Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

In Environment, Human rights, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on September 25, 2016 at 1:57 am

Monday, September 26, 2016

United Nations General Assembly
Special Plenary Session

“The consequences of any further use of nuclear weapons, whether intentional or by mistake, would be horrific. When it comes to our common objective of nuclear disarmament, we must not delay — we must act now.”
Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon

Achieving global nuclear disarmament is one of the oldest goals of the United Nations. It was the subject of the General Assembly’s first resolution in 1946. After general and complete disarmament first came onto the General Assembly’s agenda in 1959, nuclear disarmament has remained the most important and urgent objective of the United Nations in this field. Since 1975, it has been a prominent theme of the review conferences of States parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1978, the General Assembly’s first Special Session on disarmament reaffirmed that effective measures for nuclear disarmament have the highest priority. And it has been supported by every United Nations Secretary-General.

Yet today, some 15,000 nuclear weapons remain. Countries possessing such weapons have well-funded, long-term plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals. More than half of the world’s population still lives in countries that either have such weapons or are members of nuclear alliances. As of 2016, while there have been major reductions in deployed nuclear weapons since the height of the Cold War, not one nuclear warhead has been physically destroyed pursuant to a treaty, bilateral or multilateral, and no nuclear disarmament negotiations are underway. Meanwhile, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence persists as an element in the security policies of all possessor states and their nuclear allies. This is so—despite growing concerns worldwide over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of even a single nuclear weapon, let alone a regional or global nuclear war.
These facts provide the foundation for the General Assembly’s designation of 26 September as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

This Day provides an occasion for the world community to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a high priority. It also provides an opportunity to educate the public—and their leaders—about the real benefits of eliminating such weapons, and the social and economic costs of perpetuating them.

Commemorating this Day at the United Nations is especially important, given its universal membership and its long experience in grappling with nuclear disarmament issues. It is the right place to address one of humanity’s greatest challenges, achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

Should we let an unstable person have control of the nuclear arsenal? No, but that’s not the right question

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on September 23, 2016 at 10:03 pm

By Ira Helfand and Robert Dodge. Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2016.
A growing chorus of politicians and national security experts have questioned whether it would be safe to have Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button. But are they asking the right question?

In an open letter, 50 leading Republican national security experts warned that Trump possesses “dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be president and commander in chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Or, as Hillary Clinton put it in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, it would be very dangerous for an unstable, ill-informed person to have control of the nuclear arsenal.

Implicit in these admonitions, however, is the notion that it is OK to have a “normal” person in charge. In fact, many of Trump’s critics explicitly endorse the idea that nuclear weapons, in the right hands, constitute an effective deterrent to nuclear attack by other powers and are the best, even the ultimate, guarantors of our national security.

Their argument — for the continued maintenance of a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying human civilization — depends on the assumption that these weapons only exist to persuade other nuclear powers not to attack, and that we will never actually use them.

The “normal” leaders of nuclear weapon states have already decided that under a variety of circumstances, nuclear weapons can and will be used.
Unfortunately, the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review explicitly rejects the notion that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is deterrence, and the U.S. has threatened to use them many times. Leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, the U.S. refused to take the nuclear option off the table. Russian nuclear policy is even more dangerous, explicitly endorsing the early use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional war with NATO.

Pakistan has a similar nuclear doctrine that envisions the early first use of nuclear weapons if it should find itself in another war with India.

So the “normal” leaders of nuclear weapon states have already decided that under a variety of circumstances, nuclear weapons can and will be used.

Even if none of these nuclear powers ever makes a deliberate decision to use its nuclear arsenal, there is a very real danger that these weapons will be deployed because of miscalculation or computer error.

An article published this summer in the journal Space Weather described for the first time how a solar flare in May 1967 knocked out communication with a number of key radar installations in the Arctic. The U.S. military incorrectly concluded that the Soviets had disabled these early warning stations as the opening move in a surprise attack and prepared American nuclear armed bombers for takeoff. War was averted at the last minute when the Air Force received information about the true cause of the black out.
There have been at least five other major episodes when computer errors or misinterpretation of intelligence data led either Moscow or Washington to prepare to launch a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that the other side had already initiated an attack. The most recent of these took place in 1995, well after the end of the Cold War.

Furthermore, studies have shown that we don’t need to have a full-scale nuclear war to destroy human civilization. Even a very limited nuclear war, confined to one corner of the globe, would have disastrous consequences across the planet. The use of just 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs — less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear arsenal — against targets in urban areas could loft enough soot into the upper atmosphere to disrupt climate worldwide, cutting food production and putting 2 billion people at risk of starvation.

For the nuclear weapon states, these are most inconvenient truths. They view their nuclear arsenals as tools to project national power that they do not want to give up. All nine are currently spending enormous sums on upgrading their arsenals, and they have shown a fierce opposition to the efforts of non-nuclear weapon states that wish to legally prohibit the possession of these weapons.

