2009 - %3, December

Climate Change, Ozone Holes, and Nuclear Bombs

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 3:16 PM PST

In his post, reflecting on the fleeting chance of a global climate agreement, Nick writes, "there simply isn't much precedent in human history for comprehensive global agreement on tough issues." I disagree. As the Montreal Protocol to prevent the depletion of the ozone layer and the tattered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have (thus far) proven, when the world has a profitable solution or nuclear-armed gun to its head, it can agree to do the right thing.

The effort to close the polar ozone holes is an imperfect but instructive global success story. The ozone hole was caused by one type of industrial chemical (chlorofluorocarbons) with limited commercial applications. A profitable replacement chemical made the shift to a planet with fewer CFCs comparatively easy. Climate change is vastly more complicated but there are still ample opportunities for profit from the reworking of the world economy, which is required to prevent widespread catastrophe.

The world succeed in avoiding a nuclear holocaust largely because of a military doctrine known as "mutually assured destruction" (the acronym of which was, appropriately enough, "MAD"). One problem with global warming is that while climate chaos is assured, it will be unevenly distributed across the globe. As African negotiators in Copenhagen have pointed out to little avail, countries in the global south will bear the brunt of the effects of global climate change—despite little historic responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that are slowly baking the globe. The disproportionately assured destruction climate change will produce weakens the negotiating positions of these already disadvantaged nations. Case in point: developed nations secretly negotiated for a politically acceptable agreement to only raise global temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius—a scenario that would turn southern Africa into a massive desert.

Indeed, avoiding nuclear war is easier than halting climate change. For starters, fewer nations are in possession of nuclear warheads. Although a troubling number of nations of have joined the nuclear club in recent years—Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and, if it continues on its current path, Iran—it remains easier to discuss nuclear non-proliferation than it does cutting the use of fossil fuels, which have powered the world economy for much of the last 200 years. Furthermore, when a nuclear bomb wipes out an entire city, there is no denying the explosion. The scientific and economic cases for combating climate change are rock solid, but the fear factor is not the same. Flooding and severe storms happened before scientists documented global warming and snow will continue to fall (somewhere) in a hotter, more dangerous world. Short of a hurricane wiping out New York or Beijing, it is difficult to imagine a universal consensus committed to stopping climate change on par with sentiment opposing nuclear war.

Although repairing the ozone hole and avoiding nuclear war prove that international agreement is possible, it is clearly no easy task. For the world to collectively combat climate change, international leaders must establish conditions where where someone can profit or everyone is exposed to massive, previously unimaginable destruction. Unfortunately, with the Copenhagen climate summit winding down, it is the latter option that seems more likely.

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Breaking: Obama Announcing Deal

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 2:10 PM PST

Update: Obama is speaking. Here's the live audio feed.

We're hearing that some kind of deal has been reached at Copenhagen and that Obama is due to speak to reporters at 4.30pm EST. We'll have details for you if/when that happens, but in the meantime you can follow the proceedings in the Bella Center minute-by-minute on Twitter by following Mother Jones' @DavidCornDC and @kate_sheppard.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 December 2009

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 1:17 PM PST

Man, am I in a bad mood today.  I'll spare you the details.  And there's only one answer for that: cats!  Big ones.  On the left, I figured I'd show you the pillow/pod combo that I mentioned last week as a distraction to keep Domino off my desk.  It was working pretty well until yesterday, when she suddenly seems to have decided it's no longer a favored snoozing spot.  Not sure why.  Hopefully it's just a passing thing.  On the right, Inkblot is inhabiting a box of tissue paper that a few minutes before was a box full of Christmas ornaments.  A few minutes later it was a napping spot.  Festive!

Speaking of which, a regular reader emailed this morning to remind me that next Friday is (a) Christmas and (b) a Friday.  I'm not really planning to blog that day, so how about a catblogging extravaganza instead?  Send me a Christmas-themed photo of your cat, and I'll post a bunch of them next Friday.  In fact, since I'm actually a secular liberal Christmas-hater underneath my mild exterior, you can also send me Hanukkah cats, Kwanzaa cats, Eid cats, or just plain old holiday cats.  Just make it festive somehow and your cat can be famous!  I'll post a dozen or so of the best.  My email address is calpundit@cox.net.

Midwestern Pastoral

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 1:05 PM PST

What is the Midwest? Where does it start and where does it end? Who lives there? Despite having lived in the Midwest most of my 23 years—albeit in Michigan, which can get away with the "Mid-" but scarcely the "-west"—I've struggled to answer those basic questions about a place I thought I knew quite well. I've asked fellow Midwesterners, but they offer little clarity: The Midwest starts, traveling westward, in Ohio and ends in Kansas, they say, or picks up in West Virginia (Appalachian country to me) and ends in Utah (Utah?!). That the Midwest is manufacturing country, where people make and build things the rest of the US needs (though nowadays that could define China as well). That in the Midwest, and in Kansas in particular, one friend told me, people spoke the clearest, truest form of American english, a claim I've yet to fully understand but nonetheless made me feel proud of where I came from.

