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Intellectual Giants November 10, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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House Republicans are deciding who should be chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Apparently a leading candidate for the job is John Shimkus Republican from Illinois who thinks:

(1) We don’t have to do anything about climate change because the Bible says God promised not to destroy the world again after Noah’s flood.

(2) We shouldn’t reduce carbon emissions because it would be “taking away plant food.”

(3) “Today we have 388 parts per million in the atmosphere. I believe in the days of the dinosaurs, where we had the most flora and fauna, we were probably at 4,000 parts per million. There is a theological debate that this a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon.”

(4) “When we breath in, we breath oxygen. When we breath out, we breath out carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is not a toxic emittent.”

This is the sort of person we depend on to solve the variety of problems this country confronts.

That Shimkus is a candidate for this committee tells us a lot about the intellectual capabilities of congressional Republicans and the people who put them in office.

It also tells us something about our increasingly slim chances of surviving for another century.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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Should We Be Optimistic About Climate Change? October 20, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has some good news and bad news for the planet. NY Times reporter, Felicity Barringer points to the ignorance revealed by the report — for instance, over two-thirds of the public think aerosol sprays contribute to climate change. (It is the ozone layer that is damaged by aerosols, not the climate.)  But on a more positive note, most people accept the fact that the climate is changing although they know little about why it is changing. And even more positive is the finding that they trust scientists to provide them with the information they lack.

Americans’ most trusted sources of information about global warming are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (78%), the National Science Foundation (74%), scientists (72%), science programs on television (72%), natural history museums (73%), and science museums (72%).

This suggests that the relentless right-wing campaign of obfuscation hasn’t worked.

But David Roberts at Grist argues that misinformation is not the real problem.

Insofar as lack of public engagement is the problem, the cause is not misinformation, it’s the lack of affective information — information that is meaningful, that speaks to core fears and aspirations. The main problem is apathy. People just don’t care much. Green journos and pundits tend to wildly overestimate the significance of accurate knowledge and wildly underestimate the significance of emotional resonance.

Those trying to spread the word on climate change have the advantage in numbers. The majority of Americans accept that climate change is happening and almost three-quarters get a passing grade — C or above — on Yale’s scale of knowledge. Where the denialists have the overwhelming advantage is in intensity. As rejection of climate science and climate solutions has become an ideological litmus test on the right, millions of Republicans have come to believe that climate science is not just incorrect but a hoax meant to further U.N. world government. They are pissed.

Very few of those who correctly believe that climate change is happening are pissed about it. More like “concerned,” the way people are concerned about homelessness or poverty in Africa, like, y’know, somebody (else) should really do something about that. Few write letters to legislators or hassle them about it in town halls. Almost no one will change their vote over it. No legislator stands to be primaried or driven from office over it.

In other words, all the intensity, and thus all the political risk, is on one side. For the political landscape to change in coming years, what’s needed is not a massive education campaign — though it certainly couldn’t hurt! — but a shift in the balance of intensity. The question is how to reduce the intensity of denialists and increase the intensity of climate hawks.

Roberts is optimistic about the future.

The backlash against cap-and-trade — not even the policy, the grotesque caricature of it painted by its opponents — won’t hold back the low-carbon tide forever. Voters already love clean energy; they think fossil fuels should be subsidized less and renewables more. The EPA is moving, states are moving, cities are moving, businesses are moving. As such efforts touch more and more lives, the issue will become less abstract. As people integrate clean energy into their worldview, intensity against climate science will fade and intensity behind reforms will increase.

Y’all know I’m not exactly a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I really think the death of the climate bill is a “darkest before the dawn” kind of moment. The larger forces of history are moving in the right direction. There’s only so long America’s peculiar, dysfunctional political system can resist.

I’m not quite so optimistic, not because of the persuasive power of right-wing politics but because of the peculiarities of climate change and the inherent difficulties in seeing climate change as a moral issue. I think it is a serious moral issue, but it requires a substantial re-conceptualization of ethics to see it as such.

I will have more to say about this over the next few days.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Wishful Thinking Can Be Suicidal August 1, 2010

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The latest climate assessment reports that the past decade was the warmest on record.

But there was an even more disturbing report published in the journal Nature last week. Via Short, Sharp Science:

Ocean life is being wiped out from the bottom up. The global population of microscopic plants that float in ocean water and support most marine life has declined by 1 per cent every year since 1899.

That’s the conclusion of a new study of the microorganisms, published in Nature. The annual falls translate to a 40 per cent drop in phytoplankton since 1950.

Boris Worm and his colleagues at Dalhousie University in Canada also noted that the declines had accelerated since 1950. They were correlated with rising sea surface temperatures, suggesting that climate change may be at least partly to blame.

This is not good. Phytoplankton are the foundation of marine life and produce much of the world’s oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. The oceans are dying and that will increase the pace of climate change.

But did you hear about this in the mainstream press? What with Chelsea Clinton’s marriage and Lindsey Lohan’s stint in jail there just isn’t room for the frivolous news.

