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Tag: "environment"

Black Lung

[ 70 ] July 9, 2012 |

NPR, along with Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo, provide the day’s most powerful and disturbing story: the return of black lung disease to coal miners.

Despite the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was groundbreaking workplace safety legislation, not only have coal miners been exposed to insane amounts of coal dust, but federal regulators and the coal industry have known about this for 20 years.

What has happened?

First, even though the total number of people employed by the coal industry has declined precipitiously, the average hours for coal miners still working has gone up by 11 hours a week over the last 30 years. That’s a terrible thing for many reasons, but, as the NPR story states, it exposes workers to 600 hours of additional coal dust exposure per year.

Second, new technology has vastly increased the amount of coal mined, putting more dust in the air and thus making workers’ lives more dangerous.

Probably the biggest issue is that the mine owners resist every move to test for black lung. Like industries around the country, the coal mining capitalists have attempted to take control of the regulatory process in order to roll back the protections miners have made. They are less successful during Democratic administrations, but quite successful when Republicans are president.

Ward also makes a big deal about labor rejection of black lung testing from Democratic administrations for being too weak, but I don’t see this as a big deal. Given how little Democrats listen to labor on every other issue, I don’t see much evidence that labor anger over lax testing systems would cause Democrats to abandon them. While Ward is usually quite good, his piece has a Both Sides Do It theme that is unwarranted here. The problem with black lung codes is not that the union cares about its members too much.

In any case, if the goal of industry is to return the United States to the Gilded Age, killing coal miners with black lung is a pretty good way to do it.


[ 201 ] July 2, 2012 |

Noted climate Maoist Bill Nye strikes CNN with his clearly partisan interest in “science” and “truth”

Science educator Bill Nye on Monday told CNN that they weren’t doing the public any favors by giving climate change deniers equal airtime because “the two sides aren’t equal.”

“There are a couple of things that you can’t really dispute,” Nye explained to CNN’s Carol Costello. “Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the hottest years on record. That’s just how it is.”

“I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the stories — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same thing as not believing the whole thing at all.”

But I thought both sides were responsible?

Colorado is the Future

[ 50 ] June 29, 2012 |

There’s no way to know whether the fires ravaging Colorado are caused by global warming per se. Similarly, there’s no way to know whether the all-time high temperatures expected to be set in cities in the Midwest and South over the next few days are caused by global warming. Or the all-time warm winter and spring many states experienced this year.

But scenarios like what we are seeing in Colorado are precisely what scientists expect to happen quite frequently in the near future:

Scorching heat, high winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling catastrophic wildfires in the US west that offer a preview of the kind of disasters that human-caused climate change could bring, a trio of scientists said on Thursday.

“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author for the UN’s climate science panel. “It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”

H/t Inside Climate News


[ 10 ] June 23, 2012 |

Not surprisingly given the world’s collective decision to do nothing of value to fight climate change, the Rio+20 conference was a complete flop. Given the almost nonexistent media coverage, it seems everyone assumed this would be the outcome from the beginning.

A Problem with GDP as a Measure of Growth

[ 39 ] June 22, 2012 |

Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, had a piece in the Guardian a few days ago on the urgent need to combat climate change. She’s completely right of course but basically nobody cares enough to really do much about it. Still, I want to focus on one particular aspect of her argument:

The traditional way of measuring economic growth based on GDP alone is not sufficient. GDP is nothing more than a measure of production. It takes no account of human wellbeing or natural wealth.

For example, GDP gives no value to a forest until it is chopped down and turned into timber. Likewise, natural disasters that kill people and destroy infrastructure and cultural heritage are positive for GDP because the reconstruction works that follow boost economic activity.

Putting a price on environmental pollution is also crucial to building a sustainable model for global growth. The cost of production cannot be the only factor determining the price of a product. The true cost of its environmental impact also needs to be factored into the price if people are to have an incentive to buy the least harmful and resource-intensive products available.

That is why the Global Sustainability Panel report recommends that, by 2020, all governments establish price signals that value sustainability. This would help guide the consumption and investment decisions of households, businesses and the public sector in a more sustainable direction.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like statistics like GDP or housing starts (another pet peeve of mine) are the RBIs of economic statistics. They measure something useful, but they are hardly the best way to understand the economic health of a society. They measure immediate and short-term gains fairly well but fail miserably at understanding the long-term effects of economic decision making.

