The Frog, Climate Change, and Trump

05.25.17
Alphonso Braggs
Longform /25 May 2017
05.25.17

The Frog, Climate Change, and Trump

There is a short analogy that has been used to explain the human response to climate change (whether in the form of denial, inaction, or delay, or simply nonchalance): that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, he will hop right out, but if you put the frog in a pot of cold water and then turn on the burner, he will remain calmly in the pot until he is fully cooked.

The analogy does provide some insight into our lackadaisical response to a changing climate. From a human perspective, climate change is indeed a slow-moving phenomenon, but geologically-speaking, it is incredibly rapid. As a set of events and changes unleashed primarily by our discovery of fossil fuels some 300 years ago (and dramatically increased rates of extraction and combustion mostly in the last hundred), a cognitive sense of changing climate is distributed across only a dozen generations – either too slow to notice, or too ambiguous to come to conclusions about causality.

With most observed impacts occurring only in the last 20 years, it shouldn’t be surprising that a great many people still find climate change to be too subtle to require overt action. This makes perfect sense, as greenhouse gases don’t fit into the traditional model of ‘pollutants,’ which characteristically are dirty, directly damaging, toxic, or otherwise ‘obvious.’ And despite the highly advanced state of climate science, direct causality remains difficult to prove even for directly observed impacts, and for many people who are insulated from the worst impacts by virtue of their geographic location, their economic strata, or luck, climate change could easily appear as a myth. Even if the slow (observed) pace doesn’t support outright denial, taking at least a wait-and-see attitude may seem reasonable. For a single frog…

Where We Stand

In order to take this simple analogy to a more useful parable level, it’s important to review a few basic realities of climate change:

Climate change is real, it is happening, and the impacts are accelerating. It is not a single free-standing environmental issue; not only does it tend to magnify individual environmental impacts, it is virtually all environmental issues collectivized into a global ecological catastrophe. Further, it interacts with other human-driven environmental changes (in terms of population pressures, unsustainable water use, over-fishing, extractive-industry damage, widespread introduction of chemicals, damage from chemical use, etc.).

Climate impacts are poised to be incredibly expensive in terms of direct environmental impacts, damage to infrastructure, reversal of decades of international economic development, and disruptions resulting from extreme events.

These costs, encountered through broad but seemingly random patterns, will continue to grow, and will increasingly result in incremental instances of political and social instability. As these reactions grow and increasingly overlap and interact within countries and across borders, significant security challenges will arise as well. It is the single largest issue that we currently face as a global society.

While there are a broad array of actions possible on the adaptation front (more resilient infrastructure, more sensible siting, more sustainable use of water, smarter cities, etc.), and these actions should continue, we are not going to adapt our way out of this situation. And to the degree that the adaption actions currently underway acknowledge that climate change is already occurring, this should highlight the need for aggressive mitigation and not adaptation as a viable substitute.

Climate change is time sensitive: each year that we delay in implementing a forceful and consistent program of mitigation will increase the damage and costs encountered in the future; will make it more expensive to address later; and will increase the chances of catastrophic events, including ocean acidification, large-scale forest destruction and/or thawing of arctic tundra which will release large amounts of methane.

Climate work creates jobs – at a rate some 3 to 5 times that of fossil fuels – and leads to energy independence. Both are elements that the new President Trump has promised, but he appears to be headed in the opposite direction.
Where we stand (or stood up until November 2016):

Up until the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, it had become possible to view the state of climate action as the ‘glass half full.’ Action had long been painfully slow and lacking sustained political commitment, but this situation has improved over the last 8 years, with climate action becoming less constrained by denial than on the sheer difficulty of agreeing on, financing, and adhering to, a global commitment to reduce emissions. The Obama administration, while stymied on Capitol Hill, provided leadership in the form of executive actions on vehicle standards, methane emissions, and the EPA Clean Power Plan which was poised to accelerate emission reductions in the power sector (and was not, as claimed by some as a ‘War on Coal,’ but made possible by a fundamental economic shift from coal to natural gas, made abundant and cheap through fracking).

