Thursday, October 31, 2013

Could Sara Palin’s Alaska be Next?

At least she can see Russia from her state. But wait, there’s more. “Russia has laid claim to the seafloor at the North Pole, planting its national flag underwater in the hopes of securing the Arctic's potential motherlode of natural resources... In an unprecedented dive beneath the ice, two three-person submersibles descended 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the bottom, where one symbolically dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag.”, August 3, 2007. Nobody really talks about it; few seem to care. But as global warming is slowly opening up that long-sought-after Northwest Passage, as melting ice is opening more areas to mineral and petroleum extraction, battles over rights and territories loom.
Back during President James Buchanan’s time, Russia approached the U.S. about selling them Alaska, but that didn’t happen until 1867, when, for $7 million the United States agreed (Seward’s Folly, it was labeled in the press, named after then-Secretary of State William H. Seward). That was Czarist Russia, and many in the old Soviet Union and today, Russia, believe that this transfer was both stupid and illegal. The monarch could never have had the power to sell his people’s heritage that way.
So it’s bad enough that Vladimir Putin aced out “lame duck” Barack Obama as Forbes’ most important person in the world, but Russia has her eyes on the great northern riches, lands that border the United States, Canada and Scandinavia (including Greenland, a Danish territory). Russia has begun building an all-weather fleet of state-of-the-art icebreakers to allow them the kind of access that could easily dominate the sea lanes in that Northwest Passage (which they call the “Northern Sea Route”): “Russia will float out a new-generation nuclear ice-breaker by 2017 with two more to follow in 2020 under a government program to ensure commercial shipping along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – a 6,000-km Arctic waterway stretching from the Barents Sea in the west to the Bering Strait in the east. Russia is the only country with a nuclear-powered ice-breaking fleet. By the early 2020s, the NSR is expected to start recouping its cost.
“The NSR is currently operational all year round. As cargo traffic increases, Russia will need more ice-breakers to cut the way for commercial ships. At present, Russia has five ice-breakers in its Arctic waters. But by 2021, four of them will be decommissioned.”, August 25th.  Nobody in the U.S., Canada or Scandinavia has boats like those.
Lest you doubt the seriousness of Russian intentions, you only have to look at the fate of those involved in a recent Greenpeace effort to protest against drilling for oil in the environmentally sensitive Arctic region off the Russian coast. “The activists knew the protest was risky. Two of them, Sini Saarela of Finland and Marco Weber of Switzerland, tried to scale the offshore oil platform in the Pechora Sea owned by Russia’s state energy giant, Gazprom.
“They plunged into the icy waters after guards sprayed water from fire hoses and fired warning shots, and they were plucked from the sea by a Russian coast guard ship and held as ‘guests.’ The next day, Sept. 19, however, the Arctic Sunrise was seized by border guards in international waters… Greenpeace staged a similar but more successful protest in the summer of 2012. In that instance, activists, including Greenpeace’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo, scaled the same platform and unfurled a banner. After several hours, they departed, and the Russian authorities did not pursue any charges.” New York Times, October 30th.
In that recent September incident, Russian border guards dropped at night from helicopters and seized the Netherlands-registered Greenpeace ship and its international crew of 30. They towed the vessel to Murmansk, where the entire crew was arrested, imprisoned and now face serious criminal charges (including piracy) with very long prison sentences. These crew members “are now confined in separate cells and [a]ll face criminal charges that could result in years in prison as a result of having grossly underestimated Russia’s readiness to assert — and even expand — its sovereignty in a region potentially rich with natural resources.
“The vigorous legal response by the authorities, including the seizure of the ship itself, appears to have caught Greenpeace off guard and left the crew’s families and friends worried that the consequences of what the activists considered a peaceful protest could prove much graver than any expected when they set out…
“Critics of the government of President Vladimir V. Putin have added the crew of the Arctic Sunrise to a catalog of prisoners here who have faced politically motivated or disproportionate punishment for challenging the state. Among them are the former oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the punk performers of Pussy Riot and the protesters awaiting trial more than a year after violence broke out on the day of Mr. Putin’s inauguration last year… But there is one crucial difference: Most of those who were aboard the Arctic Sunrise are foreigners.” NY Times.
International requests for leniency, even a request from Italian oil company Eni (Gazprom’s partner in many activities), have fallen on deaf ears. The prisoners’ own requests for bail have been denied. “When the government of the Netherlands, where Greenpeace International is based, filed an appeal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to have the ship and crew released, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it would not recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction, citing the country’s sovereignty. The tribunal has scheduled a hearing on the Dutch claim anyway, but unless Russia seeks a compromise that would free the prisoners, the crew could be detained for months awaiting trial.
“Greenpeace’s activists and their cause have not found much sympathy in Russia, their fate shaped in part by hostile coverage on state-owned or state-controlled television. The main state network, Channel One, recently broadcast an analysis that suggested that Greenpeace’s protest had been orchestrated by powerful backers with economic incentives to undermine Gazprom.” NY Times. The bottom line is that Russia wants what it wants, and sooner or later appears to be willing to incur international wrath to do it. You can expect more harsh confrontations between even established authorities and Russia as the sea ice continues to melt. And if you think Alaska will always be part of the United States… well, perhaps you are underestimating the longer-term intentions of those in power in Russia. Ignoring the little things can open the door to much, much worse.
I’m Peter Dekom, and these tea leaves are becoming increasingly unsubtle.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Obama Report Card

When a virtually unknown state Senator from Illinois addressed the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, his presentation was brilliant, electrifying and filled with clear and articulated goals and policies. He was a truly inspirational orator. His speeches during his initial presidential campaign were fiery, focused on our obvious social and economic problems, but his opponent, an elderly statesman with a clearly unqualified vice-presidential running mate, were relatively easy picking. Then came the second term run. An uber-rich opponent, who ran one campaign to get nominated and quite another to try and take the presidency, was completely out of touch with his grassroots supporters and rather uninspirational. Again, a relatively easy victory.
But make no mistake, as unkind as Barack Obama’s opponents have been to him, he has tried and failed to be the great uniter. He has never used his once-phenomenal oratorical skills to explain his most controversial legislation, the Affordable Care Act, in sufficient detail, to take the mystery out of the basics of this legislation. He has never told us how success in other nations and states with similar plans already vetted the general path of the statute.
The latest healthcare rage: “Notices are going out to hundreds of thousands of Americans informing them that their health insurance policies are being canceled as of Dec. 31… The notices appear to contradict President Obama’s promise that despite the changes resulting from the law, Americans can keep their health insurance if they like it… Administration officials say the canceled insurance will be replaced by better policies. But the new line of attack comes as the administration continues to grapple with its problem-plagued Web site,” Washington Post, October 30th. Again, there has been an entire lack of effective communication.
Obama’s own party sees him as an appeaser, and the extreme right has used this massive confusion as their basic gridlock philosophy – oppose everything that Obama is for and get him out of office. Even in his lame duck term, too many in Congress simply vote against whatever he is for. He failed to reign in Wall Street, explain why and how to the electorate, and the Dodd-Frank legislation on his watch was watered down, its implementation hardly prioritized.
Are the Republicans so opposed to relatively open access to healthcare insurance? In late October, one of the party’s staunch conservatives, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), introduced a bill that would allow all Americans to enroll in the same health insurance plan given to federal employees and member of Congress! Huh? Still, killing “Obamacare” is high on the national priority. The President got a law passed and then seemed to pay no attention to how it was being implemented. The rollout of the Website was a national embarrassment of unbelievable proportions, what the military would call totally FUBAR.  
True, he was handed an abysmal economy, sinking fast, a new ultra-conservative movement of scared old-world-traditionalists terrified at the changes and demographic shifts around them, dedicated to stopping the world and putting up barriers to these seismic shifts. But just take a look at the two failed wars he inherited. Look at how long we stayed, knowing what we were doing was not remotely working. Obama took office in 2008, and we left Iraq at the end of 2011, wasting billions and billions of precious dollars in the effort. More people died. American soldiers and local civilians. As never-ending bomb blasts in the heart of Baghdad remind us, we hardly created the stable country the President envisioned.
The war in Afghanistan – supporting one of the most corrupt regimes on earth – has gone down a similar path… and we are still there! True, the exit is planned for next year, but who on this planet really believes that we accomplished anything meaningful during our occupation, that the country will become stable? Anybody? Anywhere? Why did we waste hundreds of billions of deficit slamming dollars in that wasted effort? Why did American soldiers die in this effort? The government tells you how they have crushed terrorism, but read the headlines every day. The battle is continuous. Afghanistan and Iraq provided valuable training experience, and provided massive fodder for anti-American recruitment efforts that have made terrorist pop-up in other venues around the world.
All that money could have been invested in growth parameters: my usual mantra of education (which trains people for higher-paying jobs), infrastructure (which improves efficiency across the land and creates jobs) and research too expensive to be borne by the private sector (but could create new solutions and technologies to spur economic growth). Obama has failed to accept meaningful international restrictions and progress elements aimed at curbing greenhouse gasses, a place where those research dollars are still badly needed.
Edward Snowdon and Julian Assange aside, how in this modern world could the president believe that his NSA spying program could even be kept secret? We live in a fishbowl, Web-based world of hackers and whistleblowers. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of federal employees and contractors knew what was going on. What kind of naïveté would lead anyone to think that such an intrusive and massive program could be kept secret? What planet is he living on?
While spying on friendly powers is nothing new – we’ve arrested Israeli spies here in the U.S. – that the president did not have the wherewithal to tell his senior intelligence officers to back off of spying on our allies at this critical moment is astonishing. Note that all the government denials to international allies has been “we do not and will not,” but there is no “and we have not” in the disclaimer. And as a professor of constitutional law, what would ever make the president believe that such wide warrantless sweeps of his own citizens remotely passes the constitutional smell test?
The Republican Party has wasted time and effort on Benghazi, when their own last president has a record of even more attacks against American diplomats. It wasn’t George Bush’s fault any more than Obama’s. They have resisted tax reform, and the president hasn’t even figured out that the big opportunity – dropping our excessively high corporate income tax to reasonable levels – can be traded for finding ways to repatriate tax-avoiding corporate monies parked offshore, generating a net plus for the treasury. He is ready to accept cuts in Social Security and Medicare as a bargaining chip with deficit-reduction-focused GOP budget mavens, but this represents a basic betrayal to the main constituents of his own party.
Barack is becoming a man without a party, and perhaps a president without a country. We’ve had some pretty good leaders in recent history, Eisenhower on the Republican side and Clinton for the Dems, but Barack Obama will most certainly not go down in history as anywhere near the top of the best qualified. He had some wonderful ideas and inherited some horrific circumstances, but in my opinion he will be lucky if history accords him much more than a C- on his report card.
The only consolation is that the candidates that the GOP offered in the last elections provided little in the way of clear positive directions for the country, focusing instead on all things these were going to stop and end. By embracing taking government out of the mix as much as possible, they have completely forgotten about addressing how to make the government actually work. By telling us what they will never cut, they have made a mockery of true budget-balancing negotiations. Where is that wonderful middle that actually defines most Americans?
I’m Peter Dekom, and I’d like to think that we can do so much better than we have.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Not Generous to a Fault

Back in September, the United Nations issued a report published by its Sustainable Solutions Network. After surveying 156 nations, the report ranked which countries had the happiest people. Northern Europe rocked. The United States, not so much. “Denmark, Norway and Switzerland [led] the pack. Among North American countries, Canada took sixth place, while Mexico (16) slightly outranked the U.S. (17)… [Togo tanked at the bottom]
“The report is the second of its kind released by a coalition of researchers including John F. Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the London School of Economics's Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. The team drew upon Gallup World Poll data from the past three years to rank the 156 countries on aspects such as healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices and social support.” Huffington Post, September 9th.
But Denmark led the pack, and when you look at the reasons cited, it almost seems is if the very values that define fiscal and social conservatism in the United States are the opposite of what makes the Danes happy. What do the survey results say?
“While American women scrape by with an average maternal leave of 10.3 weeks, Danish families receive a total of 52 weeks of parental leave. Mothers are able to take 18 weeks and fathers receive their own dedicated 2 weeks at up to 100 percent salary. The rest of the paid time off is up to the family to use as they see fit.

“But the support doesn't stop at the end of this time. Danish children have access to free or low-cost child care. And early childhood education is associated with health and well-being throughout life for its recipients -- as well as for mothers. What's more, this frees up young mothers to return to the work force if they'd like to. The result? In Denmark, 79 percent of mothers return to their previous level of employment, compared to 59 percent of American women…

“Danish citizens expect and receive health care as a basic right. But what's more, they know how to effectively use their health systems. Danish people are in touch with their primary care physician an average of nearly seven times per year, according to a 2012 survey of family medicine in the country. And that means they have a single advocate who helps them navigate more complicated care.

“‘This gatekeeping system essentially is designed to support the principle that treatment ought to take place at the lowest effective care level along with the idea of continuity of care provided by a family doctor,’ wrote the authors of the family medicine survey.” Huffington Post, October 23rd. Back in the states: Obamacare, we are told by too many, will destroy America (and yes, we do know it needs fixing). Hmmmm…

More values back in Denmark: Gender equality has been prioritized, and Danish cities are built for bicycles (read: no greenhouse gasses and lots of healthy exercise). But here’s the biggie: they support each other, do more unpaid volunteer work (40% of the entire adult population!) than almost anywhere else, and 87.7% of those eligible voted in the last election. “Danes don't prioritize social security and safety simply so they can receive benefits; there's a real sense of collective responsibility and belonging. And this civic duty -- combined with the economic security and work-life balance to support it -- results in a high rate of volunteerism.” Huffington Post. Wow!

Contrast this notion of Danish “responsibility” with the harsh, judgmental tones, the “cut the entitlements to those lazy bastards and damn government involvement, because in the good old USA, it’s everybody for himself” mantra that seems to emanate from a large body of people who define themselves as Christians… as least when they robotically go to church and appear to miss the teachings that unpin the basics of their faith. Suspect thy neighbor and care only for yourself and your view of the world? Could it be that we are so low on the happiness chart because we just don’t care about or even tolerate each other. Is there a lesson here?

I’m Peter Dekom, and back in the USA, it never ceases to amaze me that if you repeat a stupid slogan long enough, you may well develop a massing following who will actually believe you.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Hey, Kid, Wanna Job?

We need north of 200,000 new jobs a month to begin to stem the tide of American unemployment, and we are long, long way from hitting that number. But the number of people working is hardly a good description of a healthy job market. I’ve already blogged about how topline real-buying-power income to average Americans has declined every year for over a decade, starting well before the big recession, how the cost of commodities and basics has also slammed into lifestyle, reducing effective remaining discretionary income, how many have just given up looking for work, how many older worked have opted for early retirement, and how over 90% of income gains since the recession have fallen only to the top 10% of earners. The hard fact is that for most Americans, the jobs that are coming online are heavily weighted in favor of part-time or short-term contract work and low-end occupations.
With 148,000 non-farm jobs added in September, according to the just-released jobs report from the Department of Labor (delayed two weeks by the shutdown), our official jobless rate has fallen slightly to 7.2%. But the trend of getting people into marginal employment, the very high rate of joblessness (and low quality work) among the younger, entry-level segment, just continue unabated. We’ve seen bad underlying numbers for months. For example, earlier this summer, “[p]art-time employment rose by 174,000 in July, compared with a gain of just 92,000 full-time jobs. Many of the new jobs were in the restaurant, retail and lodging industries... The part-time trend helped push lower the length of the average workweek on private non-farm payrolls to 34.4 hours.” Kansas City Star, August 2nd. The trend continued in August and now September. Too many low-end jobs with no future that pay badly. Further, job expansion itself is lower than it was last year at the same time (185,000 then).
As educational costs soar to unaffordable, as the quality of our public schools continues to plummet according to just about every standardized test applied to the sector, and as we cut our grants to universities or cut direct government research, the ability of unprepared citizens to find new technologies in their own country to create new economic vectors simply dissipates. We are watching our hard patent application numbers fall, just as China’s inventive processes are sailing up to the stratosphere, patent application zooming upwards, and their schools are getting better every day. The global economy doesn’t care that you have fiscal and budget issues that prevent you from keeping up with educational and technological requirements; if you are aren’t competitive, you just plain get pushed out the door.
The Sequester ripped into government discretionary spending like a meat axe; unplanned and instant cuts to government discretionary spending ripped into GDP growth, further hammered downward by the shutdown, pushing the U.S. economy back to the edge of another recession. “A recent report from Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm, estimated that government reductions in discretionary spending as a share of the economy since 2010 had pushed the national unemployment rate higher by 0.8 percentage point than it otherwise would have been, the equivalent of 1.2 million absent jobs. Those same spending cuts have also shaved an estimated 0.7 percentage point off output growth each year. Those drags are separate from the costs of the shutdown, which are expected to reduce the annualized growth rate of gross domestic product in the fourth quarter by 0.2 to 0.6 percentage point, depending on which estimate is used.
“As a result, analysts predicted, the economy is expected to advance at roughly a 2 percent annualized pace for the fourth quarter and about 1.5 percent for the full year, or about 1 percentage point lower than might have been achieved without those fiscal hurdles to overcome.” New York Times, October 22nd.
But wait, said the bad man, there’s more. The federal budget talks loom. About the only thing that seems to be certain in the future is that the polarization in Congress will continue to create a cost-cutting pressure at the federal level, including investments (INVESTMENTS!) in education, infrastructure and research, that may reduce short-term costs but will result in long-term cuts in Americans’ ability to earn the money necessary to restore sustainable fiscal balance. It’s never about just cutting costs. The old “penny-wise and pound-foolish” expression should be mounted on the entry door for most of those in Congress. Pork and military growth are OK, but common sense investment and planning for the future have left the Capitol, vacated the city, have streamed out of the country and are taking up residence… elsewhere. Not in the U.S.A.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I’ve said it before, but if Congress really does believe in the United States of America, they should prove it by investing in its future.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blown Away

It’s been just about a year since Hurricane (Superstorm?) Sandy reacquainted too many on the Eastern seaboard with the wrath of nature unleashed. Storm surges crushed buildings and infrastructure like matchboxes, raging waters flooded subway tunnels, basements, emergency shelters and decimated the power grid, shutting off electricity for days in many areas. Like lower Manhattan, which lacked heat and power for days… or Atlantic City and Staten Island that faced horrific damage. Hospitals’ back-up systems often proved inadequate and much of the East was paralyzed. Death and destruction were everywhere.
So aside from rebuilding and some grand plans discussed by New York City Mayor Bloomberg and NY State Governor Cuomo about building massive flood gates at the entrance to the harbor, what has been or can be done to mitigate the next destructive wave that everyone now expects… sooner or later? And remember, all this preparedness costs money, just as governments and the private sector are driven to cost reductions like never before. It’s not sexy to spend lots of money, incur tons of disruption to install new systems, used so infrequently, that often take up valuable space and need their own constant maintenance. For example, most modern building don’t have windows that open, but when electrical ventilating systems go down for days, what you do to breathe reasonable air?
Even little stuff, like moving emergency equipment out of flood-prone basements to a higher floor takes away valuable real estate – think New York City – and is highly disruptive and expensive to implement. And here’s an expensive thought: Do you move your data centers to higher ground? Hospitals are rethinking their own connection to the power grid, and instead of expensive and seldom-used diesel back-up power generators, some are converting their entire power system to rely instead on their own internal natural gas-powered generators for everything.
The idea of a solid, large and unitary grid system, even one that might have significant substations and segmentation, might slowly give way to the notion of microgrids. “A storm like Sandy will always knock the lights out for some people. But in the future, smart communities will have microgrids, which are self-contained clean energy production sites that store power in onsite fuel cells or batteries. Microgrids can be small or large--it just depends how many buildings they are intended to power. By 2020, six gigawatts of electricity, or enough to power nearly 5 million homes, will move through microgrids, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.”, October 24th. The Eastern seaboard isn’t remotely moving fast enough to make this meaningful in the foreseeable future.
Microgrids can remain connected to the main energy grid, but if Con Ed loses one of its power stations, the microgrid can provide all necessary power (by going into ‘island mode’). That's exactly what happened to some savvy organizations during the storm: A few microgrid-connected buildings on New York University's campus, for example, had power through the entire ordeal, providing a beacon of light in an otherwise dark swath of the city.
As Co.Exist pointed out in the days after Sandy, the U.S. military has enthusiastically embraced microgrids. Last year, the military set aside 16 million acres of its own land for renewable energy installations… But are microgrids a feasible solution for entire cities? From a technical standpoint, you can create a microgrid in any campus environment, explains Paul Orzeske, president of Honeywell Building Solutions. You could even create a Manhattan-sized microgrid. The problem is regulation. ‘If three or four businesses wanted to coordinate their buildings and wanted to connect, to cross a road--in many jurisdictions by crossing a road you become a power utility, and that makes it not feasible to run a microgrid,’ he says. ‘We still don't see enough around relaxing laws around the definition of a utility.’”
And let’s revisit the discussion, immediately following Sandy’s crush, about those storm surge barriers, massive moveable gates that mirror the kinds of systems that currently protect so much of low-lying Holland. Maybe such barriers will help NYC, but where does all that deflected water go? “The flooding in New York and New Jersey caused by Superstorm Sandy prompted calls from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials to consider building storm surge barriers to protect Lower Manhattan from future catastrophes. But, such a strategy could make things even worse for outlying areas that were hit hard by the hurricane, such as Staten Island, the New Jersey Shore and Long Island's South Shore, a City College of New York landscape architecture professor warns.
‘If you mitigate to protect Lower Manhattan, you increase the impact in other areas,’ says Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, associate professor of landscape architecture in CCNY's Spitzer School of Architecture. ‘Everyone outside of the surge protection zone would be in jeopardy because the water doesn't get reduced, it just goes somewhere else. It's an environmental justice issue. You can't just save Wall Street.’… Professor Seavitt calls, instead, for deploying a storm defense strategy that combines elements of soft infrastructure with the hardening of existing infrastructure such as the subway system, highways and power plants.”, November 19, 2012. Trust me, they are a long way from figuring this one out.

