At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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The Michigan Land Use Institute Considers Changing Its Name — For What?

At the height of its statewide and national influence, the Michigan Land Use Institute's 15-member staff gathered outside the new home office in Beulah.

At the height of its statewide and national influence, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s 15-member staff gathered outside the new home office in Beulah. Back row, left to right — Gail Dennis, Charlene Crowell, Kelly Thayer, Doug Rose, Mac McCelland, Mary Ellen Pattyn, Patty Cantrell. Middle row, left to right — Johanna Miller, Jim Lively, Arlin Wasserman, Andy Guy. Front row, left to right — Jim Dulzo, Keith Schneider, Hans Voss, Betsy Alles.

BENZONIA, MI — On April 16, 1995, in one of my last articles as a staff correspondent with the New York Times, I wrote this assessment of American environmentalism’s evolving challenges. “The movement that changed the nation’s environmental ethic a generation ago is reshaping itself, and the most important aspect of that effort is a new openness to what works and what doesn’t in environmental protection.”

Six days later, on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, I met at Beulah’s Brookside Inn with Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson and a few more regional green heroes and formally incorporated the non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute.

The Brookside closed its doors a few years ago. And earlier this year, as MLUI approached the 19th anniversary of its founding on today’s 44th Earth Day, I received notice and a survey from the organization. It asked for my thoughts on a branding project that may very well conclude with a change in the Institute’s name. Holy focus group, Batman! What works and what doesn’t in environmental protection may include an alteration in identities.

Now, right here, allow me to acknowledge that an MLUI name change is personal. But it’s not sour grapes. I was 38 years old in 1995, and a year into a life-changing scrap with the state’s natural gas industry over drilling practices in northern Michigan’s Antrim shale. Benzie in the 1990s also was Michigan’s second fastest growing county. Among the legion of proposals popping up around here was one to turn US 31 north of Luddington into a four-lane highway. I was convinced that a professionally staffed group that focused on the ecological and economic consequences of development could do important work and prosper as an economic enterprise.

I put $13,000 of my own money into the organization that first year. Ted Curran, an important ally and supporter, added management guidance and welcome funding. Florence Barone and Arlin Wasserman put their keen intelligence to work. We got lucky in the summer of 1995 when 27-year-old Hans Voss, the MLUI executive director since 2000, showed up at our door looking for work. We had an active board that included Gary Appel, an educator, and whose wife, Mimi Appel, helped with development. These and a host of other people — Dick Hitchingham, Gerard Grabowski, Jack Gyr, Marty Jablonski — helped get the joint rolling in a way that steadily built our record of pragmatic advocacy, and keen communications skills.

In 1998 Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and a close friend, called the Michigan Land Use Institute the most successful new environmental organization in the United States. We were smart and fearless. I was with Hans when conservative Governor John Engler announced in 1998 that there would be no natural gas drilling in Antrim County’s Jordan River Valley, which we described as the Yosemite of northern Michigan. I was with him again several years later when the state Legislature and Congress, in separate votes, outlawed drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. Hans led both campaigns. Read More

The Society of Foolhardy Folly: Anglers and Hunters Against the Environment

Ice and snow make their final appearance this week in northern Michigan. Fishermen put their hooks in clean water even as their votes supported lawmakers devoted to dismantling safeguards. Otter Creek runs cold and clear in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this week. Photo/Keith Schneider

Ice and snow make their final appearance this week in northern Michigan. Fishermen put their hooks in clean water even as their votes supported lawmakers devoted to dismantling safeguards. Here, Otter Creek runs cold and clear in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, MI — Days before ice crowded back into Lake Michigan’s Platte Bay late last week, the shallow waters opened and fishermen planted their poles in the soft sand at the mouth of the Platte River and waited for steelhead and maybe a brown trout. Clean, cold water is abundant in our region in large part due to the safeguards contained in the 1972 Clean Water Act, arguably the most important environmental protection statute in history.

The law set limits on multiple pollutants from multiple sources. American courts enforced its provisions. Governments around the world enacted their own versions of the clean water law. And in the United States cleaner water gave rise to multi-billion dollar fisheries, new shoreline development in the nation’s cities, hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs in the recreational economy, and the untold satisfaction that the United States once was capable of responding effectively to a big national problem.

