A greener White House

As promised by Energy Secretary Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality Sutley in 2010, the Obama administration is joining the legacy—alongside Presidents James Carter and George W. Bush—of using solar energy to power the White House.

The solar panels being installed on the White House are an important symbol of federal commitment to renewable energy. Even more important, however, is the administration’s greater commitment, which Juliet Eilperin reports as a pledge to generate 20% of the energy consumed by the federal government—including the militaryfrom renewable resources by 2020.

20% of federal energy use isn’t a huge number in global, or even national, terms. To put it in perspective, we consume about 4.4 million Gigawatt-hours each year in the US, while 20% of federal energy consumption only amounts to about 3 Gigawatt-hours. But every bit counts! Worthwhile progress is often piecemeal—and to cast it in more relatable terms: generating 3 Gigawatt-hours from another source would require, for example, over 3,200 pounds of coal. By getting that energy from the Sun, we spare the atmosphere more than 63,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. only represent a small fraction of this overarching goal, but greening the White House is, in my opinion, wise both for both politics and aesthetics.

To the sun god!


Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.


Are we lobsters?

I am not a Constitutional law expert, but I have had a fair amount of legal education between my BA in Government and MS in Environmental Policy—and I’m sure I’ll receive more as I move through my PhD. For a while I’ve been reluctant to even mention the recent espionage and whistle-blowing controversies surrounding the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and its 2008 amendments, NSA, PRISM, FBI, DOJ, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden because of, let’s say, ethical questions I had yet to flush out for myself. But in light of recent events I feel I can keep my silence no longer.

The Constitution of the United States of America is, I believe, among the most successful manifestations of secular liberal Enlightenment political philosophy. Obviously its amendments have had some good work done to them since the 18th century (slavery, suffrage, prohibition’s repeal, presidential term limits, etc.)—but why has it been so “successful”?

Loosely, because the Constitution represents one of those rare cases where what is legal also happens to be what is moral. Far too often morality appears smothered by the technicalities of law, but our Constitution is an exception to the common and unfortunate division between legality and morality—the gap between principle and policy.

We are a people of principle. Many codified as amendments, many as implicit social obligations. Among our implicit principles “is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Franklin’s adage is especially true today concerning the state of the 4th, 5th, and 8th amendments of the Bill of Rights.

The 4th amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Generally, for the government to extend its hand into the privacy of a private citizen entails a rather involved process of obtaining a warrant via probable cause for said search or seizure. But in the wake of FISA, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and domestic communications surveillance, this precept is no longer seems so straightforward.

However, according to an opinion handed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, such domestic surveillance activity under FISA is unconstitutional, re: the Fourth Amendment. The DOJ tried to keep the ruling under wraps, but a DC court has now ordered the pertinent FISC opinions to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. DOJ fought it, but then reluctantly agreed to release redacted versions of the documents. So we’ll see what those look like.

Driving this point home even further, former White House Green Jobs Advisor Van Jones recently affirmed the existence of domestic spying programs despite the President’s reassurances on the Tonight Show that no such programs are in place. Jones says we should be trying “balance” domestic spying rather than “pretend like there’s no balancing to be done.” Presumably, the “balance” he’s referring to is one between the Executive’s prerogative to spy on Americans and our Constitutional right to privacy.

Before moving on to the federal government’s abuse of the 8th amendment, I’d like to mention a potential bright spot pertaining to the 4th amendment. A federal judge, Judge Shria Scheindlin declared New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” law to be a practice of unconstitutional unreasonable search and seizure. Scheindlin also brought the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause into her opinion because stop-and-frisk has been notorious for indirect racial profiling. However, the Judge only ordered that stop-and-frisk be reformed, not abolished altogether. If, for instance, police are equipped with body-worn cameras to deter wrongful conduct on their part then the law could be permissible. In any case, Bloomberg will certainly take Scheindlin’s judgment to the appellate court, so again, we’ll see what that ends up looking like.

Next, the 8th amendment—our protection from cruel and unusual punishment—is also taking fire. Bradley Manning wasn’t convicted of aiding the enemy, so he escaped the death penalty, but before his trial ever took place he was subjected to morally questionable “suicide watch” treatment. Manning was regularly stripped of his clothing, vision, and left in the dark while imprisoned before he was ever convicted of anything. It is an unnerving reality, to say the least, if authorities are allowed to treat pre-trial prisoners, military or not—who are, at that point in due process, still innocent until proven guilty—as if they had already been sentenced.

Thirdly, a recent US Supreme Court decision—Salinas v. Texas—that largely snuck in under the radar of mass media has broadened the Constitutional permissibility of police questioning. Now, the 5th Amendment gives American citizens the right to abstain from self-incrimination. In Miranda terms, the 5th gives us our right to remain silent. Or so we thought. It seems that the 5th amendment, too, is not so straightforward.

Apparently, according to Justice Alito, writing for the 5-4 majority of the Court, it is a longstanding precedent that our 5th amendment rights don’t apply until they are explicitly invoked by the subject or explained by police in the midst of an arrest. It seems, outwardly at least, that the 5th does not mean “a complete right to remain silent but only guarantees that criminal defendants may not be forced to testify against themselves.” Very well…perhaps this ruling narrows its meaning, but does similar logic apply to other rights? Must we declare our right to free speech every time we speak our minds or else we have no such right to do so?

Finally—regarding the moral elephant in the room—Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, rife with human rights violations ranging from indefinite imprisonment without trial or charges to waterboarding and the use of force-feeding tubes to keep hunger strikers alive for further imprisonment and coercive interrogation. Of course, those imprisoned at Guantanamo are not US citizens, so legally we are not obliged to abstain from cruel and unusual punishment, nor are we compelled to provide a speedy trial, proper representation, or any semblance of due process. Morally, however, have we forgotten that our own Declaration of Independence enshrines the self-evident truth of the equality of all people? Those interned at Guantanamo may not be US citizens, but are they not human beings? Do they not deserve basic dignities simply for respect of their being alive?

Again, I am no constitutional lawyer, but these questions seem increasingly salient. Are our constitutional rights being systematically dismantled? Will we, like lobsters in a slowly warming pot, one day suddenly realize we’ve been boiled?

The whole situation smacks with the acrid taste of principled hypocrisy. If nothing else, we may assert–with more or less safety–that the United States’ moral high ground, our self-proclaimed superior and uniquely American respect for Constitutional and human rights is being, if not already, lost.

Love your country, question your government.