There are disasters we can’t see coming, and then there are disasters we refuse to see coming. That an earthquake (and tsunami) of biblical proportions would crack open nuclear power plants along the coast of Japan is the sort of catastrophe that’s very difficult to predict. On the other hand, the consequences of a large increase in the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not hard to predict. The precise effects of climate change may be uncertain — though that does not make them any less dire — but we know, in a rough way, what will happen: the earth will warm. In fact, it’s already warming. Has been for decades. You can see it clear as day on any graph of global temperatures. You can see it in the record books, too: Of the 10 hottest years on record, nine were in the Aughts, and the last was in 1998.
This is a disaster, however, that we refuse to see coming. On Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up Republican-backed legislation to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Democrats proposed a series of amendments that simply admitted the reality of global warming — they didn’t require regulation or a carbon tax. Just an admission of the state of the science. Rep. Diana DeGette’s amendment was particularly careful in its language: “’The scientific evidence is compelling’ that elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting from anthropogenic emissions ‘are the root cause of recently observed climate change,’” it read. Not one of the 31 Republicans on the committee voted for it, or any of the amendments. Not one. Confronted by one of the most significant threats our planet faces, the 31 House Republicans charged with coordinating America’s response refused to even admit the underlying facts. “I would say it’s not settled,” said Rep. Joe Barton.
So much of what goes wrong on the planet seems unjust. Humans are not to blame for the impersonal whims of tectonic plates, but they nevertheless suffer greatly for them. Global warming, however, is oddly fair: it is a consequence of actions we know that we’re taking, we have been warned of it long in advance and, if we are willing to cooperate among nations and marshal our resources and make some hard decisions, we have the tools at our disposal to mount a credible response. But it looks like we will refuse. Which actually is unfair, as those who will pay for our inaction will not be those who made the decision not to act. They’ll be our descendants, and disproportionately the residents of poorer nations that never emitted many greenhouse gases to begin with. For them, the question will be long-since settled. But it will also be much too late.
By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, March 16, 2011
Here in Washington, the immigration debate is in stalemate. But in Kansas, there has been a breakthrough.
This striking achievement came about this week during a meeting of the state House Appropriations Committee on efforts in Kansas to shoot feral swine from helicopters. Republican state Rep. Virgil Peck suddenly had an idea. “Looks like shooting these immigrating feral hogs works,” he commented, according to a recording posted by the Lawrence Journal-World. “Maybe we have found a [solution] to our illegal immigration problem.”
Brilliant! Shooting immigrants from helicopter gunships! Why didn’t they think of that in Congress?
There are a few logistical problems with Peck’s idea, including the fact that Kansas isn’t a border state. But maybe Oklahoma and Texas will grant overflight rights for immigrant-hunting sorties.
Peck, the Republican caucus chairman for the state House, later suggested his brainstorm was a joke, although he also defended himself: “I was just speaking like a southeast Kansas person.”
Kansans may be surprised to learn that the immigrant-shooting idea was offered in their names, but they wouldn’t be the only Americans getting unwelcome news from their state legislators now that many Tea Party types have come to power.
When Louis Brandeis called state legislatures “laboratories of democracy,” he couldn’t have imagined the curious formulas the Tea Party chemists would be mixing in 2011, including: a bill just passed by the Utah legislature requiring the state to recognize gold and silver as legal tender; a Montana bill declaring global warming “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana”; a plan in Georgia to abolish driver’s licenses because licensing violates the “inalienable right” to drive; legislation in South Dakota that would require every adult to buy a gun; and the Kentucky legislature’s effort to create a “sanctuary state” for coal, safe from environmental laws.
In Washington, the whims of the Tea Party lawmakers have been tempered, by President Obama and Senate Democrats, but also by House Republican leaders who don’t want the party to look crazy. Yet these checks often do not exist in state capitols. Though many of the proposals will never become law, the proliferation of exotic policies gives Americans a sense of what Tea Party rule might look like.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to strip public-sector unions of their power has gained national attention, as have various states’ efforts to imitate Arizona’s immigration crackdown. Arizona, meanwhile, moved on to an attempt to assert its authority to nullify federal law; the last time that was tried, we had the Civil War.
