Tuesday, February 20, 2007

That's it!

I'm gone. See you in a week.

A hurricane of failure

As much as I want to, I just don't have time to do the post I wanted to do on this before I go, so I'll have to limit myself to this:

Just over a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and portions of the Gulf Coast, I was finally able to bring myself to write about the gross neglect, the utter indifference of high officials,
the gross, foul, disgusting, inhuman, self-serving lies of those who could have done more, who could have done better, who could have acted, who knew, who knew but who just didn't care, as their lies mount a stink greater than the fetid fumes of death that reek in the streets of New Orleans but who now want to cover their tracks [to] conceal the blackness in their souls....
It's moving on towards a year and a-half later. And the lies and the indifference show no signs of abating.

Writing in The Nation, Amanda Spake describes how
[a]long the Gulf Coast, in the towns and fishing villages from New Orleans to Mobile, survivors of Hurricane Katrina are suffering from a constellation of similar health problems. They wake up wheezing, coughing and gasping for breath. Their eyes burn; their heads ache; they feel tired, lethargic. Nosebleeds are common, as are sinus infections and asthma attacks. Children and seniors are most severely afflicted, but no one is immune.

There's one other similarity: The people suffering from these illnesses live in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
In the wake of Katrina, FEMA purchased over 100,000 trailers as "temporary" housing for the storm's refugees. About 275,000 people are still living in them - despite the fact that most of them are less like trailers to live in and more like camper trailers to vacation in. That is, they were never intended for long-term use. Yet people are being forced to live in them for months on end.

There is another problem: Many of them extensively use wood composites and particle board that emit formaldehyde.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that more than 0.1 parts per million of formaldehyde in air can cause eye, lung and nose irritation. ... Yet there is no federal standard for formaldehyde in indoor air, or for travel trailers, and no consensus on whether any "safe" level exists. ...

Many residents suffering from symptoms, however, are afraid to complain to FEMA, fearing the agency will take away the only housing they can afford. It was complaints of respiratory problems to the Sierra Club that led the organization to test fifty-two FEMA trailers last April, June and July. Some 83 percent of the thirteen different types tested had formaldehyde in the indoor air at levels above the EPA recommended limit.
At holding stations where groups of trailers were held, it was even worse: In one case, OSHA measured concentrations in outdoor air at 30 to 50 times the EPA-suggested limit.

In a rush to get units after the hurricane hit, the government contracted with trailer manufactures to produce the units. In the rush to get them out, not only did quality control tend to nosedive, but companies took whatever supplies for manufacture they could get, which often included getting them from countries that produce particle board and the like that emit high levels of formaldehyde.

Significantly, there are no formal standards for exposure to formaldehyde in indoor air. What's more,
[i]n Congressional hearings last February, Richard Skinner, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, testified that some trailer contracts "did not specify minimum specifications requirements, making it possible that some trailers ... had significant deficiencies." Even those made according to specifications, Skinner said, were accepted by FEMA "without any formal inspection procedures."
Only now has FEMA undertaken to test its trailers. At some point or another, after the survey, after the analysis of the survey, and no doubt after the analysis of the analysis of the survey, the results should - or, if history is a guide, might - be released to the public. In the meantime, the illnesses continue and accumulate.
Last month FEMA agreed that those displaced by Katrina could remain in their trailers until August of this year. That's six months longer than the eighteen months mandated by federal law. No one expects this to be long enough. Very little new or affordable housing is being built on the Gulf Coast, and prices and rents for existing homes have skyrocketed because of the short supply. ...

It seems clear that many Katrina evacuees living in FEMA trailers will be in them for months, if not years.
And if they ever do get out of them, it's reasonable to wonder if they've have a city to go back to. Reuters reported on Monday that
[o]nly about 200,000 of the pre-Katrina population of 480,000 is back and much of the city is still damaged and abandoned. Recent news stories have said a growing number of those who returned are leaving because they are fed up with the slow recovery and the crime.
The New York times described some of those families in an article on Friday.
A year ago, Ms. Larsen, 36, and Mr. Langlois, 37, were hopeful New Orleanians eager to rebuild and improve the city they adored. But now they have joined hundreds of the city’s best and brightest who, as if finally acknowledging a lover’s destructive impulses, have made the wrenching decision to leave at a time when the population is supposed to be rebounding.

Their reasons include high crime, high rents, soaring insurance premiums and what many call a lack of leadership, competence, money and progress. In other words: yes, it is still bad down here. But more damning is what many of them describe as a dissipating sense of possibility, a dwindling chance at redemption for a great city that, even before the storm, cried out for great improvement. ...

For every household that, like this one, has given up, there is another on the verge.
Langlois reported a lack of response from city agencies to the point where he had given up any expectation of ever getting one.
Some say the overall effect is negligible. Greg Rigamer, a demographer who has done work for the city, said that the lack of housing had constrained the recovery, but that many residents remained fully committed to the city.

“The pattern in is certainly stronger than the pattern out,” Mr. Rigamer said. ...

[But o]ne oft-cited survey by the University of New Orleans found that a third of residents, especially those with graduate degrees, were thinking of leaving within two years.
And so those who proposed in the wake of the storm that the city just be abandoned - just as many of the people have been - may be getting their wish.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Another small victory in the struggle

Today is the day that same-sex civil unions become legal in New Jersey.

While Massachusetts remains the only state to recognize same-sex marriage, New Jersey joins Vermont and Connecticut in approving civil unions.

An additional good point about the New Jersey law is that it does not impose a residency requirement - so people from out of state can apply for a civil union license.
Opponents of same-sex marriage fear homosexual couples from other states could obtain licenses in New Jersey and then sue their home state to recognize the civil union.
We can only hope. But for the moment, I'll just take some pleasure in the fact that my old home state is helping take the lead.


