Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cold Weather and Global Warming

This winter that has just mercifully ended was the 4th coldest in Illinois history. Is that proof that global warming is a hoax?

No, because 2014 was the warmest year on record for the whole Earth. Both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in separate sets of measurements, determined that 2014 was warmer than any previous year. The ten warmest years since 1880 have all occurred since 1998.

The science of measuring global temperature is complex. NASA uses thousands of separate measurements across the globe to compile a single number representing average global temperature for the year. AAverage@ is an important word here: weather varies greatly around the world and day to day. Everywhere I have lived in the US, people say, AYou don=t like the weather? Wait 5 minutes.@ We know how difficult it is to predict weather even for the next day.

NASA has published a global map which shows that most of the earth was unusually warm in 2014, except for a few big spots, including the eastern and central US. It was cold here in Illinois and Boston had record-breaking snowfall. A bit more snow fell there this past Friday. But the western states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Alaska experienced their warmest years ever.

In fact, climate scientists predict that more global warming will lead to even heavier snowfall in Boston and the Northeast. As the surface of the oceans and the atmosphere both warm up, more water vapor can be held in the air. That leads to more rain and snow. Scientists project an increasing number of very heavy precipitation events all across the US, with the greatest increase in New England.

Strangely enough, the same set of global changes might lead to more snow in Boston and worse drought in California. As the Earth warms slowly, the jet stream has shifted, bringing higher temperatures and drier weather in the West and colder, wetter weather in the East. Climate scientists remain uncertain about the effects of global warming on such extreme weather events or on the jet stream itself, but evidence is accumulating behind the idea that warming is the cause.

Because of these seemingly contradictory shifts in weather, the phrase "global warming" is no longer favored by the scientists who study our environment. They now prefer "climate change", which includes the whole variety of changes which are occurring because of a warmer Earth.

Those changes cost money. The Boston area may have lost $1 billion in wages and business profits due the records snows this winter. Our Western states have been suffering under drought conditions for years. Communities are running out of water. If climate scientists’ predictions of an increasing number of extreme weather events are correct, the costs of dealing with them will also jump up.

This is precisely what leads to denial. The temperature measurements for 2014 are distressing to ideologically driven climate change deniers. The Heartland Institute still features on its website the same misleading graphic purporting to show that there has been no warming since 1998. They don’t mention that the people who produced the data behind their chart say that 2014 was the warmest year on record.

The amount of warming seems tiny. NASA estimates that the average global surface temperature has gone up only 1.4 degrees since 1880. Climate change, even if the rise in temperatures is very small, will require concerted effort by our entire society to maintain our high standard of living. That inevitably means government action: reducing greenhouse emissions, shoring up our transportation systems, finding more renewable sources of energy. Global warming denial is the reaction of those who do not want such government action. Instead of proposing alternative ways of dealing with climate change, they simply deny that it is happening at all. The Republicans in Congress, virtually all of whom publically deny that climate change is occurring, have just proposed a budget which cuts or reverses all the programs which might reduce the pace of warming.

One of the clues that the deniers are not to be believed is that they have begun to speak out of both sides of their mouths. Lobbying groups like the Heartland Institute now produce two types of articles: those which claim that global warming is a hoax and those which argue that warming is actually good for us. Tell that to people in Boston, California, and elsewhere, whose lives are already being negatively affected by climate change. Every year, more of us will experience the costs of these changes, unless we begin to change our own habits.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 24, 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Butting In and Screwing Up

Some Republican Senators published an open letter on March 9 to the Ayatollah Khamenei and his government in Iran, trying to influence Iranian behavior in negotiations with the US, Germany, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom about its nuclear program. At least that’s what they said they were doing.

It has happened before that people outside of a significant international negotiation have chimed in, trying to push their own agenda. It is not unprecedented in American history for a political party to advocate a foreign policy of its own, even when it does not have executive power. But for both to happen, for members of one Congressional party to throw doubt on the position of the President, while he and other world leaders are dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat, that’s unique.

As a declaration of their foreign policy, it is even more important than the Republican Congressional invitation to Israeli President Netanyahu. That invitation to speak on March 3 was a deliberate insult to our President, so nothing new in Republican treatment of Obama. But then Republicans only committed themselves to listen to Netanyahu. A week later they declared themselves.

“We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen....”

Here is what this letter reveals about Republican foreign policy: it’s not serious.

The letter was written by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, the youngest and newest member of the Senate. He has no foreign policy experience, but he has clear views. In 2013, in his first term as Representative from Arkansas, Cotton offered an amendment to punish family members of people who violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. He said punishment would include “a spouse and any relative to the third degree, parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.” He said further, “There would be no investigation. If the prime malefactor of the family is identified as on the list for sanctions, then everyone within their family would automatically come within the sanctions regime as well. It’d be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof.” No proof needed, just put the great grandchildren in jail.

During his Senate campaign in the fall, he warned, “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.” It turned out some conservative website had cooked up this idea with no evidence.

Just after he took the oath of office to become a Senator in January, Cotton told the Heritage Foundation on Jan. 15 that he wanted to kill the negotiations: “Certain voices call for congressional restraint urging Congress not to act now, lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence -- a feature, not a bug.”

When presented with Cotton’s quite radical views about dealing with Iran, 46 other Republican senators signed on at lunch. There was no discussion. Senator John McCain explained that, “It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm. I think we probably should have had more discussion about it, given the blowback that there is.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Republican from Tennessee, did not sign it. He said, “I immediately knew that it was not something that, for me anyway, in my particular role, was going to be constructive.” His analysis didn’t seem to matter to other Republicans.

So leading Republicans get behind a freshman Senator’s untutored an extremist foreign policy. Didn’t any of them have a better idea? Why not discuss the letter with Republican presidential candidates who are not in the Senate, before speculating on what one of them might do if elected? Would a future Republican President really disavow an international agreement of his Democratic predecessor, thus disdaining all fellow signatories, including our closest allies in Europe?

Who is the letter’s audience? It was never actually a letter – the Republicans sent nothing to Iran. They simply issued a press release in English. The last Republican President labeled Khamenei’s government the “Axis of Evil”, which Republicans have continued to treat as an outlaw.

Senator Cotton and his colleagues were addressing the American voting public. Republicans are thinking about how one of their number could become the next President. That’s especially true for three of the signatories: Senators Rand Paul (KY), Ted Cruz (TX) and Marco Rubio (FL) are all running for President.

Like other Republican efforts to repudiate anything that President Obama does, the letter does not go beyond short-term political calculation. The only hint we get about what Republicans would do about foreign policy if they had executive power is this: all they care about is temporary domestic political advantage.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 17, 2015

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Who Loves the US More?

President Obama has been accused by Republicans of many sins. The castigation of Obama goes beyond the usual political criticisms to the deeply personal, notably that he was born in Africa or that he is lying about his Christian religion. Two weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who has become one of the sharpest conservative voices, accused Obama of the ultimate personal failing for an American politician – he doesn’t love America. Giuliani was speaking at a fund-raiser for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The next day, Walker refused to say whether he agreed. Not until this Sunday did Walker decide to say something different, that he didn’t question that Obama loves America. His silence up to that point did exactly that, though.

Politicians change their minds about what they meant to say, when it turns out they said something that hurts their reputation. But Giuliani was firm in his convictions. Two days later he emphasized, “I said exactly what I wanted to say. I conveyed exactly the message I wanted to convey.”

This is actually a familiar Republican refrain. When Obama first ran for president, conservative commentators questioned whether he might be a traitor. Near the end of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney responded to the news of attacks on our embassies in Libya and Egypt by saying, “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” This turned out to be an untrue version of events, but a true Republican response to Obama.

What do these accusations of Obama mean? Let’s look at more of what Giuliani said, since he thought he had been so clear. “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Even New Yorkers don’t like Giuliani any more. But of course he’s right that a black man had a different experience growing up in this country in the late 20th century. There was plenty for a black person not to love about America when Obama and Giuliani were young men.

Like Giuliani, the white voters who believe that Obama doesn’t love America are thinking about their own version of America. Many people don’t want to hear anything negative about their history. Conservatives are upset by attempts in high schools and colleges to teach about American historical failings: centuries of slavery, lynching, killing of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws. That is why the Jefferson County (CO) school board wanted to revise American history teaching to emphasize “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage,” while avoiding lessons that demonstrated that racist laws across America were morally and constitutionally wrong.

When anyone notes that America’s history includes serious moral failings, that is all that conservatives hear. In a column about Obama’s lack of love for the US, Kevin Williamson of the “National Review” generalizes further, “For the progressive, there is very little to love about the United States.”

When President Obama, among many other people, takes note of these facts and openly expresses his rejection of them as American values, conservatives like Rudy Giuliani and Scott Walker and Kevin Williamson feel their good white traditions under attack. And they feel empowered to say that other people are not as good Americans as they are.

Great majorities of Americans of all political leanings say they love America. Democrats and Independents tend to place themselves right in the middle of an imaginary spectrum of patriotism. Nearly 10% of them say they are not sure if they are more or less patriotic as most people. Republicans are different. Nearly half say they are more patriotic than most people. Virtually none are unsure about how they rank. And three-quarters of Republicans think Obama is less patriotic than most people in public life.

Giuliani said that Obama does not love Americans. In fact, it is many Republicans who don’t love their fellow citizens, if they are too liberal. That is a difficult partisan divide to overcome.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 3, 2015