For a much more eloquent depiction of my beloved Midwest, I defer to photographer Lara Shipley, based in Missouri. Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, over at The Atlantic, features a series of her photos on the Midwest, and as a completely unbiased Midwesterner, I highly recommend them to all. They remind of Robert Frank's The Americans, but set entirely in the American Midwest. The photos posted, with a mini-essay by Conor Friedersdorf,  are especially evocative of the region's economic decay, as manufacturing jobs have been wiped out and unemployment far exceeds the national average in parts of states like Michigan and Ohio. (For another great photo essay on the Midwest, be sure to check out Mother Jones' "End of the Line," a great photo essay by photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier and writer Charlie LeDuff from our Sept/Oct 2009 issue.)

Shipley's Midwest photos are quiet and eclectic, gritty and darkly funny. They're more than worth ten minutes of your time.

Reasonable Conservatives

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 12:58 PM PST

The "Party of No" reactionaries are pretty annoying.  The "centrist" Democrats are pretty annoying.  But sometimes I wonder if the "reasonable conservatives" are even worse.  After providing us with four reasons to support the Senate healthcare bill and six reasons to oppose it, David Brooks ends with this today:

So what’s my verdict? I have to confess, I flip-flop week to week and day to day. It’s a guess. Does this put us on a path toward the real reform, or does it head us down a valley in which real reform will be less likely?

If I were a senator forced to vote today, I’d vote no. If you pass a health care bill without systemic incentives reform, you set up a political vortex in which the few good parts of the bill will get stripped out and the expensive and wasteful parts will be entrenched.

I wonder.  Does Brooks really flip-flop every day on this?  If he does, then by an amazing coincidence, every single moderate conservative has done the exact same thing and come to the exact same conclusion: a sort of sad declaration that although reforming healthcare is a noble idea, the current legislation on offer is just too compromised, too full of barnacles and bribes, too lacking in real reform to deserve support.

And the same thing is true of climate legislation.  And financial regulatory reform.  And stimulus spending.  It's amazing!  They all have fine goals, but in their current form none is worth supporting.  They're just too messy.

But look: these guys all know how the political system works.  Nothing ever comes through Congress pure and pristine.  "Systemic incentives for reform," as Brooks well knows, is just another way of saying "ways to push costs down."  And plans to reduce costs are all going to be demagogued endlessly and cynically by every conservative officeholder and pundit in the country, leaving Democrats with no choice but to water them down, pretend they're something else, or just plain run away from them.

So we end up with a sausage.  We always end up with a sausage.  Brooks knows this.  So if that's his excuse for not supporting healthcare reform, he's just blowing smoke.  He knew months ago what the basic Democratic plan was, and he knew months ago that anything this big would end up compromised and messy.  Pretending now that this is why he opposes it really grates.  If he just doesn't like liberal ideas about healthcare reform, he should have the guts to come out and say so directly.

GOP Reps Regale Copenhagen with Scientific Knowledge

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 12:03 PM PST

Six Republican members of Congress brought their questionable grasp of climate science to Copenhagen on Friday, hoping to capitalize on the fact that a final deal is still up in the air. Their mission, they said, was to inform the folks at the summit that the US doesn't plan to finalize a cap-and-trade plan anytime soon. But they spent most of their presser spouting off dubious, if amusing, views on climate science.

Take, for instance, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who announced that "the premise that mankind through the emissions of CO2, is causing the planet to warm...has never been independently analyzed or tested by any scientific group." Known for his unusual and unorthodox scientific views, Barton spoke at length on the matter. "I respect the Texas climatologists," he said. "But it's hot in Texas in the summer and it's cold in Texas in the winter. And I can't tell if that's going to change much one way or another. We don't have an ice cap in Texas, so before we make a policy decision I think it's a fair question to try to develop a theory that appears to more fit the facts than this theory appears to."

Luckily, Barton happens to have his own theory on carbon dioxide:

I might point out just the basic theory. CO2 is a trace gas in the atmosphere. If the volume were equivalent to a United States football field, 100 yards long, 300 feet long CO2 would make up about an eighth of an inch of that field. The dominant greenhouse gas is water vapor. The dominant temperature regulator is based on what we know about the science is cloud formation. The CO2 theory doesn't appear to take that into account.

And on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's preeminent body of climate scientists:

The IPCC scientific group is a very insular. I don't want to be too impolite here, but they do not appear to be interested in finding the truth as much as they appear to be interested in protecting themselves and manipulating the data in a way that proves their preconceived conclusion. That is not the scientific method that I was taught in college.

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Quote of the Day: Getting Serious

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 10:36 AM PST

From Felix Salmon, on the Washington Post's decision to team up with entitlement scold Pete Peterson and former Reader's Digest editor Jackie Leo to produce a new publication called The Fiscal Times:

With any luck, this will help move the press in general, and WaPo in particular, away from the normal emphasis on who's winning the political game on Capitol Hill, and towards more substantive analysis of policy issues.

