Archive for category Climate Change

Obama’s China Breakthrough


Today the United States and China reached a landmark agreement on battling climate change.   This is a major breakthrough and reflects in part the fact China’s scientists are alarmed about global warming and what it could do to China’s coastal cities.

China and the US are the top two polluters in the world.  Together they produce almost 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide.  With the EU having met the Kyoto targets (without harming their economy in the process – quite the contrary!), the battle against climate change depends on these two states being able to cooperate.  Until now it’s appeared almost impossible.

Unfortunately, the onus will be on the US to resist political opposition.  Global warming deniers are disappearing as the science becomes overwhelming.  In fact, outside the US it’s accepted as settled that climate change is happening, with CO2 emissions the driving force.  Only in the US, where a well funded lobby churns out disinformation and uses ideological fervor to distort the science, is there powerful opposition.  The good news is young people overwhelmingly agree something needs to be done (it’s their future after all) and climate change deniers will die out.  The bad news is that we don’t have the luxury to wait that long.

Climate change denial is irrational - doing nothing means a lot more death and economic damage

Climate change denial is irrational – doing nothing means a lot more death and economic damage

China now sees itself as a major economic power, a force behind the emerging global economic system.   As such, it recognizes that its citizens deserve clean air and water, and decent wages.   China’s leaders can no longer justify ignoring the potential devastating impact on China that climate change could have.

The deal says that the US will emit 26-28% less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005.  China will peak at about 2030.  China has a much more difficult time altering its economy, which is growing much faster than the US.  The key point in this agreement is a signal to the world that a new Climate change treaty is do-able in 2015.

The US Senate will not ratify it at first.  But if in 2016 the Democrats take back the Senate (likely, given that the GOP will be defending 24 seats and the Democrats only 10) and a Democrat is elected President, I would bet that such a treaty including China could be ratified.  Many GOP moderates only tolerate the deniers in their party, most of them realize the science is overwhelming.

A Canadian expresses the shock many of us have that Obama gets so much criticism - when he's been doing a solid job!

A Canadian expresses the shock many of us have that Obama gets so much criticism – when he’s been doing a solid job!

This is also another reason why I’m convinced Obama will be remembered as a great President – one that oversaw a recovery from the horrific recession he inherited and who managed to end two wars.   Now it looks like his plan to weaken ISIS is working better than most expected, without using US combat troops and instead increasing local cooperation.

If this US-Chinese agreement can jump start climate change negotiations and lead to global unity to address the greatest threat facing the world — far more dangerous than ISIS or Ebola — it might be the most important act of Obama’s presidency.    It also shows that the stories of his political irrelevancy are premature.


Yes, it’s Climate Change!

Lake Michigan frozen in Chicago

Lake Michigan frozen in Chicago

If you’re on Facebook you’ve no doubt read the posts about how cold it is.   When a reporter in Bangor threw a cup of hot coffee in the air it crystallized and blew away.   Another in Minneapolis did the same with a pot of boiling water!   It’s not just the cold.   Having grown up in South Dakota and lived a long time in Minnesota, I’m no stranger to minus 35 degrees (NOT including wind chill).   Rather it’s the duration and wide spread scope of this cold weather.

As NPR explains, this is because we are experiencing a polar vortex.    Usually a low pressure cell with extremely cold air sits atop the north pole all winter.   Minnesota will get the occasional minus 40 degree weather because at times bits of it come south.   Due to the way continents and climates interact, the coasts stay mild as the middle grows intensely cold.   Since moving to Maine I’d many times see my friends back in Minnesota experiencing minus 35 while here we didn’t go below 10 above.

That’s still the case.   While we’ve been going below zero in the single digits in Maine the temperatures have remained frigid all over the northern plains.   The cold here is more intense than usual.


The polar vortex comes from a larger piece of that low pressure cell moving south, and bringing with it more cold war than we’re used to.  And as Time explains, this could be real evidence of global warming.   The reason is that the warm gulf stream has helped keep cold air caged up north, allowing milder air to reign through most of the US.   That’s why when I moved from Minnesota to Maine I was moving to a distinctly warmer climate.   A lot of Arctic ice has been lost in past decades due to global warming, cooling down the north Atlantic.

Think of it like big ice cubes breaking off and melting in warmer water.   While with ocean currents and depths it will take awhile, eventually that can cool the ocean enough to impact the jet stream.   If that’s what’s happening, it may well be that we’re getting yet another real indicator not only of the reality of global warming (which only a few holdouts deny), but that its impact may be multifaceted in unexpected ways.


For us in the Northeastern US (and probably everywhere between Montana and Poland) global warming may mean colder winters.   So how is that global warming?   When the cold air leaves the polar regions, they warm up.  This has been a warm winter in the Arctic, and usually frigid places in Alaska have had mild temperatures.   Polar warming seems to defy expectations, but the impact of cooling oceans on the jet streams and climate patterns suggests a hard to predict but likely destabilizing climate change.

It could also mean warmer summers, altering the nature of local climates and forcing changes in just about every aspect of life.  Few scientists doubt global warming, or that human green house gas production is a major factor causing it – the evidence is overwhelming.  A few ideology-driven political types try to deny it, and hopefully karma will give them what they deserve for endangering future generations far more than would be the case if we acted to clean up our energy usage.