What about water and sewage removal, when disasters run for days? “The Building Resiliency Task Force is also making progress on strengthening New York City's non-hospital buildings. The city council passed five of the task force's proposals [New York City's Strategic Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency] so far, including one to ensure that building toilets and sinks work without power, and one to prevent sewage backflow.

“[Robin] Guenther [a member of the above task force] believes that another proposal--a requirement to provide access to water in residential buildings over six stories high when the power goes out--will pass soon. This was suggested because high-rise residential buildings lost access to water during the storm (buildings in New York City that are higher than six stories generally need an electricity-reliant pumping system to provide adequate water pressure to residents on higher levels). If the new proposal passes, residential buildings will have to retrofit a location lower than six stories where residents can get potable water capable of running off pressure in the water mains--no electricity required.” Fast
And then there’s this obvious thang about not letting people live or rebuild in venues that are really likely to get slammed again. Flood and storm insurance is often heavily federally subsidized, and taxpayers really shouldn’t to keep paying for sequential rebuilding. “For some communities, land buyouts have been the easiest and ultimately perhaps the cheapest option for recovery: Instead of building sand dunes and watching NIMBYers complain, the state buys land back from residents and returns it to nature. New Jersey's Blue Acres program buys flood-prone homes, tears them down, and turns the land into wetlands, which protect from the effects of flooding. The program existed before Superstorm Sandy, but has now taken on a new relevance, with federal storm aid funds helping to pay for future buyouts. And in New York, the state is buying back properties in flood-prone areas of Staten Island and Long Island.”
Even with some of these measures moving forward, perhaps even if most of them are implemented, the climate-change-induced intensity and movement of mega-storms are still going to wreak havoc when they descend on our lands. The bigger issue, grappling with the acceleration of greenhouse gasses that has caused this mess, is not even remotely on the horizon.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while we need to prepare for the next big storm, we also need to start prioritizing pursuing the big global solution as well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Rain, Rain, Go Away…

