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.
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.
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.
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.
Last time we talked about how influencing our politicians to do the right thing can be fun. So this time let’s talk about some very serious issues with an eye toward enjoying the process of moving our politics to do the right things, even though the issues, like climate change, sometimes feel out of our control. But we do have power. We live in a democracy and can demand that our representatives deal with these problems first and foremost. Motivating them is our job. So let’s look and then return to our responsibility. Two issues involve the likely suicide of humanity: what has been termed the sixth mass extinction, this time of us.
We know about major extinctions that killed some 86% of existing species approximately 444 million years ago; killed some 75% of existing species, about 70 million years later; killed some 96% of existing species, approximately 251 million years ago. killed some 80% of existing species about 200 million years ago. And the fifth, about 66 million years ago, killed some 76% of all species including the dinosaurs. Extinctions have been recurrent, catastrophic, and resulted from climate changes, including changes in temperature, and levels of oxygen and other gasses. Biologists are suggesting we are headed for a sixth and this one is aimed at mankind, at us.
Mankind’s actions are changing the climate. Climate change doesn’t just drive the waters higher, create extreme weather events and disrupt the climate worldwide. Changing biodiversity affects the fundamental cycles of nature. The Atlantic described mass extinctions as “global die-offs that killed the majority of animal life on earth” and it explained that they were not simply the result of external shocks, but were ultimately caused by “the internal dynamics of food webs that faltered and failed catastrophically in unexpected ways.” We know environmental changes are heating up the globe and interfering with the food chain in the oceans. So we have to control ourselves before our environment is totally out of control.
Another form of impending mass suicide comes from the nuclear power plants. That’s not just about rogue nations like North Korea, but lots of companies, corporations, workers and others have access to nuclear fuel and could do great damage with it. If you haven’t seen the pictures or stories of the so-called “survivors” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth doing to understand the seriousness of what we should be trying to protect our loved ones from. We have to stop that process before it destroys us all.
We should know by now that mankind is doing many things that are causing great damage to our world and our survival in it. Plastic bags and chemical run off are destroying sea life. Endocrine disrupters are all around us in the things we buy, eat and use and they affect our health, our ability to have children, and their growth without agonizing birth defects. Excess antibiotics are inviting super-resistant diseases and leaving us vulnerable to enormously destructive epidemics.
The over-arching issue seems to be the too widespread belief that civilization depends on allowing any of us to dump whatever we please into products, onto the ground and into the air and water until such time as someone is able to determine what damage it has been doing. There is a point when liberty becomes license.
As we talked about last time, influencing our politicians to do the right things can be fun. Enjoy.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 24, 2018.
 Peter Brannen, “Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/the-ends-of-the-world/529545/.
After the car ran down people in lower Manhattan, I read an article about making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the author’s suggestions but I want to make a point about arguments for and against. One could say that people with bad intentions will just find other ways to kill lots of people. True or false? Actually it’s completely misleading. How many people with bad intentions will find other ways and how many won’t? How many people will do as much damage to as many people and how many won’t? The statement that some will doesn’t tell you. And the claim that all will is pure nonsense.
In the early 70s, I was a manager of the New York City legal services program, then known as Community Action for Legal Services or CALS. We had twenty-two offices around the city. All of them were in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. And in those pre-computer days, many of them had IBM Selectric typewriters which made our staff much more efficient but were expensive. Some thieves craved them. In our East New York office there had been a series of burglaries. After each we hardened the office against further break-ins. But those thieves were determined. Unable to get through the doors, they blew a hole through the wall and took the typewriters.
Obviously some thieves will use explosives. Should we have concluded that we might as well remove the locks on the doors of our twenty-one other offices? Plainly no. Nor would I recommend that you remove the locks from the doors of your homes. Nor would I recommend that you take all the shades and drapes down became peeping toms will find a way around them. Thinking about problems without examining how many, and what proportion of people will do how much damage is just sloppy thinking.
The NRA tells us that bad people will get guns. That statement is neither right nor wrong. If they mean some bad people will get guns no matter what we do, that is clearly true. But if they mean that whatever measures we take will not reduce the number of bad people who can get powerful weapons, that is clearly false. And they can’t tell us anything realistic about the proportions because they convinced Congress to block research into the effect of possible regulation of weapons. So they make sloppy statements hoping you’ll be taken in.
The Founders of our country were not so sloppy and they did lots to regulate guns – the most significant of which was to prohibit people from keeping ammunition in their homes. Ammunition exploded and caused fires so it had to be kept in public armories. Regulation mattered and they knew it.
So when people try to tell you what regulation will or won’t do, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes with sloppy nonsense. Some regulations work better than others. That’s a valuable subject of research and study, not an occasion for sloppy all-or-nothing claims.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 14, 2017.