Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Dream of Water

Global heating because of greenhouse gases pollution is not the only contributor to present and future environmental problems and likely crises.  Many however work in tandem with global heating, and/or make the effects potentially worse.

For example, the misuse of water. This spring PBS ran the scary two-part docu by Ken Burns on the Dust Bowl, that profound human tragedy in the 1930s American West caused by the confluence of climate patterns and bad human management of land and water.  It finally ended when FDR's New Deal helped to reform farming practices,  and then the rains came again.

But the docu also mentions that the same area most affected by the Dust Bowl was backsliding.  The lesson of more modest demand on fragile resources ended when the High Plains Aquifer was discovered and tapped, providing water that created agricultural bounty and expansion.  But, the docu warned, when the acquifer is depleted, even more people would be devastated than during the Dust Bowl.

Now it may be starting to happen.  The New York Times reports from Kansas:  The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains. 

It is a "slow-motion crisis," the Times says, but also a completely predictable one.  As predictable as the final draining of oil and other fossil fuels, already begun (or we wouldn't be trying to wrench more fuel out of tar sands and fracking) and just as inevitable.

Now deep in drought, the American West is coming up against its limits, which most often means water.  For example, as this report indicates, the Colorado River, which supports some 40 million people over several states, is already "reduced to a trickle" in some places.  While the discussion underway in the region involves management and conservation (more efficient use of water for agriculture) one participant in this NPR interview noted, And I think just to add on to that, what I think I don't hear very often is: Have we reached the carrying capacity for the Southwest in terms of water? And I don't hear people raise that.

I was once involved in a meeting that includes some big Colorado developers as well as political and civic leaders in Colorado Springs.  I listened to one developer at dinner talk about all the expansion plans, and I raised the question of whether there would be enough water.  He looked startled, but recovered to call me a visionary who cut right to the essence, because it's a pretty damn dry place all right.  But clearly nobody making the decisions was thinking about it.

That was about twenty-five years ago.  And they still aren't.  But if this drought is part of a long-term pattern caused by global heating, rather than just intensified and made a bit longer by global heating, then everybody is going to be thinking about it, and maybe even wondering why it slipped their minds in the first place.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Future of This Week

The news was pretty full of significant stories this week.  On Thursday the U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill, watched by a gallery of DREAMers chanting "Yes we can."  On Wednesday the Supreme Court nullified the Defense of Marriage Act, and essentially allowed gay marriage to proceed in California.  On Tuesday the Court struck down a key element of the Voting Rights Act, and without federal oversight several states immediately jump-started their push for voter ID laws.

On Tuesday as well, President Obama made his speech on the climate crisis.  It will probably come as no surprise that I consider this the most significant event of the week.  The gay marriage progress is a victory for  equal rights, and therefore for us all.  But the actual changes it enables will not affect everyone directly.

And while the Supreme Court affirmed the right of a group of Americans to marry, it also limited the federal government from protecting the rights of other groups of Americans to vote, and the loss of those rights may well have direct consequences for the country as a whole.  Nor is that theoretical, evidenced by the rush to enact voter ID laws for the demonstrable purpose of disenfranchising non-whites and poor and others who are less likely to vote Republican.

And of course the immigration bill is far from law; most predictions are that it will not pass (or possibly even come to a vote) in the GOPer House.

There are several interesting points of view on President Obama's speech on the climate crisis.  Frank Rich suggests that the effect is not in the actions he outlined ("I don’t think anyone believes that he can achieve more than incremental environmental goals by executive order; the legal challenges alone will long outlast his presidency.")  but "by acknowledging that governance is impossible with the current Congress and taking action, he has catapulted over Washington to the voters and strongly identified his party and presumably its next presidential candidate with policies that are in sharp contrast with what he calls the “Flat Earth Society” on the other side...Obama has put his party firmly on the side of the country’s future, not its past." 

Jonathan Chait disagrees on the effect of the executive changes in his plan, which he asserts"taken together, add up to a significant climate response."  And that's before the EPA standards on carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act.  He thinks that together these will mean that "Obama can meet environmentalists’ near-term goal of reducing carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 on his own," but that to do better, especially after 2020, will require congressional action.

