Sunday, January 31, 2016

Where to Turn to Learn: A Citizen's Guide to Selected Resources for Self-Education in Transition Studies

Some useful resources for understanding our
global climate circumstance

Compiled by

30 January 2016

The Problem:

It can be confusing for citizens throughout the world to remain reliably informed about our global climate circumstance.  This is true everywhere, in part, because of the lag time between the acquisition of scientific knowledge and its publication in peer-reviewed articles and books.  These sources are then read and reinterpreted in the popular press and news media, from the daily newspapers and magazines through to YouTube webcast presentations.

The problem is further compounded in the United States where the political system is based on periodic elections wherein citizens are thought to choose between candidates.  The choices they make can be influenced by the information they have been given about the candidates themselves and the positions the candidates have taken on public policy issues. 

For this reason, the dissemination of information and the packaging of misinformation, disinformation and ignorance is highly political, and it can become difficult for concerned citizens to keep themselves abreast of our world’s changing climate circumstance.   Where can we turn to learn?

There are, of course, a number of different sources of information including books, articles, websites, organizations, government publications, newsletters, etc., etc.  Each deserves its own consideration, and we will build and annotate a reference list online to each of these kinds of resources over time.


To begin with, we can consider these top ten books by way of providing an overall understanding of Earth’s changing climate, the pace and magnitude of this transformation, the various implications these changes will have for our daily life in the months and years ahead.

For an understanding of the seriousness and magnitude of global climate change one approach to reach the public has been not to provide yet one more scientific study but to write instead a short novel or novelette.   Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway have done just that with the publication of the very accessible paperback entitled: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014).

The work is written imaginatively from the vantage point of a future scientist looking back at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries during which Western Civilization completely collapsed, according to the authors.  The future scientist tries to unravel the different threads of disastrous choices that were made through ignorance, incomplete information, cultural inertia or just plain stubbornness on the part of leaders driven by special interests.  The short book is a very sobering “wake-up-call” and accomplishes what no single scientific study could in such an economical manner.  It manages to grip the reader with a sense of tragedy and urgency at the same time, providing a very sobering narrative about what might well happen if citizens around the world do not change the course of our current economies and the institutions which dominate them.

Fo a succinct description of the history involved in the development of the science of climate change, readers would do well to read carefully the short but excellent work by Spencer Weart, entitled: The Discovery of Global Warming. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press; Revised edition, November 30, 2008) [with support material.]   This book is widely available in paperback in several updated versions, and it has the virtue of providing the reader with an enormous volume of supplementary material provided on a website of the American Institute of Physics.

Beyond this, readers can catch up to the latest material published since Weart’s book by reading Joe Romm’s recent publication: Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York, Oxford University Pres, 2016).  Joe Romm worked for years on energy issues for the United States Government and before that he was a Special Assistant to the President of the Rockefeller Foundation on energy matters. .  He holds a PhD in Physics from  M.I.T., and through his daily “Climate Progress” online weblog, it is one of the most prolific writers on climate policy issues in the United States.  This book is his latest on climate change, and it has the advantage of presenting material in a unique manner.  He poses a whole series of short questions-and-answers in a manner that the reader can quickly navigate and find a well informed and up to date response to virtually any question which may seem puzzling.  This is truly a useful resource for both the “beginner” in climate matters and the more advanced researcher.

The Canadian journalist, Naomi Klein, has published perhaps the most urgent of recent books on the evolution of climate change and its implications for society in her volume entitled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (NY, Simon & Schuster, 2014).  The book surveys the already devastating impact that  changes in the climate have had on a number of different populations around the world.  In addition, however, her work is quite hopeful in highlighting how local populations are organizing themselves to respond to the devastations of climate change and build new forms of resilience to face the future.  With her husband, Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein has produced a DVD based on her book, and it should be available for wide-scale viewing very soon. 