Be careful what you wish for. The Amazon rain forest is nothing short of amazing, almost essential to life on earth. “[It] has been described as the ‘Lungs of our Planet’ because it provides the essential environmental world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world oxygen is produced in the Amazon Rainforest… More than half of the world's estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests. One-fifth of the world's fresh water is in the Amazon Basin.” From foods to rare medicinal herbs, the Amazon has blessed us all with her bounty. Unfortunately, even beyond the deforestation of encroaching civilization, the world has not reciprocated.
Rain falls year-round in the Amazon, but the major moisture comes primarily during the wet season. According to an October 21st study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Amazon is beginning to show signs of accelerating damage, well beyond even the dire predictions in the recently released United Nations report from the International Panel on Climate Change. Simply put, the rain forest is drying out, the wet season is contracting, threatening to turn these precious resources into kindling for forest fires the likes of which we have never witnessed b efore, much like the raging flames that have created the largest wildfire in distant Australia’s recorded history. It will take time, but the endgame may soon no longer be reversible.
“‘The length of the dry season in the southern Amazon is the most important climate condition controlling the rain forest,’ Rong Fu, a climate scientist at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences [part of the research team that created the report], said in a statement. ‘If the dry season is too long, the rain forest will not survive.’… But with the dry season already spanning an extra week each decade since 1979, the Texas team said the future effects will be more severe…
“‘The dry season over the southern Amazon is already marginal for maintaining rain forest,’ Fu said. ‘At some point, if it becomes too long, the rain forest will reach a tipping point.’… Global warming can limit tropical rainfall across the southern Amazon in two ways, Fu explained. First, shifts in the southern jet stream can block cold fronts that trigger rainfall. (In the Northern Hemisphere, extremes in the northern jet stream pattern have been linked to wacky weather, such as the unusually warm winter in 2012.) Rising surface temperatures, attributed to global warming, also make it harder for storms to start. The heat inhibits ‘convective energy,’ keeping warm, dry air near the surface from rising and mixing with cool, moist air above.” Huffington Post, October 22nd. The short result: the forest goes drier and drier until its lifeless growths explode into raging fires.
With more CO2 from continuing to burn fossil fuels with fewer Amazonian leaves to apply their photosynthesis to reconvert that carbon dioxide into oxygen, the quality of breathable air all over the earth will deteriorate significantly. It’s a vicious cycle and it only gets worse, eventually exponentially. Why is it that the great powers that burn with abandon, China, Russia and the United States, just will not deal with these issues in any way that meaningfully reduces greenhouse emissions? How many plants, animals and people must die as a result?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the writing is on the wall, the ceiling, the floor…..

Friday, October 25, 2013

Responding to Those Who Believe

The Old Testament – that part of the Bible shared by Christians and Jews – is a harsh history of creation and destruction. The Great Flood – covered in Genesis, chapters 6-9 – was God’s flooding the earth, punishing mankind for the evil they had perpetrated, returning our world to its pre-creationist state. 150 days of flood, 220 days of drying out and restoration. When it was over, “God makes a pledge of commitment to Noah in Genesis 9:1–17. The priestly (Elohim) version takes the form of a covenant arrangement. This is the first explicit act of a covenant in the Hebrew Bible and is used seven times in this episode. God commits to continue both human and animal life and vows to never again use a second deluge against humanity. The covenant is sealed with the sign of a rainbow, after a storm, as a reminder.
“God blesses Noah and his sons using the same language as the priestly source of the Genesis creation narrative, ‘Be fruitful and increase and fill the earth.’ Before the flood, animals and humans coexisted in a realm of peace only knowing a vegetarian diet. After the flood, God maintained that mankind would be in charge over the animals, granting that they may be eaten for food under the condition that their blood be removed. God set these purity rules well before any transaction with Ancient Israel, effectively not confining such precedence solely to the Jewish faith. Human life receives special divine sanction because humanity is in the image of Elohim.” Wikipedia.
Despite the exceptionally-well-substantiated and recently released United Nations International Panel on Climate Change Report that indicates a 95% certainty that global climate change is primarily due to manmade causes, creating a greenhouse effect by burning fossil fuels, and dire predictions about rising temperatures, melting ice, the impact on disease and insect life, the expected droughts and flooding, there is a very sizeable segment in the world, including a large group of American evangelical Christians, that passionately believe that the world was given to humanity to use and exploit in God’s abundance and that the rainbow covenant is His personal pledge never again to destroy the planet, interpreted to mean that He would never let climate change decimate our environment. God, they believe, is the sole controller and creator of climate and what happens in or to our environment.
This religious belief is slowly eroding in the eyes of even this deeply religious contingent, but there are diehard factions who simply do not believe that such a catastrophe would be allowed to continue in defiance of what they believe is God’s promise not to destroy us… again. And every time these reports confirming global warming are released, whenever statistics supporting the pollution and damage being inflicted by mankind on the environment are published, editors to mainstream periodicals are flooded with emails and letters crying this “unfounded” theory of climate change, excoriating those who fail to appreciate God’s word, labeling these statements as a great “hoax.”
So the October 21st Mother Jones approached the editors of some of those newspapers to see how they currently handle such zealous letters. He are a few of the results of the inquiry:

