Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sleepwalking Into Oblivion

 


The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow has come and gone. The presidents, prime ministers, delegates and fossil fuels lobbyists have all departed along with any real hope of actually avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. The conference’s major accomplishments seem to be the usual pledges to reduce carbon emissions by mid-century or so (with little specific commitment actually fulfill those pledges) and a final statement that explicitly mentions fossil fuels for the first time ever.


It’s hard for me to disagree with the many climate activists and developing nations when they argue that the wealthy nations remain unwilling to address what is arguably the most serious threat to the planet’s health and welfare in human history. COP26 was billed as the last chance for meaningful action to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Little in the reports I’ve read about the final agreement suggests meaningful action. Lots of promises, though but right now the world is on track to warm about 2.5 degrees C by 2100. Looks pretty clear to me that we’ve blown that last chance.


The result is not at all surprising. The world, led by wealthy nations that have growth fat and happy burning fossil fuels over the last two centuries, has been kicking this can down the road for decades. Researchers for oil giant Exxon identified the impact of releasing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in 1977. Exxon claims that the research was not definitive but the company spent a great deal of time and money denying that impact even after research in subsequent years further confirmed that impact. An Earth Summit held in Rio de Janerio in 1992 led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calling for stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system." That framework became effective in 1994 after ratification by 197 countries. The Kyoto Protocol, asking both industrialized and developing nations to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997 but due to co complex ratification process, entered into effect in 2005.  The 2016 Paris Climate Accord attempted to elicit specific reductions in carbon emissions but has largely failed to meet expectations.


So we’ve known about this problem for at least 30 years but have done little to address it. The fossil fuel interests and their allies have managed to create sufficient doubt and fear that wealthy nations have been and continue to be unwilling risk their economies by making the changes needed to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. On the other side developing nations are reluctant to forgo the benefits cheap energy that served the industrialized nations so handsomely. These diverging interests and national myopia have brought us to the point where the world is on the brink of catastrophic climate change. We are already seeing that impact in the frequent and more massive wildfires, intensified hurricanes and extended heat waves but even in the face of that reality, the best we can do is recommend eliminating “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”


I’d like to think the world can do better but the past 30 years offer little basis for optimism. The industrialized nations grew wealthy by exploiting energy their own energy resources and. when those proved insufficient, went abroad to exploit the resources of undeveloped nations, usually to the detriment of the local inhabitants. Those undeveloped nations are now experiencing the worst impacts of climate change caused by the industrial nations emissions and are seeking aid to deal with those impacts. The best COP26 could do was offer a “dialogue” rather than real assistance.


Future generations will not judge us kindly for wasting three decades of opportunity to find a solution to a problem of our own creation.

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Thursday, November 04, 2021

The View from 2900 Miles Away

 

 

Four decades have passed since I last voted in Virginia but the Commonweath’s politics still have a hold on me. Virginia was just emerging from decades of political and racist oligarchy under the Byrd Organization (read: machine) as I became politically and socially aware in the late 60s and early 70s. Change was all around then, even in Virginia, and the political campaigns of that era left an indelible impression on me that has never worn off.


So it’s not surprising that I paid close attention to this year’s election for governor. And as in many previous elections, I was disappointed in the outcome. Glen Youngkin managed to excite the Trump base without frightening the suburbanites while Terry McAuliffe seemed to offer little more than “I was a not terrible governor during my previous term” and “Trump = BAD!” Although I preferred McAuliffe, it was largely a matter of keeping Trumpism at bay and my general dislike of wealthy investors parachuting into political office.


That plus McAuliffe has never been my idea of a good candidate. Like Youngkin, he’s a rich, white man, a corporate Democrat hard-wired into the status quo. I paid some attention to the Democratic primary this year and thought several other candidates seemed better aligned with my values. I probably would have voted for one of them if I voted in Virginia. But name recognition and big money gave McAuliffe the Democratic nomination and, for the longest time, a seemingly comfortable lead.


But Youngkin ran a smart campaign. He kept his distance from Trump while still dog whistling to the Trump base. He talked about local issues that seemed more consistent with the governor’s duties as the state’s chief executive. He presented himself as a completely nonthreatening suburban dad, not at all like Donald Trump. Meanwhile McAuliffe sounded petty and arrogant, seemingly entitled to another term in office. After the upheavals of the past four years, Youngkin is comfort food for a Virginia electorate that has seen the foundations of its mythology challenged.


The dust has settled and Virginia will have a Republican governor for the next four years. I can only hope that he will govern in the tradition of his predecessor Linwood Holton who became the first Republican elected governor of Virginia since Reconstruction. I think that will be unlikely in the Age of Trump but would be happy to find that I am wrong about that.

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Thursday, October 28, 2021

When I Pay Attention to Professional Sports


 

As a kid I was a big Dodgers fan, first in Brooklyn but mostly in Los Angeles after the team moved west. I may have picked up that affiliation from my mother—I have a memory of her favoring the team in some passing way—but I don’t really remember her being particularly interested in baseball except in 1960 when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League pennant and the World Series. (She grew up in nearby Johnstown, Pennsylvania.)  Whatever the impetus for my Dodger fandom, the team’s success and players in the late 50s and early 60s was more than enough to engage me. That was the era of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Maury Wills.  Not many years passed during those years that the Dodgers were not in the World Series. As I grew older my interest waned and I stopped paying attention to baseball. The Dodgers’ fate each year was no longer a matter of great importance. 

 

As an adult I’ve never been much of a sports fan. Games and standings don’t make any real difference in my life so I pay little attention to them. I usually take note of the World Series due to that vestigial interest from my childhood and it’s impossible to ignore the Super Bowl but don’t have any great stake in the outcome. In recent years, though, I find myself paying more attention, mostly because I have good friends and a brother that do and I’m curious to see how their teams fare. Back when the local paper carried baseball standings (which apparently don’t fit in the slimmed down daily editions) I would glance at them to see how the the various favorites—Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs—were doing. And since I live near Seattle where people I know follow the Mariners and Seahawks I would follow their progress almost by osmosis. 

 

I bring all this up to note that I am rooting for Atlanta to win the Series this year. It’s simple enough. My brother is a fan so I hope his team wins. During the playoff with the Dodgers I was largely ambivalent. My vestigial loyalty to the Dodgers meant I pulled me in one direction but my brother’s loyalty to the Braves (which go back to their days in Milwaukee and reinforced by four decades living in Atlanta) meant that I would not be disappointed if they won the National League pennant which, of course they did. It’s also pretty easy to root against the Astros since they cheated their way to a Series win a few years ago.

 

In the end, it won’t make any difference in my life but my brother and probably many of his friends and neighbors will be happy.


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Friday, October 01, 2021

I Read the News Today--Oh Boy

 

 

One of my routine activities is reading the news each morning. For many years, that activity involved a newspaper. In the past few decades I’ve been reading news sites online which is not quite the same as sitting down with a paper but it is convenient and gives me access to a wide variety of news sources. The weekday ritual was often sporadic during my work years but Sunday mornings with a big Washington Post or even the Sunday local paper kept the ritual alive. Now that I am retired, I engage daily. I am finding, however, that keeping informed is a less pleasant task these days. I skim headlines to get a sense of what’s happening but often skip going to storie for details. So many of those headlines tell me of events with which I am already familiar and, while the actual article might add something to my understanding, that information is relatively marginal and not worth the time it takes to read. Rather than the typical litany of daily events I much prefer analytical articles that provide context and background for those events.

 

Part of the problem is that many of the headlines and articles tell me about things I find appalling, distressing and lead me to fear for the future. As an adult I have strongly believed in justice and equality, that all people should have the opportunity to live free and secure lives. At the same time I have always been realistic about the extent to which we flawed human beings can achieve those lofty objectives but I found hope in the progress that had been made. Yet when I read the news these days, it seems not only the progress has been anything but equal and just but also that society is retrograding. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I want to believe that to be true but it feels more like the arc is breaking rather than bending.


As a planet, we seem entirely unable to change how we live to avert the devastating effects of climate change. The world has had plenty of warning about the consequences of burning fossil fuels but the developed nations whose prosperous economies poured carbon into the atmosphere are unwilling to rein in their emissions. The world economy depends on continued extraction and at all costs and one of the costs that we seem willing to pay is a radical change in the environment that has supported life as we know it. My country, the United States of America, has become increasingly divided—economically, racially and politically—to the point that the news routinely reports dispossession, poverty and violence. The racial divide that has always plagued American society seems as gaping as ever despite the achievements of the Civil Rights movement. The federal government is increasingly dysfunctional with Congress unable to enact meaningful legislation, a packed Supreme Court and an Executive Branch that has seemingly unlimited power to wage war but can do little to promote economic and social justice here at home.


Maybe what I’m seeing when I read the new is the end of my expectations. Coming of age in the 1960s I had grown up with the legacy of the New Deal which had demonstrated the positive impact of government on the lives of every day Americans (think Social Security, the GI Bill and major infrastructure). I I had seen America moving toward racial justice and broader acceptance of non-traditional ideas. I had hopes of continued progress toward economic and social justice (or at least a reasonable approximation thereof) in my lifetime. 

 

Call it youthful idealism that was bound to be tempered by experience. But I didn’t expect to be worrying about growing authoritarianism in my country and the world. I didn’t look into the future and see a world with melting polar ice caps and triple digit temperatures in Siberia and British Columbia. I didn’t think that I may be part of the last generation to experience the natural environment that gave rise to and nurtured the world that I knew.


All that comes to mind when I read the news these days. I’m too much of a news junkie to quit but it’s getting to be a difficult pastime.



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Saturday, September 18, 2021

We Blew It!


The latest UN report on greenhouse gas emissions paints a dire picture for the future of life as we know it on Planet Earth.  The report estimates that even if the  most recent action plans submitted by 191 countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions are met, the planet is on track to warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century — far above what world leaders have said is the acceptable upper limit of global warming.  That change will not end life on Earth--life will adapt and evolve as it always has but the transition will be ugly.  In the past the kind of changes we can expect within the next century occurred over eons and did not involve highly complex societies designed on the basis of a stable.  Environment.  I won't mourn the demise of homo sapiens.  In general, I think it's a fair reward for our stewardship of our home planet but it's unfair to future generations born into a rapidly changing world for which they have no responsibility.  It's even more unfair to the many other species that will die with us.

As an aging Boomer I can't help but think that my generation blew it.  Oh sure, Boomers didn't create the current political/economic system--it was well under way when we were born--but we didn't live up to the predictions that we would be change agents.  Those predictions were overblown at the time but were still an integral part of our generational identity, either explicitly or in the conventional wisdom.  In reality, we largely accepted things as they were, occasional demonstrations and other resistance notwithstanding, and went on to live our relatively privileged (depending on sex, race, class and other determinants of societal worth) lives.  

What we did not do was take climate change seriously from the beginning.  Early warnings date back to at least 1912 but were not fully understood.  In 1965 The American Association for the Advancement of Science raised concerns about atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate change.  By 1988 the dangers were better understood and pointed to a changing world.  In that same year the first Baby Boomer was elected to national office.  The Boomer was Dan Quayle and the office was Vice-President and, while both are relatively insignificant on their own, the event represents our the Boomers' ascent to power.  We were already well-represented at other levels of government.  From 1993 through 2021 every President has been a Boomer.  You'd think that the generation that celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 would have been sufficiently aware to recognize the dangers posed by those early warnings.

That's not to say we did nothing.  International conferences and panels and made recommendations and pledges were made but nothing fundamental changed.  America and the rest of the industrial world continued to burn fossil fuels and now we face a much shorter timeline for dealing with what is a rapidly deteriorating situation.  The promise of generational progress is that each generation leaves the world better off than it found it.  That was easy enough when we had an entire world to exploit (and the indigenous peoples of those exploited areas weren't part of the deal).  As I write now at the beginning of the 21st century's third decade, meeting that intergenerational is highly unlikely.  

Unlike my generation, future generations will address the consequences of climate change.  They have no choice.  We did and we blew it.

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Thursday, September 09, 2021

Twenty Years On


 

As the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the media are running stories about that day and its aftermath. President Biden is planning to visit those two sites and Shanksville, Pennsylvania where the fourth hijacked plane crashed after passengers aborted the attack enroute to its target. It was a day of fear, tragedy and heroism. Certainly a stunning blow to post-Cold War America. Suddenly, we all felt vulnerable in a way that had never occurred during our decades-long stand-off with the Soviet Union. In the immediate aftermath, the media and politicians called it “a day that changed everything”. The nation was united in fear, patriotism and the demand for action.


As it turned out, the unity did not last and many of the changes were not for the better. Clearly some kind of response was warranted but that response turned into two decades of war that largely fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s objective of bleeding America. The Cost of War project estimates that US has spent $8 trillion on military and related expenditures since 2001 and over 929,000 people (overwhelmingly not Americans) have died as a result of our military operations since 2001 . In the process, the US abandoned core Constitutional principles such as the right to trial and prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as we sanctioned extraordinary rendition, “enhanced interrogation and indefinite detention. At home, America turned into a militarized, surveillance state, all in the name of a “war on terror” and national security.


Attacking al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks made some sense since that organization claimed responsibility for the attacks. Its most prominent leader and training camps were sheltered there by the Taliban government. But giving the president a near blank check to conduct military operations in pursuit of terrorists was not a wise idea. George W. Bush and the war hawks in his administration were more than willing to use that authority and distortions about 9/11 to launch a whole new war in Iraq just because they could. The lone member of Congress who voted against that authority, RepresentativeBarbara Lee, noted at the time that the nation was reeling in pain an grief from the 9/11 attacks and was not in a position to make rational, considered decisions. She urged the nation to stop and think before entirely abdicating its Constitutional responsibility and simply allowing the president to launch wars on his own. She was vilified for her vote. America wanted war and we got it.


What we got was two decades of war that weakened America more than the actual 9/11. What we did not get was an end to terrorist attacks. We got a “Homeland” and some measure of safety from international terrorism. We got increasing restrictions and intrusions on daily life. We also got years of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, instability throughout the Middle East and beyond, a metastasizing terrorism threat throughout the world and ongoing “contingency operations” to stamp out those threats. In the meantime, domestic terrorism grew within our own borders and our cherished democracy fractured.


Our military response was not the only alternative available at the time. Some argued for pursuing terrorist organizations as criminal enterprises. Following the money and tracking connections were established techniques that had been successful against organized crime. It would have disrupted their activities and killed many fewer people. But that and any other alternative were shouted down in the paroxysm of patriotism and fear that followed 9/11.


So America went to war. First, it was the “Global War On Terror”. Then it was the “Long War”. And, finally, it became the “Forever War”. No one was actually certain about our actual goals but we were at war and simply would not give it up. And, as long as only a small percentage of families bore the brunt of combat and the US could put the wars on its credit card, Americans were willing to let it go on. Ultimately it became a festering wound on America.


Twenty years on, the 9/11 attacks continue to haunt America. It is right and proper to remember the day’s victims. It is also right and proper to remember how it all went wrong.  We can’t change history but we can change the future. The US may have the most powerful military in the world but we haven’t learned that not all international conflicts are amenable to military solutions.  

 

Vietnam.  Afghanistan.  Iraq.  Maybe we'll get it right next time.



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Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Requiem for a War

 



The last US plane flew out of Kabul August 31 officially ending America’s “longest war’. 

 

After 20 years, the US finally acknowledged, if not defeat, an end to our occupation of Afghanistan. While many Afghans experienced a form of an open society during our occupation, many others experienced the horrors of war and many others living in rural areas continued to live under the rule of a highly conservative patriarchy. As a soldier who served in another American defeat, I can sympathize with the many service members who wonder if their service in Afghanistan has any meaning at all. Maybe, just maybe, those efforts will leave behind some spark of a more open, tolerant civil society that will force the Taliban to be more judicious in creating their Islamic Emirate than the last time they ruled. That’s small consolation for the lost blood and treasure but it’s better than nothing. I’m not holding my breath, though.

 

The commanding general announced the completion of our mission in Afghanistan but the war will continue, just not with US boots on the ground. Instead, we will fight “over the horizon” seeking out terrorists who plot to do us harm. And not just in Afghanistan but wherever we identify a threat. So the beat will go on. The US has been officially in a period of war since August 2,1990. That includes the Persian Gulf War, the Balkan wars, the no-fly zone operations in Iraq, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, anti-terrorism operations in Africa. America has no shortage of targets, a Congress that is all too willing to leave war-making to presidents and presidents more than willing to act in that vacuum. at incl at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. So just because we are off the ground in Afghanistan don’t think that the war is over.


As America comes to terms with its defeat in Afghanistan, the architects of that mission are claiming that if only the US was willing to stay long enough, we would haveestablished a secular government that could compete with the Taliban. That’s bullshit. Aside from going in to smash Al-Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, the US never had a clear mission or understood Afghan society to build that structure. The report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction details how it all went wrong. The Washington Post has documented how three successive administrations misled the the American public about the war. And we in the public let it all happen. As long as the costs fell on the relatively few Americans who actually had to fight the war, Americans were willing to accept the blandishments of success that was just around the corner. It fell to Joe Biden to be the one to say”no more”.


I give Biden credit for calling an end to the Afghanistan war. It brings a lot of fire down on his head and will be an indelible part of his legacy. Neither George Bush nor Barack Obama were willing to pull the plug. Donald Trump at least understood the war’s pointlessness but managed to undermine the Afghan government in negotiating a US withdrawal with the Taliban. Where Biden fucked up was in not being better prepared to deal with the immediate collapse of the Afghan army and other security forces that the US had laboriously assembled and supported for two decades. I’m no expert in these matters but it seems that part of the logistics for withdrawal should have been a contingency plan for the immediate collapse of the Afghan government and military in the face of a Taliban offensive. Maybe the evacuation was that contingency plan and was the best Biden could pull off under the circumstances. In the end it was an impressive achievement but it looked bad and left enough of our allies at risk of Taliban retaliation that it will be a black eye on America for years to come.


The Afghanistan war is over, at least for most Americans. For the service members who served in in that war, it will never be over. I know that from experience.

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