Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday Reading

How Stupid Do They Think We Are? — Charles P. Pierce on getting rolled by the Russians.

Well, now we know what Rex Tillerson’s job really is. He tells the administration’s bedtime stories so we can all sleep peacefully because everything is under control, dammit. (Don’t make him come upstairs again!) Friday’s story was of the meeting between El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago and Vladimir Putin of the dead eyes and, according to Daddy Rex, everything went swimmingly. Pressed, old Vladimir was, on the subject of his having allegedly ratfcked the 2016 election on behalf of the president.

Pressed, I tell you. From NBC:

Tillerson said Trump opened the more than two hour meeting by questioning Moscow’s cyber intrusions in America’s political system. The two had a “very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson said. Putin continued to deny Russian involvement.

Pressed, by cracky!

Tillerson departed the briefing room after leaving unanswered questions about whether Trump accepted Putin’s denial of election meddling.

That seems to be something of an omission, at least to this untrained observer.

During the meeting, there was little relitigating of past negativity, Tillerson said adding “We’re unhappy, they’re unhappy.” Instead, the question was “how do we start making this work?”

Wait? How do we make what work? How do we make Russian ratfcking work? How do we keep the Russians from ratfcking our elections? I think Putin might possibly be the wrong person to whom that question should be asked, but I am not an oil baron in charge of the country’s diplomacy.

ABC News has a longer, and even more ambiguous, account from Secretary Tillerson:

“The president opened the meeting by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in 2016 election. Putin denied such involvement as he has done in the past,” Tillerson said during an off-camera briefing today in Hamburg, Germany. “The two leaders agreed this is of substantial hindrance. They agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the U.S. and our democratic process as well as other countries.” Tillerson added that both presidents acknowledged the “interference in the democratic processes” in the United States and other countries and that they would “create a framework” to deal with such cyberthreats and how those tools are used in infrastructure and terrorism.

So I guess we’re going to work with the Russians to keep the Russians from ratfcking future elections. And the president* promises “further work” on getting a commitment from a dead-eyed career spook that he will not ratfck American elections any more? What are the odds of that “further work” ever happening? What are the odds that the president* even remembers this commitment by breakfast tomorrow?

Putin and Trump’s meeting lasted about two hours and 15 minutes — far longer than the planned 30-minute duration — and Tillerson said the meeting was “very constructive” with both leaders possessing a “positive chemistry” and not “relegating” often to one another. First lady Melania Trump came into the meeting after the first-hour mark but “couldn’t get through” to both leaders, Tillerson said. Both presidents exchanged views on the nature of U.S.-Russia relations and the future.

Well, I certainly am relieved to hear that. I’m glad that the president* didn’t allow an attack on our democracy to harsh everyone’s mellow. This is positively surreal, this is. The Russians know what they did and they’re quite happy with the result. With this guy in the White House, they have no earthly reason not to do it again and again, both here and all over Europe. This isn’t Cold War rhetoric. It’s pure power politics of the kind in which Russia has engaged through czars and commissars.

This isn’t Cold War rhetoric. It’s pure power politics.

Vladimir Putin didn’t rise in the KGB, and survive the collapse of the Soviet Union to become his country’s presiding autocrat, by surrendering golden opportunities when they simply are handed to him. Now we are supposed to believe that, not only will Putin stop using tactics that worked so gloriously in 2016, but also that Putin will work with the president* to make sure Putin doesn’t get away with it the next time.

I used to wonder how somebody could go broke running a casino. I don’t wonder that anymore.

Caribbean Tourism on the Block — Juan Cole in The Nation on how climate change will have an impact on the islands.

Philipsburg, Sint Maarten—Franklin, middle-aged inhabitant of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, cocked his head when I asked him about climate change. “There is already a lot of flooding because of storm surges in hurricane season,” he said, his ebony brow creased. “If the sea level rises four feet, then Philipsburg is gone.” Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side of the island, Sint Maarten, a major receiver of cruise ships, with its Front Street a collage of high-end shopping and outlets for island specialties like guavaberry liqueur. The UN estimates that the oceans will rise at least four feet in the next eight decades.

The picturesque Caribbean, with its turquoise waters and sun-kissed white sand beaches, conjures images of happy family vacations, heady rum cocktails, and nighttime calypso rhythms for most outsiders. Its economy has become heavily dependent on tourism, with nearly 30 million arrivals annually—rivaling the number of permanent inhabitants (around 40 million) of these islands. The tourists bring in $35 billion a year. Sint Maarten receives about 1.5 million cruise-ship visitors a year, and half a million tourists who fly in to Princess Juliana International Airport. Tourism now accounts for 80 percent of Sint Maarten’s economy.

