Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Impending Doom

There are three major pending crises, all of which have the potential to greatly alter the US and world political scene, and they are all coming to a head next month: (1) the impending decision on gay civil marriage, with its potential impact on the US legal system; (2) the Cyrpriot financial failure; (3) the sequester, with its pseudo-random destruction of the US government

The divisive potential of all three is enormous: I expect: (1) a poor decision on the Court's part that will in some way bear on states' rights and weaken civil marriage; (2) the weakening of the Euro and the weakening of the entire European Union project; (3) a reaction by the US conservative right, as they discover what Rome Washington does for them. All three have the potential for vast human pain, even violence.

I simply cannot imagine what, say, Alabama will do if required to recognize gay marriage. A reprise of the violence that burst out during the struggle for racial equality seems not impossible. But the other two have the potential for explosive reactions as well.

I'm not going to make a "food for corvids" joke here — this is just too bitter. I hope for the best, but I do not believe it is possible, and even the good seems unlikely.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The 0.01% and the Global Climate

The world's wealthy seem to believe they can buy their way out of any problem, so that as the seas rise and world burns, they can pay someone to fix it all. If not, if a substantial fraction of the very wealthy believed that climate change was an important problem, we'd have seen some action by now.

They're wrong.


Recent Reading on Climate Change

Today brought the the news that the past year has seen the second biggest rise in atmospheric CO2 since record keeping began. This seems a good time to post this commentary.

I decided to update my climate change reading a few weeks ago. After some consideration, I chose to read scientist James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren and and activist Bill McKibben's Eaarth.

James Hansen is the man who has been right about (almost) everything on climate change, and before everyone else. Google Scholar shows some 690 citations of his 1981 paper Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. Hansen is the person who worked out the 350 ppm CO2 concentration goal, and in this book he explains the how and why of that figure.

Hansen brings excellent knowledge and exposition of the science. Since I last studied this, there has been a revolution in paleoclimate research, and we now have data on the history of the earth's climate that provides data on how various “forcings”—that is, things that warm and cool the planet—affect the planet's climate. The evidence is, as we keep hearing, overwhelming. It turns out that it is has been known since 1976 what causes ice ages: in 1976 Hays, Imbrie, and Shackleton published a paper validating Milanković’s early 20th century celestial mechanics hypothesis. This is fascinating, and it also shows that earth's climate is, in fact, responsive to small changes in solar irradiation (insolation.)

Hansen explains how we are moving towards tipping points, after which climate change will become self-sustaining. He talks about likely tipping points—ice sheet collapse and methane clathrate upwellings. He also offers stories of the governmental decision making processes—Dick Cheney does not come out looking good. And it turns out that Lindzen, now the only major figure in climatology who argues against global climate change, also argues against a link between tobacco use and lung cancer. He claims to doubt the statistical evidence though it is overwhelming, just as the industry-funded flacks claimed, decades ago. It seems he has swallowed the deceptions of the tobacco industry and now the fossil fuel industries, and so destroyed his scientific credibility.

Then we come to Hansen's proposed political and technological solutions. First, he advocates quickly abandoning the use of coal as the only feasible way of meeting the 350 ppm goal, pointing out that it is not likely that the world will leave the oil in the ground for some years yet. He points out that solar power has not taken off as hoped, and so, he argues for nuclear power and, in fact, for fast neutron breeder reactors on the grounds of long-term availability of fuel and the relatively short half-lives of waste products—centuries rather than millenia. He argues for a carbon tax, rather than an emissions trading system.

So, Hansen.

Now I turn to activist Bill McKibben's Eaarth. The first part of the work reiterates some of the evidence for climate change and cites Hansen's 350 ppm goal. He also makes the point that we no longer live in the world we took for granted, but instead a harsher world, hence the title of the book: Eaarth. In his solutions he turns in a different direction than Hansen, arguing for a rebirth of village life, and in his final section has expresses doubts of such a system, pointing out that it has historically been parochial and sexist, and hopes to preserve the internet to leaven it.

What do I think?

  1. The scientific evidence for anthropgenic global climate change is overwhelming. I was not aware that planetology had come so far, and this is not simply a matter of debatable models but concrete paleoclimatological data.
  2. I like McKibben's way of thinking about the changes: that we no longer live on the Earth of history and legend, but instead on the new world, Eaarth. (“We are now leaving the Holocene. Please put your seatbacks up and return your tray-tables to the upright and locked position.”)
  3. I consider that the people running Hansen's fast-neutron reactors will be the same people who now run the oil companies. There is also a genuine risk in the production of so much weapons-grade fissionables. That's worrisome. My thought on the need for concentrated energy is that we might do well to start funding research on multiple alternatives: large-scale solar like the StratoSolar proposal as well as nuclear, but most importantly we need to get started.
  4. I am unconvinced by McKibben's village life model. Humans are naturally nomadic apes, and village life is an outgrowth (so far as is known) of limited resources and authoritarian impulses. I would prefer we avoid recreating subsistence lifestyles and instead seek new social forms.
  5. My overall intution is that we can—if we control our population—actually have a pretty comfortable lifestyle if we want it. We can have airships, wind-powered ocean-going ships that only occasionally run their engines, solar-electric rail, and so on. What we can't keep doing is basing personal transportation on personal automobiles and fast air travel as a matter of routine; we will have to find some other way to scratch the itches those things satisfy.
So now, what do you think?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Droning on and on and on…

[Based on comments written in response to Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station. This is outside of my usual ambit, and I am not very happy with these remarks, but the issue seems important enough to say some things about it.]

Congress didn't as much grant this authority as legitimized abuses already in progress. The USA has had assassination programs since the 1970s at least, probably since the 1950s. Both the CIA and the FBI undertook political operations within the USA as far back as the 1960s. They were theoretically shut down in the early 1980s, but there were still rumblings and the rumblings kept getting louder. (An introduction, here.) So it was all ready to go on 9/11.

It is worth remembering whose appointment, and to what office, Paul was filibustering. John Brennan, now confirmed as CIA director, was one of the architects of the expansion of the national security state under Bush II, and now Obama. In particular he is the man making drone assassination decisions. And he has a history. Marcy Wheeler, interviewed on Democracy Now in January:
[...] he was George Tenet’s chief of staff and then went on to be kind of the precursor to what’s now called the National Counterterrorism Center. And in that role, he touched the early moments of the torture program and, I think more importantly, was involved in the targeting for Cheney’s illegal wireless—warrantless wiretapping program, when it was working without any legal sanction at all. So, as you said at the top of this story, Brennan was considered unacceptable four years ago to lead the CIA. Since then, we’ve learned about his role in the illegal wiretapping program. We’ve learned about his role in drone strikes. And yet, now he’s supposed to be an acceptable candidate? I don’t understand how—I mean, I guess that’s a testament to what kind of hard-nosed person Barack Obama has become and the degree to which his policies really are just a continuation of the Bush-Cheney policies. 
When Attorney General Holder uses the word "American" in talking about Fifth Amendment rights, rather than "person," that is a matter of concern. Surveillance drones are already being used on the Mexican border and in Colombia. The idea of deploying armed drones in Latin America, based outside of the USA, and therefore under no restrictions of US domestic law, has surely already been floated in Washington; for all I know it has already begun. The potential for atrocities, the sorts of things which go down in history as things to wonder at in horror, is enormous. We need foreign policy and, eventually, international law to prevent this, and I can only hope that sanity will break out, and turn the USA away from further abuses of armed drones.

I worry that no leader now will start the international debate. For the moment, the administration, through Holder, has renounced the use of armed drones against US citizens in the USA, and I think this will be made law (but when has the CIA ever been respectful of law?) This is not enough. What has been done with drones in Gaza and Pakistan ought to be banned by international treaty, and with Brennan as Director of the CIA, the USA is not likely to take the lead on this.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


During his filibuster of Brennan's nomination for head of the CIA, Ron Paul read from the posts of a number of leftist bloggers who have never been heard before on major national media: Charles Pierce, Kevin Gostzola, and Glenn Greenwald, among others. And because this is the age where being known is more important than knowing anything, these people have now gotten more attention than they ever dreamed possible.

And, as Josh Marshall pointed out, "Rejoining just before midnight, what is most amazing to me, refreshing, is that at this moment — 12:24 AM on the East Coast — you actually have a real debate about domestic security and war powers on the floor of the Senate. Not the normal staged nonsense but an actual debate, which got underway when Dick Durbin joined the exchange."

It may be a brief flare of reason before the final descent into madness, but I'd like to hope that sanity is at last breaking out.