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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Nuclear Opinions

I’ve been thinking.

I’ve just watched a documentary from last month in which Miles O’Brian explored nuclear power. It was an interesting show, full of detailed but easy-to-understand descriptions of various types of reactors. The basic thrust of the piece was that resistance to nuclear power is wrong-headed in light of the threat of climate change and the existence of new, much safer, reactor designs.

My immediate impulse is to be suspicious of such claims. Like many people, I have a very negative association with anything nuclear–which may be deserved, but is knee-jerk nonetheless. I am suspicious of the jerking of knees. You’re never too smart to be dumb, as Jimmy Buffet says, and I doubt my emotional impulses are any wiser and more reliable than anyone else’s.

What I have heard is that the potential harm of a nuclear accident is so great that even a small chance of that accident happening is too great. That even a properly functioning nuclear power plant produces large amounts of radioactive waste that nobody knows what to do with. That although a nuclear power plant is free of carbon emissions in the sense that it has no smoke stack, huge amounts of fossil fuels are used to build the plant, to mine and mill the fuel, to transport it, and to decommission the plant afterwards. So nuclear power is actually carbon-intensive.

But I have heard all these things from people who are already opposed to nuclear power.

I am not a nuclear physicist. Neither am I an engineer. I do not understand the operation of nuclear power plants unless someone explains it to me in very simple terms, and I am not equipped to differentiate the accurate descriptions from the inaccurate ones. I am reduced, therefor, to deciding whether to accept the message based on whether I trust the messenger. I have friends whom I trust who are anti-nuclear activists. They aren’t physicists, either, but they are highly educated in other fields and seem to know what they’re talking about. Therefore, I am anti-nuclear as well. When I hear Miles O’Brian on television implying that nuclear power might be a good idea, my impulse is to distrust him, to wonder if perhaps he is on the take somehow (despite the fact that I generally admire his work).

Pay attention to how this works:

  1. I do not understand a topic, but I feel the need to have an opinion.
  2. I therefore adopt the opinion held by people I like and trust, even though my trust in them has nothing whatever to do with their expertise in the relevant topic
  3. Because I am now emotionally invested in my adopted opinion, the mere fact that someone disagrees with me is enough to make me question their competence and their professional ethics.
  4. Miles O’Brian is not a physicist, but he is a professional science journalist who has obviously spent several years intensively researching the nuclear energy field, including talking to a lot of physicists–and yet my impulse is to assume he is deliberately lying because he contradicts people who, so far as I know, have no more real expertise in the matter than I do. Thus have I made myself impervious to learning on an important topic.

This is exactly the same psychological process that causes some people to doubt the reality of climate change.

Now, the fact that I’ve apparently taken leave of my senses is not proof, all by itself, that I’m wrong about nuclear power being bad news. As they say, just because you’re paranoid is no proof they’re not out to get ya. But the jerking of my knee is a good indication that I need to open my mind back up, even if I have to do it with a crow bar.

Offhand, the new reactor designs do sound promising. Whereas the water-cooled reactors build in the 1960’s and ’70’s more or less have failure as a default mode, other designs exist that simply turn themselves off if anything goes wrong. For example, some use liquid fuel that expands if it gets too hot. In an expanded state, the uranium atoms are too far apart to sustain nuclear fusion, and the reactor cools back down again. Sounds perfect.

Except I don’t know what happens to the spent fuel afterwards or what the environmental cost of uranium mining and processing is. So maybe not so perfect. But it’s worth noting that the environmental cost of fossil fuel mining and processing is truly awful, so it might come out even.

I should do some research on this, but have not yet done so. My point is not to argue in favor of nuclear in this post. I can imagine that I might do so in the future, depending on what else I learn–while I doubt nuclear power can ever be rendered truly safe, the small risk of local or regional disaster might be better than the absolute certainty of global disaster we face otherwise. But I’m writing this post today because I’ve had an even more unsettling thought.

I’ve long maintained that we don’t need nuclear power and its various risks and costs, nor do we need new technological advances in renewable energy and alternative fuels. All of those approaches make saving the planet conditional on our getting “enough” energy by other means, but we’re never going to get enough because the human capacity for consumption has no lid. Some of us use tens or hundreds of times the energy our fore-bearers did, and, given the opportunity, I’m sure we could find some use for tens or hundreds of times more than what we use now.

