Saturday, April 10, 2010

Emerson for the Day

"It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things, that beside his privacy of power as an individual man there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals."
Emerson (The Poet)
photo: Milky Way

What is the Future Worth?

This weekend's Climate Crisis reading is Paul Krugman in the New York Times Magazine writing on "the economics of lessening climate change." It's a long article, helpfully summarized at Climate Progress with additional links.

Environmentalists are generally applauding the piece for making the case that action to reduce heat-trapping gases is necessary (the consensus of climate scientists), that it can be done with minimal cost (the consensus of environmental economists) and that to not do it will have ruinous economic consequences. But some (like Alex Steffan at Worldchanging--not my favorite but worth hearing) think Krugman actually underestimates the economic costs of failing to severely reduce heat-trapping gases and shift to clean energy, by a lot.

Krugman starts off by discussing the arguments for cap & trade versus a pollution tax. While the pollution tax is simpler, cap & trade seemed politically more feasible, at least until recently. He points out that this exotic notion of cap & trade has already worked: "experience suggests that market-based emission controls work. Our recent history with acid rain shows as much. The Clean Air Act of 1990 introduced a cap-and-trade system in which power plants could buy and sell the right to emit sulfur dioxide, leaving it up to individual companies to manage their own business within the new limits. Sure enough, over time sulfur-dioxide emissions from power plants were cut almost in half, at a much lower cost than even optimists expected; electricity prices fell instead of rising. Acid rain did not disappear as a problem, but it was significantly mitigated."

He briefly notes three axioms concerning the climate science: "The first is that the planet is indeed warming... the upward trend is unmistakable: each successive decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the one before."

"Second, climate models predicted this well in advance, even getting the magnitude of the temperature rise roughly right... So the fact that climate modelers more than 20 years ago successfully predicted the subsequent global warming gives them enormous credibility... third point: models based on this research indicate that if we continue adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as we have, we will eventually face drastic changes in the climate. Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about a few more hot days in the summer and a bit less snow in the winter; we’re talking about massively disruptive events, like the transformation of the Southwestern United States into a permanent dust bowl over the next few decades."

Krugman then argues for a mixed approach, part market-based (like cap & trade) and part directed government action, like "direct controls" on burning coal. He suggests international cap & trade as well as other instruments such as carbon tariffs to tackle the problem of reducing global emissions.

He returns then to the reasons to do all this, and the urgency. "In public discussion, the climate-change skeptics have clearly been gaining ground over the past couple of years, even though the odds have been looking good lately that 2010 could be the warmest year on record. But climate modelers themselves have grown increasingly pessimistic. What were previously worst-case scenarios have become base-line projections, with a number of organizations doubling their predictions for temperature rise over the course of the 21st century. Underlying this new pessimism is increased concern about feedback effects..."

He notes predictions of a 9 degree F rise in average temperature from the start of this century to its end, with the accompanying storms, floods, droughts and other major disruptions. "And the troubles would not stop there: temperatures would continue to rise."

Krugman maintains his even and reasonable economics tone, but the climate facts are leading him into a different order of change. He writes: "The other is that while modern economies may be highly adaptable, the same may not be true of ecosystems. The last time the earth experienced warming at anything like the pace we now expect was during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, about 55 million years ago, when temperatures rose by about 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of around 20,000 years (which is a much slower rate than the current pace of warming). That increase was associated with mass extinctions, which, to put it mildly, probably would not be good for living standards."

And since he is still writing about the economics, he discusses the price tags, but notes that making economic decisions may depend on how they are applied to time, and what people making these decisions care about: the very near term, the near future, or the farther future.

He thinks that even in the near term the cost of inaction is probably higher than previously estimated, because "substantial global warming is already “baked in,” as a result of past emissions and because even with a strong climate-change policy the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is most likely to continue rising for many years. So even if the nations of the world do manage to take on climate change, we will still have to pay for earlier inaction." That's the Fix It function, as I used to call it, dealing with Effects, now and soon, and continuing for at least the next 40 years, and probably the next 400.

But if serious efforts are made now to reduce carbon and other heat-trapping gases, costs to do that will begin immediately. If those efforts aren't made, it will cost much, much more in 30 or 40 years to deal with the Effects of what those present emissions Cause, because there is something like a 30 year lag time between emissions Cause and Effect on climate. And the logic of that continues--if the Cause continues, the cumulative Effects will grow even stronger into the next century, with a much higher price.

Then Krugman looks at the economic rationale for action. He mentions the uncertainty of predictions, but notes that the risk is high enough to act--the operative economic model is not cost-benefit analysis, but risk assessment.

This is the economic language for a position many have held for awhile now, articulated especially by Greg Craven in his handy little book, What's the Worst That Could Happen: that given the strong scientific evidence and the consequences science predicts, the risks associated with responding to climate change even if it turns out to be not so bad are nowhere near as great as the risks of assuming it's not going to happen. Especially since there are plenty of other good reasons to cut heat-trapping pollution and convert to clean energy.

Krugman then looks at the arguments for a gradual approach to reducing carbon, and the "big bang" model of doing it bigger and sooner. "So what I end up with is basically Martin Weitzman’s argument: it’s the nonnegligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis. And that argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon." He then assesses the Congressional mood as not very likely to act, and concludes: "We know how to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. We have a good sense of the costs — and they’re manageable. All we need now is the political will."

As time goes on, complicating all of this-- economically as well as in most other ways-- is the conflict I've been writing about for awhile, which is the collision between dealing with Cause and dealing with Effects. The debate is now being cast in the mind-numbing terminology of Mitigation vs. Adaptation, which is maybe why nobody much cares about it but policy wonks. But the need to do both--to cut heat-trapping pollution and switch to clean energy at the same time as we're dealing with long-term disasters (droughts, sea level rise, higher incidences of insect-borne diseases etc.) and an avalanche of short-term emergencies (storms, floods, killer heat waves, etc.)--is the economic as well as civilizational challenge of the future. Which is rapidly intruding on the present.

Like a lot of economics, and even science, this is fairly abstract. The reality won't be, and the possibilities aren't. Which will continue to be a topic here.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Who can think of the sun costuming clouds
When all people are shaken
Or of night endazzled, proud,
When people awaken
And cry and cry for help?

The warm antiquity of self,
Everyone, grows suddenly cold.
The tea is bad, bread sad.
How can the world be so old be so mad
That the people die?

If joy shall be without a book
It lies, themselves within themselves,
If they will look
Within themselves
And cry and cry for help,

Within as pillars of the sun,
Supports of night. The tea,
The wine is good. The bread,
The meat is sweet.
And they will not die.

--Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Thoughts on the White Working Class

A few disorganized thoughts on the white working class, in the news in three diverse stories: the still- increasing virulence ostensibly over the healthcare bill and now a second arrest for death threats to a Member of Congress; the West Virginia mining disaster which killed at least 25 miners; and the return of talk about Barack Obama's problems attracting white working class support.

First of all, I grew up in the white working class (not all that far from those West Virginia mines, and with a grandfather who worked in western PA mines), although in a different time. But I've seen what has happened over time, and rather than rehash what others are saying, let me contribute a few thoughts of my own.

The working class--also known as the lower middle class--joined in the rising American prosperity after World War II, mostly due to three factors: lots of manufacturing jobs; strong unions, particularly in manufacturing; federal government programs, from Social Security and Medicare to FHA mortgages and the GI Bill of Rights that put college in play for veterans, and the various federal and federally guaranteed grants and loans that made college possible for children of the working class, like me.

Manufacturing jobs have been disappearing from America since the late 1970s. That's when the steel industry and Pittsburgh were hit hard, and that has spread, until the biggest product of the U.S. is waste. Real wages have declined, unemployment risen. This happened during the Reagan administration and onwards, with some progress made for working incomes in the Clinton years, but the trend towards lower income at the lower annual income percentiles reasserted itself in the Shrub years. Beginning with Reagan, union power diminished along with manufacturing.

The winners in these changes were Wall Street and the biggest corporations. They shipped jobs overseas where workers were paid much less, with appalling conditions and unsafe workplaces. They intimidated workers to reject unions, and were helped by Republican governments. So the rich got infinitely richer, and then got tax cuts on top of that. The white working class was competing with lower paid workers in other countries but in their daily lives seemed to be mostly in competition with minorities previously kept out, including immigrants.

