World’s Oceans Could Rise Higher, Sooner, Faster Than Most Thought Possible

By Jon Queally, staff writer, Common Dreams, July 21, 2015

EXCERPT (excerpts selected and highlighting done by Stenerson to encourage readership)

…New research shows that consensus estimates of sea level increases may be underestimating threat; new predictions would see major coastal cities left uninhabitable by next century

… the new study—which has not yet been peer-reviewed, but was written by former NASA scientist James Hansen and 16 other prominent climate researchers…… with the shocking warning that such glacial melting will “likely” occur this century and could cause as much as a ten foot sea-level rise in as little as fifty years. Such a prediction is much more severe than current estimatesSocial disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”… the work presented by the researchers is warning that humanity could confront “sea level rise of several meters” before the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are slashed much faster than currently contemplated. 

This roughly 10 feet of sea level rise—well beyond previous estimates—would render coastal cities such as New York, London, and Shanghai uninhabitable…Hansen explained that time is of the essence, given the upcoming climate talks in Paris this year and the grave consequences the world faces if bold, collective action is not taken immediately. “We have a global crisis that calls for international cooperation to reduce emissions as rapidly as practical,” …New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left. That dire prediction, in Hansen’s view, requires “emergency cooperation among nations.”…Hansen’s track record on making climate predictions should command respect from people around the world. The larger question, however, is whether humanity has the capacity to act.

“The climate challenge has long amounted to a race between the imperatives of science and the contingencies of politics,” Hertsgaard [The Daily Beast's Mark Hertsgaard] concludes. “With Hansen’s paper, the science has gotten harsher, even as the Nature Climate Change study affirms that humanity can still choose life, if it will. The question now is how the politics will respond—now, at Paris in December, and beyond.”

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Full text

If a new scientific paper is proven accurate, the international target of limiting global temperatures to a 2°C rise this century will not be nearly enough to prevent catastrophic melting of ice sheets that would raise sea levels much higher and much faster than previously thought possible.

“Parts of [our coastal cities] would still be sticking above the water, but you couldn’t live there.”
—Dr. James Hansen

According to the new study—which has not yet been peer-reviewed, but was written by former NASA scientist James Hansen and 16 other prominent climate researchers—current predictions about the catastrophic impacts of global warming, the melting of vast ice sheets, and sea level rise do not take into account the feedback loop implications of what will occur if large sections of Greenland and the Antarctic are consumed by the world’s oceans.

A summarized draft of the full report was released to journalists on Monday, with the shocking warning that such glacial melting will “likely” occur this century and could cause as much as a ten foot sea-level rise in as little as fifty years. Such a prediction is much more severe than current estimates contained in reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the UN-sponsored body that represents the official global consensus of the scientific community.

“If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters,” the paper states.

Separately, the researchers conclude that “continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

The Daily Beast‘s Mark Hertsgaard, who attended a press call with Dr. Hansen on Monday, reports that the work presented by the researchers is warning that humanity could confront “sea level rise of several meters” before the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are slashed much faster than currently contemplated.

This roughly 10 feet of sea level rise—well beyond previous estimates—would render coastal cities such as New York, London, and Shanghai uninhabitable.  “Parts of [our coastal cities] would still be sticking above the water,” Hansen said, “but you couldn’t live there.”

This apocalyptic scenario illustrates why the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is not the safe “guardrail” most politicians and media coverage imply it is, argue Hansen and 16 colleagues in a blockbuster study they are publishing this week in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. On the contrary, a 2C future would be “highly dangerous.”

If Hansen is right—and he has been right, sooner, about the big issues in climate science longer than anyone—the implications are vast and profound.

In the call with reporters, Hansen explained that time is of the essence, given the upcoming climate talks in Paris this year and the grave consequences the world faces if bold, collective action is not taken immediately. “We have a global crisis that calls for international cooperation to reduce emissions as rapidly as practical,” the paper states.

Hansen said he has long believed that many of the existing models were under-estimating the potential impacts of ice sheet melting, and told the Daily Beast: “Now we have evidence to make that statement based on much more than suspicion.”

Though he acknowledged the publication of the paper was unorthodox, Hansen told reporters that the research itself is “substantially more persuasive than anything previously published.”

For his part, Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate, said the “bombshell” findings are both credible and terrifying. Holthaus writes:

To come to their findings, the authors used a mixture of paleoclimate records, computer models, and observations of current rates of sea level rise, but “the real world is moving somewhat faster than the model,” Hansen says.

[...] The implications are mindboggling: In the study’s likely scenario, New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left. That dire prediction, in Hansen’s view, requires “emergency cooperation among nations.”

In response to the paper, climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University affirmed: “If we cook the planet long enough at about two degrees warming, there is likely to be a staggering amount of sea level rise. Key questions are when would greenhouse-gas emissions lock in this sea level rise and how fast would it happen? The latter point is critical to understanding whether and how we would be able to deal with such a threat.”

The new research, Oppenheimer added, “takes a stab at answering the ‘how soon?’ question but we remain largely in the dark.  Giving the state of uncertainty and the high risk, humanity better get its collective foot off the accelerator.”

And as the Daily Beast‘s Hertsgaard notes, Hansen’s track record on making climate predictions should command respect from people around the world. The larger question, however, is whether humanity has the capacity to act.

“The climate challenge has long amounted to a race between the imperatives of science and the contingencies of politics,” Hertsgaard concludes. “With Hansen’s paper, the science has gotten harsher, even as the Nature Climate Change study affirms that humanity can still choose life, if it will. The question now is how the politics will respond—now, at Paris in December, and beyond.”

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How Corporations Are Subverting Attempts to Rein in Their Power

By Thomas Mc Donagh AlterNetMay 23, 2013

In 2009, when the government of El Salvador refused to issue an environmental permit to a Canadian mining corporation, community activists in Las Cabañas rejoiced. For years they had been fighting a pitched battle [3] against the efforts of the company, Pacific Rim, to mine for gold in their region – plans that included the dumping of toxic arsenic in their rivers. It was not a campaign without risk. Four Salvadoran anti-mining activists have been assassinated in the course of their courageous efforts. That victory, however, may well prove to carry a high cost for the people of El Salvador. In a legal assault filed in a World Bank trade court, Pacific Rim is now demanding $315 million in compensation payments from the Salvadoran government, an amount equal to one third of the country’s annual education budget.

That is just one example among many where citizens have fought for and won an important policy victory only to find that victory undermined by corporations using the growing web of international investment rules and arbitration courts. There are many others. Public health campaigners in Uruguay won a huge victory in 2010 when the national government passed new health laws to discourage tobacco consumption. Even though those new laws (including aggressive new warnings on cigarette packages) directly mirrored the guidelines of the World Health Organization, the U.S. corporate tobacco giant Philip Morris retaliated with a $2 billion legal action [4] against the government.

Nowhere is this muscle-flexing by multinational corporations a greater threat than on issues related to sustainable development. The result is a little known but enormous legal obstacle planted directly in the policy path toward a sustainable future. The Democracy Center has just documented that threat in an important new report released this week: Unfair, Unsustainable and Under the Radar:  How Corporations Use Global Investment Rules to Undermine a Sustainable Future. [5]

For many this system of corporate-driven investment rules and “dispute resolution” burst into public view a decade ago when Bechtel, the San Francisco-based engineering conglomerate, sued the people of Bolivia for $50 million following the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt [6], after investing just $1 million in the country. A global citizen campaign [7] aimed at the corporation ultimately forced Bechtel to drop that case for a token payment of 30 cents [8]. Yet in the years since, the pile of corporate cases has only grown ever higher.

Another typical current case features dangerous exposure to lead in Peru. When the national government there revoked the operating license for a smelter plant in La Oroyo (operated by Doe Run Peru) in July 2010, the health of the local population and the surrounding environment got some badly needed respite [9]. The village, located high in the Peruvian Andes, has been declared one of the most polluted sites on earth [10], and in 2007 99% of the children [11] under seven in the neighborhood closest to the town’s smelter had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. The government deemed that Doe Run Peru’s failure to meet environmental cleanup commitments at the site constituted a breach of the country’s environmental legal standards. However Doe Run’s parent company, the Renco group, has other ideas. The corporation, owned by US billionaire Ira Rennert, has hit back with an $800 million damages claim, enough money to pay the yearly salaries of almost 15,000 Peruvian school teachers (or nearly 6,000 Peruvian health workers).

The world today is covered by an expanding web of over three thousand bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements. These agreements grant rights to corporations and allow them to sue governments for policy initiatives that they claim interfere with their profits. The resulting legal cases, despite their far-reaching local consequences, are settled far away and behind closed doors by a small group of unaccountable private lawyers in international dispute arbitration tribunals. Flying in the face of democratic principles and judicial independence, these tribunals operate with little or no public scrutiny and where the communities directly affected are denied a voice. 

The number of these investment cases has exploded in recent years, with 2012 breaking all records. By far the most popular tribunal system used by global corporations is the World Banks’ infamous International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICISID).  Corporations can use this and other tribunal systems to demand hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from governments – not just for what they have actually invested in a country, but also vast amounts more for the profits they expected to earn into the future. The lawyers at these tribunals move seamlessly from the role of ‘independent’ arbiter to that of corporate attorney.  Some have strong ties to multinational corporations and serious questions have been raised [12] about their independence in an unaccountable system in which they have such a huge vested interest. Although previously used as a court of last resort by aggrieved investors, these tribunals have become the weapon of choice for corporations in their attempts to clear the path for profiting at the expense of public health and the environment.

