It’s a rainy Monday night in a tree-shaded neighborhood of stately homes in Princeton that you wouldn’t think would harbor a hotbed of left-leaning politics. But one house on Battle Road has been just that. Built originally for Oswald Veblen, the first professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1932, the house later became the home of Arno Mayer, a Princeton professor known as a radical firebrand during the tumultuous days of the 1960s. Mayer, now 90 and retired, still lives in town. His son, Carl Mayer, a public interest lawyer who was a supporter of Ralph Nader and the Green Party in the 2000 election, keeps the liberal-left flame alive.
All appropriate and impressive political legacy for the monthly meeting of Princeton Marching Forward, the group that has sprung up to sustain the energy unearthed by the Women’s March on Washington the day after the presidential inauguration. The crowd of 50 or so crammed into the Battle Road living room and overflowing into a few adjoining rooms includes a few of us gray-haired old guys from the ’60s, as well as a healthy mix of middle aged and earnest young people.
We are all there to hear a talk about climate change, one of the issues that the Princeton Marching Forward group is addressing. The guest speaker does not appear to be a radical left firebrand. In fact it’s a middle-aged mother of two, dressed, well, conservatively in a navy blue jumper with gold necklace and moderately high heeled dress shoes — no Birkenstocks. It’s Kathleen Biggins, and she looks like she is ready to talk to the garden club, not the progressives and radicals assembled on Battle Road.
The garden club approach, I eventually come to realize, may not be such a bad idea.
The fact is that the environmental movement was fueled at the very beginning by a motley coalition of peaceniks, no doubt tired of fighting the Vietnam War, hunting organizations (think Ducks Unlimited), and garden clubs (good, old-fashioned, and mostly Republican women who knew better than to spoil a good thing).
Some of the ‘60s era holdovers thought that environmental issues were trivial compared to the momentous issues of the day, chiefly civil rights and the Vietnam War. As fate would have it, when the first Earth Day rolled around I was a recent college graduate working as a reporter for Time magazine in New York. I was assigned to a new section, “The Environment,” created by the magazine to reflect its interest in the suddenly popular subject.
I was assigned to report on the urban nightmare of sidewalks polluted by dog excrement. In this pre-pooper scooper era, it was a real problem, especially in New York. To gather some local color for the piece, I submitted a call for anecdotes to the company newsletter. Among the responses was this snarky, anonymous note: “To think, Rein, a couple of months ago you were chairman of the Daily Princetonian. Today you’re doing stories on polluted sidewalks. Hot shit turns to dog shit.”
On that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people participated in various teach-ins and marches. People marveled at its bipartisan support: Republicans and Democrats, big business and organized labor. By the end of 1970 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been formed, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts had been enacted.
To this day environmental issues continue to poll favorably, but public opinion about climate change has some paradoxical results.
As the New York Times reported a few weeks ago, “Americans overwhelmingly believe that global warming is happening, and that carbon emissions should be scaled back. But fewer are sure that the changes will matter to them personally.” Citing data from the Yale Program on Climate Communication, the Times noted that “most people think that climate change will harm Americans, but they don’t think it will happen to them.”
On top of that the issue has become as polarized as any other on our political landscape.
That’s where Biggins comes in. Neither a scientist nor a political activist, Biggins was raised in New Orleans, where her father was an orthodontist. The town was and is a microcosm of the climate change issue. “So much of the economy there is based on fossil fuels,” she says. But New Orleans is also “a poster child for the consequences.”
Biggins earned a degree at the University of Virginia, pursued a career in journalism, advertising, and public relations, and eventually moved to Princeton with her husband, Jay, who works in commercial real estate. While raising their two sons (now in their 20s), Biggins has supported the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and participated in, yes, the garden club.
A dozen years ago she went to the national garden club convention in Washington, D.C., and was impressed by the speakers addressing the climate change issue. “When I came home people treated me like I was Chicken Little,” she recalls.
The sky didn’t really fall. But years later, at around the time of Hurricane Sandy, Biggins made another trip to the national garden club convention. Trading notes with other club members in the aftermath of Sandy, she discovered that “everyone had a story of some weird weather event. And things that experts projected would happen 20 to 30 years off were happening now.”
