Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
that it now may be impossible to prevent the temperature of the planet's atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding—events that could harm the world's population and economy.
But with an effort under way in Lima to protect the difference, as the newspaper put it, "between a newly unpleasant world and an uninhabitable one," one fellow in Washington is readying himself to prevent any progress toward a climate accord: Sen. James Inhofe. The 80-year-old Republican from Oklahoma is one of the most notorious deniers of human-induced climate change. He has contended that God controls the Earth's climate, not Homo sapiens, and he has quoted the Bible to make this point: "As long as the Earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night." And Inhofe, thanks to the recent elections, is in line to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee when the Republicans assume control of the Senate next month. He has vowed to do all he can to block regulations aimed at cutting emissions.
With diplomats in Lima wrestling with the challenges of climate negotiations and Inhofe counting the days until his likely ascension to one of the most powerful environment-related positions on the planet, I'm reminded of a bizarre encounter I had with the senator at a previous climate summit.
In December 2009, the United Nations hosted a global gathering in Copenhagen to hammer out what some participants hoped would be a binding accord that would compel a reduction in emissions around the world. Thousands of diplomats, policy advocates, and scientists flocked to the Danish city for the session, and thousands of reporters were there to chronicle the talks. Inhofe came too. To troll. Or, as he put it, to be "a one-man truth squad." He slithered in and out of the cavernous media filing center, ever at the ready to speak to reporters looking for the other side quotes denigrating the proceedings, claiming that climate change was no more than a hoax, and celebrating the summit's failure to produce a binding and comprehensive treaty.
Inhofe was usually mobbed by reporters—especially non-American journalists who found it newsworthy that a US senator would say such things. Judging from the smile on his mug, Inhofe enjoyed skunking up the party. After watching this for a few days, I could not resist the urge to engage.
As he strolled through the media center one afternoon, accompanied by several camera crews recording his pronouncements, I approached and politely asked if I could put a question to him. Sure, he said, in his folksy, avuncular manner.
Look around us, I said, spreading my arms wide. There are thousands of intelligent and well-meaning people in this gigantic conference center: scientists, heads of state, government officials, policy experts. They believe that climate change is a serious and pressing threat and that something must be done soon. Do you believe that they have all been fooled?
Yes, he said, grinning.
That these people who have traveled from all points of the globe to be here are victims of a well-orchestrated hoax?
Yes, he said, still smiling.
That's some hoax, I countered. But who has engineered such a scam?
Hollywood liberals and extreme environmentalists, Inhofe replied.
Really? I asked. Why would they conspire to scare all these smart people into believing a catastrophe was under way, when all was well?
Inhofe didn't skip a beat: To advance their radical environmental agenda.
I pressed on: Who in Hollywood is doing this?
The whole liberal crowd, Inhofe said.
Barbra Streisand, he responded.
I nearly laughed. All these people had assembled in Copenhagen because of Barbra Streisand. A singer and actor had perpetuated the grandest con of the past 100 years?
That's right, Inhofe said, with a straight face. And others, he added.
By this point, he was losing patience and glancing about for another reporter who wanted to record his important observations. And I was running out of follow-up queries. After all, was I really going to ask, "And Ed Begley Jr. too?" So our conversation ended, and I headed back to reality.
But I was struck by this thought: Did this senator truly believe Barbra Streisand was the devious force behind a completely phony global campaign to address climate change? He seemed to.
In his 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, Inhofe does mention Streisand—but only once, lumping her together with Leonardo DiCaprio and John Travolta as celebs whose environmental "alarmism" had to be debunked. But his book did not shy away from clearly identifying the charlatans and hoaxers who have hornswoggled the planet: "environmental activist extremists," Al Gore, MoveOn.org, George Soros, Michael Moore, and, yes, "the Hollywood elites."
Perhaps when Inhofe seizes the reins of the Senate environment committee, he can further expose this conspiracy—and for the first witness…Barbra Streisand. It's time for her to come clean.
UPDATE: After this story was published, Streisand issued the following statement: "This would be hilarious if it weren't so frightening. I thank Senator Inhofe for singling me out as a voice against the perils of climate change! But I'm just a small part of millions of voices, who are informed and alarmed, including 97% of all climate scientists! God help us! This man is going to head the Committee on the Environment in the United States Senate. It’s like giving a fox the keys to the chicken coop."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
There's little the Washington-centric political-media universe loves more than the story of a fallen star. The defenestration of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has reporters and pundits in a schadenfreude-driven tizzy. Was he fired? Was he in over his head? OMG, look at how the White House is dumping on him, as he departs! Who's passing nasty notes in class about him?
