Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Crisis of Cause and Effects

The Climate Crisis is two crises.  There are the causes and there are the consequences.  The causes of global heating--carbon and other greenhouse gases pollution--are about the future, because there is a time lag in when they add to the ongoing heating of the planet and what that does to change the Earth for the worse, and for a long time.

Although there are some efforts on the agenda of this year's climate talks to address at least procedures for addressing causes, the UN is scheduled to once again revisit what the nations of the world can do, separately and together, to deal with those causes in 2015.

The effects that are being felt now and will be felt in the near future were caused by greenhouse gases pollution that happened years ago.  Nothing can be done about that pollution now.  But those effects are already wreaking havoc around the world.  Rich countries can still absorb the costs of extreme weather, sea level rises and other land displacements, upticks in related diseases, economic losses from forest fires and droughts and floods.  They can still do so even while ignoring the reasons for these changes.

But poorer countries can't afford to deal with the effects, and they also can't afford to ignore what caused them.  What the rich countries should and can and will do to help poorer countries address the effects of the climate crisis is the chief subject of the 2012 UN climate conference, which is at the moment struggling to make some sort of agreement before it ends.

According to this story, things are going just as badly in dealing with effects as in addressing causes.  This report tells basically the same story.   Poorer countries are basing their requests on justice: the richer countries caused the pollution, they should pay for the effects they caused.  A mechanism to assign responsibility and create a fund has been proposed, but rich countries are very reluctant, and unless last minute negotiations result in a miracle, the best that will come of this is  some advance in the debate, and the worst even more bitterness and division.

Basing this on justice is perhaps not the best approach or the most practical, since rich countries are not wild about being locked into levels of participation by law, regardless of what's going on in their own economies. In any case, the world is very far from where it needs to be on both causes and effects

Update: The final agreement did establish the principle of compensation by rich countries, and formally extended the Kyoto Protocol, though it may be superceded by an agreement on causes in 2015.  

The New York Times account ended with this paragraph: “What this meeting reinforced is that while this is an important forum, it is not the only one in which progress can and must be made,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate programs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The disconnect between the level of ambition the parties are showing here and what needs to happen to avoid dangerous climate change is profound.”

In his remarkable novel 2312--about the future three hundred years from now--Kim Stanley Robinson calls the historical period we're now in "The Great Dithering."  Surely future generations will see it as such.  Even while issues get clarified and some progress is made, it is not fast enough or big enough to address this long crisis.  But let's have a little sympathy for the people who go to those meetings and fight the good fight, even knowing that little if anything will be accomplished.  It may pay off one day.  In any case, what else can they do but the best they can do right now.    

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cliffnotes 2: Everybody Strikes Back

Last week or maybe the week before who can keep track President Obama offered his proposal for budget and taxes, which the GOPers literally laughed at, and that's what made the news.  What didn't was that it was a detailed proposal, with facts and figures.  Congressional GOPs offered their "counterproposal" which was a letter with no actionable specifics.  And since then the two sides have been publicly criticizing each other, while (it is rumored) coming closer to a deal.

Most--let's make that almost all-- of the news noise has been about tax rates.  The CW this past week was that GOP will cave, somehow, sometime, and there will be a middle class tax cut (or status quo) but a marginal tax hike on incomes over $250,000 per year.  (The people really fighting this have incomes of over $250,000 a day or an hour, because the great bulk of their money would see a tax hike, whereas everybody else will see it only for the portion of their incomes above 25K.)

But GOPers want budget cuts as part of a package which gets complicated, and it's not altogether clear Speaker John Banal can deliver the votes for anything.  There are several paths that require varying degrees of participation on his part.  There's a deal.  There's a backdoor of allowing (either directly or through allowing some GOPers to sign on to the discharge petition) a vote on the pending middle class tax cut from the Senate.  And then there's the ultimate punt: on Jan. 1 all the Bush tax cuts expire, and on January 3 the new Congress can vote to cut m.c. taxes, leaving the 2%ers tax intact at Clinton era levels.  Politically this still seems the most likely, unless Banal's power over his GOPer members has increased more than anybody knows.

The past couple of days has seen the trial balloon go up for raising Medicare eligibility age to 67 over a decade or more, as a face-saver for GOPers in a bigger deal.  Bad idea.  REALLY bad idea.  The idea of a political maneuver to save face by penalizing seniors while not really saving all than much money is repugnant.  It's symbolically a terrible move as well.  It reads like a betrayal of what people voted for.

President Obama hasn't spoken to this in public but otherwise he's been firm on three basic and vital issues: cut middle class taxes, raise tax rates on the rich, and stop the nonsense of holding the world economy hostage by means of the ridiculous debt ceiling vote.  By now everybody knows or should know that GOPers lie about this--it doesn't authorize new spending, it just says sure the U.S. is going to pay its bill rung up by--guess who?--Congress.  Because the Executive can't spend a dime that Congress doesn't appropriate.  So it's a stupid vote in the first place.  And President Obama announcing this week that "I'm not going to play that game" this time is fair warning, and GOPers better take it more seriously than the media seems to so far. 

What people aren't talking about are all the other components of what is about to take effect or stop taking effect on Jan.1, like the huge across-the-board cuts that includes defense, the payroll tax cut, the unemployment extension.

