Humor is our Tool to address climate change

By PB Floyd

Fossil Fools day — Wednesday, April 1 — is your chance to put climate change back on the agenda by organizing and participating in creative, decentralized, inspired protests, blockades, street theater and organized pranks on the fossil fuel industry. With all the media hype about the world economic collapse, it can be hard to remember that something more important than banks and auto companies is at grave risk — the planet’s ecological balance is on the line. Politicians are rushing to spend trillions of dollars to restore profits and economic growth, but pitifully little is being done to break the human addiction to fossil fuels. Thousands of people will rise up with simultaneous actions on April 1 to try to re-focus attention on the real global crisis.

Pull a prank that packs a punch

Actions using non-traditional, funny-yet-in-your-face tactics like the ones held on fossil fools day are particularly effective because they are decentralized and diverse. In 2008 there were about 150 actions on four continents. Just a few folks can organize a modest action with funny signs, disguises, and gags like folks in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a group of clowns invaded supermarkets to try to locate the elusive Scottish banana to point out the absurdity of using fossil fuels to fly food to Scotland in the middle of winter. In Berkeley last year, a handful of us had a bike parade to gas stations which required hardly any organizing, time or money, but which was really effective in making people stop and think about fossil fuel consumption. Better organized folks tried more disruptive actions like the numerous blockades of coal-fired power plants last year.

Fossil fools day is a do-it-yourself opportunity — you don’t have to join some big structure or have a lot of fancy credentials — you can just gather your friends and get to it. In a world exhausted by boring, soulless protest rituals that are easily ignored, humor is a powerful weapon. Big corporations may control the media and the government, but saying something in a funny or unusual way can break through the static, complacency and hopelessness. Especially at this time of disruption and yearning for change, grassroots actions are essential and may be unusually effective.

Fossil Fools actions in 2009 are likely to focus on the numerous false solutions being offered by various corporate interests and politicians and the inadequate response offered by world governments who proclaim they are concerned by climate change, including the incoming Obama Administration. It is instructive to compare the timid, gradual response to climate change with the massive and rapid response to the economic crisis. No politician is suggesting it is too expensive to help banks, nor are any suggesting a target of reducing the recession 20 percent by 2030. But that is precisely the bullshit you hear about global warming.

Why is every politician united around taking aggressive action on the economy while they dither about the environment? Everyone knows the economy will eventually come back — it is called the business cycle for a reason. The same can’t be said about climate change. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased from 280 to 380 parts per million since fossil fuel combustion began in the industrial revolution in the 1800s — C02 levels are now higher than they has been for 750,000 of years (Jonathan, 2006.) Without dramatic action, these gases will continue to accumulate, causing mass species extinctions as well as human famine, social dislocation and suffering. Green house gas emissions continue to climb dramatically, despite the last few years of rhetorical concern and despite all the greenwashing advertising campaigns and claims by ski resorts that they are carbon neutral.

No matter which ecosystem or creature fills you with awe and a sense of the meaning of your own existence — the silent redwood groves, the polar bear, the coral reefs, glaciers or the rainforest — they are at grave risk if people keep burning fossil fuels as usual. Climate change is the real global crisis.

Climate Feedback Loops

There is growing evidence that global warming is already triggering climatic feedback loop effects that will cause climate change faster than projected purely from human emissions of greenhouse gasses. For instance, as temperatures warm, permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, releasing millions of tons of methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than the carbon dioxide released when humans burn fossil fuels. Another example of a feedback loop is how warming reduces Arctic ice exposing more dark colored water to absorb sunlight, with less white ice that reflects the light, thus trapping even more heat and speeding up climate change.

At a certain point, these feedback loops may gain such momentum that even if humans dramatically cut their emissions of greenhouse gases in a few decades, climate change will continue to increase. Scientists call this the tipping point — the point where natural feedback loops propel climate change out of human control. No one knows when the tipping point will be reached — or whether it has already been reached — but the need to avoid reaching it means cutting greenhouse gas emissions now, not in 2050 or at some long-off date, is crucial.

The real goal isn’t to cut emissions to 1990 levels (ala the Kyoto Protocol) or some artificial target — the goal is zero human emissions now. That means entirely replacing our industrial culture’s dependence on fossil fuels. In the USA, about 40 percent of emissions are generated to generate electricity, and another 40 percent are for transportation fuel. Cutting these emissions requires a much more dramatic shift than screwing in a light bulb or driving a Prius — the point of consumption. The key is shifting the supply side — replacing oil, gas and coal as fuels in the first place.

While Obama is giving lip service to addressing climate change, his proposals are pathetically timid — a few billion dollars, inadequate targets and slow timetables. He is pushing a number of false solutions to climate change — “alternative” technologies like “clean” coal, nuclear, and biofuels that are either unproven, cause other forms of ecological damage, won’t reduce over-all emissions, or all of the above. With climate change already causing ecological damage, there isn’t time to waste on dead-end false solutions.

The Clean Coal Myth

Obama’s constant discussion of clean coal merits special criticism. His campaign literature stated: “Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology . . . An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will instruct DOE [Department of Energy] to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 ‘first-of-a-kind’ commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration.”

The problem is, there is no such thing as clean coal — it is a marketing gimmick created by the coal industry. The reason coal is an attractive fuel is that it is extremely cheap to mine and burn. The reason Obama discusses clean coal is because the coal industry is immensely powerful and the USA has a huge supply of coal. But the inconvenient truth is that coal has to be phased out as a fuel source if humans are to avoid climate change. Coal is by far the dirtiest of the fossil fuels in terms of C02 emitted per unit of energy.

