The science and politics of global warming

November 14, 2016

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming by Joshua P. Howe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

howeEveryone knows that the climate is changing and that the effects upon the world we know are unnerving. Sea ice is melting, ocean levels are rising, deserts are increasing in size, plants and animals are finding it difficult to survive in their traditional locations. Long-term effects upon human populations are unsettling.

Even though these changes are widely recognized, many people deny the scientific consensus and even more people resist efforts to counteract climate change? This is the state of affairs in the United States that Joshua P. Howe discusses in his book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. His purpose is to answer the question: “How can our science be so good and our policy response so incommensurate to the scale of the climate threats that scientists have identified?” (ix)

Howe’s purpose is to describe the complex array of political, environmental, and economic powers that are intertwined with scientific knowledge and guidelines concerning environmental pollution, its causes, impacts, and solutions. When we understand these varied, competing forces, we may be able to develop effective programs to save the planet.

The curve in in the book’s title refers to a graphic display of CO2 measurements that Charles David Keeling made at Mauna Loa from 1958­–1971. These measurements show a steady, smooth rise in the amount of this odorless, tasteless gas in the atmosphere. The steady rise showed that an earlier scientific consensus concerning CO2 was incorrect. The oceans and other natural features did not reabsorb this gas, and instead the negative effects were increasing.

Interest in atmospheric conditions became more important with the detonation of atomic weapons and in the complex political tensions of the Cold War. Howe describes these interactions both in the United States and on the international scene. He devotes a chapter to the rise and fall of the SST, the supersonic airliner that finally was set aside both because of its negative effects on the atmosphere and its great cost.

He explains how traditional environmentalists resisted the politicizing of these issues, thus creating a rift with the scientific community. He provides a detailed accounting of international conferences, agreements, and treaties aimed at curbing pollution. He describes the shifting political currents within the United States that have made it difficult for U.S. political leaders to embrace the more demanding international agreements.

Throughout the book, Howe often refers to “the forcing function of knowledge,” which holds that “a better scientific understanding of the problem of climate change would force appropriate political action” (9). Howe characterizes this “overweening faith in the power of science to inspire political action” as a top-down approach to establishing new policies.

It is difficult to believe that more science can force environmentally sensitive policy. Howe convincingly shows that with respect to climate change and everything related to it, the top-down approach has and will continue to fail. The reason? Because “the science-first approach has at times actually undermined the kinds of moral and political discussions that many global warming advocates, ironically have relied on science to foster” (203).

At book’s end, however, Howe does offer a glimmer of hope, a bottoms-up approach to solving the climatic challenges facing us. He bases this hope on the “real desire to build better, healthier, and more responsible communities.” He refers to climate action plans that are beginning “to use the mechanisms of municipal, county, and state government to shoot for the middle.” Local initiatives “give communities a chance to reorganize themselves as if the abstract global climatic good mattered to everyone, every day. This is something new” (206).

I wish that Howe had given us one more chapter with representative examples of this bottoms-up approach in action. He could have included examples from his own city (Howe teaches at Reed College in Portland, Oregon), with its emphasis upon public transportation and discouragement of private automobiles in the central city, and with the serious efforts to infill the old city and resist urban sprawl.

Even more important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election, would be suggestions on how the bottoms up approach could work in regions of the United States, such as the coal mining states, whose way of life is in the cross hairs of the conflict between the science and politics of global warming.

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The muscle, mind, and heart of a long bicycle ride

November 10, 2016
Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

A custom practiced by many open road cyclists is to do a birthday ride: a mile for every year of life. I’ve kept the practice many of my cycling years, but for some reason it keeps getting harder. “Of course, it will,” some would say. “More years of life, more miles to ride, and fewer muscles!”

Twice in recent years, I met the challenge by signing up for sponsored rides. The loneliness of the road was dispelled by hundreds of other cyclists so that at no point was I out of sight of others who were wending their way over the beautiful terrain of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

This year, however, I would be doing it on my own. No century ride to join and no cycling buddy to keep me company. Even so, I was determined to devote my birthday to this purpose. The simplest way would be to take Lafayette Road to the 30-mile mark at Lebanon, continue on this same road until my bike computer read 42.5 miles, and then reverse course to come back home.

The night before, however, I didn’t sleep well, and the weather forecast was unfavorable. At breakfast, I knew that the birthday ride was dead, for that day, anyway. The next day’s forecast was better, but I had appointments scheduled. The next day had an even better forecast and I decided that I would do my ride that day. Even so, I worried. The muscles of my aging body could probably power me that many miles, but motivation had withered away.

