Looking Forward to Labor Day

by Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern


We used to think we worked pretty hard, but that was before we agreed to help out this week in Andrew’s absence. As Dish guest-bloggers we were each doing three posts a day, and the pressure seemed unrelenting – we’d sigh the minute one went up on the site because it felt like the countdown clock was ticking already. It felt like Lucy on that chocolate assembly line. We’ve always admired this place, but now we’re in a kind of awe: we have no idea how the staff and the proprietor keep it up day after day (and we think Maureen Dowd et al are living the high life – I mean, once every three days? Come on.)

We realized, too, that though we’ve always thought of ourselves as opinionated, there are actually vast swaths of current events on which we have no useful thought at all. Vladimir Putin is clearly a bad guy, but God knows what we should do about him. Ditto Libya. There are other questions, happily, where we can subcontract our opinion-forming to each other: anything to do with computers and internets, for instance, is Sue’s domain, for instance. Ditto butterflies, dogs, and how the brain works. Bill, as you may have noticed, is good on climate change and also climate change. But that leaves a little uncovered; which is why the crowd wisdom that comes with a Dish subscription seems like such a good value.

The one other thing we both know a little about is journalism.

We’ve written for pretty much everyone there is to write for over the years. It’s an honor to have added the Dish to that list: there’s good work going on here, and in quantity. We always knew Andrew was remarkable;  now we have a sense of the depth of the bench. Thanks to them for making this week so smooth for us.

Since we’re good Vermonters, we’ll conclude with a small going away present, our very own (and very simple) granola recipe, which we make each and every week. Since soon the days will start to cool, you might want to make it too:

Preheat oven to 250

In big bowl, mix 10 cups oats with a cup or two or even three of chopped pecans and cashews

Mix in 1/2 cup oil, 1 cup maple syrup, and 1/2 cup water

Spread over two lightly greased cookie sheets

Bake 30 minutes, turn over with a spatula

Return to over for 30 minutes and then, when the timer goes off, simply turn off the heat and let it sit in the over for a few hours till it cools

In our experience, if you eat this, you will start to favor single-payer health insurance, despise big oil companies, and hope Bernie Sanders runs for president. It’s our second-favorite morning Dish.

(Photo by Robert S. Donovan)

Three Weeks From Now

by Bill McKibben


A lot of us who care about climate change will be marching through the streets of New York. If you want information, it’s here.

Several people have written in to ask me what good it does to march. Wouldn’t it be better to have a carbon tax? And there are people – some of them sincere, some of them concern trolls – writing in to say, “you’ll be using fossil fuel to get all those buses full of people to New York.” It would be better to have a price on carbon, and we will be using diesel to bus people to New York – all true.

But 25 years after I started writing about climate change, I’ve come to believe a few basic things.

One, we have long known much that we need to do to start addressing the issue (job one is to put a serious price on carbon, and stop letting Exxon use the atmosphere as a free sewer). Two, we won’t do these things as long as the power of the fossil fuel companies remains so powerful – we will continue to move in the direction of renewable energy because it makes sense, but we will do so too slowly to make a dent in climate change. Three, the power of the fossil fuel companies is a function of their money, which buys more influence than their arguments deserve; in fact, scientists long ago won the argument on climate change, they’ve just lost the fight. Four, the only thing that can match the power of that money is the power of movements. They’re hard and slow work to build, but when they reach a certain point they can change the zeitgeist, and suddenly segregation is obviously disgusting, gay marriage is obviously common sense, and so on.

I’m not certain we’ll get to that point – movements don’t always work. But I am certain that we won’t get there without one. And I’m certain too that even if we knew the odds were low we should march. Part of it is simply to bear witness, to say: when scientists issued their warnings, some portion of our species paid attention. It would be fun to see some of you there.

(Image: MIT students posing as science superheroes yesterday as they recruit their colleagues for the climate march)

On Learning New Things

by Bill McKibben

It turns out that Ta-Nehisi Coates spent the summer just down the hill, at Middlebury College where Sue and I both hang our hats. In the summer Middlebury’s famous language school–which makes students sign a pledge that they’ll only speak the language they’re studying all summer–takes over the campus, and this year Mr. Coates was studying French. And studying the act of learning something new, which is an easier process to see (if not to do) past a certain age. His stay resulted in a brilliant essay in the new Atlantic, which has a lot of smart things to say about race in America, the inequality of influence in our culture, and the smugness with which white people caricature African-American attitudes towards education. I, um, learned a lot reading it, and look forward to re-reading it more than once. (It’s also a subtle and persuasive follow-up to his groundbreaking piece on reparations earlier in the year).

Politics aside, it also describes the learning process with wit, rigor, and a kind of joy that makes one want to (as soon as the Labor Day weekend has passed) go out and work hard to learn some new thing!

