climate change

A Website Devoted to Data-Driven Facts, Imagine That

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

At a moment in US political history when facts are under assault, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has created what he calls a “data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances and government’s impact on society.”

Usafacts.org was launched on Tax Day in 2017 after Ballmer’s wife, Connie, challenged him to use more of his estimated $41 billion net worth on philanthropy. That triggered Balmer’s curiosity in exactly how US government programs help Americans who need financial assistance. He quickly discovered the combination of federal, state and local government is enormous – and enormously complex. The information he sought about where governments get their money and how they spend it was not readily available.

That led Balmer to invest $30 million to create a non-partisan nonprofit with a team of economists, researchers and writers to find out by analyzing publicly available data streams.

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The result is a website that features “our nation, in numbers.” Lots and lots of numbers. And fascinating charts and maps. Some of the current topics include how the US economy is performing, what happens with the Social Security deductions from our paychecks and how money flows in and out of the US government.

More provocative topics include why immigrants come to America, who benefits from food stamps and how close the country and individual states are to eliminating fossil fuel emissions. 

Ballmer’s vision was to create a set of documents that parallel what publicly trade corporations are required by law to file. The 2018 annual report serves up a potpourri of interesting facts such as:

  • Incarceration rates have climbed faster than population growth since 1980;

  • There are fewer Americans serving in active duty today than in 2016;

  • US GDP growth has averaged 2.7% since 1980 despite changing approaches in taxation, interest rates and economic stimulus; and

  • Border apprehensions are down 80% since 2000 while the number of border agents has increased from 4,139 in 1992 to 19.437 in 2018. 

The 2018 USAFacts 10-K Report includes a staggering section on risk factors. Some of the risks include:

  • Even though the federal government discourages unhealthy behavior, Americans still have the right to smoke, speed and ignore warning labels.

  • There are “personnel security clearance processing challenges” that create national risk.

  • Government revenue and spending are significantly affected by swings in the economy because of the reliance on personal and corporate income taxes.

  • Failure to control budget deficits can impede the government’s ability to provide needed services over the long run.

  • Government has significant fiscal exposure associated with a changing climate.

  • Constitutional objectives may be significantly affected by social unrest.

  • The financial future of retirees is threatened by insolvency of Social Security trust funds and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

  • Promoting good health, especially for the elderly, faces challenges.

When fully considered, usafacts.org is more than a stiff set of stats. It is eye-opening, deep-dive into America’s box score. There is even a section devoted to American’s interest in and belief of facts.

If facts still matter to you, usafacts.org could be a website worth bookmarking to find a trove of them.

 

Green New Deal is More of a Signal Than a Statute

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The Green New Deal resolution just introduced in Congress is less a plan of action and more a barometer of a new political wind.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now. The Green New Deal is the Democratic response.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now.

Because the Senate remains in Republican control and the White House is occupied by someone who denies the science of climate change, Democrats can only point to policies that wean America off fossil fuels and accelerate a renewable energy future. It will be up to states such as Oregon, where Democrats are in solid control, to advance specific climate change legislation, whether in the form of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime.

The optics of the Green New Deal nonbinding resolution’s introduction were unmistakable. Long-time environmental crusader Ed Markey, D-Mass, shared the platform with freshman phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey said, “Our energy future will not be found in the dark of a mine, but in the light of the sun.” Ocasio-Cortez added, “All great American programs, everything from The Great Society to the New Deal, started with a vision for our future.”

Critics called the plan unrealistic, lacking in specifics and too costly. They said advocates of the Green New Deal need to do a “whole lot more homework.” To youthful supporters, the criticism sounds a lot like patronizing parental pessimism.

Ocasio-Cortez shot back: “For 40 years we have tried to let the private sector take care of this. They said, 'We got this, we can do this, the forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.' Except for the fact that there’s a little thing in economics called externalities. And what that means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don’t have to pay, but taxpayers have to pay."

To be sure, there would be huge technical and significant economic challenges to reach a zero-carbon target in 10 years. For example, cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but many people hold onto their cars as long as 10 years. One of the biggest sources of methane emissions are cows.

"Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us," Ocasio-Cortez told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Youthful supporters are undaunted by those challenges. Sunrise Movement held a web meeting with supporters from all over the country and pledged to amp up lobbying for the Green New Deal during February. One of the group’s leaders said sit-ins may occur in the offices of Members of Congress who don’t endorse the Green New Deal.

But “old-timers” chimed in, too. “The Green New Deal resolution is essential in building and sustaining momentum to deal with the climate crisis,” Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer wrote his constituents. “Its message is one of ambitious, achievable and necessary hope. That’s why I’m excited to partner with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help write this resolution and define its goals for this Congress.”

Congressional insiders recognize the Green New Deal won’t move in any significant way in this Congress. What they miss is that Ocasio-Cortez is a Member of Congress with a voting card and someone with an outsized following on Twitter who is driving the progressive political agenda. The only US political figure with more Twitter interactions if President Trump.

“When a 29-year-old former bartender of Puerto Rican descent beats a senior Democratic leader of the House, and then proceeds to set the political agenda during her first week in office, it’s more than a cute social media story," wrote Antonio Garcia Martinez in Wired. “She’s a harbinger of a new American political reality.”

This is what separates the Green New Deal from other legislative initiatives. It has become a generational anthem, not just a piece of legislation.

 

Natural Disasters Revive Talk of National Catastrophic Fund

The Carr fire in Northern California, along with flooding in the East and hurricane damage and rising seas level in the Gulf states, has revived talk of a National Catastrophic Fund to provide a backup to state disaster relief funds and hopefully reduce upward pressure on homeowner and business insurance rates.

The Carr fire in Northern California, along with flooding in the East and hurricane damage and rising seas level in the Gulf states, has revived talk of a National Catastrophic Fund to provide a backup to state disaster relief funds and hopefully reduce upward pressure on homeowner and business insurance rates.

Western states are ablaze. Flash floods immerse the East. Hurricanes and tornados occur more frequently. Sea levels are rising as the global thermometer heats up.

Alarming news in stark contrast to tepid congressional action to extend national flood insurance by four months. That’s not a typo. Four months. To avert the program’s expiration during hurricane season. There was a four-month extension last year, too.

The fires, floods and fudging have rekindled calls for a National Catastrophic Fund, a bundled insurance vehicle to address all manner of catastrophes and avoid lurching from crisis to crisis, leaving victims in financial and emotional limbo.

“The catastrophe fund could provide private insurers a safety net by purchasing reinsurance and passing the savings on to consumers through lower premiums. The fund could also have a pool of money set aside for the immediate needs of victims,” The Tampa Bay Times editorialized in 2017.

Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist told NPR this week the time has come to stop equivocating and enact long-term reforms not only to national flood insurance, but also financial assistance for all national catastrophes. The former GOP governor of Florida said his state frequently suffers from serious hurricane damage and faces the specter of rising sea levels that could inundate large chunks of Florida’s coastline.

Crist said catastrophes have localized impacts, but they should be the concern of all Americans. Storm damage in the Northeast, wildfires in the West or hurricanes in the Gulf states, he argued, affect the entire country because “we’re all Americans.” 

One of the stumbling blocks to reform is political indecision about the $20 billion debt that exists in the national flood insurance program. Crist said the some or all of the debt should be forgiven as part of legislation to create a more all-encompassing fund to address damage caused by natural disasters.

The idea has been kicked around for at least a decade, but may resurface as a serious proposition in the wake of a string of disasters from coast to coast. The CEO of Allstate, one of the nation’s largest US insurance companies, endorsed the idea as far back as 2006 to provide a backup for state disaster relief funds that can easily be swamped by major events. Edward Liddy said “America is woefully unprepared” for natural disasters, which are occurring with increasing frequency.

Oregon has felt the heat of major wildfires near The Dalles and in Southern Oregon this year, even though it is early in the wildfire season. California is battling a string of wildfires from the south to the north, which have consumed homes and resulted in multiple deaths. Reports indicate parts of the Western United States may have experienced the hottest July in recorded history, and temperatures continue to climb.

Economic and Political Realities of Climigration

Devastation caused by Hurricane Irma has paralyzed Puerto Rico and spurred Puerto Ricans to become climate refugees.

Devastation caused by Hurricane Irma has paralyzed Puerto Rico and spurred Puerto Ricans to become climate refugees.

The hurricane-caused devastation in Puerto Rico that has left large chunks of the island in the dark and without drinking water poses a major challenge for humanitarian aid. It may also pose an unexpected political challenge as many Puerto Ricans flee their island home, perhaps for good.

They are climate refugees. Not in the technical and legal sense of “refugees,” but in the practical meaning of the word. They are fleeing what they view as an untenable existence, not because of a perceived slow response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but because they see a worsening climate affecting their safety and economic well-being.

Climigration may not be limited to Puerto Rico, which has been hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes. Residents in the US Virgin Islands, Florida Keys and southeast Texas may retreat to higher ground to avoid future exposure to winds, flooding and water surges in floodplains and coastlines.

These climate refugees may or may not believe in human-caused climate change, but they no longer doubt the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways. The specter of entire islands with flattened buildings, no electricity and a decimated economy can be deeply disheartening. In Puerto Rico, death counts and damage estimates are impossible because many areas remain virtually inaccessible.

FEMA and President George W. Bush took a beating for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. FEMA has gotten higher marks for its response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. For Puerto Ricans standing in an impossibly long line to get on a cruise ship bound for the mainline, FEMA isn’t the issue. They just can’t picture themselves trying to put their lives back together on an island with dim prospects.

If you have a serious illness, you don’t see much chance of getting the care you need. If you are in the tourism industry, it is hard to imagine many of the 2.3 million tourists who visit Puerto Rico returning any time soon. If you are living on the economic edge, falling into poverty seems likely. If you are a political official for a territory already in deep debt, there may not be any light in the tunnel.

US-citizen climigrants will settle in new places, with a likely concentration in Florida. Like Cuban refugees, Puerto Rican refugees will bring their political views with them, including their views about the impacts of climate change. Experiencing historic back-to-back hurricanes can leave a lasting impression. And that’s the political dilemma.

Apart from a herculean effort to rebuild Puerto Rico and other devastated Caribbean islands, there is a huge question mark about their future economic footing. As an island without any commercially viable natural resources, Puerto Rico must rely on manufacturing and tourism, both of which need to count on basics like electricity. Puerto Rico already has seen an out-migration of its population – a net loss of almost 450,000 people between 2005 and 2015. Island flight may accelerate, as evidenced by the exodus on flights bound for the mainland.

Climigration isn’t new in the long history of earth. That’s probably how many people wound up where they are. Most recently, more than 400,000 residents pulled up stakes and left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Chunks of the city remain more or less in ruins.

Congress passed an initial hurricane relief funding package in response to the devastation in Texas, but has been preoccupied with other issues, including a proposed massive tax cut, after the devastation in Puerto Rico. The perceived slight is becoming a political issue on Capitol Hill, with Democrats urging swifter, stronger actions to assist Puerto Rico.

Ultimately as many as 1 million Puerto Ricans may move and take their first-hand view of climate change – and the political response – with them to new constituencies.

Obama Links Climate Change, National Security

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration is linking climate change to national security, which may not have much immediate impact on a GOP-controlled Congress, but is likely to become a major debating point in the 2016 presidential election.

In a report released today, the White House put climate change on par with terrorism and pandemics as threats to U.S. security. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” according to Obama's 35-page strategy document. 

The President has made fighting climate change a major emphasis of his second term, perhaps as much to elevate it on the political radar screen as to register actual accomplishments. At least one specific recommendation — to diversify the sources of energy for the U.S. military — may have a chance to move forward.

A key theme in the report is the connection between energy security and national security. “Seismic shifts in supply and demand are underway across the globe,” it says. “Increasing global access to reliable and affordable energy is one of the most powerful ways to support social and economic development and to help build new markets for U.S. technology and investment.”

The report calls for actions to increase the nation's resiliency in the face of climate change challenges. That includes more and perhaps different kinds of investment in infrastructure. “The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.” 

Buttressing America against challenges caused by climate change, the Obama administration report claims, will increase the country's national security.

DC Dithers as the World Swirls

Terrorists abduct schoolgirls in Nigeria. Tornados devastate the South. The housing market remains shaky. Climate change is blamed for rising number of deaths due to heat stroke.

Then Monica Lewinsky resurfaced in a tell-all essay and Republicans pencil in yet another congressional hearing on Benghazi. And politicians wonder why people regard Washington, DC as irrelevant.

After finally getting the green light from a proud, but internationally embarrassed Nigeria government, the United States is sending help to locate and rescue almost 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Some worry help may be coming too late, even as the terrorist group pulls off more daring abductions. Nobody knows where the schoolgirls are.

President Obama flew to Arkansas to commiserate with victims of the latest serious tornado that killed at least 15 people and left a wake of destruction in its 40-mile path. He reassured victims and local leaders the nation stands behind the survivors who face rebuilding their community for the second time in three years. While people expressed appreciation for Obama's visit, one woman who lost her son in the tornado said all the President really could do is "be here."

New Fed Chair Janice Yellen said the U.S. economy remains vulnerable after a cold winter and amid a sluggish housing market.

Scientists issued another grim warning about climate change, saying its effects are already being felt in harsher droughts, more torrential rainstorms and more severe wildfires. They said average temperatures on the planet could increase 10 degrees by the end of this century, as climate change effects accelerate.

Crude Oil, Pipelines and Railcars

While debate has centered on the Keystone pipeline, more crude oil from newly developed production sites is moving by railcar, with seemingly nobody noticing.The pending Keystone XL Pipeline remains a national symbol in the battle over climate change. But some of the warriors may have slipped out of their battle trenches and hopped onto rail cars.

According to the Association of American Railroads, much of the newly discovered crude oil in places such as North Dakota are being transported on trains, not by pipelines. As recently as 2008, there were only 9,500 carloads of crude oil moving on U.S. rail lines. Last year, the number of carloads increased nearly 25 times to 234,000 carloads. In the first quarter of this year, there were 97,000 carloads.

While regulatory and political eyes have been glued to the prolonged saga of whether President Obama would approved the Keystone pipeline, rail car movements of crude oil have exploded under the radar screen.

That changed somewhat after a 73-car train carrying crude oil barreled down a hill and incinerated a small town in Quebec a few weeks ago. But that hasn't appeared to slow down the momentum of crude oil rail transport, as evidenced by a newly inked deal for a trans-shipment facility at the Port of Vancouver along the Columbia River.

Toward a More Perfect Union

Republicans expressed disappointment or distaste for what they took as partisanship in President Barack Obama's second inaugural address. Democrats exulted in what they viewed as his manifesto for a progressive political agenda in his second term.

I heard something quite different. Through allusions to the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the words of Abraham Lincoln, Obama linked the challenges of today to the ongoing project of creating a more perfect union. 

His alliterative reference to Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall linked the contemporary civil rights struggles of African-Americans, women and gays to the longer historical quest in America of proving we really meant our declaration that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights.

Obama didn't reveal anything new in his comments. He merely put these struggles into the context of a country that has evolved its understanding of what those words mean, a thoroughly appropriate theme for a presidential inauguration occurring on the same day we commemorated the words and deeds of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As he took one long last look up the Mall, seeing a teeming crowd stretching to the Lincoln Memorial, many thoughts undoubtedly flashed through Obama's mind. Those thoughts perhaps included his attempt to replicate the feat of Lincoln who tied preservation of the Union and, ultimately, abolition of slavery to the founding principles of our Republic.

A Confluence on Energy Policy

Two Oregon leaders are stepping into leadership roles on energy policy, which always has played a key role in job creation, regional affordability and quality of life.Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has advanced a 10-year energy policy just as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has assumed the chairmanship of a Senate committee that will design an updated national energy strategy. The economic and environmental stakes of both are huge for Oregon and the country.

Kitzhaber's 10-year energy plan will go before the 2013 Oregon legislature for review. Wyden will reveal some of his thoughts on national energy policy in a speech this week to the Portland City Club.

The emergence of Oregon leadership on energy issues comes after several decades of relative quiescence. It would be fair to say energy policy hasn't been a top-rung focal point for Oregon elected officials at the state or federal level for quite a while.

In years past, energy policy consisted of talking about the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). While the dams generating relatively inexpensive electricity remain important to the region, the range of energy issues on the table has vastly expanded to include renewable energy, expansive natural gas resources, a drive for national energy independence and calls to combat greenhouse-induced climate change.

Man-made Cliffs

Ready or not, Americans are on the precipice of a fiscal cliff and climate change that could make Superstorm Sandy and searing summer temperatures the new norm.While politicians parried on Capitol Hill over the fiscal cliff, the World Bank issued a stunning report indicating climate change could raise the earth's temperature by 7.2 degrees as early as 2060.

Coverage of the paralyzed negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff saturated traditional and online news media. The United Nations climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar, drew hardly a mention.

Plunging over the fiscal cliff will have serious consequences, but not as devastating as melting polar caps, searing droughts, warming oceans and savage storms.

Perhaps not so paradoxically, both cliffs hold the most peril for the poor and those least able to adapt. Failure in DC to reach a budget deal will send tax rates, including payroll tax rates, up and spending on such programs as food stamps down. Failure to address climate change will lead to increased rainfall in some places and less in others, including already parched parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Making Global Warming Fight More Personal

Steps as simple as recycling food scraps could become the new focus of efforts to slow global warming by reducing methane released into the atmosphere caused by rotting food in landfills.Shaky world economies have forced global warming off the political agenda, but a new twist on the issue could revive its political fortunes.

The initial thrust of environmentalist action was aimed at carbon dioxide emissions, the greenhouse gas emissions generated by electrical plants and large industry. The specter of rising energy prices, factories closing down and workers being laid off dampened enthusiasm in Congress and state legislatures to adopt ideas such as "cap and trade" policies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Because CO2 hangs around in the atmosphere a long time, reductions now wouldn't produce a difference for what seemed like a political eternity.

Since the clock is still running on rising world temperatures, climate scientists and global warming warriors are looking for a new direction that can produce positive results with less political resistance. In an article published by Science, climate scientist Drew Shindell offers a potentially winning strategy. 

Shindell, who is with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, says the environment would be greatly improved by reducing the amount of ozone and soot in the air. Soot and ozone reduction could slow warming by a half degree Celsius by 2050, he says, which would be "an immediate and quite powerful effect on climate both at global and regional scales."