Commenting on the Cuban missile crisis, the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said, “It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” Nuclear weapons do not possess some magic power that keeps them from being used. We have survived the nuclear era so far because of an incredible string of luck, and we cannot expect that luck to last forever. Sooner or later, if we do not get rid of these weapons, they will be used and they will destroy us.

The right question for us to ask is: “Should anyone be able to press the nuclear button?” And the right answer is a resounding “No.”

Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Robert Dodge is president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles.

We Need to Ban Nuclear Weapons (In Spite of Canada)

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on September 23, 2016 at 7:09 am

By Cesar Jaramillo. Huffington Post, Sept. 22, 2016
Make no mistake: neither North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test nor the recent high-stakes stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program are the root of nuclear insecurity. They are but symptoms of a nuclear disarmament regime in a severe state of disrepair.

While every other category of weapons of mass destruction has been specifically prohibited under international law, nuclear weapons — by far the most destructive of them all — remarkably still have not. What is needed is a global legal ban on nuclear weapons, with specific provisions for the elimination of existing arsenals and a timeline for verified implementation.

A rare opportunity for progress on this front has opened up. A UN-established Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) met in Geneva three times this year with a mandate to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.

The final OEWG report included a recommendation, supported by a majority of participating states, to convene a conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The expectation is that there will be a resolution to operationalize this proposal at the UN General Assembly First Committee (on disarmament and international security) when it meets in October.

Notably, Canada voted against the OEWG recommendation — along with most other members of NATO, itself a nuclear weapons alliance.

Despite being a non-nuclear weapons state, Canada stands not with the growing number of nations, organizations, and individuals that believe that a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons is long overdue. Instead, Ottawa’s position is aligned with that of the few who question the merits of a nuclear weapons ban.

Canada’s current stance — and that of most nuclear weapons states — is that conditions are not ideal for a ban on nuclear weapons. But the reality is that they never may be. Nuclear disarmament negotiations must therefore be started, realized and concluded under geopolitical conditions that are predictably less than perfect.

An increasingly loud denunciation of the intransigence of states with nuclear weapons, however, has done little to persuade them to change course. Nuclear-weapons states still purport to be at the same time arbiters and direct beneficiaries of global norms on the acceptability of nuclear weapons possession.

Consider the lopsided logic by which the very states that have developed, stockpiled, tested, and used nuclear weapons deem themselves fit to chastise others on the risks of proliferation. The moral high ground they claim is built upon an extremely weak and inherently unjust foundation.

They demand immediate, consistent compliance with non-proliferation obligations, but disregard their own responsibility to disarm. They extol the value of nuclear weapons in safeguarding their national security, but expect no one else to embrace the same rationale.

Some countries deem the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons by certain states unacceptable, but seem content to accept the nuclear-weapons programs of military or economic allies, even outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) framework.

The United States and Canada, for instance, not only turn a blind eye to the notoriously opaque Israeli nuclear weapons program, but engage in nuclear cooperation agreements with India, contravening the longstanding principle that such cooperation should be reserved for NPT states parties.

The pervasive notion that the primary problem of nuclear weapons is the risk of their proliferation, and not their very existence, cannot be further perpetuated.

So let us be clear: the main problem with the existence of nuclear weapons is the existence of nuclear weapons. Proliferation concerns are no doubt important, but they will not be fully allayed unless and until the responsibility to disarm is taken seriously by states with nuclear weapons.

Especially problematic is the determination of several nuclear-weapons states to retain a nuclear arsenal as long as such weapons exist. This strategic, political, and logical straitjacket all but ensures that a world without nuclear weapons will never be achieved.

Today, more than 15,000 nuclear warheads continue to threaten civilization. Even a limited nuclear exchange would bring about incalculable loss of human life and catastrophic effects for the environment. So the objective cannot be nuclear weapons management or containment. Nor are sporadic reductions and reconfigurations of nuclear systems sufficient. Only complete and irreversible disarmament will do.

Tired arguments over the purported value of nuclear weapons possession have been replaced by a renewed emphasis on the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament. The catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use outweighs any and all alleged benefits.

Further, billions of dollars (some estimates put the price tag at more than $1-trillion) are slated to be spent modernizing arsenals and related infrastructure while the most basic needs of a significant segment of the world’s population are still unmet. From this perspective, the time certainly seems ripe for turning nuclear swords into ploughshares, so to speak.

The UN First Committee resolution on a legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons will afford Canada a unique opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the security of a world free of these instruments of mass destruction. Come October we will know whether it was seized. Or squandered.

Cesar Jaramillo is the Executive Director of
Project Ploughshares, Waterloo, Ontario.

