Corona Conquers All

America Is Trapped in Trump’s Blind Spot

The coronavirus forces a personal response from all of us, even if we decide to do nothing about it. Yes, there are people out there who party and congregate at the beach, and you find yourself hoping they come down with a bad case of the disease. Or maybe they escape it and survive, justifying their stupid nonchalance. You also find yourself hoping Trump will test positive.

But you can’t get away from personally dealing with a pandemic like this. I want to talk a little about my response and how it necessarily must displace our concerns about the climate. At least for the moment.

I live in Mexico, which is mostly unprepared for the oncoming disease. The next few weeks presumably will show how woefully unprepared we are. I’m personally at greater risk than most—because of my age (85), sex (male) and medical history (asthma, some emphysema). Like most of us, my urge to continue a normal life conflicts with the need to take some real precautions.

So I’m trying to get used to doing all the recommended stuff, like sanitizing surfaces, wearing a mask when I shop, washing hands, isolating. (I haven’t yet taken to wearing the mask but that will be next.) I got a lecture from my friends last night about being more careful about such things. Sometimes you need to hear this from others.

Andrew Sullivan recently wrote about his case. His words apply to me:

I have chronic asthma and consider my somewhat neurotic attempts to avoid this virus a prudent way to spare any hospital a future ventilator I would almost certainly need to survive. And there’s another reason for wearing [masks] outside as a matter of course: You show the world that you’re all-in on restraining the virus. And that helps encourage others to do the same. It’s a bit like those “I Voted” stickers you wear after doing your civic duty. It reinforces a social norm. Plagues, like wars, require some kind of solidarity over the long haul—and masks help visually express that.

Sullivan catalogs a few of the odious things that get drowned out by the virus, like “the constant harping of the woke” with their insistent assertion of their own identities. Isolation and quiet allow for new, reflective experiences. “For a blessed period, the truth matters—not a narrative, not a construct, and not your truth or my truth, just biology and humanity in a dance repeated endlessly in human history between viruses and bodies.”

Listening to the birds sing, for instance, enjoying the presence of a pet, dismissing the phony drama of Trump’s press conferences, just chilling out: these are the benefits of isolation and a kind of quietism. I’m lucky enough to have a great collection of music that will keep boredom at bay.

I’m also lucky enough to live in Mexico, not Seattle and New York where my kids live. Even as we await the plague, it teaches us how to simplify things and put on a new set of glasses.

Threat Assessment

Weather: A novel

Global Climate in 2015-2019: Climate change accelerates

Every Democrat should run on Trump’s disastrous budget proposal

What most keeps you up at night? Thinking about Trump or climate change? Which is the worst threat? Or maybe it’s getting the kids off to school tomorrow?

The answer for many would be Trump, who thrusts himself constantly before us, one high crime and misdemeanor after another, every day a new offense to law and the polity. Climate change recedes to the background because our field of view is so narrow. And yet the daily impacts of both are sometimes comparable, I think.

Jenny Offill’s novel Weather plays with both threats by putting them in the context of a Brooklyn librarian’s daily life concerns and patterns. Lizzie’s words, full of insight and humor, carry the freight of Trumpism and climate change that are behind her daily attempts to succor people and keep a normal life going. She wonders whether to buy a gun. The book plays with the metaphor of weather and how we are all connected.

The impacts of climate short-term are fires, floods, famine and storms—all mostly determined by changes in weather. Weather is our barometer. Long-term, the changes predicted are more frightening and less predictable: sea level rise, heat, populations on the move, illnesses increasing, vast ecological changes. But it seems less and less possible to diminish these to the background, as Lizzie’s life demonstrates.

At one point she interrupts her thoughts with:

People Also Ask
What will disappear from stores first?
Why do humans need myths?
Do we live in the Anthropocene?
What is the cultural trance?
Is it wrong to eat meat?
What is surveillance capitalism?
How can we save the bees?
What is the internet of things?
When will humans go extinct?

Trump is small potatoes compared to this. Or is he? Each daily dose of scandal displaces the last. As in climate change, the effects pile up and accelerate. Look at Trump’s proposed 2021 budget! The push for political change finally becomes inescapable. The push to deal with climate change will become so.

Meditations on a Runaway Crisis

I make it a practice here of giving you three linked articles at the outset that reflect, to some degree, my opinions. It’s part of the tradition of argument to bolster one’s opinions with evidence. So maybe it’s time for my opinions unfiltered.

Climate has become an imponderable, a cloud that never dispenses rain, a storm that never breaks. By that I mean the more we understand the depths of climate change, the more stymied we are in doing something about it. Most of us who aren’t deniers recognize the enormity of the problem but despair of moving the political forces that are needed to attack it. We are immobilized.

As the heat, storms, floods and droughts become increasingly common, more and more people report instances of “climate grief,” high anxiety and depression about what they see ahead. It seems like “a massive government conspiracy to kill us all,” with people increasingly reporting feelings of despair and panic.

I’m not there yet, still too much of a rationalist to give in to despair, still looking to implement answers that are staring us in the face. I ask, what causes this immobility in the face of disaster? Are we like the fools who went to New Zealand’s White Island to watch the volcano explode and got killed in the process?

Climate is like impeachment—the perfect disaster for the Trump era. We all stand by watching a process unfold that we can’t affect while Republicans blow smoke and defend the indefensible. As the climate outlook gets grimmer, with shocking UN reports and more detailed studies, we learn that the oceans are far worse off than we thought, that permafrost thawing in the Arctic will blow holes in our predictions of CO2 in the atmosphere, that the time to apply any fix gets shorter and shorter.

Some offer up palliatives like the Green New Deal when they should be pursuing more achievable first steps like a carbon tax. Some seem to wallow in their grief when they should be out marching in protest. Others look to a false savior like Trump or Boris. All seem to fear for the future.

I have no simple answers but one: get out of yourself and do something that will have political impact. You don’t need therapy, you need action. Politics is the key to all reform efforts and it must be the first response to climate change. Immediately, let’s vote out the Republicans, who are simply “unreachable” on climate. It’s a time for taking sides. The second step is to unify the unwieldy Democrats behind an achievable, staged program of amelioration. The right is always motivated by fear; let the left be motivated by solidarity and action.

David Roberts of Vox put it well here:

To motivate people to action, you have to give them meaningful changes to fight for, people to fight alongside, and, just as importantly, enemies to fight against. You can’t stay on the sidelines, welcoming everyone to the table. You have to pick a side.

Finally, grieving over climate is like grieving over Trump: it gets you nowhere. Pick a side and get to work. Accept the fact that, whether you like it or not, climate will be a political battle.

Trump on Climate Change

It’s possible that Trump doesn’t actually know what climate change is

Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript

Trump says climate change not a hoax, not sure of its source

If we had better criteria for impeachment, the president’s remarks on climate would form Article One. Yet, after pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, he’s babbled and hedged so many times on this that, as Philip Bump wrote, maybe he doesn’t know what climate change is. More probably, he knows but must defend the energy interests that support him. And so he waffles to smoke out his critics.

As in his response to Philip Rucker of the Washington Post:

“I think about it all the time, Phil. And, honestly, climate change is very important to me,” Trump replied. “And, you know, I’ve done many environmental impact statements over my life, and I believe very strongly in very, very crystal clear, clean water and clean air. That’s a big part of climate change.”

In 2016, his climate comments were a way to disparage Obama:

“So he talks about the carbon footprint, okay, and how important the carbon footprint is, I’m not supposed to use hair spray in my hair because it affects the ozone,” Trump said. “Now it fits in an apartment that is totally sealed, but it goes up and it affects the ozone. I don’t think so, personally. But you know, there’s a lot of money being laid on this in that sense.”

Later in 2019, it was the carbon footprint again in a sarcastic tweet:

I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called “Carbon Footprint” to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!

Then came this canard about wind turbines, which he had campaigned against because they would destroy views from his golf course:

“They’re all made in China and Germany, by the way, just in case you—we don’t make them here, essentially. We don’t make them here.” [This is not true.]

In October of this year, he backtracked on his earlier claim that climate change was a hoax. “I’m not denying climate change,” he said in the [60 Minutes] interview. “But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talking about over a … millions of years.” Earlier in 2012,

he sent a tweet stating, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He later said he was joking about the Chinese connection, but in years since has continued to call global warming a hoax.

Shortly after the election Trump sat for an extended interview with New York Times staff. There was a lengthy, very smoky discussion about climate change. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. asked Trump in a puffball question whether he had an open mind about it. The response was classic Trump. Is it obfuscation or a reflection of his disordered state of mind?

My uncle was for 35 years a professor at M.I.T. He was a great engineer, scientist. He was a great guy. And he was . . . a long time ago, he had feelings—this was a long time ago—he had feelings on this subject. It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know. I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists. Where was that, in Geneva or wherever five years ago? Terrible. Where they got caught, you know, so you see that and you say, what’s this all about. I absolutely have an open mind. I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important. Safety is vitally important.

And you know, you mentioned a lot of the courses. I have some great, great, very successful golf courses. I’ve received so many environmental awards for the way I’ve done, you know. I’ve done a tremendous amount of work where I’ve received tremendous numbers. Sometimes I’ll say I’m actually an environmentalist and people will smile in some cases and other people that know me understand that’s true. Open mind.

Gloom but not Doom?

What If We Stopped Pretending?

Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think

Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change

Climate change is like diarrhea. You never know when or where it’s going to hit. Climate change is like getting old. You know what’s coming but are powerless to prevent it. Climate change is like believing in God. As Pascal said, play it safe and believe.

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, social commenter and birdwatcher, took the fatalistic stance a couple of months ago in the New Yorker (What If We Stopped Pretending?) and got a lot of flak for it. He told us: “The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. . . . You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”

Denial seems to be part of our human makeup, or maybe it’s simply an inability to confront anything as far out in time as climate change. Bryan Walsh shows how the present dominates our minds and yet we often consider the welfare of future generations, as in working to cure cancer or trying to avert a catastrophic climate crisis.

Franzen talks about dystopian political denial and how to keep a democratic focus:

any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons — these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.

And yet his essay seems premised on prophetic doom and rather less on how we can face that impossible music. Facing such facts means taking climate science at something more than face value. Naomi Oreskes, who teaches environmental science at Harvard, has written (with others) two recent pieces that shed some harsh light that has been missing on climate science.

In Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change she explains why climate change has been “occurring far faster than predicted by theory” and why and how scientists have underestimated its severity and pace. In Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think, she reflects on how world political leaders “understand neither the magnitude of the risks to lives and livelihoods, nor the urgency of action.” A major reason is that economists have underestimated the impact of climate risks. Worse, they don’t factor in the cascading effects of even small changes. Worse still, what they don’t know or can’t account for, they dismiss or set the effect at zero.

In the face of all this, Franzen is not wrong in saying

a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.

The Lure of Travel, the Shame of Flying

If you care about your impact on the planet, you should stop flying

Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly.

When it comes to the environmental costs of flights ‘we need to figure out how to turn that shame into action’

Most of the friends I have in Oaxaca are Americans, most have money, and most love to travel—usually by air. And they tend to take several long-distance trips a year. These are smart people who understand (at least I think they understand) that aviation produces enormous amounts of carbon pollution.

Yet these folks are expats who have family in the U.S. or elsewhere. They are retired and yearn finally to indulge the urge to see the world. They have personal connections abroad or would create them. Flying seems to activate this kind of personal globalization in all its ambiguous consequences, and there are millions of travelers like them.

What are the costs of this sort of indulgence?

Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.

Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand.

And neither biofuels nor reduced demand are likely to happen soon. Putting it another way: a one-way flight from London to New York for each traveler in economy class will “put an extra 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air—about as much as taking a round-trip 15-mile commute every day for a year in a fuel-efficient car.”

So the question of whether or not to give up or restrict one’s flying typically becomes an ethical and very personal one. For me and my friends in Mexico, Oaxaca has recently improved its air service options, and with more airlines and more flights operating, we’re more tempted to use them. Bus travel within the country is much less polluting, and the buses are good. But if they have the money, most will choose to fly.

I fly to the U.S. maybe once a year to see family. I don’t like what air travel has become and I don’t want to contribute to climate pollution. Others will have different needs and convictions. Americans fly more than most anyone else in the world (and contribute the second-most pollution of any country). They are not going to quit flying but they should think long and hard before making any trip. They should also think long and hard about the systemic and political changes that the climate crisis demands. Shame and personal guilt are not enough.

Artisanal Martini Wisdom on Climate Change

Elizabeth Warren thinks corruption is why the US hasn’t acted on climate change

 How One Billionaire Could Keep Three Countries Hooked on Coal for Decades

 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home

We were drinking freshly distilled artisanal martinis at Ralph’s house (he makes his gin from a small still), and so after a time the subject of climate change had to come up. We also talked about the latest Trump outrage, Rashida Tlaib and Israel, uses of CBD oil, the broken bones in Epstein’s neck. Yet climate seemed to dominate, with several expressing strong opinions as to how the Democrats could approach the issue.

None of us felt the Dems were doing justice to the climate crisis, much less scoring any political points with their “programs.” They have invariably ducked the hard issues of cost and scale and failed to get much media attention. After another martini we generated several brilliant solutions to their problems.

Bryan thought that Elizabeth Warren, the policy maven, needed to make a strong capitalistic pitch.

“She has the brains to come up with a policy that meets some of the challenges but she doesn’t know how to sell it. The economic benefits are what’s going to sell it. The government will prime the pump and money will pour into software development, clean energy companies, biomass, electric cars, agriculture, all of that. Farmers will get rich. People will breathe clean air. The trade deficit will fall. Poverty will decline. The country will come back from its present madness.

“She’s got five climate change plans now. Who knows what any of those are? This is a capitalistic country, for God’s sake.”

Bryan got a round of applause, and Ralph took another approach. À propos my last blog post, which he and others found very depressing, the third martini produced this:

“My bedrock notion is that global warming/climate change can only be moderated with less resource consumption, especially carbon-based fuels. So how do we do this? Unless the global populace really, really lowers its carbon footprint (like taking sailboats to China to visit grandkids [Ralph’s is there]) or escapes materialism in the first place (not a chance—look at India’s buying coal from Australia to generate electricity to sell to Bangladesh), disastrous levels of global warming/climate change are inevitable.