To the Editor
Boston "Globe," Boston, Massachusetts

I want to thank Jeff Jacoby for his Sunday column on "supporting the troops." He has fessed up and admitted what we knew all along: Those of his ilk who demanded of war opponents that they "support the troops" were really demanding "support the war."

When his type says now "I support the troops" they are really saying "I support the invasion. I support the occupation. I support the carnage. I support seeing thousands of Americans die for no good reason. I support the death, the waste, the madness, the destruction.

"And what's more, war is like a football game."

Ah, so refreshingly honest. Of course, it couldn't last and Jacoby returns to the lies: John Kerry insulted the troops. (He actually was insulting Bush.) Patty Murray praised Osama bin Laden. (She actually was talking about the perception in the Middle East.) Dick Durbin equated interrogators at Gitmo with Nazis. (He actually said that if you read the FBI reports of conditions there, you would think it was describing something in Nazi Germany - which was true.)

In the course of writing this, though, it suddenly occurred to me how Jacoby could spout the bilge he does. Revealingly, he cries that the House resolution falsely claims to support the troops but actually "undermines their mission." That is, unlike war opponents, he doesn't see the troops as people, as individual human beings, but rather as one indistinguishable mass, a mere extension of presidential will.

That's why war opponents say to the troops "We want you to come home safe and sound and as quickly as possible. But while you're there we want you to have the equipment you need, the training you need, the protection you need. And we want you to have the help you need when you get back." And that's why people like Jacoby say to the troops "Rah, rah. Go kill. Go get maimed. Go die."

At least now he's honest about it.

Warning! Warning!

I am leaving for a week's vacation tomorrow. I don't do mobile posting so I will not be posting in that time.

I am not disappearing again. (Hold the moans.) I will be back and ready to blog next Wednesday.

Say goodnight, Gracie

Okay, it's time to go. I've heard people say "satire is dead" and "irony is dead." But we're past that: Now even farce is dead.

From Orcinus we learn that there are right wing Christian nuts who are advocating - and I mean seriously, not as a joke or anything - geocentrism, the pre-Copernican belief that the Earth sits stationary, unmoving, unrotating, at the center of the universe and the Sun and all the planets and the rest of the stars orbit around it.

Just shoot me now.

Footnote: On the it can't be all bad front comes news that in the period 1988 to 2005, the percentage of Americans who understood enough science to follow an article in a major newspaper rose from 10% to 28%. The survey also found, however, that college students express more doubts about evolution than previously.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hot off the press

Tim of the estimable Democratic Left Infoasis made some interesting comments in response to this post from Friday which mentioned the planned concert to promote awareness of global warming. I started to answer in comments, but I realized both that I wanted to give a couple of the points he raised a fuller response and that the points themselves deserved more attention. So I'm moving it things up to a post.

In what follows, you should realize that I have just pulled out the two quotes to which I'm responding; they do not constitute Tim's entire argument. To really get that, you should read the comments at the linked post and follow the links he provides.

But - with that in mind, here is what Tim said to which I wanted to respond:

I think it's highly mistaken to believe elite global warming critics like Al Gore who may lead people to believe that this is a problem of individuals' "lifestyles". There are those of us out here who don't get our voices heard very often in the corporate media who contend that global warming and other ecological crises are also systemic and will likely require more profound remedies than Gore and big business green washers will admit. ...

I am interested in the thinking of John Bellamy Foster that "By recognizing that it is not people (as individuals and in aggregate) that are enemies of the environment but the historically specific economic and social order in which we live, we can, I believe, find sufficient common ground for a true moral revolution to save the earth."

I wouldn't be a democratic socialist if I didn't rather strongly doubt that capitalism can ultimately deal with issues of the environment and justice. In fact, even in theory capitalism struggles to deal with pollution issues: It will always be more profitable in the short run to externalize costs of pollution, so in their own economic self-interest producers should seek to do so.

The usual response to this is that the market will force more responsible choices if enough people want them, that is, corporations will be more environmentally responsible if there is enough of a market demand from consumers that they be so. However, at least initially those more responsible products and/or services are going to cost more than less responsible ones due to the costs of investment in pollution controls or other forms of amelioration. So for there to be such a market demand, a sufficient number of consumers have to be paying a premium for a non-quantifiable benefit, that is, acting against their own economic self-interest - and we're back where we started: Capitalism as expressed in theory cannot in the long run deal with environmental issues because doing so requires producers and/or consumers to act against their own short-term economic self-interest.

(I suppose it's worthy of a parenthetical note to say that therefore, the fact that a market for more expensive "green" products exists, which it does, is empirical proof that theories of pure capitalism simply cannot explain actual consumer behavior.)

However, I say the statement of John Bellamy Foster which you quote is wrong in three ways:

One, it treats people and that economic/social order as if they were two completely disconnected entities. But they aren't. They can't be. That order, any order, is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a summation of the accepted rituals and beliefs of that society, the ones commonly (and often unconsciously) held and that one generation seeks (again, often unconsciously) to pass on to the next. Or, as I said one time,
every system has a few basic preconceptions of reality on which that system is based. A few preconceptions about the proper order of things; in a sense, a few prejudices, prejudices in the sense that they are so rarely challenged and indeed can't be challenged without threatening the existence of the entire system.
As a result, that socioeconomic order can be analyzed as an aggregate of the population, that is, as if it were a single entity, in the same way that the behavior of a fluid can be analyzed and predicted without reference to the individual molecules that comprise it. But that is only for analysis - neither system nor fluid can be said to exist independently of their constituent parts.

