Archive for the ‘Public Health’ Category

Trump and Climate Catastrophe

In Climate change, Cost, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Public Health on January 7, 2019 at 4:34 am

by John Bellamy Foster

John Bellamy Foster is the editor of MR and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He is coauthor, with Paul Burkett, of Marx and the Earth (Haymarket, 2017)
“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.”

—Donald Trump, January 2, 20141

The alarm bells are ringing. The climate-change denialism of the Trump administration, coupled with its goal of maximizing fossil-fuel extraction and consumption at all costs, constitutes, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “almost a death knell for the human species.” As noted climatologist Michael E. Mann has declared, “I fear that this may be game over for the climate.”2

The effects of the failure to mitigate global warming will not of course come all at once, and will not affect all regions and populations equally. But just a few years of inaction in the immediate future could lock in dangerous climate change that would be irreversible for the next ten thousand years.3 It is feared that once the climatic point of no return—usually seen as a 2°C increase in global average temperatures—is reached, positive-feedback mechanisms will set in, accelerating warming trends and leading, in the words of James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the foremost U.S. climate scientist, to “a dynamic situation that is out of [human] control,” propelling the world toward the 4°C (or even higher) future that is thought by scientists to portend the end of civilization, in the sense of organized human society.4

Although the United States currently contributes only about 15 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, a failure on its part to act to reduce emissions would push the world more decisively toward the 2°C tipping point.5 Moreover, in the apparently likely event that the principal per-capita global emitter and the hegemonic global power chooses to bow out, any worldwide effort to reduce carbon emissions will be severely jeopardized. For this reason, climate scientists are increasingly turning from the United States to China as the main hope for leadership in combating climate change.6

At this critical moment in history, three questions need to be answered: What does the latest scientific evidence tell us about the approach of climate catastrophe? How is today’s monopoly-finance capitalism—with Donald Trump as its authentic representative—contributing to this impending planetary catastrophe? And what possibilities remain for humanity to avert an Earth-system calamity?

Toward a “Fatal Imbalance”

The latest evidence on climate change is jaw-dropping. On November 8, 2016, the day of the U.S. election, the World Meteorological Organization reported that global average temperatures have risen to about 1.2°C above preindustrial levels (dangerously close to the initial 1.5°C boundary set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement), with 2016 the hottest year on record, surpassing 2015 and 2014, both of which were themselves record-breaking years.7

The annual Arctic Report Card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released in December 2016, showed that Arctic temperatures are rising at rates twice the global average, with an average increase of 3.5°C since the beginning of the twentieth century. Arctic sea ice is critical for climate stability because of the albedo effect, in which white ice reflects the sun’s rays. The disappearance of sea ice and its replacement with a heat-absorbing “dark ocean” thus represents a major climate feedback. In September 2016, Arctic sea ice dropped to its second lowest level ever recorded. The Greenland ice sheet, meanwhile, continues its rapid loss of mass, further contributing to sea level rise. The Arctic Resilience Report, published in November 2016 by the Stockholm Environment Institute, emphasized that Arctic temperatures had peaked at around 20°C warmer than normal for that time of year, and warned of nineteen impending tipping points affecting the stability of the Arctic region, some of which could “tip” the entire global climate, including much higher releases of methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—due to the thawing of the tundra.8

Over the last two years, the scientific community has nearly doubled its projections for sea level rise during the course of this century. Already it has increased 8 inches, threatening island communities and low-lying coastal areas throughout the world. The ocean could rise by close to two meters (more than six feet) by 2100, while, over a couple of centuries, the increase could reach six meters (twenty feet). By 2500, according to one study in Nature, sea level rise could be as much as 15 meters (over 49 feet).9

Trillionthtonne.org, a climate-tracking website associated with scientists at the University of Oxford, currently indicates that if present trends continue unchecked, the world will hit the trillionth-metric-ton mark in total carbon emissions—that is, the amount of total carbon emissions thought to generate 450 ppm in global carbon concentration, and a 2°C increase in global temperatures—in just over twenty years. Over 600 gigatons (billions of metric tons) of carbon have been emitted into the atmosphere so far. The closer the world gets to the trillionth metric ton, the more drastic the effort needed to avoid breaking the planetary carbon budget. At present, this would require planet-wide carbon-emissions reductions of around 3 percent a year, and as much as three times that number in rich, high per-capita carbon-emitting nations, who account for more than a quarter of the world’s present emissions as well as the vast majority of its historic emissions—and whose wealth offers them ample material means to address the problem.10

As Mann, best known for developing the famous “hockey-stick” chart showing the sharp rise in global average temperatures, concisely explains in his 2016 book The Madhouse Effect:

A tipping point is, of course, a point of no return. In the context of climate change, it would mean that we have warmed the planet enough to set in motion an unstoppable process. In reality, there is no single tipping point in the climate system; there are many. And the farther we go down the fossil fuel highway, the more tipping points we will cross. Many observers have argued that a warming of the planet of 3.6°F (2°C) relative to preindustrial levels (something that will likely happen if we allow CO2 levels to climb to just 450 ppm) would almost certainly create dangerous, potentially irreversible changes in our climate. As a reminder, we have already warmed around 1.5°F (1°C), and another 0.9°F (0.5°C) is likely in the pipeline. Another decade of business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions could commit us to that 3.6°F (2°C) “dangerous warming” threshold….

At the current rate of 30 gigatons a year, we’ll burn through our [carbon] budget in about three decades. To remain within the budget, we have to reduce emissions by several percent a year, to bring them down to 33 percent of current levels within twenty years. That’s an average worldwide carbon footprint similar to what prevails in the developing world. By midcentury, emissions must approach zero. That’s the black double-diamond slope.

One recent analysis determined that achieving these reductions would require that 33 percent of all proven reserves of oil, 50 percent of all natural gas, and 80 percent of all coal reserves must remain in the ground. That means we have to phase out coal and leave most if not all of the Canadian tar sands in the ground (that is, no Keystone XL pipeline).11

The issue before us, as Mann emphasizes, is therefore not a minor one. It is a matter of a “fatal imbalance” in the human relation to the planet: the crisis of the Anthropocene.12

Capitalism versus the Climate

If natural science has taught us that the rapid pace of anthropogenic climate change threatens to destroy the planet as a home for humanity, then we must turn to social science to understand the actual social causes of climate change, and the necessary solutions. However, as a rule, the social sciences are compromised from the start. As shown in particular by the discipline of economics, they are ideologically compelled to answer all concrete issues in terms set by capitalism, excluding any perspective that seriously challenges that system or its boundaries. Social scientists are thus discouraged from questioning—or indeed even naming—the fundamental structures and workings of the historical system in which we live.

It follows that the social-scientific contributions most relevant to our understanding of the causes and imperatives of climate change have originated outside the mainstream of academic social science, in critical analyses of capitalism.13 At issue, as decades of research have demonstrated, is the disjuncture between, on the one hand, the increasing demands put on the environment by a process of ever-expanding capital accumulation, rooted in class, competition, and inequality, and on the other, the capacity of the environment to withstand this assault.14 The growing pressure on the climate, moreover, is currently taking an especially acute form, due to the system’s heavy reliance on fossil-fuel production as a proven engine of capital accumulation worldwide—together with the vested interests of wealth and power that block any transition to renewable forms of energy.

In logical-historical terms, capitalism is a system of capital accumulation, a juggernaut in which each new level of economic growth becomes the mere means to further growth, ad infinitum. In the course of its history, capital has been able to “shift” the rifts that it has created in the natural metabolism, displacing them elsewhere, often by imposing such externalities on the most vulnerable populations. The capital-accumulation system, however, has now expanded its operations to encompass the entire planet, disrupting the biogeochemical processes of the Earth system itself, most dramatically in the form of climate change. Even though a conversion to renewable energy is hypothetically conceivable within the system, capital’s demand for short-term profits, its competitive drive, its vested interests, and its inability to plan for long-term needs all militate against rational energy solutions.15

The imperatives of capital accumulation, as analyzed in radical social-science research over the last century and half (beginning in 1867 with the publication of Karl Marx’s Capital), are further complicated by the advent, near the end of the last century, of monopoly-finance capital. In this phase the system is characterized by higher levels of global economic concentration, an accumulation regime dominated by financial-asset accumulation and the globalization of production, and a neoliberal political order—giving rise, in some cases, to neo-fascism. Structurally related to this, as an underlying cause, is the stagnation of accumulation in the advanced capitalist economies, and the world economy as a whole.16 Under this new financialized capitalism, neoliberal policies have sought to remove all regulations on the free flow and amassing of wealth, siphoning more and more of total income into the financial sector, and creating a system of global labor arbitrage or worldwide unequal exchange, the latest phase of imperialism.17

All of this is connected in the present historical conjuncture to the declining hegemony of the United States, the rise of China, and attempts to maintain imperial control via the triad of the United States, Europe, and Japan. Elements of the U.S. ruling class—garishly personified by Trump and his advisers—and of the triad as a whole are striving in these circumstances to resurrect national and imperial power through fossil fuels (and nuclear power), military buildups, financial control, and the repression of immigrants and racially defined “others”—enlisting in this new but retrograde imperial project parts of a downwardly mobile and demoralized white working class.

This countervailing reaction of a system in peril shows the limits of reform in the epochal crisis—both economic and ecological—in which the world is now entrapped. Reform is only ever viable under the regime of capital to the extent that it does not come close to threatening the fundamental conditions that govern accumulation as a whole—and well before that point is reached, vested interests normally intervene to stop substantive reforms.18 The social transformations demanded today by the reality of climate change (as well as economic stagnation) are of such a scale and significance that large sections of these entrenched interests perceive such necessary changes as a danger not only to the immediate prospects for accumulation, and to their own positions of power, but also to the very existence of capitalism—whose importance, in their accounting, outweighs that of the climate itself.19

Under these conditions, environmental reforms tend to be too limited to achieve their goals, and even then face unrelenting opposition from fossil-fuel companies and their investors and allies—a category that covers much of the global ruling class. Meanwhile, the almost total failure of centrist-liberal parties and governments, along with their counterparts in the academy, to remove their self-imposed blinders and perceive the reality of capitalism’s war on the earth reflects a major moral and ideological default of establishment social science. The result is climate policies that have proven substantially ineffective, and whose implementation represents little more than a loss of precious time amid a rapidly worsening planetary emergency.

It is in the face of this failure of centrist climate policy that Naomi Klein, issuing a wake-up call for the left, famously declared that, at least on this crucial issue, “the right is right.” That is, the right is correct in believing that this is a case of “capitalism versus the climate”—though wrong in choosing the former over the latter. So far, in its war on the climate, Klein acknowledges, “capitalism is winning.”20 The system shows no sign of applying the brakes as the runaway train of the profit system hurtles toward the climate precipice. The world’s people in these circumstances are mere hostages—unless they should choose to mutiny.

The Failure of Carbon Reform

Over the last few decades, the chief aim of establishment climate-change policy has been the ecological modernization of capitalism—but only within limits that remain conducive to capital accumulation. This approach is represented at the international level by the Paris Climate Agreement, in which 193 nations came together to sign onto a “plan” to address climate change that, when measured against the present global emergency, is hardly worth the paper on which it is written. The commitments made by individual nations are entirely voluntary and nonbinding, and thus unlikely to be fulfilled, given that there is no overall mechanism for implementation and no worldwide sanctions—and even then, if implemented, these independent national commitments would push the climate well beyond the 2°C barrier, into a world condemned to as much as a 3.7°C increase in global average temperature.21

The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate policy, which formed the basis of the U.S. contribution to the Paris Agreement, was the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Though the plan is currently locked up in the courts, its proponents claim that it is designed to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 26–28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The CPP consists chiefly of a set of executive orders extending the Clean Air Act to the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions in electrical power plants, to be implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Whatever its ambitions, Obama’s climate initiative falls far short of the emission reductions that wealthy states would need to have introduced if humanity were to maintain a safe and secure relation to the climate. The year 2005 was chosen as the baseline for emission reductions precisely because it represented the peak level of U.S. carbon emissions. As Mark Hertsgaard has pointed out in the Nation, the stipulated cuts in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions, although ostensibly exceeding 25 percent according to the 2005 baseline by 2025, would nonetheless be only 7 percent if measured against the original 1990 baseline of the Kyoto Protocol. The latter agreement mandated that U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions should drop by 7 percent by 2012. This original reduction target, which the United States was supposed to have put in place under the Kyoto Protocol but ended up abandoning, was initially conceived in the 1990s as merely a first step in reducing carbon emissions. The CPP’s seemingly large projected emissions reductions are thus primarily an outcome of moving the goal posts, with the result that the actual cuts in emissions would still be at a level grossly inadequate to protect humanity from catastrophic climate change, with time fast running out. Further, these prospective reductions would rely primarily on market-friendly carbon-trading schemes that have previously proven ineffective.22

The weakness of Obama’s centrist-capitalist approach is thrown into stark relief in the Economic Report of the President for 2017, where one finds such statements as: “The economic literature suggests that some impacts of climate change, particularly the rise in extreme temperatures, will likely be partly offset by increased private investment in air conditioning, and that movement to avoid temperature extremes, either spending more time indoors in the short run, or relocating in the long run, could also reduce climate impacts on health.” Such “Let Them Buy Air Conditioners, Let Them Stay Indoors, and Let Them Move” stances can hardly be considered serious—or ethical—responses to climate change.23

Already in 2015, Hansen declared that because the actions outlined in the CPP would “do nothing to attack the fundamental problem,” they were “like the fellow who walks to work instead of driving, and thinks he is saving the world.” Such measures, he stressed, were “practically worthless.” Instead, steps must be taken both nationally and globally to ratchet up the price of carbon and to keep it in the ground. “As long as fossil fuels are allowed to (appear to be) the cheapest energy,” and no intervention is made to increase their cost, he continued, “someone will burn them.”24 Ironically, measures that are designed simply to reduce the demand for carbon in one locale tend only to lower fossil-fuel prices elsewhere (assuming a constant supply of such fuels) thereby ensuring that they will find a market somewhere in the global economy.25