One afternoon, I was walking from lunch feeling battered by the language. I started talking with a young master in training. I told her I was having a tough time. She gave me some encouraging words in French from a famous author. I told her I didn’t understand. She repeated them. I still didn’t understand. She repeated them again. I shook my head, smiled, and walked away mildly frustrated because I understood every word she was saying but could not understand how it fit. It was as though someone had said, “He her walks swim plus that yesterday the fight.” (This is how French often sounds to me.)

The next day, I sat at lunch with her and another young woman. I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood—and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.

In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.

Burning Earth

by Bill McKibben

California Drought Dries Up Bay Area Reservoirs

At Burning Man in the desert, where the proprietor of this blog, and Grover Norquist, and a lot of other people are gathered this week, they had a rare heavy rainfall, which “intensified the misery of people waiting in the will call lines” at the box office. That A similar soaking in the Mojave Desert meant that the area of California under severe drought conditions fell last week from 97.5 to 95.4%, but the effect of the ongoing record aridity keeps magnifying. On the grossest scale, the region has now lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, which weighs about 240 billion tons, which has caused the state’s mountains to grow half an inch taller.

But the drought in California is probably not the worst such crisis underway on the planet at the moment, in part because California is rich. In Central America last week Guatemala became the latest country to declare a state of emergency, as the worst drought in decades wreaks havoc with bean and corn crops. According to the AP:

In Guatemala, about 170,000 families lost almost all of their crops, while in El Salvador crops have completely been lost in two-thirds of the country.

In Nicaragua, where the drought has killed more than 2,500 cattle and left 600,000 people in a state of malnutrition, the government is asking international food agencies to help it feed 100,000 families in parched areas.

Gang violence is doubtless sending Central American children north to the border. Doubtless the drought is playing its part too. Drought, being slow-moving and undramatic, tends not to catch our imaginations like flood or storm. But it may be one of the most insidious results of a changing climate. Research has shown drought on the increase as temperatures rise, and a study this spring made it clear that the world was in for more and more drought–none of that should come as a surprise, given the basic physics. But researchers have also found, over and over, that drought helps breed conflict, in places from Sudan to Syria. Given the increasing centrality of the Syrian conflict, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that, as Brad Plumer points out in this Washington Post interview with regional expert Francesco Femia, during the period from 2006-2011 up to 60% of the nation experienced one of the worst droughts in history. Femia:

This drought — combined with the mismanagement of natural resources by [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, who subsidized water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton farming and promoted bad irrigation techniques — led to significant devastation. According to updated numbers, the drought displaced 1.5 million people within Syria.

We found it very interesting that right up to the day before the revolt began in Daraa, many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country. What they had missed was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely.

So if you want to know why some U.S. military officials call climate change the biggest threat to national security, this is one of the reasons. As Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of US Pacific forces, put it last year:

“We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue – even with China and India – the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he said. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.’’

(Photo: A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on January 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Why Oil Companies Are Rogue Actors

by Bill McKibben

A Greenpeace activist holds a banner dur

A reader writes to complain that fossil fuel divestment is a pointless waste of time:

What divestment does do is make people feel good. That they’re “doing something”, without having to do the thing that they actually need to do: use much less fossil fuel. It’s like a room full of chain smokers advocating tobacco divestment.

This is a reasonable complaint, or at least it would be if having individual people decide to use less fossil fuel could actually cure global warming in the time that physics allows us. But it can’t, because the problem is structural: given that the fossil fuel industry is allowed to pour carbon into the atmosphere for free, they have a huge incentive to keep us on the current path. And since they’re the richest industry on earth, they have the means as well as the motive. (Chevron, for instance, offered the largest corporate campaign contribution post-Citizens United two weeks before the last federal election). If we’re going to do anything about carbon, we’re going to have to break the power of the fossil fuel industry first, which is why divestment from high-profile places is so important (just as it was in the South Africa fight). Nelson Mandela journeyed to the University of California shortly after his release to thank students and faculty there, and by extension at 155 other campuses, for pressing the case so effectively.

Here’s an example from the days news of why oil companies are rogues.  You’ll recall that on Monday a leaked draft of a new report from the world’s climate scientists stated that

 companies and governments had identified reserves of these fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level. That means if society wants to limit the risks to future generations, it must find the discipline to leave the vast majority of these valuable fuels in the ground, the report said.

So, demonstrating the exact opposite of that discipline, Shell yesterday filed for the right to become the first big driller in the Alaskan Arctic. It’s actually a followup to their first attempt a couple of years ago, which went tragicomically wrong when a drilling rig ran aground in a storm. But forget the myriad local dangers. The real story is, the world already has four times more hydrocarbons than they can use, but Shell (and its brethren) are busy searching for more. This is like nuclear overkill, except that they’re planning to sell every bit of the oil they find. It’s business as usual, and it’s insane–and anyone who invests in it, make no mistake, is profiting from the wrecking of the planet.

