Monday, April 24, 2006

Politics and the environment

One of the things that often gets lost in the hurly-burly of politics -- especially when the burly is being hurled as much as it is under the current regime -- is that the gamesmanship often becomes bigger than the reality of how policies play out in the real world.

What often results is that, while we remain preoccupied by the minutiae of the political shell game, those realities accumulate, a step at a time, until they release an avalanche of disaster that can no longer be swept under the political rug -- and, indeed, becomes the most pressing political issue of the era.

One of these making headlines currently is the matter of gas prices and American oil dependency, manifesting the growing warnings about the peak oil phenomenon (The American Prospect recently did an exemplary job of compiling the requisite information and analysis on it).

As James Wolcott noted awhile back, a lot of this falls at the feet of our current national leadership:
The only explanation, apart from Bush's cognitive disability in facing reality, is that he sociopathically doesn't care about the coming calamity endangering the planet because he and his cronies will be financially prepared even as most Americans lose their standard of living.

It isn't just Bush, of course; the same could be said of the entire leadership of the conservative movement, including its media figureheads. Nonetheless, as I pointed out at the time of the Katrina disaster,, Bush embodies what is congenitally wrong with movement conservatives:
Those policies were a product of this administration's priorities, which in the end are always about promoting the well-being of the moneyed class at the expense of the middle classes and poor, while effectively driving a wedge within those classes. That's no conspiracy; it's just the way the world works, especially with men like Bush in charge.

The Katrina disaster, though, was the embodiment of the power of nature to overwhelm the false "reality" created by movement propaganda and White House spin. The disaster was a fiasco for Bush because it laid bare his administration's incompetence. The nation saw, clearly, that this malfeasance in disaster response and preparedness was similarly reflected in the mounting disasters and casualties in Iraq, in the growing national income gap, in confronting corruption within their own ranks, and in those steadily skyrocketing gas prices.

But of all the historical gaffes committed by this administration -- and by conservative-movement rule generally -- perhaps none will have greater long-term ramifications for Americans and for the world than its manifest failures in confronting the realities of global warming. Like Katrina, it is a mounting force of nature that cannot be wished away by spin. And like the peak oil crisis, it will affect millions of Americans and the very way we live. There's a reason Al Gore is out stumping on the issue now: He was right in 1992, and he's right now.

Even a manifestly Establishment organ like Time magazine recognizes that this is not, in the stock characterization of corporate apologists (see especially Michael Crichton), mere fear-mongering. The evidence and scientific consensus has become insurmountable, and any "controversy" that might remain is largely manufactured for the benefit of vested short-term interests.

Nonetheless, the response both of movement conservatives at large and the Bush administration in particular has been simply to "deal with it", to just "adapt" to whatever changes we might wreak on the global environment:
Perhaps the action -- or rather, inaction -- that most typifies Bush's disastrous approach to the environment has been his handling of the global-warming phenomenon. After spending most of his campaign and the first two years of his Oval Office tenure denying that the problem even existed (a la Rush Limbaugh's typically hallucinatory assertions), the administration did a stark about-face and admitted that global warming indeed is real. However, the Environmental Protection Agency's report said that -- even though the phenomenon is certain to destroy many of the nation's natural resources, particularly forested areas, alpine lakes, glaciers and wetlands -- no serious steps were warranted outside of "voluntary" efforts by corporations to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, and typified those looming disasters as requiring mere "adjustments" on the part of Americans. A couple of days later, Bush dismissed the report as the work of "the bureaucracy."

Moreover, as Chris Mooney has been steadily documenting, this administration, and Republicans in Congress as well, have simply subverted science so that contradictory data is suppressed.

Are salmon counters finding too few salmon on the Columbia? Cut their funding!

Likewise, government data-gathering that indicated a looming environmental disaster has been meeting an ugly death at the hands of the Bushevistas:
Employees and contractors working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with a U.S. Geological Survey scientist working at an NOAA lab, said in interviews that over the past year administration officials have chastised them for speaking on policy questions; removed references to global warming from their reports, news releases and conference Web sites; investigated news leaks; and sometimes urged them to stop speaking to the media altogether. Their accounts indicate that the ideological battle over climate-change research, which first came to light at NASA, is being fought in other federal science agencies as well.

What are those NASA scientists trying to say? That we're looking at a significant natural catastrophe that will raise ocean levels at rates unheard of in geological history, incuding climatic changes and certainly rapidly increased extinction rates:
This new satellite data is a remarkable advance. We are seeing for the first time the detailed behavior of the ice streams that are draining the Greenland ice sheet. They show that Greenland seems to be losing at least 200 cubic kilometers of ice a year. It is different from even two years ago, when people still said the ice sheet was in balance.

Hundreds of cubic kilometers sounds like a lot of ice. But this is just the beginning. Once a sheet starts to disintegrate, it can reach a tipping point beyond which break-up is explosively rapid. The issue is how close we are getting to that tipping point. The summer of 2005 broke all records for melting in Greenland. So we may be on the edge.

Our understanding of what is going on is very new. Today's forecasts of sea-level rise use climate models of the ice sheets that say they can only disintegrate over a thousand years or more. But we can now see that the models are almost worthless. They treat the ice sheets like a single block of ice that will slowly melt. But what is happening is much more dynamic.

Once the ice starts to melt at the surface, it forms lakes that empty down crevasses to the bottom of the ice. You get rivers of water underneath the ice. And the ice slides towards the ocean.

Our NASA scientists have measured this in Greenland. And once these ice streams start moving, their influence stretches right to the interior of the ice sheet. Building an ice sheet takes a long time, because it is limited by snowfall. But destroying it can be explosively rapid.

