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Tag: "environment"

The Environmental President?

[ 27 ] May 7, 2013 |

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting argument for Obama as “the environmental president,” but I think it is the wrong question to ask.

Chait’s argument is that despite the failure of the 2010 cap and trade bill, the almost certain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other disappointments to environmentalists, Obama has actually done a great deal behind the scenes to fight climate change. That includes increasing mileage standards for automobiles, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions standards for power plants. These are all good things.

In some ways, Chait is right, but I think the article also reflects a larger problem of focusing too much on the legacy of presdients. First, Obama may well apply the Clean Air Act aggressively. I hope he does. It might create massive changes. But executive authority without legislative backing and court appointments to uphold challenges is a very tenuous and perhaps temporary way to create change. I think the auto industry is just waiting for the next Republican to take the Oval Office to challenge those mileage standards. I think Republican-dominated federal courts will overturn much that Obama can do.

In other words, the issue is not Obama’s legacy. It’s the national response to the greatest environmental crisis in world history. Obama is a major player here, but the nation as a whole has done so little to fight climate change and what has happened on the executive level can be reversed by another executive. At the same time, Obama should not be blamed too much for the failure of climate change legislation to pass because he can’t just wish it to be true. The real problem with the nation making the necessary improvements on climate change issues is the intransigence of the Republican Party with assists from coal state Democrats. Obama can do what he wants, but without a broad legislative commitment, I am skeptical about how much real change he or any other president can really create long term.

Similarly, there’s no question that the Keystone pipeline is a symbol since it alone is not going to make or break the climate, but it’s also a very important symbol. Here is an opportunity for the president to stand up and say that his administration will fight climate change, even at political cost. It’s clear he won’t do that, even though mining oil sands are about the worst thing we can do to the climate.

It is also worth noting that environmentalists themselves are devastated by the failure of cap and trade. Chait cites a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker piece on the bill’s failure. I haven’t read that. But I was a guest at an event at Harvard in February that Lemann moderated. Organized by Theda Skocpol, it was a general discussion about the bill’s failure that included some of the nation’s leading environmentalists. They were despondent. I felt like I was in a meeting of the labor movement about how no one listens to the AFL-CIO anymore. The entire environmentalist structure of creating legislative change–marshaling scientific expertise, professional testimony, lobbying, and funding politicians–completely failed. Environmentalists are becoming the next labor movement–easy for Democrats to ignore because they know that enviros will still write checks in the end.

So I don’t think Chait can so easily say that environmentalists are off base in their criticism of the Obama Administration to do enough on climate change, given how universal and deeply held their feelings are about the failure of that bill.

There’s also the more minor issue that Obama has been downright disappointing to those who prioritize public land management, energy production, and other environmental issues. Although he has created a few wilderness areas, his administration has also approved a lot of new oil and gas drilling on public lands. His selection of Ken Salazar as his first Secretary of Interior was predictably bad. Basically, I just don’t think Obama much cares about public lands. Of course, presidents do tend to cement their public lands legacies in the last years of their administration. So while we might say that Obama has been good on climate change, he hasn’t been particularly good on most other environmental issues.

In the end, as Chait points out, the nation may have seen greenhouse gas emission reductions since Obama took power, but they are almost all for reasons outside of his climate agenda–the bad economy, low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom, young people driving less and living in cities. This might tell us more about how change is created than focusing on presidential power.



[ 38 ] April 30, 2013 |

This is one way environmental racism works. Cleaning up the Gowanus Canal in New York? A good thing. Taking the nasty stuff from one wealthy white area of Brooklyn and moving it to a poor area of Brooklyn dominated by African-Americans and Latinos? Deeply problematic.

Even if there really isn’t a bad guy here–the EPA wants to clean up the canal, everyone thinks it should be cleaned up, etc., as is so common, toxicity gets displaced from the rich to the poor. Those with the least power end up closest to the poisons.

This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971

[ 24 ] April 28, 2013 |

On April 28, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its doors. The creation of OSHA proved to be one the greatest victory in American history for workplace health. Unfortunately, OSHA could never live up to its potential to revolutionize the workplace due to the organized resistance of corporations, the conservative movement that would transform American politics beginning in the late 1970s, and regulatory capture that limited the agency’s effectiveness. That said, OSHA has done a tremendous amount to improve workers’ lives.