Two, by making that separation between people and the socioeconomic order in which they live, Foster does indeed absolve individuals of any responsibility for their environmental impact. "Oh, it's nothing to do with me or what I do, it's the system." In fact, it's nothing to do with what a lot of us do, even with what all of us do. It's "the system." The only way to maintain this is to say that we as individuals are slaves to that system; indeed, less than slaves, rather automatons, incapable of action in violation of its dictates. But even as it remains true that our lifestyles are largely driven by "the system" in which we live and to which we are socially trained, it also remains true that we are not automatons and we are capable of independent, even contrarian, action. Yes, the impact of one individual's actions are tiny, negligible even - but as I've noted before, it's a very rare occasion when you are the only one acting and it's the sum total of actions that matters.

Three, it strongly implies that it is only under capitalism that the issue arises. To be sure, not as stridently as the woman some years ago who responded to my extending my criticism of nuclear power to the then-Soviet Union by saying "socialist power plants do not emit pollution," yet the implication is surely there.

But history denies that notion. There are numerous cases of early civilizations that fell at least partly (in some cases indirectly) due to a lack of environmental stewardship. Writing in "Harper's" magazine in June 2003, Jared Diamond lists
such otherwise dissimilar ancient societies as the Maya in the Yucatán, the Anasazi in the American Southwest, the Cahokia mound builders outside St. Louis, the Greenland Norse, the statue builders of Easter Island, ancient Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. These civilizations, and many others, succumbed to various combinations of environmental degradation and climate change, aggression from enemies taking advantage of their resulting weakness, and declining trade with neighbors who faced their own environmental problems.
(In fairness, I hasten to note that in some of those cases, particularly Easter Island, the assertion that environmental damage, especially the self-inflicted kind, was a significant factor in the decline of the civilization has come under challenge. But in others the case remains strong.)

The present day provides examples, as well. Not quite a year ago, the director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration said
China must sharply improve environmental protection or it could face disaster following two decades of breakneck growth that have poisoned its air, water and soil....

"Facts have proved that prosperity at the expense of the environment is very superficial and very weak," Zhou Shengxian said at a news conference during the annual meeting of China's parliament. "It's only delaying disaster."

China's cities are among the world's smoggiest, and the government says its major rivers are badly polluted, leaving hundreds of millions of people without clean drinking water.
Now, again in fairness I'll note that some will argue that this is actually the result of China becoming more capitalist, but I would remind those people that when the push for rapid growth began, it was celebrated as proof of the dynamism of a "socialist economy."

My bottom line here is that, contrary to John Bellamy Foster, there is no either/or here, no "not this, but that." Certainly the socioeconomic order in which we live pushes us to consumption; it promotes profit as a controlling value and growth as a central organizing principle. All of that is harmful to our present and dangerous to our future. But that does not absolve us as individuals of our responsibility to do what we can. As long as the imperatives of corporate America remain unchanged, what we as consumers can do is inadequate to the task. But that does not mean it is either unhelpful or, worse, unnecessary. As I said in my first comment on the original post, "the old bumpersticker 'Live simply that others may simply live' still has relevance, even in this different context."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Hot flash

Lordy, and here I was thinking I could move to something else besides global warming for a time. But the news won't let me just yet. This is from today's The Independent (UK):
The long-term stability of the massive ice sheets of Antarctica, which have the potential to raise sea levels by hundreds of metres, has been called into question with the discovery of fast-moving rivers of water sliding beneath their base.

Scientists analysing satellite data were astonished to discover the size of the vast lakes and river systems flowing beneath the Antarctic ice sheets, which may lubricate the movement of these glaciers as they flow into the surrounding sea. ...

"We've found that there are substantial subglacial lakes under ice that's moving a couple of metres per day. It's really ripping along. It's the fast-moving ice that determines how the ice sheet responds to climate change on a short timescale," said Robert Bindschadler, a Nasa scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, one of the study's co-authors.
A couple of meters per day? Wow. That is really moving and no, that is not sarcasm. Scientists admit that the relationship between the water movement below and the ice movement above is not well understood. It could be that this is the way it has been for many years. Or this could be a recent change driven by global warming. If it is, it's an extremely ominous change.

But in either event, it's a troubling discovery because, as Dr. Bindschadler noted, there being a greater amount of faster-moving water than previously thought also means that movement of the ice sheets is more sensitive to climate change than previously thought.

It also means that the charge by some scientists prior to its release that the IPCC report was sugarcoated may well be right and our situation is more dire than even that report argued.

The dispute here revolves around the numbers in the report for predicted sea level rise. The predictions in the new report are below those of the previous one. The reason, apparently, is that not enough is known about ice sheet melting to accurately model a prediction, so to be as scientifically conservative as possible, that factor was left out and the projected rise of between 5 and 23 inches is based solely on expansion of water due to warming and glacial melt. (Glaciers and ice sheets are not the same.) Which means the figures
"don't take into account the gorillas - Greenland and Antarctica," said Ohio State University earth sciences professor Lonnie Thompson, a polar ice specialist. "I think there are unpleasant surprises as we move into the 21st century." ...

The prediction being considered this week by the IPCC is "obviously not the full story because ice sheet decay is something we cannot model right now, but we know it's happening," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate panel lead author from Germany who made the larger prediction of up to 55 inches of sea level rise. "A document like that tends to underestimate the risk," he said.
Some speculate that the ice sheet melting may be temporary and will ultimately have little effect. If so, good. But if they're wrong, if we experience more cases like the loss of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica in 2002, we could easily within the century be seeing sea level rises more efficiently measured in meters rather than inches.

Another hotfoot

Something many folks don't realize is that the IPCC report released February 2 was just the opening chapter, the so-called Summary for Policymakers - or the SFP if you want to sound like you're in the know. That one summarized the scientific basis for the conclusions drawn. The next report, due out in April, is to address the consequences.

