Leashing Market Forces

It appears likely that the 2013 Maryland General Assembly may take up the issue of pollution trading in the context of regulatory efforts to establish a growth offset program in support of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.

On first blush it may appear as if environmental advocates will be challenged to organize an effective response. This is in part because much media coverage of pollution trading has used the issue as a platform for telling another story – that oldie but always goodie about environmentalists fighting with one another.

There is some basis for this story. There was a significant skirmish over the prospect of some environmentalists suing to remove trading from the Bay TMDL, but things have remained relatively peaceful since the suit was actually filed. Efforts to undermine the suit continue, but they are mostly outside of the public earspace.  Notwithstanding this, the ‘enviros at odds over trading’ narrative has established a secure hold on the journalistic imagination.

We would all do well not to get caught up in this false narrative. Not only does it misstate the reality, but it may cause us to misperceive our real opportunities and challenges.

The convenient storyline about environmentalists fighting over trading misstates the degree of environmental support for trading by confusing tactical differences over how to confront it with strategic differences over whether to promote it.  Most environmentalists with whom we engage do not embrace pollution trading as a preferred water quality improvement strategy. They recognize that its principal purpose is to enable and facilitate continued economic growth. By outsourcing pollution control responsibility from regulated point sources (e.g. industrial dischargers, combined animal feeding operations and wastewater treatment plants) to unregulated non point sources (e.g. agriculture) it allows the point sources to increase their discharges. If we think of pollution reduction as a public debt incurred by certain forms of economic development, trading allows some polluters to move their debt onto other polluters books, in order that they can take on more debt.

The hope is that a vibrant market can be generated because it is easier and cheaper to control some sources of nutrient pollution than others. It is significantly cheaper for farmers to reduce a pound of nitrogen than it is for power plants. The expectation is that this differential will produce willing buyers and sellers. Instead of paying more to reduce their own pollution, power plants and other point sources will pay less to get farmers to reduce theirs.

The most optimistic take on this is that it ‘unleashes market forces’ to identify and engage the most cost efficient pollution reductions. The least optimistic take is that it doubles down on the voluntary strategy – paying farmers to pollute less – that virtually everyone (outside of the agricultural community) agrees has failed the Chesapeake Bay over the last thirty years.

This pessimism is grounded in concerns about accountability. Regulated point sources are by definition the most accountable polluters. They have permits that govern their discharges and they are subject to an enforcement and compliance regime.  Unregulated non point sources – which have none of this –  are the least accountable. Most environmentalists with whom we speak fear trading because it allows polluters to outsource pollution control responsibility from the most accountable to the least accountable venues.

At the tactical level the important difference between these environmentalists is that some believe trading is not just a bad idea, but also an illegal idea. They believe that the EPA does not have the authority to authorize this outsourcing of pollution control, and that doing so undermines the spirit and the letter of the Clean Water Act. They feel, therefore, that it is necessary to prevent the EPA from doing this.

Others have determined that their best response to the risks of trading is to work to make it – in practice – less harmful. They are skeptical about the prospects for eliminating trading and are therefore working to secure trading rules that will protect and even advance the public interest. Their efforts are focused on reestablishing the pollution control accountability that trading undermines, and instituting what amount to ‘transaction taxes’ to compel polluters to pay down their debt. This is useful work that we support. We recognize, however, that the ‘mend it don’t end it’ crowd is up against powerful financial interests who want the market to be governed by rules that will maximize their opportunity for profit. If the last thirty years have taught us anything after all, its that once unleashed, market forces are not so easily brought to heel.

(I confess to being a little amused observing the way that some environmentalists have backed themselves into a corner in which they are trying to ‘unleash’ and ‘leash’ market forces simultaneously. There is obviously another important conversation worth having here about the role of metaphor in political speech. George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is probably the place to start, but we’ll have that conversation another day.)

It is not unusual for different environmental groups to adopt different tactics to confront a danger about which they largely agree. Often – as in this case – these different tactics can be compatible and complementary. Differences over tactics should not be confused for differences over objectives.  To the extent that there is tension between those working to ‘fix’ trading and those suing to end it, we think that tension is less a function of different views  about trading and more a function of different views about the risks of litigation.

At issue here are concerns that the litigation may undermine the entire TMDL/WIP process. There is concern that it will merge in the public mind with the Farm Bureau’s lawsuit that seeks to undo the TMDL. There is concern that it will provide aid and comfort to politicians and decisions makers who are resisting the TMDL and the WIPs. There are concerns that, if successful, it may result in vacating the entire Bay TMDL and also that, successful or not, it may generate calls to open the CWA to amendment.