Less well known is what’s going on in Montana. Legislators there have introduced several bills that would nullify federal law, including health-care reform, the Endangered Species Act, gun laws and food-safety laws. Under one legislative proposal, FBI agents couldn’t operate in the state without the permission of county sheriffs. Legislators are also looking into a proposed resolution calling on Congress to end membership in the United Nations.
A “birther” bill, similar to proposals in various other states, would require presidential candidates — they’re talking about you, Obama — to furnish proof of citizenship that is satisfactory to state authorities. Montana has also joined the push in many states to restore the gold standard, and a Montana House committee approved legislation invalidating municipal laws against anti-gay discrimination.
Then there’s House Bill 278, authorizing armed citizens’ militias known as “home guards.” With the home guards mobilized, Montana would no longer have to fear a Canadian invasion. And while Montana repels the barbarians from Alberta, New Hampshire is contemplating a state “defense force” to protect it from the marauding Quebecois.
Some of the proposals are ominous: South Dakota would call it justifiable homicide if a killer is trying to stop harm to an unborn child.
Some are petty: Wyoming, following Oklahoma, wants to ban sharia law, even though that state’s 200-odd Muslims couldn’t pose much of a sharia threat.
Some are mean-spirited: Iowa would allow business owners to refuse goods and services to those in gay marriages.
Some are fairly harmless: Arizona took actions to make the Colt Single Action Army Revolver the official state firearm and to create a Tea Party license plate.
And some are just silly: A Georgia bill would require only “pre-1965” silver and gold coins for payment of state debts.
Even if the Tea Party gets its way in the legislature, it won’t be easy to stop residents of Georgia from using their greenbacks — at first. But compliance will undoubtedly increase once the state calls in those helicopter gunships from Kansas.
By: Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, March 15, 2011
Worsening conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan have raised fears that people will be harmed by radiation. But experts say that in terms of public health, the Japanese have already taken precautions that should prevent the accident from becoming another Chernobyl, even if additional radiation is released.
The Japanese government has evacuated people closest to the plant, told others to stay indoors and distributed the drug potassium iodide to protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine.
The great tragedy of Chernobyl was an epidemic of thyroid cancer among people exposed to the radiation as children — more than 6,000 cases so far, with more expected for many years to come. There is no reason for it to be repeated in Japan.
The epidemic in Chernobyl was preventable and would probably not have happened if people had been told to stop drinking locally produced milk, which was by far the most important source of radiation. Cows ate grass contaminated by fallout from the reactors and secreted radioactive iodine in their milk.
The thyroid gland needs iodine and readily takes in the radioactive form, which can cause cancer. Children are especially vulnerable. Potassium iodide pills are meant to flood the thyroid with ordinary iodine in the hope that it will prevent the gland from taking in the radioactive type. The drug may be unnecessary if people avoid drinking the milk, but for most people, there is no harm in taking it. And if radioactive iodine has already started building up in the thyroid, the pills can help get rid of it, said Dr. Richard J. Vetter, a professor emeritus of biophysics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“It will always help if you’re within a month or so of the exposure,” Dr. Vetter said. “The later it is, the less it helps.”
If the pills are in short supply and have to be rationed, he said, they should go first to children and pregnant women. But taking the drug does not make it safe to stay near a reactor that is emitting radiation, he said. People still must evacuate.
Apart from the increase in thyroid cancer, “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident” at Chernobyl, in part because of the evacuation efforts, according to a recent United Nations report.
There are several ways to tell if someone has been exposed to radiation. A Geiger counter will detect radioactivity outside the body, on clothing, hair and skin. People found to be contaminated should be advised to undress and take a shower, and their clothing should be discarded as hazardous waste, Dr. Vetter said.
