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Monthly Archives: January 2018


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News weekly feels the threat of cataclysmic war is grave enough to warrant direct action


January 30, 2018



DigBoston—and this should be obvious, but it bears stating plainly—is against the US or any nation, organization, or individual having nuclear weapons. Because the longer anyone has them, the more likely it is that they will be used. And if one is used, there is a very significant chance that many or even all of the nukes will be used. Lest we forget that when the US had the first two atomic bombs in existence, and used one, it was very quick to use the second.


That’s why last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a journal founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work,” moved the hands of its famed “Doomsday Clock” up from “two and a half minutes to midnight” to “two minutes to midnight.” The clock has not been so close to “midnight”—meaning nuclear war—since 1953. Shortly after both the US and the former Soviet Union tested their first outrageously destructive hydrogen bombs at the height of the Cold War.


The journal’s reasons for taking this alarming step are many, and can be read on its website, But at base, it is dangerous changes to US nuclear policy under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump that threaten to overturn treaties that have led to decades of reductions to the global stockpile of nuclear warheads—from over 65,000 in 1986 to about 15,000 today—coupled with Trump’s escalating war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that led to the clock being dialed forward.


Behind the bluster is the world’s largest military: America’s. Which for the last few months has been positioning conventional and nuclear forces within easy striking distance of North Korea. So when, according to the Wall Street Journal, some of the less sane Trump administration figures like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster support the idea of giving the growing North Korean nuclear weapons program “a bloody nose” with a military strike using “small,” “tactical” nuclear weapons, the world takes notice. And the Doomsday Clock continues its unnerving march toward midnight.


Lest readers think such concern is overstated, Business Insider just reported that the US has deployed B-2 stealth bombers to Guam—joining B-52 bombers already stationed there. Both planes are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Including the new B61-12 gravity bombs that, while not slated to be deployed until 2019, are supposedly able to take out deep bunkers with a minimum of damage and fallout. Which, together with their adjustable yield setting down to a fraction of the Hiroshima bomb, makes them more likely to be used, according to peace activists and defense officials alike. And a fraction of a bomb that destroyed and irradiated an entire city is still much more dangerous than the largest US conventional weapons. Not to mention the Pandora’s box problem. Since once the US opens that figurative box by using nukes in battle, there’s nothing to stop other countries from doing the same. Least of all North Korea.


Russia and China have been frantically trying to get the US to pursue a diplomatic path to peace with North Korea, but to no avail. At a time when the US no longer has any nuclear disarmament negotiations in progress with Russia, a nation with 7,000 nuclear warheads—the most of any nation—and tensions are rising with China, which has 270 warheads, that is most disturbing news indeed.


Because the path from the “bloody nose” of a few “smaller” nukes like the B61-12 dropped on North Korean nuclear weapons sites—or sites that Pentagon planners assume are nuclear weapons sites despite having been wrong before due to poor intelligence on North Korea—to a global conflagration is crystal clear. Since the ironically named “Demilitarized Zone” between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified place in the world. And 35 miles south of the zone is Seoul, the capital of South Korea.


If the US nukes North Korea, then Kim Jong Un would have every reason to nuke American targets that North Korean missiles are probably capable of reaching in the Pacific basin—and even Seoul itself in retaliation. Followed by other nuclear strikes, using precisely the same “use ’em or lose ’em” strategy that the US has followed since the dawn of the Atomic Age, according to Daniel Ellsberg—who recently released a book about his decade as a senior American nuclear strategist prior to his leaking the Pentagon Papers and helping end the Vietnam War.


Once nukes are flying, therefore, there’s nowhere to go but down. North Korea has somewhere between 10 and 60 warheads—depending on whether you believe the lower estimates by peace groups like the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or the higher estimates by US government sources—and its quest to figure out how to miniaturize nukes to fit on its short-, medium-, and now long-range missiles has been a precipitating factor in the current crisis. The US, for its part, has about 6,800 warheads overall. About 1,800 of which are deployed, according to 2017 data from the Federation of American Scientists.  


The American military would be dropping nukes on direct orders from a president with all the powers of his predecessors to use them at will with no check from any other branch of government. The weapons would strike a very small country that shares borders with Russia and China—two rival superpowers with huge armies and thousands more nuclear weapons between them. A couple of miscalculations involving unexpected fallout yield or an errant strike due to a jammed guidance system or any number of other unforeseen occurrences with incredibly dangerous nukes and it’s bye-bye Vladivostok and adieu Yanbian.


