By Karen Charman
When President Donald Trump visited California on September 14 and dismissed the state Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot's plea to recognize the role of climate change in the midst of the Golden State's worst and most dangerous recorded fire season to date, he gaslighted the tens of millions of West Coast residents suffering through the ordeal.
While Trump declared that the weather will just "start getting cooler" and that science is irrelevant to the wildfires, millions were struggling to breathe through the toxic smoke that gave Portland the week-long distinction of having the most hazardous air on the planet, with pollution levels in Seattle and San Francisco close behind. Whole towns in California and Oregon have been destroyed by the wildfires.
A growing body of scientific evidence over the last several decades confirms that as atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases rise, so too will frequent, intense and increasingly deadly weather events. Strange new weather phenomena like fire tornadoes, "snowacanes" and "rain bombs" are now part of our experience and language. Droughts, unprecedented heat, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding are happening more often, becoming more severe, and occurring over larger and larger areas.
This year several strange and extreme weather conditions combined to create the perfect firestorm across the Western U.S. A prolonged record-breaking heatwave saw temperatures reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley, California, on August 16, and 121 degrees Fahrenheit in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills three weeks later on September 6. In mid-August, more than 10,000 dry lightning strikes began igniting fires in Northern California, Oregon and Washington, including all over the Bay Area where they were eerily close to heavily populated areas. Lightning-induced fires are also torching Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. Subsequent high winds in drought-stricken landscapes then turned the initial sparks into major conflagrations.
By the morning of Trump's California appearance, 28 major fires had incinerated more than 3 million acres just in California. Fires in California, Oregon and Washington had combined to create a hellscape of toxic smoke that turned the skies in those states orange, blood red and deep magenta and was detected as far away as Europe. At least 35 people had died.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Hurricane Sally, one of five named storms then swirling in the Atlantic, was just two days away from flooding coastal communities from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana. Sally, which submerged downtown Pensacola in five feet of water, hit just three weeks after Hurricane Laura caused massive flooding and 10 deaths. Slamming into the Louisiana coast with 150-mile-an-hour winds, Laura was one of the strongest hurricanes to make landfall in U.S. history.
So far, 2020 has been an extremely busy hurricane season with more than 20 named storms, seven of which formed in the first half of September. With two more months before the hurricane season officially ends, there could be several more. Meanwhile, many of the fires across the West are still burning.
Nor has catastrophic weather spared the middle of the country this summer. On August 10, a particularly strong derecho, a quick-forming massive wall of intense winds, blasted through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. The derecho cut a path 770 miles long, held its strength for 14 hours, and clocked winds up to 140 miles per hour. Four people died, and crops and buildings on some 10 million acres in Iowa — nearly a third of the state's farmland — were heavily damaged. This storm also caused significant damage to cars and homes, downed power lines and destroyed massive numbers of trees in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and parts of Chicago.
In 2019, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive report mandated by Congress to study the impacts of climate change, found that without substantial and sustained greenhouse gas reductions along with vast infrastructure upgrades, unabated climate change will threaten much that many Americans take for granted and lead to an unrecognizable, dystopian existence for large swaths of the population.
Among the report's findings: food will become harder to grow and be lower in quality but more expensive. Clean, safe water supplies will become scarce in many parts of the country. Human health will take a significant hit from worsening air and water pollution, greater exposure to disease-carrying insects, pests, foodborne and waterborne pathogens, as well as the emotional strain of having to deal with the reality and uncertainty of catastrophic weather events and their aftermath. Heat will kill more people. Energy supplies will become increasingly unstable and more costly (because most U.S. power plants need a steady supply of cooling water to operate).
Moreover, the report predicts that already compromised roads, bridges, and the safety of pipelines all over the country will be vulnerable to damage from violent storms and flooding. Whole communities, especially those facing rising sea levels along the coastline, will be forced to move. Increasing production and supply chain disruptions will cause significant damage to the economy as a whole. Areas and industries that depend on natural resources and good, stable weather will likely be hardest hit with annual losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century, an amount exceeding the current total economic output of many U.S. states.
Overall, the report predicts "substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century," though it notes that poor and disadvantaged communities will disproportionately bear the worst impacts.
A stark illustration of what current levels of greenhouse gas emissions will look like is provided in maps by the Rhodium Group, a New York-based independent research organization, which forecasts a much harsher living environment for many parts of the U.S. over the next 20 to 40 years. Temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit will become much more common, especially in the South and Southwest, with places like Phoenix, Arizona, much of interior Southern California and southern Texas likely sweltering in 95 degrees or hotter for half the year.
Along with rising temperatures, humidity is expected to dramatically increase, even in places like Arizona, Southern California and Nevada, which have long been known for their dry heat. When excessive humidity combines with extreme heat, it creates "wet bulb" temperatures where sweating fails to cool the body. Such conditions make it dangerous to work outside or for kids to play outside. According to Rhodium's projections, current emissions are on track to turn much of the Mississippi Valley, the above-mentioned areas in the Southwest, southern Texas, and coastal areas in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina into high wet bulb zones.
Despite all of these future threats — on top of the climate disasters we are already seeing — Trump, the ruling Republicans, the fossil fuel sector and their defenders in right-wing media continue to deny climate change.
"If we don't have a stable environment to live in, there's no way to have life, liberty, or pursue happiness," Jeffrey Potent, adjunct professor of sustainability at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, told Truthout, decrying the Trump administration's attack on the government's ability to oversee and protect our environment.
"This is completely different from anything I have encountered in Washington," said Tyson Slocum, director Public Citizen's energy program. "It's an all-out assault on everything for the public interest."
Foxes Guarding the Henhouse
Before he assumed power, Trump attacked regulations as unnecessary barriers to freedom and economic prosperity. Since taking office, he has targeted anything enacted by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and taken steps to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, the international effort to combat climate change. He has also staffed heads of key agencies with climate deniers of various stripes, forced out career public servants and created a hostile work environment for those who don't profess loyalty to his deregulatory agenda.
Like Trump himself, some of his cabinet choices displayed an audacious penchant for self-dealing and abusing their positions of authority. One example is Trump's first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who aggressively worked to overturn Obama's climate regulations, spent most of his time in private meetings with fossil fuel and chemical company executives, sidelined career EPA staff and reconfigured independent scientific advisory boards to make them more supportive of the industries EPA is charged with regulating. Dubbed "one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history," Pruitt resigned in disgrace after revelations about his multiple brazen abuses, including using the agency as his personal concierge service and piggy bank.
Pruitt's deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist and longtime Republican Washington insider, took over and has continued Trump's deregulatory agenda apace.
At the Department of Interior (DOI), a sprawling agency that oversees 75 percent of the country's public federal lands and includes the U.S. Geological Survey, which is tasked with evaluating natural hazards that threaten life and the health of our ecosystems, Trump installed another flamboyant anti-environmentalist to head the agency. Like Pruitt, Trump's first Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke aggressively attacked environmental regulations, ditched more than 200 advisory panels, and pushed to open up vast swaths of public land to oil and gas drilling. Described by one environmental group as "the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation's history," Zinke was forced out after numerous highly publicized conflict-of-interest scandals.
The DOI is now run by Zinke's deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, another longtime Republican Washington insider and former oil industry lobbyist who has also been the subject of several government ethics complaints for various violations favoring polluting industries.
More recently, longtime climate change denier David Legates, a climatologist at the University of Delaware previously funded by fossil fuel interests, was hired for a top job advancing weather modeling and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Legates has called for increasing carbon emissions.
The Trump administration has done much more than stack government agencies with fossil fuel industry proponents. It has removed or diluted discussion of climate change from as many government platforms as it can and decimated independent scientific advisory boards that provide unbiased, fact-based information the government needs to enact policies that protect the public. It has also slashed environmental agency staffing and budgets.
The Damage So Far
A September 17 report by the Rhodium Group calculates that 1.8 billion tons more greenhouse gases will be released over the next 15 years as a result of climate change rollbacks the Trump administration has achieved so far. These include repealing Obama's main climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which was intended to reduce dirty emissions from power plants; increasing pollution from cars by rolling back fuel economy standards and challenging California's longtime authority to set stricter emissions standards; targeting controls on hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases used mainly in refrigerators and air conditioners that also destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer; and allowing unreported and unregulated emissions of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, by oil and gas companies.
Besides these measures, Trump is also trying to gut core environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which were enacted to protect human health and preserve a livable world.
The Paris agreement aims to keep the rise in average global temperatures at less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and hopefully cap it at 1.5 degrees C or lower. We are now at approximately 1.2 degrees C and counting.
This story originally appeared in Truthout and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Sharon Zhang
Back in March, when the pandemic had just planted its roots in the U.S., President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do something devastating: The agency was to indefinitely and cruelly suspend environmental rule enforcement. The EPA complied, and for just under half a year, it provided over 3,000 waivers that granted facilities clemency from state-level environmental rule compliance.
These rule suspensions ended last month, but they almost undoubtedly caused an increase in pollution rates, as one preliminary study already found. What's worse is that we'll likely never know the full extent of the damage, as the agency also suspended rules for self-monitoring (and even before the pandemic monitoring was already limited). Analysts at the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative found that, in March and April, industrial polluters conducted 40 percent fewer tests compared to the same time in 2019, according to self-reported data.
In a country where pollution impacts are disproportionately impactful, the suspension of pollution rules in the middle of a respiratory illness outbreak is unconscionable — several studies have found that higher pollution exposure can lead to higher rates of death due to COVID-19.
But, given the stark differences between racial groups when it comes to pollution exposure and effects, the temporary policy is downright racist. A 2018 study from the EPA itself found that, respectively, Black and Latinx communities were exposed to 1.5 and 1.2 times more particulate matter, a pollutant that can cause damage to the respiratory system, than white communities. Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 found that Black people were three times more likely to die from exposure to particulate matter than the overall population.
Under Trump, federal climate policy has only become less and less stringent — The New York Times has documented 100 environmental rollbacks thus far. Such rollbacks are bad news for everyone, but they're especially harmful for Black and minority communities, which have borne the brunt of pollution for decades.
The fact that Black and brown people suffer most under environmental degradation is not news. But the dilemmas remain in the environmental justice community as they have for many years: How do we lessen the climate burden on Black and oppressed communities? How can we achieve equitable and drastic emissions reductions and transform our entire economy before the window of opportunity to prevent irreversible climate change closes?
For decades, one of the only legal tools available to an environmental justice advocate was the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, was written in the late 1960s in response to historical disasters like oil spills and injustices like the destruction of poor neighborhoods to build highways. Over the years, NEPA has been an extraordinary useful framework for communities to lessen or prevent environmental impacts of federal projects — in 2018, a judge cited NEPA when they blocked the Trump administration's attempt to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline.
While NEPA has helped countless communities in protecting against potentially harmful impacts, however, it also has major limitations. Though NEPA forces agencies to consider the potential impacts of a project, it doesn't require stopping or even mitigating those impacts. This is partially what has allowed polluters to choke out disproportionately Black communities like Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" and New York City's "Asthma Alley" in the past decades. Early this year, the Trump administration radically rewrote NEPA so that it would give more power to polluters, limiting public input on projects and eliminating the consideration of cumulative impacts.
"A big challenge is the way that NEPA intersects with other racist policies like redlining and things that existed prior to NEPA," says Sally Hardin, who formerly worked on the council that oversees NEPA and is the interim director on energy and environment at the Center for American Progress (CAP). While NEPA is a tool that communities can use to challenge projects such as the construction of a new oil refinery, the process requires time and resources that many can't afford; poor neighborhoods that can't afford to hire lawyers to review legalese or where citizens don't have time to show up to public hearings are more likely to find themselves with a new refinery than a wealthy neighborhood.
When communities do have the time and resources to oppose a project, though, states will find a different way to get around them. Legislators in Louisiana, for instance, who often receive financial incentives from oil and gas companies and chemical manufacturers, have attempted to outlaw protests against these projects.
So, while environmental advocates can use NEPA as a tool to further justice, entrenched racial and class disparities in the U.S. will be extremely difficult to undo, no matter the policy or politician. To Peggy Shepard, the executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the problem presents itself before NEPA can even come into the equation. Part of the issue, Shepard says, lies in permitting.
"You could have numbers of facilities emitting air toxins, numbers of facilities impacting water quality, facilities impacting soil contamination, a number of waste transfer facilities all in one community," says Shepard. "And because you're only permitting [pollution type by pollution type], you would say, 'Well, we've got one waste transfer station and it's okay, it's in compliance.' But what does it do when you've got water contamination, soil contamination, air quality, toxins? What's that soup?"
Yet another issue lies in unequal enforcement of certain laws, especially along financial lines — a 2009 study found that agencies did not enforce crucial pollution laws in poor counties as much as richer counties.
And, in some ways, unequal enforcement can be built into the laws themselves. For instance, as Climate and Energy Policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists Rachel Cleetus raises, the Army Corps determines and allocates resources for defensive measures for such events as flooding using a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis benefits richer communities because the market value of the property being lost is higher.
"There are lots of ways in which you can have neutral-sounding laws, but if you don't get out some of these underlying things and specifically target resources to set them right in some way, you're gonna end up with skewed outcomes," says Cleetus.
In Congress, some legislators are working to solve some of these problems at a federal level. Last month, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) introduced the Climate Equity Act, which would introduce the Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Office of Management and Budget and require relevant agencies to appoint a director of environmental justice. It would also require environmental legislation to come with an "equity score" that rates the impact of the legislation on frontline and poor communities.
"The difficulty [with the equity score] comes in defining who those communities should be and how (and that definition should ABSOLUTELY be created by, and with, the impacted communities themselves)," says Hardin in an email to Truthout. The Climate Equity Act was crafted from advice from environmental justice coalitions, and though the bill likely won't pass soon, coalitions and communities most impacted must have a say in the process.
Though there are many hurdles to yet to clear, environmental justice movements have been making big moves across the country in the past few years. Initiatives like the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and the Environmental Justice for All Act have gained momentum among Democrats; and local groups are getting the attention of politicians to address some of the largest hurdles — permitting, unfair lawmaking and gaining grassroots political power.
Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-New Jersey) signed an environmental justice law unlike any other in the country: Despite powerful industry opposition that stalled the bill for years, the new state law will require permits for projects like power plants and landfills to be rejected if they are to be cited in an already overburdened neighborhood. Other states require agencies to merely consider cumulative impacts in the permitting process with no mandate to act on that consideration — formerly, NEPA required all government-funded projects to consider cumulative impacts, but the Trump administration, in its gutting of NEPA this year, rolled that rule back.
The bill was passed due to the tireless work of grassroots activists and environmental justice groups — Ironbound Community Corporation, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and Clean Water Action — who fought chemical and waste industry lobbyists and Murphy's administration to push the bill through.
Grassroots and activist groups have helped Joe Biden better his climate platform, too, as he unveiled a new plan in July — his environmental justice plan is surprisingly good for candidate whose climate plan as a whole got an "F" from the Sunrise Movement last year. The plan includes creating and elevating climate justice divisions in the federal government and the White House, mandate pollution monitoring in frontline communities — which is currently notoriously terrible — and spend 40 percent of the overall investments in the climate plan on disadvantaged communities.
Several of the initiatives outlined in Biden's plan are extensions of what the Obama administration already got started — expanding the EPA's EJSCREEN tool that identifies environmental justice hotspots, for instance. This is progress that should have been made years ago — and progress that could have been made under a different administration.
But Trump has reversed much of the progress on climate that the country has made not only since the Obama administration, but also from decades ago — including outright eliminating funding for environmental justice at the EPA. From here, as the climate crisis rages on, progress will be ever more vital to make. And, despite Biden's progress in climate over the course of the election, climate activists have their work cut out for them – no matter who's in office come January.
This story originally appeared in Truthout and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Is Sunrun the best option for solar panels on your home?
If you're considering a solar panel installation, chances are you've come across the name Sunrun. A lot of literature exists on this leading residential solar panel installer, but research can be overwhelming, so we're breaking down everything you need to know in this Sunrun solar review.
As one of the nation's top solar companies, Sunrun focuses on installing custom-designed solar arrays and backup battery systems, and installations are performed quickly and easily by the provider's massive fleet of technicians. Sunrun also offers a solar leasing program that's popular among customers.
|Sunrun Fast Facts|
|Service Areas||22 states and territories, including AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, IL, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, RI, SC, TX, VT, WI, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.|
|Service Types||Solar panel and backup battery installations|
|Types of Panels||High-efficiency monocrystalline panels from top solar suppliers like LONGi and Costco|
|Backup Battery Options||Brightbox Home Battery storage, which uses lithium-ion batteries like the Tesla Powerwall and the LG Chem|
|Certifications||Solar Energy Industries Association|
Better Business Bureau
|B+ with accreditation|
Read on to learn more about the provider, or to see if Sunrun is available in your area and get a free quote, fill out the 30-second form below.
Founded in 2007, Sunrun's mission is to create a world run by solar energy. Since 2007, Sunrun has expanded at an impressive rate, now offering services in over 20 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.
Sunrun designs solar panel layouts custom to a roof's shape via satellite imagery, giving homeowners more control over the appearance and efficiency of their systems. The company's integrated home solar battery storage service, Brightbox, sets it apart from the many other providers that have yet to deploy storage options that bring a number of key benefits to solar customers.
Sunrun also provides a wide variety of solar financing options for its customers. Catering to a large client base has allowed for Sunrun's massive growth, but it's also presented challenges that have soured the company's reputation online. The BBB gives Sunrun a rating of a B+, which is lower than the average solar provider.
Sunrun Solar Services and Installation
Sunrun is a comprehensive solar installer, providing design and installation of custom solar solutions complete with backup battery storage, home energy monitoring and energy control during outages. These tools can help homeowners manage, store and monitor their home's energy use for additional savings on their electric bills.
The types of panels and inverters Sunrun offers come from brand names like SolarEdge, LONGi and Costco. They are ideal for the quick and easy installations that Sunrun prides itself on. An average customer could expect the installation process to look like this:
- Receive a free quote by providing preliminary information such as your address, monthly energy costs and credit score.
- If interested after receiving the quote, a Sunrun sales rep will provide a detailed proposal including your custom system design, appearance and estimated energy savings over the course of the system's lifetime. The proposal should include any local and state solar incentives, so be sure to make note that any are included.
- Once you've decided on the custom system that fits your needs, you will need to complete paperwork and obtain permits and approvals. Sunrun will handle the permits and approvals from your presiding city or county, but you should expect this process to take a few weeks.
- During the permitting process, Sunrun will also check for net metering programs through your utility company and will enroll you if eligible.
- Once all permits and approvals are gathered, Sunrun will install your system. With Sunrun's resources, this will likely be the easiest part of the entire process.
- Finally, you'll need to pass inspection and turn on the system. Once the system is installed, both the city and your electric company will most likely require inspections. Sunrun will handle the logistics of both. Once these pass, a customer will be able to turn the system on.
Solar Panel Warranty
All Sunrun installations, whether leases or purchases, are covered by the Sunrun Guarantee. This 10-year comprehensive warranty includes free equipment replacement and system repairs, covers all parts and labor costs and guarantees that roof penetrations are watertight.
Sunrun advertises free maintenance, repairs and insurance on its products, but it should be noted that those services are only available to customers leasing panels through Sunrun. Any customers who have purchased panels from Sunrun will be held to the product warranty of the panels they purchase (typically between 12-25 years). As such, all warranty claims will be handled through the panel manufacturer rather than Sunrun.
Sunrun Costs and Financing
The cost of a solar system from a particular provider is difficult to estimate, as pricing can vary widely depending on your state, your roof and your home's energy needs. As Sunrun has been an industry leader for some time, most other solar providers actually offer installations at a slightly lower cost to give them a competitive edge. This is just another reason we encourage our readers to get quotes from competing solar companies.
Much of Sunrun's expansion can also be credited to its utilization of solar leases, which allow homeowners to rent solar equipment from Sunrun at a monthly cost. Though leasing panels provides immediate energy savings with a low upfront cost, purchasing panels provides the greatest value long-term. Keep in mind that leases will not be eligible for the solar tax credit.
Solar Financing Options
Sunrun offers four different solar plans for its customers.
- Monthly lease: This option requires the least money down but also provides the least overall value. Sunrun retains ownership of the panels and you make monthly payments to purchase the energy they generate. The monthly payments are guaranteed to be less than what your utility payment would be, but the savings are not as great as they would be if you purchased the panels.
- Full lease: In a full lease, the customer pays Sunrun an upfront fee to rent the panels for around 25 years (the term of the lease can vary). Sunrun retains ownership of the solar equipment. This saves a customer more money than a monthly lease, but it's still significantly less than if a customer purchased panels.
- Monthly loan: Customers can receive a solar loan from a third party to fund the purchase of solar equipment. These loans require monthly payments and typically have a payback period of between five and 10 years. In a monthly loan, a customer still owns the system outright, which adds to their property value, allows them to claim the solar tax credit and provides greater long-term energy savings than a lease. However, they will pay interest on the loan, making the system more expensive.
- Full purchase: A full purchase is the most recommended method of investing in solar energy. When customers purchase panels, they buy the system designed by Sunrun outright. Immediately, the solar panels add property value and the homeowner is eligible for the solar tax credit. Over time, homeowners will see a larger return on investment when paying in cash.
Sunrun Solar Reviews
Sunrun's size is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness, and most customer reviews reflect just that. Positive Sunrun solar reviews praise the company's speed and ease of installation, yet a high employee turnover rate, communication troubles and growing pains have plagued a number of customers who feel their needs were not met.
Positive Sunrun Reviews
The size and resources of Sunrun make its business model reliant on high volumes of installed solar panels. Positive reviews usually reflect a quick and easy installation with immediate energy savings and little to no maintenance or further customer support needed. Most frequently, these positive reviews come from customers who opted for a solar lease rather than ownership.
Here are a couple of examples:
"I originally had my Solar installed by another company that was eventually purchased by Sunrun. The service with Sunrun has been far better than the service with the previous company."
— Brian Schopf via Trustpilot
"We have had our Sunrun system in place for over a year now. No problems at all. They were very courteous and responsive during the installation process."
— Peter W via BBB
Negative Sunrun Reviews
Most of Sunrun's negative reviews stem from a lack of attention to a customer's needs. Sunrun is one of the nation's largest solar providers, which presents challenges for customers troubleshooting issues with their system's performance.
Solar panel issues can be difficult to troubleshoot, and the size of Sunrun's client base can make the company's customer service department more difficult to get in touch with than a smaller solar provider.
This Sunrun review reflects the overall sentiment from dissatisfied customers:
"Worst company ever for follow-up once you have a problem… I have been waiting for a new inverter [for] seven months. No one bothers to tell you what they are going to do, or what they have done once they finally get to your house for a repair. No written report to update you. I have lost money this year because my system is either not running or is underperforming."
— Linda T via BBB
Final Thoughts on Sunrun Solar
Sunrun's mission, size and breadth of services make it one of the most well-known solar providers in the country today. However, its B+ BBB rating and poor reputation for customer service may make some buyers wary. An average customer experience with Sunrun will depend greatly on the quality of the sales representative assigned to your area, and many homeowners have run into bad experiences.
|Sunrun Pros||Sunrun Cons|
|Expansive service area||Expensive labor|
|Backup battery services||Frequent customer service issues|
|Free maintenance on leases|
|Flexible financing and lease options|
Sunrun is a good and practical choice for customers looking to quickly and simply save money on their energy bills through a solar lease. However, for homeowners looking for attentive customer service both before and after installation, we advise you to shop around. You can start getting free quotes from a number of solar installers near you below.
Solar Energy Provider Comparison
To put this Sunrun review in perspective, let's compare the company to a few other national providers. Sunrun typically ranks highly in services offered, service areas and flexible payment options. Where Sunrun unsurprisingly falters is in its reputation for customer service and BBB rating.
|Sunrun||Blue Raven Solar||SunPower|
|Services Offered||Solar panel installation, battery installation, monitoring, maintenance||Solar panel installation, monitoring, maintenance||Solar panel installation, battery installation, monitoring|
|Service Areas||AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, IL, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, RI, SC, TX, VT, WI, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.||CO, FL, GA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, MO, NC, NV, OH, OR, SC, TX, UT, VA||All 50 States|
|Payment Options||Cash, loan, lease, PPA||Cash, in-house financing plans||Cash, loan, lease|
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Sunrun a legit company?
Sunrun is a legitimate solar installer leading the industry in quantity of installs and breadth of products offered. Hundreds of thousands of homes across the country have installed solar power with Sunrun. Though Sunrun is legitimate, there is a concerning amount of bad reviews regarding Sunrun's customer experience. Often, unconcerned sales staff can make customers feel their business was not taken seriously.
Is Sunrun solar a good deal?
As is the case with most solar providers, getting a good deal is dependent on many factors. Sunrun is certainly capable of providing customers with a solar energy system that saves them money, but a better deal might be found by a different solar provider, especially if you are looking to purchase panels rather than lease from Sunrun.
Is Sunrun owned by Tesla?
Sunrun is not owned by Tesla. In fact, Sunrun is one of Tesla's biggest rival companies in the solar industry. Unlike Sunrun, Tesla solar offerings focus more on products and less on installation services, so the companies are distinctly different.
Which is better, SunPower or Sunrun?
Which company is better will depend on what the customer is looking for. If you're looking for customer service, a high BBB rating and to purchase high-quality panels, we'd likely recommend SunPower over Sunrun. If you're a customer looking for a quick and easy solar panel lease to save a small but guaranteed rate on your energy bill each month, Sunrun may be the better choice.
Where is Sunrun available?
Sunrun is available in 22 states and territories, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.
By Leanna First-Arai
In a push to capture the rural vote, 62 percent of which went to Trump in 2016, both the Trump and Biden campaigns are ramping up efforts to appeal to farmers and ranchers.
On September 22, the Biden campaign launched a new radio ad blitz in eight battleground states, in which Biden appeals to older voters whose families have lived in rural areas for generations. "No longer are we going to be faced with children or grandchildren believing that the only way they can make it is to leave home and go somewhere else to get that good job," Biden's voice assures. "There's no reason why it can't happen here."
In a contrasting approach, at a rally in North Carolina, just a few hours ahead of the opening of the Republican National Convention in August, Trump claimed that, under his administration, "The American farmer has done very well. I never hear any complaints from the American farmer." Remarks later that week during the convention followed suit. "The economy is coming up very rapidly, our farmers are doing well because I got China to give them $28 billion because they were targeted by China," Trump said on the first night of the convention.
But that assessment doesn't square with the hardship many U.S. farmers are facing — particularly small farmers. U.S. farm bankruptcies increased 20 percent in 2019, reaching an eight-year high, on account of factors like the trade war, increasing costs of production and crop loss related to the climate crisis.
Since April 2020, farmer support for the incumbent president has fallen from 89 percent to 71 percent, according to an August 2020 survey by DTN/The Progressive Farmer. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office revealed that under the Trump administration, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Market Facilitation Program payments to farmers harmed by the trade war went disproportionately to large-scale cotton and soybean farmers, ignoring the needs of small farmers who grow food. On account of Trump administration changes in payment maximums for the USDA's Market Facilitation Program, the top 1.3 percent of payment recipients received an additional $519 million, while the average individual farmer in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania got $11,829 and $8,661, respectively. The finding is in line with earlier analyses revealing Trump's disproportionate financial support for the largest capitalist farmers.
According to the USDA, more than half of the 2 million farms in the United States are "very small farms," grossing less than $10,000 annually. When asked what political capital this group could hold, Wingate University Assistant Professor of Political Science Chelsea Kaufman told Truthout that the increased pressure small farmers face from forces like the overlapping COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis could make them a "relatively unique" political force, as has been the case with farmers experiencing economic shocks during past election cycles.
In 1932, incumbent President Herbert Hoover lost votes from normally Republican-voting northern farmers, and the same happened for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Academics attribute this to low crop prices during election years. According to the Cook Political Report, many of what are expected to be key battleground states in 2020, like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, are also top agricultural producers.
The majority of the smaller farmers Truthout spoke with for this story want to see a federal government that tackles climate change head-on and restructures agriculture to be a solution by encouraging diversified farming that stores (rather than releases) carbon. Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, through its reliance on chemical fertilizers, the manufacturing of which releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and depletes the soil of nutrients. It's a system that farmers are "stuck in," says Tom Rosenfeld, who grows apples, blueberries, strawberries and peaches on 120 acres of farmland in southwest Michigan. Rosenfeld purchased a conventional orchard in 2005 and has been converting it to organic ever since, which he says has been a challenge in a system that prioritizes conventional practices. Dealing with climate change has made it even more difficult, a sentiment that reflects a wider experience among farmers. In 2018, 75 percent of Farm Aid hotline calls were related to extreme weather and weather-related crises like wildfires.
Rosenfeld says more frequent late freezes due to climate change have been all but impossible to bounce back from. After temperatures dropped to 25 degrees Fahrenheit in May 2020, he lost 65 percent of his strawberries, 40 percent of his blueberries and all of his Red Delicious, Gala, Empire and McIntosh apples. On top of that, the changing climate has brought new pests to the region, like the apple flea weevil, which destroyed a full season's worth of crops when it first appeared in 2010. "Every year I keep thinking, is this it?" he tells Truthout. "I can't afford this financially; I can't afford the time and energy and it doesn't seem to be getting to any kind of manageable place."
In 2018, when President Trump signed the latest Farm Bill, he reauthorized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to farmers who implement certain conservation practices like mulching to protect soil, or "karst sinkhole treatment" to protect runoff from reaching groundwater supply.
But Rosenfeld, who is in the midst of transitioning all 110 acres from conventional to organic, says the program doesn't offer the kind of assistance he needs. When government representatives paid his farm a visit to assess what kind of EQIP program they might support, Rosenfeld says they proposed he build a retention wall near where he fills his sprayer, to help catch runoff. "But what good does that do?" he said, referring to his ultimate goal of moving away from using any kind of hazardous material on his land. "They're not offering the types of programs that are relevant to me as an organic grower."
Rosenfeld says he wants to shift away from using diesel and gas-fueled tractors and to have on-site renewable energy to power his farm. But no existing government programs make that financially feasible. When he considered investing in solar panels a few years ago, he found one program that would have cost him around $30,000, but with the kind of crop loss he has experienced, he couldn't afford it.
Two hours north of Rosenfeld's farm, in White Cloud, Michigan, Luke Eising is a farmer who uses silvopasture techniques, letting cows, pigs and chickens graze together amid integrated forest and plant landscapes. Rotating the animals to different pastures encourages plants to develop more robust root systems, which returns carbon to the soil and improves soil quality. In addition to producing food for his community, Eising says, being able to help sequester carbon and rebuild degraded soil is a major reason he chose to be a farmer. According to the 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, sequestering carbon in the soil is the most cost-effective option for economic activity generating "negative emissions." "I very much see it as a solution for food systems," Eising told Truthout.
Eising would like to see subsidies for corn and soy cut, because he thinks regenerative practices like his would become competitive. "We're fighting an uphill battle when I can see chicken breasts or pork chops in the store for less than I pay to process [my product]," he says, referring to animals raised in confinement and fed monoculture corn and soy feed the federal government subsidizes. Another issue the current administration hasn't helped with, Eising says, is a major meat processing backlog. Whereas Eising can usually get a date within six to eight weeks at a meat processing plant, given meat plant shutdowns amid COVID-19, leading to short supply of meat processing facilities, it's been hard to find a date any time before 2022. "This is not okay. I have animals outside that are ready to process, I have customers lining up because they're hungry and I have a freezer that's empty," he says. Existing laws prohibit small, local butchers from processing meat headed for market.
Eising tends to vote for conservative or libertarian candidates in local and national elections. In 2016, he voted for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. But Eising says he'll likely vote for Biden if polling remains close in Michigan. "Nobody else is at all interested in what regenerative farming could do for this country," he says. Biden has recently talked about paying farmers for "planting certain crops that in fact absorb carbon from the air," but his climate plan makes no mention of organic, diversified or regenerative farming. According to a report by Data For Progress, conventional farming practices that rely on pesticides and monoculture practices are linked to $44 billion in annual damage related to soil erosion in the United States, which is perhaps felt most acutely in areas where soil can no longer retain moisture in the advent of a heavy rain, leading to catastrophic flooding.
Ecologically minded farmers in swing states outside of Michigan similarly reflect a desire for leadership that addresses climate through agricultural reform. Kemper Burt began farming 40 years ago in California. He now lives in Arizona, where he grows lettuce and other produce on a 40-acre farm powered by solar energy. Burt points out that tackling climate change will entail decolonizing the way we produce food, in direct contrast with the "feed the world" mentality behind the so-called "Green Revolution" of the 1970s, which led to the fertilizer and pesticide-heavy monoculture farming he and other small-scale farmers want to break away from. "Let's just try feeding our community, then let's just try feeding our state, and then let's just try feeding other states," Burt says. Burt is registered as an independent, though he wouldn't say exactly how he'll vote in November. "I look to what people are doing to help protect nature, which then in turn protects you and I," he said.
Many small farmers say they've yet to see a presidential candidate or down-ballot candidate fully address their needs in this election cycle. President Trump's reelection campaign has not yet put out a climate plan. And Biden's climate plan does not yet spell out what small-scale farmers say they want, like a return to the New Deal-era concept of "parity," a supply-management strategy designed to prevent the kind of wasteful over-production of soybeans and corn that wipes the land of biodiversity and results in unstable prices. Rosenfeld wants to see a shift away from crop insurance, which comprised one-third of farmers' income in 2019, toward income insurance, which would provide financial support for people growing food, rather than cash crops.
As long as agriculture is considered a solution to the climate crisis, whether in a Green New Deal or as part of another climate plan, says Maine farmer Craig Hickman, he'd consider it a step forward, noting that he thinks his neighbors in Maine, many of whom are libertarians, would agree. "Investing in food infrastructure is as important as roads and bridges," he told Truthout.
In 2019, Maine, a "purple" state, passed the first state-level Green New Deal backed by labor unions. Facing increased pressure from forces like climate change, the potential "farm vote" could build swing power, "although it is not clear whether that would happen in 2020 or a later election year," Kaufman said. "We can look to the lessons of history: Farmers had quite unique behavior at points in time where they faced economic instability, which led them to support candidates and parties that addressed these issues."
This story originally appeared in Truthout and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Sara Amundson
Every year, fins from as many as 73 million sharks circulate throughout the world in a complex international market. They are the key ingredient in shark fin soup, a luxury dish considered a status symbol in some Asian cuisines.
The global trade in shark fins is contributing to a crisis among shark populations worldwide. Sharks are being killed 30 percent faster than they can reproduce, and the fin trade is one of the main culprits. Up to one-quarter of all species of sharks and their relatives are at risk of extinction. Some shark populations have declined by nearly 90 percent in recent decades. The disappearance of sharks can harm fragile ocean ecosystems, because as top predators, sharks help balance the populations of species below them in the food chain.
Additionally, many of the fins traded are obtained through the brutal, inhumane practice known as finning, in which fishers at sea catch sharks, slice off their fins and throw the animals — usually still alive — back into the water. Unable to swim without their fins, the sharks drown, bleed to death or are eaten alive by other fish. Because space on boats is limited and fins are by far the most valuable part of the shark, fishers have an incentive to use this cruel method to get fins.
However, the tide is turning against the shark fin trade.
In November 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a resounding bipartisan "no" to this cruel practice, voting 310 to 107 to pass a bill banning commercial trade of shark fins and products derived from shark fins in the U.S. The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, led by Representatives Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), would prohibit all purchase, sale and possession for commercial purposes of these parts and products. The legislation builds on previous laws passed by Congress — the Shark Finning Prohibition Act of 2000 and the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 — which banned the act of shark finning in U.S. waters and the transport on U.S.-flagged vessels of shark fins not naturally attached to a shark carcass.The action has now moved to the U.S. Senate, where a third of the members have sponsored a parallel bill, S. 877, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia). Already the Senate Commerce Committee has cleared this bill for potential floor action.
States are also taking up the fight. In January, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law that bans the sale and trade of shark fins in the Garden State. The state's general assembly had approved the bill by a vote of 54 to 19, and the state's senate passed its version of the bill by a vote of 33 to 6. These vote tallies reflect the will of the state's constituents: In a recent survey, a majority of New Jersey voters said they would support a prohibition on the sale, possession and trade of shark fins.
New Jersey now joins 13 other states, including all of its coastal neighbors, and three U.S. territories that have passed legislation to ban or limit the sale of shark fins — American Samoa, California, Delaware, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington.
The current to stop the shark fin trade is also flowing internationally. In June 2019, Canada, the largest importer of shark fins outside Asia, passed a bill that includes measures to prohibit that country's trade in shark fins as well as the act of finning in Canadian waters. Worldwide, nearly 60 airlines and container shipping companies — including Air China, Eastern Air Logistics (the parent company of four major Chinese airlines) and Maersk, the world's largest shipping line — have banned the transport of shark fins. Many high-end restaurants and hotel chains in Asia have also stopped serving shark fin soup. Demand for the soup is declining but not quickly enough to save sharks on its own.
While finning in U.S. waters is already prohibited, current law is not enough because once shark fins are on land, they can be sold. Furthermore, U.S. participation in the global fin market continues to fuel the practice in places that lack shark-finning bans or adequate shark management and conservation policies.
It is impossible to guarantee that shark fins are humanely and sustainably sourced. That is because once a fin is detached, it is impossible to know where it was obtained, or whether it was sliced off a shark at sea or removed after the shark was brought to shore. It is also difficult to determine the species of the shark. For the most part, shark fins sold in the U.S. do not come from U.S. fishers. Because of this, fins sold here can come from sharks that were finned, or from endangered or threatened shark species.
Our role is magnified by the fact that the U.S. is a major transit hub for international shark fin shipments. Latin America is one of the most significant shark fin-producing regions, and many of these countries transport shark fins through U.S. ports. Some Latin American nations ship as much as one-third to one-half of all their shark fin exports through the U.S. In fact, on February 3, almost 1,400 pounds of dried shark fins worth around $1 million were found by wildlife inspectors in Miami. The shipment is believed to have originated in South America and was likely headed to Asia.
Still, banning the shark fin trade in the United States has its opponents. They argue that U.S. shark fisheries are already well managed. In reality, however, fewer than 20 percent of U.S. shark stocks are considered sustainable. They also argue that it is wasteful for fishers to land a shark and not be able to sell its fins. By that standard, not selling the ivory from a dead elephant is wasteful, too — but as a nation, we have decided that the broad well-being of all elephants supersedes that pernicious use of their tusks.
Fishing industry advocates claim that banning the fin trade would have harmful economic impacts. The truth is, though, that sharks are worth much more alive than dead. In 2016, shark-related diving in Florida produced more than $221 million in revenues and more than 3,700 jobs. Moreover, fishers would still be able to sell the meat and other products from the sharks they land. In states where the shark fin trade has been banned, there is no evidence of negative impacts to the commercial fishing industry.
Finally, some believe we can address the shark crisis not by changing our own practices, but simply by requiring other countries to improve their shark fishing methods. The latter is an unrealistic goal. The low percentage of U.S. shark stocks known to be sustainable underscores how difficult fisheries are to manage, even here in one of the world's richest and most technologically advanced nations. Additionally, when the U.S. leads, other countries follow. After we banned commercial trade in ivory, many other nations followed suit, including China, the European Union and Australia.
Simply put, the U.S. must remove itself from the cruel and ecologically damaging global shark fin trade. Americans overwhelmingly oppose it, and we are in a position to set an example for the rest of the world.
Join the wave for a U.S. shark fin ban. Call your two U.S. senators and ask them to support S. 877, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act.
Sharks are worth more alive than in a bowl of soup.
Sara Amundson is the president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the 501(c)4 legislative and political organization affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States. In this capacity, she manages political and legislative activity for the organization. She has testified before the U.S. Congress and in various state legislatures on a variety of animal protection legislation.
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By Tony Dunn
On Nov. 8, 2018, I was trapped in my car as embers fell all around me in Paradise, California, and the thought that kept going through my head was, "This can't be the same fire [that had been reported 10 miles away only two hours before]. Fires can't move like that."
I should know: I spent nearly a decade studying wildland fire history, fire ecology and fire behavior in Southern California for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.
But it was the same fire.
I thought a lot of other things on that cold, windy morning stuck in an endless line of unmoving cars, as the flames engulfed the homes around me. I thought I would never see my wife again. I thought I was going to die.
I didn't die that day, though 85 people did. But I came away from that experience knowing that climate change isn't some far-off dystopian prediction that we don't need to worry about. I met climate change face to face that day. It is real. It is here. And it is happening right now.
Five of the most extreme fires in all of California history have happened in the past two years. In 2017, the Thomas Fire set a record as the largest ever fire in California — only to be surpassed eight months later by the Ranch Fire. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire set a record as the most destructive fire in California history — only to be far surpassed 13 months later by the Camp Fire in Paradise. The 2017 Carr Fire experienced an unheard-of fire tornado with winds of 143 miles per hour — equal to an EF-3 tornado. What fire researchers like myself used to consider to be inconceivable fire behavior has become the new normal.
Before the Camp Fire, I felt that I was safe from the worst impacts of climate change. I was wrong. If you feel that you are safe from climate change, so are you.
"But you had insurance, right? So you're OK, right?" is something I've heard over and over during the past year.
No, we're not OK.
Despite having what we thought was excellent homeowner's insurance, having paid for hundreds of thousands in coverage that we are legally owed — our insurer, Nationwide, still refuses to pay us. The only thing that compares to the trauma of the fire is the trauma of having to fight for something that you already paid for. But it turns out that insurers aren't as "on our side" as their advertising jingles imply.
We ended up leaving our family behind and moving 2,700 miles from home just to have a shot at being able to afford rebuilding our lives with what our insurer "gave" us.
Then I found out our insurer has more than $1 billion invested in fossil fuels. In fact, insurers working in California have more than half a trillion dollars invested in fossil fuels, and many of them provide insurance coverage for fossil fuel infrastructure like coal plants and oil pipelines.
How does that make sense? How can insurance companies be investing in the very thing that is causing massive losses to their policyholders across the country and around the world?
What, exactly, is their end game?
Insurers are pulling out of California in droves, sending "nonrenewals" to tens of thousands of homeowners, raising rates (for those they don't cancel) by several hundred percent, or just not writing policies at all for large areas of the state.
What do they think is going to happen to their business if they stop writing policies in the West because of wildfires, in the Midwest because of recurring floods and droughts, and in the South and East because of hurricanes and sea level rise?
What do they think their business is going to be in a world of climate change? Whose side are they on?
Instead of contributing to the very thing that is destroying our communities, insurers should be at the forefront of climate action, working with policyholders to make their homes more resilient, investing in communities — not coal companies — to make needed changes to reduce risk and increase readiness for climate change. In areas where the risk is too high, insurers should be actively helping policyholders to relocate rather than taking a "rebuild or get nothing" attitude. They should stop investing in and insuring fossil fuel companies and projects.
Insurers, in short, should be on our side, not on the side of the fossil fuel industry.
Tony Dunn is a former fire ecologist and fire behavior researcher. He also worked for Pacific Gas & Electric as the director of the Sierra Energy Center in the Sierra Nevada foothills. After the Camp Fire, he relocated to western North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @adunnphoto.
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By Leslie Crawford
Remember back when we were all tubes?
Sy Montgomery does. That was a simpler time, eons before the octopus and Homo sapiens went their separate evolutionary ways, and certainly long before that highly intelligent cephalopod, which appeared some 300 million years ago, ended up boiled, stewed and fried. "Our lineage goes back a half-billion years ago when everyone was a tube," says Montgomery, a naturalist and author of many books about animals. "That was when there were no eyes. Yet we have evolved almost identical eyes. I just love that."
Montgomery's enthusiasm and devotion to Earth's creatures—and the similarities we share with them — has inspired her readers to get to know the eight-tentacled and big-brained wonders in The Soul of the Octopus, and taken us to the ends of the Earth and back to our own backyards in such award-winning books as Spell of the Tiger and Birdology.
A real-life Dr. Dolittle, Montgomery says she's always related best to animals and — sometimes straining the patience of her bipedal family members — has long treated her home as a land-bound ark for orphaned animals. In scientifically precise but poetic prose, she writes that we share greater similarities than differences with the electric eel, the tarantula, the tree kangaroo and the snow leopard. Don't forget, she says, that we hail from the same genetic pool, or more likely, gurgling swamp. By paying attention to the commonalities we have with our fellow animals — our singular capacity for what Montgomery argues is a broad range of emotions and zeal for life — humans can transcend the "we-shall-rule-the-Earth" anthropocentric focus, she says, and see that we are all in this together.
"We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth — or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation," Montgomery said. "It's an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It's a great time to be alive."
Leslie Crawford: Do you understand animals more than people?
Sy Montgomery: As a child, I grew up on an Army base and I did not have a single human friend. It allowed me the freedom to get to know other species. I vividly remember my 20s like it was yesterday. As a young person, I was often worried about whether or not I was reading other people correctly. And yet these are organisms that use the same English language. It's terrific to be in my 60s and know I can read animals. I have always read animals better than people.
What did you find surprising about humans as a child?
I was shocked to learn that people use their language to lie. Even little kids lie. Of course, animals will lie, too. An octopus will say, "I'm four or five sea snakes." What the octopus does is change each of its arms to look like a sea snake, which is very poisonous. Chimpanzees lie all the time. But the degree to which humans use language to lie shocked me. I've always dealt with animals in a very straightforward way. I wasn't ever trying to conceal things from them. Humans often want incorrect information about you and project incorrect things on you.
So much has changed about our understanding of animals since you started writing about them. When did you first realize that animals are sentient beings?
I think most of us realize as children that animals are sentient beings. But then, somehow, for so many people, this truth gets overwritten — by schools teaching old theories, by agribusiness that wants us to treat animals like products, by the pharmaceutical and medical industries who want to test products on animals as if they were little more than petri dishes. But thankfully, scientific and evolutionary evidence for animal sentience has grown too obvious to ignore.
What have you learned about animals and consciousness?
You don't want to project onto animals your wishes and desires. You have to respect your fellow animals. I don't want to roll in vomit, but a hyena would enjoy that. I don't want to kill everything I eat with my face, but that's what I'd do if I'm a great white shark. If I were eating a carcass, I would not be as happy about it as a scavenger. We have different lives but what we share is astonishingly deep, evolutionarily speaking.
When did you know you were an animal person?
Animals have always been my best friends and the source of my deepest joy. Before I was 2, I toddled into the hippo pen at the Frankfurt Zoo, seeking their company, and totally unafraid. When I learned to speak, one of my first announcements to my parents was that I was really a horse. The pediatrician reassured my mother I would outgrow this phase. He was right, because next I announced I was really a dog.
My father loved animals. Growing up, my mother had a dog named Flip who she adored. But I seem to have had an even greater attachment to animals than they did. My friend, the author Brenda Peterson, says that I must have been adopted at the local animal shelter.
How many animals do you currently live with?
Right now, the only animal who lives with us is a border collie named Thurber. I travel a lot: Thailand, Ecuador, Germany, Spain. I can't force my husband to have a house filled with animals. I had chickens but predators got almost all of them. Weasels got into the coop. They are so smart. Even though we buried wire beneath the floor, weasels need just a tiny opening to get through. You can never weasel-proof an old barn.
It sounds like you have some respect for weasels even though they killed your chickens?
They were there first. I learned my chickens were killed on Christmas morning when I brought a bowl of popcorn to them and saw this white creature with black eyes staring at me. You'd think I'd be angry. But the beauty and ferocity of this creature filled me with awe. At the same time that I mourned my beloved chickens, I admired the weasel.
You originally studied psychology. How do you go about thinking about what animals are thinking? Or is it a mistake for people to imagine animals are thinking in a way that we think?
I triple majored in college, and psychology was one of them. But thinking about animals wasn't really part of the coursework. I think it's perfectly reasonable to assume that nonhuman animals share our motivations and much of our thought processes. We want the same things: food, safety, interesting work and, in the case of social animals, love. But we can't always apply human tastes to animals — otherwise fish would seek to escape from the water and hyenas wouldn't roll in vomit.
When did you stop eating meat and dairy and why do you think some people make the decision and others don’t?
I read Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, in my 20s. Even though I loved meat, I haven't eaten it since. I can't wait to try the Impossible Burger!
In writing Sprig, I learned so much about pigs, including how smart they are. What do you love most about pigs?
They are so sensitive and emotional. And they're wise. They know what matters in life: warm sun, the touch of loving hands and great food.
Similarly, when I wrote Gwen, I found out how remarkable hens are with their own superpowers, including keen eyesight and a strong community that includes watching out for each other.
I agree with you. I love these aspects of their lives. I love how similar they are to us in so many ways, but I also love the otherness of these animals.
Speaking of “otherness,” in your book Soul of an Octopus, you came to know Athena, an octopus, as a friend. But can a person really know an octopus?
Until the day I met Athena in 2011, pretty much all of the creatures I got to know personally were vertebrates. We are so like fellow mammals, with whom we share 90 percent of our genetic material.
I didn't know if I would be able to bring what I understand about other animals to an invertebrate, but I was delighted to see it was true of the octopus. It was clear the octopus was just as curious about me as I was about her.
There are some animals who aren't interested in you. But when you have an octopus look you in the face and investigate you with her suckers with such an intensity, well, what that octopus taught me [about consciousness] blew me away. When Athena grabbed me, I correctly understood that she wasn't being aggressive, just curious.
How do you convince people to consider an octopus as something other than something to eat?
I tell them about my octopus friends, Octavia and Kali and Karma — specific individuals to whom they could relate.
I have realized that preaching to people about seeing animals as worthy of the same compassion and dignity as is owed humans doesn’t work. But if preaching isn’t effective, what do you think works to change hearts and minds — and stomachs?
Teach by example. It's the most powerful tool we have. Your love for pigs, told through your stories of Sprig and Gwen, is contagious because of your example. You show how much fun it is to let these animals enrich your life and make others want to be part of it. That's much more appealing than a lecture.
Are there one or two calls to action you would ask of people who want to improve the world for animals?
I would suggest that individuals find the action that best suits them. For me, when I was young, working 14 hours a day and making relatively little money, I had no extra time for volunteer work, and my tithes to animal causes amounted to far too little. But I could change my diet, so I did. For another person, an overnight change to vegetarianism or veganism might be too tough, but perhaps they could volunteer at a shelter.
I personally hate politics, though I vote and donate. But other people might throw themselves joyously into working toward electing candidates that support conservation and animal welfare legislation. Happily, we can all work with our individual strengths to make the change animals deserve.
What about everything we learn daily about climate change and the growing risk of mass extinctions?
Sometimes you don't want to read the headlines. It's so depressing. During the civil rights movement, I was too young to have anything to do with that. But now we can choose to be part of what is definitely a movement, one that recognizes that nonhuman animals think and know and feel the way we do. We know this based on cognitive and behavioral science. That change has happened within my lifetime, which is fantastic.
The fact that we live during a challenging time gives us an opportunity to be courageous. I'm thrilled to be able to apply my courage to such a worthy endeavor and with such worthy partners.
Leslie Crawford is the author of Sprig the Rescue Pig and Gwen the Rescue Hen. She lives in San Francisco with her two children, six hens and four foster pigeons. No partridges. Follow her on Twitter @lesliemcrawford.
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By Elliott Negin
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' recent decision to award the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to scientists who developed rechargeable lithium-ion batteries reminded the world just how transformative they have been. Without them, we wouldn't have smartphones or electric cars. But it's their potential to store electricity generated by the sun and the wind at their peak that promises to be even more revolutionary, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and protecting the planet from the worst consequences of climate change.
For that to happen, support for batteries needs to match the support renewable energy has received over the last few decades, shielding the industry from the Trump administration's continuing attempts to short-circuit it.
No matter how much President Trump "digs" coal, for instance, it can no longer compete economically. Since 2010, at least 289 coal plants have closed, comprising 40 percent of U.S. coal power capacity, and 50 of those plants have shut down since Trump took office.
Meanwhile, renewable electricity generation has nearly doubled over the last decade, and close to 90 percent of that expansion has come from wind and solar, which jumped more than fivefold. This April, wind, solar and hydroelectric power produced more electricity than coal for the first time ever.
That's all good news. If wind and solar maintain their exponential growth rate, the United States is on track to get all of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2050. Fulfilling that potential, however, will require two major advances: updating the rickety U.S. electricity grid and developing energy storage technologies that can enable the grid to incorporate more wind and solar power.
Updating an Antiquated System
Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia require utilities to increase the amount of electricity they generate from renewable resources over time. California, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., are leading the pack with a target of 100 percent by mid-century.
These renewable electricity standards have proven to be one of the most effective ways to curb U.S. global warming emissions. According to a 2016 Energy Department report, these standards cut carbon pollution nationally by 59 million metric tons in 2013 alone, akin to closing 15 average-sized coal-fired power plants. It would be even more effective to have a national standard, and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) has proposed one of 50 percent by 2035. But ratcheting up renewable electricity requirements can go only so far without modernizing the grid and increasing storage capacity.
While today's smartphones boast more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer on board Apollo 11, most of the power plants, transmission lines, transformers and poles that comprise the grid are at least 40 to 50 years old, built during the expansion of the electric power sector in the decades following World War II. With its aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks and vulnerability to climate impacts, today's grid gets a barely passing grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The grid was designed to transmit electricity from large, centralized plants, but power today flows from other sources, including solar and wind facilities. Rooftop solar panels and other "distributed" generation systems reduce the distance electricity has to travel, potentially increasing efficiency, but they also increase the complexity of transmitting electricity, and the amount generated from hour to hour varies. Investing in grid infrastructure would enable utilities to incorporate modern technology, making the grid more resilient and flexible, better able to integrate variable energy sources, and capable of providing real-time information so consumers can manage their energy use and save money.
100 Percent Clean Energy Is Possible — With Storage
A modernized electricity grid would have the capacity to store large amounts of excess electricity. Today, utilities have to produce the exact amount of electricity needed at a specific time to meet demand. With advanced storage technology, it doesn't have to be that way.
"Our electricity grid is where our food distribution system was before refrigeration," says Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). "Up until the 1920s, when the refrigerator became widely available, most people had to eat fresh food right away because they had no good way to keep it cold. A grid with storage capacity would allow consumers to light their homes at night with the extra energy from solar panels during the day."
One storage technology — pumped hydroelectric — has been around since the 1890s, and there has been increased interest in it in recent years because it can be paired with variable renewable sources. Hydroelectric plants pump water to elevated reservoirs and release it through turbines to generate electricity when demand is high. With 23 gigawatts of capacity, pumped hydro is currently the largest type of energy storage in the United States. That said, it represents less than 2 percent of U.S. generating capacity and is unlikely to grow much more due to the cost of building such facilities.
The ideal solution would be rechargeable, factory-size batteries that can store massive amounts of energy for days or even weeks. Today's grid-scale batteries can store only a few hours' worth of energy before they need to be recharged. That's enough to accommodate solar or wind power variability but not nearly enough to completely switch from fossil fuels to renewables.
Money is the main issue. Billions of private-sector dollars are now pouring into research and development for electric vehicle batteries, but they are only trickling in for grid batteries because the market is still in its infancy. That makes funding dependent on the U.S. government, which historically has supported cutting-edge research before the private sector was ready to invest. But federal funding for grid battery R&D has been deficient, and the United States is falling behind China, Japan and South Korea in the global battery market.
Bipartisan Support in Congress
Deploying batteries to store electricity generated when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing would enable the grid to handle more renewable energy. Fortunately, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle recognize that potential.
There are a handful of bipartisan energy storage bills now pending in the Senate. One bill, introduced by Angus King (I-Maine) and Martha McSally (R-Arizona), would provide $500 million over five years for a joint Energy and Defense department energy storage demonstration program. In September, the King-McSally proposal was folded into a bill proposed by King's fellow Mainer, Republican Susan Collins, which would dedicate $330 million over the next five years for storage R&D to help lower battery costs, which already have dropped nearly 40 percent since 2015. The Department of Energy supports a number of the proposed research efforts, which is not surprising, given Energy Secretary Rick Perry has called storage the "holy grail" of U.S. energy.
The House is also jumping on the bandwagon. In June, it passed an appropriations bill that boosts the Energy Department's energy storage budget by nearly 35 percent, and the budget of its Advanced Research Projects Agency — which has invested as much as 15 percent of its funding in electricity storage projects — by 17 percent. More recently, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee proposed legislation in November that would provide tax incentives for a range of clean energy technologies, including energy storage.
"Energy storage technology was developed right here in the United States, but we are losing out to other countries," says Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Increasing federal funding for energy storage R&D will pay big dividends for the U.S. economy and national security. Taking the right steps now will make our electricity grid cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable."
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Tia Schwab
In 2014, the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, commissioned by the UK government and Wellcome Trust, estimated that 700,000 people around the world die each year due to drug-resistant infections. A follow-up report two years later showed no change in this estimate of casualties. Without action, that number could grow to 10 million per year by 2050. A leading cause of antibiotic resistance? The misuse and overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.
Flourishing antibiotic resistance is just one of the many public health crises produced by factory farming. Other problems include foodborne illness, flu epidemics, the fallout from poor air and water quality, and chronic disease. All of it can be traced to the current industrial approach to raising animals for food, which puts a premium on "high stocking density," wherein productivity is measured by how many animals are crammed into a feeding facility.
Oversight for the way factory farms operate and manage waste is minimal at best. No federal agency collects consistent and reliable information on the number, size and location of large-scale agricultural operations, nor the pollution they're emitting. There are also no federal laws governing the conditions in which farm animals are raised, and most state anti-cruelty laws do not apply to farm animals.
For example, Texas, Iowa and Nebraska have excluded livestock from their animal cruelty statute and instead created specific legislation aimed at farm animal abuse that makes accepted or customary husbandry practices the animal welfare standard.
After New Jersey created similar legislation, the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sued the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, claiming that "routine husbandry practices" was too vague. The New Jersey Society won, and as a result, the state's Department of Agriculture has created more specific regulations.
In North Carolina, any person or organization can file a lawsuit if they suspect animal cruelty, even if that person does not have "possessory or ownership rights in an animal." In this way, the state has "a civil remedy" for farm animal cruelty.
Still, the general lack of governmental oversight of factory farms results in cramped and filthy conditions, stressed-out animals and workers, and an ideal setup for the rampant spread of disease among animals, between animals and workers, and into the surrounding environment through animal waste.
The problem: In 2017, nearly 11 million kilograms of antibiotics—including 5.6 million kilograms of medically important antibiotics—were sold in the U.S. for factory-farmed animals. Factory farms use antibiotics to make livestock grow faster and control the spread of disease in cramped and unhealthy living conditions. While antibiotics do kill some bacteria in animals, resistant bacteria can, and often do, survive and multiply, contaminating meat and animal products during slaughter and processing.
What it means for you: People can be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria by handling or eating contaminated animal products, coming into contact with contaminated water or touching farm animals, which of course makes a farmworker's job especially hazardous. Even if you don't eat much meat or dairy, you're vulnerable: Resistant pathogens can enter water streams through animal manure and contaminate irrigated produce.
Developments: The European Union has been much more aggressive than the U.S. in regulating antibiotic use on factory farms, banning the use of all antibiotics for growth promotion in 2006. But the U.S. is making some progress, too. Under new rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which went into effect in January 2017, antibiotics that are important for human medicine can no longer be used for growth promotion or feed efficiency in cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals raised for food.
Additionally, 95 percent of medically important antibiotics used in animal water and feed for therapeutic purposes were reclassified so they can no longer be purchased over the counter, and a veterinarian would have to sign off for their use in animals. As a result, domestic sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in factory farmed animals decreased by 43 percent from 2015 (the year of peak sales) through 2017, reports the FDA.
However, the agency still allows routine antibiotic use in factory farms for disease prevention in crowded and stressed animals, so these new rules aren't nearly enough, says Matthew Wellington, antibiotics program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
"The FDA should implement ambitious reduction targets for antibiotic use in the meat industry, and ensure that these medicines are used to treat sick animals or control a verified disease outbreak, not for routine disease prevention," Wellington said in a statement, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
National Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Avinash Kar agrees. "Far more antibiotics important to humans still go to cows and pigs—usually when they're not sick—than to people, putting the health of every single one of us in jeopardy."
Water and Pollution
The problem: Livestock in this country produce between 3 and 20 times more waste than people in the U.S. produce, according to a 2005 report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That's as much as 1.2-1.37 billion tons of manure a year. Some estimates are even higher.
Manure can contain "pathogens such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood, silage leachate from corn feed, or copper sulfate used in footbaths for cows," according to a 2010 report by the National Association of Local Boards of Health. Though sewage treatment plants are required for human waste, no such treatment facility exists for livestock waste.
Since this amount far exceeds what can be used as fertilizer, animal waste from factory farms typically enters massive, open-air waste lagoons, which spread airborne pathogens to people who live nearby. If animal waste is applied as fertilizer and exceeds the soil's capacity for absorption, or if there is a leak or break in the manure storage or containment unit, the animal waste runs off into oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater.
Extreme weather increases the possibility of such breaks. Hurricane Florence, for example, flooded at least 50 hog lagoons when it struck the Carolinas last year, and satellite photos captured the damage.
Whether or not the manure is contained or spread as fertilizer, it can release many different types of harmful gases, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as well as particulate matter comprised of fecal matter, feed materials, pollen, bacteria, fungi, skin cells and silicates, into the air.
What it means for you: Pathogens can cause diarrhea and severe illness or even death for those with weakened immune systems, and nitrates in drinking water have been connected to neural tube defects and limb deficiencies in newborns (among other things), as well as miscarriages and poor general health. For infants, it can mean blue baby syndrome and even death.
Gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can cause dizziness, eye irritation, respiratory illness, nausea, sore throats, seizures, comas and death. Particulate matter in the air can lead to chronic bronchitis, chronic respiratory symptoms, declines in lung function and organic dust toxic syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that children raised in communities near factory farms are more likely to develop asthma or bronchitis, and that people who live near factory farms may experience mental health deterioration and increased sensitization to smells.
Developments: It is difficult to hold factory farms accountable for polluting surrounding air and water, largely for political reasons. The GOP-controlled Congress and the Trump administration excused big livestock farms from reporting air emissions, for instance, following a decade-long push for special treatment by the livestock industry.
The exemption indicates "further denial of the impact that these [emissions] are having, whether it's on climate or whether it's on public health," says Carrie Apfel, an attorney for Earthjustice. In a 2017 report from the EPA's Office of the Inspector General, the agency admitted it has not found a good way to track emissions from factory farms and know whether the farms are complying with the Clean Air Act.
No federal agency even has reliable information on the number and locations of factory farms, which of course makes accountability even harder to establish.
The problem: The U.S. has "shockingly high levels of foodborne illness," according to an investigation jointly conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Guardian, and unsanitary conditions at factory farms are a leading contributor.
Studying 47 meat plants across the U.S., investigators found that hygiene incidents occur at rates experts described as "deeply worrying." One dataset covered 13 large red meat and poultry plants between 2015 and 2017 and found an average of more than 150 violations a week, and 15,000 violations over the entire period. Violations included unsanitary factory conditions and meat contaminated with blood, septicemic disease and feces.
"The rates at which outbreaks of infectious food poisoning occur in the U.S. are significantly higher than in the UK, or the EU," Erik Millstone, a food safety expert at Sussex University told The Guardian.
Poor sanitary practices allow bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, which live in the intestinal tracts of infected livestock, to contaminate meat or animal products during slaughter or processing. Contamination occurs at higher rates on factory farms because crowded and unclean living conditions increase the likelihood of transmission between animals.
It also stresses out animals, which suppresses their immune response, making them more susceptible to disease. The grain-based diets used to fatten cattle can also quickly increase the risk of E. coli infection. In poultry, the practice of processing dead hens into "spent hen meal" to be fed to live hens has increased the spread of Salmonella.
What it means for you: According to the CDC, roughly 48 million people in the U.S. suffer from foodborne illnesses annually, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year. Salmonella accounts for approximately 11 percent of infections, and kills more people every year than any other bacterial foodborne illness.
Developments: In January 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the first major piece of federal legislation addressing food safety since 1938. FSMA grants the FDA new authority to regulate the way food is grown, harvested and processed, and new powers such as mandatory recall authority.
The FSMA "basically codified this principle that everybody responsible for producing food should be doing what the best science says is appropriate to prevent hazards and reduce the risk of illness," according to Mike Taylor, co-chairman of Stop Foodborne Illness and a former deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA. "So we're moving in the right direction."
However, almost a decade later, the FSMA is still being phased in, due to a shortage of trained food-inspectors and a lack of funding. "Congress has gotten about halfway to what it said was needed to successfully implement" the Act, Taylor said.
The problem: Both the number and density of animals on factory farms increase the risk of new virulent pathogens, according to the U.S. Council for Agriculture, Science and Technology. In addition, transporting animals over long distances to processing facilities brings different influenza strains into contact with each other so they combine and spread quickly.
Pigs — susceptible to both avian and human flu viruses — can serve as ground zero for all sorts of new strains. Because of intensive pig farming practices, "the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track, churning out variants every year," according to a report published in the journal Science.
What it means for you: These viruses can become pandemics. In fact, viral geneticists link the genetic lineage of H1N1, a kind of swine flu, to a strain that emerged in 1998 in U.S. factory pig farms. The CDC has estimated that between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide died from the 2009 H1N1 virus infection during the first year the virus circulated.
Breast, Prostate and Colon Cancer
The problem: Factory farms in the U.S. use hormones to stimulate growth in an estimated two-thirds of beef cattle. On dairy farms, around 54 percent of cows are injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a growth hormone that increases milk production.
What it means for you: The health effects of consuming animal products treated with these growth hormones is an ongoing international debate. Some studies have linked growth hormone residues in meat to reproductive issues and breast, prostate and colon cancer, and IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone, has been linked to colon and breast cancer. However, the FDA, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization have independently found that dairy products and meat from cows treated with rBGH are safe for human consumption.
Because risk assessments vary, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and Argentina have banned the use of rBGH as a precautionary measure. The EU has also banned the use of six hormones in cattle and imported beef.
Developments: U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines allow beef products to be labeled with "no hormones administered" and dairy products to be labeled "from cows not treated with rBST/rBGH" if the producer provides sufficient documentation that this is true. Consumers can use this information to make their own decisions about the risks associated with hormone-treated animal products.
What You Can Do
You can vote for local initiatives that establish health and welfare regulations for factory farms, but only a tiny number of states, including California and Massachusetts, are even putting relevant propositions on the ballot.
Another option is to support any of the nonprofits that are, in lieu of effective government action, taking these factory farms to task. The Environmental Working Group, Earthjustice and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are among those working hard to check the worst practices of these factory farms. Another good organization is the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, which works with local residents to fight the development of factory farms in their own backyards.
Buying humanely raised animal products from farms and farmers you trust is another way to push back against factory farming. Sadly, products from these smaller farms make up only a fraction of the total. In the U.S., roughly 99 percent of chickens, turkeys, eggs and pork, and 70 percent of cows, are raised on factory farms.
You can support lab-grown "clean" burgers, chicken and pork by buying it once it becomes widely available. Made from animal cells, the process completely spares the animal and eliminates the factory farm. "The resulting product is 100 percent real meat, but without the antibiotics, E. coli, Salmonella, or waste contamination," writes the Good Food Institute.
In the meantime, you can register your objection to factory farming by doing your bit to reduce demand for their products. In short, eat less meat and dairy, and more plant-based proteins.
More than $13 billion has been invested in plant-based meat, egg and dairy companies in 2017 and 2018 alone, according to the Good Food Institute, and Beyond Meat's initial public offering debut in May marked the most successful one since the year 2000.
Lest you think that what you do on your own can't possibly make a difference, consider one of the major drivers behind all this new investment: consumers are demanding change.
"Shifting consumer values have created a favorable market for alternatives to animal-based foods, and we have already seen fast-paced growth in this space across retail and foodservice markets," says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute.
Tia Schwab is a former Stone Pier Press news fellow who recently graduated from Stanford University where she studied human biology with a concentration in food systems and public health.
This article first appeared on Truthout and was produced as part of a partnership between Stone Pier Press and Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. An earlier version appeared on Stone Pier Press.
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By Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner
A major but largely glossed over report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental and public health nonprofit based in Washington, DC, shows that thousands of untested chemicals (an estimated 2,000, to be exact) are found in conventional packaged foods purchasable in U.S. supermarkets. And yes, all of them are legal.
The extensive collection of permissible additives includes several known or suspected carcinogens, such as synthetic sodium nitrate, found in processed meats and considered probably carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, and butylated hydroxyanisole, also known as BHA, a chemical listed as a cancer-causing chemical by the state of California and found in commonplace items like frozen pepperoni pizza. Other unappealing chemicals are commonly found in our food packaging, such as polypropylene, sulfuric acid and bisphenol A — all of which can have impacts on human health and the environment.
How much should consumers panic before their next supermarket trip? "It really depends on what level of risk consumers are comfortable with," said Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist at EWG and co-author of the study. "The more we learn about what is in conventional foods, the more evidence for concern we accumulate." Independent laboratory tests commissioned by EWG, for example, found glyphosate, a probable carcinogen, in every sample of conventional oats tested.
The fact that dangerous chemicals are legal for use in our food is a major public health concern that goes largely unrecognized by the U.S. government. "Unfortunately, our current policy on food additives was written in 1958 and has been completely co-opted by food and chemical companies," Undurraga said. "Additives that are deemed 'Generally Recognized as Safe,' or GRAS, by a food or chemical company or trade association are exempt from the food additive petition process where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews the safety of the additive."
Originally, this GRAS exemption was created to cover ingredients widely known to be safe, like vinegar, but with advancements in food science, the provision has been applied to thousands of chemicals. As a result, questionable substances have been allowed into a host of conventional foods. In 2017, EWG joined several other public health groups to file a lawsuit against the FDA in an effort to eliminate the GRAS loophole.
"Rather than close the loophole, the FDA has instead allowed companies to voluntarily notify the agency about food chemicals and to allow companies to summarize the industry science supporting their conclusions," reads the EWG study, elucidating that many scientists who conduct these reviews have been paid by the industry. Plus, the FDA does not subsequently review underlying biological and chemical data, leaving consumers to literally do the dirty work. The FDA did not respond to Truthout's request for comment.
An extensive collection of permissible food additives includes several known or suspected carcinogens. Pixabay
"Consumers shouldn't have to be toxicologists to be able to grab something at the grocery store that doesn't contain questionable or dangerous ingredients," Undurraga said. Even so, toxicology literacy won't help in the frozen food aisle. According to Undurraga, there are absolutely no defining signs on food packaging to indicate that any of the 2,000 synthetic chemicals approved for use in food are present in that specific item.
In fact, the only way to minimize exposure to these chemicals is to purchase certified organic packaged foods and look at EWG's Food Scores, which measure nutrition, ingredient and processing concerns in more than 80,000 common foods, from frozen vegetables and baby food to packaged nuts, berries and grains across hundreds of popular brands; and EWG's Dirty Dozen List of Food Additives, which ranks the worst food additives common in U.S. supermarket food and where you'll likely encounter them, like potassium bromate in packaged loaves of bread and propylparaben in packaged tortillas and muffins.
If additives don't have you worried enough about what we're legally permitted to consume, know that pesticides, found to be carcinogenic and also severely damaging to the environment, are still more than prevalent alongside the packaged food chemicals at your grocery store. Every year, EWG reviews the U.S. Department of Agriculture's pesticide residue tests on conventional produce.
"Last year, nearly 70 percent of conventionally grown produce was contaminated with pesticide residues," says Undurraga. "This is especially concerning for pregnant women and small children."
Sure, organic packaged food and organic produce are typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts, but you're paying for more rigorous additive standards and investing in your long-term health and the health of the environment. Currently, fewer than 40 synthetic ingredients are permitted in organic packaged foods — and this is only after each chemical has been reviewed by both independent and government experts. And yet only around 3 percent of packaged food sold in the U.S. is organic. Perhaps this is because people who shop organic are not interested in pre-packaged meals. More likely, it's because the dangers of conventional packaged food are not well-known.
Those who want to plan their supermarket trips with a budget in mind can look to EWG's shopper's guide to know what to prioritize in their carts. Beyond opting for organic packaged goods when going the pre-made route, consumers can elect to buy organic versions of fruits and vegetables whose conventional counterparts have made EWG's "Dirty Dozen" list, which calls out those conventionally grown items found with the most pesticide residue: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
On the flip side, consumers can opt for conventional versions of the produce items that are listed on EWG's "Clean Fifteen" — those with relatively little pesticide residue: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew melons.
