Friday, May 30, 2008

New Orleans looses a light - the Katrina chronicles

Last Sunday, as we were preparing to celebrate the sacrifices of our soldiers that keep our nation strong, the city of New Orleans lost a light. The Rev. Cliff W. Nunn, pastor of First Presbyterian Church died suddenly. Cliff was more then a pastor in a church in a town that is, for me, essentially home. Cliff was a friend. He was a role model. And Cliff will be missed.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in Cliff and Nieta's house. You see, their son Bruce was, essentially, my older brother for a number of years. Though we have, sadly, lost touch, we were for a time the best of buds. Bruce and I shared many interests - Scouting, model trains, Star Trek. And the Nunns and my folks were also close, so many was the Sunday afternoon or the Tuesday evening I could be found in their white single story house. Many was the meal I shared with them, and many was the laugh that I carried home.

Cliff was a pastor as a second career, but was no less committed to the ministry then his younger colleagues. He moved the family to Louisville, KY so he could attend seminary, and I still remember the pictures and stories of the Volvo P1800 he and Bruce dismantled and reassembled in the basement to restore.

When Cliff and Nieta came back to Louisiana as part of his ministry, we all felt like something was right with the world. Though I was moving on into the world, I still got lots of updates from mom about them and their work.
And like many, Cliff and Nieta watched their world literally disintegrate when the Katrina flood waters ravaged New Orleans. But as soon as he could, and with the help of MANY volunteers, Cliff fought to both set his church right and set his community right. Cliff was still fighting that fight right up until the day God reached out to him and said "Well done, good and faithful servant."
So Cliff has gone home to a rest that, though way too soon for all of us, is more then well deserved. I will miss you old friend. I'll miss the smile, the laughter, and the slight impish twinkle in your eye. We'll try to keep up the fight for you. So rest well old friend. And thank you for showing us the way.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Presidential Qualifications

Much has been written lately about the "qualifications" of Sen.'s John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama. All three campaigns, as well as any number of newspapers, tv pundits,and blogs have all taken to discussing the supposed qualifications that a President needs. Experience keeps being raised to the top - as in Sen. X has all the experience needed to be President of the United States.

Problem is, no one who hasn't been President has the qualifications to be President. Think about it. None of the Senators still running has ever negotiated a treaty with a foreign power. None of them has run a major corporation, with the federal government having around 3 million employees world wide. And none has yet to receive the now infamous 3AM phone call. NONE.

Let that sink in. The only folks who have done this, in terms that the President has to deal with, is a current or former President. First Lady doesn't count. Senior Senator and POW doesn't count. Nope, when it comes to experience, none of them has it. What they do have is life experience, beliefs, and integrity. So what we have to do is look long and hard at what they offer, cross that against the issues facing us personally and as a nation, and make the best guess we can as to who will lead us. But if you think that this race can be decided based on who has the experience to be President, you need to rethink that notion.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008 - In honoring our history, are we missing its key lessons?

Today is Memorial Day, and like many int he U.S. my heart goes out this day to all U.S. Service personnel all over the world. These folks, regardless of your politics, are our proudest citizens, they make the largest sacrifice of any of us to perpetuate the ideals of our nation, and our service personnel face the harshest choices of any of us. That said, we have not done right by them in this current war. We have not insisted that they fight in wars that are truly just. We have not told our political leaders - who sent them into battle - that we will not tolerate one more death, one more wounded, one more bullet fired until we know for sure why they are fighting and dying in our name. And to top it off, we have forsaken the very lessons that their predecessors in uniform left us.

On a quiet corner of the National Mall, only a stones throw away from the Reflecting Pool, the World War II Memorial and the Tidal Basin, the World War I Memorial lies in a small grove of trees. Built by D.C. citizens. not the Park Service, this small open dome belies the huge sacrifices the U.S. made in the Great War. The U.S. left 116,708 dead in the trenches and on the battle field. The French, in contrast, lost 1,397,000 or so soldiers, all defending their own soil. So far, 4.083 Americans now rest in peace, having given their lives for the U.S. in our war in Iraq.

What the neglect of the WWI memorial (the National Park Service estimates it needs $500,000 in immediate deferred maintenance) tell us, unfortunately, is that the lessons of that war to end all wars are all but gone. Pundits, politicians, newspapers, and soldiers themselves have spent a lot of time talking about how the lessons learned in Vietnam are the best ones to guide us in Iraq. Perhaps that's true, from a tactical point of view. Strategically, however, Vietnam is no longer the best guide we have. Neither are Korea (still a draw militarily) or WWII. That leaves WWI, and here's why I think this is our best conflict to study.

