Climate Change: Science Vs. Emotion

Recently Steven Koonin, former Undersecretary of Energy for science under Obama and former professor of theoretical physics at Caltech and chief scientist at British Petroleum, published an elegantly balanced, nuanced and extremely informative article on September 19th in the Wall Street Journal about the debate on global warming.

Basically he makes the point that the data that suggest there is a human factor in climate change that can be addressed is clearly there but he believes it needs a longer time frame to be definitively clear without doubt. His position is perfectly appropriate for a two-handed economist/scientist. Accordingly, he implies that it may be premature to start now.

While he may be quite right that the reasoning, pro and con, about taking human steps to control the human variables is not yet fully dispositive, the very fact that he is so credible as a scientist is very likely to have a, hopefully, unintended consequence of deflecting political will from gathering steam to get ahead of the problem before it becomes too late.

We know that opponents of taking steps to reduce human effects on climate grasp at all straws to try to stop progress, and Koonin’s legitimate caution as an academic is all too easy to be misunderstood.

It is true for sure that all human impact on climate is smaller than the effects of nature. But, that does not at all mean that at the margin human effects are altogether irrelevant. He says that, but cushions his observation by observing that it will take a lot more time to be positive of what the effects have been or could be.

The case for beginning to address the human effect on climate matters is grounded on solid evidence that there very well may be a trend underway, which if addressed timely and properly could be reduced early enough to save our planet from extinction in due course.

Therefore, why wait until it might be too late, particularly if the costs of proceeding wisely now are manageable by global society?

Perhaps Mars is the best available example of what can happen with climate change. Admittedly, another few thousand years on Earth is hard to imagine or even deal with now, but it is mere blink of an eye in the life of a planet. I doubt if anyone on Earth today would like to see Earth look like Mars. And, if there is anything we can start doing now to avert an end result like Mars, the price is right.

I salute the wisdom of Koonin’s article. I do wish, however, that he would have been clearer that despite his scientist’s caution, he supports the steps being taken to BEGIN to seriously address climate change and should be continued aggressively subject only to reassessment and change if in due course the science clearly indicates over time that it is not necessary.

No one yet has argued persuasively that human steps to address the problems of climate change can do earth any harm. Quite the contrary.

We really do need to demystify the subject and eliminate emotional and visceral responses to this goal to make Earth safer for our descendants.

Evolution needs its chance to survive so that the whole Universe can benefit from humans’ extraordinary intelligence and understanding of the Universe. It is not just us that matter; it must include all intelligent beings everywhere in the Universe.


Stay Alive by Staying Alert

The simple wisdom of this piece’s title is, of course, very well known. But it is also very well and regularly overlooked. Why? And what can you do about that?

The “why” probably lies in the well-known phenomenon called “denial”. Denial comes in all sizes and shapes and does have some advantages in helping some people navigate through life.

But, certain forms of denial are quite dangerous.

For example, if you notice a little something new and different growing on your ear and it is merely annoying, though it slowly keeps getting a bit bigger, you may very well dismiss it as just another trivial wart and put off having someone look at it.


Most probably you are right: it is benign and nothing. BUT that one chance in 10 that it is a cancer could cost you the rest of your life by simply delaying.

There are most often two reasons why you delay. One is that you are afraid of the possibility of bad news. The other is that you hate to waste money on doctors. Both those reasons are lousy reasons and you should keep reminding yourself–if you love life–that you should remain alert to any and all signs no matter how little or seemingly trivial and catch them early, not late.

Another area where people are often asleep at the switch is in driving cars. There are statistics that show that an amazingly large percentage of auto accidents occur within a half-mile of people’s homes.

There would appear to be only two types of reasons for that. The first is that as one begins to drive from home perhaps one has not quickly enough adjusted to open road risks. The other is that, as you approach your home, the self-defense mechanisms that protect you on highways begin to relax in anticipation of reaching the haven of home. Whichever direction you may be going, remain aware and alert to this dangerous fact.

A third arena to be careful about is in dealing with people new in your life. This is sound advice for people you know socially, in business, or even romantically. For those you meet in politics, it’s absolutely vital!

