One of President Obama's main climate policy thrusts was to persuade the world that since you often get what you pay for, the world should stop paying for more extreme climate disruption by subsidizing fossil fuels. Both the G7 and the G20 accepted Obama's lead—at least nominally.
Some countries did something. Revealingly, both rich and poor countries which were helping energy consumers get cheaper fuel reformed. The United Arab Emirates has dismantled its subsidy regime for gasoline. Indonesia eliminated its gasoline subsidies and capped diesel supports. India has moved very aggressively, first eliminating diesel supports, and now phasing out even the subsidized kerosene intended to help the off-grid poor pay for lighting their homes. (Dealing with electricity subsidies has proven a heavier lift).
But most richer countries, including the U.S. and China, the nations who started the clamor to get prices right haven't done so well. Their subsidies are mostly aimed at well-connected fossil fuel producers. Recent analysis shows that $60 billion a year is still flowing from 12 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members to oil, gas and coal producers, in a variety of forms, particularly export credits to encourage emerging markets to purchase oil, gas and coal technologies and equipment. This is four times as much subsidy as those same countries provide to clean energy.
So the world's strongest economies are handing out more than $60 billion in public funds to the world's biggest polluters, including some of the world's richest companies, aiding and abetting Big Carbon's effort to postpone the climate reckoning. At the same time they are pleading that their Treasuries are so depleted that they cannot keep their much less expensive long-standing promises to help finance the clean energy transition in developing countries.
Australia, for example, which was just chosen to lead the primary vehicle for climate aid, the Green Climate Fund, has provided $200 million for that agency. But Australia's Queensland State is proposing to spend $1 billion—five times as much—helping to build a single new railroad to enable an Indian mining company, Adani, to develop its Carmichael mine, a decision which caused one of Adani's competitors, Glencore, to snipe at "risky ventures that rely on taxpayer subsidies to get across the line and which will bring on massive volumes of additional coal supply into the market, which could undermine existing operations." (The Carmichael coal project is also expected to receive significant financial concessions on royalty payments).
The U.S., under President Trump, has become something of a caricature of what this fossil subsidy end game might look like. Trump campaigned with strong support from coal, oil and natural gas nationally—but messaged around his promise to bring back coal mining jobs in Appalachian states like Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Elected, he moved promptly to reverse a series of Obama administration regulations which would have improved environmental standards for oil, gas and coal extraction. Coal industry executive and even Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell conceded that these roll-backs, while good for coal company pocket books, would do nothing to bring back Appalachian jobs, which were being lost because of competition from cheaper strip-mined western coal, natural gas and renewables.
Trump next reversed a series of Obama reforms designed to ensure that companies mining fossil fuels from public lands paid fair royalties, and that leases were bid competitively. The roll-back added another billion dollars a year to the taxpayer give-away to public lands producers, but also made it even more difficult for labor intensive Appalachian coal miners to compete—speeding the loss of jobs. (The new administration's moves to lower environmental standards for gas drilling also hampered eastern coal).
How did Appalachian coal interests respond to the Trump administration giveaways to its competitors, western coal and natural gas? Predictably, they pled for even bigger subsidies for themselves. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who just bolted the Democratic Party to join the GOP, asked Trump for a $15 federal subsidy for each ton of Appalachian coal, and claimed Trump had expressed support for the idea. If Congress were to appropriate these funds, it would add another $4.5 billion to the total U.S. government pay-off to fossil fuel producers.
But while these outrageous political payoffs waste taxpayer money and keep uncompetitive coal projects alive for a few more years, they don't change the underlying market realities. Last month the CEO of CSX railroad, founded to haul coal, and still getting a fifth of its revenue from the fuel, told analysts "Fossil fuels are dead….That's a long-term view. It's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to be in two or three years. But it's going away, in my view." And he backed up that prediction by revealing that his company would no longer make capital investments in its coal hauling business—no more locomotives designed to haul coal, no more investments in additional trackage—CSX is just going to let its coal business gradually wither. This week a Houston based energy trader told Bloomberg, "All the power market people that I know, we all think coal is going to zero."
So when you read claims that renewable energy isn't competitive yet with fossil fuels, or that it is economics that is slowing down the transition to clean energy, remember—the world's richest governments are throwing taxpayer money at well connected oil, gas and coal companies, cosseting these giants from the grim realities of true market costs—they represent a no-longer competitive past, and our health, our security, our climate and our economy will be better off the faster we move to the future of clean, low-carbon and cheaper energy sources.
A new climate mobilization is emerging; its first mission? The isolation of Donald Trump. Sunday's New York Times headline about the G20 meeting in Hamburg was revealing, but inaccurate: World leaders Move Forward on Climate Change: Without the U.S.
Yes, 19 of the 20 major economic players in the global economy agreed that the Paris climate agreement was "irreversible," that every nation needed to play its appropriate part, and that the future laid out in Paris, a decarbonized global economy in this century, was inevitable. Even oil exporting nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia, whom President Trump has viewed as favorite diplomatic buddies, refused to stand with him on climate. Trump's unwillingness to concede anything on climate meant that the rest of the G20 could adopt the stronger version of each of their climate communiqués.
But what the Times headline writer missed was that the world was not advancing "without the U.S."—it was simply advancing without the current administration. The Trump administration no longer represents American in the way that we have understood the presidency for decades.
The broader signs of the isolation of the Trump administration have been evident for months. But look at climate, and look at last week only.
Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing 250 of America's largest cities, unanimously endorsed the goal of converting their electricity supply 100 percent to renewables like wind and solar. What was the Trump administration response? According to the Houston Chronicle, Energy Sec. Rick Perry was preparing to "order Americans to pay more for electricity to keep his boss's promises to coal miners, nuclear power plants and electric companies ..." by requiring them to buy coal or nuclear power even if it cost more than clean renewables!
Then, as Trump boarded Air Force One to fly to Poland and ask, plaintively, if "the West has the will to survive?" California Gov. Jerry Brown, representing the most dynamic and rapidly growing economy in any industrial nation, proclaimed his survival plan. Brown announced that in September 2018 he would host a global climate summit in San Francisco, warning that the president "doesn't speak for the rest of America" in pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change ... it's up to you and it's up to me and tens of millions of other people to ... join together to combat the existential threat of climate change. That is why we're having the Climate Action Summit."
Even the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries broke with Trump and reaffirmed that they, too, supported the Paris agreement.
Talk about isolation.
A week later Brown joined with Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, to proclaim "America's Pledge," a groundbreaking mechanism for enabling the U.S., as a society, to participate in the global effort to curb climate change even while its normal representative, the Executive Branch of the federal government, struggles to hold back the tide.
America's Pledge is the latest expression of the new "bottom-up" diplomacy of climate, whose boldest achievement is, of course, the Paris agreement itself. From Kyoto through Copenhagen, the global community tried—and failed—to solve climate by arm-wrestling national governments into sharing sacrifice and imposing it on their citizens, like a tax bill.
They wouldn't pay it.
But in the aftermath of Copenhagen climate leaders like then UNFCCC Executive Christina Figueres, and U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern, realized that, as Figueres put it, "the big boom was over." Climate was not going to be solved by a top-down agreement to share pain—it had to be healed by a bottom-up effort to seize the emerging opportunities that can make climate progress a short term, local win, as well as a long term, global necessity.
The Paris agreement reflected that. Nations didn't get handed a tax bill. They came forward with their own preferred actions—things their governments thought would be good for their own populations, like restoring forests in Kenya, or cleaning up power plants in the U.S. Some focused-on deforestation, some on renewable electricity, others on low carbon transportation fuels.
The Obama administration's Paris offer—a "Nationally Determined Contribution," consisted of things most Americans wanted to do anyway—replace outmoded, expensive and dirty coal power with cheaper, cleaner renewables; stop wasting valuable natural gas by letting it leak or be flared; provide motorists with cars and trucks and waste less fuel and go further on a dollar's worth of gasoline; modernize our building stock to reduce utility bills and increase comfort; and replace climate destructive HFC refrigerants with modern, American developed safe alternatives.
So in walking from Paris, Trump is compelled to threaten that his administration will block Americans from doing things that make them more prosperous, competitive, safer or healthier. Why does Energy Sec. Perry have to threaten states to get them to buy more coal power? Because it costs more than wind or solar.
Some, perhaps many, actions will, of course, require federal action—regulating oil and gas pollution on federal land for example. Others, like better building codes to reduce wasteful household energy bills, are primarily matters for cities. Innovating new technologies to replace HFC refrigerants are mostly going to emerge from the private sector. And the best way to figure out how to best leverage a price on carbon as a climate solution might be to let California and other states run a series of experiments and see whose method works best.
So why should America wait for Trump?
But there is a challenge with bottom-up solutions, a problem that "America's Pledge" is designed to solve. If dozens of states, hundreds of cities, thousands of universities and tens of thousands of businesses are each innovating and cutting emissions on their own, how do we know how we are doing? How can we learn from successes and failures? How can we stimulate the competitive instincts that make even more progress possible?
That's the gap "America's Pledge" plans to fill—to measure, report, compare and aggregate both the actions taken, and the opportunities yet to be taken, by an entire society. Because, at its heart, bottom-up climate progress requires mobilizing all of us, each one to do something that makes sense, and is good for us, but might not ever get to the top of our "to do list" if we didn't understand that we are part of something much larger, and much more important, than our individual steps.
That means, incidentally, that America's Pledge will have to be just as, or more rigorous, methodical and comprehensive than the "Nationally Determined Contributions" that made up the Paris agreement. That's a major challenge. But I think that what President Trump doesn't understand is that this is the kind of challenge Americans respond to—and I'm thrilled that Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Brown have laid it on the table.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
The last week has seen a flood of stories on clean energy's prospects—stories that make your head spin with their conflicting tales of renewable energy's prospects of ending our dangerous addiction to fossil fuel power from coal and gas.
A renewables transition will "happen without Trump" because of market forces—or can't do the job and is shaping up as "likely very costly." (Both from the same day's New York Times). Cities, states and businesses are filling in the leadership vacuum created by the Trump administration—or they are falling far short. Wind is making it impossible for fossil fuels to compete in Texas power markets—or Texas will continue to be the biggest carbon emitting state of all because wind is too unreliable. (Both from Bloomberg).
And all of these perspectives are coming from scientists and analysts who are pro-clean energy and favor strong action to protect the climate—this is not a fight ginned up by ExxonMobil, Peabody Coal or climate denialists from the Heartland Institute.
So what's the argument? Where do we stand on the ability of clean, renewable energy sources to eliminate the risk to the climate posed by continuing reliance on coal, oil and natural gas?
That depends on the question you ask. If you look at where we are today, our current emission rates are far too high. If continued unchecked, they will rapidly destabilize the weather and increase climate risks to catastrophic levels. (Mathematicians call this the function). If you look at the progress we are making, the future looks brighter, but still quite scary. The commitments governments made at the Paris climate agreement, and the trends for deployment of clean energy vs. fossil fuels, all show future emissions declining, but not declining enough to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (This question, "How fast are we progressing?" is what mathematicians call the first derivative). But if you compare the pace of progress this year with that pace five years ago, you can see that decarbonization is accelerating. Not only are we cutting emissions, we are cutting them faster with each passing year. If we continue to accelerate that progress long enough, then we can look forward to eliminating fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions and stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (Mathematicians call this measure of acceleration "the second derivative").
Let's apply these three measurements to the most heated of this week's controversies, the attack by a group of prominent climate and energy scientists on journal articles by Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson which argued that wind, solar and hydro could enable the U.S. to eliminate all fossil fuels and nuclear energy from its electricity mix, without any significant increase in costs.
4 Reasons Nuclear and Fossil Fuel Supporters Criticizing 100% Renewable Energy Plan Are Wrong https://t.co/jVtcT9OsCm— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@Robert F. Kennedy Jr)1498146666.0
I'm not going to get into the debate about whether Jacobson's article met scientific standards or was too speculative—I'm not qualified. But the media coverage of the debate has missed the point. Jacobson described a scenario in which we get 100 percent of our power from renewables by 2055 with technologies he thinks will be available by that date. Jacobson's critics disagree—but the lead contributor to their article, Christopher Clack previously published his own trail-breaking journal article saying that we can cut carbon emissions by 80 percent with renewables by 2030. Clack's article argued that this would require connecting different regions of the U.S. with transmission lines—a technology clearly available today. We would need 60 percent wind and solar to do this—hydro, nuclear and natural gas would make up the rest.
So both sides of this media-hyped debate agree that, using today's renewable technology plus transmission, we can cut utility sector carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030. (President Obama's much criticized Clean Power Plan, now suspended by the Trump Administration, by comparison, envisaged cutting utility emissions by only 32 percent by 2030).
So what Clack and Jacobson disagree about is what happens between 2030 and 2055. How likely is it that new storage technologies will enable us, at no cost, to get rid of the last 20 percent of those emissions—25 or 40 years from now! Even with all of my respect for the scientists on both sides, they can't possibly know the answer to that question. Only 15 years ago, solar power cost about $0.37 kwh. No one anticipated the precipitous drop in costs that followed. Today that same solar power costs a tenth as much so predicting how much electricity storage will cost in 2055 (and storage, plus long distance transmission, is the key to enabling renewable power to meet 100 percent of our needs) is simply not possible.
If, in the next 15 years, battery or other storage costs drop as fast as solar did for the last 15, Jacobson's vision is clearly viable. The second derivative can get us there—but today we are only at 10 percent wind and solar. We have a long way to go.
And we know is that racing ahead to install as much solar and wind as the grid can handle will drive the costs of renewables down even further—and lower utility bills. Both Clack and Jacobson agree that getting 60 percent renewable reliance is feasible and cheaper. So it's premature to ask "will we need some remaining natural gas or nuclear or can we go 100 percent renewable?" And we are making money—as well as cutting carbon—every step of the way.
How much of a difference would such an acceleration of renewable energy in the utility sector make to the climate? Well, cutting utility sector emissions by 80 percent would fulfill the entire Obama Administration Paris pledge (the first derivative). But it would also require doubling the speed at which we have cut utility emissions in the past decade (the second derivative).
How do we make sure that happens? That's the important question—not what do we do about the last 20 percent of those emissions when we get to 2030. We can be reasonably certain every guess we make about that today will prove wrong—however carefully peer reviewed.
So this is the wrong argument to be having. Fortunately, the stakeholders who are the target of the fight—policy makers—are asking the right question and coming up with the right answer. At its Miami convention this week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously agreed to a resolution, initiated by the Sierra Club, calling for 100 percent renewable power not by 2055—but by 2035. All of America's largest cities just got on board the renewables express—its second derivative just got a boost.
