May 9, 2014 3:57 pm

No one trusts Washington on climate change

By Christopher Caldwell

In the age of the Iraq war and Obamacare, the government is hardly a trustworthy body

The 841-page National Climate Assessment released by the US government this week has been described as “sobering”, but Americans do not appear sobered. The report goes into astonishing detail about what severe climate change would mean – and what it means already to specific villages, mountains and beaches.

Permafrost is melting in Alaska. Storms are bringing more rain to New England. Bark beetles are multiplying out west. The warnings have been jazzed up with user-friendly graphic interfaces on the government website, the report’s dozens of authors have been made available to the press, and President Barack Obama discussed the report with TV weathermen before travelling around the country to talk about it.

Americans have been receiving such warnings for a decade. None has managed to rouse the country from its seeming indifference. Asked by The Wall Street Journal and NBC in January which of 15 issues were an “absolute priority for this year”, Americans ranked climate change last, far behind jobs, the minimum wage and the Iranian nuclear bomb.

The public actually has a pragmatic view on the climate – and it gets more environmentalist with every passing year. The Pew poll shows that even Republicans back stricter emissions controls on power plants, something many expect Mr Obama to push for in June.

But the issue of climate change comes saturated in politics. On Wednesday, before the ink was even dry on the climate assessment, Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid gave a speech on the floor of the chamber denouncing David and Charles Koch, top Republican donors, as “one of the main causes of global warming”. Under the circumstances, Republicans are no more likely to help Mr Obama pass his climate-change agenda than Democrats are to help Republicans hold hearings on the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi in 2012.

The report begins by noting that “corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience”. Iowans are always courted by politicians because they have an early presidential primary, but oyster growers and maple syrup producers are perfect examples of the kind of people neither party gives a hoot about.

The timing of the report’s release is opportune, given Mr Reid’s promise to hold a vote on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which Mr Obama has doggedly opposed. Certain oil-state Democrats would like to get on record a (meaningless) vote in favour of the pipeline, but the climate change report will help cover the many more Democrats who will have to vote against.

Some of the report’s authors call their publication “actionable science”. That is a good expression. While there is scientific information in it, it will be more useful as a source of talking points for climate change activists. Each chapter begins with a section of bullet-pointed “key messages”, and the chapters are packed with environmental vignettes. The authors seem to have forgotten that weather is not the same thing as the climate; they have mixed in vivid weather stories. One photo caption reads: “Construction near forests and wildlands is growing. Here, wildfire approaches a housing development.”

Former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman wrote recently of having watched a debate at which “all the Republican candidates chuckled at a question on climate change – as if they had been asked about their belief in the Tooth Fairy”. Mr Obama said last January: “Climate change is a fact.”

Mr Huntsman and Mr Obama assume the argument about global warming is over science. That is true in the academy. It is false among the public at large, where probably 99 per cent of those urged to form an opinion on global warming cannot verify the science independently.

This includes almost all the politicians and – let us be clear – most reporters and columnists, too. Their only choice is to find a trustworthy authority on whom they can rely. In the age of the Iraq war and the Affordable Care Act, where is such an authority to be found? Until government re-establishes a reputation for baseline competence and probity, the public will be rightly suspicious of any big project for which enthusiasm must be drummed up.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

domingo, mayo 11, 2014



Photo of Joseph E. Stiglitz


Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, was Chairman of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and served as Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank. His most recent book is The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future.

A Light Unto Cities

NEW YORK – Last month, a remarkable gathering occurred in Medellín, Colombia. Some 22,000 people came together to attend the World Urban Forum and discuss the future of cities. The focus was on creating “cities for life” – that is, on promoting equitable development in the urban environments in which a majority of the world’s citizens already live, and in which two thirds will reside by the year 2050.
The location itself was symbolic: Once notorious for its drug gangs, Medellín now has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative cities in the world. The tale of the city’s transformation holds important lessons for urban areas everywhere.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, cartel bosses like the infamous Pablo Escobar ruled Medellín’s streets and controlled its politics. The source of Escobar’s power was not just the hugely profitable international cocaine trade (fueled by demand in the United States), but also extreme inequality in Medellín and Colombia. On the steep Andean slopes of the valley that cradles the city, vast slums, virtually abandoned by the government, provided a ready supply of recruits for the cartels. In the absence of public services, Escobar won the hearts and minds of Medellín’s poorest with his largesse – even as he terrorized the city.
One can hardly recognize those slums today. In the poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo, the city’s new Metrocable system, consisting of three lines of aerial gondolas, serves residents hundreds of vertical feet up a mountainside, ending their isolation from the city center. The commute is now minutes, and the social and economic barriers between the informal settlements and the rest of the city are on their way to being broken down.
The problems of the city’s poor neighborhoods have not been erased, but the benefits that the infrastructure improvements have brought are brilliantly evident in the well-kept houses, murals, and soccer fields perched near the gondola stations. The cable cars are only the most iconic of the projects for which Medellín last year won Harvard University’s Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design, the most prestigious award in the field.
Beginning with the mayoralty of Sergio Fajardo (now the governor of Medellín’s department, Antioquia), who took office in 2004, the city has made major efforts to transform its slums, improve education, and promote development. (The current mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, has affirmed his commitment to continuing on this path.)
Medellín constructed avant-garde public buildings in areas that were the most run down, provided house paint to citizens living in poor districts, and cleaned up and improved the streets – all in the belief that if you treat people with dignity, they will value their surroundings and take pride in their communities. And that faith has been more than borne out.
Throughout the world, cities are both the locus and the focus of society’s major debates, and for good reason. When individuals live in close quarters, they cannot escape major societal problems: growing inequality, environmental degradation, and inadequate public investment.
The forum reminded participants that livable cities require planning – a message at odds with prevailing attitudes in much of the world. But without planning and government investment in infrastructure, public transportation and parks, and the provision of clean water and sanitation, cities won’t be livable. And it is the poor who inevitably suffer the most from the absence of these public goods.
Medellín holds some lessons for America, too. Indeed, recent research shows how inadequate planning has fueled economic segregation in the United States, and how poverty traps have formed in cities without public transportation, owing to a shortage of accessible jobs.
The conference went beyond this, emphasizing that “livable cities” are not enough. We need to create urban areas in which individuals can flourish and innovate. It is no accident that the Enlightenment – which led in turn to the fastest and largest increases in living standards in human history – unfolded in cities. New thinking is a natural consequence of high population density, provided the right conditions are met – conditions that include public spaces in which people can interact and culture can thrive, and a democratic ethos that welcomes and encourages public participation.
A key theme of the forum was the emerging consensus on the need for environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development. All of these aspects of sustainability are intertwined and complementary, and cities provide the context in which this is most clear.
One of the biggest obstacles to achieving sustainability is inequality. Our economies, our democracies, and our societies pay a high price for the growing gap between the rich and poor. And perhaps the most invidious aspect of the widening income and wealth gap in so many countries is that it is deepening inequality of opportunity.
Some cities have shown that these widely observed patterns are not the result of immutable economic laws. Even in the advanced country with the most inequality – the US – some cities, like San Francisco and San Jose, are comparable to the best-performing economies in terms of equality of opportunity.
With political gridlock afflicting so many national governments around the world, forward-thinking cities are becoming a beacon of hope. A divided US seems incapable of addressing its alarming increase in inequality. But in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected on the promise of doing something about it.
While there are limits to what can be done at the local level – national taxation, for instance, is far more important than municipal taxes – cities can help ensure the availability of affordable housing. And they have a special responsibility to provide high-quality public education and public amenities for all, regardless of income.
Medellín and the World Urban Forum have shown that this is not just a pipe dream. Another world is possible; we need only the political will to pursue it.