How Pope Francis's Climate Encyclical Is Disrupting American Politics
The Republican reaction to Pope Francis's climate encyclical, juxtaposed to the Democratic congressional rebellion against President Obama on trade, suggest that climate and energy are powerfully disrupting the grid-locked orthodoxy which has dominated American politics for the last decade.
The Tea Party-Koch brothers wing of conservatism, (and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party), are clearly on the defensive.
The most significant “tell” is the flailing responses of reactionaries to the looming threat posed to climate denial by Pope Francis’s Laudato Si.
Jeb Bush’s latest flip-flop—first asserting in New Hampshire that he wouldn’t take his economics from his church, and then backpedaling in Iowa—was merely the most recent spasm of right-wing discomfort.
Earlier Rick Santorum’s sputteringly strove to explain—on Fox news—why he was scolding the Pope, who has worked as a scientist, for speaking on climate, while Santorum himself, as a politician, had both right and duty to his own climate pulpit.
The assault began when the Heartland Institute tried to bully the Pope—unsuccessfully—into withholding or water down the encyclical by arguing that some of the voices urging climate action—UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs—opposed the Catholic Church on abortion. Indeed the overriding, major chord of the conservative assault on the encyclical is that Christian values only govern sex and family—economics, geopolitics, and climate should be left to secular, capitalist ideology.
Pope Francis’s allies within the Church understand what this means better than outsiders. Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru warned that Francis “will have many critics, because they want to continue setting rules of the game in which money takes first place. We have to be prepared for those kinds of attacks.”
The Pope took his critics into account—making it clear within the text of Laudato Si that his approach to the environment is firmly rooted in traditional Catholic views of the uniqueness of human life and the need for a non-market based common good—drawing a line clarifying that he is not preaching a “new age” form of Catholicism.
(Reactionaries’ bewilderment that the Catholic Church’s option for the poor extends to concerns about protecting the poor from greenhouse enhanced droughts, heat waves and rising oceans echoes their glib assumption that a presumed “social conservatism” would fence in American Hispanic voters, override their communitarian economic and environmental attitudes, and allow Republicans to retain Hispanic voter loyalty while still promising to “self-deport” 11 million of their relatives).
It is more a gale than a fresh breeze when the most ground-breaking Pope since John XXIII links poverty and climate, in a way which leaves the far-right sputtering—(just as it was a powerful symbol when a daughter of the Church, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, broke with President Obama on trade citing climate concerns).
Indeed, something fundamental is shifting this summer in political and cultural attitudes around climate.
Compare this year to the summer that preceded Copenhagen; the dominant 2009 news on climate was the grinding failure of the U.S. Senate and the Obama Administration on climate and energy legislation. And the rest of the news was equally dispiriting—no progress, little ambition, cynicism about the prospects.
Six months out from Paris, a new dynamism is palpable. Hawaii just committed itself to 100 percent clean energy by 2045. The California Senate pledged the world’s seventh largest economy to a 50 percent emission cut by 2030—including petroleum. The first quarter witnessed a stunning 76 percent growth in U.S. residential solar installations over the previous year. Georgia joined the growing list of states that permit homeowners to generate their own rooftop solar electrons, while giant (and historically conservative) Georgia Power proclaims that it will promote and grow clean power just as aggressively as it previously dominated coal and nuclear.
Globally renewable energy was more than half of added capacity. Chinese emissions declined in the first quarter by an amount equal to the total carbon pollution of Great Britain, Mexico became the first major emerging market to pledge solid emission reductions, and Ethiopia offered to reduce its projected 2030 carbon pollution by 64 percent—if climate finance is made available. Alberta tossed out its pro-tar sands Conservative Premier and elected the first left-leaning government in its history.
Led by “Climate Chancellor” Angela Merkel, the world’s major industrial nations called for a binding climate treaty at the “upper end” of the ambition levels required by climate science, and agreed that the era of fossil fuels must end this century. The Saudi Oil Minister signaled that his kingdom fears the era of oil by end by mid-century. And 199 nations meeting in Germany reached a breakthrough agreement on how to curb deforestation and lay the groundwork for an eventual reduction—through forest and grassland sequestration—in atmospheric carbon concentrations.