Unsafe and unhealthy working conditions had long plagued American workers. The Gilded Age theory of workplace risk, encapsulated in the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation, placed workplace responsibility onto workers rather than employers, saying they assumed the risk when they agreed to work. By the 1890s, this had begun to break down after workers successfully sued corporations for injury and death. Employer supported worker compensation plans began passing at the state level in the 1910s, allowing corporations to avoid lawsuits and rationalize losses for workplace injuries, while also giving quite little to workers. Industrial reformers like Alice Hamilton continued drawing connections between worker health and exposure on the job, leading to very slow reforms. By the Great Society, keeping workers safe became increasingly important to policy makers. Workers were increasingly unsatisfied with the exposures they faced on the job, the rising environmental movement provided an ecological language to workplace environments, and liberals within the Johnson Administration sought to center broader quality of life issues to the Democratic Party. Even when Vietnam blew up LBJ’s career, the momentum for a federal workplace safety program, like much else of the Great Society, carried over into the Nixon Administration.

On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating an agency to oversee workplace safety and health that would begin operation on April 28, 1971. The act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a part of OSHA to spearhead research programs on these issues.

Organized labor by and large supported OSHA’s creation, but only a few unions really took advantage of the agency to bring workplace safety and health to the front of union politics. The AFL-CIO pushed for full implementation of the act as one of many legislative goals, but did not seek to empower workers on the shop floor by fighting for safer workplaces. A few individual unions however did do this–the International Association of Machinists, the International Woodworkers of America, and most famously the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. These were also the most reformist oriented unions in the AFL-CIO during the 1970s, seeking to channel the broader disgruntlement of the working-class away from racial politics and toward something useful. They were also the unions who often chafed against the conservative leadership of George Meany and the culture of staid bureaucracy that dominated many unions during these years. The labor leader most associated with OSHA and workplace health is Tony Mazzochi of the OCAW. Sometimes called “The Rachel Carson of the American Workplace,” Mazzochi had pressed through the 1960s for vigorous workplace safety programs in union contracts, empowered union members to become activists on the shop floor for workplace health, and built bridges between the labor and environmental movements to make the workplace environment an important agenda item for both. After OSHA’s founding, Mazzochi became the national leader in pressing the agency to issue stronger asbestos standards to protect both workers and consumers.

The turning point in OSHA history was the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1981, Reagan gutted the OSHA budget in 1982. Reagan’s OSHA director, Thorne Auchter, a Florida real estate developer, signaled a switch in OSHA policies when he reversed a regulation that allowed construction workers to view their own medical records for information on toxic exposure. You can read more about the Auchter years here,.

Given the time that an agency needs to establish itself, create programs, and conduct research, in many ways OSHA was just reaching its stride when Reagan slashed the budgets. For the International Woodworkers of America, the decline in OSHA funding was devastating. The IWA was a bit slower than OCAW in engaging OSHA seriously. The election of a new generation of union leadership in 1976 catapulted the union into one of most aggressive for using OSHA as a tool to empower workers on the shop floor. The IWA trained workers in OSHA policies, then sent them back to the shop floor to demand problems be cleaned up. It even suggested to OSHA that the agency send a staffer to work directly with the IWA, which was denied because it was outside the purview of the agency, but also got the attention of the agency as a union serious about workplace health. Basil Whiting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, told the IWA Convention in 1977, “You have been one of the few unions in the United States that has grasped the nettle here, has begun to move forward in terms of developing your own internal capacity to take action in relation to the serious problems of health and safety that are killing off your members.”

The Reagan budgets, combined with the decline in timber employment due to outside factors and thus a smaller membership, put a stop to these workplace safety programs. NIOSH grants to fund the effects of ash from the Mt. St. Helens explosion were ended, as was a federal grant to the University of Washington to study chemical exposure among plywood mill workers. Other plans to develop compensation programs for physical aliments suffered by loggers were shelved entirely.

Despite Reagan’s defunding of OSHA programs, overall workplace safety has improved significantly in the United States since 1971. A good bit of this has to do with industry outsourcing industrial risk to Latin America and Asia, but there have also been real changes in workplace culture. In 1970, there were 18 workplace fatalities for every 100,000 workers. By 2006, that fell to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. Occupational injury and illness rates fell by 40% over the same years.

As we have seen in recent weeks, OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels. Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment.

This is the 57th post in this series. The rest are archived here.


[ 60 ] April 22, 2013 |

Dylan Matthews’ list of ways to reduce violence without gun control starts with one that cannot be stated strongly enough. The decline of lead exposure over the past decades is probably the single biggest reason why violent crime has dropped so much since the 1970s:

None of the above. The real answer, it’s now becoming clear, is lead. In the 1970s, the environmental movement succeeded in getting lead out of gasoline and household paint, and the result has been smarter, less violent kids. Economist Rick Nevin has found that, if you add a 23-year lag, variations in lead exposure explain 90 percent of the variation in crime rates in the United States.

