Cruelty and Hope

18 08 2019

Endangered            If you are a regular IBI Watch reader, thanks for checking in.

This week and next, I offer a different format. I lack the time to write an in-depth post as is my custom.  You see, I have purchased a house and am in the process of moving in – after completing (or almost completing) some key projects.  It’s frankly taking up nearly all of my time, and allowing little opportunity for writing.

Since I enjoy making that weekly post, I will share a few of what I call “quick hits.” These are important stories I have found in various sources that I wish to share with my friends and readers.

With move and upgrade projects complete in two weeks, I plan to return to posting a meaty article each Sunday. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these finds and brief commentary.

As we navigate the early stages of the next presidential election (do these freak shows ever really end?!), it is important to remember a key characteristic of the current Trump administration. Lest we vote foolishly in 2020, and give him and his henchmen four more years to wreak never-ending havoc and kill off the lingering remains of American democracy.  That key characteristic?  Its unspeakable cruelty, on all fronts. Here are just two examples of so many.

Quick Hit One – Trump’s immigration policies are clearly the projection on a mass scale of his personal proclivities and prejudices. Many, many people have suffered as a result of family separations, deportations, deprivations and other unspeakable nastiness. But this story caught my eye as an example of needlessly inflicted pain. Do you think Trump gives half a damn? Me neither.

Quick Hit Two – Anyone who pays attention to ecology at all knows that human activity has unleashed a mass extinction. This National Geographic story provides background on a recent report from the UN that points out up to a million species in danger of extinction thanks to us. So what is the Trump administration doing to help head off this catastrophe?  Surprise, surprise – not a damned thing.  No, our nation under Trump is getting ready to undo success stories that have emerged since the Endangered Species Act took effect. Protecting wildlife? You must be kidding.

Quick Hit Three – OK, the first two items were all about cruelty.  Here is the hope part. A new program in Minnesota – Lawns to Legumes – will soon be supporting homeowners who seek to convert their ecological wastelands (lawns, that is) into landscapes that support native insects and birds.  That is something I did at a previous residence, and plan to get started on soon at my new digs. Best news here is this – interest is not confined to Minnesota. Program officials report inquiries from all over the country.

So, you see, there are still ways to stand up against the unfolding devastation that is Trump.  For now, anyway.

I find myself rooting for a recession at the moment. If a the economy tanks, Trump is a sad and sorry footnote in American history. It might even encourage the election of a true progressive – a leader who will work to end corporate America’s stranglehold on our political system.  If only . . .





Truth in Ten

11 08 2019

Melting clock.jpg            Climate disruption news comes ever faster and more furious. From extreme weather events to wildfires to problems with growing food, a news consumer would have to work deliberately to avoid this information.  The good news is that mainstream journalists have largely abandoned tired, mealy-mouthed disqualifiers like “scientists hesitate to directly implicate human-caused climate change in the case of (fill in the latest disaster here) but say more research is needed.” That’s because scientists now can comfortably say in many cases that climate disruption makes such events as unprecedented rainfall (e.g. Hurricane Harvey), sequential heat waves smashing centuries-old records this summer in Europe, particularly France, and wildfires virtually spanning the globe more common, more likely, and more intense. And they are even engulfing the Arctic.

The bad news is that we are not changing our fossil-foolish ways nearly fast enough. A new report from the United Nations  has a bleak outlook in particular for the global food system. And of course, United Nations studies – including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – have covered the entire range of climate issues and potential solutions. A key result was the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.  The United States was an important signatory, but will leave the agreement if Americans show in November 2020 that four years of Trump follies was not enough. That’s because, as is widely known, the science-denying, truth-defying, proudly ignorant chief executive of ours has never seen a multilateral agreement he does not trash. But I digress.

We all need to do our part – individually and, especially, collectively – to contribute to solving the climate crisis rather than adding to it. One of the things I have done these past seven years is to spread the word via the Climate Reality Project.  This organization, founded by former Vice President Al Gore, last weekend added nearly 1200 new climate leaders to its ranks, bringing the total to over 20,000. I had the honor of serving in that training as a mentor to 22 talented new leaders. All of them came to the training with commitment, a history of action in climate solutions, and links to various organizations doing constructive work. I look forward to our building our community so we can amplify our efforts.

The training ran three days, and was packed with content covering all aspects of the climate crisis and its solutions.  Panelists and presenters included prominent scientists, local and state government officials, journalists and social justice leaders.  It also offered opportunities for participants to reflect on what it was that led them to dedicate three days of their time, and pledge to carry out acts of climate leadership in the near future. And anyone who has followed this issue at all probably already knows that the centerpiece of the session was the updated,  famous Gore climate change slide show.  That’s right, the one that was featured in An Inconvenient Truth. This comprehensive version ran for well over two hours, and fueled an extended question/answer panel discussion the next day that included Gore and two scientists.

I plan to dip into my copious notes from the training in future weekly posts to share some of the important content – including at least one area where I strongly disagree with the vice president. This time, I feature one of my personal highlights – which definitely lived up to the billing.

The complete Gore slide show now includes over 600 slides, and is updated almost daily. Of course, no one ever presents for two hours (outside of these trainings for new leaders). Realistically, we have from 10 to 40 minutes to get the word out to a willing audience.  That has certainly been my experience with the young people who make up my audiences – older elementary, middle and high school students.

Was Mr. Gore able to complete his “Truth in Ten” presentation within the time limit?  Read on, please.

Truth in Ten asks three questions about the climate crisis:

  • Must we change?
  • Can we change?
  • Will we change?

