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Grassroots Environmentalism and California’s CAPP

photograph of air pollution with cars on highway and yellow smoke in city

In 2017, the Californian legislature passed a bill that led to the creation of the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP). By promoting the development of community emissions reduction programs and collecting data about their success, the CAPP aims to provide practical guidelines for improving California’s air quality. Most notably, the program’s focus is specifically committed to equipping local stakeholders with the tools and resources needed to improve their own communities, providing $15 million in grants to build air monitors and promote outreach. Full reports from the first ten focus districts are expected in October of this year, with additional communities being selected for participation in early 2021.

Although it might seem inconsequential when compared to wildfires, hurricanes, or other headline-breaking results of global anthropogenic climate change, air pollution carries with it a host of demonstrable health and environmental problems beyond mere aesthetic unpleasantries. For decades, smog and atmospheric pollution has been linked to decreased capacities for plants to conduct photosynthesis, to the decrease of wild animal populations as they either migrate or die, and the generation of “acid rain” as atmospheric gases interact with the water cycle, thereby eroding the landscape and further increasing stresses on local flora and fauna. In humans, air pollution exacerbates a variety of respiratory diseases, contributing to the deaths of over seven million people; furthermore, recent studies have linked increased atmospheric particulates to increased symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline, to obesogenic outcomes, and to a spate of negative mental health results. Multiple studies have indicated a link between air quality and skillful performance, such as that of chess players, baseball umpires, and students; one recent report suggests that the installation of relatively inexpensive air filters in elementary school classrooms correlates with increased test scores to roughly the same degree as reducing class sizes by thirty percent. High levels of air pollution even seem to have a detrimental effect on computer operations.

Improving air quality, however, is a complicated task, given both the accessibility of the atmosphere and the high number of stakeholders with potential influence. Industrial factories of all sorts generate tons of atmospheric waste each year, mining operations release numerous atmospheric pollutants as byproducts, and landfill emissions are surprisingly large as organic waste decomposes. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the single largest human activity that contributes to atmospheric pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, whether in industrial operations or by private consumers – such as in the frequent use of passenger vehicles. According to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas” – when planes, ships, freight trains, and other forms of transportation are included, that calculation increases to nearly thirty percent of the country’s emissions.

While some have touted various replacements for internal combustion engines to reduce fossil fuel emissions, such solutions are expensive and often not viable options for many; instead, California’s CAPP initiative aims to empower concerned citizens to pursue realistic solutions to improve local air quality. Through town hall meetings, workshops, canvassing, and other active forms of communication, CAPP districts have worked to identify and seek funding to fix specific problems noticed by local citizens, such as the Feather River District’s need for newer school buses with cleaner-running engines, San Bernardino County’s concern to limit truck traffic through residential areas, and the South Coast District’s desire to regulate petroleum refineries more strictly. By maintaining a focus on ground-level concerns, the CAPP program hopes to increase long-term effectiveness of these environmental regulations by fostering participation and support from the communities most affected by poor air quality conditions.

However, given the scope of the air-pollution problem, small-scale action will be insufficient to counter its most pernicious long-term effects; consequently, the Environmental Protection agency has, historically, implemented regulatory measures on a broader scale. Additionally, some states – like California – enact even more strict fuel economy standards to encourage citizens and companies to remain mindful of environmental concerns. However, such regulations inevitably raise the hackles of the industries they are designed to constrain; automakers, in particular, have balked at California’s high expectations for engine efficiency (intended to curb emissions), citing concerns about manufacturing expense and market fairness. The Trump White House has recently made moves to repeal environmental regulations on a large number of industries, including loosening many rules designed to mitigate atmospheric pollution, and the president indicated last autumn that California’s ability to set its own emissions standards will also be revoked in support of the auto industry (state lawmakers have already issued legal challenges against this move).

So, while conflicts over large-scale regulatory measures continue on the federal and state levels, pilot initiatives like the Community Air Protection Program offer a promising opportunity to promote small steps towards improving the air quality for local communities, empowering neighborhoods to make long-desired positive changes to contribute to the massive project of caring for the environment. As with so many other examples, may this be a grassroots-level movement that grows into something far greater.