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at the Amherst College, found that declining lead exposure caused a 56 percent decline in crime from 1992 to 2002, a decline that was reversed by other factors to leave the actual decline at 34 percent over that period. Wolpe Reyes has also found significant effects on childhood delinquency and academic performance. The correlations are simply staggering.

This is one reason why I focus so much on environmental exposure and working conditions in my writing. These issues not only affect people in the short-term, but they are absolutely central to solving larger societal problems, including violence.

Earth Day

[ 79 ] April 22, 2013 |

Today is Earth Day, also known as the one day a year Americans pretend that they care about the environment.

In 1970, Earth Day seemed like the beginning of a radical change in American life.

To say the least, it didn’t turn out that way. Even though the 70s saw a number of crises that seemed as if it might create radical transformations in Americans’ relationship with the environment, particularly the two oil crises and rising gas prices that began to spur government investment in alternative fuels, the nation quickly backed away from anything more than cosmetic changes to the national lifestyle. Today, it seems that hardly anyone cares. Polls show less concern about the environment than in 1970. Climate change is a backburner issue that drives virtually no political agenda.

That’s not to say real gains weren’t made. One problem the environmental movement faces is that the visceral causes of environmentalism in the 60s were mostly solved by the early 80s. Our rivers don’t catch on fire anymore, we don’t see smoke belching out of smokestacks, and we mostly live lives relatively distanced from the downsides of industrial nature (although there are obvious exceptions to this, such as West, Texas). Of course, much of this comes from the fact that we have outsourced industrial risk to Asia and Latin America. I am just old enough to remember the anti-littering campaigns of the early 80s. Woodsy the Owl made a big impact on people of my generation. Who really litters these days? So things look clean and we don’t choke so we don’t worry about it much.

But the environmental movement also faces the fact that for a lot of Americans, accepting the idea of limits is anathema to the national psyche. Atrios asks today why Americans drove so much between the mid-80s and mid-90s, when the miles driven exploded? There are a number of answers to that question. Exurbs (people commuting 100 miles from South Carolina to Atlanta for work–1 way), SUVs, very cheap oil, enough economic activity to fund driving vacations, etc. But at the heart of it all was Americans rejecting the limits of the 1970s and embracing Reagan’s America of no limits, big rhetoric, and big manly vehicles that kept us safe from the blahs when we drove from our lily-white suburbs into those dangerous cities to work.

It’s possible that some environmental factors are improving, particularly the rapid decline in young people’s driving rates, although that’s largely for cultural than environmental reasons. If the U.S. becomes more like Europe, that’s good. It’s less good as the rest of the world becomes more like the U.S. But you take what you can get.

Nonetheless, it’d be nice if Earth Day was something more than a one-off event once a year with less meaning for the average American than Labor Day.

The End of Fish

[ 61 ] April 8, 2013 |

It’s a good thing the Chinese don’t eat fish because this would be a problem:

However, over the past few years, fishery resources in the river have witnessed a severe decline, with the river’s ecological system currently on the verge of collapsing, according to Zhao Yimin, head of a fishery resource office with the Ministry of Agriculture.

According to statistics, the Yangtze River used to have some 1,100 species of wild aquatic animals, including more than 370 fish species of which 142 were unique to the river and some 20 had been categorized as endangered animals.

In recent years, however, the amount of fish has sharply declined, with particular species, such as the shad and blowfish, not spotted for several years.

This is believed to be the result of excessive fishing, the construction of water conservancy projects, water pollution and unregulated drainage.

Currently, most fish caught in the Yangtze River are only six months-old and some are even less than two months old, leaving them with no chance at any offspring.

Oh wait, you mean fish is central to Chinese food? And that this is really just a somewhat worse version of a worldwide phenomenon? Oh dear.

Once again, our children will think of most fish as they do the passenger pigeon. We will have to explain to them what a “fish” is. There will be some examples in the Museum of Natural History.

Pierce on Climate Change

[ 75 ] April 7, 2013 |

Pierce pretty much sums up my feelings about Obama’s clear support for the Keystone XL pipeline and the broader failure of this nation to do anything at all about climate change:

This is the argument we get from the oil companies, the extraction industries, and all the politicians they have sublet over the past 40 years — that environmental concerns are the province of the liberal elites, as though small farmers are not being killed by drought, small businesses being killed by what’s killing the small farmers, and small homeowners along both seaboards being killed by increasingly massive storms. The interested parties have done a good job selling this bag of manure to the American people. To see a Democratic president making essentially the same argument — And that’s what he’s doing here. He’s not just assessing the lay of the land. — is more than simply distressing. It’s downright mortifying. Climate change is the single biggest crisis the world has faced since, well, ever. It is moving toward irreversibility at a frightening rate. (And if the president approves that damned pipeline, the acceleration may go into the red zones.) It touches everything, including people’s personal economies. And there is a huge propaganda apparatus in place to convince the public that the problem doesn’t exist at all. And this is awful, too.

