Friday, August 29, 2014

A Sense of Urgency

A lot of precious time has been wasted before addressing the climate crisis--so much that the crisis was not averted, it's here, though just beginning.   For awhile the science wasn't exact enough for a scientific consensus as exists today, though reasonable political leaders might have erred on the side of taking even the likelihood of a climate crisis seriously enough to act.  In the past decade or more the science has been overwhelming, but oppositional politics and media took hold, with decreasing relevance to the facts and the issue.

So today the Republican party is in lockstep opposition to any acknowledgement  let alone action on the climate crisis.  That partisan political stance means for one thing that a formal international treaty on mutual actions to address the climate crisis would almost certainly fail to achieve the 67 votes in the U.S. Senate required by the Constitution to ratify it and make it law.

Other countries also have their own political problems in achieving such a treaty.  Now it turns out that negotiations are well underway for an international agreement next year that will not require a Senate vote.  The agreement would be in part based on existing treaties, and in part on voluntary compliance via "name and shame."  The NY Times:    

"Countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies — but would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify those nations that did not meet their cuts."

Jonathan Chiat has a very good column on the rationale for this effort--mostly that the dimensions of the crisis require taking the risk.  The problems are too serious and coming too quickly to dither anymore.  With the usual steps forward and back, an international sense of urgency nevertheless is growing.

  The US politics however are pretty interesting.  There's reporting that many congressional Republicans know there's a crisis that has to be addressed but politically can't afford to recognize it, lest they be primaried by the zealots they've been nurturing. Chiat observes: "Given the seriousness and urgency — you can’t un-melt a glacier — the broad way to think about climate politics is that Republicans have ceded the field completely."

There's also the question of the effectiveness of "voluntary" compliance, although there is really no third party way to enforce a treaty anyway.  Much of what needs to be done relies on trust, and some key observers believe that past guidelines have resulted in progress.  Chiat:

"Center for American Progress fellow Peter Ogden, the former White House National Security staff director for climate change and environmental policy, points out in Foreign Affairs that the Copenhagen summit, which failed to produce a binding treaty, “was actually a turning point in international climate talks,” and has produced significant carbon reductions."

Key to such an agreement working are the carbon regulations that the Obama administration has begun. With a rapidly growing clean energy sector, these will begin to change the game.  Chiat concludes:

"If the regulations actually deliver, encouraging the market to find inexpensive ways to switch to cleaner fuels, and to save money through conservation, then the incentive to revert back to unregulated carbon emissions will be small. Doing so might even impose new costs on businesses that had adjusted to Obama’s regulations.

If the Republican warnings prove true — if compliance costs run beyond projections, if foreign countries refuse to cooperate, if the Earth does not continue to warm, if Americans are shivering in the dark, then there will be opportunities for them to win elections and go back to dumping carbon into the atmosphere for free. The risks on the opposite side dwarf those possibilities."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Scandal of Tweets

A scandal of tweets (that's like a gaggle of geese) erupted in response to the President's statement and press conference Thursday, not because of any of his statements or answers that carefully explained current US policy and mapped out future plans and possibilities vis a vis ISIS/ISIL, Russia and the Ukraine, the economy and immigration.   Because he wore a light brown suit!

What a scandal!

Race in your Face

John Crawford
It's not even an irony anyone mentions anymore, that America's elder statesman of truth-telling journalism is the host of a fake news show on the Comedy Channel.  But Jon Stewart tells the truth about race in America and its relationship to Ferguson in this recent segment.

We went through a few decades in which race wasn't part of the public conversation, leading a lot of white Americans to believe that racial discrimination no longer exists.  These years were primarily during Republican administrations.  Now there is not only a Democrat in the White House, but an African American, and racism is way out of the closet.  Some white people are shaken and shocked, while others are overflowing with resentment.  Still others--the most blatant racists--are liberated.

The "there is no racism" mantra of right wing zealots obscures and therefore makes possible the most blatant outrages.  The Ferguson killing is just one.  John Crawford, a young black man, was shot on sight in a Wal-Mart in the act of shopping while black.  A video confirms that he got no warning, although he was merely fingering a toy gun while talking on his cell phone.

Jeremy Lake
In Oklahoma an off-duty white cop shot and killed Jeremy Lake, a young black man, as he was introducing himself.  His crime was dating the cop's daughter.  His daughter witnessed the shooting and confirms that there was no argument beforehand.

The blatant and all non-white encompassing racism expressed by that now-suspended Missouri cop ("I'm into diversity. I kill everybody, I don't care"), even invoking his Christian religion ("I personally believe in Jesus Christ as my lord savior, but I'm also a killer") with no recognition of the contradiction (that the historical Jesus was not white and therefore on his firing line is the least of the ironies), is the most extreme--yet this man has political and media defenders.