We find some of these concerns more compelling than others. We believe, for example, that the difference between the trading litigation and the Farm Bureau litigation is obvious and familiar. The Farm Bureau believes EPA has done too much, while the plaintiffs in the trading suit believe EPA hasn’t done enough.  It really isn’t  difficult to understand or convey that difference, and claiming otherwise sows the confusion it purports to avoid.

We are also less compelled by the argument that the litigation will generate uncertainty that bolsters opposition to the TMDL/WIP process.  This has usually been communicated to us by folks who also tell us that the Farm Bureau is already moving heaven and earth to scuttle the TMDL/WIP process. While we expect that trading litigation may help bolster resistance and recalcitrance from local officials, we doubt that the additional impact is likely to be more than marginal. To borrow a preferred metaphor of trading advocates, the resistance train has long since left the station.

Concerns about the impact of litigation outcomes strike us as more serious. Were the litigation to result in vacating the TMDL the consequences would be significant and might significantly stall the whole Watershed Implementation Planning process. We think this concern needs to be discounted by its likelihood. The plaintiffs in the trading litigation do not believe vacature is necessary, will not seek it as a remedy, and would likely oppose it if the judge ordered it.  From our lay perspective it seems as if the TMDL does not require trading, simply allows it.  Trading does seem to be more intricately woven into the fabric of the state and local WIPs, although more conceptually than quantitatively. Litigation could provide clarity about the extent to which it is legal for states and municipalities to rely on trading. While a finding may cause distress and complications, it may well be better to establish clarity now, rather than several years from now.

Nevertheless, this is a serious concern that we would not blithely dismiss. It is important to point out, however, that concerns about the TMDL being vacated are concerns about the success of the litigation. If the TMDL were vacated it would probably mean that a Federal Court had determined that trading does illegally undermine the Clean Water Act in the way that the plaintiffs claim. Opposing the litigation out of fear that it will be successful indicates a willingness to accept undermining the Clean Water Act in order to preserve the possibility that the TMDL and WIPs as currently constituted will make progress in cleaning up the Bay.

We make this point with due regard for the years of effort to clean up the bay and a corresponding belief that honorable environmentalists can have different positions about this kind of trade off. It does seem, however, that the tradeoff needs to be framed and faced squarely. Doing so might help us to distinguish between strategically important intra-environmental differences and the less important tactical differences over which we sometimes tend to obsess.

In this context, the strategically important intra-environmental differences concern the contexts within which Bay restoration efforts occur. Recognizing that pollution trading poses threats to various values –  like the integrity of the Clean Water Act, the health and safety of low income communities, and the reassertion of public control over public resources – the most committed opponents of pollution trading are driven, in part, by the fact that they perceive there to be more at stake than simply the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

I don’t believe that those working to improve pollution trading schemes are indifferent to these other values, but I do believe that, for them, these are, at most, secondary and distinct concerns. I have written elsewhere of the view of environmentalism as fundamental and independent, untethered by ideology and disconnected from other values, and of how this view inclines many to try and orient their work so as to most effectively and efficiently catch whatever appears to be the dominant stream. There is a strong strain of independent environmentalism in Bay restoration work, and it drives and defends our perpetual quest for ‘unlikely’ allies and ‘unusual suspects’. It also promotes a sort of strategic vacuity – if your mission can be served, and your goals realized, in a variety of different social and political arrangements, most of your decisions tend to be tactical ones.

I think that the most interesting differences between the most committed opponents of pollution trading and the ‘mend it don’t end it’ crowd is a strategic difference.  I think that the most committed opponents believe (or at least suspect) that sustainability – the authentic, robust sustainability that we require – may be an emergent property of a more just, democratic, and equal society, and not simply a correction that can be grafted onto any society. I think that they understand environmental protection to be an interdependent, ideologically inflected value that necessarily privileges questions of vision and strategy.

From this perspective, the tactical decision to work to end (not simply mend) pollution trading is informed by strategic calculations about the  constellation of values that we need to strengthen, the ideological commitments that we need to broaden, the type of society that we should be striving for, who else is pointed in that direction, and when, how and where we can join with them. It is not simply an effort to catch (or avoid being run over by) the dominant stream, but part of a broader effort to generate an alternative stream that moves powerfully in the direction that we need to go. This difference – a difference that is really about strategy and vision, rather than about tactics – is, in my judgment, the difference that really matters.

This could be a productive difference. The most committed opponents of trading recognize that part of the long process of generating the alternative stream that we need involves opening and maintaining space to interrogate critical features of the dominant stream. These are features that remain largely uninterrogated as the ‘mend it’ crowd jumps (even if reluctantly) onto the trading bandwagon.

