(A few) opinion Leaders do get global warming — Part II

atlantic1.jpgSo we’ve seen much of the so-called intelligentsia ignore the global warming issue when asked by the Atlantic Monthly (subs. req’d) to consider the greatest challenges to the American idea. But not all of those asked were so short-sighted.

You would expect the one environmentalist they asked, Edward O. Wilson (essay below) to get it right, but how about, a Harvard constitutional law professor and his policy analyst/linguist wife:

  • Lawrence H. Tribe and Carolyn K. Tribe: “Our greatest national challenge is to reverse the profoundly misguided course the last two presidential elections have set, while doing three things…. Third, cooperating with the international community before it is too late to restore the degraded health of our fragile planet and to protect the well-being of all its inhabitants.”

Who else got it right, or partly right? John Updike, Anna Deavere Smith, and even Stephen Breyer:

  • John Updike: “The American idea, as I understand it, is to trust people to know their own minds and to act in their own enlightened self-interest, with a necessary respect for others…. The challenges ahead? A fury against liberal civilization by the world’s poor, who have nothing to lose; a ruinous further depletion of the world’s natural assets; a global warming that will change world climate and with it world geopolitics. The American idea, promulgated in a land of plenty, must prepare to sustain itself in a world of scarcity.

My point exactly!

  • Stephen Breyer: “This implies a shared commitment to practices necessary to make any democracy work: conversation, participation, flexibility, and compromise. Such a commitment cannot guarantee success in overcoming serious problems: terrorism, environmental degradation, population growth, energy security, and the like. But it does imply a certain attitude toward finding solutions.”
  • Anna Deavere Smith: “Even as I write this, sitting here in front of a bank of mountains and looking up at the very wide blue sky of the American West, anything seems possible. Actually, the environmentalists would say anything is possible–and that the possible is not necessarily a good thing. What is the future of the land? …
    Another essential element in the American idea is “for all”–as in “justice for all,” or “education for all,” or “health care for all.” Too few of us respond to the notion of “for all”; too few can even imagine “for all.” We endanger the survival of the American idea by that failure of imagination.The American idea is transforming itself–and not necessarily for the better. Even as I look out at this land, I find myself in doubt, about our environment and our society. Will we be able to ensure a future in which everyone on this land will be able to move from one valley to the next–to climb this mountain or the other one over there?

Alan Brinkley gets partial credit for saying the U.S. should be “an exemplar of ideals of potentially universal appeal: human rights, environmental responsibility….”Stan Lee mentions global warming in a comic strip response he did, though he writes “Is the warming of the earth mere fancy or fact,” so he can’t really get any credit for advancing the issue.

The prize, unsurprisingly, goes to E. O. Wilson:

The central issue for America is sustainable development. Somehow we, and other countries, have to find a way to continue raising the quality of life without wrecking the planet.

Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.


Let’s not kid ourselves that the United States is blessed by God. Our mostly European forebears were not given this land as a gift. They conquered it, and in the process they swept aside one race and enslaved another. They took possession of the world’s richest remaining store of natural resources and set out to use it up as fast as possible. We inherited from them, and still possess, a rich and bountiful country. Although we’re halfway down the barrel of nonrenewable resources, we have enough time remaining to learn the prudence necessary for sustainable development.

The problem, simply put, is this: Long-term thinking is for the most part alien to the American mind. We have to change that. To look far forward and to acquire enough accurate vision requires better self-understanding. That in turn will depend on a grasp of history–not just of the latest tick of the geological clock that transpired during the republic’s existence, but of deep history, across the hundreds of millennia when genetic human nature evolved. Our basic qualities may seem a crazy jumble of tribalism, piety, ambition, fear, envy, exaltation, and spirituality, but they make sense in light of humanity’s deep history. They are our essence, and now, unfortunately, a few of them also present the greatest risk to the security of civilization.

Conservation and environmentalism are not hobbies; they are a survival practice. America invented conservation; we launched the environmental movement. Now we need a stronger ethic, one woven in more effective ways from science and poetry. The foundation of it will be the recognition that humanity was born within the biosphere, and that we are a biological species in a biological world. Like the other species teeming around us, we are exquisitely adapted to this biosphere and to no other–in anatomy, physiology, life cycle, mind, and, perhaps in us alone, spirit.

An allegiance to our biological heritage will be our ultimate strength. If we ignore that reality and continue to degrade the world that gave us birth by extinguishing natural ecosystems and species, we will permanently harm ourselves. By cutting away our own roots, we risk losing the dream of sustainable development.


Here! Here!

