The Crime of Climate Change

April 25, 2019

Yesterday we celebrated nearly a half century of earth days. Some problems have been dealt with, but the problem of climate change has only been getting more urgent. People have been driven out of their homes, communities have been submerged, people have been starved and parched for lack of food and water, fallen victim to thieves looking for the means of survival, and for any or all of those reasons lost their lives and their families to climate change. Those politicians and corporate managers who have refused to lift a finger to protect the climate our lives depend on, those who have blocked any effort to protect our global home should be held criminally guilty of a litany of crimes from conspiracy to murder.

One of the highest priorities of government is to protect us – against fraud, weapons, bad people and natural disasters. A certain trashmouth thrives on enemies and goes looking for them in the Middle East where many share a religion less common here, and on the southern border where he seems terrified by women and their children worn out by a trek of thousands of miles, and starved by the endless walk. They give him the opportunity to shake his fists and flick his tongue at the weak and defenseless.

Amidst the fake threats he claims we should fear, he ignores the big one, the threat that will make our lives nasty, brutish and short, leave our communities in chaos with disease, drowning, and starvation. Climate change destroyed much of this year’s corn crop in the Midwest and is gradually damaging and destroying food supplies, flooding homes and farms, weaponizing bugs, mosquitos and disease. That’s real news that should displace his make-believe one.

But you can’t shoot the climate – that just doesn’t fit the demands of his trash talk and bravado. Dealing with the changing climate requires being willing to listen and learn from people who know what they are talking about, to put aside the arrogance of claiming that he alone knows more than all the world’s scientists, doctors and specialists. He might have to accept advice from people who have spent decades studying the problem.

A world in chaos, where survival depends on theft and murder, is the oyster of hoodlums, gang members and terrorists. Rather than worry about Honduran immigrants, let’s deal with the fact that our country can be turned into Honduras because everything that creates wealth and normality is threatened by climate change. We may hold the Russians and the Chinese at bay with armed forces, but the military will not keep the climate normal.

Are we strong enough to look into the real face of danger and organize ourselves to deal with it? Our government and our scientists and our people have dealt with real challenges when we’ve let them. We’ve sacrificed when we had to. Economists tell us that the most efficient and effective step we could take is a significant carbon tax, but we don’t trust government to redirect the profits from such a tax in order to protect ordinary Americans the way it did when we were at war in the 40s. Too many politicians insist that any attempt to help and protect the people is socialism; they corrode our ability to use government to protect us.

Let’s talk straight: any politician who doesn’t make dealing with climate change our top priority should have the book thrown at him or her. Climate change is already killing millions. It’s not opinion; it’s physics. There are fanatics in Pakistan and Africa who don’t believe in science, where the worst diseases are endemic, and where people kill aid workers trying to vaccinate the population. We know better; there’s no excuse.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 23, 2019.

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Climate Change and Flooding in Shiraz

April 16, 2019

Have you seen the pictures of the flooding in the city of Shiraz in Iran? I spent two years living in Shiraz, in the middle of the Iranian desert. Shiraz is near the ancient capital of Persepolis, its Greek name – the Iranians call it Takht-e-Jamshid, or the thrown of Jamshid. It was the winter capital of the legendary kings of Persia: Cyrus and Darius. It was the winter capital because it was warm, much warmer than their summer capital. My future wife was stationed in Hamadan, which the ancient kings used as their summer capital because it was cool. I visited her there and I can testify to the temperature difference.

Persepolis and Shiraz are in the great Iranian desert. It’s very dry. I’d seen it drizzle but you never needed to worry about covering up from the rain. My friends and I were once invited to an open house at an observatory and that was the only evening on which I remember clouds and a very few drops. In fact, it was so unusual that when we made a wrong turn and ended up in the ammunition dump of the Persian army and told the soldiers we were going to the place where you go to see the stars … sure, a likely story! So that was the time I was held at gunpoint in Shiraz until they called the General who was fluent in English and sent his jeep to rescue us. Except for that teaser, and what they piped down from distant mountains, no, there was no water in Shiraz.

But now I’ve seen photos of flooding in Shiraz. Cars and trucks literally swept along in water several feet deep, floating, pushed by currents of water – I hesitate to say downstream because there was no stream, so what’s down or up?

It’s not nice when it floods in the desert. People aren’t prepared for it. There’s no infrastructure to deal with it. People get carried to their deaths by sudden walls of water. And the water doesn’t stay and do any good. The land can’t soak it up.

The floods in Shiraz are more than a curiosity. They are another reflection of a changing and very unpredictable environment. Sharp environmental changes push people out of their homes, kill others, destroy ways that people earned their livelihood and sustenance. Even now the American military is thinking about the implications. But it’s a worldwide problem and they all need to think about it. People will need protection. Others will become refugees looking for places they might be able to live. Everything is up for grabs.

I once chatted with a very successful engineer about the fact that his home is 8 feet above sea level in New York City. Why not move to higher ground? Because when the water rises 8 feet, New York won’t function like a city; the infrastructure will be overwhelmed. How about moving up to this area where except right next to the Hudson the land is a couple of hundred feet above sea level? Because millions of people from New York City will overrun this area like the gold rush overran Sutter’s Mill in California. A world in climate change will be unpredictable and dangerous.

Maybe we should deal with the climate.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 16, 2019.

 


Environmental Change and The Campaign Season

March 5, 2019

I’d like to start this campaign season by stating one of my primary objectives. Climate change is the rare major problem that has been warning us so that we could have had plenty of time to deal with it. Now in a film titled The Human Element, which is available on podcast, photographer James Balog shows global warming in time lapse photography.

But actually knowing what is going on seems to be a liability. Gore actually knew. He looked deeply into the issue of global warming and he understood. But the public reaction was horror – at Gore. He wasn’t like us. He knew stuff. In the first debate, Bush disposed of one of Gore’s points with a sneer, just calling it “fuzzy math.” I concluded on the spot that Bush was a bully. The American public apparently concluded that they couldn’t share a beer with someone who understood math. They judged sincerity as similarity – if he’s like us he’s sincere. So, if we didn’t study stuff, the president shouldn’t either. God. Try that for your choice of doctors. People got what they deserved except that they dumped it on the rest of us too.

Obama did know what he was talking about. Some of us loved him for it. Others were turned off because a Black man presumed to tell the rest of us what was going on – even if it was a loyal and dedicated Black man trying to save the rest of us from the hell we’re wandering into.

Hillary knew what she was talking about. She spent her life preparing for public office, not going to campaign methods and finance school but studying the public issues a president has to deal with for our sake. But her dedication to serving us, the people, was her apparent undoing. The guy or gal down the block doesn’t do that. So, she must be snooty because she knows stuff and proudly spent her life learning it for us. How bad is that?

Learned Hand, one of the great judges in our history wrote that elections are very hard to know enough about. I want presidents, senators, representatives and members of the Administration who have spent the time to know what they are talking about so that we don’t all fall off the cliff together, pulling our families off that cliff with us. This isn’t about my ego. It’s about survival.

Sincerity means to me that the candidate wants to take care of us, our health, our future, all of us.  Yes, experts disagree, and I spend some of my effort doing this commentary to distinguish between experts who have it right and those whose heads are screwed on backwards. But understanding issues is essential. Beyond what we can figure out ourselves, we have to be able to talk with experts who do understand. Lawyers have to do that all the time, from working with doctors to understand injuries to working with economists to understand how much money will have been lost. Expertise matters. Even to be able to talk with and explain the experts, one has to prepare. How better than by spending the time, energy and midnight oil to get things straight?

In this presidential campaign season, I want candidates who care enough to figure things out. Most important I want candidates who understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. And who build ways of dealing with the dislocations of capitalism by building their solutions onto the opportunities created by effective solutions to climate change.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 5, 2019.


Harden The Electrical Grid

September 11, 2018

I’d like to follow up last week’s commentary with an aspect of the damage done by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that should be a warning to all Americans.

Virtually all experts will tell you that the American electrical grid is vulnerable.

Without electricity virtually nothing works. Electricity is essential to all our meters and gauges and thermostats and doorbells – virtually everything that we work with, is electrical.

I tried to compose this commentary while taking a walk in my neighborhood but suddenly I noticed that the screen was stuck on a particular word. And then I got a message that my phone had disconnected from WiFi. Wi-Fi and everything else is electrical. All of our Communications are based on the electrical system. Cell phones, telephones, radio, television, cable – everything is based on electricity. Old fashioned wired telephones, known as landlines, were the rare system built with a separate power source and that’s one of the reasons why we kept a landline in our house along with our cell phones. We wanted to be able to communicate even when the grid went down.

I’ve been in several power outages of varying lengths. When New York City had an outage of several days we got places on foot. New York City is designed for foot traffic with sidewalks and lots of little business areas in reach for most of us. But the elevator didn’t work in my elderly cousin’s apartment building and she was trapped on the 5th floor. She couldn’t get downstairs and was dependent on the kindness of neighbors to bring her food. Of course, in a power outage our refrigerators don’t work. Many of our kitchen stoves won’t work even if they run on gas because they depend on electrical starters. Our thermostats won’t work and the heat won’t come on even if it’s a gas, oil or other non-electrical system because they depend on an electrical spark. Almost all factories, machinery, offices, shipping and stores depend on electricity for necessary functions. Everything crashes without electricity. Hospitals don’t function without electricity so  most have invested in backup generators but they are very expensive to run for any length of time.

It turns out that the gas pipeline system is dependent on electrical supplies for many of its functions. Without electricity, the modern world we live in is at a standstill as Puerto Rico has been for months.

But the grid is vulnerable. It can and does go down for accidental, malicious and natural reasons. To hand China or Russia the power to bring the good old U.S.A. to its knees, just don’t harden the grid. The internet was originally created by the Defense Department – that’s right, the federal government Department of Defense – because it had identified vulnerabilities in the land-based private telephone system. Patriots on both sides of the aisle need to see that the electrical and internet grids are hardened, fast.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 11, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, pushed back the originally scheduled broadcast. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.


Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

September 5, 2018

I’m glad Gov. Cuomo has been talking about what happened to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It should never have dropped out of public discussion both for the sake of the residents of Puerto Rico and for the rest of us.

Katrina undid George Bush when many in New Orleans and the surrounding area got no help. The public was disgusted when Bush praised the head of FEMA for “doing a heck of a job” four days after the hurricane struck. After Hurricane Maria hit, the whole island of Puerto Rico was without power. Half were still powerless half a year later, jerry-rigging connections or using generators for life-saving equipment. At least 11,000 US citizens were still powerless in June, with power authorities still figuring out who was without. But it didn’t bother Trump. The storm hit Puerto Rico on September 20. In early October, Trump announced he’d already done enough.

Dealing with weather disasters takes advance planning. Reacting after the damage is done is too late for many of the injured and displaced. A member of the Albany Law Board who worked on disaster planning for the Red Cross described the process to me. One has to anticipate needs, delivery routes, and get things to staging areas from which they can be delivered before the storm hits, together with the vehicles needed to bring supplies to the affected people. That’s complex and difficult but it can be done because we have considerable advance warning of where major weather events will strike. Not rocket science, it’s a well-worn path of jobs that need to be done.

Puerto Rico is not unmapped far away frontier territory. It’s an island, which should have suggested advance planning for sea-worthy ships and protected areas on the island. Its miles of unpaved mountain roads should have suggested the need for helicopters, like those New York supplied when the Feds didn’t. FEMA was busy with other disasters but that too was predictable. It didn’t raise the alarm and ask for help until well after the storm passed by. Only then was the U.S. Army, itself skilled in disaster relief abroad, permitted to go into Puerto Rico.

Some politicians like to charge that the damage was Puerto Rico’s own fault, the result of graft, corruption and mismanagement. That’s a misdirected ascription of collective guilt. Most Puerto Ricans are related to those ills only as victims. And the beneficiaries were the same people and institutions that we like to hold harmless, the wealthiest people and corporations. The electrical grid was unable to resist storm damage because the corporate leadership left it that way. But we prefer to blame an island and an ethnic or racial group. It would be such bad form to notice who actually caused and who was victimized by the problems in Puerto Rico.

Worse, it hasn’t been allowed to use federal money to fix anything in the cleanup, only to rebuild not one jot better than before, ready to collapse again in the next storm.

All this reflects incompetence and lack of concern about the welfare of Americans. We are all diminished by humanitarian disasters. And disasters are contagious. As John Donne so eloquently put it, “never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee,” for all of us.

My classmate, Judge José Cabranes, wrote in the Washington Post that Puerto Ricans would be leaving the island and coming to the mainland. They have, and as citizens, they may, and should, vote where they settle.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 4, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, preempted broadcast on the 4th. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.


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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