Donald Trump has done what Al Gore, Jim Hansen, climate scientists, the Sierra Club and the rest of the environmental movement could never do—make climate disruption breaking cable TV news. Trump's histrionic, largely symbolic and recklessly self-destructive decision to abandon the Paris climate agreement means, among other things, that far more Americans know about the Paris climate agreement this morning than 24 hours ago. Never has climate dominated a news cycle as it did Thursday—even when the Paris agreement was signed by all of the world, (Nicaragua and Syria excepted).
Trump did this by providing the climate crisis with what it lacked—a single villain. He has now cast himself, for most of the global community, as a James Bond style villain, a Dr. No or Goldfinger, plotting global destruction for personal power and gain. But he is, in reality, President of the United States—not a character in a movie. And in the real world the response to villainy doesn't come from a heroic special agent but through the collaborative response of a wide array of actors—other countries, U.S. cities, many of America's most powerful states, and hundreds of businesses and civil society organizations.
22 Awesome Responses to Trump's Announcement on Paris Agreement https://t.co/WXl6FSx18D— Josh Fox (@Josh Fox)1496354854.0
Trump's decision to abandon Paris has catalyzed, amplified and intensified this response. We actually, ironically, owe him a favor.
Let's begin with the depressing decision, and then look at the hope we can all take from the resistance.
Trump's decision to use the established process to exit Paris, but to remain in the underlying Rio Treaty on climate, means it will take four years for the U.S. to out—and the American people will have a chance to vote for the next President before we leave. So this announcement is largely symbolic. Trump also made clear that he would not honor the commitments President Obama made in his Paris pledge—but he was already busy undoing as many of those as he could. (Fortunately far fewer of these climate solutions than the media has implied are actually things Trump can reverse—we're already half-way to meeting our Paris pledge and Trump can't undo history). And since Paris is a coalition of the willing, not an enforcement based agreement, Trump was always free to walk away from our pledges and knew it.
So as a practical matter, withdrawing from Paris in 4 years will have no impact on U.S. climate emissions between now and 2025. Thursday's announcement doesn't give Trump a single additional tool to roll-back Obama's climate legacy.
So why do it? Why alienate virtually the entire global community, and abandon America's good standing as a diplomatic leader? Why let China and Germany step forward into our shoes? Why stiff more than 1,000 American businesses, including hundreds of the biggest, who begged Trump not to withdraw from Paris, including ExxonMobil and Chevron? Why make his climate denial such an embarrassingly big story?
It's hard to know exactly what motivates President Trump. My guess, though is that he withdrew from Paris precisely because he needed to show his isolationist, America- first followers that he would walk away from a passel of treaties, and that he rejected diplomacy as a tool of global leadership—in a way that would have fewer real world repercussions than keeping his campaign promise to terminate North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump ignored the fact that the Paris accord was, for the U.S., an unbelievably favorable deal, in which everything we agreed to do was something most Americans wanted to do anyway: replace outmoded, expensive and dirty coal power with cheaper, cleaner renewables; stop wasting valuable natural gas by letting it leak or be flared; provide motorists with cars and trucks and waste less fuel and go further on a dollar's worth of gasoline; modernize our building stock to reduce utility bills and increase comfort; and replace climate destructive HFC refrigerants with modern, American developed safe alternatives.
His false and inflammatory remarks about the financial implications of the Paris agreement were clearly aimed at the minority of Americans who believe that global cooperation hurts the U.S., and displayed Trump's usual callousness about what most Americans hear or think about him—in this case, they are reading once again he is just not telling the truth. (For example, U.S. support for the Green Climate Fund under Paris is a tiny fraction of the $100 billion Trump cited. And nothing in the Paris agreement hampers the U.S.'s ability to build any particular energy project it chooses).
But Trump's entire campaign and Presidency have been premised on the notion that the passion of the minority which supports him will enable him to govern, even as the majority rejects his leadership—so this is nothing new.
What is new, however, is the intensity of the response. Many feared—and Steve Bannon hoped—that a U.S. withdrawal would create a domino collapse of global confidence in Paris. Instead it greatly solidified the commitment of Europe, China, Canada and India to filling the gap left by American withdrawal, while isolating and marginalizing the U.S. in other key diplomatic forums. India's Narendra Modi commented, "Paris or no Paris, our commitment to preserving the climate is for the sake of future generations."
Domestically, Trump has forced a large swathe of American business, which had welcomed the predictability and global consistency of the Paris agreement, into public opposition to his administration, a break companies had been very reluctant to risk. Elon Musk, who had controversially clung to his seat as one of Trump's economic advisors, walked out in protest. Jeff Immelt tweeted, "Industry must now lead and not depend on government." The Governors of California, Washington and New York began assembling a new coalition of states willing to challenge Trump and coordinate their climate leadership, expecting at least 10, and perhaps as many as 25 participants. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pulling together a broad coalition of cities, states and the private sector to prepare an "American Pledge," a replacement set of strategies to meet America's Paris commitment to a 26 percent emissions cut, using state and local policy tools and corporate commitments, all aggregated and formally reported to the United Nations in place of the federal government reports previously envisaged. American society is replacing the Trump administration in climate diplomacy—something unprecedented but very powerful, and something which begins to marginalize the President in a disruptive and one expects unwelcome way.
This kind of a pathway to climate progress was laid out and anticipated by Mike Bloomberg and myself in our recent book, Climate of Hope. But we never imagined that it would be Donald Trump whose desire to remain center-stage for his base would accelerate and jump-start the process.
It's time to modernize George Orwell's concept of the memory hole laid out in his (once again best-selling novel), 1984. The "memory hole" was where "the party" discarded inconvenient bits of history, replacing them with what are now known as "alternative facts." The logic, as Orwell explained it, was "Who controls the past, controls the future."
Orwell saw this threat as emerging from Communism or Fascism—but it is springing up in America from the soil of old-fashioned, corporate conservatism. The White House gets blamed for its departures from truth, but in the last months the Republican leadership in Congress has demonstrated it's own staggering (and disturbing) deftness at sending inconvenient history into this new version of Orwell's "memory hole."
What, after all, did Republicans most savage President Obama for? Here are three "memory holed" but core themes from the last eight years of GOP assaults on Obama's White House:
1. The Need for Bipartisanship
Republicans crucified Obama for eventually—after months of struggling—passing the Affordable Care Act without bipartisan Republican support.
McConnell, of course, had made such a decision unavoidable by lining up his caucus in unanimous opposition to any major legislation Obama supported. He admitted as much: "It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is ok." But the Republican claim that the health-care plan had no bipartisan support was later used as the basis for opposing the Affordable Care Act "root and branch."
Obama struggled for months to find bipartisan support for health care reform. Paul Ryan and Trump have made no such gesture. Democrats have been completely excluded from the conversations between the White House and the Congress first on health care, now on tax reform.
Bipartisanship as an important political norm has vanished down the memory hole without a trace.
2. No Picking Winners and Losers
Remember the Solyndra "scandal"? The horrendous GM "bail-out"? Government shouldn't decide which private firms thrive—or survive. Or so GOP orthodoxy ran. Now we have a Republican President who pledged rescue a specific dying industry—coal, along with a bogus promise to save the jobs of displaced miners. The owners of the Navajo Power Plant in Arizona are preparing to shut it down. Its energy costs more than wind, solar or natural gas. Its biggest customer paid $38.5 million more than market for its electricity last year. The (Republican governed) state of Arizona wants the U.S. Government to pick up half of its operating costs, to keep the plant and Peabody Coal's Navajo Reservation mining operation going. And the Trump administration has promised, in principal, to help.
Being helped by Trump is, however, a two edged sword. The net effect of Trump's actions to date is good for Peabody, but actually fewer jobs for miners, not more. Trump has brought back the outrageous sweet heart leases that help strip-mined, federally-owned Wyoming coal (employing very few workers) undercut deep mined, privately-owned Appalachian coal—where the jobs are. Trump's cancellation of pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling on federal lands means cheaper natural, further undercutting coal miners. Trump is helping gas over coal, coal over wind and solar, and Wyoming over Appalachian coal. It's a dizzying cascade of favorites, with the displaced Appalachian miners at the bottom.
Are we simply expected to forget, "Don't pick winners and losers?"
The Memory Hole is so very wide.
3. Aggressive Use of Presidential Authority—Regulations and Executive Orders.
Republicans repeatedly denounced Obama as "lawless" for advancing his policy goals through regulations and executive orders. Obama did eventually fall back on his Presidential pen when it became clear that there would be no possibility of moving any legislation through a Republican Congress—but it was a last resort, and he relied upon formal regulations, with extensive public comment and due process, for the heavy lifting.
Nothing Obama tried ever rose to the breath-taking assertions of naked executive power that have dominated Trump's first 100 days, all by pure executive fiat: the twice-court rejected Muslim travel ban; the mandate to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to illegally reverse his predecessors' national monument designations; the repeated threats and assaults on federal judges who have dared to challenge Trump's reckless power-grabs; an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision to suspend enforcement of already implemented pollution limits on mercury emissions; or the executive order to withhold funding from sanctuary cities whose attitudes towards immigration enforcement clashed with Trump's crack-down. Then Friday, Trump ordered Zinke to open legally protected areas along the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling.
Yet Congressional Republicans who eloquently preached the virtues of executive restraint, are in full-throated support of Trump's executive imperium. It is true that McConnell has said, comparing Trump to Obama, "we don't want to give this one a blank check either." But thus far McConnell has yet to confront a Trump power-grab he wouldn't support. Paul Ryan is in the same camp. "Everything that President Obama did by executive order, this new president can undo," he commented. "He's restoring the proper balance, and in our opinion, he is undoing a lot of damage that was done by the last president, who exceeded his power."
These claims are nonsense. National Monuments have been created by virtually every President since Teddy Roosevelt under a 1908 Act of Congress; that law provides no authority to undo such protections. The prohibition on discrimination against immigrants from certain countries goes back to 1965; and the doctrine that not even Congress can use federal funding authority to coerce states as Trump's Sanctuary City sanctions did was first articulated by Republican Attorneys General in lawsuits against Obama.
Few of Trump's executive orders simply restore federal policy as it existed when George Bush left office—most are breathtaking new claims of raw executive power.
Congressional leaders are not alone among conservatives in hailing Trump's assaults on the law. In June of 2016 National Review warned that Trump would twist the Constitution in precisely this way, declaring that he " has already promised that he will knowingly break the law and violate the Constitution." But since the election the pages of the National Review have consistently taken the position that Trump isn't really over-reaching, because his policies are conservative ones, which by their nature, cannot be authoritarian or unconstitutional.
So the memory hole is not only wide but gapingly deep—almost a cosmological black-hole into which the GOP hopes the entire history of its assault on President Obama, along with conservatism's previous principals, will be sucked, unable to escape.
It's our job to keep memory—as well as truth—alive.
It's a big week for me. Monday was the official publication date of Climate of Hope, my new book co-authored with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
The book's premise is that climate solutions now constitute an enormous short term opportunity—healthier communities, greater prosperity, enhanced security—for both the U.S. and the world community. The key to seizing that opportunity is to understand that the climate crisis is a symptom of multiple market failures and political follies, not a single free-standing "problem;" that leadership in implementing solutions is already emerging not so much from national governments as from cities, businesses and citizen activists; and that this bottom up leadership is the key to continuing to accelerate the pace of progress and the prospects for avoiding catastrophic risks to the climate.
Climate of Hope is now out there being reviewed—not always favorably—so I thought I'd use this blog to give my perspective on why Mike and I believe this approach does, in fact, offer a solid pathway out of the climate crisis.
The main criticism thus far—and I expect this to continue—is that we are wrongly arguing that national governments don't matter, and that cities and businesses alone can correct our climate follies. We don't, make that argument, and they can't do it alone. A number of our key approaches clearly require national action—like redirecting agricultural subsidies away from encouraging overproduction of cotton and corn towards supporting regenerative agriculture which can suck carbon out of the atmosphere, where it is a climate threat, and into the soil, where it becomes a fertility and water storage enhancing asset.
But others, like modernizing building codes to ensure that any house built after 2020 is hyper-efficient, powered by its own renewable generation, so its owners don't have to pay a utility bill and don't pollute the atmosphere when they turn on the lights, are intrinsically the business of local (and state) governments.
And in the U.S. political context some that sound national—like encouraging the rapid replacement of internal combustion cars with electric drive—may actually emerge from a combination of city and state action. Led by Los Angeles, a coalition of 30 U.S. cities recently announced they would jointly bid out purchase orders for up to 114,000 electric drive vehicles at a cost of $10 billion, while California and 12 partner states made clear they would move forward with their zero emission vehicle mandate. So the cities are providing electric-drive vehicles with the scale needed to bring down prices and improve performance, while the states are guaranteeing that the market for these vehicles will continue to grow far beyond what city fleets alone could guarantee.
Similarly, the center piece of the Trump administration assault on President Obama's climate legacy, the suspension of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), assumes that the future of America's electric sector depends on a top-down national mandate, because utilities will otherwise cling to their existing fossil fuel dependent facilities. But while the CPP envisaged cutting utility emissions by only 30 percent by 2025, citizen action and market forces had already slashed power plant carbon pollution by 25 percent at the end of 2016, and we are on track to cut these emissions by almost 50 percent, not 30 percent, by 2025, through market forces and public pressure.
On the other hand, cleaning up methane emissions from oil and gas drilling on public lands, another Obama rule Trump would like to quash, can't be replaced by state and local initiatives—the federal government ultimately must become part of the solution. But just as during the Progressive era at the start of the 20th century it was cities and states and forged the new policy instruments that eventually became the New Deal, rather than waiting for Washington, just so Mike Bloomberg and I believe that political leadership on climate in the United States, and elsewhere, will come from below, not from national elites which remain in thrall to the fossil lobby and other entrenched interests. (Remember those crop subsidies? Shifting them to protect the climate would be good for farmers, but bad for pesticide and fertilizer interests.)
The essential message of Climate of Hope, however, is that every one of the separate market and political failures that threaten the climate has its own unique source and solution—each requiring a different approach and reform, all making us better off. CFC's, for example, cooling and refrigeration chemicals were deployed to replaced ozone depleting predecessors with inadequate testing. Because of their extraordinary ability to prevent solar radiation from bouncing back into space, they loomed as a huge future climate risk. But just as an international treaty—the Montreal Protocol—got rid of the risk of ozone depleting chemicals—the ozone layer is now healing—an amendment to that same treaty is now going to replace HFCs with climate safe alternatives.
Carbon emissions from deforestation mostly stem from illegal logging—so ending corruption and cracking down on the trade in contraband timber are key climate solutions. Methane emissions from rice paddies require better irrigation and cropping practices in rural areas, while methane from urban trash can be prevented by cities deciding to compost garbage instead of dumping it in landfills. Nitrous oxide emissions are soaring because nations subsidize over-fertilization instead of helping farmers figure out how much fertilizer their crops can really utilize. Black carbon from diesels will end as soon as we require all the world's fuels to be refined to eliminate sulfur contamination, something cities and ports are initiating. But black carbon from biomass cooking in developing countries demands giving poor families access to clean cooking fuels—either ethanol from crop wastes or LPG gas currently being wasted and flared.
That diversity of solutions requires a diversity of leaders—yes, presidents, prime ministers and diplomats, but also mayors, CEO's, school board members, architects, procurement officers, rural co-op directors, governors, municipal utility executives, hedge fund managers, college trustees and rear admirals. And properly chosen climate solutions will make each of those jobs easier, and enable those who hold them to deliver better results.
Perhaps the Senate, in its hearing on Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should have questioned Pruitt as the chief pediatrician for America's children. As head of the EPA Pruitt gets to decide what is safe for our kids—in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat and the communities they play. Senators didn't ask—but they are finding out.
In his first big test of what kind of pediatrician he will be, Pruitt decided to reverse an earlier EPA decision to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a potent nerve gas banned from household use years ago, but still used in farms, orchards, pastures and golf courses.
Chlorpyrifos belongs to the same family as the nerve gas sarin—suspected of being behind the appalling chemical weapon attack which occurred this week in Syria, provoking appropriate outrage from the administration. But EPA has just decided to allow the continued dousing of America's rural landscapes with a close cousin—a different chemical weapon.
Chlorpyrifos is one of the most frequently cited causes of farm-worker pesticide poisoning—but is particularly toxic to young children and the fetus. The pesticide has come across my email screens periodically for over a decade, as organizations like the Nature Resources Defense Council slogged forward, petitioning the EPA to implement a simple requirement of federal pesticide law: that any pesticide must be shown to be safe before use. In 2015 the agency said is intended to ban it—but didn't finalize the decision. Eventually, courts ordered EPA to make a final decision on the ban—and Pruitt decided to ignore the science.
He did not do so because he asserted that chlorpyrifos was safe; he simply said that there were uncertainties, and that in that situation farmers were entitled to continue to use the chemical, exposing farm workers, their children, surrounding communities and consumers of food sprayed with the chemical, to a pesticide whose safety is at best highly dubious—in quantities up to 14,000 times the safe level.
"We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment," Pruitt said—not the message you would expect to hear from a pediatrician if you asked him if you should give your kids foods laced with a potent neurotoxin that has been shown to damage their mental development.
This reversal of the clear requirement of federal pesticide law—that safety come first—along with Pruitt's revealing ordering of his priorities—regulatory certainty to pesticide users first, with human health qualified by "still"—reinforces something we are learning about the Trump administration.
Candidate Trump made a wide array of promises, many of them expressed within the 140 characters of a tweet. Huge numbers contradicted each other. How the administration would resolve those conflicts was one of the great unknowns. Trump, for example, proclaimed that "I want clean air and clean water" during his campaign. But he also pledged to dismantle the EPA.
It has been a fairly consistent pattern in the first 10 weeks of the administration that a campaign promise to help the powerful was likely to be honored, while one to help the vulnerable would be an earlier casualty of priority setting. Children of farm workers don't rank as high as Dow Chemical, the main manufacturer and defender of chlorpyrifos. QED—we know how this administration will come down.
#Trump Gives Pen to Dow Chemical CEO After Signing Executive Order to Eliminate Regulations https://t.co/Dt6w79Qn3V… https://t.co/BUG4CD0mKP— GMWatch (@GMWatch)1488280046.0
That, of course, is precisely what you don't choose your children's pediatrician for—his loyalty to chemical and drug companies before his concern for your family. There's been a fair amount of media coverage of the decision, which may be a sign that the country is waking up to the fact that Trump's campaign tweet language has consequences, even when the courts and Congress block many of his initiatives.
Sen. Tom Carper, of Delaware, has jumped on the chlorpyrifos question, sending Pruitt a sharp query, and pointing out that Pruitt's own decision did not even purport to find the legally necessary "reasonable certainty of no harm" required to allow pesticide residues on food. Carper asked Pruitt to provide him "all documents (including but not limited to emails, legal and other memorandum, drafts of legal or regulatory decisions or orders, white papers, scientific references, letters, telephone logs, meeting minutes and calendars, slides and presentations)" relating to the decision.
Normally, a demand for such documentation is seeking the "smoking gun"—and Pruitt fiercely resisted requests for such documents from his attorney-general's office in Oklahoma until after his confirmation had occurred, seeking to conceal his hand-in-glove cooperation with big oil and coal interests in that office. But while I am very sure Pruitt will resist Carper's request, there is a sad possibility here—that no smoking gun was required, so blandishment's, no elaborate courtship by pesticide interests. Pruitt may simply never have considered any other decision than letting a dangerous chemical be massively applied to America's food supply.
After all, wasn't America at its greatest when the air, food and water were most toxic?
Fake News Alert: Callous as Pruitt's decision to continuing allowing the use of a nerve gas as a tool in American agriculture, there is no evidence, however informed your informant claims to be, that President Trump ordered Pruitt to permit use of chlorpyrifos to please his golf course management.
One of the biggest impacts of President Trump's election is not the direct damage he may do—but the cultural shift he has unleashed among American business leaders. Assaults on decency and health that would have been unthinkable a few months ago are now the expected response by corporate executives pressured by short-term market pressures and right-wing political allies.
Let's be clear. American business is at risk of plunging into a race to the bottom—not only must Americans resist Trump directly, they must resist the culture of law-breaking and recklessness he is trying to trigger.
One of the most spectacular examples is only a few hundred miles from the White House, in Charleston, West Virginia. The state led the nation in mining deaths in 2016 and has already seen two deaths in 2017; but in spite of this grim history the coal industry has proposed the complete elimination of state health and safety regulations and inspections in the West Virginia coal mines. This in a state where, only a few months ago, a federal appellate court upheld a prison sentence for Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role in a mining catastrophe that killed 29 miners in Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, the direct result of poor enforcement of safety standards.
The West Virginia Gazette summed up the bill: "The heart of the legislation is a section that simply eliminates the ability of state mine safety office inspectors to issue notices of violation or levy fines for mine operators or coal companies for any safety hazards unless they can prove there is an 'imminent danger' of death or serious physical harm." If the coal industry has its way the much overblown Obama "War on Coal" will be replaced by a stealthy, Trump inspired "War on Coal Miners."
The coal industry has long enjoyed a reputation for callousness. But the new mood exemplified by President Trump has spread to companies that invest a lot of resources in portraying themselves as responsible, sustainable corporate citizens. Take Monsanto.
The company has been engaged in a high stakes effort to maintain its ability to market its Roundup brand of herbicide in spite of mounting evidence that it's safety is uncertain at best. When Roundup's active ingredient was listed as a probably human carcinogen under California's Proposition 65 (disclosure: I co-authored it 30 years ago), Monsanto sued, claiming that it was a violation of the constitution to require the company to inform users and others exposed of the view of international science bodies of its risks.
A California court shot the lawsuit down, commenting that there was no plausible basis for the company's claim that making the company inform the public it was selling them a potentially dangerous chemical was unconstitutional. Then, when Monsanto argued that the documents on the basis of which the judge had ruled against it be kept secret, the judge threatened the company with sanctions and required the documents to be released.
California Judge Rules Against Monsanto, Allows Cancer Warning on Roundup https://t.co/YxVFlGWRj4 @food_democracy @justlabelit— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1489274104.0
It became clear why Monsanto wanted the documents sealed. The revealed a sordid history of the company's efforts to keep Roundup's real risks a secret, including apparent collusion with regulatory staff inside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to head off further research into its dangers.
Monsanto's response? Embarrassment? Hardly. The company proclaimed that it would continue to appeal the case. It insists that Roundups users and other exposed were not entitled to know that international agencies had found that the herbicide was a probable human carcinogen.
Companies are clearly being enticed by the Trump administration in particular the cabinet, with the promise that a new culture of impunity and indifference is being let loose. One of the first of President Obama's regulatory initiatives to be rolled back was a simple one that discouraged federal contracts from being awarded to companies that had violated federal labor laws.
As I've pointed out, even America's auto industry, rescued in 2009 by a combination of public funding and innovation supporting efficiency regulations, now wants permission to fall behind again as the global auto market moves towards efficiency and electrification. Detroit eagerly grabbed when Trump offered to weaken fuel economy and emission fuels for 2018-2022. Leader's like General Motor's Mary Barra who only months ago were pinning their corporate brand and future on the company's pioneering BOLT electric car, have now joined in rejecting the regulatory certainty that functioned as the market guarantor of the BOLT's future.
Detroit begged for this roll-back in spite of warning from investor voices like Ceres that weakened standards puts the industry's key stakeholders at risk. Suspending the rules "would harm auto parts suppliers, who employ two and a half times more Americans than auto companies and who, relying on current standards, have invested heavily in fuel savings technologies," said Carol Lee Rawn, transportation director at Ceres. "When consumers save money on gas, they spend more on local goods and services, which benefits businesses, jobs and the U.S. economy."
Business cannot be permitted to hide behind the excuse that Trump somehow made them change their values and behavior or that in supporting regulatory roll-backs they won't actually do anything bad, even though they are now allowed to. When an allegedly responsible company urges government to open the door to bad actors, it is guilty for the harm which results, even if other companies do the direct damage.
Trump talked a lot about "law and order." It ought to apply to business as well.
After a week in India, despite crowding, intensity and poverty, there is an undeniable lightness from plunging into a country firmly fixed on its future, not its past, moving forward however jerkily and energized.
World's Largest Solar Farm Leapfrogs India to Third in Utility-Scale Solar https://t.co/25pE8C8quL @Solar_Builder @RealSolar— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1480734034.0
Here's the harvest of Thursday's headlines: the Government of India is doubling the scale of the country's solar parks, adding 20 gigawatts, more than total U.S. solar capacity; Great Britain's development finance institution, CDC, announced a major new solar initiative targeted at India's undeserved eastern states; India's largest network of vocational institutes, run by the Catholic church, pledged to shift to renewable energy; Jharkand, India's West Virginia and biggest coal producer, plans to build more solar capacity than its peak internal demand for power; the Indian Supreme Court stepped up its crack-down on water pollution from industrial facilities; analysts projected aggressive bidding Thursday for India's first reverse auction for wind power, with prices expected to set new records; and finally the government announced that starting next year it would prepare a special budget annex assessing the steps it is taking to deal with climate change.
That's one day.
Meanwhile, traffic remains mind numbingly congested; but the future is being sketched out. Tide-hailing companies like Ola and Uber have grown so fast that they are beginning to drive up the wage scales for private chauffeurs. More and more Indians are leaving their personal cars at home as they brave grid-lock, prompting the government to schedule a high level strategy session Monday and Tuesday on whether India can move directly to a world of electric, shared passenger vehicles and skip the phase of mass personal ownership of cars altogether.
Volkswagen, as it plans its global recovery from the diesel cheating scandal, picked India's Tata Motors as its preferred strategic partner.
Air pollution is taking a devastating toll; but it has also emerged as a major issue as India's political parties contest a set of critical state elections across India's heavily polluted Gangetic plain.
World's Most Polluted City, Air Quality Levels Literally Off the Charts https://t.co/WFDez9y1Yz @CleanAirLondon @CleanAirMoms— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478573109.0
India has decisively—if not irrevocably—bet its future on clean energy and low carbon innovation. Only if this disruptive pathway fails the country's aspirations to lift its masses out of poverty is India likely to revert to a fossil fuel reliant development model. This looks like the biggest opportunity clean energy has ever had.
Both the government and India's most prestigious (and caution) energy think tank, TERI, have declared that except for plants already in the pipeline, India will need no more coal power until after 2025, because planned renewable electricity will more than meet demand. The draft National Electricity Plan calls for installing renewable power capacity equal to 85 percent of peak demand, with no new coal at all.
Serious conversations are underway about how to jump start the needed investments in transmission. The grid must carry this enormous increase in renewable power to the load centers where it is needed which, as in most countries, are often distant from the prime wind and solar regions.
India is being smart. The record setting bids at the last solar auction (less than $0.05/kwh) were powered by some very smart auction design; setting up solar farms relieved developers of the risk and delays associated with obtaining land, the risk of transmission stranding was addressed by pledging to pay for electrons generated even if the grid to deliver them to customers had not yet been completed and hedging mechanisms allowed the projects access to low cost foreign borrowing. (Neighboring countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh pay far more, usually twice as much, for wind and solar, even when they have access to cheaper capital, because they have not gotten the policy basics right).
India's low carbon strategies are moving beyond the power sector. A goal of a 100 percent electrified vehicle fleet by 2030 is moving into the implementation phase. A senior academic from IIT Madras, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, has been given the lead oversight role and sees the problem as primarily one of industrial policy; if India can obtain and master the key electric drive vehicle technologies—solar cells, batteries and highly efficient vehicle cooling technology—electric drive vehicle's potential to displace imported and polluting oil will then create the necessary short-term policy support to end the era of oil powered combustion engines in India.
The Rail Ministry, led by Suresh Prabhu, a strong clean energy advocate, has been aggressively pursuing new strategies to enable India to shift a major share of its good traffic off of roads and trucks and onto climate friendly rail.
And, as mentioned above, India is placing competition for prowess in manufacturing low carbon equipment and infrastructure at the center of its economic development strategy.
India has always been better at thoughtful aspirations than at implementation; each one of these goals and steps faces multiple challenges. High domestic interest rates and foreign investor wariness of the security of long term loans to India, are probably the biggest threat—clean energy provides free fuel, but also demands more up front capital investment. Indian solar developers pay 50 percent more for the capital they use than those in the Persian Gulf. But those conversations are a lot more creative and energizing than the rehash of tired 1970's "environment vs. the economy" narrative that President Trump and the Republican Congress seem determined to rescue from the ash heap of history.
