Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hurricane Isaac: The REAL Elephant at the RNC

Denial isn't a river in Egypt anymore, it's a 500-mile tropical storm about to hit New Orleans.  For decades the Republicans have either denied that global warming exists, or played down the human causes, all in the interests of Big Oil and Big Coal.   During the Bush administration their spin doctors changed the terminology from "global warming" to "climate change," thinking that would somehow sound less threatening.  Ironically, it turned out to be more accurate, because it's not just about the planet warming up a few degrees, it's about major changes in storm patterns, ocean currents, heat waves, droughts and flooding -- all of which does not seem to make much of an impression on Republican climate deniers.

But Mother Nature marches on, and has no respect for political parties.  Consider these facts about recent storms (courtesy of the Paul Douglas Weather Column):

  •  Of the 11 most intense North Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, five have occurred in the last eight years (Wilma, Rita, Katrina, Dean and Ivan).[xii]
  • The record-breaking rainfall dumped by Hurricane Irene in 2011 was the main impact of the storm in which flooding and other damage totaled over $15 billion.[xiii]
  • Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest weather-related disaster on record (over $100 billion).[xiv]
  • Tropical cyclone Debby in June 2012 produced record-breaking rainfall across Florida, in some locations dropping over 20" of rain in 24 hours.[xv] When Tropical Storm Debby formed on June 23, it was the first time ever that four storms formed before July since record keeping began in 1851.[xvi]"
In spite of all this, and with a major storm raging outside their convention hall, I'm willing to bet there won't be one single mention of climate change at that convention -- unless it's to ridicule it.  Instead, we will be treated to fire-and-brimstone speeches about how badly Obama is handling the economy, and how Romney-Ryan will work economic miracles if they get into office.   No  doubt there will be prayers and condolences for the communities hit by Isaac, but no real grappling with the root cause of these bigger and more frequent tropical storms.  

Like the proverbial elephant in the living room, climate change is THE BIGGEST THREAT to our economy, even if the Republicans refuse to talk about it.  As noted above, these storms are very costly and their economic impact lasts for years.   Enormous numbers of homes and businesses have been lost to increasingly hostile weather conditions across the continent.  Large portions of the USA are experiencing the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, while huge areas of the Southwest are going up in flames.  No wonder the economic recovery has been so slow.  You can't blame Obama for the weather, but you CAN blame the Republican Conservatives who, for decades, have purposely misled the public into not taking global warming seriously.  Now we are facing the disastrous results. And still they want to gut the EPA, do away with pollution regulations, and continue relying on fossil fuels while cutting funds to develop newer, safer technologies.

I've never been one to read acts of God into natural phenomena, but, since the Tea Party fundamentalists are so fond of doing so, maybe it is time for them to taste their own medicine.  Is God slapping them in the face with a climate-change storm to open their eyes?  Can it be only coincidence that this storm is named "Isaac" which, on the Kabbalistic Tree, is the aspect of God's judgement?  Maybe there is a message in this storm, a wake-up call to the RNC folks that  global warming is very, very real.  Will they heed the message?  Or will they, as in the days of Noah, remain in denial until it is too late?

* * *
(If you happen to be a Republican and still think climate change is a hoax, please read this excellent article by Republican meteorologist Paul Douglas (founder of the WeatherNation Channel) about how he came to believe it is true -- and it had nothing to do with Al Gore, just science: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-douglas/republican-climate-change_b_1374900.html? )

Monday, August 20, 2012

Vote Romney-Ryan and Kill the Planet!

I don't usually do a lot of politics on this blog, but Mitt Romney is so dismissive of clean energy initiatives, and Paul Ryan's record on environmental issues is so shockingly abysmal, I feel I must speak up in defense of the natural world.  Because if the Romney-Ryan campaign has its way, there won't be very much nature left for our descendants to see or enjoy. 

Paul Ryan, Conspiracy Theorist

Ryan is as clueless about environmental science as he appears in this photo.  In a  December 2009 op-ed  that he wrote during international climate talks (and still proudly displays on his official Washington website), Ryan made reference to the hacked University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit emails (so-called "Climategate") and accused climatologists of a “perversion of the scientific method, where data were manipulated to support a predetermined conclusion,” in order to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” Because of spurious claims of conspiracy like these, several governmental and academic inquiries were launched, all of which found the accusations to be without any merit.  (See Debunking Misinformation about Stolen Climate Emails in the Manufactured Climategate Controversy for further detailed information.)

