The Conversation

Responses and reverberations


In September, Charles C. Mann examined the two sides of the climate-change conversation: environmentalists who warn that apocalypse awaits, and economists who tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Hysterics on both sides, he said, are hurting their cause.

Charles C. Mann’s writing serves not as a useful primer on how to communicate effectively about the depth of the climate crisis, as the article’s title suggests, but instead as a polemic that orbits around the all-too-tired frame of economy versus action, with economists lining up against activists who “want to scare Americans” and force us all to give up “the perks of industrial civilization.”

I’ve been a climate-change activist for nearly a decade, and never have I heard a fellow activist say that industrial civilization needs to be in our rearview mirror. Not once. What I hear are overwhelming expressions of compassion—not for future generations, as Mann contends, but for people battling with a shifting climate that is impacting lives here and now.
Mann should read the National Climate Assessment, which tells us over hundreds of pages just how our warming climate is affecting every corner of the country today. The American West was ablaze this summer with wildfires stoked by drying soil and longer summers. This reality rubs up awkwardly against Mann’s writing that climate change will “not affect me or anyone I know.”
Action is being arbitrated not between economists and activists, as Mann contends, but instead between most of us and the fossil-fuel industry, the richest business we’ve ever known, which is not ready to go softly into that good night. Here, again, Mann seems to have ignored the gist of the problem.
A climate movement built on love, compassion, and empathy is what’s needed to overcome the influence problem. Mann would have been better served writing on the inspirational leaders in the movement rather than inventing binaries and underplaying the very real effects of climate change.
Daniel Kessler
Communications Director, CEL Climate Lab
Oakland, Calif.
Mann uses a finding in a recent Science article to belittle media claims that we are heading quickly toward flooded cities around the globe. Mann seeks to reassure us that the pace of glacier-melt-based sea-level rise will be very slow. Employing the word calamity with irony, he declares: “During the next century, the oceans will surge by as much as a quarter of a millimeter a year. By 2100, that is, the calamity in Antarctica will have driven up sea levels by almost an inch.”
If only the problem were limited to that magnitude! What Mann’s statement completely obscures is that his ocean-rise calculation is limited to the change directly attributable to the wastage of specific glaciers, which is only one of multiple processes affecting the global mean sea level (GMSL). Science has also reported that the already observed GMSL rise is on the order of 2.5 millimeters a year, indicating that a decade, not most of a century, is the reasonable estimate of how soon we will witness one inch of sea-level rise.
Ronald L. Malzer
La Crosse, Wis.
Charles C. Mann’s survey of discussions about climate change omits any mention of ozone depletion, a case in which timely communication of a scientific discovery, in 1973, did indeed lead directly to international action: the Montreal Protocol, agreed upon in 1987 and implemented in 1989, which limited the world production of chlorofluorocarbons, thereby containing their destructive effect on the Earth’s atmosphere. For that discovery, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, together with Paul Crutzen, earned a Nobel Prize in 1995.
These scientists managed to convey their concerns about a complex scientific problem with global repercussions both to their peers and to society at large, and they did so with great courage and integrity; acceptance and prestige came only after many years of patient effort at persuasion. As Rowland—who died in 2012, and who was my father—said: “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”
Rather than focusing so relentlessly on scientists’ alleged failures to communicate, Mann might have pressed his memory, his imagination, and his generosity a little harder to produce a more constructive, profound response to the challenge that will not go away.
Ingrid D. Rowland
Rome, Italy
In his generally superb coverage of the paralysis of the climate conversation in America, Charles C. Mann fails to note the deleterious influence of Fox News and right-wing talk radio, which spread misinformation and doubt. He also ignores the modern Republican Party, whose members cynically decided that if Democrats are for something—cap and trade, a carbon tax, or even an honest discussion of climate science—they would be against it. They demonized Al Gore for winning his well-deserved Nobel Prize for climate communication, turning against climate science in the process. There is a political method to this scientific madness: states rich in coal, oil, and gas resources generally vote against restrictions on their primary industry.
Finally, Mann misses an important component of the best carbon-tax proposals: border-tariff adjustments, which subtract the tax effect on goods exported to countries without comparable carbon taxes and add comparable tariffs to products from those same countries. This feature, acceptable to the World Trade Organization, would have the effect of exporting not only American products but carbon taxes to the world.
James P. Lenfestey
Minneapolis, Minn.

