Tag Archives: climate

Can conservatives be allies against climate change?

They’ve given us a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
But we’re surrendering to hopelessness if we assume bad faith.

A week ago Friday, the NYT published an essay I’m still puzzling over: Bret Stephens — a Times columnist whose hiring I have always attributed to the newspaper’s affirmative-action-for-conservatives policy — wrote “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …“. Reading it raised a question in my mind: “Yes, conservative minds are changing, but … can they ever change enough to make them real allies?”

Anybody who has been watching this topic has seen the pattern. Over the last decade or so, conservatives who aren’t willing to deny reality completely have staged a retreat worthy of a great general, slowly falling back from one line of defense to the next. The major defense lines, as I remember them (and still run into them from time to time), look like this:

Most frustrating of all are the people who shift back and forth from between defensive positions. One day they’re admitting greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the next day it’s all a hoax again. But whatever line of defense they choose, the conclusion is always the same: Do nothing. It’s the wrong time, or the wrong tactic, or we’ll never get China and India to cooperate, or something. There’s always something.

So it’s easy to get cynical, and to assume that any conservative who briefly seems to be talking sense about the climate is doing so in bad faith. Their new understanding, whatever it is, is just the next line of defense against doing anything substantive to avert the looming disaster.

But here’s the problem with that cynicism. The people who are already convinced drastic action is necessary aren’t a big enough voting bloc to carry out drastic action.

Occasionally I’ll see polls that indicate otherwise, but those numbers are deceiving: Many will tell a pollster they support climate-change action, but then will be protesting in the streets as soon as a carbon tax makes gas prices rise or their heating bills go up. (See, for example, the “yellow vests” in France.)

So if we’re actually going to tackle this problem, we need converts — real ones who understand that sacrifices need to be made if we’re going to save future generations from much worse prospects. From there it follows that we need to welcome converts, rather than give them the third degree to make sure they’re serious enough.

What’s more, lots of people aren’t going to change their minds all at once. Road-to-Damascus conversions do happen, but they’re rare. Many who come to see the reality of the climate challenge are going to see it in stages. So while that bulleted list above may be a line of successive defenses for bad-faith pseudo-converts, it can also be a road of progress for good-faith real converts. Is your it’s-all-a-hoax cousin now admitting that temperatures are going up? Rejoice! It’s a step.

I understand that it’s frustrating as hell to stand on the deck of the Titanic and try to stay calm while people tell you it’s not time to lower the life boats yet. But if you’re not able to lower the lifeboats by yourself, what else can you do? You need to meet these people where they are and coax them into doing the right thing. That may be time-consuming and time may be short, but if there’s not a more direct path …

And that brings me back to Bret Stephens. There are lots of reasons to be cynical here. “Yes, Greenland’s Ice is Melting, But …” is laid out like a new line of defense, with the “but” seeming to lead to “we still shouldn’t do anything”. And that’s kinda-sorta where most of the essay goes. His argument is structured as a series of buts: Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting,

  • but we need to recognize clean energy’s limitations
  • but we’ve gotten better at mitigating climate disasters
  • but we need to accept economic growth as a benefit
  • but we need solutions that align with human nature
  • but we need to avoid alarmist activism
  • but the market, not the state, will solve the problem

Sounds terrible, right? I mean, alarmist is one of those right-wing boogyman words, like woke or socialist. It doesn’t have any objective definition, it’s just a pejorative that conservatives throw at people who say things they don’t want to hear. Human nature is another much-abused term, strongly related to the idea that anything I object to is “unnatural”. And greenhouse-gas emission, like all pollution, is a classic example of a market externality, a cost the market can’t see because it’s primarily borne by someone other than buyers and sellers. Markets won’t address externalities unless government restructures transactions to make the cost visible (say, by creating an artificial cost through taxation). So even a “market” solution will not be the market acting instead of the state, it will be the market acting in concert with the state.

But even after all that, Stephens concludes with a point that’s not a “but” at all.

  • The conservative movement needs to set an example for its children and prepare for the future.

A problem for the future is, by its very nature, a moral one. A conservative movement that claims to care about what we owe the future has the twin responsibility of setting an example for its children and at the same time preparing for that future. The same prudential logic that applies to personal finances, business decisions, Social Security, the federal debt or other risks to financial solvency should dictate thoughtful policies when it comes to climate.

So in other words, Stephens writes a litany of but-this and but-that, but comes around to the conclusion that we have to do something.

That conclusion made me reevaluate who all the yes-buts were for. What if they’re there not to provide further lines of defense against action, but to reassure conservatives that he’s still one of them? As in: I still believe in markets and growth, and I still look skeptically at big government programs, but I also think we have to do something about climate change. I haven’t drunk the woke liberal new-world-order kool-aid, but I think we have to do something about climate change.

