Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 17, 2016

The tyranny of the contemporary

In a new book entitled A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington, Seattle, provides a thorough examination of the moral/ethical questions posed by the advance of man-caused global warming. I have provided below a summary of his thoughts that recently appeared in the Washington Post. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/01/09/why-climate-change-is-an-ethical-problem/  The several links included in this article are also well worth reading.

“Climate change presents a severe ethical challenge, forcing us to confront difficult questions as individual moral agents, and even more so as members of larger political systems. It is genuinely global and seriously intergenerational, and crosses species boundaries. It also takes place in a setting where existing institutions and theories are weak, proving little ethical guidance.

A central component of this perfect moral storm is the threat of a tyranny of the contemporary, a collective action problem in which earlier generations exploit the future by taking modest benefits for themselves now while passing on potentially catastrophic costs later.

The critical question as we seek to meet such a tyranny and address climate change will be which moral framework is in play when we make decisions. In many settings, we do not even notice when this question arises, because we assume that the relevant values are so widely shared and similarly interpreted that the answer should be obvious to everyone. Nevertheless, the values question is not trivial, since our answer will shape our whole approach.

If we think something should be done about climate change, it is only because we use our moral frameworks to evaluate climate change events, our role in bringing them about, and the alternatives to our action. This evaluation gives us both an account of the problem and constraints on what would count as relevant solutions. Suppose, for example, one were deciding where to set a global ceiling on emissions.

At one extreme, we might give absolute priority to the future. It is technically feasible for us all to reduce our emissions by 50 to 80 percent tomorrow, or even eliminate them. We could, after all, just turn off our electricity, refuse to drive, and so on. The problem is not that this cannot be done; it is that the implications are bleak. Given our current infrastructure, a very rapid reduction would probably cause social and economic chaos, including humanitarian disaster and severe dislocation for the current generation. If this is correct, we are justified in dismissing such drastic measures. However, that justification is ethical: A policy that demanded those measures would be profoundly unjust, violate important rights and be deeply harmful to human welfare.

Still, the acknowledgement of those limits has its own implications. Even if any emissions cuts would be disruptive to some extent, presumably at some point the risks imposed on future generations are severe enough to outweigh them. Where is this point? That is an ethical question. So far, we do not seem very interested in answering it.

Perhaps this is because up until now we have been acting as if our answer is closer to the other extreme — giving absolute priority to our own short-term interests. Over the past 25 years — since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — we have continued to allow high levels of emissions, suggesting that we are giving the future no weight at all. Given the threat of a tyranny of the contemporary, this bias is highly predictable. Yet it also appears grossly unethical.

Of course, acknowledging this bias is deeply uncomfortable. Consequently, there is a temptation to prefer framings of the climate problem that obscure the ethical questions. Consider, for instance, those who reject any moral lens, arguing that climate policy should be driven solely by national self-interest, usually understood in terms of domestic economic growth over the next couple of decades.

Their accounts face deep problems. Given the time lags that climate change involves, most climate impacts, including many of the most serious, will take many decades to arise. Moreover, those that may occur in the near term are likely already in the cards, due to either past emissions or those that are by now inevitable. Amoral approaches constructed with a focus exclusively on the next decade or two would confront only a very small set of the relevant impacts of climate change, and would likely miss the most important — and the potentially catastrophic. Therefore, they risk encouraging a situation where climate policy could become yet another venue where narrow interests crowd out longer-term and broader concerns.

The real climate challenge is ethical, and ethical considerations of justice, rights, welfare, virtue, political legitimacy, community and humanity’s relationship to nature are at the heart of the policy decisions to be made. We do not “solve” the climate problem if we inflict catastrophe on future generations, or facilitate genocide against poor nations, or rapidly accelerate the pace of mass extinction. If public policy neglects such concerns, its account of the challenge we face is impoverished, and the associated solutions quickly become grossly inadequate. Ongoing political inertia surrounding climate action suggests that so far, we are failing the ethical test.”

I totally agree with Gardiner. Yes, we are, indeed, immobilized today by a “tyranny of the contemporary” and that fact could turn out to be the greatest tragedy of the human experience on this planet. This is needlessly so because the fields of science and engineering have provided us with both an understanding of our climatic changes and the technology required to combat those changes. All that is missing are some adjustments to our ethical standards so that our intergenerational responsibilities are taken seriously.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 14, 2016

Yes, indeed, too many scientists are biased

It is true that scientists can become biased by the nature of the “news” they provide the public through their research. After all, scientists are human beings who have friends and families as well as funding sources that they wish to remain on good terms with.  On the subject of climate change, claims of personal bias have regularly come from the deniers who suggest that scientists are much too alarming in the interpretation of their results. There is another growing concern, however, that while scientific bias does, indeed, exist, it is now pointed in the opposite direction.  That is, that climate scientists are now tending to “self-censure” interpretations of their own research in order to make that news less alarming and more palatable to the public and their elected officials.

This suggestion has been convincingly made by one of Britain’s leading climate modeler, Dr. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in a recent article entitled “Duality in climate science”.  The full article can be seen at http://kevinanderson.info/blog/duality-in-climate-science/ Its abstract follows:

Brief Abstract: The commentary demonstrates the endemic bias prevalent amongst many of those developing emission scenarios to severely underplay the scale of the 2°C mitigation challenge. In several important respects the modeling community is self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. Moreover, there is a widespread reluctance of many within the climate change community to speak out against unsupported assertions that an evolution of ‘business as usual’ is compatible with the IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets. With specific reference to energy, this analysis concludes that even a slim chance of “keeping below” a 2°C rise, now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society and is far removed from the rhetoric of green growth that increasingly dominates the climate change agenda.

In the full article, Anderson convincingly argues that many of the modelers of future climate change are recommending corrective changes that are merely “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary”. By these two terms, Anderson means that too many scientists are going along with the relatively palatable thought that we can limit the industrial age temperate increase to 2 degrees C by making modest adjustments to our means of energy production and use – while turning a blind eye to the more likely conclusion of their own research that great and unprecedented changes are required.

For example, Anderson points out that in order to achieve that 2C limit, either worldwide emissions of CO2 must go to zero by the year 2050 or we will have to have developed means of removing CO2 from the atmosphere that compensates for those continued emissions. Since the latter “solution” is essentially a fairy tale, the former is the only one that is scientifically feasible and too few scientists are informing the public of that somber fact. If you happen to believe that CO2 removal by Carbon Capture and Sequestration, for example, will become either economically feasible or even physically possible in the foreseeable future, you should read the recent summary of that technology at http://www.corporateknights.com/channels/climate-and-carbon/the-quest-for-ccs-14520600/  and then think again – that ain’t going to happen!

For about a decade now, most of our most influential pro-environmental politicians have been indulging in what has been called “greenwashing”. This term means talking the talk of climate change, but at a level that is too superficial and anemic as to significantly address the problem.  For a politician, this stance might be understandable in that the solutions they suggest will be better received if those solutions are perceived to be “doable” by the public. Sadly, it now appears that many influential scientists are doing the same in order to be on the same page as those environmentally conscientious politicians.  Any scientist who has been educated in a bona fide scientific community also knows, however, that a scientist’s conclusions should ideally be based on the results of their experiments alone.  In fact, it is the duty of scientists to provide the public with assessments of this sort – that are free of all other social and economic factors that might be affected by those scientific results.  It appears, however, that that is not happening. Too many climate scientists are trying too hard to march forward, hand-in-hand, with the greenwashing politicians of their countries.

A result of all of this is that the public is soothed – they are given the impression that the problem is being appropriately addressed by both our political and scientific leaders. Angst is thereby diminished in the public domain. In reality, however, this approach amounts to little more than kicking the climate change problem down the road thereby squandering more time, that most precious commodity we are too quickly running out of.

If you require a more thorough and detailed explanation of where we are really headed, I will refer you once again to a 50-minute lecture on this topic by Dr. Anderson – see it at  http://vimeo.com/62871951  Sorry if this unfiltered scientific report is distinctly unsettling, but within a decade or two your grandchildren will be asking you if you paid any attention to the real science of our times. Of the candidates we have before us for the Presidency in 2016, Bernie Sanders is the only one who is on the page of the real science related here. The best of the rest are greenwashing Democrats and if you want the short-term bliss that goes along with ignorance, you have a host of Republicans to choose from.  In short, you will soon have the opportunity to do something very significant about the climate change problem and your grandchildren will be reading the historical record.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 6, 2016

Columnist’s policy of 1946 still good today

I will begin this new year with an editorial that I have retrieved from the archives of a weekly newspaper in Minnesota. First, a confession: the columnist being referred to here is my father, Alton Tacitus (AT) Grimsrud, who had just purchased the newspaper of Zumbrota, Minnesota, in a prosperous rural area just north of Rochester. While I was only two years old at that time, I have occasionally used those archives in order to see AT’s take on the issues of his time.

AT spent his entire life – from age 13 when he started an apprenticeship under his uncle at the Westby Times of Westby, Wisconsin, to age 87 when he posted his last column at the Zumbrota News. He learned much about the journalism profession as well as mid-western politics at the University of Wisconsin and the Capital Times of Madison. After a couple decades spend at the newspapers of Viroqua and Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, he arrived in Zumbrota, Minnesota, where his four children would grew up and his descendants would continue to run that newspaper to this day.

“An editorial column ought to have a political policy. As to this, your editor cherishes the rare privilege of the free press. We don’t believe in committing blank check approval of any political party and then have to swallow all policies or persons of said party. “The Republican party, to which most of our readers no doubt adhere, is by tradition and present commitment, devoted to reducing government expenditures. Yet, any impartial poll of Republicans, as well as Democrats, would show that an overwhelming majority are members of some pressure group employing hired lobbies at Washington and St. Paul to get from Congress or the legislature a slice of tax money for his or her personal interest. We have the powerful veterans lobby, the farm lobby, a variety of business lobbies, the labor union lobbies, railroad and highway lobbies. A story in the Minneapolis Tribune Sunday under Washington dateline, said that pressure groups’ hired lobbies tapped Uncle Sam for five billion dollars this year. A federal handout for me but not for you is a too common fallacy by which Americans of all parties hope to balance the budget. “So it appears that a newspaper with a definite party line has nothing but ‘skeletons in the closet’ to plague it, thereby eventually losing whatever ‘kick’ there is in the week-in-and-out attempt to be a sincere if not always expert judge of political leaders and issues. “We can offer as a safe guide to (The Zumbrota) News political policy the assertion that government is best which creates a well balanced economy, infinitely superior to that government which aims only to govern the least. If a lot of the fog that clouds the vision of American citizens could be swept away, the bogeys of communism and reaction which liven up political campaigns would become the ghosts which they are, and we could promptly pattern our politics after the most efficient democracy in the world today – Sweden.”

This editorial was written by the new owner of The Zumbrota News, Alton T. Grimsrud, on October 4, 1946. Note that in spite of their “socialistic tendencies”, the Scandinavian countries have done exceedingly well throughout the post WWII era, as AT thought they might. Perhaps Bernie Sanders is also on the right track when he holds up Denmark as a model for effective governance.

If you happen to have been following some of my posts on this blog you might note a distinct similarity between my father’s views and mine. This, in spite of the fact that I spent my working years in science, not journalism or politics (my older brother, Dave, bought that “farm”, so to speak, and has since passed it on to his sons).  Therefore, any similarity between me and my father can be explained only via the genes in my blood or, more likely, by the impressions he made on me during my more informative years.

In any case, if AT was still calling the shots at the Zumbrota News, his now 70-year-old column shown above suggests that he also might have come out in favor of the political independent, Bernie Sanders, for President in 2016. The influence of the Progressive Movement – which was initiated at the onset of the 20th Century by Wisconsin’s Republican Senator “Fighting Bob” La Follette and was continued by La Follete’s two sons – made a lasting impression on AT.  For a summary of La Follete’s enormous impact on American policies –  he was voted one of the seven Greatest Senators in US history by the US Senate in 2000 – see http://www.fightingbob.com/aboutbob.cfm   In reading this summary, you might come to wonder if Bernie Sanders is “Fighting Bob” reincarnated.

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 5, 2016

How nuclear fits in

First, nuclear power plants can work very well. The USA has about 100 of them, far more than any other country, that have been producing CO2-free energy for several decades. In the process, we have also learned a great deal about how to build better and safer nuclear power plants which, once built, could provide many decades of steady high-power output.  While we are presently building a few new ones – each due to huge levels of financial assistance from our government – our private sector is not building any.  The primary reason for this seems to be that recently summarized on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_the_United_States) as follows:

Experts see continuing challenges that will make it very difficult for the nuclear power industry to expand beyond a small handful of reactor projects that government agencies decide to subsidize by forcing taxpayers to assume the risk for the reactors and mandating that ratepayers pay for construction in advance…….. economic and market conditions, especially low natural gas prices, made the construction of new merchant nuclear power plants in competitive markets uneconomical now and for the foreseeable future. …..some smaller reactors operating in deregulated markets may become uneconomic to operate and maintain, due to competition from generators using low priced natural gas, and may be retired early. The 556 MWe Kewaunee Power Station is being closed 20 years before license expiry for these economic reasons. In February 2014 the Financial Times identified Pilgrim, Indian Point, Clinton and Quad Cities power stations as potentially at risk of premature closure for economic reasons.

So yes, nuclear works and could be much more extensively used. It takes about a decade to build one, however, and very few such projects are presently being started in the USA.  Even after being built, some of our existing nuclear plants are not proving to be cost effective in deregulated markets. The major cause of this is the fact that natural gas is now abundant and cheap. Thus, for the nth time on this website, it appears that the only way of overcoming the financial hurdle to this carbon-free source of energy is to impose a stiff carbon tax on natural gas (as well as on all other fossil fuels).  When we use nuclear power, we are also paying for the cost of nuclear waste disposal.  So why should we not also then be assigned a fee (carbon tax) for the disposal of fossil fuel waste (CO2) into our atmosphere? Unless one is a denier of the upcoming and huge environmental problem associated with our out-of-control levels of atmospheric CO2, there is only one answer to this question: yes, we absolutely should have a carbon tax that enables nuclear and the other sustainable means of energy production to become financially competitive.

It is, in fact, sheer madness for us to continue to use fossil fuels – which were produced very slowly over many millions of years – as our major source of energy for such a short period of geologic time. If Business-as-Usual continues throughout the two centuries after the onset of the Industrial Age in 1850, by 2050 we will have converted essentially all of our known reserves of gas and oil and a significant fraction of our coal into atmospheric CO2. This is an enormous amount of carbon that will more than double the total amount of carbon in the biological world. While some plants might possibly like this change, the atmosphere and the oceans will definitely not.  That is, massive levels of global warming and ocean acidification will follow, resulting in new conditions not seen in millions of years. The real kicker is that these horrific changes will be imposed on us so rapidly that existing forms of civilization will not be able to respond in a timely manner – thereby resulting in government breakdowns, massive migrations of people, increased warfare, massive starvation and world-wide chaos. While this scenario of a BaU future is sure to sound too pessimistic to many, it is the one that emerges from a careful study of our scientific literature – which has provided our best estimates of what Mother Nature does for many centuries. We will be on a different and much better track only after we install a stiff and continuously increasing carbon tax.

[Note that in Oct. 2013 I provided a related post entitled  “The Nuclear Energy Option: Go for it”.  For a persuasive argument against the construction of nuclear power plants see Joe Romm’s recent post at http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2016/01/07/3736243/nuclear-power-climate-change/ %5D

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 31, 2015

Robert J. Samuelson needs to meet Mother Nature

I have followed the Washington Post columns of Robert Samuelson for many years and have considered his advice to be well grounded within the realm of economics. At the same time, I have been disappointed in his attitude when the subject concerned climate change.  By his own admission, he is not a scientist, he is an economist and that is all too apparent in reading his columns.  His recommendations for either action or non-action on fighting climate change have always been skewed towards the Business as Usual, fossil fuel sources of energy, which have been dominating economic forces in the USA and great barriers to needed changes.

Over the years, Samuelson has shown himself to be on the same path as the “deniers” of man-caused global warming. That is, his views have progressively morphed as follows: First, there is a serious doubt that the science is correct. Then there is the suggestion that maybe things won’t be so bad.  Then there is the view that we cannot afford to try to solve the problem and then that it is too late to try.  Samuelson is now in that second to last phase, as evidenced by his last column on this subject (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fighting-climate-change-requires-more-than-soothing-fantasies/2015/12/27/9738fe82-ab2b-11e5-bff5-905b92f5f94b_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions  )

This column, entitled “Fighting climate change requires more than soothing fantasies” requires careful reading because Samuelson now skillfully presents himself as a fair and sympathetic judge of the efforts made, to date, to fight climate change – while he has been no such thing. His comments now suggest that the advocates of action have failed us (in spite of all the help we have given them) and, therefore, we should now continue with Business as Usual and simply hope that “something comes up” that will save us from predicted catastrophes. Not being a scientist, Samuelson gives no details about what that “something” might be (presumably leaving that ‘minor point’ for scientists to figure out).

In his last paragraph Samuelson provides an example of his deceptive presentation when he says:

“We have been searching for solutions for decades with only modest success. We need to keep searching, but without meaningful advances, regulating the world’s temperature is mission impossible.”

What he fails to mention is that in that “search for solutions”, the highest barriers to finding them have been thrown up by our mighty fossil fuel industries that don’t want to go there. After all, if one of the means of addressing climate change is to eliminate CO2 emissions, superficial economic theory explains why the fossil fuel corporations might prefer to simply “kill the messenger”.  So while the wealthy fossil fuel corporations have spent less that 1% of their profits on the development of alternate means of energy production, they have provided large sums to organizations (and possibly to columnists) that undermine our nation’s confidence in science, in general, and climate science, in particular.  In addition, we have not yet installed a carbon tax as a fee for using our atmosphere as a garbage dump for CO2.  Note that Samuelson says nothing about these enormous barriers to needed action and states only that the promoters of action against climate change have not done enough yet as to prove that their solutions would work.  All of this further undermines our nation’s confidence in a more scientific approach.

Where there is a will there usually is a way and when there is no will there ain’t no way. In Samuelson’s case, there is no will and never has been.  In his defense, he is merely an economist used to small incremental changes in society and is not equipped for advising us on a scientific topic that is about to cause huge quantum shifts on our planet.  His advice only applies to“enjoying the party while it lasts” and has nothing to say about what happens after those shifts are allowed to occur. We can do much better than that only if we all face the fact that Mother Nature calls the shots and she is going to do things Her way. Unfortunately, “Her way” is not even mentioned in Econ 101 and, therefore, Samuelson is only aware of the smaller half of the problem. People do tend to be aware of the things they already know a lot about (I wonder if Yogi Berra ever said that.)

I only wish that Samuelson was not such a clever writer. His last piece will fool a lot of people into thinking he is concerned with their welfare. While he might be, he is even more concerned with the welfare of Exxon-Mobile. For an example of this see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-war-against-exxon-mobil/2015/11/08/094ff978-84a6-11e5-8ba6-cec48b74b2a7_story.html in which Samuelson suggests that Exxon-Mobile’s deceptions of the past concerning climate science are legal and even commendable because of our freedom of speech rights.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 29, 2015

Why I love and respect Bernie Sanders

First, let’s get past that “gotcha” label, “but he is a socialist!’, that sometimes terminates serious discussions of Bernie. Come on, get real!  We have serious problems today that must be addressed by methods that work and some of those ideas will come from the Left as well as the Right as the pendulum of political dominance swings back and forth – usually in order to combat over-corrections of the past.

In addition, most of the Americans on the Left as well as the Right believe in a successful and strong private sector, as Bernie does. But they also favor a government that achieves broad public objectives, including a clean environment, wide access to education and health care and, I believe, even regulations that might strengthen the bargaining power of those who don’t have much capital and live hand-to-mouth on low to modest wages.  Call this “income distribution” if you like, but yes, this goal is also appropriate today in order to correct a too-far-to-the-Right swing of that pendulum in recent decades.  Look around you.  If you don’t see the need for such improvements, you aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in our country and possibly even to what’s happening within your own family.

Within my own family, for example, I see clear evidence of these needed improvements. My wife and I did everything we could to help our four children be successful in the modern American landscape.  An important component of that preparation was their educations, all of which extended beyond the college level.  And while on those paths, we did not want their choices to be limited by the large debt typically associated with today’s college experience.  For covering those college expenses, loans are easy – far too easy – to get, in my opinion.  They are recommended by college recruiters, but saddle our young folks with a level of debt that limits their options upon graduation.  For that reason, my family did not take them.  With the assistance also provided by their grandparents on both sides, we were able to get our kids past the college years without accumulating any personal debt at all.  From that point on, they were on their own but free to take advantage of the many post graduate opportunities before them – instead of having to enter the work force at that point in order to begin paying off large college debts.

So yes, the current American system works pretty well if your family happens to have enough financial capital to get your kids near the good jobs of America before they are obliged to pay off their college bills. Completing college without large loans is unusual today, however, and that fact robs our nation of the full potential of its human capital.  So while Bernie’s quest for free public college tuition to all American students might sound too generous to some, it doesn’t to me.  Instead, I believe it constitutes a wise form of income redistribution, if you wish to call it that, but one that would pay big dividends to our country.  We need this government-managed form of “trickle-down” economics.

Another example of what I would call a wise investment while others might dismiss as wealth redistribution is Bernie’s preference of a single payer health care system.   In this instance, some of my advice has come from a couple of those kids described above who are now working in the area of health care and wonder why the insurance industries are needed for the payment of patients’ fees.  Couldn’t that function be served at a lower cost if the government managed one big single pool without the assistance of insurance companies?  After all, many other basic public services are managed without the middle management of insurance companies, including our public schools, police departments, all branches of our military and the Medicare programs of our retired folks.  Bernie is a financial conservative who does not like to see waste and inefficiencies.   I agree with him that a National Single Payer Health System would result in far more bang for our health care buck.

And I really love Bernie, of course, for the courage he has shown in taking a very strong stance on climate change. Unlike any other candidates in either party, Bernie knows that the first thing that must be done in combating man-caused temperature increase  is to establish a carbon tax on fossil fuel use so that the alternate forms of energy production become competitive and are developed much more rapidly than they are.  Given my frequent explanation of the central importance of this tax, I’ll not repeat it here – other than to say that Bernie is the only one to really “gets it” so far.  The “all of the above” approach currently in favor in the USA is suicidal.  Carbon Dioxide levels will continue to increase as long as fossil fuels remain cheap.  The use of fossil fuels must be taxed at an annually increasing rate large enough to cut CO2 emissions to near-zero by mid century.  This will be very hard to do primarily because the Business-as-Usual forces will strongly resist and label this tax to be just another “wealth redistribution” plan. Only Bernie seems to have the determination necessary to bust through this high political barrier.

Of course, there are also other important issues on the table today and I generally support Bernie on these as well. Concerning the events related to ISIS terrorism, for example, Bernie thinks the appropriate response is to have the Muslim nations of the world attend to those military operations with assistance and advice provided by the USA and its western allies – when and if requested.  Because of the strong financial ties between our military and industrial complex, I can image that Bernie’s detractors will also claim that this policy constitutes a “redistribution” of wealth.  If so, I would hope that we would all favor less use of those funds for body bags.

While I will admit that Bernie is no “spring chicken” anymore, I still think he is the best, the brightest, the most connected to humanity, the most credible, the most energetic, and the most determined of all candidates for the Presidency in 2016. Better than anyone, I think, he represents what America can and should be.  I hope the rest of the country also falls in love with him during the remainder of the primary and national elections.

On the other hand, if Hillary gets the nod in the Democratic Primaries, that’s OK too. She also deserves it and is very well prepared.  She is not as strong a Bernie on Climate Change and that intangible link Bernie has to the public.  Nevertheless, we are very fortunate to have two such stellar candidates to choose between and I hope they both are given appropriate roles to play in the next decade.

Meanwhile, I see no improvements being made on the Republican side. All of their leaders are still so scientifically brain-dead as to not even know who their own experts are on the subject of climate change.  I suspect that Abraham Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party and also the founder of our National Academy of Sciences in 1862 is already turning his attention to the Presidential Election of 2020. Being an intellectually astute person, I suspect that Abe would be content to see either Bernie or Hillary in charge until then or even 2024.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 26, 2015

Concerning my home where the Buffalo roam

When I has attending the Zumbrota (Minnesota) Elementary Schools in the 1950’s, we were obliged to sing one solo every year in Mrs. Solberg’s music class and every year I chose the same song, “Home on the Ranch”. Apparently my fascination with the American West continued well into adulthood as evidenced by the fact that my spouse and I moved west in 1970 and have lived there ever since. About 35 of those years were spent in Montana which as the locals liked to claim was the “last best place”. While living there, I experienced first-hand the dream I apparently had as a child and found that the reality of life in Montana was even better. While Kathy and I now spend portions of the year in the states of Washington, Minnesota, and South Carolina in order to be nearer our grandchildren and their parents, we are pleased that new schedule takes us through the vistas of Montana three or four times per year.  Along with the changes of seasons and daily sunlight, they never disappoint.

While living in that distinctly outdoor environment, however, it was impossible to not notice the profound effects of global warming. Examples of these included the steady disappearance of the glaciers in Glacier Natural Park.  Of the 200 or so that early settlers counted only about 20 remain and they are expected to be gone in another decade or two.  Also, when my family first moved to Bozeman in 1975, we “enjoyed” at least one week of -40 F temperatures every winter.  I use the word, enjoyed, here because those periodic low temperatures kept the Pine Bark Beetles in check.  Cold snaps like those don’t occur anymore and the resulting proliferation of those beetles has killed every Lodgepole Pine tree in Bozeman, including the half dozen I transplanted on my small lot from nearby forests in ’75.  Those small trees grew to maturity during the next 25 years and then were suddenly done in during the warmer first decade of the 21st century. Similarly affected pine forests are now seen all over the American West.

Because the concentration of greenhouse gasses has continued to rise since then, I am sure that the environmental degradation of Montana and the West will continue and will do so at an ever faster rate. The evidence for this is being continuously compiled and I will sign off now by referring you to a report just issued by the Montana Wildlife Federation.  See it at:  http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/12/22/3734414/montana-climate-change-costs-jobs/ In this report, you will note both the physical degradations occurring in Montana and the huge financial losses this state can expect as that “last best place” continuously changes into a distinctly less best place.

In counting the many blessings my family has received during our lives, to date, one is certainly that we were able to live in and experience Montana when it really was the best – a place where the deer and the antelope did, in fact, play on just about every square mile of it and thanks to Ted Turner, some Buffalo did too. All of this was provided by the accumulation of huge mountain snow-packs in the winters leading to a multitude of crystal-clear trout streams throughout the summers – things that are changing rapidly as we speak.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 24, 2015

How our Congress “addresses” climate change

The short answer to this is that our Congress does not, in fact, address climate change. What it does do is provide various incentives to select businesses in a manner that gives the impression that they are addressing climate change.  Since these business interests have found support in both the Republican and Democratic parties, Congress can also make it look like they are reaching “across the aisle” and coming to so-called ”compromises” in which both “sides” of the climate debate appear to be winning something. The tragedy of this charade is that the public and the environment usually lose by the actions taken on both sides – that is, by putting poor ideas in motion that only delay meaningful action against climate change.

The omnibus federal spending bill just passed by Congress provides the latest example of this and I will return to it in a moment. But first, I will remind you that this phony approach to “addressing climate change” is not new.  Note, for example, that for many years now, the agribusinesses of the Midwest have enjoyed generous government support for the production of ethanol from corn.  And, of course, our Midwestern farmers love this arrangement and want it to continue. Unfortunately, scientists have also known for most of that funding period that the net benefit of this activity with respect to reducing CO2 emissions is near zip and might, in fact, be detrimental. Yet Congress continues to fund this program and uses it as an example of their efforts to address climate change. The only winners in this program are the agribusinesses involved.  Both the public and our environment get nothing for the tax dollars thereby spent.

Now concerning that federal budget recently passed in DC: Two portions of it are driven by opposing sides of the climate change debate and taken together, supposedly represented a “compromise” between the Republican and Democratic views.  In that bill, the Republicans are granted their request for lifting our country’s 40-year ban on oil exports.  For several reasons, that is a terrible idea. In their past requests for drilling allowances within the States, the fossil fuel corporations argued that the USA needs these new wells in order to become independent of foreign sources of oil.  So why then, would we want to export, rather than save, new sources of American oil when we find them? There is only one reason one can imagine for this – those US oil companies will make more money if they can sell that oil on the international market rather than saving it.  And most importantly, anyone concerned about climate change will recognize that the relaxation of that embargo will result in significantly increased CO2 emissions worldwide.  This bill tells the world that the USA is not, in fact, interested in reducing global CO2 emissions.

In exchange for lifting the embargo, a relative bone was thrown to the Democrats and they took it. That bone is allowing the federal tax credit program for the installation of solar panels and wind mills will be extended for a few years.  For several years now the US government has provided the renewable energy sector with tax credits for the installation of solar panels and wind mills.  I am well aware of those programs and have installed three panel systems on three different structures over the last 10 years and received about 30% of the total costs via tax credits.  While those panels work great and will continue to do so for several decades, they and the other renewables have not yet diminished the only number that matters in the fight against climate change.  That number, of course, is the background concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere. That number is now more than 40% greater than it was in the pre-industrial era and still increases every year – at an increasing rate every year.  While my solar panels have enabled me to use less fossil fuels than I otherwise might have used, the price of fossil fuels has simultaneously remained so low that our use of them still increases.  In short, the problem is not that we don’t have enough solar panels.  The problem is simply that we still use far too much fossil fuels and the “all of the above” energy policy we presently have does not sufficiently address our climate change problem – while it continues to give the public the mistaken impression that we are.

The only solution to our CO2 problem is to apply a stiff and continuously increasing carbon tax (or fee) on fossil fuel extraction. With this tax in place, there would be no need for tax credits and other handouts to the energy sector of our economy.  The establishment of this carbon tax is entirely fair, appropriate, and, in fact, necessary because we can longer afford to use our atmosphere as a free of charge waste dump for CO2.  A level playing field would thereby be created within the energy section on which American entrepreneurs would expand and streamline our alternate means of energy production.

Why this is not being done goes back, of course, to the ever-present forces of “Business-as-Usual”. These exceedingly mature forces still have the strongest grip on both of our political parties and prompted the legislation being discussed here as well as why it has been cynically called a “compromise”.

So there you have it. The fossil fuel boys are very pleased. The solar panel and windmill companies are also very pleased as are the corn-alcohol agribusinesses for the generous support they receive from Uncle Sam.  And the public and our environment are “schlonged”! (Note to reader:“schlonged” is a new word I just learned from a leading candidate for the US Presidency. If this person is elected, I suspect that this and other words of this sort will come into common usage in the USA. )

I think it was President Calvin Coleridge who said some 90 years ago “the business of government is business” and it appears that today’s congressmen still believe that. Our representatives in DC don’t seem to be able to do anything unless it is beneficial to the immediate interests of some industry or other.  What they don’t seem to recognize, however, is the fact that Mother Nature plays by Her own rules and She plays last.  So how about this idea?  Maybe we should start a new field in which “Her rules” are explored and identified. We could call it “science” and use its recommendations for showing Congress how to really address climate change in a manner that Mother Nature will pay some attention to.  Just a thought – call it a Christmas wish.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 22, 2015

We, the People, and political correctness

The notion of political correctness became popular on college campuses about a quarter-century ago and is now grossly overused as a put-down to almost all serious and responsible suggestions made in the public discourse. In all of their debates, the GOP candidates for the Presidency have connected political correctness to virtually all issues, including immigration, terrorist attacks, Planned Parenthood, gun ownership, Muslims, education, the media, health care and climate change. “Political correctness is killing people” Ted Cruz said in last week’s debate and Ben Carson warned of a conspiracy “to give away American values and principles for the sake of political correctness”.

