Environment

The Cost of Bullshit: Climate Change, National Security, and Inaction

photo: toolmantim via Flickr

photo: toolmantim via Flickr

While we’re waiting for Congress and the White House to do something productive together for once, let’s recap:

•  The Department of Defense said climate change is a critical strategic concern with regard to its operations and its impact on defense efforts, based on its legislatively-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) published two-plus years ago in 2010;

•  The State Department also said climate change is a serious threat to our national security, noted in its inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QQDR), also published two-plus years ago in 2010;

•  A who’s who of defense and diplomacy expressed their concerns about climate change and the need for urgent action, as Marcy noted two days ago; apparently whatever action has been taken so far has not impressed these experts as responsive to the threat climate change poses.

Yet if asked, the average American likely could not point to a single action taken by the U.S. government to reduce the impact of climate change.

In other words, all the effort expended and resources spent on drafting the components of the QDR and QQDR are wasted, the words published mere bullshit—more wasted government employees’ time and taxpayer money.

How much has this wordy inaction cost us?

Here’s a more specific opportunity to save taxpayer money:

…Of all military spending, energy accounts for a small proportion, roughly less than 2% of total military expenditures and 2% of total US energy usage–but is 93% of all US government energy consumption.In fact, the US military is the single biggest consumer of energy in the nation, at about 932 trillion BTU in 2009, resulting in 4% of all US carbon emissions.

Oil accounts for 78.5% of all US military energy usage (54% of that is jet fuel); electricity is 11%, direct use of natural gas comes in a bit under electricity. Direct use of coal and other sources of energy are small fractions of total usage. …

[source: TreeHugger.com, 05-MAY-2011]

The amount spent on energy surely hasn’t declined since these numbers were published in 2009.

Yet Congress and the White House have been locking horns over the sequester for some time now, looking for places to cut costs. Doesn’t it seem like any item should be ripe for examination and audit for cost-cutting if the government is the largest consumer?

Further:

…The United States is far and away the largest military spender on the planet–but you probably already knew that. How much more? In 2010 the US accounted for 42.8% of all military spending in the world (and has doubled military spending since 2001). The next nearest competitor, China, accounts for 7.3% of global military spending. The UK, France, and Russia each spend roughly 3.7%. Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy round out the top ten. All other nations spending 25.3% combined.

In dollar terms, the grand total spent on military offense and defense in 2010 was $1.6 trillion. So based on those calculations, done by a Swedish think tank, the US outspent China by 5.86 times. …

[source: TreeHugger.com, 05-MAY-2011]

If the U.S. is the largest military spender, its energy expenditures must likewise be the largest globally. This means the U.S. military could provide the largest impact globally on climate change by urgently and robustly changing its fossil fuel consumption.

Which begs the question: are we going to stop wasting time and money on reports like the QDR and the QDDR when we’re clearly making no effort to follow the recommendations they contain by responding to climate change and its inherent national security risks?

Or are we going to save some serious money on downsizing our military’s fossil fuel consumption AND make immediate, widespread impact on climate change and national security at the same time?

We really need an answer because this bullshit is costing us a fortune in taxes and lost societal opportunities. (Hurricane Sandy cost the federal government at least $180 million dollars; it’s not yet clear how much February’s blizzard cost in tax dollars. Toronto CAN, however, spent CA$4 million on cleanup and repairs, and it was not the municipality hardest hit by the storm.)

And with each drought and mega-storm, the lack of response is costing us even greater treasure in loss of personal opportunities, homes and lives.

Sunday Buffet: Domestic Drones, Cosmic Clouts, and More

photo: Parrot AR Drone via Amazon.com

photo: Parrot AR Drone via Amazon.com

Here’s an assortment of goodies that crossed my tablet over the last 24 hours or so. Which of these tidbits fires you up?

•  The Verge reported Friday that a new bi-partisan privacy bill sponsored by representatives Ted Poe (R-TX) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) targets the use of drones in the US.

“As written, it would ban police from operating unmanned aerial vehicles armed with weapons of any kind, and any drone surveillance operation would require a warrant notifying the target within 10 days, except when the notice would “jeopardize” an investigation. It also requires they make efforts to “minimize” the amount of data collected or shared, to avoid violating privacy unnecessarily. …

…Fears over the use of drones have increased lately as both President Obama and his counterterrorism chief John Brennan refused to answer whether lethal strikes could be used against American citizens on US soil. …”

When drones can be remotely operated by iPhone or Android cellphones and cost less than $300, we’re way past time for this bill. It might not hurt citizens to act locally as Charlottesville, Virginia has, enacting a ban on their use in their municipality. Think a drone couldn’t possibly slip by you to monitor you without permission? This one pictured here is only 22 inches long, comes equipped with a 720p high-def camera on board–imagine it hovering and peering in your bedroom window, or your kid’s room, its video output watched from an iPhone miles away.