For the “must we change” segment, stills and animations tell the following stories:

  • The atmosphere is a thin layer of protection which regulates all living conditions on the planet
  • Ever more solar heat is being retained, because human activities are adding 100 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every day
  • The last five years globally have been the hottest recorded
  • The number of dangerously hot days is rising rapidly
  • Extreme precipitation events are four times as frequent as in 1980
  • Glaciers and ice sheets are melting rapidly, raising sea levels and threatening cities
  • The Department of Defense is planning for the impending crisis of hundreds of millions of climate refugees
  • A medical emergency is developing as insect-borne tropical diseases escape to temperate zones
  • What is called the sixth great extinction of Earth’s biodiversity is already well underway

For the “can we change” segment, slides tell these success stories:

  • Implementation of renewable energy production is steadily expanding
  • Clean energy – mainly solar and wind – is now cost-competitive with dirty fossil-fuel energy
  • Solar energy is creating ever more well-paying jobs, including in Minnesota
  • All the major automakers are gearing up for the move to electric cars that run on clean energy

For the “will we change” segment, slides tell these stories:

  • The 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, though inadequate, is clearly a step in the right direction
  • The agreement is up for review in 2020, and the US will not be able to actually leave, despite Trump’s bluster (sorry, my addition!) until early 2021
  • US coal plants continue to shut down, despite Trump’s promotion of coal as a fuel of the future
  • Despite our current national regression, states and cities are taking the lead in implementing climate solutions

Truth in Ten closes with a vital plea: join those who are using their voice and vote to solve the climate crisis. The world depends on it. 

If you think all this is too much information for ten minutes, you are right.  The presentation actually took just under 16 minutes.  To be fair, this was not an ordinary audience, composed as it was of committed climate leaders. I am confident that Mr. Gore could deliver the core of this talk in less than 10. And his main point in making this effort is a strong one – we often have limited time to get the message across. One of the greatest insights I took from this endeavor was this, which he delivered in his introduction: any time we are communicating about the climate crisis, we have three budgets to manage:

  • Time: The most obvious – an audience’s time to invest, and their attention span, have limits that we must respect.
  • Complexity: We must find a way to boil the complicated, interacting details down to a clear, concise message – it’s easy to get lost in the weeds and in the process lose an audience.
  • Hope: Although there is plenty of justification for gloom and doom, we have to leave our audience of one or 100 with the idea that we can work toward solutions. A great point – even the gloomiest books I have read on the climate crisis, including my current read, The Uninhabitable Earth, do not end in despair.

Truth in Ten has a wider purpose – beyond climate leaders certified by the Climate Reality Project.  You, dear reader, should you wish, can do your own presentation for friends, family, or any group you belong to.  You can download a ten-minute slide show right here. And if you would like to see a 25-minute version of the Gore climate presentation, this Ted Talk is a fairly current (2016) example. And yes, it suggests that we still have hope in solving the crisis.

Because we do. At least for now.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





Blows Against the Empire

28 07 2019

Save Enviro           In Trump’s zero-sum, winner-take-all view of America – and especially America’s relations with the rest of the world – self-interest, greed and cruelty are the operating principles. It’s not a stretch to say that Trump’s “America First” motto is simply a projection of the way he has lived his entire life – “Me first.” (Also me next, next, next, and so on. . . )

No, I don’t plan to launch a rant about Trump’s penchant for projection. I have a different focus for this post. I have collected three positive stories about people rising up for positive action, either individually or collectively, to put the country on a more productive, sustainable course. In small ways or large – they all matter.

We progressives often criticize corporate America for rapacious, destructive actions.  And that criticism is too often richly deserved. But in the case of this first story, a group of corporations are actually doing the right thing – in other words, their damnedest – to counter the Trump administration’s rapacious, destructive actions. Among the most harmful of Trump’s knee-jerk attempts to reverse Obama administration policies has been an effort that started almost from day one to roll back agreed-upon improvements in fuel efficiency standards for US-manufactured passenger cars and trucks.

Although the jury – and the Supreme Court, of course – is still out on this question, the good guys just might win this fight. In a new development, a group of four automakers (Honda, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW) have agreed with the state of California to maintain the stricter federal fuel economy improvement regulations imposed by the Obama administration in its sunset months.  And the even better news is that California is not a lone ranger on this issue – 16 other states, including my home state of Minnesota – have so far supported California in its effort to do right on this critically important matter. California is standing up against Trump administration efforts to do whatever the hell they want in ramping up greenhouse gas emissions – no doubt in servitude to Big Oil. Progress, to be sure.  But it ain’t over until the nine-justice choir sings.  And, since Mitch McConnell hijacked the Supreme Court, I am waiting for the ultimate decision settling the expected lawsuits that will be filed against California in the not distant future.

This story rates much attention because it is a case where profit-motivated entities – corporations – see it in their interest to fight environmental destruction.  Is self-interest at play here? Of course. Environmentally aware citizens – in California and beyond – are demanding action to battle climate disruption. But what is noteworthy is just how far we have fallen. Our federal government, as headed by the epitome of a fraudulent president, in favor of ever more environmental devastation, could be reined in by a group of corporations. You could not make this story up.

To introduce my second story, I will offer a personal example. About 20 years ago, my career employer was in downsizing mode. At that time, I already had about six years of experience in employee training and development. My manager at the time – who wisely took one of the lucrative farewell packages and started a very successful run elsewhere – bird-dogged an employment opportunity for me at another employer.  A fine possibility. Lucrative. Growth potential. One problem, though. The job was with an ammunition manufacturer. Sorry, no.  Yes, I know ammunition is a necessity in this world. But it’s gonna be produced by somebody else, not me. Not even in a training support role.