Being more inclined towards skepticism over the fetishization of markets and technology, and more committed to locating their Bay advocacy within a vision of a different and better society, the trading plaintiffs recognize that the trading conversation creates an opportunity for asserting key questions that are seldom posed in the Bay restoration conversation:

  • How long can we expect technology and market machinations to outpace the impact of population growth in the Bay watershed? When will our ability to reduce our pollution footprints be overridden by the number of  new feet?
  • What does the increasing financialization of nature (and the deepening hegemony of market fundamentalism of which it is a part) portend for the maintenance of public ownership of public resources?  What will that mean for the Bay in 2030, or 2040?
  • What will be the value (or, for that matter, the durability) of a restored Bay in an increasingly degraded and unequal society ? What will be the consequences if our efforts to restore the Bay deepen and aggravate those inequities ?

Many in the ‘mend it’ crowd recognize that these are crucial questions. They insist, however, that they are impractical and can have no meaningful influence in the present environment. Their insistence, of course, helps to make and keep this true.

I think that a more creative and confident environmental community would embrace the trading litigation as an opportunity to engage the kinds of bigger questions and values that matter to people much, much more than the small, technical conversations around which their ‘mend it’ work is organized. Doing this would not require dropping their current work to reform trading, and it would not entail any hypocrisy or contradiction. It would simply involve acknowledging that the fact that we must play the cards that we are dealt does not preclude our continuing to aspire (and conspire) to change the game.

The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage

A few weeks ago David Morris sent me The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage. David is the co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a recent Town Creek Foundation grantee. We support ILSR’s ‘Waste to Wealth’ initiative through which it is organizing support for expanding composting in Maryland.Founded in 1974, ILSR works to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. As its name implies, ILSR champions local self-reliance – ‘humanly scaled institutions and economies’ through which ownership is distributed as widely as possible.David works out of ILSR’s Minneapolis office, where he runs their program on Defending The Public Good. In their words, the program is a response to ‘the wild imbalance between those who favor protecting public assets and those who do not, between those who believe the public should take priority over the private, and those who do not, between those who would emphasize the ‘we’ over the ‘me’ and those who would not”.

David sent me the Guide because Maryland and Minnesota are two of the four states in which rigorous debates are currently underway about marriage equality. David is distributing the Guide in Minnesota and hoped I might be able to help to do so in Maryland. I am inclined to send the Guide to our grantees, and to profile it on our blog. I suspect that it will not be self evident to our grantees how we see any connection between their work and marriage equality. Most of these organizations are focused on restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and/or on insuring Maryland’s rapid transition to a clean energy economy.

 Their instinctive reaction will probably be that they’ve not much to gain and possibly much to loose by entering the Marriage Equality conversation. They likely suspect that marriage equality proponents and supporters are already in the environmental camp, and they likely fear that the issue may alienate those whose support they are still trying to win.

I think that this reaction is reinforced by an argument that I often encounter in our grantees. This is the belief that environmentalism is, at bottom, a broadly held value that can override disagreements on a range of other things.  This is the hope that we can agree to disagree about a range of things – music, fashion, spectator sports, recreational pursuits, the value of the public sphere, the appropriate size and purpose of government – and yet agree on the importance of environmental protection. This view of environmentalism as fundamental (if sometimes latent) and independent – untethered by ideology and disconnected from other values – drives and defends our perpetual quest for ‘unlikely’ allies and ‘unusual suspects’.

There are many interesting things about this perspective, one of which is the way that it rejects – without naming – a range of alternative possibilities. It rejects the idea that the will to protect the environment may be activated by a specific constellation of values, and undermined by an alternative constellation.  It rejects the idea that our ability to protect the environment may be enabled by particular ideological commitments and undermined by alternative ideologies. In the particular case it overlooks the possibility that sustainability – the authentic, robust sustainability that we require – may be an emergent property of a more just, democratic, and equal society, and not simply a correction that can be grafted onto any society.

Now it would be easy to overstate this in unfair ways – indeed, I’ve probably already done so.  While many if not most of our grantees act as if they believe that ‘we are all environmentalists under the skin’ I do not discount the possibility that they may just be acting. After all, forty years of demonization generates a certain incentive to present oneself as non-threatening and normal, just like everybody else. More importantly, we have made real gains arm in arm with ‘unusual suspects’ and ‘unlikely allies’, and it would be shameful of me to ignore or discount this.

I do think, however, that our assertion and embrace (whether real or tactical) of independent environmentalism is not without cost, not least of which is a certain kind of strategic atrophication. If we believe – or if we act as if we believe – that environmental protection is an independent value, lurking in everyone, then the critical questions probably wind up being tactical ones: How do we orient our work so as to most effectively and efficiently catch whatever appears to be the dominant stream? If, however, environmental protection is an interdependent, ideologically inflected value, then it would seem that questions of vision – and therefore strategy – become unavoidable. What constellation of values need we strengthen, and how will we do so? What ideological commitments need we broaden, and how will we do so? What society are we striving towards, who else is moving in that direction, and when, how, and where can we join with them? How, in other words, do we generate a stream that moves powerfully in the direction that we need to go?

