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Chris Christie Weighs Morality Against His Political Ambitions

November 21, 2014

“Yo, Chris. I know I don’t have a vote in Iowa, or a Super Pac. But sure would be nice to be able to move around a bit.”

 

The legislators of New Jersey have seen fit to ban cruel gestation crates for pigs, and the pig industry of Iowa demands a Christie vet. Its presidential ambition versus basic compassion and morality, with a deadline of Dec. 1, and I suspect I will not be surprised by which way Christie will go.

But Matthew Scully, a lonely and articulate voice on the right calling for compassion, weighs in with a plea for Christie to ignore the lies and spin he is being fed from Iowa and do the right thing:

Being immobilized for all of their existence, lying and living in their own urine and excrement, the sows are sick, sore, atrophied, usually lame, crazed or broken in spirit, and kept alive in these torments only by a massive and reckless use of steroids. The confinement of the sows, presented in terms of solicitude for the piglets, is among the causes of the welfare problem it purports to solve. And the piglets in any case are taken from their mothers in short order to begin their own lives of merciless confinement, mutilation, privation, and fear, in a process, from birth to slaughter, utterly devoid of human compassion.

I saw all of this myself once on a visit to a mass-confinement hog farm in North Carolina, the kind of investigative tour that would now be a crime in Iowa, taking in scenes that anyone not numbed to the sight of animal suffering would find abhorrent and deeply disturbing. (Let’s just say that Joni Ernst’s celebrated campaign ad, shot in a sunny, straw-filled showcase instead of a typical industrial hog farm, would have lost its sassy charm had the backdrop been the real thing.) The particular issue of the crates may seem a small matter, these extra few inches for a lowly pig, so miserable already and doomed to a nightmarish end. But that’s not a thought I’d stress if I were one of those guys from the National Pork Producers Council talking to Governor Christie. It only draws attention to the sheer pettiness, the unfeeling, unyielding, unchristian spirit, of anyone who would refuse so minimal a comfort to an afflicted animal.

If you and I made a living doing things like this to weak and defenseless creatures, we’d want to steer clear of legal scrutiny too, protesting against intrusions into our private commercial pursuits. But the argument that the bill on Governor Christie’s desk would constitute an undue regulatory burden on hog farmers, by directing the state board of agriculture to write new rules forbidding gestation crates, falls apart the moment you pause to think about it.

Yes, yes it does. And the unspeakable cruelty of industrial pig farming is not an issue that should be ignored for any political purpose.

PS: Here’s Jon Stewart’s take:

Climate And Revolution (“Put down that donut!” Edition)

November 20, 2014

Elizabeth Kolbert adds more perspective to the gap between policy and reality, with a look at the recent US-China emission agreement:

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster—which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.”

On top of this rather nasty problem, there’s the issue of actually fulfilling the pledges. The Administration claims that reducing emissions by twenty-eight per cent over the next eleven years is “achievable under existing law.” This is a little like someone who’s trying to lose weight saying that his goal is “achievable” on a diet of doughnuts: it may be true in theory, but it’s extremely unlikely.

Well, Americans do love fad diets, though it is true that not many of them work, and some of them are dangerous. The real solution is to put a stiff tax on donuts, I mean carbon. The politics of doing that are of beyond comprehension at the moment. Still, understanding that pricing carbon is the single most important and indispensable policy step required to fight climate change would be a good first step.

Climate And Revolution (Cont.)

November 20, 2014

In a review of Naomi Klein’s new book. “This Changes Everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert doubts Americans are ready for the reality of addressing climate change (h/t Daily Dish):

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

And Kolbert doesn’t even include “not eating meat” to her list. I’m surprised Kolbert didn’t title her review “This Changes Nothing.”

Kolbert’s probably right, but this gets back to the problem that the media (and as a result political leaders) are completely failing to explain the scale and danger of the problem. When I want to imagine how we should be thinking about, and talking about, the threat of climate change I always go back to the thought experiment of imagining how the media, politicians, and the public would respond if ISIL had a master plan to warm the planet, melt the ice caps, flood our cities, and cause a mass extinction. Now that really would change everything.

End note: In her review Kolbert mentions an interesting study that examines how much energy each person on the planet should use, and how much they actually use. This also dramatizes how revolutionary real solutions to global warming would be:

What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.

The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.

To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.

The study doesn’t really take into account the fact that new energy technologies could and should allow us to consume more energy with fewer emissions. But it is still a wake-up slap to realize that for the average American the combination of reduced consumption and more efficient energy technologies needs to achieve an 83% reduction in per capita carbon emission. See what I mean about a revolution?

