Friday, July 30, 2010

How Hot Is It?

The 1980s were the hottest decade on record for planet Earth. Until the 1990s.

The 1990s were the hottest decade on record. Until the 2000s.

The 2000s are the hottest decade on record. This year is hotter. 2010 is on pace to be the hottest year on record--and last week was the hottest week on record.

It's not just the hot summer in much of North America, or the very hot summer in Russia, or just the more violent storms and floods in parts of the U.S., or the fires in southern California and the drought in the southwest, nor even the melting Arctic. The surface of the planet itself is hotter, on average.

It's called global warming, a term that will shortly be 35 years old. It means in terms of statistics and phenomena, that everything gets exaggerated. The El Nino effects are greater because of it, for example.

How hot is it? In what may be the worst news of the year for the human future, its hot enough to kill over an estimated 40% of the ocean's phytoplankton, the very basis of the ocean's food chain, which also produces half the world's oxygen and devours a lot of CO2.

It may not seem like much. But it's like the bees--few people even notice these little creatures, but if they died off, human life would probably end within months, if not weeks. If this ocean finding is confirmed, it raises the Climate Crisis to yet another level of urgency and portent.

How hot is it? Hot as hell. And not as hot as it's going to be.


I spent an hour or so today watching and listening to President Obama, courtesy of blackwaterdog's latest diary at Kos. Obama on the View, Obama at two auto plants in Detroit--these were briefly on TV and then talked about a little but shown no place I've seen. And the signing ceremony for the Tribal Law and Order Act probably didn't even make C-Span. But they were all interesting--and all instructive counteractives to the dominant narratives.

On the actual facts, President Obama talked about the decisions he faced when Chrysler and GM were on the verge of going out of business. He could let them fail, as many GOPers wanted. He could just give them government money, as several GOPer presidents did. Or he could impose conditions on government money, giving them incentives to streamline and change, especially so they would be in better position to compete globally with more energy efficicent vehicles.

He took that third course and it has paid off. For the first time in a decade, the Big Three are all profitable, and hiring. Some auto plants have been transformed and saved, with shifts added to meet demand. The money is being paid back. It's a very big success story, and President Obama made a strong statement of faith in the American worker. These were the kinds of events that the Recovery Act needs.

On the View, President Obama said that he was disturbed by the Endless Campaign--it used to be that there was a period of political campaigning, and stretches of time for governing, when the question was what was good for the country instead of only what was politically exploitable. He said that he can appear so calm because he takes the long view--that his job is to look out for the next generation, not the next election. And if he does that job well, the politics will fall into place when the time comes.

This is a perspective that while it may not be the entire picture is at least a very valuable if usually missing part of it. He is certainly right that our hot button politics lurches frequently--consider little more than a year ago, when the pundits were asking whether the GOPers were finished as a party. Today a poll suggests that the Dems may have turned the corner for the next election, that the GOPer surge is waning. But who knows.

Certainly GOPers in Congress are doing nothing but playing politics, as they have been since Obama took office. They've managed to squelch aid to small business and even health care for 9-11 victims. Granted that nearly all politicians are continually compromised, and many are corrupted, in both parties. As long as campaigns are financed as they are today, this is all but inevitable. But there is a difference, and it is that Dems have at least tried to solve problems and make things better, and GOPers have not.

So here is my mid-term perspective. One thing you can always count on about GOPers is that they will overreach--their arrogance quickly comes to the fore. They are riding such a wave of racism, xenophobia and simplistic pandering to the worst in the electorate, that the point of diminishing election returns is fast approaching. They will probably make some gains in November, though it will likely be much more of a mixed bag and a mixed message. Then in 2012, the country will repudiate them with President Obama's reelection, and this period of rampant insanity at the forefront will be purged.

I note also a lot of the comments to blackwaterdog's diary, their gratitude for this perspective and especially their decrying of the relentless negativity of even and especially "progressive" cable TV shows and blogs. I've noted before the fact that every outrageous statement by every Rabid Right nutjob no longer needs the rightwing echo chamber--the progressive media amplifies their message for them. It may get people angry enough to read or listen, and to contribute to progressive politicians and groups. But it just isn't healthy, and it just isn't reality.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Emerson for the Day

" Let us express our astonishment, before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss. I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blogifying Wednesday: The Credit Crunch

While some polls suggest that a stunning percentage of Americans give no credit to the Obama Recovery Act, and everyone really hates the Bush bailout that the Obama administration administrated, two economists with enough clout to get the NY Times' attention say that the data shows that without them, we'd be knee-deep in Great Depression II.