There is always important engagement on these questions, and I’d like to see our community more involved with it. The World Wildlife Fund UK’s Strategies for Change Project has produced a series of reports exploring the relationship between values and environmental protection, and discussing the implications for campaigners if the will to protect the environment is activated by a specific constellation of values and undermined by an alternative constellation. I assume that many of us have read Naomi Klein’s powerful piece in The Nation on “Capitalism vs. The Climate” and Gus Speth’s “America The Possible” essays.

This work seems to me to be united by a sense that the systemic challenges that confront us – political, economic, social, cultural, and, yes, ecological – will not succumb to free market fixes, tailpipe tactics and ‘unholy alliances’. Arguably we environmentalists have a special responsibility to engage this possibility, because the most pressing signals are coming in on our wavelength. If climate change is the paradigmatic example of the planet rebelling against its political, economic, and ideological operating systems, we ought to be the first to recognize that we won’t get where we need to be by agreeing to disagree about politics, economics, and ideology.

So, I am  posting about David’s Guide on our blog, and forwarding this post to our grantees.  I don’t know what our grantees will do with this, or what they will think I want them to do with it. I’m not so sure about that either. What I do know, is that right now, Maryland is ground zero in a fight over the direction (and pace) in which we will evolve as a society, and it does seem to me that that is something that environmentalists ought to stand up and be counted about.

Town Creek Foundation Summer 2012 Grants

On Monday August 20th the Town Creek Foundation Board of Trustees approved 28 grants totaling $2,482,100, bringing our year-to-date total grant making to 65 grants totaling $4,915,100. All of our 2012 grants can be found here.

A number of key tactical and strategic themes are reflected in our Summer 2012 docket:

The Bay advocacy community achieved several significant clean water victories in the 2012 Maryland legislative session. These policies constitute important underpinning for the Watershed Implementation Plan process, and some of our Summer grants (e.g. 1000 Friends of MarylandNational Wildlife Federation, Chester River Association, Dorchester Citizens for Planned GrowthMaryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, Nanticoke Watershed Alliance,  and the Wicomico Environmental Trust)  are intended to insure that effective implementation will translate those policy victories into real pollution reductions.

Those victories were achieved, in part, through the work of important new Bay advocacy leadership, and the inclusion of new voices in statewide Bay restoration efforts. Several of our Summer grants (e.g.  Blue Water Baltimore, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, West Rhode Riverkeeper, South River Federation) are intended to help support and strengthen these new leaders, and to solidify the inclusion of these new voices.

The last few months have demonstrated significant weakness in Maryland’s clean energy and climate movement. Maryland has a legitimate reputation for climate and energy leadership. Despite this, the continued failure to secure offshore wind policy, combined with evidence of very significant leaks and loopholes in the state’s greenhouse gas reduction strategies, suggest the need for an even more robust and consistent clean energy advocacy force in the state. Most of our Summer Climate and Clean Energy grants are intended to help move Maryland climate advocates into a more permanent movement-building posture than they have currently adopted. These include grants to support sustained policy advocacy (Clean Energy Works for Maryland and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network); communications (Maryland Climate Change Communications Consortium; Climate Central, and the National Environmental Education Foundation); and community outreach (Community Power Network). We are also providing support through the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences to help insure effective finalization and communication of a robust greenhouse gas emissions plan.

There are a number of broader themes that are informing our thinking and our work, and are therefore also animating this docket. As we have passed the midpoint of Martin O’Malley’s second and final term as Maryland’s Governor, we believe that it is important for the Bay and climate advocacy communities to begin preparing for ‘life after Martin’. There is no denying the leadership that Governor O’Malley has brought to efforts to restore the Bay and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is certainly possible that his successor will prioritize this work in the way that he has.  There is no guarantee of this however, and we believe that the prudent approach is to prepare for tougher sledding ahead.

With our own end also drawing nearer, we are sensitive to the need to accelerate movement along our own learning curves. With less time available for course corrections, we must place more emphasis on structured third party feedback and analysis to help insure that our investments are as efficiently well targeted as possible. Several of our Summer 2012 grants – to the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environmentthe George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications, and the Food Shed Initiative project at Future Harvest – are intended (at least in part) to generate information that will help us to sharpen our strategies and better target our grantmaking.

Finally, and again, in view of our sunsetting, we are especially attentive to  how we can help to close the gap between environmental pragmatism and ecological realism in Maryland. This is the gap between advocacy paths that are carefully calibrated to accommodate existing political constraints and the advocacy paths that would be shaped by what science and observation tell us is necessary. The leaks and loopholes in the state’s greenhouse gas reduction strategies demonstrate this gap, as does the politics associated with nutrient trading as a Bay restoration strategy. In both instances the problem stems from the perception that our politics will not allow us to forthrightly face and frame the problem of the relationship between our current economy and true sustainability.

