#NPRreads: Climate Scientists In The Crosshairs And China's Economy

#NPRreads: Climate Scientists In The Crosshairs And China's Economy

3:52pm Jul 17, 2015
A man walks on Glacier Chacaltaya in the Andes mountains in Bolivia on Oct. 24, 2009. Glacier Chacaltaya was famous for being the world's highest ski run but since the mid-'90s has not had enough snow for skiing.
A man walks on Glacier Chacaltaya in the Andes mountains in Bolivia on Oct. 24, 2009. Glacier Chacaltaya was famous for being the world's highest ski run but since the mid-'90s has not had enough snow for skiing.
Juan Karita/AP

#NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers throughout our newsroom share pieces that have kept them reading. They share tidbits using the #NPRreads hashtag — and on Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you four reads.

From Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, an NPR international correspondent who covers South America:

​Our changing climate is the most important story of our times. As this incredible Esquire piece shows, it is one of the main causes of the wave of new migration affecting Europe as well as contributing to modern conflicts like those in the Middle East. But as a reporter, I've always found it difficult to humanize the scale of what is happening to our planet. This story tells the tale of the climate scientists dealing with this issue and what has happened to them in the United States as climate science has become so politicized.

"[Scientist Michael Mann] was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be 'shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.' Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair."

Other climate scientists have faced worse and many have fled the United States to pursue their work in Europe.

The toll has been not only professional but psychological, with some feeling close to suicide.

" 'So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder — the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.' Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her 'climate trauma,' as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called '16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,' in which she suggests compartmentalization: 'Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.' "

As the piece makes clear, though, it is not just the backlash that is making climate scientists depressed. It is that they know what is happening to the planet is far worse than what gets publicized.

From Nishant Dahiya, NPR's Asia editor:

When the two biggest Chinese stock exchanges began their precipitous slide last month, there was a distinct feeling of I-told-you-so. Their rise over the past year had been nothing short of stunning. (Shanghai was up 135 percent.) At the same time, the Chinese economy was, by most measures, slowing down. While this should've been a warning in itself, as Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and one of the most astute observers of China, writes, the market, in part, continued to rise because it was being

"... driven upward by a new and growing cadre of relatively unsophisticated private investors that included tens of millions of ordinary workers, farmers, housewives and pensioners. According to one widely cited survey of these new investors, 67% of them have less than a high-school education."

It's these ordinary Chinese investors, who most likely got into the game just a little too late, who have suffered the most from the 30 percent or so drop in the markets over the past month.

Even as they are counting their losses — and learning a little more about how markets really work — perhaps the most interesting aspect in all this is the Chinese government's desperate attempts to contain the market's free fall. It tried all kinds of things to prop up the market and largely failed. This is problematic because it undermines the Communist Party's central narrative: that it be allowed to rule, unchallenged; in return, it promises to manage the economy (and as a well-managed economy grows, the well-being of the ordinary Chinese continues to improve). As Schell points out, the really big question in the long term is just how big a blow this will turn out to be to the Chinese government:

"For what was at stake was not just the integrity of China's financial system, but the question of the Chinese people's ongoing confidence in their government. This would be critical as the country continued, in Deng Xiaoping's words, 'to cross the river by feeling its way over the stones' (mozhe shitou guohe). Indeed, there is no nation of significance in the world today that is in the process of undergoing a more challenging transition: from Maoist revolution to stakeholder in the modern, marketised global world."

Schell's piece highlights China's many contradictions, explains the past, says why the present matters, and asks penetrating questions about the nation's future:

"China's future remains unclear, because so much of its agenda is still a work in progress. To have a capitalist stock market being played like a casino by tens of millions of freebooting speculators right in the middle of a society still purporting to be socialist and run by a communist party with a deep affinity for rigid, Leninist, interventionist controls speaks to the contradictory nature of the modern Chinese dilemma. It is a living embodiment of what Mao Zedong liked to refer to as an 'antagonistic contradiction' (diwo maodun) — an inconsistency that can only be resolved through struggle, even violence."

From Ramona Martinez, a production assistant at NPR:

At first, I was hesitant to even share this article: It concerns redistribution of wealth through taxes — something that would have been categorized as class warfare even just a year ago. What economic policy you believe works "best" can be a touchy subject.

But after rereading it several times, I realized this is not an opinion piece. Occupy Wall Street was written off as a failure by many, and yet its legacy quite obviously lingers. The political climate is such that now, a self-described socialist U.S. senator can talk (in public) about fundamentally altering our political and economic systems, and people show up. And give him money!

This line of dissent against moneyed interests has been brewing for a while — arguably since the 1920s or even before, and what Bernie Sanders is saying is not new, not even for him. He argued vehemently against the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010, even (not technically) filibustering for 8 1/2 hours without so much as a bathroom break. As this article points out, Sanders has been very vocal lately about not worrying so much about economic growth:

"Where we've got to move is not growth for the sake of growth, but we've got to move to a society that provides a high quality of life for all of our people. In other words, if people have health care as a right, as do the people of every other major country, then there's less worry about growth. If people have educational opportunity and their kids can go to college and they have child care, then there's less worry about growth for the sake of growth."

But, oh, people are going to be rankled. Because capitalism is woven into the fabric of America and, for many, their identities as Americans and frankly humans:

"Heather Boushey, a liberal economist who has discussed policy informally with [Hillary] Clinton, and who runs the Washington Center for Equitable Growth think tank, argues that it is not politically wise to play down the need for economic growth.

" 'If you don't grow, then you really have to just take from someone and give it to somebody else. That's a tough place to start,' she said. 'You're setting yourself up for some tough conversations that go not just against politics, but also human nature.' "

Take from whom, though? That's the question.

Either way, as Sanders, Boushey and many others are aware — human nature is definitely going to take over if income inequality continues to increase.

From Nancy Shute, co-host of Shots, NPR's health blog:

Everyone loves a good natural disaster story, especially when the disaster's far away. New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz starts "The Really Big One" with an American seismologist, Chris Goldfinger, who just happened to be in Japan during the 2011 earthquake. He whips out his watch, amazed as the earth keeps bucking past three minutes. This was the big one, the one that most scientists thought could never hit Japan.

"For a moment, that was pretty cool: a real-time revolution in earthquake science. Almost immediately, though, it became extremely uncool, because Goldfinger and every other seismologist standing outside in Kashiwa knew what was coming. One of them pulled out a cell phone and started streaming videos from the Japanese broadcasting station NHK, shot by helicopters that had flown out to sea soon after the shaking started. Thirty minutes after Goldfinger first stepped outside, he watched the tsunami roll in, in real time, on a two-inch screen."

Great vicarious thrills, I thought. Then Schulz turns and sets the knife. This article isn't about the Japanese earthquake at all. Rather, it's about the little-known Cascadia subduction zone, which runs from Cape Mendocino, Calif., north to Vancouver Island, Canada. The structure of the Cascadia fault, Schulz explains, is primed to deliver a quake even bigger than the 2011 event that devastated Japan. And it will hit the Pacific Northwest, home to my parents, my brothers and other people I love. When it happens:

"Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA's Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, 'Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.' "

FEMA predicts that nearly 13,000 people will die in a Cascadia earthquake and the tsunami and landslides that follow. One million people will be displaced. The odds of that happening in the next 50 years, according to Goldfinger and other scientists, are roughly 1 in 3. And the Northwest, Schulz explains, is woefully unprepared compared with its neighbors in California.

It's not easy to make a gripping read out of geology, but Schulz turns the discovery of the Cascadia subduction zone into a thriller that will stand your hair on end, even if your relatives aren't west of Interstate 5.

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