Monthly Archives: September 2015

Who Pays for Smog?

In the lead-up to his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama faced a ticklish problem. Under the terms of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency was required to issue rules governing industrial emissions of smog, that murky ozone pollution driving an epidemic of respiratory diseases and birth defects in our country. But compliance with the EPA rule would have been costly to coal-fired power plants in key electoral states in the Midwest Rust Belt, and the president needed them to remain in office.

So, in a bow to political expediency, Mr. Obama instructed the EPA to delay finalizing the smog rule for several years. Well, several years is now up. This Thursday marks the court-ordered deadline for the EPA to publish its smog rules. And industry-backed groups are pressing an all-out campaign to make them as weak as possible. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers are pushing for a relaxed standard of 70 parts atmospheric ozone per billion. The American Lung Association and environmental groups are advocating a tighter standard of 60 parts per billion.

Smog

Thursday deadline for EPA smog rules.

The difference? In health terms, the industry’s proposal would result in 1.5 million more serious asthma attacks per year, and thousands of premature deaths, mainly among children and the elderly.

You might think this would be easy. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, and the number is growing rapidly. About half of them experience asthma attacks every year. About 9 people die from asthma every day. And the annual national medical bill for the disease was last estimated at an astounding $56 billion, and that was almost a decade ago.

For each victim of asthma, the personal cost is enormous. Of course, for the 3,600 who die every year, the discussion of cost is hugely ironic. But for the surviving sufferers, average individual yearly medical costs ran at $3,300 a decade ago, and we all know what’s happened to medical costs since then.

But asthma sufferers aren’t the only ones talking about cost. The industry lobby claims that tighter ozone standards will cause electricity costs to soar, as smokestack scrubbers costing tens of millions of dollars will need to be installed in many plants. They’ve been joined by dozens of mayors and governors from both sides of the political aisle in their appeal: It’s too expensive. We can’t afford it.

But this debate illustrates one of our great American industrial illusions, doesn’t it? As long as pollution doesn’t cost me anything, then it must be essentially free. If I can produce electricity at five cents per kilowatt-hour while generating lots of smog, then rules that will cost me six cents are pure losers. Losers to my shareholders. Losers to my customers.

But who are the losers today? Well, there are those 3,600 dead Americans. And there are those 25 million asthma sufferers. There are the families of black children, who have seen a 50 percent increase in asthma rates in the last ten years. And there’s that not-so-tidy sum of $56 billion in US medical costs for asthma, much of which is attributable to ozone pollution.

And – I suppose I should mention – asthma is only one of smog’s ill effects, which also include cancers, neurological birth defects and more. The province of Ontario alone counts 9,500 premature deaths per year from all effects of ozone pollution. There’s that too.

So maybe it comes down to this: Who should pay the cost of smog in a just country? Should it be the children and the elderly? Or should it be the people profiting from its use?

Just like you, we don’t want higher electric bills. But we’ll solve our problems (see below) without asking the kids, the aging and the poor to pay them for us.

Note: At Good Hand Farm, we generate most of the electricity for three houses and field irrigation pumps from solar arrays. The balance, we purchase from wind farm generators. It isn’t always easy, but it’s doable.

Global Companies Commit to Carbon-Free Future

Climate campaigners are used to failure and frustration. Most mornings, it feels like we’re once again putting our shoulder to the boulder and struggling a few feet up the hill, only to be sent sprawling by a finger-flick from the overwhelming moneyed interests arrayed against us.

But not this morning! Because this morning, a group straight out of the Who’s Who of multinational corporate giants has pledged to source 100% of their electricity from renewable sources to reduce CO2 emissions. Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, NIKE, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Steelcase, and Walmart have added their names to the RE100, an alliance of companies committed to carbon-neutral operations.

Starbuck, Nestle, Mars, Walmart and other commit to carbon -free future

Starbucks, Nestle, NIKE, Walmart and others commit to carbon -free future

The RE100 was founded last year by a group of environmentally-conscious companies including retailers IKEA and H&M, insurer Swiss Re, tech giants Philips and Unilever, and consumer products leaders Nestle and Mars. They have attracted 36 signatories over the year, including Infosys, Salesforce, SAP, DSM and banking giant UBS. But today’s announcement of nine giant signatories looks to turn the trickle into a flood.

And it’s not just the companies. We began the week with leaders of American and Chinese governments, from Obama and Xi Jinping down to the mayors of Beijing, Washington, Guangzhou, New York and Los Angeles agreeing to accelerate their carbon reduction plans.

And last evening, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ended a five-year flirtation with the Canadian Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. “I think it is imperative that we look at the Keystone pipeline as what I believe it is — a distraction from important work we have to do on climate change,” Clinton said.

What’s more, tomorrow, Pope Francis, pastor to one-fifth of the people on this planet, will address the US Congress with his message of love, justice and stewardship for all God’s creation, including our injured climatic systems, and the poor who suffer most of the consequences.

Can the news get any better? Well, yes. 115 church congregations have now added their names to the list of those committing to reduce their carbon footprints 50% by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. They’ve taken the Paris Pledge, available to churches and individuals who want to join these cities, countries and corporations with personal pledges to act in love for God’s creation.

So we may have seen many discouraging days in these last years. But today, I’ve got a song in my heart. The long Narnian winter is beginning to thaw. The log jam is just beginning to break. People know what they need to do. And they’re finally taking the stand to care for God’s creation and its most vulnerable children.

“Now I’ve been smiling lately, thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be, something good has begun…” Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam

GOP House Climate Resolution: Cheers, and Sighs

And now, some good news from the GOP on climate change. Ten Republican members of the House of Representatives have signed a resolution that acknowledges manmade climate change, accepts that we bear responsibility for adverse consequences affecting vulnerable populations and our children, and commits to working constructively to clean up our mess.

We hear that more Republicans will come on board. But for now, it’s ten – about 4 percent of the Republican House Caucus. It’s a start. If all you’ve heard about the GOP’s approach to caring for the creation is that they’re suing the EPA and trying to defund it, that they’re trying to kill its climate pollution mitigation plans, and that they’re telling world leaders that American commitments on climate change at the global climate summit in Paris this December will be dead-on-arrival in Congress, then surely this offers a ray of encouragement.

Rep. Chris Gibson, R-NY

So we offer special thanks to Congressman Chris Gibson (R-NY 19th District), for leading this effort. And we’re thankful for Pope Francis, whose impending visit must certainly have prompted reflection on the part of politicians whose constituents embrace the pontiff’s appeal to act on climate pollution.

But whatever appreciation we can muster, Gibson’s resolution is still mixed reading. Yes, it goes a long way toward accepting the realities so long denied by the party. At the same time, it also offers a painful reminder of how much silliness must still be endured to garner even a shred of support from the majority in Congress. Just to get signatures from 4 percent of GOP congressional representatives, they had to invoke “American exceptionalism,” promise to oppose anything economically painful, and entirely ignore the effects of climate pollution on those living beyond our borders.

So, is it cheers for Gibson and his colleagues, or sighs for the herculean obstacles he faces? Here’s a sampling of both.

Cheers…

There really is a lot to like about this GOP resolution. It would be churlish to pick at the flaws, and ignore some of the real progress:

  • They acknowledge that it should be a conservative impulse to conserve the creation (“to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment”). Cheers!
  • They admit that extreme weather is getting worse (“more frequent heat waves, extreme precipitation, wildfires, and water scarcity”), and is expected to worsen further (“longer and hotter heat waves, more severe storms, worsening flood and drought cycles, growing invasive species and insect problems, threatened native plant and wildlife populations, rising sea levels”). Cheers!
  • They admit that climate pollution harms the poor (“hitting vulnerable populations hardest”) and our children (“saddling future generations with costly economic and environmental burdens”). Cheers!
  • They admit that climate disruption is a threat to national security (citing military assessments that the effects of climate change are “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad”). Cheers!
  • And they commit to working constructively to find solutions to human activities that lead to climate change. Cheers!

All good stuff. Cheers for you, Mr. Gibson!

Sighs…

But that’s not the whole story, I’m afraid. It’s clear that the resolution has been labored over to fend off as many objections as possible. And some of that editing looks ominous to those of us hoping for a thaw in congressional obstruction on climate action.

  • There is virtually no acknowledgement whatsoever of harm from our climate pollution on those outside the United States. While they acknowledge the harmful impact on “all Americans” and the “challenges we face as a nation,” you might think that they imagine that the impacts of our climate pollution simply stop at our borders. This point is not academic. Rather, it permits signatories to avoid entirely the moral debt that heavy polluters like the US now owe to vulnerable communities in Africa, the Middle East, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Central America, and island nations. Sigh.
  • Actually, there is one mention of harm abroad. The resolution acknowledges that US military planners view the effects of climate disruption as ‘‘threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions.’’ So yes, they indirectly agree that our pollution does indeed harm other nations, but their concern is specifically limited to the security impact that the resulting chaos will have on us and our military. Sigh.
  • And you’d think that a problem worthy of national and global action would be worthwhile, even if it cost us something. But it’s not just petty nitpicking to note that Mr. Gibson’s resolution stipulates that the solution must be costless: “Any efforts to mitigate the risks of, prepare for, or otherwise address our changing climate and its effects should not constrain the United States economy….” Well, global crises have a nasty habit of constraining economies. WWII wasn’t costless. Our response to polio, cholera or Ebola wasn’t costless. Protecting the ozone layer wasn’t costless. There are some things you do to survive and protect others that have costs. Do they really believe that this is an exception? Sigh.
  • Speaking of exceptions, they feel the need to stress that that’s exactly what we are. They call on the “tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism” to act on climate. We suspect that American exceptionalism – the doctrine that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations – is inherently corrosive to efforts that call on all nations to begin seeing themselves as a global community to protect a shared inheritance for all of our children. Sigh.
  • Our least significant “sigh” we leave for last. The resolution commits its signatories “to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates.” To study climate change. You may wonder if they mean something like 12,000 peer reviewed studies over a period of twenty years? Actually, that’s already been done without them, at an average pace of roughly two such studies per day over a span of two decades. Sadly, those have been almost entirely ignored or rejected by congressional leaders. It could be significant, however, if it meant that they would reverse their votes earlier this year to cut funding for NASA and NOAA related to climate research.

So, we want to applaud anything that this Congress does to protect our Father’s suffering creation. Mr. Gibson’s resolution offers a lot to like, and we pray for his success. But to us, his labored final draft offers a sobering picture of the road ahead for him.

Perhaps we need a miracle, something we pray for earnestly. At the very least, we need citizens willing to speak out like Mr. Gibson is doing. We are pulling for you, sir. May God be with you.

J. Elwood

Exxon: The Evolution of a Denial Financier

In July 1979, Exxon scientists were worried. They delivered a sobering message to the company’s top executives: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

For the next ten years, Exxon scientists led some of the best research on manmade climate change, leading to the conclusion that estimated a doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” concluded one Exxon scientist, in the written summary of a 1978 company presentation.

Some countries would have their agriculture destroyed. That’s what Exxon thought. Destroyed. No food for some countries.

Inside Climate News has chronicled Exxon’s evolution from scientific leadership in the 1970-1980’s, to funding the constellation of climate denial front groups in the 1990-2000’s. It’s a must read for people wondering how America became the last global holdout of skepticism about climate science.

Here’s a quick summary:

Read the entire article here.

J. Elwood