But the reality is that humans live in denial, and it won’t be until it’s too late to stop the disaster that people realize we were warned and did very little.   Something like the polar vortex shows that the consequences of global warming may be very unexpected and vary from place to place.   But it’s here – and expect the headlines to get more dramatic and worse in coming years.


The 2nd Inaugural Address

Obama is sworn in during a private ceremony on January 20, 2013

Obama is sworn in during a private ceremony on January 20, 2013

I have long felt that President Obama is destined to be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history.   He came into office during a crisis, he is governing in a period of intense national and global transformation, and has true challenges to overcome.

In his second inaugural address President Obama made it very clear he’s not just looking to defend accomplishments of the past or stop Republicans from undermining social security or medicare.  Instead he made the case for moving forward, and tackling problems such as climate change, advancing causes like gay rights, and working to undo the slow deterioration of the middle class as wealth gets every more concentrated at the top.

Obama’s speech — and his re-election — might ultimately be remembered as the time when the US shifted from the path of deficits, tax reduction and distrust in government towards a new progressivism, rooted not in ideology but American values.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few Presidents whose second inaugural address is more memorable than his first

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few Presidents whose second inaugural address is more memorable than his first

A few important snippets from Obama’s speech:

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

This is a clear indication that over the next four years the President isn’t just going to cut spending and/or raise taxes, but challenge Congress to rethink the core of our economic policies.   The path we’ve been on has lead to the most severe crisis since the Great Depression, and has left the middle class battered and bruised.  We must rethink economic conventional wisdom for an era of globalization.   Another:

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

People have been bemoaning the lack of attention given by the President to an issue many consider the most important of our time – preserving the planet for coming generations by preparing for already evident climate change.  There is no reasonable way to deny human caused climate change.  There is a self-contained alternative narrative that tries to posit everything from scientists as being frauds to get government funds or cherry picked data, but even one time skeptics are admitting that the evidence is overwhelming.   Moreover, not acting will cause us to fall further behind the development of future technology.  Another:

Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.


The President’s words, coming after a reminder of the message of Martin Luther King 50 years ago, makes gay rights just as important a civil rights issue as any.   Just as you don’t deny marriage, housing, service or care to people on the basis of color, the days are ending when bigotry against gays was tolerated because people thought there was “something wrong” with them.


We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

A recognition that movement forward will often be slow, and in small steps.   That even if we set goals, we cannot get there unless we are pragmatic, and recognize that change builds over time.   Some activists see pragmatism or compromise as surrender, a violation of principle.  The President is telling those activists that’s not how our nation works.   We move slowly, and we always have.  Partial victories beget more partial victories, and with issues such as gay marriage change grows until it becomes inexorable.

President Obama has the chance to grab the mantel of greatness in his second term.   His vision is there, his leadership has been proven effective, and the country is in the midst of transformation.    I wish for him the wisdom to make the right call in ambiguous situations, to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit to continue to talk about American values, and to forge a path forward into the 21st century!


Welcome 2013!


The world did not end on December 21, 2012 and the country averted the so-called fiscal cliff.   But perhaps the end of the Mayan cycle does symbolize change:  the world has been on an unsustainable path and the direction is shifting.

Politically, the US is becoming more progressive.   Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are both larger than life Presidents, disliked by their opponents but pragmatic.  Each compromised – Republicans forget the types of compromises Reagan made during his term – but focused on shifting the country’s direction.   Reagan succeeded – for thirty years taxes have been going down and the debt has been going up.   The growth in social welfare projects was halted, while social conservatism grew.

Those days are over.  With states rapidly approving gay marriage, drug laws shifting (remember the vindictive nineties when Newt Gingrich was advocating the death penalty for even selling pot?), and the internet creating a more open and tolerant public, the culture wars are over.   The social conservatives lost.  A new generation is emerging less repressed, less convinced by social conventions, more willing to experiment and be open.

Republican infighting grows as the nation shifts from center-right to center-left

Republican infighting grows as the nation shifts from center-right to center-left

With the fiscal cliff deal people accept that tax reform is necessary to bring more revenue and stop living beyond our means.   The only reason the debt’s gone up under Obama is the recession — something he didn’t create.   Recessions radically increase the cost of government programs, decrease tax revenues and require spending to stimulate the economy.   But Obama has signaled structural reform that will turn around the budget mess, even if the results won’t be clear until the economy is growing.

Until recently concern about global warming was losing support in public polls.   That’s turned around.   Things like Sandy, droughts, and historically high temperatures are convincing the public this is an issue.   A generation of children are coming of age who learned environmentalism and science in the schools.  Environmental activism is becoming cool again.

Beyond that the fossil fuel era is ending.   Despite promising finds of natural gas and tar sands, global consumption has been rising fast and new finds will not be enough — though they make the transition easier if we are proactive.   Saudi Arabia is past its peak and likely to become an oil importer by 2030.    Right now the recession has kept oil prices low, but even with the world in the economic doldrums oil is near $100 a barrel.  If growth returns, oil prices will rise dramatically.

Even with oil sands and fracking for natural gas, the fossil fuel era is ending

Even with oil sands and fracking for natural gas, the fossil fuel era is ending

Luckily, led by the EU, the rise of green technology is dramatic.   Still, higher energy costs will force a shift in life styles.  I doubt it will be the collapse predicted by some, but the days of cheap energy are ending.