The price of oil remained mired below $70; OPEC agreed again to keep pumping and fighting for market share; and the share value of coal companies, already down by three-quarters, just kept slumping. (Purchasers two months ago of Peabody junk bonds have already lost 18 percent of their money).
Sensing a change in the landscape, Europe’s six biggest oil and gas companies abandoned their fossil fuel common front with coal, and threw the black rock and its shareholders under the bus. Re-branding themselves as “almost gas” companies (shades of John Brown and BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” phase) Shell, BP, Total, Eni and British Gas called on the international community to levy a global carbon tax that would drive electricity generators from coal to gas.
This is exciting news for climate. But there are signs that this climate and energy revolution is also breaking apart the frozen tectonic plates which have locked American conservatism into an orthodoxy of inaction not just on global warming, but on almost every problem challenging our society.
No longer do all conservatives join Koch, Heartland and Republican Presidential candidates in dismissing conservative engagement with climate solutions. Not only are both libertarians (the new Niskanen Center) and business conservatives (American Enterprise Institute) alike debating the need for conservative solutions like carbon taxes, but the first conservative climate progress mega-donor, Jay Faison has surfaced, pledging to spend $175 million on encouraging his movement to come to grips with atmospheric reality.
Over the past decade—ever since the nascent Tea Party partly seized control of Republican politics, shutting down George W. Bush’s forgotten campaign promise to clean up carbon pollution, rebuffing his immigration reforms, and eventually thrusting his “compassionate conservatism” into the fiery abyss of conservative heresy—a new Republican orthodoxy locked down the primary fault zone in American politics, where new realities and social change forces collide with conservative political, cultural and economic habits.
The Supreme Court’s “money is speech and corporations are people” jurisprudence weakened the ability of business elites to buffer Tea Party pressures on elected Republicans. Even such routine public business as the reauthorization of infrastructure spending or the Export-Import Banks ground to a halt. Nothing, it seemed, was possible.
Tectonic drift isn’t dangerous when the plates glide and rub against each other, releasing their energy gradually. But when they freeze up, the “thrust fault” that results accumulates energy until it cracks, relieving stored up stress in a few seconds, and creating new landscapes and mountain ranges. And when three moving “oceanic” plates (demography, globalization, and climate) converge on the stationary continental plate of American conservatism, the eventual outcome, while unpredictable, is certain to be spectacular.
The crack-up has begun—and surprisingly it seems that climate, not Hispanic voting blocks or global competition, may be the disrupter that shatters conservative orthodoxy.
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Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.
The National Weather Service (NWS) station in Chatham, Massachusetts was evacuated March 31 over concerns the entire operation would topple into the ocean.
"We had to say goodbye to the site because of where we are located at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, we're adjacent to a bluff that overlooks the ocean," Boston NWS meteorologist Andy Nash told WHDH at the time. "We had to close and cease operations there because that bluff has significantly eroded."
Chatham is located on the elbow of Cape Cod, a land mass extending out into the Atlantic Ocean that has been reshaped and eroded by waves and tides over tens of thousands of years, The Guardian explained. However, sea level rise and extreme weather caused by the climate crisis have sped that change along.
"It's an extremely dynamic environment, which is obviously a problem if you are building permanent infrastructure here," Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist at Cape-Cod based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The Guardian. "We are putting our foot on the accelerator to make the environment even more dynamic."
This was the case with the Chatham weather station. It used to be protected from the drop into the ocean by about 100 feet of land. However, storm action in 2020 alone washed away as much as six feet of land a day.
"We'd know[n] for a long time there was erosion but the pace of it caught everyone by surprise," Nash told The Guardian. "We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week and realized we didn't have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem."
The Chatham station was part of a network of 92 NWS stations that monitor temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction and other data in the upper atmosphere, The Cape Cod Chronicle explained. The stations send up radiosondes attached to weather balloons twice a day to help with weather research and prediction. The Chatham station, which had been observing this ritual for the past half a century, sent up its last balloon the morning of March 31.
"We're going to miss the observations," Nash told The Cape Cod Chronicle. "It gives us a snapshot, a profile of the atmosphere when the balloons go up."
The station was officially decommissioned April 1, and the two buildings on the site will be demolished sometime this month. The NWS is looking for a new location in southeastern New England. In the meantime, forecasters will rely on data from stations in New York and Maine.
Nash said the leavetaking was bittersweet, but inevitable.
"[M]other nature is evicting us," he told The Cape Cod Chronicle.
By Douglas Broom
- If online deliveries continue with fossil-fuel trucks, emissions will increase by a third.
- So cities in the Netherlands will allow only emission-free delivery vehicles after 2025.
- The government is giving delivery firms cash help to buy or lease electric vehicles.
- The bans will save 1 megaton of CO2 every year by 2030.
Cities in the Netherlands want to make their air cleaner by banning fossil fuel delivery vehicles from urban areas from 2025.
"Now that we are spending more time at home, we are noticing the large number of delivery vans and lorries driving through cities," said Netherlands environment minister Stientje van Veldhoven, announcing plans to ban all but zero-emission deliveries in 14 cities.
"The agreements we are setting down will ensure that it will be a matter of course that within a few years, supermarket shelves will be stocked, waste will be collected, and packages will arrive on time, yet without any exhaust fumes and CO2 emissions," she added.
She expects 30 cities to announce zero emission urban logistics by this summer. City councils must give four years' notice before imposing bans as part of government plans for emission-free road traffic by 2050. The city bans aim to save 1 megaton of CO2 each year by 2030.
Help to Change
To encourage transport organizations to go carbon-free, the government is offering grants of more than US$5,900 to help businesses buy or lease electric vehicles. There will be additional measures to help small businesses make the change.
The Netherlands claims it is the first country in the world to give its cities the freedom to implement zero-emission zones. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht already have "milieuzones" where some types of vehicles are banned.
Tilburg, one of the first wave of cities imposing the Dutch ban, will not allow fossil-fuelled vehicles on streets within its outer ring road and plans to roll out a network of city-wide electric vehicle charging stations before the ban comes into effect in 2025.
"Such initiatives are imperative to improve air quality. The transport of the future must be emission-free, sustainable, and clean," said Tilburg city alderman Oscar Dusschooten.
Europe Takes Action
Research by Renault shows that many other European cities are heading in the same direction as the Netherlands, starting with Low Emission Zones of which Germany's "Umweltzone" were pioneers. More than 100 communes in Italy have introduced "Zonas a traffico limitato."
Madrid's "zona de baja emisión" bans diesel vehicles built before 2006 and petrol vehicles from before 2000 from central areas of the city. Barcelona has similar restrictions and the law will require all towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants to follow suit.
Perhaps the most stringent restrictions apply in London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which charges trucks and large vehicles up to US$137 a day to enter the central area if they do not comply with Euro 6 emissions standards. From October, the ULEZ is being expanded.
Cities are responsible for around 75% of CO2 emissions from global final energy use, according to the green thinktank REN21 - and much of these come from transport. Globally, transport accounts for 24% of world CO2 emissions.
The Rise of Online Shopping
Part of the reason for traffic in urban areas is the increase in delivery vehicles, as online shopping continues to grow. Retailer ecommerce sales are expected to pass $5billion in 2022, according to eMarketer.
The World Economic Forum's report The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem, published in January 2020, estimates that e-commerce will increase the number of delivery vehicles on the roads of the world's 100 largest cities by 36% by 2030.
If all those vehicles burn fossil fuels, the report says emissions will increase by 32%. But switching to all-electric delivery vehicles would cut emissions by 30% from current levels as well as reducing costs by 25%, the report says.
Other solutions explored in the report include introducing goods trams to handle deliveries alongside their passenger-carrying counterparts and increased use of parcel lockers to reduce the number of doorstep deliveries.
Reposted with permission from the World Economic Forum.
The bill, SB467, would have prohibited fracking and other controversial forms of oil extraction. It would also have banned oil and gas production within 2,500 feet of a home, school, hospital or other residential facility. The bill originally set the fracking ban for 2027, but amended it to 2035, The AP reported.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed," State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), one of the bill's two introducers, told the Los Angeles Times. "California really has not done what it needs to do in terms of addressing the oil problem. We have communities that are suffering right now, and the Legislature has repeatedly failed to act."