The study, authored by two economists with names straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel (Blinder and Zandi), says that without the measures taken--including others by the Obama administration--the economy would be tanking, eight and a half million more people would be unemployed and we'd be into a deflationary spin. In other words, a Depression.

Their conclusion: "When all is said and done, the financial and fiscal policies will have cost taxpayers a substantial sum, but not nearly as much as most had feared and not nearly as much as if policy makers had not acted at all.”

Meanwhile, Marc Ambinder summarizes the Democratic message going into the midterm elections: "The Democratic strategy in a nutshell is small enough to fit in one but has the protein of a good, tasty nut. The Republicans want to be mayors of crazy-town. They've embraced a fringe and proto-racist isolationist and ignorant conservative populism that has no solutions for fixing anything and the collective intelligence of a wine flask. This IS offensive and over the top, and the more Democrats repeat it, and the more dumb things some Republican candidates do, the more generally conservative voters who might be thinking of sending a message to Democrats by voting for a Republican will be reminded that the replacement party is even more loony than the party that can't tie its shoes."

More evidence that California is not fond of candidates trying to buy high office, especially when the state is going broke: yesterday's poll showing Barbara Boxer up by 6 over nutjob Carly Fiorina was matched Wednesday by Jerry Brown up 6 points over billionaire Meg Whitman, who has already spent enough on her campaign to fund a school district.

BP Fallout: While Congress may actually pass a slimmed down energy bill that puts the force of law behind getting BP to pay for damages, and the Justice Department is investigating BP and other oil corps, there's positive news about future drilling. After a federal judge halted a drilling project in Alaska last week, on Wednesday the Obama administration announced it's canceling two offshore oil and gas lease sales: one in the Atlantic off the coast of Virginia and another in the Gulf of Mexico. The White House also told CNN that the previously approved BP mega-project in the Arctic is under review.

"Nobody Knows Why"

Earth's thermosphere: photo from UCAR.

Though I didn't see the story picked up on the usual climate sites, several mainstream outlets headlined it, usually with words like "mysterious" and "scientists baffled." But the CS Monitor's headline was seriously attention-getting: "Earth's upper atmosphere collapses. Nobody knows why."

It's the thermosphere, which apparently has its ups and downs, but this was the biggest contraction in 43 years, with none of the usual suspects as reasons:

The collapse occurred during a period of relative solar inactivity – called a solar minimum from 2008 to 2009. These minimums are known to cool and contract the thermosphere, however, the recent collapse was two to three times greater than low solar activity could explain. "Something is going on that we do not understand," Emmert said.

And yes, a key global heating factor seems to be involved, but this may be one of those synergistic effects no one imagined. Of course it may not, but...

Emmert suggests carbon dioxide (CO2) in the thermosphere might play a role in explaining the atmospheric collapse.

This gas acts as a coolant, shedding heat via infrared radiation. It is widely-known that CO2 levels have been increasing in Earth's atmosphere. Extra CO2 in the thermosphere could have magnified the cooling action of solar minimum.

"But the numbers don't quite add up," Emmert said. "Even when we take CO2 into account using our best understanding of how it operates as a coolant, we cannot fully explain the thermosphere's collapse."

One of the functions of the thermosphere is screening out harmful UV rays. So this is a mystery worth looking into.

The Legacy of Words

Tony Judt is a distinguished historian and author of my generation, who is writing heroically. He has ALS, which is an awful degenerative disease I've seen in too much detail. It's a mysterious and varied disease. Some who get it young, like Stephen Hawking, live with it for a long time. Others deteriorate rapidly, and according to this article, that's the case with Tony Judt.

He's been published a lot recently in the New York Review of Books, another reason to revere that publication. He giving us his beautifully expressed wisdom while he can. He's apparently lost his ability to speak clearly as a result of the disease, but he has been writing with great clarity.

