Monday, August 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: This Moment on Earth

I was surprisingly inspired by John and Teresa Heinz Kerry's book, This Moment on Earth when I first read it in 2007. This inspiration snuck up on me around the third chapter. Prior to that, I found the book good, well worth reading, but a little bit like just one more book outlining what humans are doing wrong. Starting around the third chapter I realized I was referring to the book in several conversations and several blog diaries and that several of the people and organizations featured in the book I mentally filed away as worth looking into for future political connections, diaries and general research.

In short, almost without my realizing it, John and Theresa Heinz Kerry's book was getting into my brain and inspiring me. The book starts a bit dull but by the end is excellent.

My earliest impression, from the press material that arrived with the book and from the introduction, was that this book promised something really new and welcome. The book was billed as the next step in the evolution of the environmental debate. I was ready for a book that took as given the problems and focused primarily on solutions. Having been through way too many "debates" online where I yet again outlined the very clear and definitive scientific evidence for global warming only to have yet the same false claims of global warming deniers (these claims are never backed up by scientific evidence of any substance), I really was ready to have a book that moved beyond that.

And, on exactly the same day I received This Moment on Earth I was reading the February 9th, 2007 issue of Science, America's most respected scientific journal. And in that issue, the scientific community was doing exactly what John Kerry seemed to be proposing. In the summation of the 4th IPCC Working Group presented in that issue of Science, has this to say:

The last time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessed the state of the climate, in early 2001, it got a polite enough hearing. The world was warming, it said, and human activity was "likely" to be driving most of the warming. Back then, the committee specified a better-than-60% chance--not exactly a ringing endorsement. And how bad might things get? That depended on a 20-year-old guess about how sensitive the climate system might be to rising greenhouse gases. Given the uncertainties, the IPCC report's reception was on the tepid side.

Six years of research later, the heightened confidence is obvious. The warming is "unequivocal." Humans are "very likely" (higher than 90% likelihood) behind the warming. And the climate system is "very unlikely" to be so insensitive as to render future warming inconsequential...

The fact of warming was perhaps the most straightforward item of business. For starters, the air is 0.74°C warmer than in 1906, up from a century's warming of 0.6°C in the last report. "Eleven of the last twelve years rank among the 12 warmest years in the [150-year-long] instrumental record," notes the summary. Warming ocean waters, shrinking mountain glaciers, and retreating snow cover strengthened the evidence.

So the IPCC authors weren't impressed by the contrarian argument that the warming is just an "urban heat island effect" driven by increasing amounts of heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt. That effect is real, the report says, but it has "a negligible influence" on the global number. Likewise, new analyses have largely settled the hullabaloo over why thermometers at Earth's surface measured more warming than remote-sensing satellites had detected higher in the atmosphere (Science, 12 May 2006, p. 825). Studies by several groups have increased the satellite-determined warming, largely reconciling the difference...

The IPCC concludes that both models and past climate changes point to a fairly sensitive climate system. The warming for a doubling of CO2 "is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 °C," says the report, not the less than 0.5 °C favored by some contrarians. A best estimate is about 3 °C, with a likely range of 2 °C to 4.5 °C.

Much of the rest of the issue of Science is devoted to a discussion of SOLUTIONS to global warming through energy policy. The overwhelming consensus of scientists, as reported in America's most prestigious science journal, is that anthropogenic (human-caused) warming is happening and the most optimistic scenarios are not the most likely scenarios. We are in for a rough ride and the time is now to accept the problem and move on to solutions. Shift the debate, people. Let's talk what to DO ABOUT IT.

I was ready for John Kerry's book to carry the same theme: it is time to take as given the problem and move on to solutions.

