IBI Watch 11/4/12

4 11 2012

Play Dumb or Act Smart – Time to Choose  //

This week’s latest monstrous weather disaster on the eastern seaboard is yet one more lesson from Mother Nature – who always bats last.  We have not heeded those warnings in the past.  Could Hurricane Sandy be the tipping point?  It would have been a lot ‘easier’ if we had listened to the smart people, i.e. the overwhelming majority of scientists who for the past few decades have warned of climate change.  But aside from a few positive steps – home energy efficiency incentives and recent increases in fuel economy requirements being two – we have largely continued with our ‘business as usual’ approach to fossil fuel-powered energy.  That means atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to accumulate, the planet continues to warm, and weather grows more extreme.  And, depending on Tuesday’s election outcome, we may jam down the accelerator even harder.  This will continue what I call our national energy policy – ‘Find lots more coal and oil, and burn it all up, fast!’

Some want to continue with playing dumb, or what I call ‘pignorance.’ (Pignorance = pretend ignorance.)  They look for uncertainty – including the fossil-fuel-tycoon-manufactured uncertainty reported last week by Frontline – and use it to block sustainable policy.  This comparison critiques this approach.  Let’s say you have heart disease.  You go to 100 doctors.  98 of them say you need bypass surgery.  Two say take two cheeseburgers and rest in your lounge chair.  The denialists want us to savor the cheeseburgers and hope for the best.  How about you?

Here is an example of what I am talking about – a comment I received on last week’s post.  “Warming is accelerating? REALLY? Then why did the Met Office in Britain just state there has been zero net warming over the last 16 years? By the way, hurricanes in late October are not all that rare and are certainly not a sign of climate change. In fact, in our record of storms spanning 1851 – to present, October ranks 3rd in terms of months with both the most hurricanes/tropical storms and the number of landfalling hurricanes/tropical storms. Hardly rare. Hardly a harbinger of…anything. Please stop the propaganda – the SCIENTIFIC facts don’t back you up.”

Do you see the straw man?  Nowhere in last week’s post do I suggest that an October hurricane is unusual or by itself proof of climate change.  But the confluence of factors – a late-season hurricane fueled by warmer-than-average ocean waters merging with a nor-easter and Arctic air, and pushed west by a blocking pattern over the warmer Arctic, is EXTREMELY unusual, and absolutely consistent with predictions by climate scientists.  And all that accelerating warming in the Arctic – if it is not our greenhouse gases, then it must be the sunspots, or a polar bear barbecue, or Santa opening more coal-powered sweatshops or something scientific like that.

But back to the Sandy question.  It is certainly a teachable moment, though it is sad that so many have to suffer so grievously for our collective pignorance.  The title of Bloomberg News’ cover story, written by Paul Barrett and reported here in Democracy Now! says it all.  Here, Chris Mathews takes on the continuing denialists (or ‘pigs’ as he calls them.  This AlterNet piece rightly points out that Sandy is a wake-up call if there ever was one.  And Seth Borenstein concisely covers all the issues here – Sandy’s weird path, documented sea rise that gives storm surges a vertical head start, and also mentions cutting-edge research that is hinting that unprecedented Arctic melting may be radically changing storm behavior in the Northern Hemisphere.  Heck, even Fox News offered a platform for climate scientist Michael Mann in Sandy’s wake.

So what is changing?  Well, for one thing, scientists (and mainstream journalists, we can only hope!) seem to be moving away from the reflexive caveat – the one about ‘no individual weather event can be tied to global warming, etc.’  See here for evidence of that change.  And here is a new attempt to explain a complex relationship – what we are doing to the atmosphere on the one hand and individual weather phenomena on the other.  George Lakoff and Chris Mooney took part in a panel discussion on Huffington Post that covered ‘systemic causation.’  Lakoff adds more detail here.