The proliferation of these investor-state cases has three major impacts. First, in cases where the corporations win (as they often do) the result is a massive transfer of scarce public resources to wealthy private corporations. Second, even if governments are successful in mounting a legal defense, doing that comes at a cost of potentially millions of dollars in legal fees paid to one of the handful of high-priced law firms that specialise in such cases. Third, the net impact is a dangerous chilling effect on the willingness of policy makers to implement policies in the public interest for fear of costly international arbitration cases.

The international investment rules/tribunals system has been used to attack anti-nuclear efforts in Germany, public control of water in Argentina and Bolivia, anti-mining efforts across a host of nations, and today has new targets in its sights.

One new likely battleground is citizen and community efforts against oil and gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. The proposed investment chapter of the Canada-EU free trade agreement, if approved, may give corporations the legal fire-power [13] to challenge government regulation of this highly controversial practice. Efforts to curb the dumping of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere are also at risk. The South Korean government has shelved a plan to introduce a low-carbon incentive system for the auto industry because of fears that the law would breach a provision in the US-South Korea free trade agreement. If the government were to move ahead with the measure it would risk landing itself before these international trade and investment courts.

Today, just as communities in El Salvador and Peru have taken up the battle to protect their natural resources, a whole global movement is emerging to rethink the relationship between economic development and social and environmental well-being, and is pushing governments to take policy action in that urgent direction. This important shift, however, is in direct conflict with the interests of transnational corporations hard-wired to maximize short-term profit and pass on the environmental and social costs of their operations to others. The Democracy Center’s report [5] puts a spotlight on how global corporations are using the investment rules system to undermine the policies essential to sustainable development and the democratic process essential to such policies.

Long an obscure interest of trade and investment lawyers, the system of international investment rules and tribunals has remained off the radar for most of the groups and communities that it affects. This is slowly beginning to change. As the number of controversial cases rises, the injustice of the current system is becoming increasingly clear. 

Much as the deregulation of financial markets encouraged by the banking sector helped lead to economic collapse, the system of international investment rules works pushed by multinational corporations is leading us toward environmental collapse. As we hurtle towards a number of ominous tipping points in terms of many of the earth’s natural systems, there has never been a more urgent time for activists, academics, development workers and others to understand the legal and political barriers that block us from changing course. This de facto privatized justice system for big business is a massive such barrier that urgently needs to be brought down.  

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The Gradual Selling of America the Beautiful

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG, New York Times, February 9, 2013


Of the 2.27 billion acres that constitute the land area of the United States, a little less than 30 percent — about 640 million acres — belongs to you, the American citizen. It is land acquired over the years by treaty, conquest or purchase by the federal government acting on behalf of the people, and indisputably belongs to neither the states nor individuals. But in the last few decades no part of the American land mass has stirred greater controversy….the real threat to the public lands is not from Congress, or the state legislatures, whose laws would almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. The real and constant threat is more subtle, and more piecemeal. Only about a third of the 640 million acres of public land — national parks, permanently protected wilderness where only backpackers are allowed, national wildlife refuges — enjoy complete or high levels of protection against commercial development. Nearly all the rest is multiuse land, for logging, grazing, hard-rock mining, oil and gas development. Especially vulnerable are the 248 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. It is to this threat that President Obama must pay more attention than he has.Some presidents — like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have done a good job protecting public lands; in contrast, President George W. Bush did his best to get the bureau into the speed-leasing business, vending leases, with virtually no profit to the government, for gas and oil drilling…… attitude toward protecting and exploiting public lands. Congress has extraction fever of a rare severity, and it will be on full display. Finding the right balance is always the hard part, especially in the West, where the urge to return to the exploitative ways of the past is strong. But the public lands belong now, as they always have, to the future. There are dozens of wrong ways to use them. But there is no such thing as a wrong way to protect them.

Full text

Of the 2.27 billion acres that constitute the land area of the United States, a little less than 30 percent — about 640 million acres — belongs to you, the American citizen. It is land acquired over the years by treaty, conquest or purchase by the federal government acting on behalf of the people, and indisputably belongs to neither the states nor individuals. But in the last few decades no part of the American land mass has stirred greater controversy.

Almost four decades ago, a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion tried to force the federal government to give up ownership of hundreds of millions of acres, mostly in the West. A similar fever gripped Western legislatures in the mid-1990s. George W. Bush’s Interior Department basically said no to the idea that the federal government should set aside large areas of federal land for permanent wilderness protection.

Those attitudes persist. Two years ago, the Republican House basically told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he could not spend a penny on a program that would merely study existing federal lands for possible wilderness protection at some point in the future. Mitt Romney said he did not fully grasp the “purpose” of the public lands in the course of suggesting that more of them be taken over by the states for oil and gas development. And in the last year, four states — Utah, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona — have passed or have pending bills that would transfer millions of acres of federal land to state control. It is no surprise that the most vociferous opposition to the notion of public ownership is in the West, where there is a disproportionate amount of federal land — just as there is a disproportionate amount of natural resources, like oil, gas and timber, and a disproportionate amount of mountains, canyons and other grand scenery.

But the real threat to the public lands is not from Congress, or the state legislatures, whose laws would almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. The real and constant threat is more subtle, and more piecemeal. Only about a third of the 640 million acres of public land — national parks, permanently protected wilderness where only backpackers are allowed, national wildlife refuges — enjoy complete or high levels of protection against commercial development. Nearly all the rest is multiuse land, for logging, grazing, hard-rock mining, oil and gas development. Especially vulnerable are the 248 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

It is to this threat that President Obama must pay more attention than he has. Every president has adjusted the rate at which land is leased for exploitation and the rate at which it is protected, usually by speeding or slowing the rate at which the bureau grants oil and gas leases, but often by pushing Congress to designate new wilderness or using the powers granted under the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to unilaterally protect land when Congress will not act. Some presidents — like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have done a good job protecting public lands; in contrast, President George W. Bush did his best to get the bureau into the speed-leasing business, vending leases, with virtually no profit to the government, for gas and oil drilling.

In a speech last week, President Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, presented a telling chart that showed how much land has been protected — by Congress and by the president — from the Reagan to the Obama presidency. So far, the current administration is dead last, and by several lengths. Mr. Clinton, for instance, protected 26.9 million acres, 9.3 million through executive action, over his two terms; a total of only 2.6 million acres has been protected so far under President Obama.

One reason is simply politics. Mr. Obama has tried to balance — too carefully, as he nearly always does — the interests of conservationists and Big Oil. As Mr. Babbitt pointed out, some six million acres were leased to the oil and gas industry during Mr. Obama’s first term — more than twice as much land as was set aside for protection. Mr. Obama has four years left, and judging by the tone he has taken since his new term began, we think he may well do a better job when it comes to conservation and land protection. Nominating Sally Jewell as his new interior secretary is a good first step. The toughest part of her Senate confirmation hearings will have to do with her attitude toward protecting and exploiting public lands. Congress has extraction fever of a rare severity, and it will be on full display.

Finding the right balance is always the hard part, especially in the West, where the urge to return to the exploitative ways of the past is strong. But the public lands belong now, as they always have, to the future. There are dozens of wrong ways to use them. But there is no such thing as a wrong way to protect them.

5 Crucial New Findings About Climate Change

AlterNet [1] / By Tara Lohan [2] November 21, 2012

This article was published in partnership with [3].

This just in: The planet is screwed. Well, if you ask Bill McKibben [4] (and you should) we still have a fighting chance. But that’s only if we actually start fighting. This week proved a holiday downer with multiple reports coming in about how quickly we’re losing the battle to stave off the effects of catastrophic climate change. Here’s a quick recap:

1. UN Report: We’re Really Bad at Cutting Global Warming Emissions

It would be one things to say that we are working hard, but not quite hard enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But the sad fact is, we’re not really working on it at all in any meaningful way. Fiona Harvey reports [5] at the Guardian:

The world is straying further away from commitments to combat climate change, bringing the prospect of catastrophic global warming a step closer, a UN report said on Wednesday. …

The gap between what world governments have committed to by way of cuts in greenhouse gases and the cuts that scientists say are necessary has widened, but in order to stave off dangerous levels of global warming, it should have narrowed. There is now one-fifth more carbon in the atmosphere than there was in 2000, and there are few signs of global emissions falling, according to the new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

This is incredibly troubling news and means our hope of staying near or below a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius — which scientists have deemed the upper level of preserving life as we know it on this planet — is quickly slipping out of reach.

2. World Meteorological Organization: Here’s How Bad We Are at Cutting Emissions

Just a day before the UN report, the World Meteorological Organization calculated [6] just how much greenhouse gases are actually in the atmosphere right now. Here’s what they found:

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.

This doesn’t measure greenhouse gas emissions — like how much CO2 is released from things like burning fossil fuels — but indicates how much is left in the atmosphere after greenhouse gases are absorbed by sinks such as oceans and trees. Going forward, this is even more troubling as WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud explains [6]:

Until now, carbon sinks have absorbed nearly half of the carbon dioxide humans emitted in the atmosphere, but this will not necessarily continue in the future. We have already seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the carbon dioxide uptake, with potential repercussions for the underwater food chain and coral reefs.

