Saturday, August 08, 2015

North Coast Week

Saturday was brilliantly clear with wisps of white clouds floating in a deep blue. Strong but warm winds were blowing in from the sea.  The ocean was dark at Little River State Beach.

But the days before were a different story.  On Wednesday I think it was, the setting sun was a suspended red ball with no radiance, and dim enough to look at directly.  That night in the wee hours, the quarter moon was orange.  Thursday was gray but at night the clouds had a light orange cast.  These were effects of the fires burning to our northeast.

Earlier in the week, cars were coated with ash from the sky.  Word went around that the ash contained fire-supressing chemicals and would damage the finish.  Car washes had customers lined up, with one place reporting several hundred cars in one day.

There are still many fires burning, with none even close to half contained.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

70 Years After Hiroshima: Nuclear Threat Is Not Over

“If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and prehistory of the human race,” wrote author Arthur Koestler in the 1978 prologue to his final book, Janus: A Summing Up, “I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945.”

Before then, each person lived with the prospect of individual death, he explained. But “since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.”

Seventy years later, the danger of instant eradication in a global nuclear war seems past, and we are becoming more conscious of ecological threats to long-term human survival. But the nuclear threat is not over, nor is it confined to the possibility of isolated terrorist attacks. The threat of human extinction that begins with a nuclear exchange may still exist.

While most attention has focused on the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the near future, some 15,700 nuclear bombs are in the hands of 9 other countries right now, including some 5,000 weapons in active deployment.

All 9 countries with nuclear bombs are either expanding their arsenals, building new delivery systems or modernizing old weapons and systems.

Though the U.S. and Russia have reduced the number of weapons from Cold War levels, together they maintain about 1800 missiles carrying thermonuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes and therefore most susceptible to momentary miscalculation and accident.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War could read and see films about how powerful each one of these bombs can be: vaporizing every living thing for miles, igniting firestorms and spreading radiation for hundreds of miles or more, killing and maiming for years, with documented cases of genetic deformities in the next generation.

These terminal dangers were embedded in popular culture for decades. But as memories of Hiroshima and the Cold War recede, so apparently does awareness of the nature and danger of nuclear weapons.

The US has ten times the number of nuclear weapons that US citizens believe there are, according to polls.  A survey of members of Congress revealed that almost none of them knew how many nuclear weapons are in the US arsenal.  But the US is not the exception--several studies show that knowledge about nuclear weapons today is low.

In popular culture today, nuclear war has been reduced to the bright explosions and apocalyptic fantasies of video games, including the latest version of Fallout Shelter. “Simulate a beautiful nuclear war right in your browser,” says the headline of a recent Popular Mechanics post.

More worrisome are movies and TV dramas that treat nuclear bombs like conventional explosions, only a bit bigger and more colorful. For example, in the 2014 Hollywood remake of Godzilla, a nuclear bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima device was detonated on the water apparently within view of the San Francisco shoreline without damage to the city or its people. Not even a wave.

This is an irony worthy of Doctor Strangelove, since the original Japanese Godzilla movie was a response to the radiation dangers of hydrogen bomb tests in 1954, directed by a man who had seen Hiroshima shortly after its atomic destruction.

To misconstrue the true nature and difference of nuclear weapons could lead to horrific mistakes. The Physicians for Social Responsibility calculated that a relatively small nuclear “bunker buster” attack on Iran would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours, and expose some 35 million to radiation. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.  Radiation killed almost twice as many people in Hiroshima over the following five years than died on August 6, 1945.

But even without radiation as a factor, research conducted a few years ago found that a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan (for instance) could lead to global famine within a few years, due to ozone layer damage caused by massive urban firestorms. If that study is correct, it’s another reason that a larger nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia could still lead to human extinction.

In particular, the danger of instant nuclear annihilation remains because of those missiles on hair-trigger alert, especially with tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and other matters, and both sides talking about nuclear options.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama are among the many leaders who have advocated an end to hair-trigger status. President Obama has the authority to take at least the 450 land-based ICBMs off hair-trigger. If Russian President Putin is serious about recent conciliatory statements, he could match that action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb would be a powerful moment to do so.

Also of interest: The Washington Post has an article about the effects of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb on American cities, including links to Internet sites that provide impact maps for other cities.  Also several other of my essays on the subject, including on the 60th and 65th anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Also: This NY Times story on how a new generation is being enlisted in remembering the oral history of Hiroshima from the last survivors.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Nuclear Treaties

President Obama went to American University today to lay out the common sense case for the international treaty with Iran that prevents that country from developing a nuclear weapon. He rightly points out that the people who are reflexively opposing the treaty are basically the same people who promoted the catastrophic Iraq war, for the same bogus reasons. Here's the transcript.

He also invoked President Kennedy's historic address at this same university that proposed the nuclear test ban treaty.  In the heat of the Cold War, Kennedy broke through the hypnotic cliches of the time with the heretical view that the nuclear arms race was insane, and it should be slowed and stopped.  The limited test ban was negotiated and passed within months.  Here is my 2003 evocation of that speech, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on its unheralded 40th anniversary.  It was equally unheralded on its 50th, yet it is one of the most important speeches in the history of the world.

This week also marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb to be dropped on human beings, at Hiroshima.   Also over at Kowincidence, I've just posted a 2006 piece that appeared at Daily Kos and a number of community blogs at the time, about the slipping awareness of the nuclear realities.  This also involves Iran, because at the time the Bush administration was making noises about attacking suspected underground sites in Iran with nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs.

Later I'll be posting two new essays here marking the 70th anniversary.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Climate Now

Update: From the Guardian: "Hundreds of businesses including eBay, Nestle and General Mills have issued their support for Barack Obama’s clean power plan, billed as the strongest action ever on climate change by a US president."
The White House issued the President's official statement and a checklist of provisions.