An unauthorized US flyover of Russia or China or the entry of a US fleet to their territorial waters during attacks on North Korea could also result in a nuclear response from either country—especially should the US lower the bar and start using nukes in combat again. And North Korea, with nuclear weapons that are hardly the most accurate or stable, could easily make mistakes that would draw Russia or China into a shooting war. Even though North Korea has stated that it is “only” targeting the US with nukes, according to Newsweek. The possibilities for error are endless in a conventional war, let alone one involving nuclear exchanges. So it’s easy to see how any use of horrific weapons of mass destruction can quickly put the entire world on the fast track to Armageddon.


For these reasons, and many more besides, DigBoston cannot stand on the sidelines and remain silent while the threat of a war that would exterminate the human race rises by the day. To do so would be an abrogation of our moral and ethical responsibilities—not only as journalists, but as human beings.


And if the planet is destroyed, journalists like us aren’t going to be able to report the news anymore, now are we? Nor will our audience have any use for it in the hereafter.


As such, this publication is joining the swiftly reviving movement to abolish nuclear weapons.


We plan to participate in the following ways:


  1. Open our pages wide to opinion articles calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, as we continue to editorialize about same.
  2. Produce an ongoing series of columns, features, and investigative reports in the public interest exposing Massachusetts institutions involved in developing, producing, and/or profiting from nuclear weapons.
  3. Work directly on campaigns to abolish nuclear weapons with local, national, and international peace organizations—adding the name of our publication to the growing list of civic, social, religious, professional, and business organizations in tandem with the 56 nations that have already signed the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in saying that the only sane nuclear weapons policy is to mandate a world without such weapons.
  4. Help organize our colleagues in the news industry to join us in the fight to abolish nuclear weapons.


We’ll talk about more specifics over the coming months, but anyone with questions about our stance is welcome to email us at


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.


Image via Environmental Defense Fund
Image via Environmental Defense Fund

As Earth approaches several catastrophic global warming “tipping points”


January 24, 2018



Before writing more columns examining Boston city government’s emerging plans to cope with the effects of global warming, I think a quick review of what area residents are likely to face in the coming decades is in order. Because it’s important to disabuse people of the idea that we’re dealing with “just” a handful of significant problems over time—a rise in air temperature, an increase of extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level—that those problems are isolated to just Boston or the United States, that they are going to continue until the end of the century and then stop, and that there are some simple things we can do to prevent those problems from becoming unmanageable.


The reality is far more frightening. According to Mother Jones, “In 2004, John Schellnhuber, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet.”  


There’s been much research and debate since that time about which systems can be considered tipping points and which ones need more research before we can be sure, but the Environmental Defense Fund has a page on its website with an overview of the latest science. It’s called “Everything you need to know about climate tipping points” and you should read it in full. But here’s a quick summary of the tipping points that the Earth is passing or on its way to passing. Largely due to humans continuing to burn CO2-producing oil, gas, and coal decades after it was known to be suicidal to do so.


1) Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice

The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. In the Arctic, sea ice has been melting much more quickly than it used to for much more of every year as the average global temperatures rise year after year. Scientists are now predicting ice-free Arctic summers by mid-century. The less of the year that ice covers the Arctic, the less sunlight is reflected back to space. Sunlight that is not reflected warms the Arctic Ocean, leading to other problems and more global warming overall.


2) Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Of particular concern to Bostonians because of our relative proximity to Greenland, the melting of its ice cap may continue for the next few hundred years until there is none left. Unlike melting sea ice that doesn’t add water to the world’s oceans, melting ice from land does. This will ultimately result in global sea level rise of up to 20 feet, and the process is underway.


3) Disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

This tipping point may already have been passed—with the West Antarctic ice sheet already starting to collapse. Like the Greenland ice sheet, it too is expected to take hundreds of years to finish melting, but when it does it could raise the global sea level up to 16 feet.


4) Collapse of Coral Reefs

With oceans already warming and becoming more acidic, the algae eaten by the coral that make up the world’s often huge and spectacular reefs is being jettisoned, resulting in coral bleaching. This process weakens the coral and hastens its death. Which is accelerating the destruction of marine spawning and feeding grounds globally with dire consequences for many nations whose economies rely on them—and for biodiversity. Scientists now predict that the remaining coral reefs will collapse before there is rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees from the old normal average. Most climate models show the world reaching that threshold before the end of this century.


Beyond these, there are several other expected tipping points being studied: the disruption of ocean circulation patterns from the massive influx of fresh water from melting ice (especially in the North Atlantic, which would play havoc with Boston’s climate), the release of marine methane hydrates (which would accelerate the global warming already being caused by the CO2 emissions considered the main cause of climate change), ocean anoxia (a process creating growing oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in our oceans that can no longer support most life, aka “bye bye seafood”), the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (caused by human activity like cutting down huge numbers of trees with devastating consequences for biodiversity coupled with the loss of a major CO2 sink), the dieback of the boreal forests (still being studied, but means the death of more vast forests in and around our latitude of the planet), the weakening of the marine carbon pump (the Earth’s oceans have been absorbing much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but through this process will become less effective at it), the greening of the Sahara (some positive effects would come from this, but many basic ocean life forms rely on nutrients from the desert sand blowing into the ocean and will be negatively affected by losing it), and the increasingly chaotic Indian summer monsoons (could result in extensive drought in one of the Earth’s most populous regions).


Other processes underway may also be potential tipping points, including the collapse of deep Antarctic ocean circulation, the appearance of an Arctic ozone hole (joining the existing Antarctic ozone hole in causing rising UV levels in the Arctic with various negative effects), the aridification of the US Southwest (as moisture moves to the upper Great Plains), the slowdown of the jet stream (which could leave more weather systems stuck in place for weeks at a time, including extreme systems like our recent polar vortex-induced cold wave, among other negative effects), the melting of the Himalayan glaciers (which help provide fresh water for much of South Asia’s population), a more permanent El Niño state (which could result in more drought in Southeast Asia and elsewhere), permafrost melting (which results in more CO2 and methane being released, accelerating global warming further), and tundra transition to boreal forest (with uncertain effects).


Adding the above to the general effects of global warming that we’re already experiencing—areas that got lots of rain getting less and areas that got little rain getting more rain storms for more of the year, hotter temperatures overall leading to an array of bad effects like tropical diseases moving north, and the “sixth extinction” of large numbers of species of animals and plants—and keeping in mind that this is happening everywhere around the planet, readers should understand that we’re not facing a localized crisis.


And remember, all the processes mentioned above are interlinked in complex ways that are absolutely not fully understood by our current science.


So Boston is not just going to “trial balloon and town hall meeting” its way out of this array of existential crises. Surviving even one of the major problems caused by global warming—like the flooding from rising sea levels I wrote about last week—is going to be very difficult… and very expensive. And who’s going to pay for it? Well, going forward, in addition to pointing out that we’ll have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of public budgets to these problems, expect me to call for the corporations that started and continue to profit from global warming—the oil, gas, and coal companies—to pay for cleaning up the mess they created. To the degree possible. Which might not be sufficient to the monumental tasks at hand.


Still, it will be critical for Boston to join municipalities like New York City in suing the carbon multinationals Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and others for redress. While divesting the city from all investments in those companies’ stocks. And suing, and ultimately deposing, governments like the Trump administration that are aiding and abetting these corporations’ destruction of the planet.


Failing that, Boston and all of human civilization is literally sunk… burned… and perhaps ultimately suffocated. Dying not with the bang of nuclear war—itself a fate we also need to organize immediately to avoid given the federal government’s return to atomic sabre rattling—but with an extended agonizing whimper.


It’s up to all of us to stop that from happening.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.




Unless Boston builds proper defenses against global warming-driven sea level rise


January 17, 2018



So, Boston’s Seaport District flooded early this month during a bad snowstorm in the midst of several days of arctic temperatures. And nobody could be less surprised than me. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last quarter century closely following developments in the science of climate change. And the “bomb cyclone” that caused the flooding, and the polar vortex that caused that, are both likely to have been caused by global warming. Yale University Climate Connections just produced a great video that features several luminary climate scientists explaining why at Definitely check it out.


No question, though, that it’s good to live in a region where local government at least recognizes that global warming is a scientific reality. The city of Boston is certainly ahead of most municipalities in the US in terms of laying plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to become “carbon neutral” and to deal with some of the anticipated effects of climate change. Particularly, flooding from inexorably rising sea levels and increasingly powerful and frequent storms. Which the more reactionary Boston TV newsreaders still insist on calling “wild weather.” But its plans are largely just that… plans. And they are still incomplete and, frankly, woefully inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the crisis facing us all.


Boston city government has initiated an array of climate change initiatives, including Greenovate Boston, a section of the Imagine Boston 2030 process, and—most germane to this discussion—Climate Ready Boston. They are all producing very nice reports grappling with some of the challenges to humanity presented by global warming in the decades to come. But the reports are written by planners and experts who are clearly pulling their punches for reasons that remain somewhat opaque. And in doing so, any good that might come out of the reports and the policy actions that will result from them is essentially undone.


