Number 544 December 16, 2013

This Week: Stopping the War in Our Minds

"Quote" of the Week: "We Are Biased Toward Existing Narratives"
An Anti-Capitalist Pope?
Climate Change 1: A "Violent, Sicker, Poorer Future"
Climate Change 2: Coming Ocean Changes "Massive" and "Truly Scary"
Report: Air Pollution Causes Cancer


This issue of the Notes is sort-of a "Stroll Through the News With Nygaard." The original idea of these Strolls, back in the year 2000, was to have a zillion super-short news items, simply pointing out why they caught my eye. But, as time goes on and I more enthusiastically embrace the complexity and interconnectedness of everything, these Stroll pieces get longer and longer.

Three of the items are about pollution this week. And one piece is about how the Pope—how dare he!—came to offend Rush Limbaugh.

Happy December Solstice! December 21st it is, Winter in the North, Summer in the South. Celebrate whichever one you like!



"Quote" of the Week: "We Are Biased Toward Existing Narratives"

This is an odd "Quote" of the Week, since it's so old, coming from a 2003 article in that bastion of establishment journalism, the Columbia Journalism Review. But I just read it last week, so it's new to me, which is why it's the "Quote" of the Week for this late-2013 issue of Nygaard Notes.

The author, Brent Cunningham (now an editor at CJR) wrote a piece called "Re-thinking Objectivity," in which he talked about social class. At one point he addressed the ever-present charges that reporters are not "objective," which in the political culture gets turned into accusations of "liberal bias" by people Cunningham refers to as "the bias cops." In a very thoughtful way, Cunningham then discusses what he calls "The Real Bias" of journalists:

"Still, most reporters' real biases are not what political ideologues tend to think... Reporters are biased, but not in the oversimplified, left-right way that Ann Coulter and the rest of the bias cops would have everyone believe... We all have our biases, and they can be particularly pernicious when they are unconscious. Arguably the most damaging bias is rarely discussed—the bias born of class. A number of people interviewed for this story said that the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom is one of American journalism's biggest blind spots.

"Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy."

Exposing and calling into question those "existing narratives," which are typically unconscious, is a big part of the reason for Nygaard Notes.



An Anti-Capitalist Pope?

I don't normally pay too much attention to official announcements from the Vatican. I did notice when Pope Francis on November 24th issued the first major document of his eight-month-old papacy. Then, when I heard Rush Limbaugh calling it "an unfettered anti-capitalist dictate," and telling his listeners that "this is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope," I thought I'd better have a look for myself.

The document is called "EVANGELII GAUDIUM," and it is an "Apostolic Exhortation," which is a little less powerful than an encyclical, but still a big deal. There are over one billion Catholics in the world, after all, so what is it that the Pope is exhorting them to do? I wondered...

There are certainly things in the exhortation with which I disagree, such as the absolute opposition to abortion, and the Pope's statement that "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion..."

The document is 224 pages long, so I didn't read the whole thing, but I did find what I think Mr. Limbaugh is talking about. If you go to Sections 52-60, which begin on page 44, you'll see what I mean.

For instance, the Pope says, "some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

The imbalance between the rich and the poor, says the Pope, "is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control."

"In this [market] system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule."

"The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root."

The document is available on the Vatican website.


Climate Change 1: A "Violent, Sicker, Poorer Future"

The front-page headline in the November 2nd New York Times read, "Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies."

The document in question is a leaked draft of a report that is officially due in March 2014 from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, called "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability." Good for the Times for putting this on the front page, but there was a lot more to it than a risk to food supplies, serious though that is. Here, for example, is the headline from the Associated Press wire story: "Warming Report Sees Violent, Sicker, Poorer Future." Whatever the headline, the Times was one of only about a half-dozen U.S. newspapers that covered the story, and the only one that put it on the front page.

The opening paragraph from the AP story goes like this: "Starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease already lead to human tragedies. They're likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change, a leaked draft of an international scientific report forecasts."

The AP story then listed some of the "key risks" posed by climate change, which the scientists have "high confidence" will come to pass:

* People dying from warming- and sea rise-related flooding, especially in big cities.

* Famine because of temperature and rain changes, especially for poorer nations.

* Farmers going broke because of lack of water.

* Infrastructure failures because of extreme weather.

* Dangerous and deadly heat waves worsening.

* Certain land and marine ecosystems failing.

The IPCC report points out a disparity in risk due to inequality, saying that "Climate-related hazards constitute an additional burden to people living in poverty, acting as a threat-multiplier often with negative outcomes for livelihoods. Climate-related hazards affect poor people's lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, such as reductions in crop yields or destruction of homes, and indirectly through increased food prices and food insecurity."

Desperate people do desperate things, too, as the report warns: "Climate change indirectly increases risks from violent conflict in the form of civil war, inter-group violence and violent protests by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks."

Here are a few other brief quotations from the Report that I think give a flavor of the whole thing:

"Ocean acidification poses risks to ecosystems..."

"By 2100...hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss..."

"A large fraction of terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk..."


The report affirms that it is within our power to prevent the worst of the predictions from coming true, as we read on page 7: "Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades can substantially reduce risks of climate change in the second half of the 21st Century."

Despite the fact that we know how much we can and should do to "mitigate" our global energy lifestyle, it was barely three weeks later that the 19th United Nations Climate Change Conference adjourned in Warsaw, Poland, having failed to come to agreement on any major action on climate change. The nature and meaning of that failure, and the human suffering that it entails, went virtually unreported in the corporate media in the United States.


By the way, at the bottom of each page of the 29-page document it says "Do Not Cite, Quote, or Distribute." So don't tell anyone you read this in Nygaard Notes.


Climate Change 2: Coming Ocean Changes "Massive" and "Truly Scary"

The scientific journal PLOS Biology (PLOS stands for the Public Library of Science) published a major report on October 15 with the catchy title "Biotic and Human Vulnerability to Projected Changes in Ocean Biogeochemistry over the 21st Century." It was pretty much ignored in the corporate media (despite being well-covered by various wire services) so I'll give a few of the easily-accessible highlights here.

The U. of California San Diego issued a press release that noted the following: "An ambitious new study . . . describes the full chain of events by which ocean biogeochemical changes triggered by manmade greenhouse gas emissions may cascade through marine habitats and organisms, penetrating to the deep ocean and eventually influencing humans."

"The human ramifications of these changes are likely to be massive and disruptive. Food chains, fishing, and tourism could all be impacted."

The lead author of the study, Camilo Mora, was quoted saying "When you look at the world ocean, there are few places that will be free of changes; most will suffer the simultaneous effects of warming, acidification, and reductions in oxygen and productivity. The consequences of these co-occurring changes are massive—everything from species survival, to abundance, to range size, to body size, to species richness, to ecosystem functioning are affected by changes in ocean biogeochemistry."

A co-author, Andrew Thurber, pointed out that "Other studies have looked at small-scale impacts, but this is the first time that we've been able to look at the entire world ocean and how co-occurring stressors will differentially impact the earth's diverse habitats and people."

Here's another co-author, Andrew Sweetman: "The impacts of climate change will be felt from the ocean surface to the seafloor. It is truly scary to consider how vast these impacts will be. This is one legacy that we as humans should not be allowed to ignore."

No newspapers noted the report's conclusion that poor people, as usual, will suffer the most from climate change. The "author summary," that appears on the first page of the report, put it this way:

"Approximately 470 to 870 million of the poorest people in the world rely heavily on the ocean for food, jobs, and revenues and live in countries that will be most affected by simultaneous changes in ocean biogeochemistry. These results highlight the high risk of degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardship expected in a future following current trends in anthropogenic [human-caused] greenhouse gas emissions."

And nobody reported the final line of the author summary:

"[Our] results underline the need for urgent mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions if degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardship are to be prevented."


Report: Air Pollution Causes Cancer

Some ask, "Why should we spend all kinds of money and effort to reduce air pollution when global warming may not even be caused by human activity?" In response I offer the following news item, released to the mass media in the United States on October 15th, where the response was a general. The announcement appeared in Press Release #221 from the World Health Organization of the United Nations. Here are the first three paragraphs:

"The specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced today that it has classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans."

"After thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature, the world's leading experts convened by the IARC Monographs Programme concluded that there is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. They also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

"Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and was also classified as carcinogenic to humans."

A few other excerpts are telling:

"The most recent data indicate that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution."

[Context: In 2010, the total number of deaths due to terrorism worldwide was 13,200, or roughly six percent of the deaths due to lung cancer caused by air pollution.]

"The predominant sources of outdoor air pollution are transportation, stationary power generation, industrial and agricultural emissions, and residential heating and cooking."

It's a small world, after all, as is pointed out in Paragraph 4:

"The IARC evaluation showed an increasing risk of lung cancer with increasing levels of exposure to particulate matter and air pollution. Although the composition of air pollution and levels of exposure can vary dramatically between locations, the conclusions of the Working Group apply to all regions of the world."

"'Classifying outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans is an important step,' stresses IARC Director Dr Christopher Wild. 'There are effective ways to reduce air pollution and, given the scale of the exposure affecting people worldwide, this report should send a strong signal to the international community to take action without further delay.'"

[Ed Note: Wherever you see italics in the above quotes, they were in the original press release.]