Eugene Linden
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Diary of a Tree Stump

Something lighter:                                    

  “I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”

   [Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...

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Latest Book

Deep Past
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Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
fragging

Books

Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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BRING BACK THE DRAFT -- BUT MAKE IT EQUITABLE


by Eugene Linden There is one sure-fire way to bring an eerily disengaged American public into the debate about whether to invade Iraq: bring back the draft. In 1971, even though I opposed the Vietnam War and received an honorable discharge from the Navy by reason of conscientious objection, I still supported the draft. When I went to Vietnam shortly afterward as a journalist, one lesson my reporting on fragging and the demoralization was that it the U.S. was to have a draft army, we needed an equitable draft (I'll get back to that in a minute). Today, as we prepare for war with Iraq, we need the draft more than ever. We need the draft because a democratically conscripted army acts as a restraint on the impetuous use of force. People think long and hard about the merits of military action if they or their children are the ones who are going to have to kill or be killed. That's true of family members of today's professional army of course, but those directly affected are now a much smaller subset of America. Launching a war is perhaps the most important decision a democracy can make, and it ought to be the result of a national consensus with risk and sacrifice shared equally. My encounter with the military was of my own making since I voluntarily had joined NROTC after turning down an offered appointment to West Point. Although I ended up opposing the Vietnam war, I always respected the military. In my conscientious objection statement I argued that I would willingly defend my family and country, but not kill people overseas because of the untested logic of some arcane geopolitical theory (the domino theory -- remember that?). I was prepared to go to jail if I lost my case, but it never came to that. Instead I went to Vietnam as a journalist where I had the opportunity to see first hand what happens to an army when a draft is not equitable and the army's conscripted members don't understand what they are fighting for. Demoralized soldiers began to turn on their officers and sergeants. Even as U.S. involvement wound down, fraggings (the word used to describe attempts to kill superior officers), became near epidemic in the rear echelons far away from the dangers of the front. Fraggings were complicated, sometimes involving racial tensions and drugs, but the skewed demographics of the draft set the stage for many of these attacks. During World War II, the draft fairly equitably scooped up everybody with a pulse. An oil-field roughneck might be fighting next to a teacher or a musician. This meant that when tensions rose with the noncoms and officers, there was usually someone in the platoon who could act as a voice of reason before things got out of hand. By the time Vietnam rolled around, the more educated young men became pretty good at gaming the system. If you couldn't get out of military service altogether (Bill Clinton, high number in the draft lottery), chances are you could find a haven in the reserves (George W. etc), or at least avoid the units that did the fighting. This left the line units manned by the least articulate soldiers who were most prone to act on their frustrations. Moreover, the soldiers were as alienated from the sergeants as they were from the officers. Time and again, when I spoke to soldiers who'd witnessed attacks or attempted to kill their superiors, they told me, "nobody said, 'don't do it.'" The inequitable draft skewed the debate about the war at home as well. Once you avoided Vietnam, your Vietnam problem was over, at least as a life and death matter. A politician who got his kid into the reserves might still support the war while insulating his family from the risks. For me, one lesson of Vietnam was that an equitable draft would have much spurred debate about the merits of that war much more quickly. The corrupt rulers of Vietnam would have fallen sooner to be sure, but at the cost of fewer Vietnamese and American lives. For the military, however, the lesson of Vietnam was to switch to a professional army, thereby reducing the potential for both internal dissent and demoralization, as well as the incentives that would engage ordinary citizens in the debate about where and when the U.S. should go to war. This trend has reached an extreme as the U.S. prepares to invade Iraq. The possibility of war has inspired debate in Europe, the middle East and Asia, but Americans seems eerily disengaged from the looming prospect of conflict. An equitable draft would make sure we all paid attention.

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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