The Moral and Legal Meaning of Failing to Deal with Climate Change

August 30, 2018

I often wrestle with how gentle or how strong to come on. To get everyone’s support on climate change, I want to come on gently. But climate change is so big, urgent and underappreciated that I want to come on strong.

The experts tell us that we can make a big difference. We can take steps that will really slow down and even stop climate change beyond what is already inevitable. But nothing will happen by itself. The economy won’t automatically stop selling carbon-based fuels that produce greenhouse gasses. Government is necessary to do that. Without government coordinating our efforts, each of us individually make only a small difference and we can defend our bad choices by pointing out that it’s legal. But with government coordinating the move to more climate friendly products and methods, we can make a big difference.

Unfortunately, the current Administration is fighting against rules designed to reduce greenhouse gasses. It is rolling back automobile emission and engineering standards that would significantly reduce greenhouse gasses that we produce. The transportation industry produces a large part of greenhouse gasses so real progress requires action among auto manufacturers. But with the Administration working to roll rules back, auto makers say they’ll just wait and see. Meanwhile, Americans buy the largest vehicles they can afford. Progress on sedans gets wiped out by the market for SUVs, trucks and HUMVEEs. One way to control the impact of those market choices is to retain, not roll-back, those emission rules. Another is to introduce greenhouse gas taxes. Government is a necessary part of any real effort to control global warming, for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and posterity.

Failing to act against global warming will increase the worldwide refugee flow which many Americans fear, and turn many Americans into refugees in our own country, from the coasts and the great Midwest Mississippi River basin the where people will be forced to leave their homes and push into places ill-prepared to house, feed and employ them. Failing to act against global warming will magnify the onslaught of tropical illnesses on Americans who are ill-prepared to deal with them. Failing to act against global warming will send our parents to early graves in heat waves that stress their hearts.

The law makes a stronger point that reflects the stakes in global warming. Intentional, premeditated, criminally negligent or reckless killing of one or more human beings is murder.

The lowest form of murder is involuntary manslaughter. An unintentional, involuntary killing is nevertheless manslaughter if it was inherently dangerous or was done with reckless disregard for human life, and the defendant knew or should have known the conduct was a threat to others’ lives.

Does that fit the people who are tearing down the rules to slow or stop global warming and other forms of climate change? We know that climate change will kill many people, in this country and all across the globe. We know that greenhouse gasses from burning carbon-based fuels is heating the earth and additional burning of carbon-based fuels will heat it more. In other words, burning carbon-based fuels is inherently dangerous – it will kill people. The impact of government rules on death and survival is very clear. That will certainly bubble up in lawsuits. But the law also reflects powerful moral conclusions well worth thinking about.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 28, 2018.

 

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Environmental War – The Climate Will Show No Mercy

August 21, 2018

With my grandchildren here, I’ve been slower getting my reading done, but they are also central to what we need to deal with. The entire NY Times Magazine of Sunday, August 5, was devoted to the story of climate change, when we knew it, what it would do, and our failure to stop it. Some of us have known for a long time without knowing how to ring the alarm bell. But there is no more time.

Within two decades the earth’s temperature will have risen enough to force a large portion of the earth, with its homes and cities under water. Don’t think you’re affected? A rise of 10-20 feet in the height of the oceans will swamp large portions of our coast – and forget about rebuilding like before. If you live above the sea line, it may not matter because much of the coastal infrastructure will be swamped. Roads, bridges, subways, pipelines and much more will become unusable. Our towns and cities won’t function like what brought us there.

Think it’s just the coasts? Actually, a large portion of the Midwest will be submerged. And a large portion of the Southwest will be a dust bowl, equally unusable. Worried about refugees? Much of our country will be refugees from the rising waters and the droughts caused by climate change. Feel secure in your property rights? Think about Sutter’s mill in California when gold was discovered. Large movements of people can swamp settled practices.

Where will your food come from? Rising, warming oceans threaten coral reefs and with them much of the global maritime food supply. Droughts and submerged land will reduce much earthbound food supplies. Still think this is a story about someone else? That you can pass on to your children and grandchildren the rising standard of living that is supposed to be the American dream?

Can we still stop it? Not if we fiddle while Rome burns or tweet while America disappears under water. This is a national and international crisis and it’s way more than politics. Yes, other nations have to get on board and many have but it destroys their efforts, achievements and resolve if America continues irresponsibly pumping CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. The battle against environmental devastation must be waged on a war footing, with everything at our disposal.

What will it take? More than your SUVs. Americans have been responding to cleaner power by buying more gas-guzzling cars and tools. At the very minimum we’ll have to accept a steep carbon tax, so that we can stanch the growing flood of energy use, even if we lower other taxes. We can’t keep fracking and building pipelines or mining coal – I understand the concern about jobs but we have to put our labor where it helps, not where it hurts. Global changes require global solutions that cut energy use and eliminate greenhouse gasses.

Retail suggestions can make some dents – like solar panels, green roofs, white roof tiles and white roads and drives. Cities are much more efficient than sprawling development, and multi-family homes are much more efficient than single-family dwellings because they insulate each other. Some building and zoning changes could push people to use passive solar to make the most of the sun’s heat in the winter and shield us from as much as possible in the summer. We have to start using our collective heads.

And we have to address this problem like an emergency that will require effort and sacrifice from all of us. Patriotism requires no less. Our families, children, grandchildren and everyone we hold dear require no less. This is a war for a livable environment. Losing it means losing everything, our country, our families, our homes and lives. Fussing about issues of heritage and color are the work of fools. Sweating about how much damage will take place by 2035 or whether catastrophe will take a few more years just makes it inescapable. We have serious work to do.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 21, 2018.

 

 


Racists and Self-Interest

August 14, 2018

I have no illusions that anything I can say would convince white nationalists to flip their political sides. Nevertheless, I think it is important to engage them.

There is of course a strong moral argument based on the Enlightenment, reflected in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are born equal. But let me see if I can engage anyone with arguments based on their own self-interest?

First, I don’t know how many of the white nationalists have had their DNA checked by 23 and Me or similar organizations. They might find that their own backgrounds are multicultural much like the rest of us. And I’m not sure how many of the white nationalists want to reject or deport their own grandparents or other ancestors.

Beyond that, racial, religious and ethnic nationalism is basically what is called, in language stemming from game theory, a zero-sum game. That is to say, we have a pie of specific size and fight about how to cut it up. But that’s a faulty premise. In fact, the larger the group that participates in the productive process, the more there is for everyone to do. The success of this country was based on our own common market among the states from the very beginning from the Canadian to the Florida border. That gave us a big advantage and propelled this country into the forefront economically within a few years. The European Union was developed and has been prosperous for much the same reason. And there is plenty of factual data that multi-cultural workforces lead to expanding their businesses much more than homogenous ones. It’s easy to look at a single job and notice who has it and who might have had it, but without looking at whether that job and many others would exist in a narrower market one does not have anything close to a full picture. So, I don’t think trade among multiple different cultures, or the development of complex multi-cultural economies are zero sum games. I do think they expand opportunities for us all. And the economic risk from trying to cut oneself off from that is stagnation and decline.

I have another concern about rejecting multi-culturalism: China, not to mention the rest of Asia. One of the things Obama realized, a realization no less true or false if one objects to the color of the man, was that the nations of Asia were focused on their economic advancement, were working hard to grow and were quite successful at it. That was behind his hope to “pivot to Asia.” But our own treatment of people from all the Asian countries, as visitors, residents and citizens, can strengthen or weaken our relations and our cooperation in foreign and economic policy. Perceived as racist, we can become the target of attack. Nations like China and India have the size and fire power to be problems. In briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s, both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration argued for an end to the separate but equal doctrine partly because it made international diplomacy difficult.

I don’t even want to talk about the possibility of internal war. Both for our country and for each of us, white nationalism is a dangerous mistake.

After writing this, we took our grandchildren to Tanglewood for a Young People’s Concert. At one point the BSO played Leonard Bernstein’s music for the rumble in West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan. The rumble pitted the white Jets gang against the Puerto Rican Sharks. It ends in universal disaster. In the suite that Bernstein created from the music, as Tony lies dying in Maria’s arms, the harsh, jagged music for the rumble dissolves into the lyrical, wistful music of Somewhere There is a Place for Us. Somewhere indeed. My granddaughter caught tears rolling down my face. Bernstein like Beethoven before him believed that music could somehow bring us together. I wish it were so.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 14, 2018.


All Criticism of Trump Cannot be Fake News, and what his claim implies

August 10, 2018

I keep looking for things we can say to Trump’s supporters that just might wake them up. Here’s a very basic one.

President Trump has repeatedly told us that all criticism of him is fake news. That can’t be right. No one is infallible. No one. Because it can’t be right, his claim drives these conclusions:

First, we have to tell the difference between what the President says that is true and what the president says that is false. It cannot be either all true or all false.

Second, the claim is an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. If we can’t look or see criticism, then we lose the ability to tell truth from fiction.

Third, just take a cold hard look at this without fear or favor one way or the other – blocking our view of criticism is the first technique of dictators. It insulates them from resistance. One of the first things Trump did in office was to look into pulling the license of the main broadcast news stations. That would have powerfully insulated him from criticism and scared many critics into silence.

Once that happens the consequence for the rest of us can be catastrophic. Dictators, including Vladimir Putin, Trump’s mentor, don’t look out for our welfare once they no longer have to. Silencing or discrediting all criticism of them as fake gives them the ability to take aim at everything you care about, everything that stands in their way, and to claim whatever they want – personal wealth, and the power to reward all those who will bow to their will. That is the dictator’s game: command enough power to silence all dissent and force everyone to do their bidding.

We’ve repeatedly kicked out politicians that disappointed us. The objective of all autocrats is to discredit democracy, a free press and honest elections, so there is little chance of their being kicked out. The men and women we’ve been calling the greatest generation gave their all to protect what America’s founders bequeathed us. Putin’s and Trump’s attacks on a free and critical press and their discounting any threat to honest elections undermine our commitment to democracy. The real answer to the flaws of democracy is the dedication of Americans, winners and losers, to democracy’s principles.

I’ve never met Trump and claim no way to know for sure what is in his heart. But as a lawyer, I know from professional experience, that the most convincing people you will ever meet are the con men. We can’t read their hearts. We have to gauge the risk from their actions and claims. Lambasting the press categorically, as if all the men and women, young and old, who are toiling to get the facts, can never get anything right, is a sure way to protect what should not be protected.

Let me end with a book pick. In The Plot to Destroy Democracy, Malcolm Nance looks at the facts with the cold, calculating eye of a man who has spent his life in American national intelligence. Based on Russian purposes, institutions and behavior, he concludes that the Russians are deliberately threatening our democratic system. Democracy threatens the impunity of autocratic rulers to kill, torture and steal from their own people in order to protect their own power and maximize their own wealth. Regardless of collusion, conspiracy or disloyalty, the combination of Russia’s and Trump’s attacks on the fundamentals of democracy clear the path for tragedy. And our crucial response will be what we do leading up to the elections and at the polls.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 7, 2018.

 

 


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