3. World Bank: We’re Headed to a Really Bad Place

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics did a report on behalf of the World Bank and it concluded [7] that if we hit 4 degree Celsius warming things are going to get really bad: “extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” They also found that we are headed there if we don’t drastically change course.

According [7] to the World Bank, “The report says today’s climate could warm from the current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emissions-reduction pledges.”

As you remember from above, countries aren’t even hitting those pledges, so we’re woefully off-base.

4. Center for American Progress: We’re Especially Screwing Over the Poor and Middle-Class

The U.S. is getting hammered by extreme weather events. “Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, found that North America is experiencing a tremendous rise in extreme weather disasters — a nearly fivefold increase over the past three decades,” reported [8] the Center for American Progress. And this is thanks to climate change.

Knowing this, CAP took a look at how climate-related disasters such as drought, wildfires, winter storms and tropical storms affected people living in the U.S. What they found [8] was, “Most of these extreme weather events typically harmed counties with household incomes below the U.S. median annual household income of $51,914”:

  • Floods damaged households in affected counties with average household incomes of $44,547 annually — 14 percent less than the U.S. median income
  • Drought and heat waves affected counties with households that earned an average of $49,340 annually — roughly 5 percent less than the U.S. median income
  • Wildfires, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms devastated areas with households that earned an average of $50,352 annually — 3 percent less than the U.S. median income

As we know from Superstorm Sandy, the starkest contrasts between economic classes are often revealed in the aftereffects of disasters; those with fewer resources are often unable to flee areas ahead of coming disasters and poorer neighborhoods, including public housing complexes (as Steven Wishnia wrote for AlterNet [9]), are among the last to have services restored. Nowhere is this disparity more clear than the story of Anthony Narh [10], a parking attendent at a posh TriBeCa building in New York City (in the evacuation zone), who was called to work during the storm and drowned when the garage filled with water.

5. World Resources Institute: Blame King Coal (and Ourselves)

Here’s a basic fact: the biggest contributors to climate change are coal-fired power plants. So if we’re staring down the barrel of the climate change gun, what makes the most sense? Cut down on our coal burning, of course. But what are we planning to do? According to a new report [11]from the World Resources Institute, 1,199 new coal-burning power plants have been proposed across the world.

China ranks first in the world in coal production and consumption — by a great margin. The U.S. and India are second and third respectively, in both categories as well. When it comes to new capacity, India has the most number of proposed new projects at 455, while China is second in the number of projects (363) but tops the list in what the installed capacity would be. The U.S. is seventh in installed capacity with 36 new coal-burning power plants proposed.

Stephen Lacey writes for Climate Progress [12]:

The report outlines virtually every coal plant announced around the world. That does not necessarily mean that every one will get built. In the U.S., for example, it is highly unlikely that many — if any — new coal plants will move forward as cheap natural gas, growing renewables, and legal pressure from environmental groups trips up the pipeline. (Also, as Justin Guay of the Sierra Club points out in a piece today, local resistance in communities around the world is also hindering many of these projects).

But the tally is still staggering. If all these plants were built, they would amount to generation capacity four times greater than the entire U.S. coal fleet.

Time to get our heads out of the sand and get to work.

Editor’s Note: If you’re depressed by the conclusions from these new reports, read AlterNet’s interview with Osha Gray Davidson, author of a new book on Germany’s renewable energy revolution and what the U.S. can learn from it.

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The Privilege of Being Human: Ecological Crisis and the Need to Challenge the Twenty Percent

by Joseph Nevins, October 15, 2012 on Common Dreams

Although you would not know it from what passes for debate during the ongoing presidential campaign here in the United States, the biosphere is under siege. A historically high rate of ice melt in the Artic, devastating floods from the Philippines to Nigeria, a record-setting decline inAustralia’s Great Barrier Reef, and extreme levels of drought in much of theUnited States are just some of the recent manifestations.

These worrisome signs highlight, among other things, the tragic failure of the international community to slash consumption of the Earth’s resources via binding international mechanisms. While the reasons for this are numerous, a key one is the obstruction by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries, and their refusal to renounce the gospel of endless economic growth.

But also central is a combination of refusal by and seeming inability of members of the planet’s ecologically privileged class—let’s call them the twenty percent—to see their very ways of life, and their associated gargantuan levels of consumption as problems in need of radical redress.

To appreciate this one need look no further than at a much-talked-about article, one with foreboding news for those interested in sustaining human life on the planet as we know it. It appeared in the journal Nature shortly before the ballyhooed, but ultimately fruitless U.N. Earth Summit opened in June inRio de Janeiro. Due to human-induced changes to the biosphere, the article asserts, the world is quite possibly approaching a “critical transition.” It is one “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.”

A significant decline in biodiversity, a fossil-fuel-use-induced growth in atmospheric greenhouse gases, deforestation, the melting of glaciers, and large “dead zones” in coastal marine areas are just some of the myriad indicators of the extent to which human have altered the biosphere and the “drivers” of the planetary-scale critical transition, say the authors.

As a review of already published material, the article’s findings are, in some ways, old news. Its significance lies in the endorsement by the team of authors of previous findings and the synthesis it offers. Yet the paper’s importance also lies in the myopia exhibited by the 22 scientists fromCanada,Chile,Finland,Spain, and theUnited Stateswho authored the paper in trying to explain what has produced dangerous levels of ecological degradation.

Instead of highlighting the ravenous consumption of a global minority in bringing about the crisis they decry, the authors—no doubt members of the twenty percent—assert that “population growth and per-capita consumption rate underlie all of the other present drivers of global change.” In other words, by raising consumption in a manner that doesn’t distinguish between differential levels of resource use (and putting population growth aside for a moment), they suggest that all of the Earth’s denizens are equally at fault.


The ludicrous nature of this position immediately struck me as I read it given that I had just come across a report revealing that New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg had recently bought a 33-acre estate, for $4.55 million. This is his third home in Westchester County, just north of New York City. He also has three in Manhattan, one in nearby Long Island, one in Colorado, one in Florida, one in London, and one in Bermuda to where he regularly flies in his private jet.

I had also just received an email from Barack Obama (at least it purported to be). In it he promised, if I made a financial contribution to his re-election campaign, to automatically enter me into a drawing. The handful of winners, he wrote, would be flown from their home areas to have dinner with him.

To own 12 homes or to be able to fly supporters across long distances to join you for dinner are obscene displays of wealth and power given the environmental degradation resulting from the resource consumption they embody. They are obscenities that an emphasis on average rates in the form of “per-capita consumption” only serves to obscure. Yet, while highly extreme, such levels of consumption are the pinnacle of grossly unequal levels of resource use, ones that largely correspond to divisions related to the overlapping categories of race, class, and nation.

As international development scholar David Satterthwaite has pointed out in relation to climate change, about 20 percent of the world’s wealthiest individuals and households—given their consumption and lifestyles, along with the production processes, infrastructure, and institutions that make them possible—are likely responsible for more than 80 percent of all contemporary greenhouse gas emissions, and an even greater percentage of historical emissions. In other words, the problem is not primarily one of population growth, but of increasing consumption, consumption by the global twenty percent.

Members of this elite group—people like me—tend to have cell phones, personal computers, and housing with central heating and air conditioning. We typically use electric or gas-driven clothing dryers. More often than not, we own cars, and we travel occasionally, sometimes frequently, by flying—the single most ecologically destructive individual act of consumption one can undertake. (A single roundtrip flight betweenNew York andLondon produces, in terms of its impact on the climate system, the equivalent of two metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per economy class passenger—more than the emissions produced by an average resident ofBrazil for an entire year.)

We also throw away a lot and consume huge amounts of plastic (more than 300 pounds per person annually in theUnited   States). And most of us eat a great deal of meat, the production of which constitutes one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses. In other words, we consume way beyond what is globally sustainable by any reasonable measure—and increasingly so.

Invocations of population growth divert one’s attention from such levels of consumption and the massive inequities underlying them. They lead to a focus on peoples and places with the highest rates of fertility, ones which are typically largely non-white and among the world’s poorest—those who consume least, in other words. Effectively erased from view are the socio-economic classes and places with which the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama are associated as they tend to have very low, sometimes even negative, rates of demographic increase.

This is not to say that population expansion does not matter at all. High rates of demographic growth among the global poor and related increases in consumption can and do have significant impacts on local resource bases. But to state what should be painfully obvious, these populations have a negligible impact on the global environment given how little they consume.

According to Satterthwaite, for example, 18.5 percent of the world’s population growth during the 35-year period of 1980-2005 took place in sub-Saharan African, but its share of the growth in global carbon emissions was only 2.5 percent. During that same period,Canadaand theUnited Stateshad 4 percent of population growth, but were responsible for 13.9 percent of the increase in C02 emissions.


Similar to responsibility for carbon emissions, resource consumption broadly is highly unequal. The United States, home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, for instance, is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel use. If everyone in the world were to consume environmental resources at the present U.S. level, or that of Denmark or the United Arab Emirates, between four and five planet Earths would be required to sustain themaccording to the Global Footprint Network. (In comparison, if everyone consumed at the level ofIndia, half the planet Earth, given today’s global population, would be sufficient.)

Admittedly, invocation of the global twenty percent rather than, say, the one percent no doubt obscures, just as it illuminates. Few have the power to consume and destroy like Michael Bloomberg or Barack Obama, for example. Clearly, as within any grouping, there are significant differences within. But this should not hide the fact that it is not only the super-rich who consume in a manner way out of proportion to what would be their fair share of the world’s resources were they to be allocated equitably with an eye toward ensuring the wellbeing of posterity.

