Category Archives: National Politics

Will Congress bargain away the last of old growth forests?

Tongass National Forest by amanderson2. Creative Commons license

My latest story for Alternet examines how some of the country’s last remaining ancient forestland may be bargained away this year as a political favor to the campaign benefactors of one U.S. Senator.

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The Potomac: America’s most beleaguered river, new report

The Potomac is the nation’s most imperiled river, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit group, American Rivers.

Pescados by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo)
Creative Commons license

The river, which supplies drinking water to five million people in the Greater Washington region, suffers from a bad case of  runoff from laws and factory farms, alike. those woes have turned the Potomac into a spawning ground for so-called “intersex fish” – male fish born with ovaries. Yikes! Scientists have linked the chemicals in lawn fertilizer and “chicken litter” (manure produced in large quantities at the region’s poultry farms) that get washed into the waterways where they wreak havoc of fish reproduction and create habitat-crippling dead zones bereft of oxygen, among other things.

The Washington Post today notes that U.S. Congress has failed to act despite growing evidence that what’s happening to the fish may be a disturbing sign of the human health implications. In fact, sentiment on Capitol Hill is moving in the other direction with Republicans periodically launching attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act, reporter Darryl Fears notes, quoting environmentalists.

The landmark federal law, which turns 40-years-old this year, has led to major improvements in the health of the nation’s waterways, experts say. At the time of its passage in 1972, some U.S. rivers were such reeking open sewers that they sometimes caught fire. Nevertheless, the Potomac is one of ten that continue face the most serious ongoing problems.

Besides the Potomac, today’s top ten list, of sorts, includes the following:

  • Green River (which runs through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado)
  • Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
  • Missouri River (nine states in the central United States)
  • Hoback River (Wyoming)
  •  Grand River (Ohio)
  • Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Crystal River (Colorado)
  •  Coal River (West Virginia)
  •  Kansas River (Kansas)

The Climate Two Step

More caution needed on climate change, scientists say.

If news were like music that sets the tempo of public opinion, the latest spate of climate change headlines is tapping out something like a two-step. One step closer to certainty, then the music reels toward denialism; Inspiring, if brief, performances by grassroots activists, flanked by the chorus line of corporate sponsorships and murky backroom dealings.

Last week the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a report linking extreme weather to climate change and urged governments around the world to step up their efforts for dealing with “climate extremes.” The same day U.S. Congress  killed plans for a national climate agency.

Months of protesting the Keystone pipeline led to a postponement that could provide bureaucratic deathblow to the project. But it turns out that defeating the pipeline will not keep the Canadian tar sands from flowing to refineries via other routes, including the millions of miles of existing U.S. pipelines that already transport — and sometimes spill — the particularly gooey and toxic fossil fuel.

The Sierra Club‘s longtime leader Carl Pope has finally stepped down amid what the Los Angeles Times said was “discontent that the group founded by 19th century wilderness evangelist John Muir has compromised its core principles.” Pope’s replacement, Michael Brune, declared “done” the $1.3 million sponsorship deal Pope had championed with the makers of Clorox  bleach. Brune vowed to never again risk sullying the venerable institution’s reputation by shilling for another corporate polluter. Having been one of those who criticized the Sierra Club’s Clorox deal, it’s good to see the new leadership heeding concerns about greenwashing. But virtually all of the the country’s other flagship environmental groups are beholden to corporate “sponsors” and “partners” today, as the recent greenwashing scandals involving  World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Foundation and their corporate sponsor, the Coke-a-Cola Co, atest.

Triggering a Climate Movement?

Anti-pipeline protesters Nov. 6. Photo by C MacDonald

Last week, while reporting about environmentalism inside the Occupy Wall Street movement, I had an interesting conversation with Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas about the “trigger” effect. It’s a theory about the momentum that tends to build once protests reach a critical mass of supporters. The movement’s own success sets up a sort of positive feedback loop that “triggers” or “signals to” other – perhaps more cautious or moderate – people that it’s O.K. to express their own frustrations and even take to the streets.