It is the daily racism that escapes the notice of most whites.  After providing a few examples, Jon Stewart concluded:"Race is there, and it is a constant," Stewart said. "You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f*cking exhausting it is living it."

Everyone begins with bias.  But almost everyone has suffered from it to some extent.  There's tons of evidence of bias regarding something as non-visual and abstract yet of vital importance as evaluating job resumes.  The evidence shows class bias, bias against women, against non-white names, or "funny names," i.e. foreign-sounding.  I grew up with bias against my "long" Polish last name, my Italian heritage, my working class origins.  Even with the advantages of being a white male.

One crucial point is imagination.  Having felt some element of bias, can you not imagine how it would be for others?  Another point is knowing the limitations of your own experience.  Why assume that when people of color recount frequent if not constant racism, that they aren't telling the truth?  Their experience is not your experience, and the only way you can understand what they're saying is to listen to them, realize they know more about it than you do.  We'd feel better if it wasn't true, it's not pleasant to hear it, but "imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it."

But some white people, despite their pious claims of racial neutrality, know about bias.  They just don't want to be the victims of it.  With more non-whites in positions of power, they theorize, they will be (or are) victims of bias. They interpret the lack of bias in their favor as bias against them, in employment for example.  They feel threatened by prospective lack of preferential treatment, though they're unlikely to put it that way.

There are of course people of all colors and genders who abuse their power, and there are people of all colors who cynically use the most convenient excuse to the point of lying about it.  Efforts to compensate for past bias by deliberately hiring non-whites or women, for example, do result in individual losses.  (I've been told I lost jobs that way. But how many other opportunities have I had because I'm a white male?) None of that contradicts the pervasive existence of racism in America.  Our future depends on dealing with it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Climate in Crisis

Criticized by outsiders for minimizing the dangers and soft-peddling the effects of the climate crisis, and charged from within the climate scientist community for censoring and watering down prior reports, a new UN climate panel draft report is said to be stark and uncompromising.  At least for now.

According to the New York Times:

"Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control."

Quoting the report directly:“Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reduction in snow and ice, and in global mean-sea-level rise; and it is extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the draft report said. “The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.”

The Times story notes that this report, meant to be a summary of previous reports, is not official until November, and will go through the diplomatic process that has resulted in less definite language in the past.  But, the Times notes:

Using blunter, more forceful language than the reports that underpin it, the new draft highlights the urgency of the risks that are likely to be intensified by continued emissions of heat-trapping gases, primarily carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas...It cited rising political efforts around the world on climate change, including efforts to limit emissions as well as to adapt to changes that have become inevitable. But the report found that these efforts were being overwhelmed by construction of facilities like new coal-burning power plants that will lock in high emissions for decades."

More conclusions:

"The new report found that it was still technically possible to limit global warming to an internationally agreed upper bound of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial level. But continued political delays for another decade or two will make that unachievable without severe economic disruption, the report said."

"The draft report found that past emissions, and the failure to heed scientific warnings about the risks, have made large-scale climatic shifts inevitable. But lowering emissions would still slow the expected pace of change, the report said, providing critical decades for human society and the natural world to adapt.

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report said.

The report noted that severe weather events, some of them linked to human-produced emissions, had disrupted the food supply in recent years, leading to several spikes in the prices of staple grains and destabilizing some governments in poorer countries.

Continued warming, the report found, is likely to “slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing poverty traps and create new ones, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.”

None of this is new to most scientists, scholars, activists and reporters who have followed the subject.  So the UN panel is hardly alone in these conclusions.  Others buttress and extend them.  For instance, the Sydney Morning Herald reports on  at a conference in Australia: "The world is headed "down a dangerous path" with disruption of the food system possible within a decade as climate change undermines nations' ability to feed themselves, according to a senior World Bank official..."Unless we chart a new course, we will find ourselves staring volatility and disruption in the food system in the face, not in 2050, not in 2040, but potentially within the next decade," she said, according to her prepared speech.'

Meat and diary prices are already rising in the US due primarily to drought, but so far within the comfort level of most Americans.  There's little prospect of a reversal and it's more likely that prices will continue to climb.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

That Old Time Religion

This week's New Yorker cover painting.  The hands up (don't shoot) gesture has become the signature of the Ferguson protests, there and elsewhere.  It accompanies Jelani Cobb's latest report.   Meanwhile, the Ferguson police department is under intense scrutiny, and a police officer who had been on duty during the demonstrations has been suspended after a long racist rant which reportedly included: "I'm into diversity. I kill everybody, I don't care...I personally believe in Jesus Christ as my lord savior, but I'm also a killer. I’ve killed a lot. And if I need to, I'll kill a whole bunch more. If you don't want to get killed, don't show up in front of me, it's that simple."

