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Think You’re Safe from Climate Impacts?

Think again.

If you do not live by an ocean or sea or major river, or if you live on high ground, then you might expect to escape climate impacts from rising seas or flooding.  If you avoid living near a forest or woodlands, then you might expect to escape climate impacts from extreme fires.  If you do not live in an area subject to hurricanes, tornadoes or other extreme weather events, then you might expect to avoid climate impacts from these events.

If you do live in a vulnerable area, then you might be able to move, if you’re rich and lucky enough.

All well and good for avoiding direct impacts from climate breakdown.  But then there are those pesky indirect impacts.  For instance, if you live in California it is increasingly likely that you’ll lose your power for stretches of time even if you live far away from areas at risk of fires.

How is that possible?

One of the California utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), provides electricity to about 16 million people across the state.  Under California law, utilities are legally liable for damages that result from fires caused by the negligence of the utility.  Wide-spread and deadly fires over the past few years were started by sparks from power line, and PG&E has been found negligent for failing to maintain those wires and liable for damages, likely exceeding tens of billions of dollars.  The scope of liability is so large that PG&E declared bankruptcy in January 2019.  The state and utility are trying to figure out how to protect people from injuries and properties from being destroyed by fires, and to make sure that everybody has sufficient power at affordable prices.

The fires were started by sparks from power lines but the fires were spread and intensified by weather conditions, namely dry conditions for months which dried out vegetation, brush, and forests, as well as strong winds.  These extreme weather events are, of course, getting more frequent and stronger as a result of climate breakdown.

After another dry summer and the potential for strong winds developing again this fall, several weeks ago the utility shut down part of the power system serving over 800,000 people.  The areas affected include Silicon Valley, which brought the world untold electric gadgets, including iPhones and MacBooks, and which was without power.   The power was turned back on after several days, but over the past week, and continuing, power was shut down again because of the risks from weather.

Some of the almost 1 million people would have the resources to buy gas-fueled generators for their own use, but even those became scarce and expensive and have limited power.   A few have even hired private companies to extinguish fires on their property.  Most people do not have such resources, and had to endure the consequences of the power outage, including no air conditioning.

Recent news report that even LeBron James, the basketball star, and Arnold Schwarzenegger have had to flee their homes.

As one Californian noted, “You don’t expect power to go out”… “But welcome to the Third World country that is America.”

So one can expect such indirect impacts from climate breakdown to proliferate.  And they won’t be confined to the west coast.

On the east coast, a number of years ago, Super Storm Sandy knocked out the infrastructure in New York City, including power substations and subways that affected millions for days and weeks.  Some of the subway systems are still undergoing repairs and disruptions at this moment.

It is going to become increasingly harder to avoid the serious to catastrophic impacts from climate breakdown, regardless  of where you live.   A recent report by the U.S. Army War College on the implications of climate change ominously reported:

“The power grid that serves the United States is aging and continues to operate without a coordinated and significant infrastructure investment. Vulnerabilities exist to electricity-generating power plants, electric transmission infrastructure and distribution system components,” it states.  As a result, the “increased energy requirements” triggered by new weather patterns like extended periods of heat, drought, and cold could eventually overwhelm “an already fragile system.”  See Ahmed below.

As Abrahm Lustgarten notes, “It is easy to ignore climate change in the bosom of the developed world,” but it hits home when your own lights go out in the world’s fifth-largest economy.

 

Sources

Alejandra Borunda, “How climate change primed California’s power shutdown,” National Geographic (10 Oct 2019). on.natgeo.com/2p7Vhm7

Alejandra Borunda, “Are Europe’s Historic Fires Caused By Climate Change?” National Geographic (31 July 2018). on.natgeo.com/2vEBZUX

Phil Willon, Joe Mozingo, Rong-Gong Lin II and Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times, “California enters uncharted territory: Massive blackouts, historically dangerous wind,” Microsoft News (25 Oct 2019).  bit.ly/36hKh6W

Nafeez Ahmed, “U.S. Military Could Collapse Within 20 Years Due to Climate Change, Report Commissioned By Pentagon Says,” Vice (24 Oct 2019).  bit.ly/2pW57ry

United States Army War College, Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army bit.ly/31OjbRl

Abrahm Lustgarten, “Mandaory Blackouts,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine, at 22 (27 Oct 2019).

