Curtain Raiser

Hot Years Are Here to Stay, Colltalers

2014 was Earth’s warmest year since records have been kept. While debate rages over what’s free speech and what’s incitation to racism and xenophobia, here’s one issue whose discussion is beyond words, but what concretely should be done about it.
We’ll get back to the issue of speech later on this post, and probably many times after that, but this fresh piece of staggering news on what was once thought to be a puzzle about global warming has the power to stop all talk on its track, or at the very least, it should.
Still, one wonders how much more evidence is needed to spring governments and corporations into action, after we’ve learned that the 10 warmest years in recorded history have all happened since 1997. As it turns out, that was also the year of the Kyoto Protocol.
Initially adopted by 193 countries (Canada withdrew from it later), it was an agreement to reduce man-made carbon dioxide gas emissions to the atmosphere, a proven factor in rising surface and ocean temperatures, as they trap heat just like a greenhouse does. It was to be implemented by the Doha Amendment, in 2012, but consensus over what to do next all but evaporated.
Some nations dutifully followed through and were assigned targets to reduce their gas emissions, but others, including the U.S., not only did not ratify the Kyoto accord, but also exempted itself from any commitment to be legally bound to reduce emissions.
Such negative leadership did a big disservice to the cause, giving credence to nations around the world, whose heavily carbon and mining-dependent economies can’t afford to transition to cleaner fuel alternatives, specially when the big boys are left off the hook.
In fact, even today, a search through U.S.-based Websites for data on man-made emissions offers a deceiving mix of corporate-P.R. and sponsored pieces, which helps confuse and hide reports and studies published by independent scientific organizations.
Depending on what keywords are used, you may find yourself buried deep into double-digit pages before finding data presenting a straightforward relationship between greenhouse gas emissions, by the oil, gas, and cement industries, and global climate changes.
Against an overwhelming consensus of scientific studies and hard, statistical data, showing alarming increases in temperature and acidification of oceans around the world, along the melting of ancient glaciers and permafrost in the poles, there’s a roster of sites proposing all sorts of denials and supposedly disclaimers against our responsibility in the planet’s fast changing climatic conditions.
It’s almost as if the devastation and, often, permanent damage to the environment we all witness so often, whenever there’s an oil spill, simply vanishes whenever that same oil is processed and injected into the engine of the latest model of the year.
At times, defense is based on that old workhorse of populism and political grandstanding: job creation. But take the less than 150,000 jobs related to the U.S. coal extraction industry, for instance, including mining, transportation and power plant workers.
Each year, the industry is directly responsible for releasing 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and other 10,000-plus tons of nitrate oxide, among other heavy-metal pollutants, into the atmosphere. All three are main greenhouse gases that are mentioned in every study on global warming, causing forest damage and acid rain in the process.
But for an industry that provides so few jobs, compared to million of jobs the U.S. economy supports, and the costly damage it causes to unrepairable natural resources, plus the health impact weighting heavy on the country’s healthcare system, you’ll see too few a politician standing against it. Again, a ride through the Internet can be awfully instructive, if one keeps a cautionary distance.
Besides those jobs not coming cheap to taxpayers, as a whole, the industry hasn’t been a model of probity either. A just released Center for American Progress study found that some companies in Wyoming, the biggest coal producer state, are selling it not to power plants or utilities, but to their own subsidiaries, so ‘to dodge’ federal and state royalty payments and maximize subsidies.
On the subject of the economic impact of carbon dioxide pollution, a Stanford University study raises considerably the estimates for the social cost of carbon – or what we all pay for changes associated with a warming planet: from $37 per ton, in EPA figures, to $220 per ton. That may also reflect a global tendency by governments to underestimate the costs of pollution on their budgets.
To be sure, unlike climate change, this is not an exact science, in what too many variables are still too far off the realm of practical observation to accurately be accounted for. But it’s not a guessing game either: much of this research is supported by extensive analysis of the impact of increasingly stronger storms on food production, for instance, or, on housing, public health, and so on.
2014 beat 2010 for the warmest year, but overall, Earth has gotten 1.4 degree Fahrenheit since 1880, which offers another clue to the relationship between human development and climate: the tail end of the Industrial Revolution saw heavy machinery already in place, and the beginning of large scale exploration of oil, iron and steel, and the beginning of the industrial production line.
Soon, automobiles and railroads, plus the WW1, accelerated technological development and we were off to the races. With global economic growth, came widespread burning of native forests all over Europe, North America and Asia, and an explosion in the world’s population. If the 20th century was the one of ‘more, more’ more,’ will the 21th be the one of restrain and preservation?’
Even as climate change is still little understood, and may require decades of scientific data and observation to a full understanding of its delicate balance, there’s absolutely no reason to stall any efforts to cut down emissions, other than to make a buck.
Those who think we can’t afford a wait-and-see attitude about climate change have been chastised as ‘alarmists’ by the industry and its profiteers. But with the Arctic, and thousand-year-old glaciers, already melting, resulting in rising ocean levels, then, yes, we should all be deeply alarmed, and not just the 600 million living in low areas, within 60 miles from the water. Think about it.
It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., so let’s have a word on the debate over what kind of free speech should be protected, and what’s considered a call to violence. An unfortunate byproduct of a terrorist mass murder episode, as the one against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, and others that followed it, was an immediate renewal of restrictions to everyone’s liberties.
Raids, arrests, ostensive presence of troops in streets of Paris and other major cities in Europe, are supposed to be an unequivocal response to the despicable assassinations, but may boost exactly the opposite reaction from those it purports to scare: the terrorists.
While citizens coexist with increased fear and heightened security measures, caused by attacks they had no role instigating, perpetrators double down and prepare for more warfare. Caught in the middle, non combatants like us are fair game for both sides.
Even more complex is the issue of free expression, symbolized by the targeted magazine, which makes a point of pushing all limits of pseudo-provocation, in a not always good-humored machine-gun way of diatribes directed at a variety of holy cows of society.
In a lamentable slip, Pope Francis, for instance, who had been gathering a positive momentum among even non-believers, with his stand on progressive causes, expressed was on the minds of many right-wing and politically correct segments of society: that Charlie Hebdo had gone ‘too far,’ which is not true, and somehow criminalizes the victims of a horrendous act of revenge.
The French government followed suit, arresting the Fascism-sympathizer comedian Dieudonné, for antisemitic statements. There’s no question that Dieudonné is as an apologist to extreme right-wing views as unfunny, but is he liable to be arrested like a terrorist?
The distinction has been blurred because different measures were applied to similar instances of free expression. The brutal demise of the cartoonists, who were hardly celebrated by their particularly acrid brand of humor, usually to the cost of poor Muslims and African immigrants, even if always satirical, served to reaffirm an important human rights value, through huge rallies of support.
But when Dieudonné was arrested, the message was switched to something more in line with the scrupulous but often hypocritical political correctness of our times: some things you can’t make fun of. Call it what you want, but that’s definitely not free speech.
Yes, Americans are familiar with the concept of punishable hate speech, but despite spending years blabbering viciously against progressive causes, or the president, no one would suggest to arrest Rush Limbaugh, for instance, for his hate speeches.
So it’s all relative; we knew that. But something in this debate’s lost and it’s crucial for us to have a more nuanced view of what democracy entails. Even those claiming to defend it, like major newspapers, wouldn’t republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that Muslims, and the Pope, deem offensive. Mercifully, we’re leaving out what Francisco did to illustrate his point. Have a good one. WC

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