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WHAT IF THE CLIMATE SKEPTICS ARE RIGHT? THEN WE ARE REALLY IN TROUBLE!


Thursday November 23, 2006

Faced with overwhelming evidence that climate is changing at an accelerating rate, the naysayers seem to be regrouping around a new meme: yes earth is warming, but humanity is not the cause. One champion of this position is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, current chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The logic of this strategic retrenchment seems to be that if changing climate is not our fault, then we needn’t worry about it. Whew! Hmm, on second thought, just one question: if we are already seeing alarming changes in climate, wouldn’t it be better if we knew that human-sourced emissions were the cause? If we started this round of climate change, then presumably we can stop it. If Inhofe is correct, however, we can’t do anything about it because we don’t know what is causing the changes. Either the effects greenhouse gas emissions have yet to be felt (a terrifying prospect given the startling shifts we are already seeing) or that the entire scientific community has been wrong about the role of carbon dioxide emissions. Imagine six billion people on a raft entering rapids without paddles or a rudder and with no knowledge of what waterfalls might lie ahead. This is supposed to be a comforting thought? Fortunately, (if that’s the word), there is almost no doubt that Inhofe is wrong. There is plenty to debate about climate change, both in policy and the science, but the consensus among scientists is that humans have contributed to the current warming. I suspect that the right loses all perspective on the issue in part because the proposed solutions involve a house of horrors of libertarian nightmares, including international treaties, regulations, new taxes, and, worst of all, admitting that those insufferable environmentalists are right. If that’s the case, fine, let’s talk about alternative approaches and likely impacts. That conversation, however, hasn’t gotten off the ground. Instead, Inhofe, who for the past six years has had the most important position in the Senate with regard to climate, calls the threat of global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Those in Congress have the flimsy but credible excuse of scientific stupidity (credible since they are members of one of the few remaining forums where evolution remains a subject of debate), but the few scientists in the skeptic camp have no cover for debating in bad faith. Bad faith? Yes, serious climate scientists have become so frustrated by the misinterpretation of their data that they have taken to tacking on public disclaimers that their findings should not be used to contradict the consensus on global warming. Peter Doran, a scientist whose study about cooling in the interior of Antarctica, was cited by so many naysayers as evidence that the world isn’t warming that he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times publicly aligning himself with the global warming consensus. Climate skeptics also trumpet that Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers started shrinking before industrial era greenhouse gas emissions really began in earnest. Here again, Douglas Hardy, one of the authors of the cited paper complained that “Using these preliminary findings to refute or even question global warming borders on the absurd”. What frustrates Doran, Hardy and many others is the skeptics’ tendency to cherry-pick data, and take findings out of context. To win, the skeptics don’t have to disprove global warming, they just have to convey the notion that it’s still under debate so that the public says, “I’ll wait until the scientists sort it out before I start worrying.” But the scientists have sorted it out, and they’ve done so despite being natural contrarians. That’s why the consensus that humans are affecting climate is so extraordinary. If the public realized the breadth and depth of this consensus, climate change would get the consideration it deserves. The naysayers know this, and they jump on any report that underscores the rare scientific unanimity on the issue. Naomi Oreskes of the University of San Diego felt this heat when she published a study in Science. Her simple thought was that if rank and file scientists did not share the consensus of the leaders of major scientific organizations, dissents would have shown up in the peer-reviewed literature. Critics castigated her on the internet, on television and on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, but there has been no credible challenge to what she actually said in her article. Just recently, the sports psychologist who’s unpublished study was the basis for the naysayer attack on Oreskes, backed off from his assertions. There has always been an easy way to get past the naysayers disinformation campaign because their arguments always fall apart upon close examination. The climate skeptics’ strategy rests on the assumption that most Americans are too lazy or too ignorant to look past the headline. So far they have been right, but ultimately spin collides with reality. Just such a collision seems to have taken place in the case of American attitudes towards the war in Iraq, and it cost the GOP control of Congress. Among those swept out of power will be Inhofe, and the incoming chair, Barbara Boxer of California, has stated that she will make global warming a priority. That alone gives cause for hope that a real discussion of the threat of climate change can get started. Let’s hope that it’s not too late.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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