25 Responses to (A few) opinion Leaders do get global warming — Part II

  1. Ron says:

    The American idea, as I understand it, is to trust people to know their own minds and to act in their own enlightened self-interest, with a necessary respect for others”

    And if they don’t act in their own enlightened self-interest (as you see it) then pass some laws and new taxes and TAKE the money necessary to make your plans happen …. right?

    “Although we’re halfway down the barrel of nonrenewable resources, we have enough time remaining to learn the prudence necessary for sustainable development.”

    But you don’t think we actually have that much time. Correct? Sure the evil oil will run out pretty soon, but we better act (and force everybody to act) real soon or we’re all going to hell ……

  2. Ron says:

    Would it be possible for you to get a scientist in here for a little guest blogging? You know, give us a real scientific viewpoint for once? Or are they all busy right now?

  3. John says:


    It’s that “with necessary respect for others” codicil you don’t get. When your “rights” trample others’ rights, they are no longer rights, they are trangressions. If you read the Constitution and the enlightenment thought underpinning it, then you’d understand this balance.

    Let me put it simply — you’re individual right to ride around in a Cadillac, live in a McMansion, and sop up fuel like a fool — emitting 7 or 8 tons of carbon in the process, does not trump the right of others to live, period. As in survive. It doesn’t trump the collective and individual rights of property owners on the Outer Banks in North Carolina to keep their land (gone in 3 decades at this rate), or the rights of Australians to grow enough food to survive, the rights of a hundred thousand other species to avoid extinction or any of a thousand other rights that belong to humanity and the biosphere.

    And yes, we face irrevocable consequences now, and oil is at or past peak, but that doesn’t mean we won’t face worse later if we continue to burn the oil, coal, and natural gas that are causing the problem. When you’re driving your car and find yourself heading for a collison with a brick wall, do you say, “Oh well. I’m going to hit it anyway. No sense putting on the brakes?”

    And by the way, if you’d read Dr. Romm’s book, you’d know he is a scientist — a PhD Pysicist, degreed from MIT.

    Your post was so devoid of both thought and knowldege it is an embarrasment to the deniers. I’m sure one of them will write you and suggest you leave the contrarian BS to more adept sophists. Your drivel does even them a disservice.

  4. Ron says:

    In other words, if you can reasonably ‘prove’ to yourself that you are right, then it’s okay to rob others and force them to go along with your plans. The end justifies the means. Is that what you are saying?

  5. Joe says:

    Ron: You need to get off this “rob others” nonsense. First, cap&trade isn’t robbery — unless you believe people have the right to pollute, the right to destroy the climate for the next 50 generations. It is the polluters who are robbing us and our children of our future. Laws are needed to stop such robbery, since people seem unable to do it voluntarily.

    And yes, as John says, I am a scientist, a physicist with training in physical oceanography. No, I am not a professional climate scientist — if you want a bunch of those, I have recommended repeatedly that you spend some time at I don’t want to duplicate their fine work, but I do believe it is important to highlight the science periodically.

  6. tidal says:

    The comments remind of this quote: “The environment is the libertarian Waterloo: it reveals the flaws of the doctrine in a way that seems to ensure that no ‘answer’ is forthcoming.”

  7. Ron says:


    I’m sorry if I have mistaken what you are saying. Are you now suggesting a voluntary, non-violent approach?


    “individual rights” may be the Left’s Waterloo….

  8. Ron says:

    Update: I bet he’s gonna run.

    Notice his understanding of the term ‘right’.

  9. Joe says:

    Ron — I’ll take that bet.
    Healthcare should be a right — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental rights. How do maintain life and how do you pursue happiness if you are sick.
    I support a mandatory, non-violent approach — The Obama proposal for instance.

  10. Ron says:

    Okay – How about a nice gentlemen’s bet of $1? I’ve figured he was going to run ever since I watched Inconvenient Truth and realized that about half of the movie was publicity for Gore, ‘the man who used to be the next president’. In a way I do feel sorry for him for losing that election and don’t blame him for being bitter about it, but he did understand how the electoral process worked going in, didn’t he?


    “Healthcare should be a right”. Hmmm.

    If you already believed it was a right, you would say ‘healthcare IS a right’, so this begs the question: How do you think rights are created and by whom?

    I know it sounds good to say it’s a right, and healthcare certainly is a necessity, but how would we pay for universal healthcare? Or more to the point, WHO would pay? We are back to robbing people to fund it, and that violates the rights of the people you are tapping for the cash, does it not?

    As John said above (without realizing the import of his words), “When your ‘rights’ trample others’ rights, they are no longer rights, they are transgressions.”

    And a “mandatory, non-violent” approach is an oxymoron. How would you enforce the law? If people failed to go along, how would you force them? Without force? I don’t get it.

