We need bigger charts

*This article was written as a Letter to the Editor at The Washington Post in reference to the online article “This is how an ‘off-the-charts’ flood ravaged Ellicott City.”


Climate change is here with us today. It is not the epic worldwide catastrophe that global warming can sometimes be described as. Rather, it often takes its form in quick snapshots of chaos such as the biblical flooding Saturday night in Ellicott City.

Scientists warn us that as concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere continue to rise, so will the occurrence of natural disasters such as flash-flooding. Essentially, this thousand-year rainfall event covered in the August 1st article, “This is how an ‘off-the-charts’ flood ravaged Ellicott City”, is becoming way more normal.

In the 21st Century, our beloved townships with their historic districts and quaint Americana are vulnerable to a stranger and more temperamental climate. We already know that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate further climate change. Simultaneously, however, our cities and infrastructure also must adapt to climate impacts. We are responsible for making them more resilient to once uncommon weather events that are becoming far likelier.

This climate challenge is a climate opportunity, however. Creating resilient cities puts Americans to work and fosters an inclusive sense of community. Yet still, we must be realistic about where we stand among the facts of a new and unruly climate.  As we experience more and more “off-the-charts” storms, let’s get real and draw up new charts. And new city plans while we are at it.

Changing Climate Change – How I Discovered My Importance

It’s 5am and I arrive at Warsaw Chopin Airport in Poland on zero hours sleep. My body is electrified yet tired from the previous week. I had won a scholarship to observe the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw, Poland during my first semester of graduate school at American University. I had just bore witness to the ultimate decision making process: how much global warming will humanity allow?

An overpriced airport latte calls to me, but I refrain in order to sleep on my flight back to the US. I grab a sandwich instead and walking back to my over-packed and overweight camping backpack, I recognize the delegate from Singapore sitting at the gate next to mine. Singapore is part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at the UNFCCC. They have banded together with other small, low-lying nations to leverage their influence as a bloc rather than as individual countries without much gravitas. Essentially, these countries have contributed the least amount of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are driving our warming planet yet are experiencing a disproportionate share of the negative impacts.

I stall for a moment, but decide to go over and introduce myself. What have I got to lose?

He is kind, obviously tired, yet happy to speak with me. Delegates such as this man are running on almost no sleep at these conferences during the final few days. They are working on drafting an all-encompassing international agreement to limit the worst of climate change. The world was watching with great anticipation in 2009 when the first all-inclusive agreement was supposed to be struck, but the negotiations came to a standstill when none of the world’s largest economies, such as the USA or China, stepped up with truly ambitious GHG emission reduction goals. The conference ended with a fog of disappointment hanging heavy among the attendees. The UNFCCC regrouped in 2011, and set 2015 as the deadline for finalizing this new agreement.

All this was freshly acquired knowledge for me. That first semester I was blown away to learn that there is an international body with their hands on the global thermostat, that the decisions being made are not how to avoid climate change, but how much of it we are going to induce. See, at the highest level, no one is debating if anthropogenic global warming is happening. Countries know it is, but doing something about rustles the feathers of the big time fossil fuel companies that buy legislative influence. But that’s a story for another post.

The several months of preparation in class for the conference lead to a crystallization of a cynical thought once I experienced the real thing; these conferences are deciding the fate of the world. These people are negotiating how degraded we will allow life sustaining processes to become. It is simply a diabolical thought. All of these considerations are in my head, but I try to keep it polite and simple so I ask if Singapore got what it wanted at this meeting.

The big governments gave more than they wanted to, the small governments got less than they asked for, he explains. It is all about compromise, he says with a rock solid patience he must have developed from years of working in the field of climate negotiations.

Our conversation seems fairly on message, but then he said something that I will never forget. He looks at me and says, “It’s important for you to be here. You young people put the spotlight on us, hold us accountable. Without that we would have no one to answer to.”

My flight takes me back to Washington DC and my good friend Greg picks me up. I proceed where my life left off; homework, catching up with friends, more homework. It takes several weeks and months for me to process the time I spent in Poland and my encounter with the delegate from Singapore.

I recognize that I am an outlier. I decided to go the graduate school and study Global Environmental Politics because to me, climate change is the biggest and scariest challenge we face as a species. I have been warned not to use this alarming rhetoric, but it is the truth of how I feel. A student of the physical sciences, I understand we cannot escape cause and effect. By filling our air with GHGs for the last 300 years there is simple physics and chemistry we cannot escape. Bill McKibben said it best, “It’s not that the scientists are alarmists – it’s that the science is alarming”.