Our Summer sustainability grants are focused on trying to help close this gap –  by revealing it and encouraging leaders to address it (Worldwatch Institute, and the  New Economics Institute), and by highlighting practices and strategies that begin to do so (Institute for Policy Studies, Future Harvest, and Real Food Generation).

We are very pleased to be partnering with all of these groups in their important work.

We Can See the Forest Because We Are the Trees

Bob Massie is not someone that you would want to bet against.

In the 56 years since he was born with a severe case of classic hemophilia, Bob has picked up degrees from Princeton University, the Yale Divinity School and the Harvard Business School. He’s contracted HIV and Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products and medications, and undergone a liver transplant. He’s directed the Project on Business Values and the Economy at Harvard Divinity School, written a prize winning book about the anti apartheid movement, served as Executive Director of  Ceres, and made an unsuccessful run as the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.

As befits someone with these kinds of accomplishments, Bob’s new challenge – as President of the New Economics Institute –  is no less than the transformation of the global economy.

The New Economics Institute  (NEI) was established to respond to the need for a U.S. voice for a ‘New Economics’.  NEI hopes to help develop and effectively promote systemic solutions to the ‘series of systemic problems that now face humanity’, including the sustainability crisis of climate change and dwindling natural resources; the social crisis of global inequality; the financial crisis of systemic instability, and the ‘well-being’ crisis in which rising income does not translate into rising happiness.  Last weekend I attended NEI’s inaugural Strategies for a New Economy Conference which also served as a platform for launching Bob’s new Presidency.

Held at Bard College on the Eastern shore of the  Hudson River,  the conference included leading New Economy activists from across the country, as well as a healthy contingent from NEI’s sister organization in Great Britain, the new economics foundation.

The new economy movement should not to be confused with the sustainability movement.  At its best the sustainability movement reflects an important societal shift from approaching the planet as an inexhaustable trust fund and bottomless waste basket to recognizing that the planet has an existence and requirements apart from our needs and wants, and that those requirements impose an incontestable claim on our attention.While this shift does represent progress, sustainability’s mainstream often manifests an inclination to treat the planet as the junior partner in the existence project, embracing the mistaken notion that sustainability can be pursued on our terms, rather than on the planet’s.Whilst erecting the new church of the triple bottom line and worshiping at the altar of alignments that claim to seek to optimize outcomes for people, planet, and profits, the mainstream sustainability movement often functions as if technological innovations will allow for a radical decoupling of economic activity from environmental impact and allow us to continue to pursue the maximization of profits and economic activity.

The new economy movement, on the other hand,  is premised on the notion that the planet is the senior partner in this existence project. As such, the planet sets the terms, which it is unequivocally asserting in the calvacade of ecological crises that we are currently confronting. New economy activists believe that the reality of planetary finitude will require a fundamental transformation to an economy that is driven by different values, governed by different rules, and comprised of different components.

Accordingly NEI’s conference was organized around themes like “Measuring Well Being: Alternative Indicators of Wealth and Progress”; “Banking and Financing a New Economy: Scale, Criteria, Innovation”; “Rebuilding Local Economies: Engines for Resilience”; “Reimagining Ownership and Work: Coops, Stakeholders, Corporate Structure”;  ‘Transforming Money: Structuring, Issuing, and Valuing New Mediums of Exchange”; “Sustainable Production and Consumption: Simplicity, Sufficiency, Abundance”; and “Visioning and Modeling the New Economy: Shared Prosperity within Planetary Limits”.

The keynote and plenary panels (Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, Gar Alperovitz, and David Orr) provided big picture and big inspiration, while the workshops (including one on Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator) highlighted promising initiatives that illuminate and exemplify possible paths forward.

As one might expect, the new economy activists are an intrepid bunch. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the hundreds of compelling examples of new economy practice (many of which were highlighted at the conference, and many more of which can be found herehere, here, and here ) it remains difficult to establish and maintain confidence that the change that is needed can be achieved at the pace that is required. At the same time, it is also difficult to escape the sense that current and expected conditions – stagnation, decay, and intermittent crisis – may be particularly propitious for the exploration, experimentation, and movement building that transformational change will require.

As much as anything, then, the conference sought to build a bridge over the dismay and self-doubt that any transformational challenge inevitably generates. Indeed, some of the conference’s most powerful moments were when keynoters sought to implant in their audience the collective chutzpah that will be necessary in order to act as if we can move history.

On the train ride along the Hudson back to New York’s Penn Station, I was especially moved  by the way that Bob Massie – no stranger  to doubt himself  – exhorted us to  embrace the moment of radical reinvention.  “We can see the forest”, he reminded us, “because we are the trees”.