What follows are excerpts from his essay in the July 15 issues, simply titled Words. The first part sets a personal context, and warns of the misuse of rhetorical skill. But---

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought: “Don’t worry how you say it, it’s the ideas that count.”

"Forty years on from the 1960s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or the training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly just why it inhibits intelligent reflection." Judt acknowledges that it was our generation that"played an important role in this unraveling" but that the reaction to artificiality has led to the demeaning of clarity and precision.

"For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst."

The lack of precision in vocabulary and expression generally devalues the responsibility--the courtesy--to communicate, and is reflected not only in the purportedly "natural" modes but in the most deliberately artificial:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication. But whereas an earlier generation of popular scholarship distilled authorial authority into plain text, today’s “accessible” writers protrude uncomfortably into the audience’s consciousness. It is the performer, rather than the subject, to whom the audience’s attention is drawn."

That eloquently expresses my own objections to the hegemony (to use one of their pet words) of the shill-masters of semiotics, deconstructionism and related fads that have largely driven out articulate criticism and analysis. Judt turns next to the Internet and the culture it is so rapidly transforming:

In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy."

Judt ends his essay with a final cultural reference, and a very personal observation:

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Blogifying Tuesday: Don't Panic

Following up a bit from yesterday, via the Kosness himself, there's this post from Balloon Juice, which introduced me to the useful word: poutrage. And he uses it in a sentence. After pointing out that the right wing was just as upset with Ronald Reagan early in his presidency as some lefties are with Obama, he concludes:

"I find this amazing in no small measure because Barack Obama has already done far more in his first 18 months than Reagan did at this point in his first term. Conservatives took on Reagan over specific battles, but basically they always trusted him. When push came to shove they always had his back. Today they have made Reagan’s record into a myth of conservative victories and Reagan into a romanticized Wingnutopia Saint (despite what actually happened).

Progressives, OTOH, have worked over time to turn an amazing chain of victories over the last 18 months into a narrative of defeat. It is a bit mind boggling to watch as so many ‘progressives’ embrace the memes, frames and talking points of the Right as they level an endless stream of attacks at the most progressive President in my lifetime. And why? Mostly because President Obama does not follow this or that preferred strategy, timing and/or set of tactics to the imagined screenplay of these armchair generals with keyboards. It is stunning to see process trump results and spin trump reality. Watching so many on the left jump at a chance to downplay the victories and inflate the outrage is like tracking an epidemic of foolishness. Useful critiques about important things are lost in the nonsensical noise about every rumor, every post, every tweet and each twist of every news cycle.

It is odd that some on the left have chosen to embrace the same attack tactics, strategies and rhetoric used by the Right when they confronted a President who is basically the champion of their POV without also embracing the way the Right always got Reagan’s back whenever it really mattered.

Meanwhile, things move on. More and more things are getting done by this White House despite the tantrums. Of course, even more could be done if some of the progressive poutrage practitioners would place action and unity over their egos, but they can’t. So it goes. Good luck with that in November.

Time will tell how the story of the Obama Administration will be told and what will be his impact on our Nation. I think it will be a good story regardless of current levels of poutrage on all sides. We shall see, but I think Steve is spot on when he said: I guess the moral of the story is that perceptions can change in time

Which brings us to the question, are Democrats really toast this November, as the panic media has it? Maybe, but at least in some races, independents are swinging towards the Dem they know rather than the GOPer idiot they fear, and despite the great press she's getting on her endorsements, away from a Sarah Palin-approved mama grizzly.

Why? When elections are perceived to be what they are, a choice between actual alternatives, generic anger might get ungenericated. And as polls often show, Obama policies in themselves are often approved--most recently, Obama's economic policies over Bush's, which remain GOPer priorities. Hammer that theme, as Obama has been doing, and it doesn't look so bad for Dems.

This doesn't mean that Congress isn't still a corporate lobbyist and campaign contribution snakepit involving both parties, but the GOPers are in much deeper, both personally and in terms of policy.

Sherrodgate: yeah, it didn't last long enough to get such a moniker, and that's what I find interesting, and even heartening. I agree with this post by Jed Lewison--FOX was its usual despicable self, the NAACP and Ag Dept. panicked, but the media dealt with the story surprisingly well, and kept driving home the central message of: don't panic. Verify.