According to a leaked draft obtained by the Australian newspaper The Age, those consequences ain't pretty, as this Reuters dispatch shows.
Rising temperatures will leave millions more people hungry by 2080 and cause critical water shortages in China and Australia, as well as parts of Europe and the United States....

[C]limate change will bring water scarcity to between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people....

[A]n additional 200 million to 600 million people across the world would face food shortages in another 70 years, while coastal flooding would hit another 7 million homes.

"The message is that every region of the earth will have exposure," Dr Graeme Pearman, who helped draft the report, told Reuters on Tuesday."
And all the while too many of the governments of the world play Nero while their corporatist allies and masters feed them grapes - and feed us baloney.

However - still trying to keep that hope thingy going - I note that the Financial Times (UK) reported just yesterday that
[p]lans for a global day of concerts and events to promote awareness of climate change to more than 2bn people were unveiled on Thursday by Al Gore ... and leading lights of the entertainment industry. ...

More than 100 artists are lined up to play in a 24-hour concert, known as “Live Earth”, which will be carried on television, radio and the internet.

MSN ... will broadcast the concert on the web. In the US, NBC-Universal, the television network, and the radio groups SIRIUS and XM will take part. In the UK, the BBC will be the event’s broadcast partner.

Shanghai, Sydney, Johannesburg and London were confirmed as the four concert-hosting cities. Other locations in Brazil, Japan and the US are yet to be determined. It is estimated that more than 1m could attend the live events. ...

The organisers also plan to use only electricity from renewable sources, employ recycling and biodegradable materials where possible, and offset travel via carbon credits.
I'm feeling my age - I didn't even know some of the performers listed in the article - but I expect I'll be listening.

Footnote to the foot- never mind: About a week and a-half ago the humor site All Day Coffee had an FAQ about "the global warming hoax." This was my favorite part:
When did the global warming hoax come about?
In the late 1970s, Greenpeace had convinced the world to stop hunting whales. Having lost the single issue that brought them the most donations, they made the preposterous claim that the earth is getting warmer.

Why would Greenpeace want to do that?
In a top-secret meeting with the world's whaling fleets, they decided to link global warming to petroleum-based emissions. If people stopped using petroleum, they'd have to switch back to whale oil. Which would be mutually beneficial to G-WHAC (the Global WHAling Consortium) and Greenpeace, who would again be able to launch significant anti-whaling fund raising campaigns.
Check out the rest for a smile.

Hotfootnote to the preceding

The United States is hardly the only candidate for criticism regarding its commitment to resisting global warming.

China is the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, trailing only the US - and those positions are now predicted to be reversed in just a few years due to China's aggressive economic expansion, which is generating ballooning demand for electricity. Some 70% of that energy is produced by coal-fired power plants, many of which lack adequate pollution controls.

As a result,
China is failing to make progress on improving and protecting the environment, according to a new Chinese government report[, said the BBC the end of January]. ...

The Chinese report, prepared by academics and government experts, ranked the country 100th out of 118 countries surveyed.

Some 30 indicators were used to measure the level of "ecological modernisation" including carbon dioxide emissions, sewage disposal rates and the safety of drinking water.
Despite that, and despite having officially acknowledged both the reality and the risks of global warming, just a week after that report was issued, the New York Times reported that China declared that
wealthier countries must take the lead in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and refused to say whether it would agree to any mandatory emissions limits that might hamper its booming economy.

Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said China was willing to contribute to an international effort to combat global warming but placed the primary responsibility on richer, developed nations that have been polluting for much longer.
Chinese officials say that their nation's per capita output of greenhouse gas emissions remains below that of the wealthy nations, but that is as bogus an argument as some of those coming out of Washington and other industrialized nation capitals. In some cases, comparing per capita outputs can be revealing, such as where local concentrations of pollutants are what's significant. But that's not true here; here, what nature cares about is the total output - not the relative size of the economy or population that produced it.

China's countryside is, by the government's own admission, heavily polluted. Its plans to address that have repeatedly fallen short of the avowed goals. Even now, it continues to describe global warming as "ultimately a development issue" and continues to resist agreements that might affect its industrial expansion.

But the fact is, developing nations such as China are in the best position to deploy alternative energy sources and enhanced pollution controls precisely because they are developing: There is no expense involved of uninstalling previously-existing infrastructure. Yet rather than call on the industrialized nations to provide technological assistance to enable developing nations to do that and despite its own acknowledgment of global warming, China digs in its heels, continues to plan for a new power plant every week, and plays a self-defeating game of "you first."

In that, let it be said, China is hardly alone. This is from Reuters from earlier this month:
The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said Tuesday that wealthy countries were responsible for global warming and that they should stop telling Brazil what to do with the Amazon rain forest.

"The wealthy countries are very smart, approving protocols, holding big speeches on the need to avoid deforestation, but they already deforested everything," Mr. da Silva said during the announcement of a public works project in Rio de Janeiro.
Da Silva said wealthy countries should switch from fossil fuels to fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Guess which nation is the world’s leading producer of ethanol. Go ahead, guess. I bet you'll be right.

Footnote: Even here, however, the US cannot escape criticism:
Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman rejected the idea of unilateral limits on emissions. "We are a small contributor to the overall, when you look at the rest of the world, so it’s really got to be a global solution," he said.
This despite the fact that the US generates roughly a quarter of the total of greenhouse gas emissions.

I keep wanting to be hopeful but more and more I'm inclined to agree with those scientists who are starting to say that it's already too late, we're already so screwed, and what we need to be doing is thinking of how we're going to adapt to the coming changes. That doesn't mean doing nothing, but it does mean the goal can no longer be preventing the disruptions but preventing the worst of them and learning how to deal with the rest.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

If you can't stand the heat

Well, the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month certainly was frightening. (A .pdf version is available here.)
The words of warning about global warming from the top panel of international scientists Friday were purposely blunt: "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," the cause is "very likely" man-made, and "would continue for centuries." ...