Storing nuclear waste: Is ‘consent’ OK when future generations can’t weigh in

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Public Health on September 23, 2016 at 6:55 am

PUBLISHED: September 21, 2016 at 8:52 am | UPDATED: September 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

There are barbs about “mobile Chernobyls” and “floating Fukushimas,” fears of “coerced consent” and “economic racism,” and deep philosophizing about the nature of “consent” itself. Is such a thing possible when generations unborn will be impacted by decisions made today?

“‘Consent’ to dump nuclear waste in America’s back yard is not going to be approved by the American people no matter how your PR strategists massage the lipstick on that pig,” David Osinga told the U.S. Department of Energy in an email.

The DOE’s latest idea for figuring out where to stash millions of pounds of nuclear waste garnered more than 10,000 comments from concerned citizens nationwide, according to documents released last week. And while many disagree vehemently on the particulars, they are largely united on one point: After decades of dithering, the federal government must finally take action on its long-broken promise to permanently dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel.

This collection of carping and commentary (“I’ve seen people grow old in this business of trying to solve the nuclear waste problem”) is part of DOE’s new push to create temporary nuclear waste storage sites in regions eager for the business, such as West Texas and New Mexico. Several such sites could be up and running while the prickly question of finding a location for a permanent repository – the root of the present paralysis in nuclear waste disposal – is hashed out.

That could mean removing spent fuel from the bluffs beside the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station a decade or so earlier than currently envisioned, which is now 2049, according Southern California Edison’s decommissioning plan.

Across America, some 165 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel cools at 75 commercial reactor sites, due to the federal government’s failure to honor the contractual promise it made to utilities back in 1982. But more on that in a minute.


The day before this treasure trove of public opinion was compiled, nuclear power’s future in America was the focus of a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

There, Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressed deep frustration.

“I can’t just support nuclear power generation if there is no strategy for the interim storage and long-term disposal of the waste,” she said.

“If we can’t properly store the waste, we shouldn’t build the reactors.”

Feinstein, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – who dearly wants to see more reactors as part of a clean energy future – have worked across the aisle for five years in an effort to break bureaucratic paralysis on nuclear waste policy. So far, they have gotten nowhere.

“This is one of my great disappointments,” Feinstein said.

Some 130 million people live within 50 miles of a nuclear storage site in the U.S., she said – more than 2 in 5 Americans. In California alone, there are nearly 8,000 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies stored in pools and dry casks at four sites, including San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. All are shut down, or will close shortly, leaving behind what is known in the industry as “stranded waste.”

“The future of nuclear power in this country depends on a solution to the waste problem,” Feinstein said. “Public safety and public acceptance of nuclear power, I believe, depend on it.”

The lesson of the moribund Yucca Mountain repository – largely a waste of time and $10 billion – is that state governments and local communities must be willing to host a repository, she said.

Storage should also be far from population centers. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we’re dealing with very dangerous materials,” she said. “Problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico are a prime example of the risks we face.”

That New Mexico plant is a deep geologic repository to permanently dispose of waste from nuclear weapons research and production. On Valentine’s Day in 2014, radioactive materials leaked from a damaged storage drum. Cleanup could top $2 billion and still is not complete.

“Here we have one of the premier laboratory facilities in world, at Los Alamos, making a basic chemistry error on the packaging of waste drums,” Feinstein said. “One mistake in a single drum contaminated more than a third of the entire site.

“That, to me, is really striking. If we can’t trust these experts to handle radioactive waste safely, what confidence can we have in other efforts to manage this material safely and securely, long-term, at 78 sites around the country?”

The same question was raised in many ways in the public comments to DOE.


By the end of December, the Department of Energy will publish details on how the consent-based siting process will work, as well as “considerations for interim storage and deep geologic repositories,” Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz told Feinstein’s committee last week.

The department’s 2017 budget sets aside $39.4 million for the consent-based siting effort, including $25 million for grants to interested states, Native American tribal nations and local governments. The money will help communities learn more about nuclear waste management and explore their potential roles in the effort.

Such interim storage facilities would allow the federal government to begin meeting its contractual waste management commitments; enable the permanent removal of spent nuclear fuel from shutdown reactors like San Onofre; provide crucial flexibility for the overall nuclear waste management system, such as the ability to conduct thermal management activities and repackage spent nuclear fuel; and be a useful learning experience with research on the behavior of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste over time, he said.

Private initiatives are in addition to the DOE’s efforts and may accelerate the schedule to remove spent fuel from the shutdown reactor sites, Moniz said.

“These initiatives present a novel approach that is distinctly different from DOE’s consent-based siting approach, as they essentially already include an aspect of community, state and tribal consent,” he said. “DOE is encouraged by the opportunities presented by these private initiatives, and we are preparing to seek public input on how a privately owned storage facility could fit into the overall integrated waste management system.”

That will move us toward a solution, and avoid leaving the burden to future generations, he said.


To encourage the development of nuclear power, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Act in 1982. It promised to accept and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from commercial reactors by Jan. 31, 1998. In return, utilities operating nuclear plants promised to make quarterly payments into a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for disposal.

The utilities, and consumers, held up their end of the bargain – pumping about $750 million a year into the fund – but the DOE has not accepted a single ounce of commercial nuclear waste for permanent disposal.

Saddled with decades’ worth of waste, utilities sued the DOE for breach of contract and won. The federal government has paid more than $3.7 billion to utilities thus far, and taxpayers could fork over another $21 billion to $50 billion before Uncle Sam figures it all out, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Nuclear Waste Fund cannot collect more money. A federal judge said DOE couldn’t charge for a service it not only wasn’t providing, but wouldn’t provide for many decades. In 2014, utilities all across America stopped charging customers the disposal fee (some 20 cents a month on the average electric bill).

About $41 billion had been collected by the Nuclear Waste Fund over three decades. Some $30 billion remains in the fund, after spending $10 billion on a Yucca Mountain disposal site.

Southern California Edison, San Onofre’s owner, has recovered more than $300 million from the federal government over this failure. Dry storage is being built on a bluff above the Pacific, and spent waste will remain there until the government finds a solution.


The Department of Energy received more than 10,000 comments on its plans for interim, consent-based storage for nuclear waste. Full text with attribution can be found here, but here are some highlights:

“Two key questions for reaching a siting agreement are who negotiates and who decides?”

“There is a fine line between incentives and coerced consent. We need to acknowledge that line, and walk it carefully.”

“Economically disadvantaged communities are especially at risk. Special effort must be made to inform and engage disadvantaged groups that could possibly be affected.”

“We are talking about something that stays toxic and dangerous for generations to come. How can one generation give ‘consent’ for future generations?”

“I think this process is going to work for DOE. It just has to be done carefully and tactfully to be a success. Benefits of accepting a site must be communicated to communities.”

“My concern is what I feel is the lack of urgency in dealing with this…. We’ve already been dealing with this problem for 70 years. It’s time to get the solution done, resolved and unless we can’t get it done very quickly, I contend that we need to stop making this stuff.”

“I’m tired of hearing DOE talk about being in the early stages of something we’ve been at for decades.”

The Conservation Crisis No One Is Talking About

In Environment, Justice, Peace, Public Health on September 22, 2016 at 10:03 am

TAKEPART, Sept. 21, 2016

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.


Coastal sand is disappearing as a growing construction industry sucks up a valuable resource.

Beaches around the world are disappearing.

No, the cause isn’t sea-level rise, at least not this time. It’s a little-known but enormous industry called sand mining, which every year sucks up billions of tons of sand from beaches, ocean floors, and rivers to make everything from concrete to microchips to toothpaste.

In the process, conservationists warn, the sand mining industry is damaging ecosystems, changing coastal water flows, and making beaches and communities less resilient to storm surges and floods as climate change accelerates.

“Sand is actually the second-most-used natural resource on Earth, behind water,” said Claire Le Guern Lytle, general director of the Santa Aguila Foundation, which was founded in 2009 to focus on coastal preservation. “It’s a finite resource, and it’s depleting very quickly, but nobody thinks about it.”

“No one ever thought we’d run out of sand,” said Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s a devastating problem, but nobody in the U.S. has a concept of it because we go to the beach and see this big wide expanse of sand.” The problem is worse, he said, in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. “They’re basically just sucking the sand up, taking entire coastlines and islands away.”

Most of the extracted coastal sand is used to make concrete and glass, the staples of the construction industry. “The numbers are staggering,” Le Guern Lytle said. “An average-size house requires 200 tons of sand. A hospital requires 3,000 tons. Every kilometer of highway requires 30,000 tons.”

A 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that the construction industry consumed 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tons of sand in 2012. The numbers are based not on reports of extraction—those reports don’t exist—but on how much concrete was used around the world that year. The U.N. called extraction rates “unsustainable” and noted that the rate of sand mining far exceeds the ability of natural systems to replenish themselves.

The problem is only going to get worse. As the human population grows, the construction industry is rushing to fill the need for housing, roads, hospitals, and other structures. As a result, the use of sand has soared. China’s construction industry has grown so large that it used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did during the entire 20th century.

China is hardly alone. A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the global construction industry will grow 85 percent between now and 2030. China, the U.S., and India, the report found, will account for 57 percent of that growth. Meanwhile, the U.N.’s World Urbanization Prospects report predicts that the cities will add 2.5 billion residents by 2050, requiring the construction of a lot of new buildings.

It’s not just construction. “Sand is in everything we do,” Le Guern Lytle said. It’s used in products ranging from microchips to tires. The natural gas industry also relies on sand as part of the fracking extraction process. “Sand is used in many, many, many ways that are unknown to most,” she said.

Some of the sand comes directly from the beach, which can damage habitats for sea turtles and birds, but much of it is dredged up off the seafloor by large ships. Le Guern Lytle said that destroys critical breeding habitats for fish and other marine life. “Extracting sand from the sea bottom just dissolves that ecosystem,” she said.

Although much of the industry is legal, sand mining has become so lucrative that illegal activities are rife. Numerous reports out of India carry news of murders and other crimes carried out by “sand mafias” during the course of illegal sand mining activities. Other countries with recent reports of illegal sand mining include Namibia, Morocco, Malaysia, and Israel. “Sand mining is as much a human tragedy as it is an environmental tragedy,” Le Guern Lytle said.

Even as many beaches are mined, others need new sand to repair damage from ever more severe storms. Normally that would require trucking in sand from other sites, but that may not always be an option. “Beaches are the most effective natural buffer from waves, storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis,” said Griggs, who also pointed out their economic and cultural importance. “Here in California, almost half of the roughly $45 billion in the coastal economy comes from tourism and recreation.”

A recent warning from the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association noted that coastal communities may need to start exploring new and more expensive ways to shore up their shores, possibly by importing sand from faraway sources or turning glass back into beach-quality sand.

Although there is just one coastal sand mine in the U.S.—a huge, century-old operation near Monterey Bay that is being targeted by the California Coastal Commission for causing too much erosion—other mines are located inland. Wisconsin, for example, has dozens of mines extracting sand for use in fracking. “About 60 percent of all sand that’s used in fracking comes from Wisconsin,” said Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter in Madison. “It tends to be a real nightmare for the people that live around the mines.” The mining process, he said, often releases particulate matter into the air that can choke people’s wells and airways. “It can very easily lodge in your lungs,” he said.

Le Guern Lytle said that although the sand mining problem is invisible to most people, she has hope. “The United Nations report in 2014 was a humongous step,” she said. “The greatest progress now is bringing more awareness.”

A Light Shines in the Dakotas

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Peace, Public Health, Race on September 21, 2016 at 10:07 am

By Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune

September 14, 2016

Regardless of what happens next, the Dakota Access pipeline protest has already made history. More than 200 tribes and thousands of Native American activists have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in a remarkable and virtually unprecedented show of unity. Yesterday, thousands of people protested in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in more than 100 cities across the country. The source of the outrage is simple: The U.S. government attempted to fast-track a dangerous pipeline without properly and respectfully consulting the sovereign tribal nation whose ancestral lands and water it threatens.

But the government agent in this case — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — overlooked two things. First, for the Standing Rock Sioux, this is a life and death issue: “Mni Wiconi” (meaning “Water is life,” in Lakota). Second, for the greater Native American community, the Dakota Access fast-tracking has resonated as yet another injustice by those who, having seized the land, would then despoil it with equal measures of greed and indifference.

The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies exposed this injustice in the bright prairie sunlight for the entire world to see, until — finally — the government blinked. Last Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, and Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement that, in effect, will temporarily halt 20 miles of pipeline construction bordering Lake Oahe on the Missouri River pending further study and possible reform of the consultation process with Native tribes.

This is a tremendous victory and sets a powerful legal precedent for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and for all of Indian Country, and I’m proud the Sierra Club has stood beside the tribe and been able to help in a small way. But what does this decision mean for the future of this pipeline, not to mention other dirty fuel projects?

Despite President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline last year, the system for approving such major projects remains rigged for disaster. A key problem highlighted by what’s happened in the Dakotas is the fast-track permitting process where the Army Corps of Engineers treats one huge pipeline as if it were a series of much smaller pipelines. By using what are called “nationwide permits,” which are supposed to cover small projects like residential developments and road crossings, the Corps has been able to circumvent both the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Rather than conduct a fair assessment of the risks posed by an entire pipeline to ancestral homelands, sacred sites, climate, air, and water, the Corps divides it into hundreds of individual segments and then concludes that each of them (surprise, surprise) is too insignificant to worry about.

This creative and dishonest use of nationwide permits sure sounds like something that would have been cooked up during the Bush/Cheney years, but that’s not the case. It happened on President Obama’s watch, beginning in 2012, and the Sierra Club, along with many other environmental groups, is demanding that it be stopped. Maybe, just maybe, the administration’s partial retreat on the Dakota Access pipeline approvals signals a change of direction.

At a minimum, though, the entire Dakota Access pipeline should be reevaluated based on the laws that were circumvented the first time it was approved. Had that been done, then complying with the Clean Water Act might have nixed the idea of routing it under the Missouri River, where a spill would have catastrophic effects on the sole drinking water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. It’s inconceivable that the project was approved without a thorough and meaningful consultation with the first inhabitants of this land.

Likewise, under NEPA, the Army Corps of Engineers would need to do a proper environmental impact statement for the entire pipeline. In fact, that’s not a lot to ask. It’s how exactly how things worked prior to 2012 — often for pipelines that were much smaller and less controversial than this one.

Finally, any environmental assessment of a major pipeline such as this one should absolutely consider how it will affect climate change. That’s not just my opinion. President Obama’s own Council on Environmental Quality said as much in the guidance for federal agencies that it issued earlier this month: “Climate change is a fundamental environmental issue, and its effects fall squarely within NEPA’s purview.”

A 1,168-mile fracked oil pipeline has no honest chance of passing that test. The administration should go back and do this the right way. Once that happens, the Dakota Access pipeline should be canceled in its entirety.

Most important of all, the same rigorous standard needs to be applied every proposed fossil fuel infrastructure project (and there are many of them, with more on the way) so that we can leave dirty fuels in the ground and complete the transition to clean, renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

Frustrating the War Lobby

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Peace, War on September 19, 2016 at 2:30 am

By Stephen Kinzer Boston Globe, September 14, 2016

By trying to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a
bipartisan group of US senators is challenging one of the key forces
that shape American foreign policy: the arms industry. Their campaign
shines a light on the role that this industry plays in whipping up fears
of danger in the world. How do Americans know that Saudi Arabia is a
peace-loving country dedicated to fighting terrorism? The same way we
know that Russia is a snarling enemy on a rampage of conquest: The arms
industry tells us so.

“We must respond to the rise of ISIS terrorism, Russian aggression on
NATO’s doorstep, provocative moves by Iran and North Korea, and an
increasingly powerful China,” the Aerospace Industry Association
recently declared. Issuing warnings through its own mouthpieces, though,
is not enough to shape public opinion. The industry also sponsors “think
tanks” that obligingly issue alarming reports warning of increasing
peril everywhere. Many are run by former diplomats or military
commanders. Their scary warnings, which seem realistic given the
warners’ personal prestige and the innocent-sounding names of their
think tanks, are aimed at persuading Americans and foreign governments
to spend more billions of dollars on weaponry.

The ludicrously misnamed United States Institute for Peace, for example,
is run by Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser who also
earns hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for his service on the
board of Raytheon, a leading arms maker. Another arms maker, Lockheed
Martin, which has just sold Poland an air-to-surface missile system and
wants to sell more, has given the institute $1 million. It’s been a good
investment. Hadley has urged that the United States “raise the cost for
what Russia is doing in Ukraine” because “even President [Vladimir]
Putin is sensitive to body bags.” The Institute of Peace wants European
countries to double their military spending and also favors sending more
weapons into the Ukraine powder keg.

The US Committee on NATO was founded by a former Lockheed executive and
pushed successfully to expand the NATO alliance onto Russia’s doorstep.
That sharply increased tension in Europe, which produces a handsome
profit for the arms industry. Another influential think tank, the
Atlantic Council, is funded by Raytheon and Lockheed. It faithfully
produces articles with headlines like “Why Peace is Impossible With
Putin,” and urges the United States and European countries to “commit to
greater defense spending” and confront “a revanchist Russia.”

Critics of wasteful military spending have bitterly denounced the
trillion-dollar project to produce a new fighter jet, the F-35, arguing
that it is already obsolete in the age of drone warfare. Nonsense,
replied the director of the Lexington Institute. In a recent article he
called the F-35 “a revolutionary platform” with “capabilities that far
exceed any current Western fighter.” Left unspoken was the fact that the
Lexington Institute is another front for the arms industry, supported by
contributions from Lockheed — the manufacturer of the F-35 — and from
Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other “defense” contractors.

The kingmaker club

Washington think tanks are only part of the matrix that promotes the
American weapons industry. The roughly 50 companies that make up the
industry shower members of Congress with millions of dollars in campaign
contributions. They also parcel out contracts across the country, in
order to employ people in as many congressional districts as possible.
Components for the F-35, for example, are being made in 46 states. This
practice is fiendishly effective in assuring that members of Congress
continue to support new weapons projects, no matter how ill conceived.

The congressional rebellion against a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia is
extraordinary. Four senators — two from each party — have offered a
resolution that would force a Senate vote on the deal. Sixty-four
members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter warning
that the deal would have “a deeply troubling effect on civilians” in
Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is conducting a fierce military campaign. The
United Nations has estimated that the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen
is responsible for “twice as many civilian casualties as all other
forces put together.” Yet the Obama administration wants to sell the
Saudis 153 battle tanks made by General Dynamics, some of which are to
be used in Yemen, as well as machine guns, grenade launchers, and other

Since taking office in 2009, Obama has made 42 arms deals with Saudi
Arabia, worth a staggering $115 billion. For some members of Congress,
the latest deal is a breaking point. They are reluctant to send weapons
that will be used first in Yemen and then in other ways that support
Saudi interests — which are not necessarily those of the United States.
“There is an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen,”
said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who is a cosponsor of
the resolution to block the deal. Another cosponsor, Republican Senator
Rand Paul of Kentucky, called the deal “a recipe for disaster and an
escalation of an ongoing arms race in the region.”

Not surprisingly, the arms industry has mobilized its considerable power
on Capitol Hill to block this Senate resolution. “We are fighting
General Dynamics,” one supporter of the resolution said last week. A
vote could come soon. Blocking this arms sale would be a rebellion
against one of Washington’s richest lobbies. That would send welcome
chills through the corridors of power in the Pentagon, the war industry,
and Saudi Arabia.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for
International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on
Twitter @stephenkinzer.

Why Nuclear War Looks Inevitable

In Environment, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on September 16, 2016 at 9:35 am

By Jason Fields, REUTERS, September 14, 2016

Several developments have the potential to move the hands of the nuclear doom clock closer to midnight.

A new U.S. nuclear policy has a chance of destabilizing the balance of terror by creating a larger arsenal of smaller weapons.

Smaller weapons are more tempting to use. The argument for so-called “tactical” nukes is that they would destroy a smaller area and create less fallout, making them more “safe” to use than traditional many-megaton bombs. And that could lead to temptation to use them.

Just as importantly, that could give other nuclear-armed powers the impression that the U.S. would be more likely to use the weapons – a dangerous spiral that could culminate with…the end of the world, literally.

The United States is hardly the only nation adding stress to a system that is always a hands-breadth from tragedy.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has rattled the nuclear sabre, even threatening to station missiles in annexed Crimea. Pakistan, another nuclear-armed country, is a divided nation with government agencies linked to Islamic extremism and a beef with India. India has a beef with Pakistan and territorial disputes with China.

North Korea is a wildcard with an accelerating nuclear program that may still be getting help from Pakistan – which denies it. Recent tests by North Korea and China’s lack of overt response has set U.S. teeth on edge.

Incredible as it may seem, at the height of the Cold War the world might actually have been safer, experts say. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had a death wish, and those were clearly the stakes.

And, of course, nihilistic militants have no such qualms.



Marjorie Cohn: Perpetual ‘War on Terror’

In Democracy, Drones, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Peace, War on September 15, 2016 at 9:44 am


Fifteen years ago, 19 men committed suicide and took more than 3,000 people with them. The 9/11 attacks constituted crimes against humanity and should have been treated as such, with investigations and prosecutions of those who helped plan and finance the horrific crimes.

If they had been armed attacks by another country, George W. Bush could have lawfully used military force in self-defense under the United Nations Charter. But they were not. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq had attacked the United States or any other UN member country. In fact, Iraq had not invaded any country for 11 years, since it went into Kuwait. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq posed an imminent threat to any nation.

None of the hijackers hailed from Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, 15 came from Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the Bush administration invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq and changed their regimes, killing and injuring untold numbers of people. The resulting vacuum in Iraq has been filled by Islamic State, which formed and became powerful after the US invaded that country.

Bush declared a “war on terror.” Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy and you don’t declare war on a tactic. Yet Bush invoked the 9/11 attacks to shred the Constitution. And although he avoids using the phrase “war on terror,” Barack Obama is continuing Bush’s perpetual war.

Bush’s War on Civil Liberties

Bush did not confine his war on terror to other countries. He mounted a wholesale assault on civil liberties here in the United States.

He rammed the USA PATRIOT Act through a shell-shocked Congress that had rejected its provisions prior to 9/11. The act enhanced the government’s ability to conduct surveillance and created a crime of “domestic terrorism,” which was used to target political activists who protest government policies. It is defined so broadly that it has been used to go after environmental and animal rights groups.

Bush inaugurated a new program of COINTELPRO-style surveillance, in which the government used wiretapping without judicial authorization. A similar policy was banned by a Republican-controlled Congress with the passage of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) after the FBI used it to target civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

In violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment, Bush signed an executive order establishing the Terrorist Surveillance Program. It authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap people within the United States with no judicial review. The NSA has eavesdropped on untold numbers of private conversations. It has combed through large volumes of telephone and internet communications flowing into and out of the United States, collecting a vast amount of personal information that has nothing to do with national security.

Bush ordered federal agencies to refuse to honor requests under the Freedom of Information Act, an important vehicle for citizens to hold the government accountable by requesting, receiving and publicizing public records.

In particular, three developments on Bush’s watch have had a chilling effect on protected First Amendment activity: the shift from reactive to preemptive law enforcement; the enactment of domestic antiterrorism laws; and the relaxation of FBI guidelines on the surveillance of Americans.

Bush also indefinitely detained hundreds of men and boys of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent in the United States and Guantánamo, Cuba, without charges or suspicion of terrorist ties.

Bush & Co.’s Illegal Torture Program

Nearly 800 individuals have been held indefinitely at Guantánamo, most without charge, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US has ratified.

Prisoners released from Guantánamo report having been tortured and subjected to cruel treatment. They describe assaults, prolonged shackling in uncomfortable positions and sexual abuse. There are accounts of prisoners being pepper-sprayed in the face until they vomited, fingers being poked into their eyes, and their heads being forced into the toilet pan and flushed.

Those who engaged in hunger strikes were brutally force-fed, a practice that the United Nations Human Rights Commission called torture. Thirty-two attempted suicides took place in an 18-month period.

As evidence of torture leaked out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a Guantánamo-Iraq torture connection was revealed. General Geoffrey Miller, implicated in setting torture policies in Iraq, had been transferred from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib specifically to institute the same harsh interrogation procedures he had put in place at Guantánamo.

In late 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 499-page executive summary of its torture report. It said the CIA used “rectal feeding” without medical necessity on prisoners. A mixture of pureed hummus, pasta and sauce, nuts and raisins was forced into the rectum of one detainee. “Rectal rehydration” was also utilized to establish the interrogator’s “total control over the detainee.”

The interrogation policy that permitted torture and abuse came from the top. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and John Yoo admitted they participated in decisions to subject prisoners to waterboarding. This involves pouring water into the nose and mouth to make victims feel like they’re drowning. Waterboarding has long been considered torture, which is a war crime. Indeed, the United States hung Japanese military leaders for the war crime of torture after World War II.

The CIA engaged in extraordinary rendition, sending men to other countries where they were viciously tortured, in violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. That treaty, which the US has ratified, is unequivocal. It says, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Yet the Bush administration’s legal mercenaries, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, wrote memos with twisted reasoning that purported to justify torture, and advised high government officials how to avoid criminal liability under the US War Crimes Act.

Obama Continues the War on Terror

When the US ratified the Torture Convention and the Geneva Conventions, it agreed to punish those who commit torture and war crimes.

And the Constitution mandates that the president “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” But Obama has refused to prosecute the Bush administration war criminals, saying, “We need to look forward, as opposed to looking backward.”

Like his predecessor, Obama uses the “state secrets” privilege to block judicial inquiry into the US’s extraordinary rendition and surveillance programs.

Obama continues to wage the war on terror, although he doesn’t use that moniker.

Declaring the whole world a battlefield, the Obama administration has vastly expanded the use of armed drones that began during the Bush administration. Deadly missiles are killing and maiming people in seven countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And Obama continues to fight the war in Afghanistan, leaving 8,400 US troops and special operations forces there.

Like Bush’s fateful regime change in Iraq, Obama’s invasion of and regime change in Libya created space for Islamic State to proliferate.

Under the Obama administration, the US military continues to force-feed hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo.

Terror as Blowback Against US Foreign Policy

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have conducted the war on terror by combating the symptoms of terrorism rather than grappling with its root causes. They have succeeded in maintaining an atmosphere of fear, shifting the national discourse away from the reasons why the US is hated.

That hatred dates back to the stationing of US troops at the holy sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia, the killing of one million Iraqis — half of them children — with punishing sanctions during the 1990s, and the United States’ uncritical support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The hatred is exacerbated by the perpetual war the US is waging in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East.

Contrary to his periodic proclamations about transparency, Obama has continued his wars in obscurity, except in cases where he has been forced to reveal information through the Freedom of Information Act.

We owe a debt of gratitude to courageous whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou and others, who have stripped the veil of secrecy from the US torture, drone and surveillance programs. Obama has responded to their truth-telling with prosecutions under the Espionage Act, rivaling all prior presidents combined in his aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers.

Meanwhile, with some 800 US military bases abroad, the tentacles of American Empire are reaching further and tightening their grasp.

In the words of Andrew Bacevich, “There is no strategy [for the war on terror]. None. Zilch. We’re on a multitrillion dollar bridge to nowhere, with members of the national security establishment more or less content to see where it leads.”

But there is a strategy for the American people to stand up to endless war. As Phyllis Bennis has suggested, we must call for “a massive reduction of the military budget,” slated at $619 billion this year. We must also “demand to replace the so-called global War on Terror with nonmilitary solutions,” since “killing people simply creates more terrorists.” And finally, we must “broaden efforts to end the US support — military, economic and diplomatic — for Israeli occupation and apartheid.”

There is little doubt that the permanent war on terror will continue in a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump administration, stealing precious resources that could be used to fight climate change, enhance our educational and healthcare systems, and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.

It is up to all of us to speak out, write and protest against endless war. That means pressuring Congress and the White House, holding demonstrations and inserting our opposition into the media and public debate. Our very survival depends on it.


Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild and on the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her books include Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law; The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse and Drones; and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website: MarjorieCohn.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MarjorieCohn.

How the Trump Organization’s Foreign Business Ties Could Upend U.S. National Security

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Peace on September 15, 2016 at 8:24 am


An investigative report by Newsweek on how “almost every foreign
policy decision (a President Trump) makes will raise serious conflicts
of interest and ethical quagmires.”

For the full report, go to



Thanks to Dave Anderson for sending this to me.