There was no "climate conspiracy" outside of Paul Ryan's head.  Nobody was perverting the scientific method, they were using the scientific method to peer review and critique various articles that had already been published in respectable journals.  Granted, some scientists were rude to each other in their emails (and who among us hasn't done that?) but Emily Post has nothing to do with the accuracy of the science.

Climate change denial and the Ryan "snow" argument

The problem is, Ryan himself doesn't understand climate science.  In the same op-ed, he stated, "Unilateral economic restraint in the name of fighting global warming has been a tough sell in our [Wisconsin] communities, where much of the state is buried under snow."  He and other climate deniers who use snowstorms as proof that the planet is not getting warmer do not understand a basic fact of physics, namely, that warm air holds more moisture than cold air.  This is why the worst storms usually come in March-April, when the northern hemisphere is warming up.  Warm air from the south hits cold fronts from the north and bam!  We get buried.   When the Jet Stream abnormally dips all the way south to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, it will pull lots of moist air northward, resulting in even more snow.

Yes, it is true that the winter of 2009-2010 had record snowfall in Wisconsin (and also here in Minnesota, Ryan's neighbor state) but it is ALSO true that the average temperatures have been getting steadily warmer for decades.  When I first moved to Minnesota in 1973, I regularly saw temps of 40 below zero (F) on the winter weather map -- something I have NOT seen on any map around here for at least two decades.  Instead, the winters have been so warm -- with or without snow -- that the lakes no longer freeze hard enough for safe ice fishing in many parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  This, in turn, is hurting tourist industries that rely on snow and ice for winter sports.

I am wondering if Ryan is still sticking by this snow argument now that climate patterns have shifted again. Wisconsin is in the midst of a severe drought that is devastating crops across the Midwest.  Neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin had much snow at all this winter (2011-2012).   Instead, it all went south and buried places like Tennessee that normally don't have much snow.  And how does Ryan explain all the record 100-degree temperatures we had across the continent this summer, and the thousands of broken heat records every day?

Climate change is not the only area where Ryan fails on the environment.  He has voted to eliminate the EPA regulations on greenhouse gases, to block the US Department of Agriculture from preparing for climate change, to eliminate light bulb efficiency standards and slash clean energy investment.  On the other hand, he voted FOR keeping oil industry subsidies and is a big supporter of coal.  (For refs in the congressional record on all these issues, click here.)

Mitt Romney, Energy Luddite

Mitt Romney isn't any better.  He not only comes down 100% on the side of Big Oil and Big Coal, he ridicules developing new energy technologies.  On the campaign trail last week, while speaking to coal miners in Ohio, he said that Obama "is only interested in energy above the ground," by which I assume he meant solar and wind energy -- something he has previously mocked by saying "you can't drive a car with a windmill on it."  (Although you can drive a car with a dog kennel on it -- something he has personally demonstrated.)

On that same day, Obama was campaigning in Iowa, which gets 19% of its electricity from wind power, ranking second in the nation for that industry.  Wind farms, Obama pointed out, have already generated 7000 new jobs in Iowa. 

With all his focus on jobs, you would think that Romney would applaud that achievement.  But no, he retorts that wind turbines -- he called them "whirlybirds" -- won't generate energy when the wind is not blowing.  (Maybe not -- but when we run out of coal and oil, nothing will be generating energy if we do not plan ahead.  And hasn't Romney ever heard of storage batteries?)

"We have 250 years of coal," Romney says, "Why in the world wouldn't we use it?"   Even if better technologies are developed?  After all, the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of rocks.  And there were probably flint-chippers who objected to using metal-tipped spears because it would put them out of work.  "We have tons of rocks, why in the world wouldn't we use them?"  But the smarter cavemen embraced the new technology and the rest is, well, history.

