change their minds. NOTHING. Give up.

Mike Tidwell: Well, I have a 12-year-old so I'm not planning to give up. I share your concern, however, about the Senate arithmetic. We may have to fix the problem through other legal means. The EPA just announced this morning that is has determined that CO2 "endangers human health" which gives EPA the court-sanction authority to regulate carbon. Don't need 40 Republicans for that.

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Woodbridge Va: "I support nuclear but I don't support how expensive nuclear is."

There is the old story of the man who killed his parents then asked for clemency because he was an orphan. Enviros demand expensive legal and regulatory restrictions, mount even more expensive court fight and then complain that nuclear is too expensive. Actually most nuclear plants can be less expensive over the useful life of the facility once you get past the cost of dealing with enviro obstructionism.

Mike Tidwell: What you say simply isn't true. Nuclear is expensive because nuclear is expensive. If it were cheaper, I'd ask to have a nuclear power plant built next to my house. I'm NOT anti-nuclear. It's just than weatherizing homes and building off-shore wind farms is much, much cheaper and solves the climate crisis faster.

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Lancaster Co., Pa.: I object to the statement, 'Green pastures we have in abundance in America.' I write for a farm newspaper. We don't have green pastures in abundance. That's nuts. We lose 2 acres of farm land EVERY MINUTE in the U.S. according to the American Farmland Trust. In six years, we lost an amount of farm land the size of Maryland. If that doesn't freak you out, consider that only 12 percent of the world's surface is farmable. We need all the farm land we can get.

So yes, environmental activism, of course. But I would not frame the debate that you should call your Congress person instead of buying "green" because every thing is fine with our land and pastures.

Mike Tidwell: Sorry. Did I write "pastures"? I meant green "gestures" are what we have in abundance in America. Instead we need green "statutes."

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Anonymous: Why does it have to be one or the other? During World War II, I, and millions of other kids, helped the war effort by collecting metal, tires and whatever to make our individual contribution. Yes, the country needs a grand plan, but getting the hearts and minds of the people involved helps insure the success of the grand plan.

Mike Tidwell: I think the hearts and minds of the American public ARE ready for a grand plan. In terms of raising "green awareness" in America, we can check that box. We've done it. But it's not yielding meaningful carbon reductions. That's because most people want the fairness of shared responsibilities and benefits that can only come from statutes. Let's pass a real carbon cap -- one that shoots for 350 parts per million carbon in the global atmosphere. Then let's require polluters to PAY to pollute our sky, and let's give that money directly back to the American people

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Baltimore, Md.: "I agree China and India are huge problems in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Huge problems. But the reality is China and India will NEVER stop building new coal-fired power plants until America stops. We're building a new coal plant right now in Virginia in Wise County. Why should China stop. Let's get our own house in order!"

Un-huh, un-huh. Just like we can tell Iran not to build weapons-processing uranium plants. Righto.

Do you sincerely think that China and India will exclude themselves from becoming as industrialized as we are now? Are we willing to go to war to stop them from building cola plants, or to keep every other country in line with obeying such a treaty? Because, ultimately, that may be what it takes....

Mike Tidwell: What? Who said anything about Iran and war? Slow down. China is going to develop and get richer. No one's telling them not to. We just need to make sure China doesn't develop the way the USA did: addicted to coal and oil. The Chinese are already making huge strides toward clean energy. They are selling solar panels to US now! We need to switch to clean renewable energy and model that switch to China and India. If those countries finally decline to get off coal, then we will have to apply serious diplomatic and economic pressure.

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Notre Dame, Indiana: What can a University do to start making the transition from small green actions to green statutes?

Mike Tidwell: Great questions. Where are your US senators on a carbon cap bill? Are they deniers or champions? Politicians really respond to campus leaders. By all means, continue your smaller green steps on campus, but make sure your Congressional reps get "green phone calls" and "green emails" from your campus administrators and student leaders.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Going green seems to be a marketing concept with no substance. Everybody brings their own bags to the Giant but then buys vegetables from China. What is the cost of sending vegetables half way around the world rather than buying local?

Mike Tidwell: The point is this: a national carbon cap would solve all of these issues simultaneously. A cap that works as intended -- i.e. makes oil and coal more expensive compared to home-grown wind and solar -- will in and of itself stop the ridiculous practice of imported broccoli from Argentina. We'll have sustainable diets, sustainable cars, land use, all the rest. All from just passing a meaningful cap on carbon that sends the right "price signal" to all our markets interactions.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Thank you for an article that I've been hoping to read in the Post--or anywhere--for many years. I've been thinking along these lines for a long time and have spent recent years trying to wake up my colleagues within the environmental community to the futility of promoting simplistic "be good" solutions to our global environmental crises. (Right behind this window on my screen is an article I'm editing for a children's magazine about how to "green" your parents by, among other things, getting them to reuse their plastic water bottles.)

My only concern about your position, and mine, is this: If it's futile to urge people to voluntarily cut back on the consumption of natural resources as a way to solve our environmental problems, how can we expect to drive significant numbers into the offices of our representatives, demanding changes in our laws? And given the fact that most of our representatives care most about raising contributions for their re-election campaigns, or have beholden themselves to powerful special interests in other ways, what are the chances that those who do lobby for change will be listened to? If we couldn't turn a nation of distracted, narcissistic, oblivious, credulous, and cynical people into good environmentalists, why should we think we can turn them into good citizens?

Mike Tidwell: Wow, first-rate question. First, as corrupt and broken as Congress is, the truth still holds: grassroots pressure trumps lobbyist money. It does. But you HAVE to have the pressure. Real pressure. Sustained pressure. The politicians can smell weak or fake pressure from miles away. My point in the Post piece was simply to get already-active citizens to add "green phone calls" to Congress to what they are already doing. It's not all about just changing light bulbs. If for once, everyone made a call to Congress instead of changing a light bulb, then Congress would be inundated with calls. The volume of constituent pressure would skyrocket and we'd see change. Frankly, I'd rather have 100,000 Americans phoning Congress each weak demanding a strong carbon cap than a million people changing a single light bulb. Which one has a better chance of transforming the planet?

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Mike Tidwell: Thanks everyone. Gotta run. It's been great. Learn more about what you can do at www.350.org or www.chesapeakeclimate.org. Best, Mike

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