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.”

The State of the Union’s history of empty green promises

An aura of excitement and predictability surrounds the president’s annual State of the Union speech: A few days of hyped drama and TV punditry build to a political Woodstock featuring generals, justices, senators, Cabinet secretaries and House members, all under one roof. Up in the balcony, the First Lady plays host to a few iconic citizens who recently shared a heroic moment of fame with America.

Environmentalists are on higher-than-normal alert this year, after President Barack Obama made a sweeping inaugural promise to tackle climate change, an issue he had largely avoided during his first term.

If the president reprises that theme in Tuesday’s speech, he’ll join a long list of predecessors warning that we’re leaving a mess for future generations. And if past is prologue, the green talk and pageantry may be the only things delivered on the president’s lofty words.

The best solution for climate change is a carbon tax

With Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stepping down, President Barack Obama is losing one of the few people left in Washington who was willing to speak up about global warming and to push for significant measures to curb its impact. During her tenure, Ms. Jackson was frequently denounced by GOP members of Congress and all too often reined in by Obama. Despite his and Congress’ failure to pass legislation addressing global warming, Ms. Jackson advanced a regulatory agenda to pick up some of the slack.

She managed to see that fuel efficiency standards will increase by 2025, enact stricter pollution controls that must be met before any construction of new coal-fired power plants, and established EPA’s “endangerment finding,” bringing carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act. Her departure, however, highlights the failings of the Obama administration to address global warming in a significant way. In his second term, the president can change that by pushing to enact a carbon tax.

A carbon tax would place a fee on polluters that emit GHGs like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. It should be applied at major sources of GHG emissions: coal-fired power plants, petroleum refineries and importers, natural gas processors, and cement, steel, and GHG-intensive chemical plants. This tax would prod us away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy alternatives to avert global warming while raising considerable revenue.

Obama’s climate change quandary

After a campaign in which climate change did not come up, and after the East Coast weathered a storm that, if it was not brought on by climate change, felt an awful lot like the storms that will be, the president of the United States finally nodded in its direction. It was not much. It was not even a whole sentence. But it felt like the first rain after a long drought. From Barack Obama’s victory speech:

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

There it was—a sign that, although cap-and-trade legislation failed so wretchedly in Congress and although the Environmental Protection Agency has had to keep quiet about its work to limit carbon emissions, the president still remembers that climate change is a danger to this country. It is not clear that he is going to do anything about it, however: In his speech, he said his goals for his second term were “reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” But since 2010, when the Senate gave up on passing a climate bill, it has seemed that politicians have forgotten how to talk about climate change ‑- or are too afraid to talk about it. If the country is ever going to deal with this threat, the first step is to start talking about it again.

Waffling on climate change? Consult friends, not science

Ever since climate scientist James Hansen first testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, the scientists, advocates, academics and former vice-presidents who work to stop climate change have presumed that the science matters. Hansen began his testimony by telling the assembled senators: “The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements,” in full confidence that instrumental measurements would matter more than the weather outside the politicians’ front doors. Like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, Hansen depended on graphs (he called them “viewgraphs”) and numbers to help make his case. Almost two decades later, when Gore first raised the alarm about climate change with his documentary, his strategy rested on that same science: I dare you to look at this PowerPoint and tell me climate change isn’t a problem! It is an expectedly rational assumption to make, that a rational science like science should be a trump card. Inconveniently, it’s not true.

A study published last week in Nature Climate Change, a leading, meticulously vetted journal of climate research, showed that the more scientifically literate people are, the less worried they are about climate change. “As respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased,” wrote the study’s authors, a group that includes researchers from Ohio State, George Washington University and Yale University.

The decrease is small, but what’s telling is that the researchers didn’t come up with the opposite result. You’d expect to see that as scientific literacy increased, so should the sense that climate change is a serious problem. That, after all, is what scientists have assumed in their warnings for more than two decades.

California voters back weakened climate law

-The opinions are the author’s own-

California voters on Tuesday rejected a measure to suspend the state’s innovative climate change law. But the state’s emission trading scheme has been substantially diluted to buy off opposition from energy-intensive industries and allay fears about job losses.

If it is true that “as California goes, so goes the nation”, the past 10 days have confirmed the lack of political support for tough emissions curbs.

The survival of California’s cap-and-trade scheme has kept alive hopes for enacting a patchwork of state and regional schemes in the absence of a federal program. Supporters hope establishing even a diluted system will lay the groundwork for a program that can be toughened as the economy improves.

from The Great Debate UK:

Why Pakistan monsoons support evidence of global warming

-Lord Julian Hunt is visiting Professor at Delft University, and former Director-General of the UK Met Office. The opinions expressed are his own.-

The unusually large rainfall from this year’s monsoon has caused the most catastrophic flooding in Pakistan for 80 years, with the U.N. estimating that around one fifth of the country is underwater.  This is thus truly a crisis of the very first order.

Heavy monsoon precipitation has increased in frequency in Pakistan and Western India in recent years.  For instance, in July 2005, Mumbai was deluged by almost 950 mm (37 inches) of rain in just one day, and more than 1,000 people were killed in floods in the state of Maharashtra.  Last year, deadly flash floods hit Northwestern Pakistan, and Karachi was also flooded.

To pay for vital programs, Congress must make tough choices

- Deborah Weinstein is the executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs. The opinions expressed are her own -

As the House and Senate Budget Committees begin work this week on their versions of the Congressional Budget Resolution, the usual suspects are lining up to oppose proposals that would pay for health care reform, reduce global warming, create more jobs and improve our education system. Beyond the expected Republican opposition, however, some key Democrats are also calling for changes that would seriously weaken Presidents Obama’s groundbreaking budget.

Although the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees are expected to craft resolutions that remain faithful to the President’s priorities, many of the revenue sources proposed by Obama are being called into question.  Further, the skittish-on-spending Blue Dog Democrats in the House and similarly inclined Senate Democrats are urging reductions in domestic appropriations, which pay for education, job training, housing, child care and child welfare services, public health, and other family and community services.

from Environment Forum:

Ice Age or global warming?

It looks more like an Ice Age than global warming.

There is so much snow in Oslo, where I live, that the city authorities are resorting to dumping truckloads of it in the sea because the usual storage sites on land are full.

That is angering environmentalists who say the snow is far too dirty -- scraped up from polluted roads -- to be added to the fjord. The story even made it to the front page of the local paper ('Dumpes i sjøen': 'Dumped in the sea').

In many places around the capital there's about a metre of snow, the most since 2006 when it was last dumped in the sea. Extra snow usually gets trucked to sites on land, where most of the polluted dirt is left after the thaw. Those stores are now full -- in some the snow isn't expected to melt before September.

A stimulating energy policy

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- Robert Engle is the Michael Armellino Professor of Finance at New York University Stern School of Business and a Nobel Laureate. His views are his own. -

We have faced energy crises before. The last energy crisis was about running out of oil. This one is about the fear that we might not. The future health of our planet is jeopardized by the greenhouse gases emitted by our industrial society. But can we afford an expensive energy policy in this time of economic distress?

The simplest and best solution to reducing emissions is thought by most economists to be a comprehensive tax on the emission of greenhouse gases. Only in this way will individuals and businesses that avoid the tax be doing what is socially desirable. Only in this way will it become profitable to find substitute energy sources; no longer would it be necessary to subsidize alternatives. The price of oil will rise naturally when we begin to run out, but in this proposal, the price would rise before we reach the bitter end. It is only a matter of timing.

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