Before there was denial, there was 'Ozone Man'

The Republican Party's long, messy divorce from reality began in October 1992, when President George H.W. Bush derided Al Gore, then the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, as "Ozone Man," someone who would put us "up to our necks in owls — and outta work for every American."

Bush was referring to Gore's early warning about the public health threat posed by growing concentrations of CFCs, the chemical refrigerants used In air conditioners, which were rapidly degrading the ozone layer that screens the earth from dangerous UV solar radiation.

Ironically enough, as vice president himself five years earlier Bush had submitted for Senate ratification the UN's Montreal Protocol, which aimed to phase out CFC production in response to Gore's concerns. In fact, only a few months before Bush's dig at Gore, the Bush administration had agreed to strengthen that very Montreal Protocol, concluding that this would "constitute a major step forward in protecting public health and the environment from …. stratospheric ozone depletion."

But the political press allowed Bush license to mock Gore for sounding an alarm that had been fully conceded — and even acted upon — by his own administration. That was a leading indicator of the steady deterioration in media accountability around the accuracy of political debate on environmental science.

Thirty years later, just last month, we got some remarkable good news. The World Meteorological Organization issued a forecast that the ozone hole is not only shrinking, but will be fully healed in most of the world by 2040. While the net effect of historic CFC degradation of the ozone layer will still mean an increase in cancer cases — likely several hundred thousand additional cases by the year 2100 — researchers estimate that without the Montreal treaty an additional 400 million people could have suffered from skin cancer.

Overall, this is a astonishing demonstration both of the damage that reckless technology can wreak, and the human ability to respond and dramatically limit the actual costs of these risks.

Republicans have long since stopped celebrating such progress. Bush's "Ozone Man" jibe was the beginning of a steady Republican retreat from the two key lessons of the ozone layer threat: First, that 21st-century technology is powerful enough, when misused, to disrupt the stability of climate and other global systems on which civilization depends; and second, that collective human cooperation, combined with innovative technology and functioning markets, can limit and even repair such damage.

The lessons of the recovery of the ozone layer can be summed up in eight simple words: "We caused these problems; we can solve them."

One of the places to benefit most from healing the ozone layer is America's Sunshine State, Florida. Even as Bush was chiding Gore as "Ozone Man," Florida's TV weather forecasters were debating how best to tell the state's residents to stay out of the Sun without scaring off the tourists. (Unlike Republican politicians, the meteorologists didn't think they could just make snide jokes.)

In a world without the Montreal phase-out of CFCs, Florida's biggest asset — sunshine — would have become a lethal liability. Outdoor sunbathing would have become far too dangerous for many tourists, and outdoor recreation in general would have been significantly hampered. Instead, thanks to a UN treaty and industry development of ozone-safe refrigerants, Florida managed to dodge most of the UV cancer crisis.

In a different Republican Party — one still connected to reality — Ron DeSantis might be a conservative focused on pragmatic climate solutions. But that party does not exist.

Florida, of course, is also ground zero for risk from climate change today. Indeed, the early coastal indicators of climate destruction — sea level rise, hurricane intensity, algae blooms, tidal flooding — already threaten the state's quality of life. Public concern reached levels that led Gov. Ron DeSantis far ahead of most Republican governors in campaigning, and governing, on the need to increase community climate resilience — even if DeSantis hardly ever says the word "climate." He just says Florida is "flood prone." The reason for the hedge is obvious: Naming the cause might cause voters to wonder whether Florida should try to minimize catastrophic flooding, not just prepare for it. Wouldn't it be better to deal with the climate crisis as we dealt with the ozone layer — by attacking the problem at its source?

Don't expect DeSantis to risk becoming a new Al Gore — potentially mocked by his Republican colleagues — for suggesting that the Sunshine State could lead the U.S. toward a prevention policy on climate chaos. The political media certainly wouldn't reward him for that, even though the issue isn't very complicated: Florida should simply harvest the state's ample sunshine to make up for the energy the oil industry seeks off its beaches. Interestingly, almost all Florida Republican politicians, DeSantis included, oppose offshore oil drilling. He has also stood out by opposing Florida utilities' "only outlaws install solar panels" campaign, vetoing a utility-backed bill that would have limited the state's rooftop solar households.

In a different Republican Party, one in which candidates said things about critical environmental and climate problems that were measured for their connection to reality, DeSantis might have a viable option of saying, "I'm helping to find sensible, conservative solutions to the climate problem — and I don't need to be a left-winger to do so."

But that would also require the political media to start reporting on "Ozone Man"-style mockery not for its gotcha value, but as serious environmental policy with serious consequences. Serious environmental policy is exactly what George H.W. Bush ran away from in the fall of 1992. What he empowered, of course, was the fake news that still plagues us today.

Trump and the right wing share a social Darwinist 'herd mentality' — it leads to widespread death

Donald Trump's promise in an ABC News town hall last month that the United States would soon achieve herd immunity for the coronavirus, and conflating that with herd mentality, may be explained because Trump is counting on the latter to rescue his second term. It's otherwise impossible to imagine a campaign whose endgame is to recover the lost loyalty of voters over 65 selecting as its closing argument, "Not enough of you have died yet."

Keep reading... Show less

How the US Chamber of Commerce wrecked the economy — and made the pandemic worse

As hospital intensive care units overflow again, and delays in COVID-19 testing reports reach record levels in many cities, a conversation I recently with Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, reminded me that I had forgotten something utterly critical: Donald Trump's decision to unilaterally disarm America in the face of the coronavirus invasion was urged upon him by an ostensible defender of American business: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.When the pandemic reached America, we weren't ready — any more than we were ready when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But Trump had the tools to do what the U.S. has often done: make up for lack of preparedness. The crucial gaps to fill in March were supplies for testing to limit the spread of the virus, and medical equipment to treat those who got sick — testing kits, swabs, reagents, masks, gowns and gloves — by the billions. Government health agencies estimated that if the pandemic took hold, the country would need, for example, 3.5 billion N95 medical masks. We had 12 million.

Presidents have available, and have routinely used, the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to overcome such critical supply shortages — not just in wartime, but also to ensure adequate relief supplies after natural disasters. DPA can be used to put emergency purchases at the head of a supply chain, but also to require factories to convert their output to provide needed equipment in adequate volumes. Members of Congress urged Trump to appoint a military official as DPA czar to coordinate production and distribution of essential pandemic-related medical supplies, as was done in the Korean War.

Keep reading... Show less

This disaster belongs to Trump — but the Tea Party's nihilistic hatred of government is what got us here

The catastrophic failure of the United States to prepare itself for the COVID-19 pandemic, and its equally catastrophic failure to mount the kind of "too late but effective" response to a crisis that has often characterized American history — World War II, most spectacularly — has deep roots in recent political and cultural trends.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump's radical attempt to sabotage auto emissions rules is even worse than you think

President Trump's proposed drastic relaxation of future auto emissions standards has been widely blasted as a repeal of "the government's biggest effort to combat climate change." Careful readers have also noted that the Trump proposal would kill 300 Americans every year and cost every driver about $2,100 in higher costs by wasting about 80 billion gallons of gasoline.

Keep reading... Show less

Believe it or not, good news: Trump's counterattack against clean energy is collapsing

For two years the cabal of fossil fools surrounding Donald Trump have  leveraged an impulsive president's loathing of his predecessor, tapped their reactionary right-wing networks, mobilized coal and oil lobbies and political donations, and thrown themselves vigorously into two missions:

  1.  Bring back the coal industry and stop the “Stalinist” threat of wind and solar power.
  2. Freeze the transition from oil-powered cars and trucks to electricity by reversing Obama-era plans to encourage cleaner, more efficient vehicle fleets.

In the last several weeks, the futility of both these efforts to strangle the future have become clear.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump's norm-smashing has an upside: There's an opening for reform so no president can do this again

As the Trump administration lurches from usurpation to usurpation, shattering foundational practices of American democracy, the Democrats have yet to craft a coherent response. One possibility lies in the fact that among the public there appears to be consensus on three key norms: Power should be divided and accountable; all public officials, including the president, are subject to the rule of law; and government service is a public trust, not a private opportunity.

Keep reading... Show less

Checkmate: The shutdown is an impeachable offense if Trump vetoes a bill to reopen the government

One of Washington’s favorite parlor games of late has been debating what constitutes an “impeachable” offense, and whether President Trump has committed one. An obvious candidate has gone unnoticed: the government shutdown itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Here's how Trump inadvertently exposed his allegiance to the petro-tyrants of Russia and Saudi Arabia

Like Dorothy’s dog Toto at the end of "The Wizard of Oz,” Donald Trump just pulled down the curtain and exposed the ugly reality of climate-change denial: It is driven neither by intellectual skepticism nor ideological disagreement but by pure greed, the greed of those who own -- or are retained by those who own -- oil, coal and natural gas. Climate denial is simply a cynical strategy to perpetuate inflated monopoly prices on fossil fuels.This article was originally published at SalonIn Katowice, Poland, for the first time, the global climate denial bloc linked arms publicly. The U.S. and Russia joined Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in cynically dismissing the latest scientific alarm bells. Not over its science: As Trump climate adviser Wells Griffith proclaimed, “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.” In other words, oil powers are entitled to their profits, at whatever cost to the rest of us.

What does this fearsome threesome have in common? (Kuwait is really just a fellow-traveler to the Saudi monarchy.) Only one thing; oil. Two are petro-states, obsessed with  keeping the price of oil sky-high. The U.S. still imports oil, but Trump has bet his party’s political future on America joining the petro-club. (And perhaps also on adopting the authoritarian political system that, Norway aside, characterizes most oil-dependent countries.)

Keep reading... Show less

These are some of the disturbing lessons America is refusing to learn from Jamal Khashoggi's murder

We’re not connecting the dots. We ought to be holding our breath – the fallout from the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi could easily have plunged the world into economic chaos. Even if we slide through this time, the pattern is clear – a world which cannot survive even a temporary  disruption of Saudi Arabia’s desire or capacity to pump 10 million barrels of oil every day is a world at risk.

This article was originally published at Salon

Keep reading... Show less

While California burns, Trump tweets nonsense

The Dust Bowl made its way into American culture through the songs of Woodie Guthrie, the novels of John Steinbeck, and most recently Timothy Egan’s magisterial, The Worst Hard Time. But its hold on our historic imagination was triggered by millions of “dust bowl” refugees who clogged the entrance stations to California for months, altered the demography of the nation, and emptied counties throughout the South-Central United States of their farming populations.

Keep reading... Show less