This is what we know is happening right now. Hansen then tells us what this means for us in the future, largely in terms of the rate of change:
How fast can this go? Right now, I think our best measure is what happened in the past. We know that, for instance, 14,000 years ago sea levels rose by 20m in 400 years -- that is five meters in a century. This was towards the end of the last ice age, so there was more ice around. But, on the other hand, temperatures were not warming as fast as today.

How far can it go? The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today -- which is what we expect later this century -- sea levels were 25m higher. So that is what we can look forward to if we don't act soon. None of the current climate and ice models predict this. But I prefer the evidence from the Earth's history and my own eyes. I think sea-level rise is going to be the big issue soon, more even than warming itself.

It's hard to say what the world will be like if this happens. It would be another planet. You could imagine great armadas of icebergs breaking off Greenland and melting as they float south. And, of course, huge areas being flooded.

How long have we got? We have to stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade, or temperatures will warm by more than one degree. That will be warmer than it has been for half a million years, and many things could become unstoppable. If we are to stop that, we cannot wait for new technologies like capturing emissions from burning coal. We have to act with what we have. This decade, that means focusing on energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that do not burn carbon. We don't have much time left.

This is just taking into account the Greenland ice cap, which alone would contribute to a global oceanic rise of 15-20 feet were it to melt; it doesn't begin to account for what's happening to the much larger polar ice caps.

Mary at the Left Coaster put it just about right:
What's clear is we have no more time to waste. And we can't wait until Bush is out of office to get moving. The wholesale evacuation of New Orleans is a small harbinger of what we will see along all our coasts. 30 meters is more than 95 feet and many places like Portland, Oregon have sizable elevations significantly lower than that. (In downtown Portland, the US Bank Tower is at an elevation of 34 feet.) Manhattan would be gone as would much of Florida.

In the United States alone, much of the Florida Panhandle and the Gulf Coast would be underwater, as well as major population centers along both coasts. Then there are the thousands of South Pacific islands that would be inundated, as well as the numerous major coastal populations in Asia, Africa and Europe.

Neither does all this take into account related global-warming phenomena such as the warming of frozen methane at the bottom of the world's ocean's, or the catastrophic effect of oceanic warming on major ecosystems like the world's coral reefs and salmon populations. We're not simply endangering our own habitat and that of wildlife; we're putting the world's food supply at serious risk.

All this stands in direct contradiction of the corporate apologists and conservative naysayers who, like Rush Limbaugh and friends, have tried to pretend that there really isn't a problem here. How many have spouted suppositions -- such as claiming that any ice-cap meltoff would take "thousands of years" -- that now look Pollyanish?

Yet, how many have paid a price for it? Will Bush, for that matter, ever pay a price for his stubborn inaction, besides the condemnation of history that he already seems to be earning?

Probably not, because there will always be an army of sycophants, people invested (both financially and emotionally) in the conservative movement and Bush, leaping to gloss over the mounting evidence. The primary tactic here, as with the Bush approach to science generally (especially the question of Darwinism and "intelligent design"), is to pretend that the views of a tiny fringe of (mostly well-financed) dissenters have status equal to an unusual broad consensus among the vast majority of informed scientists.

Witness Jonah Goldberg (complete with an approving link from Professor Lloyd Christmas) opining that simply pointing out that the scientific consensus on global warming is overwhelming means you're cutting off debate:
And if you disagree, get ready for the witch hunt. Major news media have gone after scientists who argue there's still time to study global warming rather than plunge into some half-baked environmental jihad that could waste possibly trillions of dollars.

Of course, people like Goldberg -- who seem, strangely, not to blanch the slightest at the prospect of half-baked geopolitical jihads that definitely waste trillions of dollars, as well as thousands of lives -- couch their charges in words like "could" and "possibly," because they really don't know.

And that, for conservatives, is the key: Because we really don't know what will happen, nor can we prove the cause beyond any reasonable doubt, we should just continue with the status quo. Even for centrist/liberal observers like Mark Kleiman [note: this analysis was done as a class exercise, and does not necessarily reflect Kleiman's views] this cost-effectiveness argument trumps everything. If we can't prove it, then won't taking action run the risk of just being a big waste of money?

This is the same misguided calculus behind the Katrina disaster, when federal officials believed the tiny likelihood of a large enough hurricane made levee upgrades a lesser priority:
This calculus is deeply flawed, for the reason that just played out in New Orleans: Even if there were only a 0.5 percent chance that the city would be hit by a Category 4 hurricane or worse -- a questionable figure in any event, given that hurricanes have been rising in frequency and intensity in recent years -- the costs of allowing the flooding that would ensue under the existing system to occur were so high as to be incalculable. Planning to simply evacuate the city in the event of a Catgory 4 or 5 hurricane was horrifically bad planning.

Likewise, the costs of doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions, as well as to slow the rate of global warming to a reasonable pace, are so high as to be incalculable. When the potential costs include massive economic and demographic dislocations, massive natural disasters (including, most likely, more Katrina-sized storms), and massive starvation and loss of life, those trillions of dollars will seem like a drop in the bucket.

And that's presuming that it actually would prove to be a waste. In reality, many of the potential solutions could actually deliver real efficiencies to the economic system. We won't know until we try.

Conservatives can sit on their hands all they like. It's time for the rest of us to learn just to ignore them and get moving. They have already earned their place in history, and it won't be a kind one.

For the rest of us, the mounting and irrevocable evidence of a looming disaster -- from melting ice caps and starving polar bears to vanishing reefs, glaciers, and alpine lakes to tropical storms of historical ferocity -- demands that we act. It's called responsibility. And it's one of those things where actions always speak louder than words.

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