Conservative media has created a caricature of climate-change activists as wild-eyed religious fanatics who support one-world socialist dictatorship, hate technology, want to take us back to the Dark Ages, and don’t care if a few billion people have to starve to death while we’re getting there.

Stephens is writing largely for folks who have bought that propaganda, so he can’t just announce that he’s become one of Them now. If he’s going to bring any part of this fan-base with him, he has to write something like this essay — as if facing reality about the climate without going insane is some brand-new position he just discovered, and you can join him there without also joining AOC, who presumably is off on some other island out there somewhere.

So what can he teach me? Respect. As I said above, I don’t think Stephens’ essay was written with me in mind, so a lot of his points don’t say much to me. But I do learn a few things.

The first noteworthy nugget is how this whole adventure started: Back in 2017, Stephens wrote a climate-change-skeptical column, which a lot of scientists denounced. One of them was oceanographer John Englander of the Rising Seas Institute.

Two years later, on a visit to New York, he wrote me out of the blue and asked to meet. Unlike most of my detractors, his note was so cordial that it seemed churlish to say no. We met the next day.

Englander is a trim, affable and eloquent man of 72 who once ran the Cousteau Society and reminds me of a bearded Patrick Stewart, albeit with an American accent. His pitch was simple: The coastline we have taken for granted for thousands of years of human history changed rapidly in the past on account of natural forces — and would soon be changing rapidly and disastrously by man-made ones. A trip to Greenland, which holds one-eighth of the world’s ice on land (most of the rest is in Antarctica) would show me just how drastic those changes have been. Would I join him?

Again, it seemed churlish to say no (though the pandemic would delay my trip by two years). More to the point, if my main objection to the climate activists was my impression of their overweening certitude, didn’t it behoove me to check my own? Where — except in the risk of changing my mind — was the harm in testing my views?

In other words, Englander made an assumption of good faith. He reached out not with insults or claims of authority, but simply said “Come and see for yourself.”

Now, most of us are not in a position to take people to Greenland. But we can approach them in a manner that offers them an opportunity to be their best selves.

That approach defuses precisely the propaganda I pointed to above. If you and I are real people, then we might have a discussion where real ideas get exchanged. But if we’re two caricatures, that’s not going to happen. So it’s important to break the frame in both directions: I’m not casting a negative image on the other person from the outset, and (because I’m aware of the caricature in their head) I’m not invoking their negative image of people like me.

Lesson 2: risk. The conservative caricature of a climate-change activist is “alarmist” — someone running around saying “We’re all gonna die!” And yes, there are a few such people; drawing undue attention to them is one way that Fox News supports the caricature. Stephens ends up restating the risk for himself:

Talk of an imminent climate catastrophe is probably misleading, at least in the way most people understand “imminent.” A continual drumbeat of alarm may do more to exhaust voters than it will to rouse them. A more accurate description of the challenge might be a “potentially imminent tipping point,” meaning the worst consequences of climate change can still be far off but the end of our ability to reverse them is drawing near. Again, the metaphor of cancer — never safe to ignore and always better to deal with at Stage 2 than at Stage 4 — can be helpful.

I’m not sure who he thinks will find this description new — certainly not most climate scientists. And how is it inappropriate to sound the alarm about a “potentially imminent tipping point” or a stage-2 cancer?

But the key point here is to recognize that people are bad at thinking about distant but high-impact risks. Stephens addresses this problem by consulting the kind of risk-assessor conservatives respect: a hedge-fund manager. That’s not where I would have gone, but he ends up getting good advice.

“If you face something that is potentially existential,” he explained, “existential for nations, even for life as we know it, even if you thought the risk is, say, 5 percent, you’d want to hedge against it.”


“One thing we try to do,” he said, “is we buy protection when it’s really inexpensive, even when we think we may well not need it.” The forces contributing to climate change, he noted, echoing Englander, “might be irreversible sooner than the damage from climate change has become fully apparent. You can’t say it’s far off and wait when, if you had acted sooner, you might have dealt with it better and at less cost. We have to act now.”

Lesson 3: Purity. When you frame something as a moral problem, one temptation is to “Go and sin no more.” In other words, we’ve been harming the environment, so from this day forward we should fight against anything that harms the environment.

But there’s a problem with that: Any form of drastic climate action is going to have environmental side-effects, not all of them good. One example Stephens cites is mining: If we’re going to switch to electric cars, we’re going to need a lot more rare-earth minerals for batteries. All that mining is going to have some negative consequences, especially local ones in the mining communities.

Similarly, hydro-electric dams produce power without carbon emissions, but they also change the eco-systems of the dammed rivers. Nuclear power plants produce zero-carbon power, but leave us with a thousands-of-years waste-management problem. If regulated properly to minimize methane leaks, fracking can produce a fuel that still emits carbon, but less of it than coal.

None of those are sin-no-more solutions. They’re paths into the future that trade some environmental damages off against other environmental damages.

And this is where conservatives who actually want to solve the problem can play a role. Because while markets suck at sinning no more, if they’re properly regulated they can be good at trading some kinds of risks and harms off against others.

Purity makes for good slogans. But actual solutions are going to involve trade-offs. We’re going to have to make judgments about how much pain the public is willing to accept at any given moment, and to work as efficiently as possible within that pain-budget.

So is he serious? Maybe, maybe not. But I think we have to hope that he is, and that he is blazing a trail for some larger number of conservatives who don’t want their grandchildren to remember them as villains. The kind of action we want requires a bigger consensus than we have. So we need to gather converts wherever we can find them.

A Week When Congress Mattered

Three important bills and what happened to them.

Most of the time in America, it’s hard to believe that the Founders intended Congress to be the center of our government. Today, our political conversation spends weeks at a time focused on what the Supreme Court did or might do, what the President did or might do, or how one of them will respond to the other’s latest move.

But wait — isn’t there a third branch? What ever happened to it?

When we talk about Congress at all, it’s usually because they’re investigating some scandal or pseudo-scandal in the executive branch. Or because the Senate is confirming a new judge. Or Congress is the backdrop where the Fed chair makes headlines by commenting on the economy or interest rates.

Of course, members of Congress can become a topic of discussion if they tweet something outrageous or share a platform with Nazis or embarrass our country in some other way. When Republicans control one house or the other, Congress occasionally manufactures a news-making event out of nothing: a government shutdown or a debt-ceiling crisis. The world would be puttering along just fine if Congress weren’t standing on an important life-line and threatening to shoot itself in the foot.

Every now and then, congressional coverage is about legislation, but the bill in question is only symbolic: The House may be voting to codify Roe (i.e. respond to the Supreme Court) or ban assault weapons or protect voting rights (again, in response to the Supreme Court letting states violate rights previously established), but its members rest secure in the knowledge that a Senate filibuster will prevent any of that from becoming law. The point isn’t to accomplish something for the country, but to get one party or the other on the record, so that their votes can be issues in the next election.

In short, we’re used to viewing Congress through a veil of Shakespearean cynicism: Its doings may be full of sound and fury, but ultimately they signify nothing.

To the country’s great surprise, though, this week was different: Congress was in the headlines for three pieces of legislation, all of which matter to people in the non-political world and stand a real chance of becoming law: One bill passed and is on President Biden’s desk. One bill that looked like a slam-dunk failed. And one that seemed dead came back to life.

The bill that Congress passed is the CHIPS Act, which subsidizes American high-tech manufacturing in an attempt to bring the semiconductor industry back to the United States. (Currently, the US imports its most advanced computer chips from Taiwan, a supply chain that China might be able to interrupt.) Promoted as a move to stay competitive with China, the bill spends $52 billion directly, and also includes a tax credit for certain kinds of investments.

The bill is aimed at the future, and won’t do much to solve the immediate chip shortage, which is hampering a variety of American industries. Vox summarizes:

The bulk of the CHIPS Act is a $39 billion fund that will subsidize companies that expand or build new semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the US. The Commerce Department will determine which companies receive the funding, which will be disbursed over five years. More than $10 billion is allocated to semiconductor research, and there’s also some support for workforce development and collaboration with other countries. The bill also includes an extensive investment tax credit that could be worth an additional $24 billion.


The bill that unexpectedly failed was PACT. The point of this bill is to expand VA care to veterans whose illnesses may have been caused by exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits during foreign deployments. Wikipedia says:

Burn pits were used as a waste disposal method by the United States Armed Forces during the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, but have since been terminated due to the toxic fumes that posed health risks to nearby soldiers. Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) requires veterans to prove that their illness is directly related to burn pits.

From 2007 to 2020, the VA denied 78 percent of disability claims by veterans that were alleged to have been caused by burn pits. The Honoring our PACT Act would remove the requirement that veterans prove that burn pits caused their illness and retroactively pay veterans who did not receive care for their illnesses after claiming disability caused by burn pits. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the Act would be $300 billion from 2022 to 2032.

This was supposed to be a done deal. The House passed the bill in March. With only minor changes, the Senate passed the bill 84-14 in June. It then went back to the House, where “technical problems were discovered in the language of the bill”. The House made the needed technical changes and passed the bill again. Because the bill wasn’t identical to the one the Senate passed, it went back to the Senate, where passage should have been a formality. But instead Republicans blocked it.

“Why?” you might ask. Well, for reasons that have nothing to do with the bill itself, but rather with the other two bills. Democrats intend to avoid the Senate filibuster by passing the third bill, the Inflation Reduction Act (see below), via reconciliation. They can do that without any Republican votes, if they get all 50 Democratic votes. (That’s why an individual Democrat like Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema has so much power.)

