Saturday, April 17, 2010

It Takes a Volcano

This volcano in Iceland erupted, sending tons of smoke, steam and tiny particles into the air, which has paralyzed air travel in Europe for days. Almost two-thirds of all transatlantic flights into European airports were cancelled and authorities shut down airspace over France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary. As the cloud moved east, flights were halted at Frankfurt, Europe's third-busiest airport, and at 10 other German airports.

There are expected to be few if any flights in the UK and western Europe over the weekend, "placing yet more strain on road, rail and ferry networks already struggling to cope with thousands of stranded passengers." The ripple effect is being felt in the U.S., causing delays and cancelled flights. European airlines are losing billions. And there is still some danger of new eruptions--perhaps even of a larger volcano nearby, which historically erupts soon after the current one does.
Update: A NY Times story on the volcano effects, calculating the problems and speculating on what happens if it goes on for weeks rather than days.
Update2: The volcanic ash over Europe has forced President Obama to cancel his planned trip to Poland to attend the funeral of the president of Poland, killed in an air crash along with his wife and many senior members of the Polish government.

All of this is an object lesson in systematic vulnerability: the vulnerability of interconnected vital systems to the cascading effects of relatively small disruptions. Given the likelihood that "natural disasters" like storms, floods and droughts are going to increase as the Climate Crisis phases into Climate Cataclysm, responsible parties--namely governments--need to be looking into these fragile systems we've come to depend on so completely, in so short a time.

Those who are thinking about dealing with such problems in the future--intense and local ones, but eventually several simultaneously--talk a lot about "resilience." But our infrastructures are not resilient. If they aren't too old, they are too new and without sufficient redundancy. And there is shrinking capacity in secondary systems to use as alternatives if the main systems fail.

Europe is actually in better shape that we are to cope with a crisis like this--they have a better rail system, in terms of capacity and reach, and also in speed: they have more high speed trains and routes than we even currently dream of. If air travel is curtailed for longer than a few days, they are in better position to cope.
This is an issue beyond climate-related emergencies. What happens if for some reason the Internet goes down, or communication with GPS satellites? At least we know our electrical grids are dangerously old and fragile, even if we haven't done much about it.

Through climate data, we are learning how vulnerable our planet is to certain changes (especially in the atmosphere), as resilient as it otherwise is. What will it take to convince us how vulnerable this civilization has become, when our food and even our water comes from far away? When our livelihoods, our economies depend on interconnected energy, transportation and information systems? Put these two areas of vulnerability together--in a crash in the ocean food chain, or the disappearance of honey bees--and face just how fragile this is, the life we take stupidly for granted. And maybe pay attention to doing something about it, before it becomes way too obvious.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Encouraging Terrorists by Calling Them Patriots

In some ways it's becoming an old story, but we can't approach it that way: the continuing escalation of violent language, along with systematic lying--of asserting pretty much the opposite of what's true--is becoming the most prominent feature of Republican rhetoric. The GOP is becoming little more than the party of of decadent and dangerous demagogues.

Republicans in Congress are flat-out lying about the financial reform bill, both in terms of process and in what it proposes to do. This kind of Nineteen Eighty-Four politics, besides being lethal to democratic decision-making, tends to lend credibility to the extreme rhetoric, which continues to escalate.

It was striking that for a few minutes today, two cable channels (CNN & MSNBC) were covering the explosion in extremism, while two others (FOX & CNBC) were providing living examples of it.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was interviewing President Clinton, who talked about parallels between now and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which is the subject of a revealing documentary on Timothy McVeigh by Rachel Maddow that has been excerpted all week and airs in full on Monday. In terms of threats against President Obama specifically, the former President said "I worry about it." This is the most explicit statement at the highest level of experience indicating we should all be paying attention to it.

Of the anti-government Rabid Right Clinton said: "Some are serious, some are delirious. Some are connected and some are unhinged...We need to be intellectually honest about what some words might do to people who are unstable."

The systematic process now underway encourages domestic terrorists and potential assassins by suggesting they would be patriots--fighting for freedom, "taking out" the "gangsters" of the "totalitarian" federal government, using the guns they are encouraged to proudly carry and display.

The most decadent element of this is that nothing that happens is likely to change it. Even if there is a dramatic violent event--another Oklahoma City or an assassination attempt--this echo chamber of profit-making liars will turn it on its head, and will continue. They will never admit to their responsibility, but now is the time to mark it: if violence happens, they are responsible for fueling it and suggesting that people who engage in it are patriots, and will be praised. Turning terrorists into patriots, after all, is consistent with the GOPer policy of lying outrageously, and asserting the opposite of what is true.

Maybe the only thing that stops or slows it down is electoral rejection, or reflection in the polls. Unfortunately this extremist violent and often racist rhetoric and the systematic lying are apparently being rewarded by poll numbers. It's like the runup to the Iraq war. You know people are going to be sorry after it happens. But they get helplessly fooled, and they do get fooled again.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Those Were the Days

To Seek A Safer World

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and President of the United States Barack Obama took forceful and successful steps in the past week to control a major threat to human civilization: nuclear weapons.

These accomplishments, resulting from quiet diplomacy over the past months, were completed and announced in quick succession. Though any one of them would be of great importance, the combination is an amazing culmination, with more to come.

Momentous in itself, the signing of the arms reduction treaty with Russia that cut another third from both nuclear arsenals was a necessary prelude to actions on controlling nuclear weapons and the material needed to make them, worldwide.

As a result of an international meeting President Obama convened in Washington this week, today The leaders of almost 50 countries have pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years. Some other deals were announced, including an agreement by the United States, Canada and Mexico agreed to work to convert the fuel at Mexico's nuclear research reactor to a lower grade of uranium unsuitable for nuclear weapons...[this] would eliminate all highly enriched uranium in Mexico.

There are two goals of the Obama policy: to secure existing nuclear material and prevent it from being used by terrorists, and to move expeditiously towards a non-nuclear world. That second goal is addressed dramatically in an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate weapons-grade plutonium in their military, commiting each country to "irreversibly and transparently" dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium... enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons... the agreement prevents any future military use of the plutonium."

The dangers posed by nuclear weapons are still substantial. Apparently there is not yet a formal agreement by the U.S., Russia and China on how to deal with Iran's possible nuclear weapons program, although news stories the other day said that China had agreed to stronger sanctions. Besides the possibility of terrorists or rogue states obtaining and using such weapons, there is the always-present danger of states that have these weapons using them against their neighbors. This is particularly acute involving Pakistan, India and Israel. The simmering conflicts in those regions are only going to be pushed further by effects of the climate crisis.

But President Obama has provided the international leadership to get trends moving in the right direction, fulfilling the promise recognized by his Nobel Prize. Despite the domestic insanity that U.S. media prefers to emphasize, this is solid achievement towards a less dangerous world. This is change I believe in.