No wonder 48% of the public believe the threat of global warming is exaggerated.

Refusing to take climate change seriously is suicidal. Which is why Obama keeps calling for climate change legislation. But Republicans in Congress don’t want to hear it.

Isn’t it comforting to know these clowns take our national security seriously?

But of course if a threat isn’t the sort you can deter by building billion dollar weapons systems and bombing some small country to smithereens it isn’t really a threat.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Good News on Carbon Emissions May 9, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.
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The Energy Information Administration is reporting that  carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. were down 7% last year.  According to the report, one-third of the reduction was due to the recession, one-third to reduced energy intensity, and one-third to the use of cleaner energy.

The report concludes:

…longer-term trends continue to suggest decline in both the amount of energy used per unit of economic output and the carbon intensity of our energy supply, which both work to restrain emissions.

Emissions were down 3% in 2008.  Thus, as Joe Romm notes, that puts us about halfway toward the goal of reducing carbon emissions 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.

Of course, these are minimal reductions necessary to begin to contain climate change and surely will not be sufficient. But this data suggests that the idea that we cannot make substantial reductions without ruining our economy is just bunk.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Climategate Revisited April 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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You might recall that, a few months ago, emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia were published in which climate change researchers were apparently resisting freedom of information requests and engaging in biased peer review tactics.

Conservatives claimed that the emails undermine the scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change.

From a March 31 Associated Press article:

The first of several British investigations into the e-mails leaked from one of the world’s leading climate research centers has largely vindicated the scientists involved.

The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee said Wednesday that they’d seen no evidence to support charges that the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit or its director, Phil Jones, had tampered with data or perverted the peer review process to exaggerate the threat of global warming — two of the most serious criticisms levied against the climatologist and his colleagues.

No doubt, the scientists were unprofessional in some of their emails, and resisting freedom of information requests is not a good idea even when the requests are politically motivated. The stakes in this debate are so high that the science must be beyond reproach.

And this is only the first of a number of on-going official inquiries in to this sordid episode.

But it is good news for our planet that the conservative attacks appear to be bogus.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Dangerous For Democracy January 12, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Science.
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Via Political Animal:

The British Daily Mail ran a report yesterday with the headline, “Could we be in for 30 years of global COOLING?” The piece told readers, “According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado, the warming of the Earth since 1900 is due to natural oceanic cycles, and not man-made greenhouse gases.”

It led Fox News to report, “30 Years of Global Cooling Are Coming, Leading Scientist Says.”

There are, of course, two small problems. First, the National Snow and Ice Data Center said no such thing. The director of the NSIDC said, “This is completely false. NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the Daily Mail.”

Second, the Fox News report cites the research of IPCC scientist Mojib Latif, one of the world’s leading climate modelers. The story completely mischaracterizes his work, and gets the story largely backwards.

Latif told Dr. Joseph Romm:

“I don’t know what to do. They just make these things up.”

Yes, they do. And as long as there are news consumers who prefer the alternative universe these outlets provide, they’ll keep making these things up.

Scientific literacy is not exactly widespread in the U.S. And that means the corporate media, especially Fox News, can say what they like if it will attract eyeballs. The average person has no way of assessing this information. That is not good for our democracy.

So I don’t think we can expect news consumers to solve this by themselves. It is really incumbent on the news profession to police their ranks. People who work for outlets like Fox News or The Daily Mail should be drummed out of the profession. Journalism professors should make it clear that working for either organization is a violation of journalistic ethics.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Copenhagen Chaos December 23, 2009

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There is a good deal of controversy about whether the Copenhagen accord on climate change is a step forward or a step back. But there is no doubt that the negotiations were messy.

Mark Lynas was in the room and describes the  chaotic end of the Copenhagen conference:

Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

….Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday’s Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again….Here’s what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors….

It is becoming increasingly clear that China was a big obstacle, a point that has not gotten much attention in the press. But the U.S. also lacks a coherent policy on climate change.

There is lots of blame to go around.

 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Climate Change Uncertainty is No Argument for Doing Nothing September 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Science.
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The general strategy of conservatives and some business interests has been to try to increase uncertainty about global warming in order to defeat climate change legislation. And if recent polls are accurate, the public has been listening to their arguments.

But they should not.  The argument from uncertainty in fact strengthens rather than weakens the case for strong action on climate change.

Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that global warming predictions are as uncertain as conservatives claim.

The IPCC predicted an increase in global mean temperature of roughly 3.5 degrees Celsius as the most likely scenario. At this level of warming, if left unchecked, the National Resource Defense Council estimates that this would cause a loss of 3.6% of GDP by 2100 in the U.S. with more significant losses elsewhere in the world. And of course this does not include non-economic effects which may be considerable.