The biggest shift is in technology.   Social media and the internet started a revolution in the Arab world that will take years to play itself out.   Those who think this is bad – or could have been prevented – are sorely mistaken.   The regimes relying on fear and bureaucratic control are going to find that people are becoming informed and empowered, able to rise up.    This started back in 1989 with the fall of Communism in Europe, but will grow and spread.

Even in Africa, where a genocide in 1994 and numerous wars involving some of the worst atrocities of recent history went unnoticed, a new activism is emerging.   Though Kony 2012 faded, the connections people are making across borders make it likely that over the next few decades the African continent will have a rebirth.  They own many of the scarce resources that the rest of the world needs; corrupt dictators are starting to fall.

Old political notions of sovereignty, national self-interest, and fear based policies are slowly giving way to interdependence, shared interests and hope.   The world is waking up, change is coming.   It will not be easy, there may be decades of instability and uncertainty before we see a better reality.    But a new world is coming.

The biggest barrier to peaceful change are those who cling to old ways of thinking – fear, anger, greed, self-interest at the expense of others, and a ‘them vs. us’ mentality.    The old mentality will not work in the world that’s emerging, and following the path of fear will yield crisis and conflict.    But change is coming, yesterday has past, now let’s all start living for the one that’s going to last.


The Spirit of Sandy

Make "Sandy" a word meaning action

Make “Sandy” a word meaning action

With all due respect to those of you out there named Sandy, the destruction of hurricane Sandy and the trauma of the Sandy Hook shootings cause me to think maybe “Sandy” should become a word to embrace.   The “spirit of Sandy” should be a call to action in defiance of the odds, a motivation to make fundamental changes to our world to make it a better place.

“Sandy” may seem like a nominal link between two tragedies, best left unnoticed.  I disagree,  I propose to turn it into a word of change and transformation.   For example, the “spirit of Sandy”  is seen in the actions of Sandy Hook teacher Vicki Soto, who died while trying to save her students from the crazed killer.   She had told friends the day before she loved her 16 “angels.”  On the day of the killing she hid them in the closets and told the gunman her kids were having class in the gym.  He shot and killed her.   Her angels survived.

Vicki Soto, hero, displayed the "spirit of Sandy"

Vicki Soto, hero, displayed the “spirit of Sandy”

These tragedies point to two issues that threaten our children’s future: climate change and violence.  I’m not ready to make Sandy Hook primarily about guns.  Yes, our level of gun violence is so much higher than any other industrialized state that anyone saying guns aren’t a cause can’t be taken seriously.   We also have high levels of accidental gun death, recently I read about a three year old shooting himself.

Yet here in Maine we have lots and lots of guns.   We are very safe.   If I forget to lock the door, I don’t worry.  If I see a guy with a rifle walking along the road, chances are he’s clothed in orange and looking for deer or whatever is in season.  It’s about the kind of weapons available, and also about mental health, our culture, and our attitudes.  To turn this into a question of gun control is to belittle it.  We need to look more fully at what kind of society we have become.

We need to embrace the spirit of Sandy.   (Hey, Steven Colbert started a word with Truthiness, maybe I can do this with “the spirit of Sandy”!)  Ask difficult questions, change course, try to bring our culture to a better place.  Compromise on gun control, improve mental health awareness and support, and display the “spirit of Sandy” with acts of kindness.

Strange weather

Strange weather

Hurricane Sandy needs to open our eyes to the real problem of climate change.   There is every reason to do something.  While the US has dithered, the Europeans have not only met the Kyoto Accord targets, but proved that it not only didn’t hurt their economy to do so, but it gave them a leap forward on green technology.

Climate change is real.  Islands in the South Pacific are sinking, some are signing agreements for population transfers in the coming years.  Yet in the US big money wants to try to obfuscate, hide the science, raise questions, and stymie political action.

Sandy must mean courage – we need the “spirit of Sandy” to recognize that the world we give our children requires on making wise and courageous judgments today.

The spirit of Sandy is the spirit of liberty

The spirit of Sandy is the spirit of liberty

The “spirit of Sandy” must entail the courage to confront issues that were deemed too hard or controversial.  Not to choose the path of least resistance, but the path of change and transformation.

We’re on the edge of a new century.  Technology is changing rapidly, our world is in motion.  The problems that confront us can’t be solved with the old thinking of self interest, us vs. them, and fear of difference.   The spirit of Sandy is to embrace new thinking: us with them, and an embrace of difference!

The tragedies that came in the latter half of 2012 don’t have to be seen as meaningless.    These can awaken us to a better future.   Change is difficult.  Transformation requires sacrifice.   But with the “spirit of Sandy” we can work towards a better future for our children.


Conservative Cultists

Some conservatives are getting rich off impotent rage, according to Maddow

Some conservatives are getting rich off impotent rage, according to Maddow

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said that many on the far right are getting rich on “impotent rage,” firing up their listeners to be angry about Obama’s re-election but unable to do anything about it.   Well, you might say, that’s Maddow, she always chastises conservatives.   Yet conservatives William Kristol and Joe Scarborough have also decried the way some on the right — talk radio, especially — are getting rich off a style that pushes for an uncompromising and unrealistic stand on absolutist “principles.”

The problem in the GOP is that the reasonable people of the party are having to deal with a large, media savvy group of conservatives who have fostered a cult like thinking.

That is not only un-American, it is also un-Conservative and irrational.