The presumably forced resignation of Hagel is indeed big news. The Obama administration is confronting a host of new national security challenges: ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola. So the guy (or gal) in charge of the Pentagon has to be nimble and able to handle this expanding and shifting to-do list. And Hagel, ever since his underwhelming performance at his confirmation hearing, has not been (at least in public) a confidence-inspiring Cabinet member. So perhaps President Barack Obama can do better—though the elbowing Hagel is receiving on the way out seems poor manners.
Yet here's a useful exercise. Compare the red-hot media reaction to Hagel's bye-bye to the response to the New York Times' eye-popping report that Obama signed a secret order to expand the US military mission in Afghanistan next year. The story about one man—yes, one of the cool kids in DC—is at least an order of magnitude higher on the MediaReax-ometer. Any tidbit from an anonymous source about de-Hagelization gets immediate attention from tweeting journos. But the story about this significant policy shift has prompted mostly a yawn.
In case you missed it—the story was posted online on Friday but appeared in Saturday's dead-trees edition—the Times revealed that Obama, who last May said the United States would have no combat missions in Afghanistan in 2015 (and only train Afghan forces and hunt Al Qaeda "remnants"), had secretly authorized American forces
to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.
In the new sci-fi epic Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway don astronaut suits, leave an Earth that has been so poisoned it can no longer produce food to support the human race, and zip through a wormhole in search of new planets where homo sapiens might be able start over—while Jessica Chastain works on a mathematical formula that will allow our species to defy gravity. The big-budget blockbuster is a familiar gotta-save-humanity cinematic romp, chock-full of dramatic chills and special effects thrills. But Interstellar, directed by Batman movie-maker Chris Nolan, also attempts to attain a certain gravitas by taking seriously the science invoked within the film. After all, Kip Thorne, one of the world's leading theoretical physicists and experts on relativity, was an executive producer and consultant for the movie. And Neil DeGrasse Tyson has praised the flick for featuring scientific principles "as no other feature film has shown." But one of our planet's top astrobiologists has a somewhat different view.
I took David Grinspoon, who holds the chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress, to the Washington, DC, premiere of Interstellar—a posh event held at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and attended by pundits, scientists, and aerospace firm officials and lobbyists. Afterward, he and I recorded an episode of the Inquiring Mindspodcast focused on the science and themes of this grand film.
Grinspoon, a 2006 winner of the Carl Sagan Medal, advises NASA on planetary exploration and is involved with the Venus Express spacecraft and the Curiosity Rover on Mars. He is a widely-recognized expert on the possibility of life beyond Earth. He runs a funky website and is working on a book about the anthropocene—the somewhat controversial notion that the Earth is in a geologic epoch being shaped by human activity. And a few years ago, he attended a meeting of scientists called together by the makers of Interstellar—back when Steven Spielberg was slated to direct the film—to kick around the scientific ideas presented in the movie. That is, Grinspoon was the perfect date for this movie.
So, I asked him, what was it like to be present at creation? Grinspoon recalled:
There was a meeting of the minds that a bunch of us were invited to…on the Caltech campus. It was really fun. They had some astronomers, astrobiologists, psychologists…They presented the very basic premise of the film and asked us to brainstorm on some of the themes, and they recorded the whole thing. Spielberg showed up, and he brought his dad…It was a very wide-ranging discussion…What I remember of the treatment that we saw at that time…it had some of the same themes of getting to other planets and using black holes. But that was kind of it. It didn't have the plot yet...If memory serves me, the original story actually had [theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen] Hawking as a character in the film, who was going to be sent into orbit. Experiencing weightlessness is something that helped him with his disability…I don't know how much of this I'm conflating now. It's been a few years. But I think there was even a love interest.
Stephen Hawking playing Stephen Hawking in love in outer space? "Exactly," Grinspoon said. "Those themes of love and space are still in the final movie"—even though Hawking isn't.
But back to the science: Do wormholes, which defy conventional physics and our down-to-earth notion of time, exist? Can they be stellar shortcuts used to get from one end of the universe to the other in a flash? And can they be created by sentient beings, as the movie suggests? Well, maybe, Grinspoon said, but there's at least one big problem with using a wormhole for transportation:
It's sort of pushing the edge of what is scientifically possible. It helps solve a problem. There is a big problem, if you're going to have any kind of a fictional plot involving travel to other stars. If you do it with normal physics, it's going to take hundreds of years. Who has the time for a movie that long? That's the whole thing with Star Trek. We had warp drive.
