“If You Want Us To Say Yes, You Have To Make Us”

These are my notes from This American Life, the episode from May 17, 2013, HOT IN MY BACKYARD. This episode is about fresh ways of taking on the climate change stalemate.

Very much worth a listen.


Three stories. Colorodo state climatologist. Why won’t he say it’s global warming? Republican ex-congressman tries to talk to the right about global warming. Bill McKibben and RISD organizing.

Part One.
Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. Also worst Colorado drought on record. This is what global warming looks like, right?

Same boring debate between climate scientists and climate deniers.

Public opinion has turned. Conversation about climate change is stuck.

Half of the public thinks global warming is real. Half thinks it is fake.

Colorado has been seeing extreme weather in their own backyards. State climatologist, Nolan Doesken. Squirrel road kill near woman’s house. Short winter means squirrels overpopulated. Spreading where they haven’t been before. Pollination out of whack. March, the snowiest month, had lowest snow in history.

Herders have water-starved hay fields. 80 cattle, only enough hay for 20. Bears had no acorns. Because oak leaves came out too early due to warm weather. There was a cold snap. Leaves froze. No acorns. Bears had to leave their range in search of food. Many were attacking cattle to keep from starving.

Nolan Doesken, state climatologist. Are you telling people the extreme weather they are seeing is climate change? No. Variability. Can always find a year that has been as hot or as dry (100 years ago). Climate is variable. Variability wins.

Temperature records kept breaking. Mosquitoes descended. West Nile virus outbreak due to mosquitoes. 2012 was most destructive wildfire season in Colorado history.

Is this climate change? Is this what the future is going to look like? Nope. He says “variability.” But he changed his mind. The heat. The smoke. Helicopters. Smoke plumes. Friends homes burned. Death of a neighbor’s daughter.

We still can’t say if any particular drought is caused by climate change. Big idea: if the climate models were right, he was seeing the future.

Droughts. Dead crops. Fires. Not just a computer model. This was what it really feels like. We don’t want to have to live through year after year of that.

Will he tell people there is cause for alarm? Scientists who, in private, have bought second homes far away from the coastline.

Would he say, “I believe what we are seeing is what the future will bring. And we’re in trouble?”

Farmer with 8,000 sheep. Hard to find grass to feed them. The drought turned everything brown.

2012 is going to be what the future is like. It may be the norm 20 or 30 years from now. Farmers don’t believe in climate change. Nolan says nothing. Don’t want to argue about global warming.

The people most affected by climate change in Colorado are also those most likely to not believe it is real.

“It’s a liberal conspiracy. God’s in charge. The evidence is wrong or rigged or inconclusive.” Even the word “environmentalist” can cause anger. Rancher curses out our reporter.

Farmers and ranchers have so much to lose if climate change is true. Water is worth more to a suburb than irrigating their fields.

Nolan was thinking of being more frank at the Colorado farm show in 2013. Based on his personal experience, will change the way he communicates about the problem.

Nolan delivers the weather report at the Farm Show. He’s never once brought up climate change. But is always asked about it. Reporter immediately begins taking notes. Finds it intimidating. Vast majority of audience were climate change skeptics. People with his job have LOST their jobs by mentioning climate change. In Oregon. In Virginia. In Delaware. In Georgia.

Democratic governors got rid of climatologists who DID NOT embrace climate change and Republican governors got rid of climatologists who DID.

Standing room only. Records from 1890s. 187 slides! Right at the end. One minute left. Do I have time for a little story? “Scientists are pretty darn sure that the world is warming and that we caused it.” Natural variations can cause it. If the computer models are anything close to right, 2012 will be an average year in just a few decades. That was it. Kind of soft. But he said it.

But at least it was a first step. Nolan Doesken used to feel a conversation about climate change was impossible. But 2012 made it possible.


Secret Things Republicans Say To Each Other In Congress — But Only When There Are No Microphones

We are starting to see extreme weather, hurricanes, droughts, floods, hottest years on record…but the politics of global warming has been stuck.

Trying to re-invent the politics on their side of the aisle.

This country will never do anything about global warming as long as climate denial is such a big part of Republican Party dogma. Until that changes, you can’t get the votes to pass anything.

Bob Inglis, former U.S. Representative from South Carolina.

Super conservative. Christian coalition. Right to Life. Conservative Union. NRA.

Been called unfaithful, traitor, the “Al Gore of the Republican Party.”

Bob Inglis taken down by Tea Party wave of 2010. Because he talked about climate change he didn’t get re-elected. Attacked him for talking about “catastrophic, man-made global warming”.

Even though he had won his district SIX TIMES, he lost the election 71% to 29%. He was trounced.

Devoted himself to a non-profit. Makes case in front of most conservative audience in the country.

Humans are responsible for global warming. And we must admit that.

It’s a conversation started by liberals. They gin up hysteria, drive through regulations and tax increases and grow government. We don’t want to do that.

Liberals have evidence on their side. Come off condescending. Conservatives see climate change as an attack on their version of the American dream.

I share your values. But I think we got this one wrong.

98 doctors tell you to treat your son this way. 2 say this other. It’s not conservative to go with those 2. (Good metaphor)

Getting into conservative publications, writing letters, speaking, getting Republicans to listen to him.

44% of Republicans believe climate is changing. But Republican law makers vote 31 to 0. Gap from 40% versus 0% of Republican lawmakers.

20 Republicans have said there is climate change out of over 200 Republicans. Some come up to him and admit he is right. Afraid of crossing the line.

Republican staffers buy the science more than the members. They are younger. But worry about the politics.

Feels he would get fired if he told his boss. It would be a campaign liability. People in district would attack. He’d be fired.

