Saturday, March 30, 2013

SCOTUS & DOMA

After arguments in the landmark gay marriage cases were heard before the Supreme Court, it seems that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is in jeopardy of falling as five justices appeared skeptical of its Constitutionality. The Fab Four—Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan—could not seem to reconcile DOMA with the Equal Protection Clause. Meanwhile Justice Kennedy expressed his concern about issues of federalism in exchanges like this one with conservative DOMA defender Paul Clement:
MR. CLEMENT: I think -- I think there is so clearly is a Federal power because DOMA doesn't define any term that appears anywhere other than in a Federal statute that we assume that there is Federal power for. And if there is not Federal power for the statutes in which these terms appear, that is a problem independent of DOMA, but it is not a DOMA problem. So I will assume we have Federal power. Then the question is --

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, I think -- I think it is a DOMA problem. The question is whether or not the Federal government, under our federalism scheme, has the authority to regulate marriage.

MR. CLEMENT: And it doesn't have the authority to regulate marriages, as such, but that's not
what DOMA does.
Except Clement is dead wrong. Of course DOMA regulates marriage. Read the guts of the Act yourself:
[From Section 2:] No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.

[From Section 3:] In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word `marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word `spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
That is federal regulation... if that is not regulation, then we have lost the meaning of the word (and so-called conservatives have a much more expansive view federal power than they admit). Still, assuming the Court decides to rule on DOMA, Kennedy's critique of DOMA does not promise a watershed moment for gay rights in the same way that a 14th Amendment critique would. As Michael McGough writes for the LA Times, Kennedy's federalism tack sets the DOMA case at odds with the previous day's case on California's Proposition 8. If Congress overstepped its bounds defining regulating marriage as the union of heterosexual couples only, would it not overreach in the same way by demanding that states accept homosexual unions as well? Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued it would not, but Chief Justice John Roberts was unconvinced. So, while some pro-marriage equality writers crowed that "the anti-gay movement is humiliated," others like David Weigel were predicting the scenario of "endless state-level gay marriage campaigns."

Far better for SCOTUS to follow the lead of Elena Kagan and the other liberals, who see DOMA for exactly what it is: discrimination. In fact, Kagan caught Clement unprepared by quoting language from the 1996 debate:
JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, is what happened in 1996 -- and I'm going to quote from the House Report here -- is that "Congress decided to reflect an honor of collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality." Is that what happened in 1996?

MR. CLEMENT: Does the House Report say that? Of course, the House Report says that. And if that's enough to invalidate the statute, then you should invalidate the statute.
Indeed. Of course much time would have been saved if everyone had listened back in 1996 to the stunning speech of Georgia Representative John Lewis, who described DOMA as discriminatory and irrational on the floor of the House. Instead the anti-gay prejudice of Congress carried the day. In the 1996 Report of the Judiciary Committee to the House, under the fifth heading "The Governmental Interests Advanced by H.R. 3396 [DOMA]" comes sub-heading B: "H.R. 3396 Advances the Government's Interests In Traditional Notions of Morality." It reads:

For many Americans, there is to this issue of marriage an overtly moral or religious aspect that cannot be divorced from the practicalities. It is true, of course, that the civil act of marriage is separate from the recognition and blessing of that act by a religious institution. But the fact that there are distinct religious and civil components of marriage does not mean that the two do not intersect. Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.

That is not very nice. Usually when you ascribe "moral disapproval" to the identity of class of citizens, it is safe to say that discrimination is exactly what's on your mind. By comparison, consider the sanitized brief of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the US House of Representatives (which goes by the unfortunate acronym BLAG and, in this case, is not bipartisan at all) in the current case defending DOMA. (BLAG did this because President Obama's Justice Department refused to defend the law.) No mention of immoral behavior is to be found! Instead, the brief argues that the federal government could "rationally retain the traditional definition" of marriage to provide "a stable structure to raise unintended and unplanned offspring," (incidentally something that happens quite a bit when abstinence is the only form of birth control in your education program), and to encourage "the rearing of children by their biological parents," their mother and father. Social science; nothing too Judeo-Christian about all that.