Then came an idea. At Lebanon I would abandon Lafayette Road and improvise a new route: northeast a few miles to State Road 47 and then east on that rural highway to the town of Sheridan. There I would travel southeasterly on State Road 38 until I stumbled onto the northern terminus of the Monon Trail.

Built on the abandoned route of an abandoned railroad, the trail’s southern terminus is on 10th Street, only a few blocks from my downtown Indianapolis home. The sections I’ve already traveled are wide and nicely paved, and cut a straight line through long established neighborhoods of Broad Ripple and Nora. In recent times it has been pushed further north through Carmel and on to 191st Street in Westfield.

On previous visits to Indianapolis, I have cycled as far north as Carmel, and my birthday ride would give me the chance to explore the northernmost section and ride the trail from top to bottom. My online searches, however, provided ambiguous or conflicting information about the upper segments of the trail. Clearly the physical challenge would be overshadowed by the intellectual excitement of actually finding the elusive trail and keeping on it.

Wednesday morning was beautiful, the best day of the week. The ride to Lebanon was fine. Drying corn that had been twelve feet tall when I went this way a month earlier had been harvested and the stalks cut down and removed.

At Lebanon I snacked a little and continued on my newly devised route. Now beyond the immediate signs of urban sprawl, I was riding through what looked like an updated version of traditional Indiana farm country, quiet and peaceful. At Sheridan, with my odometer reading forty-nine miles, I took a lunch break at a Dairy Queen at the junction with State Road 38 where I would back toward the city.

The high school girl who took my order told me that I didn’t have to ride to 191st Street because the Monon started right there in Sheridan, but her instructions on finding it were vague.

A couple who looked past retirement age sitting at another table came to my rescue. He had been the project manager for building the short section of the trail that travels through Sheridan. He described his work on the project and told me how to find the trailhead, which was less than a quarter of a mile from where we were sitting.

He too was vague in describing the trail south of Sheridan, and I soon discovered that it exists in disconnected segments, with virtually no signage to tell trail users how to move from one section to they next. A farmer standing near his shed and staff at a city park in Westfield filled in the missing information and I kept moving south, but this stopping and starting ate up time. At Broad Ripple, I left the trail to find supper, but daylight was fading and instead of eating I scurried south on familiar city streets to get home before dark.

Between the Dairy Queen and the trail head, my bike computer disappeared. Using Google maps for the computer less section, my estimate is that I fell short of my 85-mile goal by 5 or 6 miles. Close enough! At home, feasting on a Subway sandwich, I massaged sore muscles with my heart rejoicing.


The Warm Blood of God: John Muir’s Reflections on God and Nature

November 7, 2016

A review of The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography by Steven J. Holmes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)

holmesMy interest in John Muir began in 1953, soon after we moved to California, when I read his book, My First Summer in the Sierra. One reason why the book interested me was that some of Muir’s sensations during his early months in that state were echoed in my own experience eighty-five years later. I became aware of a second crossing of my life with Muir’s in the 1980s when I had been living in Indianapolis for nearly two decades. Reading his book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, I learned that he was living in Indianapolis in 1867 when he began the itinerary that was the turning point in his life.

In 2009 I discovered a third crossing point. Donald Worster’s 2008 biography of John Muir filled in much of the detail of the explicitly religious aspects of Muir’s early life. Although other writers had explored Muir’s religious pilgrimage, Worster’s book was where I learned that during his first two decades of life, Muir was identified with the same religious tradition as I, the Disciples of Christ, an American denomination that looks to Alexander Campbell as one of its spiritual founders.

During his brief time in Indianapolis, the congregation with which Muir was associated was located at the corner of Ohio and Delaware Streets near the city’s center and carried the name Christian Chapel. When the building was constructed (in 1857, a decade prior to Muir’s arrival) it was reported to be the largest church house in the city. The congregation changed its name to Central Christian Church in 1879 and four years later moved to a new building, which it still occupies, a few blocks to the north at Delaware and Walnut Streets. Muir’s name does not appear in church records, but Levi and Susan N. Sutherland, with whom he lived during his time in Indianapolis, are listed in the membership roll. Their address at 59 East McCarty Street was just a mile south of the church’s location.

My interest in the religious aspects of Muir’s early life is heightened and informed by Steven J. Holmes’ 1999 book, The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, which I recently found at the Indianapolis Public Library. The book began as a dissertation at Harvard University where Holmes had studied in programs (at the university and at the divinity school) in American Civilization and History and Literature. Read more . . . holmes-the-young-john-muir