Take housing starts for example. Seeing housing starts as a key measure of economic growth does effectively measure short-term employment because construction can employ a lot of people. But is a robust housing market good for our economy in the long-term? This statistic does not measure the enormous investments in roads and other infrastructure needed to sustain suburban communities where most housing starts take place. It doesn’t measure the pollution outputs that drag down the economy through health problems. It doesn’t take into consideration the wasted time commuting to a job. Moreover, it doesn’t even begin to ask the question of whether more housing is a good thing or even necessary.

For similar reasons, I approve of Hedegaard questioning the value of GDP in a world where we need to worry about climate change, which will have massive negative economic effects.

Jay Rockefeller Calls Out the Coal Industry

[ 38 ] June 20, 2012 |

Jay Rockefeller deserves major kudos for finally calling out the coal industry for lying to workers and the state that the EPA and environmentalists are costing coal jobs:

This EPA rule – two decades in the making – also moves utility companies ahead on employing technologies that will help guarantee coal jobs well into the future. Some utilities, including some in West Virginia, already have invested in technology and are ready to comply with the rule.

But across our state, there also are smaller, older and less efficient coal-fired plants slated for closure, not because of EPA regulations alone, but – as corporate boards decided long ago and companies themselves will tell you – because they are no longer economical as compared to low-emission, cheaper natural gas plants.

I remain deeply concerned about job losses. And I believe we need not only an immediate plan for job transition opportunities, but also a renewed and collective focus on the future – on the jobs that will come with new manufacturing and next generation technology.

In West Virginia, we need allies – not adversaries. But coal operators have yet to step up as strong allies and partners ready to lead, innovate and fight for the future.

Instead of moving the conversation on coal forward, some in the industry have demanded all-or-nothing, time and again, for the ill-sighted purpose of a sound bite or flashy billboard. These efforts make no progress, they don’t pursue attainable policy change, and they certainly don’t create or save jobs.

Change is upon us – from finite coal reserves and aging power plants, to the rise of natural gas and the very real shift to a lower-carbon economy.

Denying these factors and insisting that the EPA alone is going to make or break coal is dishonest and futile. Feeding fears with insular views and divergent motivations will leave our communities in the dust.

West Virginians deserve better.

Damn right they do.

Pittsburgh, 1940

[ 65 ] June 4, 2012 |

In 1941, Pittsburgh passed a smoke control ordinance. Retronaut has a good collection of photographs suggesting why it was needed.

Of course, this is also the Republican vision for our future air quality.

This smoke was no joke. It could be fatal, especially given the mountains and valleys of western Pennsylvania that trapped the smog. The most notorious incident was the Donora Fog of 1948, which killed 20 people in a mill town outside of Pittsburgh.


California Fracking

[ 126 ] May 31, 2012 |

The California Senate has rejected a fracking bill that seems like common sense:

Under Pavley’s bill, oil companies would be required to give 30 days notice to land owners whose property line or residence is within 300 feet of a fracking operation. The firms would also have to notify local governments and water boards. The state’s oil and gas agency would then post the information on its website.

Does anything about this seem onerous to you, even if you support lightly regulated production of energy in a manner that has unknown consequences? All the companies would have to do is tell property owners and local governments what they are going to do.

Oh hell no.

Republicans characterized the bill as a job-killing regulation for an industry that employs many Californians. “This bill is nothing more than to slow down oil and gas production in California,” said state Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield).

I suspect the issue of public knowledge is the real heart of the opposition. If people know where fracking is taking place, they can monitor it. And the gas industry certainly doesn’t want that.

The Last Days of Appalachian Coal

[ 10 ] May 31, 2012 |

Eric Lipton’s feature on the decline of coal in Kentucky is interesting, though flawed. He tells a heartbreaking story for these coal miners, helping us understand just how deeply people in eastern Kentucky believe in coal. Even if other economic opportunities appeared in the region, a lot of people just don’t want to imagine a world not dominated by coal. Of course, the fact that the coal industry has ruled this area as a feudal domain for a century doesn’t help.

Both Lipton and the Kentucky coal operators are giving environmentalists too much power. The idea that environmentalists can set policy in 2012 is pretty laughable and flies in the face of a huge amount of evidence. Environmentalists can be a useful ally if more powerful players want something to happen. New York and Chicago are moving away from supplying power through coal because Bloomberg and Emanuel want it to happen. Sierra Club lobbying might be making a difference but they are hardly, say, passing national legislation or even state-level legislation on these matters. Environmentalists are an easy target. And by including pollution controls on new coal-fired plants, they have raised the cost of doing business. But environmentalists are an easy target that ignores what’s really going on.