Pacific Islands Forum: Climate War in the Pacific

photograph of shoreline

The fight to mitigate full-blown climate catastrophe last week suffered a blow thanks to Australia’s intransigence at a meeting of Pacific leaders, which culminated in a plea from the president of Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific country already being inundated by rising seas, to the world: “We ask, please understand this, our people are dying.”

We should not be in the grip of moral uncertainty here. There is no more time to dispute the science – or to try to argue that it is in dispute. The science is in and evidence of the rapidly worsening climate crisis is all around us

Consider this analogy: Imagine you are walking past a pond, you hear someone pleading for help and you see a drowning child.1 You have the capacity to save the child’s life, at some cost to yourself. The cost may be something relatively minor or it may be something more serious – perhaps you will be late for a class, or miss an important meeting; ruin an expensive suit, or even lose your job. None of these things, even losing your job is (without serious qualification) morally equivalent to the child’s life. It should be uncontroversial that you are morally required to save the child. 

Now imagine that you are a large wealthy country strolling past a small poor nation being inundated by water as the seas rise from the effects of climate change. Imagine you hear that country pleading with you to help, to save it from drowning. Your help would of course require some sacrifice, but it will not threaten your life, or even your livelihood. It may be a major inconvenience to you, but it is a matter of life and death to the other. It should be equally uncontroversial that you are morally required to do whatever you can to come to its aid. 

Something like this happened last week in the tiny Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu where leaders from a host of smaller nations along with Australia met for the annual Pacific Islands Forum. The most pressing topic of the summit was the climate emergency, as the Pacific islands are on the front line, and Tuvalu, like many other low-lying, small Pacific Island nations is facing immediate peril from rising seas. Many regional leaders had their sights set on Australia, which is becoming a notorious laggard on efforts to combat climate change and honor its commitments made in the Paris agreement. It was hoped that an agreement could be reached at the leaders summit that would reflect the urgency of the crisis and forge a cooperative strategy to address the emergency. 

However, this is what those Pacific Island leaders were up against: just two years ago Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, (then federal treasurer) stood up in parliament brandishing a lump of coal and shouting that coal is nothing to be afraid of, to the guffaws of other government ministers. Morrison fronted the forum this week with his guile fully intact. Australia’s current conservative government (Liberal-National Party), now in its third term, began its tenure by repealing the previous government’s progressive and effective carbon tax, and has been defined by its ideological and pecuniary resistance to weaning Australia’s economy from its reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal, towards the many great opportunities the country affords for clean renewable energy generated by solar and wind. 

Australia is one of the richest nations per capita, owing to its vast fossil fuel resources and relatively small population; Australians also have one of the highest carbon footprints per head of population and Australia is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. Because of Australia’s massive coal exports, the country is a major contributor of carbon heavy fuels and bears responsibility for its own carbon output as well as that of the nations to whom its coal is exported. Australia’s lack of action on climate change, together with its plans to continue to open up new coal mining prospects is having direct impact on the imminent existential crisis faced by Tuvalu and other Pacific nations. 

In his opening speech Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama said: “I appeal to Australia to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change,” he said, adding that coal posed an “existential threat” to Pacific countries.

In an effort to head off criticism the Morrison government announced $500m in climate resilience and adaptation for the Pacific region. In response Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga said: 

“No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coalmines.”

During the leaders’ retreat where a communiqué was debated which will be used as the basis of regional decision-making, Australia refused to budge on certain ‘red lines’ – including insisting on the removal of mentions of coal, limiting warming to under 1.5C, and setting a plan for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, to the grief and frustration of the other nations. 

The Fijian prime minister expressed his anger with the difficulties in negotiating with Australia during the leaders’ retreat, telling The Guardian that Morrison had been “very insulting and condescending.”