With all this recent outpouring of information from journalists on climate change, it is worth remembering that it was Bill McKibben who began to draw the attention of the general public to the problems with the presentation of his book, The End of Nature by Random House/Anchor in 1989.  Bill’s publications have continued apace ever since, and his work deserves a special essay on its own to profile the volume of the material, the depth and perception of his writing and provocative character of his thinking over the last thirty years.  We will pay extended attention to his work in the coming months, but by way of introduction readers may wish to refer to a brief list of references to his work posted on the Transition Studies.weblog.

Bill McKibben’s work came into prominence on climate change journalism at roughly the same time that the professional work of the climate scientist, James Hansen came to the attention of the United States public because of his testimony on 23 June 1988 before the United States Senate.   In this by now famous testimony James Hansen indicated that in his judgment the greenhouse effect had been “detected” and that it was changing our climate now, leading to what he predicted would be the warmest year on record by the end of 1988.

Jim Hansen continued to conduct research and write scientific articles for decades on the growing evidence for his earlier assertions that climate was changing and that the increase of atmospheric carbon was its principal cause.  For the most part, however, this information did not immediately or extensively penetrate the popular understanding of growing climate crisis. 

One of the reasons for this was the attempt to refute his work and actively suppress it, undertaken by other government officers in the administration of President George W. Bush.   The history of some of this dramatic government suppression of science is covered in detail in an important study by Mark Bowen, entitled, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming (New York, Dutton Adult, 2007).  This work illuminates with depressing detail just how far the administration under the leadership of President George W. Bush and the influence of the major oil and fossil fuel corporations was willing to go to try to discredit the solid scientific evidence of global climate change ever since the government-sponsored research made it clear that climate change was both real and important. 

There is now evidence presented by the Los Angeles Times and others that  Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel firms were fully aware of the science when James Hansen gave his testimony.  Further, it is apparently true that they too sought to suppress the public disclosure of these research findings within their own firms.  

It may well be that these corporate and government efforts at the suppression of scientific data contributed to the long period before Dr. James Hansen sought to present his most urgent appeal in book form.  On the other hand, his preoccupation with scientific research and focus upon the continuous publication in peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature may well have accounted for this as well.  In any case, it was not until 2009 that James Hansen published his first full-length book on climate change.  Entitled, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, the book makes an impassioned appeal for citizens to inform themselves about the science of climate change and launch collective political action to demand that political leaders pass regulatory and tax policies so as to decrease the consumption of fossil fuels.  Without these measures Hansen foresees a bleak future for his grandchildren and the future of the human community.

Well beyond the censoring of government scientific information by the Bush administration and the suppression of corporate information about climate change that has now been documented for decades, journalists are now beginning to discover how the entire electoral process in the United States has been corrupted by the fossil fuel lobby and by the particular intervention of Charles and David Koch who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections.  A new book by The New Yorker author, Jane Mayer, delineates this in detail. 

Her work is not a book on climate change.  Its focus is upon the way in which the right wing politics in America have been shaped by two of the country’s richest individuals with a life-long commitment to the expanded consumption of fossil fuels.  Entitled, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, the work traces the fortunes of the Koch family back to their origins in the activity and initiatives of their father details the influence of their fortunes on the shape of recent American politics.  While there is nothing new to be learned about climate change from this book, there is an enormous amount to be learned on why and how the American public has been mislead, misinformed and manipulated in their understanding of the impact of fossil fuels on our daily lives.

For those wanting to focus specifically on the momentum of climate change in the global system, the scientific focus – ironically -- is upon remote environments that most of us will probably never live in or perhaps even visit.   Fred Pearce draws our attention to this in his important work, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change   The entire work underscores, as scientists have been pointing out for decades, that we live in a “discontinuous climate system,” subject to abrupt, and potentially massive, transformations when certain “tipping points” (like the melting point of ice) are reached.  In these circumstance system-wide parameters of Earth’s ecosystems can be perturbed very markedly with what appears to be only a minor change in basic conditions.  When water turns to ice, or when ice turns to water, as it is now doing in high latitudes and high altitudes whole systems of ocean and atmospheric circulation can change with global impacts that will be felt for centuries and millennia to come. 

