Saturday, May 10, 2014

We Are All Five Year-Olds Now

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones wrote a column about expressions of dissatisfaction with President Obama's foreign policy--by people who accept or at least admit that they agree with his foreign policy: "Fareed Zakaria is the latest columnist to acknowledge that although President Obama's foreign policy decisions have been largely correct, they've been sadly unaccompanied by any magic powers."

Drum goes on to wonder: "Has any president in history been so widely criticized for doing everything right but not crowing loudly enough about it? I mean, it's nice to think that a silver tongue would have gotten congressional Republicans to support intervention in Syria and Germans to approve harsher sanctions against Russia, but it's just not so. I think everyone knows this perfectly well, but we find it so frustrating that we blame Obama for it anyway. It's as if we're all five-year-olds."

There is something that political scientists have begun calling the Green Lantern Theory, or the expectation that the President alone can right every wrong, fix every problem single-handed and be the hero of the day.  Whereas they have known the limitations of presidential power for at least the past 50 years, since the publication of Richard Neustadt's classic Presidential Power.

But of course it's more than that, because Drum is right: in some ways we are all five year-olds, if that advanced.  We are first and foremost one basic thing (as William Irwin Thompson points out): we are mammals.  We are creatures born of mothers and fathers, and most often nurtured by them.  This is the unconscious source of many of our primary beliefs and assumptions, and the dramas of our lives, including expectations, projections and conflicts.

It's yet another reason that to deny that psychology is crucial in every aspect of our lives, including political, is sheer arrogant folly. If we don't make conscious the possibilities of (for instance) projecting the ideal father on the king or the President, we'll continue to befuddle ourselves and increasingly threaten our democracy, and now our civilization as well as many of earth's lifeforms, including our own.  Unless we at least take this possibility into consideration when evaluating our opinions, we are unlikely to make good decisions.

R.I.P. Jonathan Schell

It was only in seeing an issue of The Nation that is a few weeks old that I learned of the death of Jonathan Schell.  He was a writer and an activist who identified and helped to define the major issues of our time beginning with the Vietnam War, and his influential book of reporting, The Village of Ben Suc.

In the early 80s he wrote one of the most powerful books ever on the human dimensions of nuclear conflict, The Fate of the Earth.  Reading it first in the New Yorker was a powerful, poignant experience.  It had a great deal to do with the nuclear freeze movement of the 80s.

He warned against the Iraq war and remained an articulate opponent.  His 2007 book The Seventh Decade warned of new dangers of nuclear weapons and warfare--all the more dangerous because the common conception is that this danger is over.  It is not.

More recently he turned his attention to the climate crisis.  When asked to compare the threat of nuclear war with the climate crisis in a 2009 interview he said: "They are two of a kind. They’re both threats to species including our own and mutilations of the Earth which is all that we have. The difference is really between detroying ourselves instantly [with a nuclear war] or doing it more slowly with global warming. It’s a threat of a new order and death and magnitude. I think the nuclear danger was an alarm bell for the environment."

The book that binds the others together is his 2003 masterpiece The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  If democracy and indeed civilization are to have a future, it is a book that will grow in importance.

"Books outlast their writers; his masterpieces are vividly alive now," writes Rebecca Solnit in her Nation remembrance (April 21).  "We can remember Jonathan Schell by continuing to read his incomparable insights and analyses and be grateful that he gave us all those decades of words describing the world in unexpected and important ways."

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Big Pivot

Update Tues. p.m.: Links to the National Climate Assessment Report, to the well constructed White House graphical summary and to one of the news stories about the report.

It begins tomorrow.  Rolling Stone describes it, and the Guardian lays out the immediate agenda that starts with Tuesday's official release of the latest National Climate Assessment. It's the pivot to making the climate crisis a major topic for the rest of the Obama administration.

The Assessment basically says, it's clear: it's here.  The climate crisis is underway and is already causing problems and pain for Americans.  The Guardian in its story headlined Climate change is clear and present danger, says landmark US report : The National Climate Assessment, a 1,300-page report compiled by 300 leading scientists and experts, is meant to be the definitive account of the effects of climate change on the US. It will be formally released at a White House event and is expected to drive the remaining two years of Barack Obama's environmental agenda.

