Thursday, December 31, 2015


President Obama did some interesting, provocative and funny interviews towards the end of 2015.  So before the year officially ends here, a few links...

The latest is the funny one, a video experience with Jerry Seinfeld in his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee series, via the Washington Post.

From the ridiculous to the often profound, an exchange between writer Marilynne Robinson and Obama that's close to a real dialogue, with the President asking about as many questions as she does. The first part is here at the New York Review of Books, with a link to the full audio.  Here's the second part, both published in November.

Bill Simmons is one of my favorite sports writers, especially about basketball.  He did a fun interview in GQ with President Obama that is more than about sports, as Simmons asks him the kind of questions about the non-political aspects of the job that a lot people might want to ask. (Seinfeld does, too, in the interview above.)

If President Obama feels liberated going into his last year in office, it might help account for the utter clarity of his answers on political topics in interviews lately.  See this Jonathan Chiat column about an interview President Obama did with George Stephanopoulis, with a link to the full interview.

And the transcript and video of a year-end interview with PBS.

This may be the most interesting last year of a presidency in my lifetime, which shouldn't be too surprising, since this has been the most interesting presidency so far.

In other words...we ain't seen nothin yet.

Too Big for the News

Sunshine came softly through my window today.  After a rainy month, we're enjoying a few bright days of almost Camelot weather (to vary the song cues), when it only rains after sundown.

But as 2015 ends, other parts of America and the world haven't been so lucky, with extreme weather climaxing a year of climatic extremes. Some people have been basking in warm weirdness. But lots of people haven't been paying attention to Trump, Cosby, "the Affluenza Teen" or the myriad Kardashians.  They've been too busy dealing with flooding, tornadoes, landslides, a December forest fire in southern California, or thunderstorms of rain, snow and ice.

 A Slate story begins: This year’s holiday season has been full of extreme weather, with weird anomalies from coast to coast—like a script worthy of a Syfy network movie. The week of Christmas was the warmest on record by far for a vast stretch of the eastern United States from Texas to Maine. In Philadelphia, every single day this month has been warmer than normal—if that word even retains meaning during a month like this."

The Washington Post summarizes: "From the top of the world to near the bottom, freakish and unprecedented weather has sent temperatures soaring across the Arctic, whipped the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and spawned massive flooding in South America.

The same storm that slammed the southern United States with deadly tornadoes and swamped the Midwest, causing even greater loss of life, continued on to the Arctic. Sub-tropical air pulled there is now sitting over Iceland, and at what should be a deeply sub-zero North Pole, temperatures on Wednesday appeared to reach the melting point — more than 50 degrees above normal. That was warmer than Chicago."

Slate adds: At least 68 tornadoes were reported in 15 states from California to the Carolinas from Dec. 21 to Monday, the longest streak on record of December days with a tornado...One tornado in northern Mississippi on Wednesday was so strong it ripped the carpet off the floor after destroying a home. A series of tornadoes also struck Northern Texas the day after Christmas, many at night, creating horrific devastation. The worst one seems to have occurred in Garland, Texas; it was the deadliest tornado in the Dallas area—for any month—in nearly 90 years. Meteorologist Bob Henson notes that 2015 is the first year since 1875, when records began, that there have been more tornado-related deaths in December than in the entire rest of the year combined."

While hot winds swirled in parts of Texas, in another part it snowed. Areas of South America experienced some of the worst flooding in 50 years. Australia had a record heat wave.  There are deaths and devastation associated with many of these events, especially tornadoes and flooding.

There's even worse on the way. Iceland faces a rare "bomb cyclone"--one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the North Atlantic.  Heavy snows and rain in the upper Midwest swelled the Mississippi and other rivers, and the Midwestern flooding isn't over, it may end up being epic.  And all that water keeps rolling south, into the new year.

El Nino is fingered as the cause for some (but not all) of this, and that phenomenon is only starting to influence weather in many areas, including here.  NASA issued a warning Wednesday that this El Nino is very large, and is likely to cause weather chaos and damage to match or exceed any previously attributed to an El Nino year.

Some of the extreme weather however is not caused directly by El Nino but seems to be part of longer global heating patterns, such as the unusual rainfall in England, and the North Atlantic storm.  Slate:

"Unlike other recent episodes of extreme weather around the planet, this storm is probably not related to El Niño, which has limited influence in Europe. The storm will be strengthening over the exact spot that North Atlantic temperatures have been cooling over recent years, an effect that scientists have linked to a slowdown of the basin’s circulation triggered in part by melting sea ice—the same scenario that was highly dramatized in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. This year, there’s been a notable increase in the sharp contrast between this cold patch and record warm ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic, an effect that leads to stronger ocean storms—like this one."

But while both are clearly involved, attempts to quantify the relative causal contributions of El Nino and global heating are premature.  I read one climate expert (I think it was in an early version of the Post story that has since disappeared) who observed that we've never had a strong El Nino with climate change from global heating this advanced.  We can expected the unprecedented.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas in the Land of Guns

On Christmas Day 2015, 27 Americans were shot and killed by other people.  Sixty-three more were shot by others and were wounded but did not immediately die. (The total doesn't include people who shot themselves.)

Two of these bloody Christmas events involved four or more victims--and are therefore classified as mass shootings.  That made Christmas slightly unusual.  On the average, there was roughly one mass shooting a day in 2015.

Exactly none of these incidents was classified as an act of terrorism, perpetrated or inspired by foreigners.

As the Washington Post points out, the number of people killed by guns in the U.S. on Christmas is about equal to the number killed by guns in England, or even in the vastness of Australia, in an entire year.  It is equal to the annual deaths by gun in "Austria, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Estonia, Bermuda, Hong Kong and Iceland, combined."

Some of the victims of Christmas gun violence were children. On Wednesday, Arne Duncan gave a speech marking the end of his seven year tenure as Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.  Though he had accomplishments to describe, his speech was characterized as angry and sorrowful.