Then, the mother of all such statements came from Donald Trump when he appeared on “Fox and Friends” a couple weeks ago and said:

“But we’re fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump added. “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

In short, Trump is advocating the use of terror and murder on the men, women and children that constitute the families of Muslim communities promoting terrorism. He believes that this is the “logical” response to the terrorism presently being carried out by some sectors of the Muslim world and that the only reason we are not doing it is because of an unwarranted dose of political correctness.

Upon thinking about Trump’s proposal, I suspect that many of us will instantly be repulsed at what he is suggesting and might have a strong “gut feeling”, at least, that no, “we Americans” should not do that sort of thing. In this post I would like to explain why what “we Americans” should think in this instance is based on more than our “gut feelings”.  It is, in fact, firmly based on our Constitution.

Let’s start, however, by admitting that the United States of America has, indeed, often done exactly what Trump now proposes during its 240-year history and we have no further to look for an exceedingly clear example of this than to reflect on what the USA did to its native populations. Many tribes throughout the USA were beaten and starved into either extinction or reservation confinement and even those terms of confinement were repeatedly reneged.  Even in my relatively progressive state of Minnesota, a bounty was placed on the heads of Sioux caught off the reservations they had been confined to in 1862.  Period newspapers recorded the delivery of many Indian scalps for which $200 each was paid by the state.  In 1863, Nathan Lamson of Hutchinson “bagged” the famous Chief Little Crow who was traveling with his family from Canada to visit friends on the Minnesota reservation.  Nathan received a bonus ($500) for that service to his country.  Little Crow’s scalp and skull hung in the Minnesota Museum of Natural History until 1911 when it was properly interred with the rest of his body.

And stories like this go on and on: At the very beginning of the 20th Century, the United States of America declared the Filipinos fighting for their independence in the American-Philippine War to be savages and imprisoned, starved, and killed over 200,000 of them, the majority being women and children, in a brutal war of attrition and summary executions with carpet bombing of vast areas and communities. Then throughout the 20th century, the USA continued the subjugation of many other cultures throughout the world by its support of myriad dictatorships whose only tie to us was its friendliness to American Corporations (and, of course, the dictators’ ubiquitous claims to be against all things communist).  Examples of such places are Iran, Chili, El Salvador and numerous other countries that became the “beneficiaries” of US foreign aid.

So, yes, Trump’s “logic” is not in conflict with the historical behavior of the USA. But nevertheless, I still believe that it is in conflict with my original statement – “we Americans” should not to do that sort of thing and the reason we shouldn’t is precisely because it truly and thoroughly is “Politically Incorrect” in terms of the Constitution of the United States.

OK, now I have to explain that last sentence – which should be done with a degree of “legal correctness” that is somewhat beyond my own abilities. I had the good fortune, therefore, to note an article written by Danielle Allen of Harvard University for the Washington Post a few days ago which provides the explanation I am seeking.  Her article can be seen at

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-the-politically-correct-people/2015/12/18/2a5c02fa-a4ff-11e5-9c4e-be37f66848bb_story.html

The history lesson Allen provides centers on James Wilson, a lead author of the US Constitution. Wilson argued that the Founders of 1776 had erected a government based on the “people”, and not on the states or even the United States. Wilson is the reason that our Constitution begins with “We the People of the United States” and not “the United States”.  We ought, he said, to raise toasts to the “People of the United States” as the true object of our efforts and affections.  This, he said was the correct way to begin a country because it captures the right way of thinking about the relationship between people and its government.  “A State”, he cheerfully admitted, “is the noblest work of Man: but Man, himself, free and honest, is the noblest work of God”.

As the keynote speaker on July 4, 1788, at a celebration of both independence and the new Constitution, Wilson said “if the people, at their elections, take care to choose none but representatives that are wise and good, their representatives will take care, in their turn, to choose or appoint none other than such are wise and good, also. … On the faithful and skillful discharge of it (voting), the public happiness or infelicity, under this and every other constitution must, to a great measure, depend. For, believe me, no government, even the best, can be happily administered by ignorant or vicious men”.

I will finish here with Danielle Allen’s concluding sentence: “Given the poll numbers for the leading Republican candidate, it appears that the problem is with us, the people, and not with this or that candidate.  Wilson was right.  We, the people, are the foundation of democratic government, and the quality of our government stands or falls before us.”

And a summary of my own: Whether we use our country and its people to address real threats to humanity, such as climate change, or the imagined ones, such as the terrorists, the communists, or the Martians hiding under our beds, depends on the basic decency and wisdom of the representatives we vote for.  I know this to be true. My Constitution tells me so.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 18, 2015

The GOP’s huge drag on responsible US behavior

Let’s begin with a bit of reflection concerning who a large portion of Republicans are today. The GOP has changed: it is whiter, older, less-educated and more blue collar than it used to be. Our country has offered most of its citizens, including those Republicans, good opportunities in both education and employment. The USA is also said to be a place where competition matters so that the best among us can prosper. This was the prevailing philosophy of Ronald Reagan who is still idolized by almost all Republicans. As a result, many financial winners emerged during the Reagan Era along with, of course, a large number of others who have not done so well even if they happened to be Republicans.  But that’s how competitive endeavors are expected to turn out, right?

