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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Mankind’s Suicide Pact – The Sixth Mass Extinction

April 24, 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.”[1] 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.

[1] 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/.


Freedom for the Boss; Drudgery for the Rest of Us

May 16, 2017

I keep looking for ways to talk with supporters of the Administration. President Carter started the deregulation frenzy. That has become half of the Republican cut-and-deregulate refrain ever since, consistently repeated by the current White House and the Republicans in Congress. I’d like to focus on the things that will affect those of us who are, financially speaking, ordinary, middle-class Americans.

Here are changes the Administration and congressional Republicans are considering that affect working conditions:

  • The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has been postponing and considering cutting down a Labor Department rule that limits “workers’ exposure [to] toxic material, which can cause a deadly lung disease.”
  • The same White House Office is also “considering a proposal to roll back protections for workers in construction and shipbuilding.”
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by risking our health.
  • The Working Families Flexibility Act … would give employees a choice between taking time off or being paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week.”
  • Either way, Republicans oppose changing overtime rules to raise eligibility for overtime above the current $23,660 per year.
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by shortchanging us.

Here are some that affect the health of financially ordinary Americans:

  • The Administraton has already taken steps to “roll back healthy school lunch standards”
  • The new head of the FDA “has invested in or consulted for dozens of healthcare companies” which suggests that the Food and Drug Administration won’t be much help in preventing unnecessary complications and expenses.
  • The House health care bill would eliminate Obamacare requirements that insurance plans cover prescriptions drugs and mental healthcare. Like all insurance, drug and mental health care coverage are intended to protect people from unplanned changes in the costs of survival.
  • Senate Republicans narrowly lost an effort to roll back a regulation that “limit[s] methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.” Methane is even more damaging to the climate than carbon.
    • Those rules risk our health for the sake of other people’s profits.

On savings for retirement:

  • “Trump’s Labor Department delayed the so-called fiduciary rule, ordering financial advisers to act in … [your] best interest[s] … [if you] are saving for retirement.”
  • The CHOICE Act would allow the banks that brought us the crash of 2008 to opt out of regulations adopted after the crash and intended to prevent another. And the bill renames the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and “reduces its power to enforce pre-existing consumer protection laws.”
    • Those rules risk our financial security for the sake of other people’s profits.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Supreme Court show little respect for working men and women.

  • With Breyer’s help they have blessed “Professional debt collectors … [who] built a business out of buying stale debt, filing claims in bankruptcy proceedings to collect it, and hoping that no one notices that the debt is too old to be enforced by the courts.”
  • The Court continues to apply a 1925 statute intended for interstate business transactions to consumer contracts and the Court bars state regulation entirely.

What Republicans continue to give us is freedom for the boss and drudgery for the rest of us. As the old folk song has it, “same song, second verse, could get better but it’s gonna get worse.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2017.


Trump and Jobs

March 14, 2017

Last week I commented that scholars of intolerance tell us that feeling threatened often leads to hate. That’s one reason the economic threat to some American workers matters to all of us.

Trump is clearly working with the free marketeers. The free market is not about your, or workers’ rights; it’s about your boss’s or your company’s right to close your plant, move, lower your wages, reject your union, or just skip protecting your safety.

Trump makes different noises when talking about your jobs and when writing rules and hiring his cabinet. But his Republican Senate will insist on a free market, and Trump is counting on it.

Trump told us he wants to eliminate 75% of regulations. Those regulations protect employees and consumers; in other words, you and me. They protect our wages, require safer working conditions, ban poisons from our food and water and require companies to give us what we paid for. That’s how Trump shows us his true colors.

Obama saved thousands of jobs by saving American auto makers and growing the economy by hundreds of thousands of jobs per month – but gets no credit. Trump may have saved a few hundred but people think he takes action. With victories like that we can all starve.

Trump’s focus on the optics of small victories keeps us looking the wrong way. U.S. factory output is growing. But the jobs have changed. Missing are factory jobs for poorly educated people. I don’t say that out of disrespect. My Uncle Hershel, a truly lovely man, was a factory worker. I remember him sitting by my bed when I was ill. What I’m talking about is how to get good jobs for people like him. If we expect jobs to show up the same way they did a century ago, we’re whistling in the wind. If we think Trump can trump marketplace change by jawboning a few companies, we’re spitting in the wind. He doesn’t have the time or tax cuts to do it that way.

