By Paul

Is the United States, as some Christians claim, engaged in a war on Christmas?  In most dictionaries that I’m familiar with the very first definition of war is normally given as a state of armed conflict between two or more groups.  If that’s the case, let us hope that the city of Santa Monica, California’s recent decision not to allow a crèche scene to be displayed openly on publicly owned land is not going to wind up with gun-toting policemen stationed on that lovely bluff overlooking the Pacific, lest guerilla Christian groups sneak in during the dead of night in an attempt to set baby Jesus up in a makeshift manger.  I can see the headlines now:  COPS OPEN FIRE ON CHRISTIANS!  CRECHE CRUSHED, MARY AND JOSEPH ARRESTED.  And all this to placate those God-hating atheists, and God-questioning agnostics, and maybe the Jews and the Buddhists and the Muslims, to say nothing of the Hari Krishna people.  (Are the Hari Krishnas even still around any longer, by the way?  I haven’t been accosted by one at LAX for the longest time.) 

Maybe the real question that needs to be asked is whether the United States is a Christian country.  There are lots of people who would say that it is, even if I happen not to be one of them.  At very least, I don’t suppose anyone can argue that by and large the country isn’t very interested in religion, if we can judge from the fact that some three-quarters of the population claim to be members of some sort of church, mosque, or temple.  Personally, however, I don’t see the evidence that we’re specifically Christian.  As a matter of fact, there’s always that pesky First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the one that talks about how “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  It then goes on as well to prohibit making laws abridging the free exercise of speech, of the press, of people’s ability to assemble, or to petition their Government for redress of grievances.   There’s definitely a lot packed into that one amendment.

Still, the question remains, is it wrong to set up a crèche, or a cross for that matter, on land owned by the public?  And if the answer is yes, that it is wrong, as I would argue that the “Establishment Clause” seems to say, then does that constitute a war on Christians and their celebration of Christmas?  Or does that other part of the amendment, the one about the “free exercise thereof,” imply instead the right to build those mangers right there on that grass-covered bluff above the Pacific?  If that were the case, then why shouldn’t the Jews be allowed put up a giant menorah, or the Buddhists a huge Dharma Wheel, or the Muslims a minaret, or the agnostics a – I don’t know – maybe a giant question mark?  And if we were to allow all that, pretty soon there wouldn’t even be enough room for the homeless people, who actually use the park.

So, that’s the problem with pluralistic societies; they’re plural, that is to say, no one group gets to have rights that others don’t have, and nobody is supposed to lord it over others, who maybe have less power or money or influence, or fewer people to advocate for their point of view.  And if you want a country that is not pluralistic, one dedicated to a specific religion, and not even just one religion, but one sect of one religion, then you could try moving to Saudi Arabia, and see how that suits you.  It would not suit me very well, but there are apparently those who like it.

Just for fun, let’s try to imagine for a moment what the United States would look like if it truly were only a Christian country.  Of course, we run into a problem immediately when we attempt to figure out which Christian it ought to be.  That said, now that the Catholics seem an awful lot like the Protestants, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.  Except then there’s a whole boat load of Protestant types, and many don’t seem to particularly agree with each other.  And what about the Mormons?  Are they really all that Christian?  But maybe we’re quibbling too much.  Let’s assume that we might arrive at some sort of common ground as to how the country ought to be run Christianly.   

Well, first of all, right off the bat, there’d be no smoking and drinking.  Oh, wait, except the Catholics, and a bunch of others too, don’t mind those disgusting habits.  And who’d want to go through the pain and misery of Prohibition once again?  All right, then, at least we can agree on no divorce, can’t we?  After all, doesn’t the Bible specifically forbid divorce?  Oh, but what about that lousy, no-good, miserable cheating husband of mine, who connived behind my back with that new bimbo of a secretary of his?  I can’t be expected to go on living with that rat, can I?  Of course, the Bible decrees both for and against a whole lot of things, like cutting your hair, or eating certain foods, and not eating others, and says that wives must obey their husbands.  So, what about that, wives?  Maybe you wouldn’t mind being permanently relegated to ex-candidate Romney’s lower 47 percent?  And what about the barbers, hair salons, and restaurants?  No more shellfish?  I don’t think so.  People really like shrimp.  Still, if we were to have a truly Christian country, wouldn’t we all have to convert to Christianity?  But that’s something the Jews and the Muslims and a few others, to say nothing of the atheists and agnostics, might not care too much for.  So, what else could a Christian country possibly imply?  At very least, one thing we could finally agree upon would be a complete cessation of all abortions, and an outlawing of, well, gay-everything, couldn’t we?  Except, here we are again up against those liberal Protestants who don’t make much of a fuss about abortion, and who even let gays take on leadership roles in their churches. 