David Roberts acknowledges that "Obama is in a highly constrained position on climate. He faces hostility from Congress and the courts alike, with no broad-based popular movement behind him to scare them into line. All he can do is use the power of the executive branch."  Moreover, Roberts believes that the Obama team scheduled this address deliberately in the midst of what they knew would be a week of big news stories, so it wouldn't inspire "a pitched public battle."

Roberts says that some of the changes are potentially a big deal but that there's no way of knowing if they will actually get the U.S. to a 17% drop in emissions.  He notes also the No Drama Obama rhetoric of the speech, and concludes:

 "This is vintage Obama. He refuses to wage lofty ideological battles, which frustrates the hell out of people who view those battles as necessary and inevitable. He doesn’t direct a lot of energy at bashing his head into walls. He just puts the available resources to work doing what can be done. It’s not enough — it’s not even as much as he could do — but it would be a big mistake to think it doesn’t matter."

Xpostfactoid puts together Greg Sargeant's comment (similar to mine) that Obama's speech "recast the call for climate action as the centrist, common-sense solution" with Chiat's observation that  "Fashioning a long-term growth strategy is, and has always been, Obama’s deepest passion," and points out:  "I must add that if Obama's vision of enacting liberal policies as a means for achieving long-term growth has been left untold by certain parties, those parties don't include Obama. He has never stopped telling that story: it is the very heart and soul of his pitch to America and always has been." 

Though I don't agree entirely that economic growth is "the heart and soul," it certainly is a priority and a theme of the story. (Children, the future, including but not limited by economics, are also themes.)  But he's right that Obama has been telling his story and a lot of journalists haven't really been listening. Which is one reason I've spent so much time summarizing and liberally quoting his speeches--what he says is almost never reported, and when somebody finally listens, they assume he's never said before why they've just heard for the first time.

It occurs to me as well that the timing of this address may also result from Obama being able to cite growth in clean energy technology, seeded in part by his economic stimulus package and other legislation passed in the early Dem majority days.  It helps make the economic argument.

Roberts, who writes for Grist and has environmental cred, is right about the pressure from the enviro left--they want big dramatic speeches and proposals.  One such writer I saw crowed that Obama finally took her advice and made the big speech, but though it was "a nice try" it wasn't going to amount to anything-- classic double-bind bullshit.  And the right is even more extreme, beyond sanity, but some Beltway commentators think their arguments (carbon regs will kill economic growth) are still politically potent.

So given all of this, my sense that this is the most significant act of the week seems in  the distinct minority.  That doesn't surprise me.  All the same things were said about President Kennedy's American University speech fifty years ago--his proposals for a limited nuclear test ban were too modest, and too radical; they wouldn't mean anything, they would endanger American security and hasten war.  But that seed grew, and so will this one.  In the end it will affect more people--and more of the planet--than anything else that happened this week.

As for "nothing new," here's what was new in the speech (separate from the actions or proposals):

An American President declared that addressing the climate crisis is an urgent national and global need.

He declared that addressing the climate crisis means addressing both the causes and the effects.

He acknowledged that even as we address the causes, we will continue to feel the effects for some time to come.

No President has said any of that before.   But it is the agenda and the reality going forward into the future.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.

President Obama's speech on the climate crisis accurately outlined both parts of the problem, the cause and the effects, and not only proposed a comprehensive range of ways to address particularly the causes, but announced meaningful efforts by his administration, regardless of congressional inaction.

He spoke in the hot DC sun, to an audience of Georgetown University students, deliberately selected because this issue will begin to seriously affect their generation and the following generations.

His rhetoric was mostly simple, though the speech cleverly turned the tables on critics by characterizing them as negative and "doomsayers" on America's potential to deal with environmental challenges and still be economically viable.  He dealt with deniers in just one sentence, as akin to the Flat Earth Society.

His speech is accompanied by an even more comprehensive plan, made available in the form of infographics and a pdf detailed plan. In later posts I plan to look into the plan.  In this post I want to summarize the speech.  Quotes are in italic.

President Obama began by talking about the famous photo that first showed the Earth from moon orbit to the Earth in 1968.  At the same time, scientists were studying changes in the atmosphere brought about by greenhouse gases that threatened that whole Earth.

That science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind. 

He summarized some of the most recent and most compelling evidence, and talked about the effects of storms, droughts and extreme weather made more extreme by global heating. And we know that the costs of these events can be measured in lost lives and lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost businesses, hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency services and disaster relief. In fact, those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it -- they’re busy dealing with it.