Because children of America are at such risk of being killed or wounded by guns. Because Congress refuses to enact the most basic gun safety laws.  Children can't learn if they're dead, or if students live in fear of gun violence, as so many do."A majority of young men of color don’t think they're going to live past 23," he said. "What does that compel us to do?"

Hey Kids, Top This!

Aretha Franklin at Kennedy Center honors last month for Carole King, seen urging her on from the balcony, next to fellow honoree George Lucas.  President Obama and Michelle are enjoying it, too.  But why is anyone surprised Aretha's voice is still great at age 73?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Light Awakens

I once had the privilege of participating in an authentic winter Solstice ceremony of a central American Indian tribe.  Like most such ceremonies (at least these days), parts of it were improvised to deal with circumstances.  But the spirit was there, and we sang a song that had been sung on the Solstice for untold generations.

The Solstice is still celebrated in the Yalda festival in Iran, honoring Mithra, angel of light, and in China's Dōngzhì festival, marking the time when winter's darkness begins to give way to light. Hindu devotees worship the sun god on Makar Sankranti. Many Christmas traditions have their roots in Solstice celebrations, like the Scandinavian Juul--or Yule--in honor of the sun's return, or the Druid tradition of using mistletoe in their rites.  Like almost all Christian holidays, its appearance at the general time of ancient--even primordial--moments of awe and recogniton of the mysteries of existence, is not even close to coincidental.

It is perhaps the most paradoxical moment to celebrate.  We see it as the official first day of winter, promising months of dark and dreary skies, cold and inconvenient onslaughts of water vapor in its various forms.  Yet as the shortest day of the year, it marks the lengthening of days to come.  The ceremony in which I participated likened winter to the Earth's pregnancy, of unseen growth in the guise of slumber.

Meanwhile here on the North Coast, we're experiencing a rainy December.  We've beat the average even before yesterday's substantial rain and today's heavy showers, all before the week--between Christmas and New Years--that in the past often brought some of the heaviest rains of the winter (accompanied by a nice long power failure.)  Rivers are near flood stage, some creeks have flooded.

In itself this doesn't mean a lot--even in the drought years we've had one month each winter with decent rain, and several really dry ones.  But this winter we were expecting rain--just not so early.  El Nino, they say, hasn't kicked in yet here.

A week or so ago, FEMA saw seen the strength of the oncoming El Nino, and was counseling California to get prepared.

The problems that have already hit Washington (including Seattle) and Oregon (including Portland) from strong pre-El Nino storms may well be in our future: high tides and flooding, river and stream flooding, landslides.

The drought has made flooding (less porous soil) and landslides (forest fires) a bigger problem.  In the last big El Nino here, several small towns were virtually wiped out by a combination of landslides and flooding, which environmental activists blamed largely on the aggressive logging of hillsides and blocking of streams by the notorious Maxam, the last but huge gasp of the predatory timber industry here.

That 1997-8 El Nino caused significant damage in 40 counties of California, and resulted in 17 deaths.  Humboldt officials are telling people to be prepared.  They are working on direct wireless notification of imminent flooding for people who might be affected.  Downed trees and power lines are likely to happen with more than normal frequency.

Heavy rains were unusual since I'v been here until recent years, when rain was less frequent but more violent.  The exceptions were the late winters of the 96-98 El Nino period.  So far the rains have at times been steady, with what might be called downpours.  But not like that....yet.

So the immediate future is likely not filled with light.  Yet that is what is celebrated today--the return of light.  Even though the word "solstice" refers to the sun "standing still."  It celebrates something else as well, I think: the human predilection for the future.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cleaning Up December Bookmarks: Broken Secret Service, New Russian Nuke and Disappearing American Middle Class

Here are some stories I bookmarked/followed this month that I haven't written about yet...

Land of Guns: The Supreme Court made headlines with something it didn't do--it did not take up a case sent to it that concerned local regulations of firearms, leaving in place such a regulation.

That opened a door and Connecticut quickly walked through it.  Near the third year anniversary of the Sandy Hook gun massacre in one of its towns, the state banned gun sales to individuals on terrorist watch lists.  This is after Congress again refused to ban such sales federally to individuals on the no-fly list.  Other states were considering their own bans.

Danger to the President: A story that should have made more headlines was a scathing report on a broken Secret Service.  It notes several examples in which unscreened individuals were permitted near President Obama, including an armed man with an arrest record who shared an elevator ride.

With high attrition and very low morale, the Secret Service is a scandal and a danger, as noted by a Republican Congressman: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight Committee, said the report should spur further action by the Obama administration. “The situation is getting worse not better,” he said. “The president is in jeopardy, and he better personally get involved in fixing this.”

 Republicans share the blame since their Congress cut Secret Service funding in 2011 more severely than ever before.  But it's more than the GOPers wet dream self-fulfilling prophesy of a federal agency doing badly after they decimated it with budget cuts.  It's a cultural problem that goes back at least to hungover agents guarding President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  And by the way, terrorists read the news.

Native Lives Matter: One of the numerically smaller "minorities" seldom makes headlines, but problems among the First Americans remain.  In Canada, the new Trudeau government has launched an investigation into murders of aboriginal women, revealing horrifying statistics.  In the US, the ability of tribes to police their own lands is under threat, along with their sovereignty.

As for the related issue of sports teams names that insult Native Americans, the relentless move away from them gained a powerful corporate supporter in Addidas, that pledged financial support to schools that dump their offensive names and mascots.

Two Nations: The so-called "income inequality" divide deepened this year, and for the first time in generations, there is no middle class majority in America.  The rich are getting richer, and thanks in part to rising prices that inevitably follow (despite the nonsensical official inflation rate) everyone else is getting poorer.

There is not a one-to-one correspondence with the two nations of rich and the rest to our deep bipolar political divide, but there is clearly a political effect in one group: less educated white working class/ low middle class men, particularly older, particularly in the South and the rustbelt, but also scattered nearly everywhere in the US they can still afford to live.