So, to return to the drowning child scenario, it is meant to help us see that where it is in our power to help someone whose life is in danger “without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” Australia has failed the test. It has walked past the child, refusing to help on the basis of reasons which are not morally equivalent – as Sopoaga said he told Morrison at one point during discussions: “You are trying to save your economy, I am trying to save my people.”

But there is another stratum of moral bankruptcy to how the broader conversation in Australia went. Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, offering his own commentary back home from a business function as the forum was underway in Tuvalu, told an audience 

“I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive,” 

The current Australian government not only doesn’t understand its moral obligations or isn’t prepared to meet them, but has no compunction about flouting its preference for its resource sector (lets say its expensive suit) over the survival of its neighbors (the drowning child).

1 I am here borrowing, and adapting an analogy used by Peter Singer in his paper Famine, Affluence and Morality, published in 1972.

The Costs of a World Without Fossil Fuel-Powered Cars

On July 4, car giant Volvo announced its plan to suspend all production of non-electric or hybrid cars by the year 2019. This means that Volvo will not produce any new diesel or gasoline-powered cars in only two years. In reaction to this announcement, France’s new cabinet released an ambitious plan to ban all diesel and petroleum-fueled car sales by 2040. Though France is not the only country to take this approach to clean energy transition, regulating the sale of petroleum-fueled cars is still very rare. France’s ecology minister stated that the new standard was “a way to fight against air pollution.” Though this move is being applauded by many environmentalists, is the French government’s regulation of petroleum fueled cars really better for the environment? And how will this new regulation influence socioeconomic inequality?

Continue reading “The Costs of a World Without Fossil Fuel-Powered Cars”

Is the Paris Agreement Ethical?

As the COP22 (a conference where world leaders gather to discuss climate policies) took place in Marrakech a few weeks ago, environmentalists were optimistic about the enforcement of the Paris agreement: 195 countries are committing to keep global temperatures at two degrees above pre-industrial levels. Although some more radical environmentalist groups complain this deal is insufficient, it is widely announced by world leaders as a major breakthrough in the struggle against global warming.

Continue reading “Is the Paris Agreement Ethical?”

Will climate divestment work?

Guest post by Rich Cameron, Associate Professor of Philosophy at DePauw University

Scott Wisor recently wrote a post titled “Why Climate Change Divestment Will Not Work” over at the blog for the journal Ethics & International Affairs (EIA).  The post is quite provocative.  Visit the EIA blog, here, to read it.

Wisor presents himself as convinced that climate change is happening, poses a grave threat, and makes ethical demands on us all.  Nevertheless, as his title suggests, he believes that one prominent strategy for generating mass action on climate change is destined for failure:  the movement – led by Bill McKibben and his 350.org – to get large universities and investment funds to divest from fossil fuel companies.  If fossil-fuel divestment efforts are doomed to fail, then McKibben’s movement functions as a costly distraction from our pressing ethical obligation not just to act but to act effectively.  As Wisor puts it, “why spend half a decade or more on a tactic that at best won’t make a difference? Why not direct attention to the more urgent and effective task of placing a price on carbon?”

I have a number of responses to Wisor’s specific arguments, but in this post I’d like to offer two more general reflections aimed at tempering his conclusions.  The line of criticism I’ll be pursuing in this post is an odd one – that Wisor’s arguments and conclusions are all too plausible.  More specifically, his argumentative target is ill-defined and appears too easily established.  When looked at more closely, the real difficulties movements face in achieving success also require more nuanced arguments that a particular movement will fail.

My first point begins by noting that a sober look at the evidence certainly suggests that Wisor’s conclusion is likely to be true.  Pick any successful social movement from the past – the civil rights movement, the movement for India’s independence from England, etc.  Scholars of social change frequently note that while those movements were in process the odds seemed stacked against them.  Moreover, even movements we know (with hindsight) to have been successful seemed destined to fail almost right up until they managed – somehow – to succeed.  Indeed, all large scale and eventually successful movements for social change have faced armies of naysayers claiming that the tactics they employed (e.g., non-violent resistance in the cases I’ve mentioned) would not work and that those movements’ efforts served as distractions from other, allegedly more effective measures that people genuinely devoted to the cause should be supporting instead.  Perhaps the most eloquent response to this kind of criticism comes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s justly famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  We’re on your side, his critics said, but your tactics are wrong and will backfire.