•  Friday’s meteorite-asteroid-meteorite triple whammy certainly shook up the globe. What? You didn’t hear about the third one? Apparently when the smaller meteorite passed over California about 7:42 pm PST, the media had already used up its allotment of cosmic-related coverage for the week. Or year. Anyhow, objects hit our planet all the time that we don’t notice or publicize widely; it was the rare confluence of a near-miss asteroid and a larger-than-average meteorite within a 24-hour window that only made us think earth’s pummeling by space debris is unusual. Given that meteorites and asteroids are not all that rare, it seems like we’d do more to be prepared for impacts–especially since we’ve had pretty decent guesstimates about the damage space objects could inflict.

•  Speaking of science, science writer Philip Ball looks at the discovery of the microscope and its dramatic impact on science and religion. Technology that allowed us to look at our world at meta-scale has also had an impact on our perspective; the famous “blue marble” photo* from an Apollo mission is credited with increasing public interest in ecological studies, environmental protection, and space exploration. What technology will encourage us to get our tails in gear on climate change?

•  Finally, this photo-dense piece gives me pause. I was two years old when these were taken; what an incredible year that was. I wish I’d been old enough to remember any of these events, and yet, I’m glad some of them were well behind us by the time I was school-aged. Some of these photos remind me how little things have changed. Just Google “church arson” or “race hate crime” and you’ll see what I mean.

By the way, I’m open to suggestions as to naming these collections of newsy bits and pieces. Leave me your thoughts in comments. Thanks!

* When I first drafted this post, I didn’t know today marked the anniversary of the similarly important “pale blue dot” photo. How time flies.

Weeping For the Scarecrow

As you may have heard by now, friend of this blog, and our friend at Firedoglake, John Chandley, aka “Scarecrow”, has died. Let the record reflect that I am freaking tired of being on the memorial duty. Seriously tired. If you are a participant in the discussion at this blog, or a related friend thereto, quit dying. Please. Enough.

John Chandley was a man. He stood firm and resolute on his own, in spite of being known probably to you only for blogging at Firedoglake under the pseudonym of “Scarecrow”. But Scarecrow was much more that that; never a merely a straw creature, but one who definitively stood firm for that which was righteous in the income inequality wars:

Scarecrow on a wooden cross Blackbird in the barn
Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm
I grew up like my daddy did My grandpa cleared this land
When I was five I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand

Rain on the scarecrow Blood on the plow
This land fed a nation This land made me proud
And Son I’m just sorry there’s no legacy for you now
Rain on the scarecrow Blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow Blood on the plow

The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed

Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land
He said John it’s just my job and I hope you understand
Hey calling it your job ol’ hoss sure don’t make it right
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight

“Like a scarecrow in the rain”. Aren’t we all. That is the meter of life, and it is transient. Funny thing was, the real John Chandley, at least so far as I even knew him, was not transient in the least; but came out of the Berkeley swamps, cool and slow, like John Chandley’s friend and colleague at the time at Berkeley (John/Scarecrow was present at Berkeley in the moment), Mario Savio, with a backbeat hard to master.

The musical imagery here is mine; I am not sure what would be the preferred cocktail de jour of John. Before I leave, let me offer up one more paean of my own to the life of the one, and only, Mr. John “Scarecrow” Chandley”:

The world’s goin’ crazy and
Nobody gives a damn anymore.
And they’re breakin’ off relationships and
Leavin’ on sailin’ ships for far and distant shores.
You’re my brother,
Though I didn’t know you yesterday.
I’m your brother.
Together we can find a way.

Scarecrow would have, by every right that I knew him, been trepidatious in regards for our future; yet hopeful for the success and greatness that may await us all.

It is hard to tell where we all go in the living, much less where we go beyond. But never let it be said this blog does not care about the voices who were its friends and colleagues. And certainly not tonight.

RIP John “Scarecrow” Chandley.

Redirecting the Redirected: Returning Attention to Climate Change Policy and Planning

Corporate interests with strong ties to conservative politics have undermined American’s awareness and understanding about climate change. Record profits from fossil fuel businesses have been threatened by talk of reducing consumption. Rather than change their business model, these entities went on the offensive against knowledge; facts were stretched until barely recognizable, bolstered with easy untruths, and fed to the public alongside infotainment through co-opted media.

The same fossil fuel interests bought politicians who are easily led by cash infusions or manipulated through electoral scaremongering by increasingly ignorant, easily acquired political factions (hello, Tea Party).