 As a category (though with exceptions--since in many respects I fit this bill) they form the solid base for Trumpism and the general rabid right fanaticism that is the official GOP stance.

Exploiting insecurity and shrinking opportunities and income by blaming "foreigners" especially of other races is a time-tested tactic of Republican elites, though it appears to have gotten beyond their control.

The plight of this group however was emphasized by new statistics that show it is the only category of Americans to show a decline in life expectancy.  Suicide and drug abuse appear to be chief causes.  One analyst (quoted in this analysis by Paul Krugman) theorized it's because they have lost the narrative of their lives.

Well, that's a simplistic way to put it, but it hints at the situation.  The nature of American divisions in class and geography inspired yet another map with cute names for the divisions--income, racial and therefore cultural and political--that befuddle attempts to figure out just what is happening to this dangerously disunited United States.

The federal government is not blameless in this disenchantment, especially among the white working class, according to this thoughtful article.  Though the situation is also rife with paradox and double binds.

As for the income inequality issue itself, Bernie Sanders continues to talk about it, but thanks to terrorist attacks (even though most terrorist incidents in the US since 2004 have been by right wing zealots) and the general xenophobic tenor fueled by GOPer candidates, it hasn't emerged yet as a big campaign issue.

But when it was a hotter topic, there was this guy who decides to raise the minimum wage in his company to $70 grand a year.  It made a nice Twitter-type splash.  Then somebody did a follow-up.  How's that company doing now, after that rash deed?  Well, pretty damn good actually.

Obesity in America: A stroll through a shopping mall this season should provide graphic support to the reality that, compared to a generation or two ago, there are not only more Americans, they each take up more space.     One new study suggests that increasing obesity in children may be related not only to Big Gulps but too many antibiotics.   There are, at least statistically, other factors besides high calorie food.

Another public health issue continues to be GMO crops.  While often cited as an anti-science stance, the concern is not so much over the crops themselves as the herbicides used to make them viable--a demonstrable health problem.

No Education Left Behind:  Few things have been as damaging to American public schools than the so-called No Child Left Behind mandates.  Here in CA they decimated arts programs among others, so that high school graduates are unprepared for entire areas of college.  They decimated social studies and civics education, which one writer links to the rise in domestic terrorism.  Well, finally it's on the decline with the new federal Education law, easing test mandates and increasing state control.

It's Not Your Grandad's Nuclear War:  New threats like the latest permutations of terrorism get the attention and focus fears, but bad old fashioned nuclear war is still a much bigger threat.

Russia's bombing campaign of Syria is pretty blatantly a low-risk but live testing ground of their latest weapon systems, developed under Putin to replace the Soviet-era arsensal.  Putin has not been shy about both developing new nuclear weapons and threatening to use them.  Under the news radar this month, Russia inadvertently revealed their very powerful new nuclear torpedo, which is remarkably dangerous not only for its yield but its ability to operate independently. They can also detonate offshore and create huge tsunami tidal waves that themselves can destroy coastal cities.

This at the same time as GOPer candidates bluster includes advocating actions which would lead directly to war with Russia.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

From the Arctic to Miami Beach: Why They Call It Global

We're all connected by cause and consequence.  Some of the consequences will keep coming, due to forces set in motion by the heating caused by greenhouse gases emitted even a generation ago.

The Washington Post:

"For a second straight year, the Arctic is warming faster than any other place in the world...Since the turn of the last century...the Arctic’s air temperature has increased by more than 5 degrees due to global warming. Warmer air and sea temperatures melt ice that in turn expands oceans and causes sea-level rise, which scientists say presents a danger to cities along the entire Atlantic coast, from Miami to Washington to Boston. Walrus and other arctic mammals that give birth on ice sheets are struggling with the change, and fish such as cod and Greenland halibut are swimming north from fishermen and animals that feed on them in pursuit of colder waters."

Five degrees may not sound like much, but this does:

In the Arctic, the age of ice generally defines the region’s health. Older ice is thicker, more resilient and resistant to atmospheric changes, and better at supporting mammals. Younger ice is thin and vulnerable to collapse.

Yet in nearly all Arctic regions, sea ice is decreasing, the report said. In 1985, 85 percent of the region’s ice qualified as old. In March, that fell to 30 percent. “This is the first year that first-year ice dominated the ice cover,” it notes. “Sea ice cover has transformed from a strong, thick pack in the 1980s to a more fragile, thin and younger pack in recent years.”

The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the global average.  Areas of the oceans are also heating faster, as are the world's lakes--including North America's largest, Lake Superior (as seen in the photo above, from the aforelinked Star Tribune.)

Expanding warm water is already upping the sea level and noticeably flooding Miami Beach pretty regularly.  As the Arctic is heating faster, Miami Beach is flooding faster.  It may only be another generation before it--and other parts of Florida, like the Keys (sorry, Mike--enjoy it while you can) are under water.

So it's important to face climate crisis realities now so that we can address the causes and keep the damage to a minimum.  But it is also important to address the effects, long enough in advance to do it right.  Kolbert's piece suggests Miami is going to be a test case, big time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Climate and the Crabs

The Paris agreement is historic, a paradigm shift.  But it isn't a panacea.  (Some of its problems are described in the aforementioned Weather Underground piece, and elsewhere.)  In fact no agreement can make it all better.  Because the climate crisis is here, and will be for a long time.

The effects caused by past greenhouse gases emissions will still happen, and the consequences will pile up as each change affects other elements in specific ecologies.  While we address these effects, we must continue to address the causes so the effects in the farther future don't add up to even greater catastrophe.

For example the climate crisis is here, literally here, in Arcata.  While rising seas will be a near future threat, our weather will be less affected than most other places in the US.  Yet the climate crisis is here now, in a way that few would anticipate, in crabbing season.

Crabs are a big deal here, economically, socially, culturally.  Our collegiate summer baseball team is the Humboldt Crabs.  But suddenly, there is no crabbing.  None at all.  There are ups and downs from season to season.  But nothing like this has happened since records were kept more than a century ago.