I thought about that experience when I heard this NPR story about employees at an advertising agency who decided they did not like their company’s client choices. Particularly this one – their ad agency was producing employee recruiting for Customs and Border Control. The malevolence and cruelty of Trump immigration policy and practice is not what I wish to highlight here.  No, it’s the simple fact – highlighted in the comments from Lam Thuy Vo of Buzzfeed – that first-line employees seem to be increasingly demanding a say in decisions made by their top executives.  She makes the point that “change from within” will be a growing factor in our ever more politically polarized environment. We can only hope.

The lesson for me?  We all had better believe in the mission of the organization we call home. If that mission drifts into territory we don’t agree with, we need to speak up. Raise hell. And the more sympathetic compatriots we can recruit, the better our chances for redirecting that entity to align with our values.

The third story landed in my lap. Rather, it landed on my porch. Troubled by reports about global insect declines that mirror my backyard observations, I have been wondering what I can do.  Other than, of course railing against the Monsantos and Bayers of the world – something I have been doing for a very long time.

A story in my Sunday 7/28 Star Tribune gave me hope, at least a little anyway. Significant numbers of residents in the Longfellow neighborhood of eastern Minneapolis, near the Mississippi River, are creating wildlife sanctuaries in their urban backyards.  I learned that a homeowner can – with modest expense – make adaptations to create spaces that welcome insects and birds.  OK, not deer, coyotes and pheasants, but it’s a start, hey. Think less ChemLawn, more wild, natural chaos.

Turns out that the changes largely boil down to four factors:

  • Food to attract wildlife
  • Fresh water -preferably water in motion (more on that a bit later)
  • Cover – i.e., hideouts for desirable critters
  • Spaces for raising young, i.e., the next generation that will try to survive our human onslaught

Naturally, there are a few other things backyard naturalists need to do – avoid chemical pesticides, remove invasive species and install native plants. Check, check and check. And of course, such efforts need not be limited to a sector of Minneapolis. They can’t be, if we have any chance to save the wild world from human depredation.

An interested friend of wildlife can earn certification from the National Wildlife Federation for their efforts. As a newly minted homeowner (yay!) on the other side of the Mississippi in Saint Paul, this blogger is on it. In fact, one of the first things I will investigate is a solar-powered pump to keep water moving in a fountain to attract wildlife – some examples here.

There are my three stories.  Each in its own way highlights something necessary – ways to swim against the poisonous stream of greed and destruction that defines our national environment in the era of Trump, and maybe – just maybe – ways to join with others who agree that what we are experiencing on the national scene does not have to be the norm.

Quick Hit

Heard what’s happening in Europe?  Yeah, you probably know about the completion of the Tour de France.  But have you heard about the Meltdown de France?  That is, a high temperature that shattered Paris’s centuries-old record by four degrees?  Laugh bitterly with me next time you listen to a media commentator wonder if this COULD possibly be caused by human-caused climate disruption.

Blogger’s Note

I will not post next week, August 4th.  I am dedicating my weekend to the climate disruption awareness cause – mentoring at the latest training by the Climate Reality Project, founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





All of the Above, Please

21 07 2019

who-fights-climate-change            My internal BS alarm was blaring as I read a recent extended piece in the Opinion section of my local Star Tribune. The author, a certain Paul John Scott of Rochester MN, had written a jocular, yet full-bore, defense of the cattle industry against claims that it is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate disruption. As you will see, I am far from the only reader and commentator possessing a well-tuned BS alarm, or “crap detector,” as my professor in a long-ago journalism class described the tool. As you will also see, Scott’s article is just the kind of deceptive, misdirected demonization that is one of the main obstacles to concerted climate action.

You can read the article here if you like. The “wise” lords of opinion at the paper dedicated the better part of an entire page to the piece, which, to be honest, is very well written. But writing skill does not automatically convey logical prowess, nor does it contribute to solving the world’s most pressing environmental crisis.

A detailed dissection of the piece would be too much “inside baseball.” But here are Scott’s key arguments in capsule form.

  1. The cattle industry is wrongly fingered as a major source of greenhouse gases
  2. Methane emissions from domestic cattle in North America are not really so different from the emissions of ancient megafauna – mainly the millions of bison that roamed the plains, but also woolly mammoths, large cats, giant sloths and large bears(!)
  3. The growing interest in vegetarian, low-meat or vegan diets is mainly based on health concerns, which are misguided at best or bogus at worst
  4. The public’s desire to explore and enjoy meat alternatives is aided, abetted and exploited by a cabal of dishonest, greedy capitalists
  5. Some meat alternatives are actually a larger climate disruption concern than animal products, mainly beef – which seems to be Scott’s favorite

And here are some linked rebuttals to each of those key ideas.

  1. Various estimates of cattle production’s contribution – for meat and dairy both – to human greenhouse gas emissions run from the absurdly low 2.8% cited by – you guessed it – the Meat Institute! To EPA’s 9% (quoted by Scott) to the stratospheric 51% from World Watch Institute, which Scott, of course, lampoons. This NY Times piece offers a measured assessment. It shows a global average of 15 to 18%, and points out one key reason why agriculture appears to be a lesser contributor in the US. That is, our other sectors – transportation, industry, power generation, etc. – blast out so damned much.
  2. We can argue about how much agriculture contributes to humankind’s planet-toasting greenhouse gas emissions, but this is inarguable. Those wild animals of the long past – megafauna – existed in integrated ecosystems, and at times when atmospheric CO2 was nothing like today’s inflated level. They were exhaling and excreting their methane and CO2 in the wild, natural world. That world looked not at all like this lovely panorama.  Bon appetit!
  3. A debatable point at best. Thanks to above-cited Meat Institute and so many other special interests, you can find seemingly reliable proof for almost any point of view on this. Here is a comparison of plant-based vs. vegan diets and their health effects. Here is a quite balanced view from Medical Health News. It covers nutrient sources, and also notes emerging evidence that frequent consumption of red meat – chemically cured or not – carries its own health risks. But I believe excessive focus on human health when it comes to food choices is itself a diversion from the main issue. It’s the planet’s health that is at stake here, though of course that planetary health is already damaging human health. Scott, to his credit, mentions the clearing of rain forests in favor of cattle production.  And this fact is certain – it takes more chemicals, fossil fuel, and land to produce meat than plant-based foods. And among animal products, beloved beef is the biggest offender.
  4. I have to admit, Scott has a strong point here. Venture capitalists and big corporations see dollar signs in the public’s growing interest in switching to plant-based foods, and that does lead to misleading claims. But in this capitalist system, what trend is not exploited by someone or some organization with lots of power, money and influence?  What concerns me is all the energy and scientific brainpower being thrown at creating “Franken-meat.” You know, taking cells from animals into the lab and generating faux meat and fish.
  5. There may be some humor in the way Scott fingers rice and soy as the true climate demons. But it is not at all helpful. Yes, rice paddies are a greenhouse gas concern. But that is certainly not an argument for substituting meat. And it is more than a bit simplistic to assume that “rice and beans” is the only way for vegans to obtain complete proteins. Have a look. (Full disclosure – I am not a vegan, but have been a vegetarian for several years, and continue to reduce my reliance on non-meat animal products.)

I mentioned that other readers saw some problems in Scott’s opinion piece. As a daily reader of my local newspaper, I can say it is exceedingly rare for responses to any opinion piece to line up unanimously in disagreement with the piece’s ideas. But such was the case here. Five intelligent letters to the editor take Scott to task on one or more points – some in common with my five, and some taking other approaches.

A wide variety of human activities are contributing greenhouse gases that are steadily heating the planet, and warping the climate.  Here is a fine and concise sorting out – with easy-to-read charts – of global contributions by the various sectors. The main sectors, of course, are energy production, agriculture, industry and transportation. The source of this very useful data is the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Hard to believe in the era of Trump that EPA apparently remains a useful source of some information. So far anyway.

Defending any of the sectors against change, and demonizing others, is like a chaotic classroom mess created by kindergartners, with each insisting that the other is responsible. We are all responsible, and if one thing is clear, it’s this. It will take thought, planning, innovation and yes, individual and collective changes to lifestyle choices if we are to have any hope of halting climate disruption before the truly catastrophic predicted consequences unfold.  That is to say, even more catastrophic than what we are already observing.

So, where should we go?  Here is a hopeful site that I have not linked with before, though I have ordered the book. (It’s next on my reading list, after my current read – The Uninhabitable Earth.) Here are several organizations working to educate the public and encourage change – Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and the Citizens Climate Lobby.

We need rapid progress in all sectors. Right now, cities and states are standing up to the destructive policies of the current US national government. Trump and McConnell and Co. are holding up national progress, and doing damage of course, but they won’t be around forever, and there is only so much they can do to thwart state and local initiatives. We hope. But the ultimate solution of course is to free government from powerful corporate influence.  This group is working to do just that.

Meanwhile, please join me in activating your own BS alarm, or crap detector, when you hear or read some shill saying the other guy’s sector is the problem.  This is our problem, in all sectors, and we all have to do our part to solve it.

 

Blogger’s notes.

A few things I just can’t resist sharing this week.

 

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





Climate “Winners” and Losers

14 07 2019

Lipsticky Pig            If you are anything like me, you read, watch or listen to everything that pops up in the media, mass or niche, about climate disruption.  Since I write about the topic often, the fact that you have opened this article – thank you! – tells me you are at least a bit interested in this enormous environmental challenge facing our kind and the planet.

Among the oft-ignored pieces that tell the sad truth – pieces and books by writers such as Seth Borenstein, Chris Mooney, Dahr Jamail, Elizabeth Kolbert, Andrew Revkin and many others – there is a certain flavor of communication that you find from time to time mainly in newspapers and mass-market mags such as Time. The theme of these pieces can be summed up with this phrase – “Yes, climate disruption is happening, and there will be both winners and losers as a result of the changes.” Let’s test that.

Losers first. Yeah, that’s the easy part.

Some losers are localized, and feeling the pain right now. As I write, Hurricane Barry is making landfall in Louisiana, just west of New Orleans. Here is a tracker, which will be updated over the next few days as Barry slowly edges north into the heart of middle America.  Looking strictly at storm strength, Barry looks mild – it barely makes the cut as category 1, with sustained winds of 75 MPH. No big deal?  Think again. That very slow path and northward motion both of which used to be less common for hurricanes – create long-lasting headaches for those in Barry’s path.  Its slow movement means drenching rains that linger. Most recent forecasts suggest up to two feet (!) of rain for parts of Louisiana, where Barry will remain a most unwelcome guest until early Sunday evening.  It is then forecast to continue north to central Missouri, which it should reach by Tuesday morning.

Levee-threatening rain is problem enough. But the vastly changed environment that greets Barry on its path just compounds the challenges. As you will read here, record winter and spring rain throughout the Midwest has kept the lower Mississippi at or near flood stage for months – and even without tropical storms, that flooding had been forecast to linger for several more months. Even if you do not take the time to read the entire linked Inside Climate News story, scroll down to see two eye-popping graphics that tell the story of the multiple factors fueling the complex threat facing New Orleans right now, and many other coastal American cities just ahead – ridiculously warm Atlantic and Gulf waters, and the pervasive record and near-record precipitation that continues to overfill the Mississippi. And then there is that matter of what I call misbehaving hurricanes – best exemplified recently by Florence and Harvey. Barry appears to have potential to be another one of those, if on a smaller scale. I have written about warped hurricane paths in the recent past.