Presto: Americans are the least likely to believe in anthropomorphic climate change, and they’re likely to vote for candidates who mirror their own tractability.

But the truth has a nasty way of bitchslapping consumers and voters until their attention is returned to the facts. Hurricane Sandy, following this past summer’s wretched Dust Bowl-like drought, delivered a one-two punch to the public’s consciousness. Americans are ripe right-the-hell NOW for corrective action in the form of education and effective policy.

Therein lies the problem: there is no ongoing nationwide sustained discussion on climate change reaching a critical mass of the American public, and they in turn are not demanding better, effective, and immediate policy. There’s lots of hand-wringing over the damages caused by the drought and hurricane. There’s discussion about improvements to emergency response (tactical), and chatter about building dikes a la Netherlands to protect New York City from future hurricanes (tactical).

Yet there’s only tactical discussion–no society-wide dialog about strategic approaches to climate change.

The challenge to the educated and aware is to change this scenario and fast. The longer it takes for the tractable to become engaged and aware, the more time fossil fuel interests have to re-poison the minds of the public before the next truth-borne bitchslapping. Continue reading

Health and Workers Dying to Feed Us

This article in Scientific American is unusual among the articles defending the results of the Stanford University study finding no nutritional benefit in eating organic food in that it at least mentions the people on whom pesticides have an uncontested negative effect: the workers who tend the field (though it consistently calls them “farmers,” romanticizing the labor relationship often involved).

In a section titled, “No Need to Fear,” it twice notes that “farmers” are exposed to high levels of pesticides.

To date, there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet leads to better health.

What of all those studies I just mentioned linking pesticides to disorders? Well, exactly none of them looked at pesticides from dietary intake and health in people. Instead, they involve people with high occupational exposure (like farmers who spray pesticides) or household exposure (from gardening, etc). Judging pesticides safety by high exposures is like judging the health impacts of red wine based on alcoholics.

[snip]

The closest we have to studying the effects of diet on health are studies looking at farmers. However, farmers in general have high occupational pesticide exposures, and thus it’s impossible to tease out occupational versus dietary exposure. Even still, in this high-risk group, studies simply don’t find health differences between organic and conventional farmers. A UK study found that conventional farmers were just as healthy as organic ones, though the organic ones were happier.

And while the UK study–which, by its locale, leaves out some of the more dangerous chemicals used here but not in Europe–shows that organic “field and packhouse workers” were only healthier than conventional workers because they were happier, it also showed that all the 605 farm workers involved had significantly poorer health than normal in the UK.

Thus, even in an article admitting that farm workers were exposed to high amounts of chemicals that it admits are dangerous, it concludes that “there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet leads to better health.”

As if the health of people who work to feed me has no effect on me at all.

It reminds me of a passage from Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. Three female tomato farm workers give birth within days of each other to seriously deformed children; they had worked without protection in a field sprayed with the fungicide mancozeb days before the babies were conceived and had been sprayed with methyl bromide regularly. Lawyer Andrew Yaffa sued the owner of the field, Ag-Mart, on behalf of one of the children, a boy who had been born with no limbs and other health problems. In a deposition, Yaffa got the President of Ag-Mart to admit the chemicals used on the field caused birth defects in lab animals, but distinguished that from the birth defects of the kids born to workers who had worked without adequate protection in his field.

“So in regards to the pesticides that you use day in and day out, as your sit here today you are aware that there are, in fact, studies linking animals who are exposed to these pesticides to birth defects?”

“Yes, there are studies.”
“This isn’t new to you?”

“No, no, this is not new.”

[snip]

“You knew for years that these pesticides were linked to birth defects in lab animals. We talked about that … knowing the risk was there, why not be proactive and take that step before you have three women bearing children with such horrific defects?”

“Well, the three women were not all–I don’t believe thta–this is my belief, so I–I–don’t believe that the pesticides caused the birth defects. I believe that the pesticides have been tested to cause birth defects in animals, but I don’t believe pesticides caused birth defects in those three women.”

Sure, the President of Ag-Mart was playing a legal word game. But it’s a word game often repeated by discussions of the dangers of pesticides, an admission that pesticides are bad for the invisible–often migratory and undocumented–people who work to feed us, but a confidence that they nevertheless are not bad for our health.

As if the only effect our industrial food system has on us is via our own ingestion of the problems it brings.