The report said man-made emissions of greenhouse gases can already be blamed for these current problems: fewer cold days, hotter nights, killer heat waves, floods and heavy rains, devastating droughts, and an increase in hurricane and tropical storm strength (particularly in the Atlantic Ocean). ...

And the report said no matter how much civilization slows or reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and sea level rise will continue on for centuries.
Impressive words. What made them even more impressive was that this was a conservative, a cautions, report, as the Christian Science Monitor informs us:
[T]he main science report ... was compiled by 150 scientists as main authors, another 400 scientists as contributing authors, a team of review editors, and some 600 reviewers. The document went through two rounds of reviews. And unlike past efforts, review editors required chapter authors to respond to each responsible review comment.
This combination of strong words in a carefully-reviewed document was impressive enough, in fact, to very likely have been responsibile for playing a decisive role in spurring some rather dramatic responses, such as these:

- The day after the report was released, 46 countries at a conference in Paris agreed to work to establish a new environmental body that could single out - and perhaps police - nations that abuse the Earth.

- On February 8, Nancy Pelosi told the House Science and Technology Committee during its hearing on global warming that the US needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by mid-century - and what's more, mandatory control are the only way that will happen.

- On Tuesday, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine issued an Executive Order that by calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state below current levels by 20% by 2020 and an additional 60% by 2050.

- Also on Tuesday, Iona Campagnolo, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, declared at the opening of the new session of the provincial Parliament that global warming "leaves no room for procrastination" and the provincial government aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least a third by 2020 - which would put them 10% under 1990 levels by that time.

- Speaking of Canada, the House of Commons passed a bill Wednesday to force the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to achieve the steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions Canada agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol. Passage in the Senate is expected.
In addition, there was activism on the issue. Timed to coincide with the release of the report, the Climate Week of Action involved about 50,000 students at nearly 600 schools across North America,
from the University of Saskatchewan, to Coral Reef Senior High in Miami, to Collin County Community College in Plano, Texas.

"It's the largest youth mobilization on climate, and one of the biggest coordinated youth actions of any kind in a long time," said Billy Parish, a Yale dropout whom [Mother Jones magazine] recently named "Student Activist of the Year."
Events often revolved around a showing of An Inconvenient Truth.

All this activity and response has clearly given a sense that, as the Boston Globe said today, "the global warming debate has changed significantly in recent weeks." Indeed, it has shifted enough that even Exxon-Mobil is budging.
In a speech at a major industry gathering, [Exxon Mobil CEO Rex W.] Tillerson acknowledged that the planet was warming while carbon dioxide levels were increasing, suggesting a more accommodating position than the hard-nosed stance Exxon had held. ...

Mr. Tillerson's tone, if not the substance of his remarks, at times broke with the rigid positions of his predecessor, Lee Raymond, who has long been considered a skeptic in the global warming debate.

"That's Exxon-speak," said Barbara Shook, an analyst for Energy Intelligence Group, a publishing and information services company. "It's their own dialect, but if you look at where Exxon was one and a half years ago they may not have shifted their position 180 degrees, but they are moving."
And it's clear that all this is, as I said at the top, really, really frightening. Especially to certain people frightened that the facts are challenging their ideology.

One such frightened person is David Asman, host of "Forbes on FOX" (the title alone should tell you what you need to know), who in a column on the FoxNoise (copyright Keith Olbermann) site on Monday described global warming skeptics as having the "gumption to stand up to the status quo" in spite of "some of the nastiest insults and character assassinations." For their "audacity," he says, "they have been censured, excoriated and labeled as lackeys for the oil companies."
[Alabama meteorologist James] Spann was particularly upset with the charge that only those with ties to big oil could argue the way he and his colleagues do. In fact, he says, the truth is exactly the opposite: "Billions of dollars of grant money is flowing into the pockets of those on the man-made global warming bandwagon ... For many, global warming is a big cash grab." ...

Billions of dollars have been invested so far in studying climate change ($20 billion from the Bush administration alone), and very little of that money has landed in the laps of those outside of the global warming orthodoxy.
Instead, Asman insists, it's gone to "an enormous number of scientists who have already cashed in on it."

(Sidebar: I believe his last name is pronounced like Az-mun, but I think the other pronunciation that suggests itself is more apt.)

Interestingly, that same "follow-the-money / poor, beleagured, truth-seeking skeptics" argument was made the very next day by another frightened man, Thomas Sowell, writing at the National Review website. Having first tried to connect scientific findings about global warming with "the political Left" on the grounds that Marxism was once called "scientific socialism," he declares that
[n]ot all the advocates of "global warming" are on the Left, of course. Crusades are not just for crusaders. There are always hangers-on who can turn the true believers' crusades into votes or money or at least notoriety. ...

Government money is falling on those who seek grants to study global warming and produce “solutions” for it. But that money is not as likely to fall on those skeptics in the scientific community who refuse to join the stampede.
Apparently, "scientists who believe in global warming are the ones who are really in it for the money" is going to be a new right-wing meme, similar to the "liberals are the real racists" and "wingnut warmongers who send soldiers into meat grinders for no damn good reason are the ones who really support the troops" ones with which we are already familiar. (By the way, researchers who take part in the IPCC process are volunteers who actually take a hit to their careers by seeing their own research projects postponed, leading to failure to publish journal articles.)

And it's not only nitwit columnists who are trembling in fear, it's nitwit members of Congress. Susan Soloman, a senior scientist at NOAA, a recipient of the US National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor, and co-chair of the IPCC, was a witness at the same House Science and Technology Committee hearing at which Pelosi testified. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-SomePlanetSomewhere) went after her:
Mr. Rohrabacher asked Dr. Soloman how much human activity contributed to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and interrupted repeatedly when she tried to answer, accusing her of "dodging" and questioning her honesty.

When Dr. Soloman asked for a chance to finish a sentence, he said: "I control this time. You don't." ...

Eventually, Dr. Soloman said atmospheric carbon dioxide had held steady at 280 parts per million for almost 10,000 years, until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the level is 380 parts per million and increasing, she added, with "greater than 90 percent" of the increase because of people.
Talking to Fox later, Rochabacher
said Solomon's answer was "a total obfuscation" that "tries to exaggerate the actual amount of pollution being put into the atmosphere by human beings as compared to what nature does itself."
(By the way, speaking of Some Planet Somewhere, Fox's lead on the story about the hearing was this:
Not enough evidence exists that humans are responsible for global warming, so current laws should not be changed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, critics of a global climate change report told a House panel Thursday.)
Rohrbacher's question is a clever one for the nanny-nanny naysayers because the answer sounds damning: Humans contribute a relatively small portion of overall greenhouse gases, on the order of 5-10% of the total. It's sufficiently clever that I suspect the question was supplied to Rohrabacher rather than being something he came up with himself: It said a great deal about his scientific knowledge when he equated all greenhouse gases with "pollution." But in fact it's not a valid question, it's an ideologically-driven attempt to confuse the issue with irrelevancies. Nature has established cycles of greenhouse gas production and absorbtion that had kept the climate relatively stable for centuries. Human activity has added to production without adding anything to absorbtion, upsetting that balance. Imagine a water tank with both an in pipe and an out pipe. Water is pumped into the tank at a rate of 90 gallons a minute - and drains out at the same rate. The level stays the same. Now someone starts adding buckets of water at a rate of 10 gallons per minute. "Well, gee," Congressman Boobbacher would say, "the human contribution is only 10% of the total." But that additional, relatively small, contribution is what's going to cause the tank to overflow. It's the change that's important.

Dr. Soloman tried to answer the relevant question, not the ideological one - and Rohrabacher didn't like it. How bad was it?
When Mr. Rohrabacher again accused her of dodging his question, the committee chairman, Representative Bart Gordon, Democrat of Tennessee, told him to put it in writing and added, "My belief is the answer lies in what the lady just said."
If you know Congress, you know how unusual it is for the chair of a committee to tell a member to, in effect, knock it off.

(Sidebar: Dr. Soloman was one of four witnesses speaking on behalf of the report. The others were Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State, and Kevin Trenberth and Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. One science blogger commenting on the hearings - unfortunately, I have misplaced the link - said he thought Dr. Soloman was the least effective of the four. I strongly doubt it was a coincidence that she was the one Rohrabacher went after.)

Okay, so we know various right-wing nutbags are scared of the IPCC report. But of just what are they scared? What is the root of that fear? Here's a hint, from Automotive.com:
A lot of people in Europe are worried that draconian car emission laws now being considered by the European Commission could mean the death of sports and luxury cars.
Omigod! Not that! Not the end of gas-guzzling, over-priced, "hey-peons-looka-me-I'm-rich" cars! Don't tell me we'll have to drive (gasp!) efficient vehicles that can't lord it over common folks! How will we live? No wonder they're scared. (I wonder if that's the sort of thing Rohrabacher had in mind when he said that curbing greenhouse gas emissions would be to "dramatically change our way of life.")

And how scared are they? Well, for one thing, as the Guardian (UK) for February 2 told us, they're prepared to offer bribes for the "right" answers.
Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Travel expenses and additional payments were also offered.
That's scared. Then there are those who are either scared out of their minds or just nuts to begin with. The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) reported back on January 29 about a little-noticed proposal for the IPCC report:
The US wants the world's scientists to develop technology to block sunlight as a last-ditch way to halt global warming.

It says research into techniques such as giant mirrors in space or reflective dust pumped into the atmosphere would be "important insurance" against rising emissions, and has lobbied for such a strategy to be recommended by a UN report....

Possible techniques include putting a giant screen into orbit, thousands of tiny, shiny balloons, or microscopic sulfate droplets pumped into the high atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption.
(Thanks for Talking Points Memo for the link.)

The US apparently also whined that the report tended to "focus on the negative effects of climate change."

It was, again, a case of the US being, as I wrote in the wake of the State of the Union address, "all hat and no cattle" on global warming. In fact, not only is there no cattle, but the range is being plowed under: One promising form of energy is geothermal, with the potential to meet 10% of US electricity demand by 2050 with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions.
There are just two major catches. First, about $800 million in research and development is needed over the next decade to make the drilling technology cost-effective. Second, the Department of Energy is trying to kill the program by ending its funding.
The excuse is that geothermal is a "mature" technology ready to compete in the marketplace without additional support. This comes even as the White House proposes to continue to fund work on other forms of energy - including nuclear.

This is idiotic. Fearfully idiotic. What are they trying to protect? In place of the wholly rational fear of the effects of global warming, right wingers and their corporate fellow travelers are being guided by the most base sort of fear, that of unadulterated selfishness. Oh yes, we'll do something about global warming - if it doesn't cost me anything, if it doesn't hurt my profits, if it doesn't require me to actually do anything.

A few years ago I had an email exchange with a woman who told me that she wasn't concerned about global warming because by the time the bad effects were hitting, in 30 or 40 years, she'd be dead. While I'm sure at least some of the small number of skeptics among scientists are sincere, I believe that many of the corporate, economic, and political hangers-on truly feel the way she does: They are convinced that effective action against global warming will have some measurable impact on their lifestyle and they just can't get their small minds around the concept of having less than they do or (even worse!) of sharing some of it.

