Thursday, February 26, 2015

Drop the Denial? Probably Not Soon

Why do some people persist in denying the realities of the climate crisis?  In some cases, the cause is easily named: money.  Last week Greenpeace revealed documentary evidence (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act) confirming that one of the most prominent scientists who insists that climate changes are not caused by greenhouse gas pollution has been generously funded by the fossil fuels industry, and just about nobody else.  The Guardian:

Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of $1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the documents obtained by Greenpeace through freedom of information filings show. According to the documents, the biggest single funder was Southern Company, one of the country’s biggest electricity providers that relies heavily on coal.

Does this mean that the deniers who quote him religiously will soon drop Soon, and maybe even their denial?  Not in the media or in other rabid right institutions, for most of their paychecks also depend on orthodox denying.  The fact that Greenpeace got the documents will invalidate the numbers themselves in the eyes of many deniers.  Because all of their "facts" are 90% ideology, they believe as an article of faith that everybody else's facts are as well.

Beyond those addicted to Koch--and we're all shocked, shocked that gambling has been going on here--there are others who lack a direct profit motive.  But according to Joel Achenbach in the National Geographic  there are other ways to profit--by remaining a member in good standing of your group, your circle of actual and virtual friends, your associates (and not appearing weird to them may also be a matter of keeping your job, moving on up, etc. and therefore also related to money.)  He quotes Dan Kahan of Yale:

In the U.S., climate change somehow has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.

“Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina,” Kahan has written. “Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.”

This article has many other observations and theories, some I would argue with, some I'd give a "yes, but..."  And I sense I wouldn't agree with much else that Kahan writes (what does he really know about rural South Carolina towns?), but since this agrees with my own observations I'll endorse it.  A lot of what people say--including almost all gossip--is really about being recognized as a member of their group, even if it is not a group of their choice but of circumstance, like (most often) in the workplace.

How does any of this change?  Global heating as an "issue" is so difficult because it is part of a bundle of issues that define politics and groups.  Republicans won enough in 2014 that they're not budging from any of their stands, no matter what the consequences.  But more generally, big changes on apparently intractable issues happen underneath the surface noise, person by person, then group by group, until suddenly it's all over.  It happened with South Africa and apartheid, it happened with cigarette smoking.

One of the most effective anti-apartheid tools was disinvestment, and it was incremental over years.  As was noted before here, disinvestment in fossil fuels have been accumulating even faster.  One of the big academic holdouts has been Harvard.  Last week some 30 prominent alums signed a letter in support of disinvestment:

The alumni included Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam war memorial, Nobel laureate Eric Chivian, Pulitzer prize-winning author Susan Faludi, academics, preachers, former US senators and Securities and Exchange commissioners as well as Bill McKibben, the founder of the group, which has driven the campus divestment campaign.

And the dance goes on.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Torture Games

The Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on Torture has been published in paperback, though it is apparently a 549 page executive summary--the documentation running into the many thousands of (heavily censored) pages.  An excellent summary and commentary on the Report--what it does and doesn't say and do--can be found at the New York Review of Books in an interview with Mark Danner, who knows the topic from having covered it for some time.

Even given the tenor of the initial coverage of the report's findings--chiefly that the torture imposed by the CIA was even worse than previously known, and that despite CIA and GOPer claims it resulted in no important information--Danner highlights even more hair-raising contexts.  For instance, that torture was a first resort, done without any real planning or investigation into precedent and results, and that the prime suspect involved gave lots of good information before he was tortured, and none during or after.  Here's Danner:

"What I think is strictly speaking new is, first, how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour, beginning with the techniques themselves, which were devised and run by a couple of retired Air Force psychologists who were hired by the CIA and put in charge though they had never conducted an interrogation before. They had no expertise in terrorism or counterterrorism, had never interrogated al-Qaeda members or anyone else for that matter. When it came to actually working with detained terrorists and suspected terrorists they were essentially without any relevant experience. Eventually, the CIA paid them more than $80 million.

The second revelation is the degree to which the CIA claimed great results, and did so mendaciously. Sometimes the attacks they said they had prevented were not serious in the first place. Sometimes the information that actually might have led to averting attacks came not from the enhanced interrogation techniques but from other traditional forms of interrogation or other information entirely. But what the report methodically demonstrates is that the claims about having obtained essential, lifesaving intelligence thanks to these techniques that had been repeated for years and years and years are simply not true. And the case is devastating."

It remains a puzzle to me--as it does to Danner--why the Obama administration hasn't pursued prosecutions, or even why the President kept this report at arms length.  The Senate report itself doesn't include recommendations for any actions. Danner suggests it's melancholy evidence of the power of the CIA.

Another fact I didn't know: the Senate committee got the votes to conduct the investigation only when Democrats agreed to limit it to the CIA, and to stay away from the Bush executive department.  Even so, while the FBI comes off pretty well in this report, and the Justice Department not as badly as it might have, the fingerprints of Dick Cheney and G.W. Bush and their minions are all over this.

As Danner says, without prosecutions that involve judicial decisions, all that prevents the US engaging in torture again is President Obama's executive order, which can easily be disregarded by a future presidency.

Meanwhile, it appears that US police have taken more than surplus military weaponry from the so-called war on terror. The depravity unleashed by torture and other abrogation of rights justified by the Bushites has come to the United States, perhaps in racial attitudes, but specifically (according to one report) in the adoption of police state tactics and familiar CIA "black sites" but for American citizens in at least one major U.S. city.

The only positive in this is the fact that the Senate committee did investigate, and that after all the roadblocks thrown in their path by the CIA and allies, it has actually been published.  We'd all like to forget this happened, that our leaders could be this cowardly and depraved, or that people who did it are still politically powerful.  But what we'd better remember is that it could easily happen again.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Less Than Zero

The first time the words "below zero" were impressed on my consciousness as a child, I was thrown into a quandary.  If zero meant "nothing", what could possibly be less than zero?  (Yes, this was before Robert Zimmerman got out of Minnesota.)  How could anything be below nothing?

