Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green, or Talking About it, Either.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you are more likely than most to accept the fact that there are changes in the earth's environment that are a result of human action, and that most of these changes are detrimental to our quality of life and that of future generations. The scientists call this anthropogenic climate change. Similarly, you are probably frustrated with the influence that the corporate-funded denial industry has on the debate – especially when the facts are so clear that the need for a “debate” on this topic seems silly.

Yet, a large segment of the public is either skeptical about climate change or actively denies that it exists. To address this issue, a group of scientists and journalists convened today at Rutgers University at a seminar entitled, “Communicating About Climate Change - Research and Practice.”

The symposium, sponsored by the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences on the Cook Campus, started with scientifically dispassionate presentations by a panel of experts – a Yale climatologist, a Rutgers ecologist, a government researcher, and an environmental journalist. There were a number of themes in the experts’ presentations:

When advocating for action to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change, know your audience.  Studies have shown that 11% of the American population is dismissive about climate change and 12% are doubtful. Scientists and advocates should instead target the 31% that are concerned and the 23% that are cautious.

There are myriad reasons why communications on anthropogenic climate change have been ineffective to date. Showing stranded polar bears and melting ice caps may resonate with diehard tree huggers, but most Americans don’t live in the Arctic and those images are not effective. Likewise, when scientists talk about a four degree rise in the sea temperatures, most people are dismissive. After all, we are all familiar with much greater temperature variations in our weather. But one scientist compared a four degree change in sea temperature to a four degree rise in our body temperature. If your body temperature is 102.6, you are very sick.

The consensus of the speakers was that climate change science is difficult to understand and Americans tend to be anti-intellectual, making fact-based mass communication difficult. This is compounded by the fact that scientists tend to embrace uncertainty. No reputable scientist will say such-and-such will happen with 100% probability, yet Americans tend to hold climate scientists to a higher standard than they do other scientists, for example meteorologists.

Up to now, scientists have been reluctant to engage with climate contrarians, but to paraphrase the great philosopher Sarah Palin, “how’s that non-engagement stuff workin’ out for ya so far?”

Finally, scientists need to understand that the old communications paradigms are no longer valid. “We don’t all watch Walter Cronkite anymore” was how one scientist put it; and when the vast majority of the American public gets its information from Fox “News,” scientists need to be on the offensive using all of the other new media outlets that are available.

Along those lines, the the panelists agreed that scientists must be more proactive in educating the public. But this is a double-edged sword, because once scientists become advocates; this tends to call their scientific credibility into question. Hence, it was suggested that scientists stress education and leave the persuasion to the various advocacy groups. The major areas that the group felt the public needs education on are the difference between climate and weather (“Climate informs us on what wardrobe to buy, but weather tells us what to wear that day.”) and the emphasis on the long-term nature of the actions to mitigate the problem. Because of the vast nature of the earth’s ecosystems and the damage done since the Industrial Revolution, actions taken today may not show benefits for generations.

When asked by one non-science student about a resource that could convince her friends and family about the seriousness of the problem, one panelist mentioned an upcoming PBS series – “Earth – The Operators’ Manual,” which is set to be broadcast in April

While there is sharp division in the political sphere on the reality of climate change, as one scientist put it, “Climate change is not like Passover. It won’t only hit Democrats.” That’s the message that scientists and activists need to effectively communicate

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dereliction of Duty

In a little more than a year in office, Governor Chris Christie has demonstrated that he is less interested in governing the state than he is in establishing a power base for some future ambitions. Maybe these ambitions lead to the White House, maybe they are simply to enrich his friends. His motives are less important than the fact that our governor is derelict in the duties he signed up for when he was elected.

Governor Christie operates in the shadows. We should have gotten an hint at Christie’s modus operandi when he initially delayed the release of his tax return, breaking with a long standing tradition of governors of both parties. Perhaps this was due to the fact that he only paid 6.2% of his income in taxes, a far smaller chunk than most New Jerseyans with significantly smaller income do. His administration stonewalls even the most basic of OPRA requests such as disclosing how rental for church space for his political town hall meetings are paid for. His travel vouchers are also difficult to obtain, probably because those that have surfaced show that Christie’s co-mingling of personal and official government payments are, if not illegal, at a minimum ethically dubious.