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Flame Still Burns

The second great song from "Still Crazy."  Not the best picture but the sound is good.  Think of the lyrics as this Monday's substitute for the Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote.
Just a note for the possibly concerned: the 6.0 Napa earthquake that hit early Sunday morning was considerably south of the North Coast, so we're fine.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Changing Climate?

It used to be called The Great Turning, the Turning Point.  Now it's The Swerve.  It is a definitive move towards addressing the climate crisis and the many complex questions that ensue, about how economics and politics are done, and how we factor and weigh the environment in the ordinary equation of public and private action.  Some prominent voices on the subject have been predicting it and waiting for it for years, even decades.

Is it happening now?  Robert Jay Lifton believe so, and says so in a New York Times opinion piece:

"AMERICANS appear to be undergoing a significant psychological shift in our relation to global warming. I call this shift a climate “swerve,” borrowing the term used recently by the Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt to describe a major historical change in consciousness that is neither predictable nor orderly...Experience, economics and ethics are coalescing in new and important ways."

Why now?  Polls and attitude studies, Lifton writes, confirm that experience with catastrophic and traumatic effects is a big factor:

"The experiential part has to do with a drumbeat of climate-related disasters around the world, all actively reported by the news media: hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and wildfires, extreme heat waves and equally extreme cold, rising sea levels and floods. Even when people have doubts about the causal relationship of global warming to these episodes, they cannot help being psychologically affected. Of great importance is the growing recognition that the danger encompasses the entire earth and its inhabitants. We are all vulnerable."

People no longer have to imagine what the effects of the climate crisis might be--at least, some of the less complex effects, obvious in discrete events:

"The most important experiential change has to do with global warming and time. Responding to the climate threat — in contrast to the nuclear threat, whose immediate and grotesque destructiveness was recorded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — has been inhibited by the difficulty of imagining catastrophic future events. But climate-related disasters and intense media images are hitting us now, and providing partial models for a devastating climate future."

Lifton moves on to economics, where the awareness is dawning that all the theoretical financial assets represented by fossil fuels still to be unearthed are likely to remain "stranded" because of their deathly danger to the planet.

"In contrast, renewable energy sources, which only recently have achieved the status of big business, are taking on increasing value, in terms of returns for investors, long-term energy savings and relative harmlessness to surrounding communities...In a world fueled by oil and coal, it is a truly stunning event when investors are warned that the market may end up devaluing those assets. We are beginning to see a bandwagon effect in which the overall viability of fossil-fuel economics is being questioned."

Lifton sees the economics entwined with ethics.  Climate crisis effects begin to tip the balance against the free market values of extracting the fossil fuels that will end up destroying civilization.  People who insist on their predominance may be stuck with "stranded ethics."

Lifton, whose recent work involves comparing the climate crisis with the nuclear weapons threat concludes: "I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to endanger or kill large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue."

Lifton believes that increasing awareness provides the base support and also the energy and participation for a social movement to address the climate crisis.  He recalls the "nuclear freeze" movement of the 90s, and suggests a galvanizing phrase might be a "climate freeze."  I don't see that one working, but the first test of an emerging movement is coming up: The People's Climate March is scheduled for September 21 in New York City.  An impressive roster of organizations is involved, and the schedule includes a number of preliminary events.  Organizers are calling for the largest mass demonstration on behalf of the climate in US history, with global reach, since the march ends at the United Nations.

These preparations are underway as the climate news of the week was the conclusion of a study that posits that the slower than expected rise in global temperature is due to 30 year currents in the Atlantic Ocean that is driving heat into the deep ocean.  Other theories involved heat trapped in the ocean depths, but this suggests the mechanics of it.

  If it is true, the authors suggest, the current slow rise may continue until 2025 or so, even though carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere at an historically high rate.  This is both beneficial and dangerous.  It is beneficial in that it provides some time to start addressing causes and dealing with effects, with less climate-caused chaos than would otherwise exist.  It's dangerous if it leads to complacency, to any sense that it's not going to happen, or it's not going to be so bad after all. For when the ocean currents change, that heat will be released while new heat won't disappear into the ocean depths.  So temperatures will rise rapidly.

It's important to note that even with temperatures rising more slowly than they should be, the effects of global heating are increasing.  Deeper drought, more frequent fierce storms, fires, mudslides, etc.  In fact, as if to buttress Lipton's comparison of the climate crisis to nuclear weapons, last week a climate related disaster  happened when torrential rains led to landslides that killed as many as 100 and forced the evacuation of 100,000--in Hiroshima, which earlier this month marked the 69th anniversary of the city devastated by the first atomic bomb dropped on a populated place.  All the photos with this post are from there, not 69 years ago, but this past week.