But there it was, and my mother took it very seriously.  For years afterwards, any temp "below zero" was like a cosmic event, what "awesome" actually means.  And in western Pennsylvania in the 50s and 60s there were more than a few.

When I lived in Pittsburgh in the late 80s and 90s, that winters were shorter and milder was street wisdom.  I recall a veteran of the Squirrel Cage bar pointing to where ice used to form on the street in front of it in November, not to disappear until March.  Not then, though.  Not anymore.

So I appreciate that folks in that part of the world had to readapt to that kind of weather this winter, after a generation or so.  It's hard to judge at a distance whether it is more extreme now than even back then, but it does sound like it.  And a lot less predictable.

That global heating could lead to intense cold and big snowstorms may be counter-intuitive, but it was predicted long before it started happening.  The physics of it aren't complicated, though the many factors involved make the time and specific manifestations difficult to predict.  But readers of Kim Stanley Robinson's climate crisis trilogy from the 90s will recall that intense cold visited Washington as a consequence.  Cold and snow is there now.

Here we've had no winter at all.  The tulips are blooming (I took this photo however in March last year), the hummingbirds departed several weeks early, and it's generally been a warmer, sunnier winter than any in the 19 we've seen here.  Even last winter was not this consistently mild.  We also did not get the wet February we got last year.  We got some moisture from the storms earlier in the month, and some foggy days.  But the last appreciable rains were in early December.

The departures from normal here are certainly a lot more pleasant, which is some ways makes them more eerie.  But the new extremes in the East as well as most of the West, which right now may not be so far from normal variation to be intrinsically alarming, certainly add an edge to the kind of scientific speculation that emerged this past week, predicting mega-drought for the West, and significant deterioration of livability in New York--studies I'll review in another post.

In some ways, getting our heads around the climate crisis is a little like dealing with the concept of below zero, though even more complicated to contemplate.  We get to some understanding by degrees, by paying heed to what climate scientists say about the weather, and adjusting our ideas accordingly, about what the climate crisis is and what changes it can make.

For right now though, my thoughts are with those suffering cold and snow extremes in places I used to live (Boston, DC, PA etc.) or have visited, like Niagara Falls, where days of below zero temps actually froze parts of the falls themselves (photo above.)  But I'm still going out in the sunshine.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How To Create More Inequality Part 2

1.  After buying enough lawmakers, feel free to consolidate major products and services on which people depend into as few corporations as possible.

2. Severely reduce the workforce by automation and outsourcing to slave wage countries.  Reduce actual physical presence in places where people use your products and services so that they won't expect you to service or repair anything, and instead of paying people to spend time providing services, make customers spend their time trying to deal with automated responses on the telephone, and if they happen to survive long enough to get an actual person on the phone, make sure that person is very far away, and badly trained as well as, of course, poorly paid.

All this means fewer people in US communities have good paying jobs, everyone is enslaved to a few corporations that have as their sole aim to cut costs, drive up the artificial short-term stock valuation, and reward their executives with larger and larger shares of the profits.  

3. Without meaningful choices in the matter, people will have to put up with all this.  They are also more likely now to buy a new product rather than try to have their present one serviced or repaired.  They must spend whatever these corporations charge in fees as well as prices, with the money going straight to the top.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to Create More Inequality

1. Elect a Republican governor and legislature.  In many states that should know better, this is already a done deal.

2.  Governor announces lower taxes on the rich, which he promises will spur business investment and fill the state coffers with abundance.

3. Tax revenues fall and a big budget deficit results.

4.  Governor blames excessive pensions paid by state government, especially teacher pensions.

5.  Instead of being arrested for fraud or theft or whatever criminal statutes apply to people who abrogate contracts that one party has fulfilled, governor and legislature succeed in "reforming" pensions so that retirees get less.  Combine with other efforts to shrink public education, health and welfare, because the state can't "afford" them anymore.  So retirees and middle class teachers, government employees etc. make less or are fired.  Redistribute saved income upwards!

That's it, in five easy steps.  Oh, and the sixth---

6. Elect one of these governors as President of the U.S. so the same procedure can be applied nationally, and even more income transferred from middle class and poor people to rich and richer people.  It worked for Reagan, it can work again.  (Ask Scott Walker.)

Bonus: though this hurts some white people, it's predominantly old white people that it benefits  Everybody else loses.  In fact, everybody loses.

Monday, February 16, 2015


Paul McCartney brings the subversive power of rock and roll into the post-human future, with a poignancy at the end that speaks for all human music.  Watch and listen, you'll appreciate.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Beyond the Hashtag

Rather than a series of tweet-like posts on separate subjects--which I know is the proper way to do it these days--I'm going to catch up on non-climate crisis topics from the past week or so, all right here.

Brian Williams:  Evidence is starting to mount up, however dubious, in the same direction.  One thing seems pretty clear: he doesn't have a lot of defenders.  But my point about the wired lynch mob (by which of course I mean the spirit and function of it, not equating the outcome) remains valid.  So I don't know what the now-former governor of Oregon is guilty of, but these sentences from his resignation statement (as quoted by Reuters) seem apt:

"It is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved," Kitzhaber said.

"But even more troubling – and on a very personal level as someone who has given 35 years of public service to Oregon – is that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value," he said.

Digital domination: In line with my accidental series on digital domination earlier this year, concern has been expressed that an entire generation or even century of data may be lost because it's all been digital or digitized and the paper thrown away (or never existed), but the programs to read this material are gone or certainly going.