It now appears that a lot of those Republicans who feel they have not benefited sufficiently from this abundance of opportunity are crying “foul” and consider themselves to be “disenfranchised” even from the traditional leadership of their own party. They don’t seem to understand what has happened to them possibly because of a lack of education concerning recent US history in which Republican leaders played major rolls.

Therefore, if you are a Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States today, you might feel obliged to remind those disenfranchised folks of the Reagan solution to such problems – that is, simply try harder and improve yourselves. Isn’t that exactly what Ronald Reagan would have said?

There might be an easier and more effective way of getting those votes, however, and that would be by good old-fashioned pandering and flattering . That is, tell those folks that their problems were not self-inflicted but were caused by a variety of ill-defined entities called the “government” or the “establishment, or the “press” or “elitists” or simply  “Obama” and “Hillary”.  These disenfranchised folks might readily buy that explanation and not even understand that Reagan’s “trickle down” theory was no more that a theory supported by the very wealthy and was never really intended to lead to a “shining city on the hill” for everyone.  And even if the disenfranchised Republicans do recognize this bit of betrayal perpetrated on them, they might prefer to now blame it on the Democrats who were left to clean up the messes that the Republicans left behind in 2008. Thus, many of these confused Republicans would understandably be very attracted to a candidate who panders, flatters, and complains endlessly about the Democratic cleanup crew.  A candidate of that sort would not even have to lay out his specific plans. Just “saying stuff” that takes these Republicans off the hook for their own shortcomings might be enough to get many of those votes.

Then, enters “the Donald”: Donald Trump is a very experienced and smart businessman.  He is not a know-nothing himself, but knows how to get the votes of those who are.  So he tells these intellectually challenged Republicans that all of their troubles were caused by that Democratic clean-up crew, as I summarized above. Also included in Trumps tiny bag of “solutions” are the promotion of religious bigotry, the construction of walls (yes, in spite of Ronnie’s distain for them), and “just say no” to action on tough problems such as climate change (in concert with Nancy’s solution to drug use).  All very thin soup that goes down easily.

Consider also the demographic changes occurring within the USA. Whites will no longer be the majority by midcentury. Incomes are not increasing except for those at the top.  Manufacturing jobs are gone.  If you don’t have a solid college or even post graduate degree, you might be learning what lower-class misery can be like.  And then we presently have a Democratic President who is a black man, was educated at those elite Ivy League schools and whose father was a Muslim. Therefore, Barack Hussein Obama provides a perfect target for the generation of fear and loathing among the Republican losers of what remains of the Reagan Era. Trump’s base and vial statements about all of this reminds one of the McCarthy era of the 1950’s when problems, real and imagined, were suggested to be due to communist infiltrations into our government, military, and even main street.  Unfortunately, Trump’s history-challenged  supporters probably don’t even know who Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was.

At this point in time, it seems very unlikely that the upcoming nomination of the Republican Party will go to a mature and experienced candidate, such as Jeb Bush. Unfortunately for Jeb, he happens to be a grownup just as his father was and, therefore, does not offer painless, simplistic, and vengeful solutions to our country’s problems. Thus, Jeb still lingers near the bottom in the GOP Homecoming King contest.

It is interesting to note that what is happening to Jeb Bush now happened to his father back in 1992. George H.W. lost that election to a new-comer named Bill Clinton, who had pandered his way through the Democratic nominating process.  He claimed he could do everything on the Democratic wish list without raising taxes.  Even though H.W. had just superbly managed the first Iraqi war – including his wise decision not to “break it” so that we didn’t have to “take it”- George H.W. had also retracted his “read my lips” promise of not raising taxes. He felt that the growing national debt following the increased spending of the Reagan years should to be paid in a timely manner rather than putting it on the proverbial credit card. The base of the GOP did not share H.W.’s sense of responsibility, however, and showed only luke-warm support for him in his quest for a second term. “Slick Willy”, who happened to turn out much better than anyone might have guessed at that point, then managed to win that election.

It is also interesting to note that upon taking office eight years later in 2001, George W. Bush quickly undid the accomplishments of his father by cutting taxes, invading and breaking Iraq, and putting the costs on our national credit card – all of which facilitated the financial crash of 2006. Thus, even though Jeb’s father was one of our best and most responsible Presidents, Jeb is also cursed by having a brother that was one of our worst and most irresponsible.

Returning to our political problems of today, the three other Republican candidates, in addition to Trump, who are presently enjoying substantial support are Cruz, Carson and Rubio. Unfortunately, all of them are just as scientifically illiterate concerning the forces driving man-caused global warming as is Trump and are not prepared to face this and perhaps other real and substantial problems. While I don’t know who will squeeze out the Republican nomination, I doubt that any of those top four contenders will get to first base in the national election. In our increasingly complex and dangerous world, we need leaders in government who will not be a drag on responsible behavior – whether the issue is climate change, terrorism or some other. Bombastic pandering for the sake of one’s own popularity leads nowhere.

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