A look at metro planning on global warming-induced flooding is a good way to illuminate the problem in question. The Climate Ready Boston program released a 340-page report in December 2016 that was meant to be a comprehensive assessment of the threats presented to the city by global warming—with plans for possible correctives. It does mention the idea of building giant dikes, storm barriers, and retractable gates (which they call a “harbor-wide flood protection system”) across Boston Harbor as the method with the most potential to save much of the city from major flooding. Which makes sense since Mayor Marty Walsh signed a 2015 agreement with Dutch officials to work together to manage rising sea levels, according to Boston Magazine. And the Dutch are recognized world experts on giant storm barriers and hydroengineering in general, lo, these last few hundred years.


But there’s no firm commitment for harbor-wide defenses in the report. Yet it should be obvious that they are absolutely necessary if Boston is going to continue as a living city for even a few more decades. At least Amos Hostetter of the Barr Foundation—who is a major player in Boston’s climate efforts—put up $360,000 for the UMass Boston Center for the Environment to study their feasibility last year, according to the Boston Globe.


More concerning than its waffling on building big dikes, the big Climate Ready Boston report chooses to focus on the possibility of sea level rise of no more than 3 feet by 2070—although it allows that a rise of 7.4 feet is possible by 2100:



The highest sea level rise considered in this report, 36 inches, is highly probable toward the end of the century if emissions remain at the current level or even if there is a moderate reduction in emissions. … If emissions remain at current levels, there is an approximately 15 percent chance that sea levels will rise at least 7.4 feet by the end of century, a scenario far more dire than those considered here.



Similar caution is on display with an October 2017 Climate Ready Boston report called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown”—focusing on tactics to protect two Boston neighborhoods on Boston Harbor at high risk for flooding caused by global warming. Once again, the authors’ assumption is that global warming-related sea level rise in Boston will be no more than 3 feet higher than year 2000 figures by 2070. Even though such estimates—which we have already seen are conservative by Climate Ready Boston’s own admission—also indicate that we could face 7-plus feet of sea level rise or more by 2100. And even higher rises going forward from there. Because sea level rise is slated to continue for generations to come.


What’s weird about such methodological conservatism is that a 2016 paper in the prestigious science journal Nature co-authored by a Bay State geoscientist says the lower figures that all the city’s climate reports are using already look to be wildly optimistic.


According to the Boston Globe:



“Boston is a bull’s-eye for more sea level damage,” said Rob DeConto, a climate scientist at UMass Amherst who helped develop the new Antarctica research and who co-wrote the new Boston report. “We have a lot to fear from Antarctica.” … If high levels of greenhouse gases continue to be released into the atmosphere, the seas around Boston could rise as much as 10.5 feet by 2100 and 37 feet by 2200, according to the report.


What’s even weirder is that the same UMass scientist, Rob DeConto, co-authored a detailed June 2016 report for Climate Ready Boston called “Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston: The Boston Research Advisory Group Report” with 16 other climate scientists that look at an array of possible outcomes for the city—and include a discussion of the higher sea level rise figures mentioned in the Nature paper. The report concludes with an admission that current science doesn’t allow for accurate predictions of climate change in the second half of the century. All the more reason, one would think, that models predicting higher than anticipated sea level rise should not seemingly be dismissed out of hand in other Climate Ready Boston reports.


The Globe also reported that a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Boston can expect a sea level rise of 8.2 feet by 2100. Both 8.2 foot and 10.5 foot estimates are higher than the 7.4 foot estimate that Climate Ready Boston says is possible by 2100, and well above the 3 feet that it is actually planning for by 2070.


The same team that produced the larger Climate Ready Boston report authored the East Boston and Charlestown report; so they are doubtless quite well-aware of all this. Which is evident in this sentence about the (insufficient) extensibility of their proposed neighborhood-based flood defenses: “If sea levels rise by more than 36 inches, these measures could be elevated at least two feet higher by adding fill, integrating structural furniture that adds height and social capacity, or installing deployable flood walls. With this built-in adaptability, their effectiveness could be extended by an additional 20 years or more.”


The point here is not that the Boston city government is doing nothing about global warming-induced flooding. It’s that the city is potentially proposing to do too little, too late (given that most of the flood defenses it’s proposing will remain in the study phase for years, and many will protect specific neighborhoods but not the whole city when finally built), for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Though it’s probable that those reasons are more political and economic than scientific. Avoiding scaring-off the real estate developers and major corporations that provide much of the current city tax base, for example. The kind of thing that will make life difficult for politicians who then make life difficult for staffers and consultants working on global warming response plans.