Moreover, it is true that an increasing share of the twenty percent is from relatively prosperous countries of the Global South—largely urban elites from the likes ofChina,Brazil,India, andSouth Africa. Yet, most of the world’s top consumers, as they long have, come from those countries that are in the top tier of per capita incomes, countries such asAustralia, those of the European Union,Japan, and theUnited States.

The socio-geographic concentration of the twenty percent helps illustrate why critical scrutiny of individual consumption need not and should not lead to an ignoring of the systemic components of our ecological plight—perhaps the most notable of which is how industrial-consumer capitalism, which dominates the planet, fuels and necessitates voracious consumption for its very survival, and significantly shapes and limits our options. It is a system that mines the planet’s environmental resources, damages the biosphere, and exacerbates socio-economic inequities and vulnerabilities in the process.

This system draws upon and helps reproduce multiple axes of difference—race, class, gender, and nation among them. They are differences with profound implications for how people live and die across the planet. (A recent report by the humanitarian aid and research organization DARA, for instance, found that 400,000 deaths each year today are attributable to climate change, with air pollution causing another 1.4 million fatalities annually.) As such, these differences are inextricably tied to unjust structures that embody privilege and wellbeing for some, and disadvantage and harm for others.

The focus on individual consumption also should not obviate critical attention on large institutional actors—say, the U.S.military, the world’s single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Nor should it obfuscate how the very organization of the places we live and work, and the larger social networks in which we are implicated, shape what we do and pressure us to engage in behavior we wouldn’t pursue were other choices available. (Think about how unsafe streets and inadequate public transport compels many to drive.)

Yet, despite the importance of such factors, we should not make the mistake of pretending that we have no options, and that our individual choices don’t have implications for the viability of the systems in which we are implicated, and the many institutions with which we interact—willingly or not. As such, the call to challenge the twenty percent’s rapacious resource use is not an effort to reduce individuals to consumers. It is necessarily tied to our responsibilities as citizens, as members of political-economic communities given that any project of social transformation requires engaging both the individual and the collective. Just as it would be intellectually, ethically and politically illogical to contend that individual racist behavior is inconsequential and that its scrutiny is a diversion from the struggle against structural racism, it is unacceptable to suggest that individual consumption—especially that of a grossly unsustainable sort—is meaningless and unrelated to systemic injustice and its reproduction.

For this reason and more, dangerous levels of soil depletion, diminishing supplies of potable water across the planet, the rapidly decreasing viability of the world’s fisheries, high extinction rates of plant and animal species, and rising global temperatures (among other signs) are not simply environmental matters. They are urgent issues of human rights and social justice.


For those moved to resist the status quo, and champion radical change in response, many posing as sympathetic allies advise them to take a careful, gradual approach. These purveyors of caution are among those who today place their hopes in technological salvation, some sort of breakthrough discovery or invention that will somehow eliminate or at least greatly reduce the ecological damage associated with a particular practice or specific form of consumption, and thus allow us to continue largely our ways.

Fearful of what they and those with whom they most identify might lose, what these highly ambivalent allies actually seek to facilitate is a reworked status quo. It is a new version of the old, one which maintains established privileges and hierarchy, with simply a prettier veneer, its most brutal expressions muted.

This championing of restraint in a context demanding fundamental change is a longstanding problem, one the great writer James Baldwin, among many others, have encountered at different times and places. In an essay in Partisan Review (Fall, 1956), Baldwin forcefully addressed such “advice” when he criticized fellow writer William Faulkner’s call to “go slow” in the effort to overthrow the institutionalized system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow in the U.S. South. (“They don’t mean go slow, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall reportedly said in response. “They mean, don’t go.”)

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it,”Baldwincountered, “the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring, one clings to what knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he had long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

Transforming any social system—given its very nature—is necessarily a highly disruptive process in that, for better or for worse depending on where one is situated on the spectrum of privilege and disadvantage, it is part of the very fabric of life. As such, fundamental change requires a willingness on the part of those of the privileged classes who profess to support a different world, one that is just and truly sustainable, to move to a position of discomfort, to challenge the very sources of their ecological privilege, nor merely the symptoms. Only in this way can a system that is unjust—and thus limited in terms of the distribution of its benefits—be eradicated so as to bring aboutBaldwin’s “higher dreams” of privileges enjoyed by all.

For those of us who gain from—and help reproduce—the institutionalized injustice, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how our comfort and prosperity are tied to the socio-economic and ecological insecurity experienced by so many. This means that we, the twenty percent, have to give up things—our ability to have lots of “stuff”; to consume the planet’s resources without thought and to dump the detriments on socially distant, unseen peoples and communities; to travel wherever and whenever we’d like in manners that exact high social and ecological costs; to have our wants satisfied before the needs of others are met.

It also requires that we abandon the illusion that a world order that facilitates our unjust privileges can and should be preserved, and that our rapacious levels of consumption are maintainable, that, somehow, contrary to everything the natural sciences tell us, we will not have to reap what we sow. For privileged people of good will, this necessitates accepting the responsibility to be human in all that it entails. We thus must struggle not only on myriad fronts ranging from Wall Street writ-large to the Pentagon, but also with ourselves and those closest to us.

The ecological challenges we face as a planet are enormous, and ominous in terms of what they suggest for the well-being of peoples and places across the planet and the biosphere as a whole. In this regard, the ending of Baldwin’s retort to Faulkner could not be timelier: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at VassarCollege. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

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Crimes Against Nature by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., December 11, 2003

For more than thirty years, landmark laws have protected America’s environment. In 2001, George W. Bush, financed by the energy industry and his supporters on the far right, launched a campaign to sabotage these safeguards and steal the national treasure

George W. Bush Will go down in history as America’s worst environmental president.
In a ferocious three-year attack, the Bush administration has initiated more than 200 major rollbacks of America’s environmental laws, weakening the protection of our country’s air, water, public lands and wildlife. Cloaked in meticulously crafted language designed to deceive the public, the administration intends to eliminate the nation’s most important environmental laws by the end of the year.
Under the guidance of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, the Bush White House has actively hidden its anti-environmental program behind deceptive rhetoric, telegenic spokespeople, secrecy and the intimidation of scientists and bureaucrats.
The Bush attack was not entirely unexpected. George W. Bush had the grimmest environmental record of any governor during his tenure in Texas. Texas became number one in air and water pollution and in the release of toxic chemicals. In his six years in Austin, he championed a short-term pollution-based prosperity, which enriched his political contributors and corporate cronies by lowering the quality of life for everyone else. Now President Bush is set to do the same to America. After three years, his policies are already bearing fruit, diminishing standards of living for millions of Americans.
I am angry both as a citizen and a father. Three of my sons have asthma, and I watch them struggle to breathe on bad-air days. And they’re comparatively lucky: One in four African-American children in New York shares this affliction; their suffering is often unrelieved because they lack the insurance and high-quality health care that keep my sons alive. My kids are among the millions of Americans who cannot enjoy the seminal American experience of fishing locally with their dad and eating their catch. Most freshwater fish in New York and all in Connecticut are now under consumption advisories. A main source of mercury pollution in America, as well as asthma-provoking ozone and particulates, is the coal-burning power plants that President Bush recently excused from complying with the Clean Air Act.

Furthermore, the deadly addiction to fossil fuels that White House policies encourage has squandered our treasury, entangled us in foreign wars, diminished our international prestige, made us a target for terrorist attacks and increased our reliance on petty Middle Eastern dictators who despise democracy and are hated by their own people.
When the Republican right managed to install George W. Bush as president in 2000, movement leaders once again set about doing what they had attempted to do since the Reagan years: eviscerate the infrastructure of laws and regulations that protect the environment. For twenty-five years it has been like the zombie that keeps coming back from the grave.
The attacks began on Inauguration Day, when President Bush’s chief of staff and former General Motors lobbyist Andrew Card quietly initiated a moratorium on all recently adopted regulations. Since then, the White House has enlisted every federal agency that oversees environmental programs in a coordinated effort to relax rules aimed at the oil, coal, logging, mining and chemical industries as well as auto-makers, real estate developers, corporate agribusiness and other industries.
Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency has halted work on sixty-two environmental standards, the federal Department of Agriculture has stopped work on fifty-seven standards, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has halted twenty-one new standards. The EPA completed just two major rules ? both under court order and both watered down at industry request ? compared to twenty-three completed by the Clinton administration and fourteen by the Bush Sr. administration in their first two years.
This onslaught is being coordinated through the White House Office of Management and Budget ? or, more precisely, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, under the direction of John Graham, the engine-room mechanic of the Bush stealth strategy. Graham’s specialty is promoting changes in scientific and economic assumptions that underlie government regulations ? such as recalculating cost-benefit analyses to favor polluters. Before coming to the White House, Graham was the founding director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, where he received funding from America’s champion corporate polluters: Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Alcoa, Exxon, General Electric and General Motors.
Under the White House’s guidance, the very agencies entrusted to protect Americans from polluters are laboring to destroy environmental laws. Or they’ve simply stopped enforcing them. Penalties imposed for environmental violations have plummeted under Bush. The EPA has proposed eliminating 270 enforcement staffers, which would drop staff levels to the lowest level ever. Inspections of polluting businesses have dipped fifteen percent. Criminal cases referred for federal prosecution have dropped forty percent. The EPA measures its success by the amount of pollution reduced or prevented as a result of its own actions. Last year, the EPA’s two most senior career enforcement officials resigned after decades of service. They cited the administration’s refusal to carry out environmental laws.
The White House has masked its attacks with euphemisms that would have embarrassed George Orwell. George W. Bush’s “Healthy Forests” initiative promotes destructive logging of old-growth forests. His “Clear Skies” program, which repealed key provisions of the Clean Air Act, allows more emissions. The administration uses misleading code words such as streamlining or reforming instead of weakening, and thinning instead of logging.
In a March 2003 memo to Republican leadership, pollster Frank Luntz frankly outlined the White House strategy on energy and the environment: “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general and President Bush in particular are most vulnerable,” he wrote, cautioning that the public views Republicans as being “in the pockets of corporate fat cats who rub their hands together and chuckle maniacally as they plot to pollute America for fun and profit.” Luntz warned, “Not only do we risk losing the swing vote, but our suburban female base could abandon us as well.” He recommended that Republicans don the sheep’s clothing of environmental rhetoric while dismantling environmental laws.

I prosecute polluters on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance. As George W. Bush began his presidency, I was involved in litigation against the factory-pork industry, which is a large source of air and water pollution in America. Corporate pork factories cannot produce more efficiently than traditional family farmers without violating several federal environmental statutes. Industrial farms illegally dump millions of tons of untreated fecal and toxic waste onto land and into the air and water. Factory farms have contaminated hundreds of miles of waterways, put tens of thousands of family farmers and fishermen out of work, killed billions of fish, sickened consumers and subjected millions of farm animals to unspeakable cruelty.
On behalf of several farm groups and fishermen, we sued Smithfield Foods and won a decision that suggested that almost all of American factory farms were violating the Clean Water Act. The Clinton EPA had also brought its own parallel suits addressing chronic air and water violations by hog factories. But almost immediately after taking office, the Bush administration ordered the EPA to halt its Clean Air Act investigations of animal factories and weaken the water rules to allow them to continue polluting indefinitely.
Several of my other national cases were similarly derailed. Eleven years ago, I sued the EPA to stop massive fish kills at power plants. Using antiquated technology, power plants often suck up the entire fresh water volume of large rivers, killing obscene numbers of fish. Just one facility, the Salem nuclear plant in New Jersey, kills more than 3 billion Delaware River fish each year, according to Martin Marietta, the plant’s own consultant. These fish kills are illegal, and in 2001 we finally won our case. A federal judge ordered the EPA to issue regulations restricting power-plant fish kills. But soon after President Bush’s inauguration, the administration replaced the proposed new rule with clever regulations designed to allow the slaughter to continue unabated. The new administration also trumped court decisions that would have enforced greater degrees of wetlands protection and forbidden coal moguls from blasting off whole mountain-tops to get at the coal beneath.
The fishermen I represent are traditionally Republican. But, without exception, they see this administration as the largest threat not just to their livelihoods but to their values and their idea of what it means to be American. “Why,” they’ll ask, “is the president allowing coal, oil, power and automotive interests to fix the game?”
Back to the Dark Ages
George W. Bush Seems To be Trying To take us all the way back to the Dark Ages by undermining the very principles of our environmental rights, which civilized nations have always recognized. Ancient Rome’s Code of Justinian guaranteed the use to all citizens of the “public trust” or commons ? those shared resources that cannot be reduced to private property ? the air, flowing water, public lands, wandering animals, fisheries, wetlands and aquifers.
When Roman law broke down in Europe during the Dark Ages, feudal kings began to privatize the commons. In the early thirteenth century, when King John also attempted to sell off England’s fisheries and erect navigational tolls on the Thames, his subjects rose up and confronted him at Runnymede, forcing him to sign the Magna Carta, which includes provisions guaranteeing the rights of free access to fisheries and waters.
Clean-air laws in England, passed in the fourteenth century, made it a capital offense to burn coal in London, and violators were executed for the crime. These “public trust” rights to unspoiled air, water and wildlife descended to the people of the United States following the American Revolution. Until 1870, a factory releasing even small amounts of smoke onto public or private property was operating illegally.
But during the Gilded Age, when the corporate robber barons captured the political and judicial systems, those rights were stolen from the American people. As the Industrial Revolution morphed into the postwar industrial boom, Americans found themselves paying a high price for the resulting pollution. The wake-up call came in the late Sixties, when Lake Erie was declared dead and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River exploded in colossal infernos.

In 1970, more than 20 million Americans took to the streets protesting the state of the environment on the first Earth Day. Whether they knew it or not, they were demanding a return of ancient rights.
During the next few years, Congress passed twenty-eight major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and it created the Environmental Protection Agency to apply and enforce these new laws. Polluters would be held accountable; those planning to use the commons would have to compile envi-ronmental-impact statements and hold public hearings; citizens were given the power to prosecute environmental crimes. Right-to-know and toxic-inventory laws made government and industry more transparent on the local level and our nation more democratic. Even the most vulnerable Americans could now participate in the dialogue that determines the destinies of their communities.
Earth Day caught polluters off guard. But in the next thirty years, they mounted an increasingly sophisticated and aggressive counterattack to undermine these laws. The Bush administration is a culmination of their three-decade campaign.
Strangling The Environment
In 1980, Candidate Ronald Reagan Declared, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel,” marking a major turning point of the modern anti-environmental movement. In the early 1980s, the Western extractive industries, led by one of Colorado’s worst polluters, brewer Joseph Coors, organized the Sagebrush Rebellion, a coalition of industry money and right-wing ideologues that helped elect Reagan president.
The big polluters who started the Sagebrush Rebellion were successful because they managed to broaden their constituency with anti-regulatory, anti-labor and anti-environmental rhetoric that had great appeal both among Christian fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and in certain Western communities where hostility to government is deeply rooted. Big polluters found that they could organize this discontent into a potent political force that possessed the two ingredients of power in American democracy: money and intensity. Meanwhile, innovations in direct-mail and computer technologies gave this alliance of dark populists and polluters a deafening voice in American government.
Coors founded the Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1976 to bring lawsuits designed to enrich giant corporations, limit civil rights and attack unions, homosexuals and minorities. He also founded the right-wing Heritage Foundation, to provide a philosophical underpinning for the anti-environmental movement. While the foundation and its imitators ? the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Marshall Institute and others ? claim to advocate free markets and property rights, their agenda is more pro-pollution than anything else.
From its conception, the Heritage Foundation and its neoconservative cronies urged followers to “strangle the environmental movement,” which Heritage named “the greatest single threat to the American economy.” Ronald Reagan’s victory gave Heritage Foundation and the Mountain States Legal Foundation immeasurable clout. Heritage became known as Reagan’s “shadow government,” and its 2,000-page manifesto, “Mandate for Change,” became a blueprint for his administration. Coors handpicked his Colorado associates: Anne Gorsuch became the EPA administrator; her husband, Robert Burford, a cattle baron who had vowed to destroy the Bureau of Land Management, was selected to head that very agency. Most notorious, Coors chose James Watt, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, as the secretary of the interior. Watt was a proponent of “dominion theology,” an authoritarian Christian heresy that advocates man’s duty to “subdue” nature. His deep faith in laissez-faire capitalism and apocalyptic Christianity led Secretary Watt to set about dismantling his department and distributing its assets rather than managing them for future generations. During a Senate hearing, he cited the approaching Apocalypse to explain why he was giving away America’s sacred places at fire-sale prices: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
Meanwhile, Anne Gorsuch enthusiastically gutted EPA’s budget by sixty percent, crippling its ability to write regulations or enforce the law. She appointed lobbyists fresh from their hitches with the paper, asbestos, chemical and oil companies to run each of the principal agency departments. Her chief counsel was an Exxon lawyer; her head of enforcement was from General Motors.