Now the white working class is angry--that is, their anger is being encouraged and channelled in a particular direction. Cultural differences with "liberal elites" are emphasized. But these days what is mostly emphasized in the "white" in white working class. It's the usual sinister divide and conquer strategy, because the total working class is being destroyed economically, not racially, by corporations and the same Republicans who are whipping up racist frenzy, sometimes with their Confederate code words, and often these days, without even that pretense.

JFK and RFK could appeal to the white working class partly with their eloquence and policies, but partly because they were white, and even though wealthy they were not so far from their immigrant roots, as the white working class at that time was not so far from theirs--they might be second or third generation Americans at that point. And unions were strong.

Unions weren't ever perfect or without abuses, but they did keep the working class together and focused on their own interests, which included advocating for safe working conditions, like those that don't exist in that non-union mine. Also it is true that some whites have personally paid a price for the redress of past racial discrimination, that they personally had nothing to do with. That's also true of some men, when women benefited from preferential hiring, etc. There's really no point in denying that this has happened, and even if it didn't happen a lot, once was enough if it happened to you.

White males by some statistics have borne the brunt of the current unemployment. But that's part of this longer trend. The reason that white working class anger is being expressed now is that it is being exploited and given a vocabulary. Most of the cause behind it falls to the responsibility of the same corporations and Republican pols who are exploiting it.

But they are able to exploit it partly through the power of persuasion enabled by their funding, and their ownership of corporate media. But partly, they are using the still potent hot button of race. This has everything to do with a black President in the White House. There's no getting around it. It has pretty much nothing to do with President Obama's policies, which are exactly the kind of policies that benefit the working class, and that the working class applauded in the days of FDR, Truman, Kennedy and LBJ. It's all about diverting frustration and fomenting anger fueled by the incendiary reactions of race hatred.

This has become the frenzy of the Republican right in primary election season. The Governor of Virginia may have pushed it too far with his celebration today of the Civil War, praising the Confederacy and never mentioning slavery. But maybe not. Maybe there is worse to come.

Monday, April 05, 2010

President Obama in Portland, Maine, doing his best to move the country along (for example, with a health insurance system still less advanced than Europe for the past thirty years), but up against an apocalyptic madness, suggested in the post below.

Too Stupid to Live?

Are "humans too stupid to prevent climate change," as the Guardian says James Lovelock said? Ignore for a moment that he didn't actually say this--he knows the climate has already changed, and will keep changing for a long time to come, and what he actually did say was "I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change," which is a little different.

The real question here isn't about human intelligence, or inventiveness, adaptability, ingenuity, etc. For me, the question concerning the Climate Crisis has for a long time been: has human civilization developed far enough to meet this challenge? It's more a question of whether we as a society--as various polities, organized in the fashions we are (however you describe how America is governed for example)--are ready, are up to the tasks.

For the past decade or so I've thought of this as an open question--the most important open question regarding the future. An affirmative answer would mean what seems the most desirable future: a continuous civilization that changes for the better, with the least destruction and trauma, preserving the hard-won best of its past.

These days it seems very unlikely that this will happen. It does seem that human civilization is flunking this test--that its most destructive and self-destructive aspects will overcome its best potential. Because this is the crisis of crises--and it can't be confronted by indirection or accidentally doing the right things for the wrong reasons. It's too big for that. The reality of it has to be understood and accepted, and efforts to address it comprehensively must be clear and sincere. Whatever saved civilization from its previous major test--thermonuclear war--won't alone work this time.

Reading the Lovelock interview, I found much to ponder and much to disagree with. So my reasons are perhaps different from his, but I have to agree with him on this point--that human civilization has not developed "to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change."

Apparently, as a society we aren't able to deal with the nature of the problem: of anticipating and preventing catastrophe this far in advance, or of understanding why this catastrophe is likely to happen, and why we must act now.

But it's more than not understanding lag times, feedback and tipping points. It's not just a matter of being clever, of coming up with ingenious technologies (which some folks are doing.) Partly it is the same problem that H.G. Wells identified more than a century ago--the inability to think comprehensively and act seriously as an entire civilization, as a human species.