You Need More Than A Weather Man to Tell Which Way the Wind Is Blowing

A new poll indicates that a large majority of Americans are linking this year’s unusual weather to global warming. Several weeks ago we were part of a fascinating high level conversation aimed at leveraging this development to deepen support for efforts to combat climate change in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

On the weekend of March 30th, Town Creek grantee Climate Central convened a workshop at the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford to promote more effective use of broadcast weather reports as a platform for educating and informing the public about climate change.

Although it may be tempting to assume that the public views meteorologists with skepticism, they are in fact a consistent and trusted source of important, practical information. They also provide the only consistent contact that many Americans have with science and scientists.

While there has been considerable attention focused on the existence of climate change skepticism and denial within the meteorological community there are a good number of meteorologists who are eager to use their platform to educate and inform the public about the risks and impacts of a changing climate. Doing so carries some measure of professional risk, however, and they are accordingly eager to insure that their scientific messages are as bullet – proof as possible.

In response, Climate Central has developed a program to provide broadcast meteorologists with compelling and scientifically sound climate change content that they can incorporate into their work. This program was piloted in South Carolina, and with our help it is now being deployed in the Chesapeake region.

The March workshop brought together a group of nationally prominent climate scientists with a group of television meteorologists from across the Bay watershed.  The scientists (including Kerry Emmanuel from MIT, Donald Boesch from the University of Maryland, Tony Broccoli from Rutgers University, and Judith Lean from the Naval Research Laboratory) provided primers on climate science, took questions from the meteorologists, and engaged in an open and wide ranging discussion about the challenges and opportunities associated with this work.

The group included a broad range of meteorologists, including big market voices who have asserted leadership as climate change communicators (Bob Ryan from WJLA in Washington D.C.; Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, from NBC10 in Philadelphia) as well as meteorologists operating in smaller, more conservative markets (like Marc Adamo and Stephanie Allison from WMDT-TV in Salisbury and Sean Sublette from WSET/ABC13 in Lynchburg VA).

We are enthusiastically supporting this work due to our interest in helping to insure that Maryland meets its greenhouse gas emissions goals. For a number of years Maryland has been a national leader in advancing policies to reduce pollution from power plants and cars, and to promote energy efficiency and renewables. This admirable record of achievement culminated in passage of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2009, establishing a goal for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25% by the year 2020.

Despite these successes, we are nagged by the suspicion that public support for energy efficiency and clean energy is not as broad and deep as it needs to be. We are therefore eager to help strengthen advocates’ capacity for effective climate change communications.

Given the increasing evidence of a link between extreme weather events and climate change   local weather broadcasts constitute a potentially powerful platform for engaging the public on global warming.  We were encouraged by the interactions that we witnessed between the scientists and the meteorologists, and we are hopeful that Climate Central’s intervention will help move the needle on climate change opinion in the Bay watershed.

We must confess to a bit of anxiety, however, about the inclination – on the part of the scientists as well as the meteorologists – to emphasize the importance of depoliticizing climate conversations. We recognize the motivation, of course, but we worry that attempting to depoliticize climate conversations can be a bit like taking a knife to a gunfight.

Professor Daniel Kahan and his colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School  have shown how the communication of scientific information tends to get refracted through a cultural lens in a process which leads people to endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments:

“Like fans at a sporting contest”, they write, ” people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group. On issues ranging from climate change to gun control, from synthetic biology to counter terrorism, they take their cues about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”.

To the extent that this is the case it makes the job of communicating climate change science perhaps even more difficult than our climate scientists and meteorologists suspect. If the ideological refraction is always already there, then depoliticizing the discourse may have limited value.

Kahan’s advice is that we are more likely to get a better reception for scientific information if it is presented in a way that reinforces the cultural values and identity commitments of the audience.  In a number of communications experiments Kahan and his colleagues have found that invoking keywords, framing and even visual cues can make all the difference in generating acceptance of scientific information.

(This sort of ideological jiu jitsu  – in which we seek to reverse the ideological charge of the message by cloaking it in comfortably recognizable garb –  is quite familiar in an environmental community that has fallen in love with the mobilization of ‘unusual suspects’ (e.g. farmers, watermen, Republicans, 1%ers) as messengers).

This may be a useful tactic but we have our doubts about its strategic soundness. If climate change is – as it appears to be – the paradigmatic example of the planet rebelling against its political, economic, and ideological operating systems, then we are not going to solve it by agreeing to disagree about politics, economics, and ideology. (Or, worse yet, by pretending that we agree). Our opponents recognize this, and that’s why, in their communications, they seek to stoke the political and ideological fires that Kahan and others would have us douse.