“These people are paid to play and not to watch,” said Fadel Gheit, a senior oil company analyst at Oppenheimer & Company. “After all the hiccups and bad luck, the company has decided that the upside potential is greater than the downside risk and its worth another shot.”

All a game, with the only planet we’ve got hanging in the balance. Oh, and Chevron, with its mighty campaign warchest?  Check out this new piece from Rolling Stone if you’d like to see how they play. (Rough).

(Photo. A Greenpeace activist holds a banner during a protest on May 10, 2012. By Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Golden Age of Radio, Ctd

by Bill McKibben


So many great responses to my musings on audio documentaries yesterday with lots of suggestions: Radioopensource.org, with the inimitable veteran Christopher Lydon and his equally inimitable producer Mary McGrath; 99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars; On the Media, which is probably the most useful sustained media criticism in American journalism, Hardcore History with Dan Carlin, which was new to me; and Stuff You Missed in History Class were among the many vote-getters.

I wanted to take the chance to plump for a show I’m always trying to get people to listen to, because I think it exemplifies what radio can do so well. Even though I’m not obsessed with popular music, I listen to Sound Opinions every single week without fail. It comes from WBEZ in Chicago, just like This American Life, and it’s executive produced by the same guy, Tory Malatia. And it’s very simple: two talented music critics, Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, review a couple of new records, maybe host a short live concert, and often dissect some classic album or genre. (This week it’s a thoughtful take on the new wave of the 80s for any Duran Duran fans out there). It hits the perfect middle ground between geeky-obsessive and overly broad and obvious: that is to say, between the Internet and TV. It’s companionable, smart, and a wonderful hour. I keep pitching it because I don’t want it to ever go off the air.

An Actual Exit from Climate Hell

by Bill McKibben

Earlier today I went after libertarians for their troubles with climate change. But it’s conservatives in general that have been the real hypocrites here, given that the least conservative thing you can possibly imagine would be running the temperature of the earth way out of the range where human civilization has previously thrived. And the irony is, some of the most obvious ways out are… kinda conservative. Or at least should appeal to conservatives who are not, in reality, shills for the fossil fuel industry. Yes, given that we’ve delayed  as long as we have we need a big government effort to put in renewable energy, and yes we need wholesale shifts in who holds power (the key new text on climate change will be Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, due for release next month). We also need to provide massive aid for the countries we’ve endangered by our unchecked carbon emissions.  But one of the big changes we require is remarkably conservative in nature.

It’s called Cap and Dividend, long proposed in one form or another by the great climate scientist James Hansen and by an excellent advocacy group called the Citizens Climate Lobby. It derives from the work of Peter Barnes, who has a fine new book called With Liberty and Dividends for All. Let today’s Washington Post editorial page explain:

A prominent member of Congress has proposed a comprehensive national climate-change plan. It’s only 28 pages long, it’s market-based, and it would put money into the pockets of most Americans.

His proposal would put a limit on the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a cap that would decline each year. Beneath that cap, companies would have to buy permits for the emissions their fuels produce. The buying and selling of permits would set a market price for carbon dioxide. The government would rebate all of the revenue from selling permits back to anyone with a Social Security number,more than offsetting any rise in consumer prices for 80 percent of Americans. Most upper-income people, who use more energy, and government, which would get no rebate, would pay more under the plan.

Every time you ratcheted down the cap on carbon (in order to keep the planet from being wrecked, which would be… expensive) the dividend check would rise; therefore there’d be far less political opposition to doing the right thing. And this plan posits a different understanding of the world: if anyone owns the atmosphere, it’s us, not Exxon. Since the fossil fuel industry currently gets to use the atmosphere as a free dump, there will doubtless be opposition from the likes of the Kochs. But this is a sensible, straightforward plan.

Let Them Build Seawalls

by Bill McKibben

Greeehouse Emissions

As a good Dish reader, I know I’m supposed to take libertarianism seriously, and so I try, even if every time I contemplate Ayn Rand I find myself wishing I’d been born to a different species. It’s possible that my trouble stems from the fact that dealing with climate change is notoriously difficult for libertarians: if you burning the coal in your coal mine raises the sea level around my continent, something’s amiss. So too many theoretically rational and science-minded libertarians have tended towards denying the physics of global warming, just to avoid dealing with the implications for the philosophy. (There are of course honorable exceptions, like Ronald Bailey at Reason).

But this is really rich. Writing from his perch at the Cato Institute, Charles “Chip” Knappenberger explains why the U.S. should avoid taking a leadership role in any climate negotiation: because others have more at stake:

Such information is carefully concealed in Obama Administration reports, such as the one issued recently by the Council of Economic Advisors that predicts escalating costs the longer we delay serious climate change mitigation efforts. Instead of focusing on domestic costs of climate change, the report is built around an estimation of the global cost for carbon dioxide emissions—which, by the Administration’s numbers—is some 4 to 14 times greater on a per ton of emitted CO2 basis than those projected for the U.S.

