Friday, April 17, 2015

Pissing in the wind

You may have heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal being negotiated among 11 countries around the Pacific, a deal so marvelous that we can't be allowed to know what's in it.

Beyond the high degree of general skepticism warranted by such secrecy, there are very troubling specifics that can be gleaned from passages that have been leaked.

Among them, the Sierra Club identifies this one:
The investment chapter of the TPP—one of three leaked TPP chapters—would give corporations expansive new rights, including the right to sue governments in non-transparent trade tribunals over public interest regulations that corporations allege would reduce their expected profits.

Using rules similar to those that included in the TPP, corporations such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Chevron, and Occidental Oil, have launched more than 500 cases against 95 governments. Approximately 60 percent of the time, the corporation wins or the case settles, often with a concession to the corporation. [p. 1]
In other words, measures that would force certain amounts of fossil fuels to be kept in the ground and not burned, might be overturned as an illegitimate diminution of a corporation's profits. Of course, they might not be overturned. But the thing is, we're not allowed to see the text, so it's hard to even lay eyes on it.

Today I got an email from Organizing for America (OFA), the outfit that had been Obama for America until he won the presidency. The email was telling me what a great thing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Actually, it was talking about trade-promotion authority, better known as "fast-track," which means that when the president submits a trade agreement to Congress, they can only vote yes or no, they can't insist on changes.

But in essence, OFA is pushing the TPP. Their argument is:
It's pretty important for working families and for the economy that we get this right. U.S. exports—supported by expanding trade—have contributed nearly a third of our economic growth in the recovery, supporting more than 11.7 million jobs according to the International Trade ​Administration​​, and almost 300,000 small and medium-sized businesses in every state according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative​.​
But it doesn't follow that this trade deal is a good one. But wait, there's more:
The good news is that this bill [i.e., fast-track] ensures progressive values, like enforceable labor and environment standards, will be part of the agreement—and that the entire process is transparent.
Hmm, "transparent" as in, "No, you can't see the text we're negotiating"?

And sure, it's nice that the bill ensures that things called enforceable labor and environment standards will be part of the agreement. But what about the investment chapter? Will it or won't it allow corporations to sue governments if governments set rules on how much fossil fuel has to stay in the ground?

If it will allow such actions, it's hard to see what other virtues could possibly justify the agreement.

Shortly after the pitch from OFA, I wrote back:
I was just contacted by OFA about fast-track for the TPP.

There's an argument that TPP would allow fossil-fuel companies to sue if future climate regulations force them to leave carbon in the ground.

Given that the TPP text is secret, what can you do to convince people that this argument isn't true?

And if the argument IS true, how can people take Obama seriously on climate if he's supporting TPP?

What is your agenda, anyway?
I think I know the answer to that last question.

It felt very much like pissing in the wind, but at least now the bile is all over me rather than bottled up on the inside.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Treasures in heaven

Back in 2012 I gave a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta. The topic was money, which may seem an odd one for a sermon, but it is the UU. Less flippantly, the topic was the role of money as a social tool and the importance of understanding and possibly reshaping its role, so that it can do more good than harm.

Afterwards, someone said, "That was really interesting—when's part II?"

And before long, the vaguest outline of a Part II started to take shape. And I thought, I should mention to Craig (our minister) that I have a Part II in mind. But then I'd have had to actually sit down and write it.

So instead I waited until Craig needed someone to cover a Sunday and couldn't find anyone else. When he asked if I could do it, I said yes, and that I even had a topic in mind.

So I finally wrote it.

As is the custom at our church, the sermon was preceded by a couple of brief readings. Unusually, my first was from the Bible, Matthew 6:19-21:
19. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The other was "The task of the religious community," by Mark Morrison Reed, from the UU hymnal:
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
 After a musical reflection, this was the sermon for March 29th (podcast here):

In your mind’s eye, take a walk down Oneonta’s Main St. There’s a great bookstore linked to a coffee house, a new brewery, restaurants, brick buildings that come under the heading of “charming.” There’s the former Bresee’s department store, its façade restored to something more attractive than 1950s aluminum siding. All in all, some elements of a fine place to live.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

You think WHAT?

This morning I was pointed in the direction of a cool interactive map put out by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

It allows you to view survey results about people's beliefs regarding global warming, their perceptions of the risks involved, and their support for various kinds of policy responses.

You can look at response rates for the nation as a whole, state by state, county by county, or by Congressional district.

You can learn that, nationally, 63% of respondents said "Yes" in answer to "Global warming is happening." And while that might seem dispiritingly low, you can look at your own Congressional district (NY 19) and see that you're beating the national average (well, by a touch, at 64%), or your county (Otsego) and see that you're beating the national average by even more (only a little more, at 65%), or your state, and take pride in New York's whopping 72%.

Hawaii has the most for a state, at 75%, bested by Washington D.C. at 81%—for some people, that might be just more evidence of how out of touch the capital is.

But what caught my eye was something else.