 He was talking most specifically about emails and photos, but I've heard this about company records and even books, and probably have said it before myself. But what's remarkable about the warning is that it comes from the head honcho of Google, himself kind of implicated in the digital domain (Google was sued for digitizing copyrighted text but recently won the case.)  So maybe that gives it the extra weight it may take to wake up some people from their digital swoon.

I might also mention my tantrum on the subject of keyless car ignitions, which got some detailed rebuttals on another blog from someone who sounds like he's in the car business.  He talked about security but didn't mention what I didn't know about then, which is the vulnerability to car theft etc. by electronics via the keyless system.  Apparently a growing problem.

The President of Projection:  I wasn't going to dignify the rabid right freakout over President Obama's comments at a prayer breakfast by even mentioning it, but I've now got two reasons.  First, the two pieces (here and here) by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject.  In addition to providing actual history that rabid rightists ignore (big surprise) he led off the second piece with this great ascerbic comment: "People who wonder why the president does not talk more about race would do well to examine the recent blow-up over his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast."

Second is something that immediately occurred to me but I haven't seen mentioned.  Here's what President Obama said that offended these folks: "Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Coates provides the history to back this up, my interest is in the "high horse" part of it.  It is precisely the high horse perspective that allows and fuels the kind of hysterical "patriotism" that the Bushites inflamed after 9/11 that resulted in inanities like "freedom fries" but also the emotional push behind the self-righteous invading of Iraq, which even then was obviously irrelevant to 9/11.

So while we revile the extreme inhumanity of ISIL, only riders on the "high horse" (which likely include the rabid right critics of this comment) can justify mirror-image atrocities like torture, or expand the targets to Muslims in general, or anybody different in any way--different that is from right wing Christian fundamentalists.   And this precisely is the effective reason for President Obama's remark.  He wants action against ISIL, but for us to keep our heads, and perspective.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Where the Future Is (II)

Global Divestment Day: South Africa 
Who among us in the US (apart from more than 80% of scientists and more than 95% of climate scientists) recognizes the reality of the climate crisis?

82% of African Americans say the world is getting hotter, and 56% correctly identify fossil fuel pollution as the chief cause.  That's the reality that 54% of Latinos recognize as well.    Compared with 37% of white Americans surveyed.

So the question arises: are white people inherently inferior?

A glance at American politics would suggest that conclusion.  Especially when one of the two major political parties is officially stupid on the subject.  And most white people are Republicans, as most Republicans are white people.  So if a Republican politician is not actually a moron, he or she still has to pretend to be one.

 Willed ignorance and strategic stupidity, while  probably more dangerous than sincere if psychologically twisted ignorance and stupidity, in the end amount to the same thing, for their clueless selfishness risks the well-being of the planet and the future.  Which makes white people seem inferior in more than intelligence.

But the world is actually bigger than America.  As counter-evidence to the white inferiority theory there's Scandinavia, where there's been a meaningful safety net for all citizens for generations, and where the question of whether the climate crisis exists or not probably comes up as often as fierce debates on whether gravity is real.

Those of us Americans who don't get out much anymore may be surprised as how the world views our willed ignorance and sociopathic stupidity, so a reminder such as Ann Jones' bracing piece in TomDispatch ("Is This Country Crazy? Inquiring Minds Elsewhere Want to Know") is a much needed splash of perspective.

While it's true that the few pockets of climate crisis denial in other countries (Australia, Canada, etc.) tend to be mostly white people, on the whole the reality of the climate crisis is accepted by the rest of the world, including whites, and they would just like to get on with dealing with its causes and effects.

Which is why political activities such as Global Divestment Day (today and tomorrow, according to datelines)  organized by 350 and related organizations are in fact international, even when their chief aim is to affect policy in the US.

Racial prejudice is not necessary in evaluating white American behavior.  But the increasing isolation of older white Americans (which may in part be a defensive response to our minority status) should motivate some conscious reflection.

 Especially since, as Jones' piece points out, white dominated America is seen not only as shockingly brutal, it is recognized as falling behind the rest of the world, both internally (collapsing physical and social infrastructure) and internationally (collapsing education, health etc. compared to many other countries, including some that Americans have long considered inferior.)  It's not that America is the worst.  It's the contrast with America at its best, as well as this comparative fall.

That's far from the whole story--America still has vast resources of intelligence and compassion, knowledge and resilience. (It actually takes a lot of energy to keep up the pretense that there is credible evidence the climate crisis isn't happening, or that frigid winter weather in the Eastern US is an argument that there is no global heating.)  But it also seems that America is becoming too much like the last days of Rome, decaying at a very bad moment for the world.  That possibility also should motivate people to step up their efforts to meet these challenges.  Old assumptions no longer accurately reflect the whole reality, for the whole world.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Put Your Money Where the Future Is

It started in a circuitous way as a Vietnam War protest.  It went global and was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, and it helped free the US from Big Tobacco.  Now divestment is being applied to the climate crisis, and it's starting to take off.

A number of universities, local governments, pension funds and organizations have withdrawn their financial investments in coal and other fossil fuel enterprises.  It's a matter of heavy debate at others (Harvard for instance.)   In total some $50 billion has already been withdrawn. And there's legislation in the California senate to divest two huge state pension funds from coal.  If successful, it would be the mightiest blow yet.

This Friday-Saturday has been named as Global Divestment Day by 350 and Greenpeace, with a range of activities scheduled around the world.  According to the Guardian, the event has the fossil fuel fossils worried:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you,” said Mahatma Gandhi. The climate change campaign to divest from fossil fuels seems to be moving through those stages at express speed, with a sudden barrage of attacks from the coal and oil lobbies ahead of its global divestment day on Valentine’s day.

The speed is appropriate given that the campaign, which argues the fossil fuel industry is a danger to both the climate and investors’ capital, is the fastest growing divestment campaign yet seen, moving quicker than those against tobacco and apartheid. It’s moving fast in the financial world too, with one finance executive calling it “one of the fastest-moving debates I think I’ve seen in my 30 years in markets”.