Are companies capable of developing a social-environmental conscience?

Maybe

Asking such a question would likely have been unthinkable decades ago.  Instead the economist Milton Friedman’s famous essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” ruled the boardrooms of corporations and the conversations about the issue.  The prevailing view was that a free market delivered the best goods and services to the public, and created the most wealth for shareholders, who could use their earnings on anything they wanted, including social “causes.”

Today it is a more open question, with an emerging view based on applying “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) criteria to decisions on how to allocate financial investment or apply a business’ resources.

Social issues revolving around race have, of course, become relevant over the past number of decades because of equal rights laws and constitutional equal protections in the US and elsewhere.  Protections against discrimination based on gender have spread widely in many countries.  Local laws in the US that have impinged on these gender protections have generated firm opposition and social action by businesses that refuse to hold conventions or meetings or special programs where such discriminatory local laws have passed.  And individuals have been applying pressure to companies that do not protest such discriminatory laws.

Recently we have seen businesses publically supporting gun control laws in the US, with companies like Walmart adopting policies to not sell certain guns and ammunition.  The CEO of Walmart stated that the company was adopting this policy because of the “the outcry he heard from scores of Americans, calling on him to use his leverage as the leader of the country’s largest retailer to create a model for more responsible gun-selling practices.”  See Sorkin, below.  Of course, it should be noted that one of the recent mass shootings in the US was at a Walmart store in Texas where 22 people were killed.

The other side of this coin reflects the reality that public pressure can work against progressive policies, as when the citizens of some states pressure a local government to allow citizens to carry guns openly in public, including in schools.

Despite the lack of hard, affirmative laws requiring climate action, there are increasing pressures from groups and individual citizens and consumers on companies to acknowledge the serious risks from climate breakdown and to adopt polices and practices that reflect those concerns.

 

 

The recent and on-going public protests by youth groups are reinforcing and broadening these efforts.

And companies have responded by supporting climate actions and policies.  For example, 25 large American companies campaigned against America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2017, and 232 firms worth trillions of dollars have committed to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement.

The broad corporate support for a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies is perhaps the clearest expression of this development.  While that shift is encouraging, it has to be recognised that the companies involved are not those in the fossil fuel business, or those dependent on this sector.  Typically the progressive companies are those that sell products or services to the public, which makes them more amenable to public influence and protests.

It also can be noted that the companies supporting climate action, and particularly development of renewable energies, are acting in their self-interests as they recognize the scientific hand-writing on the wall:  the future rests on renewable energy, not fossil fuels.  The companies that adjust to that reality will be more financially secure than those who resist the changing landscape of energy sources.

 

Sources:

Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Walmart’s C.E.O. Steps Into the Gun Debate. Other C.E.O.s Should Follow,” The New York Times ( 5 Sept. 2019). nyti.ms/2lyjosx

Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Profits or Public Interests?” The New York Times (19 Sept. 2019). nyti.ms/2mrVyz7

“I’m from a company, and I’m here to help:  The idea that companies with a sense of purpose could tackle social injustice, climate change and inequality is sweeping through parts of the business world,” The Economist (24 August 2019).

Mark Miller, “Bit by Bit, Socially Conscious Investors Are Influencing 401(k)’s,” The New York Times (29 Sept 2019).   nyti.ms/2niQL3T

Eco-Fascism

The dark side of environmentalism

In this issue of the magazine, we publish several articles by leading environmental writers in Ireland on developments in economics and media and the environment over the past 10 years.   It is the magazine’s 10th anniversary and we wanted to reflect on what has been happening in Ireland, and elsewhere, over this decade, expecting that there would be some things that we could celebrate or at least be satisfied with.

At the same time, we would be remiss if we did not also address what we wish was not happening in environmentalism over this period — its dark side.