A new realization seems to be dawning as well that climate change is here and how and must be dealt with. Now that would be acting smart.  Aside from the madness of geoengineering (surveyed with concern here by Naomi Klein), this means two things. First – drastically cutting our greenhouse emissions.  The best idea I have seen on that front is ‘fee and dividend,’ as promoted by James Hansen.  Second – dealing with current and inevitable effects.  For threatened cities like New York, that means either ‘resilience’ or some kind of ocean barrier.  Neither is simple – or cheap.  Resilience means building up infrastructure, piece by piece.  Laborious, costly and extremely difficult – and beginning right now.  A more likely outcome in the long term – some kind of sea wall or barrier system.  Andrew Revkin covers the choices in this Dot Earth piece.  It looks expensive, but look at the long-term payback.   Probably the only thing that would cost more would be to do nothing – like North Carolina.

OK, I was going to leave Sandy for other topics and rants, but just before posting, I heard a Weekend Edition Sunday story that proves a couple of my points.  It is a story about the insurance industry and its exposure in the face of ever more extreme weather.  It includes some impressive statistics about the increase in extreme weather (and unrelated seismic) disasters that have hit North America in the last few years.  But it is not a very good story.  Why?  Though it is not a story about global warming per se, it has to include the old false equivalence that plagues such stories.  The reporter turns it into a story about how MANY hurricanes occur rather than the nature of such hurricanes.  And, since I like to give credit where it is due, I nominate one of the story’s sources for what I call the Poo-Poo Squad (an award I give to those public figures who, despite mounting evidence, continue to feed the Merchants of Doubt in their quest for business-as-usual, full-speed-ahead fossil fuel burning.).  Listen to how Karen Clark insists on playing dumb before a vast audience. “We’re not that smart,” she says.  Indeed.  Hardly any mention of  just what makes Sandy such an aberration – rising sea levels, storm track, width of wind field, slow storm progress, and on and on.  There’s another straw man.  A story like this does NOTHING for waking up the public to the need for rational, sustainable energy and climate policy.  That’s up to you and me, dear reader.  And if you want a graphical representation of Sandy, the frankenstorm for the ages (at least until the next one comes along in a few months or years), watch the short video of the week from Science Friday.  It’s a CAT scan of a monster.  Harder all the time to play dumb in the face of this evidence.  Hard, but alas, not impossible.

How to ‘Win’ an Election

Generally, you have to win more votes.  But there are other ways.  Remember 2004?  The current marathon, near its end, feels like that year to me.  Though Nate Silver of the 538 Blog continues to post a high probability of an Obama victory, I remain skeptical.  Remember, the GOP has the virtually all the big, Supreme-Court-blessed corporate money on its side, and so many more sophisticated tools at its disposal this cycle.  Investigative reporter Greg Palast has a new book that goes into all the demonically brilliant strategies – Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.  This ten-minute interview goes into all the ‘vote-culling’ tactics.  And even on the entirely legal side, there is always the odd sales pitch for Romney.  How about the one highlighted by Paul Krugman – elect Romney, or we will continue to obstruct Obama.  In other words, ‘Nice country you got here.  It’d be a shame if something bad happened to it.’

Of Civility and Thuggery

There has been much talk of civility – or its absence – in recent years.  This is no surprise, considering the creeping polarization of our national politics.  For commentator Bonnie Blodgett, it’s a distraction keeping us from dealing with the most important issues, and providing an opportunity for the power elite to concentrate their power.  Her Star Tribune column has a great punch line.  This same theme – in three parts – was the focus of this week’s This American Life.  Follow stories of friendships devastated by political disagreement, clandestine Democrats in red states, and an appalling display of in-your-face, take-no-prisoners politics in New Hampshire.  Listen to the whole one-hour program – Red State Blue State – right here.

Energy/Climate Progress – Two Stories

First – a good-news story from Denmark.  Second – despite the two presidential candidates falling all over themselves to tell us how much they love coal, there is some very good news on solar energy.

When the Going Gets Tough . . .

I have not been a big fan of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  But he is clearly the star of this Jon Stewart segment on ‘institutional competence.’  Do you think Willard and his team might be a little bit sorry he did not choose this guy for veep?  Watch for the segment from Fox News.  Priceless.

“The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do.” – Joseph Stalin

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

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