Some of the reasons for that were identified by C.G. Jung, for example, and they reside more in the parts of the psyche outside what we regard as "thinking" (observing, conceptualizing, etc.) It's become clearer to me from the crude violence and willed ignorance of our politics, that our civilization is tipping towards psychosis--an apocalyptic madness.

Maybe it's an epidemic of denial, stoked by fear of what so many need to deny. Maybe it is the flowering of something deep in the culture, as Jungian Edward Edinger believed, that's more consciously promoted by certain fundamentalist Christians. Certainly it is the American refusal to take the psyche seriously, to use the conceptual tools that Jung identified to temper the unconscious with consciousness of its power and habits.

The fact that we have no one like Wells or Jung today--no one who speaks on this level, of civilization as a whole-- is further evidence that we're on a downward spiral, with no help in sight.

We don't seem to even have a prominent figure with the moral authority and moral courage of Martin Luther King--who stirred up such intense opposition with his Civil Rights stands, and later, even more with his opposition to the Vietnam War. Nobody seems to gets that response anymore, either for or against.

We're fortunate to have the best mind and heart in several generations in the White House now, but as President Obama pointed out in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he is a head of state, and that has limitations as well as powers built into it. And even at that, look at the virulent hatred that confronts him, as well as the slipshod thought and cynical lying that dominates our establishment politics and public discourse. That his at times frustrating middle-of-the-road approach, his gentle nudging forward--is vilified as extreme socialism, is evidence of how far we haven't come, how we seem actually to be regressing.

This species, capable of such intelligence and imagination, may well turn out to collectively be too stupid to stop destroying itself. That seems to be the trajectory, though it may take many years for it to play out (and then again, it may not.) But that seems to be the logic of it now.

As for dealing with the near future--which can become the present at any minute--some thoughts on that another time.

The Drill

Catching up on President Obama's announcement last week that he was opening up new offshore areas to the possibility of exploration and drilling for oil and gas... This was variously interpreted as a political move to get support for climate change legislation (which it may in part be), a political flip-flop (which it wasn't, as the rest of this speech explained) and a blow to environmental allies and the Obama base, just feeling good for a change after the healthcare victory. It certainly was that.

It was also a risky move, not in the short term (because it changes nothing), but in setting a precedent. Another President, far less careful and demanding about environmental protection, could use this decision as political cover.

The fact is that it results in no immediate drilling, and it is more of a contingency for a bridge period to new energy forms: "given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."

"And we'll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence"
in the final decisions to open these sites. He also emphasized that this is part of a long-term strategy emphasizing a clean energy future.

"And while our politics has remained entrenched along worn divides, the ground has shifted beneath our feet. Around the world, countries are seeking an edge in the global marketplace by investing in new ways of producing and saving energy. From China to Germany, these nations recognize that the country that leads the clean energy economy will be the country that leads the global economy. Meanwhile, here at home, as politicians in Washington debate endlessly whether to act, our own military has determined that we can't afford not to."

Moving toward clean energy is about our security. It's about our economy. And it's about the future of our planet. And what I hope is that the policies we've laid out - from hybrid fleets to offshore drilling, from nuclear energy to wind energy - underscore the seriousness with which my administration takes this challenge. It's a challenge that requires us to think and act anew."

Less covered or noticed last week, the EPA took a major step to enforcing the Clean Water Act to end mountaintop removal by the rapacious coal industry. (Here's the news release.)

The EPA also joined with the Department of Transportation to establish "historic new federal rules that set the first-ever national greenhouse gas emissions standards and will significantly increase the fuel economy of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States. The rules could potentially save the average buyer of a 2016 model year car $3,000 over the life of the vehicle and, nationally, will conserve about 1.8 billion barrels of oil and reduce nearly a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the lives of the vehicles covered."

So in the short term, this announcement probably did deflate the euphoria in the Obama base, and it is risky, because the Obama agenda for energy and the environment is going to take more than eight years to accomplish. But so what? No risk, no reward. If it starts to work in that period, maybe reality will actually defeat the psychotic politics--who knows, anything's possible. And if it really starts to work--if clean energy takes off (and there are a number of scenarios by which that could happen), then the drilling thing becomes moot. Nobody will have the appetite for it.