Rachel Maddow is the Charles Darwin of Cable News.
Darwin’s most important unsung contribution to science (even more important than his monograph on earthworms) was to figure out how to most effectively put together multiple sources into a single argument — combining description, explanation, and theory — of a complex phenomenon in nature. His first major work, on coral reefs, brought together historical and anecdotal information, prior observation and theory from earlier researchers, his own direct observations of many kinds of reefs, quasi experimental work in the field, and a good measure of deductive thinking. It took a while for this standard to emerge, but eventually it did, and this approach was to become the normal way to write a PhD thesis or major monograph in science.
Take any major modern news theme. Deutsche Bank. Trump-Nato-Putin. Election tampering. Go to the standard news sources and you’ll find Chuck Todd following the path of “both sides have a point.” Fox News will be mixing conspiracy theory and right wing talking points. The most respected mainstream news anchors, Lester Holt, Christiane Amanpour, or Brian Williams perhaps, will be giving a fair airing of the facts but moving quickly from story to story. Dig deeper, and find Chris Hayes with sharp analysis, Joy Reid contextualizing stories with social justice, and Lawrence O’Donnell applying his well earned in the trenches biker wisdom.
But if you really want to Darwin the news, and sink your natural teeth and claws into a story, go to Maddow.
I’ve heard Rachel does not like being called “Doctor” (most of us PhD’s don’t) but she is an Oxford trained Doctor of politics. She also has a degree in public policy from Stanford, and is a Rhodes Scholar, having turned down the Marshall to accept it. In other words, she is both very well educated, and very smart.
In the Early Oughties, Maddow’s career evolved through a series of radio shows, panelist roles, substitute-roles, to eventually become the Rachel Maddow Show, in 2008. RMS (which also stands for root-mean-square, a mathematical concept that is not about roots and is more about curves than squares) almost instantly moved into state of great success, almost single handily pulling MSNBC materially upward as a high ratings cable network.
The point being this: If you want to really get a story, find out if the story is covered by Rachel Maddow where it got the RMS treatment, and sit down and absorb that. It might take several episodes, or there might be that one RMS segment that nails it once and for all. Depends on the story.
I consider Maddow to be the number one modern historian of modern news. If she had gotten her graduate training in history rather than politics and policy, the major living historians would have had a brilliant addition to their ranks. But everyone else, or at least, the thinking liberal left side of the spectrum of people, would have lost a regular supply of information and inspiration that, frankly, keeps a lot of us going these days.
You know that an elixir works magic when certain forces ban it. About a year and a half ago, I decided to alter my exercise routine at the gym so I could be on the tread mill during the Rachel Maddow Show, which I do not get at home since I don’t have that kind of cable (I watch the show next day on line, streaming). I was shocked to find out that MSNBC had been replaced with some dumb thing up on the monitor. I went to the “help desk” at the gym and asked about it.
“We took off all the news sites because it was driving people crazy, they were getting less rather than more healthy,” they said.
“Ok, but I see ABC and some business version of CBS is showing. You seem to have only gotten rid of MSNBC, is this some kind of right wing conspiracy?” I accused.
“Ah, well, we got rid of both MSNBC and FOX. It was a corporate decision. I know nothing about it. Would you like to sign up to have a trainer, we have a special this week…”
Anyway, I conjecture, and what I’m about to say is either deeply insightful or terribly offensive, but I’ll revise it as needed on receipt of further information, that Darwin and Maddow are also similar in another way.
Darwin first developed his amazing craft of explanation out of fear. See, it went like this. While out on the Voyage of the Beagle, and generally out of contact, he had corresponded about an early version of his theory of coral reef formation, growth, and maintenance. An outline of this theory had been read to the Royal Society without his knowing it. It is said that when he heard about this in a letter from his sister, he became very worried that his hero, Charles Lyell, would now lose respect for him and abandon him as a colleague. Or worse, whatever worse might be in Victorian England among the nerds of the day. You see, Lyell’s version of how reefs work was the standing science at the time, and Darwin’s view was heretically different. The fear this struck in the young, and in his own mind unqualified, researcher led, I think, to the nearly obsessive care he took in constructing his final arguments about reefs,and everything else he did after that, including taking decades to publish the Origin.
So, to be blunt, I’m suggesting that Charles Darwin suffered from a sort of impostor syndrome that led him to become excellent, as a means of protecting himself and his science. And maybe something happened along these lines with the young, up and coming, Rachel Maddow who was almost certainly, as a female, a young scholar, a Liberal, and a lesbian, required to dance backward and in high heeled Birkenstocks in the early phases of her career, and likely, through much of her graduate education before that.
The result: The frequent generation of richly evolved narratives of current news, embedded in history, linked to parallel stories, details well sorted out and beautifully integrated. And that is what we get from, and love about, Rachel.