John Brennan Vows to Combat the “Bad Guys” Attacking Our Critical Infrastructure

John Brennan just gave a speech, purportedly about our policy in Yemen. But it ended up being largely about infrastructure, That’s partly because his speech focused on how, rather than spending 75% of our Yemen funds on bombs, we’re now spending just 50% (having bumped up the total to include an equal amount development assistance). So a good part of his talk focused on whether or not Yemen would be able to do the critical work of rebuilding its infrastructure sufficient to combat AQAP which, in some areas, has done a better job of building infrastructure.

Of course as I noted while he spoke, a number of the infrastructure challenges Brennan confidently assured we could help rebuild–things like access to water–are challenges we are increasingly failing in our own country.

And then, because the DC attention span had had enough of Yemen, moderator Margaret Warner asked Brennan what the Administration will do now that their cybersecurity bills have been defeated. To justify his talk of using Executive Orders to address some of the infrastructure problems, Brennan talked about the “bad guys” who posed a cyberthreat to our critical infrastructure.

Nowhere did Brennan acknowledge the much more immediate threat to our critical infrastructure: in the corporations and politics that let it decline. PG&E and Enbridge, failing to invest the money to fix known defects in their pipelines. Fracking companies, depleting and degrading our water supply. Verizon, eliminating choice for Internet access for rural customers. Republicans who want to gut our Postal Service and passenger rail. And heck, even Fat Al Gore and climate change, which is not only depleting our water supply but stalling key water transport routes.

Brennan promises to help rebuild Yemen’s infrastructure. But not only can’t he implement his plan against the bogeyman “bad buys” threatening our infrastructure, he seems completely unaware that those “bad guys” aren’t anywhere near the biggest threat to our infrastructure.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the Administration’s decision to dedicate money to Yemen’s infrastructure, even if I think a 50/50 split, aid to bombs, is still woefully inadequate. But until we begin to see what “bad guys” pose the biggest threat to our own infrastructure, I’m skeptical our efforts in Yemen will be any more successful than they were in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Is Obama Worried that Fat Al Gore’s Drought Will Threaten His Reelection?

I’m beginning to wonder whether Obama is worried the drought–particularly in the Midwest–could imperil his reelection campaign. I say that because he seems to be avoiding addressing it on the campaign trail. (Compare that to the way he has addressed other tragedies, such as his well-received conversations with the victims of the Aurora shooting.)

To the best of my knowledge, this July 18 photo is as close as Obama has gotten to publicly expressing concern about the drought. And in a press briefing on the drought the same day, both participants–Tom Vilsack and Jay Carney–avoided addressing questions about whether Obama would visit drought affected areas.

Q Secretary, should we be expecting that you and the President will be heading to a drought-stricken area soon? That’s normally a path that you take when you’re trying to show something is a priority.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I can’t speak obviously for the President’s schedule, but I can tell you that actually I was in Pennsylvania yesterday. We do have the Deputy Secretary going to Georgia tomorrow. We’ve got the Under Secretary of the Farm Service Association traveling to several states that are drought-impacted and affected.

[snip]

Q Is the President going, Jay, to go anywhere —

MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any scheduling updates for the President to provide to you today. If and when I do, I’ll provide them.

Now, I’m not trying to concern troll about the President’s schedule, in the way Republicans are criticizing Obama for not meeting with his Jobs Council. Nor am I saying Obama’s not responding to the drought; the USDA has been making low-cost loans available to those in areas declared a disaster, as well as certain other things that may provide immediate if not long-term relief.

Rather, I’m raising it because I really do think it might affect the election. Consider how many swing states are affected by the drought (conditions have gotten better in MI of late).

And while IA has not been included among the counties in which Vilsack has declared a disaster, its corn harvest has been affected (with 40% deemed poor or very poor on July 22). And their livestock will be affected as well.

Continue reading

The Only Terrifying Math That Gets Any Attention Is Defense Spending

Bill McKibben had a long piece on climate change this week, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” that has justifiably gotten a lot of attention. The terrifying math of the title is this:

  • Almost the entire world agreed in 2009 that we must keep global temperature increases below 2°C
  • Since then, the 0.8°C increase in temperature we’ve hit has brought far more damage than scientists expected
  • Humans can introduce no more than 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere if they want to keep the temperature from rising that 2°C which now seems too high
  • Fossil fuel companies already have in reserve–and plan to develop–2,795 gigatons of carbon fuels

The math means, McKibben explains, that to keep global warming within the consensus but already too high limit of 2°C, we’ve got to find some way to force the fossil fuel companies not to develop their existing reserves.

At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.

[snip]

According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.

From this McKibben proposes a solution: Tax carbon to make it cost prohibitive to develop these reserves. To tax carbon you’ve got to undercut the fossil fuel industry’s power, and to do that you’ve got to villainize them, but heck that’s easy because they really are villains, since their business model will kill the planet. And so a movement like the South African divestment campaign can make it toxic to own fossil fuel stocks.