"You'd end up ripping apart everything that went into the wormhole," says Grinspoon. "It's not like NASA is actually working on this."
Wormhole is sort of the modern version of warp drive. And, yeah, there are actually solutions to Einstein's general relativity that produce these structures that have been called wormholes, where the geometry of space-time connects different places that in normal space are very distant in the universe. In theory, you can do that. The problem is, if you actually look at how that might work, it doesn't really work. You'd end up ripping apart everything that went into the wormhole. It's not like NASA is actually working on this. It's a way to have your plot device fit the science.
In the movie, a scientist explains how a wormhole could make distant space exploration possible by placing a point at the top of a piece of paper and drawing a line to a point at the bottom. The bottom point, we are told, is very, very, very far from the top. Think galaxies apart. He then folds the paper in half so the points line up and punches a hole in the paper through both points. That hole is a wormhole. Is this, I asked Grinspoon, a scientifically accurate reflection of how space-time can bend?
I loved that scene. That's exactly how a physicist would explain a wormhole…That is exactly how Kip Thorne would describe a wormhole, and he is the guy who came up with wormholes…That scene was great from a scientific point of view. That's exactly how a physicist would explain it.
So the movie does take the science seriously? Well, Grinspoon says, not always:
Yes and no. Here I'm balancing my inner snob and my delight that people are interested in a movie on themes that I love. But there is a critique I can't help but apply to this. The science is spotty. It's interesting they had Kip Thorne involved. They paid a lot of attention to relativity and space-time. And yet there's this whole other theme about what happens to the planet, what happens to the Earth, and these other planets. They go and find planets and there are conditions on them [not consistent with science]. The planetary parts of the film, I thought, were really weak. That's my bailiwick.
"The planetary parts of the film, I thought, were really weak," says Grinspoon. "There are aspects to the planets they get to which…don't make sense from basic physics.
For instance, they describe this ecological disaster on Earth. I like the fact they are talking about that and raising consciousness. It's clear that it's climate change and we screwed up the Earth…That's a good theme. But the specific things they say about it—they say there's this blight [attacking all crops] that's building up the nitrogen [in the atmosphere] and that's going to draw down the oxygen. Anybody who knows about planetary atmosphere is going to sit there at that point and go, "That's a bunch of BS." It's not that that ruins the movie for most people. But why couldn't they have run that by somebody? It wouldn't change the plot…There are aspects to the planets they get to which also don't make sense from basic physics. There's a planet with ice clouds…That's BS…Something like that would fall. Because of gravity! Is that so crucial to the plot? There's a planet around a black hole…Some physicists might quibble whether that's even possible or stable. But one obvious problem is, when they landed there it was daylight. But there's no sun and a black hole doesn't put out light. So where is the light coming from?
Is this being too picky? The filmmakers do try hard to show there is science underlying the seemingly impossible journey made. Yet at the end, several knotty plot dilemmas are resolved when—the most mild spoiler alert!—a character enters a black hole and is somehow able to communicate with others back on Earth and in the past. So, I put it to Grinspoon, is this science or…magic?
It's on the fine line between science and magic…If you were at a cocktail party with a few physicists who had a few drinks, which I've been to, this is the kind of thing that comes up. And somebody said, "Name a subject that's really on the edge between science and magic," somebody will say, "Time travel through black holes." You can find some equation when it sort of, maybe works. But, then, of course, if you have time travel, it introduces all these horrible paradoxes. What if you went back and told your mother not to marry your father?…In the movie I found it suspiciously close to magic. That was one thing that bothered me. It was kind of like they needed to tie up the plot: and, then there's a black hole, and magical things happen, so everything is fine.
The ending was tough to figure. Can you really have a five-dimensional system manifested in a three-dimensional manner that allows someone to go back in time to the precise place he or she needs to be to save humanity? I confessed to Grinspoon that I was confused.
I kind of liked that aspect. I sort of like the fact that you are confused by that. Reality on that level is confusing. One of the weird things about modern physics is that we do find there are apparently these other dimensions that we don't directly experience that explain some aspects of the overall geometry and reality of our universe. When you encounter the real physics of that stuff, you do get this feeling you are having now of going, "Well, that's confusing, how could that be?" I'm not sure about the specific realism of how that was depicted. But I do like the idea that there's a movie that is going to get people thinking, "Really? There could be other dimensions?" That is evoking something that people have when they encounter modern physics.