Conservatives such as Joe Scarborough are starting to speak out against the damage being down to the GOP

Conservatives such as Joe Scarborough are starting to speak out against the damage being down to the GOP

It is un-American because our system is based on the idea that no individual or group has an absolute claim on truth. Democracy is a way to get people to debate, learn from each other, and try to figure out the best compromise.    We learn as we go based on what works and what does not.   The idea that we should focus simply on ideology or principle would be foreign to the founders.  Their principles were broad based and open to diverse ideas.

It is un-Conservative because conservatives value tradition, social stability and a sense of community.    Conservatives have adopted a strong free market perspective but have always recognized that markets have limits and that the good of the country trumps any ideological stand point.   And, given that tradition involves compromise and deliberation, the extremism of Neil Boortz and Rush Limbaugh is distinctly anti-conservative.

It is irrational because it focuses on pushing a party line with the vehemence of a religious extremist.   The “true” conservative values are XY and Z.   Those who seek compromise and moderation are “RINOs”  (Republicans in name only).    This desire for conservative purity has cost them the Senate.    Ideology-based thinking leads them to embrace clearly false claims – that there is no human caused climate change, the earth is 9000 years old, women’s vaginas magically shut down the possibility of pregnancy when they are raped and other such non-sense.   Truth is not based on science and evidence, but on what would be true if their ideology was infallible.

Here are some questions.   Answer yes to any of them, and you just might be a conservative cultist:

1.  Do you believe Obama has a secret agenda to push the US towards socialism and away from a market economy?
2.  Do you believe that Obama hates America and wants to give our sovereignty to the UN?
3.  Do you know who Alinsky is, and do you think somehow Obama is following some kind of plot of his making?
4.  Are you convinced that the Democrats simply try to buy votes by giving people stuff?
5.  Do you secretly (or even openly) wish women couldn’t vote because they aren’t truly rational?
6.  Do you think votes should be weighted by wealth, since the poor have ‘no skin’ in the game?
7.  Do you believe that Obama is an incompetent narcissist who has no leadership capacity?
8.  Do you believe there is a nefarious “agenda” out there that gays, internationalists, liberals and other types are following, which would stab America in the back and move us away from our core values?
9.   Do you think the country is on the road to collapse, and figure the GOP should just let Obama have his way so the Republicans aren’t co-responsible – the “let it burn” argument?

If you said yes to more than one of these, you just might be a member of a cult!

Glenn Beck has started his own "news" website to give the conservative view, and before the election expressed certainty that God would make Romney win

Glenn Beck has started his own “news” website to give the conservative view, and before the election expressed certainty that God would make Romney win

I’ve even read blogs where someone seriously posts that people should keep any pledge they have made (meaning the Norquist pledge) no matter what, because you never break a pledge.   However, what if they decide that under current conditions the Norquist pledge would lead them to actions that do harm to the country?   Should our elected representatives really be more concerned about keeping a pledge than doing what’s right?    Or is Peter Parker aka Spiderman right – sometimes the best promises are those we are willing to break?   After all, many German soldiers didn’t turn on Hitler even when they saw what was happening  because they took an oath to Hitler.   I think its simple minded blindness to keep an oath just because you took it, no matter what.

True conservatives won’t play that game.   They recognize that they have something to bring to the table and they can force Obama to compromise (and Obama has shown a willingness to compromise).   They don’t demand strict adherence to “principles.”  An uncompromising devotion to absolute principles is for the narrow minded.   Principles are simplified general ideals, but in the real world those simplification break down.   Blind adherence to principle is the mark of someone unwilling to embrace real world complexity – a cultist, in other words.

You see it on blogs and talk radio especially.   I’ve been in many debates, sometimes heated, with conservatives.   But usually we don’t take it personally, nor do we ridicule each other and say the other person is somehow evil or bad.  In fact in most cases we find we agree on core values — Americans are more united than divided.    Go to a cultist blog and try going against their party line and they respond with ridicule and personal abuse (and yes there are cultists on the left too).   That’s how cultists protect their message, they don’t allow it to be questioned, especially not by people who may have good arguments.

Republicans have tolerated the cultists because they brought energy and a solid voting block to the party.   As long as party leaders (whom cultists deride as the hated “Republican establishment”) could control the real policy actions of the party, the cultists were an asset.   But in 2010 they crossed that line.

The most recent example – rejection of the UN People with Disabilities treaty even as John McCain gave his support and Bob Dole was on hand to persuade skeptics to vote for it.   Senators who recently supported it voted no, fearful that the cultists would put up hard core conservative primary opposition.

"The world is a cage for your impotent rage, but don't let it get to you" - Rush (Neil Peart) , "Neurotica," from Roll the Bones (1991)

“The world is a cage for your impotent rage, but don’t let it get to you” – Rush (Neil Peart) , “Neurotica,” from Roll the Bones (1991)

Republicans need to purge the cultists from their ranks, or at least render them ineffective.  They inspire rage, but a rage that cannot win – you’ll never have a pure Demint style conservative government any more than you’ll ever have a pure Kucinich style liberal government.  Or if we do it’ll only be a gradual change reflecting the whole culture.   Our system is designed to avoid sudden lurches to such extremes.   It’s designed for compromise and loyal opposition.