Climate change is a transformational challenge that will ultimately require us to remake – not accommodate –  its political, economic, and  ideological conditions. This does not mean that climate scientists and meteorologists need to pick up ideological arms.

But it does mean that someone has to.

Pragmatic Disruptions

Gus Speth is one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century American environmentalism. The consummate insider, Speth’s career has been spent navigating the rapids of institutional power at the highest levels. He co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, led the United Nations Development Program, Chaired Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and served as Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

With such a deep and distinguished pedigree, Speth understands the trajectory of environmental progress better than most. His recent writings (Red Sky at Morning;  The Bridge at the Edge of the World; America the Possible: A Manifesto) emphasize how that trajectory is insufficient to meet the planet’s challenges, largely due to the fundamental disconnect between the social, political, and economic imperatives of our ‘operating system’, and the requirements for human and planetary prosperity.

Part of Speth’s story – the ecological consequences (climate change, collapsed fisheries, desertification, and deforestation) of depleting resources and generating wastes at a pace beyond the planet’s ability to replenish and absorb them – is familiar to most environmentalists.  The other part – the social consequences (increasing inequality, social insecurity, and political paralysis ) of market fundamentalism and political plutocracy – is certainly part of their everyday experience, but may or may not leach into their work plans and advocacy strategies.

Speth weaves these two strands together into a narrative of decline that can be slowed by pragmatic reforms, but will only be reversed through transformational change.  His exemplary career of pursuing reform within the system adds weight and credibility to his current commitment that:

Pursuing reform within the system can help, but what is now desperately needed is transformative change in the system itself. To deal successfully with all the challenges America now faces, we must therefore complement reform with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change to create a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet.

This dialectic between reform and transformation animates our own work here at the Town Creek Foundation. Given the challenges that we are facing and the time frame within which we seek to make an impact, we’ve come to think of our work in terms of helping to maximize the progress that is currently feasible while also helping to establish the conditions under which the infeasible becomes inevitable. In pursuit of our mission to restore the Chesapeake Bay and heal the climate, we share Speth’s view that pragmatic reforms are a necessary but insufficient response. They are necessary for achieving that progress which is currently available and in so doing slowing the degradation of the Bay and the atmosphere. They are insufficient because they are – almost by definition – system sustaining. They often involve accepting and accommodating critical aspects and developments on the existing landscape – including aspects and developments that pragmatists themselves believe or even know to be untenable.

This is the lens through which we have viewed the recent controversy over the inclusion of nutrient credit trading in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. A small group of committed dissenters view nutrient credit trading as an illegal placebo that will only further defer the transformations that are necessary to achieve a sustainably restored Bay. In addition to their concerns about whether trading systems can or are likely to be made accountable, they also recognize that pollution trading regimes are designed to blunt the signals of ecological overshoot, thereby reinforcing the delusion that we can grow – and pollute – in perpetuity. The most aggressive advocates for this position work with Food and Water Watch, and their views can be found here, and here.

A larger group of Bay restoration advocates believe that our political and socio-economic systems make continued growth inevitable and nutrient trading an unavoidable response. Under these circumstances these pragmatists see little alternative to getting on board – working to make trading regimes as transparent and accountable as possible. Any alternative seems to be viewed as a disruptive intervention that may undermine prospects for the progress that is currently available. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Beth McGee has provided an exemplary statement of this position, and groups like the Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay have offered suggestions for how to insure trading is accomplished with appropriate transparency and accountability.

The Town Creek Foundation supports each of these groups, and, uncomfortable as it sometimes is, we do not feel the need to encourage or require them to reconcile their positions. We have and will continue to support well-intentioned pragmatic efforts, and we also feel and will continue to feel the need to lean against the tendency to dismiss disruptive interventions as distracting at best and destructive at worst. On the contrary, in view of the arc that the moral universe has so often taken, we see it as our responsibility (and, also, admittedly, our luxury) to help create and maintain opportunities to fully explore disruptive possibilities. Any theory of change that does not leave room for disruption and dislocation is, in our view, both ahistorical and impractical.

Pragmatists justly pride themselves on recognizing when “the train has left the station” and getting on board  – even when they are somewhat uncomfortable with the ultimate destination. The history of substantial social change in this country suggests, however, that pragmatism is never enough –  it has always been necessary, at one point or another, to throw something on the tracks. The strategic dilemma is in knowing how best to incorporate this recognition into one’s practice. Recognizing that disruptive interventions have always been necessary, our challenge is to distinguish those that will be generative from those that will do little more than leave blood on the tracks.

This is not an easy judgment to make, to be sure. It would seem to us that, at a minimum, it requires establishing and maintaining a space within which the exploration and development of disruptive possibilities can occur. It probably also requires resisting the tendency to reflexively dismiss transformational aspirations as impractical or infeasible. There is no better way, after all, to insure that they remain so.