At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there's an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, "The end of the Earth will not be the end of us." And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: "We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it." In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don't worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.
That tagline…is problematical. The reality is the opposite. It's quite possible that the end of us will not be the end of the Earth. Even if we really screw things up and things go badly for us and our civilization, the Earth is pretty resilient. The current species here will have a mass extinction, but life will not extinguish and the Earth will recover and go on…We're more fragile than life. And then there's the moral implication: It doesn't really matter, there are other planets out there, the heck with this one. I found that bothersome. Of course, in the very long run, if we are successful in getting through our current little problems of being a technological civilization, and we last for thousands, even millions and billions of years, ultimately the Earth and the sun will run their course. So if we become one of those super-wise beings that are implied in this film that make wormholes, at some point we will have to deal with the problem of moving.
That's in the long run. The very long run.
To hear my full interview with David Grinspoon, listen to Inquiring Minds below:
Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
As the postelection celebration (for the GOP) and cleanup (for the White House and the Democrats) continues, some political observers of a D bent are trying to push a silver-lining idea: Now that the Republicans fully control Congress, they will have to act more responsibly and demonstrate that they can govern and not just say no to everything.
Isn't it pretty to think so.
There is little evidence to support this lovely notion. The fundamental political dynamic of the Republican Party has not shifted; it's advance has been fueled by its Obama-hating tea party wing. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cory Gardner of Colorado will be two new GOP stars in the Senate, and they both hail from the far-right region of their party. Their model senator will likely be Ted Cruz of Texas, who on election night refused to endorse the newly reelected Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as Senate majority leader, signaling his intention to lead what might be called the Monkey Wrench Caucus. And in the House, the tea party club—which blocked House Speaker John Boehner's deal-making with the White House and pushed for government shutdowns and a debt ceiling crisis—will likely have a few more members when the new Congress convenes in January. The lesson the House tea partiers will probably draw: Obstruction pays off, big-time.
Sure, Republican lawmakers will be eager to pass bills, but their efforts won't be aimed at forging compromises with the president. Their legislation will likely target Obamacare and slash spending for social programs. They can be expected to fiercely block presidential appointments, especially judges. They might try to enact restrictions on abortion, and they will certainly seek to gut environmental regulations and climate change policies. Oh yes, and they will push tax cuts for the well-to-do. Such an agenda will be predicated on more confrontation and obstruction.
The idea that Republicans, emboldened by this election, will now negotiate more reasonably with the president seems like wishful thinking. At least one senior administration official assumes it is. When I asked him whether he was buying this happy talk, he laughed and grimaced simultaneously. "The problem hasn't been that Boehner doesn't want to govern," he said. "He can't, because of the crazies in his own party." With these election results, the official pointed out, there will be even more "crazies" for Boehner and McConnell to contend with.
"And just wait until Cruz is chairman of some subcommittee," he added with a sigh. A long sigh.
"We are the ones we have been waiting for." That's what Barack Obama proclaimed the night of Super Tuesday in 2008, borrowing the line from a 1980 June Jordan poem (without citing the poet). His aspirational emphasis on we was a foundation of the campaign that brought him to the White House. But it's the president's inability to find a way, while steering the nation through a series of crises, to turn that we into a reality that has brought him and his party to the darkness of Election Day 2014, when Republicans bolstered their tea-party-driven majority in the House and handily seized control of the Senate. Soon they will crown Mitch McConnell, who easily dispatched his Democratic challenger, as Senate majority leader. And imperiled GOP governors across the country—Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and Rick Snyder in Michigan—vanquished their Democratic foes. Dems flamed out across the land—even as voters in red states approved initiatives to boost the minimum wage.
As president—as opposed to as candidate—Obama has not been able to engage fully the voting public. He has faced numerous obstacles—GOP obstructionism in Washington, global circumstances that yield one tough-to-resolve dilemma after another, and the rise of a profound unease and uncertainty (about now and about the future) among Americans. And Obama, like most two-term presidents, has had to confront the six-year itch that usually leads to a loss of House and Senate seats for the chief executive's party. Still, it is partly Obama's failure as the nation's storyteller-in-chief to keep the citizenry—especially his voters—involved in the ongoing political narrative that afforded the GOP, a party on the wrong side of the country's changing demographic tide and often at odds with public opinion (on the minimum wage, on gun safety, on key components of Obamacare), the chance to expand its political power.