“Other than some wacko techno fixes (like nuclear-powered ice machines on American-owned Greenland), the other approach I think holds promise would be to lower the world’s population—whether as: 1) a policy (China did it actually); or more likely 2) as a result of some as yet unknown and very nasty calamity (e.g., defective nuclear ice machines make all of Greenland melt, and hence the world’s oceans become deadly radioactive).”

We stood and cheered for this ode to climate fatalism. After that, I didn’t feel so bad about writing “The Climate Change Blues.” I wanted to end on a more hopeful note and so talked about Pope Francis’s encyclical of four years ago, Laudato Si’. 

You know, no one else has written anything like it. It is a directive to all of us to wake up and recognize the oneness of life. And it’s really much more than a Catholic document. It tells us that everyone is responsible for the health of the earth; everything is connected; and climate change is both a social and environmental crisis.”

Bringing a religious document into the discussion produced more discussion, of course. But who has a better grasp on reality—the Pope or Bill McKibben?

The Climate Change Blues

The Green New Deal isn’t big enough

Climate change will force 120 million people into poverty

What I learned writing about climate change and the US south for a year


The outlook is full of distressing signs. A climate change blues plays in heavy rotation on our interior Spotify. It echoes the rainstorm that never quits, the drought that never ends. Try applying analytical reason or talking about solutions, and you confront boundless examples of human inertia, narcissism, bias and denial.

One problem is the vast scale that a viable solution requires. The Green New Deal by itself can’t stave off calamity even if the US adopted it. It’s not nearly enough because the problem is global and historic. The U.S. and other wealthy nations will have to kick in vast amounts of money in “climate finance” to mitigate emissions in developing countries, not to mention their own. Electorates show no sign of being willing to do this.

The leaders of developing nations aren’t suckers, and they know how dire the problem is. They have something rich countries want (emissions reductions), and they’d be fools to just give it away for free, even if they could. If we want them to succeed, it’s going to cost us, and we’ll need to move quickly. The science is clear: We do not have another decade to waste.

Likewise, Philip Alston, author of a devastating UN report, finds that

mainstream discussions about climate change are remarkably out of touch with the scale of the crisis and the economic and social upheaval it will bring. Political leaders have failed to put forward a vision for avoiding catastrophic consequences or protecting those most affected. . . . 

[Climate change] will impoverish hundreds of millions, including middle class people in wealthy countries. It will push 120 million people into poverty by 2030 alone, and could lead to a “climate apartheid” scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.

While American attitudes toward the climate crisis vary significantly, many people in rural regions like the South have powerful interests in promoting denial. A climate reporter for The Guardian comments:

A Pew survey indicated that white evangelical protestants are the least likely to profess a belief in climate change. Power companies, developers and conservative politicians have a vested interest in deregulation and maintaining the environmental status quo, and many paint environmental concerns as nothing but liberal pagan ideas.

In a region that recapitulates decades of delay and denial, some plan to stick it out at any cost and go down with the ship. Is it really any different with the rest of the country? Although their scale and threat have dramatically increased, floods, famine and extreme weather events have always been with us. Bessie may help us remember that “when it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow /there’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”

Individual Choices Don’t Really Count

The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich

There has been much talk about how individuals can fight climate change through making personal choices. Well, finally we have a study, reported by David Roberts in Vox, that proves out how silly most of that discussion has been.

The study concluded that the biggest impact on reducing your carbon impact was to “have one fewer child.” Everybody went up in arms about that and, as Roberts shows, there are three big problems with framing the problem as one of individual choices.

  1. Attributing children’s emissions to their parents is unworkable
  2. If you want avoided children, the developed world is the wrong place to look
  3. Not all children are created equal (that is, kids of the wealthy produce way more carbon emissions).

What becomes obvious is that “climate change is primarily being driven by the behavior of the world’s wealthy. The same disparity holds within countries, none more so than the US [where rich people] produce 10 times more per capita emissions than the wealthy in China. That is pretty mind-boggling.”

When the G20 leaders meet in a few days, they would do well to consider this graphic:

Eating less meat, flying less and driving less are of course good personal choices that primarily affect the local environment. Yet,

the very ones whose choices matter most seem least inclined to cut back on consumption. I mean, maybe you could persuade the developed-world wealthy to voluntarily downsize their lifestyles, but . . . have you met the developed-world wealthy? That doesn’t sound like them.

The obvious and most direct approach to addressing the role of individual choices in climate change is to tax the consumptive choices of the wealthy. For now, and for the foreseeable future, carbon emissions rise with wealth. Redistributing wealth down the income scale, ceteris paribus, reduces lifestyle emissions.