IBI Watch 5/5/13

5 05 2013

Ups Rising //

One of the most enduring conservative causes is deregulation. Government regulation is burdensome, a drag on commerce, a nuisance for “job creators.” Often, that regulation is around disclosure – sharing information that customers or the public need to make informed choices. The ideal world of the radical deregulators – the Randians’ deified “makers,” has one guideline – caveat emptor. In that world, we are all “ups,” that is, customers on the used car lot. It’s our job to figure out what is going on, and we are only as secure as the salesman is honest. This sure worked well in the financial industry leading up to the 2008 collapse. Remember? Real estate values would never fall. Mortgage-backed securities? Maybe the best engine for wealth creation ever. Leave it all to the smartest guys in the room. Uh huh.

The battle raging right now over fracking is just such a regulatory tussle. Trust us, we are told. The chemical brew used to coax reluctant oil and gas from deep shale is safe, not a threat to ground water. And anyway, the exact mixtures are trade secrets. The earthquake connection? Forget that, folks. What is more important than cheap gas for the car? And all that noise about silica sand? Just that, noise.

Look in your clothes closet. See how rarely “Made in USA” appears. (For me, it’s mostly a few near-antique tweed sport coats with a new lease on life – I can wear them less often because of chronic winter warmth.) Now check how often you see “Made in Bangladesh.” Ah, just as I thought. Now try to convince yourself that folks like you and me have no responsibility at all for the horrible factory building collapse – where the death toll just passed 600. Right, it’s that big, bad building owner’s fault. Punish him and all will be well. Elizabeth Cline knows better. Based on an interview on Terry Gross’s consistently amazing Fresh Air show, Cline’s book just might become the first volume on fashion that I ever read. Well, it’s sort of about fashion.

And what about the continuing decline of vital pollinators? Just read this article that dances all around the issue, seeking some natural cause. I am sure natural causes are part of the problem with colony collapse disorder, but do you think the main cause could, just possibly, be those amazing “new generation” pesticides, the nicotinoids? The European Union thinks so. But not us here in America, land of the government run by and for the big corporations. Some groups are fighting to get a ban here as well – here and here.

These are just three examples where the long-term common good is pretty much missing from the debate. Should cheap gas, damn the environmental consequences, be the driving force behind energy policy? Should cheap, fashionable clothing trump worker safety and survival in the poorest corners of the world – where that business has migrated over the past three decades? Should agricultural chemical manufacturers, with their stranglehold on the political process, be allowed to beguile us with low-priced processed foods based on factory-farmed monoculture, while ignoring the long-term destruction of nature?

In each case, the industry making big current money regard to long-term harm would be glad for us not to know what the man behind the curtain is up to. What if every fracking decision were made on a full disclosure of the chemicals, the process and the implications? What if the Wal-Marts, the H&Ms and Targets were held accountable for the factory inspections they wink at, and minimum standards for worker welfare were actually enforced? What if decisions on agricultural chemicals were tilted in favor of safety rather than expedience?

The world we create is the sum total of our decisions every time we buy something. And we really do have choices. But we have to be willing to “know what we don’t want to know.” So it seems to me that we have three tasks:

  • Make the wisest choices from what is available right now
  • Force disclosure of information on everything we do, so that we can make better choices
  • Work to change the system to focus more on the long-term common good

In a terrific book I am reading right now, emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman argues strongly for “radical transparency.” Radical transparency, in the author’s words, “converts the chains that link every product and its multiple impacts – carbon footprints, chemicals of concern, treatment of workers, and the like – into systematic forces that count in sales. Radical transparency leverages a coming generation of tech applications, where software manipulates massive collections of data and displays theme as a simple readout for making decisions. Once we know the true impacts of our shopping choices, we can use that information to accelerate incremental changes for the better.”  Is Goleman too idealistic? Maybe, but we don’t really know because we have not really tried. One tool the author promotes in the book is Good Guide, developed by Dara O’Rourke. This site collects information on a variety of protection standards, and rates products from personal care to pet food to automobiles. I have spent some time on the site, and it looks helpful – especially in the way a user can fine-tune results for particular priorities. Goleman’s book goes into much more detail about how we can make the right choices easier. Check out Good Guide and see if it doesn’t help you make some wiser choices. And it also is bottom-up pressure, as compared to top-down regulation.

But what about expanding those choices? That will take system change. And here in the good old USA, big corporate money does not talk, it shouts down other interests. All of them. To change that, we need a much less corporatist Supreme Court. To get that, we need fair elections and a process that is not unduly influenced by the big spenders.

Universal, easy access to information that drives big-picture decisions. Quixotic? Probably. But what if we really try? Think of it as a lemon law for all occasions. We don’t have to be a nation of “ups.”

Global Warming Cooling?

This climate denialist strategy never seems to die. Find someplace somewhere in the world where cooling is taking place, and ballyhoo it. Another variant is to select specific data from temperature records and twist it to tell your story. You will find all that and then some in this denialist blog post – flagged by an IBI Watch reader. No time to go deeply into detail here, except to point out the magical thinking that underlies this stance. If you are to believe Larry Bell, Marc Morano and this whole crowd, well then, it’s OK for us to keep pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The planet’s systems will overwhelm anything we do anyway. Great big planet. Little old inconsequential humans, all seven billion of us. Pour on the coal, boys. And if this crowd of magicians is wrong? Oh well. . .