Translated: climate change is going to be worse for Bangladesh, so let them deal with it. And it is going to be worse–it already is. People are starting to evacuate their island nations as seas rise. It’s true we may lose Miami, but we’re well off enough, perhaps, to take the hit. Asks Knappenberger sweetly:

Why should the President’s rush to restrict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, which even his own officials say raises concerns about domestic energy costs and grid reliability, be justified upon supposed benefits which will largely accrue to foreign nations?

That would be piggish enough right there–but of course what Knappenberger doesn’t even mention in his column is that we’re the reason that Bangladesh has a problem. They hardly emit any co2–they’re a rounding error in any calculation. Whereas the United States has contributed more by far than any nation to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (China won’t match us even by 2030, and on a per capita basis, we’ll be champs forever).

Knappenberger’s logic will doubtless play well in the GOP as it stymies any nascent Obama administration effort to lead the world in a new direction. But if the libertarian creed is about people taking responsibility for their actions, as opposed to getting away with what they can, this is crass.

(Chart from the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency)

Tax Scam, AKA Business as Usual

by Bill McKibben

Tim Dickinson is out with a superb piece of reporting in Rolling Stone today–a long investigation that picks up where yesterday’s headlines about Burger King and Tim Horton’s (and last month’s about Walgreens) left off. It turns out that these corporate “inversions” are huge business, and  part of a trend that dates back at least to the Clinton administration where corporations have bent tax law to make sure their profits stay overseas and beyond the reach of the IRS. The numbers are staggering:

More than $2 trillion in U.S.-based multinational profits currently sit in offshore accounts, representing, by credible estimates, in excess of $500 billion in unpaid taxes. If that money were deposited in federal coffers tomorrow, it would wipe out the deficit for 2014. And every year that Congress dithers on a crackdown, America is forfeiting an approximate $90 billion in revenue.

The offshoring is a complete fiction. The money often comes from US sales, and even though it’s technically in Lichtenstein or the Jersey Islands or Ireland,

 these untaxed profits are not stranded. “There’s this false notion that these funds are locked in a strongbox somewhere,” says Edward Kleinbard, a former chief of staff for Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation. In reality, these untaxed foreign profits are often banked, by the offshore subsidiaries themselves, in Manhattan – where they’re used to invest in stocks and U.S. Treasury bonds. “The money,” says Kleinbard, “is already back in the U.S. economy.”

It’s worth reading the entire piece, especially for the unsurprising but infuriating denouement: lawmakers, even the ones rhetorically at odds with these practices (i.e., Democrats) are actually facilitating the whole process. This is the kind of comprehensive reporting we see too little of.

The Golden Era of Radio

by Bill McKibben


I may have mentioned that most of this week is being spent cleaning. That means I’ve had my earbuds in for several hours at a time. And that means, in turn, I’ve been reflecting on just what a golden age of radio, or at least of words spoken magically through the ether, we are lucky enough to live in.

Almost no one ever covers radio, though its reach is astonishing: All Things Considered beats the network tv newscasts (in more ways than one). But ATC and Morning Edition are smooth and dependable but rarely intriguing, provocative, sublime. Those adjectives are better reserved for the various podcasts that have grown up in the wake of This American Life. There’s only one Ira Glass, but there are other wonderful and quirky voices, many of them at the moment allied together in the Radiotopia collective, a kind of Justice League for smart documentarians and sound artists sponsored by the wonderful Public Radio Exchange, one more brainchild of Jay Allison who is the man behind much of the great radio that ever gets made. All seven of the podcasts in the series will draw you in and make you forget you’re washing windows; one of the newest and most intriguing voices belongs to Benjamen Walker, whose Theory of Everything evolved from a show he did on WFMU for years. He specializes in a kind of shaggy dog storytelling that lingers in one’s ear.

Most of these shows are not on most of your radio stations—they largely get listened to on podcasts, because most public radio program directors are about as conservative as it’s possible to be. (There are times when it appears public radio stations are in a contest to see who can achieve the oldest possible demographic).

I don’t promise I won’t write more about some of my favorites this week, in part because it annoys me how little attention gets paid these programs. The Times reviews almost every movie that comes out (I enjoy reading their reviews of part 6 of some slasher series) and even though I’ve never seen Breaking Bad I can tell you pretty much everything about it because of the number of stories I’ve read. Radio not so much—the people who make it do so without much public feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. So plug your favorites via dish@andrewsullivan.com.

Update: Read the follow-up to this post here.

(Photo, which has been cropped, by Johan Larsson)