Our Dungeness crabs are suddenly poisonous, due to high levels of a neurotoxin caused by unprecedented levels of algae blooms. This neurotoxin can harm humans when ingested.

 The entire season may be lost, though that's yet to be determined.  It's the same problem that's halted crabbing in Oregon and Washington.  This is a multi-billion dollar industry.  For this relatively small place, Humboldt harvests could bring in as much as $30 million in a season.

  The climate crisis, together with El Nino and the mass of near-shore warm water called the Blob, are all implicated.  But it is global heating that may push things over the edge to hotter water--and more algae--for a long time to come.

Update: This problem now apparently also extends to lakes, which are getting warmer and so experts fear the same algae bloom problems.

Officials hold out the hope that crabs will be safe later in the season.  But more evidence emerged last week of the destructive power of the algae-created neurotoxin.  The poison doesn't appear to harm the crabs (although that sounds like a guess).  But tests indicate that it is devastating the brains of sea lions.

A study published in the journal Science shows that increasing numbers of California sea lions are being impaired in various ways, including severe spatial memory loss, which hampers their ability to survive.  Additional effects include devastating harm to the heart and fetus of a pregnant sea lion.

This plus more direct evidence indicates how serious the problem can be for humans and other animals.  This huge algae bloom may transfer poison to other species besides crabs that humans eat.  An entire ecosystem--that includes humans--is being disrupted.

Ecosystems are affected by a number of factors, and global heating can be a force multiplier.  Species affect other species, creating spiraling consequences and feedback loops.  Balances that have taken many centuries to establish can be thrown into chaos.  Plus when global heating becomes a factor, it's all much harder to "fix."  All of this adds up to the climate crisis, and we'd better start understanding it better.

The Paris Climate Agreement in Three Paragraphs

From Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at Weather Underground:

Key parts of the Paris Agreement include:

--New global targets. The Paris Agreement emphasizes the importance of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” The 1.5°C goal was originally proposed years ago by small island states for which any greater warming could spell extinction. In a surprise move, the U.S., European Union, Brazil, and many other nations joined forces with those small island states to argue on behalf of including the 1.5°C goal. For now, the target is mainly a statement of solidarity and empathy, given that the nation-by-nation plans submitted over the last few months would together limit global warming to perhaps 2.7°C over preindustrial levels at best.

--Regular review and fine-tuning. The targets in each national plan will remain voluntary--largely out of deference to the U.S. Congress, which telegraphed its refusal to approve binding U.S. targets. But the Paris Agreement does include newly binding requirements on how each nation reports progress toward its targets, to help ensure accountability on the world stage. The plans must be reviewed and revised every five years, with an eye toward greater emission cuts over time as renewable technologies are deployed at larger scale.

It appears that the legally binding requirements of the Paris Agreement may not require approval from the U.S. Congress if they are interpreted as extensions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush and approved by the U.S. Senate in 1992.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

We Met the Moment: "One of the Great Triumphs in History" (Updated)

It's never been "the top story" for long, and already what was accomplished on the day that future generations may well remember among a handful of significant dates in human history is gone from the headlines, supplanted as usual by shootings and partisan politics.

But in the immediate aftermath, there were many stories related to the Paris climate agreement.  The Guardian was among those with stories on how the agreement was reached.  The Atlantic was among those that analyzed and evaluated what's in the deal in easy to digest nuggets.  PBS Newshour interviewed an expert on the deal in specific relation to the US.

Articles in the Washington Post and New York Times focused on President Obama's role.  The Times:

"Six years ago, President Obama came away from a round of global climate talks bitter and frustrated, having been reduced to personally chasing other world leaders around a Copenhagen conference center and bursting uninvited into a meeting with them to salvage a pact that left many disappointed.

On Saturday, Mr. Obama strode triumphantly into the Cabinet Room of the White House to declare victory in his quest for an ambitious climate agreement, after 195 nations reached an accord in a Paris suburb that commits them to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We met the moment,” Mr. Obama said. “Together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one.”

For Mr. Obama, the agreement represents a legacy-shaping success, destined to join his health care law in the annals of his most lasting achievements."

The story quotes an unnamed senior administration official who said that after Copenhagen, the President “deliberately and ambitiously pushed the envelope on climate.” And on Saturday, Mr. Obama said the Paris agreement had been possible in large part because he had done so.

Former White House official David Axlerod was quoted in the Washington Post to the same effect: Obama “felt a moral obligation to do something about” climate change, Axelrod said. “This is not just a cosmetic item on his list. This is core stuff for him.”

The Post lists the many ways that President Obama seeded this moment, beginning with substantial money in the Recovery Act for clean energy, and getting higher fuel efficiency standards in return for bailing out the US auto industry.

The moral obligation is to the future.  The President made that specific (though perhaps overselling the time frame a bit) in his remarks announcing the agreement (the video above), in words quoted in the Post piece as well: The president also said that he imagined walking with his grandchildren watching a “quiet sunset” and “knowing . . . that our work here and now gave future generations cleaner air and cleaner water and a more sustainable planet. And what can be more important than that?”

The Post summarizes:

Although the international agreement reached in Paris on Saturday still leaves the world perilously vulnerable to global warming and rising seas, Obama has significantly advanced the global climate agenda and has established a mechanism that would enable countries to exploit new technology to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and, if possible, tighten existing pledges to reduce those emissions...

The completed agreement, the Post said, owed much of its success to the willingness of the U.S. president to take on both congressional Republicans and fossil-fuel-industry executives on an issue that consistently ranks among the lowest priorities for American voters."

It is because of these efforts begun by President Obama that USA Today could conclude that the deal will not mean any radical changes for US citizens: "Americans need not brace for a raft of new onerous regulations, laws and restrictions imposed as a result, environmental activists say."  Goals of the agreement will necessitate further steps in years to come, that other administrations will face.  But President Obama has set the course and moved America onto it.