The work is lonely. Spoke at University of Kentucky. Chicken available. He’s trying very hard. Appears on talk radio. Speaks to law school. Meets at conservative society. A red state. A coal-producing state. Speaks to newspaper editors. Katherine Hayhoe. Devout Christian and climate scientist.

Army general makes case fossil fuels are national security risk.

Bob talks about taxing carbon. They hate word “tax.” Tax pollution. Then cut taxes on income. No net growth of government.

Cut income taxes. Tax pollution instead. Bashes unions. Calls social security a Ponzi scheme. Republican credentials.

Students ask questions. Call their senators. This isn’t a bunch of conservatives. This is a bunch of liberals. End of a hard 14-hour day. This wasn’t the crowd he expected.

It’s a recurring problem for him. He wants to have difficult conversations with conservatives about climate change.


Find An Enemy

Guy on left to reinvent politics of climate change is Bill McKibben. Manifesto in Rolling Stone Magazine.

Current strategy. People being asked to go green, to produce less CO2 personally. Since all of us benefit from cheap fossil fuel, it’s like trying to build a movement against yourself. Like building an abolutionist movement from slaveholders. You can’t help but look at your new CFL light bulb and think, “I know this is not going to solve climate change.”

People perceive correctly that their INDIVIDUAL actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Trying to explain the science BETTER, trying to win over the doubters, that has not been effective.

It hasn’t been effective because of political opposition. Fossil fuel interests are pouring huge rivers of money into the opposition. Funding studies to confuse the issue, funding anti-climate change organizations, and especially funding politicians who do not budge on global warming votes. It’s the oil and coal and gas companies.

They blocked Congress from voting on the Kyoto Protocol (limit CO2 emissions).

McKibben says having an enemy like this is not a bad thing. Rapid political change and building a movement REQUIRES enemies. Like Bull Connor during the Civil Rights Movement.

Enemies are what climate change has lacked.

McKibben’s goal: turn the oil and gas and coal companies into PARIAHS as a way to destroy their political clout. Boulder Colorado. Tour. Sold out. He’s not a trained orator or activist. This is not what he’s great at. He’s a writer. Which is the opposite. He wrote THE END OF NATURE. Thought people would read his book and change. But that’s not how it works.

Few key numbers. 2 degrees Celsius. Can’t go above without dire consequences. That’s the red line. Everybody signed it.

How much CO2 would it take to drive past 2 degrees C. In just 14 years we’ll produce enough CO2 to take us past 2 degrees C.

The problem: the coal, oil and natural gas reserves are already 5x the amount that will take us to 2 degrees C, and they plan on selling all those reserves.

Those companies sitting on those reserves should be branded as pariahs. As an international global menace. They do in fact plan on selling those assets. Their stock share price is based on this. And this will wreck our planet.

Fossil fuel industry is now a rogue industry. Everybody who studies this knows this is crazy. Join a diverstment campaign. Get colleges and universities to sell off their fossil fuel stock. This was the tactic that worked to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa. “Look around at each other…this is what movements look like.”

ExxonMobil. World’s most profitable company of any kind. ExxonMobil is for a carbon tax. Acknowledges climate change is real. And humans are part of what causes it. Says McKibben oversimplifies. Says we can’t meet numbers of wind and solar power in 14 years. No disagreement with basic argument. Anything they might have that would dispute those numbers.

Industry funded expert at MIT. We’ll probably raise the Earth’s temperature 5 degrees C if we keep on going.

McKibben’s call to war. Divestment campaigns spreading. Over 300 schools. Most in very early stages. No results. Signatures on petitions.

Students at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Met with administrators. Never politically active before. Faculty voted unanimously to divest. Happy to see student activism. Urgent issue.

Waited to hear back. Looked into it. Impossible. $300 million endowment mixes it in with other university money, can’t just sell off RISD stock. Might put schools finances at risk. This was said during the 1980s in the apartheid fight as well.

Summit Rock. Invests RISD’s money. Said if RISD wants to divest, they do it.

Fossil fuel investments only $9 million of the $300 million endowment. If RISD switched to non-fossil fuel investments, that would only cost the university $90,000. Tuition for two students, basically.

Still could not get traction. It will take time to percolate. Student apathy. Hard to get most students to get worked up. Where Bill McKibben teaches — Middlebury College — only half students want divestment.

One of the people who runs the school — who would be in any discussions about divestment — told Emma IF YOU WANT US TO SAY “YES”, YOU HAVE TO MAKE US.

Make us pay attention to you. Rock the boat. Amp people up. Why are you so afraid of rocking the boat? Of causing trouble? YOU NEED TO CAUSE TROUBLE.
You need to make us pay attention to you. You need to make us talk about divestment. You need to make us divest.

Occupied university president’s office. Very polite and peaceful. Reads to president’s assistant.

Students try not to make much noise. School gives in. Puts on agenda of next board meeting. Another victory. 150 students with banners hanging from the buildings. Suddenly, climate change was the thing that everyone was talking about.

2-3% physically involved in Civil Rights Movement. But they shifted the politics.

Put the issue on the front burner. Nudge people into a political fight. Up until now, it has been an argument between believes and doubters. Now at least they are arguing. Getting engaged with that fight.

If the financial markets believe that ExxonMobil will never be able to pump their oil reserves it could drive Exxon’s stock price down. If enough people are yelling about this. Lots of other things could become possible. A carbon tax. Putting climate change on more of an urgent, wartime footing.

Bill McKibben’s team of 14 students. This is an historic group. These are freedom riders. These are the suffragettes. They would have to go viral in an amazing way. They’re running at it, hard, because they’re not sure what else to do.

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