In that same speech, he apparently thought it more effective to use sensationalism rather than science, misquoting Vice President Biden as saying that "coal is more dangerous than terrorists."  Biden never said that!  What he did say, in a 2007 interview, was that "hundreds of thousands of people die, or their lives are shortened, by coal plants."  Which, when you consider the pollution these plants produce (not to mention black lung disease among coal miners and other unsafe conditions), is perfectly true.  Asthma and lung cancer may not be as dramatic as a terrorist attack, but they kill far more people in the long run.  And guess what?  When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he said much the same thing, stating that a coal plant "kills people." (Yet another flip-flop.)

I could go on and on, but I'll end with this thought:  Is Mitt Romney really a man you would want in the White House?  And do you really want Paul Ryan to be one heartbeat away from the Presidency?

* * *

(If you happen to be a Republican and still think climate change is a hoax, please read this excellent article by Republican meteorologist Paul Douglas (founder of the WeatherNation Channel) about how he came to believe it is true -- and it had nothing to do with Al Gore, just science:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-douglas/republican-climate-change_b_1374900.html? )

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bradford G. Wheler brings together art and cats in a PURRR-fect new book

Today is the first of Elul on the Jewish calendar.  It is both the start of the period of introspection leading up to the High Holy Days, and the "New Year for Animals" (see my previous post.)   So I thought this would be a good time to review a new animal art book, CAT SAYINGS: wit & wisdom from the whiskered ones by Bradford G. Wheler.   I savored this book on Shabbat afternoon the way I feel it should always be read, relaxing on the couch with three of my furry-purry feline friends curled up with me.

The book features full-color works by 60 different artists from 9 different countries.  Some are full time professional artists, others are hobbyists, but all share a love of animals and, in a myriad different styles and media, have captured the beauty, mystery, love and whimsy of the cat.  Add to this the wonderful collection of quotes about cats, and you have a book to treasure and savor for years to come.

 A few of my favorite quotes are:

"A black cat crossing your path signifies the animal is going somewhere" -- Groucho Marx

"A kitten is the rosebud in the garden of the animal kingdom" -- Robert Southey

"I care not for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it" -- Abraham Lincoln

That last quote was a new one to me, and especially precious, because I have been involved in animal welfare for many years, and am currently planning, with my friend and co-writer Richard H. Schwartz, to develop a curriculum resource book for the New Year for Animals. 

As I have written on this blog before, many Jews, especially among the Orthodox, are cut off from nature and animals.  As a community, we suffer from a severe case of "nature deficit disorder," often oblivious to the beauty of God's creation.  And this in spite of the many beautiful Jewish teachings about the humane treatment of animals in the Torah and writings of our Sages -- which, sadly, often go unstudied.  So I agree with Lincoln:  If religion does not teach us to treat our animals better, of what use is it?

And I was not surprised to read that Napoleon, Hitler, and Alexander of Macedonia all hated cats. You just can't order a cat around, they are independent thinkers who can't be dictated to.   As Mark Twain is quoted on page 8:  "Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash.  That one is the cat.  If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat."  I'm not sure if cats are the only independent animal species, but they certainly don't kowtow to humans.

Quite a few of the artists included in this book are also animal activists, many of whom donate part of their proceeds to animal shelters and various wildlife causes. The author has included biographies of all the artists in the back of the book, along with contact info and web addresses where you can view more of their work and, of course, buy it.

I also got a chuckle out of this quote from Ernest Hemmingway:  "One cat just leads to another,"  because we currently have 12 cats and no, I'm not hoarding them.  Several of them are rescues who wandered into our farm when so many homes were foreclosed around here a while back.  I suspect their owners abandoned them and, as my wife would say, I'm a cat magnet.  Some people are horse whisperers,  I'm a cat whisperer.  So we end up with a lot of stray cats who wheedle their way into my heart.  I'll close with this quote from Garrison Keillor, also cited in CAT SAYINGS:  "Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a function."  Some things just are.

CAT SAYINGS is available from amazon.com (this link benefits this blog) or directly from the publisher at BookCollaborative.com

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Toward a modern Jewish New Year for the Animals

Rosh Hashanah, the day that we traditionally celebrate as the Jewish New Year, comes on the first and second days of the month of Tishri on the Hebrew calendar.  But in reality, there are actually four "new years" in Judaism, each serving a different purpose  (based on Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1a, but arranged in a different order here):
  1. The first of Tishri, for the counting of calendar years, Jubilee years, etc.
  2. The first of Nissan, for dating the reign of kings and for various legal documents
  3. The fifteenth of Shevat, for tithing fruits of trees
  4. The first of Elul, for tithing cattle
Only the first of Tishri is a "New Year's Day" in the sense that we now think of it.  The others are more like fiscal years, similar, for example, to how income taxes are due on the 15th of April (in the USA) and not the first of the secular year.

The first of Elul "for tithing cattle" was the cut-off point for determining in which year an animal should be included in the count.  Animals born before that date were tithed in the old year; animals born after that date were tithed in the new year.  Nowadays very few Jews are raising flocks of animals and, since there has not been a Jerusalem Temple since the year 70 C.E. (when the Romans destroyed it), nobody is tithing animals for Temple sacrifices anymore.   Nevertheless, this date remains on the Jewish calendar, although, admittedly, it is not very well known today.
A mother hen on her nest in my yard.
(The white spot by her head is a chick.)
Very few chicks are hatched this
natural way anymore

Recently, there have been suggestions among Jewish animal welfare activists to make the first of Elul, the "Rosh Hashanah for Animals," into a day for focusing on the many teachings in Judaism about the proper treatment of animals.  This would not be the first time that a Jewish holiday got re-defined after the Temple was destroyed.  Shavuot, the "Feast of Weeks," was originally celebrated with processions of people bringing their first-fruits to the Temple.  Today it focuses on receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which also took place on the same date.  Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year for Trees" (#3 in the list above) is now a form of Jewish Earth Day, when people not only plant trees, but also focus on current environmental issues.

In the same way, the New Year for Animals would shift the focus from tithing sacrifices toward learning about how animals are treated on factory farms, comparing that with Jewish teachings about the proper treatment of animals, and making choices about where we get our milk, eggs, and meat -- or maybe even considering vegetarianism as a better alternative.  Given that most Jews today are urban people who rarely, if ever, have contact with farmers or farm animals, I think that developing a modern version of this day would be a great educational opportunity.

Typical ram's horn Shofar
It would also fit with the overall theme of the month of Elul.  Traditionally, we blow the shofar (ram's horn) once each morning during Elul (except on the Sabbath.)  This is to remind us that the High Holy Day season is coming, and that we should "wake up" and take account of our lives in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Adding the observance of Rosh Hashanah for Animals on the first of Elul would mean that on the very first day of the month leading into the High Holy Day season, we would examine how we are treating God's creatures.  Perhaps we might start with the words of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism:

"A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability... A person should consider himself and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given."  (Tzava'as Ha Rivash 12)

(See also Richard Schwartz's article, An Audacious Initiative to Restore the Ancient New Year for Animals posted on August 8, 2012 on Tikkun Daily.)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Life on Mars and Jewish theology

NASA scientists at mission control cheer
as Curiosity lands safely on Mars. 
(Photo courtesy of NASA)
With the successful landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars today (way to go, NASA!) I'm already being asked what effect it would have on me as a rabbi if the rover does find evidence of life there.  My answer?  I'd be delighted!  And really, there would be no conflict with Judaism.  As I wrote in my 2009 book, Jewish Themes in Star Trek:

"Classical Jewish prayers refer to God as 'chay ha-olamin' -- Giver of Life to the worlds -- plural.  So there is no theological conflict with the idea of life on other planets.  There is also no conflict with the concept of being made 'in the image of God' if alien beings look different from us humans, because, in Jewish theology, God's 'image' is not a physical one.  If God has no physical body, then how can our bodies be in God's image?

"The Hebrew word often translated as "image" -- tselem -- really means 'likeness' or 'resemblance' and does not refer to a physical from.  Rather, it refers to the attributes of God that we are to imitate, such as mercy, love, creativity, etc.  As God is merciful, so should we be merciful, etc.  These are qualities that any sentient being can have, whether humanoid or not." (p. 128)

Of course, NASA isn't really expecting to find Martians in the science fiction sense.  The scientists will be delighted if the rover finds some complex carbon compounds.  But whatever they do or do not find, landing Curiosity successfully on the Red Planet is a magnificent accomplishment -- Congrats!