The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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BOO!

This morning, I saw an article posted on Facebook in which a woman recounted having seen two oddly-behaving men while she was out shopping with her children and mother. The two men followed them and did not appear to be shopping. The women, quite understandably, grew concerned, suspecting that the men were trying to kidnap one or more of the kids. The family managed to evade the men and report them, and there the story ended. The kids are safe, but if anything more was ever learned about the men, it wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps understandably, the author of the piece assumes that her assessment of the situation was correct; her children had been targeted by child traffickers, but had managed to escape. She provides four “warning signs,” so that other parents would be better able to evade would-be kidnappers also. She pleads with parents to watch their kids closely at all times.

The two women acted correctly; while they didn’t have enough information to be certain the men were planning an abduction, the situation was clearly freaky enough to justify getting the kids out of there. And I have to admit that, were I in her shoes, I, like the author, would likely also assume the danger was certain. That there is no proof would feel like a trivial technicality.

But it’s not trivial.

When someone cries “danger!” it matters very much whether the danger they’re warning of is plausible. If you hear a hurricane warning for your area from the National Hurricane Center, you get very busy battening down the hatches. If your friendly neighborhood three-year-old tells you the dragons are coming, you play along for twenty seconds and then go back to whatever it is you were doing. So, when a woman says “there are creepy men lurking in department stores looking to snatch kids,” it really matters whether there actually are.

And this woman can’t tell us. Her understandable assumptions aside, she really doesn’t know.

Irrational fears can actually hurt people. In his book, The Science of Fear, Dan Gardner points out that, following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans chose to drive rather than fly, presumably out of fear of hijacked airplanes. But because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes, thousands of people died in car crashes who would have been fine had they flown.

Mr. Gardner’s contention is that people are very bad at estimating risk (for reasons he explains lucidly) and that we often put ourselves at greater risk as a result. He specifically addresses the issue of “stranger danger,” pointing out that while children are occasionally abducted by strangers, it is an extremely rare tragedy. Most kidnappers are family members, for one thing. And yet, the widespread conviction otherwise has a very strong bearing on how people of my generation raise their kids.

The flip side of the danger of irrational fear is the irrational lack of fear. Not fearing car accidents, even though they are a greater danger than terrorism. Not fearing depression and type 2 diabetes, even though I’m guessing a lot of kids kept “safely” indoors develop these life-threatening problems. Not fearing all the various things that really could mess up the lives of our kids and present much more certain risk than creepy guys lurking around furniture do.

Look, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I am an aunt. There is a four-year-old hand that sometimes holds my index finger. It is just about the sweetest thing, ever. I understand that the merest hint of a child-snatcher is insanely terrifying. I also understand what loving adults are prepared to do when their kids are in danger. And I can’t help but notice that’s not being done about climate change. Not on a massive scale. According to polls last year, 68% of Americans now believe that human activity is causing climate change, and yet we have been electing consistently climate-denying governments anyway.

Today, President Trump signed an executive order intended to undo President Obama’s climate legacy. Although the undoing will be difficult and probably incomplete, and there are things that can be done to fight back, this is not good news. It is, in fact, clear and present danger for children.

I have written before of what climate change could look like over the lifetime of children born this decade. I have also explored climate change as a cause of death. There are hurricanes. There are fires and floods, wars and famines. Already, more people die from heat waves than from all other natural disasters combined.

Unaddressed climate change over the next century means more kids dying.

If climate change falls under the heading of irrational absence of fear, if it lacks the necessary emotional oomph to inspire emergency action, let me offer a more compelling visual. If climate science doesn’t do it for you, imagine that every climate-denier politician and business leader is a child-snatcher lurking around the corner of the next place your family has to be.

Meet me in Washington for the climate march and the march for science next month. And start organizing for pro-climate legislatures, both state and federal, NOW.


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The Taj Mahal Lie: Why Donald Trump Isn’t Our Problem

If you ask a random person on the street “who built the Taj Mahal,” I suspect you’ll get either of two interestingly wrong answers.

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Some prince in India

Different buildings, of course. The one in India is my concern at the moment, though we’ll get back to Mr. Trump later. Whenever I’ve heard the original Taj Mahal brought up in casual contexts (as seems to happen about once a decade, for whatever reason), the description has been something like “the Taj Mahal is a beautiful building complex built by an Indian prince for his beloved.”

Really? He built the whole thing himself?