But I am a trained optimist. There is always a joke waiting inside defeat, always a space to express gratitude. So I have met the climate change problem and have come to see it instead as a challenge. Because a challenge can either be a problem or an opportunity. Al Gore has described climate change as the greatest opportunity ever afforded to mankind. Indeed, responding to climate change is qualitatively uncharted territory for humans. What climate change means to me is an opportunity for cooperation, innovation, and a consideration of equity on a global scale.

And here is where I hear the voice of the delegate from Singapore ringing in my head. Indeed, there is no one person, entity, or government that will be held accountable if these negotiations fail. There is comfort in acknowledging that some of the best on-the-ground work being done to combat climate change is at the local and regional scale. However, without the international rules of the road the UNFCCC is meant to set, we are setting the Earth up for a crash.

But the real power is in the citizens who hold our governing processes accountable. By being active participants in our governments, by voting, by staying up to date on new laws, by joining organizations like Citizens Climate Lobby and Sierra Club, by attending town hall meetings on environmental legislation, by sharing information in person and on social media, we each can effect change that makes a difference.

To me climate change means we must take the next step as individuals in modern society struggling with the burden of climate change. We are afforded a great opportunity to extend ourselves beyond our single lives to challenge the climate challenge. We are a global community and we have global responsibilities.

I haven’t seen my friend from Singapore since that November morning in 2013, but his words have not left me. And I hope you now can be equally enlivened by his message: everyone makes a difference. Bodies at a rally, names on a petition, and shares on social media all add up. Our actions are not lost to oblivion, but add to an inertia. So add your action, whatever it may be.

You don’t need to fly to Poland to take on climate change, but you can at least share this post.

Spencer Schecht: Navroz Dubash visits SIS

Global Environmental Politics

Written by Spencer Schecht (NRSD Class of ’15)

On the sunny morning of February 2nd, a group of SIS faculty and students met on the American University campus with Navroz Dubash, one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Global Environmental Politics, to discuss the state of play of environmental challenges in his home country of India.

Dubash suggested that India finds itself at a crossroads of energy, pollution, and poverty alleviation.

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Wil Burns: New Study – Commitment Accounting of CO2 Emissions

The socio-economic inertia of carbon intensive infrastructure is a major obstacle to decarbonizing the world.

Global Environmental Politics

This post was written by Dr. Wil Burns.  Dr. Burns is Scholar in Residence at the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program and serves as Co-Executive Director of the Washington Geoengineering Consortium, an initiative of the GEP program.  This post originally appeared on another blog of the GEP program, Teaching Climate/Energy Law & Policy.

Socolow_photo_7.7.14 Dr. Robert H. Socolow

A new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters assesses the potential impacts of cumulative emissions from existing fossil fuel plants built in the past few years (2010-2012). During this period, an average of 89 gigawatts of new coal generating capacity was added annually, with natural gas trends soaring at a similar pace during this time.
The study by Steven J. Davis and Robert H. Socolow, sought to quantify what they characterized as “an important component of socio-economic inertia,” which they denominated “committed emissions,” or the projected emissions from existing fossil fuel-burning infrastructure…

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Forget 2012: Why 2015 Will Decide Our Fate

I bet even the Mayans didn’t see this coming when they predicted that the world would end in 2012. Turns out we are not off the hook yet, with an even more legitimate danger staring us in the face. Right now a bunch of suits at the UN are deciding how much climate change we are going to get.

No, really. Their hands are on the global thermostat. And only WE can hold them accountable for how far they crank it up.

Let me explain: Not many people know that each year 195 national governments meet to hash out the details of a global agreement to stop man-made climate change. It’s called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and this is the take home message: they’re not doing so hot. This forum was supposed to reach an agreement in 2009 to limit catastrophic climate change by creating tangible reduction pledges of greenhouse gas emissions from all member nations. The negotiations came to a standstill when no greenhouse gas (GHG) heavy-hitters, such as the USA or China, stepped up with ambitious reduction commitments fearing economic whiplash if they acted without comparable promises from other countries. When the GHG giants did not commit to significant reductions, no one else did either. Since then we’ve seen Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented drought in California , and biblical flooding in Arizona, among a growing list of climate impacts. At the same time, the most well supported research on global climate change concluded global warming has moved firmly into the present and our window to act is closing.