Divestment is not just negative in this instance.  California is among those considering investing that money in clean energy.  This is not the throw your money away on a do-gooder gesture it once might have been, nor is it even that risky.  What's risky long-term, as even conservative investors know, is staying with coal.  What with the climate crisis coming on as well as other factors, coal is a future loser.

An interview in Grist with Naomi Klein describes the history of divestment and this particular divestment campaign, as well as its rationale.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

It Came From the Screen

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground unearthed this brief video excerpt from a Bell Laboratory Science series episode in 1958, that includes a mention of the climate crisis consequences of CO2 pollution.  He gave more historical examples to show that global heating has been a topic of concern for longer than generally realized.

 This included a specific warning in a 1965 message to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson--when the far-seeing Stewart Udall was still Secretary of Interior (he was appointed by JFK), with responsibility for environmental matters before they got their own cabinet secretary in the Nixon administration.  Though as a high school student I knew of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (which I saw on the Best Seller List in 1963), it was Udall's 1963 book, The Quiet Crisis, that began my education on environmental matters.  (I still have the paperback copy I first read then.)

But this video is fascinating in itself.  I remember these programs, as I'm sure lots of Baby Boomers do.  If we didn't see them on TV, we saw them run from film projectors in school.  There were 8 of these specials made in the decade of 1954-64, each on a specific subject.  "The Unchained Goddess" about weather was the one that mentioned global heating, in a characteristically dramatic way.

 This was the fourth and last of the specials produced and written by the eminent Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe etc.)  Disillusioned with Hollywood  (and/or vice versa) in the Blacklist era, he used his science schooling and filmmaking chops to create these, which included technical as well as narrative innovations that became standard for both documentaries and feature films.  Shot in technicolor, several of the films won Emmys in various categories.

The basic interplay in the film is between a science expert (Dr. Frank C. Baxter, and it's recognizing him that brought these all back to me) and a "fiction writer," played in this episode by actor Richard Carlson, who also directed it. (You'll see just a moment of him in the above one-minute excerpt.)

But Carlson wasn't just any actor, especially to the young Boomer audience. Many adults were familiar with him as the star of the 1953-56 espionage TV series I Led Three Lives. But he was also the star of such Saturday afternoon epics as It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon.

 Moreover, the characters he played were significant.  In most Hollywood films (as in most fiction), scientists were either mad and evil,  or blandly evil.  Though the first scientist as hero was in H.G. Well's The Time Machine (published 120 years ago in 1895) it took a long time for the movies to catch up.  Carlson played several of the early examples of scientists as heroes--even action heroes-- in 1950s science fiction and monster movies.

The combination of FBI man on TV and sci-fi scientist gave him a weird sort of credibility with both adults and children.  I'm sure we were captivated as well by color if we saw these in school, as well as by the high level of filmmaking skill and familiar stars.  For me they came at an age that I wanted to be a scientist, before the realities of math overcame the romance of the scientist who saves the world, and not incidentally rescues the beautiful girl.

Imaginative stories that used scientific what-ifs got two basic responses in the 50s--very negative (from embarrassment to angry scoffing) and very positive, because the ideas as well as the action were stimulating.  Today, a lot of deniers count on the angry scoffing of what they would like to believe is the science fiction of the climate crisis.

But we're all facing its reality now.  The difference may be that some of us were opened to possibilities of real science speculations in the Bell series and other documentaries by fictional stories in which an international team of scientists convinces leaders of a mortal threat to the planet, and the world unites to overcome the threat.  In that regard it turns out they were science fiction, at least so far.  

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Week in Borowitz, Internet Hysteria Etc..

Sometimes the funniest part of an Andy Borowitz piece at the New Yorker is the headline, as in last week's Zombie Jonas Salk Rises from Grave to Hunt Idiots. But his piece on bringing back the glories of the Bush years with Jeb (speaking of zombies) is a satirical masterpiece from start to finish.

The Salk piece of course is about the Internet-stoked and celebrity-enabled justification for refusing measles inoculations that is now paying off in a resurgence of a once-dead disease.  Millions of dollars, suffering and perhaps some lives will be the price for this.  Notably, a whole lot of backtracking is going on now, as people wake up to the consequences that were staring them in the face.

Hysteria, born of repressed unconscious emotions, has been a feature of so-called civilization since well before the witch hunts, but contemporary complacency (it can't happen here, or now) is unwarranted, especially since the instantaneous mobs enabled by the Internet have proven such eruptions are alive and well, and larger and faster than ever.

It's easier for some to discount or ignore these phenomena, based on the conventional dogmas of mechanistic psychology and the brain as computer.   Yet old fashioned Freudian/Jungian terms are the only ones that actually explain what's going on, as unconscious fears are displaced (from suspected conspiracies that are too big to think about, to seemingly safer but illusory ones) and projected (furnishing a lot of the lynch mob energy that gets focused on leadership figures, currently including Brian Williams but also, on any given week, President Obama.)

Friday, February 06, 2015

Cry Me A River

Here in Arcata we seem to be in the still point of a raining world.  The "atmospheric river" (that's its profile picture above) is dumping rain all around us, causing sporadic flooding, downed trees and power lines, power outages, and some landslides.  Though we've had wind and fairly steady rain, it's had less impact locally.

There's been much more rain to our north (as far as Washington and Oregon) and south (as far as the Bay Area), but so far the coastal whatevers are shielding us from the several inches a day that others are getting.  We even had some sun breaks today.

The latest pulse of rain has just started. The river will deliver more waves of moisture through Monday, though the various weather models differ from one another, and seem to change a lot.  What is indisputably true is that it's stayed warm--8 to 10F above normal--although falling temps and accompanying thunderstorms are expected.  They just keep changing their minds on when.  We may see some heavier stuff yet, whatever the hourly forecasts say now.