The utterly avoidable, terrifying and still potentially catastrophic failures of the spillways of North America's highest dam—California's 170 foot, earth-filled Oroville—could, with the right national leadership, awaken America to the urgency of investing in our physical safety and future—our infrastructure.
Sixty years old, Oroville single handedly provides one-third of the water for all of Southern California. It is on the verge of failure, because an under designed emergency spillway began to erode away the face of the dam when used for the first time. Three counties and 220,00 people have been evacuated; much of California's agriculture faces parched fields after one of the heaviest rainfall years on record. The state's water establishment refused to armor the emergency channel with concrete because "it was too expensive"—perhaps $10-20 million. They justified their recklessness by assuming that if the emergency spillway was needed, the emergency in question would be mild, timid and well-behaved. The main function of the dirt spillway was to provide a false sense of security to the public. No one knew if it would really work or much cared. Experts blithely asserted it would never be needed. Now we know. It was and it doesn't.
188,000 Flee as 'Wall of Water' Threatens Northern California https://t.co/GxAiUwNOar— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@Robert F. Kennedy Jr)1487009718.0
America's bridges, dams, highways, mass transit systems, drinking water supplies, sewers, levees, ports and other vital public support systems face similar challenges and pose similar risks. Of 84,000 major dams in the U.S., 14,000 are rated as being "high-hazard" if they fail. The foundations of our economy and our communities are eroding beneath us just like the muddy face of the Oroville Dam.
The agencies and regulators charged with ensuring that our physical infrastructure works often shill for shoddiness and short-cuts. Often maligned environmental "obstructionists" are the frequently outshouted defenders of doing it right.
Oroville Dam was only approved by the voters of California after a devastating Feather River flood swept through Oroville in 1955; it was sold as a public safety measure. The real driver was the desire of development interests in arid Southern California to tap the rivers of the wetter north. Even presented as flood protection, the dam barely received voter approval. To keep costs down, the emergency spillway, designed to handle overflow waters from the severe rainfall events, wasn't clad in concrete, except at the very lip. It was known and accepted, that surging waters over-topping the spillway would rapidly erode the earthen dam below that lip. In bureaucratese, the safety rules conceded that the spillway would fail if used: "The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage."
7 Wild Rivers Under Attack by Hydropower Dams https://t.co/8vEGG2KFVp @americanrivers @riverkeeper— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1476306613.0
In 2005, Oroville came up for safety review by the Federal government. The Sierra Club, which I then headed, joined Friends of the River in urging that the emergency spillway be clad in concrete. The groups argued, using common sense, that "in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway, then flow down the emergency spillway and that could cause heavy erosion that would create flooding for communities downstream, but also could cause a failure, known as 'loss of crest control.'"
The very water agencies whose constituents—farmers, businesses and families—depended on reliable delivery of water from Oroville, lobbied strongly against having to provide the "tens of millions" of dollars that strengthening the spillway would have required. They pinched pennies even though they knew that the dam was highly vulnerable. (On Christmas, 1964, while the dam was under construction, it had been almost over-topped by a series of heavy rainfalls—the Feather River had given fair warning of its capriciousness and power).
Regulators, imbued with the George W. Bush administration's hostility to a federal role in public safety, were not impressed. (Remember Katrina. The fuse on Oroville was just longer). They rejected the environmental petition. The "emergency" spillway remained unsheathed, a soft-underbelly at the Earth-filled core of the heart of the nation's tallest dam.
Now the Feather has shown its strength again. The scariest thing is that once the main spillway failed the emergency spillway began eating out the dam while it was carrying less than 5 percent of its 350,000 cubic feet per second design rating. This strongly suggests that many, perhaps most, of America's dams, are reliant on engineering assumptions which will not withstand the test of extreme weather unleashed by climate change.
What's next? Water managers will continue dumping as much water—only a few months ago, as precious as gold, still likely to be needed next summer—as they can, through the damaged but partially functional main spillway. Their goal is to drain Oroville sufficiently that the heavy rains expected in a few days and later in the season will not again reach the emergency spillway and risk spillway failure and a virtually instantaneous release of 10 billion gallons, the top 30 feet of stored water behind the dam.
Now that water levels are down, authorities have allowed normal life to resume in ghost towns like Oroville, Yuba City and Marysville, the very communities whose security was the public justification for building the dam in the first place. Water managers will still need to keep the dam far below its normal storage level until the water season ends, because they cannot use the main spillway at its full design capacity, until it is repaired. This means that next summer farmers and cities will fall far short of the water Oroville could have delivered if operated normally. A loss of a full third of the region's water supply is a frightening possibility if repairs of Oroville require shutting it down this summer.
18 Reasons Why We Must Invest in America's Infrastructure https://t.co/nObNJWYaDP @Greenpeace @greenpeaceusa— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1475186114.0
Will the lessons of this 60-year folly be learned? California might realize that it needs to invest in water delivery and flood control systems better prepared for the extreme weather and diminished snow pack to come. Or this disaster could be used to argue for ever more elaborate, fragile and vulnerable water diversion projects like the proposed tunnels in the Delta, larded up with fatter public subsidies to the very water users who refused to properly repair Oroville's spillways in 2005.
President Trump's campaign promises suggest that he should use Oroville to light a fire under Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who breezily dismiss every warning from the nation's civil engineers as a call for "a trillion dollar stimulus project." The White House did cite the emergency as evidence of the need for a major investment in infrastructure, saying, "The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress."
But Trump's recent behavior suggests that he's not willing to do the heavy lifting of moving the Tea Party wing of the Republican party out of his way. It's going to take the rest of us—businesses and mayors, governors and community leaders, to fire up the Democrats in—and the president—to commit that by the end of the next eight years, America's dams—and the rest of its infrastructure—are fit for service in the 21st century.
It's staggering to recall that one of Donald Trump's main appeals to many of his voters was a pledge to "drain the swamp" and rid Washington of corruption. In only two weeks he has, instead, begun stocking the swamp with new and poisonous creatures, making it yet more deadly, much as sugar planters did in the Caribbean importing fleur-de-lance and other poisonous snakes to discourage slaves from making new lives for themselves by escaping into the jungle.
Trump's cabinet, of course, may contain as many irreconcilable conflicts of interest as all the cabinets of the 20th century combined. Secretary of State Tillerson cannot do his job without becoming deeply enmeshed in the interest of ExxonMobil. Education Secretary DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Price, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Ross are ensnared with layers of inappropriate investments; Labor Secretary Puzder has made it clear that he wants to use his new position to reduce wages paid by his fast-food companies and only conceded on Feb. 1 that he might have to divest much of his investment portfolio to avoid future conflicts.
#Trump's First Two Weeks: the Bad, the Ugly & Yes, the Good https://t.co/ovhOoZrzHK @EnvDefenseFund @ClimateNexus @climatehawk1 @mzjacobson— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1486304300.0
Trump's case for himself was "set a thief to catch a thief." He argued that he alone of recent Presidential candidates had been so deeply engaged in manipulating the federal tax code, that he alone knew how to fix it.
Well. If only.
It's not surprising that Trump has gone after Dodd-Frank financial regulations. There are features of those regulation that can honestly be argued to limit the ability of banks to provide useful services. So looking at Dodd-Frank, with the intent to give Americans access to better credit, isn't per se outrageous.
But the first target of the Trump administration is a Dodd-Frank regulation which has absolutely nothing to do with financing average American citizens or businesses—it simply protects American oil companies when they bribe corrupt oligarchies in places like Africa. Following Trump's lead, the Congressional assault on Dodd-Frank began by rolling back regulations requiring American oil companies to disclose the terms of their leases with foreign governments. If ExxonMobil signs leases with Kazakhstan, (as Rex Tillerson did), why should Trump object if Exxon has to tell the people of Kazakhstan the terms of the lease? More broadly, why should any American—other than those interested in Exxon—object? We wouldn't allow our own government to sign a secret lease with, say, Rosneft, to develop oil off the coast of North Carolina. Why should the people of Kazakhstan be kept in the dark?
The answer, of course, is that if lease terms are public, it's harder for corrupt officials to steal and if Russian oil companies, but not Exxon, can offer secret terms, corrupt governments may prefer to deal with Rosneft. And, if U.S. companies choose to skirt American law against bribery, they are less likely to face prosecution if the evidence is kept secret.
Exxon, Russia Eye Oil and Gas in Disputed South China Sea https://t.co/lTLCNpvNlI @GreenpeaceAustP @foeeurope— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1486290904.0
So for investigators of the massive oil and gas corruption that curses the world, the swamp just got more dangerous, because the sunlight was just snuffed out.
Or look at the source of the rot in the DC swamp—campaign bribery. Trump was correct in his Inaugural speech—sitting behind him on both sides of the partisan aisle were a number of elected officials who in common English parlance had been bribed—making policy choices influenced by financial gain, albeit almost always for their campaigns, not their retirement accounts.
This is a long-standing abuse and problem. But it got much worse when the Supreme Court perfected, in its Citizens United ruling, the legal doctrine that not only wealthy individuals, but corporations, could play this influence game, because corporations were, after all, a funny kind of person—endowed with freedom of speech even though they are not citizens and cannot vote. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled this included the right to bribe real life, flesh and blood elected officials by financially supporting their campaigns, a doctrine that even a conservative Chief Justice like William Rehnquist had found repugnant.
So, given Supreme Court rulings, how do we drain the campaign finance swamp? You couldn't realistically expect President Trump to have done this in his first two weeks. But you might be surprised to know that he has brought the architect of Citizens United, David Bossie, to help run Trump's own "America First" Superpac. America First? Citizens United enabled foreign interests, using corporate laundering loopholes, to intervene in U.S. political campaigns legally. Bossie's job is to make sure that Trump benefits maximally from that loophole. Bossie role's makes entirely clear that Trump sees no problem with bribery—it's business. He just wants his share. Trump's real message is, "to steal the most, hire a thief."
This should not be surprising. During the Progressive era, repeated efforts to clean up corruption by electing business leaders failed—because as Lincoln Steffens pointed out, the ethics of business success and those of clean politics are utterly different. Honest government is infused with an ethic openness and public service and depends on collaboration on behalf of "the general welfare." Business jealously guards trade secrets, sees competitors as rivals and practices, in Donald's immortal words, the zero-sum "art of the deal." Previous efforts to clean up corrupt city and state government by electing business reformers mostly went on the rocks as a result. But previous business reformers mostly started out making a serious effort to drive out the grafters. Trump has started out making them his inner-circle—after all, he has no intention of solving his own conflicts of interest and, indeed, has thus far quite openly used the White House to fatten the coffers of the Trump Tower.
(Foreign governments understand this. Many are already taking care that Trump properties are fully occupied, that labor disputes or environmental requirements don't slow them down and that the President is sufficiently happy with the treatment his businesses get that he would never add them to a list of, say, risky terrorist countries. None of those listed in the ban last week had Trump properties within their borders).
So it seems likely that the Trump White House will be more scandal ridden than any since Ulysses Grant—with the difference that Grant himself never feathered his own nest and Trump already is auditioning for "grafter in chief." Investigators and prosecutors will do well out of the next four years—although Las Vegas is giving even odds that Trump doesn't survive that long.
Last, week, under the cover of a media bliss-out except among Koch funded right-wing channels, the House of Representatives passed a bill which would effectively repeal future standard setting under every important environmental, public health, consumer protection, labor standards, occupational safety and civil rights law on the books.
The bill, called the REINS Act, requires that any future major regulation adopted by an Executive Agency—say a new toxic chemical standard required by the recently enacted Chemical Safety Act, or a new consumer protection rule about some innovative but untested kind of food additive—must be approved by a specific resolution in each House of Congress within 70 days to take effect.
To give a sense of the scale of this road-block, in 2015 there were 43 such major federal regulations passed to protect the public; among them were food safety regulations, the Clean Power Plan regulating pollution from electrical generating facilities, net neutrality rules protecting the internet from monopoly, restrictions on predatory lending and energy efficiency standards for appliances.
If the REINS Act had been in effect, it unlikely that the Tea Party dominated Republican caucus in the House would have approved of any of these rules. Future standard setting under the entire body of legislation enacted over the past 40 years to protect the public, from the Clean Air Act to the Dodd Frank financial sector reforms, would be frozen. Over time, as new health, safety, consumer and labor protection issues arise, all of these laws will effectively have been repealed, with no public debate and no accountability. It will also be impossible to restore them as long as the REINS Act is in effect, because by requiring Congress to approve every regulation, it makes it impossible to pass technically complex and scientifically valid rules on any topic of controversy.
As one example, the REINS Act would totally neuter the new Chemical Safety Act, just passed by the Republican Congress last year. The act requires U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and set standards for 10 widely abused chemicals in the next six months alone. The act passed only because in exchange, states gave up much of their power to protect their citizens from toxic chemicals; without that incentive, the Tea Party will certainly act to prevent EPA from restricting the use of these chemicals. But the states only agreed to give up in exchange for the promise that EPA would act. But the REINS act neuters this promise. Even if the House Republican caucus was willing in theory to consider such rules, there is simply no way Congress could add 10-40 new pieces of legislation to its work load in the chemical safety area alone. In fact, the House also just passed legislation to allow it to REPEAL all of President Obama's regulatory acts in the last eight months of his term in office with one vote. Why? Because House members said there was not time for individual votes on each rule—exactly the requirement they just established for new rules.
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Worse, Congress totally lacks the technical competence to review these kinds of complex rules. Do we really want members of Congress deciding whether a chemical can safely be used in food packaging? Or the proper procedures for approving new drugs as safe and effective? Or setting the allowable safety standard for heavy metals in drinking water?
The vote was 237-187. All Republicans voted for it; only two Democrats, Colin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas, joined them. A Google search five days after the bill passed the House revealed no mention in major media except one Reuters story with limited pick-up and a Washington Post op-ed by one of its major supporters. Even on-line virtually all of the commentary was from the backers of the REINS Act; the only significant alerts of the danger came from the Blue Green Alliance and DeSmogBlog.
Progressives may be counting on the fact that the Senate has previously refused to pass the bill and that it's broad over-reaching will doom it. But these are not ordinary times and past behavior is far from reliable in predicting today's politics.
It's time—past time—for a massive mobilization to make clear to Congress and the new President that a wholesale repeal of 40 years of progress in environmental protection, civil rights, labor standards, health and safety and consumer protection is a third rail, and that pretending that the REINS act increases accountability is a fig-leaf that public scrutiny must shred.
Ask your favorite public interest organization what it is doing today to stop the REINS Act in the Senate.