Some losers are not local at all, and not even human.  I was walking in my neighborhood the other night at dusk and was reminded of another environmental issue that is most likely caused by climate disruption.  Surely you remember – no doubt fondly – a phenomenon that would grace early evenings in all locales – rural, suburban, urban alike. I speak of the lowly but wondrous firefly or lightning bug. So, where the hell are they?  I noticed the decline of fireflies and so many other beneficial (or simply interesting) insects – butterflies, moths, dragonflies, etc. – about five years ago.  It’s a global phenomenon it seems, and scientists have not figured out the root cause.  Agricultural chemicals no doubt contribute, but the problem is so pervasive that I find it hard to believe it is NOT connected to climate disruption. (I’ve posted on this before as well.) And, sadly, many of us citizens, i.e., voters, don’t make that connection, either.  I have heard people explain the firefly-free evening darkness away.  “Oh, we never really had those in the city anyway, did we?” Oh, yes, we did. And, oh yes, how conveniently brief are some of our memory spans. What this drastic decline in flying insects (except, it seems, horseflies, gnats and mosquitoes) will mean for the overall environment remains to be seen.  To quote our nation’s chief executive – one of the few things Trump says (and repeats, ad nauseam) that makes any sense at all – “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” (Sorry, you must add your own virtual helicopter blades whirring or jet engines roaring as Trump utters that mindless throw-away for the umpteenth time. To complete the heroic picture, imagine him applauding himself while striding away.)

It’s no secret what will happen to a particular, enormous population in the future. That would be the hundreds of millions of people who live in areas drained by rivers – mainly the Ganges and Indus but also several others.  This burgeoning population has depended for centuries on gradual, seasonal melt from Himalayan glaciers for their drinking water, agriculture and hydropower. That melt of course is no longer seasonal – it’s a year-round meltdown. As this article by Seth Borenstein reports, the mountain glaciers have lost 28% of their ice since 1975. The melt rate is accelerating, and scientists have looked at several possible suspect causes, concluding that the culprit is – surprise – rising temperatures caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

We are of course just skimming the surface on losers here. What about the “winners?” Surely, someone, somewhere, is benefitting from human activities disrupting the climate. Right.

I am not at all pleased to report that, even with the onslaught of increasingly extreme weather events, affecting so many people that  public opinion in America has come around to accept the scientific facts of human-caused climate disruption, the bullshit machine continues to steam along on all cylinders. Let’s visit a few of the most prominent BS fabrication plants to see what sorts of fables they are spinning these days. My favorite site for anti-science spin has to be the Heartland Institute. Founded in 1984(!), and funded by the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil and other propaganda merchants, it continues to “teach the controversy.”  Here is a recent piece on the site that decries “climate alarmism.” More on target with my current topic, here is another piece from the same site that actually touts climate disruption (they don’t call it that, of course!) as a boon to American agriculture.

Another favorite fabricator is the innocent-sounding Climate Depot. The brainchild of notorious climate disruption denier Marc Morano, the site amalgamates articles like this one, that claims climate disruption benefits Chinese agriculture. And then there is wattsupwiththat.com, where site managers spend most of their time ridiculing and attempting to debunk climate science. But I dug deep and found this gem, celebrating the “greening of the earth.” CO2 is plant food, you see. More CO2, more lush greenery. As the article says, “global greening is happening faster than climate change, and it’s a good thing.” Uh huh.

But you don’t have to limit searches to the noted science deniers and climate liars to find celebration of “winners.” Here is a recent news piece from my  local StarTribune that caught my eye. For the busy, skimming reader, this looks like good news – climate changes are helping some Minnesota farmers increase corn and soybean yields, according to a multi-year study at the University of Minnesota.  But if you read carefully, you see that this is a fair, balanced report.  Wheat, you see, has not fared so well. And the author, Adam Belz, widens the lens to look at global agricultural changes: “Global palm oil, barley, rice and wheat yields have fallen. Soybean yields in Western Europe have dropped 22% and corn yields in Eastern and Northern Europe have dropped by 25% as a result of climate change.”

So are certain Minnesota farmers climate disruption “winners?” Maybe for now. But then there is that heavy precipitation pretty much the entire region suffered through in the first half of 2019. As recently as a few weeks ago, many farmers in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest were still struggling to get crops in the flooded fields, switching seed choices for the flood-shortened growing season, or in some cases just packing it in for the year. I wonder how those farmers are enjoying the ballyhooed “global greening.”

I also saw a New York Times piece touting cold Duluth MN as a “climate refuge.”  It talks about several American cool-weather cities, including Buffalo NY, as possible destinations for those fleeing say, sea rise in Florida or wildfires in the West. So again here, the headline suggests some “winners” – Duluth and Buffalo adding population, exclusively those with the means to up and move. But will residents of those livable cities consider themselves winners when they have to deal with big-city problems like traffic gridlock and the inevitable crowding and pollution issues that come from an exploding population? Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

My point is this – suggesting that someone, some city, some organization, some country, will be a “winner” as a result of climate disruption is shortsighted at best and delusional at worst. Even hinting at such an outcome is problematic.  I believe even balanced pieces like the two cited here offer something for deniers to capitalize on in their quest to maintain the status quo, and for ordinary citizens to cling to in their wish to continue their lifestyles without changes.

What should we be doing?  There is hope. Humans, being a self-centered lot, are much more inclined to hear messages that directly affect them and their immediate tribe members. If people see how climate disruption is also disrupting their health, those people just might accept the science and join the movement to do something about it. NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday ran a piece on a doctor who includes climate disruption in her discussions with individual patients suffering from related health issues.  Cities around the world and in the US (Trump’s national willfully and ignorantly destructive environmental policies be damned) are making real progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking of Trump’s attacks on the environment, one of the acts he brags about as a big achievement is pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement.  Though that agreement falls far short of what is needed to protect the earth from the most devastating effects of climate disruption, a study shows that limiting global temperature rises – which that agreement will do, to some degree – will greatly reduce human mortality from heat waves. This NY Times piece describes the study and the benefits.