This analysis says that Republicans can be obstructive but they've lost the argument, partly because they're tilting against an international consensus and a set of programs that (like Obamacare) will be difficult or impossible to reverse.  But partly because they've lost their best arguments--that other countries won't address the climate crisis and put the US at a disadvantage, and that it will cost US jobs.

I wouldn't underestimate the GOPers ability to be destructive and self-destructive, but the USA Today piece says:

Such Republican opposition is unlikely to touch many of the initiatives already going on, Stavins says. "Even if that happens, I don't see them rolling any of these (initiatives) back."

That's partly because Americans are discovering there's little trade off between protecting the environment and creating jobs, says Alden Meyer, strategy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The drive toward reducing greenhouse gases has created new technologies and industries to support them.

The Paris agreement "sends a powerful message (that the) smart money ought to be betting on the clean-energy future," Meyer says.

Update: Jonathan Chiat's Monday essay: "Climate Deal is Obama's Biggest Accomplishment." Chiat's conclusion: "It is hard to find any important accomplishment in history that completely solved a problem. The Emancipation Proclamation only temporarily and partially ended slavery; the 13th Amendment was required to abolish it permanently, and even that left many former slaves in a state of terrorized peonage closely resembling their former bondage. The Lend-Lease Act alone did not ensure Great Britain would survive against Nazi Germany; the Normandy invasion did not ensure the liberation of Europe. Victories are hardly ever immediate or complete. The fight continues and history marches on. The climate agreement in Paris should take its place as one of the great triumphs in history."

New York Magazine also collected some skeptical analysis. (Yes, Bill McKibben, activism played a part but Obama did not "forget" about the climate crisis after his Inauguration. Your colorful marches probably weren't as important to this agreement as his efforts over the years.) And the Guardian has a fascinating piece on how the Obama negotiators and cooperating world leaders (including Raul Castro) made the agreement Republican-proof.  Official White House photo below was taken just after President Obama's announcement of the agreement.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Day We Became One Planet

The New York Times:

LE BOURGET, France — With the sudden bang of a gavel Saturday night, representatives of 195 countries reached a landmark climate accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change.

Delegates who have been negotiating intensely in this Paris suburb for two weeks gathered for the final plenary session, where Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France asked for opposition to the deal and, hearing none, declared it approved.

With that, the delegates achieved what had been unreachable for two decades: a consensus on the need to shift from carbon-based fuels and a road map for the 195 nations to do so.

Though the deal did not achieve all that environmentalists, scientists and some countries had hoped for, it set the table for more efforts to slow the slide toward an unlivable planet.

It was an extraordinary effort at global diplomacy. Supporters argued that no less than the future of the planet was at stake...

The Washington Post:

LE BOURGET, France — Negotiators from 196 countries approved a landmark climate accord on Saturday that seeks to dramatically reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for a dangerous warming of the planet.

The agreement, adopted after 13 days of intense bargaining in a Paris suburb, puts the world’s nations on a course that could fundamentally change the way energy is produced and consumed, gradually reducing reliance on fossil fuels in favor of cleaner forms of energy.

“History will remember this day,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after the pact was gaveled through to thunderous applause. “The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people.”

The deal was struck in a rare show of near-universal accord, as poor and wealthy nations from across the political and geographic spectrum expressed support for measures that require all to take steps to battle climate change. The agreement binds together pledges by individual nations to cut or limit emissions from fossil-fuel burning, within a framework of rules that provide for monitoring and verification as well as financial and technical assistance for developing countries."

The world is not saved yet.  There are many trials yet to come, and future generations will each cope with a world undergoing great change, much of it tragic diminishment. If the numbers play out as anticipated, much more will need to be done to address the causes as well as anticipating and dealing with effects. There are likely to be shocks and surprises ahead.  Those who say this pact is not enough are largely correct. There will be corrections, changes in speed needed.   But it is now Spaceship Earth, and it is turning onto a new course.

Notice how many times these stories and quotes within them refer to the planet.  This is more than an international accord--it is a planetary accord.  For the first time in human history, we are one planet, one planetary civilization, determined to save our planetary home.

In the Times' film clip of the final moments when the deal was officially struck, it had a revenge of the nerds feeling, for it was hammered out by people who deal with the nuances and technical aspects of diplomacy and science.  This is their triumph.

Both the Times and the Post stories are excellent, and worth reading in full.  The Post story links to the actual text of the agreement, and the Times has the first of what will likely be many articles around explaining the agreement. The Times continues:

Yet amid the spirit of success that dominated the final hours of the talks, Mr. Arias Cañete reminded delegates that the accord was the start of the real work. “Today, we celebrate,” he said. “Tomorrow, we have to act. This is what the world expects of us.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meanwhile in Paris: 24 Hours to Save the World?

On Thursday a revised draft of the climate agreement was announced, with some outstanding issues apparently resolved but others still in contention.  There are hopes of a final draft in the next 24 hours, as the conference is scheduled to end on Friday.  But, the NY Times/Associated Press warns, UN conferences rarely end on time.  Update Thurs pm: According to the BBC, agreement is now expected to be presented on Saturday. President Obama and China's president spoke by phone to encourage resolution of remaining issues.

One of the issues still to be worked out is verification.  Though President Obama (who has been personally involved in negotiations from Washington) publicly supports some legally binding provisions, negotiators accept that this is unlikely--not because of intransigence by India or China or Russia or Australia.  But by outright hostility from the US Republican party, with the power to block any provision that Congress would have to pass or ratify, as reported by the New Republic earlier in the week:

"We understand the concerns they have because of the political situation in the Congress and the Senate, and the position of the Republican Party,” Arias Cañete, who is the European Commissioner for Climate and Energy, told reporters. “You cannot make an important agreement in climate change if the second-biggest emitter of the world is not on board. We have to find a solution.”