Having examined the science on the causes of global heating and described some of the effects, the President makes an historic commitment:

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science -- of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements -- has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They've acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.

So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. (Applause.)

I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.

And that’s why, today, I'm announcing a new national climate action plan, and I'm here to enlist your generation's help in keeping the United States of America a leader -- a global leader -- in the fight against climate change.  

He described some of the progress made, and acknowledged the opposition that has meant that the challenge he gave to Congress to act ("or I will") has gone unmet.  So he will.

But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now. And this is my plan to meet it -- a plan to cut carbon pollution; a plan to protect our country from the impacts of climate change; and a plan to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate. (Applause.)

Cutting carbon pollution is to be addressed in three basic ways.  This plan begins with cutting carbon pollution by changing the way we use energy -- using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy.

He talked about the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970 by Congress with one dissenting vote in the House and none in the Senate, and signed into law by a Republican President.  The principle of regulating to preserve the environment and therefore the health and safety of Americans was established, and the pollution that the EPA is now required to regulate includes carbon, by a recent Supreme Court decision.

So new rules will be made and enforced to regulate the currently not-regulated-at-all carbon emissions of both new and existing power plants.  That's probably the major news from this speech, because regulating existing power plants was not thought to be in the cards for the near future.

He notes that critics will say this will crush the American economy, as they have before every major step to regulate harmful pollutants etc., but that the "doomsayers" were always wrong.  American ingenuity always rose to the occasion, and so did business.

 The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies -- we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.

Besides using less dirty energy, he advocated for more clean energy. He spoke about successful efforts to expand clean energy, and announced new efforts to expand it further.He spoke in favor of natural gas as a less carbon polluting fuel that can bridge to a more complete clean energy future.

 A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future -- right here in the United States of America. That’s our task.

He spoke more generally about not wasting energy, but pointed out once again that energy conservation is one of the easiest ways to address the climate crisis, and one that adds immediately to jobs and the economy.

In all three categories he noted what had already been done or was being done--by states, cities and corporations.  He noted that in some efforts the federal government would be playing catch-up.

Then he turned from causes to the effects--and to the fact that many advocates for action would not themselves face until recently: that global heating is going to continue, and it is going to have effects, even if we do what must be done to blunt the catastrophic effects of climate cataclysm in the farther future.

So using less dirty energy, transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, wasting less energy through our economy is where we need to go. And this plan will get us there faster. But I want to be honest -- this will not get us there overnight. The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science. It's like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse. It's going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize.

So in the meantime, we're going to need to get prepared. And that’s why this plan will also protect critical sectors of our economy and prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change that we cannot avoid. 

Once again, he was able to describe efforts in this regard already underway in cities and states, including those with Republican governments.  (He'd previously noted that 75% of wind power generated in the U.S. is in Republican states.)  This is another way he was able to undercut critics who say all this is radical and (in the immortal phrasing of John Banal) "crazy."

And we’ll partner with communities seeking help to prepare for droughts and floods, reduce the risk of wildfires, protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers. And we'll also open our climate data and NASA climate imagery to the public, to make sure that cities and states assess risk under different climate scenarios, so that we don’t waste money building structures that don’t withstand the next storm. 

The last part of his speech was about the U.S. leading international efforts, not only to meet the Copenhagen goals for 2020 but to go beyond them in following decades by bringing in the developing nations.

What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious -- because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement -– because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible -- because different nations have different needs. And if we can come together and get this right, we can define a sustainable future for your generation. 

We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition -- not just here in the United States but around the world. And those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. (Applause.) Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions. 

President Obama said that addressing the climate crisis must once again return to bipartisan efforts, because this is a responsibility to the future.

Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future. And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve.

And someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they'll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that? (Applause.)

He called upon citizens to persistently make their voices heard on this issue:

Americans are not a people who look backwards; we're a people who look forward. We're not a people who fear what the future holds; we shape it. What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands. 

That means insisting that communities, corporations, governments and individual office-seekers take responsibility:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. (Applause.) Remind folks there's no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue. (Applause.)