The bill was introduced after California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would sign a fracking ban if it passed the legislature, though his administration has continued to issue permits in the meantime, Forbes reported. Newsom has also spoken in favor of a buffer zone between oil and gas extraction and places where people live and learn, according to the Los Angeles Times. The latter is a major environmental justice issue, as fossil fuel production is more likely to be located near Black and Latinx communities.
Urban lawmakers who want California to lead on the climate crisis supported the bill, while inland lawmakers in oil-rich areas concerned about jobs opposed it. The oil and gas industry and trade unions also opposed the bill.
This opposition meant the bill failed to get the five votes it needed to move beyond the Senate's Natural Resources and Water Committee. Only four senators approved it, while Democrat Sen. Susan Eggman of Stockton joined two Republicans to oppose it, and two other Democrats abstained.
Eggman argued that the bill would have forced California to rely on oil extracted in other states.
"We're still going to use it, but we're going to use it from places that produce it less safely," Eggman told The AP. She also said that she supported the transition away from fossil fuels, but thought the bill jumped the gun. "I don't think we're quite there yet, and this bill assumes that we are," she added.
Historically, California has been a major U.S. oil producer. Its output peaked in 1986 at 1.1 million barrels a day, just below Texas and Alaska, according to Forbes. However, production has declined since then making it the seventh-most oil-producing state.
Still, California's fossil fuel industry is at odds with state attempts to position itself as a climate leader.
"There is a large stain on California's climate record, and that is oil," Wiener said Tuesday, according to The AP.
Wiener and Democrat co-introducer Sen. Monique Limón from Santa Barbara vowed to keep fighting.
"While we saw this effort defeated today, this issue isn't going away," they wrote in a joint statement. "We'll continue to fight for aggressive climate action, against harmful drilling, and for the health of our communities."
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By Brett Wilkins
As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.
The report, Changing Our Ways: Behavior Change and the Climate Crisis, found that nearly half the growth in absolute global emissions was caused by the world's richest 10%, with the most affluent 5% alone contributing 37%.
"In the year when the UK hosts COP26, and while the government continues to reward some of Britain's biggest polluters through tax credits, the commission report shows why this is precisely the wrong way to meet the UK's climate targets," the report's introduction states.
The authors of the report urge United Kingdom policymakers to focus on this so-called "polluter elite" in an effort to persuade wealthy people to adopt more sustainable behavior, while providing "affordable, available low-carbon alternatives to poorer households."
The report found that the "polluter elite" must make "dramatic" lifestyle changes in order to meet the UK's goal — based on the Paris climate agreement's preferential objective — of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial levels.
In addition to highlighting previous recommendations — including reducing meat consumption, reducing food waste, and switching to electric vehicles and solar power — the report recommends that policymakers take the following steps:
- Implement frequent flyer levies;
- Enact bans on selling and promoting SUVs and other high polluting vehicles;
- Reverse the UK's recent move to cut green grants for homes and electric cars; and
- Build just transitions by supporting electric public transport and community energy schemes.
"We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute by far more than their share of carbon emissions," Peter Newell, a Sussex University professor and lead author of the report, told the BBC.
"These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most, and live in the biggest homes which they can easily afford to heat, so they tend not to worry if they're well insulated or not," said Newell. "They're also the sort of people who could really afford good insulation and solar panels if they wanted to."
Newell said that wealthy people "simply must fly less and drive less. Even if they own an electric SUV, that's still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place."
"Rich people who fly a lot may think they can offset their emissions by tree-planting schemes or projects to capture carbon from the air," Newell added. "But these schemes are highly contentious and they're not proven over time."
The report concludes that "we are all on a journey and the final destination is as yet unclear. There are many contradictory road maps about where we might want to get to and how, based on different theories of value and premised on diverse values."
"Promisingly, we have brought about positive change before, and there are at least some positive signs that there is an appetite to do what is necessary to live differently but well on the planet we call home," it states.
The new report follows a September 2020 Oxfam International study that revealed the wealthiest 1% of the world's population is responsible for emitting more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of humanity combined.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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