Thursday, August 07, 2014

Climate Vs. Distraction

The politics of distraction has been markedly successful for reactionary forces.  Distort, distract and refocus the debate on outrageous distortions that make something as conservative as Obamacare seem radical, and debate on the deeper and more meaningful changes in the dysfunctional US healthcare system ends--with the insurance companies still in charge.

The politics of distraction has been particularly successful on the climate crisis.  While it was something that was happening but would manifest its damaging effects on humanity in the future, the necessary debate on what to do about it was sidelined by the raging and outrageous phony debate on whether it was real.

But now the effects are showing up in the present, and denialists are beginning to sound like those tobacco companies hacks and stooges who were still claiming in the 1990s that the science was uncertain about the harmful effects of tobacco smoking.

It may be that the virilence of their denials is in inverse proportion to the weaknesses of their arguments.  In any case, the political efforts to deny the climate crisis--and especially deny responsibility for changes necessary to forestall it getting worse in the future that the present can still affect--is massive.

These efforts seem to be centered on creating a political atmosphere that enables corporations to protect their current activities and profits.  The political windbags and the relentless denialists on the Internet are the stormtroopers.  Their job is to distract and keep the debate as crazy as possible, and stuck on the fundamental denialist issues.  The actual battles are being waged in legislatures.  The Republicans in the US Congress effectively hold Congress hostage.  But there are pitched battles in state legislatures.

Take a very recent effect of the climate crisis out of the many in the news this month: the half a million people in Ohio who couldn't drink their water because of algae building up in Lake Erie.  The causes form a perfect storm we're going to see again and again--environmental malfeasance by big corporations (principally agribusinesses using high phosphate fertilizers) with consequences also caused by the climate crisis (principally more rain and heat in the affected area.)  It was, salon said, a manmade disaster.

Moreover, Scientific American said in its headlines:Lake Erie Algae Bloom Matches Climate Change Projections/ The bloom that poisoned Toledo's waters may become more common as the waters of the Great Lakes warm.

Connections to big corporate efforts to bully state legislatures are made in this brilliant Guardian column by Ana Marie Cox.  Although the Republican governor of Ohio signed fairly weak legislation that at least recognized the problem of phosphates in fertilizer runoff,  Cox notes:

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker “eased” the deadlines for polluters in the state to meet the previous administration’s numerical standards for the amount of phosphorous allowed in public waters (he tried to replace the numeric standards with a “narrative description” of reduction efforts, but wasn’t successful). In Tea Partying Florida, the Republican state legislature sought to overturn locally-enacted bans on phosphorus fertilizer – an effort pushed by a Scotts Miracle-Gro lobbyist who texted a representative, “I am begging for your help here.”

Cox also found counterexamples: "purple" and "red" states that are addressing the phosphate issue, because their citizens don't take kindly to the prospect of not having water to drink.  She suggests that Republicans have the opportunity now to change their current extreme opposition to anything that smacks of doing the environment any good.

But this change into extreme anti-environmentalism (the EPA after all was established in the Nixon administration) took some years and will resist, at least until very powerful corporations start turning themselves around.  Agribusiness may be the last except for the fossil fuel behemoths, that are busy buying up state governments all over the country to enable fracking and other extreme measures that keep them rolling in the megabucks in the fossil fuel business.

For the American citizenry as a whole, which polls show is already alarmed by the climate crisis, the political effects will likely come in the form of demanding that government deals with the effects of the climate crisis on their lives.  So far there hasn't been the division between dealing with causes and dealing with effects that I've feared, but it's always possible.  For now, it seems that support for dealing with effects (including banning phosphate fertilizers) may well translate into support for dealing with causes (reducing greenhouse gases.)

So we're doing it the hard way, by suffering the effects that cannot be forestalled because we didn't deal with causes earlier.  But it's getting harder to be distracted. The climate crisis is all around us.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Nukes Remain a Present Danger

Viewing the news of the past week or so--let's face it, any week but especially recently--it's easy to lose any faith in human civilization and its ability to avoid killing itself.  We have one big victory to remember, which is that we managed to avoid nuclear holocaust in the decades of its greatest danger, and nations engaged in successful treaties to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and their hair-trigger status.

But the nuclear threat is not consigned to history.  It is still here.  And in some ways the dangers have increased. A generation or two have grown up without the nuclear threat being prominently mentioned, believing it to be historical, not present, and often not understanding the great difference between bombs and thermonuclear bombs.  Admittedly, non-nuclear bombs have grown in destructive power, but there are still very much less devastating in their total effects.  This is true of the so-called tactical or smaller nuclear weapons.  They are of a different order.

This unfamiliarity may make things more dangerous.  Treaties have slowed the spread of nuclear weapons, but such weapons still exist and are still spreading.    Chances would seem to increase that one will be used.  The lack of live alarm about nuclear weapons probably made it easier both for Russia to violate a nuclear arms treaty (while suggesting it might withdraw from the treaty completely) and for the media to treat the U.S. charge that this happened as a fairly minor one day story.

There are fewer nuclear weapons actively pointed at targets in the U.S. or the former Soviet Union now, but that's not the same as none.  Some believe the chances of accidental launch are even greater today.  We're also learning how many times we came very close to ending the known world in a few hours, or of a horrible accident that would have wiped out millions and contaminated areas the size of US states.

Eric Schlosser's book on the many brushes with apocalypse we had and didn't know it is brilliantly reviewed by the great Louis Menand in the New Yorker.  He passes on a sampling of the incidents, which includes one as recent as 1995, in which Russian president Boris Yeltsin had minutes to decide whether to trigger a nuclear retaliation for what the military were certain was an incoming missile attack.  It wasn't, it was a weather satellite launched from Norway, which the Russians had been notified about but that information didn't get to the right people.  This was only one of many such incidents.

There's been news about poor training and dangerous sloppiness recently in  US missile launching facilities.  There have been revelations about how sloppy and inept the systems were and perhaps still are in the UK and how dangerous the launch system may have been in Russia and still may be.

Out of sight and out of mind does not mean out of the range of possibilities.  Doctor Strangelove is not dead.  President Obama made progress towards new treaties with the goal of a nuclear-free world.  We aren't there yet, and we may be going backwards instead.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War may find our thoughts turning to the reality of nuclear weapons in August, the month in 1945 that two atomic bombs dropped on cities in Japan.  So far they are the only two nuclear bombs to be used as weapons.  That's almost amazing.  But it's hardly a guarantee they will be the last, especially as the memory fades, and as new generations have little knowledge of the dimensions of this threat.

So any millennials who somehow stumbled onto this post, go back and google nuclear war and nuclear weapons.  The threats are not just in the past.  They are in your world and your future.