Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Inequities of Climate Change

The latest IPCC report's "summary for policymakers" on climate change came out a few days ago. I downloaded it and have been working my way through it. You can download it for yourself from the IPCC's main website (look under "The AR4 Synthesis Report" mid-way down the page). Given that many have criticized this latest IPCC report for perhaps not being bold enough, it is quite striking how serious the projected outcomes and scenarios are. (It also does a good job of demonstrating the human contribution to global warming, by the way, with helpful pie charts of greenhouse gas [GHG] contributions from various sources, continental temperature trends, etc.) I'm sure there will be more insights to come from this report--and I encourage readers to comment on them here--but I would like to focus on just one thing that caught my eye. I noticed under "Examples of some projected regional impacts" (p. 10), that some noticeable effects on food production are expected ALREADY BY 2020. While most effects, in all areas, are negative for human welfare, there are some exceptions. For example, while Africa is expected to see 75-250 million people under water stress and up to a 50% reduction in rainfed agriculture by 2020, in that same period the rainfall-based portion of North America may actually experience short-term increased yields of 5-20% in the aggregate due to warming. This inequitable pair of outcomes seems especially cruel and ironic given that we North Americans have been far greater contributors to global warming than most Africans. Of course, even North America is expected to face some problems in the short term, such as droughts and decreased mountain snowfall (the main source for irrigation-based agriculture) in the West--not to mention heat waves, coastal impacts, and health consequences. But I find it a great tragedy that the poorest (and lowest GHG emitting) regions of the world may suffer the most, just when the need for action will be greatest in the industrialized world. I had heard about this before, but it was sobering to see it spelled out in the IPCC report summary.

Over the long term, of course, the consequences seem quite unequivocally dire for the entire planet, if dramatic action is not taken. I hope that we can all remember during this holiday season the natural world that we have (as a gift from God, if you are religious, like me) to be caretakers of. Maybe for this Thanksgiving, we should give thanks that our planet can still support human life.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Perils of Demonizing Religious People (Muslim Version)

Before another craven, clueless right-wing politician utters the phrase "Islamofascist" again...please, please, please, I hope that person reads Middle East scholar Juan Cole's recent article in The Nation, "Combating Muslim Extremism". Cole is responding to the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim bigotry among many of the G.O.P. presidential contenders.

For those still unswayed by the basic principles of fairness, tolerance, and avoiding group stereotyping, perhaps the following argument from Cole's article might be worth pondering: "The Republicans are playing Russian roulette with America's future with their bigoted anti-Muslim rhetoric. Muslims may constitute as much as a third of humankind by 2050, forming a vast market and a crucial labor pool. They will be sitting on the lion's share of the world's energy resources. The United States will increasingly have to compete with emerging rivals such as China and India for access to those Muslim resources and markets, and if its elites go on denigrating Muslims, America will be at a profound disadvantage during the next century."

Nothing like a good business argument for the Republicans, right? But Cole's article offers much more in the way of data and analysis to put everything into better perspective. And, seriously, I believe that Cole is absolutely right that we Americans will all suffer the long-term consequences of this reckless, short-term political posturing by the men who (shudder) want to convince us they are fit to be the next President. (Giuliani seems to the worst, from recent statements.) This situation is way beyond when I thought it could be settled by pointing out the obvious--that Islamofascism is a ridiculous, incoherent phrase--and it is now devolving into a stubborn presence in that netherworld where ignorance and ambition combust in a spectacular display for the crazy remnant of loyal Bush supporting Republicans who constitute the party's core.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Take America Back

Since Barak Obama is looking for new ways to invigorate him presidential campaign, I have some advice. The new take on Iran is a good start. But something bigger is what you need, and the country needs it too.

If I were a candidate (and I'm ready to form an exploratory committee if anyone out there asks me to, and gives me hundreds of millions of dollars), I would pledge to undo the Bush presidency. Virtually anything he's done, I would overturn. My presidency would take America back, policy-wise, to at least 1998, and in many areas we'd go back much further.

I know this is not the kind of rhetoric you politicians favor these days, with all the talk about the 'new economy,' and how we need a 'new politics' for the 21st century. But many of the things progressives want to do in the next decade or two are things the United States used to do pretty well. We used to have a more progressive tax structure. We used to have an economy that provided more secure livings to a broad middle class. We used to actually regulate industry and business to help ensure safe practices and products. We used to have fairly strong unions. In foreign policy, we used to work with large coalitions of other nations to promote mutual interests, and took a leading role in organizations like the United Nations.

I could go on with this list, but the point is: Why can't we go back to doing these things again? At the top of my list of things to undo would be Bush's disastrous war in Iraq and his steady erosion of civil liberties and rule of law. After we begin to restore our international reputation in these areas, I think we need a 'truth and reconciliation' commission to look into all the areas of government that the Bush administration has worked so assiduously to cover with secrecy. It's important for political and policy reasons that the public know as soon as possible just what these people have been up to in their eight years in power. We have to show that we've restored accountability to our political system, and we have to find out what hidden policies remain for us to undo.

Certainly, there are some areas of policy where the solution can't be found in our own history. The health care problem is the biggest one I can think of. But other countries have dealt rather effectively with their citizens' health care needs, and we could definitely learn from what they've been doing successfully for decades.

Together, these restorations of former policies will, I believe, restore something much larger that we have lost in the last eight years: a sense of national purpose and progress. As part of the community of nations, the United States can look forward to working with willing partners to address international problems like global warming, and local humanitarian crises like Iraq and Darfur. As US citizens, we can look forward to increasing economic security and the continued enjoyment of robust civil liberties.

The final goal of going back to a pre-Bush era is to restore our vision of the future as a better place to live in than the present. Rather than freaking out over terrorist threats and starting petty scraps to protect a decaying American empire, we can move more confidently, more calmly, into the 21st century, and look forward to a country and a world becoming more healthy, more prosperous, and more peaceful with each passing year.