Charles C. Mann replies:

Like Daniel Kessler, I have never heard a climate activist say that “industrial civilization needs to be in our rearview mirror.” The claim is a straw man; I don’t believe this is his organization’s stance, and didn’t say so in my article. I did quote the words of a Wyoming rancher (from Tony Horwitz’s Boom, one of the books I reviewed in the piece): “You want to go back to the Stone Age and use only wind, sun, and water?” The point was not that I believe this but that many Americans who encounter activists’ apocalyptic rhetoric have this reaction—and that it is profoundly unhelpful to the cause that Kessler espouses.
He says, “The West was ablaze this summer with wildfires.” Indeed, fires have burned across the West every summer for years. But contrary to Kessler’s implication that they are caused by climate change, the conflagrations are due mainly to decades of poor forest management, notably fire suppression and the importation of invasive species. Still, let’s assume with Kessler that climate change plays a primary role. Alas, these huge fires have had astonishingly little public impact: next to no legislation, regulatory reform, political protests, or even calls to action. Much the same is true in New York City, which has experienced two potentially climate-related hurricanes in recent years—and where life in Manhattan and Brooklyn goes on exactly as before, despite the Queens neighborhoods blighted by Superstorm Sandy. Here the point is not that climate change isn’t having real effects but that these effects are not yet meaningful to most Americans.
The strong link between modern economies and cheap fossil-fuel energy is why, in my view, one should not portray climate change, as Kessler does, as a battle “between most of us and the fossil-fuel industry.” Big Energy has indeed financed a long campaign to forestall action against climate change. So have some conservative media outlets, as James P. Lenfestey notes. Yet the fundamental issue is not corporate malfeasance, however noxious, but our civilization’s overwhelming dependence on the cheap energy the fossil-fuel industry provides—energy for which at present there is no truly adequate substitute, despite the strides made by solar and wind power. Say that Big Energy stopped all lobbying next week. Almost every piece of steel, nearly all concrete, practically every bag of fertilizer, nearly all electrical power, and the overwhelming majority of personal travel—the basic materials the world’s 7 billion people use to build comfortable lives—would still be produced by the lavish use of fossil fuels. Dealing with climate change means revamping these systems while continuing to use them, a task unprecedented in scale, complexity, and risk.
Ronald L. Malzer thinks that I played a fast one by referring to a single component of sea-level rise (the portion due to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) rather than all of it. So let’s look at the whole thing. According to the projections in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, global mean sea-level rise should be roughly 0.4 to 0.6 meters (15 to 23 inches) by about 2100. Nobody could think this is a good prospect; London and New York would be at risk. But most economists estimate that the actual costs of mitigating the impact of this rise, including building Netherlands-style seawalls around threatened cities, “are modest relative to overall output” and “small on a global scale,” because not much of the world’s population lives at low coastal elevations. (The quotes come from William Nordhaus, probably the leading economist on climate change.) Now, the projected cost of later sea-level rise—the rise after 2100—is horrendous. But that is a century away, an enormous time span in human terms.
Ingrid D. Rowland will be happy to learn that I did discuss the Montreal Protocol, describing it as “a model of international eco-cooperation.” The problem, as I wrote, is that the stakes for this agreement were low (outlawing chemicals in refrigerators and spray cans) compared with the stakes for combatting climate change, which, again, involves asking nations to overhaul the base of their own prosperity.
No magic wand will end the political stalemate. But a prerequisite for engaging in the debate is acknowledging that addressing climate change involves radically changing a foundation of our current lives in the hope of averting a huge calamity in the distant future.


