January 21, 2014

Fleeing the Draft

On this day in 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter issued a nearly blanket pardon for all those who had fled the country to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War. Out of slightly over 2.2 million draftees, about 100,000 chose to flee to Canada. It certainly crossed my mind at the time.

I was a college graduate and could have chosen the more genteel version of draft dodging known as grad school. Or I could have gotten married and had a kid. Neither of those options was available or viable, nor did I have any interest in pursuing them.

So yeah, I did think about going to Canada ... but not for long. My thought was that if I fled to Canada I would be stuck there for life, a fugitive from the law, never able to return to see my family except under clandestine circumstances. In a very real sense, I would be under the control of the Army for the rest of my life.

I decided I would rather roll the dice and take my chances on a tour of duty in Vietnam and be done with it one way or another, rather than flee to Canada and always have the shadow of being caught and sent to prison hanging over me. It was a "Live free, or die" moment, I guess you could say. Of course, like most folks who spout that well-known phrase, I pretty much stopped at the "Live free" part, not really considering the  "or die" aspect of the bargain.

Truth be told, I was not all that unwilling to go to Vietnam. Patriotism had nothing to do with it. I was curious, plain and simple. I grew up in the shadow of WWII and had read a lot of the books and seen most of the movies. I wanted to see for myself what it would be like. I wanted to see what I would be like.

I never regretted my choice, just as I never begrudged those who chose not to go. The year I was drafted -- 1968 -- was maybe the last year the war seemed even remotely plausible as an undertaking. If you were sitting around the house in 1970 or 1971 waiting for your draft notice, the choice of dying in what was clearly a lost cause or running for your life was kind of hard to ignore.

President Carter's decision to issue a blanket pardon was controversial, even though President Ford had also offered a more limited pardon. The traditional veterans groups like the VFW and the American Legion were bitterly opposed. Arguments were made that if we do this we would never be able to depend on conscription in the future. Those folks misunderstood the mindset of those opposed to the war and they underestimated the patriotism of that and future generations.

The problem was not with our patriotic instincts. The problem was with leaders who led the country into a war that ultimately had no demonstrable connection to our national security. Give us a reason that is persuasive, show us a clear and present danger ... folks will respond. Just look at how we answered the call after 9/11. Hell yes, I would have gone.

But then look equally hard at what happened as it morphed into a nation-building exercise in bringing democracy to tribal and religious cultures that had little experience and even less interest in it. But that's another story. Or maybe it's the same old story.

January 5, 2014

The Big Chill

An Arctic air mass has settled over the entire mid-section of the country, bringing with it the coldest temperatures in 20 years, up to 30 degrees below zero in the upper mid-west. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh have led a chorus of deniers who have taken great delight in pointing to these record cold temperatures as proof positive that global warming is a false alarm. And let's not forget those climate change scientists who got stuck in the ice in Antarctica. Uh, guys, here's a news flash: climate change does not mean the end of the seasons. We will still have winter. So, yeah, it's going to get cold, especially in Antarctica. But guess what? A very long and very hot summer is coming, maybe a whole lot sooner than we thought.

The confusing thing about climate change is that there are a lot of different things that affect climate, the introduction of massive amounts of greenhouse gases being but one, albeit a big one. For example, scientists are still puzzling over the role clouds play. Depending on the assumptions used, clouds can either retard or accelerate the warming process. The latest thinking is that the cloud cover will diminish as we move towards the next century, resulting in even higher temperatures because clouds have a cooling effect, so fewer clouds means less cooling.

This gibes with what I have been seeing more often: scientists are finding that as they refine their models, the results more often than not show that earlier estimates of the pace of climate change have erred to the low side. In fact, it seems that climate change is coming at us faster and harder than we thought even five years ago. One thing is indisputable: levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are still climbing and governments aren't doing squat to address the problem. Okay, so that's two things.

Look, it's not that the world is going to end. But the living conditions of millions of people have and will continue to take a turn for the worse. Rising sea levels threaten most of the world's mega-cities: Boston, New York, Miami, San Francisco,New Orleans, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Calcutta, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tianjin, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City ... even a slight rise in sea level will result in huge losses. Throw in extreme weather events and you have costs that significantly affect the world's GDP or gross domestic product, a common measure of a country's wealth.

A recent paper suggests that the tipping point --  when the average temperature of a location's coolest year will be greater than the average temperature of its hottest year between 1860 and 2005 -- could come as early as 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. New York City could hit the wall about 2047. The best case scenario delays the increasingly inevitable until  2069 or thereabouts. Think about that. We are not talking about some remote time in the future. We are possibly talking 50 years from now.

My bottom line remains the same. The train has left the station. Given the current levels of carbon emissions and the potential from other, even more potent greenhouse gases such as methane that will be released in larger quantities as the ice melts ... if you combine that with the continued lack of significant action on the part of world governments, then you get a lethal chain reaction of cause and effect that is about to pass a tipping point of no return.

I won't be around to see it, but my children likely will be. Certainly my grandchildren will be right in the middle of it. Things will be worse in ways we can easily predict, but maybe better in ways we can't see right now. There are always winners and losers in anything ... the trained and the untrained, the prepared and the unprepared. Which will your children and grandchildren be?