Given the uncertainties of climate modeling, and the inherent difficulty of predicting the behavior of complex chaotic systems, there is some possibility that conservatives are correct. Perhaps there will be no warming. But uncertainty does not apply in only one direction. A margin of error sufficiently large such that a prediction of 3.5 degrees C could yield a possibility of no warming entails an equal possibility that global warming could be as bad as a 7 degree increase in global mean temperature. In other words, in the absence of auxiliary hypotheses that would skew the distribution, the margin of error is equal on both sides of the prediction.  Assuming a confidence level equivalent to no warming on the left side of the distribution, the possibility of catastrophic warming is as likely as no warming. [h/t to John Quiggin at Crooked Timber for making this point.]

And in fact there are a variety of auxiliary hypotheses that lead to the conclusion that the IPCC prediction is too low.

The belief that uncertainty must mean that things can only be less bad than predicted is purely wishful thinking, not science.

This has profound implications for policy proposals.  When considering the expected consequences of proposals to mitigate global warming, we must also consider the expected consequences of doing nothing which must include the costs of doing nothing if the worst case scenario develops. An increase in global mean temperature of 7 degrees C would according to some estimates produce massive ecosystem collapse and the deaths of billions of people.

Thus, taking account of uncertainty, the expected costs of doing nothing overwhelm any reasonable account of the expected costs of mitigating climate change, which as Paul Krugman argues will be minor.

There is utterly no case to be made for inaction and a strong case to be made for developing mechanisms to quickly ratchet up reductions in emissions if, as we reduce the uncertainty of the science, we find catastrophic warming becoming more likely.

There is lots of uncertainty in the science and economics of global warming but that uncertainty is an argument in favor of action now.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Why There are No Philosopher Kings July 16, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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The best evidence suggests that planet earth is about to become a tinder box traversed by raging fires, unpredictable storms, melting icecaps, surging oceans, and massive shifts in farming-friendly climates.

What should we do?

There are lots of proposals for technological solutions on the table some of which are close to implementation such as solar energy, wind energy, bio-fuels, etc. These are all technologically feasible—they simply need market mechanisms in place to create demand and discourage use of fossil fuels, more efficient transmission technologies, and a greater sense of urgency and political will.

What is James Garvey’s solution? He says to read Heidegger:

He [Heidegger]argues that we are all enmeshed in a technological way of life — our problems, activities, agendas and so on happen in a social world where everything is regarded as a standing reserve, a stockpile.  (If you work in Human Resources, you’re part of the trouble.)  We see our problems as technological problems, and our solutions are technological too.  It’s all we can see because we’re stuck in the world we’ve thought ourselves into.  He tells us that we can maybe get out again by reflection on the senses in which we are enveloped by technology, instead of further attempts to save ourselves from it with yet more of it.  We can look to art, he says, and maybe build an aesthetic outlook into our way of life.  We can think of the mountain as beautiful, not simply as a source of coal.  There’s a sense in which this sort of thing can save us like no space mirror can.

Huh? Isn’t that like telling someone trapped in a burning building that we should never have discovered fire? Its a nice thought, sympathetic even, but not very helpful.

I have always enjoyed Heidegger’s essay on technology and agree that we are far too focused on the instrumental value of things. Heidegger is probably right that by viewing the world as a resource we fail to acknowledge and appreciate other forms of value.

But human beings are not going to give up on technology, nor should we. That horse left the barn a long time ago and would entail suffering on a massive scale. And ruminating about aesthetics just isn’t going to help reverse global warming.

Which is easier? Creating sources of energy that do not burn fossil fuels or convincing 6.7 billion people (many of whom have never heard of global warming and wouldn’t believe it if they did)  to change the way they look at mountains?

We can acknowledge Heidegger’s insight without thinking he is making policy proposals.

And we should strive to keep all Heideggerians away from positions of power.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

Anti-science Sentiment Still Exists June 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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If you thought the anti-science agenda had disappeared with the Bush Administration you would be wrong.

Via Kevin Drum, last week, an amendment to an appropriations bill banning federal scientists from considering land use changes when calculating greenhouse gas emissions failed by a vote of 30-29. That was a close call

 Michael O’Hare comments:

This is a particularly vile attempt to protect the corn industry at the expense of the planet by short-circuiting the science Obama promised would guide his administration….I can’t be too clear or flatfooted about this: there is no respectable or responsible view that growing biofuel feedstock on land that could be used for food does not cause an indirect land use discharge of greenhouse gas, and corn ethanol is the biofuel with the largest indirect land use change effect.

….This is not a close scientific call even though the size of the LUC effect for a given fuel is subject to debate, it’s a disagreement between people who will say anything for money and people who know what they’re talking about….If we are willing to make stuff up and stifle the science with legislation like this, countries like India and China, and the Europeans, have no reason to get on board, especially after the last eight years of Bush administration denial and ignorantism and stasis on climate. It will be a catastrophe.

This is how good ideas die. Lobbyists grab the agenda and write the rules that benefit their industry. And this is not just Republicans trying to circumvent science. Farm state Democrats like Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) are in on it.

 

 

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com