Well, it’s all getting awfully complicated.  I’m afraid I’m just not sure exactly what a really Christian nation could possibly look like.  So, maybe – what do you think? – that could have been why the founding fathers decided to decree that we ought not to set up any one religion as the religion in this country:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

My suggestion is that, if you want to celebrate “the Holidays,” why not try the newest thing?  Why not wish your friends and family a Merry Chrishanusolkwan (that’s Chris-Hanu-Sol-Kwan).  That way, we pretty much incorporate Christmas, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, and Kwanza all together.  Of course, unfortunately, I guess this does go on to leave out the Buddhists and the Muslims, and I suppose the Hari Krishna’s, too.  And in a truly pluralistic country like ours, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?  So, in the end, it’s maybe best if I just suggest we forget all about the above nonsense, and that I simply wish you and your family (however you define that) THE VERY HAPPIEST OF HOLIDAYS.

The World Bank Commissions the Potsdam Institute Climate Change Report, “TURN DOWN THE HEAT — Why a 4 Degrees Celsius World Must Be Avoided”

Potsdam Institute report synopsis (and art, “The Revelations of Eve and Adam,”) by Kevin

Miller Eve & Adam 2003 20 x 24

“Recent research suggests that large-scale loss of biodiversity is likely to occur in a 4 degrees Celsius world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of services on which society depends…”

    –  from the Potsdam Institute Climate Change Report for the World Bank, Nov 19, 2012

The World Bank commissioned the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analysis to produce a global climate change report. It was published on Nov 19, 2012, entitled “Turn Down the Heat – Why a 4 Degrees Celsius World Must Be Avoided.” A team of 15 renowned scientists headed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber wrote the report which was peer-reviewed by 13 highly respected scientists. The report’s analysis of prospects for the world’s climate, ecosystems, continuing life on Earth, and for the future of the human race is solid, scientific and profoundly sobering. However the report asserts that humanity can still reverse course and save ourselves and many other life forms and ecosystems with urgent cooperative international action soon.

Jim Yong Kim is President of the World Bank, and a physician, anthropologist, and former president of Dartmouth College. He has demonstrated an active commitment to educating the world about the apocalyptic dangers of global climate change and to committing the resources of the World Bank to aggressive advocacy for cooperative international action to avert the tragic destruction of the climate, the world’s land and sea ecosystems, and life on Planet Earth. He has said:

“Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

President Kim’s foreword boldly defines his motives for commissioning the report:

“It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency…”

“It is clear that we already know a great deal about the threat before us. The science is unequivocal that humans are the cause of global warming, and major changes are already being observed…”

“The World Bank is a leading advocate for ambitious action on climate change, not only because it is a moral imperative, but because it makes good economic sense.”

“Our work on inclusive green growth has shown that – through more efficiency and smarter use of energy and natural resources – many opportunities exist to drastically reduce the climate impact of development, without slowing down poverty alleviation and economic growth.”

     – from “Turn Down the Heat” foreword by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

“TURN DOWN THE HEAT – Why a 4 Degrees C Warmer World Must Be Avoided”

(a synopsis of the executive summary)

Opening Statements from the Executive Summary of “TURN DOWN THE HEAT:”

“A 4 degrees Celsius world would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with severe impacts on ecosystems and associated services. But with action, a 4 degrees C world can be avoided and we can likely hold warming below 2 degrees C. Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the world is likely to warm by more than 3 degrees C above the pre-industrial climate. Even with current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4 degrees C could occur by as early as the 2060s.”

“Small island developing states and least developed countries have identified global warming of 1.5 degrees C as warming above which there would be serious threats to their own development, and in some cases survival… The sum total of current policies – in place and pledged – will very likely lead to warming far in excess of these levels. Indeed, present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4 degrees C warming within the century.”

“A world in which warming reaches 4 degrees C above pre-industrial levels… would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services.”

“Warming of 4 degrees C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2 degrees C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.”  (Kevin’s note: U.N. climate talks set a goal of 2 degrees C maximum rise. We are on track for a 2 degree rise by 2028, and many scientists assert that there will be dire consequences even at that level of warming. Many destructive extreme weather effects have already been experienced around the world.)

 “Observed Impacts and Changes to the Climate System”

1. CO2 Increase — CO2 has increased from a pre-industrial level of 278 parts per million to over 391 ppm in September of 2012. The rate of CO2 increase is currently at 1.8 ppm per year.