Antonio Gramsci made a similar point in saying, “I’m a pessimist because of intellect, but an optimist because of will.”  The idea in Gramsci’s quote is that rational reflection on the odds of social change will almost always result in a thoroughly justified pessimism.  If you’re aware of the obstacles and think about the circumstances carefully you’re sure to come up with a thousand reasons why social change just doesn’t stand a chance.  Gramsci acknowledges that effective advocates for social change need to face up to this grim fact.  They need the “pessimism of the intellect” so that they know what they’re up against – without this they will be ineffective idealists tilting at windmills.  But social change movements do sometimes succeed, and without the benefit of hindsight it’s extremely difficult to tell which movement, if any, is going to pull off a major victory.  And that means that people devoted to the hard work of social change need more than just the pessimism that comes from clear-sightedness of the long odds we face.  They also need the “optimism of the will,” the willingness to work against long odds with the hope and confidence that some apparently doomed strategy will eventually succeed.  To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Without the benefit of hindsight, a strong case can be made that all social movements are doomed to failure, and if that is all Wisor is arguing in the case of the fossil fuel divestment movement then his arguments are both unsurprising and should be of little interest to committed and thoughtful activists.  If Wisor is arguing for an interesting claim, it must be not just that we’re justifiably pessimistic about the divestment movement’s odds of success.  He must argue for the stronger claim that the movement is actually tilting at windmills, that it is so clearly out of line with reality that it should be viewed as a waste of time even by those with intimate knowledge of the challenges all social movements face.

My second response to Wisor’s argument is generated by asking a simple question:  when can we say that a movement has succeeded, that its efforts have “worked”?  Wisor’s blog post seems to imply a very demanding standard for movement success – a movement must solve the problem it’s designed to address (in this case climate change).  And if this is what success requires then once again Wisor is arguing for a conclusion that is simply too easy.  It is widely acknowledged that there are no silver bullets with regard to large problems like this, and in the case of climate change it is also widely acknowledged that it’s too late to “solve” the problem anyway:  what we’ve already done commits us to enough warming that dangerous impacts are already unavoidable.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t still succeed in mitigating climate change and heading off even more catastrophic impacts, but no one heading up the fossil fuel divestment movement is under the illusion that their efforts will “solve” the problem in this sense.

Still, this isn’t the only metric for success.  Activists often view movement success not in these all-or-nothing terms but as, instead, accruing piecemeal, slowly, and building over time.  A social movement that doesn’t “solve” its intended problem in the first sense may nevertheless raise awareness (and so make future solutions easier to institute).  Movements may build networks of effective and motivated actors (who may work better together in the future because of their present experience).  They may convert major institutions and groups to take stands that they otherwise would not have taken (and so, again, make future change more likely).  And so on.

All of these things plausibly constitute social movements succeeding, but none of Wisor’s specific arguments for why the fossil fuel divestment strategy “will not work” undermine the idea that the movement has already succeeded – that it has “worked” far beyond the dreams of most movements.  According to a report by Arabela Advisors, “181 institutions and local governments and 656 individuals representing over $50 billion dollars have pledged to divest to-date.”  Think too of the marches, meetings, media attention, position papers, etc. the movement has generated, and what they mean for better advocacy for policies of all sorts in the future.  The point is just that by reasonable standards the divestment movement is already a success, and nothing in Wisor’s piece suggests this movement (and others) can’t build (piecemeal, and bit by bit) on their successes in the future.