A new edition to my “You just could not make this up” file appeared just the other day. There he was, Trump, the superhero destroyer of “job-killing regulations,” the anger-fueled blowhard who really should rename the Environmental Protection Agency as the Environmental Polluter Protection Agency, bragging about his “environmental stewardship.” Read it and weep, gasp or despair, however you are inclined.

Ridding our government of Trump will not solve all environmental problems, including climate disruption. But it would be a helluva great step in that direction. Every one of the Democratic contenders would re-enlist the United States in the Paris climate accord. The days of us as a rogue nation could be over, at least until we elect someone even more ignorant and destructive than Trump.

Here’s hoping we choose wisely. Our current path may create some “winners” in the short term. But ignoring, even enabling, climate disruption will make us all losers in the long term.

Blogger’s Note: Technical problems kept me from posting for several weeks. My main computer locked up and needed to be wiped clean and restored. I bought a smaller, less powerful laptop/tablet hybrid that kept me on line. But it was not up to the blogging task.

One other thing. If you read this week’s post carefully, you may have noticed my use of the term “climate disruption.” I intend to use that as my default description for what we are doing to the climate. “Global warming” is accurate in the long term, but falls short when you consider climate disruptions such as the slowing jet stream and consequent spillage of polar air over Siberia and central North America. “Climate change” is more accurate, but sounds benign, almost natural. Of course, that is just what the term’s coiner, that prince of communication darkness, Frank Luntz, intended. “Climate destabilization?” Definitely accurate, but it has too many syllables.  “Climate disruption” tells the story precisely and cleanly. If you can call this mess we are creating “clean,” that is.

Thanks for sticking with IBI Watch.  This post resumes my weekly cycle.

Michael Murphy
St. Paul MN





Royally Distracted

12 05 2019

Care            Think way back to Monday, May 6. Seems way back, doesn’t it, with our 24-hour news cycle’s second-by-second updates, not to mention the never-ending campaign in this country.  On that day, there were two “big” news stories, which garnered about equal billing.  There is no scientific way I know of to prove this, but if I could get my hands on the data, I believe I could show that the dramatically less important story got more attention from the news-consuming public.

Here are the two stories in question. First, a “happy-happy” item, and now “gloom and doom.”

As an Irishman, I have little time for the fawning attention so many Americans shower on British royalty in particular. That said, I have no personal animus against the British royalty. After all, many of them – in particular Prince Charles, as well as his two sons by his late wife Princess Diana – are decent human beings who do some good work in the world.  And you have to admire any royal scion who would name a son “Archie.” Only a name like Spike or Butch or Curly could be more of a departure from traditional royal stodginess. Based on Queen Elizabeth’s longevity, I won’t live long enough to see King Archie, but wouldn’t that be a kick in the meathead? All he would need is a sweetheart named Edith – All in the (Royal) Family, dingbat!

OK, so the new royal brat’s full, formal name is actually Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, but you get the point. The point I wish to make is this – why would anyone pay any attention at all to such drivel in the face of the other story?

An exhaustive, multi-year study overseen by the United Nations says we humans, self-appointed masters of the universe, are on a trajectory to extinguish one million species. That’s out of an estimated five to eight million species total around the globe. How exhaustive was this study? It involved over 450 researchers, and about 15,000 science and government reports. We are not talking about a lone Chicken Little here, friends.

If you followed that link, you read about the ways humans are increasingly crowding out and extinguishing more and more species that happen not to be human. If you didn’t, here are the main ways humans are making it difficult for everything except squirrels, rats, cockroaches and (for now anyway) humans to survive in the not-so-brave new world we are creating.

  • Turning forests, grasslands, and other areas into farms, cities, and other developments
  • Overfishing the world’s oceans
  • Permitting climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to make it too hot, wet, or dry for some species to survive
  • Polluting land and water
  • Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals

The idea that humans are taking over and trashing the entire world, making it harder for anything else to survive, is not new. If you want to read more about how we are accelerating the extinction process, read this book. I have read Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction, and can highly recommend it.

No time to read these linked articles and books? Then try these two links that summarize the UN report on extinction – here and here. The first offers a video of a short but informative CBS interview with Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger. He points out the direst numbers, including this one – since 1980, human emissions of planet-heating carbon dioxide have doubled. Also, since we care mostly about humans (that’s ALL some of us care about, alas), 40% of our burgeoning population lacks access to clean fresh water. He rightly agrees with the comment from one of the panel interviewers – “We haven’t even begun to address this.” Amen, brother. The second is a “feast” for the eyes. That’s because the piece from Popular Science features five eye-popping charts that break out the details of the UN report, in digestible chunks. Here is one number from each of the charts:

  • 40% of amphibians are in danger of extinction over the next few decades (Sorry, Froggy)
  • 100 million hectares of forest have been cut down just since 1980, with 42 million in Latin America for cattle ranching, and 7.5 million in Southeast Asia for palm oil plantations (Read the label of so many food and health products, and you will see how our palm oil addiction is replacing the planet’s “lungs”)
  • 55% of the world’s ocean is covered by industrial fishing (Hey, that leaves 45%; let’s get to work on that, lads. Look up “bycatch,” and the connection between this massive fishing and the plastic pollution that chokes ocean life, and you will begin to understand the enormity of this problem)
  • 33% of the world’s land is in use for agriculture (And a lot of that is unsustainable – look up “monoculture” to learn more)
  • Indigenous communities own, manage, and/or use 28% of global land, but 72% of species those indigenous peoples depend on are in decline (Now THERE’S progress for ya!)

Here is a good question. Shouldn’t the heavily industrialized United States, which has contributed mightily to the global environmental crisis, be a leader in generating and implementing ideas to reverse these destructive trends?  Should is right. But here is what our Secretary of State was doing just this very week. Environmental activist Bill McKibben (350.org) strikes the right tone in this New Yorker piece detailing the struggle between greed and the planet, or, to focus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Arctic Council.

This is an exact Pompeo quote, which he delivered following a parade of speakers who decried the rapid melting of the Arctic and its effect on northern indigenous peoples.  “The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance,” he said. “It houses thirteen per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil, thirty per cent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare-earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore.” So, in the Gospel of Greed according to Big Mike P (libertarian acolyte of Ayn Rand, and holder of a lifetime 4% rating from the League of Conservation Voters), all that damned ice can’t melt fast enough.

So much for environmental leadership from the top of our federal government, at least in the era of Trump.

And of course the problem that no one, even prominent environmentalists, seems to want to talk about, lurks behind all the environmental challenges documented in the UN report.  No, it’s not climate change, or habitat destruction, or plastic pollution. It’s the one obliquely alluded to in that Jeffrey Kluger interview, when he called humans a “hungry, messy species,” and mentioned the numbers – current human population – tracked right up to the second at this site. Note that his number was already a little low.  He said 7.6 billion humans, while the current number is 7.8.  Oh hell, what’s a hundred million among friends?

Is all hope lost?  Not exactly.  While pignorant (pretend-ignorant) greedmeisters like Pompeo do the bidding of the planet-gobbling Koch brothers, enabled by the profoundly, genuinely and proudly ignorant Trump, more Americans are waking up to environmental issues, in particular the pervasive and worsening problem of climate change. While all the problems described in the UN report need attention, climate change would be a good place to start.

As nearly as I can tell, this bill – which would impose a fee on carbon – is still in consideration in the House of Representatives. Yes, I know that anything passed by today’s Democrat-led House would have to be embraced by oily Mitch McConnell’s Senate. But you do have to start somewhere.  And once we sweep Trump and his band of pignorant plunderers, along with Supreme Court Stealing McConnell, into the dustbin of unfortunate history in 2020, we can get to work on some version of the Green New Deal.

In the meantime, here is a modest proposal.  Instead of celebrating the birth of some fabulously rich, ridiculously entitled kid in Britain, let’s work on initiatives to support family planning around the globe. That’s the way, in the long run, to solve all environmental problems before it’s too late.

Mother Earth is waiting. But I think she’s getting mighty pissed off.

 

Michael Murphy

St. Paul MN





Fixers Take All

5 05 2019

tycoon limo            You might say it started with a comedy routine. No, I am not talking specifically about Trump’s presidency, though based on his rally shtick I think he is, deep down, a failed, frustrated, flop-sweat-worthy wannabe standup comic. No, I refer to one of  Steve Martin’s most famous routines. You remember it. Some off-the-wall self-help advice. It went, more or less, like this:

“Here’s how to be a millionaire and pay no taxes.  First, get a million dollars. When the tax man comes to your door, just say, “I forgot.”

Martin launched that televised bit in January 1978 on the new hit show, Saturday Night Live.  His timing was perfect, of course. In the intervening four decades, a whole crowd of entrepreneurs, technocrats, oligarchs, crooks and corporations have turned this joke into an art form.

A million dollars?  Pocket lint.  We’re talking many billions of “forgot.”  And of course the phenomenon – paying no tax on massive fortunes, ill-gotten or otherwise acquired – really has nothing to do with forgetting. It is a well-planned, well-executed, well-practiced strategy for gaming the system for private gain and public neglect.

The New York Times recently ran a story written by two of their reporters on assignment in Akron OH, Stephanie Saul and Patricia Cohen. Akron of course is an old and suffering Midwestern industrial town, many of whose downtrodden voters saw supporting Donald Trump’s faux populism as a fine way to poke a stick in the eye of the elites.  (“Take that, Crooked Hillary!”) Their reporting includes a list of the companies that have made a killing in recent years, a killing that has been supercharged by the tax changes championed by the “man of the people” from Queens.

Quiz time. What retail company reported 10.8 billion dollars in revenue last year, and not only paid zero corporate income tax, but actually finagled a net tax rebate?  Hint – most of my readers, and this blogger, have bought from this entity. If you guessed Amazon, right you are. Consider it the high cost of low price and world-class convenience. Three other well-known corporations make the top four of this list of high earners/zero payers – Delta Airlines, Chevron Oil and General Motors. Other big names further down the list of what you might call Steve Martin honorees (earn megabucks, pay zilch) include Halliburton, Netflix and IBM.

Of course, this did not begin on that dark day of the greatly exaggerated crowd of Inauguration worshippers on the National Mall, but it has become a lot more pervasive during Trump’s reign. Here’s how much more pervasive – the number of companies reporting income but paying no corporate income tax since 2017 has doubled.  That must be how we “make America great again.” I guess.

Just think what all that corporate tax avoidance is doing to government revenue. You know, the resources that are needed to restore our nation’s aging infrastructure.  And now think about how disingenuous Trump was last week when he – allegedly in earnest – met with Congressional Democrats to discuss – get this – a $2 trillion infrastructure initiative.  Where in the hell is all that development and construction money going to come from?  Remember way back in 2017, when Trump scored his biggest “success,” the tax “reform” whose benefits went mostly to those at the very top of the wealth and income ladders, and, of course, big corporations.  You can’t make this stuff up. It’s too unbelievable. Think about this, though, the next time you nearly break your axle or your jaw when you meet up with a wrecking-ball-sized pothole, or detour around a water main break, or wait an eternity for an overcrowded subway train.

Private gain at public cost is of course far from simply an American problem.  But the US plays an interesting role in the global greedfest. NPR’s Fresh Air ran a thought-provoking interview the other day with author Oliver Bullough.  The Title and subtitle of Bullough’s recent book describe the global con game the author has exposed: “Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks now Rule the World and how to take it back.”

Bullough suggests “Moneyland” as an apt name for the extra-national virtual realm where ill-gotten fortunes are sheltered from the boogeyman, er, uh, I mean the tax collector.  How much ill-gotten fortune?  The estimate is that $1 trillion per year are stolen by corrupt government officials, oligarchs and other shady characters, often in the poorest of the world’s countries. That’s money that could be spent improving the lives of those countries’ suffering citizens, not to mention stopping environmental destruction. But no matter. That money can’t be carried around in suitcases, semis or container ships. Hence, the need for “Moneyland.” Moneyland is where that money is invested – purchasing high-end real estate and corporate entities, investing in financially challenged construction and development. And where are the main capitals of Moneyland, i.e., where the bulk of these stolen fortunes are invested?  Let’s just say it’s mainly an American game.

Bullough lists New York City and London as the unquestionable big dogs in this show, but the next three spots are major American cities – Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The high rollers who play this game are no dummies. They may have acquired their stolen riches in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia or Ukraine, but they want to invest it in places where it will be hard for another thief or thug to make off with it. So they are enriching themselves in an environment of rampant corruption, then taking those fortunes to a place where rule of law is somewhat more respected.  As I said, no dummies these guys.

Based in Great Britain, Bullough regularly conducts what he calls “kleptocracy tours.” These allow tourists to see from the outside, but close-up, the lives of the rich and infamous. As for my own city of origin, New York, Bullough’s take reminded me of a terrifically sad expose from Kevin Baker in Harpers last July – “The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence.” Baker details the incredible lengths NYC has gone to in order to attract these foreign “investors,” with the result that these oligarchs and their friends spend little time in the city, while the services and businesses that actual residents depend upon flee or decline.  Bullough has a term for this phenomenon. He says it amounts to converting swaths of Moneyland’s main capitals – London and NYC – into physical “bank accounts.”

I took perverse pleasure in Bullough’s description of the language game that defines this virtual industry. It’s not “hiding dirty money,” it’s “asset protection.” “Secrecy?” Come, now, comrade, we are talking “confidentiality.” Let’s not talk “tax havens.” We are “avoiding fiscal friction.” “Bribes,” you say? No, “consultancy payments.”

One more thing. Guess which six-times-bankrupt NYC developer grew heavily dependent on these sorts of investors following the 2008 financial crisis (which of course was itself precipitated by reckless speculation and fraud by the highest of high rollers). And just think how much gratitude such a developer could show to those shady investors who had saved his faux-tanned hide.  And imagine if such a developer could ascend to powerful office.  Oops.

All this naturally leads to a crucial question. How did we ever let it get this bad?  An even more crucial question is “How can we stop it, and get on a path where the public good actually matters more than currying favor with foreign oligarchs in order to further enrich our own elites?”

I found some answers to those questions in an extended article in Time magazine from about a year ago, by Steven Brill. The article is adapted from his book, whose title rings so true to this blogger: “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s 50-year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse it.”  Brill’s essential point is this – members of the Baby Boom generation have misused the privilege they gained from their parents’ hard work in creating a better, more prosperous post-war America.  Telling his own story of being the beneficiary of some fortunate connections – plucked from school in Far Rockaway, Queens (not far from where I grew up) he describes how he was eased into a successful undergraduate ride through Yale, culminating in a law degree from the same elite university.

And what did he contribute to society? By his own admission, his work as a lawyer – among other things, founding the journal American Lawyer – to “entrench a new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers who were much smarter and more driven than the old-boy network of heirs born on third base – and much more able to enrich and protect the clients who could afford them.” He details how his work – and that of other knowledge workers like him – enabled the very changes in the American economy that led to dramatically worsening wealth inequality, a system built on quick “deals” rather than long-term development and investment, corporate lobbying in virtual control of legislation and regulation, and ultimately the 2008 market crash. He spares no one – many Democrats have been just as responsible as Republicans for this rigging of the economic game.

In both the Time piece and his book – which is now on my must-read list – Brill describes his multi-year journey seeking answers to this fundamental question: “How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, galloping income inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government?”

If we have any hope of getting America back on a path where the public good matters, and the system is not run ever more for and by the elites, we need some answers to that question. And Brill provides some hope by naming some groups that I plan to further explore in a future piece. To close, here is a list of organizations that he names that are working to re-level the economic playing field:

Pursuit (formerly known as C4Q, helps displaced workers learn software engineering)

Issue One (An organization whose web site banner proclaims “Why Mitch McConnell is not invincible” is an organization I want to know more about!)

Better Markets (Mission is to support Main Street, not Wall Street)

Bipartisan Policy Center (As name suggests, seeks and promotes best ideas from both sides of the aisle)

Partnership for Public Service (Promotes more effective government; who can argue with that?!)

I recognize that all this reading can be very bleak. But one of the best cautionary quotes ever suggests that we pay attention and do what we can to reverse these disturbing trends:

“We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” – Louis D. Brandeis

Let’s start by un-electing the apologists for and enablers of the corporatist ruling class here in this struggling democracy of ours.  That is, remove the fixers, before they really do take all. I’d start with Mitch McConnell, if it were up to me.

You might have heard, a national election looms in 2020 . . .