At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Out of Disruption a Global Awakening

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of "bull taming." Photo/Keith Schneider

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of “bull taming.” Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, INDIA — The last time I can recall a civic awakening as big, gallant, and well-intentioned as the mammoth demonstrations occurring here in the capital of Tamil Nadu, and in American cities this weekend, I’d just turned 14 years old. On April 22, 1970 the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. Twenty million Americans participated. It was a day that led to environmental safeguards and new principles of managing the planet that have only grown stronger in the 47 years since.

As I write this at dusk the sound of chanting and drums carry across the crowded, low rise city. Not far from the hotel is Marina Beach, a long stretch of wide and warm sand along the Bay of Bengal that since Thursday has been the staging ground for festive demonstrations that, depending on the hour, attract 600,000 to one million people. The carnival atmosphere has lured parents with children, unescorted women, and working people — groups that typically do not participate in big street demonstrations.

Big demonstrations also were held in the United States. From what I read and hear from friends who participated on Saturday, people discovered similarly inspiring energy and behavior in the mammoth protests to rebuke President Trump.

Last night as I traveled back to Chennai from Coimbatore, one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest cities, it occurred to me that the big demonstrations here and in the United States, and the Trump inauguration, are tied together. Here’s how.

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Both Trump’s election victory and the outbreak of civic resistance reflect the epic clash of competing ideas about how to thrive in a turbulent century. Trump is now the most visible emblem of the age of disruption that’s swept across the planet. Earth has become ecologically unstable and dangerous. More people in more places are being bludgeoned by droughts, floods, storms, earthquakes, wild fires, and plagues. A tide of refugees cross continents and seas to reach foreign shores. Markets shudder. Sources of energy for electricity and transportation are evolving from black fuels to invisible ones, causing instability in prices and resulting in tens of billions in stranded asset losses. Jobs are lost and nations become afraid. People succumb to the calls of national rebirth. They choose to close their borders (Brexit) and elect reckless candidates promising a renaissance of national glory. Read More

The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

SOMERSET, KY — Rex Tillerson, the chairman of ExxonMobil, asked by president-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of state. Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying, energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and a board member of Energy Transfer Partners (developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline), nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The intent in Trump’s brotherhood of black fuels is clear enough — stabilize erratic global markets, push energy prices up, recover assets that were on the way to being stranded, and cash flow again on producing expensive oil, coal, and natural gas.

Ample fossil energy supplies and favorable prices serve as the two central themes of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again.” In service to that goal Trump invited Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to sit as a sort of cabinet member ex-officio. The Koch brothers, along with the executives of most every other American fossil energy company, cheer from the bench.

Americans of clear mind and useful values are demonstrably nervous. The White House and the executive offices of the world’s fossil fuel companies are powerful forums to exert influence. Can Trump and his fossil fuel allies succeed? Of course they can. I do not, however, believe they will.

I’ve reported extensively since visiting the Indian Himalayas in 2013 on the more powerful global trends that not only are impeding conventional energy development, they have initiated a sweeping transition in production practices, technology, and use. Coal production and consumption is falling in China. The Philippines is closing damaging mines. Civic rebellion is blocking new coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh, and impeding development of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States.

Solar and wind generating technology is now cheaper than new coal-fired power generation and comparable in cost to natural gas-fueled generation. India is abandoning its mega power program to build mammoth 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Instead it is pursuing new solar and wind generating installations. South Africa has developed one of the world’s successful clean energy development programs.

Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and fire are causing havoc in the world’s fossil energy regions. And the costs of developing all of the fossil fuels is rising as prices for alternatives drop.

It is these trends that are stranding billions of dollars of resource assets around the world and causing a growing panic in the halls of government, boardrooms, and executive suites. And none are likely to be slowed.

This year, during seven weeks of reporting in South Africa, I learned about another new and powerful trend that is reshaping markets around the world — the pressure that communities and a select group of investigative groups are putting on the world’s big banks to change their lending practices.

The headwinds of transition are whipping through the energy sector. The Trump administration’s effort to stabilize oil prices confronts the elements of the rugged weather — erratic markets, new transportation and efficiency technology, and rapidly rising production costs. He may try to suspend NEPA requirements on big projects. He also could try to withdraw non-profit status from important NGOs, a tactic developed in other nations. But the American president-elect and his allies face powerful civic opposition around the world and in the red rural counties that voted for him. Here in Kentucky, I wrote about a big fight over a natural gas pipeline. Read More

Trump Produces Collective National Trauma

Vladimir Putin (l), president of the Russian Federation, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chairman and Secretary of State nominee, will try to stabilize energy markets to aid oil prices.