These attacks on the environment precipitated a public revolt. By 1983, more than a million Americans and all 125 American-Indian tribes had signed a petition demanding Watt’s removal. After being forced out of office, Watt was indicted on twenty-five felony counts of influence-pedaling. Gorsuch and twenty-three of her cronies were forced to resign following a congressional investigation of sweet-heart deals with polluters, including Coors. Her first deputy, Rita Lavelle, was jailed for perjury.
The indictments and resignations put a temporary damper on the Sagebrush Rebels, but they quickly regrouped as the “Wise Use” movement. Wise Use founder, the timber-industry flack Ron Arnold, said, “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement. We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely.”
By 1994, Wise Use helped propel Newt Gingrich to the speaker’s chair of the U.S. House of Representatives and turn his anti-environmental manifesto, “The Contract With America,” into law. Gingrich’s chief of environmental policy was Rep. Tom DeLay, the one-time Houston exterminator who was determined to rid the world of pesky pesticide regulations and to promote a biblical worldview. He targeted the Endangered Species Act as the second-greatest threat to Texas after illegal aliens. He also wanted to legalize the deadly pesticide DDT, and he routinely referred to the EPA as “the Gestapo of government.” In January 1995, DeLay invited a group of 350 lobbyists representing some of America’s biggest polluters to collaborate in drafting legislation to dismantle federal health, safety and environmental laws.
Gingrich and DeLay had learned from the James Watt debacle that they had to conceal their radical agenda. Carefully eschewing public debates on their initiatives, they mounted a stealth attack on America’s environmental laws. Rather than pursue a frontal assault against popular statutes such as the Endangered Species, Clean Water and Clean Air acts, they tried to undermine these laws by attaching silent riders to must-pass budget bills.
But the public got wise. Moderate Republicans teamed up with the Clinton administration to block the worst of it. My group, the NRDC, as well as the Sierra Club and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, generated more than 1 million letters to Congress. When President Clinton shut down the government in December 1995 rather than pass a budget bill spangled with anti-environmental riders, the tide turned against Gingrich and DeLay. By the end of that month, even conservatives disavowed the attack. “We lost the battle on the environment,” DeLay conceded.
Undermining the Scientists
Today, with the presidency and Both houses of Congress under the anti-environmentalists’ control, they are set to eviscerate the despised laws. White House strategy is to promote its unpopular policies by lying about its agenda, cheating on the science and stealing the language and rhetoric of the environmental movement.
Even as Republican pollster Luntz acknowledged that the scientific evidence is against the Republicans on issues like global warming, he advised them to find scientists willing to hoodwink the public. “You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue,” he told Republicans, “by becoming even more active in recruiting experts sympathetic to your view.”
In the meantime, he urged them to change their rhetoric. “‘Climate change,’” he said, “is less threatening than ‘global warming.’ While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”
The EPA’s inspector general received broad attention for his August 21st, 2003, finding that the White House pressured the agency to conceal the public-health risks from poisoned air following the September 11th World Trade Center attacks. But this 2001 deception is only one example of the administration’s pattern of strategic distortion. Earlier this year, it suppressed an EPA report warning that millions of Americans, especially children, are being poisoned by mercury from industrial sources.

This behavior is consistent throughout the Bush government. Consider the story of James Zahn, a scientist at the Department of Agriculture who resigned after the Bush administration suppressed his taxpayer-funded study proving that billions of antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be carried daily across property lines from meat factories into neighboring homes and farms. In March 2002, Zahn accepted my invitation to present his findings to a convention of family-farm advocates in Iowa. Several weeks before the April conference, pork-industry lobbyists learned of his appearance and persuaded the Department of Agriculture to forbid him from appearing. Zahn told me he had been ordered to cancel a dozen appearances at county health departments and similar venues.
In May, the White House blocked the EPA staff from publicly discussing contamination by the chemical perchlorate ? the main ingredient in solid rocket fuel. The administration froze federal regulations on perchlorate, even as new research reveals alarmingly high levels of the chemical in the nation’s drinking water and food supply, including many grocery-store lettuces. Perchlorate pollution has been linked to neurological problems, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in some twenty states. The Pentagon and several defense contractors face billions of dollars in potential cleanup liability.
The administration’s leading expert in manipulating scientific data is Interior Secretary Gale Norton. During her nomination hearings, Norton promised not to ideologically slant agency science. But as her friend Thomas Sansonetti, a coal-industry lobbyist who is now assistant attorney general, predicted, “There won’t be any biologists or botanists to come in and pull the wool over her eyes.”
In autumn 2001, Secretary Norton provided the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with her agency’s scientific assessment that Arctic oil drilling would not harm hundreds of thousands of caribou. Not long afterward, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists contacted the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which defends scientists and other professionals working in state and federal environmental agencies. “The scientists provided us the science that they had submitted to Norton and the altered version that she had given to Congress a week later,” said the group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch. There were seventeen major substantive changes, all of them minimizing the reported impacts. When Norton was asked about the alterations in October 2001, she dismissed them as typographical errors.
Later, she and White House political adviser Karl Rove forced National Marine Fisheries scientists to alter findings on the amount of water required for the survival of salmon in Oregon’s Klamath River, to ensure that large corporate farms got a bigger share of the river water. As a result, more than 33,000 chinook and coho salmon died ? the largest fish kill in the history of America. Mike Kelly, the biologist who drafted the original opinion (and who has since been awarded federal whistle-blower status), told me that the coho salmon is probably headed for extinction. “Morale is low among scientists here,” Kelly says. “We are under pressure to get the right results. This administration is putting the species at risk for political gain ? and not just in the Klamath.”
Norton has also ordered the rewriting of an exhaustive twelve-year study by federal biologists detailing the effects that Arctic drilling would have on populations of musk oxen and snow geese. She reissued the biologists’ report two weeks later as a two-page paper showing no negative impact to wildlife. She also ordered suppression of two studies by the Fish and Wildlife Service concluding that the drilling would threaten polar-bear populations and violate the international treaty protecting bears. She then instructed the Fish and Wildlife Service to redo the report to “reflect the Interior Department’s position.” She suppressed findings that mountaintop mining would cause “tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat” and a Park Service report that found that snowmobiles were hurting Yellowstone’s air quality, wildlife and the health of its visitors and employees.
Norton’s Fish and Wildlife Service is the first ever not to voluntarily list a single species as endangered or threatened. Her officials have blackballed scientists and savaged studies to avoid listing the trumpeter swan, revoke the listing of the grizzly bear and shrink the remnant habitat for the Florida panther. She disbanded the service’s oldest scientific advisory committee in order to halt protection of desert fish in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas that are headed for extinction. Interior career staffers and scientists say they are monitored by Norton’s industry appointees to ensure that future studies do not conflict with industry profit-making.
Cooking the Books on Global Warming
There is no scientific debate in which the White House has cooked the books more than that of global warming. In the past two years the Bush administration has altered, suppressed or attempted to discredit close to a dozen major reports on the subject. These include a ten-year peer-reviewed study by the International Panel on Climate Change, commissioned by the president’s father in 1993 in his own efforts to dodge what was already a virtual scientific consensus blaming industrial emissions for global warming.
After disavowing the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration commissioned the federal government’s National Academy of Sciences to find holes in the IPCC analysis. But this ploy backfired. The NAS not only confirmed the existence of global warming and its connection to industrial greenhouse gases, it also predicted that the effects of climate change would be worse than previously believed, estimating that global temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees by 2100.

A May 2002 report by scientists from the EPA, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, approved by Bush appointees at the Council on Environmental Quality and submitted to the United Nations by the U.S., predicted similarly catastrophic impacts. When confronted with the findings, Bush dismissed it with his smirking condemnation: “I’ve read the report put out by the bureaucracy….”
Afterward, the White House acknowledged that, in fact, he hadn’t. Having failed to discredit the report with this untruth, George W. did what his father had done: He promised to study the problem some more. Last fall, the White House announced the creation of the Climate Research Initiative to study global warming. The earliest results are due next fall. But the White House’s draft plan for CRI was derided by the NAS in February as a rehash of old studies and established science lacking “most elements of a strategic plan.”
In September 2002, administration censors released the annual EPA report on air pollution without the agency’s usual update on global warming, that section having been deleted by Bush appointees at the White House. On June 19th, 2003, a “State of the Environment” report commissioned by the EPA in 2001 was released after language about global warming was excised by flat-earthers in the White House. The redacted studies had included a 2001 report by the National Research Council, commissioned by the White House. In their place was a piece of propaganda fi-nanced by the American Petroleum Institute challenging these conclusions.
This past July, EPA scientists leaked a study, which the agency had ordered suppressed in May, showing that a Senate plan ? co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain ? to reduce the pollution that causes global warming could achieve its goal at very small cost. Bush reacted by launching a $100 million ten-year effort to prove that global temperature changes have, in fact, occurred naturally, another delay tactic for the fossil-fuel barons at taxpayer expense.
Princeton geo-scientist Michael Oppenheimer told me, “This administration likes to emphasize what we don’t know while ignoring or minimizing what we do know, which is a prescription for paralysis on policy. It’s hard to imagine what kind of scientific evidence would suffice to convince the White House to take firm action on global warming.”
Across the board, the administration yields to Big Energy. At the request of ExxonMobil, and with the help of a lobbying group working for coal-burning utility Southern Co., the Bush administration orchestrated the removal of U.S. scientist Robert Watson, the world-renowned former NASA atmospheric chemist who headed the United Nations’ IPCC. He was replaced by a little-known scientist from New Delhi, India, who would be generally unavailable for congressional hearings.
The Bush administration now plans to contract out thousands of environmental-science jobs to compliant industry consultants already in the habit of massaging data to support corporate profit-taking, effectively making federal science an arm of Karl Rove’s political machine. The very ideologues who derided Bill Clinton as a liar have institutionalized dishonesty and made it the reigning culture of America’s federal agencies. “At its worst,” Oppenheimer says, “this approach represents a serious erosion in the way a democracy deals with science.”
Inside The Cheney Task Force
There is no better example of the corporate cronyism now hijacking American democracy than the White House’s cozy relationship with the energy industry. It’s hard to find anyone on Bush’s staff who does not have extensive corporate connections, but fossil-fuel executives rule the roost. The energy industry contributed more than $48.3 million to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle, with $3 million to Bush. Now the investment has matured. Both Bush and Cheney came out of the oil patch. Thirty-one of the Bush transition team’s forty-eight members had energy-industry ties. Bush’s cabinet and White House staff is an energy-industry dream team ? four cabinet secretaries, the six most powerful White House officials and more than twenty high-level appointees are alumni of the industry and its allies (see “Bush’s Energy-Industry All-Stars,” on Page 183).
The potential for corruption is staggering. Take the case of J. Steven Griles, deputy secretary of the Interior Depart ment. During the first Reagan administration, Griles worked directly under James Watt at Interior, where he helped the coal industry evade prohibitions against mountaintop-removal strip mining. In 1989, Griles left government to work as a mining executive and then as a lobbyist with National Environmental Strategies, a Washington, D.C., firm that represented the National Mining Association and Dominion Resources, one of the nation’s largest power producers. When Griles got his new job at Interior, the National Mining Association hailed him as “an ally of the industry.”

