Monday, June 30, 2014

It's only plant matter — or a planet matter

    Those who oppose the president's initiatives to reduce carbon emissions appear to fit into three camps.

   The first, exemplified by Sens. Marco Rubio and James Inhofe, choose not to believe what's said by the vast majority of those who know the most about climate.

   The second, embodied by Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, are those who say the climate may be changing, but the only reasonable response is to adjust to a new reality. You know: Wear lighter clothing. Drink more fluids.

   The third, embodied by noted biologist Michele Bachmann and the morning team of "Fox & Friends," are those who say that carbon dioxide is not pollution, so what's the problem?

   In fact, says the latter group, trees and shrubs need carbon dioxide. It's good for them. And even if the Earth is warming, warmer temperatures are good for plants, too. Right?

   How wrong could people be?

   To the Rubio-Inhofe group: The greenhouse effect is not a theory. It is as provable as a basic eighth-grade science assignment using plastic wrap. For something not wrapped in plastic, the uninhabitability of Venus shows one big spinning, boiling, and vaporous greenhouse effect.

   To the "just get used to it" group: Tell that to the inhabitants of India and Bangladesh whose life source is the Ganges River, whose own source is Himalayan glaciers. If the depletion of the latter continues at its present pace, the glaciers will be half gone by 2100, and the Ganges will be on life support.

   As for the "CO2 is good for you" group, would some basic biology actually matter? I think not. For the rest of us, however, it might:

  You bet, carbon dioxide facilitates plant growth; so does heat. But an excess of either ultimately saps photosynthesis of its magic.

   In Australia, studies at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment show that increasing CO2 causes plants to adapt (just as the Exxon CEO says we should), but not in good ways. Leaves get bigger. Evaporation accelerates. The ability to store carbohydrates drops.

   In the short term, more CO2 accelerates plant growth. In the long term, it means less-healthy foliage, and ultimately less foliage, period.

    What about heat? Don't plants crave it?

    Yes, they do, but when things don't cool down sufficiently after dark, plants don't get a good night's sleep. They sap themselves of the energy needed for growth. The International Rice Institute blames increased temperatures in Asia for a steady decline in yields of the so-called "miracle rice," variety IR8, credited with averting an Asian famine in the 1960s.

    No, excessive carbon dioxide is not a neutral presence in our atmosphere, though it is invisible, odorless, and fits into the life cycle just like sunlight and oxygen.

   Of course, we shouldn't have to dip into plant biology to understand that reducing carbon pollution is good for all living things. For when we do it, we reduce other forms of pollution –  ozone, hydrocarbons, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and everything else that comes with our addiction to fossil fuels -- including selective wars.

   What the barkers of the status quo do is exactly what Big Tobacco did for so many years to challenge concerns about second-hand smoke. It argued "no evidence" relating it to cancer. In fact, it hardly mattered what illness we were actually talking about – asthma, emphysema, heart disease – it was all bad.

   Those who resist efforts to shift to clean energy alternatives, who believe that "drill here, drill now" is the answer, don't really want to address long-range reality.

    What we are doing to our planet is wrong in myriad ways. Is man responsible for climate change? Ultimately that matters less than this: Man is responsible for Earth. That is what matters.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Your four-door hamster wheel

   The grave tone of the TV reporter conveyed end-of-the-world stuff. Brace yourselves, Americans. Events in Iraq likely would cause a jump in gasoline prices.

   To which a grave listener would reply: "This is news?"

   Whether it's instability overseas or America's accelerator-foot summer itch, something always is causing gasoline prices to jump.

    Whatever the cause at the moment, hustle that racquetball-court-on-wheels to the nearest pump and plunk down the requisite $150 to fill it. And then find someone to blame for why gasoline prices are so high.

   It's always interesting to hear people who seem so savvy about market forces turn oblivious about the market forces that pertain to petroleum.

    They understand the law of supply and demand -- until it comes to their insatiable demands for strained and volatile oil supplies.

   Sure, times are tough, Bunky. But a lot that is tough is self-inflicted.

    We're motoring through an age in which one would assume gasoline was water-fountain cheap and that operating an automobile was as carefree as dangling one's feet in a pond.

   Complain (and we will) about taxes, but nothing taxes our existence like the cars we drive.

   Occasionally when intersecting with high-end residential developments, I ponder the prices of the homes, and wonder, "Is there that much money in the whole world?"

   The same applies to the vehicles in those driveways. And let's face it, cars with staggering price tags are not exclusive to the exclusive.

   Consider the 2014 Ford Expedition. Not considered a luxury car, it's very much a staple of the American road. The low-end version costs $41,975.

   Consider the 2014 Dodge Ram 1500 Big Horn. Without add-ons, it costs $30,240.

    Let's assume, as one must, that whatever household has either of these vehicles has another vehicle, or two or three.

   Any car owner knows that the expenses associated with each far exceeds sticker shock and the blur of dollar signs at the pump. How much? Most of us are afraid to tally it, but the AAA isn't.

    AAA estimates that operating a large sedan for around-town driving (10,000 miles a year) costs almost a dollar a mile – 97.5 cents, factoring in fuel, tires, maintenance, insurance, financing and registration.

  What this means is that whatever costs Americans might face, whatever financial goals they may have, their vehicles are the principal reason why they seem to go nowhere. It's not interest on credit cards or mortgages, not taxes on income or property.

    The good news is that we do have alternatives, or most of us do. A while back when I realized that in driving to work I spent as much time pressing the brake as the accelerator, I started taking a bus. It has become an infatuation.

    One transportation alternative that gets too little love from policymakers is sidewalks, one of the best investments a community can make. Unfortunately, though cities will not blink at building and rebuilding streets, they'll find any reason whatsoever not to build walkways.

    Where I live, Fort Collins, Colo., the bicycle has become the focal point of a renaissance – a vast network of trails, a city "bike library" that avails wheels to all comers. Bicycling has sparked the kind of enthusiasm that even snowfall can't dampen.

     Amid all of the forces that cause us to become more and more addicted to oil and asphalt, here is some good news: The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that the number of young Americans (ages 20-24) with drivers licenses is at its lowest point in 50 years: 79.7 percent.

   But isn't car ownership a 21st century necessity? Maybe. Either these young Americans don't want to get ahead, or they don't want the cost of driving a car to put them even farther behind.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Comparing two insurgencies

   They have set their sights on the capital. And by now, who would doubt their designs?

   Key districts are in their clutches. Their latest stunning victory causes jaws to drop. But why the surprise? God is on their side. Infidels, prepare to fall.

    Believe what they say as they pull down the statue of Eric Cantor.

   If readers thought the above description had something to do with the insurgency inflaming Iraq, that's understandable, because of the loose parallels between the two insurgencies.

    What the tea party offers for the United States sounds very much like what the ISIS, the force making tracks to Baghdad, seeks to do over there. Divide. Fracture. Cripple. That is if it can't rule.

    A harsh assessment? Please. What else could be the tea party's vow but this: Be sand in the gears of a nation that dares to become inclusive, compassionate, and – yes, unified amid all its differences.

    When the United States invaded Iraq, some analysts warned that it could result in not one but three countries, with the Kurds splitting away, and with Sunnis and Shiites parting ways, each in separate protectorates. Most assuredly, if the ISIS can't accomplish conquest of a unified Iraq, it gladly will take the alternative – an Iraq in pieces.

    On these shores, when Barack Obama became president, the barkers of fragmentation and division, even outright secession, found their voices.

    While actual secession was so much talk, the "let's split" dynamic assumed actual form when some states went to the Supreme Court to evade Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Suddenly the law of the land became the law only of some of it, or some of us.

   Now we have the tea party aspiring and conspiring to take the "in" out of "one nation indivisible." Let's face it. Division is the only way it can ever hold whatever power it holds now.

    It is a minority of a minority in Congress -- the Associated Press estimates that it holds one-third of the House's seats -- but looks to hold hostage any and all action anyway.

   Don't accuse the tea party of being a one-trick pony. However, by taking down Cantor for fraternizing with the other side, it has found a special purpose. It has established itself as the NRA of immigration reform – ever vigilant to block even the most reasoned compromise.

   True, the tea party doesn't troll dusty highways with assault weapons like the ISIS, or, say, Cliven Bundy's buddies, but for this group of patriotic Americans, the hard line can never be harder. Moderation isn't just a vice, it's the ultimate sin. For them, conciliation is (presumably like homosexuality) a communicable disease.

   The tea party seeks to conquer, but politically it has a demographic problem. Ethnically it is far more similar to a gathering of lutefisk fanciers than of the richly diverse nation it portends to lead. Of course, the same could be said for most GOP precinct meetings.

   Thinking of the ethnically identified insurgents 6,000 miles away from Washington, there on the hot sands of Iraq: They may have occupied towns and villages, and staked a claim in Sunni-dominated parts of the country, but they cannot take the country. Mostly that's because they are a splinter group – well-armed, but not even close to being representative of the nation they seek to rule.

   The same applies to the tea party. It may rule in regions where more diverse populations lie in hibernation or intimidation, but it can never aspire to represent a nation made up the way this one is. Leaders of the Republican Party, the ones who actually aspire to national leadership, understand this. They can count.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:


Monday, June 9, 2014

The VA’s one big problem

   Eric Shinseki is a stand-up individual: Willing to serve two combat tours in Vietnam. Later, as Army chief of staff, willing to publicly differ with his bosses when the Bush administration soft-pedaled the personnel needs of occupying Iraq.

   Having stepped up at the apex of his career to lead the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, last week, Shinseki was willing to step down.

   At this point, the most ridiculous question is: Scapegoat or not? It doesn't matter. Focusing on Shinseki's situation is an insult to those whose pain should be the focus.

   For generations, the people who sacrificed the most for this nation's military objectives have gotten the shaft.

   We've had no excuse not to serve them with gusto, because with gusto we delivered them to battle, flags waving, bands playing.

   Everyone seems to have a theory about what the VA's problem is, but amazingly no one sees it. Shinseki isn't it. A civil service bureaucracy isn't it.

   The VA's big problem is, um, war.

   That is: War sold on the cheap. War advertised by carnival barkers. War spun by propaganda masters, with phrases like "War on Terror." Oh, yeah.

   A collateral concern: This nation clearly doesn't see care for veterans as part of that gallant war effort. If the latter were so, they'd get better care.

  But the VA and the nation's veterans hospitals continue to be atrocity machines. It's due to many factors, but mostly it's because of how deeply we as a culture continue to believe in the power of war – itself an atrocity.

   It is laughable to see those who rail against "out-of-control spending" salute every military dollar as a good dollar. War is, after all, the biggest "big government" proposition ever invented.

    Much has been said of how the VA's problems demonstrate the condition of government's being "the problem," particularly as pertains to health care.

    That's wrong, argues Time magazine's Stephen Brill. He who has written several penetrating analyses about health care, particularly cost outrages at not-for-profit hospitals, points to Medicare as the nation's model for price controls and services delivered.

   The VA can have the same kind of efficiency. But let's face it: If the issue is waiting lists, the prime culprit isn't weaselly paper pushers. The culprit is war.

   I did many years of newspaper work in a city, Waco, Texas, that spent much of the previous decade fighting with all of its might to save its VA hospital. The facility's emphasis: psychiatric care, yet it faced closure at the very time that Uncle Sam was furiously churning out combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan – 2.3 million at this point, with post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by some 20 percent.

   Fortunately, the citizens and their representatives managed to save the Waco VA Medical Center. Now it has a mighty and daunting assignment: the sea swell of PTSD from two theaters of battle.

  Speaking of "government is the problem," it is alarmingly laughable that Texas' Rick Perry is among a few governors who said they would investigate to see if the VA is serving veterans sufficiently in their respective states. Perry's privatize-at-all-costs policies have been a huge disservice to Texas social services. The most galling thing is that these policies haven't necessarily saved taxpayers any money.

   That's par for the course. A trademark of 21st century war-making, American-style, has been such privatizing, and the profiteering of contractors like Halliburton and  Blackwater Security, their offenses portrayed in the 2006 documentary, "Iraq for Sale." Big, big, bucks, big, big cost overruns and wholly egregious behavior, without a shred of accountability.

   That can't be said about the VA, and Exhibit A is Shinseki's departure.

   Now, wonders of wonders: Republicans and Democrats in Congress are on the cusp of making key reforms that could make a difference in how the VA works.

   And we were thinking that shame had no currency in Washington anymore.

   Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, June 2, 2014

Obama: true champion of the planet

  To those on the left who say Barack Obama hasn't done anything about climate change: Time to eat those words.

  To those who cup their ears and hum loudly when climate scientists say something has to be done: Time to keep cupping.

  Obama has done more than any person on the planet to reduce the gases that endanger it by altering its climate.

  With economic stimulus initiatives on energy conservation and alternative energy, that statement already was true. Now comes his directive to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in electric generation.

   No doubt, at times Obama has disappointed some of us. Sometimes it was for an apparent lack of fire. Most often it was because of entrenched right-wingers in Congress. But on two bigger-than-big issues – health care and climate change – Obama has stepped up in historic fashion.

  "No president has ever proposed a climate pollution cleanup this big," Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress told USA Today.

   U.S. power plants account for 40 percent of the nation's greenhouse emissions. Cutting those emissions by a third by 2030 is bigger than huge.

   Now, of course, we wait for the industry-driven hysterics about how this can't be done.

   "Now special interests and their allies in Congress will claim that these guidelines will kill jobs and crush the economy," said the president. "Let's face it. That's what they always say."

   Always and forever. Whenever the quest is cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner anything, we hear it. We heard it when the directive for power plants was to reduce sulfur dioxide, and mercury, and particulates. It'll crush the economy, industry said. It'll crush us all.

   The coal industry understandably is interested in making you believe this to be true. It has purchased advertisements in key states saying that Obama's directive will result in electric bills 80 percent higher than they are today. Really?

   The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog gave that claim "Four Pinocchios," but Big Coal continues to make its specious pitch.

    In fact, the mandated reductions in carbon shouldn't be that dramatic for states that already have been investing in alternatives. And in those states, electric costs haven't been jumping through the roof.

   One such state is Colorado, which is heavily investing in solar and wind, and where natural gas has replaced coal when fossil fuels are employed.

   Does this mean coal gets eliminated as a fuel source? Not in the slightest. Utilities that use coal are going to have to invest in technology to use it more cleanly.

   This is the way it should be. One of these days natural gas won't be so plentiful. Coal will remain a source of power in absence of alternatives. What's best for this nation, and for the planet, is using it in the cleanest possible way.

   By the way, those alternatives stretch further into the future whatever supplies we might have of natural gas, petroleum, and, yes, coal.

   But, you see, opponents of these initiatives aren't interested in the future, especially the cleaner future Obama's policy portends. They are interested in how their books look in the next quarter. And candidates in coal states are interested in the next election. We know the drill.

    The "sky is falling" response to Obama's carbon directive reminds me of what Republicans said in the mid-'90s when a tax hike for the wealthy was engineered by Bill Clinton and the Democrats. It would blow up the economy, the GOP said.

    As we recall, that economy was furiously churning when Clinton left office and turned it over to George W. Bush.

   Back to climate change: Among those applauding the president is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A May 29 letter to the president calls climate change, "the Church's No. 1 pro-life issue."

    Hey, didn't I advise some of you to keep your ears cupped?

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: