Thursday, June 12, 2014

All or Nothing

The climate crisis is not a political contest.  It's not an ideological debate.  It's not a test of which tribe you belong to, or a leading indicator of your likely income group.  It is a threat to today's children that they will definitely have to deal with.  If we do not address its causes and recognize its effects, it is a threat to human civilization, perhaps to humanity, and together with other human-caused changes, to life as we know it on Earth.

It is not completely necessary to understand this to begin the needed change, though many people do.  A new Bloomberg national poll finds: By an almost two-to-one margin, 62 percent to 33 percent, Americans say they would pay more for energy if it would mean a reduction in pollution from carbon emissions..

These include a vast majority of Democrats, a hefty majority of Independents (60%) and more than 40% of the Republicans surveyed.  Half of those who plan to vote in 2014 are looking for candidates who support addressing the climate crisis.

Some of this response is driven by the effects already seen.  Insurance companies that are expected to pay the costs of dealing with these effects are starting to sue municipalities that aren't taking seriously the threat of the climate crisis by preparing for it.

But there are larger contexts that come into play.  As the insurance example suggests, the economics involved are shifting.  As Kim Stanley Robinson and others have been pointing out, once the true costs of the climate crisis are admitted, the cost of addressing of it is comparatively small.

The dimensions of this are put into perspective by a new study:

The benefits human civilization enjoys from the world’s natural ecosystems — grasslands, marshes, coral reefs, forests, and the like — amounts to something in the vicinity of $142.7 trillion a year. That’s over eight times the value of the entire U.S. economy ($16.2 trillion a year), and almost twice the value of the world economy ($71.8 trillion a year).

For those who want a succinct and illustrated summary of the science, I've seen nothing better on the subject than the recent episode of the new Cosmos series entitled "The World Set Free."  That's also the title of the H.G. Wells novel that first warned of the threat of atomic weapons, and ended with humanity finally addressing the problem before it became too late.

Here's an article about this Cosmos episode, but it is best seen--and it can be, for free, on the Internet here. 

As for the ultimate stakes, try the three minutes plus in the embedded video above, from another episode of Cosmos.  Its host Neil Degrasse Tyson is spending an appalling amount of time dealing with creationists and deniers, something (as I note elsewhere) that Walt Disney didn't have to do in the 1950s when his science-based programs for children portrayed the history of the universe and the evolution of life.  Nor did Carl Sagan in the original Cosmos, though he may have received enough flack to make violent evangelicals into the principal villains in his novel Contact.

This video features the imagery from the new series with Carl Sagan's voice from the old.  What we're seeing is an animation of what Voyager saw when it paused near Neptune to turn back and take a last photo of the Earth, before heading into interstellar space.  I suggest you click the full screen icon to properly watch it.  It is an amazing three and a half minutes, that provides visually and in words the perspective in which the climate crisis is appropriately seen.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


The historic defeat of  the House majority leader Eric Cantor in a GOPer primary by an unknown tea partier econ professor named--am I making this up?--Brat has the political Internet burning feverishly.  Theories abound, though facts often intervene.  Low turnout?  Low numbers certainly--this political earthquake caused by 65,000 voters--but turnout itself appears to be 50% higher than the last primary. Cantor's pollster (who predicted a 35 point victory and got a double digit defeat) blamed it on Democratic votes but that's already been shown to be false.

Was it the winner's harping on anti-immigration?  That's likely to be a frequent political conclusion, but a Public Policy poll in this district shows overwhelming support for immigration reform, and deep dissatisfaction with Eric Cantor.

Jonathan Bernstein sees the future consequence as GOPer  pols taking primaries much more seriously--and probably going far more to the right in order to neutralize tea party challengers. And despite what that is likely to do to the party's presidential prospects, that could be the general result:

The real surprise would be if Tuesday's earthquake resulted in some serious attempt by mainstream conservatives to confront the radicals and the Tea Partyers. More likely, it means more extreme rhetoric, more attempts to avoid anything even hinting at compromise, more power within the party for attention-seeking talk show hosts and members of Congress willing to be entirely irresponsible and to make irresponsible choices (hopeless and pointless impeachments, government shutdowns without reasonable leverage, messing with the debt limit, and whatever they come up with next).

Andy Borowitz caught this idea and ran with it, in a not too fanciful direction:

The morning after Tuesday’s stunning Tea Party victory in Virginia, House Republicans unveiled a sweeping new legislative agenda, proposing an end to Social Security, a return to child labor, and unprecedented gun rights for pets.

“The Republican Party is the party of common sense,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “And such common-sense proposals as electronic ankle bracelets for immigrant babies and a barbed-wire fence with Canada are long overdue.”

In practical terms, even if Brat gets elected (not a totally sure thing, although the Democrat in the race is even more unknown) his own influence will probably turn out to be nil, according to Ana Marie Cox. "As an economist and paid follower of Ayn Rand, he will face the added difficulty of not being a very good economist."

This election result, however locally determined it turns out to be, does seem part of a pattern of a certain segment of the population becoming crazier, while finding legitimacy in the Republican party. Politically it seems to insure that the Republicans have not yet hit bottom.  The cherry-picked outrages that liberal sites expose is one thing; that they have been accompanied in the past week or so almost daily by gunfire and gun deaths in public places is more than disquieting.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Honestly and Seriously

Jonathan Chiat looks at the domestic agenda--the four challenges President Obama outlined in his 2009 Inaugural Address-- and concludes that (contrary to the rabid right and a lot of political media) with the power plant carbon regulations, he's fulfilled it.  He righted the economy (latest employment numbers continued an upward trend,) passed health care reform (Chiat provides graphs to show the number of uninsured is going down sharply while medical inflation has slowed to the lowest this century) and made progress on education.