It’s bad enough that a former mining lobbyist was put in charge of regulating mining on public land. But it turns out that Griles is still on the industry’s payroll. In 2001, he sold his client base to his partner Marc Himmelstein for four annual payments of $284,000, making Griles, in effect, a continuing partner in the firm.
Because Griles was an oil and mining lobbyist, the Senate made him agree in writing that he would avoid contact with his former clients as a condition of his confirmation. Griles has nevertheless repeatedly met with former coal clients to discuss new rules allowing mountaintop mining in Appalachia and destructive coal-bed methane drilling in Wyoming. He also met with his former oil clients about offshore leases. These meetings prompted Sen. Joseph Lieberman to ask the Interior Department to investigate Griles. With Republicans in control of congressional committees, no subpoenas have interrupted the Griles scandals.
With its operatives in place, the Bush energy plan became an orgy of industry plunder. Days after his inauguration, Bush launched the National Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Cheney. For three months, the task force held closed-door meetings with energy-industry representatives ? then refused to disclose the names of the participants.
For the first time in history, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office sued the executive branch, for access to these records. NRDC put in a Freedom of Information Act request, and when Cheney did not respond, we also sued. On February 21st, 2002, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and other agency officials to turn over the records relating to their participation in the work of the energy task force. Under this court order, NRDC has obtained some 20,000 documents. Although none of the logs on the vice president’s meetings have been released yet and the pages were heavily redacted to prevent disclosure of useful information, the documents still allow glimpses of the process.
The task force comprised Cabinet secretaries and other high-level administration officials with energy-industry pedigrees. The undisputed leader was Cheney, who hails from Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer, and who, for six previous years, was CEO of Halliburton, the oil-service company. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was chairman of the Aluminum Company of America for thirteen years. Aluminum-industry profits are directly related to energy prices. O’Neill promised to immediately sell his extensive stock holdings in his former company (worth more than $100 million) to avoid conflicts of interest, but he delayed the sale until after the energy plan was released. By then, thanks partly to the administration’s energy policies, Alcoa’s stock had risen thirty percent. Energy Secretary Abraham, a former one-term senator from Michigan, received $700,000 from the auto industry in his losing 2000 campaign, more than any other Senate candidate. At Energy, Abraham led the administration effort to scuttle fuel-economy standards, allow SUVs to escape fuel-efficiency minimums and create obscene tax incentives for Americans to buy the largest gas guzzlers.
Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, sat next to Abraham on the task force. Allbaugh’s wife, Diane, is an energy-industry lobbyist and represents three firms ? Reliant Energy, Entergy and TXU, each of which paid her $20,000 in the three months of the task force’s deliberation. Joe Allbaugh participated in task-force meetings on issues directly affecting those companies, including debates about environmental rules for power plants and ? his wife’s specialty ? electricity deregulation.
Commerce Secretary Don Evans, an old friend of the president from their early days in the oil business, was CEO of Tom Brown Inc., a Denver oil-and-gas company, and a trustee of another drilling firm. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a mining-industry lawyer, accepted nearly $800,000 from the energy industry during her 1996 run in Colorado for the U.S. Senate.
In the winter and spring of 2001, executives and lobbyists from the oil, coal, electric-utility and nuclear industries tramped in and out of the Cabinet room and Cheney’s office. Many of the lobbyists had just left posts inside Bush’s presidential campaign to work for companies that had donated lavishly to that effort. Companies that made large contributions were given special access. Executives from Enron Corp., which contributed $2.5 million to the GOP from 1999 to 2002, had contact with the task force at least ten times, including six face-to-face meetings between top officials and Cheney.
After one meeting with Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, Cheney dismissed California Gov. Gray Davis’ request to cap the state’s energy prices. That denial would enrich Enron and nearly bankrupt California. It has since emerged that the state’s energy crisis was largely engineered by Enron. According to the New York Times, the task-force staff circulated a memo that suggested “utilizing” the crisis to justify expanded oil and gas drilling. President Bush and others would cite the California crisis to call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Energy companies that had not ponied up remained under pressure to give to Republicans. When Westar Energy’s chief executive was indicted for fraud, investigators found an e-mail written by Westar executives describing solicitations by Republican politicians for a political action committee controlled by Tom DeLay as the price for a “seat at the table” with the task force.
Task-force members began each meeting with industry lobbyists by announcing that the session was off the record and that participants were to share no documents. A National Mining Association official told reporters that the industry managed to control the energy plan by keeping the process secret. “We’ve probably had as much input as anybody else in town,” he said. “I have to take my hat off to them ? they’ve been able to keep a lid on it.”

When it was suggested that access to the administration was for sale, Cheney hardly apologized. “Just because somebody makes a campaign contribution doesn’t mean that they should be denied the opportunity to express their view to government officials,” he said. Although they met with hundreds of industry officials, Cheney and Abraham refused to meet with any environmental groups. Cheney made one exception to the secrecy policy: On May 15th, 2001, the day before the task force sent its plan to the president, CEOs from wind-solar-and geothermal-energy companies were granted a short meeting with Cheney. Afterward, they were led into the Rose Garden for a press conference and a photo op.
While peddling influence to energy tycoons, the White House quietly dropped criminal and civil charges against Koch Industries, America’s largest privately held oil company. Koch faced a ninety-seven-count federal felony indictment and $357 million in fines for knowingly releasing ninety metric tons of carcinogenic benzene and concealing the releases from federal regulators. Koch executives contributed $800,000 to Bush’s presidential campaign and to other top Republicans.
Last March, the Federal Trade Commission dropped a Clintonera investigation of price gouging by the oil and gas industries, even as Duke Energy, a principal target of the probe, admitted to selling electricity in California for more than double the highest previously reported price. The Bush administration said that the industry deserved a “gentler approach.” Administration officials also winked at a scam involving a half-dozen oil companies cheating the government out of $100 million per year in royalty payments.
Southern Co. was among the most adept advocates for its own self-interest. The company, which contributed $1.6 million to Republicans from 1999 to 2002, met with Cheney’s task force seven times. Faced with a series of EPA prosecutions at power plants violating air-quality standards, the company retained Haley Barbour, former Republican National Committee chairman and now governor-elect of Mississippi, to lobby the administration to ignore Southern’s violations.
The White House then forced the Justice Department to drop the prosecution. Justice lawyers were “astounded” that the administration would interfere in a law-enforcement matter that was “supposed to be out of bounds from politics.” The EPA’s chief enforcement officer, Eric Schaeffer, resigned. “With the Bush administration, whether or not environmental laws are enforced depends on who you know,” Schaeffer told me. “If you’ve got a good lobbyist, you can just buy your way out of trouble.”
Along with Barbour, Southern retained current Republican National Committee chairman and former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. Barbour and Racicot repeatedly conferred with Abraham and Cheney, urging them to ease limits on carbon-dioxide pollution from power plants and to gut the Clean Air Act. On May 17th, 2001, the White House released its energy plan. Among the recommendations were exempting old power plants from Clean Air Act compliance and adopting Barbour’s arguments about carbon-dioxide restrictions. Barbour repaid the favor that week by raising $250,000 at a May 21st GOP gala honoring Bush. Southern donated $150,000 to the effort.
Cheney’s task force had at least nineteen contacts with officials from the nuclear-energy industry ? whose trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, donated $100,000 to the Bush inauguration gala and $437,000 to Republicans from 1999 to 2002. The report recommended loosening environmental controls on the industry, reducing public participation in the siting of nuclear plants and adding billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear industry.
Cheney wasn’t embarrassed to reward his old cronies at Halliburton, either. The final draft of the task-force report praises a gas-recovery technique controlled by Halliburton ? even though an earlier draft had criticized the technology. The technique, which has been linked to the contamination of aquifers, is currently being investigated by the EPA. Somehow, that got edited out of the report.
Big Coal and the Destruction of Appalachia
Coal Companies Enjoyed perhaps the biggest payoff. At the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual conference in May 2002, president William D. Raney assured 150 industry moguls, “You did everything you could to elect a Republican president.” Now, he said, “you are already seeing in his actions the payback.”
Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company and a major contributor to the Bush campaign, was one of the first to cash in. Immediately after his inauguration, Bush appointed two executives from Peabody and one from its Black Beauty subsidiary to his energy advisory team.
When the task force released its final report, it recommended accelerating coal production and spending $2 billion in federal subsidies for research to make coal-fired electricity cleaner. Five days later, Peabody issued a public-stock offering, raising $60 million more than analysts had predicted. Company vice president Fred Palmer credited the Bush administration. “I am sure it affected the valuation of the stock,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Peabody also wanted to build the largest coal-fired power plant in thirty years upwind of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve. With arm-twisting from Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles and another $450,000 in Gop contributions, Peabody got what it wanted, A study on the air impacts was suppressed, and park scientists who feared that several endangered species might go extinct due to mercury and acid-rain deposits were silenced.
At the Senate’s request, Griles had signed a “statement of disqualification” on August Ist, 2001, committing himself to avoiding issues affecting his former clients. Three days later, he nevertheless appeared before the West Virginia Coal Association and promised executives that “we will fix the Federal rules very soon on water and soil placement.” That was fancy language for pushing whole mountaintops into valleys, a practice worth billions to the industry. As a Reagan official, Griles helped devise the practice, which a federal court declared illegal in 2002, after, 1,200 miles of streambeds had been filled and 380,000 acres of Appalachian forestlands had been rendered barren moonscapes.
Now Griles was promising his former coal clients he would fix these rules. In May 2002, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers adopted the language recommended by his former client, the National Mining Association. Had Griles not intervened, the practice of mountaintop-removal mining would have been severely restricted. Griles also pushed EPA deputy administrator Linda Fisher to overrule career personnel in the agency’s Denver office who had given a devastating assessment to a proposal to produce coal-bed methane gas in the Powder River basin in Wyoming. Although Griles had recused himself from any discussion of this subject because it would directly enrich his former clients, he worked aggressively behind the scenes on behalf of a proposal to build 51,000 wells. The project will require 26,000 miles of new roads and 48,000 miles of pipeline, and will foul pristine landscapes with trillions of gallons of toxic wastewater.
Blueprint for Plunder
The Energy-Task-force Plan is A $20 billion subsidy to the oil, coal and nuclear industries, which are already swimming in record revenues. In May 2003, as the House passed the plan and as the rest of the nation stagnated in a recession abetted by high oil prices, Exxon announced that its profits had tripled from the previous quarter’s record earnings. The energy plan recommends opening protected lands and waters to oil and gas drilling and building up to 1,900 electric-power plants, National treasures such as the California and Florida coasts, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the areas around Yellowstone Park will be opened for plunder for the trivial amounts of fossil fuels that they contain. While increasing reliance on oil, coal and nuclear power, the plan cuts the budget for research into energy efficiency and alternative power sources by nearly a third. “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue,” Cheney explained, but it should not be the basis of “comprehensive energy policy.”
As if to prove that point, Republicans simultaneously eliminated the tax credit that had encouraged Americans to buy gassaving hybrid cars, and weakened efficiency standards for everything from air conditioners to automobiles. They also created an obscene $100,000 tax break for Hummers and the thirty-eight biggest gas guzzlers. Then, adding insult to injury, the Energy Department robbed $135,615 from the anemic solar, renewables and energy-conservation budget to produce 10,000 copies of the White House’s energy plan.
To lobby for the plan, more than 400 in dustry groups enlisted in the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth, a coalition created by oil, mining and nuclear interests and guided by the White House. It cost $5,000 to join, “a very low price,” according to Republican lobbyist Wayne Valis. The prerequisite for joining, he wrote in a memo, was that members “must agree to support the Bush energy proposal in its entirety and not lobby for changes.” Within two months, members had contributed more than $1 million. The price for disloyalty was expulsion from the coalition and possible reprisal by the administration. “I have been advised,” wrote Valis, “that this White House ‘will have a long memory.’”
The plan represents a massive transfer of wealth from the public to the energy sector. Indeed, Bush views his massive tax cuts as a way of helping Americans pay for inflated energy bills. “If I had my way,” he declared, “I’d have [the tax cuts] in place tomorrow so that people would have money in their pockets to deal with high energy prices.”
Looting the Commons
Although Congress will have Its Final vote on the plan in November, the White House has already devised ways to implement most of its worst provisions without congressional interference. In October 2001, the administration removed the Interior Department’s power to veto mining permits, even if the mining would cause “substantial and irreparable harm” to the environment. That December, Bush and congressional Republicans passed an “economic-stimulus package” that proposed $2.4 billion worth of tax breaks, credits and loopholes for Chevron, Texaco, Enron and General Electric. The following February, the White House announced it would abandon regulations for three major pollutants?mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Early in the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney had solicited an industry wish list from the United States Energy Association, the lobbying arm for trade associations including the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Edison Institute. The USEA responded by providing 105 specific recommendations from its members for plundering our natural resources and polluting America’s air and water. In a speech to the group in June 2002, Energy Secretary Abraham reported that the administration had already implemented three-quarters of the industry’s recommendations and predicted the rest would pass through Congress shortly.
On August 27th, 2002 ? while most of America was heading off for a Labor Day weekend ? the administration announced that it would redefine carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming, so that it would no longer be considered a pollutant and would therefore not be subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The next day, the White House repealed the act’s “new source review” provision, which requires companies to modernize pollution control when they modify their plants.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, the White House rollback will cause 30,000 Americans to die prematurely each year. Although the regulation will probably be reversed in the courts, the damage will have been done, and power utilities such as Southern Co. will escape criminal prosecution. As soon as the new regulations were announced, John Pemberton, chief of staff to the EPA’s assistant administrator for air, left the agency to work for Southern. The EPA’s congressional office chief also left, to join Southern’s lobbying shop, Bracewell, Patterson.
By summer 2003, the White House had become a virtual piñata for energy moguls. In August, the administration proposed limiting the authority of states to object to offshore-drilling decisions, and it ordered federal land managers across the West to ease environmental restrictions for oil and gas drilling in national forests. The White House also proposed removing federal protections for most American wetlands and streams. As an astounded Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays, told me, “It’s almost like they want to alienate people who care about the environment, as if they believe that this will help them with their core.”
EPA: From Bad to Worse
On August 30th, President Bush Nominated Utah’s three-term Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt to replace his beleaguered EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, who was driven from office, humiliated in even her paltry efforts to moderate the pillage. In October, Leavitt was confirmed by the Senate.
Like Gale Norton, Leavitt has a winning personality and a disastrous environmental record. Under his leadership, Utah tied for last as the state with the worst environmental enforcement record and ranked second-worst (behind Texas) for both air quality and toxic releases. As governor, Leavitt displayed the same contempt for science that has characterized the Bush administration. He fired more than seventy scientists employed by state agencies for producing studies that challenged his political agenda. He fired a state enforcement officer who penalized one of Leavitt’s family fish farms for introducing whirling disease into Utah, devastating the state’s wild-trout populations.
Leavitt has a penchant for backdoor deals to please corporate polluters. Last year he resurrected a frivolous and moribund Utah lawsuit against the Interior Department and then settled the suit behind closed doors without public involvement, stripping 6 million acres of wilderness protections. This track record does not reflect the independence, sense of stewardship and respect for science and law that most Americans have the right to expect in our nation’s chief environmental guardian.
The Threat to Democracy
Generations of Americans will pay the Republican campaign debt to the energy industry with global instability, depleted national coffers and increased vulnerability to price shocks in the oil market.
They will also pay with reduced prosperity and quality of life at home. Pollution from power plants and traffic smog will continue to skyrocket. Carbon-dioxide emissions will aggravate global warming. Acid rain from Midwestern coal plants has already sterilized half the lakes in the Adirondacks and destroyed the forest cover in the high peaks of the Appalachian range up into Canada. The administration’s attacks on science and the law have put something even greater at risk. Americans need to recognize that we are facing not just a threat to our environment but to our values, and to our democracy.
Growing up, I was taught that communism leads to dictatorship and capitalism to democracy. But as we’ve seen from the the Bush administration, the latter proposition does not always hold. While free markets tend to democratize a society, unfettered capitalism leads invariably to corporate control of government.
America’s most visionary leaders have long warned against allowing corporate power to dominate the political landscape. In 1863, in the depths of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lamented, “I have the Confederacy before me and the bankers behind me, and I fear the bankers most.” Franklin Roosevelt echoed that sentiment when he warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism ? ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any controlling power.”
Today, more than ever, it is critical for American citizens to understand the difference between the free-market capitalism that made our country great and the corporate cronyism that is now corrupting our political process, strangling democracy and devouring our national treasures.
Corporate capitalists do not want free markets, they want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush competition by controlling government. The rise of fascism across Europe in the 1930s offers many informative lessons on how corporate power can undermine a democracy. In Spain, Germany and Italy, industrialists allied themselves with right-wing leaders who used the provocation of terrorist attacks, continual wars, and invocations of patriotism and homeland security to tame the press, muzzle criticism by opponents and turn government over to corporate control. Those governments tapped industrial executives to run ministries and poured government money into corporate coffers with lucrative contracts to prosecute wars and build infrastructure. They encouraged friendly corporations to swallow media outlets, and they enriched the wealthiest classes, privatized the commons and pared down constitutional rights, creating short-term prosperity through pollution-based profits and constant wars. Benito Mussolini’s inside view of this process led him to complain that “fascism should really be called ‘corporatism.’”
While the European democracies unraveled into fascism, America confronted the same devastating Depression by reaffirming its democracy. It enacted minimum-wage and Social Security laws to foster a middle class, passed income taxes and anti-trust legislation to limit the power of corporations and the wealthy, and commissioned parks, public lands and museums to create employment and safeguard the commons.
The best way to judge the effectiveness of a democracy is to measure how it allocates the goods of the land: Does the government protect the commonwealth on behalf of all the community members, or does it allow wealth and political clout to steal the commons from the people?
Today, George W. Bush and his court are treating our country as a grab bag for the robber barons, doling out the commons to large polluters. Last year, as the calamitous rollbacks multiplied, the corporateowned TV networks devoted less than four percent of their news minutes to environmental stories. If they knew the truth, most Americans would share my fury that this president is allowing his corporate cronies to steal America from our children.

[From Issue 937 — December 2003