It was a call to action. “I realized I had so many friends who had no idea of the danger of climate change. I wanted to wake people up, but not turn them off,” says Biggins. “We wanted to bring the conversation to the middle.”
Biggins and others in the garden club circle decided to ask some experts to address the climate change issues. At first the audience was on an invitation-only basis so that the group wouldn’t be overrun by those already sensitized to the climate change issue. “We were getting a buzz but we were still not getting the basic information across,” says Biggins. “We wanted to do it in a grass roots way, make it less political. We don’t want to tell you what to do. We want to invite you into the conversation.”
Eventually they became a formal nonprofit called C-Change Conversations. In addition to Biggins, the founders include Harriette Brainard, a college admissions counselor, an environmental writer, and lacrosse coach; Carrie Dyckman, a community activist focusing on sustainability and co-chair of her garden club’s conservation committee; Sophie Glovier, author of “Walk the Trails In and Around Princeton” and a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission; Pam Mount, co-owner with her husband of Terhune Orchards and founding chair of Sustainable Jersey; and Katy Kinsolving, a food educator, writer, and sustainability activist.
It was Kinsolving who came up with the name, C-Change Conversations (www.c-changeconversations.com). The “C-Change” is a play on the sea change that needs to take place to slow, stop, and then reverse the climate change force. The “conversation” is the mode of persuasion that Biggins and her group believe will be most effective in reaching their target.
A few days before the meeting on Battle Road, I asked Biggins in an e-mail what her group would think of my modest proposal (advanced in this column on March 22) to encourage those concerned about climate change to turn off their home air conditioners for one full week in the middle of summer. It might be a “wake up call for utilities and policy makers,” Biggins replied. “Our group is a bit different as we are geared towards moderates and conservatives.” She doubted her audience would go without AC.
Rather than engaging in partisan politics or marching on Washington, the C-Change group has been waging a quiet communications initiative. Its sources: information from the Princeton-based Climate Central (“science-vetted journalism,” Biggins calls it) and the Yale Program on Climate Communication, along with expert speakers from scientists to corporate CEOs. They have included David Crane, formerly of NRG; Rear Admiral David Titley, who served as the Navy’s chief oceanographer and is now founding director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, discussing military and geopolitical implications; and a former head of risk assessment at Goldman Sachs, Bob Litterman, speaking on Wall Street’s “pragmatic approach” to climate change.
The C-Change group developed a “climate change primer,” which they now present to groups such as Princeton Marching Forward.
Here on Battle Road the guests are soon settled. Biggins’ computer is connected to the big screen TV and she takes center stage. In talking to climate change deniers and to those who think climate change is real but not a real problem, Biggins says there are three gorillas in the room.
First is the argument that the climate has always been changing — so what’s the big deal? The big deal, she says, is that for the last 10,000 years or so (up until relatively recently) the climate has been incredibly stable, with swings of no more than 1 or 2 degrees. But now it’s changing rapidly.
The second gorilla is that “fossil fuels have been incredible friends to us.” Coal to fuel our electric power plants and gasoline for our cars have enabled us to make massive strides in productivity and increases in our standard of living. “But soon they will do the opposite,” Biggins says.
Gorilla number three: “It’s a tough topic to talk about. There’s been a spiral of silence,” she says. Before 2008 calls for action on climate change were on the platforms of both political parties. But the news media began to cover it as part of the cultural war. Political parties started using the issue as a way to rile up their base. As Biggins notes, “if you take the phrase ‘climate change’ away and ask people if they support renewable energy, the response is very favorable.”
We’re in this ideological stalemate despite that fact that “the basic science has been understood for more than a century,” she says. And the data on which the science is based are not random samplings by junior high school kids doing science projects. In fact, Biggins says, it’s gathered at 6,500 locations around the world by four different agencies — from Japan, England, and two in the U.S., NASA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
It’s literally a slippery slope. Satellite views of the earth show the decreasing Arctic ice mass. The white ice had served to reflect sunlight and keep the region cooler. As the ice disappears so does the reflective material. “There’s a whole ‘nother ocean for the Navy to patrol,” Biggins says.
