Tag Archives: environment

What Is in the National Interest?

          The above question was recently put to me. At the time, I had no ready answer and some will probably conclude from this essay that I still don’t have an answer. However, after thinking a bit about it, I have arrived at an answer of sorts, and it is likely the best I’ll be able to do. It is not a delineation or a prescription but an attempt to suggest a way of thinking about the question.

I think the essential ingredient in an answer for what is in the national interest is to focus on the principles laid out at the nation’s inception. In short, follow a path that best exemplifies our principles. To do this I think requires meeting two primary goals. The first goal is to preserve the nation in order that the second can be carried out. The second goal is to firmly root the nation in its core principles. The first in the absence of the second seems to me almost pointless.

Let’s take a brief look at the first goal. Preservation implies two essential things to me. (a) A basic defense capability, which I think David Stockman has aptly described, “Indeed, in the post-cold war world the only thing the US needed was a modest conventional capacity to defend the shorelines and airspace against any possible rogue assault and a reliable nuclear deterrent against any state foolish enough to attempt nuclear blackmail.” (b) To be a good shepherd for the resources inherent in the land mass that provides the stage for the political, economic and cultural activities we refer to as the nation.

Given that we already have more than sufficient capability for meeting part (a) of goal one for a basic defense capability, the primary activity related to defense should be the downsizing of our military forces until we have met the minimum requirement for a basic defense guided by the definition given above. One thing this should do is free up a lot of human and economic capital to be deployed otherwise.

To be a good shepherd, part (b) of goal one, first and foremost, requires that we preserve and conserve our resources. This entails having a rational plan for exploiting resources. Renewable resources, e.g., farm land and forest, should be used in a sustainable manner. Non-renewable resources, e.g., metals and minerals, should be used only for necessary activities and with the maximum efficiency possible with the intent of extending them as far into the future as reasonably possible. It goes almost without saying that inherent in being a good shepherd is minimizing pollution of the environment and making good faith attempts to clean up past pollution. It also means that going forward we avoid new pollution to the extent possible and clean up any pollution that can’t be entirely avoided. In short, be able to defend the nation, if necessary, use resources wisely and maintain a healthy environment. Much of the freed up capital referred to above should probably be dedicated to the preservation goal.

This brings us to the second goal. A nation rooted in its originating principles has three parts. (a) The first step in meeting this goal is to consider the originating principles. I will offer here a definition that some might disagree with but makes sense to me. I arrive at this definition by an extraction of general principles from the founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and, in particular, the initial amendments referred to as the Bill of Rights. In short, I offer my sense of what these documents imply.

To me it seems that the founding documents imply as paramount a citizenry of sovereign individuals. This is the core ingredient in the evolution and development of each person as a human being. A sovereign individual is one who is free to exercise control over his or her decisions about all manner of things, such as what he or she does or agrees to be done to their body, how they conduct themselves, how they support themselves, what they think, what they express and how they express themselves, among others. The obvious limitation upon this freedom is that it reaches a limit when it clearly impinges on someone else’s rights to their personal sovereignty. The principle of personal sovereignty should not extend to organizational entities, for example, corporations.

Part (b) of the second goal recognizes that government has as its basic function responsibility for the preservation functions described above. One likely point of conflict between individuals and government in the question of defense is that of governmental violations of personal sovereignty in the name of defense. Personal sovereignty trumps government in such cases. Another likely point of conflict is intervention in foreign countries to protect personal or business interests. The principle of individual sovereignty requires that individuals assume responsibility for their actions. Thus, one should use discretion in making decisions to put personal or business interests at risk in foreign countries. Perhaps one can find an insurer that will assume the responsibility for a price. Otherwise, citizens should act prudently and not expect to be bailed out by the government or saved by the military. Another potential point of conflict is calls for intervention in countries experiencing internal strife. This should be considered only when the situation is dire enough to generate an international effort to bring it under control. This would be best handled through an organized international body that can make a relative objective determination that the effort is necessary. We should, however, always be willing to offer temporary or permanent sanctuary, as required, to persons fleeing persecution, natural disasters, war and so forth. We should also be willing to offer a helping hand to those in need of material assistance, whenever possible. and hopefully as part of an international effort.

The second function, part (b) of goal two, of government should be to have an active role in regulating activity inconsistent with the principle of preservation, where that activity can be clearly demonstrated to be inconsistent with the principle. These conflicts are most likely to be related to property and its use and in how individuals conduct themselves. The burden of proof should be on the government, not on the individual, and when there is doubt the decision should go to the individual. In all matters in which government regulation is permitted, it should be constrained by maintaining, to as great an extent as possible, the personal sovereignty of its citizens, while still meeting the goal of preservation. Regulation should also ensure that citizens operate on a “level” playing field, where no individual or group is permitted an advantage not available to others due to government regulation or failure to regulate in favor of preservation.

The third function of government, part (c) of goal two, should be to conduct the nation’s relations with other nations. The original question about national interests had inherent within it a question about “foreign policy,” which is where we have finally arrived. The nation should conduct itself with other nations in a manner that is consistent with how it conducts itself with its citizens. It should recognize the sovereignty of other nations as being an important principle to be followed. When matters arise with other nations that would be regulated among our own citizens, the nation’s policy should be to lead by example and through persuasion. Under no circumstance should force, coercion, deception, or manipulation be employed, unless the activities of the errant nation clearly impose a direct threat to our preservation as a sovereign nation. In such cases, the nation will conduct itself with the restraint necessary to meet and neutralize the threat and no more. In short, the view taken here is that to affect others, the first step is to put one’s own house in order and then let your conduct serve as a model to others; i.e., be an exemplar of your own ideals.

One caveat is that there are serious hurdles to implementing such an approach to governance. The reason for this caveat is the influence of the “deep state,” which has already spread throughout our society like a metastasizing cancer and has probably so corrupted the body politic that all of its vital systems have possibly been compromised beyond repair. In my view, there are already arising corporate structures that, in effect, subjugate traditional nation states to corporate interests. These structures are subverting the interests of our nation and and its citizens as well as other nations and their citizens. An example is recent trade agreements that permit legal action by corporations against governments who are party to the agreement and pass laws that are viewed to be in conflict with the interests of the affected corporations.

I think we are already in a transition phase that is well on the way to the death of sovereign nations and their replacement by zombie states. The only hope for reversing this process, in my mind, is a widespread grass roots movement of citizens intent upon seizing back control of their lives and creating new structures through which to lead those lives. The last time such a movement occurred was the rise of the counterculture in the 60s and early 70s. In its failure should be found lessons to be learned.

 

Climate Change and Global Warming (Revised)

          The geographer Harm de Blij points out, in his book Why Geography Matters, that we are in an ice age, which is a long-term climate condition that been in effect for about a 100 million years. Within this ice age there have been numerous glacial and interglacial periods (see chart below). We are currently approaching the apogee of one of the interglacial periods. The last interglacial period ended around 80,000 years ago. At that time, the temperature peaked at above current levels and sea level was 15 feet above current levels. In that most recent peak, there can be little doubt that humans had very little if any impact on the climate cycle. Further, there also appears to be a shorter-term cycle of approximately 1500 years, which is also currently moving toward its apogee. The bottom of this cycle was the little ice age experienced a few hundred years ago. In short, our current conditions are probably mostly due to the unfolding of natural cycles that have been going on for a very long time. If anything, human activity may speed the cycles up somewhat or even slow them down somewhat. It is, however, very unlikely that we can stabilize the climate. Of course, we should exercise caution in activities likely to affect climate. Unfortunately, natural variations in climate are often catastrophic and largely beyond our control.

Anyone who thinks we can stop global warming is operating from a static conception of climate and is ignorant of or ignoring the dynamic nature of climate throughout the history of this planet. We might be able to marginally slow down the rate of warming, provided everyone, including developing countries like India and China, got on board with the program. A really concerted effort by everyone to employ methods advocated to slow global warming (e.g., Kyoto Protocol) would have an almost imperceptible effect. An atmospheric physicist, S. Fred Singer (Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service) estimates that such an effort would decrease the average global temperature by .083 (1/12th) of a degree by mid-century. The natural cycle seems to be that the warming phase triggers the events that contribute to the next cooling phase. One factor in this process may be the melting of the polar ice, which puts cold water into the oceans that change ocean currents and water temperature. Change in water temperature and currents are believed to affect weather cycles. The next glacial period in the climate cycle will make surviving global warming look like a picnic. Slowing down the rate of global warming buys a little time but doesn’t change the longer-term outcome. Even if the entire effect of human activity could be subtracted from the long-term cycle, it would only slow, not stop, the increase in temperature and rise in sea level. This cycle has been rising and falling for millions of years and human activity has only been a factor in the last couple of hundred years. To think that humans are the prime movers in this cycle is nothing but hubris.

One of the assertions that has been a problem for me is the proposed connection between CO2 levels and temperature increases often illustrated by the infamous “hockey stick” graph. This graph shows a strong concurrent correlation between CO2 levels and temperature increases. One thing that bothers me about this correlation is that it seems to be offered as evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship when anyone at all familiar with statistics knows that one cannot infer cause from correlation, only association. Another thing that bothers me about this proposed connection is the ice core data for the past one-half million years. The initial analysis of this data indicated a 800 year lag between an initial rise in temperature and a subsequent rise in CO2 levels. A number of climate scientists were not “happy” with this relationship and did additional analyses and finally reported they were able to tweak the gap downward to a 200 year gap instead of a 800 year gap. It is nevertheless still a significant gap and one that has temperature increasing before CO2 levels.