 

Climate And Revolution

November 20, 2014

I am always struck by the gap that seems to exist between what the public and policymakers THINK we need to do to blunt climate change, and what we REALLY need to do. Part of the problem has been that the media has completely failed to treat climate change with the urgency and scale it deserves, a fail which future historians will arguably rate the biggest media fail ever. Another part may be that being honest about the threat of climate change would mean being honest about how completely humanity needs to change its lifestyle, it economics and its politics. And that scares people because change is hard, and change on the scale required implies certain sacrifices.

So I am always interested to see reminders that climate change does not demand incremental policy adjustments but revolutionary adjustments. Because it is only after we come to grips with this fact that we can understand, and hopefully move beyond, the complete inadequacy and complacency of current efforts to address the problem.

The latest screaming reminder that we need to think in revolutionary terms is a failed Google effort to develop renewable energy sources to replace carbon-based energy sources. And, after crunching the numbers, Google abandoned the initiative:

We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

In other words, Google decided that even the most dramatic developments in current renewable energy technologies, leading to a 55% reduction of emissions by 2050, just wouldn’t do the job.

Because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century, reducing emissions means only that less gas is being added to the existing problem. Research by James Hansen shows that reducing global CO2 levels requires both a drastic cut in emissions and some way of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.

 

It was necessary, but not sufficient:

While this energy revolution is taking place, another field needs to progress as well. As Hansen has shown, if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability. To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink. We’re all for more trees, and we also exhort scientists and engineers to seek disruptive technologies in carbon storage.

Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change. What, then, is the energy technology that can meet the challenging cost targets? How will we remove CO2 from the air? We don’t have the answers.

How do you achieve that energy revolution? Google’s engineers suggest following Google’s approach to investment and technology disruption:

Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive.

Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments? The result could be energy innovation at Google speed. Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.

Today In the United States, the vast bulk of funding for energy R&D goes to established technologies. Essentially no money is allocated to related and potentially disruptive technologies, and about 10 percent is spent on projects that don’t seek to produce economically competitive energy.

 

I would add that we should also vastly increase the investment being applied to energy tech research (and in fact I would be prepared to make an argument that the United States would be more secure if we spent a very large chunk of our entire military budget on trying to solve the energy/climate problem instead of military forces and hardware).

As to how to start pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, I have an idea about that as well: get the world off meat and start reforesting the vast landscapes that have been de-forested for livestock.

Yes, all this sounds crazy and improbable. But as Google figured out, crazy and improbable is exactly what is needed if we are actually going to try and solve the problem.

Concept Of The Day: Scientism

November 19, 2014

Just came across this, from this engrossing story called “Zoo Animals And Their Discontents“:

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote the seminal essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” used a term for the tendency to deny the existence of phenomena that cannot be proved empirically. “Scientism,” he wrote in 1986, “puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic, it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date — physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms — as if the present age were not just another in the series.”

It is presented in the article as an argument against the tendency among animal scientists and animal keepers to go to extremes to avoid anthropomorphism. But scientism–the idea that if science hasn’t proved it yet it must not be true; ignoring the possibility that science may YET prove it–is a phenomenon that I see across many spheres, from animal intelligence to the connections between diet and health (for example in the gluten debate).

We should be open to anecdotal evidence, and what our instincts and experience tell us, about the world around us (pet owners, for a long time, knew more about the emotional lives of animals than researchers did). We may not KNOW the truth, or have proof, of why something is the way it is. But sometimes we might have a pretty good idea, good enough to act on, even if the science isn’t definitive one way or the other yet.

This Is What Climate Change Adaptation Looks Like

November 19, 2014

“Sure, it sorta works. But it used to be a lot easier to walk around.”

 

When the river rises to cover your farm, farm on the river:

From July to October the waters can rise at least 10 feet. The trunks of trees more than 30 feet away from the dry season riverbed show watermarks waist high. When the fields flood, the village’s farmers have no work.

“There is water all around,” said Hafiza Khatun, 25, a mother of two whose family income used to vanish for six months of the year when her farm laborer husband had nothing to do. “There was no happiness.”

But three years ago, Ms. Khatun was trained by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization, to tend an unusual source of food and income: a floating farm with a duck coop, fish enclosures and vegetable garden moored by rope to the riverbank.

Cars vs. People

November 18, 2014

A perfect illustration (via Vox) that dramatizes the way in which urban space is disproportionately devoted to motor vehicles:

Next, I’d like to see a similar illustration that includes a few bike lanes.

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