Though it's unlikely Americans are going to stop buying conventional packaged food in the near future (or ever), pressure on the government to make packaged food actually safe to eat is necessary to enact change. And with so little information readily available about what we're actually eating when these chemicals aren't disclosed, keeping up with research by independent groups like the EWG remains imperative to educate consumers.
Combining their research and policy platform, EWG has launched a petition to encourage food companies like General Mills, Quaker and Kellogg's to remove cancer-linked glyphosate from our food. And that's just the beginning. Other consumer safety advocates, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Center for Food Safety, both represented by Earthjustice, have challenged the FDA's GRAS interpretation in court earlier this year.
Ignorance may bring peace of mind to grocery shoppers, but as more information about the hazards in our daily food purchases comes to light, it's likely we'll see more consumer pushback against dangerous practices that have become the norm.
Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in New York. She is a writing fellow at Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She's written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Glamour, AlterNet, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Architectural Digest, Them and other publications. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Columbia University and is also at work on a forthcoming novel. Follow her on Twitter: @melissabethk.
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By Michael Green
A handful of multibillion-dollar chemical companies have waged war on our bodies and our environment for nearly 70 years without our knowledge or consent. Although the federal government — tasked with protecting the public and upholding the law — became aware of this chemical assault 20 years ago, it chose to conceal the truth, downplay the threat, and expand the use of a class of chemicals known to endanger the health of present and future generations.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): Toxic, Persistent, Inescapable
PFAS are a class of nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals that make products water- and grease-resistant. They are in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets, lubricants, firefighting foams, paints, cosmetics and paper plates our kids eat off at schools. Humans are exposed to PFAS through contaminated food, air, dust, rain, soil and drinking water.
Termed "forever chemicals," PFAS can take thousands of years to break down in the environment and can remain in our bodies for decades. PFAS are now in the blood of 99 percent of Americans and have contaminated the drinking water of as many as 110 million Americans — particularly those living near chemical manufacturing facilities, airports and military bases. Even the smallest exposure to PFAS can cause a variety of cancers, thyroid disease, hormone disruption, decreased fertility and other serious health issues.
But there are signs of hope. Health-ravaged communities are fighting back against those that poisoned them — and winning. Schools and businesses are increasingly seeking out foodware, carpets, couches and other items that are PFAS-free. The Home Depot, the world's largest home improvement retailer, just announced that it will phase out the sale of all carpets and rugs containing PFAS chemicals. More and more states are taking matters into their own hands, leading a national movement to combat exposure to PFAS.
"Dark Waters," an upcoming film starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, will tell the story of corporate lawyer Robert Bilott, who helped expose one of the most appalling environmental crimes in our nation's history. And Congress is finally moving to action on behalf of the people they serve, not the corporations making them sick. Action to protect public health is being taken abroad as well, with Denmark recently becoming the first country to ban PFAS in food packaging. But much more must be done.
In the Chemical Industry’s Secret War, Communities Are Fighting Back
In 1947, manufacturing company 3M developed perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — a member of the PFAS family. DuPont purchased PFOA in 1951 to make Teflon, which quickly made its way into the kitchens of millions of American households.
In 1999, a West Virginia farmer whose cattle were suffering unexplained illnesses sued DuPont. The company was forced to release internal documents showing its PFOA-producing factory had contaminated the local water supply, and that it had hidden evidence showing that the chemical was hazardous to human health. Tens of thousands of local residents paid the price, including DuPont's own workers, suffering elevated risks of cancer and greater incidences of low infant birth weights.
This landmark legal victory by one small farmer against a multibillion-dollar chemical company sparked a nationwide uprising of PFAS-poisoned communities filing and winning a series of class-action lawsuits against DuPont, 3M and Chemours (a spinoff of DuPont), resulting in billions of dollars in legal settlements. These courageous communities forced the release of damaging internal documents showing these companies had known since the 1970s their two most widely used PFAS — PFOA in Teflon and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in Scotchgard — were linked to cancer, thyroid disease and other adverse health impacts.
In response, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rightfully determined PFOS and PFOA were too great a risk to human health, and DuPont and 3M voluntarily phased them out. But instead of getting out of the PFAS business, these companies simply replaced them with slightly altered substitutions, renamed and rebranded as safe, yet equally persistent and no less hazardous.
For example, Chemours replaced PFOA with a new PFAS called GenX. Now, eastern North Carolina is reeling from GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River as a result of discharge from the manufacturing process that allows for the creation of Teflon and firefighting foam. Consequently, this recurring chemical onslaught continues unabated, increasing the number of unaware and unprepared communities being decimated by companies that will lie and kill for money.
It’s All About Class: The Key to Reducing Human Exposure to PFAS
This game of chemical "whack-a-mole" must end. Thanks to weak laws and undue chemical industry influence, PFAS remain in an endless number of products and industrial applications, continue to spread across the globe, and pollute our drinking water, food, bodies and environment.
All PFAS are similar in structure and use and contain properties known to be toxic. To even begin to address this crisis, PFAS must be properly regulated as a "class" of chemicals and included on the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), just as what was done to Monsanto's cancer-causing class of polychlorinated biphenyls chemicals.
Once on the TRI, one of the nation's premier right-to-know initiatives, chemical manufacturers will have to report where, when and the amount of PFAS they are releasing into our air, water and soil annually. This would better inform unknowingly exposed communities, incentivize companies to reduce PFAS pollution, prioritize the elimination of the most hazardous PFAS and more effectively hold polluters accountable.
EPA, Trump and DoD: Greed, Corruption and Collusion
Yet, Trump's EPA and Department of Defense (DoD) remain dependable PFAS defenders. The EPA has yet to set a safe, enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS, has colluded with the chemical industry to keep health risks secret, and has approved the use of more than 600 new PFAS chemicals in the last 10 years.
The DoD has long been aware that PFAS in firefighting foam endangers the health of soldiers, their families and surrounding communities. But again, the life of U.S. soldiers are not as valued as the chemicals that kill them.
As of August 2017, there are more than 400 known or suspected military sites contaminated with PFAS. A recent report found PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country — nearly two-thirds had more than 100 times levels considered safe. Nonetheless, the DoD supports the continued use of PFAS despite the availability of safer alternatives, opposes spending the $2 billion in PFAS cleanup costs needed on and around military bases and has pressured the EPA to weaken cleanup standards.
The Trump administration recently attempted to suppress a major environmental health study that showed exposure limits for PFAS should be 7 to 10 times lower than current EPA safety standards. Last February, Trump's EPA, a wholly owned subsidiary of the chemical industry, released its long-awaited "PFAS Action Plan" that actually makes it easier for the continued, secret and unregulated use of chemicals that threaten our future survival without fear of repercussion.
Congress Steps Up, Trump Threatens Veto
After decades of inaction, Congress has recently introduced more than 20 PFAS-related bills, as well as dozens of amendments to the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would reduce PFAS pollution and help identify the extent of the crisis we face — including increasing the cleanup of PFAS waste using the Superfund program and requiring the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.
Notably, President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA if it contains current amendments that would protect soldiers — and surrounding communities — impacted by the U.S. military's use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam. Congress has until early October to submit an agreed-upon, merged bill to the president.
A Clash on Class: We Must Get This Right
Despite Trump's threatened veto, my organization, the Center for Environmental Health, applauds these historic and long overdue congressional actions. However, there are significantly different approaches being taken on the most important action of all.
The Senate has proposed an amendment to the NDAA that only adds 200 of the nearly 5,000 PFAS currently in existence to the Toxics Release Inventory. Such a limited scope will only open the door for companies like DuPont, Chemours and 3M to continue to perpetually spawn new PFAS chemicals, allowing this cycle of corporate profit at the expense of human life to continue, perhaps forever.
The better approach is a bipartisan, stand-alone bill proposed by Rep. Antonio Delgado of New York that includes all 5,000 PFAS on the TRI. Twenty-two state attorneys general support this approach, as they've seen firsthand the futility of eliminating one PFAS chemical, only to see another toxic copycat take its place.
Congress should reject the Senate's feckless TRI amendment, support Representative Delgado's bill, and support an NDAA bill only if it includes the PFAS amendments.
We face one of the most serious environmental health crises in our history. All communities deserve the right to know if toxic chemicals are being released into their air, water, food and soil. It's time to embrace scientific reality as our guide to overcoming this challenge and start prioritizing peoples' health over corporate.
What You Can Do to Help Avoid PFAS Exposure
Find out if your tap water has been properly tested. If you are concerned, consider installing an in-home filter on your tap. Avoid "nonstick" or "waterproof" products and disposable foodware and carryout items — see the Center for Environmental Health's database for safer options. Avoid microwave popcorn — and make your own instead. Don't use beauty products with ingredients containing the term "fluoro."
Tell your representatives to include PFAS as a class on the TRI today.
Michael Green is the chief executive officer of the Center for Environmental Health, which he founded in 1996. The Center works with parents, communities, businesses, workers, and government to protect children and families from toxic chemicals in homes, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods.
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For the past seven years, the Anishinaabe people have been facing the largest tar sands pipeline project in North America. We still are. In these dying moments of the fossil fuel industry, Water Protectors stand, prepared for yet another battle for the water, wild rice and future of all. We face Enbridge, the largest pipeline company in North America, and the third largest corporation in Canada. We face it unafraid and eyes wide open, for indeed we see the future.
The Anishinaabe speak of this time as the time of the Seventh Fire — we must choose between two paths, one well worn and scorched, the other green.
Under a hail of water cannons, the name "Water Protector" was immortalized in the battle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. The rights of humans, and the rights of Nature, were trampled by the corporate machine of the pipeline company known as Energy Transfer Partners and $38 million worth of militarization. That's what was paid out in the name of "policing and cleanup" by the state of North Dakota to brutalize Water Protectors who came from a dozen states and cities to protest against Energy Transfer Partners and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Standing Rock was surely a Selma Moment in the environmental movement. This was a battle over the water and rights of Indigenous peoples and nations, but this was also clearly a battle over climate change and the future. We left Standing Rock with a deeper understanding of who we were and of this moment in time.
For the past six years, the Anishinaabe and our fellow Water Protectors have been fending off mega projects — coal generators, mining projects and Enbridge pipelines, which deliver oil from Canada to the United States. After a three-year battle against Enbridge's proposed Sandpiper, a 640,000-barrel-a-day fracked oil pipeline from North Dakota to Wisconsin, Enbridge canceled the project August 2, 2016, and purchased 28 percent of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The largest pipeline company in the western hemisphere folded its hand.
Yet the company came back with a plan to build Line 3, the 915,000-barrel-a-day tar sands pipeline. The bitter battle between Water Protectors and Tar Sands Wiindigos ("cannibals" in Ojibwe, a word that now serves as a metaphor for colonizing and extractive oil companies like Enbridge) continues. This last month, the Bad River Band of Anishinaabe filed suit against Enbridge, Inc., demanding that the company remove Enbridge's 66-year-old Line 5, which traverses from the south shore of Gitchi Gummi toward the Straits of Mackinac. There, the opposition to a new pipe/tunnel scheme in a precarious crossing of the Great Lakes continues.
As an economist by training, I refer to capitalist economics as "Wiindigo Economics" — the economics of a cannibal. Enbridge's proposed Line 3 represents l70 million metric tons of carbon annually added to the environment, according to calculations made by analysts at Honor the Earth, the 26-year-old Native-led national environmental organization where I serve as executive director.
Now, slaying a Wiindigo like Enbridge is complicated. In this case, we must just keep saying no — legally, in the streets and in the investment world. We must starve the Wiindigo. Tar sands oil is extremely expensive. Put it this way: Every source of oil in the world is cheaper – much cheaper. According to Rystad Energy oil analysts, the average tar sands project won't even break even on the cost of getting the fuel out of the ground unless international oil prices rise to $83 per barrel and stay there. In contrast, the average U.S. fracked oil well will break even with oil prices at $46 per barrel. And that tar sands oil is landlocked. It will remain so.
Just before he died, David Koch sold his tar sands assets. He's rumored to have lost billions. The Koch brothers at one point held the largest tar sands reserves, but this August, they sold their remaining assets to a unit of Paramount Resources Ltd. "for an undisclosed sum following halted attempts to develop projects," according to The Globe and Mail. That's what happens with divestment and a lack of pipelines.
Native peoples have been shackled with fossil fuel projects, and many are withering away. For the past 70 years, four of the 10 largest coal strip mines have been in Crow, Hopi and Navajo territory. By the end of the summer, three of those coal strip mines will be closed down, and with them, many of the units of the aging coal generators — Four Corners, Navajo Generating Station and Colstrip Units 1 and 2.
At the end of the fossil fuel era, big companies try to dump their liabilities on Native nations. BHP Billiton dumped a 50-year-old coal strip mine on the Navajo Nation in 2016, and Canada's Trudeau administration is trying desperately to peddle the liabilities of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Project (also known as Trudeau West) to a collaboration of First Nations in Canada. But times are changing.
This past month, two units of the colossal Colstrip Power plants, fed with Crow coal extracted by the Westmoreland Coal Company are scheduled to close by the end of the year. In turn, lawsuits filed by grassroots citizens organizations such as the San Juan Citizens Alliance and its partners have forced the closure of more units at the notorious Four Corners power plant. Change is inevitable. The question is, who controls the change.
In 2017, the Kayenta Solar Facility came online with 27 megawatts of power for Navajo people. This wholly owned Navajo project is the first-of-its-kind utility-scale solar project within the Navajo Nation.
Navajo Tribal Utility Authority General Manager Walter Haase said this project "demonstrates the Navajo Nation is ready for large-scale renewable energy production," calling it a "gigantic first step toward enhancing the green economy."
Kayenta Solar was built in six months by Navajo people, who count among them more electrical engineers than any other tribe. On the White Earth reservation, 8th Fire Solar was launched this summer, producing Solar Rating and Certification Company — certified solar thermal panels to distribute throughout North America. Honor the Earth is also putting in 200 kw of solar to support the communities of White Earth.
Now is the time to choose the green path over the scorched path. The stakes are raised daily: Fires burn to the north, west, south and east, and we all feel the grief of our Mother Earth, for we are her children. It is time to be a Water Protector. It is time to be a Wiindigo Slayer — that is, it is time to stop the monsters and cannibals that plague our villages. That's what our Anishinaabe ancestors did: They slayed those Wiindigos, and that's why we are still here, 8,000 years later. It's time for this generation to summon up our courage, vision and prayers.
We are familiar with Wiindigos. We have been Wiindigo Slayers in the past, and we will be again. They have the money, but we have the people. We also have a vision for life in the future.
This story originally appeared in Truthout. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By C.J. Polychroniou
Climate change is by far the most serious crisis facing the world today. At stake is the future of civilization as we know it. Yet, both public awareness and government action lag way behind what's needed to avert a climate change catastrophe. In the interview below, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin discuss the challenges ahead and what needs to be done.
Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Robert Pollin is Distinguished University Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chomsky, Pollin and Polychroniou are co-authors of a book on climate change and the Green New Deal, forthcoming with Verso in Spring 2020.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, let me start with you and ask you to share your thoughts about the uniqueness of the climate change crisis.
Noam Chomsky: History is all too rich in records of horrendous wars, indescribable torture, massacres and every imaginable abuse of fundamental rights. But the threat of destruction of organized human life in any recognizable or tolerable form — that is entirely new. The environmental crisis under way is indeed unique in human history, and is a true existential crisis. Those alive today will decide the fate of humanity — and the fate of the other species that we are now destroying at a rate not seen for 65 million years, when a huge asteroid hit the earth, ending the age of the dinosaurs and opening the way for some small mammals to evolve to pose a similar threat to life on earth as that earlier asteroid, though differing from it in that we can make a choice.
Meanwhile the world watches as we proceed toward a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. We are approaching perilously close to the global temperatures of 120,000 years ago, when sea levels were 6-9 meters higher than today. Glaciers are sliding into the sea five times faster than in the 1990s, with more than 100 meters of ice thickness lost in some areas due to ocean warming, and current losses doubling every decade. Complete loss of the ice sheets would raise sea levels by about five meters, drowning coastal cities, and with utterly devastating effects elsewhere — the low-lying plains of Bangladesh for example. This is only one of the many concerns of those who are paying attention to what is happening before our eyes.
Climate scientists are certainly paying close attention, and issuing dire warnings. Israeli climatologist Baruch Rinkevich captures the general mood succinctly:
After us, the deluge, as the saying goes. People don't fully understand what we're talking about here…. They don't understand that everything is expected to change: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the landscapes we see, the oceans, the seasons, the daily routine, the quality of life. Our children will have to adapt or become extinct…. That's not for me. I'm happy I won't be here.
Yet, just at the time when all must act together, with dedication, to confront humanity's "ultimate challenge," the leaders of the most powerful state in human history, in full awareness of what they are doing, are dedicating themselves with passion to destroying the prospects for organized human life.
With rare exceptions, the mainstream political establishment in the United States continues to look the other way when it comes to climate change. Why is that?
Chomsky: Both political parties have drifted right during the neoliberal years, much as in Europe. The Democratic establishment is now more or less what would have been called "moderate Republicans" some years ago. The Republicans have gone off the spectrum. Comparative studies show that they rank alongside of fringe rightwing parties in Europe in their general positions. They are, furthermore, the only major conservative party to reject anthropogenic climate change, as already mentioned: a global anomaly. Two respected political analysts of the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, describe the Republican Party since Newt Gingrich's takeover in the '90s as not a normal political party but a "radical insurgency" that has largely abandoned parliamentary politics. Under McConnell's leadership, that has only become more evident — but he has ample company in Republican Party circles.
The positions of the leadership on climate surely influence the attitudes of Republican Party loyalists. Only about 25 percent of Republicans (36 percent of the more savvy millennials) recognize that humans are responsible for global warming. Shocking figures.
And in the ranking of urgent issues among Republicans, global warming (if it is even assumed to be taking place), is almost undetectable.
It is considered outrageous to assert that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. Perhaps so, but in the light of the stakes, what else can one rationally conclude?
Bob, the Green New Deal is seen as perhaps the only viable solution to avert a climate change catastrophe of the sort described by Noam above, yet many continue to regard it as unrealistic, not only from a purely economic perspective (the claim is that it is simply unaffordable), but also in the sense that modern economies and societies cannot function without fossil fuel energy. First, is the Green New Deal a detailed policy proposal to move us away from a climate change catastrophe, and, second, is it realistic?
Robert Pollin: The Green New Deal has gained tremendous traction as an organizing framework over the past year. This alone is a major achievement. But it is still imperative that we transform this big idea into a viable program. In my view, putting meat on the bones of the Green New Deal starts with a single simple idea: We have to absolutely stop burning oil, coal and natural gas to produce energy within the next 30 years at most; and we have to do this in a way that also supports rising living standards and expanding opportunities for working people and the poor throughout the world.
This version of a Green New Deal program is, in fact, entirely realistic in terms of its purely economic and technical features. Clean renewable energy sources — including solar, wind, geothermal and to a lesser extent small-scale hydro and low emissions bioenergy — are already either at cost parity with fossil fuels and nuclear or they are cheaper. In addition, the single easiest and cheapest way to lower emissions is to raise energy efficiency standards, through, among other measures, retrofitting existing buildings; making new buildings operate as net zero energy consumers; and replacing gas-guzzler cars with expanding public transportation and electric cars. Energy efficiency measures, by definition, will save people money — for example, your home electricity bills could realistically be cut in half without having to reduce the amount that you light, heat or cool your house. So, the Green New Deal will not cost consumers anything over time, as long as we solve the actually quite simple problem of funding Green New Deal investments through the cost savings we gain by raising efficiency standards and producing cheap renewable energy. My coworkers and I have estimated that building a 100 percent clean energy system will require about 2.5 percent of global GDP per year for roughly the next 30 years. Yes, that's a lot of money in dollar terms, like about $2 trillion in 2021 and rising thereafter. But it does still mean that 97.5 percent of global economic activity can be devoted to things other than investments in clean energy.
So, absolutely, the Green New Deal can be a realistic global climate stabilization project. More specifically, the Green New Deal is capable of hitting the necessary emissions reduction targets for stabilization at a global average temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, as set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October. However, the real question, of course, is not whether the Green New Deal is economically or technically feasible, but rather whether it is politically feasible. On this question, Noam is of course exactly on point in asking: Are we, the human race, going to allow ourselves to become the 21st-century asteroid clone or not?
What about the claim that a transition to 100 percent renewable energy will result in the permanent loss of millions of good-paying jobs?
Pollin: In fact, clean energy investments will be a major source of new job creation, in all regions of the globe. The critical factor is that clean energy investments will create a lot more jobs than maintaining the existing dirty energy infrastructure — in the range of two to four times more jobs per dollar of spending in all countries that we have studied, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Spain and the United States. Of course, jobs that are tied to the fossil fuel industry will be eliminated. The affected workers and their communities must be supported through generous Just Transition measures, including guaranteeing workers' pensions, moving people into new jobs without losing incomes, and investing in impacted communities, in a range of projects. Land reclamation is just one such investment opportunity, including cleaning up abandoned coal mines and converting the residual coal ash into useful products, like paper. I can't emphasize enough that, throughout the world, "just transition" programs must be understood as absolutely central to the Green New Deal.
Noam, how do we increase public awareness about the need for government action vis-à-vis climate change?
Chomsky: The simple answer is: work harder. There are no new special tricks. We know what the message is. We know the barriers that have to be overcome. We have to find ways to shape the message, in words and actions, so as to overcome the barriers.
The message is two-fold: First, we're facing an existential crisis that must be dealt with quickly; and second, there are ways to overcome it.
The first part is expressed simply enough in current articles in the most prestigious and reliable journals. Oxford professor of physics Raymond Pierrehumbert, a lead author of the recent IPCC report, opens his review of existing circumstances and options by writing: "Let's get this on the table right away, without mincing words. With regard to the climate crisis, yes, it's time to panic…. We are in deep trouble." He then lays out the details carefully and scrupulously, reviewing the possible technical fixes and their very serious problems, concluding, "There's no plan B." We must move to zero net carbon emissions, and fast.
The second part is spelled out in convincing detail in Bob's work, briefly reviewed here.
The message must be conveyed in ways that do not induce despair and resignation among those inclined to accept it, and do not evoke resentment, anger and even greater rejection among those who do not accept what is in fact becoming overwhelmingly clear.
In the latter case, it is necessary to understand the reasons — perhaps rejection of science altogether, or adopting economists' preference for market-based solutions which, whatever one thinks of them, are completely on the wrong time-scale, or the great many who expect the Second Coming, or those who think we will be rescued by some unknown technology or great figure, perhaps the colossus perceived by scholars at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, whose "spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost" (Ronald Reagan).
The task will not be easy. It must be undertaken, urgently. By words and by actions, such as those being undertaken in the climate strikes of September 2019.
Bob, what will it take for the labor movement as a whole to come around and embrace the Green New Deal vision?
Pollin: The Green New Deal has been gaining major support in the labor movement for several years now. There is still a long way to go, but progress is evident. For example, the coalition in Washington State that advanced a Green New Deal proposition in the 2018 election cycle was led by the visionary then president of the state AFL-CIO, Jeff Johnson. In the end, the initiative was defeated when oil companies flooded the airwaves with $30 million of virulent propaganda in the weeks before the November election. Similar initiatives are now being advanced in Colorado, again led by the state's mainstream labor leaders.
Of course, we need to very quickly advance beyond just these few shining examples. What is critical here is that the climate movement must be firmly committed to a just transition as one component of the Green New Deal that is of equal significance with all the others. The climate movement needs to also be clear on the point that building the clean energy economy will be supportive of increasing job opportunities and rising living standards, as I am convinced it can be.
There is no reason that the Green New Deal needs to be associated with austerity economic policies in any way. To the contrary, clean energy investments will create new opportunities for a wide range of small-scale public, cooperative, and private ownership forms. You don't need massive mining projects, pipelines or exploration platforms to deliver clean energy. Solar panels on roofs and in parking lots and wind turbines on farms can, by themselves, get us reasonably far along in meeting the energy needs of a growing egalitarian economy. From this perspective, the Green New Deal should rightfully be seen as offering a fully viable alternative to austerity economics along with the only realistic path for keeping us from becoming the 21st-century asteroid clone.
This story originally appeared in Truthout. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.