And then there's the Senate filibuster.  When the new Congress convenes in early January, its procedures say any rule changes have to happen that first day.  So whether and how to change the filibuster rule is being discussed, with little apparent agreement.  The issues came together this week when Senate minor leader McC asked that the Senate immediately consider a proposal to give the President responsibility for raising the debt ceiling, because he thought the Dems didn't have the votes to pass it.  But maj leader Reid agreed to an immediate vote, at which point McC filibustered his own proposal.   So it goes.

This is the Senate where 38 GOPers voted against ratifying a treaty that suggests that the rest of the world follow the U.S. guidelines to bring the disabled into a tolerable public life because of some right wing apocalyptic fantasy about the UN taking their children.  It ranks among the most disgraceful votes this decade, and it demonstrates just how extreme the GOP has become.  Those 38 probably feel no urgency to deal with the fiscal or any other problems on Jan. 1--problems that by the way were all created by this Congress-- because the world will have ended by then, as the popular and profitable interpretation of the Mayan calendar foresees.    

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Progressively Worse

There's another round of UN climate talks underway, predetermined to be useless.  Which is not to say there isn't any climate crisis news.  There is.  Well, it's news but not new.  More evidence that the climate crisis is well underway.  And more evidence that not nearly enough is being done to prevent it from becoming far worse.

The climate crisis now: A UN report finds that sea levels are rising 60% faster than predicted.  The European Environment Agency issued a report saying that the climate crisis is evident across Europe, and it's about to get worse.  Etc.  Update: In a new NOAA study, which sounds exactly like old NOAA and other studies, the Arctic experienced record sea ice loss in 2012.

The future impacts: Another UN report quantifies the consequences of a permafrost thaw that releases methane stores.  A research paper suggests that regional consequences of global heating will likely be more complex and extreme than previously thought, due to atmospheric flow.  And the World Bank released a report on the consequences of a 4C rise, and they are dire, and unsurprisingly hit the poorest areas the hardest.

Previous international efforts have been aimed at capping the temperature rise at 2C.  But according to the latest report on actual carbon emissions, goals set at the Copenhagen and Kyoto are becoming "unattainable."  Carbon emissions increased 3% in 2011 to their highest levels ever, and are set to increase another 2.5% in 2012. 

Depite the treaties and all the efforts, only two major countries reduced their carbon output: Germany (by 4%) and the U.S. (by 2%.)  Japan was up very slightly, and Canada was up by 2%.  But by far the biggest addition was from China at a 10% rise, followed by India at 7%.

The burgeoning industrialization of China and India are not covered in the Kyoto Treaty, which sought to bring carbon pollution down 5% from 1990 levels.  Carbon pollution is now 54% above 1990 levels.

Yes, the phrase "we're cooked" does spring to mind.

There's ample reason to note the contribution of China and India, for economic growth.  But none of us are immune to denial, displacement and excuses.  China's factories are busy making stuff for the U.S. consumer market, and prices are kept low not only by low low wages but low energy costs from China's most abundant source: coal. 

There's no sense in guilt-tripping ourselves as individuals and measuring carbon footprints with a meaningless precision, versus the large scale changes that must be made.  Still, let's not kid ourselves either--especially the tech-happy progressives, who frown deeply at conspicuous consumption but snap up the latest instantly obsolete electronics: the cell/smart phones, etc. that will be ewaste in months.  Not to mention the vast amounts of power and manufacturing involved in server farms and the Internet.  It may seem ethereal, but it is based on wires, cables and machines that eat energy sources that all together account for a big chunk of energy costs.

So merry fuck the planet fuck the future Christmas.

There are positives--that sneaky 2% drop in a country that can't even talk about the climate crisis without starting a flame war.  Progress on scaling up clean energy and promising new clean energy tech.  And one little story from today:  President Obama is "putting in place the building blocks for a climate treaty requiring the first fossil fuel emissions cuts from both the U.S. and China," Businessweek reports.

"State Department envoy Todd Stern is in Doha this week working to clear the path for an international agreement by 2015. While Obama failed to deliver on his promise to start a cap-and-trade program in his first term, he's working on policies that may help cut greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020 in the U.S., historically the world's biggest polluter."

The headline on this Political Wire item is that President Obama is "quietly" working on this.  In the current political climate this makes sense, and there's an historical template for such an effort.  The U.S. and the Soviet Union quietly negotiated on a nuclear test ban treaty in the early 60s.  Powerful elements within both nations were against it, fervently. When the talks stalled, President Kennedy made his historic American University speech on the issue, and it so impressed the world--and the Soviet Premier--that it instantly revived the talks, which (thanks in part to the work done already) quickly came to an agreement.

There was substantial political opposition to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 in the U.S. Senate (which had to ratify it.)  The country was split.  But President Kennedy went out and made speeches supporting it all across the U.S., and by the time the Senate voted, it had clear public support and the political opposition faded.

Nothing now is going to change the climate crisis we need to prepare for, and need to prepare for the world of the next several generations.  The world is not likely to ever be as it is now for maybe thousands of years.  But we can do quite a bit so it doesn't become even worse, hundreds of years from now.