Eugene Robinson Live

Jul 03, 2012

Eugene Robinson chatted about his columns and the latest in political news.

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Hello, everyone, and my sympathy to anyone still suffering from the effects of Friday's storms. Today's column draws a straight line from climate change to the unprecedented heat waves, violent storms and wildfires that have us under siege. All of the ten warmest years on record have been since 1998. I wish someone would come up with an alternative theory that credibly explains the phenomena we're witnessing, but for now there's only one: human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. I'm sure we'll talk about all of this, and, oh, I hear there was a Supreme Court decision last Thursday of some interest. Let's get started.

Let me preface this by saying that I 100% believe that some global warming is caused by human conduct, but Eugene, this may be the worst thing I've ever read by you, and that's a low bar. Describe for readers right now, what EVIDENCE you have that global warming has caused wild fires or the storm? Having more than a little geology and meteorology in my background, I can firmly say no self-respecting scientist would *ever* claim that any particular storm, hot day, or wild fire was caused by global warming. You say that DC "never" has storms like these. How long have you lived here? 30 years? 40? Let's make it 100. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. The oldest human remains are less than 500,000 years old. Your "experience" in DC is certainly enough to conclude that Friday's storm was caused by global warming [Insert sarcasm]. Correlation is not causation, my friend. That's day 1 of statistics class. Will you recant today's column?

Of course not. Did you read the column? Did you get to the paragraph saying that of course you can't definitively say ony one meteorological event was caused by climate change? It's also true that you can't say any one lung cancer is caused by smoking. Read the column, please, before commenting.

Yes, it's always hot here in the summer - but not this hot. Yes, we always have thunderstorms - but never like these. Wow! "Always," "never." The world is, what, over 6 billion years old? Does "always" and "never" include data prior to the 19th century, your point of reference? Your hyperbole ("post-apocalypse mode" - what, are we like WWII Hiroshima?) falls right into line with James Lovelock's, the scientist who became a guru to the environmental movement with his Gaia theory of the Earth as a single organism, who has admitted to being "alarmist" about climate change and says other environmental commentators, such as Al Gore, were too. See, I love science, I don't think there's any "crypto-socialist plot," and I'm not delirious from heat thanks to my gas-guzzling SUV's AC. The world's weather has experienced many changes throughout its history, much before we puny humans existed with our CO2 emissions.

Our carbon dioxide emissions are not puny. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 40 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the increase perfectly traces the global process of industrialization. Where I come from, 40 percent is not puny.

I live in SW Nebraska (the state not the street) Our horizons are hazy from the fires and the sun at dawn is a brilliant neon reddish pink. It's eerie and post apocolyptic at dawn and dusk. The temperatures are over 100 degrees during the day and the crops are terribly stressed. And yet, people here are more likely to believe it's the "end times" rather than mankind and global warming causing the problems. sigh

Sigh.

One aspect of this climate change debate that I find fascinating is that while the question seems to be one that demands the most scientific, and challenging understandings of chemistry, biology, physics and all that kind of hard stuff, it seems like republicans treat it as more like a personal preference choice. Kinda like,,,,"hey, this whole global warming nonsense puts a crimp in my desire for an unfettered un-regulated rape of the planet, not to mention my oil investments, so I am going to just assume that i know better than the collective wisdom of the scientists who are studying it, so drill baby"

I've spent a decent amount of time reading scientific papers on climage change -- including quite a few written by skeptics. Anyone who doubts that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas has to reject much of what we know about physics at the atomic and molecular level -- and come up with an alternative physics. There is very little dispute at this point about the fact of warming. The question is why -- what's happening -- and there's only one theory out there, so far, that explains what we're seeing. "Sometimes it gets warmer and sometimes it gets cooler" is not a theory.

Gene, The Comments section for your column today seems to be broken. I hope someone is working on a fix. I'd like to see some of those comments.

(Producer)

Our comments vendor is currently experiencing some issues.  We're working to fix the problem now.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

During the winter, global warming believers like to lecture skeptics that "weather does not equal climate." During the summer, however, they change that to add, "...except when it's hot." Let's try to keep a consistent outlook and not over-interpret a few events. Remember, for instance, when we were told that Caribbean hurricanes were doomed to grow more frequent and more powerful? That prediction was wrong (and seems to never get mentioned in the press anymore), and the one you're making today might be as well.

What winter? We didn't have one this year. But sure, it might snow three feet in December. Look at what the "believers" -- otherwise known as "scientists" -- are saying. Among their predictions is an increase in extreme events. We're seeing hurricanes, all right -- they're just not threatening land. The predictions of climate scientists, thus far, have erred on the side of being conservative, rather than alarmist.