Of course we wish Donald Trump had not happened, and that he had not been joined by other reactionary political leaders in undermining the good environmental things that have happened.   So it is all the more distressing to find some strands of environmentalism undermining the movement from within.

One of the most contentious issues being manipulated by the Trump administration, and by many European governments, is immigration.  The issue has been distilled as “us” (largely white) against “them” (largely brown), with “us” fighting to keep “them” out of “our” land.  In the US, “them” are brown Mexicans, and other foreigners from south of the border, while in Europe “them” are muslim.

A disturbing expression of this conflict, implicating environmentalism, has surfaced in several of the recent mass shootings (there always seem to be “several” of these shootings).   The shootings were by white men who by all accounts expressed deep anti-immigrant hostilities, reflecting Trumpian tweets.  In El Paso, the suspect complained about unsustainable overuse of paper towels (good environmental position), but added that the best form of environmental action would be mass murder (not so good a position).   In a shooting in Gilroy, California, at a garlic festival, the shooter complained about sprawl (good), but limited it to immigrant-driven sprawl (not so good).

Besides in the US, there was the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the shooter called himself an “eco-fascist.”  Not good.

 

 

 

The language of the shooters brings together concerns about immigration and overpopulation (overuse, sprawl).   While these concerns reflect recent developments, and exploitation by Trump and others, the issues also underpinned the early conservation movement, predecessor of the larger environmental movement.

 

Before toxic pollution, and then climate change, dominated environmental efforts, early conservation actions focused on preserving and restoring wild nature areas.  While sounding noble, and it was in part, it was often to protect a nature area not just from commercial development but also from overcrowding, especially from the unwanted, the undesirables (a/k/a Native Americans or Mexicans) who were proliferating at a fast clip.

Overpopulation and immigration were connected by some in the environmental movement who believed that all these excess people had to migrate somewhere where they would end up draining natural resources.  Population control was as central to some early conservationists as saving the redwoods.

More recently the far right political groups have resurrected this thinking and argue that to protect the planet from climate change (for those on the right who believe in climate change) immigration has to be stopped and those from the overpopulated regions in particular must be stopped at the border before they overrun “our” natural resources, and generate greenhouse gases in “our” air.

Indeed, “Fox News host Tucker Carlson opined on air about the ecological impact of immigrants: ‘I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration’.”  See Cagle, The Guardian, below.  You may have thought Carlson was being facetious or mad, yet there was meaning in his madness.

Of course, it is simpler to limit immigration on the unfounded assumption that it will reduce emissions than it is to limit fossil fuel production and use.

While environmental groups have rejected earlier expressions of anti-immigration policies, we all need to be aware of this strand of that history which has now been recharged by the alt right.  For instance when we talk about the dangers of climate breakdown creating “hordes” of environmental “refugees” from poorer, undeveloped countries —a legitimate concern —we need to be sensitive to how such talk can be misunderstood and appropriated by the alt right, and others, to support anti-immigration policies.

Sources:

Susie Cagle, “’Bees, not refugees’: the environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry,” The Guardian (16 August 2019).  bit.ly/2Mm3JbI

Nicholas Kulish and Mike McIntire, “An Heiress Intent on Closing America’s Doors: How a Nature Lover Helped Fuel the Trump Immigration Agenda” The New York Times (15 August 2019). nyti.ms/33Gu5uC

 

Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

What happens when the climate clock runs out?

The latest word from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in October 2018, was issued in its “Special Report” on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

The title is a mouth full but the report raised the level of anxiety on whether we can survive the current increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs), and subsequent rise in global temperature and extreme weather events.  The initial takeaway from the IPCC report was that we have just 12 years to make rapid reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions in order to have any realisitc chance of averting catastrophic climate breakdown.

Some now argue that we really have only 14 months to save ourselves.

That short span derives from the fact that the aggressive cuts necessary to stabilize global warming below 2°C must begin now.  “Scientific reality makes clear that the only plausible way to preserve a livable climate — and hence modern civilization — starts with aggressive national and global cuts in carbon pollution by 2030.”