  11. Ron says:

    Also, talking about violence – Do you care to distance yourself at all from the folks in your camp calling for Nuremburg-style trials for Deniers, or treating them as traitors (hanging? firing squad?) , or guys like Paul Watson calling for thinning the herd down below a billion, or any of those ‘proposals’ like that that so many people think are just crazy? Here’s a chance to show how centered and moderate you are. You do believe in the right of free speech, at least, don’t you?

  12. Joe says:

    There aren’t very many people in any camp calling for Nuremburg-style trials for Deniers. I am not in favor of such trials. What would the charge be anyway — we still have time to avert catastrophe. That said, I have little doubt as I have repeatedly said that if we don’t stop catastrophic global warming, history will judge us all very harshly — but obviously none more harshly than those who spread disinformation that led to delay.

    I am happy to distance myself from “thinning the herd” proposals. Not sure that makes me a moderate.

    Yes, people are free to call global warming a hoax. And I am free to call such speech an incredible breach of decency and morality. Shame on all of those who are working so hard to ruin this planet for the next 50 generations.

  13. john says:


    “In other words, if you can reasonably ‘prove’ to yourself that you are right, then it’s okay to rob others and force them to go along with your plans. The end justifies the means. Is that what you are saying?”

    No, that is not what I’m saying. I fortunately don’t have that kind of power. It was reserved to the government to redress offenses by the Constitution.

    And Joe is precisely right — the only theft that is occurring is the theft of my right to clean air and a stable climate, as well as the rights of 6.3 billion others living now, and countless billions more to come. There are also property rights at issue amounting to trillions of dollars.

    Now, what’s this nonsense about violence? Are you equating intelligent, market friendly regulations with violence?

  14. Ron says:

    You haven’t told me how the law can be enforced, without force.

    Force doesn’t equal violence, but it’s the threat of force that keeps people ‘in line’. That’s the opposite of voluntary. When we talk about controls on the economy, we are talking essentially about control at the point of a gun. That is what government is, in its basic essence. You add taxation and it’s really nothing more than a protection racket.

    Control of the economy is the opposite of a market, which depends on voluntary exchange. And market controls have an inconvenient tendency to be inefficient and counterproductive. Good ideas have a better chance of survival in a free market than under government control.

    And I think the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is pretty weak.

    But let’s say you are correct, and we’re going to Hell in a bucket, I gotta tell ya, you turn this project over to the government and the United Nations, with Al Gore as your spokesman for a new religion, and filter all that ‘new’ tax money and tariffs through those new layers of bureaucracy, and you’ll be lucky to see real results before you retire. You guys need a not-business-as-usual approach.

    And then if it doesn’t get hot in here after all, we’ll be back to Republicans for about 8 years ….

    You guys need to back up and convince Joe Public, like me, that the hypothesis is good. The propaganda has done all it can.

  15. Dano says:

    Wow. So much denial, so little time. Anyway,

    Not everything that is a good is in the tradeable market, as a recent Nobel winner sez:

    PRINCETON, New Jersey (Reuters) – Societies should not rely on market forces to protect the environment or provide quality health care for all citizens, a winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for economics said on Monday.

    “The market doesn’t work very well when it comes to public goods,” said Maskin, a slight, soft-spoken 57-year-old who lives in a house once occupied by Albert Einstein.

    And of course most know that The Free MarketTM (TM) won’t protect the environment. A good paper to help us understand why is here.

    Oh, BTW: society grants rights. Fortunately, the anti-others crowd is very small. Loud, but small.



  16. Dano says:

    hmmm. /sup not allowed. Is there a list around here of accepted HTML?


  17. john says:


    Approaches like cap and trade do not force people to do anything. Rather, they set boundary conditions within which the economy can operate without committing violence to others.

    That’s the fallacy in your line of thinking. In a democracy, people come together to make governments which protect them … the only “violence” I see being conducted is the corporations and citizens who insist that they have a right to screw up the world and kill untold numbers of our children and bankrupt the rest’s future because they want to drive SUVs or outsource their pollution costs and consequences to future generations because it’s their “right” to commit murder in the name of commerce.

    And you may not buy the science, but that is scintillatingly irrelevant. It is what it is whether you buy it or not.

    Finally, this “layers of bureaucracy” BS is getting a bit old. The federal government delivers better health care than the private sector at less than a third the cost. The social security system has an overhead of about a fifth of what privatized systems in other countries have. You’re still eating food in a world of 6.3 billion people because of a green revolution in agriculture conceived, funded and managed by the bad old gubmint; most of the medical breakthroughs of the past decade come from NIH; you’re driving on a highway system conceived funded and maintained by federal programs, people continue to invest in US securities because the government assures a fair and transparent market etc. etc. etc.