(Republicans are still at it, with Tail Gunner Ted Cruz spouting the worst kind of debater obfuscations and psuedo-science in the guise of a congressional hearing.)

The draft was held up because of such concerns (among others), the first official delay in the conference.  But now it's out there and the Paris conference enters its final and decisive phase, with most parties expressing optimism on an agreement.

Perhaps the most dramatic related event of the week happened in China, which called its first "red alert" over dangerous smog, closing schools and workplaces. Air pollution, mostly from coal-fueled power plants, has become a major concern.
Addressing climate crisis causes with clean energy is an example of how such efforts simply make life and health better, all on their own.

But air pollution is not China's only climate crisis-related clear and present danger.  Its shrinking glaciers threaten water supplies not only within China but elsewhere in Asia.

The Paris talks have inspired many stories on the climate crisis and the issues and problems it raises, as well as efforts to deal with its causes and effects.  The Guardian has a good article focusing on local efforts in these areas, which is where most of the actual action has been.

 I've noted this here before.  Local, state and regional officials are closer to realities than the reps who go to Washington to spend most of their time raising money so they can stay in Washington.  When Paris comes up with a treaty, local efforts will make it easier to meet.  But as the Guardian piece indicates, state and local governments etc. must be part of the treaty process.

But not to worry--Uncle Jerry and California are on the case.

Winter is Icumen In

               November 2015. BK photo

The first series of winter storms is blowing through the North Coast.  We had some decent rain in November and early December, but this is officially the start of the rainy season: the first power outage.  (The second came as I was finishing this post.)

today--Dec. 10, 2015
The first was last night hereabouts, though there were and are other outages around today.  Wind and colder air stirring up modest lightning and thunder along with the rain. A tangentially winter-related cause (Caltrans preparing 101 for the oncoming storms ripped through an underground fiber optic cable) also deprived we ATT customers of Internet and cell phone service for most of Wednesday (although Mike got through on the landline, sounding better than ever.)  So for an hour or so last night I wore a biker's light (like a miner's light) strapped on my baseball cap to read like a print on paper thing, what do you call that again?

The most disturbing thing about the Internet outage was trying to find a news report on the radio with an estimate at least of when service might resume.  At 10 p.m. (or more precisely between 9:55 and 10:05) I could find not a single local news broadcast on either FM or AM band.  AM had a lot of talk radio (sports, religion, right wing blather) and the only news on FM was from the BBC!  On at least three notches on the "dial."  So in a real emergency here, when only battery-powered radio is an information link, we're screwed.

What's especially interesting about these storms--which have been hitting Washington and Oregon much harder than us--is that they are not yet El Nino caused, according to this LA Times report.  El Nino, which is apparently still growing in strength, won't directly influence our weather for several weeks yet.

What has happened is that the early winter precip pattern has returned to pre-drought functioning.  The ridge of high pressure that built up in recent winters hasn't formed this year.  It was one factor blunting storms last December.  Although we've been getting one good month of rain each winter (at least that's what I recall) we haven't had the "rainy season" pattern of old.

one of the new rain barrels today
But with the climate crisis effects, nothing is "back to normal" anymore, and the storms in particular are unpredictable by past experience.  As Seattle and Portland could tell you after the earlier storms that wreaked destruction there, including flooding and landslides.

Here, the old duck boots have already come in handy, the Gore-Tex rain jacket and pants, the contents of the backpack in an extra layer of plastic.  If the rains become as relentless as they were in our first winters here--the last big El Nino--then I might have to hunt out my old full length black poncho, for a rainy season Darth Vader look.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Leading From Within

"The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power."

“Let’s make sure we never forget what make us exceptional. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”

President Obama
Address to the Nation
(The White House transcript isn't working at the moment--here it is at Buzzfeed.)

Can we repel a threat without becoming a mirror image of our enemy?  It isn't done very often.  But President Obama is determined that it will be, this time.

President Obama's strategy to "destroy ISIL" is not a political position--it is an operational strategy that has the support of those who carry it out--both U.S. agencies and crucial international partners:

This is our strategy to destroy ISIL. It is designed and supported by our military commanders and counterterrorism experts, together with 65 countries that have joined an American-led coalition. And we constantly examine our strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done.

As the sitting President since 2009, Obama's success consists largely of what hasn't happened--all the plots and plans that were stopped, that Americans know nothing about.  They know only what terrorists were able to do.  Even the announced disruptions and terrorist leaders killed disappear from memory when any kind of attack is somewhat successful.

President Obama also called out Congress, urging them to deny guns to individuals on the terrorist no-fly list, to end access to assault weapons (which the New York Times again called for in a front page editorial) and to authorize use of force against ISIL--which many will be surprised that Congress has failed to do.  That's because Congressional Republicans are more interested in partisan politics than actual national security.  They complain that Obama isn't doing enough, and they oppose anything he proposes to do.  In part because of the factors outlined in the previous paragraph, they sometimes get away with it.

He refused the usual political expediency of invasion--the political response to fear, and to the opportunism of those who profit by the blood of others.

President Obama spent a fair amount of time in the address countering the danger of xenophobia and prejudice against Muslims that the GOPer leaders are trying to foment.  Fortunately, the first poll after San Bernadino showed no immediate jump in prejudice against Muslim Americans.  And the shout by a witness to the perpetrator of the more recent terrorist knife attack in London has become an international rallying cry : You ain't no Muslim bruv!

But ISIL isn't the only terrorist threat, as President Obama recognized.  There are the many Americans slaughtered by gunfire, by a lone gunman with semi-automatic weapons whose motives are personal, if they can be called motives.  And there are domestic terrorists with assault weapons and other weapons.  As the New York Times noted:

Indeed, the death toll from jihadist terrorism in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — 45 people — is about the same as the 48 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing extremist ideologies, according to New America, a research organization in Washington.

