Finite Resource

You may have seen the photo of Congressman Joe Barton (R-Tx), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, staring at the audience with a vapid expression and making the incredibly stupid remark:  the “wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow down the wind which would cause the temperature to go up.” The photo with that caption is making the rounds of the social media, though you probably thought it was on Fox News. It may have been.

It does give one hope when a conservative politician admits that there is such a thing as global warming, that what we do can alter the climate. So perhaps we should be pleased with that aspect of the man’s comment. I leave that to the optimists among us, those who insist on seeing the half-empty glass half full. I, on the other hand, think that this man sits on one of the most important sub-committees in Washington that helps determine our energy policies and it makes me shudder. But Barton is right about this: there is a finite resource in this country these days; but it’s not wind, it’s intelligence.

I had a discussion the other day with a local businessman who was chortling over a political cartoon in the paper that showed people shoveling out from under the some of the tons of snow Minnesota has received this Winter while making snide remarks about global warming. It was inevitable: a very cold Winter with a good deal of snow has many folks in this region of the country convinced that global warming is a fiction. They don’t grasp the concept of “global warming.” It’s not just Minnesota and it’s not just this Winter: it’s a trend and the trend is clearly upwards. Just ask the folks on the South Pacific islands who are seeing their villages disappear under higher ocean levels. Or the folks in Alaska who are having to move entire towns further inland as the ocean encroaches. Or California which is experiencing the worst drought they have seen in years.

When I tried to point out these features of the situation, I could see the man’s eyes glaze over as he responded that a member of his church who “teaches science” had assured his fellow parishioners that present-day concern over global warming is due simply to today’s more precise measuring equipment. Global warming is not for real, it’s merely apparent. I didn’t ask what sort of “science” the man taught, at what level, or what his credentials were to be making pronouncements about world climate conditions. In fact, I let the matter drop. After all in a small town one meets these people on a regular basis and sometimes has to do business with them. You just shake your head and smile.

But I came away with an insight about why there is such widespread denial on the issue of climate change. We all know that in Washington the denial is due to the powerful influence of Big Oil that determines whether a politician’s career comes to an abrupt end or continues on its way with plenty of cash to see the politician through the next election. Big Oil doesn’t want those under their collective thumb to talk about climate change, except to deny it. So people like Barton open their mouths and say incredibly stupid things. Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. This was one of those times!

Outside of the Washington beltway I think it comes down to the fact that folks don’t want to accept the possibility that their own behavior contributes to global warming because that might mean they would have to alter their behavior. They don’t want to turn down their thermostats in the Winter or up in the Summer. They don’t want to drive more efficient cars or, better yet, walk or bike. In a word: they don’t want to be inconvenienced. Or, as we like to say, they don’t want to alter their “life-style.” So their arguments are accompanied by a closed mind and rest comfortably on the feelings of assurance they get from what they hear from Fox News, like-minded friends, and the science teachers in their church. They are convinced that things are just fine. Weather has always had its ups and downs after all; it has always been cyclical. This is nothing new and its only the liberal tree-huggers who try to tell us otherwise. Those who try to warn us are dismissed with a snort — as is a huge body of scientific evidence.

We humans are very good at dismissing arguments we find discomforting by labeling the speaker: Oh, she’s a liberal, or Oh, he’s one of those right-wingers. Heaven forbid we should actually listen to the things they have to say — even if we don’t agree with them! We are also very good at rationalizing. It takes real courage to accept as true a claim that doesn’t fit nicely into our belief system, especially if it is an uncomfortable truth. It is much easier to reject the claim as false, regardless of the data, and embrace only those beliefs that make us feel comfortable  — which is simply more evidence that intelligence is a finite resource and seems to be diminishing rapidly. Just as the wind would be if we tried to harness it, apparently.

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Targeting Terrorists

A very unsettling news item recently surfaced about the drones this country has been routinely employing in such places as Pakistan to target terrorist leaders. The very fact that this country would resort to terror to fight terror is disturbing, especially when innocent civilians are killed in the drone strikes. But the rationale for these strikes is even more bothersome, since it puts me in mind of a blog I wrote some time ago about how nation-states set ethics aside when they engage in horrible acts they regard as in “the national interest.” This country was supposed to be above such acts. In this case we are told in a recent HuffPost news item the determination of when and where to use these drones “in the national interest” has become a political issue:

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One concern that is receiving a good deal of attention is the possibility of illicit extension of executive power — a constitutional issue that will bear careful scrutiny by constitutional lawyers and political pundits. I am more interested in the moral issue, as we all should be. After all, ours is a democracy that was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions placing “humane” restraints on modern warfare. Those restraints have been found wanting recently by our incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. But this policy takes us even further away from the ideals.

The issue here is not so much that this policy allows for the killing of American citizens — which has already been accomplished — but that it condones the killing of suspected terrorists in crowded areas where, regardless of nationality, innocent people will also die. The notion that we — that is to say, this country — routinely order drones into crowded urban areas with the intention to “take out” an alleged leader of al-Qaeda “even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.” on the grounds that this is “consistent with applicable law of war principles” is morally reprehensible. What, precisely, are those principles? And how do we determine which ones are “applicable”?

If the drones were used against presumed terrorists in the streets of Los Angles or New York by our enemies we would assuredly not recognize this as “lawful killing.” What we would not allow to have done to our own citizens in this country — or anywhere else — we should not regard as morally acceptable when done by our own leaders to suspected terrorists, no matter how “high” the level of the “official of the United States” happens to be who makes this dreadful decision.

As a student of rationalization — the attempt to find reasons for doing what we are going to do anyway — I am struck by the claim that “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” To begin with, how are those killings in any way “lawful”? What laws apply in this case? — certainly not moral laws. And certainly not moral principles as we can see from the fact that a neutral observer reading about such a “lawful killing” would never agree that it is not an assassination. Imagine what people in other countries must think of this nation when our leaders reason this way. Would we ourselves agree that it is not an assassination if “a lawful killing” targeted, say, the Secretary of Defense, or one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and killed several innocent bystanders in the process? We would be appalled, and we should be.