That’s a gross oversimplification–please do read the full article for a nuanced version.

Now, there’s nothing in the article that I disagree with. I’m all for making fossil fuel companies pay for the waste their industry creates. I’m all in favor of villainizing them to make that more likely.

But I’ll note that McKibben doesn’t utter the words that would both make it easier to villainize the fossil fuel industry and explains some of the underlying reasons why that’s not going to be enough.

“National security.” Or even “security.”

In that silence, McKibben is a mirror image of the same fault in Obama’s own strategy and discussions more generally about threats to this country, even fairly realistic ones.

Sure, all the details McKibben cites about evident and likely effects of climate change imply this is a security issue: 356 homes gone in Colorado Springs, spiking food prices, even entire countries disappearing.

But until we start using the language of national security, we won’t properly demonstrate the treachery of those who refuse to deal with this. Continue reading

Obama Brings Bankster and Oil Curses to Burma

After I read Obama’s Executive Order opening up trade with Burma, I joked,

Wait. We’re exporting FINANCIAL SERVICES to Myanmar? This is considered a favor to them?

Seriously. Sending our financial services to another country is, these days, the equivalent of bombing them.

Just as–probably more–troubling though are the concerns Josh Rogin lays out about Obama green-lighting investment in the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, off of which the military profits.

[Aung San] Suu Kyi, who was elected to Burma’s parliament in April after more than two decades of house arrest, last month specifically asked foreign governments not to allow their companies to partner with MOGE at this time.

“The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) … with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present,” she said June 14 in a speech in Geneva. “The [Myanmar] government needs to apply internationally recognized standards such as the IMF code of good practices on fiscal transparency. Other countries could help by not allowing their own companies to partner [with] MOGE unless it was signed up to such codes.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it would follow Suu Kyi’s lead while cautiously opening up to closer ties with the Burmese regime. The new U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell arrived there today.

[snip]

Following a Deputies Committee meeting last week, the side that advocated for a broader repeal of the investment ban won out. That side included the State Department’s East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau (EAP), led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, the economics office at State led by Undersecretary Robert Hormats, and the Treasury and Commerce departments.

While the Treasury version of today’s news imposes human rights (but not profit) controls on investments over $500,000 and threatens sanctions on anyone threatening the peace in Burma (this is akin to the sanctions passed on Yemen),

The order provides new authority to impose blocking sanctions on persons determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with or at the recommendation of the Secretary of State:  to have engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, or stability of Burma, such as actions that have the purpose or effect of undermining or obstructing the political reform process or the peace process with ethnic minorities in Burma;

Ultimately, it’s Treasury–one of the entities that overrode the human rights advocates in this debate and has proven unable to regulate our own banksters–that gets to decide what constitutes peace.

There’s a very long, almost universal history of bad outcomes associated with big investments in oil. And yet the only safeguard Obama has put in place to prevent the oil curse from spoiling this really superb development–the opening of Burma–is the diligence of the Treasury Department that refuses to even reign in our own cursed industries.

Fat Al Gore Colludes with Banksters in the Midwest

There’s an ominous storm brewing in flyover country that may amount to little more than higher food and fuel prices, or may amount to something else.

First there’s the drought. Last week’s heat wave and the last month’s dry weather hit just as much of America’s corn crop was set to pollinate. And if the corn doesn’t pollinate, it never grows kernels. Even as I’ve been writing this post, USDA sharply cut forecasts for the corn harvest.

As a result, corn prices (soy prices too) are rising sharply. Which will, for better and worse, have repercussions on all the aspects of our super-processed life that relies on corn.

“The drought of 2012 will be one for the records,” said Peter Meyer, the senior director for agricultural commodities at PIRA Energy Group in New York, who forecasts a drop in output to 11 billion bushels if the hot, dry spell lasts another three weeks. “Whether it’s ethanol or livestock, no one is immune from this impending disaster. The ramifications will be widespread, affecting everything from your food to your gasoline.”

And all that’s before any follow-on effects, if the drought continues. Even in Grand Rapids, we’ve had some unusual fires. Rivers that were experiencing historic floods last year are approaching record lows this year; traffic on the Mississippi has already slowed.

Yet all that–even with our country’s industrialized reliance on corn–might be no more concerning than other droughts, such last year’s drought in Texas.

Meanwhile, banksters keep stealing farmers’ money–first via MF Global and now with Peregrine.

The U.S. futures industry reeled as regulators accused Iowa-based PFGBest of misappropriating more than $200 million in customer funds for more than two years, a new blow to trader trust just months after MF Global’s collapse.

Continue reading