And in the year that is the 50th anniversary of so much involving President Kennedy--Berlin,  his American University speech on the nuclear test ban, his Civil Rights speech the next day, and of course his assassination--President Obama contrasted the goals of this effort from the "clear moment of victory" of the Apollo program.  And he did so with rhetoric that more than in any other part of the speech comes closest to  Kennedy's:

 I understand the politics will be tough. The challenge we must accept will not reward us with a clear moment of victory. There’s no gathering army to defeat. There's no peace treaty to sign. When President Kennedy said we’d go to the moon within the decade, we knew we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet the goal. Our progress here will be measured differently -- in crises averted, in a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal? For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

President Obama returned to the image of the Earth as seen in that 1968 photograph, also a product of the Apollo project (as was the famous Blue Marble whole Earth photo):

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear -- the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity -- that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we'll succeed. 

I'll end this post with one more comment.  I remember President Kennedy's American University speech, and a lot about the JFK years.  The historic importance of that speech of course could not be fully known right away, but at the time the response was mixed.  It, too, was partially driven from headlines by other events, including JFK's own Civil Rights speech the next day.  And even today it is not appreciated for its historic role, but it was a pivot point in history, accomplished in part by his rhetoric and his arguments, that grew more powerful as time went on.

Given all that has happened and has not happened for the past 20 years I've been participating in this debate, President Obama's speech was comprehensive, forthright, strong, clear, rhetorically adept and eloquent.  He delivered it in his low key common sense persuasion mode. (I'm not sure about the "optics" of the hot glare of the sun, wiping sweat from his brow frequently, practically smothered in American flags, but I'll be interested in what others saw.)

That he did what I've become a broken record advocating for a decade--that true and realistic leadership must address both the causes and effects, the "stop it" and "fix it," or what the wonks call mitigation and adaptation (unless I have them confused and reversed again)--leaves me with a feeling of great relief.  Maybe tomorrow I can even exhale.

The other headline of the speech came with an interpolation--that the tar sands oil pipeline will not be approved if it is found to contribute significantly to greenhouse gas pollution.  That decision is still a couple of months off, they say.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Three Rings of Fire

Things are hot and crazy in the DC circus.

The so-called IRS scandal quickly devolved into partisan madness, despite the emerging facts: that the scrutiny of Tea Party groups was initiated by Republicans in the IRS under the authority of a GW Bush appointed director, and that however clumsily it was done, it had validity in that prominent Tea Party groups may well have been funding political activity while trying to get tax exempt status, which forbids such activities.

But it was such a vivid political wet dream for the rabid right that it took on a life of its own. It  led to the tawdry McCarthyism of Rep. Issa and his "edited" hearing transcripts, and the rabid right's latest conspiracy theory, which is that slowing the approval of tax exempt status for Tea Party groups is how the Dems won the 2012 election.  A paper that makes this contention first of all assumes that the Tea Party is so powerful and popular that it could sway an election, which no actual polls or scholarship support, as Jonathan Bernstein points out.  He also adds this analysis of the second point:

   Got it? The complaint is that the IRS was slow in granting all these groups a tax status that depending on them not being primarily devoting to electioneering, thus preventing them from..."volunteering, organizing, donating, and rallying" for the "midterm elections."

I mean, as far as I can see (and I only read co-author Stan Veuger's summary post, not the whole paper) the entire thing is premised on a "constitutional right" for these groups to get tax-exempt status so that they can do things they aren't supposed to do with that tax-exempt status. And there's not even a pause to explain why some might see something amiss in that.

So there's not much more to be said about that.  The other ongoing controversy, over NSA data mining and the government's response to David Snowden, the person who blew the whistle on it is more substantive, complex and troubling.  There's humor to be found in it of course--as in Andrew Borowitz's Friday piece headlined U.S. Seemingly Unaware of Irony in Accusing Snowden of Spying.  But it's also serious and dangerous.

The dangers are multiple, and Sunday provides examples, as when David Gregory as host of NBC's Meet the Press--as establishment as journalism gets these days--asked leftist journalist Green Greenwald if he should be charged for "aiding and abetting" Snowden, who is under federal indictment.  

Now in my opinion, Greenwald is a demonstrable asshole who is even more often dangerously slipshod in his accusations.  So this could have been provocative payback.   But it demonstrates just how dangerous all this can become. And it's no excuse for Gregory using his wattage to suggest someone might have committed a federal crime that nobody in the federal government has charged him with.