The idea behind clean coal technology is that the C02 released when coal is burned could be captured and then stored underground — so called carbon capture and sequestration. The problem is, no one has figured out a way to capture carbon economically on the scale at which coal is burned — millions of tons. Capturing the carbon dioxide generated from burning coal is extremely complex and expensive. Even if you could capture all the carbon inexpensively enough to make it feasible (which appears highly unlikely), getting rid of the immense volume of gas so that it wouldn’t leak back into the atmosphere or pollute underground water sources is a problem.

In 2008, the US Department of Energy withdrew funding from FutureGen, a 275-megawatt coal fired power plant that was to have captured all of the CO2 emitted from burning coal, because of higher than expected costs. The public-private partnership, which never begin construction, is hoping to get a new chance at life under the Obama administration.

By the time you spend all the extra money to build new coal burning plants and develop infrastructure to get rid of the carbon dioxide underground, electricity from coal is no longer so cheap. It could end up being more expensive than solar or wind, which are increasingly price competitive with fossil fueled electricity already.

This says nothing of the other dirty aspects of mining coal. Increasingly, USA coal is strip mined or mined using mountaintop removal methods, both of which obliterate the environment in the process. The recent spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee is just a tiny example of the vast scale of pollution associated with the coal industry. Fly ash is what is left after you burn coal — the spill at Kingston covered 400 acres and flowed into the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers.

The coal industry is using the theoretical possibility that coal could someday be burned without emitting disastrous amounts of C02 as an excuse to avoid limitations on the coal industry now. While discussion goes on, millions of tons of coal are being burned — none of it in a clean fashion. Hundreds of new coal fired power plants — none of them clean — are being built around the world. This is to say nothing of new mines and trans-national shipping facilities. Did you know that the USA exported 59 million tons of coal in 2008 according to the Energy Information Administration? All of this investment in coal will only make it harder to phase out coal as it becomes increasingly clear that clean coal is a cruel myth. Meanwhile, money and time that could be invested in clean technologies like solar and wind NOW continued to be poured into coal.

Direct Action Gets the Goods

Public awareness of climate change has been building for years, but the scope of the technological, political and economic response — as opposed to the rhetorical response — has remained minimal. Some people are experiencing crisis fatigue, figuring, “We’re already doomed, it is too late to do anything, we may as well not worry about it and have fun while human societies last. . . ” Although no one knows how dramatically the environment has already been damaged, grassroots action to address the problem at this moment is still crucial. Concluding we’re already fucked will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our action is worth it if there is even a chance to avert climate/ecological disaster.

While the economic collapse has taken the focus off global warming and the hype around the incoming Obama administration has allowed Obama to get away with a timid, vague plan, both of these factors may create special opportunities for grassroots action on climate change right now to be effective. Just like a lot of new infrastructure was built during the Great Depression to create jobs, the recession could be a great time to convert the fossil fueled economy to wind and solar power. Going beyond business as usual and standard band-aid solutions — like bailing out an auto industry that has resisted alternatives to fossil fuels since the oil shocks in the early 1970s — will require grassroots pressure and organizing. Obama is sexy but cautious and mainstream — he isn’t moving to make the kind of historic changes that are required.

Which is where actions like fossil fools day come in. Fossil Fools day comes out of the direct action, grassroots, radical environmental movement. Real dramatic change — replacing a worn-out, unsustainable way of life with something entirely new — won’t come from politicians, big business, or Hollywood movies. It will take radical vision — understanding new ways of living that are more humanistic, more fun, more gentle, localized and small-scale, and thus more in-tune with the cycles of life. We need new thinking to transition away from the fossil fueled “use it once and throw away” mentality we have all grown up with. Radical change requires disruption of the agenda of those in charge, not just asking for a seat at the table or going along for the ride. Change will come when the status quo can no longer continue.

In 2008, fossil fools day actions “spanned the full spectrum from the simply subversive to the downright disruptive: office occupations, banner drops, street theater, Big Carbon blockades, city center parades, spoof product launches, subvertising, leaflets, lock-downs,” according to Rising Tide North America. “Oil, gas, coal and aviation were all targeted. Fossil fuel extraction, production, financing, PR and greenwash all felt the jester’s wrath.” Since every aspect of our lives — from our food to our housing, to our jobs, to our transport to the way cities are designed — are related to the fossil fuel addiction, every neighborhood has appropriate targets.

Disruptive actions raise the economic cost of the fossil fuel lifestyle — this is one of the only languages the corporate political structure understands. Fossil fuels dominate our lives because they are efficient in the short term — they make things seem easy and instant by exporting the costs and harms to where they can’t be seen, or to the future. Fossil Fools day aims to expose this false ease and efficiency by connecting the harm to fossil fueled machines and ways of life. The point isn’t to impose guilt — often the mark of ill-calculated, careless activist efforts that divide us from those who can be our allies. Rather, clever pranks can put a smile on all of our faces, because ultimately we’re all dependent on fossil fuels, and we all have to abandon them together.

In Berkeley, those of us who did a bike parade last year have been thinking of ways to expose the greenwash and fake alternatives associated with the huge biofuel research industry at the University of California, Berkeley funded by oil-giant BP. What will you do in your town? Think zany, beautiful and for yourself. If no one has ever tried it before, that may be the best possible option. The joke is yours to make April 1.

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