Precisely because of this dependency on a tourism centered on beaches and wildlife, the Caribbean is among the areas of the world most vulnerable to the deadly effects of climate change. This menace is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Saint Martin, divided into a French north and a Dutch south, is a poster child for this looming disaster.

Tadzio Bervoets, the energetic young head of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation in Philipsburg with Bruno Martins good looks, told me, “Climate change is already affecting Sint Maarten’s environment.” He points to unusual dry spells and unseasonable torrents. “I have even seen times recently,” he remarked with amazement, “when part of the Great Salt Pond has dried up. I could walk on its bed.”

Bervoets’s personal experience with the Great Salt Pond, a landmark in Philipsburg, is supported by scientific research. Data collected on the island of Barbados over 40 years show that both daytime and nighttime temperatures have steadily increased. Scientists say that as the islands heat up more moisture will evaporate from the soil and from ponds, and fresh-water aquifers may not be so easily replenished. Clay soils will dry out and crack, which will cause them to lose even more moisture.

Environmentalist Victor Peterson concurred about the issues. A former politician and now building engineer for the Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, he complains, “Simpson Bay has been filled in to some extent by developers. The lagoon has shrunk and marine life has been damaged.”

The concerned citizen, Franklin, took me along the main artery connecting downtown Philipsburg with the resort area of Simpson Bay, stopping to show me the artificial stone culverts installed by the local government to drain off flood waters, which sometimes make the road impassable. He was clearly skeptical that Sint Maarten’s government would be able to deal with the substantially increased storm surges that will be caused by sea-level rise and stronger hurricanes. (Hurricanes are produced by warm water, and the warmer the water, the greater their intensity). In 1995, the island was wrecked by Hurricane Luis, and it took years to rebuild.

Storm surges also threaten public health, inasmuch as they can release polluted water. The Great Salt Pond, Sint Maarten’s largest inland lagoon, now suffers from an inflow of sewage and leakage from a trash landfill on Pond Island in its center. This pollution, including heavy metals, menaces the birds that stop over and breed there, such as the laughing gull, and threatened local species, including the white-cheeked pintail, Caribbean coot, and ruddy duck. “There have been massive marine-life die-offs in recent years,” Bervoets said, possibly from a lack of oxygen in the pond. Because of landfill leakage, when the pond is occasionally drained into the ocean, “toxins go into the sea and beaches have to be closed,” he explained.

Bervoets argues that in Sint Maarten “we must mitigate climate impacts. We have to protect coral reefs and mangroves, which offer protection from storm surges.” His organization is monitoring a government-designated Marine Park a mile and a half offshore, especially its coral reefs. He says, “It is important to put a dollar amount to the value of such resources.” The Nature Foundation estimates that the resources in the Marine Park are worth at least $50 million. Peterson over at the Westin agrees about the issues, blaming development in part and warmer seas in part. “Conch beds and other marine habitats have already been damaged compared to when I was a boy,” he said. “Mangroves have been removed.”

Coral reefs attract and protect fish, helping fishermen, and are a favorite tourist feature for snorkelers and divers. A Nature Foundation report noted of Sint Maarten’s reefs, “They are also a very important ecosystem for the local and global biodiversity.” Bervoets said, “We have seen coral bleaching because of heat stress.”

Corals are symbiotic, cohabiting with a kind of algae that live in the coral’s tissue, and are capable of photosynthesis, turning light into energy. These single-celled algae also promote calcium formation, extending the coral reef. Unfortunately, they do not deal well with extra-warm water. And the industrialized world’s addiction to burning gasoline in automobiles and coal and natural gas for electricity is heating up the earth, including its oceans. The high temperatures interfere in the algae’s ability to carry out photosynthesis, thus damaging the coral.

Another threat to Sint Maarten’s rich marine life is an increasingly acidic ocean. Bervoets says, “We have seen lobster and conch shells thinning because of acidification.” Conch fritters and lobster feature prominently in Sint Maarten’s cuisine, and tourists on travel sites can often be observed asking which restaurants prepare them most tastily. Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed over time by the oceans, though much will remain up there for tens of thousands of years. When it goes into the sea, CO2 produces acidity, threatening marine life (sort of like pouring hydrochloric acid in a goldfish bowl, but on a global scale). The middle-aged Peterson agrees about the deterioration.