Here is an exercise for you. Open this link to a taxonomy of climate change denier arguments and science debunking the debunkers, provided y the Skeptical Science site. Got that? Now check this article that condenses the array of denial in our oily Congress. It includes a hilarious video that you might call the Pignorance Parade. But here is the exercise – see where each of those Congressional fairy tales land on the Skeptical Science hit parade.

As we pass an ominous historic milestone – 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere – it’s a good time to compare our impact with the planet’s natural production. And do something about it. For Twin Cities-based readers of this blog, this blogger is a certified presenter for the Climate Reality Project. I would be happy to come and engage in a discussion with your group.

Take a Bite out of Climate Change

Those not in the pignorance (pretend ignorance) society would like to know what to do to help. The obvious – using less fossil-fueled energy – springs to mind. But a too-rarely connected step is actually simpler. Eat less meat. There, that was easy, eh? Good for us and the planet – as detailed in Tracie McMillan’s book. Could even force some diabetes doctors to find something else to do.

Weapons of Anti-Logic

It’s a big weekend for the Gun Lobby. Wayne LaPierre is having a field day at the NRA convention, playing the freedom card to drum up ever more weapons sales. You have to hand it to this guy. Whatever your ideas on gun regulation, it is good to know your 2nd Amendment. This quiz can help. Can you beat my score of 12/15?

The logic of radical anti-regulators is this: We don’t need gun regulation because the criminals won’t obey the laws anyway. Think about that. Both Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart did, with hilarious results. Stewart’s Daily Show featured his British cohort John Oliver in a raucous interview with gun lobbyist Philip Van Cleave. This whoop-de-do tour takes us to Australia, for an interview with staunchly conservative former Prime Minister John Howard. Get that – a conservative who supports gun regulation, and has the history to prove its efficacy. Must be another planet. Just watch Van Cleave make Oliver’s case for him. The deer-in-headlights look alone is worth the trip. Head-slappingly funny, friends. And Stephen Colbert makes the NRA’s case for them – the real victims of gun violence are not the victims and survivors of mass shootings. We all know who the real put-upon victims are.


A little late in the game, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had something interesting to offer this week. I sort of liked the common-sense justice when she served on the Court. Compared to other Reagan appointees – such as those named Scalia – she was not an intolerable right-wing ideologue. Heck, she is even rethinking arguably the most momentous decision of her tenure. She was the swing vote on that one. Too late smart, as they say.

We celebrated the new presidential fun house last week (“The Misunderestimated Decider), but President George W. Bush’s impact was so epochal that it merits further celebration. And the new library/fun house does not really do that impact justice, as this AlterNet piece demonstrates. To end festivities, I recommend visiting Tom Degan’s hard-hitting and well-researched Rant blog. Check the April 30 entry. Were I running for office, I would say, “I approve this message!”

Musical Impact Past and Present

We lost Richie Havens recently. Havens made a big splash with his rhythm-infused, driving performance at Woodstock. I always enjoyed his warm vocals and his inventive covers of songs like Here Comes the Sun. I confess to not knowing of his environmental commitment until his passing. RIP Richie Havens.

Ah, to live to 94 and still be relevant! That is what Pete Seeger can say this week. This is a 1994 interview done by Bill Moyers where Seeger talks about what it takes to change the world. And here is a celebration of Seeger and his impact from Common Dreams. Learn more about this great American via this video. Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger! We need you more than ever!

“Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.”
Pete Seeger

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper, Brendan Murphy

 Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 4/21/13

21 04 2013

Wacky, Wobbly Weather  //

To say this spring’s weather in the Twin Cities has been “interesting” would be a gross understatement. Following a winter that could best be characterized as “average,” (save the midwinter rains and warmer bottom-out temperature), winter has come limping back, zombie-like.  March and April can be described only in one (printable) way – cold!

To most typical small-talk gripes, I have been responding that this colder-than-average spring somewhat balances the ridiculously warmer than average spring of 2012.

So what is going on here? It is one of three things:

  • A return to “normal Minnesota winter”
  • Random variation
  • Further evidence of manmade climate change’s local effects

Forget the first option. Magical thinking. If you dig deeper into the NOAA site linked above – here it is again – you will see that winters, even one that seems like old times, are just not as cold as they used to be. Higher overnight lows and winter rain are far outside historical norms. And then there is this NOAA bulletin that, if the Twin Cities were really just “going back to normal,” it would somehow have separated itself from earth. Yup, 337 consecutive months of above-average temps are one thing, but any day now, it will bounce back. Uh-huh. Check the excellent two-minute video narrated by meteorologist Deke Arndt for an explanation – “Pockets of Cold in a Warming World.”

As for the second option, if you still believe that, you were not paying attention. Review the Arndt video, and listen for the phrase “but they are not random.”

The third option is the most interesting, of course. Remember that big Arctic melt last summer? It has a legacy, friends. And, here we go again. But the NOAA video, fine though it is, fails to delve into the underlying causes of the cold regimes that arrive and linger in certain parts of the world, even as overall averages continue their inexorable climb. For that explanation, we turn to Rutgers University coastal and marine science professor Jennifer Francis. First, an overview of her work from Mother Jones’ Chris Mooney. Here is the video itself, a mini-lecture that includes animation showing that the slowing, drooping, wobbling jet stream is the culprit for our miserable spring. It is also no doubt connected to many other “stalled-weather” phenomena, but that is a topic for future discussion.

It’s comforting – to a point – to understand the scientific basis for deviant weather patterns. On the other hand, this is just one more reason why climate change science simultaneously fascinates and terrifies me. If this much chaotic change happens when we have not even raised the global temperature quite a full degree Celsius, and raised atmospheric CO2 to not quite 400 parts per million, what lies ahead in the inevitable world of two or more degrees of increase, and 450, or 500 ppm?

