CVIndependent

Tue06252019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Anyone who spent the weekend at the California Democratic Party’s convention—watching 14 White House contenders try to impress what one congresswoman called “the wokest Democrats in the country”—observed the following: Saturday’s most rapturous cheers went to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who declared “the time for small ideas is over," advocated “big, structural change” and said “I am here to fight.” Sunday’s thunderous applause went to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he demanded there can be “no middle ground” on climate change, healthcare or gun violence.

Those who strayed from progressive orthodoxy did so at their peril.

Ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dismissed the push for single-payer health care by insisting “socialism is not the answer” Saturday, drawing a sustained barrage of boos—not just from those who embraced the label, but from those who resented it. The following day, Maryland Rep. John Delany dismissed Medicare-for-All as “not good policy,” and faced heckles and jeers.

The San Francisco confab was the state Dems’ first get-together since last year’s blowout election returned the party to its national majority in the House and devastated the ranks of elected Republicans in California. The delegates left no doubt that as they prepare for the 2020 election against President Donald Trump, they are in no mood for compromise or equivocation.

At least not when it comes to ideas that energize them.

But state party conventions—dominated in decibels by faithful partisans and zealous activists—often offer an exaggerated, funhouse-mirror reflection of what the party’s voters statewide actually think. And even the delegates can be more temperate than the room might suggest.

In one of the few choices that the 3,200-plus delegates actually made, a majority eschewed more progressive candidates and easily elected as the party’s next chairman Los Angeles labor leader Rusty Hicks. He’s a soft-spoken white guy from Los Angeles who represented what many called the “safe choice.”

Still, they gave an effusive reception to speakers who jettisoned safe choices. Here was Warren: “Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘Settle down, back up … wait for change until the privileged and powerful are comfortable with those changes,'” she said. “Here’s the thing—when a candidate tells you all the things that aren’t possible … they are telling you they will not fight for you, and I am here to fight.”

Few of the presidential candidates addressed California issues specifically, in the way they become conversant about, say, ethanol in Iowa. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s made climate policy a thrust of his campaign, talked about visiting the wildfire devastation in the California community of Paradise, and some candidates called for greater regulation of tech firms. But their speeches mostly sidestepped California-specific concerns and aimed wide in appealing to what Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee called the “most progressive and the most democratic and the wokest Democrats in the country.”

“This is obviously a group of activists, and there are obviously some candidates who appeal more to the activists,” Dave Min told CALmatters at a meeting of the Chicano and Latino Caucus. He lost a bid for Congress in 2018 to Rep. Katie Porter, who was backed by Sen. Warren and supported Medicare-for-All. Now he’s seeking a state senate seat.

As if to illustrate his point, minutes later, Sanders—who has done more than virtually any other politician to turn support for universal Medicare into a litmus test for progressive Democratic candidates—entered the room and was nearly trampled by selfie-seeking delegates.

Next, Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas Congressman who nearly beat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, entered the room, unleashing fresh pandemonium. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a relative moderate, was treated to a much more restrained, if polite, reception.

That courtesy was not extended to Hickenlooper.

“If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” he told the convened Democrats. He was booed for roughly 30 seconds by delegates who either objected to his characterization of single-payer healthcare as “socialism,” or, in fact, believe socialism is the answer.

Regardless, the scene was unadulterated Fox News fodder.

The next day, Delaney, of Maryland, took the same approach. On the heels of Sanders’ raucously well-received speech, Delaney told the audience that universal access to Medicare “is actually not good policy.” The audience disagreed, vocally and persistently. Even New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got in the act, tweeting that Delaney should just “sashay away.”

If this is the first time you’ve heard of Delaney or Hickenlooper, that may have been the point. Hickenlooper later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was not seeking the crowd’s vitriol. But the fact that his campaign blasted out a press release the day of the event with the title, “Hickenlooper to California Dems: “Socialism Is Not the Answer” suggested he might have been aiming his appeal far outside Moscone Center. The following day, his campaign issued a press release citing coverage from The Washington Post and exulting: “Hickenlooper lost the room but gained a national audience.”

Besides, the Democratic Party has a history of candidates strategically saying something sure to elicit boos from a leftist crowd in order to establish their independent cred with moderates: Consider President Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah speech, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s defense of capital punishment at her state’s convention—which her campaign gleefully turned into a TV commercial.