But everyone knows that language about "preserving the traditional institution of marriage" is code for a moral argument, so the BLAG brief wasn't fooling anyone. Certainly Justice Antonin Scalia could see through it all... he had predicted as much in his blistering hate-filled dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case about an anti-sodomy law. Taking issue with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's concurring opinion, Scalia wrote:
This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. JUSTICE O'CONNOR seeks to preserve them by the conclusory statement that "preserving the traditional institution of marriage" is a legitimate state interest. But "preserving the traditional institution of marriage" is just a kinder way of describing the State's moral disapproval of same-sex couples. 
Scalia then went on to write about the slippery slope to gay marriage after Lawrence (emphasis mine):
...The Court says that the present case "does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter." Do not believe it.... Today's opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned. If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is "no legitimate state interest" for purposes of proscribing that conduct, and if, as the Court coos (casting aside all pretense of neutrality), "[w]hen sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring," what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising "[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution"? Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry. This case "does not involve" the issue of homosexual marriage only if one entertains the belief that principle and logic have nothing to do with the decisions of this Court.
Right Niño. Could not have said it any better. If it's not about immorality, what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Now Playing

When spring break comes but there's no sign of spring in the weather, it's easy to feel a little blue. But here's an effective remedy: put on the Rebirth Jazz Band and turn up the stereo. Feel Like Funkin' It Up drives the winter blues away. Nothing promises warmer weather and sunny skies like the sounds of New Orleans.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Geoengineering II - Notes on the Politics

It is likely that the very notion of geoengineering strikes most people as preposterous, a science fiction fantasy cure for global warming or another indication of the technological hubris of humankind. (It is possible it is both.) Such dismissals, however, become moot in a study of the politics of geoengineering. It does not matter if it is an effective antidote for climate change; nor does it matter if it is a smart idea or not. What matters, politically, are these two certainties:

  1. Solar radiation management (SRM) is technically viable and financially cheap for most nations.
  2. SRM, setting aside all other effects, is a fast-acting method to bring down global temperatures.
Those two realities require only the addition of human stupidity and arrogance to initiate global conflict on a catastrophic scale. And we should not doubt the capacity of individuals or states to take up geoengineering in a moment of panic or opportunity. Large-scale interventions in the climate are hardly anything new. Humans just tend not to notice them as they happen. America in the 1930s thought of little but "progress" when it proceeded to dam every river in the New Deal quest to electrify American households. Few international onlookers think China's obscene plan to divert the major rivers that water southern Asia is a wise idea, but  China itself is moving forward with Maoist confidence to bring water to the parched North.

It is also worth pointing out who we are dealing with in terms of global leadership. Do we imagine that this man would not consider a geoengineering experiment? Are we comforted by the state of our diplomatic relationship with him? Let's not leave the West out either. Megalomaniacal foreign dictators are worrisome; so too are the imbeciles that find public office in advanced democracies.

A less cynical, more historical observation would be this: human beings have almost never rejected the introduction of new and powerful technologies. A few examples come to mind, Tokugawa's Japan eschewing guns or the Amish Mennonites in the United States. Examples of short-lived reactions against technology are more numerous: Socrates's warning against the written word; the Luddite "Swing" rebellions in 1830 Britain, or the current movement against genetically modified foods to name a few. All these reactions and warnings may have been (or continue to be) wise, but the point is they went unheeded by human society. More compelling, from an historian's point of view, are the instances when humans introduced world-changing technology without necessarily thinking through all the implications. Consider the justification Henry Stimson, Secretary of War to FDR and Truman, made in Harper's Magazine in 1947 regarding the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.
Reasoning along these lines—saving the lives of one's own people—could surely be employed by a head of state to justify the use of SRM in the not-so-distant future. If the Maldives hired a private company to disperse sulfate aerosols and prevent sea level rise that threatens the existence of their islands, could they not avail themselves of the same logic as Stimson?