No spies or law enforcement agencies can prevent the kind of attack that happened in San Bernadino, if these weapons of mass destruction are easily available, and tracking large purchases or investigating them is difficult if not impossible because that's the way the NRA and its lackeys want it to be.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Meanwhile Back in Paris (Political Update)

Five-Thirty-Eight Science has a neat little listicule about the Paris conference, highlighting a significant change that came to light on the first day: the new support for climate crisis response by Russian president Putin.  Previously only joking about it, he now calls it a serious threat to humanity.

Also at the start of the conference, China released its report on the expected effects of global heating on that vast nation.  It's pretty grim.  That China even conducted an environmental assessment is revolutionary, but that the leadership made it public to the world at the Paris conference began is highly significant.

While even Putin has seen the heat, and even China is facing up to the realities, Republicans in the U.S. remain not only intransigent but active politically in opposing any climate crisis response.  Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks invoked the "thought police" that keep sensible GOPers from voicing their acceptance of climate science.  Jonathan Chiat riffs on this column, saying it's actually worse than that, and supports his oft-repeated analysis that in the R party today "the kooks are the Establishment."  The political consequences are clear: "if you're voting Republican next year, you're either getting somebody who is a member of the climate thought police or is afraid to disagree with them."

Paul Krugman takes much the same line in a Friday column. It begins:

Future historians — if there are any future historians — will almost surely say that the most important thing happening in the world during December 2015 was the climate talks in Paris. True, nothing agreed to in Paris will be enough, by itself, to solve the problem of global warming. But the talks could mark a turning point, the beginning of the kind of international action needed to avert catastrophe.

Then again, they might not; we may be doomed. And if we are, you know who will be responsible: the Republican Party."

Krugman agrees with Chiat that a vote for GOPers in the next election is a vote against addressing the climate crisis, but worries that the media won't report it that way, that in the usual attempt to appear even-handed, the media will fuzz it and even bend facts to make the issue seem more even.

 "But I hope I’m wrong, and I’d urge everyone outside the climate-denial bubble to frankly acknowledge the awesome, terrifying reality. We’re looking at a party that has turned its back on science at a time when doing so puts the very future of civilization at risk. That’s the truth, and it needs to be faced head-on."

The Times also editorializes against the latest GOPer congressional attempt to harass climate scientists and leave the false impression that they are hiding something in their analysis that shows there was no pause in global heating.  The data that led to that conclusion is public.

A different kind of politics continues in Paris, where activists struggle to maintain a presence within restraints due to the terrorist attacks.  A highly creative and subversive series of skillfully contrived and very pointed fake ads showed up in billboards and kiosks in Paris, indistinguishable from the actual ads at first glance. Mashable reproduced several, that attack the hypocrisy of corporations, governments and individual leaders affecting the climate crisis.  Getting deeds to match words is important, and these activists are keeping feet to the fire.

Meanwhile Back in Paris...

The heads of state have all gone home, and it's the negotiators working without the headlines.  The New York Times reports that drafts of the agreement in process will begin to circulate soon. with one difficulty that sounds familiar:

Sewell Chan who is reporting on the climate talks in Le Bourget, France, says there is a language barrier that has nothing to do with the 195 different countries participating in the negotiations. “The barrier is between the technocrats and everyone else,” he said, adding that the alphabet soup of acronyms used by officials might as well require a special United Nations decoder ring.

Like the reliance on acronyms, technocratic language can be full of shortcuts for the initiated, as well as a status thing--if you can understand it, you must be a member of the club.  But when language is imprecise, it can mean different things to different people, and technocratic language is often paradoxically imprecise.

Like "mitigation" and "adaptation." Either can mean the other, and sometimes, they do.


Reeling Again in the Land of Guns

People at a Christmas party, others who happened to be nearby, their families and friends, the lives cut down and the lives that go on with huge wounds in them, and the waves of awful consequences that ripple outward from the shooting slaughter in San Bernadino...

The inexplicable motives of the shooters, still being unraveled.  Nearly every intimation I've had about this situation seems to be proving out, but it's still too fluid to say anything worthwhile about it.

Two thoughts persist: how this is likely to play into the prejudices against Muslims--especially when it appears that this couple was accepted without prejudice in their immediate community.  And thoughts of a six month old child left behind, how could anyone do that, what is that child's life going to be like.

And the others left behind.  And left aghast.

And though the response of Democrats emphasizing gun control while the situation was still evolving seemed premature and tin-eared to me, there's no question that this is related to the easy availability of lethal firepower.

At least four of the guns were purchased legally, and one report I saw said from the same dealer--an outfit called Annie's Get Your Gun, a family-friendly gun dealer.  Only in America.  Literally.

It's family friendly guns that wound up in the hands of toddlers--more than 50 of whom this year have shot somebody with it, a grandparent, sibling or more often themselves.

A journalist cobbled together the numbers, just as various organizations have tried to follow the number of mass shootings (pretty much one per day) in the U.S., because the Republican Congress has forbidden any federal health agency from collecting statistics and studying the problem, and the NRA has intimidated everybody else.

Fear and illusion (basically that real gun violence is like gun violence on TV) have already led to a huge Black Friday surge in gun purchases, probably in response to the Paris attack, and so guns become even easier for domestic terrorists to obtain.  As well as toddlers, and drunks.

The logic of gun control was clear to me from watching westerns (as it was clear to the characters in those westerns), in an era when the only guns present in American homes were hunting rifles and b-b guns, if that.  More guns equal more death, as the rest of the western world knows.  But we don't know anything the rabid right thought police won't let us know.  Talk about terrorists.

Update: The US Senate voted against denying guns to people on the terrorist watch list.  Really.  Columnist Gail Collins suggests the GOP is more afraid of the NRA than al queda.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Turning Point/ "Let's Get to Work"

The New York Times heralded the day:

"The largest gathering of world leaders in history on Monday began a multinational effort toward forging what many called the planet’s last, best hope to stave off the worst consequences of climate change.

“Never have the stakes of an international meeting been so high, since what is at stake is the future of the planet, the future of life,” President François Hollande of France told a packed United Nations plenary session at a convention center in this suburb north of Paris."

President Obama was one of the first speakers:

"Nearly 200 nations have assembled here this week -- a declaration that for all the challenges we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other. What should give us hope that this is a turning point, that this is the moment we finally determined we would save our planet, is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it."

"...I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it."

"...One of the enemies that we'll be fighting at this conference is cynicism, the notion we can't do anything about climate change. Our progress should give us hope during these two weeks -- hope that is rooted in collective action."

"...For I believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late. And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our own short-term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe, and the food that they will eat, and the water that they will drink, and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives, then we won't be too late for them.

And, my fellow leaders, accepting this challenge will not reward us with moments of victory that are clear or quick. Our progress will be measured differently -- in the suffering that is averted, and a planet that's preserved. And that’s what’s always made this so hard. Our generation may not even live to see the full realization of what we do here. But the knowledge that the next generation will be better off for what we do here -- can we imagine a more worthy reward than that? Passing that on to our children and our grandchildren, so that when they look back and they see what we did here in Paris, they can take pride in our achievement.

Let that be the common purpose here in Paris. A world that is worthy of our children. A world that is marked not by conflict, but by cooperation; and not by human suffering, but by human progress. A world that’s safer, and more prosperous, and more secure, and more free than the one that we inherited.

Let’s get to work."

A new poll shows that a solid two-thirds of Americans surveyed support the US joining an international treaty to address the climate crisis.  Three-quarters agree that the climate crisis is underway. More than 60% support limiting power plant greenhouse gases emissions.

Other leaders were just as blunt, indicating urgency in the most extreme terms. British PM Cameron referred to "the Earth in peril." Pope Francis said, "Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide."

One of the major innovations of the day came from the Prime Minister of India, who announced the formation of an international Solar Alliance of over 120 countries, to rapidly expand solar power around the world, particularly in countries not yet fully industrialized.  This is the much needed "leapfrog" approach for rapidly growing countries like India, where expanding dirty energy would be catastrophic.

This follows the pledges by major nations of $20 billion for green energy research, and the Bill Gates initiative of private companies, also to fund research into cutting edge clean energy technologies.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

14 Days to Save the World

Half a million people reportedly participated in global demonstrations of support for climate action over the weekend.  Meanwhile some 40,000 participants begin to gather for the climate conference in Paris.   This includes 147 heads of state who come to Paris at the beginning of the conference.

The terrorist attacks on Paris has not deterred these leaders, and some believe that the attacks have even spurred attendance and added to the likelihood of an international agreement:

While many leaders including Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping were always set to attend this conference, the recent violent attacks in Paris have encouraged others to come in an expression of solidarity with the French people...Delegates are in little doubt that the shadow cast over the city by the attacks will enhance the chances of agreement.

Some will link the climate crisis as a cause of terrorism, others as a greater threat than terrorism, this report suggests.  Another reason for optimism about an agreement is how committed the US is, and specifically President Obama:

[UK environmental leader] Tom Burke for one believes that going against the flow will be particularly difficult this time round. "I think one of the reasons people will find it hard to hold out at the end will be because of the level of political capital that Obama has invested in climate change, making it clear it is a primary legacy issue for him," he said.

Both the Washington Post and New York Times printed major articles linking President Obama to the issue and the conference.  Obama's Legacy at Stake in Paris Talks on Climate Change, is the Times story headline:

WASHINGTON — At a joint news conference here Tuesday with President François Hollande of France, President Obama veered from his focus on the terrorist attacks in Paris to bring up the huge international gathering beginning in the French capital on Monday to hammer out a global response to climate change.

“What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children,” Mr. Obama said of the climate conference.

The segue brought mockery, even castigation, from the political right, but it was a reminder of the importance Mr. Obama places on climate change in shaping his legacy. During his 2012 re-election campaign, he barely mentioned global warming, but the issue has become a hallmark of his second term.

And on Sunday night he arrives in Paris, hoping to make climate policy the signature environmental achievement of his, and perhaps any, presidency.

He comes to Paris with a moral authority that no other president has had on the issue of climate change,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who noted that Mr. Obama’s domestic climate efforts already stand alone in American history. “No other president has had a climate change policy. It makes him unique.”
Paris Summit Already A Win for Obama the Post headline begins.  It reviews his past efforts on the issue:

With the economy in turmoil, he persuaded ailing auto companies to back tougher fuel efficiency standards. He turned a portion of the economic stimulus bill in 2009 into the largest clean energy bill ever. And he has introduced the Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from industrial and power plants. 

The story notes that Obama has been preparing the groundwork for this conference for more than a year, orchestrating commitments from important countries including China, and with his own actions and words, helping to create a momentum for a Paris agreement.  Of the 190 countries represented in Paris, 180 have already pledged cuts in carbon pollution.

But as every story notes, and as everyone acknowledges, even if the strongest agreement proposed so far is approved, it won't alone be enough to "save the world"--though it could be a powerful start, a change of direction.

So this week in Paris will also focus on the next steps, such as this initiative, according to the Washington Post:

As world leaders converge on Paris for historic climate talks, a coalition of governments and private investors is preparing to launch a major research initiative that seeks to pour billions of dollars into an urgent search for solutions to global warming.

President Obama and Microsoft founder Bill Gates are expected to stand with counterparts from 20 countries on Monday in announcing the unprecedented effort, which is aimed at spurring rapid advances in research and development for clean energy, U.S. officials confirmed Sunday.

...The 19 countries that signed up for the initiative include the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and collectively represent more than 80 percent of current global spending on energy research...

The private initiative headed by Gates consists of 28 investors from 10 countries. The list of participants includes such U.S. heavyweights as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos, as well as major international investors such as China’s Jack Ma, executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, and Britain’s Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group.

The group, with a collective net worth of more than $350 billion, will provide capital for early, high-risk research on the most promising technologies, participants said.

The New York Times is providing an active update of stories on the activities in Paris.