Meanwhile the Midwest and East are getting hit with another named storm--Marcus.  It's expected to dump steady snow for several days, though not a lot until it reaches New England.  Boston may get another foot, on top of the two or so on the ground.

So what's with the names?  Easier twitter hashtag?  And if snowstorms get names, why doesn't our river?  Is this prejudice against atmospheric rivers?  A river has to be liquid water in order to have a name?  Is that fair?  Why, you tweet "atmospheric" and you've used up most of your letters.

Update: The river continued to flow right over us.  We got lots and lots of wind but very little of the rain as the Humboldt Bay area remained the still dry point as the rain turned around us in the rainy region.  Looking at the maps of where precip was happening confirmed this impression--at several times there was rain literally all around us, including out at sea.  We got enough rain however to cause a significant mudslide near an HSU dorm.  Still, the several inches first predicted turned out to be less than one inch total, I'm guessing. Now on Monday night there's the supposed chance of a few passing showers before dry sets in officially on Tuesday.

Brian Williams and the Lynch Mob

NBC anchor Brian Williams told a story about an event some 12 years in the past.  His account is untrue.  He admitted this and apologized.

He didn't answer every question that has been raised about this, and now it's open season on his integrity and credibility in general.  Even though most of the noise is coming from people who appear to be doing it for their own political ends, self-aggrandizement and careers.

It's the hysteria that exercises me.  There is a lynch mob mentality that the twitterverse and 24 hour news cycle enables.

Did he deliberately lie?  Is he a bad reporter?  These may be open questions, but the lynch mob has mind up its frenzied mind.  Don't bother with the trial, we know he's guilty.

Brian Williams was on a helicopter in Iraq.  One of the pilots said it took small arms fire, other servicemen apparently aboard say it didn't.  Ahead of them was another helicopter that took significant fire and was forced down.  Williams said he was on that helicopter.  He wasn't.  But he did not say he was at the time.  The story grew over the years.  That's actually fairly normal--we tend to remember the stories we tell rather than the actual event.  It was in an unfamiliar combat situation.  The emotions stay.

What somebody says about something that happened more than a decade ago does not necessarily mean that he habitually lies about events he is covering at the moment, or that he often gets the reportage wrong.  Evidence on these possibilities has not been fully reported, just suggested, just stated as fact.

Everything about a lynch mob mentality is out of proportion. Williams' fish story about a single event is not comparable to politicians who repeatedly claim to voters that they served in Vietnam or Iraq when they never did.  There's a difference between wishful mis-remembering and systematic lies for political gain.

NBC has appointed an investigative unit to examine the evidence, and some other media organizations that might have some residual sense of responsibility to find the facts before they report them might start digging as well.

I for one will wait until there is a credible body of evidence, apart from political agendas which may well include those of former members of the military.  If that ever happens.

But as a major firestorm of a story today, this is just scary.  This is epic scapegoating so far. There are so many more important matters to attend to.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Climate Crisis: Cause & Effect

There's a threat to the future inherent in the language we're using--and not using--about the climate crisis.

For those of us sounding the alarm 20 or even 10 years ago, the climate crisis was something that was very likely to happen in the future if we didn't take steps to address it in the present.  Those steps--the various choices that might have made a difference--were mostly not taken.

Now we see the climate visibly, palpably and in various ways obviously changing.  Scientists tell us that these changes aren't going to change back for a very long time, if ever.  But they also tell us that there might be time to forestall even more severe, even much worse changes in the farther future, that might doom human civilization and end life on Earth as we know it.  There might be time--but not a lot of time--for humanity to finally understand the urgency, and take effective steps.

So now, the climate crisis is a two part crisis.  It is a crisis of the present-to-near future, and a crisis of all of the future.

The greatest danger to that future is that we refuse to see the relationship of the "climate change" of the present and the mortal danger to the human future.

That refusal is happening now, and our scientists and political leaders are letting it happen.  Some leaders are doing so deliberately, and the others--especially those who support efforts to address both parts of the climate crisis-- are making it easier for them.

This past weekend the New York Times published a long story called "Climate Change's Bottom Line."  It begins by quoting the chairman of a large midwestern food conglomerate:

"Mr. Page is not a typical environmental activist. He says he doesn’t know — or particularly care — whether human activity causes climate change. He doesn’t give much serious thought to apocalyptic predictions of unbearably hot summers and endless storms. But over the last nine months, he has lobbied members of Congress and urged farmers to take climate change seriously."

How is it possible for someone not to know or care what causes climate change, and yet urge others to "take climate change seriously"?

It is possible because of the murkiness and misdirection in the language that nearly everyone uses now to describe what we're up against.

Since it became clear that we are dealing with two parts to the climate crisis, two words to describe what we need to do to address each of them have become standard.  Efforts to cut greenhouse gas pollution by various means, including using alternate energy forms, in order to forestall worse consequences to the climate of the future--these go by the title of "mitigation."  Efforts to address flooding, sea level rise, drought and so on where these have become more likely because of "climate change," are called "adaptation."

There are several things very wrong about these words.  As language, they are fuzzy abstractions that are virtually interchangeable.  Maybe environmentalists, public works officials, some scientists etc. can tell them apart, and remember which applies to which set of problems, but for most other citizens, they are almost meaningless--hard to remember, and hard to tell apart.  That alone has political consequences.  At the very least, it doesn't exactly lend urgency to either set of tasks.

The words are weak and not even accurate.  Do we really want to "mitigate" future ruining of the climate and human civilization, species extinction and the creation of a immensely hotter planet?  Or do we want to do what we can to stop it?  Do we want to "adapt" to drought and floods or fix what we can in our social organization, our infrastructure, management, policy and planning?