Stay informed, and get involved with promoting a rational approach to the climate crisis here, here and here.

Incidentally, I am a certified presenter for the Climate Reality Project. How is this for irony? My first presentation was scheduled for this past week, but was postponed by an out-of season snowstorm. This of course gives me another climate chaos story to tell when I present on the rescheduled date, next month. I am happy to present to any Twin-Cities-based group, barring chaotic weather of course. Request a talk at the Climate Reality site, or contact me directly.

Our Subverted System

For sale. Not exactly cheap, but rich benefits accrue to the successful buyer.

It’s our government, naturally, and it has already been sold. The owners are not the rightful ones – citizens – but those “people” called out by Mitt Romney. Remember? He told us “Corporations are people, my friend.” If they ever were people, they have become hyper-powered people in recent years, though I hesitate to call them superheroes.

The power of corporations is on display frequently – Monsanto’s domination of agriculture, and Big Oil and Big Coal’s continued success at heading off further regulation for two examples. But this past week saw one of the most blatant trashings of the public will in recent memory. The Senate voted 54-46 in favor of a reasonable gun regulation that polls show overwhelming majorities support – universal background checks for firearm purchases. This happened despite the presence in Washington of family members of Sandy Hook victims, and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  But wait – Senate voted 54-46, in favor, and the measure failed?  Yes, of course – in this modern era of abuse of the filibuster by the modern Republican Party, it takes 60 votes to pass just about anything out of that broken body of government.  The Constitution says the Senate passes bills with a simple majority, but, well, you may remember what President W had to say on the Constitution.

So how is this failed effort at reasonable gun regulation further evidence of the corporate stranglehold over our system? Three ways. First, consider that most of the senators who voted against represent a small slice of the population. Second, consider that most of them take money from one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the history of politics. Third, remember that, despite rhetoric about freedom, this organization is, like any good lobbying body, dedicated most of all to the unlimited, unregulated sale of its products. To my mind, this is just one of the most egregious examples of corporate control of politics, public will be damned.

Still not convinced that many of the largest corporations today rule the roost, disregard the public and don’t pay their dues?  Try this AlterNet piece on corporate tax cheating. Or how about this Nation of Change article on the real corporate terrorists? Or how about checking in on the coddled industry that was bailed out with taxpayer money five years ago?  Take that, you wealth inequality activists!

It does not have to be this way, and if it stays this way, we are in deep, deep trouble, friends. Here is a good snapshot of the layoff the land. Jim Hightower’s current Lowdown has a dirty laundry list of corporate purchasers of the last election. You will have to subscribe to read that one right away (It is in the April issue), but Hightower often writes powerfully on this all-important issue. Here is a recent commentary on tax fairness. In his April newsletter – which I strongly recommend – he lists three groups that deserve more support – Open Secrets, Sunlight Foundation and Public Campaign.

But to close, let’s return to the most pressing issue of corporate control – gun violence. This chart from Slate has been tallying the body count since the Sandy Hook school massacre. In this month’s Scientific American, Michael Shermer shines the light of reason on one of the most shameful aspects of the NRA takeover of American politics – the denial of science. In this and so many other areas, it is long past time for the public good to trump callous, fear-driven profits.

Founding Sustainers

Commentator Bonnie Blodgett makes a persuasive case that key founders of our republic, often claimed by the likes of “originalists” like the corporatist Justice Antonin Scalia, were actually originalists of another stripe – the USA’a first sustainability advocates. Recommended.

April 22 Earth Day. Heal Our World, Heal Ourselves. (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by Lynn Hasselburger – a blogger in her own right. Her work is also featured at Boomer Warrior, where you see my posts from time to time as well. Thanks to editor Rolly Montpellier for passing this along.

“Reaching a general understanding that sustainability is the ultimate issue will finally bring us face-to-face with the political challenge of forging a sustainable society during the next few decades. It is a challenge we can meet if we have the leadership and the political will to do so.”  – Gaylord Nelson


Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 1/20/13

20 01 2013

Let’s Internalize Externalities  //

Recently in Beijing, it’s been hard to tell night from day. Pollution from coal-burning power plants has long been a terrible environmental and health problem, but it has jumped to what are being described as off-the-chart levels. This video gives you a good idea of what the people are going through – a situation some residents call “living inside chemical warfare.”

“Whew,” we might say. “Glad it’s not like that here in the old USA.” And it is true – no matter how bad it gets in LA or New York, smog and ground ozone can’t approach these choking levels. But think. How much of that coal is burning to power Chinese factories that make stuff headed to American shores? And that pollution – surely it can’t get here, across that vast Pacific Ocean. Think again. Hey, maybe all that cheap stuff isn’t so cheap after all, and maybe the cost – health and environmental – is not really “externalized” after all.

Externalities,” of course, is the term used to describe costs that are not imbedded in an item’s purchase price. A positive externality is research and development. A negative is, naturally, pollution.

Inbound pollution is not new. Yes, this second story is a different sort – dust whisked into the air and whirled across the ocean because of desertification. And why is that desertification – in China in particular – happening? Funny how it always comes back to the ultimate negative externality, carbon pollution causing climate change.

Environmentalists and activists have struggled for a long time to come up with the best way to make the actual price of carbon-based fuels include that external cost to society. The original answer – cap-and-trade – is a gigantic bust that could not gain enough support and even in its purest form could not make meaningful reductions in climate-changing greenhouse emissions. Ah, but the carbon tax or a fee-and-dividend approach? Now we are talking progress. This can work.