At the Sint Maarten Westin resort, Peterson is responsible for overseeing one of the island’s (and the Caribbean’s) major green-energy projects so far, the 2,600 Lightway solar panels on its roof. He said that the owner, Columbia Sussex Corporation, had them installed in 2013-14 for some $5 million, having become convinced they would pay for themselves in as little as four years. The panels, from China, have a capacity of nearly 800 kilowatts and produce 1.2 million kilowatt hours a year (enough to power 100 homes). Most Caribbean islands, Saint Martin included, depend on expensive imported petroleum for electricity generation. Of course, burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, so the Caribbean is unwise to feed this beast.

Unlike Aruba, St. Eustatius, and some other islands, Sint Maarten has made few strides toward implementing green energy outside the one resort. Peterson blamed the lack of general progress on solar energy on the government-owned Sint Maarten electrical utility, GEBE, saying it was his impression they feared a loss of revenue. Bervoets observed that Sint Maarten has plans to get two megawatts from solar panels. “Land is at a premium, so we will concentrate on rooftop installations,” he said. He was referring to GEBE’s letter of intent on the installation of 2 megawatts of solar, which it could triple over time to 6 megawatts. The Sint Maarten side of the island has an installed capacity of about 100 megawatts, so at this pace it will be a while before the island’s energy is green.

The new administrative offices of the government of Sint Maarten, since 2010 a distinct country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sit on Pond Island in Philipsburg in the middle of the Great Salt Pond. Across the street, at the Festival Village concert venue, youth staged a pulse-pounding “Buss da Chains” concert on the eve of July 1, Sint Maarten’s Emancipation Day. But Bervoets complained that since it became constituent country of the Kingdom, there have been frequent changes of government on the island, which have interfered with consistent environmental policy. “We therefore need voter education,” he said, on the challenges this generation faces.

Speaking of needing voter education, read this and weep.

You’re Too Young to Retire — Carl Reiner has some advice for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Dear Justice Anthony Kennedy,

I would like to start with congratulatory wishes on your forthcoming 81st birthday.

As someone who has almost a decade and a half on you, I can tell you this: It may well be that the best part of your career has just begun. As a nonagenarian who has just completed the most prolific, productive five years of my life, I feel it incumbent upon me to urge a hearty octogenarian such as yourself not to put your feet up on the ottoman just yet. You have important and fulfilling work ahead of you.

When I turned 81, I had finished “Oceans Eleven” and was gearing up for “Oceans Twelve” while also writing another book, which led me to a cross-country book tour.

I know what it means to be your age. I know the problems that come with the journey. But these are not ordinary times, and you, sir, are anything but an ordinary man.

The country needs justices like you who decide each case with fairness and humanity, and whose allegiance is to the Constitution of the United States of America, not to a party line. You have always voted your conscience, and defended the rights and liberties of all our citizens.

I’m sure you’ve considered the various options, as we all do when we reach a certain age. After all, although our lives are different, I’m sure there are similarities. I get up in the morning, and if I’m not in the obits, I eat breakfast. You get up, meet with your clerks and engage with them in spirited discussion about the constitutional ramifications of the important cases at hand. I engage in spirited discussion with my publisher about the release order of my next three books.

You have lunch and I have lunch. You return to your chambers and I to my desk. At day’s end, you go home to ponder the important decisions you will be making tomorrow. I go downstairs and join my friend Mel in front of the television, and we ponder out loud how many steps Vanna White will take when walking over to the letter board tonight after leaving Pat Sajak’s side. (F.Y.I., it is usually six, sometimes seven, rarely eight, but never nine.)

Imagine if you retired from the bench. What would your days be like? Here’s a scenario: You revisit your carefree years, rent a red Volkswagen and travel through Europe, stopping in Paris for coffee and a croissant on the Champs-Élysées, then on to the Amalfi coast, where you’ll sail to the waterfalls of Marmorata and the Emerald Grotto.

How would you feel, while reading your newspaper, seeing a headline that read “Roe v. Wade Overturned”? Do you see how this could ruin a good meal? A good life? A great country?

I believe I’ve made my case. It’s now 1 a.m., and I am going upstairs to my computer to tweet out my thought of the day, because I can. I have the freedom to do that because of people like you who are committed to protecting our liberties and our Constitution.

I thank you, as all our fellow citizens will.

Respectfully,

Carl Reiner

 Doonesbury — On the market.