With the updated and strengthened carbon pollution rules for power plants that are to be officially announced today, President Obama is reportedly beginning a series of events and actions focused on the climate crisis.  It won't be the first time he's done so, but this is likely to be part of a shared focus on the climate crisis that will build to December, when nations gather to work out a common response.

Messages of urgency and seriousness of the challenge have alreadt been coming more frequently over the past few months,  Pope Francis issued a papal encyclical that among other topics and recommendations, called for strong action to address the climate crisis, as a moral imperative.  Leaders of other denominations added their voices.  Regional leaders pressured climate negotiators to get something done.

Organizations big and small issued notably forthright statements based on studies.  The London School of Economics concluded that the benefits of addressing the climate crisis now far outweigh the costs. The EPA issued a report detailing how the climate crisis is the preeminent issue of our time.  A coalition of scientific groups in the UK called upon that government to act on the climate crisis as a priority. Yet another Pentagon report detailed security threats likely to ensue as the climate crisis continues. A UK report on security said that the climate crisis is as great a threat as nuclear war.

But perhaps the greatest change is that the climate crisis is emerging as a decisive political issue, and the denialists are increasingly on the wrong side of history as well as of science and morality.  In much of the world, a Pew poll found, the climate crisis is seen as the most important threat.  But it is in the United States where the issue is gaining political importance.

Right now, the Democratic party candidates for President are vying with one another to be the strongest on the climate crisis.  Hillary Clinton made a major speech with large-scale specific proposals.  Martin O'Malley has made the climate crisis one of his chief issues, and Senator Berne Sanders said that the climate crisis is the greatest threat facing Earth.

Their stance is supported by recent polls on topics of concern, including this one (cited in the Clinton story linked above):

A January poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that two-thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change.

“This issue now polls better than any other issue for Democrats,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former top climate change official in the Clinton administration.

Meanwhile, Republicans running for their presidential nomination compete with each other to please their fossil fuel billionaire backers.  The most "progressive" of their candidates will say the climate crisis is exaggerated, while others call it a hoax, and Senator Tail Gunner Ted accuses the world's climate scientists of being liars.

The difference between the parties on the climate crisis is complete.  Afraid that reality will continue to intrude on their political money-maker of denial,
 Congressional Republicans cut funds for NASA research on the entire planet Earth.  This money funds weather forecasting, among other unneeded activities.
The bill may yet face a veto.

It is fruitless to despair that Republicans won't face the reality of the climate crisis.  As Kim Stanley Robinson says, in a democracy it isn't necessary to obtain consensus.  We need 51% of voters to elect a House Democratic majority and a 60 seat Senate majority along with a Democratic President.  It's not easy, but it's pretty simple.  Give the planet a chance.  Vote Democrat.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Roosevelt & Hopkins: An Artist of Government

This set of excerpts from Roosevelt & Hopkins is for Mike--happy birthday!

These excerpts bear upon questions of presidential leadership.  The creative aspect of FDR's presidency is emphasized.  Unlike the norm today, FDR actually thought up important policies, together with how to couch them to appeal to political allies while disarming opponents, and especially how and when to present them for public approval.

Sometimes they didn't work, like the so-called packing of the Supreme Court.  But sometimes they were acts of genius that did work, like Lend- Lease, that allowed the US to help the UK and other allies fight off Hitler, even before America entered the war.

Here's author Robert Sherwood in the early pages of Roosevelt & Hopkins (with different paragraph breaks):

While preparing this book I interviewed Harold Smith, who was Director of the Budget from 1939 to 1946. Smith was a modest, methodical, precise man, temperamentally far removed from Roosevelt and Hopkins. But I know of no one whose judgment and integrity and downright common sense the President trusted more completely. 

In the course of a long conversation, Smith said to me, ‘ A few months ago, on the first anniversary of Roosevelt’s death, a magazine asked me to write an article on Roosevelt as an administrator. I thought it over and decided I was not ready to make such an appraisal. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. 

 When I worked with Roosevelt—for six years—I thought as did many others that he was a very erratic administrator. But now, when I look back, I can really begin to see the size of his programs. They were by far the largest and most complex programs that any President ever put through. 

 People like me who had the responsibility of watching the pennies could only see the fix or six or seven per cent of the programs that went wrong, through inefficient organization or direction. But now I can see in perspective, the ninety-three or –four or –five per cent that went right—including the winning of the biggest war in history—because of unbelievably skillful organization and direction.

 And if I were to write that article now, I think I’d say that Roosevelt must have been on of the greatest geniuses as an administrator that ever lived. What we couldn’t appreciate at the time was the fact that he was a real artist in government.’

That word ‘artist’ was happily chosen, for it suggests the quality of Roosevelt’s extraordinary creative imagination. I think that he would have resented the application of the word as implying that he was an impractical dreamer; he loved to represent himself as a prestidigitator who could amaze and amuse the audience by ‘pulling another rabbit out of a hat.’ But he was an artist and no canvas was too big for him.

He was also, of course, a master politician, and most artists are certainly not that; but, by the same token, you rarely find a professional politician who would make the mistake of being caught in the act of creating an original idea. The combination of the two qualities in Roosevelt can be demonstrated by the fact that it required a soaring imaginator to conceive Lend Lease and it required the shrewdest kind of manipulation to get it passed by the Congress.

It was often said by businessmen during the Roosevelt Administration that “What we need in the White House is a good businessman.” But in the years of the Second World War there were a great many patriotic, public-spirited businessmen who went to Washington to render important service to their country and they learned that government is a weird world bearing little resemblance to anything they had previously known...

The more analytical of these businessmen came to the conclusion that it was no accident that not one of the great or even above-average Presidents in American history had been trained in business.”