“But recently, the Los Angeles Times took a stand against this type of misinformation. Paul Thornton, the paper's letters editor, wrote that he doesn't print letters asserting that ‘there's no sign humans have caused climate change.’ Why? Because, he wrote, such a statement is a factual inaccuracy, and "I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page." It's our policy as well not to run letters to the editor that are factually inaccurate, so we wouldn't publish a letter that simply says, 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change,'" Washington Post letters editor Mike Larabee said in an email. ‘That's a broad absolute that doesn't take into account the existence of large amounts of science indicating otherwise.’ He added, however, that the Post wants its letters section to reflect a "broad spectrum" of views and that it has ‘published letters that are skeptical or raise questions about the scientific consensus. In general, these have been letters that we think make informed and interesting points challenging the science or the way it's used. It's a complex topic that's no more above critical scrutiny than anything else.’… Larabee pointed to recent letters printed by the Post, including one that stated, ‘Remember, had there not been climate change, we'd never have gotten out of the Ice Age.’
The Dallas Morning News doesn't have ‘a firm policy’ on climate change letters, according to Michael Landauer, the paper's digital communities manager, though he added that he plans to discuss the matter further internally. ‘In the past, we have run letters where people express doubt or take shots at those who accept the climate change consensus, but I'm not sure I would print one that says flat-out that there 'is no sign' climate change is caused by humans,’ he wrote in an email. ‘It may be their underlying belief on which they base their letter, but if someone were to assert that in that way, I don't think I'd allow it.’…
“Tim Nickens, editor of editorials at the Tampa Bay Times, said that his paper has a ‘broad policy’ that letters must be accurate. He said the paper probably wouldn't print a letter asserting that ‘humans aren't contributing to climate change at all’ if that claim wasn't backed up by scientific studies. He added that letters are assessed on a ‘case-by-case basis.’
“Brian Gallagher, editorial page editor at USA Today, said his paper has an ‘aggressive’ fact-checking process that applies to all letters and op-eds and that it won't print anything that is ‘flatly false.’ Beyond that, he said, the paper gives letter-writers ‘as much latitude as possible…to express their opinions.’… USA Today's editorial board—which Gallagher oversees—has a clear stance on global warming: It's real; there's overwhelming evidence humans are causing it; and urgent action is needed. But Gallagher says that none of those positions is ‘completely closed out’ from debate in the paper, so ‘it depends on the phrasing of the particular letter.’ He explained that although the bar for disputing climate change is increasingly high, the paper might allow a writer to cite contrarian scientists in order to argue against the scientific consensus.” There is more coverage, so it helps to review the entire piece.
To some in big media, notably Fox News, there are constant online and on-camera editorials (e.g., from reporters like Cal Thomas) submitting “proof” to debunk the climate change “theorists,” but even in this rather conservative venue, there is movement to face the realities of science. To those whose island homes are disappearing, who face storm surges and coastal flooding that are slowly taking away their homes and farms, others whose farms are drying up and blowing away, whose lives a threatened by raging fires and horrific hurricanes… there is small consolation that there are those, exercising their freedom of religion/expression rights under the First Amendment, are doing everything in their power to stop efforts to contain the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels.
In the end, if those sticking to the rainbow covenant are right, we will see an undoing of this environmental degradation by divine intervention. If they are wrong, we will lose so much of what we value. To those who fear these climatic horrors, they look at those who deny the changes and say, “Even if you are right, what is the harm to you by our trying to stop the process?” Money? Inconvenience? Is it remotely possible that God is in fact promoting efforts to reverse climate change by inspiring people to care? How do you feel about climate change deniers?
       I’m Peter Dekom, and just one photograph of Beijing air or the after-effects of Superstorm Sandy are enough for me.