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Beth McGee, Senior Regional Water Quality Specialist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has a piece on nutrient trading in the current Bay journal. Dr. McGee notes that although trading may be the most controversial and criticized aspect of the Bay TMDL , it is essential for achieving our water quality goals. While complicated and rife with potential pitfalls, it can result in a ‘win-win’ if done well, and we should all step forward and work together to achieve the circumstances under which this win/win will occur.

Much of the controversy surrounding trading derives from concerns that those circumstances – the design and implementation of exemplary nutrient trading programs – constitute a much tighter strike zone then we can reasonably expect to be achieved or maintained.

Trading proponents suggest that we have no choice but to try since the political support for trading means that ‘the train has already left the station’.

To the extent that this is the case it may be because, for some, a win/win seems virtually assured.

If nutrient trading works in the way that its proponents hope – point sources get dispensations to increase their discharges and non point sources get paid to reduce their loads – then polluters (both point and non point) will win in the way that they hope.

If it works in the way that its opponents fear – non point sources get paid and point sources get credit for reductions that never occur – then polluters will win in the way that they fear.



Writing and Cashing Checks

I grew up in Queens, NY in the seventies, and came of age, therefore,  during Hollywood’s classic blaxploitation era.  Because we were so cool,  my running buddies and I used to impress ourselves by throwing around phrases that we’d absorbed in the balcony on Friday nights. One of our favorites was from Shaft:  ‘Don’t let your mouth write checks that your ass can’t cash’.

Improbably,  I was reminded of this when I saw the latest report from our friends at the Center for Progressive Reform.  In October of last year, the Center  and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law hosted the annual Ward Kershaw Forum on Friday, October 21, 2011. The event was a day-long exploration of how to ensure that Chesapeake Bay states and the EPA are accountable to each other and the public for Bay restoration efforts, particularly in light of decreased funding levels for permit writing, monitoring, and enforcement and repeated attempts to undercut the Clean Water Act.

We are big supporters of the Center and its allies in the environmental enforcement community (e.g. Environmental Integrity ProjectEarthjusticeChesapeake Waterkeepers, and, of course, the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic). Holding public officials accountable for enforcing the law  doesn’t provide the same thrills as working with those officials to pass the laws in the first place, but it is the venue in which the checks are cashed.

Getting Serious About Saving the Chesapeake Bay”  CPR’s Rena Steinzor, Aimee Simpson, and Yee Huang’s report on the October Kershaw Forum,   focuses on the steps that Maryland needs to take to insure that its environmental enforcement program can cash the checks that it’s legislature writes.

Its worth a read.

Redefining Progress, One State at a Time

What can prosperity possibly look like in a finite world, with limited resources and a population expected to exceed 9 billion people within decades? Do we have a decent vision of prosperity for such a world? Is this vision credible in the face of the available evidence about ecological limits?…The prevailing response to these questions is to cast prosperity in economic terms and to call for continuing economic growth as the means to deliver it. Higher incomes mean increased choices, richer lives, and an improved quality of life for those who benefit from them. This, at least is the conventional wisdom. This formula is cashed out (almost literally) as an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

This passage is excerpted from a groundbreaking work of paradigm shifting economic analysis – Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.   Jackson, a Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, is one of the most well-known and well regarded members of a global network of academics and public intellectuals who are working to develop a new economics – one that proceeds from the premise that the economy is a subset of our ecological system and to be sustainable must operate in ways that respect the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Counter-intuitive as it may be, the opposite proposition – that there are no limits to how much we can and should use and discard of the planet’s resources – has a nearly hegemonic hold on us, with tentacles that intrude into even the most unlikely of places. Some (perhaps most) environmental advocates believe (perhaps correctly) that they have no choice but to frame the value of protecting the environment in terms of how doing so will help to create more new jobs and further grow our economy.

Making it safe to trouble these waters is no small task. Jackson and his fellow apostates recognize, however, that a key point of intervention involves challenging the calculus that equates expanded social prosperity with increased GDP.

Happily Maryland is ground zero for some of the United States’ most forward thinking work of this sort. Maryland is the first state to establish an official complement to the GDP/GSP.  Rather than equating progress with the total amount of economic activity within the state, the Maryland  Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) generates an aggregate measurement of economic, environmental, and social progress, a measurement that parses the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of economic growth, and also embraces value that resides outside of balance sheets.

With our help, the Institute for Policy Studies (a Washington-based think tank) is helping Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to expand awareness of the Maryland GPI, and to deepen its impact.  Their work together will be featured at the upcoming State of the State briefing of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Sean Maguire, at the Office for a Sustainable Future in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, is the Genuine Progress Indicator Program Manager . Sean was recently interviewed on WYPR.