Well, they're likely right that we can't battle global warming without some impact on our lifestyles. But I think back on my lifestyle from the '80s - or hell, even the '60s - and yes, I had less in the way of hi-tech goodies, but was my life really that much more limited, that deprived? Was yours? Compared to protecting the environment for, and safety of, future generations that seems a damn small price to pay.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Iraq: Sadr and Sadr

Okay, the pun is rather obvious but Moqtada al-Sadr is back in the news.
According to senior military officials, [ABC News reported on Tuesday,] al Sadr left Baghdad two to three weeks ago and fled to Tehran, Iran, where he has family. ...

Sources believe al Sadr is worried about an increase of 20,000 U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital. One official told ABC News' Martha Raddatz, "He is scared he will get a JDAM [bomb] dropped on his house."

Sources say some of the Mahdi army leadership went with al Sadr.
"Fled" is an interesting word choice. It appears to have been AP's word: In looking at different versions of the story, every one that used that word was either the AP story or said AP "contributed." (And one that did not rely exclusively on AP did not use the term, saying rather that al-Sadr "had left.") And it's one that AP repeated today when it reported the denials of the original claim:
Officials linked to Muqtada al-Sadr denied Wednesday that the radical Shiite cleric had fled to Iran ahead of a security crackdown in Baghdad.

An Iraqi government official said al-Sadr was in the Shiite holy city of Najaf Tuesday night, when he received delegates from several government departments.
Al-Sadr didn't leave for, depart for, go to, or travel to, he "fled to" Iran. The term implies fear, surrender, and at least a certain amount of guilt. It's one of those "us/them" word choices that impart judgment as well as description: Our side "withdraws." Their side "flees." The impression it gives is one of, if you will, a "surging" victory for our side.

That was made more explicit by the statement in today's story that he "fled ... ahead of a security crackdown." So the picture being painted for us of late is this: Iranian-supplied Shiite militias are now the biggest enemy of the US in Iraq and the head of the biggest of those militias, Moqtada al-Sadr, has "fled" to Iran ahead of the "crackdown." We're winning! We're winning! The President's Plan Is Working!

Don't forget to clap your hands and say "I believe!"

Footnote One: Prof. Juan Cole has done an excellent job of undermining the claims that al-Sadr in is Iran rather than Iraq. Besides the newspaper accounts he assembles, he tellingly notes that
[h]e and his family have endlessly made fun of the al-Hakim clerical leaders for fleeing to Iran to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein, when the al-Sadrs insisted on staying in Iraq. ... So it would be a lot of crow to eat for Muqtada to go to Iran to escape the Americans.
Footnote Two: The Fox News lead on the story is unintentionally funny:
Anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has fled his Baghdad stronghold for the friendly confines of Iran's capital, FOX News can confirm via a senior United States official.
Oh, right. Fox "The Big Scoop" News "confirmed" it. Along with everyone else at the press briefing. That is assuming Fox was actually there; the article coyly notes that "the Associated Press contributed to this report."

Monday, February 12, 2007

To the author

I assume that most everyone has by now heard about or come across the article in Friday's Washington Post by Eric Fair, who worked as a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004.
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine. ...

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.
At the end of the article, the Post printed his email address. For whatever it might be worth to him or anyone else, this is the email I sent to him:
I just wanted to thank you for your piece in the Washington Post. It could not have been an easy thing to write and I commend the courage it took to do so - and more, the courage to include an email address despite the vituperation I expect you will receive that way.

I don't know if it will provide any comfort to know that I suspect there are a fair number of other people who have an ache in their soul for something they did - or, as in my case, failed to do - even as their conscience demanded something else, something better, of them. But in case and to whatever degree it can, there it is.

I don't mean to equate our experiences: Your pain is clearly deeper than mine, which despite its age sometimes still haunts the isolated hours but has never caused the sort of nightmares you have had - for which I can only feel sorrow for you and, for my own selfish benefit, relief for me. I just want to reassure you that you (and I) are by no means alone in such regrets.

That, and to offer one piece of advice: You say "I will never forgive myself." Perhaps not - but you must try. You must never, ever forget - but you must try to learn how to forgive.

Yes, you failed to follow your conscience, as so desperately many of the rest of us have as well, to our regret and shame. But for whatever small solace it gives, take refuge in the fact that at least it means you have one.
Fair ended his piece by saying
[r]egardless of how many young Americans we send to war, or how many militia members we kill, or how many Iraqis we train, or how much money we spend on reconstruction, we will not escape the damage we have done to the people of Iraq in our prisons. ...

The story of Abu Ghraib isn't over. In many ways, we have yet to open the book.
True, but it goes even further: Too many of us want to forget the book was even written. We want to forget all the Abu Ghraibs, all the secret prisons, all the Bagrams, all the "extraordinary renditions," all the Guantanamos, we want to wrap them up, bag them, bury them, desperately oh so desperately pretend, desperately oh so desperately tell ourselves, that this is not us, this is not who we are, this is not what Americans do, yes it's what others do but no we're not like them, we can't be, no....

But it is us, it is what we do (and have done), we are like "them." That does not mean that as a people we are uniquely or even unusually evil except as our greater power (and therefore greater responsibility) provides for greater opportunity. But it does mean that until we as a people face up to the darkness in our national soul, not in some abstract, philosophical sense but in terms of the real effect that real policies are really having on real people, until we on a national level feel and work through the kind of shame and regret that Eric Fair is feeling and working through on a personal level, there will continue to be Abu Ghraibs, Bagrams, and Gitmos for us to urgently forget.

Footnote: I have previously "meditated" on we "shouldn't be surprised" by such atrocities.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Oh by the way

The lists in the right-hand column have received no attention in over a year. They are going to be gradually updated (changed, expanded in some ways, edited in others) over the next couple of weeks.


