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. Continue reading “Steps To A Safer World”

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. Continue reading “Washington Is Not Working — Literally”

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. Continue reading “Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore”

Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider
Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
Continue reading “Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline”

As We Build More, Use More, The Earth Is Pushing Back Hard

The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider

PRAGUE — City Square erupted at the start of the 2014 New Year with a deafening and blazing midnight fusilade of rockets and cannon blasts. The air filled with spent gunpowder and smoke so dense the brilliance of the firebursts was obscured. The Czech crowds, so slim and young and dressed in chic leather and spiked heels, cheered with the joy and lusty charm that comes with political security and social success.

This 1,000-year-old river city of 1.3 million, the capital of a first generation democracy founded in 1989, is a swirl of light and modern efficiency. Trams speed through narrow streets paved with square stones the size of Rubik cubes. Malls stir with shoppers hunting post-Christmas bargains. Cafes offer all manner of cheese, beer, bread, booze, and sweets. The sidewalks are filled with children in bright coats and knit caps running to keep pace with their parents.

The mood in the Czech Republic is so plainly defined by the satisfaction of building from the economic mustiness of Soviet repression a nation that is prosperous, clean, and among the world’s safest and best educated. Less than two generations ago bullet holes were still visible on the walls of Prague’s historic buildings. Adults huddled in attics, speaking in hushed voices with only their most trusted friends, if the subject was politics.

Prague, and the rest of this beautiful country of 10.5 million residents, provides welcome evidence of the capacity of people to agree on shared but difficult goals, and work together to achieve them. Prague represents needed hope for humanity’s ability to manage its affairs in a way that produces order from disorder, recognizes opportunity in changing circumstances, and responds responsibly to all manner of economic and ecological transition.

In neighboring Germany, there is more evidence such progress is possible. Germany is in the midst of a third industrial revolution fueled by its lower-polluting, water-conserving renewable energy sector. Almost 20 percent of the 600 terra-watt hours of electricity that Germany generates annually is supplied by power from wind, solar, water, biomass, and municipal waste. Germany’s photovoltaic solar sector alone accounts for 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and almost 20 terra-watt hours of electricity production. Power produced from coal-fired stations has dropped to 40 percent of Germany’s electricity supply.

And while solar yields three to five percent of Germany’s electricity production (depending on the season), that 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity is more power produced from the sun than in all of the rest of the world combined. And it’s happened very quickly. Because utilities are required to buy solar power from producers, including individual homeowners, banks of photovoltaic panels are bolted to the roofs of barns, big box stores, schools, and homes across the country.

Germany's solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world's combined. Photo/Keith Schneider
Germany’s solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world’s combined. Photo/Keith Schneider

As a journalist who’s now spending months each year overseas reporting on the fierce global contest for energy, grain, and water in the era of a fast-changing climate, the examples of human progress on display in the Czech Republic and in Germany are encouraging. So too, is what Ontario, Canada completed this year — a decade of policy change that has ended coal-fired power generation.

But these examples aren’t the norm.

Continue reading “As We Build More, Use More, The Earth Is Pushing Back Hard”