NASA’s James Hansen is the best-known promoter of a carbon fee and dividend system. Here is an article in which he, with considerable energy and wit, explains this idea.  That article runs five pages, and is worth your time. Not sure you want to invest the time? See this excerpt.

“We must stanch a pervasive defeatism that is about. Humanity is not a bunch of lemmings marching unstoppably toward a cliff. There is such a thing as free will. It seems that many people have slipped into an unhelpful resignation, ultimately leading to a way of thinking that accepts fossil fuel industry propaganda.

People please wake up! For the sake of young people, future generations, and other life on our planet, don’t settle for what some “experts” say is the best we can do. In fact, we can move on to clean energies and energy efficiency, but only if we are wise enough to put an honest rising price on carbon emissions. It is equally clear, I submit, that the public will only allow an adequate rising price on carbon if the system is simple and transparent with the proceeds distributed to the public. That will provide the public with the resources required to make the needed changes as we move to cleaner energies and a bright future that preserves the planet and life that we know.”


How Long Can This Go On?

The answer is – as long as we are fossil-foolish enough to let it!

It may be cold here in the Twin Cities right now, but more news is coming out daily about just how warm 2012 was historically. That link also includes a slide show detailing the Midwest’s dual struggle with heat and drought. Before we take any comfort in 2012 being “only “ the tenth warmest year on record, look carefully at how those warmest years are clustered in the last 20. You can also see the trend in pictures, like this one posted by James Hansen. And these two maps show the global nature of the problem –

A global drought monitor and an interactive, color-coded map of temperature trends in 20-year periods going back to 1893. Looks like blue is an endangered species.

It’s clear that we need a “sweltering planet agenda,” as described in this Washington Post editorial. And a move to renewables – with fossil backup – is difficult though not impossible, as Germany is finding out. This World Wildlife Fund report says that land requirements for complete solar power – more or less – are not as huge as we have believed.

For general inspiration on climate change solutions, I recommend a movie I just watched – Carbon Nation. The movie – about two years old – is promoted as a “climate change movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.” From carbon farming, to white roofs, to energy savings, to “greedy bastards who just want cheap power” that happens to be green, the movie really delivers. Recommended.


Shivering Suspense

If you like this sort of thing, we have an interesting weather situation developing here in the Twin Cities over the next few days. You see, weather forecasters are (sort of) promising to restore our bragging rights. For the longest time on record, as reported here by NOAA – we have not had a single day in Minneapolis – St. Paul with a high temperature below zero. From the time I moved here in 1986 until about 10 years ago, this was pretty much an annual occurrence. Predictions are that at least one day this week will feature a high below zero. We shall see. Now before you assume a masochistic streak on my part, note that I am not saying deep cold is good or bad – just that it is nearly extinct here in what used to be universally regarded as a very cold place.

University of Minnesota professor and meteorologist Kenny Blumenfeld – a local resource on climate change and extreme weather – goes all poetic on us in this excerpt from his most recent posting. Kenny, I’m with you on this one.

“During this reasonably cold outbreak, when you are suffering, and cursing the nastiness, just keep in mind that this all used to be pretty routine.  -10s in Minneapolis, are you kidding me?  That’s nothing.  It’s something now.  In fact, it’s the only thing–the only thing left to remind us of what once was.  I’m not merely being nostalgic and melodramatic; the winters we grew up with are all but gone, and reminders of them will become increasingly sporadic and soft-hitting.  Our iconic season is terminally ill, and we are witnessing it in a badly weakened state, its glory days receding deeper into the past with every new season.  I am a sentimental guy, so I plan to bundle up, and spend some time outside in the cold, hanging out with my sick but beautiful old pal, winter.  In one or maybe two decades, even this kind of cold will be nothing more than hard-to-convey memories.”

I will report next week on whether we actually get any of that promised real cold. This is one thing I am really skeptical on these days, with good reason.


Denying Denial

If you have a friend who distrusts climate science – especially for ideological reasons – you may find this useful. I just could not resist turning my personal reply to some typical denial points into an article for this space. No names, of course.

First the context. My friend kindly watched this Bill Nye video. Afterwards, he raised two common objections – carbon dioxide being too small a part of the atmosphere to be the cause of warming, and a need to look into solar action as the possible cause of climate change.

I am sure there is some truth in the business about carbon dioxide’s reflectivity and also its ability to hold heat, but I approach it from the legal system perspective – is it guilty beyond reasonable doubt?  Based on my extensive reading, that is my verdict.

Here are facts:

  • World temperatures have been rising steadily, with the warmest years on record concentrated over the past 20 years.
  • Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been climbing. Preindustrial levels were about 280 parts per million. They are today at 394 and rapidly climbing –at an increasing rate.
  • Human activity pumps 90 million tons of CO2 into the world’s atmosphere daily. The earth’s climate system is vast and complex, but ultimately closed. Surely such activity would have some significant effect over the long term.
  • Paleoclimatologists have tracked CO2 and temperatures back for millions of years – the first half million through air bubbles trapped in polar ice cores, and many millions back from there via sediment deposits deep under the oceans. They track together.

As for solar flares, scientists have tracked the sun’s effect and found no significant connection. And daytime high temperatures have not been rising as fast as nighttime lows. Surely this shows that the issue is the atmosphere HOLDING heat rather than how much heat energy is COMING INTO the system.

Latching onto that “insignificant carbon” business implies that there is some other mechanism that is causing the rising temperature, melting glaciers and ice caps, and raising oceans  – something that thousands  of very smart scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the climate just have not figured out. I am not buying it. The prime suspect is our carbon dioxide, until something else is discovered – and don’t bet on that.

One more thing – I see zeroing in on some fine detail like that and saying that is what matters differs little from creationists finding some gap in evolution theory and saying that disproves evolution. At best, this is playing dumb. At worst it is magical thinking that, over the long term, puts the whole planetary system on which human life depends at grave risk. Some denialists think I am a way-out wacko with these views, but as John Lennon wrote, “I’m not the only one.”  Far from it – and I will have more to say on that in a moment.

Some sneer at climate science and dismiss it as the result of people entering the field with an ideological bent, and then finding only confirmations to their preconceived hypotheses.  But I say everyone who enters any field – economics, history, even hard sciences – has their own bent. In the case of all science, peer review pretty much takes care of that, thanks very much.

Climate science is nothing more than applied physics and chemistry. I give you several scientists, researchers and journalists to investigate. First, there is Tim Flannery, author of the very impressive book The WeatherMakers. I have met the man. Brilliant, and moreover a self-confessed former skeptic. I give you James Balog, another former strong skeptic, and the photographer whose work is featured in the current movie Chasing Ice.  I give you local meteorologist Paul Douglas, another former skeptic and a staunch Republican to boot.  And finally I give you James Hansen, once content to do his research and stay on the sidelines, but who became politically active only after the Bush II administration tried to muzzle him. Denialists can have their skeptics looking for those fine points, demanding more decades of research, and in general highlighting and exaggerating the controversy in order to halt progress on renewables – Limbaugh, Lomborg, Singer, Hannity, Lindzen, Lord Monckton. I’ll take my guys – the ones I mentioned plus Michael Mann, Joseph Romm, Dianne Dumanoski, Mark Lynas, Bill McKibben, Lonnie Thompson and so many more.


Protecting Kids and Everyone Else

Even after the horrific series of mass murders in our country these past few years (and the constant “routine violence,” no one is talking about banning private gun ownership. It never will happen. But people just might be sick enough to demand reasonable regulation. I like the approach the president and vice-president are currently promoting. Here, President Obama exhorts us to call our Congressional reps to demand action. Heck, I might even call or email my (Republican) Congressman John Kline, for what it is worth. The president also suggests we take on the gun lobby, and this article describes how each of the Obama/Biden proposals could have prevented or blunted the impact of each of the recent highly publicized mass shootings.

And what of that gun lobby? The modern NRA is effectively a marketing and promotion organization, whose purpose is to see that ever more guns and ammunition are sold. It was not always that way.

Today, the NRA fights any reasonable regulation, in the name of protecting 2nd Amendment rights. Jon Stewart calls them out in his inimitable fashion. Even a certain east coast governor – just recently railing at how Republicans were toying with post-Sandy disaster aid – had harsh words for the NRA.

I like this mayors’ group that is taking on the issue.


“Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little” – Edmund Burke


Contributed links to this posting – Kenneth Blumenfeld, Tess Galati, Allyson Harper, Lucinda Plaisance


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 1/6/13

6 01 2013

Forced Choices, Real and Imagined //

As a summer sub letter carrier in 1970s New York, I got a close-up look at popular anti-environmentalism. The union rep’s job was to update the workers on labor talk progress, but he could not resist mounting the anti-green soapbox. “Men,” he intoned, “You got a choice. Jobs . . . or a stinkin’ little fish.”

This was one of my first tastes of a forced choice of the imagined variety. In selling his opinion on a red-hot environmental issue of the day, the Tellico Dam snail darter controversy. He was also teaching me a valuable lesson – on environmental forced choices that are imagined or concocted for a political or monetary purpose. There are many of these around, and they generally share a common theme – you can either have a thriving economy, or you can have environmental protection, not both. Here are a few more phony forced choices. You can either have reasonably priced energy, or you can radically reduce mercury pollution from coal plants. You can have safe, reasonably priced motor vehicles, or you can have dramatically higher fuel efficiency standards with no games or loopholes. And – most pernicious of all – you can either have a healthy economy and job creation, or you can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, some forced environmental choices are the real deal. You cannot have both a perpetually growing human population (seven billion and ever rising) and enough preserved wild lands to support large fauna. You cannot have both unfettered exploitation of fossil fuels and a planet that keeps temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And most important of all, you cannot have ever-rising growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide and a planet that supports life as we know it.

Fortunately, we do have choices beyond heads in the sand – enact policies that drastically cut greenhouse emissions to keep the planet from warming beyond that two-degree threshold identified by most experts as the number beyond which lie catastrophic consequences. That’s not to say that we have not already seen our share of catastrophe with not quite one degree of warming.

The challenge is mustering enough political will in the US for overcoming the formidable power of the fossil fuel industry, and enacting policies that sharply reduce carbon emissions. That is no small challenge, thanks to a long-running propaganda effort funded by – you guessed it. Fox News is no help, but they at least provide some forehead-slapping comic relief. Here are ten of their stupidest contributions – most with video for maximum laughs.  To get an idea of the bill we are running up as we, thanks to Fox, Exxon Mobil, the Koch Brothers, etc., continue delaying climate-saving action, check this piece from Reuters.  And, sad to say, human nature itself makes confronting and solving the problem a special challenge. We have evolved to handle immediate risks effectively, but risks that appear distant, diffuse, impersonal, well, we’ll take the Scarlet O’Hara cue and think about it tomorrow. And AlterNet’s Maggie Klein argues that our emotions are keeping us from confronting and managing the threat.

One of the best, comprehensive yet concise, presentations of the case for action was offered on Moyers and Company this week. Anthony Leiserowitz presents climate change as a problem uniquely designed to challenge human nature. He also offers useful insights as well as an analogy that was new to me. I found one of his pronouncements a bit baffling – 40 percent of people in the world have not heard about human-caused climate change. But the analysis of the US public is oddly encouraging. Leiserowitz, a research scientist and Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, splits America into six groups. Those groups divide according to their perception, ranging from fully informed and taking action, all the way to the denialist crowd. Here is the encouraging bit – the dismissive, “not happening,” conspiracy-theory crowd is only 8 percent of the public. That leaves many who are open to persuasion by facts and of course emotional appeals. And that is where his analogy might be helpful.  When doubters hear warnings about rises of two, three, even four degrees, those numbers seem trivial. And some of us in northern climes say, heh, heh, bring on the warmth. But if we can get doubters to consider what even a one or two degree rise in a human’s temperature means, and make the valid comparison between the finely tuned human system and the finely tuned climate system, maybe more doubters can see that one or two degrees is really a major change. The Yale expert closes with an exhortation – meaningful change on this vital issue cannot be strictly a top-down phenomenon.  It has to be a grass-roots effort. Sign a petition right here to tax carbon now. You’ll be glad you did. It’s just one of many steps that can help us avoid the very real forced choice – we can’t have both a life-sustaining planet and business-as-usual with burning fossil fuels. And if you need more encouragement, I strongly recommend this excellent and inspiring piece that Rebecca Solnit wrote for the Common Dreams site. 2013 = Year Zero for the climate crisis. I like that.


Climate Consequences Near and Far

I live in the coldest major metro area in the US. And until recently, winters here were very cold indeed. Though the Twin Cities are still cold compared to other US cities, the change in our temps and weather patterns has been profound. This chart published in the Star Tribune succinctly tells the tale of the warming trend. And of course the warming trend is not limited to winter. Conventional wisdom says a dramatic decline in Minnesota’s moose population is related to hotter summers. A major new research project aims to nail down the causes. Irony note here – we are spending all this money – justifiably – in an effort to save the huge, iconic beast – just months after a legal hunt on them. Want more irony? You won’t believe what they have to do now in northern Canada to guarantee frozen outdoor hockey rinks. And moving further north, we switch from irony to hubris and blind greed.


Apologies to Mother, and a Warning

From two major voices in the environmental movement, confessions of collective wrongdoing. First, David Suzuki acknowledges that we have spent 25 years pretty much not giving a damn about the natural world. George Monbiot zeroes in on 2012 when, with the effects of climate change all around us, we did a pretty good job of ignoring the natural world.  And finally a warning. Dave Gardner focuses on unfettered growth and its consequences. Though his article appeared in a British publication, Gardner’s movie Growthbusters really deserves a wider audience right here in the US.


A Violence Campaign

The pattern repeats. A horrific mass murder happens, and for a time it is omnipresent in the media. Then a few weeks pass, and it is back to business as usual. But business as usual itself is the problem. Several news organizations launched efforts in the wake of the Newtown massacre to track the daily tally of murders across the country in the days immediately following. In any rational place, a toll like this would prompt drastic action – as has happened in other countries. But the US, aka Wayne’s World, is something other than a rational place. I like Bill Moyers’ essay on the topic. It includes a cameo by a fictional expert on all manner of social issues. And though it is not directly related, the issue of “stand-your-ground” laws is covered in this NPR story. Sold as one way to do what the NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre prescribes, to “put more guns in the hands of good guys,” these laws appear, based on research, to have some contrary results.


Looming Battles in the Class War

Twice in the past week, newly re-elected House Speaker John Boehner acted in the public interest – first by allowing a vote on the “fiscal cliff” compromise without first requiring (as is his custom) support from the “majority of the majority,” and second by allowing a vote on relief for the states the bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. (The second vote came only after a blistering denunciation by fellow Republican, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.) But if you think we can expect this kind of collaboration as a new way of doing business, think again. Says who? Says Paul Krugman.


Sustainable Cities for a Better Future

I am happy to say that Minneapolis made this list of American cities cited for big steps in building a sustainable future. Many good ideas here, and many reasons for the honor. This slide show is worth a look.


“I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” – Ronald Reagan


Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper, Hilary Ziols


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 12/30/12

30 12 2012

Sustainability Works //

Three positive stories have crossed my path recently. Each inspires by exploding a common myth:

  • Modern agriculture forces farmers to use modern methods – heavy chemical fertilizer, monoculture, etc.
  • A carbon tax can never work – let the market decide
  • Business is all about the top guy and how much he can earn and keep for himself – he earned it after all, and Ayn Rand tells us that altruism is a mark of weakness

First, an 81-year-old farmer from Iowa who is doing things the old way, and making impressive profits.  As you will find out in this Josephine Marcotty story, Dick Thompson is charting a middle ground between rigid organic practices and what you might call the Monsanto way. Minimal chemicals, crop rotation, animal wastes and in general making friends with Mother Nature instead of battling her at every turn. Yea, Dick Thompson!

Next, many climate change experts – led by NASA meteorologist James Hansen – say taxing carbon is the best – and maybe the only – way to begin the necessary, dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Right now in the US, with the stranglehold that Big Coal and Big Oil seem to have over our government, taxing carbon is going nowhere. But Ireland has taken a big step. Check how getting smart with carbon emissions – far from “killing jobs” – has become part of the solution to the Irish debt crisis. This excellent New York Times story includes a three-minute video that tells the story well. Yea, Ireland!

And finally – A savvy CEO knows the drill – maximize profit, pay your people no more than you have to, pocket as much as you can, and hold onto it, by God. Meet a naïve CEO. You won’t believe the alternative that retiring grocer Joe Lueken has chosen instead of cashing in his years of hard-earned profits.  This story also includes a video. Yea, Joe Lueken!

Prevention; Clean-up is Too Late

There really are some problems that require proactive action. Once the damage is done, no penalty can undo the harm.  Climate change and gun violence are just two such issues.

This week’s climate news is (what else?) disturbing. The Antarctic is thawing much faster than predicted. Here is another look at that same issue. Yes, and trees – our staunch allies in the Earth’s interwoven life processes – are lying down on the job (that is, the ones that we are not laying down on the ground or burning!)  Need more? No big surprise here, but it turns out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has consistently underestimated the climate effects. That is, actual events outstrip what this very conservative, consensus-dependent group has predicted.  Let this go, and we – but even more so our grandchildren – will be very sorry.  So the kind of prevention that is needed must involve a carbon tax. This LA Times opinion piece by Jon Healey covers the political minefield that must be navigated to take this essential step.  Here’s how it can work.

And then there is gun violence. Two weeks have passed since the bloodbath at Sandy Point. That is time enough for the old lines to be drawn. And the NRA’s spokesman has certainly been up to the task. The solution according to Wayne Pierre is, naturally, “a good guy with a gun.” That is, lots of good guys with lots more guns. In this mythology, armed heroes in all places can “take out” those with nefarious missions.

Whether you agree with LaPierre or not, his “solutions” are all about reactive measures rather than trying everything possible to keep the most dangerous weapons and ammunition out of the hands of would-be murderers in the first place. You can see the NRA’s spokesman selling his ideas to a very skeptical and persistent host of Meet the Press right here. David Gregory makes a valiant effort to get the nation’s top gun salesman to answer questions – not always successfully.

In Wayne LaPierre’s world, the biggest problem is not the semi-automatic weapons and incredibly large ammunition clips. Rather, it is monsters, lunatics and Dianne Feinstein (but not necessarily in that order). And if you argue for reasonable regulation, you are, without exception, “trying to destroy the Second Amendment.” Such are the rules of Wayne’s World, which is what America becomes more and more all the time. Gregory takes apart each of LaPierre’s arguments, but to no avail.

On the other hand, here is more evidence of the need for preventive action, namely reasonable, enforceable regulations on the most dangerous semiautomatic weapons and ammunition. In the short time since Sandy Hook, the killing continues. And of course there are many more innocent victims over the long term. And note this – as reported on Democracy Now, America’s stubborn refusal to regulate access to the most dangerous weapons causes problems all over the world, and especially in the Mexican drug wars – which so often spill across the border. There is much to learn here. Here is the book by Amy Goodman’s guest, Andrew Feinstein – it is on my reading list.

Over the Cliff, Merrily?

By the time you read this, we may have already taken the dreaded “Thelma and Louise” plunge. But it is good to get a look at the politics involved. Much as I am no fan of House Speaker John Boehner, I sure would not want his job right now.

King of the (Rubbish) Hill

This short video is a bit gruesome and graphic; it tells the real story of dominion. And anyway, the real-world acts depicted in cartoon style here really are themselves pretty gruesome and graphic. Also – a very clever music score.

Summing Up 2012

Here are several wrap-up articles for the year:

Power to the People

To close for this week, try these items regarding taking action for a better world.

First, a column by Bonnie Blodgett on a topic that has recently gained more notice – divestiture from organizations whose practices are inconsistent with progressive values. This points out the power we have with our choices – both as customers and investors. It is something I plan to write more about in the coming year.

Second, here is a thought-provoking TedX Talk on “avoiding the crime of inaction.” Speaker John Bunzi expands on the traditional “prisoner’s dilemma” to call for global democratic action to stop climate change.

Finally, here is a movie that went right to the top of my Netflix list. The trailer for Carbon Nation promises many good ideas for getting supporters for the movement to stop climate change – even those who are not convinced that our tailpipes, smokestacks and farms are the main source of the rolling disaster.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

― Albert Einstein

Contributed links to this posting – Tess Galati, Allyson Harper


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN

IBI Watch 12/23/12

23 12 2012

The One or the Many  //

So many issues come down to this question. Where does the free exercise of individual rights end, and the right of the general public not to be harmed by the exercise of those individual rights prevail? And that means not just the individual citizen, but also the individual corporation. After all, Mitt Romney taught us that “corporations are people.”

Here are three issues very much in the news right now where that question is paramount:

  • Gun Violence
  • Climate Change
  • The “Fiscal Cliff”

Tragedy’s Answer? More Guns, of Course

It is hard not to be moved by the scenes and sounds of the aftermath of the dreadful Newtown CT mass murders. But moved to pity is one thing; moved to action is quite another. And there have been hints of legislators considering action to deal with the easy access in America to the deadliest of semiautomatic weapons with their capability of firing so many times in such short intervals. And certain legislators – including some staunch NRA supporters – are considering action to restrict access to the most dangerous weapons. That CNN mentioned that the NRA had been silent for a time after the latest massacre. That silence ended with a speech by NRA leader Wayne LaPierre. That speech had been hyped by the organization as offering “constructive measures.”