So here I am, back at it and with no idea of where it’s going to go or even if it will at all. (That was a real vote of self-confidence, wasn’t it?)

Since I have been away for a while, I thought I’d ease back in by rehashing some thoughts from when I first started this blog, the better to give some idea of what can be expected here.

In my very first post, I said I was finally moved to start a blog after a phone conversation with a friend
in which the morass in Iraq came up. As such conversations do, this one then veered off in several related directions at once, all revolving around a core of our mutual distaste for George Bush. After a few minutes, my friend sighed and said there was no point getting all worked up about it.

"Yes, there is," I replied. "The truth is, my hope is nearly gone. My anger is the only thing that keeps me going."

So now I have an outlet to express that anger, to discuss what I'm angry about, why I'm angry, and, in my calmer moments, to try to rediscover that hope and offer a different vision of what we as a people, a nation, a culture, might do, might be, might become.
I don’t know how well I succeeded in that latter part, perhaps I’ll do better this time around. It is, in any event, one of the goals. Others include posting on a regular basis (although not necessarily every single day) and writing with enough flair and/or style as to make this blog a good read even when the subject matter is depressing or the anger quotient is high.

In my posts I try to provide enough information so that no one has to actually go to the linked article to understand what I’m talking about. (I get irritated with posts that consist of something like “Oy!” with a link.) At the same time, I try to avoid posts that are essentially just a long quote from another source: If I have nothing to add or contribute, I might as well just link to it with the comment “This is an interesting article on such-and-such.”

Something else I try to avoid is spending a lot of time covering particular items that I think are already being adequately covered in the well-traveled blogs. Again, if I don’t see where I’m actually contributing anything in the way of information or analysis or commentary, why do it? On the other hand, I think at times in the past I have been a source on issues that were not getting enough attention from the most popular blogs, which often enough are too wrapped up in presidential or congressional politicking or some back-and-forth snipe-fest with some conservative writer. I hope to maintain a broad enough view that things that are not immediately relevant to party politics or even the US as a whole do not escape notice. Or maybe that would be better phrased as things that should be relevant but are not necessarily seen as such. Or wait, even better - things that should be relevant to us because of our humanity, not because of our nationality.

Which brings up the question of attitude, of the political orientation you can expect to find here. The subheading of the blog refers to a “nonviolent, radical Left perspective.” (Which should at least do away with any wingers responding to some post by declaring “your view is laid bare for all to see” or some such crap like it was some deep secret that they have brilliantly uncovered.) To flesh that out a bit, I’ll say that
I am, in many ways, a child of "the 60s," having come to political awareness during that brief (and, some would have it, mythical) time marked at one end by the Sgt. Pepper summer and at the other by Altamont - or, politically, by Flower Power and the Days of Rage. Like most (at least male) members of my generation, it was Vietnam that initially drew me beyond vague "concern" into concrete involvement: Even for those of us "safe" with draft deferments, the war was always there, swirling around us like a fog, tugging at us like an undertow, threading in and out of our lives/futures/consciousnesses, ignored only by being repressed. And each "answer" our government offered to the whens, wherefores, and, most importantly, whys of the war seemed to raise at least two new questions.

I had been to that time what I now call a "right wing liberal," that species of American political animal that's clearly liberal on domestic issues and clearly conservative on foreign policy, a type whose philosophy I later summed up as "hooray for justice, beauty, truth, and Kill Commies." But increasing alienation as the war dragged on amid repeated promises that it was, really, already over and mounting evidence of what the governments we supported in South Vietnam were really like eventually prompted me to - very shyly - attend a meeting of a local peace group. That was, if memory serves, in the fall of 1968.

You can relax; it's over now. I've no intention of inflicting my autobiography on you.
But as I said at the time, “knowing the roots of my involvement in the movement may help to explain where I've wound up. ... I am a democratic socialist-feminist with an anarchist bent, a civil liberties absolutist, an environmental advocate who generally agrees with the ecological basis (but despairs at the politics) of bioregionalism, and, at the heart of it all, by both intellectual conviction and moral compulsion, a radical pacifist.”
In doing this column I'll be guided by four editorial principles:

1) "To thine own self be true." (Shakespeare)
2) "The US isn't the worst - but it is the biggest." (Joan Baez)
3) "Sometimes a bit of humor contains more inner truth than the most serious seriousness." (Aron Nimzovich)
4) "No one but no one, no matter their ideology, political perspective, or status as 'left' or 'right,' 'revolutionary' or 'counter-revolutionary' can be by that reason exempt from either criticism or praise." (me)
Welcome to Lotus, Take II.

Footnote: One addition to the what I am list: A few years ago, a co-worker plopped down on the breakroom couch next to me and grinningly asked “Did you used to be a hippie?”

I gave him my best glare and said “What do you mean - used to be?”

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Hold on

Okay, so it won't be in a week. But there's a reason.

One of the reasons I gave for no longer doing Lotus was that "I don't think what I'm accomplishing here is worth the effort I'm putting into it." (It's just a couple of posts down - you can read it for yourself if you like.) A specific reason for that was the lack of a high-speed connection. Simply put, doing this via dial-up meant taking an inordinate amount of time waiting for information to come up.

But at long last, I'm getting a DSL connection and so intended to plunge in again. "Succumb[ing] to the addiction" is how Kevin Hayden of The American Street put it.

However - after a couple of delays and a frustrating series of four phone calls totalling three hours to tech support, during which one person insisted my computer was at fault and another seemed to have only the vaguest idea of that they were doing, they finally concluded my brand-new DSL modem, which they supplied, is defunct.

So now I have to wait to be sent a new one - after which I will have more interesting experiences, I expect, trying to set up my half-set-up account.

Bear with me a little longer. It is coming. Really.
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