The standard description is more or less accurate. According the the website of The History Channel, in 1632, the Muhgul emperor, Shah Jahan, ordered the design and construction of a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, who had died in childbirth (on her 14th child). She was known as Mumtaz Mahal, or “The Chosen One of the Palace,” so her tomb complex was named the Taj Mahal. The remains of both her and Shah Jahan rest at the site, although he had intended to have a separate, equally magnificent complex built for himself. He was deposed by one of their sons before he could have it built.

Of course, everybody knows that the Shah did not literally build the Taj Mahal himself (the labor required over 2000 humans and roughly 1000 elephants and took 20 years). It is an easy guess he didn’t design it himself, either. Sometimes you do hear more accurate verbs in the story, like “commissioned,” or “had built.” It’s not like the truth is being hidden in any way, here. But the convention of speaking as if people who give orders accomplish things all by themselves–as if everyone else involved were simply an extension of the Great One’s body–is so ingrained that we seldom notice we’re doing it.

Who, for example, built the first mass-produced car? Henry Ford did.

Who defeated the army of Robert E Lee? Ulysses S Grant did.

Who burnt Atlanta during the Civil War? William Tecumseh Sherman did.

These answers are such common knowledge that I’m not bothering to cite any of them with links–you know they’re all true. Who were the other people involved in any of these endeavors and what were their contributions? I have no idea. And I doubt you have any idea, either. We don’t know because we don’t care–it is the action of the real person, the one who gave the orders, that matters.

All this is not simply semantic play. Proper attribution of who does what matters. Consider the statement “Hitler killed six million Jews.” It’s true as far as it goes, I’m not trying to say that people who give orders are less responsible, though focusing on the Fuhrer does tend to let thousands of co-conspirators and trigger-men off the hook in the popular imagination. But the phrasing consistently inspires people to fantasize about killing Hitler, as if doing so would avert all those other murders. And the fact of matter is, since Hitler didn’t kill those people alone, it is very possible that, without him, those others would have gone on to have the Holocaust anyway.

And this is where President Trump comes back in the story, not because he’s being compared to Hitler (he has been, but so has virtually every other public figure with at least one naysayer), but because he’s being compared to Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon was, of course the one US president who was most unequivocally a crook. He was crude, paranoid, and corrupt. But he also created the EPA and signed more landmark environmental legislation than almost anybody else.

Unlike our other stand-out environmentalist presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama, President Nixon was not an environmentalist personally. Aside from some largely empty rhetoric, he provided no real leadership on the subject, and in some cases he actively threw up roadblocks. He thought tree-huggers were stupid at best.

But the anti-environment campaign had not yet begun, so signing those laws carried no political cost. A lot of the young people who were angry about the Vietnam War also cared about trees and whales, and so forth. The President threw them a couple of bones so he could get back to matters that really mattered. And those “bones” have formed the backbone of environmental protection for the past 50 years.

So much of the Anti-Trump sentiment I hear sounds a bit like the kill-Hitler fantasies in that they rest on the assumption that Mr Trump personally is the problem. As though, were he removed (impeachment, resignation, tragic accident), all the problems and threats associated with his presidency would be removed. And they wouldn’t be. Because we already know what a crude, paranoid, and crooked man does when installed in the presidency and confronted with a functional environmental movement–he creates the Environmental Protection Agency, he doesn’t muzzle it. He enables environmental regulations, he doesn’t undermine it. Richard Nixon didn’t care any more about the planet than Donald Trump does, but he acted like he did because the public made him do it.

I’m not saying that the individuality of leaders is irrelevant. There are occasions when the course of history turns on a single person, for good or for ill. Arguably, Adolph Hitler was such a person. So was Abraham Lincoln. So might Donald Trump be, though it’s too early to tell.

But leaders do what they do because others help him, or because others force them, or because others let them. They never act, nor fail to act, alone.

Donald Trump is part of a movement, both of popular sentiment and of political machinations. I don’t mean he’s popular, I mean that he isn’t alone. He is being helped, forced, or at least allowed to do as he is doing. And that help, force, or permission will continue even if he’s removed. It will continue until it meets a countervailing force.

Why do we keep hearing that Americans, when polled, support environmental protections, including climate action, by a solid majority, yet we keep watching ant-environmentalists and climate deniers taking office? If we forced Mr. Nixon to do the right thing on these issues, why can’t we force anyone else?

Why does the opposition continue to virtually ignore environmental issues and why has it been so ineffective on the topics that it does care about?