Moreover, it is important to note that when Wisor suggests alternative efforts that he thinks stand a greater chance of succeeding he mentions only a “price on carbon” and unspecified “regulatory efforts” to combat climate change.  The problem here is that Wisor’s suggested solutions do not constitute ideas for building a movement.  To generate a movement you need to mobilize masses of people and institutions and organize them around applying political pressure for change.  Of course we should put a price on carbon – but how exactly does Wisor propose that we build the political movement to get that done?  When Wisor has an idea for building a powerful movement around putting a price on carbon (or his favorite regulations) and he can show, further, that his new strategy is likely to generate more traction, enthusiasm, and support from grassroots activists and major institutions than the divestment movement has already succeeded in generating then will he have a strong real case for saying that there are more effective strategies we should be pursuing.  Saying simply that we should put a price on carbon isn’t even in the same ballpark as building the movement to divest from fossil fuels, however.  McKibben’s fossil fuel divestment strategy may not be a silver bullet guaranteed to succeed (no social movement in history ever has been, of course), but it has been a concrete and already effective strategy for bringing together a new, strong, and powerful coalition on climate.

I realize that my fairly general criticisms of Wisor’s post don’t address the specifics of his arguments.  For all I’ve said here it remains possible that his specific objections to the fossil fuel divestment movement’s strategies are indeed damning.  That is, I have not argued that the fossil fuel divestment movement is not tilting at windmills in a way that anyone who cares about climate action should shun, nor have I argued that it is only beset by the perfectly ordinary sort of “pessimism of the intellect” that beset all social movements (even ones that have succeeded).  Still, I hope I’ve clarified the way in which Wisor’s argument seems to aim at a conclusion that is both too easy and too unsurprising.  If his arguments are to be of service to his claimed allies in the incipient climate movement they will need to show more than just that there are good reasons for pessimism.  He’ll need to show that the divestment movement tilts at windmills.  With regard to the former task Wisor’s arguments (unsurprisingly) succeed.  With regard to the latter task I’m much less sure.

Fossil Fuel Divestment is a Moral Issue

Over the last year or so, the word divestment has taken on new meaning. Until recently, this term popularly referred to the movement in the 1970s and 80s to remove all investments from South Africa. The goal was to retract financial support for companies participating in Apartheid. Divestment now refers primarily to fossil fuel divestment: freezing and removing all investments in fossil fuel companies.

Why would the DePauw Community ask our Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels, and how is this issue related to ethics? In my eyes, the number one reason for divestment is to align the values and actions of an institution that I financially support (DePauw) with my own. Since the burning of fossil fuels is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel companies are culpable of driving the increased concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere, and thus, climate change. Their crimes against the climate are becoming even more atrocious as they continue to drill for oil in remote and fragile places and as they resort to unconventional sources such as tar sands. While I fully understand that it is our demand for fossil fuels that is driving these actions, I think that we must look for ways to remove our support from this industry. This is only the first of many steps in the journey to move away from our carbon-central society and economy.

Some may argue against divestment saying that it will have no impact on fossil fuel companies. They argue that other people will buy up the stocks that DePauw sells. I agree that this is the case, but I don’t think that it is an argument against divesting. Divestment is a moral issue. It’s about acting in a way that is consistent with our values. In addition, through the process of divestment, we can educate the community about climate change and engage in open discourse about the issue. This is perhaps the most valuable part of the divestment movement.

We have made great headway on our divestment campaign at DePauw in the last month. We wrote President Casey a letter requesting divestment, which he promptly shared with the entire faculty. He even mentioned his intention to share it with the Board of Trustees. Additionally, we have two events in the next week. The first is a Divestment Rally in MeHarry Hall at 3pm on April 13th. Tricia Shapiro, author of “Mountain Justice”, will be joining us to talk about the coal industry’s impacts in Appalachia. Bill McKibben will also be skyping in to talk about his work with 350.org. The second event is a forum on Monday, April 15th in the Watson Forum. Joining us for a panel discussion will be Michelle Villinski from the Economics Department, Jen Everett from the Philosophy Department, and Jim Mills from the Geology Department. Divest DePauw, the group of students involved in this campaign, is immensely excited to engage in discourse with faculty and students on this topic.