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

August 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Environmental War – The Climate Will Show No Mercy

August 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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/.


Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


Speaking Across the Aisle about the Killing of Babies

February 10, 2015

I’d like to speak across the aisle. We have values in common even though we sometimes draw different conclusions. My point is simple. We are all against killing babies, their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. A religious revival in this country has focused on one form of what many consider baby-killing. There are, however, other ways of killing babies in unspeakable numbers.

Babies by the billions will be the first to die because manmade pollutants that change the climate will kill in innumerable and excruciating ways. That should be a cause that left and right, religious and nonreligious should join on, with passion, action, and dedication. Global warming and burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses should be the third rail of politics, an absolute no-no, IF we truly agree that killing billions of babies is a tragedy we cannot ignore, cannot be neutral about, must act about – unless we’re merely hypocrits. So I appeal to the religious right, and the religious left and all the rest of us, to all those who really care about babies and protecting them from killers, to stop the burning of carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses now.

  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our food sources. Burning carbon-based fuels acidifies the oceans, killing the reefs and much of the food we get from the sea. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change, contributing to the extinction of the plants and animals we depend on for food as their climates disappear.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our water sources. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates the climate change that depletes the glaciers that feed the lakes, streams and rivers we depend on for water. And burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that contributes to the drought and the expansion of deserts that rob us of drinking water.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as unfamiliar diseases spread out of the tropics. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that brings tropical and hot weather illnesses to us.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that takes our land as the sea encroaches on us, making refugees of families, mothers, fathers, babies and children.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that adds to the violent storms that engulf cities, towns and villages all over the world including the U.S. where hurricanes and tornadoes have been striking with unaccustomed fury in places that seemed immune. As in all these tragedies the most vulnerable and first to die will be the babies and children.

In each case, the most vulnerable to the disease, drought, storms and starvation will be the babies. Who then are the baby-killers? Who wants to authorize pipelines that make it easier for millions of gallons to flow to be burned? Who wants to drill, baby, drill? Who opposes every measure to add to carbon neutral sources of power like wind and solar? Who are the baby killers? Would you support and vote for baby killers?

Really, let’s by all means talk about killing babies. Yours, mine, our children’s babies. Global warming does not distinguish by faith, color, ethnicity, or gender. It is and will be an equal opportunity killer. So let’s show some real heart and understand this is the number one threat to infants all over the world, and their brothers and sisters, parents, and the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 10, 2015.


Cities Against Suburbanization

May 9, 2014

Congress has been considering changing mortgage banking, reducing the role of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, the two federal superbanks that have been insuring and buying our mortgages for decades. Actually, the government should stop encouraging the suburbanization of America. Read the rest of this entry »


Global Warming and Human Politics

April 8, 2014

I just got back from Chicago where I attended a national meeting of political scientists.  One of them described at length the local, national and international barriers to doing anything about climate change.  His basic point was that those whose livelihood seemed to depend on activities that are bringing on climate change  are strategically placed to prevent the rest of us from doing anything.  His point is that to make anything happen  it would be necessary to make people come to think about what they are doing as wrong  in the teeth of evidence that it is good for them in their own lifetimes.  That also makes them totally resistant to the idea that climate change is happening,  that human activity is a substantial cause of the change, that it will do any damage  and that it is worth dealing with.  Ouch for the rest of us.

Then I attended a meeting where the speaker described the change of ideas.  He regarded those changes as inexplicable.  For most of human history war had been considered noble, a good thing, that made people stronger and better.  Then just before World War I, that started to change.  After that war, no one makes claims about the generic benefit of war  – war has become an occasionally necessary evil, but not a good thing.  And for most of human history, people had slaves.  Those that could would.  Slaves and slavery were valued.  It made you a big shot, and made your life easier.  Then suddenly in the eighteenth century it changed dramatically in Europe.  England began to block the slave trade  and shortly it was banned in Latin America, the serfs were freed in Russia,  and only the U.S. clung to slavery of the modern nation states.

In the speaker’s description, both ideas turned in reaction  to novels that separately described war and slavery as disgusting, as indeed they are.  In regard to war,  the novel described the scene of rotting and dismembered corpses on a battlefield.  In the case of slavery,  another novel described the brutality of the way slaves were treated.  Both of course were accurate.  The facts, however, were not new.  What was new was disgust.

I’m no novelist but global warming is disgusting.  Global warming is an extinction of ourselves.  We and our children and children’s children  will be strewn on nature’s battlefield  gasping for water and air,  our bellies distended for lack of food,  our homes lost to the elements,  our skin alternately burned and frozen,  unable to protect our children, wives, husbands or parents,  indeed some will become too desperate to care.  Global warming will take everything from us that makes us human.  It has been doing that piecemeal in the aftermath of storms that have left people totally destitute in parts of the world.  It will exceed our capacity to put people back on their feet as the oceans take back the coasts.  It will poison us, as a warming climate spreads diseases for which we have no defenses,  leaving us to rot from diseases few of us have seen  and none of us care to see except as the noblest of doctors and nurses.  It will extinguish our food supplies  and it is attacking the supply of the air we breathe.

Global warming is disgusting. Pass it on.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 8, 2014.

 


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