Biggins wonders if Glacier National Park will have to change its name. She’s not kidding. After the event I do a Google search and discover that climate change scientists had predicted the park’s glaciers would be gone by 2030. But that projection was based on a 2003 US Geological Survey study using 1992 temperature predictions. The actual temperature increase has been greater — people now say the glaciers could be gone by 2020.
For 800,000 years the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has vacillated between 200 and 300 parts per million. From 1910 to 2015 it’s risen from 300 to over 400. “Modern humans have never lived in a world with so much CO2,” she says.
What do the scientists think? The evidence linking human activity to climate change, says Biggins, is “as strong as that linking HIV to AIDS or smoking to lung cancer.” She says that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity. Even industry groups and Exxon Mobil have acknowledged the problem.
Is it dangerous? Biggins asks. “At this point,” she says, “I thought I might get a shot of whiskey for everyone.”
No one takes her up on the drink offer, but we hunker in for the bad news. Pulling up a chart that shows the earth’s average temperature, Biggins explains that it’s been 20,000 years since the last ice age, and that for the past 10,000 years or so, the average temperature has hovered around the 60-degree mark. That’s the time period and the temperature range in which civilization started and flourished. “It’s a sweet spot,” says Biggins, obviously concerned that it could quickly pass.
Biggins displays a NASA-generated graphic that shows the range of earth temperatures displayed in ranges of blue (for cooler) to yellow to red (for warmer). The earth’s map is mostly blue in the year 1900, and mostly red in 2015.
There are dangerous implications to our health, national security, and economic well being. Biggins touches on a few consequences I had never considered before, including evidence that shows increased levels of carbon dioxide in ocean water, leading to increased carbonic acid, leading to decreased food from the ocean. While there are all sorts of dire predictions about what even a one-foot increase in sea level would mean, Biggins says there are already harbingers of trouble. She refers to “sunny day nuisance flooding,” when higher tides than usual cause flooding that in the good old days would be expected during a storm.
Is there any hope? We are meeting March 27 and news reports are circulating that the Trump administration will soon cancel the Clean Power Plan put in place by Obama. The next day Trump does just that.
Biggins manages to offer a few rays of rhetorical sunshine. The Paris climate accord of 2016, signed by 195 countries, has also won the support of many leading corporations committed to working toward the accord’s goal of keeping the increase in the earth’s temperature at less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). (David Crane, the former CEO at NRG who actively pursued opportunities in renewable energy, is at the Battle Road meeting and points out that big companies can be lobbied in the same way politicians can.)
Meanwhile we are entering a third energy revolution (the first was coal, the second oil and electricity) in which we are able to grow the economy using renewable energy that does not add carbon to the atmosphere. “Renewables in many parts of the world are now cheaper than fossil fuel,” Biggins says. “That’s a card we did not have five years ago.” She adds that improved technology in batteries has led to a 40 percent drop in cost in recent years. There are now smaller and safer nuclear power plants.
But the window to slow down and even reverse our flow of carbon into the atmosphere is fast closing. “I compare it to a train heading toward a curve. We need to slow down in order to avoid going off the track,” Biggins tells the group on Battle Road. The good news is, as she says, “we are the first generation to understand climate change and what it means. What will we choose to do?”
Call it the Garden Club Brigade: To join the conversation visit www.c-changeconversations.com or attend Kathleen Biggins’ presentation at the Friends of Princeton Open Space on Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. at Mountain Lakes House (www.fopos.com).
Other action groups: The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (www.citizensclimatelobby.org) has nearly 400 chapters, including one in Princeton, which meets the second Saturday of the month. The next meeting is Saturday, April 8, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton.
Princeton Marching Forward continues to meet monthly. Next date: Monday, May 1. For topic and location visit Princeton Marching Forward on Facebook. The science and environment committee of the Marching Forward group is helping to organize the March for Science on Saturday, April 22, from 10 a.m. to noon at Hinds Plaza in front of the Princeton Public Library.