This really can’t be overstated. If climate change isn’t the greatest challenge we as a human race has ever faced, I don’t know what would be. From a national perspective, we could call it our greatest problem since slavery and I’d be OK with this. We could call it our greatest crisis since World War II and I would disagree. Climate change is a far greater threat to the United States than our enemies in the 1940s.

And we do nothing except make it worse.

The Smell of Rain

[ 14 ] April 2, 2013 |

I’d always wondered why rain smelled so good after a dry period. I first noticed this in the summer growing up in Oregon, when it doesn’t rain. Then in September it would rain and it would always smell like this. And then it always smelled that way in New Mexico. Love it. Now I know why.


[ 12 ] March 31, 2013 |

A must-read story on the problems with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, focusing on glue poisoning in a North Carolina furniture factory. The article describes OSHA as “the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous.” I’m not really sure about the former part of that formulation, but the latter is certainly true. And therein lies the problem with OSHA. When it was founded, it had real potential to regulate the workplace environment. Organized labor took advantage of OSHA’s existence to empower workers on the shopfloor, pushing for new regulations, testing of air quality, right-to-know laws on chemicals, and all sorts of things. One chapter of my book is about how the International Woodworkers of America became one of the nation’s most proactive unions when it came to OSHA.

But the election of Reagan in 1981 effectively ended OSHA’s potential to reshape the workplace. Suffering from industry complaints, reduced funding, and regulatory capture, OSHA just does not have the ability to enforce all these regulations. Too few inspectors, too little money, too much industry pressure.

And let’s be clear–industry has been completely fine with their workers getting sick and dying all the way to the 19th century. From the days of Alice Hamilton and the first health reformers around 1900 going until 2013, industries have denied their culpability in workplace illness, blamed workers for their own sickness, influenced politicians to not fix problems, and eventually moved the factories to China in order to continue profiting off of workers’ destroyed bodies. Sometimes, workers suing companies could force some change–corporate support of workers’ compensation legislation in the 1910s happened because successful lawsuits worried industrial leaders. So this is not an issue just of the present–it’s an issue of poorly regulated capitalism. Looking over this history, it’s kind of amazing that OSHA was created in the first place, but the political will simply hasn’t existed over the decades to force industry to make workplace health a priority. We can’t even imagining creating laws that would force American companies to have safety standards in factories abroad that would comply with American laws–but there’s no reason we shouldn’t fight for this.

Drought’s Rippling Effects

[ 10 ] March 30, 2013 |

When you rely on fully industrialized waterways for transportation, the effects of drought on industry that don’t obviously rely on rain (like agriculture) can still be quite devastating. Such as the auto industry.

How Florida Gulf Coast University Was Created

[ 28 ] March 29, 2013 |

Florida Gulf Coast University has come to the nation’s attention in the last week due to its 2 unlikely upsets in the NCAA Tournament. This attention has also caught the attention of reporters and environmental organizations, who have explored the sordid tale of its creation. Both Miles Grant at the National Wildlife Foundation and Tim Murphy at Mother Jones have the story.

Essentially, Florida politicians and a rich developer with ties to both agribusiness and real estate wanted to build a new university outside of Fort Myers that would spur development and make a small group of people very rich. The problem–it is a swamp with critical habitat for the disappearing Florida panther. When environmental restrictions looked like they might get in the way, Senator Connie Mack got on the phone and started yelling at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get the project approved.

Basically, the rich and powerful get what they want. Environmental sustainability is easy to swat out of the way.


[ 107 ] March 29, 2013 |

Turns out that if you industrialize an animal and then expose them to tremendous amounts of chemical pesticides, terrible things can happen.

I know that the Green Revolution and our faith in technology has worked in the short term to feed a lot of people. But without some pretty significant changes, the most important link in the chain of vegetables, fruits, and nuts is about to break. Colony collapse disorder is a major threat to the world’s food supply. We’ve known about it for years and the likely connection between the disorder and pesticides has been suggested for almost as long. Yet we have done nothing to limit our pesticide use. After all, powerful chemical companies say they can’t be the problem! Now the bees are dying faster than ever.

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