Rather than committing ourselves to filling our hunger for energy and then engaging our ingenuity to find ways to live sustainably anyway, we should commit to living sustainably and then engage our ingenuity to fin ways to keep our luxuries and gadgets anyway. We should just turn the polluting machines off. Today.

But of course, I know we’re not going to. Hell, the United States of America doesn’t seem capable at the moment of electing people who think climate change is real, let alone mounting a grass-roots movement to radically re-shape our way of life. Ideal solutions are important to hold on to for perspective and as a useful starting point for brain-storming, but I’m in no way suggesting that we reject partial and imperfect solutions when they come along. We must cope with political reality just as we must cope with physics.

And herein lies the disconcerting thought.

Are we in a position where nuclear power, whatever its costs and hang-ups and difficulties, may be the best we can get?

 


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The Anxious, Jealous Guardians of Our Democracy

Some weeks ago, I explained the process by which an incoming president’s political appointees are vetted and confirmed by the Senate. Given my deep concern over President-Elect Trump’s nomination for head of the EPA (I had thought he might choose Myron Ebell, but he actually chose a different climate-denier, Scott Pruitt), I advised readers to first contact the members of the committee that would vet the nominee, and then to contact their senators.

I expected that the nomination process for the Trump administration would not begin until after the inauguration because that process is begun by the president. Since Donald Trump is not president yet, I had thought he would have to wait.

I was surprised.

(I do not mean to suggest any anomaly on his part. I may well have misunderstood.)

Full Senate confirmation hearings appear to have begun, meaning that the committee process has already been completed for some of the nominees. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track that one down, yet—I don’t know which committees have finished their work and I don’t know how to find out.

Clearly, the thing to do is to hurry up and call as many people as possible. If you don’t know whether a Senate committee has met yet, call them anyway. Senate staffers are nice people, and they do not make fun of constituents who call up sounding disorganized. Unfortunately, I’m kind of afraid of telephones. Honestly, calling people makes me anxious. I call my mother and, if I’m traveling, my husband, and that’s about it. For the sake of my country and my planet I will rise above my fear and make the calls, but it takes a lot more time and emotional energy than it should.

Seriously, don’t be like me. Make the calls. These people aren’t scary. I called Senator Cardin’s office today. I tried to call his Salisbury office, which is closest to my house (and therefore more likely to be responsive to me), but kept getting sent to voicemail, so I called the DC office and got through. I stumbled through my words a bit, apologized, then said:

“I want to ask the Senator to please do whatever he can to block the more extreme of Trump’s appointments, especially Scott Pruitt. There is no way a climate denier should be EPA head.”

The staffer said she would add that to the tally and make sure to tell Senator Cardin. I thanked her and we wished each other good day. That was it.

If you don’t know how to contact your senators, just look it up online. It’s easy. Phone calls are more important than emails or petitions (do that, too, though), because even though all contacts from constituents are tallied, if you speak to a staffer yourself, he or she is more likely to make sure the Senator hears of your call. All senators have DC phone numbers. Many also have other offices and those numbers should be listed on the individual senator’s website, if he or she has one. Go to.

I’ve been seeing lots of exhortations to call in about other nominees as well, though I’m not going to talk about that in this blog. I did find a schedule of the confirmation hearings, here.

I am pleased to see these signs of political involvement. I am not pleased that virtually none of these exhortations are aimed at protecting the environment—and the environment, remember, is about public health, social justice, economic vibrancy, and national security. All that depends on Planet Earth, and all that is being ignored, by and large, by the nation’s nascent political resistance.

Which is especially problematic, given that a strong argument can be made that preventing climate action is exactly why Donald Trump ran and exactly what he intends to focus on while in office.

Virtually everyone he is surrounding himself with has ties to the fossil fuels industry. He has the support of the Heartland Institute, an anti-climate group which is largely funded by the Koch Brothers. He has the support of the Russian government, which is entirely dependent on fossil fuels for its wealth and power.

