Friday, December 18, 2009

Don't Dis Beginnings

President Obama chose his words well in describing the final agreement made at Copenhagen. "Today we've made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen. For the first time in history all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change."

This is undoubtedly true, if only because the United States was at last a party to the agreement. It means all the major developed nations now are on record committing themselves to not simply acknowledging the Climate Crisis but to addressing it, as individual countries and as international partners.

Further, the developed countries have acknowledged responsibility for both causing the problem and aiding the most vulnerable nations in dealing with the effects:

"We agreed to join an international effort to provide financing to help developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, adapt to climate change. And we reaffirmed the necessity of listing our national actions and commitments in a transparent way."

But he also recognized that the agreement is inadequate--that it is a first step, in direction and in the necessity of working together:

" Taken together these actions will help us begin to meet our responsibilities to leave our children and our grandchildren a cleaner and safer planet. Now, this progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough. Going forward, we're going to have to build on the momentum that we've established here in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time. We've come a long way, but we have much further to go.

To continue moving forward we must draw on the effort that allowed us to succeed here today -- engagement among nations that represent a baseline of mutual interest and mutual respect. Climate change threatens us all; therefore, we must bridge old divides and build new partnerships to meet this great challenge of our time. That's what we've begun to do here today."

The greatest disappointment was in solid commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The agreement specifies a goal of doing what is necessary to keep the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C. This is more than the goal some developing nations wanted (1.5C) or many scientists, but it is a lot better than what is likely to happen without efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

President Obama often stresses the positive, which is alternative energy: not only the best way to limit greenhouse gases (by creating more of our energy with technologies that don't pollute with these gases) but as an economic boon, as what America needs to re-energize its economy and lead the world economically again. Once again, let's remember that this is a commitment by the American President that reverses eight years of resistance.

So in his statement, President Obama talked about his administration's efforts to jump-start alternative energy innovations and use, ending:

"And around the world, energy is an issue that demands our leadership. The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and to shape the future that we seek. That's why I came to Copenhagen today, and that's why I'm committed to working in common effort with countries from around the globe. That's also why I believe what we have achieved in Copenhagen will not be the end but rather the beginning, the beginning of a new era of international action."

The details of the agreement have yet to be analyzed. Some are speaking of it as a betrayal of the United Nations. Yet it is worth remembering how compromised and less-than-ideal the UN itself has been, from its inception. That's not to endorse more authority for--perish the thought-- the World Bank, but to remind us all of the international political context.

Will this be enough, soon enough? Such an effort should have begun twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. But it didn't. This much has begun now. This is where we are. We start from here. We have no other choice.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

rainbow 3


Update: Another voice--Paul Krugman-- supporting the compromised health care bill. What the bill does, its supporter say, is insure the uninsured, while admittedly not doing much else. Krugman on the disillusion and the bill: "But don’t take it out on the tens of millions of Americans who will have health insurance if this bill passes, but will be out of luck — and, in some cases, dead — if it doesn’t."

Original post:
Sometimes I hear a commentator say something I hadn't thought of. Sometimes I hear something I had thought of, but days or weeks after it occurred to me. But it's particularly startling to hear a major if tentative conclusion come out of someone else's mouth on the same day it came to me.

As the Copenhagen meetings reach their climax, so does the health care reform legislation in the U.S. At the moment, everything is pretty much up in the air on both. The latest Senate health care proposal is creating new divisions, notably within the mostly Democratic "progressives." Howard Dean and Senator Bernie Sanders are among those against the bill. Kos makes his statement against it. John Podesta makes his for it, as does Ezra Klein.

It was Ezra Klein on Charlie Rose who read my thoughts. Not about health care specifically, but about Congress. Klein suggests that this debate demonstrates that under current conditions, Congress is unable to deal constructively with big issues, to make big changes no matter how necessary they are to the country, its economy, its identity, its future. He noted exactly the prior example I was thinking of: California. In combination with the kind of extreme politics prevalent now, a few rules in the legislature and in state government make this state ungovernable. The same is becoming true in Washington, where the misuse of the "filibuster" rule in the Senate now requires 60 votes out of 100 to pass anything of significance. It is that rule which has turned the health care reform effort into a shameful farce.

Klein also said something else I believe: that the media concentrates on the President, but the President's actual power is limited. Not everything that goes wrong is the President's fault. Congress is where the buck stops now. So it's too simplistic to assume that Hillary Clinton or anyone else could simply have kicked some ass and gotten this done. There's too much power accruing to too few very flawed Senators.

I'd go beyond Klein's naming of the media: it's also our focus on the President as our substitute king, our symbol, the president of projection. It's true however that the Bush presidency tended to mask the congressional black hole, partly because he had a rubber stamp Republican Congress doing his destructive bidding.

