Sunday, October 24, 2010

deepening disenlightenment

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

Two trends are now set on collision course. One, climate change is accelerating and has entered runaway mode. Two, the top perpetrator, responsible for a third of cumulative world emissions, for the highest-per-capita share of emissions on the planet at present, and for the decade-long international policy stalemate, the United States of America, is sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of its own making.

Is climate change accelerating? Well, the easiest way to see that it does is to look at the Assessment Reports (AR), prepared by specialists and researchers for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the United Nations every five years or thereabouts. Four Assessment Reports have been completed, 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007; AR 5 is being prepared, with publication anticipated 2013 or 2014. These reports are the fruit of the largest peer-reviewed enterprise ever undertaken to identify the emerging realities. There has never been any other scientific collaboration of such magnitude in the history of civilization.

In contrast to Republican think tank members, Fox TV pundits, radio heads, and other so-called experts cited by corporations and their law firms, contributors to these reports are just regular scientists on normal salaries, who can state their findings freely because they hold tenure in academia, and who are not paid for voicing pro-corporate and pro-carbon opinions. So these reports are as authoritative as it gets.

The sequence of reports evokes an ever grimmer picture. First the consensus had been that climate change is likely; now it is that climate change is certain. The original judgment was that climate change will be trouble; now the trend goes towards perceiving climate change as a catastrophe. And just as one used to think that we could stop global warming through policy measures, now it appears we might be able to stop the worst only if we revolutionize civilization.

And we all know the numbers by now, don’t we? “Global average surface temperatures during the last three decades have been progressively warmer than all earlier decades, making 2000-2009 (the 2000s) the warmest decade in the instrumental record” (NOAA State of the Climate 2009, c 2 p 29). The year 2010 is set to become the hottest year ever; it has also been the first year with a near-worldwide heat-wave this summer, spanning the globe from Ireland to Taiwan to Florida.

It has also been the year with the first climatic mega-events—the mad winter in Mongolia that killed off so much livestock and drove so many herders into poverty and into the cities; the deepening drought in Bolivia that threatens the entire society there; the millennium-fires in Russia, with giant swaths of Siberia ablaze; the millennium-flood in Pakistan, with the agriculture in ruins and millions now homeless … yes, boys and girls, the shit’s going down. So, climate change is accelerating.

And it has entered runaway mode. This means that the events set in motion cannot be fully stopped anymore. For even suppose all the rich countries suddenly see the light, and a worldwide mitigation project gets fired up, it just doesn't look as if we could reverse the changes already underway. We discovered this year that we cannot refreeze the Arctic. No matter what we do now, the melt-off will inexorably continue.

That’s the one trend. The other trend is the American Disenlightenment. The battle between the Democrats and the Republicans-cum-Tea-Partiers is a contest over the identity of the United States. The former hope to keep the United States a liberal democracy; the latter hope to turn it into a policy front for corporations. The Democrats accept the reality of climate change but are so stuck in the consumerist-capitalist mind-set, that their initiatives had been limited. Much of this half-hearted plan cannot be realized now anyway, since the Republicans in the US Senate killed the climate legislation bill.

How did things ever go so wrong? Who would have thought that the post-Vietnam USA would again invade other countries for made-up reasons? That Americans would build concentration camps and use torture methods such as waterboarding that the Gestapo had made infamous? That Americans would start waging war on their own wilderness, with a never-before-seen roll-back of environmental legislation—much of it which had originally been Republican initiatives—a war that would lead to mountain-top removal in Appalachia, well-drilling in the Great Plains, and deep-see drilling (and spilling) in the Gulf? All because of coal, gas, and oil? Who would have thought that a people once with the vision to fight the Nazis and to send a man to the moon now resist joining in the global effort to save civilization from heat death?

The Democrats made the mistake in 2009 to work with the Republicans. They should have pressured the GOP to purge its ranks of war-criminals, torture-condoners, and climate fiends. I would have liked to see GOP functionaries on trial -- not only for the sake of justice, but also for pragmatic and historical reasons. Germany rose from the ashes because the Allies helped the defeated nation to de-Nazify. How could it have been otherwise? Could have post-war Germany recovered with Nazis still running around freely? To the extent invading Iraq '03 was as heinous as invading Poland '39, Bush is like Hitler. But by shying away from a clean break with the crimes committed under Bush, this makes Obama resemble Dönitz—a tragic figure who wished for change but remained glued to the status quo.

Well, perhaps Obama can still be an Adenauer of sorts. Change cannot be avoided anymore. The only question is whether the US will still rise to the occasion or be effectively left behind, as an impoverished people in a parched land, facing bitter weather.

Seventy-four months left.

Friday, October 08, 2010

making sense of Macondo II

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

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The empirical data are clear: the Macondo well blowout, Deepwater Horizon explosion, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or whatever you call it, is the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. It is also the largest marine oil spill in the history of human civilization.

And it wasn’t an accident. It was corruption. The explosion happened because a gas bubble got into the drill pipe, igniting and shooting up to the rig. The fiery bubble shot up because a blowup preventer (BOP) failed. The BOP failed because it hadn’t been fitted with an acoustically-activated trigger that would seal the pipe should the BOP ever go on the fritz. And the BOP hadn’t been fitted with this trigger because U.S. regulations didn’t require its installation – although common sense would have dictated it (backup safety devices are generally a good idea) and regulations elsewhere, say, for drilling in European waters, require it.

The Minerals Management Service (MRM) didn’t require it because this regulatory branch of the Department of the Interior was staffed by Bush-clones from the very companies they were tasked to regulate. The regulators-to-be received kickbacks and gifts from the to-be-regulated. The same guys were sometimes regulators and regulated: a revolving door linked agency and industry. Corporate lobbyists were appointed as agency directors, and ex-agency directors went to work for the oil companies. Licenses were up for grabs, rules were waived, corners were cut; it was drill baby drill, Wild West, and Republican oil craze all in one.

After the oil gushed from the well, MRM’s corruption caught federal attention. The Obama administration restructured and partly re-staffed the agency. Some people were let go, and the MMR was renamed as Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement.

And no one went to jail. The Democrats cannot take on the Republicans, since both parties are dialing for the same corporate dollars. Presumably for the same reason that no Republicans were tried in 2009 and 2010 for war crimes and environmental crimes committed under the Bush regime, all former Republican appointees at MRM were given a pass. Corruption is so endemic in America, and the multinationals-GOP alliance has become so in-your-face, that no one goes to prison for bribes now. (With good timing, P. Krugman wrote on another GOP-corporate fusion this week.)

I don't like calling for Americans to go to jail. The USA is already Prison Planet, as The Economist reported this summer under the subtitle, “Never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little.” The US prison population in state and federal prisons and local jails rose from 0.5 million inmates in 1980 to nearly 2.5 million inmates in 2009, even though the number of violent crimes did not rise at all. The US has 748 inmates per 100,000 population, more than any other country. Russia has 600, Brazil 240, Iran 220, Britain 150, China 130, Canada 120, France 95, Germany 80, and Japan 65. Most people are locked up for activities not considered deserving of punishment in enlightened societies, such as recreational drugs and commercial sex. Other inmates are locked up because exploding legal bills forced them to change their pleas to guilty.

In contrast to the countless non-criminals behind U.S. bars, and as the deregulation responsible for the Gulf oil spill illustrates, the Republican tools owned by predatory corporations do harm to society, economy, and environment. In a more progressive society, these Republicans would now rot in jail. In the American Disenlightenment, such clowns run free.

Seventy-four months left.