It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui. — Helen Keller
In this week’s Sift:
- The Next Time You’re in the Bookstore ... look for James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. What if the climate-change problem is actually worse than everybody is saying?
- The Devil, You Say. Pat Robertson knows why the Haitians have had such consistently bad luck: They made a deal with the Devil. True? Well, in 1791 they did call on the enemy of the being worshipped by the French slave-owners. But which one is the Devil?
- Short Notes. The Democrats could lose in Massachusetts tomorrow. No Americans died in combat in Iraq last month. The numbers say that marriage is healthier in gay-rights states. You’re safe from 8-year-old terrorists. Discrimination against white racists. Why conservatives hate Avatar. And more.
Look for James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity. Hansen is the NASA scientist that the Bush administration made famous by trying to censor. He is the main character in Mark Bowen’s book Censoring Science.
Conservatives have pounded on the point that those who warn of a possible planetary catastrophe are “shrill” and “hysterical“. And while I can’t prove it, I suspect that many Greens have responded by pulling their punches to sound “reasonable”. Not Hansen. He believes the problem is worse than most climate scientists think, and he’s not afraid to say so.
This is a valuable book, but I can’t recommend that everybody go out and read it. (That’s why this is longer than my usual book review. I’m trying to capture the important points in case you decide not to read the book.) Hansen writes clearly and sometimes even engagingly, but he really could have used a co-author. The problem is that the book is very uneven in its level of technical difficulty. Sometimes Hansen will be sailing along through anecdotes of his run-ins with the Bushies, and then he’ll throw in ten pages of science without telling you where it’s going or when it’s going to end. And then he’ll have another 15 pages of smooth sailing. And so on. Unless you’re very dedicated or a scientist yourself, it’s easy to get bogged down.
Here’s what I learned:
Global warming is more complicated than just carbon dioxide causing the Earth to retain more heat. That’s the basic idea, but it’s not nearly so simple as X% more carbon dioxide leads to Y degrees higher temperatures. The Earth has a number of feedback loops that make it hard to predict how far a change will go once it gets started. The extreme example of out-of-control climate feedback is Venus, which probably had oceans too once, before they evaporated into the atmosphere and then escaped into space.
What feedback loops? Here’s one: The ice sheets at the poles reflect sunlight, so they make the planet cooler. As the Earth gets warmer, they melt and make it warmer yet (as dark ocean replaces white ice). Worse, they don’t melt smoothly like an ice cube in the sun. Instead, at some point the ice sheets start to break up and melt more quickly. Or if the methane frozen into the tundra or the ocean floor starts to thaw and bubble into the atmosphere, that’s another greenhouse gas that will make the planet warmer still. In either case, nobody really knows when this process will start, but it will be unstoppable once it does.
The evidence is not just from computer modeling. Hansen’s main area of research is in climate history. In particular, he has studied how comparatively small changes in the Earth’s orbit or the Sun’s brightness have led to feedback loops that (over centuries) have made the Earth either significantly colder or warmer than it is now. From the historical evidence, Hansen estimates that the climate is much more sensitive to external changes than the computer models say.
It’s not just an inconvenience. Conservatives like to ask questions like: “What is the ideal temperature of the Earth?” — noting that the Earth has been warmer or cooler in the past, and who are we to decide which is better? This laissez-faire attitude falls apart when you start thinking about sea level. The Earth has been warmer at times — and Florida has been underwater. Is it all relative whether coastal cities (or entire nations like Bangladesh or the Philippines) continue to be viable places to live?
Fossil fuels have to be left in the ground. Hansen is convinced that if we burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels — all the oil, gas, and coal — we’ll start a catastrophe. And if you’re going to leave something in the ground, the best thing to leave there is coal. Even moreso the “alternative” fossil fuels like tar sands.
He’s also convinced that once energy infrastructure is built, the economics of the sunk costs will push us to use it. So: Don’t build more coal-fired power plants, don’t go searching for new oil fields to develop, and stop working on ways to recover the oil in the tar sands. “Drill, baby, drill” is exactly the wrong idea.
Nukes and Big Hydro. As much as Hansen would like to believe that we can do the job with clean renewable energy and increased efficiency, he’s not convinced. He believes that 4th-generation nuclear plants (fast breeder reactors) will not only work and produce less waste than current 3rd-generation reactors, he thinks they’ll actually burn the waste from 3rd-generation plants. (That sounds too good to be true, but what do I know?)
Similarly, he understands that big hydroelectric dams have their own environmental problems and that a lot of Greens would like to shut them down and not build any more. But he’s not sure we have the slack to do without them.