Christie’s penchant for bullying, especially with respect to the represented workforce, show that the governor is unquestionably lazy. Otherwise, why would he refuse to negotiate instead of pontificate? Why would he cancel a much-needed tunnel project outright instead of sitting down, rolling up his sleeves, and working to come to a better solution?

Rather than do the hard work of governing New Jersey, Christie prefers to hobnob with the Republican Tea Party glitterati and grace the viewers of Fox “News.”

This weekend, he raised the sleaze another notch by spending the entire day Sunday working as the shadow twelfth member of the Legislative Redistricting Commission, either because he wants to bully the independent Dr. Rosenthal into seeing things the Republican way or because he doesn’t trust his hand-picked co-chair Jay Webber to bully the Democratic commissioners.

Governor Christie makes good television and YouTube sound bites. His popularity is on the rise because he comes across as sincere and tough at the same time - something that has been missing in American politics. Compared to the rest of the Republican presidential field, he even presents a modicum of sanity. But none of these qualities indicate that he is a good governor. It’s time that he drop his extra-curricular activities, embrace transparency, and start serving all the people of New Jersey, not just his cronies.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Obama Fires 2000 Teachers

President Obama just fired 2000 teachers. Well, not really. But the cost of the scores of cruise missiles that were recently fired on Libya could pay for 2000 teachers for one year. I wonder what the impact of this will be on future generations? Could one of those teachers have been the inspiration for a middle school student to go into medical research and find a cure for cancer? Could another have been the spark that kindles an interest in writing that would have propelled a high school student to be the next Mark Twain? We’ll never know.

Of course, the cost of the cruise missiles and the missed opportunity to hire teachers instead is just the tip of the iceberg. Besides the additional expenses of fuel, troops, and equipment, this incursion into a third Muslim nation costs lives - both on the battlefield and in what the Defense Department euphemistically calls “collateral damage.”

What ever happened to diplomacy? And if diplomacy were to be unsuccessful, what ever happened to non-combative military actions like embargoes? It seems that today our leaders have decided on war as the option of first resort. I can only imagine what would have happened if President Kennedy acted like Bush or Obama when the Soviets placed offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. Through a combination of diplomacy and blockades, JFK was able to get the Communists to remove those missiles. Yes - he did inherit the Bay of Pigs plan from his predecessor, but JFK’s main thrust was non-military - and it worked.

Today, unless you have a loved one in the military, war has become sterile, remote, and nothing more than a video game played on the nightly news. The financial cost of the war is hardly considered during the intense debates about the budget deficit. The civilian population is generally immune from the sacrifices of war.

Perhaps we were naive when we expected Barack Obama to be more deliberate in his actions than his predecessor was. But Obama’s incursion into Libya, if not illegal, is at least unwise. It is unwise morally and it is unwise politically. As we have seen in the last election, Democrats who act like Republicans lose to real Republicans. What will it take to get a real Democrat in the White House?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shared Sacrifice

Republican governors are fond of spreading the myth that they are addressing states’ budget crises by imposing “shared sacrifice.” These lies are transparent to everyone when we see that millionaires and corporations are paying little of no tax, while the middle class “shares” the burden alone.

But today, there’s another area where shared sacrifice is sorely needed. That’s in the prosecution of the ill-advised wars of choice in the Middle East. Not only do the poor and middle class pay a disproportionate portion of the financial cost of the war, but they also are burdened with a disproportionate portion of the human suffering.

Columnist Mark Shields conducted a survey at the start of the Iraq War to determine the number of sons and daughters of congresspeople who were in the enlisted ranks of the armed forces. Not surprisingly, the answer was one - a son of Democratic South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson. It’s a lot easier for Congress to approve a war when they have no personal stake in its brutality.

People enlist in the volunteer military for many reasons. I’m sure there are thousands serving the nation today because of patriotism, altruism, and a desire to give something back to America - even if these wars are unnecessary. They deserve our gratitude and support, both during their time of enlistment, and (if they are lucky) after they come home to care for any physical and mental injuries they received on the battlefield. But in today’s economy, many are enlisting in the “volunteer” army because that institution is the employer of last resort. We are creating jobs for Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq instead of in the homeland, and we are spending education dollars to train young men and women to kill and destroy instead of training them to heal and build.

The only fair way to impose a truly shared sacrifice would be a reinstatement of the draft. Not the draft of the Viet Nam era, but a draft of all - men and women, straight and gay, and all but the most infirm. The new draft would require two years of service - either in the military or in the community, to be determined by the combination of a lottery and an individual’s physical abilities. And as a reward for this two years of service, draftees should receive free tuition at a college, trade school, or other institution that would prepare them for a post-service career - a wonderful investment in this country and its people.

The war in Viet Nam was ill-advised, but not nearly as much as today’s wars in the Middle East. That war lasted far too long, and the anti-war protests were finally able to convince the powerful to bring the troops home. There are no anti-war protests of the same scale today because today’s youth has no skin in the game. Today’s wars have lasted so long that we are becoming immune to reports of carnage and the deaths of Americans, Iraqis and Afghans.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced a resolution to bring all troops back from Afghanistan by 2014. This is a good start. Citizens should use their congresspeople’s support of this resolution as a litmus test for their votes.

Bring back the possibility of sending all kids to a war zone - those of the elite as well as those who enlist in the employer of last resort - and then we can have an honest debate on the necessity of these wars.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is Chris Christie Violating Federal Election Laws?

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

What’s the difference between Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin? Both have exacerbated their state’s deficits by giving tax breaks to millionaires while placing the burden of balancing the budget on the middle class. Both have made draconian cuts to services to the the poor, vulnerable, and senior citizens. Both have treated public servants with disdain. But there is one main difference. Governor Walker has been more effective in harming his state because he has a Republican majority in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature. Despite the fact that in New Jersey, many of the majority Democrats are DiNOs (Democrats in Name Only) and, like the national Democrats, have not shown the courage to stand up to the GOP’s destructive agenda, at least there are some in the legislature who are trying to put the brakes on Christie’s policies.

This November’s elections will be critical. Listen to this short video of Chris Christie’s threat to New Jersey, and then continue on.

As bad as things are in Trenton today, if Christie gets his way, we will be heading down the path to become another Wisconsin.  Wisconsin voters have had their rude awakening and realize the mistakes they made in the last election. Legislative recall efforts are underway and it appears that some of them will be successful. Whether or not this will take away Republican majorities in one of both of their chambers is yet to be seen. Do we want New Jersey to go through the same trauma?

If New Jersey’s legislature flips to GOP control, or even if the compliant Democrats succumb to the uncompromising GOP, the Garden State, its workers, and its citizens will suffer the same fate as those in the Badger State. That’s why it’s important to proactively support progressives like Jeff Gardner and Marie Corfield, who can join the “good” Democrats in Trenton like Senators Weinberg and Buono, and Assembly members Greenwald and Lampitt in attenuating the damage being imposed by the governor and his ilk.

The video that you just saw was taped at one of Governor Christie’s “town halls.” These events are funded by the taxpayer and are not inexpensive. As Pick’s Place points out, the supposedly open meetings have carefully chosen audiences. There’s dozens of uniformed and plain-clothed security people at these events, with their complement of earpieces and black SUVs. There’s a taxpayer-funded videographer to save Christie’s half-truths and outright lies for posterity. There’s the theatrics of Christie on a stage with robot-like doting supporters in the background, with doe-like eyes watching his every move. There’s the dramatic moment after he delivers his remarks and removes his jacket to answer questions from his hand-picked supporters. If by chance an opponent makes it to the front of the questioner’s line, there’s the inevitable glee from the governor when he can generate another YouTube moment to use in his campaign. And there’s the scripted reference to his Constituent Relations staffer to make the event appear to be non-political.

I’m no expert on election law, but these events appear to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law prohibiting use of taxpayer funds for electioneering. When the governor spouts out political talking points and does not listen to constituents, his intent is obvious. He does not discuss policy, nor does he go over pros and cons. It’s just a way that he gets a 15 second sound byte on the evening news and generates fodder for his political ambitions - all at taxpayer expense. This abuse of power by a Rove acolyte is not surprising, but is wrong. When will the Federal Election Commission investigate and put a stop to this waste of taxpayer money?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Jon Runyan - Show Us What You're Made Of

In the grand scheme of things, the lockout of the NFL players is a trivial blip. The disaster in Japan, the famine in Africa, and the destruction of the American Dream by the Corporate Tea Party are more important than football, and will fundamentally impact world history.

But many of us are football fans. We enjoy watching the Eagles make their annual futile attempt to garner Super Bowl rings. Rumor has it that there are even some fans of the Giants and Jets in New Jersey.