In September, Paul Campos outlined the risk that students at for-profit law schools face: a future full of debt and unemployment in the legal field.
Paul Campos’s essay includes a biased critique of for-profit education and specifically InfiLaw schools. His viewpoint is significantly different from mine and others who have a background in both traditional and for-profit education. It contrasts with the experience of leaders in the legal profession, including former American Bar Association presidents, who actively are engaged with InfiLaw schools.
My first exposure to InfiLaw was in 2008, when I chaired the ABA-accreditation inspection of the Charlotte School of Law. I was the dean of a top-10 public law school, knew nothing about for-profit education, and was skeptical whether Charlotte could provide a quality education. What I discovered was an exceptionally well-managed and well-funded institution. The faculty was focused on student outcomes, academic support was well-resourced, and the academic program equipped graduates with the skills necessary for the contemporary job market (especially small-firm and public-interest practice). The school was committed to innovation and providing access to persons who historically had been excluded from law school on the basis of group status.
What I saw at Charlotte resonated with what I thought good law schools should be, especially in today’s rapidly changing environment. The institution’s mission was uniquely student-centered and practice-ready, even before those phrases became prevalent when law-school applications dropped nationally. My decision to retire from a traditional deanship, to form an educational technology group within InfiLaw, is not unique. In just the past year, Jay Conison, who has chaired the ABA Accreditation Committee and served as a reporter for the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, left another deanship to become the dean at Charlotte.
By pushing for changes that the legal profession has been urging for decades, we expose ourselves to criticism from defenders of the status quo. Although Mr. Campos and I agree that legal education faces significant challenges, he stumbles by suggesting that a school’s tax status is at the core of the challenge. Instead, the current issues facing legal education are multifaceted and challenge law schools nationwide. What Mr. Campos sees as a threat—having private investors—is in fact a source of strength. Contrary to his implication that InfiLaw’s investors seek short-term gain, the facts show that they are engaged long-term and understand that success depends on creating value and social utility.
Mr. Campos’s claims, in the end, are fictions. His argument that Florida Coastal School of Law is at risk of losing accreditation ignores its reaccreditation just this summer. His contention that FCSL graduates have a minimal chance of passing the bar exam disregards their actual performance (typically at or above the state average); instead he curiously relies on secondhand bar statistics from graduates of unaccredited California law schools. (He says, “It is quite unlikely that someone with an LSAT score below 145 will ever pass a bar exam.” Yet the ultimate bar-passage rate for FCSL graduates with an LSAT score below 145, in fact, exceeds 70 percent.) He overstates the debt of FCSL graduates by more than $30,000 and, in warning of massive defaults, fails to note that the school has one of the nation’s lowest student-default rates.
Mr. Campos also omits FCSL’s achievements, which apparently do not support his agenda. For example, FCSL has narrowed student-performance gaps historically attributed to group status. He omits the fact that InfiLaw schools together enroll nearly 5 percent of the nation’s minority law students. FCSL is a top-rated school for moot court, experiential learning, and law and technology.
From my experience, for-profit education can advance innovation and the evolution of legal education; it can partner with traditional education to advance shared values and outcomes, contrary to what Mr. Campos claims. The fact that he is employed by a school supported by state tax subsidies, as compared with a school that pays taxes, may account for his personal bias.
Ken Randall
Dean Emeritus and President, InfiLawVentures
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Paul Campos replies:

I’m grateful to Ken Randall for the opportunity to elaborate on an important point. As his letter illustrates, InfiLaw has pursued an aggressive strategy of purchasing the services of prominent figures in the ABA regulatory apparatus, such as himself, Jay Conison, and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who is currently both the chairman of InfiLaw’s National Policy Board and the head of an ABA committee charged with studying the financial structure of legal education.
It’s hardly surprising that Randall has a high opinion of the quality of the education purportedly being provided by InfiLaw’s schools. My article, however, had nothing to do with the educational qualities these schools may or may not possess. Rather, it argued that they all feature atrocious employment statistics, sky-high tuition, enormous class sizes, and graduates with massive debt loads.
Randall does not dispute this claim, for the simple reason that he cannot. Instead, he attempts to muddy the water with disingenuous quibbling.
In regard to the risk that matriculants with extremely low LSAT scores face of failing the bar, Randall does not reveal what percentage of Florida Coastal’s sub-145 matriculants have actually graduated and gone on to take a bar examination. Given that Florida Coastal flunks out a significant number of its students, this is a striking omission. Furthermore, I noted in the article that until very recently, Florida Coastal admitted relatively few such students (barely 10 percent of applicants with sub-145 LSAT scores were admitted in 2009; more than half of applicants with such scores were admitted last year). This means that the members of those Florida Coastal classes with large numbers of sub-145 matriculants have yet to attempt to pass the bar. In addition, after the article’s publication, a former member of the school’s faculty revealed to me that Florida Coastal is now paying selected graduates $1,200 a month for seven months, if they agree to take bar-review and career-preparation courses for six months (!) rather than attempting to pass the July bar exam subsequent to their graduation.
As to the debt loads carried by graduates of InfiLaw’s schools—not just Florida Coastal—I estimated the median debt that graduates carry when repayment begins, six months after graduation. This figure includes the very large interest charges accrued while students are in school. Randall does not challenge this figure, but rather misrepresents what I am estimating.
Randall’s claim that I am especially critical of for-profit schools because I’m employed by a public nonprofit institution is not merely a misrepresentation but an actual inversion of the thesis of my article, which was that the most-egregious abuses committed by his employer can be found throughout the “nonprofit” world of higher education as well.


In September’s “The Gonzo Historian,” Sam Tanenhaus reviewed Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge.
I hate criticizing reviews. I’m just honored people are paying attention. Then Sam Tanenhaus wrote this about a book, The Invisible Bridge, that I worked on for six years: “His first book drew on more than a dozen archival collections. He has since adopted the methodology of the Web aggregator: his preferred sources are digitally accessed news clippings and TV shows. Some might find this intellectually lazy, but Perlstein proudly Googles in the name of grass-roots activism.” One half of that is made up. The other half is simply stupid. A friend thinks I should sue for libel. Instead, I’m just happy to correct the record.
I traveled thousands of miles to put in hundreds of hours viewing “TV shows” he says I “digitally accessed”—as my source notes make plain. At the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, I reviewed every national newscast that mentioned Ronald Reagan between 1967 and 1975. (The sentence on page 88, “Of the sixty-seven times Reagan was featured on the three network newscasts between 1967 and 1970, more than half concerned his stance on campus militancy,” wasn’t conjured up by magic.) Also at Vanderbilt, I studied the entire visual record of the network-news coverage of the return of the Vietnam prisoners of war. “Intellectually lazy”? That was but a fraction of the six months of research it took to compose chapters one and four of the book (one sentence on page 66 represents two weeks at the National Archives alone). Those chapters make an entirely original argument: that the return of the POWs and the debate over that event’s meaning are crucial to understanding the political culture of the period. By ignoring this, Tanenhaus fails in the first task of any reviewer of a work of history: identifying and evaluating what new contribution it makes.
There’s more, much more; for instance, I’m surely one of the only humans alive to have listened to every single broadcast from Ronald Reagan’s radio show in 1975, housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford (where I also reviewed hundreds of pages from the papers of Michael Deaver and Peter Hannaford). But enough. We’re historians, not jocks; it’s not a contest. What seems to irk Tanenhaus most, and I honestly have no idea why, is my most massive project of primary research: a methodical exploration of thousands of the same newspaper and magazine articles that ordinary Americans read. Why did I spend so much time on that, rather than traveling to a dozen more archives? Because research serves the scholarship, not the other way around—and when your subject is how the political consciousness of ordinary Americans changed, the media they consumed are the best archive.
And, yes, I’m proud that I availed myself in this work whenever possible of the monumental efforts of Google to put millions of newspaper editions online ( .com/newspapers), linking to the articles I cite in my online source notes. That was so my readers might consult them too. Is this what Tanenhaus means by “Googl[ing] in the name of grass-roots activism”? Because I call it history.
Rick Perlstein
Chicago, Ill.


In September, Sara Mosle lamented teachers’ lack of time to master their craft by learning from fellow teachers.
When Sara Mosle says “most teachers in this country have zero time to work together” in ways that will help them—and the teaching profession—grow and thrive, she draws our attention to one of the most profound impediments to excellent public education.
As a high-school English teacher, I can tell you that there are great teachers all around me—just on the other side of the classroom walls—but no system is in place for us to learn from one another, or from experts in pedagogy. Instead, almost like assembly-line workers at times, we are asked to “process” a large number of students through a large number of classes each day, and do all the attendant school activities, preparation, and grading. This leaves little time or energy for anything else.
“Professional development” in most public schools in the United States consists of about five days a year—usually only loosely connected—of guest lectures, activities, and some new (or old) ideas. The administrators and presenters behind these “PD days” may have the best intentions, and teachers may sometimes be convinced and motivated by what they see and hear, but with no real follow-through, significant change remains elusive—even structurally impossible.
Here’s a simple way to implement the sort of powerful structural change proposed in “Building Better Teachers” (the schedule I cite is typical for middle school and high school): Instead of requiring teachers to teach five classes a day (with a necessary sixth hour for prep), make it four hours of teaching, and convert a full hour every single day of the school year into professional development. Make rigorous, permanent, ongoing professional development—teacher observation and collaboration, workshops, formal classes, and so forth—a fundamental component of the teaching profession, as it is in the successful models we have read about.
Of course, to do this, we would have to increase the number of teachers by 20 percent, and provide resources to support training. Do the public and the politicians have the will to make this sort of change? At the present time, with the disempowerment of public schools and their teachers dominating state legislatures and the public discourse, the answer appears sadly obvious.
David Hast
Grand Rapids, Mich.


For the July/August Chartist, Olga Khazan explained “Why Marijuana Should Be Legal, and Expensive.” Online commenters began a discussion focused on what might happen after legalization.

If the legal price is too high, then you are going to run into the same problem that high-cigarette-tax states have experienced: smuggling of a totally legal product. That creates a nightmare for enforcement, because you can’t simply arrest someone for having a legal product. It might even be harder for marijuana because it can be grown for personal consumption, more easily than tobacco.


It isn’t possible to grow thousands of dollars’ worth of tobacco in a basement. There are considerable difficulties related to curing tobacco that don’t exist in the case of cannabis. Tobacco plants are also poisonous and a potential hazard to children and pets—unlike cannabis, which can’t seriously sicken and kill a toddler or a pet dog.

DC Reade

If laws don’t keep marijuana out of the hands of teens now, isn’t it naive to expect they will do so after legalization for everyone else? If the price is high enough, there will be more than just teens to constitute a black market to circumvent the high price structure. And the black-market infrastructure is already there.


The core point here is one of liberty: Should the government manipulate prices to encourage or discourage certain choices? I think that if you believe in the rights of consenting adults to determine their own lives, then you have to be very uncomfortable with politicians engineering the tax code to shape their behavior. That’s how you treat a child, not a society of free adult individuals.



“The Escape Artist,” by John Wolfson (September), stated that Kohala, Hawaii, is home to Bennett Dorrance, an heir to the Campbell Soup empire who’s worth an estimated $2.1 billion. In fact, Kohala is home to Dorrance’s son, Bennett Dorrance Jr.
In an interview with James Bennet (“I Never Dreamed It Would Turn Out This Way,” October), President Bill Clinton said, “Jack Ma, [a] founder of the company [Alibaba], is going to, I think, leave the operations and run [his] foundation.” On September 16, Clinton submitted the following clarification: “When I mentioned Jack Ma during our interview and applauded his philanthropy, I was referring only to his transition from CEO to chairman, as reported by The New York Times and others. He has not indicated to me any other pending changes to his responsibilities at the company. I simply intended to say that as he devotes more time to philanthropy, his intellect, interests, and resources can make a tremendous positive difference both in China and the world.”