Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address climate change in terms of policy at the local level,  at the smallest organized unit of government for my area, which is the County of Hawaii, encompassing the island of Hawaii. I am not an expert on climate change or climate change policy in any way, shape, or form, but this may well be the mother of all situations where we will need to learn by doing, rather than waiting on expertise that does not yet exist.

I have a very small window to potentially make a little dent in county policy in the next couple of months, as a member of our County’s Charter Commission, which, once a decade, reviews and proposes changes to the County Charter (the organizing documents that specify the general structure, powers and duties of the county government.)  This  raises the practical question of how and where climate policy change should happen and what form it should take.  How do we translate the urgency of the United Nation’s IPCC SR15 call to action into actual action? Do we wait for instructions from on-high, from federal (yeah, that’s not happening in the US) or state levels?  Or do we start at the grass-roots level of personal change? Somewhere in between? Everywhere in between? Where, how, who to coordinate all these levels?  How do we get it done?

One detail in the IPCC report caught my eye: the difference between 1.5 degree Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of climate change is the difference between most of the coral dying (70-90%) and all of it (>99%).  If that doesn’t get the attention of an island culture, I don’t know what will.

I don’t think anyone has a road-map that takes into account the social, physical, political, economic, logistical, philosophical, and even emotional complexity of the task.  We don’t seem to have the institutions to translate such a road-map even if it did exist.  We have only the rudiments of a layperson’s language about climate change.

So if we don’t have the institutions, perhaps we need to make them. If we don’t know how to get it done, then the first step might be to make a plan.  What are our goals and how do we get there?

So that was the first idea.  Very simple.  By county department, find out what our baseline for greenhouse gas emissions is at present, and set some goals for reduction and/or off-set of emissions.  I ran that idea by the legislative analyst assigned to the commission and he asked to whom the departments would report this information.  Perhaps there should be a commission.  Well, why not, a commission at least will mean that we can keep talking about this.  It will be some kind of institutional mechanism.

So then I talked to the  person in our County government who is working on climate change as part of his portfolio of responsibilities. He is aided in this effort by one Americorps VISTA volunteer.  It is not exactly an overwhelming show of commitment, but we are a small county, mostly rural and we have had many distractions lately – volcanic eruptions, hurricanes.   The slow boil of climate change gets shoved to the side when the ground starts fissuring and red hot lava lights up the night sky. It’s understandable. .  Also dealing with the lava disaster has drained the coffers and the properties destroyed has reduced the tax base, such that the administrative esprit de corps is not at its most robust.   Given all these factors, he did not find my activism particularly welcome, although acknowledging the “existential” threat climate change poses.  He thought it would be best if I did nothing.

Now I can do nothing with the best of them.  I consider myself mostly a Daoist, philosophically, so doing nothing comes naturally to me.  But I’m not satisfied that it is the right response in this instance.

Although perhaps doing nothing might save quite a bit of paper if none of those reports ever have to be printed up and distributed to the members of a commission, who will, without doubt, get in their cars to drive to the commission meeting.   So perhaps he’s right, and this best way to address climate change is to do nothing, with considerable zeal? Can we make that scalable?

Ultimately this may well be about learning to do nothing with great artfulness.  But in the meantime we may need to do some things to wend our way to that Daoist state of grace. What do you think: do nothing or do something that may, as they say in politics, not get much traction?

7 Replies to “Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?”

  1. ‘Ultimately this may well be about learning to do nothing with great artfulness. But in the meantime we may need to do some things…’

    That pretty much nails it for me.

    My admiration and gratitude to you and others, hopefully lots of others, willing to make that little dent!

  2. Do politics. I don’t know much about Taoism, but isn’t it more about the way you respond to unmet goals or life’s ups and downs? What could it hurt?

    Small county? My curiosity was roused, so I read up on Hawai’i government structure, which is a bit different than here in Wisconsin. But the county I live in has a population of only around 18,000, a tenth of your county.

    I also read the county’s charter, and it is quite a document. As per usual, it is more about HOW things are done than WHAT should be done. One gets clues and implied goals based on the structure, and names of commissions and agencies, but I didn’t find what you would call a mission statement or metrics on where the county wants to head.

    Maybe the thin end of the wedge would be to add a section on financial and budget reporting that went beyond conventional GDP numbers, and gave assessment of the “natural capital”, and maybe a genuine progress indicator like perspective?

    something along the lines of this:

    of course, “progress” needs to be redefined at some point.

    Developments, projects, and infrastructure investment would then all have to quantify the impact on natural capital, and go beyond a conventional EIS. Department budgets would all have to reflect and reconsider how money is spent. Ripple effects go who knows where?

    Of course, I have no idea how politically viable any challenge to the status quo might be in your county. It would be a tough sell here.

    good luck if you take the plunge.

  3. You should go for it… though exactly what “it” is can be (should be?) somewhat flexible. You’ve already started to some extent – you’ve met some folks who are involved, it appears you’ve had your head patted and told to go home and mind your business (though this might be just me misreading), and before either of those you came up with an issue you wish to champion.