In conclusion it is useful to take a broad perspective on the whole phenomena of our changing climate circumstance – not just for human populations but for the entire community of living species on Earth.   Perhaps the best short encapsulation of the implications of this for life systems on the planet is presented in the short and readable book by Elizabeth Kolbert, entitled The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  This book won a Pulitzer Prize, and its skilful narrative weaving the history of climate with the changing history of life on earth is an excellent reminder of the gravity and historically unprecedented nature of our global climate circumstance.

These ten books can serve as a starting point for a citizen’s guide to climate issues.  In the future, many more books will need to be considered as well as sources of scientific articles, websites, government reports, non-governmental investigations, interviews, lecture series, etc.  There is much to discover and it is now widely available to the public.

Dr. Timothy Weiskel is the Research Director at Cambridge Climate Research Associates and teaches courses in environmental ethics and global climate change at Harvard University. He has published several books and articles including Environmental Design and Public Policy: Pattern, Trend, and Prospect, based upon his 1988 testimony presented to the United States Senate in support of legislation to limit carbon emissions. He is the founder of and and is also co-founded The Climate Talks Project. Read Dr. Weiskel's full bio here.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Harvard Students Can Make a Difference: Reflections from COP-21 in Paris

By Teresa D'Onfro

Finding my way to the COP21 Le Bourget site was definitely an adventure, and while waiting in the queue for accreditation I felt a bit unnerved when I recalled that our team had been reduced to just me; nonetheless the show must go on. As I continued to wait, I became filled with feelings that were both terrifying and empowering. Finally, with accreditation on hand, I head in through security with no real plan in mind but to walk around I enter Hall 3 which is just one of many in the 25-acre indoor Parc des Expositions Paris le Bourget. The enormous Hall is subdivided into conference rooms for each country’s committees. Judging by the size of the room, the USA was to be most noticeably present in Paris COP. “I heard they’re bringing about 200 mitigators. That is why they rule the world, you know,” an Oxford friend mentioned to me later. 

The entire situation was a bit odd for me grasp. You see, I was there with neither country which I have called home, instead I was there representing Fundación Pensar, Planeta, Política, Persona which is the brainchild of my dear friend Martha Delgado hailing from Mexico City. The Fundación has an amazing degree of influence that comes from Martha’s intrinsic desire to serve humanity interwoven with a network of professionals that have been fortunate enough to cross her path. Almost overnight, I had a role to play in the Water and Megacities Forum at the conference Water, Megacities and Global Change in UNESCO HQ, the Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris City Hall, and COP21 access as an observer. 

I have done some cool things here and there but Fundación Pensar’s post was definitely not something I could have prepared for in any way. UNESCO’s meeting was the highlight of my experience, working to establish global indices and measurable indicators that ensure clean water availability is of the utmost importance. Though my part in that work was small, I will always be proud that I took part in it. I will always remember that global leaders do care. Some seem apathetic, sure, but many speak passionately of the importance of ethics in global water consumption and care deeply enough to step-up to spearhead efforts to develop an ethical framework for the global community. This was a pleasant surprise to me because I come from the world of industrial sustainability where some days you give yourself a pat on the back if you win the battle of doing what is environmentally right vs. doing what is legally allowable.

COP21 was paralyzing and marvelous in its own way. The entire world was represented in Hall 2 and it seemed countries, regions, and technologies were all present. Everyone had their own approach to solving the climate change ordeal; some looking for human connections, some looking for financial ones, but all looking to make something positive take shape. In the Climate Generations Area, the hall where the non-governmental organizations had been placed, the atmosphere was much more relaxed. Instead of extensive security checks and police presence, there were only limited ones, and public access was granted. 

Walking around, I found a band playing instruments powered by solar and human energy located in one of the common areas –where energetic people pedaled away. I say ‘pedaled away’ because these instruments were essentially, bikes fitted to harness the power created through pedaling. In fact these ‘bike-stations’ are everywhere for visitors to self-power electronic devices which oddly adds an emphasis on the self portion of the self-power stations.

Because my accreditation was associated with representing the civil sector I was an observer and did not have the ability to take part on negotiations. There are virtually hundreds of opportunities to attend conferences, announcements, or working-group’s exposés relating to everything from years worth of data-findings to development of financial schemes. Negotiations inside the “Country Pavilion” seemed long and not very fruitful, and, it remained an exercise of longsuffering mixed with hopeful wonder during the first week of Paris COP21. Though I carried this feeling of awe with me, not everyone there was styling the same sparkle of wonder in their eyes. There were those who had come just to make their presence known from all corners of the earth carrying a message which does not require French or English fluency. With their faces painted and full traditional clothing one could see them trying to make the world aware of their existence. Their presence sent the message that they were there to shatter the invisibility comfortably assigned to them. They were inside the COP21 site so no claim could be made that they were unwelcomed. 

Digging into the surface of granted visibility, a story of silencing and oppression emerges as Rochelle Diver voices out her concerns about the Indigenous People. She was fighting for them to have the right to speak for themselves in a world that has not given them a voice during negotiations, leaving them helpless against the decisions made. They refuse to be made a token of humanity through an honorable mention within the pre-amble agreement. Instead they fight to be contributors of solutions as global actors through their inclusion in the operating portion of the agreement.  (, Indigenous activists speak out at COP21)

Even more troubling, I hear of conspiracies to first ‘bracket’ and then to omit any language in the agreement which includes indigenous communities. For example Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim expresses his deep disappointment regarding the move to omit indigenous nations “We do not understand why a country like Norway, who is supporting Indigenous Peoples’ preparation and participation to the COP21, reacted as that. The U.S. as well.” (Indian County Today, Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus Focuses on Setbacks at COP21 as Agreement Moves to Final Negotiations). Eventually it all catches up with me and it comes to a point where a tremendous influx of information rushes through my mind. My thought process is forced to quickly filter feelings and distill knowledge. 

In that mind-moment it feels as though, all at once, Chris Robichaud’s philosophical soliloquy on Charles Mills’ White Ignorance was unveiled before my eyes as Tim Weiskel’s stern voice expounded on environmental ethics and the irony of living in a society where civilizations built by our own hands might very well die from our own doing. Having been exposed to two of the greatest ethicists of our time is not always easy, but it helps, especially on occasions when starry-eyed-you gets a glimpse behind the curtain. Even so, I still feel that I was just me witnessing the fact that on one side of the curtain there were millions of dollars being neatly distributed, allocated, and assigned to something from somewhere. While on the other side of the same curtain there were people representing cultures and their entire civilizations which have existed since time immemorial rendered silent. 

To further aggravate my internal struggle, I noticed there was no one representing Ecuador in the Latin American forum yet the Ecuadorian Indigenous representatives sit in the audience. They had been promised a chance to speak but in reality they did not even get an honorable mention never mind an invitation to take part of the forum --Yes, the world witnessed all this along with me. I know this is the case because multiple cameras were set-off to capture the moment the forum adjourned without Ecuador’s Amerindian attendees being heard –What can I realistically do? You ask yourself and the answer comes from a lonely consensus of one voice. You might consider the same question at one point or another. If you do at that point in your life consider this, there is an unusual type of strength to us Harvard Extension students. I think we are of a different caliber of people belonging in eras past not this one which presently surrounds us. We will do well relating to “the typical Harvard men” of Kirkland’s Presidency that Samuel Eliot Morison describes in Three Centuries of Harvard. Morison himself proudly boasts of his own grandfather and great-uncles working their way through “Exeter and Harvard to useful careers…Boys of that stamp are more likely to feel lonely and lost in our bloated colleges of today than their fellows in the small Harvard classes of the Augustan age.” 

This precious hall of Harvardians to which we belong offers us a strength and a humbleness which empowers us to act on behalf of any causes which seek to enrich humanity’s depth with a consciousness which might otherwise be overlooked. You might say to yourself ‘but, I am just me’. It doesn’t matter where, who, or what you are if you are reading this blog chances are: You are just like me. You are “the typical Harvard” student of our own golden era. All that matters is that we have earned our spot to make a positive impact in the world we have built and in the planet we inhabit. Let us exercise our environmentally minded muscles in local forums and global platforms alike.

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