Perspectives

I had lunch the other day with a classics professor friend. He made a comment that in one of his classes, a student drew a parallel between the geographic pattern of the recent voting in the US and the differences in perspective between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece. Two days later he and his colleague did some research on this fascinating issue, and I have encouraged him to come forward and write a guest blog about the details. On Thursday, March 16th, the Trump government came out with its preliminary 2018 budget proposal, in which the president decided to raise the US Defense budget by $52.3 billion (a 10% increase), Homeland Security by $2.8 billion (an increase of 7%), and Veterans’ Affairs by $4.4 billion. He proposed to pay for all that from “savings” in discretionary funds that include:

  • Cuts of 31% in the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), eliminating all funding from the climate change program
  • State Department cuts of 29% – including almost all global assistance programs (but not reducing any support from the military assistance to Israel)
  • Cuts in Agriculture, Labor, and Justice by around 20%
  • Cuts in Health, Commerce, Education and Transportation by around 15%
  • Cuts in other departments by somewhat smaller amounts

His Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, was clear that the president made no apologies for eliminating the government’s effort to curb climate change: “We are not spending money on that anymore… We consider that a waste of your money to go out and do that.” In addition, funding will be eliminated (NYT, March 16th) for 19 other programs and agencies, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and many others.

The same day that the budget priorities became public, my classics professor friend’s Facebook page included the following comment: “Cost of security for Trump Tower: $183 million/year Budget for National Endowment Arts/Humanities: $148 million/year. Cut and paste into your status.

It appears that our need for his guest blog analyzing the differences between ancient Sparta and Athens has become more urgent. President Trump is on his way to trying to “Spartanize” the US.

To continue on the same line, 10 days earlier, the NYT came out with the following piece:

The Trump White House has wasted no time in targeting pro-climate policies, freezing energy-efficiency standards finalized during the last days of the Obama administration. Its “America First Energy Plan” makes no mention of renewable energy or energy efficiency, and it is focused on fossil fuels.

But in 2012, Donald J. Trump, the businessman, played a different tune.

That year, Mr. Trump finished securing almost $1 million in energy-efficiency incentives and low-interest loans from New York State to fit a Trump-branded residential tower in Westchester County with eco-friendly fixtures, state records show.

Some analysts label the President’s “America first” priorities the result of a “testosterone effect.” I will label them an effect of his “me first” mentality. It’s probably a combination of the two, with the testosterone dominating. The testosterone effect can easily grow out of control. The sharp reduction in the State Department funding is directly aimed at foreign aid; everybody gets hit (except Israel).

At the same time, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is taking his most important foreign trip, directed at calming the threat of North Korea. The US has close to 100,000 soldiers placed in that theater:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is considering “all options” to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat while criticizing China over moves to block a missile-defense system on the peninsula.

In some of his most detailed comments yet on North Korea, Tillerson ruled out a negotiated freeze of its nuclear weapons program and called for a wider alliance to counter Kim Jong Un’s regime. He also left the military option on the table if the North Korean threat gets too large.

He is replacing “soft” diplomacy with the threat of military confrontation against what should now be considered a nuclear power. Nobody in that region will sleep more easily.

The budget priorities that were announced this week do not determine the end result; this week is not even the final word on the budget that the president will submit to Congress. Many essential components such as tax estimates and entitlement expenditures are still missing. They will show up in a month or two. Congress will then need to approve it all. But the budget that was announced and the priorities that it represents are a clear and loud statement that we should listen and look for ways to prevent the ensuing damage. Clearly, for the foreseeable future, top-down problem solving will not provide much support for many of our national and global woes, and will need to be strongly supplemented by massive bottom-up endeavors. My focus here will shift to reflect that change. I got an early taste of one such example by Toni Feder’s “Climate-data rescue efforts gear up,” which was recently published in the journal of the American Physical Society, my professional organization:

A week before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, more than 250 volunteers assembled at the University of Pennsylvania for a two-day data-backup operation. After some training, the volunteers went to work downloading data from US government websites—mainly belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—and saving the information on independent servers. The effort was a mix of straightforward copying and writing software to access sites. In total, the volunteers duplicated about 1.5 terabytes—including statistics on renewable energy, toxic chemical releases, and oil spills—from more than 7000 .

The NYT also did a piece on this monumental undertaking:

Some open-data activists refer to it as “dark data” — and they are not talking about classified information or data the government might release only if compelled by a Freedom of Information Act request.

“It’s like dark matter; we know it must be there but we don’t know where to find it to verify,” said Maxwell Ogden, the director of Code for Science and Society, a nonprofit that began a government-data archiving project in collaboration with the research libraries in the University of California system.

“If they’re going to delete something, how will we even know it’s deleted if we didn’t know it was there?” he asked.

Even without any attempts to draw parallels with ancient history, this reminds me of something I described in an earlier blog (November 22, 2016):

Samuel Kassow’s book describes the efforts of a group led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum who documented what was happening around them in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto. The group aimed to provide an accurate account of the situation to counter the false history that the Nazis would write if they won the war. Once they realized that they probably would not survive the occupation, they stored the materials in milk cans and metal boxes that they buried underground. Following the war 35,000 pages were unearthed. These papers are now displayed at a museum in Warsaw.

The situation in Nazi-occupied Warsaw during the war period was admittedly many orders of magnitude more desperate than our present state; likewise, the grassroots remedies were that much more dangerous – all the more reason to do what we can to try to mitigate the current administration’s damage before things get that dire.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.

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