The Impact of Sandy:

Reality trumps politics in the wake of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane or “Superstorm” Sandy (weirdly nicknamed Frankenstorm by some) is likely to go down in history as the costliest storm of all time.   That’s because it hit the heavily populated New Jersey coast, with a major impact on New York city.   Four days after the storm made landfall parts of lower Manhattan are still without power.   The storm came ashore late Monday and while it passed quickly, the damage was immense.

Sea water poured into the New York subway system, sharks were seen swimming through the flooded streets of Atlantic City, scores of people died, and power outages affected over 8 million.   In Virginia and West Virginia blizzard conditions prevailed.   This was no normal storm, it was a category one hurricane meeting up with a storm system crossing the northern US and converging in a freak event, exactly one week before a closely contested US election.

After two days power is restored in most of Manhattan, but the lower part of the island remains dark

Coming as it did at the start of the last week of intense partisan campaigning, it’s natural that people glance away from the direct impact and ask “what does this mean for the election?”

Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey who gave the keynote address at the GOP convention in Tampa last August, is having none of that, explicitly saying “I don’t give a damn about the election.”   He’s heaped praise on President Obama for cutting through the red tape, surveyed the devastation with the President, asserting that when his state is suffering the worst disaster in its history politics doesn’t matter.

For Christie, this is real.  You could tell in his speech that he is shaken a level of destruction that is both massive and impossible to heal quickly.   Suddenly it’s more important to get aide to those suffering and assure a quick response than to worry about who will win next Tuesday.    Many Republicans are incensed.   One strategist fumed that Christie should have dismissed Obama’s efforts by saying “he’s doing what any President would do.”   Rush Limbaugh called Christie Obama’s “Greek column” and chastised him for welcoming the President when Mayor Bloomberg would not.    The partisans are in the middle of a war, to them Christie has committed an act of betrayal.

Heck of a job, Brownie!

Most surreal was the criticism coming from the chastized FEMA head of the Bush years, who is widely seen as failing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.    He said Obama acted too quickly in response to Sandy.  I had to make sure the story was real, I thought it must be from The Onion.  Yes, better to wait and let people really need help before getting involved!

Apparently he was trying to tie it to failed attempts by Republicans to stir up a scandal around the Benghazi attacks in September.   Not only do Bush era officials Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice defend the Administration, undercutting Republican attacks, but really?   He brings that up in the wake of a major hurricane?   Brownie and disaster go together!

But the storm does have an impact on the election, at least in terms of the campaigning.   It’s unlikely to shape the outcome, but it puts Governor Romney in the awkward position of not wanting to seem insensitive to the plight of the victims but needing to attack a President who appears to be pulling ahead in a tightly fought race.   Campaign events are replaced by hurricane relief efforts, with the Romney campaign purchasing supplies to assure the visuals are right in case his supporters neglect to bring contributions along.   Romney surrogates launch vicious attacks while the governor tries to soften his rhetoric.   Awkward, but what else can he do?

Both campaigns are awash with so much money that they’re buying commercials everywhere; for the first time the last week isn’t about where to invest precious resources.   At least the commercials don’t have to fake wanting to tone down partisanship.   But what impact will the storm have on the election?

The President plays a more dignified role when he’s doing his job rather than campaigning

1.  News coverage.   Normally the two competing “closing arguments” of the candidates would be dominating the news.   From Monday to Wednesday the campaign seemed almost invisible as the focus was on the devastation caused by Sandy.  This will change, but given that Romney needs to gain some traction before next Tuesday, it’s made his job more difficult.  Moreover the photos and news of Obama touring the region and by all accounts leading a successful response can only enhance his reputation.

2.   Obama’s Campaign.   President Obama had to cancel a number of campaign appearances, something his staff and volunteers in the swing states no doubt regret.   He is the number one weapon in firing up the faithful and urging them to turn out with enthusiasm on election day.   Yet I don’t think this will hurt his campaign.   Late rallies have a limited impact, and hey – he’s got Bill Clinton working the campaign trail.

3.   Climate Change:  How the campaigns can ignore this issue given the drama of this storm hitting as it did when it did is beyond me.   After the election look for a renewed push for action on global warming.

4.  FEMA is good!   In the primary campaign Governor Romney suggested FEMA be replaced by state efforts or even the private sector.   Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget envisioned massive cuts for the emergency response agency.   Now both are back peddling – reality trumps political posturing.  Big government is sometimes absolutely essential!

Campaigns are games, contests in which professionals craft messages and try to manipulate the voters in the same way McDonalds tries to manipulate potential customers.   Those caught up in the game read reality through the lens of their particular partisan preference.  Ultimately, though, reality bites.   Reality is more than soundbites, more than gaffes, more even than who’s economic plan makes more sense.

If Obama wins Republicans may blame Sandy, saying their man had momentum but the weird last week stifled his progress.    If Romney wins Democrats may claim that if Obama had been able to campaign the last week he’d have energized more voters to turn around swing states.   Neither will be true, but after the fact narratives are often self-serving.   But win or lose, both President Obama and Governor Christie made the right choice: they put their jobs ahead of politics.   In a time of crisis, that’s the right thing to do.


The EU Deserves the Peace Prize

When I first got to know the European Community it had ten states and some people continued to call it the EEC – the European Economic Community.   It was in a funk.   Greece was the newest member, but progress towards increased integration was fleeting.   The British were angry about paying so much into the system, divergent monetary policies meant that exchange rates fluctuated rapidly, and the word of the day was “Eurosclerosis” – the project to build a united Europe was stagnating, and could perhaps fail.