Vladimir Putin (l), president of the Russian Federation, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s chairman and Secretary of State nominee, will try to stabilize energy markets to aid oil prices.

SOMERSET, KY — It’s been six weeks since Donald J. Trump’s surprise election. The final national count is in. He lost by almost 2.9 million votes. The electoral college votes this week to formalize his victory.

If this inspires personal vertigo you are not alone. Half the country is ecstatic. The other half has a headache and peptic distress. Ever brazen, and with scant control of his metaphorical filters, Trump bullies forward. One brash decision, purposely designed to gather support or prompt alarm, follows another instance of celebrity groping intended to calm the opposition. It’s like watching a magician perform in a school auditorium. The eyebrow and lip feints are as important as the arm waving.

Al Gore, among the planet’s prominent climate change activists, is invited to Trump’s New York transition office. The meeting comes at the same time as Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, is nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, is nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The heads of Google, Amazon, and other tech companies are invited to New York. During the same time Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil chairman and longtime ally of Russian oil magnates and Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, is nominated for Secretary of State.

The New York Times and the Washington Post said a few times after the election that “chaos” described the Trump transition planning. What a hoot. The president-elect looks like he knows exactly what he is doing.

One huge Trump goal is to rescue the fossil fuel industry from the powerful market, social, and ecological forces arrayed against it. With Perry, Tillerson, and Pruitt in the cabinet and Putin and the Koch brothers as aides-de-camp Trump has assembled a cross-continental development-investment-deregulatory oil sector brotherhood.

Jim Dulzo, my good friend and astute observer of the energy sector, reached this conclusion: “There seems to be something pretty fantastic emerging from the Putin/Trump thang…some incredibly dark cabal that runs along a fossil-fuel/Russian/Koch/climate-denial/Republican/Trump/Putin axis. Recall: Koch family’s historic business connection to USSR, Exxon’s Tillerson’s business with Russia. Trump wants him as secretary of state while ordering all employees who worked on climate science handing in their names to their new boss. This may well be a desperate and perhaps successful international criminal/industrial attempt to stop the move away from fossil fuel before it goes any further. I’m starting to think that this is actually going on.”

As a journalist, I look at global conditions, events that I’ve personally reported on and ask this: Can Trump’s fossil energy development gambit work? Is it possible for the Trump brotherhood to stave off stranding in the ground $trillions in unburnable assets? Based on what I’ve witnessed from around the nation and the world the last eight years, I don’t think so.

Opposing the wealth and influence of the fossil sector is a quartet of more powerful forces: Mother Earth pushing back hard now with storms, floods, droughts, quakes, and fire. Civic rebellions everywhere to stop mega energy projects. Market disruptions that are driving costs up and prices down. Cleaner, lower cost alternatives. Summed up, Trump and his brotherhood are standing against the gale of ecological, market, civic, and technological transition. The president-elect, Putin, and the Trump cabinet are sailing schooner captains desperate to survive in the age of steamships.

Trump and his allies also face another impediment. You remember Watergate? The bungled 1972 theft of documents from the Democratic National Committee to aid Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The two seminal questions asked during that presidential scandal: What did Nixon know? When did he know it?

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The Years of Fake and Fraud

The CIA says Russian intelligence and hacking assisted Donald Trump's election victory. The FBI says it ain't so. Another shocking body blow to the American republic from information manipulation.

The CIA says Russian intelligence and hacking assisted Donald Trump’s election victory. The FBI says it ain’t so. Another shocking body blow to the American republic from information manipulation.

SOMERSET, KY — The CIA has clear evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to assist Donald Trump. That’s what the Washington Post reported last week.

Trump fired back. The assertion isn’t true, he said, and added that it comes from the same intelligence agency that got it all wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Other skeptics of the Russian election interference noted with bottomless gravity that the disclosure was made by the same newspaper that missed so badly in understanding what was happening in the 2016 presidential race — along with the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and so many other prominent American newsrooms.