It is therefore highly significant that even the meager efforts represented by the Paris Climate Agreement and Obama’s Clean Power Plan—which have avoided addressing the fundamental problem, and can scarcely be said to pose, at this level, a threat to the system as a whole—have nonetheless provoked enormous resistance from the vested interests of fossil-fuel capitalism. Not only did Obama have to circumvent Congress to enact the CPP (and to sign the Paris Agreement, which was possible without congressional approval only because it contained no binding requirements), the whole climate initiative was immediately blocked in court, since the twenty-four states closest to the fossil-fuel industry launched a lawsuit—aided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s order that the EPA suspend enforcement of the CPP until a lower court could arrive at a decision. Even this may all be a dead letter, however, since the Trump administration has vowed to rescind or otherwise dismantle the CPP and to withdraw from the Paris accords.26

Trump, in a version of the “big lie,” has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax.”27 Accordingly, he has filled the ranks of his transition team and cabinet with climate science denialists and fossil-fuel industry shills. Myron Ebell, director of energy and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a leading climate contrarian, headed up Trump’s transition team. He publicly accused the respected scientist Kevin Trenberth, a senior climate researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (famous for accounting for the apparent hiatus in global-warming acceleration, using evidence of increased below-surface-level ocean heating) of being “part of a gang” guilty of “cooking the data” on the climate. Financier Anthony Scaramucci, a Trump adviser and an executive member of his transition team, compared the notion of anthropogenic climate change to geocentrism, the belief that the sun revolves around the earth. In Scaramucci’s own words: “I’m saying people have gotten things wrong throughout the 5,500-year history of our planet” (italics added). David Schnare, who left the EPA to start an oil-industry-funded non-profit that specialized in suits against the EPA and attacks on climate science, was named to the transition team and charged with revamping the EPA. Schnare gained special notoriety as the attorney who, while working for the right-wing American Tradition Institute (now the Environmental and Energy Legal Institute), targeted both Hansen and Mann, along with other climate scientists, seeking to force them to release private documents and emails. Thomas Pyle, head of the American Energy Alliance, a group with strong links to the oil industry—including Koch Industries, for which he worked as a lobbyist—was chosen to lead the transition team for the Department of Energy. A leaked memo by Pyle lists the immediate goals of the Trump administration’s climate policy: (1) withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, (2) dismantling the Clean Power Plan, and (3) expediting approval of pipeline projects.

Trump’s choices of nominees for major cabinet posts follow the same pattern. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, his pick to lead the EPA, is still another lawyer who has fought the EPA on behalf of the fossil-fuel industry, and is also an outspoken climate-change denier, who wrote in 2016 that the debate on climate change was “far from settled.” Ignoring the 97 percent consensus among scientists on the anthropogenic sources of climate change, Pruitt claimed that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Energy—a department that, as a Republican presidential contender, Perry promised to eliminate altogether—is a stalwart ally of the fossil-fuel industry. He went so far as to declare in his 2010 book that “we have been experiencing a cooling trend.” His administration in Texas deliberately removed all references to climate change in a report addressing rising sea levels. Congressman Ryan Zinke, from coal-producing Montana, Trump’s nominee for secretary of the interior, likewise asserts that climate change has no firm scientific basis. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions has repeatedly insisted, against all evidence, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.

Ironically, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, stands out in the new administration for his acknowledgement of the reality of climate change. However, as recently as 2013, Tillerson declared that any alternative-energy movement was doomed to fail, and predicted that renewables such as “wind, solar, biofuels,” would supply only 1 percent of total energy in 2040. Faced with the demands of environmentalists and protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline, Tillerson simply stated his capitalist creed: “My philosophy is to make money.” ExxonMobil under his leadership not only funded climate denialism, but fought to remove all obstacles whatsoever to the increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels.28

Most alarming for climate scientists in the first weeks of the Trump transition was a 74-question survey issued in early December to employees in the Energy Department, designed to determine which scientists and officials had been most involved in advancing Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other measures to contain climate change. This was widely regarded as the warning shot of a new McCarthyite inquisition against climate scientists, prompting a frantic effort by scientists across the country to archive their data, placing it on widely accessible nongovernmental data bases, lest climate data in government hands be disappeared under Trump. The incoming administration soon disavowed the questionnaire, but the damage was done.29

In addition to singling out scientists who advanced Obama’s climate initiatives, the questionnaire had a more specific target: the social cost of carbon (SCC), currently estimated at $40 per metric ton of carbon, a category used by the Obama administration to quantify the economic impact of climate change and thus to justify the regulation of carbon emissions in cost-benefit terms. The SCC is by now part of established case law and cannot simply be undone. The Trump administration, however, has made it clear that it will alter basic premises used to calculate the SCC, such as the discount rate that relates present dollars to future dollars, thereby shrinking the calculation of the costs. Employing a higher discount rate could make the economic costs of climate change appear to vanish, even turn negative—so that climate change appears not only economically benign, but beneficial. In this way the numbers can be manipulated so that any restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions fail the economic cost-benefit test required by law.30

In a parallel development, Trump aerospace policy adviser Bob Walker, a former congressman from Pennsylvania (a coal state), informed the Guardian that the new administration would seek to defund NASA’s Earth-system research, the most important single source of global climate data, compelling the agency to focus instead on deep-space exploration. Walker accused NASA of engaging in “politically correct environmental research” in its climate-change investigations. “The models that the scientists have used on global warming,” he declared, “have been extremely flawed.”31

As Hansen usefully pointed out a decade ago, the problem is not the climate denialists as such—since such contrarians, in or out of government, are mere “court jesters” whom no one in the end will take seriously. The problem is “the court” itself—that is, capital:

the captains of industry, CEOs in fossil fuel companies such as Exxon/Mobil, automobile manufacturers, utilities, all of the leaders who have placed short-term profit above the fate of the planet and the well-being of our children. The court jesters are their jesters, occasionally paid for services, and more substantively supported by the captains’ disinformation campaigns…. The captains of industry are smarter than their jesters. They cannot pretend that they are unaware of climate change dangers and consequences for future generations.32

In the new Trump administration, however, fossil-fuel courtiers like Tillerson and their court jesters are now in power, sitting side by side.

It would be wrong, then, to see this administration as simply a cabal of ignoramuses, beginning with the climate-change-denier-in-chief himself. Rather, these efforts to undermine even modest regulations and to discredit sound science are necessary parts of an attempt by carbon capital to proceed undeterred with burning of fossil fuels, as if this did not constitute a dire threat to the human species. The motive here is quite simply the institutionalized drive for ever more, at virtually any cost to society as a whole. It is analogous, but on a much larger scale, to the decades-long campaign of misinformation by tobacco companies claiming that their products were not killing their customers—even though their own internal scientific research, which they kept hidden, showed the opposite.33

Not surprisingly, it is fossil-fuel capital that has already benefitted most from Trump’s election. The stocks of oil and gas companies spiked the moment the 2016 election results were announced. Peabody Energy, the leading U.S. coal company, was pulled from the brink of bankruptcy by an immediate 70 percent increase in the value of its shares. Harold Hamm, the billionaire fracking mogul and Trump adviser, expects Trump to slash oil and gas drilling regulations: “Every time we can’t drill a well in America,” Hamm threatens, “terrorism is being funded.” For the alt-right website Breitbart News, whose chairman, Stephen Bannon, masterminded the later stages of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, there is no global warming, only global cooling. Breitbart greeted Trump’s election with the headline: “The Left Just Lost the War on Climate Change.”34

Significantly, Trump’s promise to “build a wall” along the border with Mexico to block “illegal immigration” can be read at least in part as a reaction to climate change, even as the latter is being denied—just as sea walls are hypocritically being proposed by climate deniers in parts of the South as a means to protect coastal real estate. The Trump plan for a more militarized border involves the building of a thousand-mile wall (most of which already exists, in the form of security fences), with the rest of the nearly two-thousand-mile border largely impassable due to natural barriers. The wall would be tightly guarded, monitored by a fleet of aircraft and drones. Here it is impossible not to be reminded of a 2003 Defense Department report, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security—written for the Pentagon by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network—which argued that the catastrophic effects of abrupt climate change would compel wealthy nations like the United States and Australia to construct “defensive fortresses” along their perimeters to shut out climate refugees. “Military confrontation,” the report warned, “may be triggered by a desperate need [particularly in the global South] for natural resources such as energy, food and water,” creating new national security threats to which the “have” nations would need to respond—militarily.35

The Fire This Time

“Revolution,” in the words of Malcolm X, “is like a forest fire. It burns everything in its path. The people who are involved in a revolution don’t become a part of the system—they destroy the system, they change the system. The genuine word for a revolution is Umwälzung which means a complete overturning and a complete change…. The only way to stop a forest fire from burning down your house is to ignite a fire that you control and use it against the fire that is burning out of control.”36 This controlled backfire is the meaning of counterrevolution. Today virulent anti-environmentalism, tied to a broader neo-fascist politics linked to white supremacy, is the backfire being ignited against both efforts to combat climate change and the larger movement for social and environmental justice.

The urgent task before us in these dire circumstances was explained by Eric S. Godoy and Aaron Jaffe in an op-ed piece for theNewYorkTimes in October 2016, headlined “We Don’t Need a ‘War’ on Climate Change, We Need a Revolution.” “Following Marx, contemporary [radical ecological] theorists,” Godoy and Jaffe note, are investigating “our changing and dangerously unstable metabolic relationship with nature. Humans are a unique species in that we form complex relationships to regulate this metabolism as we produce our food, water, shelter and more robust needs.” But the larger reality of class and social inequality identified with capitalism, means that “the affluent can afford an increase in food prices, ship in bottled water during droughts and relocate businesses and homes when the seas rise, while those without access to such privileges have fewer options and disproportionately suffer.” The same logic applies to access to basic technologies and other means of environmental defense. For these and other reasons, climate change endangers the oppressed and underprivileged first—both within nations and globally.

The only conceivable answer today to cascading planetary catastrophe is a broad-based ecological and social revolution, in which the population mobilizes to protect the future of humanity: a revolutionary war for the planet. For Godoy and Jaffe, the “crucial” goal in this respect “is gaining social control over the private, exploitative and even irresponsible direction of the human-nature metabolism,” which has generated a metabolic rift in society’s relation the planet. Overcoming this rift requires a majoritarian revolt on a global scale, the like of which the world has never seen. A “green revolution,” they argue, “would center the human-nature metabolism over and against the drive for profits.” The goal would be to “transform the relationships that regulate our metabolism with nature, relationships that now allow some to profit by denying this right to others.” From this perspective, “Exxon and its climate science obfuscation is not so much an enemy as a paradigmatic symptom of the worst kinds of behavior generated by profit-driven systems. The enemy is the violence perpetrated by [the] racial, gendered, political, juridical and existing economic metabolisms with nature.”37

Godoy and Jaffe’s stance aligns closely with Klein’s argument in This Changes Everything. Behind the right’s climate denial is the economic reality that seriously combatting capitalism’s war on the planet, requires the defeat of the system. Thus the only alternative for the right and its until-death-do-us-part defenders of capitalism is to invert reality and abandon science. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, the right “vomits up reason,” rejecting “the laws of nature” and “two times two is four.”38

The right must deny science and reason precisely because they point to the need for radical social, economic, and ecological transformation. Klein quotes leading British climate scientist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Institute for Climate Change Research, who writes that, “today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.” As Klein argues, “revolutionary levels of transformation to the market system” are “now our best hope of avoiding climate chaos.”39

A world climate movement aimed at countering climate change, Klein states, can be a “galvanizing force for humanity,” a “People’s Shock, a blow from below,” compelling us to create at last the world of social and economic equality that is so much needed in the world today. She rightly stresses the radical groundswell itself, placing her faith in the leading edge of climate activism, in the form of what she and others call “Blockadia”—a “roving transnational conflict zone” in which climate and environmental-justice activists, indigenous peoples, workers, socialists, and other groups throw up barriers to resist the system.40

An example of Blockadia in this sense is the courageous struggle of Native American “water protectors” and their allies—including two thousand military veterans who arrived in the final days to provide a “human shield”—at Standing Rock in North Dakota in the summer and fall of 2016. The Standing Rock water protectors endured weeks of state violence in the form of water cannons in freezing temperatures, non-lethal bullets, and tear gas, and succeeded in stopping, at least for the time being, the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, intended to stretch over a thousand miles from the Bakken and Three Forks production areas in North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, and into Illinois, with the aim of transporting up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day. The pipeline required drillng under the Missouri River, threatening water supplies due to possible pipeline leakages. The drilling permit was rejected in early December by the Army Corps of Engineers, but the battle will likely soon erupt again, since the Trump administration has made no secret of its determination to see the pipeline completed.41

A Two-Stage Ecological Revolution

The primary efforts of radical climate activists in the present historical conjuncture have focused on blocking coal and unconventional fossil fuels, such as oil sands, tight oil, shale gas, oil shale, and oil from ultra-deep-sea wells.42 This approach is based on a complex climate-change exit strategy articulated most definitively by Hansen, who has argued that in order to limit the consumption of fossil fuels in today’s society while promoting the switch to non-fossil-fuel energy sources, it is necessary to increase the price of fossil fuels substantially through a carbon-fee-and-dividend system. Under such a plan, a fee on carbon, imposed and ratcheted up in stages, would be levied at the mine shaft, wellhead, or point of import, and 100 percent of the funds collected would be redistributed as dividends to families on a per capita basis. The result would be that the vast majority of individuals, with lower carbon footprints at lower income levels, would come out ahead, even under the assumption that the corporations would pass on the full cost of the fees—since the costs net of dividends would fall on those with higher carbon footprints and higher income levels. The beauty of Hansen’s scheme is that it would help mobilize humanity as a whole on a class basis with regard to carbon footprints.

However, a higher price for carbon, Hansen insists, is not itself sufficient. It is also necessary to focus on the more dangerous carbon fuels, proscribing their use. Hansen has argued that a key to any exit strategy has to prioritize direct action aimed at shutting down existing coal plants, as well as a moratorium on any new coal plants, and the blocking of the Alberta tar sands—since coal and tar sands oil represent the dirtiest fossil fuels, which could quickly break the global carbon budget. True to his strategy, Hansen has put himself on the line and has been arrested in protests against both coal and tar sands oil.43

Nevertheless, the Hansen exit strategy, though influential within the movement—particularly in its call for direct action to block coal and unconventionals—is weakened by its overemphasis on carbon prices. Anderson has argued that the affluent, who have the highest carbon footprints, can always afford to pay higher carbon prices. More effective would be direct governmental intervention to establish stringent maximum-emissions standards for high-energy consuming devices. This is not a technological problem, he points out, because the energy-saving and alternative-energy technologies already exist, and in many cases can be immediately substituted at little long-term cost to society as a whole. It does mean, however, confronting the “political and economic hegemony” of the system, including neoclassical economics, which is subservient to the capitalist order.44

All of this reflects a narrowing of the options for humanity and the earth. In the current climate conjuncture, the historically necessary ecological and social revolution, in which humanity as a whole would seek to once again take history in its hands, this time to stave off the impending catastrophes of an irrational system, would have to take part in two stages. The first would involve the formation of a broad alliance, modeled after the Popular Front against fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. Today’s Popular Front would need to be aimed principally at confronting the fossil-fuel-financial complex and its avid right-wing supporters. In this first stage of the struggle, manifold demands could be made and broadly agreed on within the existing system—ways of eliminating carbon emissions and economic waste while also promoting social and environmental needs—which, although inimical to the logic of capital, and particularly to the fossil-fuel industry, would not call into immediate question the existence of the capitalist system itself.45

However, in the long run, capitalism’s threat to planetary boundaries cannot be solved by stopgap reforms, however radical, that leave the system’s fundamental features intact while simply transcending its relation to fossil fuels. The danger to the planetary environment posed by the accumulation of capital is all-encompassing.46 This means that the ecological revolution will have to extend eventually to the roots of production itself, and will have to assume the form of a system of substantive equality for all: racial freedom, gender and LGBTQ equality, a classless society, an end to imperialism, and the protection of the earth for future generations.

In the long run, the struggle is therefore synonymous with the movement towards socialism. The more revolutionary the struggle, the more it is likely to emanate from those whose needs are greatest, and thus from the global South. It is in the periphery of the system, rather than in the center, that humanity is most likely to mutiny against the existing order. Hope today therefore lies first and foremost in the revolt of “the wretched of the earth,” opening up fissures at the center of the system itself.

But even if all of this were to fail, and our present hopes were to go unrealized, with the world pushed to the planetary turning point, it would remain true, then as now, that the only answer is ecological and social revolution. There is no next time. It is the fire this time.47


  1. Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, January 1, 2014, 5:39 p.m., http://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump.
  2. Leo Benedictus, “Noam Chomsky on Donald Trump: ‘Almost a Death Knell for the Human Species,’Guardian, May 20, 2016; statements by Michael E. Mann quoted in “US Election: Climate Scientists React to Donald Trump’s Victory,” CarbonBrief, November 9, 2016, http://carbonbrief.org. Mann, in his statement, is quoting James Hansen, who several years earlier had used the phrase “game over for the climate” in calling for immediate action to address climate change. See James Hansen, “Game Over for the Climate,”New York Times, May 12, 2012.
  3. Shaun Marcott quoted in “Climate Scientists React to Donald Trump’s Victory.”
  4. James Hansen,Storms of My Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 269; Kevin Anderson, “Climate Change Going Beyond Dangerous—Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope,” What Next Forum, September 12, http://whatnext.org; Heidi Cullen,The Weather of the Future (New York: Harper, 2011), 261–71.
  5. Scott Waldman, “Rise in Global Carbon Emissions Slows,”Scientific American, November 14, 2016.
  6. See James Hansen, “China and the Barbarians: Part I,” November 24, 2010, http://columbia.edu; Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles,The Madhouse Effect (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 139–40; Jean Chemnick, “China Takes the Climate Spotlight as U.S. Heads for Exit,”Scientific American, November 18, 2016; Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,The Collapse of Western Civilization(New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
  7. World Meteorological Organization, “The Global Climate 2011–2015: Heat Records and High Impact Weather,” November 8, 2016, http://public.wmo.int; “Provisional WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2016,” November 14, 2016, http://public.wmo.int.
  8. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Executive Summary,”Arctic Report Card (Washington, D.C.: NOAA, 2016), http://arctic.noaa.gov; Henry Fountain and John Schwartz, “Spiking Temperatures in the Arctic Startle Scientists,”New York Times, December 13, 2016.
  9. Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney, “Scientists Nearly Double Sea Level Rise Projections for 2100, Because of Antarctica,”Washington Post, March 30, 2016 (updated December 17, 2016); Michael Oppenheimer and Richard B. Alley, “How High Will the Seas Rise?”Science 354, no. 6318 (2016): 1375–76; Julia Rosen, “Sea Level Rise Accelerating Faster than Thought,”Science news blog, http://sciencemag.org; May 11, 2015; Robert M. DeConto and David Pollard, “Contribution of Antarctic to Past and Future Sea-Level Rise,”Nature 531 (2016): 591–97; Jeff Tollefson, “Antarctic Model Raises Prospect of Unstoppable Ice Collapse,” Nature, March 30, 2016, http://nature.com; Brian Kahn, “Sea Level Could Rise at Least 6 Meters,”Scientific American, July 9, 2015.
  10. Kevin Anderson, “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change Demands De-growth Strategies from Wealthier Nations,” November 25, 2013, http://kevinanderson.info/blog; JOs G, J, Olivier et al., Trends in Global CO2 Emissions, 2016 Report (The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2016), 13, http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu. The Netherlands Environmental Agency statistics include carbon from both fossil fuels and cement manufacture.
    Hansen further calculates that in order to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as current models minimally require, would necessitate an approximately 5 percent annual decline in emissions (on an exponential, or constant percentage rate basis). If a 6 percent annual reduction were to be achieved beginning in 2020, the world could get back down to the necessary 350 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere—if it were additionally to suck 150 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by means of improved forestry and agricultural practices. The rich, high per-capita emissions countries are those most able to achieve steep initial reductions in carbon emissions, because it is there that the “low-hanging fruit” are primarily to be found. James Hansen, “Rolling Stones,” January 11, 2017, http://columbia.edu.
  11. Mann and Toles,The Madhouse Effect, 28, 132.
  12. Mann and Toles, The Madhouse Effect, 10–11, 150; Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  13. The severity of the Anthropocene crisis prompted some major environmental thinkers to shift from mainstream to more radical views critical of capitalism. See, for example, James Gustave Speth,The Bridge at the Edge of the Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
  14. See Paul M. Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, “Capitalism and the Environment,”Monthly Review 41, no. 2 (June 1989): 1–10; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010); Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg,Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  15. The sociologist Max Weber was perhaps the first major thinker to argue that historical capitalism was inextricably intertwined with the fossil-fuel regime. See John Bellamy Foster and Hannah Holleman, “Weber and the Environment,”American Journal of Sociology 117, no. 6 (2012): 1646–60.
  16. For analyses of these global trends of monopoly, finance, stagnation, and imperialism, see Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013); John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012); Costas Lapavitsas,Profiting Without Producing (London: Verso, 2014); Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik,A Theory of Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); and John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016). The shift to financial-wealth accumulation over production and income generation is also captured, from a non-Marxian viewpoint, in Thomas Piketty,Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
  17. See Foster and McChesney,The Endless Crisis, 44–45, 125–54; Amin,The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.
  18. Paul M. Sweezy,The Theory of Capitalist Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 348–52; “Capitalism and the Environment,” 8–9.
  19. The alt-right, riding high since Trump’s election, has been defined byNational Review as a movement of “white nationalists and wanna-be fascists.” Unfortunately, the “wanna-be” seems less and less warranted. David French, “The Race-Obsessed Left Has Released a Monster It Can’t Control,”National Review, January 26, 2016. French tries to blame the rise of the alt-right and Trump on the left, rather than on the right’s own “white identity politics.”
  20. Naomi Klein,This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 22, 38–39.
  21. See Oscar Reyes, “Seven Wrinkles in the Paris Climate Deal,” Foreign Policy in Focus, December 14, 2015, http://fpif.org; Kelly Levin and Taryn Fransen, “Why Are INDC Studies Reaching Different Temperature Estimates?” World Resources Institute, November 9, 2015, http://wri.org/blog.
  22. U.S. carbon emissions had already fallen by 13 percent between 2005 and 2013, largely due to the shift away from coal during to the fracking boom, making Obama’s plan even less ambitious than it appeared. See the 2017 Economic Report of the President (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office), 423­–82; Mark Hertsgaard, “Climate Change,”Nation, January 2 and 9, 2017, 72; Brad Plumer, “A Guide to Obama’s New Rules to Cut Carbon Emissions from Power Plants,” Vox, June 1, 2014, http://vox.com; David Biello, “How Far Does Obama’s Clean Power Plan Go in Slowing Climate Change?” Scientific American, August 6, 2015.
  23. 2017 Economic Report, 448, 472, 483. On the debate on the left over Obama’s CCP and more radical strategies, see Christian Parenti, “Climate Change: What Role for Reform?” and the Editors, “A Reply to Parenti,”Monthly Review 65, no. 11 (April 2014): 49–55.
  24. Tony Dokoupil, “Obama’s Climate Policy is ‘Practically Worthless,’ Says Expert,” MSNBC, August 4, 2015.
  25. This is the thesis advanced in Hans-Werner Sinn,The Green Paradox (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
  26. Henry Fountain and Erica Goode, “Trump Has Options for Undoing Obama’s Climate Legacy,”New York Times, November 25, 2016.
  27. Ewan Palmer, “50 Other Times Donald Trump Denied Climate Change and Global Warming,” International Business Times, September 27, 2016, http://ibtimes.co.uk.
  28. Henry Fountain, “Trump’s Climate Contrarian: Myron Ebell Takes on the EPA,”New York Times, November 11, 2016; Matt Shuham, “Trump Adviser: Global Warming Could Be Disproven Just Like Flat Earth Theory,” Talking Points Memo, December 14, 2016, http://talkingpointsmemo.com; Mazin Sidahmed, “Climate Change Denial in the Trump Cabinet: Where Do Nominees Stand?Guardian, December 15, 2016; Tim Murphy, “Rick Perry’s War on Science,”Mother Jones, December 13, 2016; Lee Fang, “He Waged Intimidation Campaigns Against Climate Scientists; Now He’s Helping Trump Remake the EPA,” The Intercept, December 9, 2016, http://theintercept.com; Dan Vergano, “Trump Transition Lawyer Has Spent Years Suing for Climate Emails,” Buzzfeed, December 13, 2016, http://buzzfeed.com; Michael E. Mann,The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 367–68; Nick Surgey, “Revealed: The Trump Administration’s Energy Plan,” PR Watch, December 4, 2016, http://prwatch.org; Steven Mufson, “Trump’s Energy Policy Team Includes Climate Change Skeptic, Free-Market Advocate,”Washington Post, November 29, 2016; Scott Pruitt and Luther Strange, “The Climate-Change Gang,”National Review, May 17, 2016; John Cook, “Yes, There Really is Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 13, 2016, http://thebulletin.org; Charlie Rose, “Charlie Rose Talks to ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson,” Bloomberg, March 7, 2013, http://bloomberg.com.
  29. Coral Davenport, “Climate Change Conversations are Targeted in Questionnaire to Energy Department,”New York Times, December 9, 2016; Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin, “Trump Transition Says Request for Names of Climate Scientists Was ‘Not Authorized,’Washington Post, December 14, 2016.
  30. Matthew Philips, Mark Drajem, and Jennifer A. Dlouhy, “How Climate Rules Might Fade Away,” Bloomberg, December 15, 2016; Mufson, “Trump’s Energy Policy Team Includes Climate Change Skeptic.”
  31. Dana Nuccitelli, “Trump and the GOP May Be Trying to Kneecap Climate Research,”Guardian, November 30, 2016.
  32. James Hansen, “The Real Deal: Usufruct and the Gorilla,” DeSmogBlog, August 16, 2007, http://desmogblog.com; Mark Bowen,Censoring Science (New York: Penguin, 2008), 303–04.
  33. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).
  34. Thomas Heath, “How a Trump Presidency Will Affect 15 Industries,”Washington Post, November 12, 2016; Michelle Conlin, “Exclusive: Trump Considering Fracking Mogul Harold Hamm as Energy Secretary,” Reuters, July 21, 2016; James Delingpole, “Trump: The Left Just Lost the War on Climate Change,” Breitbart, November 9, 2016, http://breitbart.com.
  35. Peter Andreas, “Yes, Trump Will Build His Border Wall. Most of It is Already Built,”Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, November 21, 2016; Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security (Pasadena, CA: California Institute of Technology, 2003); John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 107–20.
  36. A. B. Spellman, “Interview with Malcolm X,”Monthly Review 16, no. 1 (May 1964): 23.
  37. Eric S. Godoy and Aaron Jaffe, “We Don’t Need a ‘War’ on Climate Change, We Need a Revolution,”New York Times, October 31, 2016.
  38. Fyodor Dostoevsky,Notes from Underground (New York: Vintage, 1993), 13; Paul A. Baran, The Longer View (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 104. The phrase “vomits up reason” is taken from Baran’s interpretation of the Underground Man’s rejection of the “laws of nature”: and “two times two is four.”
  39. Klein,This Changes Everything, 56, 449; Kevin Anderson, “Why Carbon Prices Can’t Deliver the 2°C Target,” August 13, 2013, http://kevinanderson.info/blog.
  40. Klein,This Changes Everything, 7–10, 294.
  41. Lauren Regan, “Water Protectors File Class Action Suit for Retaliation and Excessive Force Against Brutal Police,” Civil Liberties Defense Center, November 28, 2016, http://cldc.org; “News Timeline of Standing Rock Water Protectors’ Resistance to Dakota Access Pipeline,” Daily Kos, October 11, 2016, http://dailykos.com; Wes Enzinna, “Crude Awakening,”Mother Jones (January–February 2017): 32–37; Jack Healy, “As North Dakota Pipeline Is Blocked, Veterans at Standing Rock Cheer,”New York Times, December 5, 2016.
  42. Unconventional fossil fuels are often dirtier, as in the cases of oilsands and oil shale. In other instances, they represent such a great expansion of fossil-fuel availability—as in tight oil and shale gas (via fracking), and ultra-deep oil wells, particularly in the Arctic, now opening up to oil exploration—that they put an end to any expectation of any “peaking” of fossil fuels in time to alleviate the pressure on the climate. Fracking is also associated with methane leaks, which further exacerbate climate change. It should be noted that Hansen himself sees fourth-generation nuclear energy (still not fully developed) as a possible alternative, non-carbon energy source, and thus part of the answer to global warming. However, this would be a Faustian bargain, raising a host of concerns for humanity and the environment.
  43. John Bellamy Foster, “James Hansen and the Climate Change Exit Strategy,”Monthly Review 64, no. 9 (February 2013): 1–18; Foster, “The Fossil Fuels War,”Monthly Review 65, no. 4 (September 2013): 4–5; Bowen,Censoring Science, 305.
  44. Anderson, “Why Carbon Prices Can’t Deliver.”
  45. See Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 124–31; Angus,Facing the Anthropocene, 189–223.
  46. See, for example, the multifaceted threat that capitalism poses toward oceans and marine life, as depicted in Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark,The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
  47. “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.’” James Baldwin,The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial, 1963), 105–06.


Democrats Just Blocked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Push for a Green New Deal Committee

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Peace, Politics, Public Health on December 22, 2018 at 11:14 pm
Instead, Democrats are sticking to their original plan, and channeled Exxon Mobil in an announcement refusing to bar members who take fossil fuel money.

printer friendly  


Democratic leaders on Thursday tapped Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) to head a revived U.S. House panel on climate change, all but ending a dramatic monthlong effort to establish a select committee on a Green New Deal.

Castor’s appointment came as a surprise to proponents of a Green New Deal. The move also kicked off a controversy as the six-term congresswoman dismissed calls to bar members who accept money from fossil fuel companies from serving on the committee, arguing it would violate free speech rights.

Despite weeks of protests demanding House Democrats focus efforts next year on drafting a Green New Deal, the sort of sweeping economic policy that scientists say matches the scale of the climate crisis, Castor told E&E News the plan was “not going to be our sole focus.”

She then suggested that barring members who have accepted donations from the oil, gas and coal industries from serving on the committee could be unconstitutional.

“I don’t think you can do that under the First Amendment, really,” she said.

That reasoning echoed arguments Exxon Mobil Corp. made in court as recently as this year to defend its funding of right-wing think tanks that deliberately produced misinformation about climate science to stymie government action on global warming.

Soon after the remarks were published, Castor walked back the statement in an interview with HuffPost, calling it an “inartful answer.”

But she said she did not know whether, as chairperson, she could bar members on the committee from serving if they accepted fossil fuel donations.

“Maybe that’s a discussion we need to have in the caucus,” Castor said.

It’s a stunning upset, essentially returning Democrats to the original plan leaders laid out before the protests began in November. The announcement comes as a loss for Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Her meteoric rise and devoted base made it seem as if she were poised to win the burgeoning cadre of leftist Democrats a beachhead in a select committee that, even with limited capacity, would have demonstrated tangible power in Washington.

But, if it’s defeat, it’s bittersweet. The campaign, seemingly quixotic at first, shifted the stagnant climate policy debate not just to the left but, for the first time, in the direction of policies that could make a dent in surging global emissions and curb soaring income inequality. Coupled with back-to-back United Nations and federal reports that showed climate change already rapidly worsening, the effort established a new litmus test for lawmakers, breaking the binary of whether or not a politicians “believes” in the science of human-caused warming.

The movement gained stunning support in just a few weeks. A poll released Monday found 81 percent of registered voters supported the policies outlined under the Green New Deal resolution ― including 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of self-described conservative Republicans. Last Friday, more than 300 state and local officials voiced support for a Green New Deal in an open letter. 

“We don’t have time to sit on our hands as our planet burns,” Ocasio-Cortez said Thursday in a tweet. “For young people, climate change is bigger than election or re-election. It’s life or death.”

It’s unclear whether Ocasio-Cortez will even get a seat on the select committee.

Asked if she accepted money from fossil fuel companies, Castor said, “I cannot think of a contribution from an oil company or fossil fuel company, but I cannot say without going back and with a fine-toothed comb that there wasn’t something in the past.”

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Castor accepted more than $73,000 from the energy and natural resources sector over her 12-year tenure in Congress, including $60,000 from corporate political action committees. The League of Conservation Voters gave Castor an 86 percent score last year on its ranking, which is based on her voting record. She had a 93 percent lifetime score.

She said she would consider taking the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, a vow overseen by a handful of progressive groups including proponents of a Green New Deal. Asked what the decision hinged on, Castor said, “I don’t know.”

“We’re at year-end with a possible shutdown and I think the important thing is looking at folks for the committee who are ready to serve,” she said.

The restoration of the select committee on climate change puts an end to a month-long effort to replace it with a panel focused specifically on crafting a Green New Deal, an umbrella term for a suite of policies that would include shifting the United States to 100 percent renewable energy over the next decade and guaranteeing high-wage, federally backed jobs to workers in outmoded industries.

The proposal stormed into mainstream political debate over the past month after protesters from the progressive groups Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats held sit-ins in Pelosi’s office. The demonstrations came in response to what they saw as plans for a tepid response to the climate crisis when the party takes control of the House next month.

Ocasio-Cortez, a left-wing firebrand with a powerful online following, joined the protests and proposed swapping Pelosi’s plan to restore the climate select committee with a plan for a panel devoted to the Green New Deal.

For a few weeks, it seemed likely to happen. More than 40 incoming or sitting House Democrats pledged to support the resolution, and nearly half a dozen senators announced their support for the effort, including at least three likely 2020 presidential contenders.

But the proposal ruffled feathers in Washington. Incoming chairmen of committees that traditionally oversee energy and environmental policy complained that a Green New Deal select committee would strip them of legislative power. And Beltway veterans privately expressed frustration that a cadre of insurgent freshmen, some of whom toppled long-time allies in primaries, were using their grassroots popularity to call shots.Democratic leaders responded in kind, declining to contact activists or Ocasio-Cortez before announcing plans to ignore the resolution and restore the previous climate select committee instead.

Representatives from Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats confirmed they were not told of the decision until they read about it on E&E News. Castor said she “chatted with Rep.-elect Ocasio-Cortez, but not specifically on this.”

In a statement, Sunrise Movement said a select committee “that makes a plan for implementing a Green New Deal is an opportunity for Democrats in the House.”

“Without a mandate to create a plan and a requirement that its members don’t take fossil fuel money, we are deeply concerned that this committee will be just another of the many committees we’ve seen failing our generation our entire lives,” Varshini Prakash, the Sunrise Movement’s co-founder, said in a statement.

Later Thursday evening, Sunrise political director Evan Weber said the group would continue the fight.

“Nancy Pelosi has the power to determine whether or not the Select Committee for a Green New Deal lives or dies,” Weber said. “Sunrise Movement’s position is and will continue to be that it’s not over until she makes it clear that it’s over.”

But, earlier this week, Democratic leaders announced that a Green New Deal select committee would lack subpoena power, seemingly sounding the death knell for the resolution.

Castor said the select committee she agreed to chair would likely have subpoena power, but not legislative power. She said she did not know yet which individuals or companies she would use that power to investigate.

“I honestly thought the Democratic Party leaders would see this opportunity,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group championing the Green New Deal proposal. “It’s infuriating to see a fellow Democrat basically parrot the talking points of the Koch Brothers when it comes to the very common-sense idea that any politician who accepts donations from the fossil-fuel corporations should not be allowed to legislate on climate change.”

But Castor’s appointment won praise from establishment environmental groups.

“Rep. Kathy Castor is an outstanding choice to help lead the House’s renewed focus on climate change,” John Bowman, senior director for federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “As a longtime environmental champion, few are better suited to help shine a bright light on the threats Americans face from the climate crisis and advance the solutions we urgently need.”

Alexander Kaufman is a climate and environment reporter at HuffPost, based in New York. Email him at alexander.kaufman@huffpost.com. Direct message him on Twitter @AlexCKaufman for his phone number on the encrypted messaging app Signal.

A Very Grim Forecast

In Climate change, Environment, Human rights, Politics, Public Health on November 10, 2018 at 8:12 am

Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report

by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Available at www.ipcc.ch

Though it was published at the beginning of October, Global Warming of 1.5°C, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is a document with its origins in another era, one not so distant from ours but politically an age apart. To read it makes you weep not just for our future but for our present.

The report was prepared at the request of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the end of the Paris climate talks in December 2015. The agreement reached in Paris pledged the signatories to holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

The mention of 1.5 degrees Celsius was unexpected; that number had first surfaced six years earlier at the unsuccessful Copenhagen climate talks, when representatives of low-lying island and coastal nations began using the slogan “1.5 to Stay Alive,” arguing that the long-standing red line of a two-degree increase in temperature likely doomed them to disappear under rising seas. Other highly vulnerable nations made the same case about droughts and floods and storms, because it was becoming clear that scientists had been underestimating how broad and deadly the effects of climate change would be. (So far we’ve raised the global average temperature just one degree, which has already brought about changes now readily observable.)

The pledges made by nations at the Paris conference were not enough to meet even the two-degree target. If every nation fulfills those pledges, the global temperature will still rise by about 3.5 degrees Celsius, which everyone acknowledged goes far beyond any definition of safety. But the hope was that the focus and goodwill resulting from the Paris agreement would help get the transition to alternative energy sources underway, and that once nations began installing solar panels and wind turbines they’d find it easier and cheaper than they had expected. They could then make stronger pledges as the process continued. “Impossible isn’t a fact; it’s an attitude,” said Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who deserves much of the credit for putting together the agreement. “Ideally,” said Philip A. Wallach, a Brookings Institution fellow, the Paris agreement would create “a virtuous cycle of ambitious commitments, honestly reported progress to match, and further commitments following on those successes.”

To some extent this is precisely what has happened. The engineers have continued to make remarkable advances, and the price of a kilowatt generated by the sun or wind has continued to plunge—so much so that these are now the cheapest sources of power across much of the globe. Battery storage technology has progressed too; the fact that the sun goes down at night is no longer the obstacle to solar power many once presumed. And so vast quantities of renewable technology have been deployed, most notably in China and India. Representatives of cities and states from around the world gathered in San Francisco in September for a miniature version of the Paris summit and made their own pledges: California, the planet’s fifth-largest economy, promised to be carbon-neutral by 2045. Electric cars are now being produced in significant numbers, and the Chinese have deployed a vast fleet of electric buses.

But those are bright spots against a very dark background. In retrospect, Paris in December 2015 may represent a high-water mark for the idea of an interconnected human civilization. Within nine weeks of the conference Donald Trump had won his first primary; within seven months the UK had voted for Brexit, both weakening and distracting the EU, which has been the most consistent global champion of climate action. Since then the US, the largest carbon emitter since the start of the Industrial Revolution, has withdrawn from the Paris agreement, and the president’s cabinet members are busy trying to revive the coal industry and eliminate effective oversight and regulation of the oil and gas business. The prime minister of Australia, the world’s biggest coal exporter, is now Scott Morrison, a man famous for bringing a chunk of anthracite into Parliament and passing it around so everyone could marvel at its greatness. Canada—though led by a progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who was crucial in getting the 1.5-degree target included in the Paris agreement—has nationalized a pipeline in an effort to spur more production from its extremely polluting Alberta oil sands. Brazil seems set to elect a man who has promised not only to withdraw from the Paris agreement but to remove protections from the Amazon and open the rainforest to cattle ranchers. It is no wonder that the planet’s carbon emissions, which had seemed to plateau in mid-decade, are again on the rise: preliminary figures indicate that a new record will be set in 2018.

This is the backdrop against which the IPCC report arrives, written by ninety-one scientists from forty countries. It is a long and technical document—five hundred pages, drawing on six thousand studies—and as badly written as all the other IPCC grand summaries over the years, thanks in no small part to the required vetting of each sentence of the executive summary by representatives of the participating countries. (Saudi Arabia apparently tried to block some of the most important passages at the last moment during a review meeting, particularly, according to reports, the statement emphasizing “the need for sharp reductions in the use of fossil fuels.” The rest of the conclave threatened to record the objection in a footnote; “it was a game of chicken, and the Saudis blinked first,” one participant said.) For most readers, the thirty-page “Summary for Policymakers” will be sufficiently dense and informative.

The takeaway messages are simple enough: to keep warming under 1.5 degrees, global carbon dioxide emissions will have to fall by 45 percent by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. We should do our best to meet this challenge, the report warns, because allowing the temperature to rise two degrees (much less than the 3.5 we’re currently on pace for) would cause far more damage than 1.5. At the lower number, for instance, we’d lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs. Half a degree higher and that loss rises to 99 percent. The burden of climate change falls first and heaviest on the poorest nations, who of course have done the least to cause the crisis. At two degrees, the report contends, there will be a “disproportionately rapid evacuation” of people from the tropics. As one of its authors told The New York Times, “in some parts of the world, national borders will become irrelevant. You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and one million people, but not 10 million.”

The report provides few truly new insights for those who have been paying attention to the issue. In fact, because the IPCC is such a slave to consensus, and because its slow process means that the most recent science is never included in its reports, this one almost certainly understates the extent of the problem. Its estimates of sea-level rise are on the low end—researchers are increasingly convinced that melting in Greenland and the Antarctic is proceeding much faster than expected—and it downplays fears, bolstered by recent research, that the system of currents bringing warm water to the North Atlantic has begun to break down.* As the chemist Mario Molina, who shared the Nobel Prize in 1995 for discovering the threat posed by chlorofluorocarbon gases to the ozone layer, put it, “the IPCC understates a key risk: that self-reinforcing feedback loops could push the climate system into chaos before we have time to tame our energy system.”

All in all, though, the world continues to owe the IPCC a great debt: scientists have once again shown that they can agree on a broad and workable summary of our peril and deliver it in language that, while clunky, is clear enough that headline writers can make sense of it. (Those who try, anyway. An analysis of the fifty biggest US newspapers showed that only twenty-two of them bothered to put a story about the report on the homepages of their websites.)

The problem is that action never follows: the scientists do their job, but even the politicians not controlled by the fossil fuel industry tend to punt or to propose small-bore changes too slow and cautious to make much difference. By far the most important change between this and the last big IPCC report, in 2014, is simply that four years have passed, meaning that the curve we’d need to follow to cut our emissions sufficiently has grown considerably steeper. Instead of the relatively gentle trajectory that would have been required if we had paid attention in 1995, the first time the IPCC warned us that global warming was real and dangerous, we’re at the point where even an all-out effort would probably be too slow. As the new report concedes, there is “no documented historical precedent” for change at the speed that the science requires.

There’s one paramount reason we didn’t heed those earlier warnings, and that’s the power of the fossil fuel industry. Since the last IPCC report, a series of newspaper exposés has made it clear that the big oil companies knew all about climate change even before it became a public issue in the late 1980s, and that, instead of owning up to that knowledge, they sponsored an enormously expensive campaign to obfuscate the science. That campaign is increasingly untenable. In a world where floods, fires, and storms set new records almost weekly, the industry now concentrates on trying to slow the inevitable move to renewable energy and preserve its current business model as long as possible.

After the release of the IPCC report, for instance, Exxon pledged $1 million to work toward a carbon tax. That’s risible—Exxon made $280 billion in the last decade, and it has donated huge sums to elect a Congress that won’t pass a carbon tax anytime soon; oil companies are spending many millions of dollars to defeat a carbon tax on the ballot in Washington State and to beat back bans on fracking in Colorado. Even if a carbon tax somehow made it past the GOP, the amount Exxon says it wants—$40 a ton—is tiny compared to what the IPCC’s analysts say would be required to make a real dent in the problem. And in return the proposed legislation would relieve the oil companies of all liability for the havoc they’ve caused. A bargain that might have made sense a generation ago no longer counts for much.

Given the grim science, it’s a fair question whether anything can be done to slow the planet’s rapid warming. (One Washington Post columnist went further, asking, “Why bother to bear children in a world wracked by climate change?”) The phrase used most since the report’s release was “political will,” usually invoked earnestly as the missing ingredient that must somehow be conjured up. Summoning sufficient political will to blunt the power of Exxon and Shell seems unlikely. As the energy analyst David Roberts predicted recently on Twitter, “the increasing severity of climate impacts will not serve as impetus to international cooperation, but the opposite. It will empower nationalists, isolationists, & reactionaries.” Anyone wondering what he’s talking about need merely look at the Western reaction to the wave of Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war sparked in part by the worst drought ever measured in that region.

The stakes are so high, though, that we must still try to do what we can to change those odds. And it’s not an entirely impossible task. Nature is a good organizer: the relentless floods and storms and fires have gotten Americans’ attention, and the percentage of voters who acknowledge that global warming is a threat is higher than ever before, and the support for solutions is remarkably nonpartisan: 93 percent of Democrats want more solar farms; so do 84 percent of Republicans. The next Democratic primary season might allow a real climate champion to emerge who would back what the rising progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called a “Green New Deal”; in turn a revitalized America could theoretically help lead the planet back to sanity. But for any of that to happen, we need a major shift in our thinking, strong enough to make the climate crisis a center of our political life rather than a peripheral question easily avoided. (There were no questions at all about climate change in the 2016 presidential debates.)

The past year has offered a few signs that such large-scale changes are coming. In October, the attorney general for New York State filed suit against ExxonMobil, claiming the company defrauded shareholders by downplaying the risks of climate change. In January New York City joined the growing fossil fuel divestment campaign, pledging to sell off the oil and gas shares in its huge pension portfolio; Mayor Bill de Blasio is working with London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to convince their colleagues around the world to do likewise. In July Ireland became the first nation to join the campaign, helping to take the total funds involved to over $6 trillion. This kind of pressure on investors needs to continue: as the IPCC report says, if the current flows of capital into fossil fuel projects were diverted to solar and wind power, we’d be closing in on the sums required to transform the world’s energy systems.

It’s natural following devastating reports like this one to turn to our political leaders for a response. But in an era when politics seems at least temporarily broken, and with a crisis that has a time limit, civil society may need to pressure the business community at least as heavily to divest their oil company shares, to stop underwriting and insuring new fossil fuel projects, and to dramatically increase the money available for clean energy. We’re running out of options, and we’re running out of decades. Over and over we’ve gotten scientific wake-up calls, and over and over we’ve hit the snooze button. If we keep doing that, climate change will no longer be a problem, because calling something a problem implies there’s still a solution.

—October 25, 2018

‘Our Democracy Is Sick’: Progressive Groups Join Forces to Ensure Voting Rights and End Corporate Sabotage of Common Good

In Climate change, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, Public Health, Race on November 1, 2018 at 12:34 am

Common Dreams, October 30, 2018

“Today our system is in crisis,” warns the new Declaration for American Democracy. “Together we must build a democracy where everyone participates, every vote is counted, voting rights are fully enforced, and everyone’s voice is heard.”

The Declaration for American Democracy

The Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of 100+ national groups committed to fundemental reforms in the U.S. political system, will officially launch its campaign the day after this year’s upcoming midterm elections. (Photo: declarationforamericandemocracy.org)

Increasingly alarmed by powerful corporate and wealthy interests that have pushed the U.S. political system toward “impending constitutional catastrophe,” nearly 100 national organizations on Tuesday announced that they are coming together for a campaign that aims to take back the country’s democratic institutions by fighting for “the structural changes necessary to rebalance power for people.”

“Our democracy is sick, and it’s not an accident.”
—Ezra Levin, Indivisible

“Today our system is in crisis,” warns the Declaration for American Democracy’s mission statement (pdf). “Together we must build a democracy where everyone participates, every vote is counted, voting rights are fully enforced, and everyone’s voice is heard.”

The coalition—which includes groups focused on the environment, reproductive rights, labor conditions, election security, criminal justice reform, and a host of other issues—vows to “work collectively to create and pass a series of fundamental reforms to rebalance our moneyed political system, empower everyday Americans, ensure equal justice for all, protect the public’s right to know, reduce barriers to participation in our elections, vigorously enforce voting laws, and fix our ethics laws.”

Their campaign officially begins on Nov. 7, the day after the upcoming midterm elections. Members include the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), CODEPINK, Common Cause, Credo Action, Demand Progress, Demos, Greenpeace, Indivisible, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, MoveOn.org, the NAACP, NARAL Pro-Choice America, People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, Public Citizen, SEIU, Sierra Club, the Working Families Party, and dozens of other organizations.

“Our democracy is sick, and it’s not an accident. This is the result of a decades-long campaign to disenfranchise communities of color and reduce government’s responsiveness to the will of the people,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible. “Opponents of democracy in America engage in acts of sabotage in order to entrench their own power and reward their donors. But that is about to change. America is ready for a bold vision for 21st century democracy.”

“The stakes for our civil and human rights are too high for inaction,” declared Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, another coalition member. “Voter suppression and intimidation, efforts to undermine a fair and accurate census, and corruption scandals are just a few reasons why we must advance an affirmative vision to build an America as good as its ideals.”

That vision includes protecting reproductive rights and access to healthcare, charged NARAL president Ilyse Hogue. “We deserve to live in a country where women, not out-of-touch politicians fueled by ideological and politically motivated interest groups, have the freedom to make the most personal decisions about if, when and how to grow their families,” she said. “It’s time that our democracy was fueled by elected officials willing to fight for our values, our futures and our votes.”

“We deserve a republic that truly serves the people rather than the private interests of public officials and wealthy political donors.”
—Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen

It also includes taking rapid actions to address the climate crisis and safeguard environmental protections. As Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune pointed out, “corporate polluters have been flooding our political system with big money for too long, spending unprecedented millions to try to keep people from voting while propping up politicians who push their dirty agenda rather than the things the American people care about most, like clean air and water, safe communities and family-sustaining jobs.”

As the anti-choice movement, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate powers have poured money into political lobbying to bolster policies that endanger public health and undermine U.S. democracy, the Trump administration’s “catastrophic ethical failings have exposed the gaps in our system of ethics laws,” noted CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder.

“Only by winning foundational reforms to our politics, can we hope to move forward the substantive policies that are so important to the American people—from protecting our environment, to fighting for consumers and working families, to improving our health care and lowering prescription drug prices and more,” concluded Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen. “We deserve a republic that truly serves the people rather than the private interests of public officials and wealthy political donors.”

Here’s How the EPA and Pentagon Deliberately Hid a Growing Toxic Threat from Americans It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, these compounds could be dangerous if they got into the water supply.

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Public Health, Workplace exposure on July 11, 2018 at 8:37 am

By Abrahm Lustgarten / ProPublica
July 9, 2018, 8:47 AM GMT

The chemicals once seemed near magical, able to repel water, oil and stains.

By the 1970s, DuPont and 3M had used them to develop Teflon and Scotchgard, and they slipped into an array of everyday products, from gum wrappers to sofas to frying pans to carpets. Known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they were a boon to the military, too, which used them in foam that snuffed out explosive oil and fuel fires.

It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, the compounds could be dangerous if they got into water or if people breathed dust or ate food that contained them. Tests showed they accumulated in the blood of chemical factory workers and residents living nearby, and studies linked some of the chemicals to cancers and birth defects.
Don’t let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Now two new analyses of drinking water data and the science used to analyze it make clear the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have downplayed the public threat posed by these chemicals. Far more people have likely been exposed to dangerous levels of them than has previously been reported because contamination from them is more widespread than has ever been officially acknowledged.

Moreover, ProPublica has found, the government’s understatement of the threat appears to be no accident.

The EPA and the Department of Defense calibrated water tests to exclude some harmful levels of contamination and only register especially high concentrations of chemicals, according to the vice president of one testing company. Several prominent scientists told ProPublica the DOD chose to use tests that would identify only a handful of chemicals rather than more advanced tests that the agencies’ own scientists had helped develop which could potentially identify the presence of hundreds of additional compounds.

The first analysis, contained in an EPA contractor’s PowerPoint presentation, shows that one chemical — the PFAS most understood to cause harm — is 24 times more prevalent in public drinking water than the EPA has reported. Based on this, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization whose scientists have studied PFAS pollution, has estimated that as many as 110 million Americans are now at risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals.

In the second analysis, ProPublica compared how the military checks for and measures PFAS-related contamination to what’s identified by more advanced tests. We found that the military relied on tests which are not capable of detecting all the PFAS chemicals it believed to be present. Even then, it underreported its results, sharing only a small part if its data. We also found that the military’s own research programs had retested several of those defense sites using more advanced testing technology and identified significantly more pollution than what the military reported to Congress.
Report Advertisement

Even before the troubling new information about PFAS chemicals emerged, the government had acknowledged problems relating to them were spreading. Past EPA water testing, however incomplete, identified drinking water contamination across 33 states that Harvard researchers estimated affected some 6 million people. The military suspected drinking water at more than 660 U.S. defense sites where firefighting foam was used could be contaminated; earlier this year, it announced it had confirmed contamination in 36 drinking water systems and in 90 groundwater sites on or near its facilities.

The new analyses suggest these findings likely represent just a fraction of the true number of people and drinking water systems affected.

In written responses to questions, the EPA did not directly address whether it had understated contamination from PFAS chemicals. The agency said it had confidence in its current testing procedures and had set detection limits at appropriate levels. It also stated that it is taking steps towards regulating some PFAS compounds and registering them as “hazardous substances,” a classification that triggers additional oversight under waste and pollution laws.
The agency will “take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned, said in the written statement to ProPublica in May.

The Department of Defense also responded to questions in writing, defending its testing methods as the best available and calling it difficult to fully assess risks from PFAS because the EPA has not regulated these chemicals. A DOD spokeswoman said the Pentagon’s research group has a program underway aimed at enhancing the test methods and detecting more PFAS compounds, but suggested that no alternatives were ready for use. She did not answer questions about why the agency reported contamination levels for only two chemicals to Congress when it would have had data on many more, stating only that the Pentagon “is committed to protecting human health and the environment.”
Report Advertisement

Environmental experts aren’t convinced.

“Widespread contamination may be harming the health of millions or even tens of millions of Americans and the government is intentionally covering up some of the evidence,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for health, food and agriculture initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. The EPA and Defense Department “have done all they can to sort of drag their feet and avoid meaningful regulatory action in making significant investment in cleanups.”

In May, a Politico report revealed that the EPA and the White House, along with the Defense Department, had pressured a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to withhold a health study expected to warn that people exposed to PFAS chemicals face greater health risks than were previously understood. That report was quietly released in mid-June and, indeed, estimated safe levels of exposure are seven to 10 times smaller than what the EPA has said.

Such a determination could spur stricter limits on exposure than the EPA appears to have considered. Paired with an emerging realization that testing by the EPA and DOD hasn’t captured the true extent of contamination, the government could be forced to reconceive its approach to these compounds, said David Sedlak, the director of the Institute for Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped develop one of the most advanced commercial tests for PFAS substances.

“Not talking about it isn’t going to make the problem go away,” Sedlak said. “And because these compounds are forever — they aren’t going to degrade on their own — eventually there is going to be a day of reckoning.”

The PFAS compounds might not exist if weren’t for a lab accident in 1938, when a frozen block of refrigerant turned into an extraordinarily slippery white, waxy mass. A decade later DuPont was manufacturing it as Teflon. 3M developed its own version, the molecularly similar PFOA in 1954, when a chemist inadvertently spilled a mixture of chemicals on her shoe and found the stain was impervious to soap or water. They called it Scotchgard.

These products work, in part, because the chemicals they contain are made up of some of the strongest and most resilient molecular bonds in existence, thanks to a unique structure that keeps them from breaking down. There are thousands of variations, all characterized by extremely strong daisy chains of carbon and fluorine molecules and differentiated mostly by the length of their “tails” — the string of carbon molecules that can be anywhere from two to 14 units long.

In the mid-1970s, with the use of the chemicals proliferating, Dupont and 3M began privately testing the blood of their plant workers and others. The companies had grown increasingly concerned about the toxicity of PFAS compounds, learning that they “bio-accumulate” in food and people and that they could cause harm. But it wasn’t until 2000, when 3M pulled Scotchgard from the market, that the EPA began to investigate PFAS’s potential damage to human health and the environment, and soon after, that the blood tests became public.

At first, the EPA took steps that suggested it would quickly get to the bottom of the problem. Citing the spread of contaminants in water supplies in Minnesota and Ohio, in 2002 the agency launched a “priority review” of some PFAS compounds. It wrote then that exposure can “result in a variety of effects including developmental/reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity and cancer.”

By 2003, the EPA launched its first draft risk assessment for PFOA, typically a substantial step towards establishing strict regulatory standards that limit a chemical’s use and mandate its cleanup. When the draft was released in early 2005, it said that while the epidemiological evidence remained inconclusive, rats tested with PFOA were more likely to develop liver and pancreatic cancers, and there were worrisome signs that workers in plants that manufactured PFOA had a higher risk of dying of prostate cancer.

The EPA also asked industries to voluntarily phase out PFOA-related products, including the firefighting foam, by 2015.

The question was then — and remains today — how much exposure to PFAS chemicals would make people seriously ill?

In 2009, the agency attempted an answer, issuing “provisional” voluntary guidelines for safe levels of the chemicals in drinking water. This meant that for the first time, the government offered a precise, scientific measure for how much of the compounds was too much. But it didn’t mandate those limits, or create a regulation enforceable by law. And even those limits — it would later become clear — proved too loose.

Meanwhile, other instances of water contamination — in Minnesota and Alabama — heightened concerns. One study of 60,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio exposed to high levels of PFOS and PFOA from a DuPont manufacturing plant and an Army airfield showed they had high rates of thyroid malfunction, testicular and kidney cancers and preeclampsia. The study was completed as part of a roughly $107 million settlement of a lawsuit against DuPont. Studies on animals also linked the chemicals to structural birth defects and dramatic changes in hormone levels.

In 2013, with concern rising over the ubiquity of PFAS compounds, the EPA decided it would test for some of the chemicals in public drinking water systems. The agency regulates chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act and adds new substances to the list based on tests showing they’re widespread enough to pose a national threat. Listing a chemical for such testing is often a step toward creating enforceable regulations for it.

At the same time, the agency began to reconsider the health advisory limit it had established in 2009. In 2016, the agency announced a dramatically lower limit for how much PFAS exposure was safe for people, suggesting a threshold less than one-eighth the amount it had once assured would cause no harm. Under the new guidelines, no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals, less than the size of a single drop in an Olympic pool, were deemed safe.

Yet even this standard remains voluntary and unenforceable. Until there’s a true limit on the concentration of PFAS compounds allowable in drinking water, soil and groundwater — and the classification of PFAS as a hazardous substance — the EPA can’t hold water utilities, companies or other polluters to account. It also can’t compel the Department of Defense to adhere to the standard or clean up contamination.

There is increasing evidence that PFAS contamination is more widespread on and around military bases than previously thought.

The Department of Defense launched a full-scale review of contamination in drinking water systems at its facilities in 2016, despite the lack of clear regulatory limits from the EPA.

This spring the Pentagon reported to Congress that 564 of the 2,445 off-base public and private drinking water systems that it had tested contained PFOS or PFOA above the EPA’s advisory limits. It also announced that groundwater at 90 out of 410 military bases where it tested contained dangerous levels of these two chemicals. A staggering 61 percent of groundwater wells tested exceeded the EPA’s threshold for safety, according to the presentation Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, safety and occupational health, gave to Congress in March. Attending to the problem, several news outlets have reported, would cost the Pentagon at least $2 billion.

In presenting its liabilities to Congress, the Defense Department took an important step in wrestling with a troublesome issue, much as the EPA had in undertaking national data collection.

But both agencies have quite deliberately chosen not to use the most advanced tools or to collect the most comprehensive data on contamination, researchers say.

To identify PFAS compounds in drinking water, the EPA uses a lab test called “Method 537,” which separates microscopic molecules so they can be more easily seen. It’s not the most sophisticated test available, but scientists have used it enough to give them — and regulators — extraordinary confidence in its results. This is the test the EPA chose in 2013, when it directed its labs across the country to test water samples to evaluate emerging PFAS chemical contaminants to help determine whether they should be regulated.

But even though the Method 537 test can detect 14 PFAS compounds, the EPA only asked for data on six of them. The EPA said this was to allow for testing of non-PFAS pollutants, since the agency is only allowed to target a certain number of emerging contaminants in each round of tests.

The agency also set detection thresholds for the six PFAS compounds included as much as 16 times higher than what the test was sensitive enough to detect — so high that only the most extreme cases of contamination were reflected in the federal drinking water dataset.

Indeed, according to a recent presentation by Andrew Eaton, vice president of Eurofins Eaton Analytical, the largest drinking water test lab in the country, which handled testing of more than 10,000 samples from 1,100 public water systems — about 30 percent of the EPA’s water samples overall — vast amounts of detected contamination was ignored by design.

Through its federal water quality reporting, the EPA has said publicly that PFOA was detected in just 1 percent of water samples across the nation. But when Eaton recently went back and reanalyzed the data the EPA didn’t want, he found PFOA was in nearly 24 percent of the samples his company tested.

Another chemical, PFBS, is considered a sentinel because in situations where it is a component of contamination also containing PFAS and PFOA, it travels further and faster in water and shows up months or years ahead in places where PFOA or PFOS are ultimately detected. The EPA has reported that PFBS was found in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all its water samples — not even one in 100. Eaton’s re-analysis detected the sentinel chemical in nearly one out of eight of samples.

“It basically says the plume is on its way, that’s the leading indicator… PFOS and PFOA is likely on the way to your house,” said Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University. Field is a leading expert on test methods for PFAS compounds. The Department of Defense helps fund her research. “If you are on the hydrological flow path it’s a matter of time and distance.”

The EPA defended its detection limits, saying its testing protocol is designed to yield consistent, reliable results even if labs conducting the tests are less sophisticated.

But the government is far from certain that lower levels of PFAS compounds than those that count as contamination by the EPA’s definition aren’t health threats. The EPA has repeatedly lowered how much exposure to PFAS compounds it considers acceptable. And when the CDC finally released its health analysis for PFAS compounds in June, it called for limits of one compound to be 10 times lower than the EPA’s current threshold, and another to be seven times lower. Such a standard would be more in line with some states, which already have tougher limits in place. New Jersey, for example, has set its exposure limit for PFOA at roughly one-fifth of what the EPA prescribes.

The EPA’s testing protocol — which only certifies the 537 test, with its limitations — also hasn’t kept up with fast-evolving science around PFAS chemicals. Researchers have identified new forms of the chemicals and, potentially, new dangers from these variants.

In 2016, Field and several other researchers — as part of a Defense Department research program examining water samples from 15 defense sites where firefighting foam was used (researchers declined to name them) — identified 40 new families of PFAS chemicals, consisting of some 240 compounds they’d never seen before.

“You’re starting to get this idea that more complex chemistry was used at these sites than was picked up in the tests, and that’s kind of the punchline,” said Field, of the firefighting foam sites in particular. “There is more mass down there, there are more species and in higher concentrations than what you see.”

Method 537, as a rule, is not capable of detecting these additional compounds. Yet when the Pentagon launched its own water testing program at U.S. bases in 2016, it chose to use the EPA’s outdated testing process, even though a test capable of detecting the presence of dozens of additional PFAS compounds was available. That test, called the Top Assay, was even developed with Defense Department support.

Instead, the Defense Department relied exclusively on the 537 test and then, when it reported its findings to Congress this past March, it offered only the results for PFOS and PFOA and not the other 12 compounds the test process identifies, because that’s what Congress had asked for. Indeed, according to one memorandum from the Department of the Navy, the armed services were explicitly instructed to withhold their extra data — at least for the time being — because it was “not being used to make decisions.”

“If you were going to spend $200 million testing DoD sites across the country, wouldn’t you want to test for all of the chemicals you know you used?” asked Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has been active on chemical cleanup issues at Defense sites.

“It’s almost like a deliberate thing, where you’re going to tell people their water is safe to drink, and you know that you have a gap in your testing and you know that you haven’t found all of the chemicals in the water.”

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the importance of the information the government is choosing to leave out. Field has found, for example, not only that there are more variations of PFAS compounds, but that some degrade over time into PFOS or PFOA, or, like PFBS, travel faster in the environment, making them predictors for other contaminants soon to come.

Many of the variants with shorter “tails” — or shorter chains of molecules than the test methods can detect — “are likely to break through systems designed to capture” them, Field and others wrote in a 2017 paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They are also more likely to elude the water treatment methods the EPA and the Department of Defense are using to clean water identified as contaminated.

The consequence of these systemic blind spots is that “by the time you see PFOS and PFOA you may have been drinking other things for a longer period of time,” Field said.

When Field retested water samples at several U.S. defense sites using the most advanced testing available, she found that many of these obscure additional chemicals were nearly uniformly present — and in huge numbers. At one site, for example, where PFOS was detected at 78,000 parts per trillion, another obscure PFAS compound was present at nearly three times that concentration.

Based on Eaton’s higher-resolution detection rates, scientists at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that researches the dangers of PFAS compounds, have generated new estimates of contamination linked to the chemicals.

They now think more than 110 million people have been exposed to the compounds through their drinking water, more than five times as many as the group had previously estimated.

The EPA “has really underplayed the extent of contamination,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “The scope of the problem seems to be expanding.”

Rocky Flats: The refuge with a radioactive past The opening of the Rocky Flats wildlife refuge may be close, but the debate over the land’s safety lingers

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Politics, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 25, 2018 at 7:16 am

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that wildlife refuges ensure that future generations will always have an outdoor place to enjoy nature.

But some people won’t set foot on Rocky Flats once it opens as a wildlife refuge, much less allow their children or grandchildren to go there.

“It’s a shame,” said Stephanie Carroll, president and founder of Rocky Flats Worker Advocacy, “because it’s a beautiful site. But it’s a superfund site. You don’t build homes on a superfund site. And you don’t recreate on a superfund site.”

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000-acre area of open land bordered by Broomfield, Boulder and Jefferson counties managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although there is no set date, it previously was anticipated to open for public recreation late this summer.

However, seven Colorado school districts have banned field trips to Rocky Flats in the past year — Boulder Valley School District being the first one to do so last year and Denver Public Schools being the most recent, adopting its resolution on April 26. The others are Jefferson County Public Schools, Westminster Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14 and St. Vrain Valley School District.

With its picturesque views and immense opportunities for viewing wildlife and diverse plants, Rocky Flats was recognized as a special place more than 20 years ago, said Michael D’Agostino, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

Rocky Flats will be an urban refuge, he said.

“A local place where people can reconnect with nature,” D’Agostino said. “It will be a really unique experience for people and an exciting place for outdoor enthusiasts.”

Formerly the location of the nation’s primary producer of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the opening follows a $7 billion cleanup effort that, despite a 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification that the clean-up complied with all appropriate laws and regulations, some say still wasn’t enough.

“Public health and safety may be at risk from inadequate analysis of whether to open Rocky Flats for hiking, biking and horseback riding,” said Randall Weiner, the attorney representing the citizens groups that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “What they want are additional environmental reviews that look at the alternatives to, and impacts of, opening Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the public when there is un-remediated plutonium on-site.

Jefferson County Public Health does not have an official stance on the opening of the refuge, however Dr. Mark Johnson, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, has a personal opinion he recently shared in a letter to the court in the lawsuit.

“I believe there was/is contamination on Rocky Flats and that some of it has escaped from Rocky Flats into the surrounding neighborhoods, but how much there is/was and what the health consequences of it are/were are not clear to me,” Johnson wrote to the court. “I honestly do not know how dangerous it is to live in its shadow. I believe we have the data to tell us the truth, but I do not believe all of it has been analyzed by truly independent sources.”

The lawsuit is currently in the process of preparing for trial. The refuge will remain closed until it is settled.

Confident in the cleanup

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for the long-term surveillance and maintenance of about 1,300 acres where the core operations and productions of the former plant took place. The wildlife refuge forms a donut-shape around this area, which was formerly the plant’s buffer zone.

By law, the EPA has to conduct an environmental review, including soil and water sampling, of the land every five years to ensure its safety. This is standard practice for any superfund site, D’Agostino said. The last one at Rocky Flats took place in 2017.

“We’re confident in the cleanup and remediation,” D’Agostino said, noting the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work closely with the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). “We continue to be confident in their conclusions and recommendations. They are the public health experts.”

According to the CDPHE’s website, plutonium contamination was one of the primary concerns at Rocky Flats, but “following remediation, residual plutonium concentrations in surface soil were below levels of regulatory concern.”

Millirem (mrem) is a way to express radiation exposure.

In a document dated May 2016 produced by the EPA, CDPHE and DOE, one test that was done to gauge radiation at Rocky Flats was calculating the risks for a child and an adult who hypothetically visited the refuge 100 days a year for 2 1/2 hours per day.

“The dose estimate for plutonium for the wildlife refuge visitor child is .2 mrem per year, which is a very small fraction of the average annual dose to (the) U.S. public from all sources,” the document states.

It notes the average annual dose from all sources, including medical such as x-rays and natural such as drinking water, is 620 mrem per year.

Messy history

Still, Carroll believes opening Rocky Flats is too risky, noting the winds and soil can contain a variety of contaminants.

“What’s dangerous about that site is that it wasn’t properly characterized,” Carroll said. “There were a lot more radionuclides than just plutonium on that site.”

She believes the information the public receives is “watered down,” she said, adding, “they don’t get the whole truth.”

Carroll has been involved with advocacy for people who formerly worked with nuclear material since 2001 when she learned the ins-and-outs of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program through her grandfather, who worked at Rocky Flats.

She specializes in beryllium and working with those who may have contracted chronic beryllium disease, also called berylliosis, which is a systemic disease that primarily affects the lungs and is caused by exposure to beryllium, from former employment at Rocky Flats.

Joyce Bolton of Denver is one of the people Carroll has worked with.

“I can’t prove it, but I think it’s still out there,” Bolton said of the possible contaminants at Rocky Flats. “I don’t think they could ever get rid of it.”

Bolton, 78, worked at Rocky Flats from January 1968 until she retired in August 1992. She added she wasn’t sure if people knew the dangers of working at Rocky Flats at the time.

“Back in those days, people wanted jobs,” Bolton said. “And that was a good job — stable, and it paid very well.”

The majority of Bolton’s time was spent in the human resources department, which required her to go all over the plant — but she didn’t know the specifics of what was being made at the plant.

“No clerical person needed to know what they were manufacturing out there,” Bolton said. “We took all the safety measures, but I still got sick.”

It’s hard for the general public to understand the work that went on there, said Michelle Dobrovolny, 53, of Denver who worked at Rocky Flats as an engineering specialist and safeguards and security specialist.

“It was a national security facility. We made bombs,” Dobrovolny said. “We were always taught secrecy, secrecy, secrecy. It was bred into us.”

Dobrovolny worked at Rocky Flats for a total of 18 years, beginning in 1985 when she was 21. She said she was constantly sick while working there — strep throat, pneumonia, sinus infections — and had to take a medical leave in 2001. She has since been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

Dobrovolny believes cleanup efforts at Rocky Flats were not sufficient, pointing out that she thinks “they cut corners” and shut down the cleanup about five or six years early.

According to the CDPHE’s website, cleanup of the site was a 10-year process. It included decontaminating and demolishing more than 800 structures and buildings at the plant — five of those were major plutonium facilities and two were major uranium facilities.

But Dobrovolny questions how Building 771 — a facility “notoriously known as one of the most dangerous buildings in the world because of the plutonium” — could possibly be dismantled, she said.

“They will tell you that they did,” Dobrovolny said, “but it is my opinion that they didn’t.”

Natural appeal

Arvada City Councilor Mark McGoff is an avid hiker and plans on hiking Rocky Flats once it opens.

It will be a “new area to explore on foot,” he said. “One more local place to add to my inventory of places to hike.”

He is especially excited that Rocky Flats will serve as an extension of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail. The Greenway Trail is a trail network that currently connects Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge in Arvada to the Great Western Open Space in Broomfield and is proposed to extend to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park.

Well-established Boulder county open space trails to the north of the refuge would also potentially tie into the new trails.

McGoff, 78, has been involved with the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council for about seven years. The council consists of elected officials from 10 municipal governments that neighbor Rocky Flats, three community organizations and one individual. It formed in February 2006 to provide ongoing local government and community oversight of Rocky Flats while providing a public forum for sharing information concerning Rocky Flats.

McGoff mentioned he wouldn’t advocate one way or the other — he noted that some people don’t accept or agree with the findings from the studies. But for him, the presentations from the various agencies on the studies confirm that they are accurate.

“I believe in the science — the evidence is conclusive,” McGoff said. “That tells me that the refuge is safe.”

After decades of secrets, Rocky Flats still gives me pause

In Democracy, Environment, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Politics, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 17, 2018 at 1:19 am

Denver Post, June 16, 2018

I most likely owe my very existence to the atomic bomb.

My father was in what was supposed to be the first wave of soldiers to occupy Japan in World War II. Based on the battles of Iwo Jima, Guam, and Okinawa, they had been told by their commanding officers that there was little chance they would survive. It had been estimated that the U.S. would lose at least a million soldiers in the occupation. My father figured he would be one of them.

My father strongly believed that more lives were saved than were lost by our use of nuclear weapons. Over the years he convinced me that was true.

I am, however, opposed to nuclear contamination.

Rocky Flats has become infamous for nuclear contamination. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and anyone else who has studied Rocky Flats admits that there was massive nuclear and hazardous waste contamination at the site. They also admit that the contamination was both inside and outside the boundaries of the plant.

The contamination, mostly from plutonium fires and corroding drums full of nuclear hazardous waste, was kept secret from the public by the DOE and its contractors until 1969. The highly visible billowing black smoke from a fire that year made it obvious to outside observers that nuclear contamination was escaping from the site. Independent tests were performed to assess the extent of contamination. When the civilian monitoring teams challenged government officials with the observed measurements, they were told that actually, most of the offsite contamination had come from a more catastrophic fire in 1957. It was the first time anyone in the public had been made aware of that disaster.

Due to Cold War fears and the growing number of military targets identified behind the Iron Curtain, DOE pushed its contractors hard to produce more and more plutonium triggers faster and faster. Safety for workers and the community was secondary, or an afterthought. The contractors were given blanket immunity by the federal government for most lawsuits, should problems occur. This attitude led to numerous accidents and unnecessary exposures for workers, as well as growing piles of waste that had to be stored onsite. Plutonium was handled in such a haphazard fashion that more than a ton of it was eventually lost, or unaccounted for. This culture led to Rocky Flats being ranked by the DOE as the most dangerous nuclear site in the United States. Two of its buildings made the list of the ten most contaminated buildings in America. Building 771 at Rocky Flats was number one.

In 1989, based on information from a plant whistle-blower alleging environmental crimes, the FBI and EPA raided Rocky Flats. This eventually led to the closure of the site and a special grand jury which, after more than 3 years of testimony, sought to criminally indict three government officials and five employees of the plant contractor. The Department of Justice refused to indict, however, and instead negotiated a plea bargain with the contractor, who was required to pay an $18.5 million fine. This was less than they collected in bonuses from the DOE that year, despite more than 400 environmental violations being identified. The evidence and findings of the grand jury were sealed by court order.

When Rocky Flats closed, the DOE estimated that it would take over $35 billion and 70 years to adequately clean the site. Congress appropriated them only $7 billion, and clean-up began.

What is contested is how much contamination remains on- and offsite after the clean-up, and what risk, if any, may persist. The government has reams of data and multiple exhibits supporting their claim that the risk is low. Concerned community groups and anti-nuclear activists also have data supporting their claim that the risk is not negligible.

I do not know where the truth lies. There is credible science and support on both sides. What I do know is that two of the men who have seen the most evidence concerning the level of contamination at Rocky Flats, the lead agent for the FBI raid and the foreman of the grand jury, continue to advocate for the prohibition of public access to the site. This gives me great pause.

When I was a kid, I guess I watched too many westerns.

They led me to believe that it was a noble thing to stand up to powerful forces when you thought they may be wrong, or when you felt you needed more information before you could support them. They lied to me. In real life, what I have found is that when I have the temerity to question the government’s claims, or ask for additional, independent information to help me decide where the truth may lie, I am labeled a “general of the scare brigade”, “reckless” and “irresponsible”.

I just wish I had the level of certainty that they have who feel so confident in publicly shaming my search for truth.

Mark B. Johnson, MD, MPH, is executive director of Jefferson County Public Health.

The 60-Year Downfall of Nuclear Power in the U.S. Has Left a Huge Mess. The demand for atomic energy is in decline. But before the country can abandon its plants, there’s six decades of waste to deal with.

In Cost, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear powere, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on May 30, 2018 at 8:59 am

Atlantic, May 28, 2018

It was just another day in the life of the defunct Hanford nuclear site, a remote part of Washington State that made most of the plutonium in America’s Cold War arsenal. On the morning of May 9, 2017, alarms sounded. Around 2,000 site workers were told to take cover indoors, and aircraft were banned from flying over the site for several hours. The roof of a tunnel had collapsed, exposing railcars that had been loaded with radioactive waste from plutonium production and then shunted underground and sealed in decades before.This post is adapted from Pearce’s new book.
There was other stuff down there too. Nobody quite knew what. Record keeping was poor, but the contents of the tunnels certainly included carcasses from animal radiation experiments, including a reported 18 alligators. The emergency lasted only a few hours. The integrity of the waste was restored. But it was a chilling reminder of the site’s perilous radioactive legacy.

Sprawling across 600 square miles of sagebrush semidesert, Hanford is a $100 billion cleanup burden, full of accidents waiting to happen. It is the biggest headache, but very far from being the only one, emerging in what increasingly look like the final years of America’s nuclear age.

It is 60 years since America’s first commercial nuclear power station was opened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Shippingport, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1958. But the hopes of a nuclear future with power “too cheap to meter” are now all but over. All that is left is the trillion-dollar cleanup.

Public fear and suspicion about all things nuclear grew sharply after March 1979, when the cooling system at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station failed and triggered a meltdown. In the end, actual releases of radiation were minimal, but the incident left behind a reputational mess in addition to the radiological one. On the day of the accident, the United States had 140 operating nuclear reactors, with 92 under construction and 28 more awaiting official approval. In the next five years, more than 50 orders for new nuclear reactors in America were canceled. New contracts entirely dried up.

Hanford has not produced plutonium for three decades. Nobody is making new material for bombs anymore. President Trump’s plans for more weapons can be met by recycling existing plutonium stocks. And even the civil nuclear industry, which still generates a fifth of America’s electricity, is in what looks like terminal decline. With cheap natural gas and renewable solar and wind energy increasingly available, the numbers no longer add up. Nuclear power plants across the nation are being closed with years of licensed operation unused.

No new nuclear power stations have come on line in the past two decades. The only new build underway, two additional reactors at Georgia Power’s Alvin W. Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, is five years behind schedule and has seen its costs double. Its planned completion in 2022 remains uncertain.

America’s 99 remaining operational nuclear power reactors, which still deliver power to the grid, are too important to be closed overnight. But nearly half are over 40 years old. The only question is how long the regulators and accountants will allow them to keep going.

Oyster Creek in New Jersey disconnects from the grid in October with 11 years left on its license. Indian Point in New York State is to shut by 2021 due to falling revenues and rising costs. In California, Diablo Canyon is being closed by state regulators in 2025. The reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that survived the 1979 accident will finally shut in 2019.

Shutdown is only the beginning of the end. Final closure and clearance of the sites can take decades, and the waste crisis created by decommissioning cannot be dodged. Lethal radioactive material is accumulating at dozens of power plants, military facilities, and interim stores across the country.

Some, like the train cars buried at Hanford, is evidently in a precarious situation. Much more needs urgent attention. Cleaning up and safely disposing of the residues of the nuclear adventure—much of it waste with a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years—is turning into a trillion-dollar nightmare for the nation.

Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge is an oasis of prairie biodiversity covering 5,000 acres, home to prairie dogs, elk, monarch butterflies, and rare xeric grasses. It also serves as a buffer zone around the site of the largest completed nuclear cleanup to date in the United States. And David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to open it for public access in summer 2018. He’s reckoning on 150,000 visitors a year.

During the Cold War, Rocky Flats was secretly machining plutonium manufactured at Hanford into some 70,000 spheres that formed the explosive heart of each weapon in Uncle Sam’s nuclear arsenal. Plutonium pollution was routine. The plant had nowhere to get rid of the day-to-day plutonium waste, which was often dumped in hastily dug landfills or sprayed onto grassland around the plant. At an outdoor compound known as pad 903, where more than 5,000 drums of waste liquids contaminated with plutonium are stored, there’s been substantial leakage. An internal memo reported that rabbits living on the site were heavily contaminated, especially in their hind feet.

A whistle-blower’s allegations about illegal late-night incineration of plutonium waste at the plant led to an FBI raid in 1989. After that—and with demand for plutonium spheres declining following the end of the Cold War—the government closed the site. A federal grand jury sat for three years to hear testimony from the FBI raid. But two days after the jury approved indictments, the Justice Department struck a deal with Rockwell Automation, the company that managed the plant. The company pleaded guilty to some minor charges, but the FBI evidence and grand jury conclusions were sealed forever.

After the cover-up came the cleanup. The core plutonium-handling areas were declared a Superfund site, qualifying for a federal decontamination, which was completed in 2005. The federal government called it “the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history.” But in reality it was a cut-price job. The original project was estimated at $37 billion, but Congress would sanction only $7 billion. So processing buildings were demolished, but basements and 25 miles of underground tunnels and pipelines were left behind, according to LeRoy Moore, a veteran activist who sat on a public committee in the 1980s that considered the cleanup plans.

Today, the land that housed the industrial complex remains behind a sturdy fence under the control of the Department of Energy (DOE). But the large grassland buffer zone that once protected the complex from prying eyes has been released into the care of the Fish and Wildlife Service for public access.

There are two concerns. First that, as I saw on a tour with Lucas, the fenced-off core area hardly looks self-contained. Earth slips have left ugly gashes up to 300 feet wide across a former landfill site that overlooks a creek running through the wildlife refuge. The DOE’s Scott Surovchak concedes that “slumping is very common” after heavy rain. Only constant repairs, it seems, will prevent the landfills and buried contaminated buildings and pipework from being exposed.

The second concern is the safety of the buffer zone itself. Harvey Nichols, a biologist from the University of Colorado, has found that when the plant was operating snow falling nearby was often “hot.” Falling snowflakes captured tiny plutonium particles that evaded the stack filter. Just two days of snowfall could deposit about 14 million particles on every acre of the site. “There must be tens of billions of particles in the soil today,” he told me.

The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed such concerns. In 2006 it found plutonium levels in soil samples in the buffer zone were within acceptable limits and concluded that the lands comprising the refuge are “suitable for unlimited use and unrestricted exposure.” But Moore, the activist, is unimpressed. “Prairie dogs and other critters will burrow down for several feet and bring plutonium to the surface,” he says. “Children will be exposed to plutonium. And people will start taking plutonium out into their communities on boots and cycle wheels. Why would we allow that?”

Lucas is unmoved. “We need to get people out here on the refuge. Then the fears will evaporate,” he told me. But that is just what worries his opponents. Forgetting about the plutonium is the worst thing that could happen, they say.

About 30 miles northeast of Rocky Flats, out on the prairie near the small town of Platteville, is the Fort St. Vrain spent-fuel store. It resembles nothing so much as an outsize grain store, but since the 1990s it has been holding 1,400 spent fuel rods, laced with plutonium and encased in blocks of graphite. The spent fuel was left behind when the neighboring nuclear power plant shut. The plan had been to send it to another temporary store at the Idaho National Laboratory, but the governor of Idaho banned the shipment. The Fort St. Vrain facility is designed to withstand earthquakes, tornado winds of up to 360 miles per hour, and flooding six feet deep. Also time. It will be several decades at least before the federal government finds the fuel a final resting place.

The country is littered with such caches of spent fuel stuck in limbo. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel, the most dangerous of all nuclear wastes, is stored at 80 sites in 35 states. The sites include stores at past and present power plants such as Maine Yankee, and stand-alone federal sites such as Fort St. Vrain. As the GAO puts it: “After spending decades and billions of dollars … the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear.” Nobody wants to give the stuff a forever home.

Nuclear waste is conventionally categorized as high-, intermediate-, or low-level. Low-level waste includes everything from discarded protective clothing to plant equipment and lab waste. It can usually be treated like any other hazardous waste, which in practice usually means burial in drums in landfills or concrete-lined trenches.

Intermediate waste contains radioactive materials with isotopes that decay with half-lives long enough to require long-term incarceration. It includes many reactor components, as well as chemical sludges and liquids from processing radioactive materials, which can often be solidified in concrete blocks. Once solid, intermediate waste can be buried safely in shallow graves, though anything containing plutonium will have to be disposed of deep underground because of the very long half-life.

Much of America’s intermediate-level waste will end up at the country’s largest deep-burial site for such radioactive material. The U.S. military’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in salt beds near Carlsbad, New Mexico, could eventually take 6.2 million cubic feet of waste. But it has had problems that have slowed progress and raised questions about its viability.

A chemical explosion in 2014 sprayed the tunnels dug into the salt beds with a white, radioactive foam. When a ventilation filter failed, some of the plutonium reached the surface, where at least 17 surface workers were contaminated. The military shut the tunnels for three years to clean up. While WIPP is today back in business, full operations cannot resume until a new ventilation system is in place, probably in 2021. The eventual cost of the accident, including keeping the dump open longer to catch up with the waste backlog, has been put at $2 billion.

High-level waste is the nastiest stuff. It includes all spent fuel and a range of highly radioactive waste liquids produced when spent fuel is reprocessed, a chemical treatment that extracts the plutonium. Most of America’s high-level waste liquids—and around 30 percent of the world’s total—are in tanks at Hanford.

High-level waste is either very radioactive and will stay so for a long time, or it generates heat and so requires keeping cool. Usually both. It accounts for more than 95 percent of all the radioactivity in America’s nuclear waste, and needs to be kept out of harm’s way for thousands of years.

There is general agreement that the only way to keep high-level waste safe is by turning the liquids into solids and then burying it all deep underground, somewhere where neither water nor seismic activity is likely to bring the radioactivity to the surface, and where nobody is likely to stumble on it unexpectedly. There is disagreement, however, about whether this buried waste should be kept retrievable in case future technologies could make it safer sooner, or whether accessibility simply places a burden of guardianship on future generations.

Before it can be buried, most high-level waste needs to be stored for up to a century while it cools. Unfortunately, this has encouraged countries to put off making plans. None of the world’s high-level waste currently has any permanent resting place. The planet is instead peppered with interim stores. America is no better. Its 90,000 metric tons of high-level waste—set to rise to as much as 140,000 tonnes by the time the last power plant closes—is mostly sitting in ponds at dozens of power stations or lockups like Fort St. Vrain.

How did the United States reach this impasse? Back in 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established that it was the government’s job to deal with this ultimate back-end problem. The act obliged Washington to begin removing used fuel from stores and other facilities by 1998 for eventual disposal at a federal facility. In 1987, Yucca Mountain, near the former Nevada bomb-testing grounds, was chosen to be the sole such facility.

In the 1990s, a five-mile tunnel was dug into the remote mountain. Then work stopped, in part because of vehement state opposition and in part because of concerns raised by geologists that a future volcanic eruption could propel buried waste back to the surface. One of President Obama’s first acts on taking office in 2009 was to formally abandon the $100 billion project. Things headed for the courts, which began awarding damages to power companies unable to make use of the nonexistent federal facility. The payouts amount to around half a billion dollars a year, and by 2022 will likely reach $29 billion.

Now President Trump wants to revive Yucca. His 2019 budget request included $120 million for the task. But the state opposition remains as strong as ever, and only $50 million was included in the final budget for Yucca-related items. Maybe Yucca Mountain will make a comeback. If not, then with no alternatives on the horizon, utilities will carry on being paid to keep spent fuel in pools next to abandoned nuclear power plants, and the interim stores in places such as Fort St. Vrain could be in business not just for decades but for centuries. The nuclear-waste time bomb will keep ticking.

The true heartland of America’s nuclear enterprise has always been Hanford. And it is the biggest and most toxic cleanup legacy too. Straddling the Columbia River, the Hanford nuclear reservation was America’s primary bomb-making factory. It was where they made the plutonium. At peak production, during the 1960s, its nine reactors irradiated 7,000 metric tons of uranium fuel annually. The intense radiation inside the reactors produced plutonium that was then extracted at five reprocessing plants. Hanford produced a total of 67 metric tons of the metal for the American arsenal, before business halted after the Cold War ended.

Plutonium production was a huge task. It required much of the electricity generated at the giant Grand Coulee Dam upstream on the Columbia, the largest hydroelectric power producer in the United States. And the mess left behind is equally mind-boggling. Since production ceased, Hanford has been conducting the country’s largest-ever environmental cleanup program. The current expenditure is $2.3 billion a year. By the time it is done the bill will be more than $100 billion.

The site holds an estimated 25 million cubic feet of solid, radioactive waste. Much of it is buried in over 40 miles of trenches and tunnels, up to 24 feet deep, including the stretch that caved in last year. Elsewhere, there are two corroding cooling ponds, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool, containing some 2,000 tons of spent fuel that never got reprocessed.


What to Make of the Tunnel Collapse at a Nuclear Cleanup Site
Is Nuclear Power Ever Coming Back?
The Atomic-Bomb Core That Escaped World War II
But the headline Hanford problem is the 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquids and sludges, stored in 177 giant tanks, each up to 75 feet in diameter. They are the solvent leftovers from reprocessing, and contain around twice the total radioactivity released from the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine.

The tanks have been leaking for over half a century. Around a million gallons are slowly spreading toward the Columbia River, in a plume of contaminated soil covering 80 square miles. Protecting the river and its rich salmon habitat from the radioactive pollution is the number-one cleanup priority for the site’s custodians at the Department of Energy. To head off the flows, engineers are constantly pumping out radioactive water.

A better idea is to stop the leaks at the source by emptying the tanks and solidifying the liquids. The current aim is to heat them with glass-forming materials to create solid blocks that could one day be buried deep underground—maybe at Yucca Mountain. Work on a plant to do this began in 2002. It is currently 25 years behind schedule. Operations are not set to begin until 2036 and, once underway, would take 40 years.

At $17 billion and counting, the project is way over budget. Former plant engineers who have turned whistle-blowers believe it won’t be fit for the job and should be abandoned. They warn of a serious risk that particles of plutonium may settle out in the plant processing tanks, creating the potential for an accidental explosion with a big release of radiation.

The task at Hanford grows ever more daunting. After almost three decades, little of the waste and few of the tanks or processing plants have been cleaned up. Far away in Washington, D.C., some question the continuing money sink. It seems to some like a 21st-century pork barrel. Perhaps, critics say, it would be better to put up a fence and walk away. President Trump, while so far publicly supporting the Hanford cleanup, may privately agree. He has slashed its annual budget by $230 million, or about 10 percent.

Local environmentalists are scandalized. “We have got to clean up the site,” says Dan Serres, the conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a local NGO. The tanks should be emptied and the trenches dug up. “In a hundred years, I’d hope the Native Americans have their treaty rights to this land restored,” agrees Chuck Johnson, of Physicians for Social Responsibility. But Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, who sits on an advisory board at the Hanford Concerns Council, told me: “You are never going to dig all the waste there up.” The tanks will have to be dealt with, but “most of Hanford’s waste volume-wise is going to stay put. Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years.”

This piece is adapted from Pearce’s new book, Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age.

FRED PEARCE is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, and Yale Environment 360.

Tree sitters protesting construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through their property in West Virginia

In Climate change, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Politics, Public Health on April 23, 2018 at 7:35 am

Hello hello Fellow Satyagrahis,

I was wondering if you could help me. Hopefully, this is a good way to contact everyone.

This is an update from Virginia, about a non-violent action that is occurring just a couple of hours away from Ali and me. As you may or may not know, there are tree sits (eight that I know of!) occurring in VA and West VA at this moment. The tree sitters are protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline/MVP; a natural gas pipeline proposed to go through West Virginia, Virginia, and into North Carolina. I believe they recently proposed 70 extra miles of pipeline into North Carolina.

Recently, I have been able to get down to the Bent Mountain area to visit Red, a 61 year old woman tree sitting on her own property. She is standing up to the MVP.

I grew up in Roanoke, VA and spent a lot of time on Bent Mountain. So for me this is a place I consider home.

At this point, they are clearing the land, often against the desires of people within the community. Curiously, there was a statement that MVP is not supposed to be clearing trees during this time, because of migratory bird safety rules in the states of West Virginia and Virginia. As of last week, they began to clear the land around the tree sitters on Bent Mountain: Red and her daughter Miner. Red and Miner have been restricted from receiving food and water by local police. They are being slowly forced out of the trees. This also includes the monopod and tree sitters along the VA and West Virginia border.

The reason I am sending this email is because I believe it would be helpful if more people outside of Virginia and the surrounding area were posting about this issue in their media spaces. Yes, I am definitely talking fb. The tree sits are slowly getting coverage, and more people need to know, as these pipelines have yet to be built. They are beginning the process of clearing land, but it has not been put down. There is so much possibility to stop this, and it could be your help that makes it happen.

I am sending links to provide more information, and I am hopeful that you will find information that calls to you to post.

This is a video that just came out about Red and Miner:


This is a general fb support page for RED, the tree sitter on Bent Mountain:


This is a recent Roanoke Times article about the tree sits. The Roanoke Times has several articles that you can find online:


Lastly, this is a podcast out of Richmond, VA that gives information about both pipelines that are currently being pushed in the area. If you only have time to listen to a bit; Episode 15 covers Red:


What is socialism?

In Climate change, Cost, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Peace, Politics, Public Health, Race on March 27, 2018 at 10:12 am

By Tom Mayer, Peace Train Column for Friday March 23, 2018

Many people understand that socialism is a possible alternative to capitalism in the modern world, but few know what socialism really means. The nature of an economic system depends upon which social class controls the means of production. Power over the means of production enables the controlling class to govern the entire economic system.

Three basic economic systems (each with many variations) are possible in a modern technologically advanced society: capitalism, state collectivism, and socialism. Under capitalism the owners of productive property (i.e. capitalists) control the means of production. Capitalism is the economic system that currently exists in most parts of the world. Under state collectivism the government bureaucracy controls the means of production. State collectivism was the economic system of Communist countries like the Soviet Union and is often mistaken for socialism. Under socialism working people collectively control the means of production. Although some societies have adopted a few socialist institutions (e.g. economic planning, free health care, cooperative banks) there has never been a full-fledged socialist society in the modern world.

Socialism has five principal goals. (1) Sustainability: the economic system must be organized to sustain human life on our planet for the indefinite future. (2) Equality: the economic system must move towards complete economic equality. All forms of work are equally valued. Complete equality is the long term goal, but limited inequality based upon differential contributions to the economy exists initially. (3) Comprehensive Democracy: all major economic and political decisions are made through genuine democratic processes. (4) Personal Security: all fundamental personal needs are guaranteed by society. This guarantee includes food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, child care, elder care, etc. The levels at which personal needs are guaranteed increase as the socialist economic system matures. (5) Solidarity: a spirit of mutual support, cooperation, and friendship is created among all people. Socialist solidarity contrasts with the egoism and competitiveness fostered by capitalism.

What social institutions can achieve these five socialist goals? Socialists have different views on this subject, particularly on the issue of whether socialism should use markets. Here are some of the institutions proposed by socialists: (a) a democratic state that invites maximum participation and frequent circulation of political officials; (b) democratic and self-governing councils of workers and consumers; (c) jobs balanced for difficulty and desirability by workers councils (hazardous and unpleasant work being divided among all competent adults); (d) compensation according to effort as determined by fellow workers; (e) democratic and participatory economic planning in which workers councils have a major part; (f) use of computers and extensive feedback to reach a feasible and sustainable economic plan.

Building socialism in the context of a capitalist society involves a three prong strategy: (i) consciousness raising – developing socialist consciousness within the capitalist public; (ii) institution building – creating socialist institutions based upon cooperation, equality, and rational planning within capitalist society (e.g. workers cooperatives, strong labor unions, environmental regulation); (iii) political organizing – establishing an effective political party committed to socialism that contests for power within the capitalist political system.