For Julian Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration and who has struggled to gain much popular support, the interpretation was clear.

“You heard the reaction,” he said, when asked by a reporter whether Democrats can compete without supporting a single-payer health-care policy. “Probably not in this state. Who knows?”

Joe Biden might disagree. The former vice president supports a policy that would allow those under the qualifying age to purchase a Medicare policy, which constitutes a moderate position among the current Democratic candidates. But at least for now, he leads in the polls—even among California Democrats.

The Biden campaign explained the candidate’s conspicuous absence at the San Francisco convention as an unavoidable scheduling conflict, though attendees of the 2018 Democratic convention may recall the chilly reception that Sen. Feinstein, another moderate, received.

The Democrats in attendance largely shrugged off Biden’s decision not to show up. Alex Gallardo-Rooker, who has served at the party’s chair since the resignation of Eric Baumann earlier this year, said that Biden was “being pulled all over the place.” Gov. Newsom also gave the former vice president a pass: “It’s a big country.” When asked about it, Sen. Kamala Harris literally shrugged—and said nothing.

The one exception was Sanders, who, during his speech in the convention hall on Sunday morning, referred to “presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to be in this room.” The crowd happily booed.

Sanders was cheered as he argued that there is no “middle ground” on climate change, making a not-so-subtle dig at Biden who used the term to describe his environmental policy plan.

But to some, both supporters and detractors, the party’s choice of Hicks for chair represented its own kind of middle ground. Kimberly Ellis, Hicks’ strongest opponent who narrowly lost the race for party chair in 2017, had argued that the party needs to take a more assertive role in political messaging and agenda setting.

But with 57 percent of the vote, Hicks’ victory was decisive, and the party avoided an oft-predicted runoff election. Ellis got 36 percent.

For close observers of California politics, this might feel like deja vu. Earlier this year, the California Republican Party held its own election for chair in which Jessica Patterson, the pick of most of the party establishment, beat out an ideological upstart, Travis Allen.

At a Friday evening forum hosted by the Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, candidates for chair were asked, rapid-fire, about single-payer health insurance, a statewide ban on fracking, the Green New Deal and a moratorium on new charter schools. All six candidates were unanimous in their support.

Where disagreement arose, it was less about policy and more about the role of the party itself—whether the priority should be on building up the party as a political institution or promoting the most progressive agenda.

Asked whether the party should abandon the practice of automatically endorsing incumbent Democratic lawmakers or substantially reduce the power of elected office holders within the party, Hicks was the only candidate to say no.

Karen Araujo, a delegate from Salinas who supported Ellis, called Hicks “a safe choice.” Still, she added, “It was a clear decision. I’ll honor that and I’ll work hard for my party.”

Said Josh Newman, a former Orange County state senator who was recalled and is running for his old seat again: “It’s good to have a decisive moment where we decide, ‘OK, fair election, fair result; now let’s work on the next thing. And the next thing has to be 2020.”

Elizabeth Castillo contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On this week's college-rejected weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy signs Bibles; Red Meat tries to maintain the telepathic link with the fish; This Modern World ponders the "extreme" nature of the Green New Deal; Jen Sorenson offers a field guide to bad-faith social-justice activists; and (Th)ink tackles the #fakemelania phenomenon.

Published in Comics

What better way to decompress from a stressful federal government job than by trekking 2,600 miles on foot from Mexico to Canada?

That’s what Jared Blumenfeld, the new head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, did three years ago, setting out on the arduous and beloved Pacific Crest Trail that traces California’s searing deserts, rugged mountains and sparkling coastline. Turns out the dust on his boots gave him just the perspective he needed to take on the job Gov. Gavin Newsom gave him in January.

“I had a healthy reset,” Blumenfeld said recently about his four months on the trail. “What you realize is the complexity of the environmental issues. We have so many people talking about environmental issues, but we say it in a way that most people don’t understand.”

People want to be part of the solution to environmental problems, he said. “What I got from a distance was (the importance of) bringing these messages home in a way that’s digestible and actionable.”

Blumenfeld’s work perspective also shifted, as he moved from his job as the regional administrator for the federal EPA during the Obama administration to its mirror agency in Sacramento.

Blumenfeld, who has law degrees from the University of London and UC Berkeley, left his federal job in May 2016, a few months before his appointment was set to expire.