That's a good one, Felix.  I've been feeling pretty down this morning, but this gave me a much needed belly laugh.  Thanks.

The Public and the Climate

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 10:18 AM PST

Here's the last year's worth of answers to a Washington Post poll question about whether or not the government should regulate greenhouse gases even if it costs you an extra 25 bucks a month.  As you can see, in the most recent survey support for regulation jumped from 39% to 55%.

Over at NRO, Kathryn Jean Lopez takes this as evidence of trickery on the Post's part.  In previous polls they asked how you'd feel if your electric bill went up $25, but in the latest poll they asked how you'd feel if your energy bill went up by $25.  "And so 55 percent wanted to feel good," she says, "and could do so with the less direct question."

I think I'd take a wee bit different lesson from this: polls like this are lousy indicators of true public opinion.  Asking about "energy costs" isn't nefarious, it's just more accurate since cap-and-trade affects all energy, not just electricity.  Still, the change in public opinion is surprisingly strong anyway, which mostly goes to show that there are a lot of people who simply don't have very strong opinions on this topic.  And that in turn means there's a pretty wide scope for public opinion to be influenced.  How are we doing on that?

Obama: Take It Or Leave It

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 9:55 AM PST

Nearly two decades after writing a book that popularized the term "global warming," MoJo contributing writer Bill McKibben founded 350.org. He is chronicling his journey into organizing with a series of columns about the global climate summit in Copenhagen. You can find the others here. Check out MoJo's live stream of collaborative Copenhagen coverage here.

I watched Barack Obama from the back of a drafty warehouse that the United Nations has repurposed as the holding tank for all the NGOs kicked out of the Bella Center. Great idea, except that they didn’t manage to hook up Internet. So now I’m at a nearby coffeeshop monitoring the end of the conference, or world, depending on how you view it.

It's been a curious day. Number one question has been: why is your name scrawled all over those leaked bombshell documents (Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace today called it the "most important piece of paper in the world.") I still have no idea, but of course it matters not at all. What matters is that those papers show that the drama here today is largely greasepaint stuff.

Obama’s speech wasn’t much of a speech—basically, 'take it or leave it,' without even the slightest hint that perhaps US history, and the current state of US politics, have put the planet in a tight spot. Nothing new on offer—though by repeating his 17 percent cut, I’m guessing he's leaving himself room to go to 20 percent. He's still aiming for two degrees, which we now know in UN language means "three degrees." These numbers are in Celsius, and put into Fahrenheit they mean: killer heatwaves and droughts, a world free of ice, sea levels rising into geologic time, and a lot more fun of the same kind.

And if you’re a small, vulnerable, poor country they mean: out of business. Find somewhere else to live.

It didn’t sound like it was Obama’s final speech. He’s going to have to twist arms to get agreement to this package—he's clearly not trying to convince the poor countries, confident they can be either quashed or ignored. China is his target—it needs to be "monitored." Probably they can work out some kind of patch to cover the various gaping holes, though at the moment the seams are showing (a copy of the draft agreement circulating in the hall right now calls for "X reductions" by "Y year" which is not exactly reassuring). There are rumors Obama may have to spend the night to get something done.

If it works, look for many congratulations for his brave intervention. Look for physics to continue operating. 

Bad Friday

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 9:12 AM PST

David Corn on the last day of the Copenhagen talks:

No deal. Not even a fig leaf. That seemed to be the implication of President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech at the Copenhagen climate summit.

....His eight-minutes of remarks signaled a global train wreck. Not hiding his anger and frustration, he said, "I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt."....Obama played it simple and hard. He maintained the United States was calling for three basic principles: mitigation, transparency, and financing....Obama essentially accused other leaders of preferring "posturing to action." He explained, "I'm sure many consider this an imperfect framework...No country will get everything it wants."....Obama was clearly venting: "We know the fault lines because we’ve been imprisoned by them for years."....This was not a speech of persuasion; it was one of positioning. After the morning meeting, Obama and his aides had obviously calculated that a deal was far off—perhaps not even possible—and that there was not much Obama could say in this speech to grease the way to a meaningful agreement.

Bloomberg on the state of the healthcare bill:

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson threw a Christmas deadline for passage of health-care legislation into further doubt, rejecting a compromise on abortion and saying he doesn’t see how fellow Democrats can resolve all his objections.

“I can’t tell you that they couldn’t come up with something that would be satisfactory on abortion between now and then and solve all the other issues that I’ve raised to them, but I don’t see how,” Nelson said in an interview with KLIN radio in Lincoln, Nebraska.

....Nelson told reporters that he has a “laundry list of concerns” besides abortion. And while he doesn’t want to start over on the legislation, an incremental approach might be better to first focus on health-care costs, he told KLIN.

Top 'o the morning to you too!  I think I'll just go back to bed now.