But the most consequential feature of these words is that they have no relation to each other.  Yet the two parts of the climate crisis do.  And the future depends on keeping that in mind.

Of course there are words that make that relationship clear, and unbreakable.  They are simple words that everyone understands.  The words are "cause" and "effect."

Greenhouse gases are the cause of  climate change.  If they are allowed to continue their access to the atmosphere at current or greater rates, they will continue to cause greater and greater climate change.  Anything that reduces these gases, or that otherwise slows the progress of global heating, addresses the causes.

The effects of "climate change" are sea level rise, flooding, drought, and a host of further problems that can well include higher food prices and the spread of tropical diseases.

But the way we talk about climate does not make this cause and effect connection.  This failure to make that connection is even now aiding those who very much don't want the connection made.

For some corporate leaders (perhaps like this ag guy) and public officials (like those who emphasize "disaster preparedness" without mentioning climate), obscuring the cause and effect relationship is a political dodge, a way of getting support for efforts to deal with effects, even from those who don't accept the causes.

The vagueness of the preferred term "climate change" plays into this, since it can mean the climate change that's happening or is part of a discernible trend (though we don't know why), or it can mean the climate crisis in full.

There's a certain utility in this vagueness, as it doesn't overtly push denier buttons (or at least that's the hope.)  But in the long run it's dangerous.  Because sooner or later some smart Republican is going to say something like what the ag guy said: I don't know and don't care what causes it, what we need to do is deal with these  drought and flooding problems.

It would not surprise me to hear words like this coming from the ample mouth of Chris Christie.  As governor of New Jersey, he witnessed the devastation wrought by the storm called Sandy.  His state is in fact very actively working to deal with such effects.

Some polls are telling Republican presidential candidates that all-out denialism is a loser.  Christie or Jeb Bush could split the difference, talk about adapting to climate change and yet fail to support efforts to dramatically slash carbon and dramatically increase non-carbon spewing energy.  And all other efforts to address the cause.

They might even get away with it.  Why?  Because Democrats, environmentalists and advocates on this very issue won't talk about the relationship, the cause and effect relationship.  Which by now could be clear in the minds of most voters and even the media.

It's not that these advocates were unaware of this possibility of political opponents hijacking the issue in this way.  They've dealt with it in the past by conspicuously avoiding any talk about dealing with effects.  They wanted to emphasize dealing with the causes to such an extent that they talked way too optimistically about how soon dealing with causes would be successful.  Al Gore talked about "solving" the climate crisis.

Now most of them know that we can only solve problems resulting from global heating, and solve problems on how to reduce future global heating.  The climate crisis isn't going away.  For all of us now alive, even just born, the climate crisis is permanent.  And to some degree it will be for many future generations.  We don't really know how bad it might get, and how soon.  But we do know that if we keep injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at our ever-increasing rate, there is an ever-decreasing chance of human civilization surviving more or less intact.

It is still possible--and so easy--to start talking about this sensibly, to start making the connection in every policy statement on every level, by talking about the causes and the effects, thereby linking them together and making them inseparable in the public mind.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Weather Report

Today being February 2, which is famous of course for being...James Joyce's birthday.

(Or were you thinking Groundhog Day, a pseudo-holiday that at least one publicity-seeking mayor may wish to forget.)

The Midwest got hammered by a new winter storm,  now moving into the Eastern US.  Before that started, my friend Mike sent me a photo from central PA, from one of his hikes along the Appalachian Trail.  It's generally been colder than normal there.  I miss my cold weather rambles through the snow.  Within reason, of course.

Here in far northern CA it's been warmer by anywhere from 5-10F.  I posted that after our sunny and bone dry January (the first on record since 1850) I was hoping for a repeat of last year's totally rainy February, and it looks like I'm getting my wish, at least for the next week or so.

It rained through the night and into the afternoon, with a little sunlight late.  That's when I took some pictures of raindrops on the cala lillies near the back porch.

But the total rain was under a half inch.  That's not likely to be the case this weekend however, when an "atmospheric river" is predicted to deliver several inches from Thursday through Sunday.  The Weather Underground is showing more than a inch per day, sometimes more than two.  Higher elevations could get a foot of precip.

This river should deliver rain farther south, at least into the Bay Area, and best of all for them, precip in the Sierras, which depending on temps could replenish the snow pack.

This isn't all risk-free, as so much rain at once can cause lots of problems.  But that's weather for you, especially these days.

Meanwhile, Southern California has its collective fingers crossed that a NOAA long range forecast is correct, and the region will get higher than normal rainfall over the next three months.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Accentuate the Positive

The Pew poll cited in the previous post tended to accentuate the negative when it came to attitudes on the climate crisis.  Now a different study not only accentuates the positive but adds to it.  According to the New York Times (via Boston Globe):

"An overwhelming majority of the American public, including nearly half of Republicans, support government action to curb global warming, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University, and the environmental research group Resources for the Future.

In a finding that could have implications for the 2016 presidential campaign, the poll also found that two-thirds of Americans say they are more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change. They are less likely to vote for candidates who question or deny the science of human-caused global warming.

Among Republicans, 48 percent said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports fighting climate change, a result that Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of political science at Stanford University and an author of the survey, called “the most powerful finding” in the poll."

Somewhat contradicting the Pew study finding: "Overall, the number of Americans who believe that climate change is caused by human activity is growing. In a 2011 Stanford University poll, 72 percent of people thought climate change was caused at least in part by human activities. That grew to 81 percent in the latest poll. By party, 88 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents and 71 percent of Republicans said that climate change was caused at least in part by human activities."

The basic and most powerful finding:

"The poll found that 83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.

On the issue of policies, the poll found that 77 percent of Americans say that the federal government should be doing a substantial amount to combat climate change. Ninety percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Republicans said the government should be fighting climate change."