And speaking of FOX, how surprising is it that this watchdog of racism has an viewership in prime time that's less than 2% African American.

Emerson for the Day

"Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven...What we are, that only can we see. Build, therefore, your own world."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Blogifying Monday: Leaks and Bleaks

The Big Noise of the day seems to be the Wikileaks on Afghanistan. Some compare it to the Pentagon Papers (or not), and the Tet Offensive. The White House points out that it's all about the years before Obama took office. And while the White House must officially condemn the release, my general attitude would be closer to John Kerry's. We'll be out of Iraq in a month. We should get out of Afghanistan ASAP.

There's been more negative reaction to the failure to bring forward climate/cap & trade legislation before congressional recess, especially among NYTimes columnists and in a NYT editorial. As I've said, I hoped for and expected more. It's easy enough to see the opportunity--the congressional numbers which are real unlikely to get better after the November elections, the attention-getting Gulf oil gusher and maybe above all, record heat in DC--surely God's vote. What may not be so easy to see are the no votes, cast in stone this close to the elections, that doomed it.

So I've got no problem with enviros and progressives decrying this lack of action, pointing out its dangers and calling for renewed efforts. And I even understand initial expressions of anger against the Administration as well as Congressional leadership and--incidentially--the GOPer Senators who actually prevented this legislation. But there are continuing modes of attack that are counterproductive, if not destructive. I'm saddened that Joe Romm at Climate Progress is placing himself in that category, with his blanket smear of Obama as a failed President.

It's a delicate dance, passionately urging change from outside and from "the left" to use a barely accurate cliche, on an Administration that basically agrees with you. The danger is poisoning support and contributing to a political weakening that emboldens the opposition and increases the likelihood of them taking power. The GOPers have already announced that among their top priorities "when" they take over Congress is defeating anything with the faintest aroma of climate crisis legislation, or support of clean energy.

You should give this kind of aid and comfort to the enemy only when you are convinced that your president is politically and morally done. We made that calculation about LBJ with good reason, and even at that, we wound up with Nixon and 6 more years of war.

I don't believe that of Obama. And I believe that the book hasn't closed on his activity on this issue. Would it have been better not to have left this crucial climate and energy bill to the end? Sure. It would have been much better if the GOPers hadn't timed their Great Recession with such precision, and virtually bankrupt the federal government as well. So do you want to tell people who now will have health care or a job that their needs aren't as important? Maybe I would, but I'm not President of the United States.

I have no doubt that the Climate Crisis is the most important issue of our time, and that, figuring impact and likelihood of that impact, it poses the greatest threat to human civilization, dwarfing other political issues. But where this climate bill fits into that is what's questionable to me. Maybe if this were a year ago, I would feel worse, because I would have believed that it was very important to pass this legislation at this time. But after reading new books by David Orr and Bill McKibben, I've kept my eyes open, and realized that many if not most reputable scientists and observers agree with them.

That is, it may have been possible for me to believe that there was a chance that civilization could make a smooth and relatively safe transition to the future if the U.S. passed strong Climate Crisis laws, and led the world to do the same. But it's very likely too late for that. The future, whatever it's going to be, is already decided for the next forty years, and it's probably going to be catastrophic. The far future may or may not have been decided yet, so maybe there's time to head off the worst. But this legislation wasn't strong enough to do that anyway.

This legislation--or something like it--may yet pass before the end of the year. But the time to head off catastrophic change was probably in 1976, or maybe 1992, or no later really than the election of 2000, when it "didn't matter" who won, Bore or Gush. The vast weight of industrial capitalism, and in recent decades of a vicious oligarchy leading the U.S. down into decadence and denial, are the forces of history that we still must oppose. But when we don't defeat them on a given issue, is that a surprise? Is that the reason to self-destruct?

Joe Romm may want to add to the defeatism that has Glenn Beck and the congressional GOPers gloating. I think it's politically dumb, historically myopic, as well as self-indulgent. I prefer to listen to people like Van Jones (also here) and Bill McKibben. But I am upset that Climate Progress is not a haven of sanity anymore.