Passing a bill without Republican votes is a horrible miscarriage of democracy — at least if you listen to Republicans. (Of course, they passed the Trump tax cuts via reconciliation, and tried to repeal ObamaCare via reconciliation, both without the votes of any Democratic senators. But that’s fine, because that was them. When Democrats do it, it’s unthinkably awful.)

As usual when Republicans aren’t getting their way, they took hostages. McConnell promised that there would be no bipartisan CHIPS Act if Democrats went ahead with a reconciliation bill. 17 Republican senators apparently believe that the CHIPS Act is good for America — that’s why they voted for it. But they were willing to torpedo something good for America if Democrats didn’t do what they wanted. (God forbid senators should just vote for what they think is good and against what they think is bad.)

But when Joe Manchin blew up what was left of the reconciliation bill two weeks ago, Republicans decided they didn’t need a hostage any more. So the CHIPS bill passed.

And then Manchin and Schumer announced they had come to an agreement. Someone had to be punished for tricking Mitch McConnell (who is always such a straight shooter himself, right?), and the only whipping boy at hand was PACT. So McConnell blocked it. (For technical reasons, PACT doesn’t qualify as a reconciliation bill, so 41 Republican votes was enough to stop it.)

Veterans were outraged, as they should be. Veterans’ healthcare shouldn’t be collateral damage in a dispute that has nothing to do with them. Nothing should, but especially not that. (Various Republicans have given a variety of bogus reasons for blocking the bill. But nothing that they’re talking about has changed since the same senators supported the bill in June.)

Fortunately, veterans have a celebrity speaking up for them: Jon Stewart, who has been championing these sorts of issues for a long time. (Before PACT, he nagged Congress until it fully funded the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund for first responders whose health problems traced back to working in the ruins of the Twin Towers.)

Partly due to Stewart’s ability to draw attention and channel outrage, the optics of this are terrible for Republicans, especially with the fall elections approaching. So I expect them to come back from the August recess looking to fix their blunder. I hope Chuck Schumer just takes the win and gets this done.

The bill that came back from the dead was the Inflation Reduction Act, a smaller and re-jiggered version of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

Build Back Better started out as a massive $3.5 trillion initiative that addressed a wide range of issues, from tax policy to healthcare to infrastructure to immigration to climate change. No Republican in Congress has ever supported it, so from the beginning, the only way to pass it was to get almost every Democrat in the House to support it, and then to squeeze it to fit the arcane rules of the reconciliation process in the Senate. If that happened, then Democrats could pass it if all 50 Democratic senators supported it and Vice President Harris broke the tie.

That need for unanimity gives every Democratic senator a veto. Most Democrats have seen the bill as a chance to prove to reluctant voters (especially young voters) that Democratic control of Congress actually matters, and that important things can get done if you vote. (Conversely, the best weapon Republicans have to suppress the youth vote in the midterm elections is “It doesn’t matter. Congress never accomplishes anything anyway.”) So they’ve been easy to convince. All along, though, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have been more difficult.

Most of the attention has gone to Manchin, who represents a state that Donald Trump carried more than 2-to-1 in 2020. So Manchin wins his elections almost entirely on his own, rather than because he represents the Democratic Party. When he runs again in 2024, “He saved Joe Biden’s agenda” is likely to appear in an attack ad against him, rather than an ad in his favor. So he has been understandably careful about what he agrees to.

(On the Left, I often see people attributing his position to corruption, to having coal industry donors, and to having coal interests himself. Similarly, the Senate’s inability to pass significant climate legislation gets attributed to “the Democrats” not really wanting to do so, because of donors and whatnot. I don’t see any reason to go there. Manchin represents a poor state with substantial fossil fuel resources. He needs to get votes from people who are skeptical about climate change, and are particularly skeptical that the Democratic Party wants to solve their problems. And “the Democrats” haven’t been able to pass a bill because they need 50 people to be unanimous, which is hard. Remember when the Republicans tried to repeal ObamaCare? They had 52 senators, but they couldn’t get 50 of them to agree on any particular proposal.)


For a year and a half, Manchin has been hard to please. The bill kept getting whittled down to fit what he claimed to want, but the goalposts would always move again before an agreement got made. (In his defense, the issue that he said he was worried about — inflation — kept turning out to be worse than previously anticipated.) Two weeks ago, it looked like he had ended any hope of getting a bill done in this session of Congress. And if Democrats lose either house of Congress in the fall, as seems likely (especially if they can’t generate more accomplishments to run on), it might be a long time before they’ll get another shot.