Recently, I read a proposed explanation for the gap. The proposal is that in past cycles when temperature begins to rise, this ultimately raises the temperature of ocean water. The long lag found in the ice cores is likely due to the amount of time it takes to raise the temperature in a huge volume of water. It should also be noted that there was no explanation offered for what exactly causes cyclic increases and decreases in global temperatures, which no doubt is involved in the climate cycles mentioned at the beginning of this essay. However, the proposal goes on to indicate that as water temperatures rise this causes locked up CO2 to be released from the ocean. As more CO2 is released into the atmosphere, it adds to the temperature increase that is already in progress and speeds it up since there are now, at least, two inputs. Thus, human produced CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide could very well represent a third input into this process. The additional input from human sources could conceivably increase the speed and the upper limit of the effect. However, assuming that you subtracted all the human input, the likely result would, at best, be a return to the underlying natural cycle, not a return of conditions to a hypothetical stable state.

As the table below indicates, the human contribution of CO2 is the largest contribution of the greenhouse gases generated by man. To flesh this out a bit, the estimated amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 400 pp. The total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere accounts for 3.618% of the total greenhouse effect. The proportion of naturally occurring CO2 contributes 3.502% to the total greenhouse effect. Thus, the proportion attributable to human sources accounts for .117% of the total greenhouse effect. Note that the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect is water vapor, which makes a 95% contribution while the human contribution to water vapor in the atmosphere is minuscule, coming in at .001%.

Water vapor is the most significant greenhouse gas of all (see table at end). Water vapor is not usually factored into the computer models used to predict global climate at all, because it is too poorly understood and represents a very complex variable to model. It is roughly like trying to predict the peak price of wheat without taking into account the supply likely to be available when demand peaks. The principle way in which water vapor comes into play is through cloud formation. The more cloud cover there is the more sunlight is reflected back into space and the cooler the global temperature. Conversely, the less cloud cover the more sunlight reaches the surface of the earth and the higher the global temperature.

Recent research has shown that a significant factor in cloud formation is the interaction of cosmic rays with particles of water vapor. Thus, fluctuations in the amount of cosmic rays reaching the earth will have significant effects on cloud formation and cover. The largest source of cosmic rays is our sun and other suns in our galaxy. Short-term cosmic ray fluctuations are related to cyclic activity in the sun, which is affected by other planetary bodies in the solar system such as Jupiter. When large bodies of mass approach and recede from the near vicinity of the sun, its activity is affected. Long-term cosmic ray fluctuations are believed to be related to the movement of our solar system through its orbit in our galaxy. In the course of moving through this orbit, we enter regions where stars are more densely concentrated and where they are less densely concentrated. Since other stars like our sun are major producers of cosmic rays, one would expect that cosmic ray bombardment of the earth would increase in regions where star concentrations are more dense and decrease when they are less dense. There is some speculation that this may be a major contributor to long-term climate cycles mentioned earlier that have been going on for millions of years and can be measured in tens of thousands of years.

In conclusion, I would say that, yes, we are experiencing climate change related to a warming trend, but there isn’t anything new about that. Climate has been going through cycles of warming and cooling since long before man came onto the scene. Thus, it seems to me impossible to seriously argue that human activity is the cause of climate cycles. Could human activity be contributing to existing climate cycles? It seem likely that human activity could be a contributing factor. Trying to protect the environment from degradation seems like a reasonable goal regardless of its impact on climate. In addition to trying to reduce human emissions of CO2, there seems to me to be other initiatives that could be taken.

One initiative might be to develop methods for extinguishing underground coal fires. There are hundreds of these unintentional fires burning around the globe. These fires can last for decades to hundreds of years before they consume all the available fuel. One of these has been estimated to have been burning for 6000 years. It has been estimated by one environmental group that such fires contribute approximately 2-3% of all the carbon emissions in China where around 20 million tons of coal is consumed by such fires each year. Another initiative might be projects to reverse desertification. It is well known that desert areas are increasing around the world. When foliage dies off and large areas become deserts, a huge carbon capture process is destroyed. One researcher has argued that if we could regain the carbon capture lost through desertification, then atmospheric carbon levels could be reduced to pre-industrial levels without doing anything else. Third, initiatives are needed to stop the huge problems caused by chemical runoff from agriculture. This runoff is producing large dead zones in rivers, lakes and oceans. These dead zones have large impacts on the balance of greenhouse gases, not to mention fishing and the health of the planet in general. Further, consider that the population of the planet has increased approximately 800% since 1800 (see first chart below on population growth). This roughly corresponds to the period of industrial development and pursuit of expansive economic growth. Think of the possible effect on climate, not to mention the environment in general, of this huge expansion in population, with its demands for food, energy, housing, infrastructure and so on. I think the species is facing a very serious and escalating crisis about which most of the population is clue less. If a demographic implosion didn’t already appear to be in the making, probably beginning at the end of this century, one would have to be created (see second chart below on rate of population growth). Clearly, an initiative needs to be undertaken to plan how to keep population and the demands on the environment at a sustainable level once there is a significant decline in world population (Note, this is discussed in greater detail in “Is Economic Growth a Viable Long-Term Goal?.” Finally, I think belief that we can control the climate is hubris. We should never forget that once such a project is begun, unintended consequences are possible and they aren’t always good. I do think that reducing our impact on climate and the environment may be possible.