That isn't what I got. And at first I was disappointed. As I read the first two chapters I felt I was reading yet another book that outlined the problem with perhaps a little more emphasis placed on solutions and how individuals and small groups are empowering themselves to fight back. The book was good and very informative, but I was unconvinced that it was new. This kind of outlining the problems we are facing reached its peak, I think, in Jared Diamond's book Collapse, covering many environmental issues from a very broad historical and sociological perspective. Superb book that I HIGHLY recommend. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth gave us a nice Powerpoint presentation on global warming that can be easily appreciated by a far wider audience than Jared Diamond's Collapse. And John Kerry was giving us something in between: more accessible than Collapse and more fleshed out than An Inconvenient Truth.

And with more emphasis on the people who are coming up with solutions.

By the third chapter the main theme of the book emerged: we are killing ourselves and our children with the full participation of a government that is supposed to protect us. Data sound the alarm, like one in six infants born in the US each year has blood mercury levels above the EPA standards and high enough to cause neurological problems, fueled by coal-burning power plants whose owners contributed $6.6 million to the Republicans since 1999, making them one of the biggest Republican source of donations. Or that in 2005 people of color were 79% more likely to live in the most polluted communities, up from 49% in 1996. Or a study by the United Church of Christ in 1987 that found that race was the single most significant factor in determining the location of a hazardous waste facility. And so on. Every parent should read chapter two. Everyone interested in racial equality should read chapter three. Etc. The alarm bells ring constantly.

But what I found I was citing the most and taking the most note of was exactly what the Kerrys WANTED me to notice the most: the people who are fighting back. I think it was the case of Majora Carter and Sustainable South Bronx that finally made me realize that this book was inspiring me because I immediately decided she'd be perfect as an invited speaker for a political group I am involved with. The example of Riverkeeper, where ex-marines decided to patrol our nation's waterways to protect them from polluters, was another "wow" moment. Even Don Imus and his wife Deidre come off inspiring in This Moment on Earth, something I never imagined I'd say. And Chapter 7, discussing energy policy, is the best chapter, showing how right here and now, using existing technology, the city of Portland, OR, as well as companies like Texas Instruments and DuPont are doing EXACTLY what needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions--and doing it while creating jobs and saving money. Chapter 7 shows us that there remain NO EXCUSES for America to continue to avoid taking a leadership role in stopping global warming. All that we lack, as I have written before is the political leadership on a national level. Kerry shows us that locally there has been considerable leadership by both Democrats and Republicans. But nationally Bush has led us down a path that leads nowhere and that has ceded economic ingenuity to other nations.

So it is precisely through highlighting some wonderful people who are empowering themselves, their communities and, in fact, all of us that John and Teresa Heinz Kerry inspire in this book. Although the book still focuses primarily on a myriad of environmental problems that are killing us now and will kill us more in the future, solutions are the constant theme: the people who come up with solutions, solutions each individual can do for themselves (throughout and in Appendix B) and, perhaps something I will have particular interest in, considering the almost simultaneous issue of Science dealing with the same theme, Appendix A is John Kerry's proposal for a national energy policy. Put all this together and you may not have the next step in the evolution of the environmental debate, but you certainly have one more important step forward and one that might have a wider appeal than Collapse and An Inconvenient Truth.

In the future This Moment on Earth will likely be the inspiration for several diaries that are brewing in my brain: energy policy, Majora Carter, Riverkeeper, Portland, Oregon... But for now I leave you with the main message of the book, from the Introduction:

In truth environmentalism isn't dead, it's just being reborn...the very idea of what it means to be an "environmentalist" is being revolutionized. People from all walks of life, without concern for party or ideological lines, are coming together in unprecedented numbers across the globe...

The new environmentalist knows that caring about the environment can no longer be mislabeled as caring less about national security, the economy, family, education, profit, or community. Rather, the leaders of today's new environmental movement understand that these issues are all connected...

Above all, we want this book to expose the false choices...the straw men...put forwards to purposefully slow or reverse progress in environmentalism and politicize the debate.

Buy This Moment on Earth and find out what is being done to save our country and our lifestyle.

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