Tag Archives: climate change

Why the midterms could be disastrous for the planet

PresidentAlfredPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Monday’s broadcast of “The CBS Evening News” began on a portentous note. “Good evening,” said anchor Scott Pelley. “Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, higher temperatures. If you think someone’s trying to tell us something, someone just did.”

Pelley’s introduction was followed by a report on the latest study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to The Washington Post, the panel found that global warming is now “irreversible,” and that drastic steps must be taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality.

No matter. Before the night was over, Americans had turned their backs on the planet. By handing over the Senate to Mitch McConnell and his merry band of Republicans, voters all but ensured that no progress will be made on climate change during the next two years — and that even some tenuous steps in the right direction may be reversed.

At Vox, Brad Plumer noted that Tuesday’s Alfred E. Neuman moment came about despite more than $80 million in campaign spending by environmentalists and despite natural disasters that may be related to climate change, such as the unusual destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the West.

“Which means that if anything’s going to change, it may have to happen outside Congress,” Plumer wrote, adding that “the 2014 election made clear that Washington, at least, isn’t going to be much help on climate policy anytime soon.”

Not much help? That would be the optimistic view. Because as Elana Schor pointed out in Politico, Republicans and conservative Democrats may now have a veto-proof majority to move ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which would bring vast quantities of dirty oil from Canada into the United States, would amount to “the equivalent of adding six million new cars to the road,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben said in an interview with “Democracy Now” earlier this year.

The problem is that though Americans say they care about climate change, they don’t care about it very much.

In September, the Pew Research Center reported the results of a poll that showed 61 percent of the public believed there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming, and that 48 percent rated climate change as “a major threat” — well behind the Islamic State and nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Moreover, whereas Democrats registered 79 percent on “solid evidence” and 68 percent on “major threat,” Republicans scored just 37 percent and 25 percent. The Republican political leadership, anxious to keep its restive right-wing base happy, has every incentive to keep pursuing its science-bashing obstructionist path.

One possible solution to this mess was proposed in the New York Times a few days ago by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan of Duke University: get rid of the midterm elections altogether by extending the terms of representatives from two to four years and by changing senatorial terms from six years to four or eight.

As Schanzer and Sullivan noted, presidential election years are marked by high turnout across a broad spectrum of the electorate. By contrast, the midterms attract a smaller, whiter, older, more conservative cohort that is bent on revenge for the setbacks it suffered two years earlier. (According to NBC News, turnout among those 60 and older Tuesday was 37 percent, compared to just 12 percent for those under 30.)

“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they wrote, “are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.”

There is, of course, virtually no chance of such common-sense reform happening as long as one of our two major parties benefits from it not happening.

The consequences of that inaction can be devastating. According to The Washington Post’s account of this week’s U.N. report, “some impacts of climate change will ‘continue for centuries,’ even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop.”

Sadly, we just kicked the can down the road for at least another two years.

Correction: This commentary originally said that CBS News’ report on climate change was aired on Tuesday rather than Monday.

 

Michael Mann, Mark Steyn and the court of public opinion

220px-Mark_Steyn

Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn is one of my least favorite pundits. But I also don’t like it when people use libel to settle disputes. It seems to me that the climate scientist Michael Mann has the public platform he needs to fight back against Steyn’s smears without having to resort to a lawsuit.

Nevertheless, I think U.S. Judge Frederick Weisberg, who’s presiding over the matter of Mann v. Steyn, probably got it right in deciding that the case can move forward, as Mariah Blake reports for Mother Jones. Ignore the hyperbole over Steyn’s loathsome comparison of Mann to Jerry Sandusky; the key is that Steyn wrote Mann had trafficked in scientifically “fraudulent” data. Steyn claims that’s a matter of opinion, but the question of whether someone committed fraud is something that is either true or not. And if it’s not true, then Steyn may well be found to have libeled Mann. The standard was set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990).

I should note that Jonathan Adler, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, believes that Steyn’s statements amount to “hyperbolic expressions of opinion, not statements of fact,” and should therefore be considered protected speech. My response is that it’s a close enough call that a jury should be allowed to decide.

In any event, Steyn has gotten himself into a significant mess with his prose and with his mouth. He’s reportedly had a falling-out with one of his co-defendants, the conservative journal National Review, and he currently lacks legal representation as well. I can’t say I’m sympathetic. This is a guy who once called former senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, “a beneficiary of the medal inflation that tends to accompany unpopular wars.”

But is this how we wish to decide public controversies? In court? There are any number of public forums available to Mann for him to defend himself against Steyn’s accusations, and those forums would probably provide Mann with greater satisfaction than a libel suit that could drag on for years. My advice to Professor Mann: Drop the suit and go on the attack.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Media to president: You’re a liberal!

The state of the union may or may not be strong, but the State of the Union was liberal.

That was the view of media commentators from the left, right and center the morning after President Barack Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address. The president called for a higher minimum wage, universal preschool and action on gun control and climate change, among other things. And the consensus is that his support for such measures signaled a public embrace of activist government that we’ve rarely seen since the rise of Ronald Reagan more than three decades ago.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Climate change and the limits of journalism

Hurricane Sandy flooding New York’s East Village.