    The last 4 Nobel prizes in Economics have gone to economists who have dealth with market failures — so this whole myth of the magic markets as vehicles of just allocations and deliverers of all good things by pure serendipity is getting pretty old.

    Next time you want to channel Ronald Reagan, try to remember, he was only a B movie actor who was — sadly — suffering from Alzheimers while in office.

    Bottom line? When you drop the tired old rheotric and deal with facts, government is more often the solution, than the problem.

    If you’d like the last word, have at it. I’m through responding to you — it’s clear that reason, logic and facts have no place in your epistemological frame of reference.

  18. Paul K says:

    While Ron’s libertarian idealism is a tad over the top, your attack on Reagan is unwarranted and false. Reagan appeared in many “A” movies and was an early TV star. He had a distinguished career as a labor leader, governor and president. I never voted for him, but his accomplishments as president rank him among the best. Read his collected letters and you’ll see that contrary to the image, he was a thoughtful and intelligent man. There is no evidence he was suffering from Alzheimer’s while in office. BTW, I consider a properly constructed cap & trade system a “conservative” way to solve the carbon problem.

  19. Ron says:

    Well, thanks for the last word. That’s very gracious of you. I’m going to go over to Realclimate and see if I can find a scientist to comment on the hypothesis – but I expect they’ll call me names, too.

    Just remember I warned you that honesty, principle, and motives really do matter.

  20. Michael says:

    Better that the law forces you to do something now so that later you or your children are not forced by circumstances to do things that are even more painful.

    Am I right?

  21. Ron says:

    If you can clearly see and accurately predict the future and the effects of any actions that might be taken, then maybe you are correct. Otherwise, no you are not. You are only guessing.

  22. Joe says:

    No, guessing implies there is no science involved.

    Ron, if you really feel this way about scientists, I assume you never go to the doctor — ’cause that is only guessing too. No point in flossing or brushing your teeth, because you might not get cavities or dental disease anyway, and you can’t be sure flossing or brushing your teeth will help in any event — just more guessing. Heck, why not take up smoking, pour unlimited amounts of pollution into your lungs?

    Heck, why not pour unlimited amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Oh, wait, we are — and dang it if the planet isn’t heating up just like scientists said….

  23. Michael says:

    You’d be surprised how little of the certainty you seem to be looking for is out there in the world, either scientifically or otherwise. There are a few mathematic proofs about abstractions like numbers and triangles that are as certain as you seem to want but otherwise, especially when talking about the future, there is no 100%. So better grow up and accept that there is some risk in the world.

    The ironic thing is that what the government would require you to do in the case of a sane global warming policy is actually the right thing to do from the point of view of limited oil and fossil fuel reserves, particulate and mercury pollution, etc. etc. So there are so many reasons to do something about global warming. So your resistance to the notion seems odd to say the least.

  24. john says:

    Ron K:

    I was going over this debate for other reasons when I noted you took me to task for badmouthing Ronnie Raygun.

    Sorry bud, but we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Not sure wat your definition of an A-list movie is, but apparently it’s different from mine.

    Also, not sure what “accomplishments” of Ronnie’s have impressed you so, but I hope it’s not the cannard about making the Soviet Union fall … they fell because oil — their cheif export and source of money and currency exchange — fell from over $30/B to less than $12/B, not becuse Ronnie made them tremble. Mickey Mouse could have been in the White House, and they would have fallen at that point, becuse the rubble was propped up by oil’s value. Once it fell, the rubble became worthless paper.

    Fact is, Bush I rescued us from a financial meltdown caused by Bonzo’s tax policies and fiscal recklessness.

    By rolling back many of Carter’s energy efficiency and renewable energy investments he assured that we’d be over the barrell we’re over today.

    Basically Ronnie’s claim to fame was that he managed to put a happy face on the sell-out of America to corporate interests and the triumph of selfish self-interest over rational attemps to harness our collective capacity for the common good.

    You can celebrate this if you like, but I believe by championing the myth of the bumbling bureaucrat and the myth of the magic markets, he basically eviscerated this country — we are only now recovering from this “accomplishment.”

    I have, in fact, read his letters and I believe you are mistaking an almost blind single-mindedness with thoughtfullness.

    Reagan was by all accounts a nice guy, but he was immune to facts, impervious to reason, and not interested in the hard work of becoming educated on the issues of his day.

    As for Alzheimers? It is a progressive disease that starts long before it is clinically obvious, so it is very likely he was suffering from it to some degree while in office.

    I guess the conclusive sign, to me, is that Nancy was manipulating his calendar and schedule according to astrological advice in much of his last term. I hope he allowed this because his faculties were failing — the alternative is too scary to contemplate.

  25. john says:

    Whoops, that’s Paul K: