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.