From the beginning, I’ve been debating whether Manchin was serious, or was just stringing President Biden along. (Moderate Republicans played a similar game with President Obama about ObamaCare. They kept hinting that their votes were available, but then never getting to Yes.) If he was serious, I figured, then eventually he would agree to something. Two weeks ago, I concluded that he was not serious and had never been serious.

But then Wednesday, Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced an agreement, which they dubbed the Inflation Control Act. Vox sums up what the bill includes:

  • $739 billion in revenue increases and $433 in new spending, leaving more than $300 billion for deficit reduction over ten years.
  • $370 billion of the spending addresses climate change. Most of the money goes for renewable energy and electric vehicles. The bill also includes a new penalty to discourage methane leaks.
  • The cap on the cost of ObamaCare insurance policies (adopted as part of Covid legislation in 2021) is extended for another three years.
  • Medicare is finally allowed to save money by negotiating the price of at least some drugs.
  • The IRS will get more money to help it catch rich people who cheat on their taxes.
  • Loopholes will close so that corporations pay at least a 15% tax rate.

The wild card in this is the other renegade Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema. She’s the last veto standing, and she might use that power to either get something that she wants or to scuttle the deal entirely. We should find out this week.

Will the Great Salt Lake stay great?


If we can’t save one lake, how will we save the planet?

We all think we know why it’s so hard to motivate our fellow Americans to meet the threat of climate change:

  • The danger seems distant, as if we still had a lot of time to react.
  • The problem seems abstract: So what if statisticians claim the average day is a degree or two warmer than it would have been a few decades ago? Why is that such a big deal? Maybe the computer models are wrong and the projections of disaster are just scaremongering.
  • Such disasters as we’re already seeing — hurricanes, droughts, fires, heat waves — don’t come clearly marked “brought to you by climate change”. Similar things have happened in the past, so maybe these would have happened anyway.
  • Because climate change is global, it’s hard to connect our own actions to the outcome. If we make sacrifices, but the Chinese and Indians don’t, they’ll get an advantage on us and all the bad things will happen anyway. As Marco Rubio put it when he was running for president in 2015: “America is not a planet.

But what if we faced an environmental disaster where none of those factors came into play? Something entirely within our borders, where the changes were visible to the naked eye, and the looming catastrophe obvious. Something clearly connected to current policies, and addressable by changing those policies.

We’d be all over that, wouldn’t we?

Well, apparently not.

Not quite two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that a combination of climate change, over-population, and profligate water use is killing the Great Salt Lake.

Last summer, the water level in the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest point on record, and it’s likely to fall further this year. The lake’s surface area, which covered about 3,300 square miles in the late 1980s, has since shrunk to less than 1,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The salt content in the part of the lake closest to Salt Lake City used to fluctuate between 9-12%, according to Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster College. But as the water in the lake drops, its salt content has increased. If it reaches 17% — something Baxter says will happen this summer — the algae in the water will struggle, threatening the brine shrimp that consume it.

Algae and brine shrimp are the bottom of a food chain. Migratory birds who rely on the lake as a resting spot in their otherwise perilous desert crossing would go next.

While the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed yet, Baxter said, “we’re at the precipice. It’s terrifying.”

Worse, the exposed former lake bed could soon endanger humans in nearby Salt Lake City:

The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, windstorms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah’s population. …

The soil contains arsenic, antimony, copper, zirconium and other dangerous heavy metals, much of it residue from mining activity in the region. Most of the exposed soil is still protected by a hard crust. But as wind erodes the crust over time, those contaminants become airborne.

Part of the problem is climate change, with all the complicating factors I listed above. (More of the mountain snowpack is evaporating rather than melting to feed the rivers that feed the lake.) But another big part of it isn’t: Population growth is diverting water from the rivers before it can reach the lake.

So policy changes at the state and local levels could do a lot to mitigate the problem: Water rates could go up, and future development could be discouraged.

Of major U.S. cities, Salt Lake has among the lowest per-gallon water rates, according to a 2017 federal report. It also consumes more water for residential use than other desert cities — 96 gallons per person per day last year, compared with 78 in Tucson, Arizona, and 77 in Los Angeles. … Homes around Salt Lake boast lush, forest-green lawns, despite the drought. And not always by choice.

In the suburb of Bluffdale, when Elie El kessrwany stopped watering his lawn in response to the drought, his homeowners’ association threatened to fine him. “I was trying to do the right thing for my community,” he said.

State Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Republican, introduced a bill this year that would have blocked communities from requiring homeowners to maintain lawns. He said local governments lobbied against the bill, which failed.

In the state legislative session that ended in March, lawmakers approved other measures that start to address the crisis. They funded a study of water needs, made it easier to buy and sell water rights, and required cities and towns to include water in their long-term planning. But lawmakers rejected proposals that would have had an immediate impact, such as requiring water-efficient sinks and showers in new homes or increasing the price of water.

In short, the legislature did nothing that might ask for sacrifices from individual citizens. If Utahans are still asleep to the problem — even though they can go look at the shrinking lake for themselves — the state’s political leaders are afraid to wake them up.


But they’re bound to notice eventually. The NYT article compares the Great Salt Lake to the cautionary tale of Owens Lake in California, which dried up when water feeding it was diverted to Los Angeles early in the 20th century.

On what used to be the shore of what used to be Owens Lake is what’s left of the town of Keeler. When the lake still existed, Keeler was a boom town. Today it consists of an abandoned school, an abandoned train station, a long-closed general store, a post office that’s open from 10 a.m. to noon, and about 50 remaining residents who value their space, and have lots of it.

Like Paul Krugman, I was surprised the NYT article didn’t mention a much bigger disaster: the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which was once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union irrigated much of the surrounding area in an attempt to become a major cotton exporter. With so much water evaporating in fields rather than flowing into the sea, the Aral’s ecosystem collapsed.

The Aral Sea has seen the surface area decline by 90%, and had its volume decrease by 85%, an amount equal to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. The sea level has dropped by over 30 m in many places, leaving fishing boats stranded 100 kilometers from any shore. What was once the bottom of the lake has become a new desert, abandoned fishing boats listing in the sand, scoured by toxic dust storms. Ramshackle towns perch on vanished shorelines, while the population languishes in poverty and high rates of cancer, tuberculosis, digestive disorders and anemia. It’s like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, yet it is all too depressingly real.

Krugman makes a even more depressing point about the Great Salt Lake:

what I found really scary about the report is what the lack of an effective response to the lake’s crisis says about our ability to respond to the larger, indeed existential, threat of climate change.

The factors that make it hard to marshal the will to fight climate change globally don’t apply here. The retreat of the Great Salt Lake is a visible local problem that could spiral into disaster in the very near future. Action to prevent that disaster could be taken locally, by restricting water usage and new development.

So this should be easy: A threatened region should be accepting modest sacrifices, some barely more than inconveniences, to avert a disaster just around the corner. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.

And if we can’t save the Great Salt Lake, what chance do we have of saving the planet?

A similar pattern is replicating across the West in the face of a multi-year drought.

Lake Mead, which was created in the 1930s when the Hoover Dam was built across the Colorado River, is currently lower than at any time in its history. Lake Powell, also on the Colorado, is currently so low that the Glen Canyon Dam’s electrical generation has been cut back.

A former marina on Lake Mead. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/drought-dries-up-lake-mead/24/

Again, climate change combined with rapid population growth is the problem, perhaps exacerbated by the illusion created by the 20th century, which was wetter than normal in most of the American West.

The West is where the rubber meets the road in terms of America confronting climate change. The environmental problems are local, visible, and immediate, and local solutions to those problems are available. If it’s not politically feasible to restrict water usage and curb development, the whole region is, as Grant Piper puts it, sleepwalking towards disaster.

Climate Change is Here


When it’s 116 in Portland and 108 in Seattle, something is wrong.

For a long time, you could only see global warming if you knew what you were looking for. It wasn’t something that announced itself in your everyday experience.

Wherever you might live, it continued to be warmer in the day and cooler at night, hotter in summer and colder in winter — the same as it ever was. Whether summers had been hotter or winters colder years ago was a topic for old people’s boring stories about the Blizzard of ’78 or the Drought of ’54.

You had to be a statistician — or trust statisticians whose work you couldn’t check — to get any coherent view of the trends in global temperature. Think of the millions of measurements, and thousands of adjustments to those measurements, necessary to produce a graph like the one below. Who made those measurements? Who compiled those statistics? Why should you trust them? If you had the resources and the will, you could find your own way to parse the data so that it said something different. Why shouldn’t you do that, or decide to trust somebody who did, rather than trust NASA or NOAA or some international consortium of scientists?

The situation was even worse if you tried to look to the future, because then you were dealing with computer models. What were they assuming? Who did the programming? Again, the graphs looked very impressive and scary. But if you didn’t want to believe them — and who did, really? — nobody could make you.

And without predictions decades into the future, climate change was no big deal. Maybe it was already a degree or two hotter than in your grandparents’ day, but so what? Life went on, people adjusted. The climate was always changing.

What it came down to, for a lot of Americans, was one more example of people with advanced degrees telling them what to do. And that might be fine if they were telling you to do something you want to do — like get a good night’s sleep, or spend more time in the sunlight. And it’s even OK if their advice is unpleasant, but matches your common sense — compound interest means you should start saving for retirement when you’re young, smoking isn’t good for you. But here the eggheads were telling you to stop driving and flying and running the air conditioner, or even to close down the mines your town depended on, the one that had employed your family for generations. And the evidence was all stuff you couldn’t touch: Look at this graph and don’t ask too many questions about how I made it, or else the world will be a hellscape after we’re all dead.

Americans already had religions based on things they couldn’t see that made threats and promises after death. They didn’t need another one.

And then visible things started to happen, maybe, sort of.

Right around the time Hurricane Katrina mauled New Orleans in 2005, you might think you were starting to see climate change in anomalous weather events. But what is “anomalous”, really? When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, we all had a gut feeling that hurricanes aren’t supposed to go that far north. But weird weather events have been happening forever. What about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938?

The Midwestern floods of 2019 were so intense, and so close to previous major floods, that they drove the phrase “hundred-year flood” out of our vocabulary. Nobody knows what a hundred-year flood is any more. And sure, that’s strange, but is it proof? Maybe we’re just in some kind of weird flood cycle.

We got used to these kinds of arguments, to the point that they became almost ritualized: The weather would do something incredible — a big wildfire, an intense hurricane season, or a heat wave in Siberia — and somebody would immediately say: “See? Climate change.” But then somebody else would say, “You can’t really say that about one event. It could just be bad luck.” Then either people would start yelling at each other, or the conversation would bog down in the technicalities of probability — neither of which accomplished anything. Everybody continued to believe whatever they had started out believing.

The series of weird weather events should have chipped away at climate-change-deniers’ skepticism, but in fact it did the opposite. Once you’ve explained away Katrina and Sandy, it gets easier, not harder, to shrug off Harvey and Irma and Maria all happening the same year. The weather gets weird sometimes; that doesn’t mean the world is ending.

Even so, last year’s western wildfires were a little hard to account for. Not only were they record-breaking in terms of acreage and cost, but Portland suburbs had to be evacuated, Seattle had an air-quality emergency, and the smoke gave me colorful sunsets all the way out here in Massachusetts. And only a few months before, Australia had record-breaking fires of its own.

For decades, climate-change deniers have derided activists as “scare mongers” who made “apocalyptic” predictions. But you know what? Those fires in Australia looked pretty apocalyptic.

Smoke-choked Sydney in December, 2019

Still, people pointed to multiple possible causes for wildfires: over-development, say, or power lines. President Trump blamed bad forest management, echoing absurd suggestions he had made about raking in 2018.

Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, pressed Mr. Trump more bluntly. “If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” he told the president.

This time, Mr. Trump rejected the premise. “It’ll start getting cooler,” he insisted. “You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Mr. Crowfoot replied.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Mr. Trump retorted, maintaining a tense grin.

Well, it’s a year later now, and guess what? It’s not getting cooler.

Monday, it was 116 in Portland, Oregon, beating the previous all-time record (set in 1965 and 1981) by nine degrees. The heat wave covered the entire Northwest: 108 in Seattle, 109 in Spokane, 116 in Walla Walla, and 117 in Pendleton. Strangest of all was the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where the heat wave peaked at 121 degrees, an all-time record for the nation of Canada.

121 in Canada. That’s not right.

Heat and drought have set the stage for another bad wildfire season, and it’s already starting in Canada and Washington and Oregon and Idaho and California. On the other side of the country, the Atlantic is already up to its fifth named storm of the season, Elsa. We’ve never gotten to E this fast before, and the previous record was set last year.

It’s happening. Global warming is here. It’s not just statistics and computer models any more. You can see it. You have to work not to see it.

That doesn’t mean things go straight to hell from here. The western heat wave finally broke. Today’s predicted high in Portland is 86. Next winter, it will get cold in lots of places, and if some oil-financed politician wants to bring a snowball to the floor of the Senate, he’ll be able to find one. “Damn,” one cold person will say to another, “we could use a little of that global warming about now.”

And while the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to go up every single year, not every year will be hotter than the previous one. 2016 and 2020 were the hottest years on record, but so far 2021 isn’t quite so bad, at least not globally. Fossil fuel spokesmen, including the politicians the oil companies pay for, will tell you that means it’s all over. Global warming ended in 2020, they’ll say, just like they said it ended in 1998.


Don’t believe them. Believe what you can see.

For a long time, believing what the scientists said about the climate required trusting in the invisible, and the future horrors they predicted seemed too far away to take seriously.

Not any more. Global warming is here. It’s visible. It was 116 in Portland Monday.

That’s not right.

Blowing Smoke About Clouds

Last week an International Business Times article stopped me short: “Alarmists Got it Wrong, Humans Not Responsible for Climate Change: CERN“.

“Wow,” I thought. “CERN. Not some Exxon/Koch-funded stooge. CERN, where the real scientists are. There’s the CERN logo right in the article. I’d better read this and rethink my opinion on climate change.”

I read the article and I learned a lot. But not about science, about propaganda.