Another device, a sodium iodide detector, can be held an inch or so from the neck to check for radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland; if it detects any, the person may be given iodide pills.
In photographs from Japan, health workers appear to be screening members of the public with both Geiger counters and sodium iodide detectors.
If there is a suspicion that someone has been exposed to a large dose of radiation, the first test that doctors are likely to perform is a complete blood count, Dr. Vetter said. Abnormalities in the count — fewer white cells than would be expected, for example — can show up within a day or so, and give a ballpark estimate of how bad the exposure was.
“In Japan, it’s very unlikely that a member of the public would get a dose of radiation that would result in a decrease in any blood cells,” Dr. Vetter said. “If anyone got that kind of dose, it’s likely people who are working in the nuclear plants themselves.”
People with significantly lowered blood counts from radiation can be given drugs to stimulate their bone marrow to make more blood cells. Those drugs were not available in 1986, when a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, blew up. Other drugs can be used to help rid the body of certain radioactive isotopes. But if the exposure was so high that the drugs do not help, people may need to be treated in the hospital — put into isolation and given antibiotics to protect them from infection, and possibly blood transfusions as well. A bone marrow transplant may be a last resort, but, Dr. Vetter said, “the patient is in real trouble at that point.”
Crops can be contaminated by fallout, which can cling to surface of plants at first and later be taken up by their roots.
Radioactive iodine has a half-life of only eight days — the time it takes for half of it to decay or disappear — so most of it is gone within about two months. But radioactive forms of the particulate cesium persist much longer, and in the regions affected by Chernobyl, they are still the main threats to human health and will be for decades.
Wild mushrooms, berries and animals have been found to be contaminated with cesium in areas contaminated by Chernobyl, and that is expected to last for decades. Lakes and freshwater fish may also be contaminated, but experts say ocean fish are less of a worry because the contaminants are more dispersed and diluted in the ocean than in lakes.
By: Denise Grady, The New York Times, March 15, 2011
To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.
Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa, says in his report that top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.
“Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report, prepared in advance of an educational conference that opens in New York on Wednesday. “Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”
The conference, convened by the federal Department of Education, was expected to bring together education ministers and leaders of teachers’ unions from 16 countries as well as state superintendents from nine American states. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that he hoped educational leaders would use the conference to share strategies for raising student achievement.
“We’re all facing similar challenges,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview.
The meeting occurs at a time when teachers’ rights, roles and responsibilities are being widely debated in the United States.
Republicans in Wisconsin and several other states have been pushing legislation to limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights and reduce taxpayer contributions to their pensions.
President Obama has been trying to promote a different view.
“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders,’ and I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on education on Monday.
Mr. Schleicher is a senior official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., a Paris group that includes the world’s major industrial powers. He wrote the new report, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” with Steven L. Paine, a CTB/McGraw-Hill vice president who is a former West Virginia schools superintendent, for the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation.
It draws on data from the Program for International Student Assessment, which periodically tests 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries in math, reading or science.
On the most recent Pisa, the top-scoring countries were Finland and Singapore in science, Korea and Finland in reading and Singapore and Korea in math. On average, American teenagers came in 15th in reading and 19th in science. American students placed 27th in math. Only 2 percent of American students scored at the highest proficiency level, compared with 8 percent in Korea and 5 percent in Finland.
The “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, the report says, include adopting common academic standards — an effort well under way here, led by state governors — developing better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.
“Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession” was the top recommendation.
University teaching programs in the high-scoring countries admit only the best students, and “teaching education programs in the U.S. must become more selective and more rigorous,” the report says.
Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor.
According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency).
But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.
In an interview, Mr. Schleicher said the point was not that the United States spends too little on public education — only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but rather that American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.
“You can spend a lot of money on education, but if you don’t spend it wisely, on improving the quality of instruction, you won’t get higher student outcomes,” Mr. Schleicher said.
By: Sam Dillon, The New York Times, March 16, 2011