Political scientists have begun to take note of geoengineering for precisely these reasons. And the scientists have begun to focus on the political side as well. One study noted that a small coalition of governments could agree among themselves to embark upon a program of SRM that benefits their nations while harming others. The coalition would be incentivized to act unilaterally. International governance of geoengineering, then, is crucial, and the sooner the better. Scientists and law professors have begun to demand this. Four years ago, a call was made for geoengineering research and open discourse in Foreign Affairs. (Apologies for the paywall.) The authors, David Victor et al., argued the following:
A broad and solid foundation of research would help on three fronts. First, it would transform the discussion about geoengineering from an abstract debate into one focused on real risk assessment. Second, a research program that was backed by the world s top scientific academies could secure funding and political cover for essential but controversial experiments. (Field trials of engineered aerosols, for example, could spark protests comparable to those that accompanied trials of genetically modified crops.) Such experiments will be seen as more acceptable if they are designed and overseen by the world’s leading scientists and evaluated in a fully transparent fashion. Third, and what is crucial, a better under standing of the dangers of geoengineering would help nations craft the norms that should govern the testing and possible deployment of newly developed technologies. Scientists could be influential in creating these norms, just as nuclear scientists framed the options on nuclear testing and influenced pivotal governments during the Cold War.
Fuller engagement in geoengineering research and diplomacy presents its own set of problems. One concern is the idea of a moral hazard regarding emissions. Reader JW made exactly this point in response to the last post:
Overall, I am a bit of a skeptic of geoengineering, chiefly because I feel it creates complacency among the average person and doesn't force them to become more personally responsible. Rather, it perpetuates the notion that we can simply solve our technology-created problems with more technology instead of lifestyle change. Mainly, I'm afraid that once geoengineering technology gets put in place, people would become set on it and not desire more change, even if the geoengineering was sold as a stop-gap measure before a long term solution.
Quite possible, although curiously a recent study found that introducing geoengineering might actually enhance CO2 abatement by a new environmentally aware generation. (One study using game theory deserves serious skepticism.) Nor, as JW also commented, does geoengineering offer any solution to the other terrible consequences of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, like ocean acidification.

Nevertheless, policies with global consequences deserve global discourse and, almost certainly, international governance. We are immersed in climate problems and headed assuredly for a climate crisis. The Republican Party refuses to acknowledge the problem let alone address solutions. Mitt Romney admitted climate change was a problem, but refused to endorse any method of dealing with it because "China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases." (Talk about "leading from behind.") The current leading contenders for the Republican nomination in 2016 are worse. Marco Rubio said in his rebuttal to Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address that "our government can't control the weather." Rand Paul, like Rubio a climate-change denier, believes that the EPA is waging war on private property. They are not just anti-science. As I have argued before, the Republican political establishment is prone to paranoia, anti-internationalist, and deeply immersed in the mythology of American exceptionalism. All of these prejudices and pathologies represent threats to progress on climate change and reasonable work on geoengineering.

Yet when reality strikes in the form of a climate crisis, something tells me that the Republicans will be all too willing in that moment to turn to the technical quick-fix. They've already shown their hand. In 2001, after a campaign spent denying global warming and condemning Al Gore for his environmentalism, George W. Bush invited David Keith and other scientists to the White House for a discussion called "Response Options to Rapid or Severe Climate Change."

The question, then, is whether we want people in power to turn to such technology in secret, in haste, and in ignorance?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Geoengineering I — Notes on the Science

In earlier posts I have argued that solving the climate crisis is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. I have also argued that there are reasons to think humanity is capable of accomplishing this task. If we were to ignore, for a moment, the terrible consequences of climate change on the biosphere and global food production, and instead focus solely on the trajectory of technological and economic progress regarding our energy systems, we might predict with a high degree of confidence a global transition to a low carbon economy. Renewable energy is on the rise. Bloomberg has reported that in some places, renewable energy is already cheaper than burning fossil fuels. In terms of storage, battery technology not only makes renewable energy on an industrial scale much more viable, it makes household scale energy production possible.