A new deadline of 2015 was set in 2011 to recover from the failure in 2009 and to create an all-inclusive global agreement that will put the brakes on the gluttonous amount of carbon we are belching into the air.

frustrated US delegate

Frustrated delegate from the United States at Conference of the Parties (COP) 19 in Warsaw, Poland. The final international agreement on global warming is hinging on the contributions proposed by the United States, China, and India. Only one of these key players has to step up with ambitious emission reduction goals to provide the assurance for the rest of the world to set similarly ambitious targets. Photo credit: Spencer R Schecht.

We’ve seen this kind of climate belly flop before with the deteriorating Kyoto Protocol and the meltdown at the Copenhagen negotiations. One clue as to why we keep hearing this broken record may lie in that no single entity, government, nor set of individuals are held responsible if these negotiations fail. Though collective failure has big consequences, it’s still nobody’s fault. Nobody, except for us; we the people of planet earth.

If 2015 doesn’t produce a robust agreement with ambitious greenhouse gas reduction pledges from the world’s biggest economies, we are back at where we are right now: the pollutants that warm our world will continue to flow freely into our air and we are left to prepare for uncharted territory.

Which is where we come in; you and I can each take ACTION to limit the worst of climate change. The UNFCCC is composed of governments and our government is composed “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We as the people ARE powerful. We have the power to hold our representatives accountable for doing their job of ensuring a safe and just world. And our power grows with our capacity to cooperate. I’m not just talking switching out our light bulbs and recycling, either (but we should continue to do that too).

Here are 3 levels of action you can take:

1- You did it! You read this article, I hope now you know something you didn’t know before. Stay educated on the issue, there are lots of great resources out there that can keep you in the know. Follow updates on this important process on Twitter @SpencerSchecht. Stay educated, my friends, with these great resources:

·      350.org

·      Adopt a Negotiator Project

·      Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

·      Grist

2- Join the party and take a trip to New York City September 21 to show the UN that they have the eyes of the world upon them. As nations convene for a day of preliminary talks on the agreement, the largest climate march in history will be taking place. Civil participation is an empowering and significant privilege that can produce real change, as it did during the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to just everywhere”; The People’s Climate March is our opportunity to stand together for justice. To let this injustice persist threatens justice everywhere. Take to the streets in a grand show that we are more invested in real change than clicking like on Facebook. Read up, be heard, experience it for yourself.

3- Activate your power in this democracy– Citizens Climate Lobby is equipping people with tools and training to develop relationships with their politicians and urge them for action on global warming. With more meetings with Congress each year than any other volunteer based environmental organization, CCL is giving the people back their democracy. Let us not forget our government is participatory, so let’s participate.

CCL 2014 Capitol Steps

The author and 600 Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers at the Capitol Steps in Washington DC. We have the power to push those making the decisions to act on climate change. Photo credit: Erica Flock.

Keep up to date, find your voice, and decide for yourself where you fit in. There are a variety of ways to do your part while enjoying the experience of discovering your power as a free citizen. And indeed, freedom plus cooperation has produced some of the greatest successes in history. We as citizens have the power to push our representatives to be leaders at these meetings. Our nation’s influence is unparalleled, and our influence on our nation is imperative.

Those in suits have their hands on the global thermostat, but we can decide to join the cavalry to rescue our collective future.

Contact the author:


Facebook: Spencer R Schecht

Twitter: @SpencerSchecht

Instagram: spencerschecht

Why I Believe in ‘Fake it Til you Make it’

Right now you are probably not what you want to be. Not because you are a failure or aren’t talented enough, but because you have aspirations and goals, and that’s good. We want bigger and better things in our lives. It’s just part of the human condition, we all want to BE MORE.


So how do we get to where we want to be? By faking it, of course. I do not mean to imply malicious posturing for the sake of indiscriminate personal gain. Productive faking is pushing your limits, reaching farther outside what you think you are capable of to a place of possibility. The kind of faking I speak of is imagination, improvisation, playfulness, a certain joy in creation.


Let me explain: you want to be a better writer? Or a better pianist or a better tennis player or whatever. You practice incessantly and prepare and the time comes to step up. But you aren’t Steinbeck or Mozart. Yet! You are only you, in this moment, possibly bereft of the skill and experience to achieve what you want, but still you “fake it”, you go for it, you try. And through faking it you acquire skill and experience.