The agency he now manages oversees a half-dozen departments that regulate matters including air and water quality, which are among the state’s most contentious issues. Those issues have put California on a collision course with the Trump administration, which is undoing dozens of federal environmental protections, including some that originated in the Golden State.

Perhaps the most consequential battle is over Obama-era rules tightening future car emissions and gas-mileage standards to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants; the regulations were crafted by California but adopted nationwide. Under president Trump, the federal government announced it would roll back those rules and revoke California’s right, first granted by Washington decades ago, to set its own air-pollution standards. Such a move would significantly affect the state’s ambitious climate policies.

Blumenfeld, 49, said the state needs the federal government as a partner on these issues—but when it came to hammering out a compromise on the auto standards, it was a one-way conversation. The feds announced last week that they had broken off negotiations with the state.

“They did not negotiate,” he said. “It was a little spurious to say they ended negotiations. They never began. The rule that was passed by the Obama administration has been rewritten based on very spurious and kind of junky science by the Trump administration.” (Federal officials produced research that they said showed the regulations as set would make cars less safe and be difficult for automakers to meet.)

In a wide-ranging conversation, Blumenfeld also said:

The state will vigorously defend its right to waive some federal emissions regulations and set its own, stricter standards. He expects the fight to be resolved in court. “We do have law and precedent on our side,” Blumenfeld said. “But we do live in bizarre political times, and that does have an influence on how the highest court may look at this issue.”

He brought together the state agencies he oversees and provided marching orders to step up enforcement of California’s environmental laws—and impose fines when called for. “The regulated community is frustrated that in some cases, the enforcement is happening in some parts of the state, but it isn’t in happening in others,” he said. “Consistency, clarity and prioritizing enforcement are important.” He had criticized California for lax enforcement of water laws in an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.

Blumenfeld worked for Newsom in San Francisco as environmental director for the city. Then-mayor Newsom took him and other key aides to Hunters Point, a highly polluted former Navy shipyard, and into the community to talk to residents affected by residual problems. Newsom told the aides, “I don’t want you sitting in your offices. I want you to get out and help people.” The nexus of environmental damage and public health will be a focus of the new governor, Blumenfeld said.

The enviro-czar didn’t just spend his time hiking while on hiatus from government service. He founded a green-tech consulting company and started a podcast, Podship Earth. The native of Cambridge, England, who retains a trace of his British accent, said it’s now time to get back to work.

“Previous governors came up with great laws and targets, and the Legislature does the same,” he said. “Our job is to implement those. Let’s not just jump to the next shiny-cool environmental thing that we could do. Our first order of business is to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it according to the plans that are already there.

“We have politicians in every level of government who care deeply about the environment,” Blumenfeld said. “California offers hope and inspiration on how to solve problems, from an innovation perspective but also politically. It’s exciting to be in California right now.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's wetter-than-Portland weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorensen examines how everything is pretend with Donald Trump; (Th)ink begs Democrats not to be jackasses; This Modern World looks at the scary future set in motion by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez; Red Meat apologizes for an unfortunate fire; and Apoca Clips hears out Li'l Trumpy regarding his "national emergency."

Published in Comics

Don’t be fooled by the precipitation, the snowpack and the wildflowers. When winter ends, it’s unlikely that California’s iconic landscape will sustain the moisture to withstand the scorching summer and fall.

California has yet to recover from the 5-year drought that began in 2012. For four years, record wildfires have ravaged the state, including the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma in 2017, and the Camp Fire last year that wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County. The 2019 wildfire season officially kicks off in mid-May, but California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now.

So what happens when the next big wildfire hits?

State fire officials are already amassing new aircraft that can drop thousands of gallons of bright red flame retardant. Emergency responders are pre-positioning fire crews in high-threat areas even before a fire starts. State officials will no longer second guess the use of wireless emergency alerts that grab people’s attention by making smartphones vibrate and squawk.

The major investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—now plan to shut off power, even where fire risk is minimal, during red-flag weather warnings. It’s considered a public-safety measure of last resort, because a power outage can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The utilities also plan to fireproof California’s electricity grid, a result of their equipment being implicated in so many recent disasters. That includes clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with metal ones, and using drones and weather monitoring stations to gauge danger via wind and smoke patterns.

Yet even these expensive precautions may not ward off the next towering inferno, say fire officials.

“I think we are better prepared,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “The real question is whether or not that’s enough.”


‘A Sense of Urgency’

Part of the problem is that California has been caught off guard by the new climate-driven fire seasons, amplified by longer hot summers and extended droughts. Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have happened in the last five years.

“The fires are behaving so much differently than they have before,” Huston said, noting the new wildfires are “virtually impossible to fight” as they leap mountains and gallop for miles, creating their own weather systems. “You couldn’t have predicted this based on past fire.”

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told state lawmakers on Jan. 30 that climate-change-driven wildfires are happening much faster than anyone predicted. But for the state regulatory agency to enforce safety at the state’s eight investor-owned utilities, Picker said, he would need 15,000 to 20,000 new staff to police every electricity pole and wire. The agency has, roughly, a 1,300-member staff.

The CPUC regulates not only privately owned utilities from telecom to water, but also rail-crossing safety, limos and ride sharing. Historically, Picker’s role has been more like that of an administrative judge than a police chief.

“If you want to get the Legislature to allow me to be a total dictator, and make decisions overnight, I’m happy,” Picker elaborated to reporters afterward. “That’s not what our job is. We are like a technical court. People have to have their day in court. It’s not a fast process. Have you been in a court proceeding that took one day?”

But his answer on the challenges of enforcement frustrated lawmakers, on whom political pressure has mounted with every disaster. The CPUC is not known for swiftness. It took nine years to issue a statewide fire-threat map after Southern California fires, caused by Santa Ana winds whipping power lines, prompted commissioners in 2009 to demand one. It has laid out a two-month schedule just for reviewing fire-prevention plans utilities must submit under recent and hard-fought wildfire safety legislation.

After Picker’s testimony, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, a forensic dentist who represents fire-ravaged Santa Rosa, took to Twitter.

“I want to hear a sense of urgency,” he wrote. “We don’t have time for a standard bureaucratic approach.”


Amassing ‘More Tools’

Ultimately, the fire challenge involves painful long-term decisions such as how to reconcile the acute demand for California housing with the suddenly limited supply of land that isn’t in a high-risk fire zone.

Short-term, Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa is among those who hope incremental improvements might make a difference. He is proposing the commission work with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to improve coordination for turning off power in red-flag weather, alerting residents to evacuate and better targeting crews to fight fires. His Senate Bill 209 would establish an official, statewide California wildfire warning center.

“It would give us more tools in trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dodd said.

Emergency officials also are studying past fires, and preparing. Survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties complained they had little or no warning when the flames flared up at night under dry windy conditions. Local officials opted against sending out a mass alert for fear of causing panic or hindering emergency responders.

“Everybody I talk to in our neighborhood pretty much either had family call or a neighbor knock on the door. I don’t know of anyone that got an emergency alert,” said Patrick McCallum, a higher education lobbyist who barely escaped his Santa Rosa home with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki. “Worse, there were police and fire engines running around, but they were not allowed to put their alarms on.”

In coming weeks, the state is expected to issue clearer guidance to all 58 counties for issuing alerts and warnings to the public across multiple platforms. The new thinking is to over-communicate, rather than rely on the alerts of the 1980s sent over television and radio or ringing landlines.

“It is something people depend on to make decisions in a crisis,” OES’ Huston said.

The state also believes pushing out wireless emergency alerts on smartphones similar to an Amber Alert can now be done effectively without creating chaos. This simple weather warning was sent out to seven counties encompassing 22 million people in Southern California in December 2017 as a precaution after authorities saw dry windy conditions similar to the wine country fire two months earlier:

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay Alert. Listen to authorities.”

This fire season, Californians may see it again.


A Firefighting Air Force

Meanwhile, Cal Fire is beefing up its capabilities. Rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts.

The switch comes at a price; Cal Fire’s expenses now already routinely exceed its budget. Last year’s fire spending set a new record, and the political climate has made the outlays difficult to question.

“That’s expensive, because you’re paying the same amount of money for firefighters whether they’re fighting a fire or sitting waiting for a fire to start,” Huston said. “But you have to weigh that against the potential for loss and the expense of a disaster.”

The state already boasts a formidable firefighting air force, featuring S-2T air tankers that dump 1,200 gallons of flame retardant and Huey helicopters for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

This spring, the Hueys will start to be replaced by more modern Black Hawks, the Army’s frontline utility helicopter. The first one is expected to be ready in May, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

And over the next two years, Cal Fire will add seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Those will be retrofitted to carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“California will have one of, if not the largest, firefighting air forces in the world,” McLean said.


What About the Utilities?

At ground zero in much of the state are California’s investor-owned utilities and their spark-prone equipment. PG&E has vowed to expand power shut-off territory to as many as 5.4 million customers, up from 570,000 today. SCE is focused on better weather monitoring, adding 62 high-definition cameras and 350 micro weather stations as part of a broader $582 million safety plan.

And SDG&E, which has been most aggressive with more than $1 billion in safety upgrades, will continue to replace wood poles with steel poles, hire a helitanker on standby year-round, and contract with firefighters especially trained to put out electrical fires.

Yet there’s no statewide standard for deciding when the power should be shut off. Instead, participating utilities base decisions on temperature, wind, humidity and other factors. SDG&E has been lauded for its proactive use of public safety power shutoffs.

PG&E’s rollout has been less reassuring.

Two days before the most destructive wildfire in California history ignited, 62,000 PG&E customers in eight counties, including Butte, were warned that their power could be turned off as a precautionary measure. This was sent at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6: This is an important safety alert from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Extreme weather conditions and high fire-danger are forecasted in Butte County. These conditions may cause power outages in the area of your address. To protect public safety, PG&E may also temporarily turn off power in your neighborhood or community. If there is an outage, we will work to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Cal Fire reports the Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8.

PG&E never shut off power. In fact, the utility went on to issue cancellation notifications hours after the deadly blaze started. Sent at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8: “This is an important safety update from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Weather conditions have improved in your area, and we are not planning to turn off electricity for safety in the area of your address.”

PG&E wouldn’t comment on its decision. The California Public Utilities Commission would say only that it is investigating when asked if the state was looking at why the utility didn’t initiate a blackout.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Despite the willful denunciation of proven climate science by the White House and some members of Congress, there is a hopeful awakening in the United States: Young activists are stepping forward to demand a Green New Deal that guarantees climate action, justice and economic security for all.

A Green New Deal would not be a single law, but rather a collection of policies that embody many of the actions needed to expand clean energy, grow job opportunities, reduce climate pollution, improve air and water quality, and enhance the resilience of communities.

In any plan to help us transition from an economy built on fossil fuels to one driven by clean energy, our public lands should feature prominently.

We need a climate plan for public lands that will manage a phase-down of fossil-fuel leasing and production in line with current climate science. At the same time, we must support those communities most affected by pollution and boom-and-bust energy cycles as they transition to the energy of the future.

Climate change is the largest and most-misunderstood problem humanity will ever face. There is no previous situation to compare it to, no successful historical model to reference—and that just makes the issue even riper for the critics who claim it simply doesn’t exist.

During the 24th international climate conference, newly released information confirmed that we are facing a slow-motion global catastrophe. According to a battery of scientific reports from thousands of the world’s foremost experts, we are closer than expected to warming levels that would result in severe, perhaps irrevocable, changes in natural systems.

Winters are shorter; summers hotter and drier; our fishing streams run warmer; and ski slopes stay bare. Coral reefs are dying, and glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park. Life forms on this planet—from pollinators to polar bears—are struggling to create another generation. Closer to home, some human communities are burning to the ground while others are deluged in floods.

We already have the knowledge to avert the worst of these effects, but we lack the collective will to do so. Politicians in the Trump era are normalizing negligence every time they dismiss scientific consensus by uttering, “I don’t believe it.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure is a microcosm of this denial: He spent 21 months in blind pursuit of “energy dominance,” a doctrine that enshrines oil, gas and coal production as the highest use of America’s public lands, regardless of the climate pollution they cause.

Fossil-energy extraction is the preferred tenant on America’s public lands. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, developers can purchase and lock up America’s favorite outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitat for years so that oil developers and mining companies have sole access.

That dirty secret means that public lands are a major source of the nation’s climate-emissions problem. In fact, if our public lands were their own country, its emissions would rank fifth in the world, according to data released by the Trump administration.

We should utilize our already-degraded lands to drive geothermal, wind and solar energy, working in cooperation with local communities while safeguarding our wildlife and wilderness-quality lands. Our elected leaders must eliminate the subsidies and regulatory loopholes that prop up ailing coal, oil and gas producers and permit needless methane waste and other pollution.

We must protect our public lands in large, connected blocks that span the continent to help wildlife species and entire ecosystems adapt to a warming world.

And we should support a just transition to a clean, sustainable economy that puts people to work in jobs that conserve and restore our public lands, including building trails, restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitat and improving facilities at our parks and monuments.

Let’s reimagine the role we want our public lands to play at this pivotal time in history. We all have a say in how our greatest natural legacy is handed down to the next generation.

More than a century ago, early visionaries had the forethought to create America’s vast system of public lands. Now, more than ever, we need the same courageous thinking to address the most pressing challenge of our time.

Jamie Williams is president of The Wilderness Society, which was founded in 1935 and now has more than 1 million members and supporters. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

In Southern Utah, there is a patch of desert heated by infrared lamps. The lamps hang just above the plants and soil crusts commonly found in this desert surrounding Moab.

These lamps help scientists study how temperature increases impact plants and soils living in this already hot desert. On any given day, science technicians can be seen reaching underneath the lamps to measure the size of each grass blade and the number of seeds on each shrub. The information gleaned helps land managers know what to expect from ecosystems as temperatures increase, allowing them to manage for both ecosystem integrity and multiple land uses as climate changes.

During this partial government shutdown, however, the plants are going unmeasured, cutting off the continuous observations necessary for careful science and creating a gap in this long-term data set.

When the government partially shut down on Dec. 21, sending home employees from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service, the important science being done across the country ground to a halt—with consequences extending beyond the loss of plant measurements or the paychecks upon which these employees rely.

In parts of the West, where the economy is tied directly to the integrity of federal lands, using science to understand how these landscapes work and respond to change is essential to the economic well-being of the region. Economic drivers occurring on federal lands such as recreation, resource extraction, grazing and wildlife resources rely on science to inform evidence-based management. While research universities generate some of this science, the shear extent of public lands in the West requires the region to rely on government scientists to provide additional research about how to manage these lands.

The partial shutdown has forced federally conducted science and the science occurring on federal lands into disarray. It has delayed or canceled conferences that are necessary for research and for sharing and learning new information. Applications for research permits on federal lands and the hiring of seasonal or contractual employees has been halted. Scientists who need research funding can’t get it. My own research exploring how nutrients move through desert soils has been impacted. Ongoing work to publish research has been delayed without access to my government collaborators, and decisions about federal fellowships I’ve applied for and am relying on to complete my dissertation research with the University of Texas at El Paso have been put on hold.

In the West, the immediate impacts extend beyond the science and scientists themselves to the volunteers, educators and visitors who are no longer able to engage with the science and science resources the region has to offer. The loss of paychecks and visitors measurably impacts our economy. The unquantified impacts do the same, damaging the science being generated with taxpayer dollars and diminishing our ability to use science to the advantage of our landscapes and economies.

While the short-term consequences of disruption to federal and federally supported science are substantial, the long-term consequences can be severe. Entire seasons of data collection may need to be canceled due to the backlog of hiring and funding that is likely to occur. Important cultural and scientific resources on public lands face the risk of vandalization or loss without federal employees and volunteers monitoring them. Over the long haul, disruptions in funding for scientists who rely on consistent access to research sites, laboratories, seasonal personnel and volunteers can easily drive top scientists away from working for federal agencies. The likelihood of losing top federal scientists to university or private-sector jobs only grows as the record-breaking shutdown goes on. Without the best minds working to understand our federal lands and pressing problems, our ability to manage and adapt suffers—and so do we.

Out in the desert, the plants and soils are continuing to respond to the heat-lamp induced warming with no one to track their responses. Meanwhile, the average air temperatures for the region continue to climb. As land use and climate change accelerate in the West, we all lose when avoidable shutdowns degrade our ability to understand, manage and adapt to the changing world around us.

In the West, continuity in science matters. Let’s communicate to our elected officials that Westerners value consistent science funding for the betterment of the lands and economies we rely on.

Kristina Young is a scientist living in Southeast Utah. She is a former Wyss Scholar for the Conservation of the American West and the host and producer of the regional science show Science Moab on KZMU. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

“In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys.” —George Orwell

“Who cares whether they laugh at us or insult us, treating us as fools or criminals? The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.” —Adolf Hitler

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the federal government released the second volume of its Fourth National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming increasingly threatens our nation’s environment, our health and our prosperity. When asked the following Monday to comment on the assessment, the product of 13 government agencies and 300 scientists, President Donald Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it.”

That same day, Alex Jones’ conspiracy-fueled website, Infowars, cited a tweet by the president—“Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS—Whatever happened to Global Warming?”—to attack the report, impugning its researchers as potential “connivers for the United Nations’ carbon tax scam … shilling to fund Agenda 21 totalitarianism hysteria.”

And just like that, the president had all the rhetorical cover he needed to justify his anti-environmental policies.

Welcome to Alt-America, a topsy-turvy world of conspiracy theories, half-baked ideas and “alternative facts,” where trolls are real, and news is fake, where facts don’t matter, and lies don’t, either. This shadow realm was a favorite haunt of Donald Trump before he ran for president, and gained greater prominence with his election. We all live in Alt-America now, awash in its alternative realities, propaganda and the kind of doublespeak that George Orwell made famous in his 1949 novel, 1984, so it’s probably a good time to ask how we got here, and where it all leads.

In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, journalist and author David Neiwert charts the emergence of alternative realities and their spread across extremist groups. This, he argues, primed the electorate for the rise of Trump and has buoyed him ever since. Neiwert traces this contingent of the president’s supporters back to the 1990s Patriot movement—a collage of anti-government groups—and the rise of online misogynists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other manifestations of extremism.

From its beginning, the Patriot movement promoted white supremacy, Christian identity and conspiracy theories, fearing FEMA-sponsored concentration camps, black helicopter surveillance, a New World Order and chemtrails. Patriot ideology fractured like light through a prism with the rise of right-wing radio, conservative cable TV and the internet—what David Foster Wallace called “a kaleidoscope of information options.” The more available these options became, the less the public was able to debate the facts. Ultimately, the improbable ideas of paranoiacs made their way into mainstream political conversations, online and at the table.

The Patriots and other fringe groups have since thrived. They have myriad manifestations—Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, sovereign citizens, border militias, constitutional sheriffs—but the movement still draws strength from “a deep vein of anti-government sentiment that had been simmering among conservatives for many years,” Neiwert writes. In August 2016, when candidate Trump suggested that the “Second Amendment people” do something about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he was appealing to this group, showing that once-inconceivable political speech is now viable, even advantageous.

As Alt-America emerged, so did its Western corollary. Neiwert spends two full chapters on Patriot-supported standoffs between the Bundys and the feds. He recalls the racist speeches of Cliven Bundy outside Bunkerville, Nev., where the elder Bundy suggested “the Negro” may have been better off as a slave. Here, Neiwert correctly links the white supremacist roots of the Patriot movement to its resurgence under President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. (Donald Trump’s first foray into alt-politics was his relentless support of the so-called “birther” conspiracy, which claimed President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen.)

Neiwert links this kind of alternative thinking with Bundyism, the ideology that brought about the Nevada standoff; the siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; the illegal “protest” ride of ATVs through Utah’s Recapture Canyon; and the militia-vs.-government conflicts over the Sugar Pine and White Hope mines, in Oregon and Montana.

These are all versions of alternate reality, self-reinforcing and powerful. “The internet made possible alternative universes such as the one inhabited by the adherents of the Patriot movement, or Alex Jones’ conspiracy milieu: constructed of fabrications based on fragments, interacting with others’ shared realities but operating almost entirely within its own framework,” Neiwert writes. “It began as a relatively small world limited largely to a fringe in the 1990s, but was resilient and grew steadily as the new century advanced. In the end, it gave birth not just to the alt-right, but also to the much larger universe of Alt-America.”


Where does this lead? Nowhere good. As journalist and literary critic Michiko Kakutani writes in The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, we now live in a place where “truth increasingly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, facts are fungible and socially constructed, and we often feel as if we’ve been transported to an upside-down world where assumptions and alignments in place for decades have suddenly been turned inside out.”

This helps explain why, she writes, “47 percent of Republicans erroneously believe that Trump won the popular vote; 68 percent believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016; and more than half of Republicans say they would be OK with postponing the 2020 presidential election until such problems with illegal voting can be fixed,” and why “25 percent of Americans believe that the 2008 (financial) crash was secretly orchestrated by a small cabal of bankers; 19 percent believe that the U.S. government had a hand in the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and 11 percent even believe a theory made up by the researchers—that compact fluorescent lightbulbs were part of a government plot to make people more passive and easy to control.”

These falsehoods gave rise to Trump, yes, but Trump is not the water; he’s a big ol’ catfish, and Kakutani gracefully describes the murky pond we all share with him. Some of this mental gunk comes from the passive intake of alternative reality through social media, but some is the active work of populists. One of their more insidious efforts, as Kakutani describes it, is “the populist Right’s appropriation of postmodernist arguments and its embrace of the philosophical repudiation of objectivity—schools of thought affiliated for decades with the Left and with the very elite academic circles that Trump and company scorn.” These efforts “deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception” and have attacked scientific theories as socially constructed, “informed by the identity of the person positing the theory and the values of the culture in which they are formed; therefore, science cannot possibly make claims to neutrality or universal truths.”

When Trump says he doesn’t “believe” the U.S. government’s own climate assessment, he is asserting that his belief is what matters. It’s a common mode now, feeling over fact, part of mainstream Republican thought, and easy to spot. Consider the following exchange, recounted by Kakutani, between CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota and GOP operative Newt Gingrich, at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” Gingrich said, in defense of Trump’s law-and-order remarks. “People are frightened. People feel that their government has abandoned them.”

When Camerota pointed out that statistics showing that the country was more safe, not less, weren’t “liberal numbers,” but rather compiled by the FBI, Gingrich countered: “No, but what I said is equally true. People feel it.”

Here, then, is the real danger. Right now, we live in a country not only fueled by raw emotions, but steered by them as well. This can be dangerous on either extreme of the political spectrum, but today it’s coming from far-right populism. People feel that immigrants are taking jobs, that America is unsafe and sullied. They believe that America was once great, with its white ruling class and people in their proper places. They feel afraid, and so have thrown open the door to authoritarianism. This distortion permits the president to co-opt terms like “fake news,” or to attack journalists as “enemies of the people,” invoking, incredibly, a term used by Lenin, Stalin and the genocidal leaders of the Khmer Rouge, at no political cost. It emboldens a president who lies for the “same reason that Vladimir Putin lies,” according to journalist Masha Gessen: “to assert power over truth itself.”

Suddenly, comparisons to 1984 (Amazon’s best-selling book in the month before Trump’s inauguration) cut too close for comfort. Kakutani quotes 1984 at length, as it describes how “the party and Big Brother exert control over reality” by controlling speeches, statistics and records, so that “no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. … Thus history is continuously rewritten.”

Compare that fiction to reality, Kakutani suggests, when, after Trump’s Inauguration, “changes were being made to the climate change pages on the White House website,” as environmental activists “were frantically trying to download and archive government climate data—worried that it might be destroyed or lost or hidden by a hostile administration. Some of their fears were realized later in 2017, when the EPA announced that its website was ‘undergoing changes that reflect the agency’s new direction,’ including this Orwellian phrase: ‘updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership.’” Thus history is rewritten.

That was more than a year ago, a very long time in Alt-America. Today, the president doesn’t need to scrub information from his government’s websites. Why bother? The Fourth National Climate Assessment was required by law and therefore unavoidable, undertaken in good faith by public servants and scientists who still believe in facts and reality. None of that matters, though, because “I don’t believe it” is the only fact the great leader needs.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News, where this piece was first published.

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump

By David Neiwert

Verso

464 pages, $16.95 (reprint edition)

The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

By Michiko Kakutani

Tim Duggan

208 pages, $22

Published in Literature

On this week's peppermint-scented weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World talks to the conservative on all those Sunday morning news shows; Jen Sorensen tries to get into the festive holiday spirit; The K Chronicles rejoices in the innocence of kids; Red Meat deals with illnesses from the kids; and Apoca Clips is redacted.

Published in Comics

On this week's pumpkin-spice-flavored weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World watches how conservatives respond to an extinction-level event; Jen Sorenson fears a taxing day at the polls; The K Chronicles enjoys some youth baseball; Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy and Li'l Kayne babble; and Red Meat prepares for a big date.

Published in Comics

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