In fact, the growth in technology coupled with dramatic decline in the price of solar panels (see right) has made the decentralization of the energy grid appear likely when twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable.

Given enough time and security, a low carbon economy (or even a negative carbon economy) seems close to a technological certainty. But time and security is precisely what climate change endangers. We have been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age. Pre-industrial levels were approximately 280 parts per million. We (that is, the global population) are now approaching 395ppm, adding about 2ppm per year (last year we added 2.67ppm, one of the highest jumps on record). Even more disconcerting, our current global climate, which operates between .7 and .9 degrees Celsius above the average, is not representative of our current atmospheric carbon levels. Because the climate system shifts only after substantial time lapses, thermal inertia, global climate is actually a reflection of carbon levels from a few decades past. We will only know what 395ppm means in the 2040s and 2050s... and there is no telling how high that carbon ppm number will go before a low-carbon economy can stabilize the climate. The 2060s and 2070s may be a nightmare scenario of a 4-6 degree temperature rise.

That is why scientists like Thomas Lovejoy speak of the "climate change endgame." They know we will pay for all of this a few decades hence, and the cost will be enormous, perhaps fatal, on a global scale. Even if some societies can bear the cost and adapt, droughts, wildfires, floods, famines, and lack of fresh water—basically all the worst parts of the Bible—will threaten millions if not billions of people. This is not just a humanitarian crisis. If a billion people in India cannot feed themselves and flee toward the borders of Pakistan and China, all three of whom are nuclear powers, then climate change will be the author of the worst geopolitical destabilization in history. That is one of many scenarios in which global security will be threatened.

Enter geoengineering, a catch-all term for large-scale human interventions in the global carbon climate system that may—may—offer humanity the time it needs to reach climate security. Geoengineering has a lot of complications to it, but the first is semantic. Two very different methods of approaching the carbon dioxide crisis have been lumped together under this term: carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which means taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and solar radiation management (SRM), which involves reflecting more sunlight away from the earth. Two of the scientists most interested in pursuing geoengineering research (research, not necessarily deployment), Ken Caldeira and David Keith, presented the basic ideas of geoengineering and climate risk-management here. In the first half of the linked video (follow and select episode 9), Caldeira breaks down the basic stratagems behind CDR, revealing that removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a monumental task with no quick or cheap comprehensive solution. By that crieteria, CDR cannot compare with SRM. The distinction in effectiveness between CDR and SRM, as he lays it down (around the 20:00 mark) is really a question of subtraction verses multiplication:
One of the differences between chemistry and physics is that for chemistry, for every molecule of CO2—if you want to remove it from the atmosphere, you have to deal with each molecule. So anything you do has to be on the same scale as the system that releases the CO2. So all of these carbon dioxide removal systems are basically on the same scale as our energy system. I mean, they might be a bit bigger, a bit smaller, but that's sort of the scale of operations. And the difference is that physics—each particle in the atmosphere is a multiplier, and can send back many photons.... What we're talking about [with CDR] is chemistry and there are no silver bullets. There are things that might be cost effective, there are things that might be useful, but there is no magic solution.
In other words, we can try CDR techniques like planting lots of trees—and forestation has all kinds of biodiversity benefits besides sucking carbon out of the air—but trees can't compensate for the millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions we produce each year. Even really big trees. There are just too many molecules of CO2 up there for us to extract and safely store (the economics of which is dubious regardless) in time to keep the planet from overheating.