Regardless, if experts like the Dutch are basically saying, Boston really needs to build the biggest possible harbor-wide flood protection system to have any hope of surviving at least a few more decades, then we can’t afford to do one of the more half-assed versions of the big cross-harbor storm barrier plan mentioned in the original Climate Ready Boston report—or, worse still, fail to build major harbor-wide defenses at all. If major studies by climate experts are saying that 3 feet of sea level rise by 2070 and 7.4 feet by 2100 are overly optimistic figures, then we need to plan for at least the highest reasonable estimates: currently, the NOAA’s 8.5 feet or, better yet, the Nature paper’s 10.5 feet for the end of the century. It’s true that we could get smart or lucky and avoid those numbers by 2100. But what about 2110? Or 2150? Or 2200? Sea level rise is not just going to stop in 2070 or 2100.


Are city planners and researchers willing to gamble with the city’s fate to avoid sticky political and economic fights? Let’s hope not. For all our sakes. Or the recent Seaport District flood—and numerous other similar recent floods—will be just the start of a fairly short, ugly slide into a watery grave for the Hub.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.




If a DigBoston article inspires you, take action to right wrongs


January 3, 2018



As each new year arrives, DigBoston staff—and journalists in general—like to offer some thoughts for the 12 months to come. These missives often take the shape of admonitions, wish lists, or resolutions, and the subjects covered can be literally anything that comes to our minds. So they’re typically fun to write. But now that I help run a metro weekly newspaper, I find myself thinking a lot about the mechanics of how news media works, how it’s used by our audience, and the role it plays in our troubled democracy.


And I feel that this year it’s worth saying something that may seem obvious at first glance, but isn’t: Good journalism isn’t meant to be passively consumed. It’s meant to be acted upon.


As a journalist, I spend a lot of my time writing articles about social and political ills affecting area communities—as do many of my colleagues at DigBoston in one way or another. We do this not because we expect someone to stick gold stars on our foreheads, but because we sincerely hope to inspire our readers to take notice of the real-life problems Bostonians face day to day… and take action to resolve them. We think that this is precisely the role that journalists must play in a democracy, if we’re serious.


What journalists cannot do—as I put it to a critic of one of my recent pieces—is, having led the proverbial horses of our readership to the water of knowledge, shove their heads into the trough and make them drink to the point of wanting to effect social change.


So it’s up to the public—you, reading this newspaper or consuming any news media of any type—to either act upon what journalists say, or not.


Just remember that without readers getting active on issues journalists raise, nothing much happens in a political economic system that’s spiraling downward toward oligarchy. Especially in this era of information overload.


Which is why I’d like to encourage DigBoston readers to do the following three things with our journalism—be it our news features, columns, investigative reporting, or critical arts and entertainment articles—going forward:


1) Learn More

After first reading an article that’s trying to redress a societal grievance, process it awhile. Then, if you decide that it’s really speaking to you, return to it again. Note the issues at stake, go online (if you’re not already), find other articles that relate to those issues, and read them for more background. Advanced readers may also look for related academic articles and books for a really deep dive.


2) Survey the Field

Once you have a better handle on the issues, look up the people mentioned in Dig articles and/or the organizations they work with, and determine who seems to be trying to right whatever wrongs are under discussion. Find their websites and social media presences. If you go to our website, we’ll often provide links; so you can just click and easily find the information you need. But if we don’t, just google the people and institutions that look to be on the side of the angels. After that, don’t forget to take a look at any “bad guys” mentioned too. Maybe you’ll decide that there’s no harm, and therefore no foul. And that will be that. But if you agree there is a problem that needs fixing, and think that you’re just the person who should help fix it, then proceed to the final step.


3) Act

If you decide to get involved in a fight we write about in DigBoston, you’ll typically have two options. Either find an advocacy organization (or sometimes a public figure) that is mentioned in the article you’re reading, contact them (any good organizer will make it easy to do so), and ask them how you can plug in. Or, and this is the tougher route, if you’re really inspired to get active on an issue mentioned in one of our articles, and no one seems to be working on it yet, consider starting your own advocacy organization. Even if the group is a simple neighborhood committee consisting of family members and neighbors, that’s a great start. Particularly if the issue of concern affects you directly at the local level. If that seems like more than you can handle, then do whatever you can do out of the gate. Write an outraged email. Call up some big bad you read about, try to get them on the phone, and give them a piece of your mind. Donate to an advocacy group you think is doing good work. Vote for a politician that you think is a champion on your issue, and decent overall.


Once you’ve taken that action step, you might find it gives you a sense of accomplishment. If so, take another one. And another. And soon enough, you won’t just be reading the news… you’ll be making it. Which would please all of us at DigBoston to no end. Because then we’ll really know that we’ve done our job by turning a passive spectator into an active participant in the revival of our democracy. And we’ll know that 2018 will be a good year for our brand of community journalism in the public interest.


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.