2. CO2 Record — Current CO2 levels are higher than at any time in the past 15 million years.

3. CO2 Emissions — Current CO2 emissions are at 35,000 million metric tons per year, rising to 41,000 million metric tons per year of CO2 emissions expected in the year 2020.

4. Global Warming — Current temperature rise above the pre-industrial level is .8 degree C, causing observed impacts, including approximately 15 to 20 cm sea level rise. (Kevin’s note: reputable scientists tell us that there is another .8 degree C of inertial rise built into the system, even if all emissions were to cease today, for a total of 1.6 degrees C temperature rise, virtually guaranteed now.)

5. Extreme Heat — There is now a ten-fold increase in surface areas experiencing extreme heat since the 1950s. The 2010 heat wave in Russia left 55,000 people dead, a 25% crop failure, and one million hectares burned.

6. 2012 U.S. Drought — The 2012 U.S. drought impacted 80% of agricultural land – the most severe drought since the 1950s.

7. A Hot Future — Projected climate change impacts in a 4 degrees C world would include extreme heat waves, death, fires, and crop losses as seen in Russia in 2010.

“Projected Climate Change Impacts in a 4 Degrees C World”

8. “Rising CO2 Concentration and Ocean Acidification” – CO2 dissolves in and acidifies the oceans. In a 4 degrees C world, there would be 800 ppm CO2 in the sea – a 150% acidity increase, unparalleled in Earth’s history, and distinctly adverse to marine life. By 2060, if current warming trends are not arrested, the world’s coral reefs will start to dissolve. Coral reefs are the planet’s marine life nurseries, and they provide tidal protection for coastal populations.

9. “Rising Sea Levels, Coastal Inundation and Loss” – Sea levels are expected to rise up to one meter or more with several more meters rise in coming centuries. “Even if global warming can be limited to 2 degrees C, global mean sea level could continue to rise… between 1.5 and 4 meters above present-day levels by the year 2300. Sea-level rise would likely be limited to below 2 meters only if warming were kept well below 1.5 degree C.” (Kevin’s note: current warming is .8 degree C + .8 degree C inertial warming built into the system = 1.6 degrees C of virtually guaranteed warming now confirmed by reputable climatologists.)

10. “Risks to Human Support Systems: Food, Water, Ecosystems and Human Health” – “This report identifies a number of extremely severe risks for vital human support systems.” They include water scarcity, flooding, drought, wildfires, transformed ecosystems, forest dieback, and “large-scale loss of biodiversity,” (extinction of many plant and animal species.)

11. Fire-induced ecosystem transformation — “In Amazonia forest fires could as much as double by 2050 with warming of approximately 1.5 degrees C to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Changes would be expected to be even more severe in a 4 degrees C world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of services on which society depends…”

12. Reduced food production – in a 4 degrees C world, food security would be undermined by extremely high temperatures, drought, floods, invading insects, diseases, and sea-level rise in low-lying delta areas (Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and Africa, for example.) Agricultural disruption would lead to nutritional deficits.

13. Health – Aside from injuries and deaths directly caused by extreme weather events, epidemic diseases and allergies can be expected, as well as respiratory, heart and blood disorders cause by heat-amplified smog levels.

14. Risks of Disruptions and Displacements in a 4 Degree C World” – In a 4 degrees C world there would be large-scale population displacement with adverse consequences to human security, and economic and trade systems.

15. Sudden Changes – Sudden disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, would lead to rapid sea level rise. Large-scale Amazon forest dieback would have drastic effects on ecosystems, rivers, agricultural, energy availability, and livelihoods. Unpredictable abrupt changes like these can be expected in a 4 degrees C world.

16. Cascade Effects – Cascading series of disastrous events and conditions would likely be triggered at national and regional levels by key failures such as seaport breakdowns.

17. Coral Reefs – Coral reef destruction and concomitant loss of marine life production due to rising temperatures and ocean acidification would have a large-scale impact on human settlements and infrastructure, especially in low-lying coastal zones, where sea levels will rise one meter or more this century. The coral reefs will not be there to provide tidal protection.

Concluding Quotes from the Potsdam Institute Report, “Turn Down the Heat:”

“With pressures increasing as warming progresses toward 4 degrees C and combining with non-climate-related social, economic, and population stresses, the risk of crossing critical social system thresholds will grow. At such thresholds existing institutions that would have supported adaptation actions would likely become much less effective or even collapse.”

“There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees C world is possible… The projected 4 degrees C warming simply must not be allowed to occur – the heat must be turned down. Only early cooperative international actions can make that happen.”



By Paul

I very much hope you will get to see Steven Spielberg’s recently released tour de force of a film, “Lincoln.”  In fact, I would say do not miss it, if there is any way you can help it.  It has to be among the very best films of the year, and one of a small handful of the best movies that I personally have ever seen.  Before reading any further, however, I feel as though I ought to give a bit of a spoiler alert, inasmuch as I do discuss some of the actions, feelings, and motivations of a few of the characters in the film.  So, enough said, hopefully, in case you have not seen the film yet and would prefer not to proceed.     

But now, back to the film: the topic, the man, the history, the story, the drama, the acting, the production values are all absolutely of the highest caliber.  I do not venture to use the word masterpiece often or lightly, but this particular film has got to come close to the definition of that sometimes overused word.  And don’t forget to take a handkerchief along with you, or at least a few Kleenex, because unless I miss my guess you may find yourself weeping more than once.  I know I did.  Sometimes you weep for sadness, sometimes for joy, and sometimes just for the profound depth of the emotional impact of the story itself.  And you will see, if you did not know (which no doubt you already did, but now in a more visceral and personal way than ever before), what an enormous and truly towering historical figure Abraham Lincoln was. 

The story itself centers around Lincoln’s iron-willed determination to get the thirteenth amendment passed, freeing the slaves in the United States, and in any territories held by the United States, forever.  He had, of course, previously issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but that was done only as part of the extraordinary powers Lincoln had taken on during the course of the Civil War.  That act had to do with the confiscation of so-called “property” in the warring states.  It goes without saying that these were people we are talking about, not property, and Lincoln himself never thought of black people as property, but one of the many lessons of the story, and of the movie, is that sometimes you have to do things which appear to be, and to an extent actually are, partial measures.   It’s got to do with attempting to accomplish what is possible in the historical moment, or with what can be thought of as laying the groundwork for something bigger and grander and more sweeping, which we hope can then itself be brought about at some point in the future.   

Epitomizing this particular struggle are two figures, first of all, the president, himself, and secondly the great abolitionist member of the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens.  Initially Stevens wants all, everything he has fought his entire life for and what he believes in with all his heart, while Lincoln realizes that there are times when a variation of the best and the highest is the most that can be done in the real world, and particularly in the gritty tug of war that always typifies representational democracy.  Indeed, it is this struggle, and the whole messy drama emblematic of the Republican and the Democratic positions (the former party, the good guys, curiously, in the historical context, while the latter are the ultra conservatives), which is at the heart of the drama.  

I won’t go on much more about the plot, lest I say too much, but you will see that the movie is an engrossing depiction of an enormously important turning point in American history.  And the acting!  Daniel Day Lewis is clearly at the pinnacle of his art and craft in his portrayal of Lincoln.  And it is such an immensely human portrait of the man that you will wish to God you could have known him.  Sally Field, too, does a marvelous job as the long-suffering and emotionally wrought Mary Todd Lincoln, who is unable, try as she might, to fully recover from the tragic loss of their ten year old son two years earlier.  Tommy Lee Jones excels, as well, as Stevens, the grumpy, cantankerous, but high-minded champion for the freedom and full equality of an enslaved people, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is wonderful as Lincoln’s eldest son, who longs to take on what he feels to be his rightful role in the great contest playing itself out on the field of battle.  Virtually every other actor in the film, whether that person has a large or a small part to play, is compelling and convincing in their various roles.

Two other things about the film also struck me.  First of all, the language soars.  Lincoln’s, it goes without saying of course, in particular, both in regard to his public speech, so well known to all, but even in what he has to say during more private moments.  The same is true of some of the other characters in the drama, as well.  They speak, in fact, as did people in the nineteenth century, a time when spoken language, as well as the epistolary arts, were admired and flourished, far removed from today’s briefest of emails with their accompanying emoticons, or the twisted twaddle of tweets.  And it is a delight to listen in. 

The other thing that amazes is the quality of light in the film.  Apparently, Spielberg made a quite conscious decision to shoot it emphasizing the way people actually would have experienced life at the time, in other words, in a world lit only by natural light, or by candlelight, or gasoline lamps.  The often semi-dark scenes emphasize the dusky and occasionally ambiguous emotionality of the story, and even, God help us, soften some of the horror of the scenes of war.  At home later on, I found myself half wishing to turn the lights off, and let the twilight drift softly in through the windows, eschewing what felt like the harsh glare of electrically generated lighting.  Indeed, many things about the film linger on in the mind, far into the night and into the next few days. 

I think you will see that this is a movie not to be missed, and if it is not a top contender for best film at this year’s Oscars, then I do not know how to judge movies.