Now Democrat Obama has a large Democratic majority in the House and a tenuous 60 votes in the Senate, but there are two differences: the Democrats aren't a rubber stamp monolith, and the Republicans are shameless in opposing everything the Democrats propose or the President supports. That shamelessness extends to the criminal misuse of the filibuster, which has become just another way to vote no, and thwart the majority.

As Klein pointed out, even FDR didn't have to have 60 votes in the Senate to pass the New Deal. But President Obama must have 60 votes, and that has not only turned health care into a tragic farce, it is feeding an increasingly ugly mood and divisions within the country. At least one poll indicates that growing opposition to health care reform is coming principally from liberals who wanted the public option, but probably more broadly it is coming from people who are just disgusted with the process. It looks like Wiemar to too many.

What's the remedy? The Democrats are unlikely to be in a stronger position after the 2010 congressional elections. Their mythical 60 vote majority in the Senate is likely to be a memory. Only reform of the filibuster rule can save this country from sinking far and fast for the foreseeable future.

I don't know if this health care bill should be passed or not. I do know that it is far, far less than it should be, and it will do far, far less than it could have. Whether it would do more good than harm is debatable, and maybe even unknowable. It's just all pretty disgusting. And it suggests that both in terms of ugly, destructive politics and intractable structural deficiencies in the states as well as the federal government, this country is verging on the ungovernable.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

rainbow 2

Copenhagen Context: Why the Horseshit

The second article I wanted to recall as context for the Copenhagen talks (the first is here) is in the New Yorker, where the formidable Elizabeth Kolbert takes on the currently hot (or is it cool?) Climate Crisis denying book, SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. It's not just that she dismantles their pernicious silliness, but she also isolates what I believe is the primary reason people want to hear that the Climate Crisis doesn't exist, probably, and even if it does, it's going to be all right.

She starts with the Parable of Horseshit, a story the book also tells, about how in the 1890s, big cities like New York were being smothered by piles of horseshit from the transport these cities depended on. "One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure."

Doom was predicted, stern and costly measures were planned, and then, suddenly it all went away. Because the horses did, ushered out by the automobile. The SuperFreaks tell it to make the point that simple solutions emerge, and they are usually technological.

Of course they deny there is a Climate Crisis. But if there is, they know how to fix it: with huge new technologies: “Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem,” Levitt and Dubner write. All we need to do is figure out a way to shoot huge quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere on our own. This could be done, they say, by sending up an eighteen-mile-long hose: “For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better.”

First of all, Kolbert suggests the extent of their ignorance about climate science. "Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong." In one case their conclusion is based on faulty arithmetic. Not sophisticated math: arithmetic.

Kolbert's disdain for the craziness of their main proposal is probably more muted than it deserves, because it is truly crazy. It looks attractive: a big tech fix, aping the action of volcanoes in cooling the earth, while CO2-spewing fuels can continue and even accelerate. But ir ignores just about every aspect of how climate, weather and life on the planet--let alone chemicals-- interact. In the guise of saving the planet we know, it would poison and otherwise fundamentally change life on earth (there goes the sun)--even if it were possible to do. And it is much more drastic than anything Al Gore and others in the mainstream propose. As Kolbert says, some legitimate scientists say such geoengineering should be studied, but only as a last resort.

It's not hard to understand what these guys are doing or why. They have found a marketing niche--by wearing suits and offering contrarian but simple-sounding solutions, they're making a fortune shoveling horseshit, the future be damned. But why are people listening? Actual solutions to the Climate Crisis involve change that will, Kolbert writes, "require a lot from us. It would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves. It is the difficulty of imagining such changes that makes schemes like Levitt and Dubner’s at once so alluring and so dangerous. Just about every time anyone with any sort of credentials offers a “simple and cheap” solution to global warming, the idea is hailed as bold or innovative, and taken far more seriously than it deserves to be."

It makes human sense that people would rather avoid wrenching change--it could be arduous, even dangerous, and you don't know if you'd be better off, or worse. Better the devil you know.

But the flaw in the argument is this: it's not a choice between change and no change. Things are going to change, big time. Perhaps gradually, perhaps more quickly, but probably in fits and starts over the next half century, the Climate Crisis is going to become a dominant fact of life, and engine of change. And most of it isn't going to be better.

The problem is that unless civilization anticipates and prepares for that change, and unless it works to prevent even greater (and much worse) change in the farther future, things are going to change for the worse, big time. At first for some people (that's happening already, in the far north, in drought-stricken Africa, in heat waves and storms, etc.), then for a lot of people, and then for everyone. Eventually, after generations of increasing hardship and permanent crisis, of accelerating misery, the survival of civilization, which means the survival of most of humanity, is at stake--along with life on this planet as we know it.

So among all the other difficulties, it's the horseshit shoveled by the likes of these guys that is smothering our chances at a future. People may think they're just sticking their head in the sand. But it's not sand.

Monday, December 14, 2009