But then, every now and then, instead of a 25 minute segment about something on the Rachel Maddow Show, we get a book! Earlier, Drift. Now, Blowout.
Blowout is the Rachel Maddow treatment of the petroleum industry. That sentence right there should make you want to read this book. In ways I will not here enumerate, Blowout is both prescient and uncannily relevant to this week’s news (and by this week I mean last week, and probably next week.) Russia, the Ukraine, Rex Tillerson, Exxon, ExxonMobil, Chevron, nuclear bombs in civilian hands, freakin’ fracking, Putin, power, crude, crude politicians, corruption, regulation syphilatic African dictator, technology, power, Texas, Siberia, corruption, brilliant business people and, did I mention power? These are the things that make every chapter sing.
This is a book about how Big Petrol was subsidized into a state of power great enough to eat the very democracies (and other forms of government) that created it. This is the Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein story of our times.
In modern geopolitical terms, Blowout seems to explain everything. But it doesn’t, that will require two or three more books by Rachel Maddow. But for now, Blowout is the treatise that gives rich detail and extreme documentation to a theme with which you are already familiar, and already know is important. You will not be shocked to find that Big Oil is up to something. But every chapter, at several points in each said chapter, will shock you nonetheless, because the story is so rich that you can not possibly have grasped it before. Blowout, the book, will bury you.
Get it. Read it. Report back: Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
Also by Rachel Maddow: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
If you are interested in following up on Darwin and coral reefs: Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral by David Dobbs.
And, of course, now in paperback, unrelated to the rest of this post but a must read: In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden
Dire Predictions: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC by Michael Mann summarizes the IPCC Report on climate change (scientific basis) in a clear and understandable way without sacrificing important detail and nuance.
One test of the legitimacy of claims about scientific matters is time. Over time, if a proposal about how nature works that buck the consensus is valid, it will be shown to be valid. If it is not, it will fail the test of time. Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics by Dana Nuccitelli looks at the predictions of those who have been denying the reality of climate change, comparing those predictions made by mainstream science. Read the book to find out who won!
Even though this is not specifically about climate science, I always recommend that people read Sean Otto’s The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It to understand why we are not simply and directly dealing with climate change. Along the same lines, Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines chronicles the denier-science fight at its high water mark, a few years back.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is a pretty good book, and at this moment very current, to read about how to address climate change.
You saw the film The Day After Tomorrow. This is that. Not like in the movie, but still…
Warming causes melting of ice, adding fresh water into the North Atlantic, which interferes with a major current system that at present warms Europe.
Consequence: The planet warms dangerously, while at the same time, large parts of Europe become much cooler, to the extent that people may not be able to live there in the manner they do now, or produce very much food there. Gibraltar would have a climate similar to the coast of Maine, and Berlin would have a climate similar to the Northwest Territories or northern Hudson Bay.
The models have predicted this, but it now seems that they’ve under-predicted it. It appears to be happening faster, and more furiously, than expected.
In this week’s episode, I talk with Michael Mann, Nobel Prize-winning climatologist for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We cover a lot of ground. How to talk about climate change to your crazy right-wing climate-denying uncle. “Uncle Hal, sea level is rising. For two reasons. Ice is melting. And water expands when it gets warmer.” If Uncle Hal insists sea level is rising because of all the rocks falling into the ocean, then just give up. We talk about how climate used to be a bipartisan issue, but since Citizens United, the Koch Brothers have threatened to primary any Republican who acknowledges the science. Addressing climate change has become a victim of our tribal politics. The answer right now? Win.
During the late 20th century, Michael Mann and colleagues published research showing that then recent warming, believed to have been caused by human caused changes in atmospheric chemistry, were indeed large and unique over a very long natural record of about a thousand years. The graph showed what looked like a hockey stick laying down, with the blade, sticking abruptly up, indicating the dramatic increase in average surface temperature of the planet. See this book for an overview of the climate science.
Over subsequent decades, a handful of individuals, organizations, and at least one media outlet decided to attack Mann over his research. These attacks falsely claimed that Mann had faked or altered data in order to show that global warming was real when it wasn’t. To be clear: Global warming is real, and Mann was not making up or faking data. See The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines for more on that. See also this book for just how crazy this can all get.
Mann, in an effort to defend the science, took these various and sundry entities to court, to compel them to retract their lies and apologize. Today, June 7th, one of those law suits ended with such an apology.
For historical context, I give you the aforementioned events superimposed over a graph showing the steady rise of the Earth’s surface temperatures:
Then, the retraction:
This isn’t over. The story of these law suits is complicated by several factors. At least one “think tank” changed its name a couple of times. Individuals or other entities have counter sued. Other things. There are still open cases. Eventually, it will all be settled. See this post for more information.
Well, the law suits will be settled. And, the science is settled. But we need to do a lot more work to decarbonize our economies and limit the effects of global warming.
