As part of Brookline Climate Week, Climate Action Brookline has been encouraging people to eat at Brookline restaurants that are recognized for “green” practices such as sustainable operations and menus composed of organic or locally grown food.  The Fireplace in Washington Square is certified by the Green Restaurant Association and prides itself on offering New England-grown seasonal produce.  Even better, this Saturday the restaurant was participating in the Greater Boston Food Bank’s Super Hunger Brunch with a special menu for $25.  This annual fundraiser uses the proceeds – vouchers for specific restaurants available on the website a few weeks ahead of time – to stock the food bank that provides over 500,000 meals each year.

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The waitstaff had to adjust the menu a bit for vegetarians.  The brunch cocktail, yogurt parfait and croissant stuffed with egg, cheese and roasted Brussels sprouts were delicious and a great value!

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Linda Ciesielski from the Boston Natural Areas Network led a walk through the Boston Common and Public Garden on Saturday morning instructing attendees on how to identify trees in winter.  With no leaves to look at, the details of the bark and the way the branches spread become indicators to distinguish the oaks, elms and ash trees in the parks.

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Before I had to bail from the extreme cold, we learned about the Dutch Elm Disease that decimated most of the American Elms in the country including our parks in Boston.  The few left near the front of the state house are in terrible condition (see the topless tress on the right below).

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On Thursday evening, as part of Brookline Climate Week, Brookline Booksmith hosted a talk by climate writer Wen Stephenson who acquired local notice most recently for his article in the sadly defunct Boston Phoenix entitled “The New Abolitionists: Global Warming is the Great Moral Crisis of Our Time.”  Currently a contributor to the Nation, Stephenson helped found the Massachusetts chapter of 350.org.

Beginning with the Frederick Douglas quote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress”, the talk laid out an argument for the immediate need for more radical activism against the industries and policies that continue to encourage fossil fuel consumption.  The foundation for this argument is not simply that climate change is in fact now a crisis, but that it is an issue of morality.  Stephenson relayed findings from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that by 2020 12% of the world’s population will experience absolute water scarcity and 24% will experience chronic water scarcity.  The implication of that prediction is that more than one-third of the world will have trouble growing enough food.  He noted the World Bank has stated that a 4˚C rise in surface temperature was beyond human adaptation and that we are on track to exceed this.  Stephenson asks if a just society is still possible if that will be our reality?

The answer he tells us lies not in the environmental movement but in a new kind of movement that harkens back to a time when justice and morality were linked to a cause which more directly appeals to everyone’s sense of right and wrong.  Stephenson argues that human rights and social justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries are the type that would in that way transcend the notion of “environment.”  And the key element of those movements was the level of commitment by their proponents – radical commitment – that may lead to personally negative consequences.  The mental shift that has to take place is that of starting to view the actions of the fossil fuel industry and their government lackeys, where public information has been tampered with and the future – especially for the poorest people – has been robbed, as crimes.  Stephenson says further, to galvanize a movement, it must be acknowledged that our media has failed to address the climate crisis and our political representatives have failed to take action.  The responsibility then falls to grassroots activism.

Even if an individual comes to all these conclusions, there are still issues to contemplate before evolving into a real radical activist.  “Radicalism is not risk free.”  Imprisonment is a real possibility – as evidenced in the film screening earlier this week about the actions of Tim DeChristopher.  I would add to that the likely labeling and ostracism of your peers – something I still struggle with.  Being “green” or “eco-friendly” is fashionable among many, but only to a point.  If you start talking to your friends and co-workers about drought-induced mass starvation, abandoning coastal cities, or even just reducing your carbon footprint by giving up your car they tend to look at you like an “extremist” and write-off what you’re saying.  Besides the current injustice being a motivator, one also has to really believe, as Stephenson stated, that there is a possibility of a just world in the future for which to fight.  So then, do you believe it is not too late?  As I have heard it repeated in other forums, the climate justice movement is only going to succeed if it is integrated with solutions to other problems – political division, local development issues, globalization, economic justice, human rights, etc.

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On Wednesday, a panel discussion about Massachusetts energy and environmental policies took place at the main branch of the Brookline Public Library as part of Brookline Climate Week.  Moderated by Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation, the panel participants were Craig Altemose, Executive Director of the Better Future Project (closely linked to 350.org MA) and Bobby Kates-Garnick, Undersecretary of Energy in the Patrick administration.

Altemose spoke first and did pat Governor Patrick on the back for strong climate initiatives such as the Green Communities Act, the Green Jobs Act, the Global Warming Solutions Act and for getting our state to the point where it can be hailed as #1 in energy efficiency.  However, he was very concerned that at the current pace of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, the state will not make its 2020 or 2050 goals.  His main point, echoed by many other climate activists, is that he believes we are past the point of discussion on the correct action to take.  Only drastic cuts in GHG emissions are going to make a difference, they need to be done now and it will take a strong leader to institute and enforce such a policy.  In other words, there should be no quibbling about whether or not Cape Wind should go forward or whether the old power plant in Salem should be converted to natural gas.  However, fortunately or unfortunately, democracy is slow.  While I agree the governor could speak out more on climate and try to drag the rest of the region with him in initiatives, Altemose wasn’t that specific on what he thought the governor could individually do.  Executive orders maybe?  In any case, his recommendations were “bar the worst, build only the best and price the rest.”  By this he meant shut down the rest of the coal plants, ban fracking and tar sands-produced energy, set clean fuel standards, build infrastructure only for clean and efficient energy and introduce a carbon tax.

The undersecretary was careful to say she was not there representing the Patrick administration – though the rest of the panel and audience treated her as if she was.  She did start with a disclaimer stating that policymakers have a responsibility to all stakeholders and the primary concerns among them under her purview are energy reliability and cost.  She noted the successes of the Patrick administration including energy reduction, leadership in goal setting for GHG emission reductions, surpassing the solar installation goal and the Global Warming Solutions Act.  The undersecretary pointed out that clean energy businesses have grown by 11% in Massachusetts and the $2.2 Billion in energy efficiency investments that the state is making will have a return of $9 Billion in benefits.  She did, however, want to inform the audience about the challenges the administration faces in negotiating with stakeholders – be they utilities or Cape Cod residents – to come up with solutions and processes that are supported by all affected by new policies or policy changes.  For example, she explained that decommissioning a coal-fired power plant is not that simple.  There are no regulations to force it to be a “clean” shutdown and so local engagement is necessary to make sure there is no blight left in a community by an abandoned plant.  Additionally, those left out of work by a shutdown have to be considered.  Another issue she pointed out was our energy distribution system.  There are well-documented gas leaks that need to be addressed and may require major upgrades to infrastructure that have to be paid for without totally passing on the cost to the consumer.  While supportive of alternative energy, Kates-Garnick warned that you can’t just break apart an industry – the coal/oil/natural gas industry – it is the role of government to offer incentives and plans to make the change possible and attractive.  She also emphasized that energy is a regional issue.  Massachusetts can be a leader but cannot do it all on its own.

The Q&A session brought up audience questions about the possibility of a carbon tax, support for carbon extraction entrepreneurship and nuclear power.  There was also some anger about the proposed natural gas plant in Salem and the governor’s apparent unwillingness to “show leadership” by squashing it.  Everyone was encouraged to join the protest against the plan on Feb 8th.

The next day, I was a little irritated to get this email from the Better Future Project.

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While Altemose was both polite and passionate at the panel discussion, I hope it was perhaps an immature staff member rather than he who composed this criticism of Undersecretary Kates-Garnick.  It is going too far to come this close to equating her and the Patrick administration with anti-abolitionists.  No one who was listening would have mistaken her as an apologist for the fossil fuel industry.  At worst she spoke as a practical-minded rather than idealistic bureaucrat.