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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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.


What We Can Do About Climate Change

February 12, 2019

This is the birthday of Abe Lincoln who saved the country. It’s our job to keep it safe. My message last week was that government is the key to minimizing world-wide genocide by climate change. And of course, this president is not helping. Now let’s talk about our role.

First, the strongest step we can take is to join organizations that are working to reduce climate change. We can’t turn the ship of state individually, but by joining together we can force government to change. We can force each of the political parties to make a major commitment to the war against climate change.

Second, push industry away from release of greenhouse gasses. One of the best incentives is a carbon tax and every delay in imposing it means the tax has to be exponentially larger. We can strengthen the push for a carbon tax by using our power as consumers.

Third, over the past half-century we have changed agriculture until it is now one of the biggest emitters of carbon and methane, the two principal climate damaging gasses. One of the most important changes is to shift away from beef and other meats. Think about how much carbon beef production releases – initially from the use of power to produce crops whose only purpose is to feed the cows, and then from all the carbon production involved in raising the animals and then the fact that the animals themselves produce huge quantities of methane. And that doesn’t include all the carbon and methane from the transportation of the animals and their feed and the fertilizers used in the process. Farming has gone from relatively clean half a century ago to a major problem now. So cutting down on beef is an important start.

Fourth, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on carbon emissions from transportation but, many of us can improve our health as well as the environment by walking, bicycling or using public transit. Growing up in New York City I had to be a public transit user. One of my happy memories of childhood is standing with my nose pressed against the front window of the front car of the subways and feeling the excitement from the sight and sounds of the train gobbling up miles of track in front of me. Later, I went to work by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. That gave me a gorgeous two-mile walk to work which was definitely good for my health. Coming to Albany, I wanted to get back to walking so we bought within a two mile circle around my office so I could, and did, walk to work. I fully understand the attractions of the countryside but there are huge advantages to city living, especially for the climate.

Fifth, many of us can make our homes much more efficient with insulation, solar panels and other energy saving methods. Reducing what we buy, recycling what we don’t need, and reusing what can be used again, use much less energy than buying and replacing.

Sixth, one step less talked about is passive solar. Zoning and housing codes would help, but windows facing due south get zero summer sun and maximize winter sun. Once the house is designed that way it pays dividends forever. Add a heat sink inside the house and it will spread the heat around the clock in cold weather.

I’ve added some articles and organizations you can look at on the text version of this commentary. But the point is to take action. We need action above all. It’s that or genocide by climate change.

Recommended articles on climate change:

David Wallace-Wells, UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That, Intelligencer, OCT. 10, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/un-says-climate-genocide-coming-but-its-worse-than-that.html

Overwhelmed by climate change? Here’s what you can do, The Guardian, October 8, 2018,

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/climate-change-what-you-can-do-campaigning-installing-insulation-solar-panels

Some of my personal favorite organizations which focus on science and the environment:

https://350.org/ co-founded by Bill McKibben

The Climate Reality Project founded by Al Gore

Union of Concerned Scientists founded by scientists at MIT

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 12, 2019.


How do you talk about climate change?

February 4, 2019

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about climate change. It’s a scary subject. Climate change is likely to injure and embitter people we care a lot about, our children and grandchildren – hurt them with disease, draught, famine, floods and storms, destroying their homes, houses and business too, indeed their towns and communities. That’s scary all right, but what do people do when they’re scared? Fight or flight? But where do you go? Unfortunately a lot of people do neither. They just can’t bear to think about it. But climate change will find them and their children and grandchildren anyway. What they don’t know will hurt.

Climate change is a big problem. The scale of the problem leads people acting individually to come up with platitudes like don’t cross that bridge ‘til we get there. Of course, the bridge won’t wait. If we don’t plan in advance it won’t be there when we want to cross it, and that’s not just a statement about infrastructure.

My hybrid and my solar panels make me and my family feel good but they only make a small dent – of course they’d make a bigger dent to the extent that the example catches on and government organizes a much bigger, more wide-scale reaction. That after all is what we’re trying to do. Our hybrids and solar panels are like very large lawn signs saying “Join us.” Like lawn signs, the signs don’t make the difference but the cultural statement that this is the right thing to do can carry the day.

That’s the kind of problem government is for, the kind of problem that is way beyond our abilities acting individually. Handling climate change requires coordination on a scale that only government can make happen. When government takes charge, those of us trying to do something about climate change become part of a powerful movement, not weaklings and suckers. Even the most ideological free marketeers have a name for situations where only government can solve the problem – they call it market failure.

Government will organize a powerful response when the people make clear with their votes that they demand action. It will happen when people see their personal welfare, not in opposing climate change, but in demanding that government direct opportunities to those whose livelihoods may be injured by efforts to fight climate change. It will happen when the rest of us understand that we are all in this together and demand that we all have to share the benefits and burdens. This is a war against forces that will destroy our families, our country and our world and it’s not a private opportunity to make big profits at everyone else’s expense. This is a shared problem, a shared opportunity and a shared job. In the past we’ve used an excess profits tax to share the burden of war. And to build the weapons of war we spread the factories all over the country.

We can be fair. We can protect and provide for each other. What we can’t be is cowards looking the other way.

As we gear up for the 2020 election, the politicians must declare what they will do to stop climate change from destroying us all. I know some relish the opportunity to be a war president, to be the great leader that pulls us from the brink of disaster. OK then, this is the war we have to fight. Now lead the charge.

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


Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.


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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