Hi Eugene - Here in Austin TX we are very familiar with the rising temperatures. In 2011 we set a local record for number of 100+ degree days in a year - 90 of them - obliterating the old record of 69 days. That's almost a quarter of the year with temps in the 100's. Just last week we set a local record for hottest day in June (109). It frustrates and infuriates me how people can continue to hide their head in the sand when it comes to global warming. By the time these people finally accept the concept, it will be too late to do anything about it. And to be vulgarly blunt about it, at that point we're all screwed. The denial of science in this country HAS TO STOP.

I have to believe that someday it will stop. Alas, I don't know when.

Eugene- Maybe if we had more air pollution in the US people would be more inclined to believe that humans can change climate. Anyone who has been to India or China, where the air is heavy with smoke 24/7, can see what is happening. Due to our "socialist" regulations, we enjoy cleaner air here, and maybe that keeps us from seeing how bad it is.

Well, we don't actually need more pollution. But your point is an excellent one. The EPA might never have been established if the Cuyahoga River hadn't caught fire. It was easier to rally public support for environmental regulation when you could see, smell and taste the pollution. The challenge is to find a way to get people to pay attention when the problem is not so easily perceived.

Hi Eugene -- happy early 4th of July and thanks for taking questions today. Depending on who you talk to in the Romney campaign, the individual mandate upheld by the Supreme Court is a tax (bad) or not a tax (still bad). Do you think the American public is as confused as I am? More importantly, are they paying attention? And in the long run, no matter how it's parsed by either side, isn't this a clear boost for the president?

From where I sit, it does look like a clear boost for the president. Imagine what the commentary would be like had the law been struck down. The Republicans in Congress say the mandate is a tax; the Romney campaign says it is not (maybe because that would make the Massachusetts mandate a tax). We'll see whether people are paying attention. So far, polling seems to indicate the president has received something of a boost.

Some say Roberts changed his vote late. They claim he went against his honest belief that the law was unconstitutional to save the Court from a political firestorm. Has anyone considered that he might have had a real, honest change of opinion? That he honestly concluded late that the other side was correct? That he honestly concluded late that the mandate penalty was a tax and that as such, Congress was free to impose it on those refusing to purchase health insurance? I think he's smart enough to admit he can be wrong. Roberts could look back at history and see that the Court survived Brown v Board of Education and Roe v Wade. I can't see how the healthcare reform case could be as divisive.

On "Meet the Press" Sunday I ventured the opinion that maybe we should take Roberts at his word. Why shouldn't we? He seems to take his job seriously, and his job is to give his best legal opinion. I think that's precisely what he did. I have had occasion to despair over some of Roberts' decisions in the past -- Citizens United comes to mind -- and I'll do the same in the future, I'm sure. At some point, you just get over it and move on. I think that's what conservatives should learn to do.

As a former radio reporter I can understand the thrill of being the first to get a big story on the air BUT much worse than being second is the public humiliation of getting that big story wrong. I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on our local NPR affiliate when the Supreme Court ruling came down and she reported the error as fact - citing CNN as her source - and then had to correct it and apologize. Any chance this will be a lesson to the media to make sure a story is accurate prior to reporting?

This is the second-oldest lesson in journalism (the oldest is "don't make stuff up"). Like many of life's great lessons, it is always being learned, unlearned and relearned.

Fine. Talk to the BRICs, then. They are the ones who are doing the most polluting, without any regard to carbon credits and their ecological footprints. I would make the argument that the US (and most of the rest of the industrialized, First World nations) have been doing real good in curbing pollution. But I guess it's always America's fault, right Gene?

Really, please, it would help if you read my columns before commenting on them. I might have to begin opening these chats with a pop quiz. Is there a sentence, a word, a hint about this being America's fault? Do you think I am unaware that China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, or that the BRIC countries have resisted meaningful curbs (in alliance with the United States)? Of course, our emissions per capital dwarf those of almost all other countries, including China. But it is obvious that no meaningful progress will be made unless we are able to bring the rising industrial powers along. What I do believe is that we should provide leadership. Isn't that what American exceptionalism is all about?

We can't expect the majority to give up their energy wasting habits voluntarily and we can't expect a democracy to impose that on its public. So is there any path you can envision toward a solution?

We will have more extreme weather events like we're having now, and eventually public opinion will shift. The same will happen in China (which, by the way, is investing unspeakable amounts of money into solar technology). I just hope we begin to focus on the problem sooner rather than later.

Eugene- Science deniers note that climate has changed in the past, and conclude that the current climate changes must be natural. People rejecting the science is a problem, but even if everyone agreed human produced CO2 is the problem, how can we ever get China and India to stop polluting? It's their turn now to grow and consume resources and our finger wagging wont stop them. We cant even get our own people to believe science, how can we get other countries to emit less CO2 when it's helping them to raise their standard of living (short term of course)?

One of the biggest revelations from my trip to China last year was the extent to which air pollution -- old-fashioned, eye-stinging, lung-burning air pollution, mostly from coal smoke -- is a public issue. The government knows it is dependent on coal, but it also knows that because of pollution and climate change, it will not be possible to uplift the nearly 1 billion Chinese who've been left out of the economic miracle by just continuing to build more coal-fired power plants. My prediction is that China will soon become the world's leader in alternative energy technology. I really believe that.

Whether or not humans are a result of climate change, there is evidence that it may be occurring. However, what you fail to realize is that our planet has gone through such changes many many times before, and many recorded periods that show climates even more extreme than have seen in the last relative picosecond of recorded history compared to the 4+ billion years of Earth's existence. I just don't understand what preaching about CO2 emissions and carbon footprints is going to accomplish other than to envigorate the crazies over at the Sierra Club. A single "normal" pyroclastic eruption from a Ring of Fire volcano produces more particulate matter and noxious gasses into the atmosphere than human beings expell globally in an entire year, and the Earth has always found a way to counter-balance those events. Certainly there's a compromise to allowing progress and exhausting potential contaminants to our planet, but the most important thing we must always understand is that the Earth will adapt. Therefore, as species on this planet, we too must adapt to the changing conditions. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

The thing is, the Earth is the kitchen. It's all we've got. Where are we going to go? 

"The world's weather has experienced many changes throughout its history, much before we puny humans existed with our CO2 emissions." I just love this argument from people like Chill Out. OK, fine, I will stipulate that the Earth has seen all sorts of climates in its lifetime, and that it will survive whatever comes. (Until the sun implodes, but that's billions of years away and not related to anything we're doing.) But, as one of these "puny humans" who currently inhabit it, I actually care about the Earth's remaining hospitable to life forms like us. Sure, the Earth goes on, but how does Chill Out think his/her descendants will fare?

My question precisely. The thing is, this should be a natural issue for conservatives. They speak, often eloquently, about our obligation not to leave our grandchildren with a mountain of debt. So why is it okay to leave them with a bespoiled planet?

I am a research scientist at a top ten medical institution. While I applaud some of your readers for their attempt to understand our world, I am terribly disappointed by their lack of understanding of science and what scientific evidence tells us and what it doesn't. People seem to want absolute proof. That isn't how it works people! There is no absolute proof for anything! There is only the weight of evidence accumulated over time. At some point, when there is no evidence or weak evidence to support alternative hypotheses, one has to side with the central hypothesis, which in this case is that man seems to be contributing to global warming NOW. This does not take away from the fact that global warming could have occurred millions of years ago through causes independent from the activities of humans!

Preach.

Was wondering if you think Chief Justice Roberts ruled in favor of the administration so he could still go to DC elite parties? He seems to be the toast of the liberal town now....

This is the most ridiculous hypothesis of all, as anyone who's ever been to a "DC elite party" can attest. 

The way I look at it, you're either all in or all out. Therefore, if you subscribe to the theory that humans are the predominent force affecting global climate change, then in addition to the industrilized activity of humans over the past 100 years, you must also look to the more fundamental source of population growth for carbon dioxide. You cite the commonly accepted 40% increase in CO2 since the industrial revolution, but you (and many other politically motivated writers and scientists) fail to recognize a similar increase in population across the globe. If you look at the year to year trends in CO2 emissions and population, there is an almost lockstep synchronicity between the two, particularly when you consider that an average US city exhales more CO2 each day than a "clean" coal powerplant exhausts in a year.. Therefore, if you were to truly get to the root of the problem, you would have no other choice but to subscribe to a very draconiam solution, which would be population control. Would you honestly go on record recommending that, because the mere existance of humans in large numbers on this planet is obviously the root of the global climate change problem?

No, of course not. China's population is hardly growing (largely because of the one-child policy) but its emissions are skyrocketing -- not because there are more people, but because they're burning more fossil fuel.

At the moment, it's 95 degrees here and sunny. One day, we're going to figure out how to capture, store and use solar energy cheaply and efficiently. It would be great if that breakthrough were to occur in the United States, but increasingly I think it will happen in China. 

When I entered the workplace in 1978, people smoked in the office ... and continued to smoke well into the 1980s ... at some point -- I don't remember when -- smoking in the office became taboo. Now I can think of no place (Richmond excepted) where you will people smoking freely indoors. That's a direct result of a long, hard, concerted campaign by the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and other public health interests to change public attitudes about a habit with proven adverse health effects. You can change behaviors -- but when it comes to climate change, you are up against a well-funded lobby representing the interests of -- put simply -- GREED -- at the expense of the rest of us.

The tobacco companies were pretty greedy, too, but smoking rates are way down. So there is hope.

there was a recent conference here entitled "the New Normal." Are melting ice caps and rising seas just something we have to put up with? Hope not.

The answer appears to be yes. If we halted all carbon emissions worldwide tomorrow, we'd still be left with 40 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than before the Industrial Revolution. And obviously we're not going to halt carbon emissions tomorrow or next week or next year... So we'll be left with the legacy of what we've already done. All we can do is try not to make things much worse.

That's it for today, folks. My time is up. Thanks for a very lively hour, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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