SRM, the most viable method of which involves putting small particles of a sulfur compound into the upper atmosphere, works on the physics side of the climate problem. Each particle, so long as it hangs out up there in the sky, reflects sunlight back into space and keeps the earth from heating up. (Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, on the flip side, keep heat from escaping, which causes climate change.) The multiplicative effect of a sulfate aerosol (one particle reflecting many photons) can substantially reduce or even mitigate entirely the effects of carbon dioxide in terms of temperature. Here's a lecture by David Keith explaining the theory and the science behind it:


The first point worth noting comes at the 2:20 mark, when Keith states:
There is nothing we can do for solar geoengineering that gets us out of the long run necessity to cut our emissions to effectively zero. It can help us manage the risk in some ways that might be quite important. It might allow us, whether we think that's a good idea or not, to delay, but it cannot get you out of the need to cut emissions because the compensation at the very best is fundamentally imperfect.
That last part about compensation is an acknowledgment that a climate with lots of CO2 in the atmosphere and lots of sulfur aerosols shading the globe does not equate to a pre-industrial climate. All those irradiating and reflective physics going on in the sky will alter some climate patterns even as it keeps the earth relatively cool. These alterations could have negative consequences. A study by European scientists published in June of last year found in its climate modelling that a uniform SRM program to mitigate warming could cause rainfall to decline by 5% globally, and perhaps substantially more in tropical areas like the Amazon. That's bad. But in October, Keith, Caldeira, and two other scientists, Douglas MacMartin, and Ben Kravitz, published a new study in Nature: Climate Change that demonstrated how non-uniform SRM, "optimizing the latitudinal and seasonal distribution of solar reduction," actually would not have such terrible side effects regarding rainfall. The 5% drops to somewhere around 3%.


The difference is in uniform versus non-uniform SRM. Instead of firing huge amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere like, say, a volcano, and seeing how the climate cools globally, you might strategically put particles in certain places in different amounts to fine-tune the effects on cooling and precipitation. To the left, Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 cooling global temperatures by .5 degree Celsius for over a year, but also decreasing rainfall in certain areas while increasing it in others. The eastern United States, for instance, experienced flooding the next summer. (I myself remember experiencing an epic rain event at the Newport Folk Festival that summer, although one weather event may have nothing to do with larger climate data.)

The science behind all this is in an early stage, as Keith and Caldeira continually remind their audiences. Their agenda is that, like any new technology or scientific field, it has to be researched. To date, geoengineering has been viewed as a domain of mad science and therefore unworthy of governmental funding and a serious research program. But the cheapness of SRM—Keith explains (around 31:30) that sulfur aerosol SRM would cost around $10 billion per year—means that the debate over geoengineering has massive geopolitical as well as scientific implications. Virtually any nation (and a few individuals) has the financial capacity to attempt this. If China alters the global climate to cool its own territory, but in the process lowers rainfall in India and keeps Russia from achieving ice-free shipping lanes, we have a new kind of international crisis on our hands. If SRM brings benefits to some countries and more problems to others, then the question of control is tremendously significant, as many environmental writers, as well as the scientists, have wondered.

Which means geoengineering might have fewer variables in terms of the science and the engineering than in the realms of politics and international relations. I'll turn to those issues of social science in the next post.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Voting Rights in "Wonder Land"

Two posts ago I wrote about the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder, the case challenging the Voting Rights Act, taking issue with the bloated hypocrisies of Antonin Scalia's tortured right-wing jurisprudence. It turns out Dan Henninger, author of the "Wonder Land" column for The Wall St. Journal opinion page, has taken a different view of the matter. Henninger thinks Chief Justice Roberts came to the heart of the matter when he asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, "General, is it the government's submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?" Verrilli hemmed and hawed, finally saying: "I—it's not our submission. As an objective matter, I don't know the answer to that question." Henninger pounced on that bit of dialogue:
Shelby County was one of those moments when one wished the Supreme Court allowed its oral arguments to be televised. Some cases are crucial to the nation's sense of itself, and this is one of them. At its center lies Justice Roberts's blunt question: Is the American South irredeemably racist?
Now, I don't think Henninger wanted this moment televised to explore the "nation's sense of itself" so much as to indulge the Schadenfreude he experienced when he thought Roberts had struck a fatal blow. That, at least, would explain the curious rewriting of the question at the end of the paragraph: "Is the American South irredeemably racist?" That is a different question altogether—one impossible to answer and actually without bearing on the case at all.

The issue Roberts was trying to get at was specifically comparative: if the South were no more racist than the North, then why continue to single out Southern states with the Voting Rights Act? For his part, Verrilli was trying to avoid a gaffe in which he accused a region of being more racist, and instead emphasize that patterns of discriminatory behavior were still widespread. Verrilli knew (as did Roberts) that the charge of racism (aside from being impolitic) was essentially impossible to prove; the patterns of discrimination, however, were easily demonstrated (and that is what the case should be about). After all, Congress had already been through 12,000 pages of testimony when they passed the law that revealed, in the words of Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, "pervasive discrimination" in the former Confederacy.

Any reference to that evidence never appears in Henninger's column, and for good reason. The purpose of his column is to paint the liberal opinion as an irrational defense of anti-Southern hatred. So he reproduces a question, one that never was actually asked—"Is the South irredeemably racist?—and goes on to describe how the liberal justices responded to his imaginary query:
But the answer to that question, as suggested by the comments of the justices last week, reveals about as much as one needs to know about the enduring political divide between what are known in the U.S. as liberals and conservatives. Or for that matter of a reductionist view of America common in Europe, where I was told by a Brit recently that between the U.S.'s two sophisticated coasts, most people are what is known as "rednecks." One need not travel to Europe to hear this.

Justice Sotomayor to the lawyer representing Shelby County, Ala.: "You may be the wrong party bringing this."

Justice Kagan: "Under any formula that Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama."

Justice Sotomayor: "It's a real record as to what Alabama has done to earn its place on the list."
There we have it. Liberal justices (that is, the female liberal justices—Henninger later takes Breyer to task for imaginary arguments, but concedes he was slightly more logical than the women), like other high brow elitist European types, disdain the South for the "reductionist" reason that they don't like Southern people. And Henninger goes on to plead their case, "[Southerners] stand charged with being the only people in the United States who are potentially racist because they reside in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana."

Not quite. Let's be more exact. Southern states stand charged of suffering the burden of federal oversight because of the 12000 pages of testimony about discrimination. Alabama stands charged because, as Justice Elena Kagan said directly preceding her statement that "under any formula Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama":
But think about this State that you're representing, it's about a quarter black, but Alabama has no black statewide elected officials. If Congress were to write a formula that looked to the number of successful Section 2 suits per million residents, Alabama would be the number one State on the list. If you factor in unpublished Section 2 suits, Alabama would be the number two State on the list. If you use the number of Section 5 enforcement actions, Alabama would again be the number two State on the list.
Similarly here is Justice Sonia Sotomayor directly preceding her statement that "You may be the wrong party bringing this":
In -- in the period we're talking about, it has many more discriminating – 240 discriminatory voting laws that were blocked by Section 5 objections. There were numerous remedied by Section 2 litigation.
Check out all that evidence. Context can be a real fork in the eye when your argument depends on straw men. It turns out the liberal justices are not concerned with capriciously and viciously slandering the South as racist so much as they WANT TO ENSURE PEOPLE CAN VOTE IN A DEMOCRACY. That is too much for Henninger, though.
If I'm a 40-year-old southerner, born in 1973 and raising a family in one of these states, this view by four justices on the Supreme Court in 2013 of what I might do is insulting and demeaning.

Not likely if you're black. And that's just it... Henninger is speaking for the white South here (this is The Wall St. Journal's own special brand of elitism). He's probably right, I guess, that federal oversight of such states and counties is demeaning on some level or another to the white Republican electorate. But that strikes me as a pretty light burden to bear to make certain African Americans and other historically disenfranchised groups can get to the polls. Henninger, it seems, would rather sacrifice the vote for (largely non-Republican) minorities to keep from insulting (largely Republican) white Southerners. That, or else he'd rather smear the liberal justices with a cheap argument to pander to his readership.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Debate Over Divestment

350.org has been leading a nationwide movement among colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies, a method of activism modeled after the successful 1980s divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa. The current movement, "going fossil free," has by any reasonable measure taken off, as chapters of 350.org have forced the divestment issue into the board rooms of university trustees across the country.

How have university boards responded? Many with predictable (and not necessarily unwise) hesitation. University endowments have an ethical integrity to them almost by definition—the world does a lot of terrible things with its money, but using capital to protect the future of educational institutions is not one of them. Naturally, the caretakers of such holdings get skittish when the idea of divesting the endowment arises. The broader point, though, is that what the university does with all that money matters, or at least it ought to. With that ethic in mind, some schools have already taken steps to divest. Others have resisted even having the conversation. For most, however, the reaction has been somewhere in between, usually the establishing of committees to explore the idea and feasibility of divestment.

The school at which I teach has done just this, tasking a small group of trustees to examine divestment and solicit feedback from the school community. This group has presented the school with four open questions to guide their inquiry:
1. Does the country, sector or company engage in activities that are universally held to be gravely injurious to society?

2. Is there a clear and definable standard by which countries, sectors or companies are included or excluded from the divestment decision?

3. Is divestment the best way to effect change, and is it clearly superior to attempts to engage constructively as shareholders with the companies or governments in question?

4. What are the broader economic consequences of divesting from these entities? In particular, do these entities provide value to society as well as costs?
I tend to endorse questions that may appear relatively straightforward but lead to complex answers, and I think this set of questions does exactly that. As a point of departure, they seem useful. Still, I'm not convinced these questions will offer clarity at the point of decision. For that, I think it's worthwhile to explore an historical parallel to the contemporary divestment campaign, the movement to abolish slavery in the western world in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Anti-fossil fuel activists have explicitly compared themselves to abolitionists and so have journalists covering them (like here and here). (This is not uncommon among protest groups—for instance, anti-abortion activists invoke abolitionism all the time.) So in response to a critique of divestment, one that was sympathetic to the goals but objected on practical grounds, a member of 350.org wrote the following:
By demanding divestment, we are similar to the 19th century abolitionists. They also lived in an economic and social milieu defined by the evil of slavery in their midst. The Northern mills prospered upon cheap southern cotton. Yet the abolitionists did not call for boycotts of manufactured clothing. They demanded an end to slavery on moral grounds.
True enough... the anti-slavery crusade in Great Britain could arguably be considered the greatest triumph of moral politics over political economy in the history of the West. And, much like our current fossil-fuel economy, the slave trade in the 18th century Atlantic World was everywhere.


This map of the Atlantic slave trade looks familiar to most students of history, but the geographic ubiquity of slavery sometimes overshadows its economic pervasiveness. Capitalism and slavery, as Eric Williams argued, developed in tandem with the profits of slavery propelling the Industrial Revolution. We associate slavery with cash crops and plantation agriculture: sugar, coffee, indigo, rice, and cotton, but slavery's tendrils reached every part of the Atlantic World economy. Slaves worked mid-Atlantic farms and were fed by cod from New England fisheries.

Abolitionists faced a problem of scope similar to that fossil fuel protesters face today: how to assault an institution or a commodity (or both) that is the foundation of the entire economy? A moral stance, employed in both reform cases, becomes vulnerable to pragmatic economic criticisms. Question 4 mounts exactly this challenge: "do these entities provide value to society as well as costs"? The history of slavery, however, exposes the absurdity of this question. Did slavery provide social benefits? Of course it did. The economy was built on slavery, so all the social benefits from the wealth derived from Atlantic World commodities were indebted, at least in part, to the slave trade. Rhode Island slave money (and a few slaves themselves) helped build Brown University. Should the economic reality of the Atlantic World have dissuaded abolitionists from taking up their cause?

Fossil fuels provide all kinds of benefits to our society, not least our ability to drive here and there and to heat our homes. But the cost is extraordinary: the destruction of our biosphere that will endanger global food security and therefore human civilization. The better question would ask not whether society benefits—when society does not benefit from something, reform is often pretty easy—but whether the benefits can ever justify the costs. From our vantage point in the 21st century, the answer to the case of the 18th century is obvious: the enslaving of millions of Africans was an atrocity. What, then, should we expect from a 22nd or 23rd century historian reconsidering the environmental movement of our time?

