Sunday, June 2, 2019

Sunday Reading

On Thin Ice — Charles P. Pierce on how climate change is killing people in Alaska.

For those Chinese climate hoaxsters, it’s all fun and games until people start dying, which is happening in a lot of places around the world, and which will keep happening as the hoax gets deeper and more serious and affects more and more of the world. For example, as Smithsonian informs us, Alaska. In March, when it is still supposed to be the dead of winter there, Alaska experienced temperatures that were 11 degrees Celsius above normal. There were consequences.

On April 15, three people, including an 11-year-old girl, died after their snowmobiles plunged through thin ice on the Noatak River in far northwestern Alaska. Earlier in the winter, 700 kilometers south, on the lower Kuskokwim River, at least five people perished in separate incidents when their snowmobiles or four-wheelers broke through thin ice. There were close calls too, including the rescue of three miners who spent hours hopping between disintegrating ice floes in the Bering Sea near Nome. Farther south, people skating on the popular Portage Lake near Anchorage also fell through thin ice. Varying factors contributed to these and other mishaps, but abnormally thin ice was a common denominator.

In Alaska, ice is infrastructure. For example, the Kuskokwim River, which runs over 1,100 kilometers across southwestern Alaska, freezes so solid that it becomes a marked ice road connecting dozens of communities spread over 300 kilometers. In sparsely populated interior Alaska, frozen rivers are indispensable for transporting goods, visiting family and delivering kids to school basketball games. Along Alaska’s west coast, the frozen waters of the Bering Sea also act as infrastructure. Each winter, frigid air transforms much of the Bering between Russia and Alaska into sea ice. As it fastens to shore, the ice provides platforms for fishing and hunting, and safe routes between communities. It also prevents wave action and storm surges from eroding the shores of coastal villages.

The ripple effects of this don’t stop. The warmer ocean makes for storms more and more heavy with rain. It also upsets the ecological balance that keeps Alaska’s economy rolling and keeps many of Alaska’s Native population alive. As Smithsonian points out, nobody really knows what the effect of the warming of the Gulf of Alaska will have on the salmon population, but nobody’s speculation is good.

For many, including Rob Campbell, a biological oceanographer with the Prince William Sound Science Center, it stirs unpleasant memories of the Blob, an enormous patch of warm water that formed in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013. It lasted over two years and upset ecological norms across our region. “Today we don’t see as much heat in the gulf as we had beginning in 2013,” says Campbell. “But in general, the northern gulf is 1.5 degrees Celsius above average. It’s a big anomaly heading into summer.” Campbell finds the conditions worrisome. “Continued warmth like this has cascading effects,” he says. “And we may not understand the consequences for species like salmon for years to come.”

Elsewhere in the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, things are no better. On Friday morning, a number of people attending a policy conference in Upper Michigan leapt to the electric Twitter machine to share photos of the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets that they were experiencing.

The reason these are so striking is because the forests in upper Alberta are burning down right now in one of the earliest starts to wildfire season that Canada ever has seen. Smoke from those fires already has ridden the weather systems south as far as Iowa. Some 10,000 people have been evacuated in Alberta, but the fires do make for a nice photo or two thousands of miles away, so there’s that.

Because He Can — Jeffrey Toobin on the douchebaggery of Mitch McConnell.

The boundless cynicism of Mitch McConnell is again on display. The Kentucky Republican, who is the Senate Majority Leader, told a home-state audience that, if there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court in 2020, he will make sure that President Trump’s nominee receives a confirmation vote. This, of course, conflicts with McConnell’s view on the election-year nomination of Merrick Garland, in 2016. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, on February 13, 2016, McConnell announced that he would refuse to allow a vote on President Obama’s nominee, and thus would keep the seat open for the next President to fill. McConnell has lately made a halfhearted attempt to distinguish the two situations; he said that Supreme Court seats should be kept open in election years when the Senate and the Presidency are controlled by different parties. (Needless to say, he did not raise this purported distinction in 2016.) But the main reason that McConnell might push through a Republican nominee to the Court while blocking a Democratic choice is simple: because he can.

There’s another, less obvious reason that McConnell can game the Supreme Court confirmation process with impunity. The Republican Party has been far more invested in the future of the Supreme Court, and of the judiciary generally, than the Democratic Party has. Judicial appointments, especially to the Supreme Court, are a central pillar of the Republican agenda, and Republican voters will forgive any number of other transgressions if the Party delivers on the courts.

Donald Trump understood this. That’s why, during the 2016 campaign, he released a short list of possible nominees to the Court. The list was largely compiled by Leonard Leo, the executive vice-president of the Federalist Society, and the names on it demonstrated to the Republican base that Trump was serious about following its agenda—starting with overruling Roe v. Wade. Trump’s nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and of dozens of other conservatives to the lower courts, have been crucial to the President’s preservation of his stratospheric level of support from that base. Conservatives forgive Trump his louche personal life and his casual dishonesty because they know that they are getting the judges and the Justices they want.

Democrats are different. Consider what happened after McConnell blocked the Garland nomination. After a few days of perfunctory outrage, most Democratic politicians dropped the issue. Neither President Obama nor Hillary Clinton, in their speeches before the Democratic National Convention, in July, 2016, even mentioned Garland—or the Supreme Court. Its future was apparently something that neither of them wanted to discuss, or thought that their party, or the nation, wanted to hear about.

Four years later, this pattern is recurring. Consider, for example, the Web sites of three leading contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Each site has thousands of words outlining the candidates’ positions on the issues—and none of them mentions Supreme Court nominations, much less nominations for lower-court judges. These omissions are especially striking in Biden’s case, because he served for decades on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including several years as the chair. He voted on more than a dozen Supreme Court confirmations (including, of course, that of Clarence Thomas) and, as Vice-President, he helped Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan win approval in the Senate. Likewise, since Warren was a law professor before she ran for office, she might be expected to focus on the significance of the Court. But, for the most part, Democrats barely mention it.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why Republicans are so much more motivated by the Supreme Court than Democrats are. Complacency could be part of the reason. Despite a preponderance of Republicans on the Court for the past couple of generations, the Justices have expanded gay rights, including the right to marriage, and preserved abortion rights, by reaffirming Roe. But, thanks largely to McConnell, and, of course, to Trump, those days are likely over. Trump rallied his supporters by promising to appoint Justices who will vote to overturn Roe, and the day of that vote may soon be upon us. By the time Democrats wake up to the importance of the Court, it may be too late.

Doonesbury — Paying the price.

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