I wonder if that’s not at least part of what helped bring out so many people to yesterday’s protest against the proposed Keystone pipeline. Busloads of folks from around the country turned up to encircle the White House. There were more than enough to make it around the presidential compound. Chief organizer Bill McKibben sent out an email to supporters last night saying 12,000 people participated in what organizers sometimes jokingly referred to as a big “hug” meant give President Obama the support he needs to scuttle the deal. Of course, White House “headlock,”also seemed an apt metaphor given the number of people waving signs expressing their disappointment with the president.

The pipeline would cut southward across the country transporting tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. Supporters have essentially cast the battle as another jobs v. environment fight, though the Washington Post had a story Saturday exposing some pretty fuzzy math in Keystone’s assertions that 20,000 jobs would result. Critics oppose the pipeline for a number of local and global reasons. They say building it would lock the country into decades of continued fossil fuel dominance and destroy any chance at reigning in global warming before its too late, while oil spills from the pipeline could contaminate ecologically sensitive areas, chiefly the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking and crop irrigation across several Midwestern states.

Obama under pressure on pipeline. Photo by C. MacDonald

Riding around on my bike amid the smiling, chanting, occasionally singing and dancing crowd, the collective mood was joyous. This is what momentum-building apparently looks like compared to the general feeling emanating from the precursor: Last summer’s two weeks of civil disobedience at the same spot. Those rolling protests raised the profile of the pipeline fight and upped the pressure on the Obama Administration, but turnout was a disappointment. After initially trumpetting the news that more than 2,000 people had pledged to come to Washington and get arrested in front of the White House, organizers were left backtracking. In the end, more than 1,200 people were arrested.

About two weeks after the last tar sands protester made bail in Washington, however, Occupy Wall Street began. It’s conceivable that the tar sands protests acted as a “trigger” for the Occupy movement, though the anti-Wall Street activists have said their main inspirations are the Arab Spring and protests in Madrid.

Now, with thousands of people hunkered down in public squares and plazas around the globe, perhaps it seemed more reasonable than radical to take to the streets to defeat the pipeline that McKibben has referred to as “game over” for the environment. The trigger effect as more of a boomerang?

We may soon find out what it means for the pipeline decision but what about the prospects of triggering a wider climate justice movement? On that question, one thing bodes well for the protesters: Most in yesterday’s crowd are environmentalists from the get-go. True, some, particularly the contingent from Nebraska, may be acting primarily to protect their drinking water. And, there was definitely crossover from Occupy DC and other encampments around the country that are more concerned with the state of the economy, corporate greed and growing income inequality. Still, the vast majority of people, like the organizers themselves, were demanding action on climate change as much as protesting an oil pipeline. Shaping them into a formidable climate movement seems more doable than trying to redirect the anti-corporate sentiments of the Occupy movement into the related but less immediate issue of climate justice.

On Climate, Are we the 99% or more like the 1%?

Street protest in DC on Oct. 8

There’s such an upwelling of environmentalism flowing into the Occupy movement right now. My new piece on the Alternet.org site assesses what the Wall Street protests could mean to climate activism and other fights. Occupy Wall Street has not only inspired people around the world to protest against corporate corruption and income equality; It’s prompted reexamination of what “just” and “equitable” would look like when it comes to emissions cuts or the Keystone pipeline fight. Plenty of people are debating these subjects right now. I’ll just say that a sustainable economy predicated on a healthy planet seems like the kind of justice we need about now.

Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.

Some of the “many hearts” of Oct. 6 Protest

Many hearts + Signs at Oct. 6 protest

 

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Who gains when Enviros + Corps do Business?

While researching this post on how corporations and political parties “shape” public opinion, I stumbled upon this ringing endorsement of the communications strategy company Maslansky Luntz + Partners:

“It’s one thing to have a vendor, it’s another to have a partner. And from the executive staff to the whole team, they’re really committed to us and what we’re trying to do,” Laura Bowling, SVP, Strategic Marketing + Global Communications, Conservation International

Beyond the slightly smarmy logrolling, anybody else catch what’s so stunning about a veep at one of the world’s largest environmental groups heaping praise this particular marketing firm?