Donald Trump could not have become a bother to anyone other than his immediate circle without a lot of help–and an absence of true, effective opposition. Whether the Trump presidency lasts eight years or one year, that is the problem we have to solve.


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Meanwhile, in Congress

For a while, now, I’ve been seeing vague references to the idea that there is a bill in Congress that would end the EPA. Honestly, I was too overwhelmed and depressed over the issue to do anything about it for a few days, which is why I decided to write this week’s post on the issue–make myself accountable for at least finding out what’s going on.

Fortunately, I quickly learned that this bill, by itself is not the problem. Not that we don’t have problems.

H.R. 861 is quite real. You can look up its current legislative status here. But it is essentially a stunt. Not that there aren’t legislators who want the Environmental Protection Administration to go away, but this bill cannot accomplish it. The issue is that several other laws (such as the Clean Air Act) require the Federal Government to do the things that the EPA does. If Congress terminates the EPA without also either repealing all of those other laws or creating some other mechanism to comply with them, the Federal Government will immediately be in violation of a lot of laws. Without the EPA in place, it will also get paradoxically easier to sue polluting companies, so actually removing the EPA probably doesn’t have much corporate support.

H.R. 861 contains no such provisions for dealing with the other laws.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all raise an immediate hue and cry to protect the EPA. Stunt legislation could well function as a test, a way to gauge public interest in an issue. Call your Congressmembers, and especially call the members of the House Subcommittee on the Environment, and the House Committees on Energy and Commerce, on Agriculture, on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Science, Space, and Technology (that’s four separate committees) as these are the people currently considering the bill. Tell them NO, protect the EPA.

But there are a couple of other problems. Basically, there are other, less dramatic and attention-getting, ways to put the EPA out of commission. It’s budget can be cut to the point that it can’t function, for example, or many of its rules and guidelines can be replaced with much less stringent ones. Or, Congress can pass laws that hamper the EPA in various ways without actually removing it. Here is a good article on what some of those possibilities are. Here is an article on at least one of the measures that has already been proposed. And of course, there was the “muzzling” of the EPA that occurred by Presidential fiat shortly after the inauguration. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any current information on that. The measures were, supposedly, temporary, but I can’t get confirmation that they are still in force–nor can I find anything suggesting they aren’t. It’s like the issue just fell off the news cycle and hasn’t been back. The Twitter accounts, RogueEPA and AltEPA both still function, and I have sent a Tweet to the former asking for information, but, so far, no word.

Read both articles I just linked to, keep abreast of these issues, and be prepared to raise a big stink as often as necessary. Because I’m willing to bet that the strategy here is going to be to do as much damage to environmental regulation as possible while nobody is looking. Remember that Donald Trump’s backers do not benefit directly from changes to immigration policy or healthcare–all of that is smoke screen and political posturing. The name of the game is to undo environmental regulation.

But I have an even deeper concern.

Many people are comparing President Trump to President Nixon, based on suspicions that the former may be equally a paranoid crook. The comparison between the two men may or may not be apt, as far as it goes. But remember, Richard Nixon created the EPA and signed into law most of the powerful environmental legislation we have. Now, I’ve never heard Richard Nixon himself described as an environmentalist, but he signed those bills because at the time the environmental movement was strong enough that it was the expedient thing to do. Somehow, we’ve lost that.

I keep hearing about how much the American people, including many conservatives, support environmental regulation, including greenhouse gas emission reductions–ok, well, why then can’t we elect climate-sane public officials? Donald Trump ran on an explicitly climate-denier platform and he won. He has since been able to install the most environmentally egregious cabinet picks, mostly without any real opposition.

Something we’re doing isn’t working. We need to regroup and try something else.

 

 


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Spring Weather

Today I’ve been attending to family matters, working for money, and driving from Point A to Point B (and getting lost en route; I am not the world’s best navigator).  So I don’t have time for a big, long, involved post. Fortunately, all I really need to say today fits in one sentence:

Today I was in short-sleeves in February, again.

This February has been ridiculously hot in the Eastern United States, breaking numerous records from Ohio to South Carolina to Vermont. One of the most striking details is that Burlington, Vermont set a record for warmest February day ever on the 25th at 71 degrees, Fahrenheit–breaking the previous record that had been set two days earlier.

Spring is about 20 days early this year, in this region.

A warm period, all by itself, does not confirm global warming any more than a cold period, of course. All this has to be seen in context, and we already know what the context is–the Earth is getting warmer, and the most powerful nation in the world is led by a man bent on doing nothing about it.

But the weather is a reminder.