Central New York was once a manufacturing powerhouse. What’s left are mostly small towns far from traditional jobs. Yet one can now work thousands of miles from where things have to be made or done. We could be linked in to the world IF we invested in and rebuilt the economy, instead of jawboning the owners of obsolete factories.

And education must be available and affordable for everyone who wants a good job. Education sounds like elitism to many workers. But what made America an economic powerhouse was our system of mass education. And that’s part of why those who think we can go back to a prior era of American greatness are spitting in the wind – the rest of the world has caught up. To provide jobs, we need to provide retraining for mid-career workers on top of excellent schools, pre-school and after-school programs – all of which provide jobs.

Yes education will have to change. I’m a dinosaur, standing up in front of a class of students, even though the alternatives, so far, are not working very well. But when people figure out better methods, education will take off again – here or elsewhere. That’s where we need evidence-based experimentation – science. We rely on science from morning till night for the things we touch and use. Denying science is the height of idiocy, not a mark of greatness.

Trump yells about foreigners and markets. It’s our job to address reality.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 14, 2017.


Refugees and the Impact of Immigration

April 5, 2016

Let’s talk about immigration in this current frenzy about keeping Syrian refugees out.

DAESH (ISIS) or al Qaeda used EU citizens to damage Paris. They will try to use Americans here. Some Americans have gone over to the dark side, trained abroad, could return and blend in here. That is a similar problem with deporting those undocumented people who have spent most of their lives here – in their countries of origin many have no ties, job history, knowledge of the culture or the environment. Deported, they are valuable to smugglers who use them to get contraband across our borders. Allowed to stay, they could be productive members of society. For Americans and immigrants alike, keeping people working at decent jobs is the best way to keep everyone out of trouble.

Population also affects national power, what we can produce, and the power we project. That is important in an increasingly dangerous world. Adding to the workforce and as consumers, immigrants increase the size and health of our economy, and instead of straining our budget, they help to sustain our social safety net, as many aging countries have been finding out.

Immigration is not without costs, however. China and India now each have over a billion people. India’s population has tripled since I was young. These are population explosions. Chinese authorities understood that China could not sustain population growth and slowed it precipitously.

Moving people from places where they live in fear to an America where they can live in peace and prosperity is neutral with respect to worldwide population. But it may do environmental damage if it means changing to an environmentally more destructive lifestyle. That makes it doubly important to control, limit and reduce environmental damage. It means that we should, must, continue to invest in ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and increase our use of solar and wind energy and passive solar heating. We must control our overuse of water, and invest in better ways to use it. We need to rethink our national land-use policies – it makes little sense to irrigate deserts for farmland and build suburbs on productive lands. We are shifting farmland from places that have plenty of water to those that don’t. That is not only wasteful, it also leads to drought, salinization of the land, and makes other settled places unlivable, save at the enormous cost of desalinization of seawater.

Ultimately both our goals for immigration and our goals for America, our children and grandchildren must be driven by concern for the people who will inhabit it. That means care and concern for the immigrants themselves, and care for everyone, those we are strongly attached to and all the people of the earth, expressed through environmental policies that can keep the earth habitable. In that effort we all have to be willing to share and accept effective regulation. There is no other way.

And yes, protecting the lives of our children and grandchildren requires some sacrifice. But aren’t the sacrifices we make for those we deeply care about one of the most satisfying things we get to do? All our faiths confirm those duties and affirm the joy of giving and caring. It’s hard to think of people as deserving who are unwilling to share in the general sacrifices for their and our offspring.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 5, 2016.

 


Looming Catastrophe and Stubborn People

March 22, 2016

Help. Two major problems have the same structure – it doesn’t look like people will deal with the problem until it is too late. Too late means the survivors will be refugees. Everyone else will be dead. And yet getting people to deal with the threat except at the fringes has been impossible.

One of those problems is global climate change. I’m told people will come around. Great but time is not on our side. I’m told people don’t want to make any sacrifices.  Great. Life is a sacrifice. We sacrifice for everything we want. How about life? For us? Our kids and grandchildren? Isn’t that worth a few pennies? What’s the matter?

We could deal with this. It’s not rocket science. Changes to the tax system would push carbon out of the air. And some regulation would clean up other parts of the problem. Is life itself, for everybody we love, not worth some sacrifice? Can’t we make it clear to everybody in this election season that anything less than a full-court, all-out press to call a halt to global warming is the sine qua non of our support, the one overriding issue, and they’d better do everything they can?

Time might have been on our side when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, Barry Commoner called attention to environmental threat of global pollution in the late 1960s, and we held the first Earth Day in 1970. That was 46 years ago. Time is not on our side now. Action is crucial now; we need to do everything possible to make the system move. Corporations that hide behind the bad-for-business apologias deserve boycotts. Everybody’s shoulders need to go to all the wheels – now.

The same dynamic underlies Israel’s miscalculation of its own position. It has now lost or is in the process of  losing all its allies. The majority there has been stubborn and stupid in denying that they needed to make any changes. But it’s become obvious to many more than those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness for years. I know I’ll get hate mail – people cover up their own blindness by refusing to see and blaming everyone else around. Sorry. That won’t help. The problem isn’t me; it’s that the world has lost patience and it doesn’t particularly matter now if the world is right or wrong. Israel never had a future without allies and Israel has been squandering its erstwhile friends. It’s bet on the Republicans has only revealed the loss of support across the American political spectrum. So will Israel go the way of the Crusades? It will take a lot of far-sighted savvy to stave that off and I doubt their politics will permit it.

Two very different problems and yet two problems that are very similar. Meanwhile, I sit down to write some commentary, and here, two problems close to my heart are looking intractable and I don’t really know what to say. Help. Let’s get this done.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 22, 2016.


The Earth will have its Revenge

March 15, 2016

One of the major drivers of global warming is the greenhouse gases we emit by burning fossil fuels. Another major driver of global warming and one of the ways in which we are making our earth unsustainable for human life is the population explosion. When I was young the earth’s population was around 3 billion. It has more than doubled. When we talk about the growth of population, the crucial issue is about the time it would take to double. Population can double in as little as a generation. We are on the way to an earth with 12 billion people and counting. The devastation that is causing and will cause is incalculable and will make the earth inhospitable in short order, contributing to the overuse of water, the over fishing of the oceans, the deforestation of the jungles, the overuse of carbon based fuels even while we try to flush them out of the atmosphere and every other form of damage to the earth we depend on.

That makes population policy a tremendously important issue worldwide. Years ago we used to talk about ZPG, zero population growth. The idea had been talked about for centuries but a best-selling book, The Population Bomb, written by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, helped make it a movement in 1968. Just a few years later, the movement was hijacked by the national battle over abortion. But population growth did not suddenly become unimportant. It remains at the root of the unsustainability of the world we inhabit.

We have a choice, we can curb the growth of population voluntarily, or an angry earth will do it to us, reducing our children and grandchildren to refugees, beggars, and marauders and leaving them to die of thirst and starvation or gasping for oxygen, if they are not killed by armed bands looking for the scraps of the earth.

Naysayers like to point out that Malthus’ prediction of worldwide starvation has not yet come true. But the evidence that Malthus’ prediction is coming true is all around us. Lands once fertile are becoming deserts. Trees once crucial to a sustainable atmosphere are being chopped down at alarming rates in the southern hemisphere with worldwide consequences. Fish stocks have been shrinking and even more important, the coral reefs that are at the base of the oceanic food chain are dying. May Malthus rest in peace, but we are seeing what he feared. Human beings have never been good at listening to prophets. Those of us living now can’t claim we were not warned. We can only claim that too many people scoffed as they scoffed at the prophets of old. The earth will have its revenge.

I do not want to treat abortion as part of this problem because it raises so many separate issues and debates. But I do want to treat almost every other method of birth control as very much part of the issue. Whatever your faith, we have an obligation to life, to treat our world with the respect it deserves. Religious proclamations about populating the earth made thousands of years ago have been accomplished, and must now be subordinated to religious and secular claims about life, about treating each other as required by the Golden Rule, about protecting the soil and the air and the water that give us all life. There is no escape from that injunction. Or the earth will have its revenge. Make sure the people you elect start protecting us from world-wide disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 15, 2016.


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