"All of Obama’s domestic reforms involved compromises and imperfections, a quality they have in common with every major accomplishment in history...What’s no longer possible is to imagine that historians will look back at Obama’s presidency and conclude not much got done."

The fourth area is energy and climate.  In energy, President Obama has actually exceeded his initial goals. "In 2009, Obama promised to “double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years.” Since then, wind capacity has tripled and solar capacity increased 16-fold. 

On climate, "He likewise called for “a market-based cap on carbon pollution,” which is exactly what the new power-plant regulations would create."

President Obama's approach to the climate crisis is further revealed in an interview that was shown in full Monday on Showtime's global heating series The Years of Living Dangerously.  In the clip above he says the debate about what is happening is over, and the debate is now about how to address it.  He affirms his support for placing a price on carbon, the same way other pollution has been addressed:

"The baseline fact of climate change is not something we can afford to deny. And if you profess leadership in this country at this moment in our history, then you’ve got to recognize this is going to be one of the most significant long-term challenges, if not the most significant long-term challenge, that this country faces and that the planet faces. The good news is that the public may get out ahead of some of their politicians” — as people start to see the cost of cleaning up for hurricanes like Sandy or the drought in California — and when “those start multiplying, then people start thinking, ‘You know what? We’re going to reward politicians who talk to us honestly and seriously about this problem.’”

And in a preview not only of the rest of the Obama Administration but what Barack Obama will continue to champion:

“The person who I consider to be the greatest president of all time, Abraham Lincoln, was pretty consistent in saying, ‘With public opinion there’s nothing I cannot do, and without public opinion there’s nothing I can get done,’ and so part of my job over these next two and a half years and beyond is trying to shift public opinion. And the way to shift public opinion is to really focus in on the fact that if we do nothing our kids are going to be worse off.”

That shift appears today to entail not so much an acceptance of the problem--latest polls show that the deniers are a small and isolated minority--but a sense of urgency to address the causes and the effects forthrightly, boldly and consistently.  That may require getting at deeper issues, as further posts here will suggest.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

“Such is beauty ever—neither here nor there, now nor then—neither in Rome or in Athens—but wherever there is a soul to admire. If I seek her elsewhere because I do not find her at home, my search will prove a fruitless one.”

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Pop Quiz

Outside the fevered headlines of the moment there's this curious map that traces the regions of the US where people typically refer to soft drinks as soda, pop or coke. (It's a little hard to tell but according to the key, the "pop" areas are in blue, the "coke" regions in green.)

It's fascinating to me because of where the borders lie.  I grew up calling it "pop," and my western Pennsylvania hometown just ducks into the blue area.  Not too many miles to our east, it's soda (or soda-ish.)  I grew up in what the broadcast media called "the tri-state area," one of many to be sure, but in this case we were a relative few miles from Ohio and West Virginia.  So culturally we had crosscurrents of East, Midwest and South--or at least Appalachian South--as well as influences from the major immigrant countries.  In this case apparently we were more Midwestern.

Which is additionally interesting as I went to college in Illinois, ostensibly the Midwest, but it was in Galesburg, not far from the Mississippi border with Iowa, upriver from Missouri.  According to the map, there's a big red splotch of soda speakers in southern Illinois--Galesburg is either in it or in the pinkish zone of its borders.

Now I recall regional differences there that caught me by surprise--coffee taken black but with sugar (it was either milk and sugar or black at home), salads served before meals rather than after, plus exotic cuisine such as patty melts, pork tenderloin sandwiches and hash brown potatoes.  Differences in language too, though the one that comes to mind is a peculiar use of the word "pimp" as a verb meaning to prank.  But even though I probably heard soda spoken there (we had classmates from Darien and Long Island) mostly it was still pop.

That could be because the plurality if not absolute majority of Knox College students in those days were from "Chicagoland"--Chicago and its many and varied suburbs.  A comment in response to this map in the Washington Post affirms that Chicagoland spoke pop.  

Interesting to see that soda flies over flyoverland to reestablish itself in the West, most definitely in my new state of California, where soda (or the very minority "soft drink") reigns supreme.  Actually I may have first heard it called soda when visiting my cousins in Maryland as a child, and I have vague recollections of hearing the the generic "coke" somewhere.  But I tend to associate soda with places where I've been as ostensibly a grown-up.  In fact, I thought it was a difference not of place but of time: of age, or of the times.

 Before I saw this map,  I didn't see it as a regional difference.   "Pop" is redolent of childhood in the 50s, of the last day of school when the bottling plant next door gave it away, although you had to be quick to get a root beer or else you'd be stuck with orange.  Same with big summer family events--company picnics, wedding receptions-- where the ice chests soon held only something tasteless we did call soda.  Or later the Verners ginger ale I looked for in the coolers of the neighborhood stores on my paper route.  Or before that the flavors of pop-sicles.  A soda however was something with ice cream you got at the drug store soda fountain, though if you had that much money to spend you'd more likely choose a sundae or a milkshake, or--if you had another dime--a banana split.

I'd pretty much forgotten the word from college, and recollect it mostly in context of a letter to the editor in the college newspaper written by the boyfriend and later husband of a girl I knew, complaining of strangers pimping them by throwing "pop cans" into the darkened dorm lounge where they were making out.