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?