Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The climate trials of the 21st century have begun

We now have underway the first climate trials (or various stages of them) of the 21st century. The overall question in these trials is actually straightforward: Do governments and corporations have an obligation to protect the habitability of the Earth's climate for human populations?

Let's start with government. The first trial (in the United States) was not actually that recent. In 1999 a group of environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2003 the EPA denied the petition. Several states then joined a legal appeal which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided in 2007 that, in fact, the EPA did have the authority and the obligation to consider seriously how to regulate greenhouse gases.

The agency then offered a regulation plan which was challenged in court. In 2014 the Supreme Court found the EPA plan acceptable with a few minor tweaks.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The post-fact world and the need for a new consensus

In a piece I wrote four years ago I asked whether we were moving toward a fact-free world. Now, I wonder if that world has arrived.

The media is full of opinions and opinions parading as facts and facts that are not facts and sometimes just crazed fantasies posing as facts. We are now having a public discussion about so-called "fake news" and whose news is really fake. I'm thinking of rumors circulated on the internet that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.was a cover for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.

There was, of course, absolutely no basis for this wild and on-its-face ridiculous accusation. And yet, a rifle-wielding man who drove in from North Carolina shot up the place. He came all that way believing the story was fact because, well, he read it on the internet. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The bar for facticity for many people has been lowered to ground level it seems. Anything they want to be a fact magically becomes a fact.

Now this is not to say that it is easy to determine what is or is not a fact. When we say "fact," we usually mean something that is true. But that just begs the question of how we determine whether something is true.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Who's afraid of a recount?

Why all the fuss about the recounts which Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is asking for in three states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? After all, every political professional knows that a vote recount almost never changes the outcome.

The professionals in the Green Party know that. The professionals in the Clinton campaign know that and have said they don't expect the recount to change anything. And, the professionals (if there are any) in the Trump campaign know that. I was a consultant to a candidate who sought two recounts in two very close elections. The recounts barely budged the totals.

There is the rare exception, of course. Al Franken became a U.S. senator from Minnesota because of a recount. But, it's hard to name another officeholder off the top of one's head who is in office today because of a recount.

As it turns out, there are two things which are driving the fear and loathing in the two major parties (even though the Clinton campaign has now said it will participate in the recounts).

First, there is envy. Jill Stein and the Green Party have found a way to increase media coverage of the party and its agenda by an order of magnitude. And, that's just so far. Whatever you think of Stein and her party, they have pulled off a masterstroke of publicity. They will now get weeks of free coverage in all the major and minor media and much of the blogosphere.

It's no puzzle why the Trump administration doesn't want a public discussion of Green Party priorities on climate change and renewable energy when the administration is planning to pull out of the Paris climate accord, reduce support for renewable energy and roll back regulation of the fossil fuel industry.

For the Democratic Party establishment, the Green Party's more thoroughgoing devotion to environmental policies and social and economic justice could over time lure dissatisfied Democrats into the Green Party fold.

But there is another reason major parties don't like these recounts. They call attention to the flawed voting infrastructure in the United States. In a country where politicians and other civic leaders constantly tell us that "every vote counts," we are about to see that not every vote does count.

There are problems with the reliability and integrity of the machines that do the tabulating. Some electronic voting machines are easy to hack. There are problems with some election procedures: burdensome ID requirements, lack of same-day registration, and lack of mail-in voting which provides by far the easiest, most convenient and most thoughtful way to vote. (I know because I live in Oregon which has mail-in balloting only). There is the inherent conflict of interest in having partisan officials oversee vote counting. There are attempts to suppress voting through intimidation and disinformation. And, there is the lack of nationwide standards to insure that every vote really will count.

With the two major parties enjoying a duopoly on political power, the current system is largely to their liking. Jill Stein wants to make them uncomfortable.

Another development in the 2016 U.S. elections that has this duopoly concerned is that Maine adopted via referendum what is called ranked voting. It is also known as preference voting and instant-runoff voting. This will allow Maine voters to rank candidates for an office in order of preference. If no candidate for a particular office wins more than 50 percent of the vote as a first preference, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped. If a voter's first ranked candidate is dropped in the first round, then the voter's second preference is counted in the second round. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the second round, then the process continues until one does.

As a practical matter this means that progressive voters could rank a Green Party candidate as their number one choice without splitting the left-leaning vote in a way that allows a right-leaning candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote. Right-leaning voters could choose, say, a candidate from the ultra-conservative Constitution Party without splitting the right-leaning vote in a way what would allow a left-leaning candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Ranked voting will mean more diversity of parties and candidates and more possibilities for minor party candidates to win office rather than merely play the role of spoilers. Look for ranked voting to spread to other states in 2018 and beyond.

This election has ushered in an era of extreme volatility and fluidity in American politics. The recounts and the adoption of ranked voting in Maine are just two examples. I expect there to be hundreds more examples in the coming years.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at