This last number is actually a bit below what a Yale survey recently found: "56 percent of Republicans support regulating climate-warming greenhouse gases."

Slate reproduces the exact statements that respondents to the poll were asked to evaluate.

The Seattle pi story reporting on the survey gave several recent examples of Republican leaders making aggressive moves to thwart recognition of the climate crisis and government attempts to address it.

Contrast their positions with what an independent voter is quoted by the Times/Globe story as saying: that although he doesn't see it as a more crucial issue than dealing with terrorists like ISIL, he is turned off by absolute denialists, the most prominent and widespread position among Republican leaders:

But, he said of climate change, “if someone feels it’s a hoax, they are denying the evidence out there. Many arguments can be made on both sides of the fence. But to just ignore it completely indicates a close-minded individual, and I don’t want a close-minded individual in a seat of political power.

The Times/Globe story ends with unnamed "political analysts" suggesting that Republicans need to develop a position that speaks to that voter's concerns while not alienating the Koch Brothers.  Good luck with that.  The Kochs have made it known they're going to spend close to a billion dollars in the next election cycle, including money targeted to defeat any candidate--including Republicans in primaries--who don't toe the denialist line.

However, the possibility of some Republicans offering a different approach eventually (and maybe Christie will start this) is a lead-in to what I want to say in my next post.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Climate Crisis: Convincing and Communicating

A Pew study released the other day compared two recent surveys which asked the same basic questions of two groups: scientists and non-scientists.  Some of the questions were general ones about science and society, others were about "beliefs" on specific issues.  These got the headlines, because of the difference between the percentage of scientists versus the percentage of non-scientists on what they believe is proven fact on "key scientific issues."

One of the issues that got into news stories was climate change, and predictably, a higher percentage of scientists than other citizens believe it is caused by that nebulous euphemism, "human activity."  The very high percentage of scientists (87%, which is about 10 points lower than climate scientists alone) probably is expected, but notable was the size of the gap between them and others, and the low percentage of non-scientists (50%).

Perhaps even more alarming, or maybe more telling, was another comparison, between a similar Pew poll of citizens in 2009 and this one.  In 2009, 11% of those surveyed said there was no solid evidence the climate is warming.  But in 2014--after mounting and very obvious evidence in every region of America over those 5 years--it was up to 25%, fully one quarter.  Opposite to the evidence.

One could point out that this means that 75% at least do accept evidence and experience on this topic. But it must raise again the question (which it perhaps answers) of what if any evidence will convince enough people to stop wasting energy and attention on denial, so our society gets into the fast lane of addressing the climate crisis?

There is a lot going on here.  Attitudes towards science and scientists is a complex area (or a tangled morass) that would take many words to even approach.  Then there is the fear factor of all the implications of the climate crisis that amps up denial, so that the perception of climate change actually intensifies denial of its existence or causes.

All of this bears upon questions that recur in many forms almost constantly. How can the climate crisis be communicated effectively, so that at last society addresses it with the necessary unity and dedication?

Scaring people won't do it, says Dean Ornish, you need a positive approach: "If we are going to find sustainable ways of dealing with global warming, we have to base it on love and feeling good, not fear and loathing. If it’s fun, then it’s sustainable."    

Science won't win over climate sceptics, asserts Adam Comer in the Guardian--we need stories. But what kind of stories?  Comer also suggests the positive--stories about low-carbon solutions.

Or maybe personal stories of the negative effects.  Climate scientist Heidi Cullen admitted in a New York Times oped that she found these more powerful than scientific facts.  But will they, as the headline promised, change minds? Maybe, she writes, in combination with factual documentaries and works of fiction that both evoke feeling and offer a broader humanized perspective.

Others agree that negative stories get to people better.  But which ones?  David Roberts notes that environmentalists have been tearing their hair out trying to figure out what horror will get the attention --drought?  Disease? Sea level rise?--that will finally turn the tide (so to speak) and galvanize action.  His own candidate in this piece is flooding, some of which happens regularly right now due to sea level rise in several coastal cities.

Or the story doesn't have to even be related to climate, like the man who is walking 3,000 miles across America to increase awareness of the issue, and who gets attention for it by the fact of his walk, and how he relates to people he meets.

Do any of these actually work?  Who knows? In a different piece, David Roberts links to some of his posts analyzing the complexity of responses by those he calls conservatives, while debunking claims (desperate claims in some cases) of psychological etc. means to convince them.

Bill McKibben, who has been writing about climate change probably longer than anyone, takes the "ignore them" route by continuing (for example) his series of carefully written and assessed evaluations of where we are in this area (many of them over the years, like last summer, in the New York Review of Books) that appeal to believers monitoring the changing situation,  while simultaneously organizing activists--particularly young ones--to turn this into the civil rights movement of the age.  Presumably, at least until the old denialists die, he's given up on the "emotional consensus" he once called for, though perhaps I'm the only one who remembers these words, which he uttered in an interview or press conference I saw eons ago on C-Span.)

Naomi Klein has joined the fight, admittedly late in the game, with her political and economic perspective, and eloquent support for activism as well.  Like many, she sees the climate crisis as requiring major change (though few disagree on scale, they don't always agree on the time scale) and the nature of these changes being beneficial in a much wider way than only addressing the climate crisis.
(Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker was skeptical of Klein's prescriptions.  Their dialogue is worth a look.)

But the problem remains, so it isn't surprising that it is the headline for a recent Atlantic article: How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen/
Environmentalists warn us that apocalypse awaits. Economists tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Here's how we can move beyond the impasse. Unfortunately the long piece that follows, a serious analysis with some convincing and unconvincing conclusions, isn't about this.  Yet another product perhaps of the articles and the headlines written by two different people, possibly two different species.

But the writer (Charles Mann) does suggest that the issue that might finally galvanize action is the threat of the technological "solution" of geoengineering, which is dangerous in palpably scary ways.  So he comes down on the fear factor as the motivator of acceptance.