    Let me propose a thought experiment. Lets say the person who suggested you should do nothing was the person you were directed to following a brucellosis outbreak – and many animals in your herd were affected (or many on a neighboring ranch such that you are concerned about spread to your herd). You are again advised to do nothing. Does a Daoist state of grace inform your response?

    Naturally you care more, have more insight and expertise, when it comes to the health and safety of your herd. But with climate change I’m guessing the level of care is quite similar… the level of expertise is different. How much expertise do you gain by doing nothing?

    Now I’ll try to wear the shoes of the folks in the county government there who are up to their armpits in alligators. Hurricanes and volcanism make the proverbial ‘lions and tigers and bears’ seem quite tame. So poking about over climate change may have to be a ‘back bench’ issue for the moment. But it doesn’t have to be invisible. Hurricanes are climate features after all. And until someone can convince me otherwise – sea level rise might have something to do with volcanism. I mean the extra pressure exerted on the sea floor from all that extra water in the basin (and the Pacific is a largish basin) that extra pressure might be pushing magma up more than normal (but then what is ‘normal’ about an active volcano??).

    I’m not a politician by any stretch. But I have had occasion to visit with a few in my local area. They’re people – by which I mean they are just like other people… some are great folks who really care and want to help… others are creeps. Until you spend a little time with them and get to know them it’s pretty hard to tell where they sit on that continuum. But even the creeps can be dealt with (summon lots of Daoist grace in preparation).

    Here’s another way to look at this chestnut. If not you, then who?

    A trip of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You’ve already made many of the early strides – and even if the next step seems daunting, the satisfaction of knowing you gave it a go often brings more comfort than the self doubt of a “what if” at some point in the future.

    One other thing… money. In politics money talks. And as much as we might wish otherwise… remember the golden rule: them with the gold make the rules. And I’m not suggesting you go forth with hat in hand to beg for donations… but you might find kindred spirits out there who can help. And these kindred spirits might be on the mainland, or even in a different country.

    On the kindred spirit front – now that the few of us here know what you’re thinking about, we can be on the lookout for other suggestions or assistance. They say talk is cheap, so little to no money is needed to talk about the issue. Keep talking.

    1. by the way, Clem, thanks for the reference to the Dasgupta’s paper, it’s an admirable piece of writing!

  4. Thanks for the ideas and interest, Steve and Clem. I like the GPI idea, though it might be a bit much to bite off at this juncture. I got a little help in making my sell today when this headline hit the local news: “Michael R. Bloomberg Names Honolulu as a Winner in Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge.” They get money! Since all the Hawaiian islands exist in a perpetual state of more or less good-natured sibling rivalry, there will be a little more interest in keeping up with the herd among my fellow commissioners. My proposals are on the agenda on Friday, so yes I’m taking the plunge, and yes, the Daoist concept wu-wei (do nothing) can mean doing what is appropriate for the predicament you’re in. And it is quite a predicament!

    1. doing nothing is doing something.

      What do you have to lose? Get it out there.

      The naysayers (read termites) will come out of the woodwork and start chewing.

      i liked what i heard the Captain of the airliner that went down into the Hudson River (a life long Republican) had to say the other day…. “We cannot just keep yelling at the TV…”

      In other good news Hawaii is way further down the path of taking responsibility for citizen’s actions than most of the other states, everything from no single use plastic bags to high target percentages of alternative energy looking out ahead.

      On the other hand no matter how hard one tries it truly is difficult to NOT be a part of the problem. Try to buy bread that is not in a plastic bag. Like you say we will get back in our cars and drive to another meeting to discuss the subject. In 15 years of Federal fisheries meetings i used to ask the participants from the NGOs how many of you drove over a living marsh to get here, a marsh that had been fragmented by the roadway.

      But seems to me you try to do the best you can, there will be plenty of those who are sleepwalking through the moment, and may never awaken.
      You are not one of them.

  5. I would suggest looking into promoting more renewable energy (solar, wind, and/or geothermal) as a way to get people thinking about reducing their carbon footprint and saving money on electricity. According to Wikipedia “Hawaii is the state with the highest share of petroleum use in the United States, with nearly 70% of electricity coming from oil in 2015.[1] As of 2016, 26.6% of electricity is from renewable sources.[1] Hawaii has the most expensive electricity prices in the United States. In 2016 the average cost of electricity was $0.24 per kilowatt-hour.”
    The return on your investments would be very rapid because of the high cost of your electricity. Also the federal tax credit of 30% is going to expire in 2022 so you should take advantage of it soon.
    You might suggest the county invest in some solar energy farms and run them as cooperatives touting them as a way to combat climate change and reduce electricity costs. Or as a way for the county to make up for the lost tax revenue. People gotta love that right!
    Solar and wind together would make it easier to produce energy when the sun isn’t shinning. I am pretty sure that you get wind in some places all the time. I imagine you’ve already exploited the geothermal angle with all the volcanoes on your island.
    The other angle I would promote is climate change adaptation. How is climate change going to affect Hawaii? What happens if hurricanes become stronger and hit more often? Does the county need to look at new building codes? Flood map zones? Fire risks and droughts. Once you get them thinking about what is going to happen more and more frequently, they might decided that they should try to do something.

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