Studying at the Bologna, Italy Center of Johns Hopkins SAIS I took a course on “The Politics of European Integration” by Dr.  Gianni Bonvicini, a young and enthusiastic supporter of the European Community as it was called then.     As we learned about integration theory, I found myself fascinated by the process through which countries that had caused war and devastation moved towards peace and cooperation.

The choice of the EU for the Nobel Peace prize surprised many

The war and devastation had been profound in Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.   The Europeans gave us the holocaust, Communism, and colonialism.   Conquering the world, taking slaves, draining other lands of resources and wealth, the Europeans reflected the most violent civilization of human history.   To be sure, the violence was often sanitized by claims they were spreading Christianity, bringing civilization to the primitives or ‘exploring the world.’   Even now we express horror at the Taliban killing a young girl while our own drones kill innocents more often than we realize.   (Update:  ‘Europe’ here refers to the “West,” which includes the US.)

The violent and social Darwinistic turn taken by the Europeans in the 19th Century came home to roost in the first half of the 20th.   Violence, depression, war and ideological conflict took the most powerful set of countries on the planet and left them devastated.   As the US and the USSR began their Cold War, the Europeans realized that they’d never have a brighter future if they didn’t rethink the basis of their political culture.

It started small.   Former wine merchant Jean Monnet, a war time planner, recognized that cooperation and trade yield benefits while conflict and isolation lead to war.   When they couldn’t convince the Europeans to leap forward to a United States of Europe — nationalism would not die so easily — they took another track.

Jean Monnet, the “father of Europe.”

After the war the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was created in order to put coal and steel under supranational control.   Since most of the coal and steel came from Germany, this was designed to both deny Germany such control, but allow Germany to use their resources for economic gain.   West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were part of this organization, and it worked well.

In 1955 talks started in Messina to undertake a bolder project.   What if the six ECSC states could form a customs union, a region with no internal tariffs and a common external tariff?    On March 25, 1957 they signed the Treaties of Rome to create the European Economic Community to do just that.    The Common Market was complete by 1967, with the ECSC, EEC and Euratom (an organization for the peaceful use of atomic energy) merging to form the EC – the European Community.

The economic boom that Europe was creating after WWII yielded the desired effect — spillover.   People saw that cooperating and trading worked and in 1973 the European Community expanded to nine states, adding Great Britain, Ireland and Denmark.   Then the energy crisis hit, exchange rates started to fluctuate wildly as the US abandoned the Gold Standard and fixed exchange rate system, and it appeared the EC had hit a wall.

He had jet black hair and was very young when Bonvicini prophetically told us where the then-EC was headed

Dr. Bonvicini told us not to be fooled by the apparent crisis in the EC.   It already has served its original purpose, he reminded us, making war between France and Germany — or any member of the EC — unthinkable.   But more than that, he said the process had not truly stalled.   France and Germany pushed for the creation of the European Monetary System (EMS) in 1978.   Wild divergences in monetary policies made the EMS seem almost pointless, but he predicted someday it would yield the desired outcome: a common currency.

That was pie in the sky fantasy in those days.   How could inflation friendly France and Italy ever unite with West Germany and the Netherlands, two countries with very tight monetary policies?   Impossible!   Unthinkable!   In fact, many thought the break up of the EC probable.  The British were demanding a rebate, sovereignty now was trumping supranationalism.

Bonvicini was right.   Britain got its rebate, and soon the EC moved towards a “Europe without frontiers,” the Single Europe Act designed to eliminate diverse regulations on goods and services to make trade truly free, and cross border investment easy.   Once that was done, countries found themselves forced to converge on monetary policy, lest investment dollars flow to countries with the most stable exchange rates.   When the Cold War ended, the French and Germans led the way to create a common currency, the Euro.

With that agreement the EC became the European Union, and after the Cold War it expanded from 12 states to 27.   Many East European states were veering towards corruption and authoritarianism, but the EU demanded they embrace democracy and rule of law in order to become members.   The economic allure of the EU was too great to ignore; authoritarianism was rejected.

By the dawn of the 21st Century countries that had fought each other in massive wars now gave up their currency for a shared one, and checks at borders were removed.  One could travel from Italy to Austria to Germany as easily as traveling from Massachusetts to Maine.   Workers can go anywhere in EU for a job, students can go anywhere to study.   Corporations merged as national economies became so linked and interdependent.   Sovereignty was transformed as Europeans were citizens of both a state and the EU.

The states of the European Union

The EU has also worked for peace world wide.  It is the only major actor on the world stage that has accepted both UN sets of human rights, economic and political.   It is the major force behind UN peace keeping operations, and the EU has signed and met the Kyoto accord agreements, proving that achieving those results is economically beneficial rather than harmful.   The wealthy states of Europe are now helping states like Greece and Spain deal with what otherwise would be complete economic collapse.

Simply, the world is entering an era of globalization in which past notions of sovereignty and self-interest are becoming obsolete.   States are no longer independent units but interwoven in a web of economic and political relationships.   The old way of thinking, still clung to by most in the US, is obsolete.    Transitions from an old order to a new one are often violent and lengthy as people can’t let go of old ways of thinking and doing.   The EU offers a model of what can work in the future.  It reflects the most promising sign that this global transition might be peaceful rather than violent.