First, there was no strategic reason for the U.S. to be in Europe in 1917. Arguably, there are strategic reasons to be in the mid-east now, but we've tried for 50 years to influence mid-east relationships and activities, all without much success. When U.S. doughboys went to the Great War, they soon found a front line that was bogged between immobile trenches, much like the U.S. is now bogged down in Falujah, Basra, Baquaba and Baghdad. The fighting in Europe basically ended when the major powers ran out of will to fight, and the major countries decided to stop shooting, and spend the next 30 years with their heads in the sand while Germany rearmed in defiance of the treaties that had ended hostilities. Today, the U.S.arms Sunni militias while ignoring the real issues of Syria and Iran, two countries that we could engage with and without appeasing, I might add.

The bottom line is that, while we are definitely loosing fewer soldiers in Iraq then we did in WWI, we only fought there 3 years before realizing, along with the rest of Europe, that more killing was not good. We've now entered year 6 in Iraq, and there is no end in sight.

So, as we celebrate those soldiers who have come home, stop and think for a moment. Do they really deserve to stay in that place, bogged down as our trench fighters were nearly 100 years ago. Have we learned nothing since then about what war should be?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Polar Bears listed under the ESA - a sign of things to come or business as usual?

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears under the Endangered Species Act as Threatened. Many in the Non-governmental Organization community hailed this as a victory, especially since the listing is based on climate change impacts to polar bears.

I'm not here to get in a debate over whether the polar bear is threatened by climate change alone. And to the climate change deniers, I say this - here's proof, whether you like it or not, that human actions which influence climate have consequences. This is a scientifically sound conclusion, reached and promulgated by the most science un-friendly Administration in living memory. If you want to debate this, I need good, solid, peer-reviewed data, not grey literature strung together that suggests there could be a small window of doubt because no scientist in their right mind dismisses uncertainty.

Now, what does this really mean? What does listing polar bears have to do with farmers in Kansas, or auto workers in Kentucky? Well, if you believe one camp in the debate, alot. You see, the ESA contains this clause called Section 7 that REQUIRES every federal agency to consult with the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce, on federal actions. That means that every time the USDA grants farm subsidies to farmers, every time the Navy conducts an offshore drill or exercise, every time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues or renews a powerplant license, they are supposed to come to Interior or Commerce (through NOAA) to have those agencies determine if the federal action will jeopardize listed species.

Pause for a second. Catch your breath. It sounds all bureaucratic and like lots of paper pushing. But think about it for polar bears - if FERC has to consult with Interior on a coal fired powerplant license in Iowa because the pollutants from the plant are described as being in a suite of pollutants that cause global warming and ice loss, then conserving polar bears will require FERC to ensure that the power plant doesn't release those pollutants anymore. Magnify that across the hundreds of powerplants in our nation, and you get a sense of the potential societal change this will cause.

IF you own coal power stocks, however, I wouldn't run out and sell just yet. It will take FWS between 12 and 24 months to get all it's post-listing regulations in place. During that time there will be PLENTY of lobbying, and we'll hold a national election which will alter our leadership at the national level. So what you think this will lead to today, we may end up in a different place sooner then you think.

Yet in the polar bear listing we may well be seeing the opening of a chapter in US history where we, as a nation, have to finally accept accountability for our collective actions. We may also, finally, be forced to answer the question: What are we really willing to do to save the environment?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Responsibility in Government - the Katrina Chronicles

A federal judge ruled today that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can be sued by New Orleans residents over the Katrina - related damage caused by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). The Judge, already exhasperated by the Corps attempts to deflect the discussion away from things it could control, told the plaintiffs and the Government that, since MRGO is a ship canal, the Corps doesn't have legal immunity as it might if MRGO was part of the New Orleans based flood works.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you need to know two things: I grew up in Baton Rouge, and so I know MRGO better then many. I also spent 3 1/2 years working for the Corps in Seattle, where I was glad to be in a place where Corps folks actually care about the environment. I also worked in the Gulf after Katrina, doing Blue Roof temporary roofing inspection for the Corps.

That said, Katrina remains a real tragedy. The initial rush of running to the aid of so many that infected our nation after the storm has given way to the long, slow recovery taht too many Maericans refuse to admit is still going on. I've never been happy iwth the Katrina response, and one of these days I'll write about it here.

But I think the Corps is getting a bum deal in this instance. Like it or not, the Corps built MRGO becasue Congress decided 40 years ago that MRGO was a good idea. Likewise, the levee system was built to the . . . . challenging level it was because COngress decided the Corps didn't any more money and therefore couldn't build it to the level even Corps engineers thought it should be. So when it comes to damage to New Orleans being caused by Corps actions, someone needs to sue Congress as well. Of course, if we did sue Congress, or even if we turned them out of office for their failures, then we'd actually be doing what the founding fathers wanted us to do in our democracy. But that would mean we were holding ourselves accountable for the actions of our government. Instead, we sue the Corps, who are almost always between a rock and a hard place not of their own making.