And that’s fracking. The economics of natural gas just make a lot more sense. And for as horrible as fracking can be (and for all the problems we have ignored while just plowing ahead), it is almost certainly better for everyone with a stake in energy than coal, except for the coal miners themselves. Natural gas is tremendously efficient for home heating. It’s less dirty than coal. It doesn’t change the climate as quickly. And it’s just a lot cheaper at the present time. Even if you don’t have the pollution controls on new plants, coal can’t compete with natural gas right now.

And one issue the article elides is the fact that Americans are still mining enormous amounts of coal–but it is increasingly in Wyoming instead of Kentucky and West Virginia. Lipton mentions the overseas market for coal, especially in Asia. But high-quality coal seams are disappearing in Appalachia; after over a century, it is finally drying up. So the ability of Appalachia to transition to an overseas market is limited. The companies know this and they are invested whole hog in western coal.

Ideally, the government would step in here like Bill Clinton did during the spotted owl crisis. Settling the issue more or less in favor of environmentalists, as needed to happen, Clinton also ensured significant federal aid and job retraining programs to people who lost their jobs. But there’s no way that is going to happen in 2012. Loggers in 1993 weren’t any much pro-Democratic president than coal miners are today. But Oregon and Washington also had huge local constituencies who wanted to see old-growth logging on federal lands end and there’s just not that local community in Kentucky and West Virginia lobbying for the end of coal. It’s even more of an insider-outsider paradigm than the ancient forest campaigns proved to be. Even more important is the shrinkage of the welfare state and the overt hostility today to helping even white people, as opposed to the 90s when subsidies for poor white loggers were OK but welfare for black mothers was repealed.

North Carolina Trying to Make Measuring Climate Change Illegal

[ 24 ] May 31, 2012 |

The Tar Heel State is moving up the list of insane states.

There is virtually universal agreement among scientists that the sea will probably rise a good meter or more before the end of the century, wreaking havoc in low-lying coastal counties. So the members of the developers’ lobbying group NC-20 say the sea will rise only 8 inches, because … because … well, SHUT UP, that’s because why.

That is, the meter or so of sea level rise predicted for the NC Coastal Resources Commission by a state-appointed board of scientists is extremely inconvenient for counties along the coast. So the NC-20 types have decided that we can escape sea level rise – in North Carolina, anyhow – by making it against the law. Or making MEASURING it against the law, anyhow.

Here’s a link to the circulated Replacement House Bill 819. The key language is in section 2, paragraph e, talking about rates of sea level rise: “These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. …” It goes on, but there’s the core: North Carolina legislators have decided that the way to make exponential increases in sea level rise – caused by those inconvenient feedback loops we keep hearing about from scientists – go away is to make it against the law to extrapolate exponential; we can only extrapolate along a line predicted by previous sea level rises.

This is bound to protect the endangered Outer Banks tourist industry!

Environmental Inequality and Poverty from Space

[ 47 ] May 30, 2012 |

The number of trees in an urban neighborhood proves a very strong determinant of the area’s income level. This means you can judge income inequality in satellite images.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

[ 104 ] May 22, 2012 |

I recently watched If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which came out last year. The film follows the story of Daniel McGowan, a radical member of the Earth Liberation Front. During the late 90s and early 00s, the ELF took to arson as a means of stopping companies and organizations it saw as destroying the environment of the American West. This included timber mills, SUV dealerships, and most famously, a ski resort in Colorado. McGowan was heavily involved in several of these actions and took the leading role in burning the offices of a tree farm the ELF believed was using genetically modified trees. It took years for the police to bust open this case (in fact, most of the arsons remain unsolved), but after nailing a ringleader in Eugene, Oregon, law enforcement arrested the Eugene cell. By this time, McGowan had quit the ELF, moved back to his home in New York, and was working for an organization fighting domestic violence while organizing nonviolent environmental rallies in New York. McGowan was arrested, tried to hold out against taking a plea deal, and finally agreed when he had no option. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison, received a “terrorism enhancement” sentence from the judge and was placed in the “Communication Management Unit” of a federal prison in Illinois, where he receives a single 15 minute phone call a week and a brief personal visit a month. He remains there today.