Confronting a system as widespread, international, and profitable as slavery demanded that abolitionists use any and all methods to advance their cause. In response to the 350.org campaign, some green writers have called for the same kind of latitude in their approach to reform, an all-of-the-above environmentalism to match Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy. The rationale seems clear; progress has been incremental or nonexistent on climate change. Progress languished with abolitionism too. Here is how historian Herbert Klein describes the slow march to ending the slave trade:
Between 1787 and 1792 popular antislavery clubs were established and a mass campaign of petitions to Parliament was organized. This led first to amelioration laws specifying conditions for carrying slaves. In 1788 Parliament passed the Dolben's Act, which established for England the first limits on the manner of carrying slaves aboard English slavers. This act in turn was further modified in 1799 giving greater space for each slave on the vessels.

But this was only the beginning. After several failed attempts at passing a definitive prohibition of the trade, the abolitionists in Parliament, under the leadership of William Wilberforce, moved toward partial restrictions by closing down parts of the trade.... Finally, in March 1807 came the definitive abolition of the British slave trade itself, which was forced to end by the first day of 1808.
In the House of Commons, the vote on the 1807 bill was 283-16. Seymour Drescher in his magisterial history Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery, writes of the abolitionist triumph that, "The overwhelmed opponents of abolition were quite sure about what had created the abolitionists' unprecedented margin of victory. General Gascoyne of Liverpool, representing Britain's major slaving port, complained that every measure that invention or art could devise to create a popular clamor had been brought to bear:"
The Church, the theatre, the press, had laboured to create a prejudice against the slave trade.... The attempts to make a popular clamor against the trade were never so conspicuous as during the last election, when the public newspapers teemed with abuse of the trade, and when promises were required from different candidates that they would oppose its continuance. There has never been any question agitated since that of Parliamentary reform, in which so much industry had been exerted to raise a popular clamor and to make the trade an object of universal detestation.
If the green movement follows a path to a low-carbon future modeled after the quest to end the slave trade, it would follow suit that 350.org and the divestment campaign ought to be an important part of it. To complain that divestment might not be the most effective method for reform is to ignore the reality that, at this point, we need to fight for the climate with every method possible.

Students are not unaware of the urgency, which is why it is so heartening to see them take up the fight and make real progress on some of the oldest and richest campuses in the nation. Divestment has not escaped the notice of the champions of unfettered capitalism either. The National Review's Stanley Kurtz recently wrote a three-part story on 350.org in which he lamented that divestment was a tragic marker of America's youth losing faith in capitalism.
Energy is so fundamental — in a sense, fossil fuels are the economy — that our climate wars increasingly serve as proxies for a battle over the status and even the existence of America’s free-market system. 
It seems strange to me that the right can accuse the left of "global warming alarmism" so often (despite the fact that climate concerns are based on science), then cry the sky is falling on the entire free market system when college students demand ethical investing. Kurtz seems pretty torn up about all of it, so much so that he tosses out this line, which manages to be as irrational as it is insulting.
Fossil-fuel divestment is economics Lena Dunham–style: an embarrassingly naïve and apparently futile stance by those who nonetheless hold the power to swing elections and shift the culture.
Really? Do we have to take a cheap shot at Lena Dunham in an anti-divestment article? Moreover, how exactly are the student activists in 350.org naive and futile at the same time that they swing elections and shift culture? Someone should reassure Kurtz that abolitionists crusaded against slavery and capitalism survived. In fact, capitalism became the force by which slavery was ended in the United States, despite the national economy relying on it. There is no reason why capitalism today cannot spearhead the attack on fossil fuels. The actions of a divestment movement are themselves the actions of liberal capitalists: investors choosing where to put there money, what stocks to own, and what goods they want to produce. The effect of divestment might be far greater in the realm of public relations and media than in economic pressure, but as the abolitionists demonstrated, that may be the best way to win votes.