Humans are hard wired to be both cautious and trusting but those two instincts frequently cancel each other out, leaving people exposed to invisible signs and signals they would otherwise notice in dealings with others.

There is one pretty simple way to protect against these risks. Remember to ask yourself in all situations what YOU might be thinking if you were in the other person’s head in whatever the situation might be.

For example, if you get into the politician’s head, you will surely see that he/she is probably concentrating on your money and/or your vote.

In the person of the opposite sex, you may be able to see the thought that you represent security more than happiness?

In business dealings, the other person’s head is full of getting your business, getting a good price or just the kick of winning.

And, socially, the other person’s head may see you as a stepping stone to a club or something similar.

This may all sound very cynical and you obviously must also remember that the reason for thinking this way is not by any means to conclude anything definitive based on these types of thoughts BUT to use it to start the process of weighing carefully what may be in the other person’s head and from that hopefully avoid unnecessary risks in your decision-making process.

You may be wondering where and why is all this “wisdom” coming from? Sigmund Freud is reported to have said to a young person who asked his advice about a certain type of unusual behavior; “is that person you describe, you?” It was not in fact the inquirer in that case, but somewhere, somehow all these types of behavior occur in most of us and it could from anyone anywhere. So remember the other old piece of advice: a word to the wise should be sufficient.

A Congressperson’s Dilemma

When the U.S. Constitution was created, the custom and expectation was that Representatives would be elected for two-year terms and that they would be in the Capitol representing their districts for only few weeks at the most — each year. Hence, members of Congress kept and maintained their real jobs as business people, innkeepers, lawyers. etc. Accordingly, they had little or no expectation that their livelihood would depend on remaining in Congress for most of their working life.

Today’s situation is entirely different. People run for Congress expecting a full-time job with generous compensation and perks most people can only dream of, not to mention a sizeable staff. As a result, today’s members of Congress have become very dependent on their position as a way of life. And, after a few terms, most of them can no longer even envision any other job. They are a big deal to most people, particularly in their home districts, except in the Capitol, where most of them remain pretty obscure.

Consequently, it should be no surprise that when they are confronted with decisions on how to vote and behave in ways which might put their tenure at risk, they get pretty tense. The idea of losing an election and having to start life all over as an ex-congressperson must be pretty daunting. The choices are [1] do the right thing and loose the cooperation of their leadership, [2] do the wrong thing and lose the confidence of their voters or [3] do nothing, and hope for the best, but probably get the worst outcome as a gutless nobody.

This pretty much is what we are witnessing today for around 100 “moderate” Republican Representatives. Many are very decent people trapped between what’s right and the Right. On the right they are threatened by primaries from well-funded tea party types. On the left, moderate Democrats, who appeal to moderate voters distrustful of the tea party. The result: a very real threat of losing a great job, a good income, and prestige with all expenses paid.

In some ways, these problems are not of their own making. It is a classic situational confrontation, a long time in the making, which badly needs to be dealt with, or along with them we might all lose our jobs/livings, if the current stasis takes us over the cliff.

One of the few options most of these conflicted folks have when/if they lose their House seat is to stay in DC as lobbyists and help make the overall situation even worse.

Now, here is a radical idea that would need a lot of horse trading to happen, but in a perverse and perhaps surprising way, could help fix the basic problem of job dependency undermining the country. In the larger scheme of things, it would not cost a lot of money, certainly as compared to the cost of the damage elected officials inflict by not doing their jobs properly.

Remember, too, that something similar is used in the Federal judiciary, where judges get their salary for life. This is meant to ensure an impartial judiciary, free from both deep-pocketed influence and fear of making an unpopular decision that costs them their job.

THUS: a sample plan for Congresspersons would be to provide a lifetime pension AFTER they have been elected at least five times and are 45 or older with some appropriate scale related to their salaries PLUS (very importantly) a lifetime ban on being a lobbyist.

The intended and hoped for effect of an arrangement like this would make it a lot easier for a lot of these House members to make their voting decisions free from the very corrosive, distracting and realistic pressures related to self-preservation.