The social issues—women’s rights, LGBT rights, racial justice, immigrant and refugee rights—may have been the flashpoints of the campaign, but they are clearly peripheral to Mr. Trump and his advisers. He makes a lot of noise that way and pisses people off very effectively, but he has made no progress whatever towards any policy proposals that would actually help any of the groups supposedly aggrieved by women, gay people, trans* people, black and brown people, or newcomers of any stripe. It’s not like an impossibly expensive wall is actually going to have anything to do with protecting jobs or lowering the crime rate, even if it is ever built. In other words, while Donald Trump can certainly hurt the less-than-fully-enfranchised, and probably will, no one is going to directly benefit from his doing so–and if nobody (no supporters, no donors, no political allies) benefit, then what is the political point? Why bother?

But Mr. Trump has made a very specific, and very doable promise to undo President Obama’s climate policies, something that will have direct and immediate benefit to the fossil fuel industry and everybody who is significantly invested in it.

Remember that Donald Trump was a leader of the Birther Movement, a major plank in the Tea Party, which was in turn largely bankrolled by the Koch Brothers—who are deeply tied to the fossil fuel industry and have a history of supporting climate doubt.

Why would a movement organized around cultural and economic complaints be bankrolled by oil barons?

Could it be that dog-whistling up the racist animosity of the nation was an effective means of mobilizing an electorate capable of getting a climate-denier into office? Is it entirely coincidental that when a black man becomes the first US President to really take climate change seriously, oil barons begin immediately funding and organizing racists who espouse a deep distrust of the Federal government? A black man attacks climate change and attempts to hand the baton to a woman (who does have an excellent record with the League of Conservation Voters, remember) and the actual next president is a misogynist, racist climate denier–does this sound like a coincidence, or is it somebody’s idea of a plan?

Racism and its associated deplorabilities was the bait offered for one aim and one aim alone: to stack the White House, Congress, and eventually the Supreme Court with corporate-friendly climate deniers.

For any of you who dislike Donald Trump for reasons other than his climate hostility, climate hostility is now precisely the reason for all your other worries. That is why they won.

And it worked. We lost this round because too many people took their eye off the ball. We minimized and marginalized the importance of climate change, something the people who seek to prevent climate action have never done. They took the issue seriously and presented a consistent, organized, and strategically intelligent front. That’s how they won.

We can win in turn by being equally serious and savvy, by not taking our eyes off the ball, either. By making those phone calls, by attending those protests, by running for office ourselves.

I’m watching President Obama’s farewell address right now. The title of this post is a phrase from his speech. You may like him or dislike him, that’s not my concern, but our chance right now lies in taking on the challenge he has issued—to believe that yes, we can change the world.

The world is changing regardless. It’s up to us now to shape those changes.


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Trumped Up Differences

This blog is politically neutral on all issues except climate change. Because Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, is on record as a climate denier and his Democratic opponents both have good records on climate–for that reason and that reason alone, this blog will endorse the Democratic nominee. I, personally, have opinions on other issues, but this blog does not.

I will need to touch on some other issues here, however.

I am very concerned by the insistence of many progressives that there is no substantive difference between Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton. I fear that such an assumption could result in a Republican victory, should Mrs. Clinton become the nominee, as she is expected to do. At the same time, I am sympathetic to that stand because I said the same think about George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

I was a Ralph Nader supporter.

Now, to be clear, Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the election. Even if every single Nader supporter would otherwise have voted for Mr. Gore (which is not true), the claim that Mr. Gore was somehow owed those votes, that either major party ought to be left free to claim all votes on its side of the aisle by default, should be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about political diversity, competition, or free speech.  So, I still believe in the validity of third-party and independent candidacies.

I do not believe, as I once did, that there was no substantive difference between then-Governor Bush and Vice President Gore. That was a mix of logical fallacy and political naivete on my part that I now regret and I see the same fallacy in play today.

Ignore the fact, for the moment, that Mrs. Clinton is an establishment candidate while Mr. Trump is a rather vocal outsider–that right there is a huge difference between the two, but let’s focus on the fact that the two belong, to one degree or another, to the moneyed class. They are both privileged insiders in a way most Americans, especially most people of color, simply are not. Yes, it’s true that both probably agree on many issues, just as Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore probably agreed on many issues. There are people for whom the occupant of the White House seldom makes any immediate difference because their troubles fall into that category of troubles that almost anyone capable of reaching the White House in the first place must agree not to try to solve.