Occasionally you need to know some science to spot the BS in a newspaper science article, but most of the time you just need some common sense. Start with: Does the content of the article justify the headline?

Not this time. The article discusses new research about cloud formation that CERN scientists recently published in Nature (another one of the biggest names in science). But nobody at CERN is quoted saying, “Humans aren’t responsible for climate change.”

In fact, the article doesn’t quote anybody from CERN (or Nature). Who are their sources, then? Lawrence Solomon, David Whitehouse, and Nigel Calder. If you’re just skimming, you might assume at least one of them represents CERN, but they don’t.

Who are they? In the Age of Google, that’s an easy question.

So a more accurate headline would be: “Global-Warming Skeptics Claim New CERN Research Vindicates Them”.

Well, of course they claim that. But then any real journalist would have to ask: Does it?

Journalism — even journalism about rocket science — is not rocket science: Punch “CERN cloud experiment results” into Google, and in seconds you’ll be looking at the CERN press release and its supporting press briefing. Spend a few minutes chasing links, and you’ll see the lead author of the Nature article (Jasper Kirkby) quoted in Scientific ComputingLive Science, and — oh, look at this! — Nature News, which is put out by the same people who publish Nature.

So it isn’t hard to find sources closer to the action than Solomon, Whitehouse, and Calder. Do any of them say “Humans are not responsible for climate change”?


So what is this experiment and what does it really show?

CERN made a cloud chamber that simulates Earth’s atmosphere, and tried to figure out where atmospheric aerosols — tiny particles that cloud droplets form around — come from. They discovered that previous theories only accounted for a small fraction of the aerosols observed in the atmosphere. They could account for more when they added cosmic rays to their simulation, but they still couldn’t form a complete theory.

The CERN press release quotes Kirkby:

It was a big surprise to find that aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere isn’t due to sulphuric acid, water and ammonia alone. Now it’s vitally important to discover which additional vapours are involved, whether they are largely natural or of human origin, and how they influence clouds.

The press briefing concludes:

that cosmic
the additional 
been confirmed.

Nothing in the press release quantifies this possibility. Kirkby told Nature News: “At the moment, [our research] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.”

Live Science also talked to Kirkby:

The research doesn’t call into question the basic science of greenhouse gas warming, Kirkby emphasized, but rather refines one facet of the research. … “It’s part of the jigsaw puzzle, and you could say it adds to the understanding of the big picture,” he said. “But it in no way disproves the other pieces.”

None of that stops Solomon from claiming (in the Financial Post — again published with no comment from the actual researchers) that

The science is now all-but-settled on global warming, convincing new evidence demonstrates, but Al Gore, the IPCC and other global warming doomsayers won’t be celebrating. The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun — not human activities — as the dominant controller of climate on Earth.

Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog responds:

There’s only one problem: that’s completely wrong. In reality the study shows nothing of the sort.

BA goes on to explain why you shouldn’t expect any future research to support Solomon either:

The problem here is two fold: there doesn’t appear to be a large variation in Earth’s temperatures with solar activity, and also that temperatures are rising extremely rapidly in the past 100 years, when solar activity has been relatively normal.

So, who do you think the conservative media outlets go with: science publications that have done the legwork and talked to the CERN researchers, or a long-time global-warming denier who makes unsupported claims in an opinion piece in a financial newspaper?

Do you have to ask?

Fox Business Channel’s Tobin Smith:

We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it’s the sun’s rays, not human activity, which controls the earth’s climate. Now, that, of course, is horrible news for the greenies who’ve used, you know, for years questionable science to justify more and more regulations against fossil fuels like coal and oil, all the while arguing for more and more for the renewable energy sources they just love so dearly. So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?

Media Matters collects similar statements from CBN, the Washington Times, and Investor’s Business Daily — all clearly repeating Solomon’s interpretation rather than CERN’s.

So this is what you need to hijack the well-deserved prestige of a research organization like CERN and a journal like Nature:

  • three zero-credibility cranks to “interpret” the research by making stuff up,
  • two newspapers willing to ignore anybody connected to the research, and instead source their articles to the cranks,
  • an echo chamber of news outlets willing to accept the first two papers as reliable sources, do no independent checking, and instead let false claims grow in the telling,
  • opinion leaders in the echo chamber who shift the onus away from the cranks onto their opponents: What’s wrong with those greenies, that they still hold out now that they’ve been proven wrong?

Result? Rank-and-file conservatives hear the same message from multiple directions. When they confidently tell their friends and  co-workers that CERN has proved Al Gore wrong, people who get their news from the New York Times know nothing about it — because an accurate assessment of these tentative results was not deemed sufficiently newsworthy.

And the conservative nods knowingly: It’s that liberal media, constantly suppressing anything that doesn’t fit its biased worldview.