(Lu Guang/Greenpeace)

While the Paris Agreement (which went into effect on November 4, 2016) is largely aspirational and lacks ‘teeth’ in terms of enforcement, it is a workable framework and endorsed by the meaningful players (the U.S., China, India, the European Community, and others) and includes provisions for financing and technical assistance for developing countries to participate.

There are clean energy alternatives that are currently available; these will continue to involve economic costs and transitional challenges (i.e. in energy storage and vehicle fuels in particular), but these dramatic cost reductions have been achieved essentially ‘with one hand tied behind our back’ (i.e. without an explicit cost on carbon). These cost reduction gains, when coupled with Paris targets, and potentially with some costs placed on carbon, suggest that even more dramatic reductions were available.

With the election, the balance has returned to ‘half-empty’

Sustained emission reductions remain constrained by several realities on ‘Big Fossil’: the entire global economy remains fundamentally embedded in fossil fuels, the financial structures and political economy of the OECD countries are even more so, and yet virtually all legitimate climate solutions require that significant resources be left in the ground. Systemic resistance to changing this reality, as well as the real economic and political costs of dealing with such a large level of potential ‘stranded assets,’ continues to undermine potential agreement on solutions.

As for other non-fossil options, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or geo-engineering, they are currently non-starters. CCS is not currently deployed at meaningful levels, and to the extent that it is deployed, the costs are unlikely to be very different than what a carbon tax would place on the equation; so while technically possible, CCS remains a moot point in economic terms, and not realistic in terms of timing. Geo-engineering remains on a very narrow edge of technological possibility and uncertainty on results, very challenging to implement on the sustained global level required, and contrary to actual engagement on reducing current emissions. Finally, geo-engineering would do nothing for ocean acidification. So, unless we can learn ways to ‘crack’ carbon resources without associated carbon dioxide emissions, or compartmentalize the carbon into an inert form, this is where we stand.

Back to the Frog in the Kitchen

In the context of these basic realities on carbon, let’s re-visit the frog analogy, and what it implies for our civilization. The reality is that the pot of water actually contains some 7.4 billion frogs (the planet’s current population; we are all directly affected and the population is expected to grow to between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050). Of that number, a large percentage are fundamentally stuck at the lower elevations of the pot, where it’s hotter and with much less room for movement, although the hope is always to go ‘up.’ While the percentage of frogs considered to be ‘in poverty’ has been dropping over the last few decades, the pot itself remains unchanged in size and total resources, so most trade-offs between improved quality of life and the constraints of climate damage will continue to be a negative-sum game.

There’s more space for frogs in the middle ranges, but all frogs need to breathe at least occasionally, so the opportunities to do so are becoming more restricted.

At the surface, there is a relatively small percentage of frogs who are reasonably content; life is good: not only is there some room to move around and provide ready access to breathing, standing on the head other frogs provides a relatively comfortable base. The sky is visible, and the option of jumping out – if necessary – seems to be available, but to where? While a few Hollywood movies might suggest a destination, we’re nowhere near the space travel abilities needed to go anywhere else.

And it should be pointed out that this is not just some droll kitchen experiment – these top frogs in question are actually in control of the burner; i.e. the rate at which we consume fossil fuels and produce other GHG’s. While all the other frogs at the lower strata are also dependent on some expenditure of fossil fuels, they do not have access to the political and financial control that the upper frogs do. And while the upper frogs want to retain control over their relatively strong position, they’re reluctant to share what they see as shrinking access to those benefits. Meanwhile, as the pot warms, the lower frogs are growing more agitated.

This isn’t a class issue, but a practical, and inherently human one: shrinking resources create stress, stress increases strife and instability, and instability feeds on itself in a number of economic, political, and conflict expressions; some predictable and others less so. A pot full of 7.4 billion frogs being brought to a boil isn’t a pleasant thought – a swarm of frogs suffocating, desperately trying to swarm to the surface, fighting each other, scrambling toward the top, and the whole being policed by various security forces, who themselves have (to date) no influence over the burner!

This is where the analogy starts to include a moral lesson, and thus becomes a parable: rapid climate change impacts include drought, agricultural failure, and over-stressed water resources, extreme heat and rain and fire and flooding events, destruction of key ocean biodiversity assets, vector-born disease, fuelwood failure, etc. The collection of impacts isn’t only on our biosphere, but also in the form of harm to our economic systems, conflicts across our inter-linked economies, and disruption in our norms of diplomatic relations. These environmental impacts and economic costs magnify stress and instability – either to the point where we think seriously about actually turning down the burner under the big pot, or simply accepting the consequences. And the capstone on this parable is that if we do not make a deliberate choice to engage on climate, these impacts will create such disruption and confusion, consume so many of our resources in relief and reconstruction efforts, distract so many of our investments from where they need to go, that we will lose the financial and political capacity to work cooperatively on a global basis. While the incremental environmental impacts will be painful, it is the climate-induced strife that will impoverish us to the point where we will lost control of the issue, and climate inertia will seal our fate.

Let’s be clear; the planet does not anthropomorphize us at all – while our planet is a vibrant and verdant world full of life, it is by nature (or even ‘design’) programmed to an ‘autonomous cycle’; everything happens for a basic chemical and biological and evolutionary reason, and the planet itself doesn’t have an opinion, or role, in determining whether it remains green and full of life, or instead is a just an anonymous rocky ball spinning through space, or whether the ‘smart’ two-legged species has a role in the whole affair.

Getting around to turning down the burner

We were moving, albeit in a muddling way, but moving.

As noted earlier, there is a great deal going on in terms of climate change action, a great deal of it positive and part of a larger strategy, but still missing a key ingredient: putting a price on an unusual pollutant that is also deeply embedded in our entire human culture. Without that price, alternatives will continue to fight uphill. Cap and trade, if undertaken at a serious level, could potentially serve as a substitute for an outright price on carbon (but not if it continues to permit any significant level of ‘offsets’ from sources that would otherwise remain unregulated). A carbon tax would be the most efficient and progressive approach in terms of setting a price signal on fossil sources at the point of consumption, yet part or all of the ‘tax’ could be rebated to users, while also offering other possibilities on tax reform. Such a tax could also be the most direct route to ‘leaving resources in the ground,’ albeit with political challenges of how to address what become ‘stranded assets.’ But, if undertaken by a critical mass of U.S. and key partners, it could be extrapolated to the required global level while providing the financing to help the developing world join.

What is the role of leading governments? Simply put, that role should be, to simply lead. The European community undertook a very bold experiment through their cap-and-trade program, which was generally successful until 2009, but retreated due to the financial slump. State-wise, California (which, if it were considered as a country, ranks 7th or 8th in terms of economy size) has an active cap-and-trade system that is functioning well without killing economic growth or jobs, but it remains too early to predict how willing the rest of the country will be to sign on to an equivalent approach.

Our government cannot remain willing to use our environment as a pressure valve for our economy, and this is a false bargain. Climate change is not a partisan issue, and has nothing to do with ideology: it is a chemical reality that is not subject to being re-defined as any kind of ‘alternative fact.’ And it is important enough that it should not be buried in the wreckage of our current political crisis.

What is the role of environmental groups? For most, their traditional model of preservation simply isn’t capable of protecting their sets of preferred environmental assets from changes in the atmosphere and the range of climate impacts that result. While there is a great deal of innovation, many organizations find it difficult to coordinate more without potentially disaggregating their established funding base. The result is an impressive array of environmental ‘satellites,’ each bright and earnest in their orbit around the earth, but without enough gravitational pull to fundamentally address climate in a meaningful way. They need to collectivize their efforts.