Climate change is driving many amphibians toward extinction. Click on photo to learn more.

That would be Maslansky LUNTZ, as in Republican strategist Frank Luntz, author of the infamous 2002 memo outlining how Republicans could obstruct the enactment of climate legislation without appearing unsympathetic to environmental issues. He counseled them to raise doubts about climate science. Looking back nearly a decade later, that advice has proven its effectiveness.

It has, however, forever linked Luntz + company to climate change denial, which in turn raises certain questions about whether a firm he founded could really be committed to Conservation International’s mission. By now, you may also be asking yourself why an environmental organization would hire the firm owned by a chief architect of climate change denial?

This may seem counterintuitive but environmentalists work with corporations (and their marketing firms) all the time these days. Corporations don’t just bankroll many of the largest environmental groups, Fortune 500 executives sit on their boards and run these organizations. And there’s loads of cross over between the business and nonprofit worlds. Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy is a former Goldman Sachs executive. He’s the latest in a long line of corporate bigwigs to helm that organization.

Bowling also had a 20-year corporate career before joining CI. Might that be why she either didn’t know she was – or didn’t mind – teaming up with marketers of climate change denial? According to her bio, she worked for both agencies and corporations including Procter & Gamble, Ogilvy & Mather, The Walt Disney Company, and Vivendi/Universal.

One thing does surprise me though: It’s been a couple of years since Bowling left CI and returned to the private sector. You’d think a crack communications firm like Maslansky Luntz + Partners would be on top of that stuff and keep their site updated.

The End of Gas?

creative commons license

When gas prices soar, I guess it’s only a matter of time before complaints and government investigations ensue. But what’s interesting about the current spate is how it reflects the transformation underway across he country as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell sell off their gas stations to regional middlemen, known as “jobbers.” This time around, it’s not Big Oil or the little station operators who are taking the heat for price gouging; it’s the jobbers.

While the price spikes have drawn lots of attention, perhaps more interesting in the long-term is what the (until now) relatively unnoticed round of selloffs may lead to: the eventual disappearance of local fueling depots altogether.

What with predictions of peak oil, the rise of alternative fuels and electric cars, Joe Mamo, D.C.’s biggest jobber, told me his company, Capitol Petroleum Group, is really a real estate business. As his properties in Washington and New York City become more valuable for the “dirt” beneath them than the gas or junk food they can sell, he says they will become condos.

Whether this trend could contribute to the high cost of gas in D.C. and other urban areas is a question I don’t think anyone has seriously examined. It’s not an industry that gets much sustained scrutiny (beyond the occasional price gouging uproars). My profile of Mamo, which ran in the Washington City Paper in February, is one of the few (perhaps the only) in-depth look at Big Oil’s pullout from a major metropolitan marketplace. The Washington Business Journal  suggested it helped prompt the District’s anti-trust investigation of Mamo’s company.

For more information on the D.C. investigation, links to the Washington Post coverage are hereCNN Money has a national round-up of gouging allegations, and here’s a link to my profile on Joe Mamo.

The Importance of Forests, Farmers + Product Safety

A few news stories of note this morning:

Seeing the forest’s role: “By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population may experience water-stress conditions. Forests capture and store water and can play an important role in providing drinking water for millions of people in the world’s mega-cities.” The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls on countries to recognize the links between healthy forests and drinking water supplies and do a better job protecting both.

Small farmers lead the way: In a just released short film series, TVE Asia Pacific profiles farmers in Cambodia, the Netherlands, Niger, and South Africa who are members of Prolinnov, a global network  that promotes local level innovation by small farmers.

New Consumer Product Safety Database targeted by “Koch congressman” – Quick, before U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo gets his way! Check out the government database Pompeo has targeted for extinction, some say as a way of paying fealty to his political patrons at Koch Industries.