So congrats to the EU – a fitting recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize!


Strange Weather

Colorado burns

It’s too early to say the strange weather we’ve been having is due to global warming, but as AP notes, this is what one would expect from global warming.    Consider: temperatures have been rising consistently for decades.   This increase correlates with increasing green house gas levels in the atmosphere, and the models and science have led to a strong global consensus amongst climate scientists: the earth is warming and humans are at least in part responsible.

Yes, there are dissents, but by and large most scientists believe that the odds that humans are creating this problem are too high to dismiss.   Moreover, some scientists believe we are nearing a tipping point, in which human action pushes the earth to irreversible and sudden ecological changes.   Whether humans can survive such a change with our way of life in tact is a questionable proposition.

The map shows in dramatic detail how storms cut power from a very populous part of the US last week.

The AP article states some pretty dramatic facts:  2/3 of the country is in drought, while some rivers have experienced floods from unexpected deluges.  3215 record highs were set in June, wildfires have destroyed 2.1 million acres so far this year (and it’s early in the fire season), and since January 1 over 40,000 new high temperature records have been set, as opposed to 6000 record cold temperatures.   We’re also starting to see predicted changes in parasite and disease patterns as hotter weather (and warmer summers) allow species to survive and thrive where they once struggled.

This year the US has received the strangest weather.   A couple years ago Russia was burning, and awhile back Europe had tremendous problems.    Overall we’re seeing severe weather more often, precisely what one would expect if global warming theories are accurate.

Storms have done widespread damage at a level never before seen in the US northeast.

One of the biggest frustrations for a rational thinker is how something as important and potentially devastating as global warming has been turned into a political issue by opportunistic politicians and corporations with massive resources.   Ask someone if they believe that global warming is real and by and large ideology will dictate the answer.    Even those unable to push aside the mounting evidence tend to add the caveat that “it’s not humans doing this” but some ‘natural’ event.

To be sure, climate change has occurred many times in the earth’s multi-billion year history, as have vast changes in the climate’s ecology.   However there is no causal link between these changes and anything natural, but there is a clear causal link in climate science, with computer models pointing to the rise of green house gasses in the atmosphere.    Looking at the deniers try to rationalize ignoring the data reminds me of the financial analysts of early 2008 dismissing talk of a dangerous housing bubble or threat to Wall Street.   Ideology-driven thinking makes it hard for people to recognize errors; instead they find a way to re-interpret reality within their ideology.    There’s been far too much of that in American politics in recent years, and it threatens our capacity to solve these problems.

Washington DC was hard hit in the recent round of storms.

In the excitement of Supreme Court decisions, political posturing over the 2012 elections and concerns about the economy, the real issue — how we as a planet will deal with a dramatically altered environment in coming years — may by trying to force itself into our collective consciousness.

Humans tend to learn the hard way – we wait until patterns of behavior become unsustainable before we make changes:  The smoker who doesn’t quit until lung cancer hits, or the alcoholic who won’t stop drinking until his or her family and career are in shatters.   Are we in the industrialized West on a similar path – with future generations looking back at how much we knew about what was going on and how little we did?

Smokers also often do quit before they get sick.   Drinkers stop before their lives are destroyed.   Humanity can make changes to avoid the worst case scenarios.   But we have to start now and we have to take seriously the damage we’re doing to our planet.   Given the state of political discourse in the US, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

There is some hope.   The Europeans have met the Kyoto Accord targets, achieving something that global warming deniers claimed was impossible.   Some said it would destroy the economy, one in all seriousness told me it was a European plot to bring down the US economy by stifling us with regulations.   Many European states not only have met and surpassed the goals, but in so doing have helped their economy and put themselves ahead of the US on green technology.   If things keep getting worse, that edge may be a huge benefit to the European economies.

The science behind climate change theory is basic, those who deny it have to go through rather complex contortions to support their alternate theories.

The US has to join in taking this seriously.   So does China, India and emerging markets.   This issue has the potential to bring us together in a way never seen before, as a common threat can induce enhanced cooperation.   However, it can also divide if it’s every one for themselves in a world of immense change.

So to deniers – I ask you to think about it like this.  If somehow your minority view is correct and nothing humans are doing are causing it, the most we risk if we take action is some economic costs (though these costs could turn to benefits if there are technological breakthroughs).   But if you’re wrong and the climate scientists are right, the cost could be catastrophic.   Rational choice theory would suggest you avoid the worst possible outcome, especially if the odds do not seem in your favor.   So as you watch wildfires and power outages, storms and heat waves, think about your children and grandchildren.   Ask yourselves if you are against doing something about global warming because it’s part of a political movement you identify with, or if you’ve really looked at the data and thought this through?

Ask yourself if you try to look at all sides of the argument and assess the quality of the sources, or if you cherry pick sources that agree with the point of view that you already have?   Because if we don’t take our environment seriously this strange weather could get much more intense and deadly in years to come.

UPDATE:  Found this image of last week’s strange weather:


The Time of Transition

A piece of the fabric of space-time fractured in my office today and a description of a course to be offered in 2279 slipped through. Weird, that.

It is the year 2279.     Here Professor Hubert Morgan talks about the popular history course on the era of transition from 1985 to 2065 when somehow the global system survived a series of crises without collapsing.   Instead, the basis for the peaceful global union we have today was forged.

