Tuesday, September 03, 2013

STEM the Science Deniers – Part V

In his State of the Union Address, the President proclaimed a period of environmental transformation. He presented the House and Senate an unprecedented 37-point message on the environment, requesting four billion dollars for the improvement of water treatment facilities; asking for national air quality standards and stringent guidelines to lower motor vehicle emissions; and launching federally funded research to reduce automobile pollution. [He] also ordered a cleanup of federal facilities which had fouled air and water, sought legislation to end the dumping of wastes into the Great Lakes, proposed a tax on lead additives in gasoline, forwarded to Congress a plan to tighten safeguards on the seaborne transportation of oil, and approved a National Contingency Plan for the treatment of petroleum spills.

The substance of this speech seems to represent the philosophically progressive thoughts of a visionary president willing to take on the more conservative traditionalists who are unwilling to recognize the values of environmentalism. Whether you agree with this type of activism or not, you must admit this sounds like it was taken directly from one of Barack Obama’s addresses. Well, think again.

This speech was actually presented in 1970, and that year turned out to be, as Frank Sinatra sang, “a very good year.” In fact, that year is considered a pivotal year, one of the most momentous for the environment. The very first Earth Day was created and celebrated on the 22nd of April; 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. On the first day of that year, the president signed the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA has been called the modern-day equivalent of an “environmental Magna Carta.” The “Clean Air Act Extension was also signed into law. And perhaps most critically this also was the year the president created by executive order the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

The Formation of the EPA

Knowing all this, can you guess which president it was who made that speech, signed into law key legislation, initiated the idea of the EPA, and brought it into existence, leaving no doubts about its far-reaching powers? Does the name Richard Nixon ring a bell? Here was a Republican president cooperating completely with a Congress totally dominated by Democrats. In today’s environment there would be calls for impeachment.

When the agency was formed on December 2, 1970, Nixon appointed as the EPA’s first Administrator, William Ruckelshaus. A Princeton undergraduate and holder of a Harvard Law School degree, he became successfully involved in Indiana politics as a Republican. He subsequently became the U.S. Deputy Attorney General and in an event known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Ruckelshaus and his boss, Elliot Richardson, famously resigned their positions within the Justice Department rather than obey an order from President Nixon to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating official misconduct on the part of the president and his aides. He also served as Acting FBI Director.

Not All Disbelieve

I emphasize him because last month, the New York Times op-ed page ran an article with a headline that read “A Republican Case for Climate Action.” Particularly interesting, and encouraging is the fact that the article was written by Ruckelshaus as well as by three other former EPA Administrators––all Republicans. In addition, the article is remarkable in that the first few paragraphs (quoted below) provide one of the best condensed analyses of our current climate problem that I have seen anywhere.

“There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm, with the last decade the hottest in modern records, and the deep ocean warming faster than the earth’s atmosphere. Sea level is rising. Arctic Sea ice is melting years faster than projected. The costs of inaction are undeniable. The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that warming becomes ‘locked in.’”

The authors then offer the following advice, “A market-based approach, like a carbon tax, would be the best path to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but that is unachievable in the current political gridlock in Washington. Dealing with this political reality, President Obama’s June climate action plan lays out achievable actions that would deliver real progress. He will use his executive powers to require reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide [as well as methane] emitted by the nation’s power plants and spur increased investment in clean energy technology, which is inarguably the path we must follow to ensure a strong economy along with a livable climate.”

(You might be interested in learning that several Republican Congressional members favor a carbon tax, as does the respected Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw. His Republican credentials are unassailable since he not only served as chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, 2003-2005, for President Bush, but he also was senior advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Ironically he also made a powerful case for a carbon tax in an op-ed piece exactly six years ago in the Sept. 16, 2007 NY Times.)

Not Another Pledge!

Believe it or not, two very surprising converts to the concept of a carbon tax, provided it is revenue neutral, are (you’ll never guess either one), ExxonMobil, and our old “friend,” Grover Norquist. I first wrote in this column about Grover eight and a half years ago with the title, “The Invisible Man.” I chose that headline since other than the Washington crowd, few had ever heard of him. This was well before he became infamous for the pledge to never raise any form of tax, one that he imposed on, and was signed by almost every Republican in Congress. The reason I mention this is that there is a new pledge of a similarly pernicious nature that I suspect you are unaware of.

The New Yorker magazine in its July 13, 2013 issue wrote, “Starting in 2008, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could regulate greenhouse gasses as a form of pollution, accelerating possible Congressional action on climate change, the Koch Brothers funded nonprofit group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), devised the “No Climate Tax” pledge. It has been, according to the study, a component of a remarkably successful campaign to prevent lawmakers from addressing climate change. Two successive efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions by implementing cap-and-trade energy bills died in the Senate, the latter of which was specifically targeted by AFP’s pledge. By now, four hundred and eleven current office holders nationwide have signed the pledge. Signatories include the entire Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, a third of the members of the House of Representatives as a whole, and a quarter of U.S. senators.

Koch Industries is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions; precisely the kind of pollution that the scientific community agrees is responsible for global climate change. In 2011, according to the E.P.A.’s greenhouse-gas-reporting database, the company, which has oil refineries in three states, has emitted over 24,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide according to the E.P.A.’s greenhouse-gas-reporting database. That’s as much as is typically emitted by five million cars.

Although I used this aphorism once before, it fits this situation perfectly so here it is again; “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Just substitute the word “politicians” for the word “piper.” Get it?

Moving Ahead

With Congress’s intractable stance on climate change, President Obama issued an executive order that included among many other items, tightening rules on polluting emissions, doubling renewable energy by 2020, establishing strong new goals for energy efficiency, launching a climate data initiative, stopping the public financing of international coal projects, and potentially avoiding construction of Keystone XL.

Another major political figure is also planning for increasingly severe climate events. The New York Times revealed, “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg outlined a far-reaching plan on Tuesday to protect New York City from the threat of rising sea levels and powerful storm surges by building an extensive network of flood walls, levees and bulkheads along its 520 miles of coast.

The mayor said the plan would initially cost about $20 billion, and eventually far more. The city would spend the money on fortifying infrastructure like the power grid, renovating buildings to withstand hurricanes and defending the shore, according to a 438-page report on the proposals. The report details 250 recommendations, including the installation of floodwalls and other measures to protect some of the areas that were hit worst by the hurricane in October.

The city currently has 535 million square feet of homes and businesses and 400,000 residents lining the coast, many of which are still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Research by catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide shows the city—and its insurers—have a lot at risk. The insured value of properties in New York’s coastal areas total $2.9 trillion, making up almost two-thirds of the state’s total insured property exposure.” (More on this next month, including the names of two organizations that should convince everyone that climate change is real.)

Special Update: In recent months, every segment of the media has been obsessed with leaked reports. The day before this column was sent to the publisher, several media organizations announced that there was another leakage, that of a draft of a forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. This report is issued every five or six years.

The findings show that scientists are 95 percent sure humans are causing global warming. The 2007 report stated that there was only a 90 percent chance that humans were causing warming; now, six years later, climatologists are more certain than ever. According to The New York Times, the draft report says, “It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

The new report will describe how climate changes are continuing without abatement. In particular, temperatures are rising, oceans are heating, waters are rising, ice is melting, the oceans are acidifying, heat is even moving to the deepest parts of the oceans. Just as importantly, the report will show that these changes are largely human-caused.


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