The most trenchant piece of media criticism you’re likely to see this week — this month? this year? — is an essay by journalist-turned-climate activist Wen Stephenson that appears on the cover of this week’s Phoenix.

Stephenson, an alumnus of the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and WBUR Radio, argues that though the media have in recent years finally moved beyond the false equivalence of balancing the scientific consensus with the views of a few fringe denialists, news coverage of climate change remains polite to the point of timidity. Stephenson writes:

Our most respected climate scientists … are increasingly clear and vocal about one thing: we’re rapidly running out of time to address climate change in any meaningful way and avoid the risk of global climate catastrophe, with the incalculable human suffering that it will bring, quite possibly in this century.

In the face of this situation — as much as it pains me to say this — you are failing. Your so-called “objectivity,” your bloodless impartiality, are nothing but a convenient excuse for what amounts to an inexcusable failure to tell the most urgent truth we’ve ever faced.

What’s needed, Stephenson says, is for the media to move beyond the political near-silence that has descended over the climate-change issue and instead focus relentlessly on the subject.

It’s a good, important piece, and you should read it. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles.

First, I think Stephenson, for all his experience, misapprehends the limits of journalism. It’s not like our best news organizations have ignored climate change. They’ve reported on it frequently, prominently and with great skill. But they’ve done it in an oxygen-deprived environment. That is, a story in the New York Times or on network television, no matter how it’s played, is not going to get the sort of traction Stephenson would like to see without the oxygen of an engaged political system.

That’s not to say Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley or Bob Schieffer couldn’t have put President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney on the spot during the presidential debates. But that wouldn’t come close to the intensity generated by genuine political engagement, congressional hearings and the like. Climate change has slid off the public agenda. Journalism’s ability to force it back onto the agenda is not nonexistent, but it is limited.

Second, Stephenson’s argument does nothing to answer the sinking feeling I get whenever I read about climate change — that it’s already too late in many respects, that nothing we can do would offset the massive damage that is already occurring and that, essentially, we’re screwed. I’m not suggesting we be spared the truth. But that’s not the sort of message likely to lead to much more than sullen desperation.

Ironically, as I finish writing this, we are learning that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama precisely because the president takes climate change more seriously than his opponent. Citing Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg wrote:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

So maybe facts on the ground — and in the sky, and the oceans — will accomplish what journalism has not: force all of us to take climate change seriously. Of course, we can’t pretend to know the relationship between Sandy and global warming. But it’s worth asking whether the storm was more severe than it would have been absent climate change; whether more storms like it are occurring; and whether Sandy caused more devastation than it otherwise would have because the seas are higher than they used to be.

Don’t misunderstand me. I completely agree with Stephenson and his observation that the mainstream media tend to seek consensus over difficult truth-telling. Maybe events like Sandy, and leaders like Michael Bloomberg, will start to change that consensus.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A Rapturous new attack on climate science

It’s the latest meme among commentators who want to downplay or dismiss concerns about climate change: those doomsayers are just like the Rapture wackos! Three examples:

  • Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby: “The May 21 apocalypse foretold by the fundamentalist minister Harold Camping never materialized, but end-of-the-world doomsaying goes on as usual among the global warmists.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose: “You can, on the one hand, listen to Bill McKibben, who says the raging Midwest and Southern tornadoes are still another sign of global warming doom. Or you can listen to Harold Camping, who recently announced the world would go kaput not too long after Christians were sent heavenward on May 21 by none other than God himself.”
  • Detroit News editorial-page editor Nolan Finley: “The rapture predicters are no more looney than those who want to connect the serial natural disasters to global warming.”

As with Al Gore, Camping and company are a lot easier to dismiss than atmospheric scientists.

Here is a splendid account of how D.R. Tucker, a Massachusetts conservative, moved from denial to acceptance as he immersed himself in the facts. Well worth reading.

Cape Wind and the high cost of fossil fuels

Boston Herald business reporter Jay Fitzgerald today has the latest in his series of reports on the cost of Cape Wind. Fitzgerald finds that the high price of Cape Wind energy will be borne mainly by those who live and work a long way from the offshore turbines.

Meanwhile, Boston Globe environmental reporter Beth Daley yesterday delved into the planning process behind Cape Wind, which grew out of then-candidate Deval Patrick’s support for the project in 2006. It seems clear from Daley’s reporting that state officials either could have done more to keep the costs down or were taken by surprise.

Good journalism? Absolutely. Yet both stories skip over a crucial fact. The cost of fossil fuel is heavily subsidized. The oil, gas and coal industries do not have to pay for the pollution they dump into the environment, especially the massive carbon-dioxide emissions that already appear to be causing significant climate change. And that’s just the beginning, as Cape Wind activists Barbara Hill and Matthew Pawa observe in this commentary.

It’s similar to the cost of cheap food — factor in the cost of pollution from factory farms and from the medical costs of eating highly processed industrial food, and it doesn’t look so cheap anymore.