See, “fake it til you make it” doesn’t mean you are trying to be someone you’re not. It is the courage to participate as more than you think you are capable of. It is divine collaboration in this world. Don’t get all hung up on the negative connotations of the word “fake”. Fake cheese sucks. So do fake people. But you are never a fake person for paying for your experience in the currency of courage. This payment is in exchange for personal development. It is diving into the discomfort zone without knowing who you will be when you resurface.


We fake it when we are uncomfortable at a party and continue with the small talk. We fake it when we go all out on the soccer field, running like hell and flailing around trying to make a play. But that small talk may evolve into real talk and you may stumble into a meaningful conversation. You may realize you are a better soccer player than you thought, that your stamina is damn good.


And hey, maybe you won’t succeed in either of these instances. Maybe you will fall flat on your face and make a fool out of yourself. But this hardly means we have failed. It is always possible to derive positive meaning from a perceived failure. Failures shape us as much as successes. They are tools for growth if we recognize them as such. You can always feel accomplishment from not achieving what your faking meant to in this way.


Remember what Emerson said, “Adhere to your own act, congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.” We need not compromise authenticity in a “fake it til you make it” paradigm. One is honoring the infinite potential of life and experimenting with the cosmic toolbox of experience.


So I say fake it. Fake the hell out of it. When one system of faking fails you, try out a different one. It is our life mission to reveal our own character to ourselves. How can we reveal this if we never take a leap from our comfort zone into the unknown? To fake it a little bit?


 To BE MORE we must TRY MORE.


We may awake one day and find we no longer have to fake it; we’ve actually made it.



Alphabet Soup: The Significance of the UNFCCC and the COPs

The 1992 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was at the time the largest convening of nations in history. Better known as “Earth Summit”, this event galvanized the need for unprecedented transnational cooperation to ensure a healthy global environment and sustainable development as humanity fumbled into the 21st Century. 


A supremely important treaty to emerge from this meeting was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that stated the intention to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Basically world leaders agreed we should work cooperatively towards stopping destructive climate change. Exactly what should be done by who and when was the subject of discussions at the yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) as member nations wrestled with the problems of decoupling economic prosperity with high carbon emissions.


Possibly the most famous proposal manufactured through the UNFCCC process was the Kyoto Protocol. Agreed upon in 1997 and taking effect in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol required emissions reductions by the world’s most developed nations who were at the time the leading CO2 culprits. The US Senate did not like the idea of the world dictating to the USA how much carbon it was allowed to emit and the US never signed the agreement. With the US out, the Kyoto Protocol has had minimal success in spurring its intended results.


The conversation is now more important that ever. Questions abound as to whether the Kyoto Protocol should be modified to be more inclusive for member nations such as the US or if we should graduate to a separate system. A major roadblock with keeping the KP alive is the once third world economies of China, India, and Brazil are undergoing monstrous growth and therefore have become monstrous emitters. Under the KP guidelines as they are now these countries would be immune to the binding commitments the US couldn’t stomach almost a decade ago. Another argument submits major polluters from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution such as the US and the EU should finance developing countries mitigation efforts so they could in effect “leap frog” over the high carbon development the first world utilized to raise its standards of living. Furthermore, all of this needs to keep to the paramount objective of leveling off greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


Currently the 19th iteration of the COP is taking place in Warsaw, Poland where I am an observing delegate from American University. Countries are cautious to make bold commitments in the fear that hard action on climate change would mean jeopardizing economic development. Developing countries argue they are raising their populations out of poverty and need carbon intensive infrastructure to do so. Developed nations, arguably with the most responsibility and capability to act submit taking steps when no one else will is unfair to their prosperity.


The deadline was set in 2011 so by the year 2015 a new UNFCCC agreement will be reached that will take effect in 2020. Whether it is improved upon or altogether scrapped, the Kyoto Protocol as is no longer accommodates for the state of the global economic landscape and what that means for distributing responsibility fairly. Will countries be held to blanket commitments such as under the KP or will each country decide domestically what actions are appropriate for themselves? Who will provide the funds to the poorest countries and to what projects? What happens if we fail to act in time and climate change begins irreversibly altering weather patterns, livelihoods, and coastlines? We are living through a tremendously transformative period where for the first time countries are attempting to answer these questions and to cooperate in redefining the fundamentals of economic prosperity to safeguard the global environment from irreversible damage.