The intriguing challenge here is whether we are at risk of losing a “livable climate” or “modern civilization.” There’s a big difference, with the former sometimes called a “catastrophic loss” and the latter an “existential threat.”

Arguing about whether climate breakdown will kill millions or billions, even all those alive, is, in one respect, an academic exercise, and a waste of time.  Either way, it should be stopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But how bad the climate gets, or may get, does make a difference.  What we do, and how much we spend, to stop the climate impacts may be affected by how many people are at risk.  A geo-engineered solution may be uncertain and risky and costly, and not worth the risk unless it might save billions who otherwise would be lost.

What we do, and how much we spend, may also depend on who is at risk.  Often left unsaid in climate breakdown discussions is the issue of wealth and economic inequalities.

Not surprising, rich people tend to take care of themselves and allow poor people to fend for themselves, knowing full well they cannot fend for themselves.  There is no reason why such a course of action will not apply when it comes to climate breakdown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For instance, on a small scale there are instances where rising sea levels can make an established, middle-class neighborhood, like beach-front property in Miamai, no longer sustainable.  The middle-class people then move to less developed areas that are higher in elevation and subject to fewer risks, but still near their precious beaches.  They then gentrify the climate-safe neighborhood.  Such transitions already have been identified in Miami, Florida, including in Little Haiti, a historically lower-income Haitian neighborhood about a mile back from the beach but on higher ground.  In Los Angeles, it is people moving to areas with reduced risks from fires that is contributing to higher real estate prices.”  See “Climate Gentrification.”

On a larger scale floodwaters swamped more than a million acres of forest and farmland in the lower Mississippi Delta six months ago, and it is still above flood stage.  US Fish and Wildlife Service staff refer to it as of “biblical proportion” and “Nothing like this has ever been seen.”  Farming is the linchpin of the local economy and no farming has taken place since the flood.   Some farmers will survive this year from crop insurance; some will not.  All the businesses dependent on farming are on edge and many are concerned that the entire local economy will not survive.   As the floodwaters have not yet receded, the full extent of the damage is unknown.

It does not take much imagination to see these various conditions reoccurring frequently, and affecting wider areas, as climate impacts intensify.

Poor, vulnerable people may be wiped out or extinguished by climate breakdown while rich, well-defended people will likely buy their way to a safe haven.

But if the impacts from climate breakdown spread wide and deep through an economy, then those with more at stake in the economy may have their lives disrupted, perhaps even destroyed.

And while the poor may be left undefended in one space, they will migrate to other spaces and countries looking for their own safe havens.  These environmental or climate refugees will potentially disrupt entire government structures and economies, thereby affecting even the rich.

Until we figure out how to protect vulnerable members of our communities, and vulnerable communities among our nations, from the ravages of climate breakdown, noting is settled, no one can rest.

Sources:

IPCC, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC
www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

Kelsey Piper, “Is climate change an “existential threat” — or just a catastrophic one?” Vox (28 June 2019). bit.ly/2IJTVUC

Joe Romm, “We don’t have 12 years to save the climate. We have 14 months:  The deadline for protecting our children from a ruined climate is close at hand,” Think Progress (26 July 2019).   bit.ly/2GDCLIl

“Climate Gentrification” in iePEDIA section of irish environment magazine at bit.ly/2ymENIa

Patricia Cohen, “Where Floods of ‘Biblical Proportion’ Drowned Towns and Farms,” The New York Times (30 July 2019).   https://nyti.ms/2YxrNxZ

 

Fossil fuel interests supporting carbon taxes?