As an Oregonian who not only grew up in the middle of the spotted owl crisis but who writes on these issues (though not this specifically), I have deeply mixed feelings on the ELF and other environmental radical organizations. Some of these people were deeply committed activists, others were screw-ups who floated into the group because they had nowhere else to go. I don’t think arson was a good tactic, but I’m not opposed to it on theoretical grounds. I don’t see the endgame of the ELF resorting to it, but on the other hand, given what corporations have done to the planet, it’s hard to blame them for viewing radical violence as a logical answer.

It’s also important to place ELF actions in the context of police violence. We are beginning to have honest conversations about police violence again because of the awful responses to activists at Occupy protests. The protestor shot in Oakland, the pepper spraying at Davis, and the violence last weekend in Chicago reminds us that the police will use maximum violence against nonviolent protestors. In Oregon, environmental protestors faced this during the 1990s. The most powerful footage in the film wasn’t of clearcuts or McGowan’s discussion of his past. It was of the police doing horrible things to protestors. Pepper spraying protestors who were chained to objects in the eyes. Rubbing some kind of substance right on their eyeball. Cutting a man’s pants who was in a tree and applying pepper spray directly to his testicles. These are the actions that less fortunate Americans experience from police everyday and we don’t hear about it. Why police culture unleashes such horrible behavior on nonviolent people is probably better left for another post, but if you are an activist engaging in nonviolent protestor and you experience violence, it’s very easy to see why you would think that traditional means of protest are useless. This trajectory of radical activism is hardly unique to environmentalists; watching the film, you could have substituted some of the conversations for radical cells in the 60s anti-Vietnam movement or the Black Panthers.

Without question, the ELF did some really dumb things. They were central to the black bloc that took over the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, hijacking a well-planned protest to go break some Starbucks windows. They had no right to do that. Attacking small timber companies just seems pointless and stupid. The burning of the tree farm that McGowan helped execute was especially dumb considering that the farm had been sold to a new owner who stopped using GMO trees. If you are going to burn things, you’d better have your information correct!

The film itself does a good job giving voice to all sides. Marshall Curry, who also directed the outstanding documentary about Newark politics “Street Fight,” made the film; in fact, McGowan was working for his wife when he was arrested, providing Curry with an amazing opportunity. At the same time, he gave full voice to those negatively affected, such as the owner of a small timber outfit that ELF protestors burned, as well as the cops who investigated the case. Most of the other activists were unwilling to talk. Only Suzanne Savoie, who accepted a plea deal early on, spoke at length. Curry managed a brief interview with Jake Ferguson, the ELF member who rolled. A heroin addict and drifter, he didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the ELF ever knew what it was doing.

What really made me angry about the film was the concept of “ecoterrorism.” Such a thing can exist but the ELF were not ecoterrorists. They hurt no one. They specifically chose actions that would not cause damage to human life. When a few members did suggest upping the ante to target individuals, the entire group fell apart as most members, including McGowan, refused to even consider such a thing. To compare Daniel McGowan and Suzanne Savoie to Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh insults the intelligence of Americans. Yet the politics of terrorism are so politicized that so-called ecoterrorists get far more attention than right-wing loonies who actually could be terrorists. For example, the museum at the Oklahoma City National Memorial goes into all sorts of detail on domestic terrorism launched by radical environmentalists but says nary a word about the right-wing writers that influenced both Timothy McVeigh and the conservative wing of the modern Republican Party. It’s a sick joke. Burning an SUV dealership is not the same as flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Burning a sawmill is not the same as putting a truckload of explosives under the federal building in Oklahoma City.

And why is Daniel McGowan, a threat to no one, wasting away in a Communication Management Unit? When he gets out next year, will he still be sane? 7 years of almost solitary confinement? Savoie received 4 years in her plea agreement. For the first 3, she could not go outside. Why? What possible reason is there for this? It’s clear enough-these were people the Bush Administration could make examples of and distract Americans’ attention from their failures of stopping real terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the prosecutors notes in the film that nowhere in the terrorism laws does it say you have to harm people to be a terrorist. Of course–that’s because the government doesn’t want to define what is terrorism so it can charge anyone under these laws. They are a great threat to our already declining civil liberties.

Anyway, If a Tree Falls is a really fantastic, thought-provoking, and amazingly fair documentary about a controversial subject and I highly recommend it to anyone.

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