We look back at the era as one of instability, riots and fear that we luckily managed to survive – students in this course learn to understand the era through the eyes of those who actually lived through it!

People come to the course with a variety of expectations.   They know that this was the era of globalization, economic crisis, the collapse of the sovereign state as a system of governance, intense global warming, energy crises and famine, but they also know that the story had a happy ending.   Not only did they solve their problems through a mix of technological ingenuity, political creativity and adaptation, but they forged an ongoing era of peace, known as the Global Union.

In my course I try to as much as possible get them to experience that era the way the people living through it did — not knowing for sure what was happening, finding it hard to let go of old concepts and ideals, and fearful of the future.

Students get hands on experience with old technology such as this mid-1980s version of a “personal computer.” Now seen as ancient and archaic, these machines were the gateway into the information revolution that changed the world.

We start at 1985 – the year when both globalization and the information revolution started to take off.    We spend time there, learning about the culture, the state of the world, the films (students especially enjoy one called “Back to the Future”), the games, and the music.

Students laugh when they see the 1985 game “tetris,” which looks much like the exercises two year olds engage in to develop spatial cognition. “It’s surprisingly addictive,” one student grudgingly noted.

People choose various media experiences – that was the age of motion pictures, television, and the emergence of music on compact discs – large cumbersome devices that nonetheless opened the door to the era of digital music.  The idea is to immerse themselves in this strange but fascinating past before heading onto the roller coaster of the next eighty years.

Students take awhile to understand ideology.   Ideology is now seen as a kind of mental prison forcing people into stagnant modes of thought, but politics was ideological in those days.   Students need to understand the bizarre “Cold War” and why it was so difficult for people to think outside narrow political or national boundaries.  It’s not that people were stupid or bigoted, they simply saw that world of ideology, ethnicity and states as natural.

We also explore why warnings on the growing economic imbalances, the loss of oil as a major energy source, and global warming were ignored and even denied.   One student described it as “cultural group think.”

I think the part that often most startles them is the “trips” to virtual farms to see how animals were treated and food produced.   Even though they know it’s not real, when talking to the farmers the odors, inhumane treatment of the animals and the way in which chemicals and other additives are simply dumped into the food chain sometimes makes some students physically ill.   Of all the things that make life 300 years ago so wretched, most say food production is the biggest reason they wouldn’t want to go back!

Nothing prepares students for the virtual tours of chicken farms, and immersion into the food and chemical culture of the era. “How could they eat what was treated so barbarically?” students ask. The answer – most people never gave a second thought to where their food came from, or how it was manufactured.

Of course, the worst part of that era — 2015 to 2045 — can’t help but grab attention.  Looked at as a thirty year “era” it’s easy to understand it and figure out why things worked out the way they did.   In our course we try to accentuate the uncertainty people living through that era experienced – they truly feared global instability, mass warfare, disease and even human survival.

As global warming rendered huge sections of the planet virtually uninhabitable due to drought and disease, many thought that humans would fall back into savagery and chaos.

We follow the side stories of the scientists, politicians, thinkers and cultural icons that strove to keep civilization together and built ties between the impoverished suffering states of Africa and parts of Asia with the technologically advanced people in Europe and North America.    Students recognize how fragile these connections were, especially early on, and how easily they might have been destroyed by fearful nationalism and bigotry.    The wisdom that global cooperation was necessary was a hard sell only on!

In 1901 the first “gusher” at Mt. Spindletop in Texas helped usher in the age of oil – cheap, transportable and extremely efficient energy. A whole society was built on cheap energy, and when oil became scarce by the 2020s people feared collapse.

The final era is that of consolidation, from 2045 to 2065 when the Treaty of Global Union was signed and most of the severe problems of the 21st Century were solved.     This includes the new economics in which the ideologies of capitalism and socialism were jettisoned for a pragmatic approach that combined ideas from all, but focused on human liberty and opportunity as the core values.    Massive debt was wiped out as all old currencies were simply abolished and the world started a new with a global currency and blank slate.   In retrospect all that seems to have been inevitable, but students learn how gut wrenching and scary it was while the issues were debated.

In the course we trace how the information revolution led to the capacity to massively decentralize government and bring it closer to the people, making possible a “Global Union” of core shared rules but little centralized power.   They realize how odd such an arrangement would look to an early 21st Century human so used to seeing centralization and de-centralization as mutually incompatible.

The new science of energy, food and climate is perhaps the most intriguing.  We all learn it as natural, and look back at the materialism, consumerism, pollution and poisonous chemicals as a barbaric aspect of the old era.   In this class students learn how that was taken as natural, and how dramatic the change in thinking was — so dramatic that absent global catastrophe it might never have happened.

The virtual trips to the era are life like.  It is as if we have traveled back in time, our ability to use holography to create worlds that appear completely real to our senses makes this possible.

The past comes alive for students with hyper-programmed holographic technology — something imagined (albeit in very crude form) back in 1987 on a show known as Star Trek.

This course reminds us of crises caused by the era of greed, corruption, materialism, lack of respect for the environment and pursuit of pure self-interest without regard for the common good.   By learning about the past we can better understand our present, appreciate what we’ve accomplished, and remind ourselves that humans do best when we understand we share a common destiny, both with each other and with our planet.