Watch for the wolf in sheep’s clothing

Talk, even actual consideration, of carbon taxes has gained currency, aided along in part by the attention paid to Green New Deals sprouting up in different landscapes.  Most would agree that a carbon tax is a sensible, well-established means of moving people away from reliance on fossil fuels, by making it more expensive.  Most would also agree that a carbon tax is not the only, and not always the most useful, carbon pricing mechanism.  Depending on how it is structured it can be regressive, hurting the poor and vulnerable, who would have to pay higher prices for their heat and other energy needs.  As usual, the rich can take care of themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

But carbon taxes can be a crucial step in reducing dependence on fossil fuels.  So no wonder people are surprised, even shocked, to hear certain fossil fuel interests, including major oil companies like ExxonMobil, actually agreeing to, and even pushing for, the imposition of carbon taxes on their assets – coal, oil, gas.

But be very wary of such support for carbon taxes from the rich fossil fuelistas.  They may be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Their support for carbon taxes is often contingent on getting a law that provides protection for the fossil fuel companies against any lawsuit that claims they might be liable for climate change impacts.  Such claims are not empty threats as we see a host of lawsuits against the oil companies alleging their products — coal, oil, gas — have caused some of the worst adverse effects from climate change.

Here is the danger of any such proposed trade-off.   A law that imposes carbon taxes, and at the same time liability protections for the fossil fuel companies, can be passed with modest carbon taxes to start, with the promise to increase the tax in succeeding years, while the liability exemption is permanent.  Then, lo and behold, a few years later, with a more favorable legislature or authoritarian leader, the carbon tax remains low or is repealed, while the liability protection remains.

Before you think that might be an unlikely scenario, look more closely.

A similar deal was struck in passage of the US Superfund law, known formally as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).  The Superfund law provides for strict and joint liability for anyone who disposed of “hazardous substances” into the environment. It also provides broad Federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of “hazardous substances” that may endanger public health or the environment.  To pay for these “response” actions, CERCLA created a “superfund” to provide the financial resources for the federal government to identify hazardous waste sites and clean them up with the public funds and then pursue all the responsible parties for reimbursement of the costs of the cleanup.  First the site gets cleaned up, then the responsible parties are pursed for paying the costs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money for the “superfund” was provided by general appropriations, costs recovered from responsible parties, penalties, and, significantly, from environmental excise taxes on products falling into three general categories– petroleum, petrochemicals and inorganic chemicals.

At the same time, an exception to liability is provided by the “petroleum exclusion” under CERCLA, which holds that “petroleum” is not a hazardous substance, the term on which CERCLA liability hangs.  Since CERCLA was passed in December 1980, before Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1981, it was rushed through and the legislative history is notoriously thin and unclear.  But for whatever reason, or politicking, the petroleum companies got a pass on liability but had to pay their share of the excise tax to support the superfund.

Then in 1995, with the Gingrich-led Republican Congress, the tax on the chemical and petroleum industries was allowed to expire, but the protections against liability remained in place.  So all the affected companies walked away from paying for any “superfund” excise tax and the petroleum industry retreated into its statutory liability exception.

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually the superfund dried up and cleanups were funded only from recovery of federal costs from other companies and some general appropriations.  As a result, further cleanups of hazardous substance sites have been hampered.

You can rest assured that the petroleum and other fossil fuel companies will not forget nor will they ignore the deal they pulled off in the CERCLA legislation when it comes time to structure a so-called climate carbon tax bill, with liability exemptions.

The Aesop fable about the wolf in sheep clothing, who ate a number of sheep through this dissemblance, ended with the shepherd taking a fancy for mutton broth one night.  He came out with a knife and killed the first sheep he came across, which happened to be the wolf in sheepskin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there some analogous ending for the fossil fuel interests who try to disguise their hunger for a liability exemption by dressing it up as a carbon tax?

We shall see.

 

Sources

E.A. Cruden, “Oil companies slipped a present to themselves into this carbon tax plan:  Fossil fuel corporations would be shielded from climate lawsuits under a proposal several are supporting,” Think Progress (20 May 2019). bit.ly/2IM5HOu

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Superfund Regulations.   bit.ly/2MSWoBJ

Carol F. Barry, “CERCLA’s Petroleum Exclusion: Whose Burden Is It Anyway?” Environmental Law Reporter ( 26 ELR 10479 – 1996).   https://bit.ly/2x85M9D

Aesop, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. bit.ly/2RkxgCu