On the question, "Most scientists think global warming is happening," the national average is 41%. Remember, 63% of the country think that global warming is happening. Mathematically, that means there are at least 22% of the country who themselves think that global warming is happening, but also don't think that most scientists think it's happening.

And if you look at, "Global warming is mostly caused by human activity," the national average is 48%. So there are at least 7% of the country who think that human activity is the biggest cause of global warming, even though they don't believe that most scientists think it's happening at all.

This can be read as a testament to the success of the smoke-screen strategy. John Oliver nailed this in one of his early episodes of Last Week Tonight. The routine practice in journalism is to have someone explaining something about climate change based on the scientific consensus, and then to "balance" it with someone claiming that it's not happening, or something along those lines.

We respond strongly to visuals, and so the journalist can say that there's an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and a very strong one that human activity plays a large role. But if your TV screen is showing you one person laying out the consensus position, and one person contesting it, what sticks in your emotional memory is something more like an unsettled question, a roughly even split of opinion.

In addition to the questionable journalism, there's the quite conscious strategy laid out in sources like Merchants of doubt. In the face of anti-smoking efforts, the tobacco industry was able to get measures watered down and delayed by creating an image that there was lots of uncertainty among scientists about the negative effects of smoking.

Similarly, the fossil fuel industry has been managed to spread the idea that scientists have lots of uncertainty not only about whether humans play a significant role in climate change, but even about whether it's happening.

Only 41% of Americans understand that scientists think global warming is happening.

The merchants of doubt have been brilliantly successful.

At least 22% of the country thinks that global warming is happening, even though they don't think scientists think that.

Imagine if 100% of the population knew the empirical fact that the vast majority of scientists think global warming is happening. In that case, how many people would agree that it's real?

How many would support doing something about it?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

An exercise in measuring exercise

This morning on an errand I took advantage of a feature of the car we bought after my wife started her new job.

You can track your average miles per gallon from whatever point you re-set the meter. And like on many cars, there's a trip meter that you can use to track your miles travelled from whatever point you re-set that one.

So this morning before turning on the car, I reset both of those meters and learned that my trip covered 2.5 miles, at an average gas usage of 17.8 miles per gallon.

In other words, I used 0.14 gallons (2.5 miles / 17.8 miles per gallon).

That's a generous 2 cups of gasoline (0.14 gallons times 16 cups per gallon = 2.25 cups).

How much energy is in that much gasoline?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


In the primate room at the museum you are drawn to the hand of the ogangutan skeleton.

Made for an easy firm grasp on a branch large enough to hold the animal's weight, it is so perfectly shaped that it's not just the hand as a whole that wraps around the branch. Even some of the individual bones look like they're gently curved for a good fit.

How not to envy the orangutan's hands, when one of your own fingers has already given up bending where it's supposed to?

Still, it's good to recall that those curved bones aren't enough to let the orangutan type. And also that this particular one is already a skeleton.

And that his whole species may be on the way out the door.

And that its exit is our doing.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

We love you just the way (we think) you are (Day 3)

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This morning we left Playa Rancho Luna outside Cienfuegos, to go to Trinidad, and from there to Sancti Spíritus.
We started near Cienfuegos, went east to Trinidad,
then northeast to Sancti Spíritus.
Much of the first leg of the drive is on the Caribbean, weaving along the coast, taking bridges over small valleys where streams reach the sea, or where streams would reach the sea if there were more water in them at the moment. Along the way, Jesús narrates some of the history of the region, include Trinidad's role in the sugar trade.

Our first stop was at the Santander pottery workshop. We got to see various craftsmen at work at their wheels, and their output in various stages of completion.
Photo: Chris Shaw
Photo: Chris Shaw
The entryway to the potters' shop had a wall full of pictures—the proprietor with Fidel, with other Cuban notables, "los Cinco" (the Five, the Cubans who had been convicted of espionage in the U.S. and later released as part of the warming of relations that Obama and Raúl Castro announced in December).
Photo: Chris Shaw
The lobby also had some dangerously comfortable metal rocking chairs,
Photo: Pat Dopazo
in front of what appeared to be one of the shop's trademarks, a ceramic bell from which hangs a spiral net of smaller bells.

Photo: Anjali Limbu

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nice to meet you, and you, and you, and you (etc.)

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Today's big events were two meetings, one with a group of jurists (lawyers, judges, etc.), the other with faculty, administrators, and students at the local medical college.

But first, our first morning on the Caribbean, I happened to wake up early enough to catch the sunrise from the beach.

In the shallows you could see sea urchins, some of them further along than others in gathering pebbles and scraps of wood around themselves to make some sort of camouflage.

And I got a shot of the swimming pool in the early-morning light.

On the way into Cienfuegos, Jesus gave us some of the history of the city. It was founded in 1819 by a group of French settlers, and so its architecture bears the imprint of French colonial style more than Spanish.

On the way into town we can see slogans on walls. The one below says, “Por siempre, Revolución”. The “o” in “revolución is the emblem of the CDR, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. We’ll see lots more of those.