But to assume therefore that the occupant of the White House doesn’t make any difference to anybody is a logical fallacy, and the very same one I fell into sixteen years ago.

While campaigning for Mr. Nader, I uncritically absorbed and then repeated a series of talking points that consisted largely of rumors to the effect that both major party candidates were morally slimy.  For example, I heard and repeated that Mr. Gore had supported the financial rights of pharmaceutical companies at the expense of AIDS victims in Africa and that his campaign had accepted large donations from exactly the same corporate interests that were supporting Mr. Bush. But even if those rumors were true, the existence of slime on both parties did not prove that both were slimy in the same ways or that the differing patterns of slime balanced each other out. For example, Mr. Bush was pro-life, while Mr. Gore was pro-choice.  Had the election come out differently, the political landscape on that issue might be very different today.

Of more immediate relevance to this blog, Mr. Gore has always been a vocal climate hawk. While Mr. Bush was not a climate denier and paid somewhat more lip-service to the issue than many other politicians of the time, throughout his presidency he effectively and persistently undermined any progress on the issue. Had that election turned out differently, the US would not have pulled out of Kyoto and might have become a global leader on climate action twelve years earlier. Those are twelve years the world will not get back.

Donald Trump is running as an outright climate denier who has made an explicit campaign promise to pull out of the Paris agreement.

So, let’s say that Mrs. Clinton is as slimy as they come. Let’s say she’s an unrepentant criminal who cares for nothing but power and will happily serve her corporate masters if elected–I don’t personally believe it, but let’s just say all the bile launched in her direction over the years is deserved. She does have a good record with the League of Conservation Voters and she has vowed to protect and continue President Obama’s climate protection policies.

So, if you don’t like Hillary Clinton, don’t vote for her. Vote for Bernie Sanders, if you still have a primary to look forward to, and if Mrs. Clinton does win the nomination, vote for Jill Stein or some other alternative. But just don’t pretend there is no difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.

The difference between the two of them could well be the future of the entire planet.

 


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The Difference Between a Liar and a Heretic

A few days ago The College Fix, an online student paper, published a piece entitled “The Pushback Against Attempts Punish ‘Heretical’ Views on Climate Begins in Earnest.” The thrust of the article is that attempts to silence or punish climate deniers violates the principle of free speech. I should say that I have no wish to launch a personal attack on either The College Fix or the author, David Huber. As far as I can tell, they are simply raising an important concern for discussion. I accept the invitation. I’m discussing.

The thing is, neither American law nor American values literally protect all speech. There is libel. There is fraud. There is the bully at the dinner table defending his or her obnoxious drivel with “hey, it’s a free country!” (which is true inasmuch as being obnoxious isn’t illegal, but no law requires inviting the obnoxious to dinner again, either). Free speech exists on two levels, legal and social, but neither level literally protects everything a person could possibly say. Differentiating protected speech from something else requires careful thought. As a general rule, freedom of speech, correctly applied, is the refuge from bullies. Misapplied, it is the refuge of bullies.

The author of the College Fix piece, Dave Huber, is concerned that attempts to prosecute ExxonMobile for its climate denial activities constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Further, efforts to publicly vilify the company violate fair play. Mr. Huber contends that these efforts constitute a decision to stifle speakers based on which side they occupy in public debate, something that obviously cannot happen in a functional democracy.

The important point is that ExxonMobile is not in trouble for speaking–the company is in trouble for lying, and specifically for lying in such a way as to undermine political support for government regulations that would have protected the public at the expense of ExxonMobile’s business. Arguably, that’s fraud.

There are two other important points, here.

One is the limit of the concept of “opinion.” As a society, we generally share a conviction that everyone has a right to form, express, and share their opinions, and to hold on to those opinions without censure from others. And we do have that right, but not every thought or idea is an opinion in that sense. Opinions are matters of taste or judgment. In my opinion, lemonade is better than coffee. Your opinion may differ, but there is nothing whatever you can do about mine except accept it. I’ve tasted both, and I’d rather have lemonade. I can also have professional opinions, where I render a judgment based on my experience as a writer, and I have opinions on questions that have no secular answer, such as whether heaven exists. But for questions that have answers that are clearly and unambiguously answerable by secular means? They just aren’t matters of opinion. For me to say that, in my opinion, New York City is in New Jersey is balderdash. The word “opinion” is not a license to just say whatever. New York City is not in New Jersey.

