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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize.

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OUR CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES


Saturday April 14, 2018

            The Darwin Award confers mock recognition on individuals killed by their own stupidity, thereby improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it. If there existed such an award at the national level, the U.S. of today would be a lock to win. Put aside ideology and step back from the drumbeat of constant crises that has characterized the Trump Presidency, and the sheer stupidity of our current posture on major issues comes into focus, along with a big question: How could a superpower with an incomparable network of universities, scientific institutions, and think tanks be so colossally dumb when it comes to government policy?  Simple answer; that’s the path we’ve chosen.

            Let’s look at a few of the particulars.

            Gun Violence:  We have roughly the same crime rate as other industrial countries, but we’re the most trigger-happy developed nation on earth with more than 10 times the rate of gun-related deaths as does Australia and Germany, 20 times the rate of gun deaths as Spain, 50 times that of the United Kingdom, and an infinitely greater rate than Japan and South Korea, which really don’t have statistically significant, gun-related deaths at all. Yet, the Trump’s first response to the Parkland slaughter is that we need more guns, with the current push being to arm teachers in schools. Consider the counterfactual: If more guns were the solution, wouldn’t all those other developed nations that have vastly fewer guns and strict gun control laws be collapsing amid rampant killings?   

            Climate Change: After 2017’s $307 billion dollars in losses from hurricanes, drought-related wildfires and other severe weather, one might think that the federal government would want to understand whether a warming world might increase the risk of more such events. One would be wrong. Instead, the administration has been stripping all mention of climate change from its publications and policies, and installing people who deny the threat in key positions. And given those losses, wouldn’t governments at all level want to update flood zone maps to take in the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms? Apparently not; there’s active opposition to updating the maps at all levels of government, all but guaranteeing that future storms will produce even more losses for taxpayers (because private insurers will update their own loss projections and pull out of vulnerable areas). Dumb? As Trump often says, “you tell me.”

            Finance and the Economy: After 2008’s near death experience for the U.S. financial system, the Congress enacted Dodd-Frank, with rules limiting risk taking by large financial institutions. Before that, risk-taking in the opaque world of derivatives had been involved the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, as well as in the fall of the energy trading giant Enron. Now, Congress apparently feels that bankers will never again try to game the system, because there is a bi-partisan effort to roll back regulations on banks with under $250 billion in assets (up from the current $50 billion threshold), a move that would deregulate lenders as large as some of the worst actors in the housing bubble collapse. Not content to unleash the banks, Congress and administration are also dismantling the Consumer Protection Bureau, which was set up to protect people from the predatory practices rampant before the financial crisis.

            The Fourth Estate: Journalists in this country have already been marginalized by the rise of free digital news and the spread of social media. Now the Trump administration has been attacking the very concept of a free press with its dismissal of any reporting it doesn’t like as “fake news.”  At a time when politicians routinely lie, and big corporations have been freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision to devote massive efforts to influencing public opinion, access to independent, credible reporting becomes the last check on the abuse of power and corruption. The campaign to discredit this vital backstop may be the most short sighted Trump initiative of all -- just ask the citizens of North Korea, Iran, or Russia what are their checks on power in countries without a free press?

            Diplomacy: With ambassadorships in crucial posts such as Riyadh and Seoul still waiting to be filled and senior positions at the State Department left vacant, the Trump administration seems to believe that diplomacy does not require diplomats, particularly when we have a lot of nuclear weapons, and a President willing to use them. With a growing number of unstable nations trying to join the nuclear club, this approach to foreign policy seems like a promising fast track for the U.S. to win a collective Darwin Award, dragging the rest of the world to the podium along with us.

           And so it goes: Trump looks back to the days of Herbert Hoover in his trade policy; the Energy Department is busy trying to revitalize coal burning as the rest of the world pushes full throttle towards the transition away from fossil fuels. We’re looking back, while others look forward. It’s as though the loud, ignorant bully in the back of the classroom has come to the front, shoved aside the teacher and taken over the curriculum.

            We have only ourselves to blame. Long before Trump won in 2016, voter disengagement abetted the election of governors and state legislators who pandered to the more motivated extremes, and, once in power, who then gerrymandered districts to solidify their grip. We started down the path of stupid years ago. If we want to change direction, voters need to rouse from their apathy lest, as the Chinese proverb holds, we end up where we’re headed. If, however, the above policies represent who we truly are; we deserve what we reap.

           

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Short Take

GOP Scare Stories Point to the Real National Emergency

A couple of months ago, in the days before President Trump declared a national emergency to try and circumvent Congress and fund his Wall, a number of Republicans scrambled to articulate sufficiently horrifying examples of how others might misuse those powers. Florida Congressman Matt Goetz offered a nightmare scenario in which a Democratic President forcing elementary schools across the country to build transgender bathrooms. Florida senator Marco Rubio went on CNBC and asserted that the true nightmare was that, “Tomorrow, the national emergency might be, you know, climate change…” Permit me to rephrase this: for Rubio, the problem with Trump using emergency powers was not that he was using a phony emergency as a pretext, but that in the future Democrats might use those powers to try to deal with an actual emergency.

That’s what’s truly scary. Rubio’s example reveals his assumption that Congress can block action on climate change going forward, forcing a President to assume emergency powers. The Wall Street Journal editorial page also chimed in, warning that Trump invoking a national emergency might embolden a future president to use these powers to deal with rising carbon emissions, again implying that other means of dealing with rising emissions could be blocked.

OK, let’s go with this. Imagine the circumstances in which some future President thought it necessary to use a declaration of national emergency to deal with climate change. Maybe it would be a collapse in the housing market as sea level rise, super storms, and wildfires made trillions of dollars in property uninsurable, and thus ineligible for mortgages. Or perhaps it would be the banking and financial crisis attendant to these developments.

It would also imply that the public was not yet concerned enough to elect a Congress that would take action to contain the threat. It’s true that there has been a rapid uptick in concern about climate change as determined by polling, but a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute found that while 57% of those polled people thought climate change was sufficiently threatening that they would spend $1 a month to avert it, most would still balk at $10 a month. 

To put this in perspective, the amount the U.S. spent on defense and intelligence last year equates to roughly $650 a month per household and that figure does not include spending at the state and local level for police. The amount the U.S. spent last year just to fight ISIS amounted to $40 a month per household. Is ISIS, which has never successfully mounted a mass attack on U.S. soil, really 40 times the threat that climate change poses?

Part of the problem is that the threat of climate change remains something that is still treated as a matter of belief; i.e. whether one “believes” in global warming (and recent polling reported that even today, only 52% of Republicans agree that global warming is happening). Given that climate change is staring (most of) us in the face, we should be past that point, but we’re not. This cognitive dissonance will ultimately resolve itself, however, because whether you “believe” in climate change becomes irrelevant if sea level rise and storms render your house unsaleable.

Still, the Trump administration continues to fight a rear-guard action, pushing back on its own agencies that have warned about the threat.  The White House wants to convene a 12-member panel to review whether climate change is a national security threat – despite the assertions that it does threaten national security that come from intelligence agencies and defense departments around the world in the form of reports as recent as the Department of Defense report on its vulnerability to climate change this January and dating back to the 1990s. 

The real purpose of the panel becomes apparent from its membership. One of the leaders will be William Happer, who serves on the National Security Council and who has argued publicly that climate isn’t changing and that additional CO2 in the atmosphere will be beneficial rather than harmful. If this panel attaches the prestige of the White House to a report pooh-poohing global warming it could sew further confusion in the public and reduce any sense of urgency. More likely though, it will backfire as so many Trump initiatives do. Rather than undermining a sense of urgency, a clown car convention of fossil fuel apologists could undermine the prestige of the White House.

 Now, the Trump administration has also targeted the climate assessments produced by its own agencies. As assessments of the future impacts of climate change have become ever-more dire, the administration’s response is to cut off any forecasts beyond 2040. Because of the lags in the climate system, this would eliminate many of the worst scenarios as many impacts accelerate in the second half of this century. As the global scientific community will not go along with this willful blindness, this initiative will only further underscore the impression that the White House is more interested in propaganda than science.

As for the rest of us, those of us who see the changes that that climate is working in the world around us, we can only hope that some future President has the guts to declare a national emergency if things worsen and Congress continues to abnegate its responsibilities.



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