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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Climate and infrastructure


Jim Beckerman of NorthJersey.com wonders if New Jersey officials did everything necessary to warn its residents of the dangers of the approaching aftermath of Ida, which had already devastated the Gulf Coast after making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane.

“During Wednesday’s media briefing before the storm hit New Jersey, Governor Murphy and Colonel Callahan [of the New Jersey State Police] clearly warned the public about the hazards associated with Tropical Storm Ida, including flash flooding and high waters,” said the governor’s press secretary, Alyana Alfaro. “The Governor specifically advised the public to ‘just stay in if you can’ until the storm passed.”

Did we all — from the State House on down — not take this storm seriously enough? And if so, why?

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Some 10 deaths were attributed to the storm in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi — and storms usually weaken by the time they get to our area. Who would have guessed that the death toll in New Jersey alone would be several times that number?

Ida was a storm that “overperformed” — that is, its behavior and its effects were within, but on the furthest extremes of, what forecasters had anticipated. “We don’t get big storms like this too often,” Ziff said. “I don’t think we get enough practice.”

I don’t know how may times I said that even as Hurricane Ida churned through the Gulf of Mexico in route to the Louisiana coast that its track forecast looked vaguely familiar.

A few weather forecasters put out that word … but not many.

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While death and damage totals due to Hurricane Camille vary slightly, 1969’s Tropical Storm/Depression Camille killed almost as many people in Virginia as it did as a Category 5 hurricane making landfall in Mississippi.

The similarities between Camille and Ida were evident. I’m not sure how much the dangers of the similar-looking Ida were conveyed by weather forecasters (to be fair, I think that forecasters were more worried about the effects of the weakening storm as it moved through an already saturated and battered Tennessee).

Mark Hertsgaard of Columbia Journalism Review says that broadcast journalism, in particular, does a horrible job of reporting climate news.

This amounts to nothing less than media malpractice. Scientifically accurate reporting would not only link this extreme weather to the climate crisis, it would note that climate change is caused primarily by burning oil, gas, and coal. ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies have been lying for forty years about their products causing dangerous climate change. Responsible journalism should tell the truth about what’s driving these terrible storms, fires, and famine.

Broadcast television’s failure is especially egregious in that it’s still the leading news source for most people. (About 45 percent of Americans get most of their news from television, while 18 percent rely primarily on social media, according to the Pew Research Center.) And it repeats the mistake TV news made while covering the extreme weather events of 2020. In the face of unprecedented fires in Australia and California (remember the orange skies over San Francisco?) and kindred calamities, less than half a percent of commercial TV stories mentioned the climate crisis, Media Matters found.

This kind of journalism leaves the public not just uninformed but misinformed. It gives the impression that these storms and fires are not only terrible (which, of course, is true) but also – to use a phrase that climate breakdown has made obsolete – they’re simply “natural” disasters.

Carl Hulse of The New York Times reports that Democrats are hitting the road to sell the “tangible benefits” of their infrastructure bills.

While $60 billion is indeed a big price tag, $3.5 trillion is much bigger. That is the total cost of the budget blueprint Democrats muscled through the Senate and House last month, and hope to transform into a bill President Biden can sign in the coming weeks as they fight off Republican attacks on the size and scope of the measure — and some sticker shock on their own side as well.

Calculating that voters might be more receptive if they understand the tangible benefits of the emerging measure, Democrats have embarked on an elaborate nationwide sales pitch for the expansive budget plan and a related $1 trillion bipartisan public works measure to win over their constituents and others around the nation.

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But Democrats are not going to have an open field to make their case. Congressional Republicans are solidly lined up against the budget proposal, which Democrats plan to push through unilaterally using a maneuver known as reconciliation. Together with conservative advocacy groups, they are already on the attack, using the plan as fund-raising fodder and airing ads in the states and districts of vulnerable Democrats in Congress, urging them to oppose a measure that will require complete Democratic unity to pass the evenly split Senate.

A portion of the infrastructure spending bills will go to repair the nation’s water systems, which badly need the upgrades, reports Li Zhou of Vox.

Many cities are navigating declining water infrastructure, from pipes in Atlanta that haven’t been replaced for decades to lead service lines in Chicago leeching contaminants into the water.

Jackson’s recent water outage, while it marks one of the most extreme and high-profile failures of the US’s water systems, is indicative of this broader problem. The February shutdown — which lasted nearly a month for some residents — was the longest the city has ever seen, but it followed similar lapses in 1989, 1994, 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Much like other places, the issue Jackson’s facing has long been the same: Its infrastructure is simply too old.

“In some areas, we’ve got 100-year pipes,” says Charles Williams, former head of the Jackson Public Works Department. “They’ve been in the ground for a very long time, and we’ve been patching the system due to lack of availability of funds.”

As a result, issues like water main breaks have become more common, contributing to stoppages in service and cracks that make it easier for contaminants to get into the water. Williams estimates that in the past year alone, there have been more than 100 water main breaks.

Social sciences scholar Caroline Orr Bueno cautioned on the dangers of leaning on worst-case scenarios when railing against the Texas abortion ban and vigilante bounty scheme

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Laura Washington of The Chicago Sun-Times is utterly confused—but not by the misinformation concerning COVID-19 protocols, but by public officials.

For the first year of the pandemic, singing was not allowed at my Catholic Mass, even if everybody in the pews wore masks. The argument was that singing was more likely to lead to the spread COVID-bearing liquid particles.

But now? A rousing rendition of “Eye Has Not Seen” is A-okay.

This summer, baseball fans have packed Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, no masks required. But on Thursday, the United Center announced that fans must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to attend Bulls and Blackhawks games.

The Biden administration has announced that COVID-19 booster shots will be available the week of Sept. 20 to most people who were fully vaccinated eight months earlier. But the booster shots first must be approved by the FDA and the CDC.

Yet some people are already getting the booster shots. “More than a million fully vaccinated people have received an additional dose since mid-August,” the New York Times reported Friday.

Jason D. Williamson of NBC News offers a important reminder that police officers are not the only public officials that should be held liable in police brutality cases. 

These charges against the paramedics, along with the indictment levied Thursday against a former Georgia prosecutor for allegedly tipping the scales in favor of three white men accused of killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, may signal the emerging development of a new approach to holding the state accountable for the brutal treatment of Black people who find themselves in its custody.

As important as it is to punish officers who play a direct role in incidents of police brutality, in many instances they are not the only perpetrators. They are often supported by a scaffolding of enablers throughout the criminal legal system who also bear responsibility and must be rooted out for transformative change to occur.

In particular, medical professionals — both first responders and the coroners responsible for investigating in-custody deaths — have long played critical roles in determining how the outcomes of police encounters gone bad are perceived. In the case of the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, the medical examiner’s conclusions regarding the cause of death were critical in establishing Chauvin’s culpability. The Hennepin County medical examiner made it clear that, had it not been for Chauvin’s decision to place his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck, Floyd would have survived.

Anne Kim of Washington Monthly reports that polling indicates that more Americas are becoming skeptical of four-year college degrees.

The poll, which sampled 1,000 American adults in August, comes from the London-based global public opinion firm YouGov and was commissioned by the conservative-leaning Charles Koch Foundation. (The survey’s margin of error is +/– 3.3 percent.) It found that Americans are taking an increasingly transactional view of higher education, with a hard focus on the job market. For instance, 63 percent said they thought a company-paid college program for employees was preferable to a “traditional full time 4-year college,” even if it meant that the benefit only applied to a limited number of programs and schools. Just 10 percent said they “don’t think it would be a good option.”

Many also said they believed that industry-recognized or company-sponsored credentials (like an IT certification from Microsoft) could be just as valuable, or more so, as a traditional college degree. Respondents were also asked to decide what they would recommend to a family member who was choosing between earning a “credential provided by a reputable tech company with a high likelihood of landing a job” and “attending a highly prestigious college.” Nearly 51 percent of them—including 54 percent of those with a four-year degree—said they would recommend the company-sponsored credential, while just 16 percent said they would recommend the “highly prestigious” college.

I’ve long agreed that four-year colleges are not for everyone, and I even agree that some private companies should sponsor IT certifications and the like. I do think that such credentials should be sponsored through robust two-year college systems.

I don’t link to transcripts in podcast interviews often, but I will make an exception and excerpt this comment on the Afghanistan withdrawal by journalist Robert Wright, during an appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.

[EZRA KLEIN]: …But they are also framing this decision to leave as partially motivated by the recognition that we need to stop wasting time and energy on these endless wars in the Middle East so we can focus more on the primary geopolitical conflict of our era, which is China. I’m curious how you see this.

ROBERT WRIGHT: This has various versions. This tends to come mainly in conversations about China, but sometimes this new Cold War is conceived as a global war on kind of authoritarianism that would also involve Russia. In that way, it really is kind of deja vu, I guess. It’s no longer communism, per se. It’s authoritarianism. But we’re still fighting a Cold War.

Look, I’m in favor of doing what we can realistically do to prevent the spread of authoritarianism, but I don’t think the foreign policy establishment has a very good idea how to do it. And the things I see them recommending — like, for example, establishing a league of democracies — might tend to have the effect of deepening the fault lines between our part of the world and China’s part of the world in a way that makes the Cold War a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I would go even further. I don’t think that “the blob” (that is, the foreign policy “establishment”) has recalibrated international relations “theory” (and therefore, the practice) since the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s all that they know.

Finally today, forgive the classics geek in me but Rachel Hadas, writing for The Conversation, includes literary selections and analysis to remind us that in spite of all the political, economic, and natural crises that the world is going through, we have been here before.

Hesiod, Homer’s contemporary, tells us in his poem “Works and Days” that when Pandora, a seductive figure who is the gods’ deceitful gift to mankind, opens her jar and releases all the evils that plague the world, including pestilence, Hope alone stays behind. Thank goodness for hope – what would we do without “the thing with feathers/that perches on the soul,” as Emily Dickinson famously describes it.

In the absence of hope, it’s hard to summon the energy to endure. It helps to remember Jane Goodall’s words, spoken in the context of climate change and extinction but equally applicable, surely, to any dire situation: “We absolutely need to know all the doom and gloom because we are approaching a crossroads. But traveling the world I’d see animal and plant species being rescued from the brink of extinction, people tackling what seemed impossible.” These positive stories need more attention, says Goodall, because “they’re what give people hope.”

Yes, hope can be mocking, frustrated and frustrating, when it’s disappointed, when it turns out to have been premature, as happened this summer. But a year ago, who would have dared to hope that the vaccines would be developed so swiftly? What was our hope then? We forget so quickly.

Everyone have a good day!





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