The year 2018 was warm, but since previous years had been super warm, it may have seemed a bit cooler. There was indeed a downswing, but only a little one.
However, 2019 is looking like an upswing year. It will not be as warm as the recent El Nino year, but it will be close, and it will follow the predicted upward course of global warming caused by our release of greenhouse gasses and the effect of those gasses on delicate and critically important atmospheric chemistry.
Climate Central has a a State of the Climate report here.
Note that the various predictions for the activity level of the 2019 hurricane season suggest an average year. The most common midpoint of estimates for the number of actual hurricanes is five, with 2 major ones, in the Atlantic. The long term average for those numbers is 6.4 and 2.7. However, the estimate for the total number of named storms is a bit higher than the average of 12.1, suggesting between 10 and 14 or so. We have already had one, before the official start of the season, but the Atlantic has been relatively quiet since then.
This Spring’s unprecedented flooding is of course directly related to climate change, and there isn’t a sane person on the Earth who doesn’t accept that as truth. You will have a harder time finding people accepting a link between tornado activity, which has been very high this year, and global warming, but it is also true that a) there has been a very well entrenched and active non-acceptance of that relationship for years in the meteorological community and b) it seems that having a few bad years in a row, as we have had with hurricanes, is required before enough people put their thinking caps on and think. So, I await a possible shift in position on tornadoes and global warming.
You are probably aware that the DNC has just put the kibash on having a climate change related debate in the primary process.
Climate change, Perez says, is a single issue and no single issue is worthy of elevation to this level. Here are some of my thoughts on this, and below find a link to Adam Siegel’s excellent post on the subject, where you will also find the DNC’s position.
The climate crisis is not a single issue, Mr. Perez. It is an existential issue that permeates all of the other issues, an economic issue that will shape our entire agenda, an issue of national security that should be of great concern, and the number one premier health issue of the century. It is a moral issue that tests our the ability of our elected Democrats and candidates to lead.
The moment at hand has bee a long time coming. This is the first election cycle in which climate change and its effects are being taken serious by almost all Democratic candidates and voters. This issue has to be part of the conversation from now on, indefinitely.
Perhaps instead of driving climate change into a corner, or ignoring it, you actually meant to challenge the current framing of such a debate. Indeed, Democrats do not have to debate “climate change.” We all know it is real, critically important, and that we must address it. That is not a matter of debate.
But we do need to discuss, and debate, the solutions. What kind of Green New Deal do you want, candidate? How do you propose we harness market forces to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels? Do you like bridge fuels like Methane or are you on board with following a direct line to zero-Carbon? What about Carbon pricing, fee and dividend? How can we keep the economic benefit that will come with decarbonization in the US, by supporting local union industry in the construction of wind, solar, and storage facilities? Can the benefits of this energy transition be made available to most citizens? Is there a way to have economic benefits that go to more than the 10%? Should there be improved national best practices and regulations to push utilities to help more with this? What about divestment from funds that invest in fossil fuel extraction, processing, and distribution? What is your favorite pipeline story and what does it tell us about our commitment to changing things? What sorts of mandates can hasten widespread access to technologies like heat pumps and geothermal heating and cooling?
There is, indeed, a great deal to debate. Not climate change per se, but rather, how we save the future for our children and grandchildren. As noted by “Climate Hawks Vote,” climate change is a single issue: the survival of humanity. That is worth a debate.
Have a look at this thoughtful and informative post by energy expert A. Siegel to see how debating climate change can work as a political tool to the benefit of Democratic candidates and the party.
Coming out against a climate or energy debate is ethically questionable and politically foolish. Lets expand, rather than contract, this vitally important conversation.
Be informed, have a look.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken.
This is a great resource for understanding the diverse strategies available to decarbonize. There is a flaw, and I think it is a fairly significant one. Drawdown ranks the different strategies, so you can see what (seemingly) should be done first. But the ranking is highly susceptible to how the data are organized. For example, on shore vs. off shore wind, if combined, would probably rise to the top of the heap, but separately, are merely in the top several. Also, these things change quickly over time in part because we do some of these things, inevitably moving them lower in ranking. So don’t take the ranking too seriously.
Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal.
I mention this book because I hope it can help the free market doe what it never actually does. The energy business is not, never was, and can’t really be a free market, so expecting market forces to do much useful is roughly the same as expecting the actual second coming of the messiah. Won’t happen. This book is not an ode to those market forces, though, but rather, a third stab (I think), and a thoughtful one, at a complex problem.
Related, of interest: Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by McKenzie Funk. “Funk visits the front lines of the melt, the drought, and the deluge to make a human accounting of the booming business of global warming. By letting climate change continue unchecked, we are choosing to adapt to a warming world. Containing the resulting surge will be big business; some will benefit, but much of the planet will suffer. McKenzie Funk has investigated both sides, and what he has found will shock us all. ”
Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy by Hal Harvey, Rovbbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman. ” A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well.”
And other matters, from Yale Climate Connections, “Four scientists make creativity a key to communicating their research Cartoons and imaginative use of video, art, and graphics help get their message across.”
Also, music composed and performed by Andy Lee Robinson, graphic by Andy Lee Robinson and a big computer:
Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective by Benjamin (Ben) Cook is the book you’ve always needed handy when the dry side of climate or climate change comes up in conversation.
The relationship between rainfall, groundwater, evaporation and transpiration, vegetation, bodies of water, animal distribution, agriculture, humans, and atmospheric conditions (not to mention oceanic factors and topography) underlie many different realms of academia and policy. Almost nothing I’ve ever done in my anthropological research didn’t include the hydrologic cycle, climate, and related issues. The weather weirding we are currently watching across the globe, including the current heavy rains and tornadoes, are part of this, and the long lived California Drought, the one that ended just recently, is as well.
In Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Cook looks at the dry end of the spectrum of the hydrologic cycle, but in so doing, he really has to cover the basics of rain related climate. There is math, and there is complicated science, in this book, but all of the material presented here is accessible to anyone who wishes to learn. If you are interested in climate change or agriculture, or paleoclimate, or any of that, Cook’s book is an essential reference, filling a gap that exists in the available range of current public-facing serious science books.
Cook covers the hydrologic cycle and the relationship between the hydrologic cycle and climatology. He defines the sometimes confusing concepts and measurements known as “drought” in a non-confusing and detailed way. I’ve found that in many discussions of drought, self defined experts who also happen to be climate change deniers tend to talk past (or over or around) others, making it difficult for the average non-expert to avoid frustration. Cook will arm you with the knowledge to stand up to such shenanigans!
Cook covers drought in the Holocene, and the relationship between climate change and drought. He provides two key detailed case studies (the American dust bowl, and droughts in the Sahel of Africa). He covers landscape degradation and desertification, and irrigation.
Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective is fully authoritative and thorough, and, as noted, very readable and understandable. Reading this book might make you thirsty but it will also make you smarter.
Ben Cook is a research scientist at NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and he teaches at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.
In 1974, libertarians Ed Crane, Murray Rothbard, and Charles Koch (of the Koch Industries conglomerate) founded the Charles Koch Foundation, a libertarian “think” tank. In 1976 the name was changed to the Cato Institute. The name “Cato” comes from the “Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty Civil and Religious and Other Important Subjects” which were written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in the early 18th century, under the psuedonym “Cato” who was, in turn, an enemy of Julias Caesar. (For a treatment of the role of Cato’s Letters in the American Revolution see The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by historian Bernard Bailyn.)
Cato took up the issue of anthropogenic global warming in around 2003, and the institute had a strong influence on Bush Administration policy. The most current and widespread Republican plank, among those Republicans that can read, is that global warming is real and at least some of it is human caused, but it does not matter, no big deal, climate changes, get over it. This philosophy (perhaps abusing the word “philosophy” there) is essentially a Cato product.
But now, Scott Waldman at E&E News reports that Cato is closing its climate shop. The biggest effect this will have is the departure of Patrick Michaels, often a commenter on Trump News, and the keeper of the nefarious policy on climate change. Waldman reports Michaels as saying, “They informed me that they didn’t think their vision of a think tank was in the science business, and so I said, ‘OK, bye.’ There had been some controversy going around the building for some time, so things got to a situation where they didn’t work out.”
Also gone from Cato, but his departure not necessarily connected with this change, is Richard Lindzen. Extremely annoying twitter denizen and supposed meteorologist Ryan Maue is also out.
For all the currently available details, see “Cato closes its climate shop.“
According to Climate Nexus,
An unexpected surge in global atmospheric methane is threatening to erase the anticipated gains of the Paris Climate Agreement. This past April NOAA posted preliminary data documenting an historic leap in the global level of atmospheric methane in 2018, underscoring a recent wave of science and data reporting that previously stable global methane levels have unexpectedly surged in recent years.
The scientific community recently responded to the surge into two high profile publications by calling for a reduction in methane emissions from the natural gas system…
It is not clear where this methane is coming from, but most bets are on wetlands that have shifted from being greenhouse gas sinks (or neutral) to being greenhouse gas emitters. Methane is a bad greenhouse gas while it lasts (decades) but eventually changes into CO2 and water. The CO2, of course, stays in the atmosphere for much much longer. So, this is really like CO2 release but with a giant kick in the gut right out of the gate.
See this for more.
One point Jeff makes is one I’ve been saying for years: Our food supply can handle almost any given disaster, or a reasonable set of disasters. But when two or three disasters line up just right, and they will, all hell breaks out and that could mean somebody shooting your child so they can get food for their child. And that will be your fault.