Let me give the short version of my answer.  First, I believe communicating clearly and more effectively on this issue is essential.  Second, while I believe that "conservatives" and others suspicious of science and today's scientists raise other issues that ought to be recognized and addressed,  and I suspect the increase in total denial is partly due to failures to communicate clearly, I don't believe it all is, and I don't believe evidence, or stories of any kind will convince everybody.

While we're dealing with a crisis of an unprecedented nature, within a particular historical context, we're also operating within political constraints that may well be centuries old. In the 19th century for example, John Stuart Mill theorized that under most circumstances the masses are always innately conservative--in the sense of not wanting to risk change--while liberals are always a minority, and must find ways towards a temporary majority on specific matters.  That's part of our context.  It's there underneath the fear and ideology, and the greed that also takes advantage of it.

Nevertheless, there is a public out there that's close to (or already is) an effective majority on this issue, though it may take more than that to overcome entrenched power.  I support communicating evidence (and repeating it, because what you may lose in attention by repetition you may gain in understanding among nonscientists) and arguing for specific solutions to specific problems (ways of cutting down on carbon pollution, directly and through alternative energy sources)--because there are an awful lot of people who are listening, even if only now and again.  I support activism, from demos and creative variations on attention-getting actions, to divestment campaigns. I support positive stories (though Ornish obviously doesn't understand the magnitude of the crisis) and I support negative stories, and I see dangers in both.  So in terms of strategy, I'm for all of the above.  Because in the end it's individuals at a particular time, so it's serendipity, before it's a politically effective constituency.

Third: what I fear will be a consequence of this stubborn inability to reach "emotional consensus" and common effort.  I am afraid that the current complacency riding the undercurrent of denial will suddenly become panic (my guess it will be the result of sky-high food prices, already going in that direction.) And that panic could demand unfortunate reactions.

  There are ways to prepare for that, to make it less consequential perhaps, and ultimately overcome it.  Our politics now aren't encouraging in this respect.  But not everything is politics.  I'll have a post (much shorter I hope) on one aspect of that soon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2014, 2015 and the Climate of History

     Not my photo of Clam Beach (it's from here) but it's been this kind of day.

It's hard to complain about our weather here.  It was a rainy December until Christmas, and it's pretty much been sunny ever since.  Warmer than usual for winter, and at times, warm enough to think it might be summer.

Clam Beach is only 8 miles away on the 101, but we don't usually think of it, especially in winter, because it's so open and often windy.  But we've been there twice in the past week or so, two warm, windless golden afternoons, among the families and their sandcastles, kids with kites (new kinds to me, small low-flying ones, shaped and colored like butterflies), dogs frolicking with their humans and each other, (mostly) girls on horseback trotting on the sand.  Though once, at sunset, we saw two horses a-galloping at water's edge, moving silhouettes against the burnished sky and glittering water.  With men in the distance grouped to fish, and some people with sticks down near the waterline with the shore birds, clamming.

Sure, it should be raining. With a rainless January in SF and north, the CA drought is worse than ever. The West in general is unusually hot, and south of us the heat has melted much of the snowpack in the Sierras built up in November and December, all but very high up.  A lot of places depend on that spring melt for their water.

We're hoping here for a rainy February and March, like last year.  But the unseasonable, even unprecedented perfection of our recent weather isn't the only reason it seems otherworldly.  It's that the weather doesn't make sense anymore.

It was apparently a pretty temperate 2014 on the East Coast, too. At least until this snowy winter, including the latest storm, all of which is fed and made more intense by warmer ocean water.

 Unfortunately, the big picture was not so good.  Despite the slowing in the global warming rate that still has scientists scratching their heads (Ocean capture?  Volcanoes?) and despite the temperature neutral bust of this year's El Nino, both NASA and NOAA culled their data to declare 2014 was the Earth's hottest year on record, which means from 1880 at least.  The ten hottest days in that period have all happened since 1997 or 2000, depending on whether you throw out 1998 as freakishly hot.  For the entire state of CA it was also the hottest year on record (by 1.8F), and December the hottest month.

There's more evidence, accumulating faster, is it worth it to recite it? Carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2014, growing at the fastest rate in 30 years. More and faster melting in Greenland.  More land species on the brink.  The crashing of marine life is just beginning.  And so on.

But as Amy Davidson's piece in the New Yorker was headlined: Our Hottest Year, Our Cold Indifference.  Denial and indifference have definitely emerged as factors as potent as greenhouse gases in determining the future of civilization.  It doesn't look great in either category.  No wonder the atomic scientists who used to monitor the danger of nuclear apocalypse in their calculations on the likelihood of doomsday, this year have named the climate crisis as a chief reason they've shoved the Doomsday Clock hands forward to three minutes to midnight.

So that's where we are.  Lots of people are pushing back, organizing, speaking out, acting and trying to act--much of which is coming to a crescendo this year, as the world's nations meet to make or not make serious commitments to address the climate crisis, both causes and effects, but especially causes.

There is a kind of orchestration, you might even call it a chess game beginning.  Two of the major players (both on the same side) are President Obama and Pope Francis.  Obama has already secured some commitments from China.  He made a point of pushing India in the right direction during last week's visit.  And he's done more than any other U.S. president to act effectively here.

The word has been out for weeks that Pope Francis is about to take the highly unusual step of issuing a papal encyclical on the moral necessity of addressing the climate crisis.  For Catholics this is especially serious, because encyclicals invoke papal infallibility on faith and morals.  But it is important beyond active membership.  It has already caused some grumbling, and will undoubtedly be met with vituperation when it happens.  But Pope Francis will have confirmed his status as the most progressive pope since John XXIII, and he will be a beacon and a hero to many.  This issue can never have too many heroes.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Last Word

And it gets better.