Certainly, the NFL provides an economic boost to the cities in which it plays - an important factor in these troubled economic times. So how can today’s labor-management impasse be resolved?

Ex NFL offensive player and current Congressman Jon Runyan should step in and personally take charge of the negotiations. He’s in an ideal position to do so. As a player, he understands the difficult labor issues facing these future millionaires in their short careers. As a congressman and a student at the world-renowned Wharton Business School, he understands the “management” side of the issues.

It’s difficult for a freshman congressman to make an impact. But Runyan has a golden opportunity to do so by rolling up his sleeves, bringing both parties to the table, and using his legendary toughness along with the “kindler, gentler” Jon that he espoused during his campaign, to come up with a solution that’s fair to both sides.

Some may say that this would be too ambitious - after all, Runyan’s full-time job is that of a congressman, and diverting his attention to resolving the NFL labor dispute would be too much. But during the campaign, Runyan showed himself to be a hard worker, and if he misses a some sessions in Congress, so what? He always votes lock-step with the GOP majority, so a few missed votes won’t make a difference.

So come on, Jon. Show us that you can accomplish something positive. Use your political capital and football connections to bring both sides together and negotiate a settlement. Hire someone to take care of your donkey farm for a few weeks. And let me watch your former team disappoint me on Sunday afternoons this Fall.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why Peter King Matters

There’s been a lot written about Islamophobe and Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Homeland Security Committee, Representative Peter King of New York, and his McCarthy-like witch hunt scheduled to start today. King’s hearings, “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response,” is nothing more than political grandstanding almost ten years after the September 11 attacks.

King is not unique in his bigotry - after all, Glenn Beck, Pamela Geller, and other fringe elements have been claiming that “all Muslims are terrorists” for years. This is like saying “all priests are child molesters”, or “all Christians are terrorists because Timothy McVeigh and Scott Roeder were terrorists.” Or even “all politicians are terrorists” because the very same Mr. King supported a terrorist organization that murdered hundreds of civilians several decades ago, the IRA.

King’s fear-mongering is more insidious than, say, Glenn Beck’s. King is in a position of power, and just as his predecessor Senator Joe McCarthy did, King has the power to ruin innocent lives by innuendo and falsehoods. Even more importantly, the congressman’s actions will invariably result in more, not less, violence. The hearings are a godsend for Al Qaida’s recruiting efforts.

Are there radical Muslims? Sure. Just as there are extremist Christians, Jews, Republicans, and environmentalists. But King’s hearings are designed to paint with a broad brush of hate when the congressman asserts that there are too many mosques in the United States.

Violent extremism must be investigated by the appropriate agencies - the police and FBI. And to be effective, much of this must be done outside of the limelight of the press. King’s grandstanding goes counter to the goal of making this country safe.

My Republican friends are fond of noting that “elections have consequences.” (Apparently they discovered this in 2010, but were unaware of it in 2008). And we will have to live with the consequences of Congressman King’s hatred, venom, and demagoguery for the next two years.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A New Definition of Insanity

The Republicans keep railing that the federal deficit is out of control. So if the government could find a way to get back ten dollars for every one dollar it invests, that would seem to be a good deal, right? Well, not according to the fiscally incompetent Republican party.

The case in point is the Internal Revenue Service. The Republicans have made tax cheating easier by cutting $600 million from the IRS audit budget. The IRS is the agency that recoups money from tax cheaters in a ten to one ratio. So while the president is pushing for an investment of an additional 9 percent in the agency’s budget to make tax cheating more difficult, the GOP is moving in the opposite direction, trying to gut the IRS’s audit ability.

The reasons are clear. The Republicans have consistently exhibited disdain for government, even though they work for that very same government. They would rather spend endless trillions of dollars on the wars of choice in the Middle East which fatten their coffers with profits from their corporate interests. They would rather allow their benefactors to take advantage of tax loopholes, some legal and some quite dubious, so that large corporations like Exxon-Mobil pay zero taxes while receiving government subsidies. They would rather put the tax burden on the middle class and foment class warfare in hopes of regaining and retaining power to do more of the same harm to the American way of life.

Remember the surpluses of the mid-90s? According to Colleen Kelley of the National Treasury Employees Union, the staffing level of the IRS today is only 80% of what it was back then, and the Republicans want to gut it further, putting more people on the unemployment rolls - people whose jobs return ten dollars to the treasury for every one dollar of their salary. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.