Wrong Again in D.C.
by Rob Burton -- May 21st, 2014
During our Washington, D.C. session last December, my penchant for strongly stating weak opinions slipped out again. I’d hoped the academic atmosphere and business-formal attire would repress it, but you know the adage about old habits.
Five of my DEL classmates and I were walking to the Iwo Jima memorial from the hotel in Arlington, talking about its significance along the way. I tried to limit my contribution to our conversation about the War in the Pacific to what others might find interesting, with limited success. Environmentalists’ level of interest in war history is difficult to gauge.
At one point Justin asked, “Doesn’t Japan control Iwo Jima now?”
I was incredulous. “Japan? Really? No way.”
Iwo Jima, despite being within attack range for US bombers, is still a long way from Japan. I couldn’t imagine that the U.S. would give it back to Japan after how hard they fought to take it away from them. My mouth wouldn’t stay shut. My logic was sound. I explained it clearly and convincingly, closing off further discussion.
We arrived at the memorial. In its massive shadow Eileen looked up Iwo Jima on her phone. It’s governed by the Prefecture of Tokyo.
So what does one do in these circumstances? Some people dig in deeper with denials and explanations in vain attempts to stave off defeat. It makes it worse, trust me. I’ve made that mistake multiple times before finally figuring it out, so I hope you can learn from my experience. My advice? Concede quickly with a guilty smile and a self-effacing quip—quick and easy. I believe in this circumstance I used something like, “I sure was confident about being wrong, wasn’t I!” It’s the most efficient way out, like ripping off a Band-Aid after counting to three.
I’m guilty of being wrong about something else as well. I’d like to share with you exactly what it is, but I don’t know what I’m wrong about yet. It’ll happen in the future, or it’s already happened but hasn’t come to light. I apologize. I don’t mean to lie. Yet someone has heard or will hear me claim the truth of something without giving its falsehood a fair shake. I get excited and overconfident. I go too far, and then regret it. I’d like to think I’m getting better at containing it. At least now I own it when I discover I’m wrong, despite having been sure of myself when I said it the first time.
I felt it proper to warn you.
While in D.C., my DEL group visited high-powered personalities to learn from their experience and to assess their leadership qualities. Each of these individuals impressed us in some way, and many of them met our “leader” metrics, even though our metrics differed widely. The disparities, and the stand-out qualities, produced probing discussion that carried beyond the formal settings and into mealtimes and evening conversations.
Although much of the material gave me hope for the future, one thought captured my anxiety with the current state of environmental and world affairs. I couldn’t shake it. It’s this: our current national leadership is insufficient to create a world that will last the next thousand years. Unfortunately, that’s what we need. At a time when their leadership is required, it’s takes real imagination to believe that solutions will come from political leaders. That’s sad.
Consider international climate action. What are the chances that the US as a whole will be a major player addressing climate change? It’s a silly question. As a country, we’re not doing anything helpful anytime soon.
This despair lingered while standing in the shadow of our nation’s iconic architecture, compounded by the recent discouraging climate convention in Warsaw. The feeling came in heavy waves that made me feel small with limited control over my own destiny.
Although the weather proved apropos for the mood, the trip was more than climate-driven rainstorms. My classmates gave me hope that week as well. They continue to be a fount of inspiration for me, saving me from more severe despondency. Seeing them in person, hearing updates about amazing things they are doing, enjoying their various personalities, and swapping end-of-semester presentations with them stands as a reminder for me: there are good and brilliant people among us who are eager to make a difference.
Plus we filled the room for the inaugural DEL yoga session, including multiple first-timers. How cool is that?
A few of us shared a table at the Monocle restaurant after an especially informative experience with Todd Wooten and Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Dirksen Senate Building. The experience added great material to draw on for dinner dialogue. The conversation wandered from one topic to the next over salad and seafood and without losing anyone’s interest.
At one point I stated rough percentages for total freshwater storage between ice, groundwater, and surface water. I don’t recall how the topic came about. Anyhow, Lisa disagreed. After a few moments of contemplation and recollection, I adamantly restated my original position.
Lisa, in her kind and gentle and well-informed way told us about an object lesson she uses in her professional life to explain the principle. She fills a two-liter bottle with water to represent all the water on the planet, then takes out 3% to represent the freshwater. She then divides that into smaller increments to represent ice, groundwater, and a couple drops of surface freshwater water.
She presented it so beautifully that it must have been practiced. Still, I Googled it. She’s right. I offered my concession, my gratitude for the correction, and the sheepish smile.
The end of the session found me at the Supreme Court. I entered the building, passed through security, and waited in a short line until a young woman showed me to my seat. The court room exuded majesty with its neoclassical architecture and pluralistic motif. The long history of law givers in sculpture tells me that this is the place where final decisions are made with just intent.
I’d come to watch the eight justices (Justice Alito recused himself) consider oral arguments about EPA’s cross-state air pollution rule (CSAPR) in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation. This rule would allow EPA to regulate criteria air pollutants more strenuously and creatively to keep upwind states from contributing to pollution in downwind states.
I believe in government and its role. I believe that we are better off facing current challenges with a government than without one. Our current government is terrible. It isn’t leading us effectively through this pivotal moment in history.
In that courtroom, however, I witnessed a glimmer of hope. The justices, independent of campaign contributions and re-election concerns, examined both sides mercilessly. Justice demanded a thorough understanding. The justices convinced me that they wanted to do the right thing.
The feeling that CSAPR received a fair trial accompanied me from the room like a beam of sunshine out into the cold rain.
My interest in this case, other than its environmental theme, lies in taking the temperature of the Supreme Court on environmental issues. Similar cases wait on the horizon as EPA deals with the unprecedented and cumbersome challenges of environmental problems, especially climate change.
In the five months since observing the memorable scene of strong questioning, creative analogies, and witty banter from the bench, I’ve learned more about EPA’s current potential for the regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In our Energy, Environment and the Law class this semester we learned of the leeway the Supreme Court has given EPA in exploring regulation options under existing laws, primarily the Clean Air Act Section 111. EPA could institute significant reform to greenhouse gases without needing Congress to pass new legislation.
The recent 6-2 decision in favor of the EPA in this case isn’t alone as an example of an environmental trend in government. The National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee released their National Climate Assessment recently, a strong position taken by the executive branch supporting the reality of climate change.
In December I thought there was no way our government would act effectively on climate change, and now I think they might. Although it may be in the hands of the next administration, tougher regulation could be just around the corner.
I could have been wrong about our government. Maybe this is why I apologized earlier. I hope so.