What is the role of military/security forces? They have classically been deployed not only for combat, but for humanitarian relief efforts when particularly large ‘natural disasters’ strike. In a rapidly changing climate, these roles will continue to grow – and stretch and strain beyond direct conflict with military resolution – to increasingly ambiguous situations involving natural disaster relief, emergency response, and security dimensions, requiring the impossible distinction between issues of migration vs invasion, amoral from sovereign. The military love to plan and of course have an equipment procurement cycle that takes time, thus planning enables the military to continue to safeguard the nation because future threats can be analyzed, modelled and equipment and process solutions achieved; have the military seriously concerned themselves with climate change? Should they?

In all of this, there is a parallel with FEMA. Traditionally a disaster-response agency, after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, FEMA has taken on a much more analytical, data-driven, and predictive approach. Yet, while all Federal agencies experience mission-creep or shifts in their mandates over time, FEMA is increasingly finding itself in a close encounter with a growth industry of the worst kind. The mil/sec community is not far behind, and will increasingly be drawn into the difficult role of maintaining security in the face of continued climate-based threats; not only in terms of disaster relief, reconstruction, and maintaining order. These aren’t easy issues, and there are – as of yet – no heroes in this landscape.

The mil/sec community is well aware of the challenges. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 11, 2017, Director of National Intelligence noted the threat of climate change, including extreme weather events, vulnerability of key populations, tensions over water resources, and a range of other challenges. His testimony described their finding based on IPCC sources, peer-reviewed literature, and, U.S. Government-coordinated scientific reports (contrasting with current Administration efforts to limit such inquiries and diminish the availability of climate data.

Military forces will increasingly be called upon to deal with relief efforts or other challenges that are not strictly speaking military (where the National Guard or larger forces called in to deal with large-scale climate events). In these situations, the potential for ‘cross-threading’ the different services needed (i.e. immediate relief efforts vs. basic requirements in maintaining security) will increasingly put mil/sec forces into difficult dynamics with the people served – with some simply needing shelter or food, but others seeing such forces as representing the government that has let them down by failing to identify the discrete or collective climate threats.

The situation(s) will become much more magnified when any forces are called upon to deal with events in a larger global sphere, i.e. to quell the challenges of force migration, climate refugees, etc. It’s not as simple as just building encampments or delivering MRE’s; it would happen on an unprecedented scale. It’s now well established that such short-term response measures take on a much longer life of their own in terms of political commitment, expenditure, and long-term challenges. On a global scale, to call this a dissolution of borders is an understatement.

The experience of refugee flight throughout the Mediterranean over the last several years give just a small taste of what might come with climate disturbances: some refuges from conflicted areas, some fleeing drought and scarcity of resources, others simply seeking a way or place to make a living; their numbers will all be magnified by the pressures created by climate change. The political fabric of such refugees is already shredded, and seeing the strain that this is putting on all of European society gives pause. The U.S. has remained more geographically removed from much of this, but cannot afford to not be part of the solution.

Under the premise that they must be prepared for all eventualities, the military generally has a 20-30 year lead time for various systems planning – a wide range of climate events fit within this time frame. But uniquely, climate is an ‘eventuality’ that can be mitigated, so once it is on the mil/sec screen, it begs the question as to the role of the mil/sec community reflecting the message back to its leadership on effective ways to neutralize or minimize that threat.

Mil/sec players have traditionally taken – as they should – a role of preserving national security, generally across borders, and generally against defined and visible enemies or threats. But just as we have seen with the ‘War on Terror,’ the enemy is now more ambiguous – in terms of identity and geographically. Climate change is not about borders; it is about the fuels that have historically powered our global economy, the widely ranging differences in current, cumulative, and per capita emissions, and how to solve that politically. While all sovereign governments have a natural tendency to ‘put their country first,’ in a globalized economy facing a global environmental crisis, putting military forces into the fray without considering the consequences is a form of political suicide that the mil/sec community should not abide.

What Trump Can and Cannot Do

There are a number of reasons why the Trump administration cannot undo progress on climate. Wind and solar have reached price points that we could have only dreamed of 25 years ago; storage technologies are now emerging and bringing clean energy potential full circle. States and cities continue to lead, because they see the impacts from climate as potentially acute for their dense, interconnected systems, while seeing broad opportunities to make cities thrive in a sustainable way.

While coal will remain a significant fuel source for a decade or two, economic fundamentals (most notably abundant natural gas) will continue to push it out, and mechanization means that few if any jobs will be created (and jobs and growth rates in wind and solar outstrip coal 3:1). The abundant natural gas that is largely responsible for pushing out coal is mostly a positive thing, provided we can perform fracking without destroying our groundwater, and provided we can carefully manage fugitive methane emissions from wells and pipelines (if we can’t do that, the high GHG quotient of methane will negate the gains made by reducing reliance on coal; our generation will appear clean, but atmospheric GHG loads will continue to increase).

And, for the most part, corporates are willing to engage. Most acknowledge that climate change is a threat to their long term businesses, and would like a clear policy signal on the way forward. In terms of fossil industry leadership, while it is clear that industry interests are in continuing to sell fossil fuels, the message is clear that clarity and consistency are required in order to effectively manage their industry.

In a recent National Public Radio interview with Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, he said, “We believe climate change is real…We believe that the world needs to go through an energy transition to prevent a very significant rise in global temperatures…And we need to be part of that solution in making it happen…One of the biggest concerns that I have around climate change is the unpredictability in which governments will go about it,” he said “If we have a very clear understanding that governments, successive governments, will continue to act consistently with a certain policy set that we believe in, I have no issue with it.”

That sentiment, representative of many other fossil CEO’s, would seem to remove an impediment to changing the fossil economy – that a more restrained rate of extraction would be acceptable as long as it was written clearly on the wall – and indeed, this is an important reality toward leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

While, in the same interview, Van Beurden suggested that trade organizations representing the industry often approached this position from an opposing side. He argued that CEOs have a responsibility to speak out against industry organizations that support politicians who deny the existence of climate change. He says the Paris treaty is not a “regressive agreement,” and U.S. involvement will help ensure its success. “It cannot be in the interest of the United States to put itself offside for such an important, societal debate,” van Beurden says. “…we all want in that respect the United States to have a strong, meaningful and impactful voice at all tables around the world. Pulling out of Paris, in that sense, is incompatible with that goal.”

But what is Trump doing?

He has appointed a known climate denier to head the EPA, suggested budget cuts of 30%, and removed key data from public access. His stated aim to dissemble the EPA would undercut efforts that have saved lives, and help put us on a more sustainable path, and harkens back to the days of “tobacco ‘science’”; designed to achieve through money and disinformation just enough uncertainty to freeze out significant climate progress. He has appointed the former head of the world’s largest fossil energy company to head the State Department, and also suggested 30% budget cuts there (which, in addition to undercutting U.S. diplomatic efforts worldwide, would seriously cut U.S. AID efforts in mitigation, adaptation, and economic development in developing countries). He has already moved to terminate the Clean Power 1Plan, to relax offshore drilling and expedite new leases, to ease rules on fracking and fugitive methane, and moved to eliminate auto and truck emission mileage and emissions rules.

On May 17th, 2017, the administration disbanded the Interagency Working Group (IWG) of scientists and economists charged with providing estimates of the social costs of carbon (externalities), and in its Executive Order, stated that various documents of the IWG are “no longer representative of governmental policy.” The concept of ‘social costs,’ or externalities, is at the heart of climate issues, but appears to be pushed out from the administrations’ thinking as being on the order of ‘fake news.’

On the budgetary front, when asked at the White House about cuts to climate change-related programs, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that. So that is a specific tie to his campaign.”

Trump repeats the call to make the U.S. energy independent; a misguided notion – both because we are almost already there and continue to move toward full energy independence with advanced technology, and because energy independence with GHG intensive fuels would be a false and temporary victory. Perhaps more misguided is the continued pursuit of fossil sources where the level of job creation in clean energy technologies runs 3-5 times that of fossil jobs. And coal cannot ‘be brought back’; not as a long term energy supply, and not in terms of job creation, and this is not the result of any ‘war on coal’ pursued by Obama, but an economic reality created by the emergence of cheap and abundant natural gas.

The Damage He Can Do

But, Trump can hurt momentum, which is a danger in this era of accelerated geologic time. He has indicated that he will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreements, and while he has not yet done so explicitly, he could simply ignore U.S. targets without withdrawing). In terms of global leadership, with the U.S. the second highest emitter in the world (overtaken by China only in 2006), with U.S. per capita emissions among the highest, and U.S. cumulative emissions the highest, withdrawing from or ignoring Paris would be an embarrassing loss of leadership for the U.S., and a damaging blow to the broad diplomacy that has been necessary to achieve climate progress thus far.

And Trump cannot credibly address climate change at the same time as pursuing more fossil fuel. Four years of lost momentum on climate – in terms of technology, jobs, policy, and likely disruption of financing for developing countries to participate in Paris, – are four years that we cannot afford. The challenge has shifted to a dangerous spot: demonstrating the case for addressing climate change through science or facts becomes derailed when dealing with a president who has such casual disregard for both.

Just at the time when we had seemed to have reached – globally – some agreement on a path forward on climate, and a collective agreement to turn down the burner, Trump appears to be putting the lid back on the pot, and turning the heat back up. And at a time when climate denial had succumbed to the science and the observed impacts, the president himself is seeking to revert to a set of ‘alternative facts’; a casual (or deliberate) disregard for science and advice that is alarmingly like the ‘tobacco science’ that was used to sow doubt and confusion on a public health matter of enormous consequence. In climate, the stakes are orders of magnitude higher. Trump has access to what is arguably the world’s most sophisticated and objective set of advisory services available, yet treats it with disdain (and is taking steps to dismantle this capacity) while imperiously insisting on relying on his own instincts and an internally-looped cable channel oriented source of information.

This disregard for facts, and undermining truth as ‘fake news’ is alarming overall, but in the context of the global treat of climate change, an assault on facts and the truth has dangerous consequences for the planet. The environment is not a terrorist threat, not a crack-pot or rogue nation picking a fight with us. Instead, Trump is picking an unnecessary fight – one that will lead to a protracted war with the planet that cannot be won.

One lasting piece of damage that Trump could inflict would be through Supreme Court nominees sufficient to overturn the “Endangerment Finding” that permitted the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Returning this authority to the States could perversely hinder the Federal government’s ability to centrally regulate GHG’s and undercut its ability to engage in international cooperation on an atmospheric impact that threatens long-term environmental health and security.

The End of an Age, and the Transition Facilitated by the Mil/Sec Community

This dangerous interruption of climate progress – in which institutional denial of the climate threat will likely result in a spiral of events, costs, responses, and conflicts – will create significant security concerns while consuming the political and financial capital required to address the original problem. The scientific, ecological sustainability, and social justice aspects of climate all come together in a compelling view of our future. The first of these, the scientific, is under a full frontal assault. The latter are just now coming onto the screen.

In terms of environmental leadership, this administration is pointed in almost exactly the wrong direction. The mil/sec community will be placed directly into this conflict, yet no level of budget increases for the military will lead to victory. So, even though the traditional role of this community is not to question their orders, this is not a set of traditional military actions, and is eminently avoidable. The mil/sec community has an important and legitimate role in raising questions about the path it is being led into. Even if Trump were not to complete even his initial 4-year term, his efforts thus far require a complete review by the mil/sec community and reset to reflect the costs and dangers.

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