And Planet Earth is getting warmer.

The other important point is that debate must be rooted in the truth, so far as the truth is knowable. If we’re going to have a public discussion about what to do about an issue–say, unemployment, crime, pollution, or the fair distribution of marshmallows at a Girl Scout camp-out, we have to base our discussion on the known facts. I can’t insist that there are more Girl Scouts on the trip than there actually are, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the discussion. Introducing error in such a discussion is just as bad as suppressing a particular voice, because either undermines the process of group decision-making. So, while there are circumstances where the law must protect speech regardless of its truthfulness, morally speaking, there is no right to lie publicly.

And ExxonMobile, and climate deniers generally, lie.

There is a neat little rhetorical trick where people defend their actions by speaking to legitimate, but inapplicable, anxieties. For example, there is the classic false populist who orates about the high unemployment rate in order to gin up support for policies that only benefit the rich. There are the privileged who yell “I’m being oppressed!” when anyone tries to even slightly level the playing field. And there are climate deniers who, as a group, lie, bully, even threaten in order to keep the truth about climate change out of the public debate and then become very concerned about freedom of speech when anyone tries to stand up to them.

Essentially, if I can convince you that the best way to avoid being robbed is to give me a hundred dollars, I’m going to get your money because you are very worried about robbery. You’re worried about robbery because, on some level, you know you’re being robbed–by me.

So, let’s go over this; yes dissidents should be allowed to speak freely. Condemning people for their opinions or ideas is contrary to the ideals of a free society. We don’t hunt heretics anymore, or shouldn’t, anyway. But no, ExxonMobile is not a beleaguered dissident and no, climate denial is not simply an example of an unpopular group of ideas.

The problem with climate denial is not that 97% of climate scientists disagree; the problem is that climate denial is being propagated by and for bullies. The rest of us have a right to stand up and protect ourselves.

Adendum

Author David Huber also uses the College Fix article to indulge in a somewhat tangential ad hominim attack on Bill Nye that deserves rebuttal. The substance of the attack is that Nye is an engineer, not a climate scientist, despite calling himself “The Science Guy,” and that such misrepresentation would never be tolerated in a climate denier. The fact of the matter is that having hosted a TV show called “Bill Nye the Science Guy” does not constitute a claim to be a scientist any more than Mr. Wizard ever claimed to actually practice sorcery. Bill Nye is not a scientist, he’s a science communicator. That is, he is not, nor does he claim to be, authoritative. He’s just a messenger. When climate deniers are called out for not being climate scientists, it’s because either they or their supporters have done something to suggest that they are climate scientists. Either that or, yes, somebody is being snarky because they don’t like the message.

There is no double-standard here; messengers are judged by the reliability of their message, not by their own expertise, unless they claim to be experts themselves.


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Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

I’m still thinking about Easter, some way to make a post seasonal without being trite–I’m sure there’s some way in which climate change is bad for Cadbury Creme Eggs, but really? Is that where we want to go with this holiday?

The thing is, Easter (if we ignore, for the moment, its pagan fertility rite dimensions) is the commemoration of the death of a political prisoner at the hands of the State. I’ve always found the thought of Jesus-as-activist much more intriguing than the possibility of His resurrection–which might be because I’m not Christian, but I know dedicated Christians who seem to feel the same way. It’s a fact that being a good person can be dangerous. It’s also true that we keep having good people anyway.

I’ve decided to honor the incontrovertible miracle of bravery in the face of persecution by Googling “climate change martyrs” and seeing where it leads.

“Climate change martyrs” is not, in itself, a great search term. Nothing much relevant comes up, probably because the religious dimension of “martyr” is somewhat at odds with climate science. But climate scientists are being harassed, even threatened. Some may be murdered, if the problem persists. Bravery is required.

