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
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.
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, 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