No cap-and-trade. Hansen favors a fee-and-dividend approach, where an ever-rising carbon tax is levied on fuels as they come out of the ground or arrive in our ports. The money collected shouldn’t fund anybody’s pet projects, but should be distributed per capita to the public. Only a plan that simple and transparent will keep the public on board.
Hansen has a deep skepticism about our political process. Even politicians who seem to be green are far too willing to accept superficial changes while cutting deals with special interests, such as allowing new coal-fired power plants to be built. He’s also skeptical about “offsets” — arrangements where burning fossil fuels is balanced by planting trees or some other green project. He thinks offsets make too much room for bureaucratic sleight-of-hand.
He doesn’t believe that treaty-established caps will hold, as the Kyoto Agreement caps didn’t. This gets back to his infrastructure argument. No matter what treaties are signed, is any country with developed oil wells going to leave its oil permanently in the ground? If not, then what good will the caps do?
As I was saying … Global warming is a good example of the point I was making at the end of 2009: The left/right battle is not symmetric. In order to do something about global warming, people have to be able to trust each other and work together. The scientific community has to produce accurate information and the public needs to trust it. The political process needs to work to turn public concern into viable action. And once action starts to be taken, the public has to trust that the sacrifices they are making are actually solving the problem, rather than just making somebody rich or helping somebody else consolidate power.
On the other hand, Exxon and its allies don’t need to convince us of anything — they just need to disrupt public trust. If the scientific community is corrupted by corporate money, if the public looks on science as just another vested interest, if journalists can’t be trusted to find and report the truth, if politics is just two groups of talking heads yelling lies at each other — then no popular consensus will form and nothing will happen. That’s not a stand-off; it’s a victory for the bad guys.
I’d love to hear the media start calling conservatives on their schizoid attitude towards risk. Regarding terrorism, they believe in Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine: We have to respond even to small risks as if they were certainties. But on global warming, they would demand 100% certainty before we do anything. The link is corporatism: Corporations profit if we go to war, and they profit if we do nothing about global warming.
Paul Waldman discusses Obama’s rollback of the Republican war on science.
SusanG on DailyKos reviews Sam Tannenhaus’ The Death of Conservatism and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.
One of the crazier reactions to Tuesday’s Haitian earthquake came from the televangelist tycoon Pat Robertson: Haiti has such consistently bad luck because the Haitians made a deal with the Devil to throw out the French. (Media Matters has the tape and transcript.)
My first reaction was the same as that of most sane people: What a horrible thing to say, blaming the victims of an earthquake for causing the earthquake!
My second reaction was to wonder what the hell Pat was talking about. I mean, it’s just too imaginative a story for somebody as small-minded as Pat Robertson to make up on the spot. He was clearly remembering it from somewhere, and not remembering it very well. (He uncertainly claimed the revolt happened under Napoleon III, when in fact it happened in 1791 during the French Revolution, a few years before the reign of the original Napoleon.) So where did he get this story?
Fortunately, Matt Yglesias had the same second reaction and did the legwork. Turns out, it’s a twisted version of a story the Haitians tell themselves. To appreciate it, you need to understand the significance of the Haitian slave revolt, which Wikipedia describes like this:
The Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt in human history, and, as such, is regarded as a defining moment in the history of Africans in the new world.
(Did you learn about this in school? I didn’t — until this week my only knowledge of the revolt came from an Anne Rice novel.)
Anyway, according to local legend, the revolt began with a ceremony at Bois Caiman performed by a Vodou priest, Dutty Boukman. In the course of this ceremony he said a prayer to “our god” as opposed to “the white man’s god” by whose power whites had enslaved blacks.
The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good.
Matt Yglesias points out how, if you were a white slave-owner, this appeal to the god of the blacks must have sounded Satanic. But this interpretation rests on the idea that the god who justifies slavery is the true God.
Apparently, that’s Pat’s interpretation.
Daniel Kurtzman selects the 10 stupidest things Pat Robertson ever said.
Rachel Maddow interviewed the Haitian ambassador, who schooled us ignorant Yankees on the significance of the Haitian Revolt. He attributes France’s willingness to sell the Louisiana Territory to its failure to hold Haiti, and notes that the great South American liberator Simon Bolivar started his campaign from free Haiti. (Freeing slaves, liberating colonies — aren’t those exactly the kinds of dastardly things the Devil would do?)
Even the Old Testament God isn’t as nasty as Pat makes him out to be. The God of Exodus 20:5 holds a grudge “unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” It’s been 219 years since the Bois Caiman ritual, so the infants dying in Haiti now might be Dutty Boukman’s 9th or 10th-generation descendants. The curse should be up by now.