The harassment goes back to the mid-1990’s, but has been increasing in recent years. Examples taken from the various articles I read for this piece (and have linked to) include: threats to “see to it” that a scientist would be fired; vague threats on a scientist’s children’s safety; the deposit of a dead rat on a scientist’s doorstep; the display of a noose by an audience member during a public talk by a climate scientist; and multiple, spurious accusations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

That last may seem less frightening than the physical threats, but it’s actually much more sinister. After all, it is illegal to physically attack someone, so the chance of anyone actually making good on a death threat are very low–but it is not illegal to file so many Freedom of Information Act requests or legal challenges over the use of government money that the target cannot conduct research.

Some researchers are becoming afraid to speak out on climate change, sometimes asking that their names not be associated with their work. Others labor on behind locks that have been changed and phone numbers that have been de-listed. This is happening.

Curiously, the problem is largely American. Australian climate scientists have also been harassed, but not been on the scale of what their American counterparts have had to deal with. And while Canada has had a serious problem with high-level climate denial in the past, it never bubbled over into organized harassment of scientists. Britain and continental Europe and Japan have seen little of the problem, although scientists there are very concerned for their American and Australian colleagues. Climate-denial in general is specific to the English-speaking world, at least in part because organized climate denial is propagated largely by American organizations–that speak English. That the United States is at the center of the problem should, perhaps, not be much of a surprise. After all, the United States is key to global climate action–without American leadership, meaningful emissions reduction is unlikely to happen. With American leadership, we have a chance. And since the only way to accomplish meaningful emissions reduction is to stop burning fossil fuel, if I owned a boatload of stock in the fossil fuel industries and had no conscience whatsoever, I’d try to take out American interest in climate. Wouldn’t you? And, clearly, attacking American climate scientists is part of that effort.

The recent rise in harassment dates to almost ten years ago, when two events occurred in quick succession: the release of the 2007 IPCC Report, which seemed on the verge of triggering meaningful climate action in the United States; and the election of a black man as President of the United States. The latter made possible the rise of the Tea Party, a movement that is demonstrably fueled by racist resentment rather than ideological concerns about government and yet is funded by the Koch brothers (plus Rupert Murdock), oilmen who have been accused of personal racism (do an internet search on “are the Kochs racist?”), but quite clearly have a much bigger investment in preventing climate action–they also fund the Heartland Institute, which is a major driver of American climate denial.

That the American version of hostility to climate action is deeply enmeshed with suspicion of government over-reach at the same time that the government is headed by a black man may not be a complete coincidence.

I do not raise the specter of racism simply to discredit climate deniers, but rather to suggest a mechanism whereby American conservative populism may have been hijacked and made to serve an anti-environmentalist agenda.

Some attacks on climate scientists–and by “attacks” I mean everything from threats to legal action to deliberate bureaucratic nonsense–have been perpetrated by individuals, others by organized climate-denier groups. Some of the most frightening, to me, anyway, come from government officials, including Lamar Smith, the Chair of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, and (now former) Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

Scientists themselves are not passive before all of this, and are fighting back, both individually and collectively. The Union of Concerned Scientists particularly is taking action, but needs money, and possibly other support. They need money with which to fight spurious lawsuits and stave off equally spurious bureaucratic demands which, together, might otherwise stop American climate scientists from working. I’m posting a link to their request again, here. Please support them.

Silencing inconvenient people is not an American thing to do–and when it happens anyway, the American thing to do is to stand up and do something about it.

I chose as title, a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta. The bad-guy has the hero riddled with bullets, and yet the hero does not fall but ultimately triggers the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian government–because while the hero is not personally immortal, ideas cannot be murdered. I had occasion to remember the quote recently–a friend of mine, a political organizer and activist and a deeply religious man, wrote something on Facebook that, knowing him as I do, reminded me of the ultimate futility of trying to erase ideas by attacking inconvenient people.

I have just asked his permission to share his post with you:

A few minutes before Easter. I love this annual celebration of the underlying reality that empires can’t kill the Spirit, and that a spiritual wholeness is resurrected every time we take loving and wise action in the world around us. I see the life of Jesus as one of the most powerful patterns and examples of radical faithfulness. Miracles continue to happen. Blessed be.