John Boehner is in a real pickle. If he simply folds his cards, he ends up as a failed Speaker in history. If he stays the course, he may be seen in history as worse than a failed Speaker, as a fool with no spine. If he participates in finding some kind of “grand bargain” with the Senate and the President, he may cling to some credibility but he will have lost his ability to manage his far right membership.

He is in a box of his own making from which there really is no good exit.

He does have one possible option to consider, if he is clever, smart and realizes that he has little to lose.

He should IMMEDIATELY -without consulting his party–announce that he is resigning as Speaker and then with sufficient Republican moderate support, which there is, join with Democrats and end the impasse and provide interim leadership of the moderate portion of the Republican caucus.

Then the struggle for a new speaker will begin and he probably would have the best chance -under those circumstances- of being reelected Speaker again with a mandate to not be stubbornly doctrinaire but to make practical deals across party lines tailored to the country’s great needs, because he would control the swing votes.

Result: he might go down in history as a courageous, clever leader who knew how to lead in difficult and strange circumstances.

Not only would that outcome serve him personally, it would serve all Americans, and he would go from being hated and despised to heroic status.

Stay tuned?

How about a Political Safety Net?

After many incidents, and finally the tragedy of September 11, the Congress in 2001 created the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Since then, there have been no hijackings of planes in American airspace.

But hijacking is hardly a thing of the past. Since 9/11, we have witnessed almost regular hijackings of Congress and the country in which small bands of zealots pursue an extreme minority agenda that poses grave threat to the American people. They may not be armed, in the traditional sense, but they certainly are dangerous.

It’s time, finally, for a Political Safety Net (PSN).The Constitution and a lot of political history have been reasonably successful in preventing majorities from taking undue advantage of minorities. But we have a lot less history with – and far fewer protections from -political minorities that wage legislative jihad by hijacking the process and holding it – and the country – hostage to their demands.

The current chaos over the federal budget (to be followed, all too soon, by another battle over the debt ceiling) takes obstructionism to new levels. The House of Representatives’ repeated attempts to undo a law that was passed by both houses of Congress three years ago, upheld by the Supreme Court and fought over again in the 2012 Presidential election – and their willingness to bring down the house, so to speak, to get their way – underscores not only a political divide, but a complete abdication of leadership.

Historically, minorities had to cool their heels until a new election enabled them, or not, to impose their will on a former majority by a popular vote. Even the most recalcitrant of minorities knew well the first lesson of politics – how to count to 50 percent plus one – and strove, through the normal electoral and legislative process, to build a majority through compromise, negotiation, cajoling and back-room deal-making. Sure, Newt Gingrich shut down the government (in the 90’s), but he also raised taxes, cut deals (most famously on welfare), and accepted his foremost responsibility to the American people to govern. The malcontents of the current dispute show no such devotion to democracy.

What could a PSN do about this problem? One has to start by assuming that a Constitutional amendment is a near-impossibility, so such an entity is likely to be limited to moral suasion based on its perceived impartiality and expertise. A PSN could be created by mobilizing together a group of people who are ‘beyond fear or favor’ –distinguished public servants whose careers have ended.

It could include, for example, all living former Presidents and Vice Presidents, all living retired members of the Supreme Court and assorted others, such as former heads of the Federal Reserve, retired chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Cabinet heads and perhaps a few Senators and Representatives- all retired for good. There are, no doubt, others, but the precise size and makeup isn’t important here. And they surely are capable of making their own process.

Such a distinguished group of senior citizens, who would be asked to consider the most divisive issues of the day and, might very well provide a healthy influence on the political system, particularly if the group weighed in only when a healthy majority of them (2/3rds?) concurred in a course of action. A random set of individuals speaking might be helpful, but a collective view would have far more impact and effect on public opinion.

Why could it work? Because it would help drive public opinion in a non-partisan and fact-based manner, free from the hyperbole of the political arena and unshackled by an obvious need to win elections. The PSN would really need no power beyond the collective reputations of its members and their willingness to “educate and influence” the American public on matters of great import.

There is no way to know how such a group might view today’s amazing performance in Washington.

However, if a group of elders as proposed above, free of any personal political fears or ambitions, were to hold a clear and substantial view on a question, perhaps more sense might creep into more thinking across the whole country to everyone’s betterment.