The findings are expected to guide Obama as he rolls out the next and most ambitious phase of his climate change plan in June – a proposal to cut emissions from the current generation of power plants, America's largest single source of carbon pollution. The White House is believed to be organising a number of events over the coming week to give the report greater exposure."

Concentrating on the Assessment is about more than raising general awareness and support.  It's proximate preparation for the EPA rules on coal-fired power plants to be announced in June.  One possible barrier may have been avoided already with last week's Supreme Court decision on regulating power plant pollution.  But the political battle could be epic, with the Koch Oven Brothers and other fossils leading a furious opposition.  Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone:

It's a gamble that could have a profound impact on energy politics, our economy and our ability to stabilize the climate. But if the president is wrong, it could not only cost his party control of the Senate this fall but also blow the last opportunity we have to save ourselves from life on a superheated planet. "It's a transformative moment," says Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island in what may be the understatement of the century.

But the possible payoff, Goodell writes, is immense. If the EPA rules are like those proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, it could be that "470 million to 700 million tons of carbon pollution can be eliminated per year by 2020, equivalent to the emissions from 95 million to 130 million autos. NRDC calculates the plan would result in up to $63 billion in health and environmental benefits and up to $120 billion in investments in energy efficiency and renewables."

Reductions like this would place the U.S. in the forefront of reigning in greenhouse gases, in time for the next international climate summit at the end of 2015, providing negotiating muscle for a global agreement.

A chief player in all of this is undoubtedly John Podesta (seen also in the photo at top with President Obama and current chief of staff Denis McDonough.)  My guess is that he joined the Obama White House with this issue and these goals not only in mind, but as the brief that brought him there.  He's quoted several times in the Rolling Stone piece, so it's likely he was a major source.

Speaking of the EPA rules and their consequences: "This is a game-changer on the international front," says Podesta. "It will re-establish U.S. leadership, and it will demonstrate that America is committed to taking significant action to reduce emissions." Podesta points out that other progress has been made on the international front, including a deal with China and most developing nations to phase out so-called "superpollutants" like hydro fluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used in refrigerators and other industrial applications.

Goodell also writes that even if the EPA rules are strong, the Keystone pipeline is eventually not permitted (his sources tell him this is likely) and there is a global agreement, it won't necessarily be enough to meet the minimum goals of limiting greenhouse gases emissions.  But he notes that Hillary Clinton has been speaking on the subject recently, and Podesta suggests it could be a major issue in her potential campaign.  Again, Podesta is an important connection.  Having served in the Bill Clinton White House (and Bill Clinton also being outspoken on the climate crisis), he represents a strategy that could potentially continue in the next presidency.

As for President Obama, Goodell's story notes early: Taking action on climate is one of the most important goals in the president's second term," John Podesta, counselor to the president and his point man on climate policy, told me a few weeks ago. "He feels a profound and urgent obligation to get as much done as he can before he leaves office."

But Goodell's story ends with Podesta quashing talk in the White House about legacy."It's not helpful in the day-to-day task of getting our work done," he explains. "Besides, if we don't take serious action on climate now, we may not have any history to look back on anyway."

A Tipping Point That Is Really A Tipping Point

Sometimes the "smoking gun" really is a smoking gun.  And now there's the possibly fateful case of a climate crisis tipping point that is actually a point at which something tips over.

That something unfortunately contains enough melting ice to raise sea levels by ten to thirteen feet worldwide, all by itself.  According to a study by climate scientists, it could well happen if global heating continues.  The place is East Antarctica.

"East Antarctica's Wilkes Basin is like a bottle on a slant," said lead-author Matthias Mengel in a statement. "Once uncorked, it empties out."

This basin is much larger than the UK. Right now this bottle is sealed by a rim of ice.  But melting already predicted could pop the stopper.

Sea level rise from Antarctica is projected to increase by 16 centimeters this century. "If half of that ice loss occurred in the ice-cork region, then the discharge would begin. We have probably overestimated the stability of East Antarctica so far," said co-author Anders Levermann.

Once the top is popped, the point is tipped, and the deluge begins. And once started it will continue for estimates of 5,000 to 10,000 years.

Though really a tipping point, it isn't exactly a smoking gun, at least not right now, because it may well take a long time--even hundreds of years--to become evident.  But it does suggest how these things can work.  Once begun, the effects continue, and may be impossible to stop once they are started.  Once the genie is out of the bottle.