But when I wandered up to the parking area the pickups sported troubling evidence of how estranged we are, how politically disembodied we’ve become. The anti-EPA bumper stickers were apparent. “Defund the EPA.” “Regulate the EPA.” The men so intent on securing the fish that swam in the clean water of Lake Michigan also were engaged in a political abstraction. They very clearly voted for the right’s insurgent lawmakers, men and women in our state Legislature and national Congress not at all interested in advancing a tradition of environmental safeguards.

Disagreement about the scope and intensity of environmental regulations is a half-century old in the United States. What’s more — if you ask GOP voters what regulation they’d like to weaken — one that makes the air and water dirtier, opens the meadow next door to toxic waste dumping, allows the favorite wetland to be filled — they most often don’t have an answer. That’s because most Americans appreciate the cleaner and safer country we’ve produced with our environmental protections. I know a Republican family in Kentucky who took a trip to China, breathed the filthy air, smelled the putrid water, and returned home with this vow: “I’ll never complain about the EPA again.”

Platte Bay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. The park was established in 1970 at the height of American passion for protecting its best natural places. Photo/Keith Schneider

Platte Bay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. The park was established in 1970 at the height of American passion for protecting its best natural places. Photo/Keith Schneider

Environmental regulations and the EPA, though, are part of the nihilistic GOP message machine that asserts nothing really matters except shrinking the government, lowering taxes, ending regulation, opposing gun control and hating Obama. That’s a management menu, while provocative, that offers not a single cogent response to the economic and ecological storms that are battering us now. The Democrats are less dangerous, but also not nearly as articulate and determined.

Neither party is ready to describe the risks of what we face, and the many changes that are required to build a new era of safety and prosperity. Certainly, defending the nation’s existing environmental safeguards is a priority. Read More

Steps To A Safer World

World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in 2009 to reach agreement on slowing climate change. Not much was done. Photo/Keith Schneider

World leaders gathered in Copenhagen in 2009 to reach agreement on slowing climate change. Not much was done at the time. More may be possible now. Photo/Keith Schneider

Bloomberg reported today that Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever NV joined 68 other companies in urging world governments to cap carbon emissions at levels that scientists say could stabilize the rising temperatures and keep the planet safer. Governments also are still working to develop a treaty for consideration in 2015 that would limit carbon emissions and keep the temperature rise since the late 19th century to 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even Exxon Mobil takes seriously the threat of climate change, or at least the risk that governments may regulate carbon emissions. In March, at the insistence of shareholders, Exxon Mobil agreed to publish a report on its vulnerability to such regulations and the potential that some portion of its oil, gas, and coal reserves could become stranded assets.

Of all the steps that need to be taken to secure the planet from certain ecological turmoil caused by the warming atmosphere, arguably none is more critical than reducing carbon pollution. In April 2009, researchers from Germany, England, and Switzerland, led by Malte Meinshausen, a climatologist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, published “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C” in Nature, the science journal.

The authors found that human beings had no chance to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius unless the world released no more than 1,437 gigatons (1 gigaton is 1 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide from 2000 to 2050. The scientists made a strong case for ensuring that the world’s atmospheric temperature not increase 2 degrees by limiting carbon emissions to 886 gigatons.

The problem is that 234 gigatons had already been emitted and at that rate the proposed 886 gigaton limit would be exceeded by 2024. Bill McKibben, in a breath-taking article in Rolling Stone two years ago, explained that if the world’s energy companies developed and sold all of the fossil energy in their global reserves, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere would vastly exceed any of the proposed gigaton limits.

We live on a beautiful planet that is warming. This is Bass Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

We live on a beautiful planet that is warming. This is Bass Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

Most of the world’s governments have been slow to embrace the idea that climate change is an authentic threat to their national well-being. That’s because the killing hurricanes and typhoons, the murderous floods, the crop-ravaging and food price-raising droughts, the wicked fires aren’t wearing military uniforms. The attackers don’t carry guns and don’t seek to plant flags of invasion.

But the world’s people are coming to recognize the danger that is unfolding around them. And with steady strength they are calling for regulation on carbon emissions. It’s unclear how long a political breakthrough will take in the United States, Europe, China, India and other big carbon-producing regions. But pricing carbon and limiting carbon combustion seems inevitable, which is why energy markets are nervous about stranding trillions of dollars in coal and oil that will need to be left undeveloped. Read More

Washington Is Not Working — Literally

The House of Representatives isn't doing much these days unless it's voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

The House of Representatives isn’t doing much these days unless it’s voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON — Two events occurred here on Thursday this week that together are a nearly perfect distillation of why this otherwise pleasant city has become the capital of intransigence and frustration for people like me concerned about our national interest.

In the morning the U.S. Supreme Court announced, in a 5-4 decision, that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that the wealthy can spend just about as much as they like to elect candidates of their choice. The ruling is the latest evidence that the hard right turn that the nation took with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is producing ever bigger dividends for his supporters.

Reagan’s administration was devoted almost entirely to instituting Reaganomics, then touted as a means to reduce taxes and balance the budget. But what Reaganomics was really about, as its critics predicted, was enabling the wealthy to become so rich they could completely segregate themselves from the rest of the country. The Thursday Supreme Court ruling makes it much easier for the rich to control legislation and erect even higher barriers of self-protection.

Within hours of the Court’s ruling, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to repeal a provision of the Affordable Care Act. It was the 52nd time the House has moved against President Obama’s health care law. And like all the other times, the legislation has no chance of being enacted. The vote came a few days after the White House announced that 7 million people had signed up for insurance under the health care law, in my view an administration accomplishment. Republicans barked that the White House made up that number.

The larger point is that aside from harping on the president, and hoping voters send more arch conservatives to Washington in the fall, the House has expressed scant interest in anything else — wages, unemployment, immigration, energy, climate change, tax reform. Americans spend a lot of money to keep politicians and their bright young staffs idle in Washington.

I’ve spent a long time around Washington since 1980. My work as a journalist and former non-profit executive involves interviewing elected lawmakers, agency heads, and research personnel, and collaborating with public interest experts. I worked full-time in Washington, from 1985 to 1993, as a correspondent for the New York Times, which comes with unusual access to centers of influence and the responsibility to dig and report well in the public interest. Read More

Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore

Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand's hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider

Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand’s hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reporting on a righteous disaster, one that unfolds in the various stages of direct impact, colossal damage, rising body counts, and fiercesome cost, always comes with the mandatory account of warnings issued and ignored. Ten days ago a mountain slope collapsed north of Seattle, unleashing a river of mud on a rural community, killing over 20 people and causing an estimated $10 million in damage to property. It is said to be one of the worst landslides in American history.

While visiting my mother in Manhattan over the weekend, she recounted these details and also noted: “You know, there were warnings. The people said they never got them.”

Aah. American landslide as global metaphor.

In the work to define accountability, I explained, the issued warnings and the culpability of local officials who did not deliver them is sure to be the stuff of courtroom testimony. But in the real world of Washington State or just about any other place in America, had those warnings actually been issued and gained attention they would have attracted nothing but political outrage.

Property owners in the hillside’s shadow would have pelted local officials with sharp rhetorical objects designed to shut off communication, preserve property values, and keep insurance costs down. Where was the scientific proof of an impending collapse, they would have asked. How could their local leaders put property values in such jeopardy? Nobody would want to invest in their land and homes if the claims of impending disaster persisted.

What about that 2006 partial collapse? See, it was no big deal. The hillside hardly moved.

And then it did — at the speed of a flood. A square mile of land at the hill’s bottom was covered in mud, in places 70 feet thick. That’s deep enough to entomb most of the missing.

The Snohomish County landslide occurred at the same time the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the latest of its scientific studies on the rising consequences of the Earth’s warming atmosphere.

As you’ve read here with magnifying urgency, the Earth is not playing around. It’s pushing back hard against industrial depradations, carbon pollution, population growth, and mismanagement of every kind. Read More