Opinion

The Great Debate

America: The anecdotal nation

In America today, anecdotes have become the new facts.

Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty dramatic stuff — except that numerous fact-checkers found she would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.

But what are you going to believe — a sob story or a raft of statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?

Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have had such cold winters — never mind the scientists who have documented the Earth’s rising temperature. But what are you going to believe — the seasonal chill or the consensus of thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly support global warming?

Admittedly, anecdotes are an appealing way to dramatize issues. But, as the Boonstra ad and the winter stories demonstrate, there is a problem. However captivating they are, anecdotes often undermine facts – and the truth. Yes, they provide a story, but they seldom provide the whole story. What we get is often misleading, sometimes downright deceptive.

We are especially afflicted in this country. Americans seem to have a greater fondness for anecdotes than citizens of any other nation. Newscasts invariably have human-interest segments; every guest on late-night television must come armed with a funny little story, and no recent State of the Union address is complete without the president pointing up to the gallery and telling the heart-rending stories of his guests there. You could say that we live in Anecdotal America where, as the poet William Carlos Williams said, there are “no ideas but in things.”

Liberals are winning the language war

Are conservatives linguistically challenged? Or are they just naïve enough to think they can win the battle of ideas with — ideas?

Okay, and money.

Conservatives, like liberals, will spend huge amounts of money this year to get their ideas across to voters. But what they fail to do is bundle their thoughts into a bright, shiny linguistic package that explodes in the face of their enemies when opened.

The left has assembled a rich lexicon of phrases that serve either as stilettos that can be turned again and again in the guts of their opponents, or shields that obscure their true intentions.

The bill for climate change is coming due

Americans have just endured one of the coldest winters in memory, so global warming may not be on their radar. But a new U.N. panel report has just refocused the public debate on a problem some scientists call the greatest threat facing the world.

There is trouble ahead for global agriculture, warns the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if measures are not taken quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel, which synthesizes the findings of thousands of peer-reviewed studies every seven years, has issued a report card on the state of the planet.

The report card serves as a guide to policymakers and a basis for international deliberations, including the summit on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions scheduled to be held in Paris next year. The report will be officially released on Sunday in Yokohama, Japan, but an advance copy has been leaked.

Is nuclear power the answer on climate change?

James Hansen’s latest press conference was positively scary.

NASA’s former chief climate scientist (he recently left government to pursue a more activist role) met with environmental journalists last month at Columbia University to release a new study with the ominous title, “Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.”

Hansen and his co-authors contend that the agreed-to goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Farenheit) above pre-Industrial levels prescribed in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is still too high to prevent “long-lasting, irreversible damage” to our planet — including raising sea levels, submerging coastal cities and turning vast tracts of the earth into virtual furnaces.

Hansen departs from environmental orthodoxy, however, in arguing that there is no way to cut greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently by relying solely on green alternatives like solar and wind power.

A journalistic revolution

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who revealed National Security Agency surveillance leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, dueled this week with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller over objectivity in journalism. Keller argued that impartiality forces a journalist to test all assumptions. Greenwald, however, countered that impartiality didn’t test assumptions as much as confer authority to each of them. He explained that his new reporting venture, a website funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, would treat official pronouncements with skepticism.

But while this argument has been taking up a lot of the journalistic oxygen, Paul Thornton, head of the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor section, weighed in recently with a potentially more significant position. Thornton held brief for neither impartiality nor skepticism, but rather for a belief that facts matter — that they can lead to conclusions whether you happen to like those conclusions or not.

Thornton admitted that in his section, he does not run letters claiming there is no human source to global climate warming. Why don’t they run? Because, according to Thornton, “Saying ‘There’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Where will you live in 2050?

Upon retiring in April after more than four decades as a NASA climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen told Columbia University students he feared “climate chaos” if we do not act immediately to curb greenhouse gas emissions. There are now more than 800 natural disasters worldwide annually, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, double the number 20 years ago. That may just be the beginning. The number could skyrocket to 15,000 disasters per year by 2030, said General Electric’s global strategy director Peter Evans, meaning mile-wide tornados like the one that devastated Moore, Oklahoma in May would be the norm.

Cities will bear the brunt of these catastrophes. Even as they become the world’s demographic centers, economic drivers, and political powers, cities face unprecedented risks from cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis. Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina each caused more than $100 billion in damage, leading catastrophe bond pioneer John Seo to predict that a trillion-dollar storm could hit New York head-on or the Big One could devastate Tokyo sometime in the next decade. Then, there are man-made crises stemming from geopolitical tensions or economic inequality, not to mention pandemics.

Which cities will have the luck, the foresight and the resilience to cope with the convergence of these 21st century risks? Where would you choose to settle with the world of 2050 in mind, given that location, location, location will matter more than ever in a hotter, drier, more volatile world?

Shifting global investments to clean energy

Cattle graze near wind turbines in Paracuru, Brazil, April 24, 2009. REUTERS/Stuart Grudgings

When President Barack Obama announced the country’s first national climate strategy, many people wondered what it would mean across the nation. Yet, the strategy may carry even more significant implications overseas.

The plan restricts U.S. government funding for most international coal projects. This policy could significantly affect energy producers and public and private investors around the globe.

Obama signals global shift on climate change

President Barack Obama rolls up his shirt sleeve before speaking about his vision to reduce carbon pollution at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing  

President Barack Obama unveiled his national plan Tuesday to “reduce carbon pollution and lead global efforts to fight” climate change. He intends to rely heavily on executive actions rather than seeking congressional legislation.

This plan, coming less than a year after Superstorm Sandy’s extensive flooding, also focuses on preparing the United States for the effects of near-term climate change.

The price of ignoring climate change

Home destroyed nearly five months ago during the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in Mantoloking, New Jersey March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The effects of climate change, driven by carbon pollution, hit Americans harder each year. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires and droughts are growing ever more frequent and severe.

Beyond our borders, these changes are hitting developing nations.

Since our nation’s founding, America has stood as an example for the world. Now, we owe it to ourselves and to other nations, who look to Washington, to lead the way on climate change by putting a price on carbon pollution and taking other steps to minimize the harm being done to developing nations — and our own.

Nature adapts to survive climate change

While the climate change discussion in Washington is moving at a glacial pace, nature is responding to climate change at record speed. The animal, plant and insect kingdoms aren’t interested in public policy. They don’t read political blogs. They adapt because they have to. They must change to survive.

We would be wise to heed the signs.

Animals, plants and even insects are now adapting quickly to shifts in temperatures, often by migrating to cooler climates, modifying their diets and altering breeding cycles.

This is happening at blinding speed in large, complex ecosystems. Throughout most of the 20th century, for example, tree range shift occurred at about 0.4 miles a year. Since 1990, however, climate changes have caused species range to move by an average of 12 miles a year. A 2009 U.S. Forest Service study, tracking 40 major tree species in 30 Eastern states, concluded that tree ranges had moved, on average, more than 60 miles north in less than a century.

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