Do you feel, as I do, that we are playable and we are getting played? Do you feel, as I do, that the forces of darkness and power that are playing us with such insolence and skill do so knowing that they will succeed? In electing an odious surprise minority candidate to be president, likely with the help of Russian intelligence capacity, U.S. voters also cemented right wing power in the House, the Senate, and most enduringly, the Supreme Court.

Do you recognize similarities to other body blow shocks to the republic? So much of the turmoil that we’ve endured as Americans this century started with information manipulation.

Information Deviancy
Example 1: In August 2001 President George Bush tossed aside the accurate CIA-prepared national intelligence briefing — “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” After the memo proved murderously prophetic he relied on the same agency’s woefully wrong assessment of Iraqi WMD to start a war.

Example 2: Wall Street bankers bundled worthless mortgages with arcane names — alternative mortgage instruments, collateralized debt obligations — and sold them to investors who trusted that the Security Exchange Commission was doing its job. Bankers made billions in fees to inflate a housing bubble that burst. Six million people lost their homes. Eight million lost their jobs. One poor schmuck went to jail. All the rest of us paid out the ying-yang to stabilize the finance sector and the global economy so the bankers could make billions again financing bad stuff — like coal mines in the Philippines, oil wells in the Arctic, and pipelines across the Great Plains.

Example 3: In 2013 a young data and computer manager, Edward Snowden, left his National Security Agency posting in Hawaii with a trove of top secret files. The files revealed how the U.S., despite the sworn testimony of NSA chiefs who denied it, had developed the surveillance capacity to intercept, track, analyze, and store data from virtually every online and cell phone communication on Earth. Not only that but one digital communication company – Verizon — was court-ordered to share with the government the files of their customers. The U.S. wants to prosecute Snowden for stealing state secrets, although the government has no reticence about stealing ours. Much of America and the world considers him a hero.

Example 4: Snowden’s heroics have more relevance now. Here’s why. Given such surveillance capacity it’s logical to ask why the Obama government is having so much trouble making the case that Russia intervened to influence the 2016 election. The CIA says it’s true. The FBI says it ain’t so. That’s the very same FBI that produced another off-the-hook communications-related fraud and body blow. It intervened in the final weeks of the campaign to accuse Clinton of hiding more of those not- significant-at-all emails, and then rescinded the accusation. Clinton lost the election because 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin may have been sufficiently swayed by the FBI’s recklessness to either vote for Trump or stay home.

Election Makes Strange and Dangerous Sense

Example 5: The 2016 election results make more sense if Russia, WikiLeaks, the Alt-Right, the Trump campaign, or any of the other architects of fakery and fraud know that they can 1) digitally roam the email caches of Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, 2) steadily feed the chum of what they find to the frenzy of sharks in important newsrooms, 3) lie and exaggerate and deflect without consequences, and 4) know it will work.

In the age of fake news, diminished newsroom revenue, and money-generating clicks, a minor fuss (and easy-to-get story) about Clinton’s State Department emails turned into the signature criticism of her candidacy. Mainstream, online, and nonprofit newsroom reporters covering the campaign consumed time and screen space pondering the private correspondence of stolen emails and not nearly enough time discovering the thieves. If Woodward and Bernstein had deployed the same technique in the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal would never have reached the White House.

Fake news sites, meanwhile, used Facebook to churn out all manner of bullshit tales of Clinton misbehavior that Trump himself often cited and his supporters embraced as the truth.

So here we are, contending with yet another disastrous example of information manipulation that puts the republic in danger. The United States is about to swear in a president that one U.S. intelligence agency says was elected with the digital and intelligence assistance of a foreign nation, and another U.S. intelligence agency swears it isn’t so. The fake news sites celebrate the national information vertigo. The mainstream newsrooms challenge each other for the next disclosure, but what they report is neither airtight nor trustworthy. Those same newsrooms sustained systemic institutional collapses in 2016 by focusing on the unimportant and dismissing as immature and reckless the biggest blockbuster disclosure of the campaign, one that Trump himself was desperate for everyone to know: the election really was rigged.

— Keith Schneider

A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.

Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of First Nation protestors massed on the prairie to safeguard their sole source of drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights.

Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.

Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be seen by First Nation leaders as comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Northwest in 1979.

“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”

The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last August with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.

“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”

Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, that provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides, and drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have gotten ugly. Read More