|Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.
And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change -- the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.
We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.
Bill McKibben ponders a question last November
in Palo Alto during his "Do the Math Tour."
We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible -- all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.
Unless you understand these distinctions you don’t understand climate change -- and it’s not at all clear that President Obama understands them.
That’s why his administration is sometimes peeved when they don’t get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will slowly go into effect over the next decade.
It’s precisely the kind of gradual transformation that people -- and politicians -- like. We should have adopted it long ago (and would have, except that it challenged the power of Detroit and its unions, and so both Republicans and Democrats kept it at bay). But here’s the terrible thing: it’s no longer a measure that impresses physics. After all, physics isn’t kidding around or negotiating. While we were discussing whether climate change was even a permissible subject to bring up in the last presidential campaign, it was melting the Arctic. If we’re to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year to make a real difference.
It’s not Obama’s fault that that’s not happening. He can’t force it to happen. Consider the moment when the great president of the last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was confronted with an implacable enemy, Adolf Hitler (the closest analog to physics we’re going to get, in that he was insanely solipsistic, though in his case also evil). Even as the German armies started to roll through Europe, however, FDR couldn’t muster America to get off the couch and fight.
There were even the equivalent of climate deniers at that time, happy to make the case that Hitler presented no threat to America. Indeed, some of them were the same institutions. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, vociferously opposed Lend-Lease.
For a larger image, click here.
For Obama, faced with a Congress bought off by the fossil fuel industry, a realistic approach would be to do absolutely everything he could on his own authority -- new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, for example; and of course, he should refuse to grant the permit for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, something that requires no permission from John Boehner or the rest of Congress.
So far, however, he’s been half-hearted at best when it comes to such measures. The White House, for instance, overruled the EPA on its proposed stronger ozone and smog regulations in 2011, and last year opened up the Arctic for oil drilling, while selling off vast swaths of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin at bargain-basement prices to coal miners. His State Department flubbed the global climate-change negotiations. (It’s hard to remember a higher profile diplomatic failure than the Copenhagen summit.) And now Washington rings with rumors that he’ll approve the Keystone pipeline, which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest crude oil on Earth. Almost to the drop, that’s the amount his new auto mileage regulations would save.
If he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just the obvious and easy. He’d also be looking for that Pearl Harbor moment. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the hottest year in the history of the continental United States, the deepest drought of his lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the federal government’s premier climate scientist declared it a “planetary emergency.” [...]
The president must be pressed to do all he can -- and more. That’s why thousands of us will descend on Washington D.C. on President’s Day weekend, in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there’s another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he’s simply not up to this task, and that we’re going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
If he won’t take on the fossil fuel industry, we will. That’s why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.
If he won’t use our position as a superpower to drive international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we’ll try. That’s why young people from 190 nations are gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won’t listen to scientists -- like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake -- then top scientists are increasingly clear that they’ll need to get arrested to make their point.
Blast from the Past. At Daily Kos on this date in 2003—Ring of Truth?
|I went to see The Two Towers last night, and I enjoyed it immensely—although not quite as much as the first Lord of the Rings movie, for esthetic reasons I won’t bother with here.
My real problem with the movie— the one I do want to talk about—is political, and it applies to the entire Lord of the Rings saga. As much as I love and admire Tolkien’s books, and Peter Jackson’s brilliant adaptations, I think it’s probably unfortunate these particular stories are being re-injected into the popular culture at this particular moment in history.
My fears were best captured in a single scene from The Two Towers, in which the traitorous and lecherous Grima Wormtongue accuses one of King Theoden’s bravest soldiers of being a "warmonger." This at a time when the foul orc brigades of the evil wizard Saruman are overrunning Theoden’s kingdom.
The scene is unquestionably effective—and true to the spirit, if not the precise text, of Tolkien’s original. But it also comes dangerously close to an Ann Coulter view of the world, in which anyone who seeks to avoid war is, by definition, either a traitor, a terrorist stooge, or both.
The entire Lord of the Rings saga can—and has been—interpreted the same way: As a parable for our times, a mythic lesson in the virtue and necessity of moral clarity in the face of evil.
And that is wrong: wrong and ignorant and, yes, in its own way, evil -- or at least an open invitation to evil. Because this isn’t Middle Earth. Our enemies are human beings, not subhuman orcs. George W. Bush isn’t Aragorn son of Arathorn. Osama bin Ladin isn’t the Dark Lord Sauron, and neither is Saddam Hussein.
But I don’t know if our culture—or, as Aragorn might put it, "our peeepul"—can still recognize the boundary between fantasy and reality. So much of what we say, do, believe and expect has been shaped by the entertainment industry, I don’t know if we’re capable of seeing the world as it really is, instead of as we would like it to be.
Every Monday through Friday you can catch the Kagro in the Morning Show 9 AM PT by dropping in here, or you can download the Stitcher app (found in the app stores or at Stitcher.com), and find a live stream there, by searching for "Netroots Radio."