But anyone expecting something other than the usual prescription – more “guns in the hands of good guys” – was quickly disappointed. Watch LaPierre’s speech here. It is a masterful presentation of the NRA and gun owners as the “real” victims. It is also surreal. See how he completely ignores the protester, who got her message onto  camera briefly: “The NRA has blood on its hands.”

If a few of LaPierre’s assertions seemed odd to you, there is good reason.  Media Matters took up the task of fact-checking the NRA leader.  Here is what they came up with.

  • Gun-Free Areas Do Not Lead To Increased Gun Violence
  • School Shootings Occur In Spite Of Armed Security Presence
  • LaPierre Distorted The Obama Administration’s Position On School Safety
  • LaPierre Made Unscientific Claims About The Link Between Video Games And Homicide

And finally, he did not mention this inconvenient truth:

There is, however, a provable link between firearm availability and homicide.

That Kopel interview and the Harvard research mentioned other countries in addition to the US. These charts from the Washington Post show the stark difference between the US and other countries. A fine example of “American exceptionalism,” I guess. And LaPierre also mischaracterizes the military nature of semiautomatic weapons, when he lampoons the tendency of some to suggest they are “machine guns.” For more depth on this point, and so much more, I strongly recommend a show Terry Gross’s Fresh Air ran last week. Her guest, Tom Diaz, is author of a new book that is on my reading list The Last Gun. Note that the author is himself a former gun enthusiast and NRA member. I like the book’s subtitle: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It. Indeed.

The struggle between the individual right to bear arms – not seriously threatened in any way – and the public’s right to safety from the devastating effects of the most powerful weapons is clear. But this is also a struggle between the rights of corporations and the public. That’s one of the points of this EJ Dionne piece on the all-powerful gun lobby. In that Dionne piece, take a look at the prominent names on the NRA board. Who knew? And I thought Grover Norquist was a one-issue bathtub expert.

In the height of perversion, the Newtown tragedy has triggered a major boost in weapon sales, and, naturally, profits. But there is hope. Here is a story about a major investment company getting out of the weapons business.

Now is the time to call legislators and make your opinions known. I have been contacting other people’s legislators. Thanks to redistricting, I am now represented by John Kline, who is just as staunch a right-wing ideologue as Michele Bachmann – without the comedy.

If you follow only one link in this story, make it this one. As usual, Bill Moyers has the right idea. Remember the victims. And do our damnedest not to let others join them.

Climate Consequences for All

I just mentioned the famous princess of pignorance (pretend ignorance), Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and with good reason. Her reputation for spouting hogwash on climate science netted her a cameo in this brilliant five-minute video hosted by Bill Nye. (Best moment? Bill unplugs Michele!) The video, produced by the Climate Reality Project, includes a lab experiment and excellent graphics and animations.

The individual/public tension on this issue starts with the “right” to deny reality, to ignore scientific facts, and thereby to be complicit in the inertia that stymies sustainable energy and climate policy. That gets harder to do all the time, though some persist, and some will carry their ignorance (or pignorance as the case may be) to the end of their days. Here is just one illustration of why it’s so hard to be a denialist – a seven- minute video in which eight climate scientists present some of the latest evidence from all over the world.  Note – this Peter Sinclair video is NOT just talking heads.

And of course there are entire national governments acting against the public interest, motivated by desire to cater to the oligarchs who bankroll them. The US government has been the lapdog of the fossil fuel industry for a long time. But don’t think we are unique here in America. Canada’s mad rush to exploit and profit from the environmentally disastrous tar sands oil has motivated an attack on science that rivals the best that our W administration dished out. See if you don’t agree after watching this video interview.

Some people are beyond persuasion. For some, it is an extreme ideology. Senator James Inhofe (the brilliant “greatest hoax” thinker) springs to mind. Getting the Oklahoma senator to respect climate science would be akin to Wayne LaPierre to embrace a ban on large ammunition clips. But for some, it is just another conspiracy theory. That’s right, researchers have come to the shocking conclusion that denying climate science correlates with believing in alien abductions.

But there is a crowd of people in the middle, not committed ideologically to denial. That is the message of this David Roberts article that appeared on the Grist site. And more to that point, how about a sociological look at climate change and its perception by the public? And coming out of that story, here is a nine-page booklet with the promising title Debunking Handbook. There is much bunk to be debunked – this sure looks like it can help.

That’s Not Tea, It’s Kool-Aid

100-proof Kool-Aid, at least. House Speaker John Boehner actually moved toward a compromise. After months of refusing to brook any idea of restoring taxes on big earners, he put together a Plan B that raised rates on those earning over $1,000,000. Not quite what President Obama was looking for in a “fiscal cliff” plan, but it was progress.

The permanent right of certain individuals – namely the highest earners – to the historically low taxes instituted by the W administration was clearly in jeopardy. And then the fun began. I like the way Paul Krugman tells this story of ideological extremism. Salon’s Steve Kornacki suggests this could be the last time the three-cornered hats pull the rug out from under the speaker. Maybe. Steven Rosenfeld also sees a grim future for Boehner. Here is hoping that President Obama does not take a bad deal for the American people. No deal at all might be better.

Atlas Shrugs on the Water

I heard about this story from Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Bright side? A little less light pollution.  Wait, maybe that’s the dark side.

Baaa-Studs on the Hill

Here is a special sort of holiday lighting. LED sheep. An old favorite. And the border collies would never go on strike.

“Put on a sweater.”

― Jimmy Carter

Contributed links and/or content to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper, Brendan Murphy


Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN