Monday, October 20, 2014
What's New in the New West
South Dakota and Montana are enjoying the national spotlight today, as one phase of our four year national carnival winds down, readying for the next phase. Meanwhile, a new report from the inspector general for NASA proves why, for so many, January 20, 2009 can't come fast enough. The Bush administration's relationship to science has always been strained, at best. Nowhere more so than with global warming, a phenomenon that everyone actually being subjected to weather has a hard time denying. In an administration that politicizes everything, it shouldn't particularly come as a surprise that, once again, political appointees overruled scientists again in policy-making, but somehow it does.

Are We There Yet?

South Dakota and Montana are enjoying the national spotlight today, as one phase of our four year national carnival winds down, readying for the next phase. Meanwhile, a new report from the inspector general for NASA proves why, for so many, January 20, 2009 can’t come fast enough.

The Bush administration’s relationship to science has always been strained, at best. Nowhere more so than with global warming, a phenomenon that everyone actually being subjected to weather has a hard time denying. In an administration that politicizes everything, it shouldn’t particularly come as a surprise that, once again, political appointees overruled scientists again in policy-making, but somehow it does. Now it’s at NASA, where the agency’s Inspector General reports that political appointees suppressed climate data.

Kevin Winters, NASA’s assistant inspector general for investigations, outlined his findings in a 93-page report evaluating allegations that the agency’s public affairs specialists suppressed climate change science and denied National Public Radio access to Dr. James Hansen, a NASA scientist….Winters said his investigation found that NASA headquarters’ public affairs specialists “managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public” from fall 2004 through early 2006.

Investigators, who interviewed 59 witnesses and reviewed 10,000 pages of documents, attributed the actions to “inappropriate political posturing or advantage.”

News releases describing climate change “suffered from inaccuracy, factual inefficiency and scientific dilution,” breaching trust between NASA scientists and public affairs specialists, and straining relations with Congress.

The good news is that NASA fixed this after Dr. Hansen blew the whistle in 2006, and newspapers started reporting on the lapse. The bad news is on a larger scale than just this one agency and its commitment to science, it’s that we’ve lost nearly eight precious years in which we could have started to turn around this behemoth of an oil-guzzling, carbon spewing machine we’re riding. Eight years in which the trillions of dollars poured into a war of choice could have been poured into research and development on fuel efficiency and alternative energy, and into the jobs that go with it. Eight years of coming up with ever more ingenious ways of denying this reality has made the task for the next president and Congress that much more difficult.

Lots of critical issues have been thrown into the meatgrinder of partisan politics these last eight years, and all of them have made governing and policy-making more challenging and a generally more miserable proposition. The “permanent campaign” as Scott McClellan, the latest former Bushie to come clean has termed it, has turned every public policy issue into an opportunity to further Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority.” The problem is, reality just keeps getting in the way.

On global warming, that reality just seems to keep getting grimmer. A colleague just sent me an e-mail and picture from his travels in Wyoming. The picture is grainy and slightly out-of-focus, but at the center of the black clouds the long white funnel reaching the grounds is unmistakable. “At one point,” my colleague writes, “there were three funnels visible at the same time, though only the one in the center hit the ground. I asked a local where we were supposed to go in case of a tornado, and he only shook his head and said ‘I don’t know, I’ve never heard of a tornado around here.'”

Tornadoes do happen in Wyoming, enough that it ranks 25th in the nation. But three in the sky at once, and in a part of the state that doesn’t usually see them, and in early June–all of it adds up to something that doesn’t fit in to the idea of what’s “normal” that we’ve all come to accept. Where this is going to provide the biggest issue for the West is, as usual, with water. The region’s water policies and compacts were developed back in water-rich years, and don’t provide much useful guidance for the new future we in the West are facing.

Water expert Ned Farquhar writes in the Albuquerque Journal:

Is the drought back? Wildfire is destroying forests and homes. It’s only May and the year’s precipitation is far below the annual average. After a winter full of snow in the mountains, and optimism as reservoirs started filling up again, there may be reason for concern.

A recent report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, published in concert with the Natural Resources Defense Council (my employer), discusses current trends showing that the West is hotter and drier. Up and down the Rockies, there’s a pattern of earlier, longer, hotter summers, more wildfire and drought, and less precipitation. This pattern is consistent with climate model predictions for the West as world temperatures steadily rise.

If these patterns persist, water managers will face a serious challenge. Reservoirs will fill up more gradually; evaporation will sharply increase. There might not be adequate water to top off community water supplies. Irrigation seasons will need to be longer but surface water supplies will be shorter.

Meeting water delivery demands stipulated in compacts drafted during water-rich years — the likes of which we may never see again — will be more difficult. In the major drought year of 2002, New Mexicans lost more than $200 million in livestock. That’s a heavy financial hit for a lot of real people.

Precisely because of the economic consequences for “a lot of real people,” we can’t keep proceeding blithely along as though these patterns won’t persist. It makes no sense not to, though it will mean some major changes for all of us. But proceeding with our heads in the sand thinking that rainfall and snowpacks are just going to get back to “normal” someday and that all this talk of global warming is just more politics could land us in a real pickle in the not-too-distant future.

And just suppose that the global warming alarmists are wrong, what’s the harm in conserving, anyway? What’s the harm in finding alternative sources of fuel that lessen our dependence on foreign oil, that produce less pollution, and that make our skies cleaner? What’s the harm in making sure that water that could be going into golf-courses or lawns or swimming pools somewhere in Las Vegas or southern California is instead flowing through the Colorado River, keeping a few more species of fish alive for a few more decades? What’s the harm in not using it all up now?

I don’t know if the NASA inspector general’s report is going to be on the minds of South Dakota and Montana voters today – I doubt that it would be. But I suspect that somewhere in the back of the minds of folks going to the polls today is the very real and very strong desire for something completely different. For them, like me, January 20 can’t come soon enough.

Editor’s note: Joan McCarter’s weekly blogs are part of NewWest.Net/Politics’ “Diary of a Mad Voter” feature, a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle. For more columns check in with www.newwest.net/madvoter. And for more information on each of the bloggers, click here.

About Joan McCarter

Joan McCarter is a contributing editor at Daily Kos, writing as "mcjoan." She has focused on Iraq, the traditional media, and electoral politics at the blog. During the 2006 election, McCarter focused her writing on Democratic prospects in the west. She traveled throughout the Rocky Mountain states through the last weeks of the campaign, researching and writing about Democratic candidates and campaign strategies. She is currently researching a book on western politics scheduled to be published in spring, 2008. McCarter worked on Capitol Hill for then Congressman and now Senator Ron Wyden. She has broad campaign experience and has been deeply involved in Democratic politics since childhood. She has a master's degree in international studies from the University of Washington and worked as a writer, editor, and instructional designer at the UW from 1995-2006. She is currently a fellow at Daily Kos.

Comments

  1. Binkyboy says:

    Joan,

    being from central Wyoming I can tell you that tornadoes are nothing new for that locale. They don’t touch down very often and rarely are above 70 mph winds, but they are there.