Earth Pushes Back and Paris Climate Conference Responds

On the road to the achievements of the Paris Climate Accord clocks ticked down the accumulating seconds to planetary peril at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona in 2009. Photo/Keith Schneider
On the road to  the Paris Climate Accord clocks ticked down the seconds to planetary peril at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona in 2009. Photo/Keith Schneider

Like divers surfacing above a sea of noise and ambivalence, negotiators in Paris on Saturday reached an agreement that commits nations to develop new energy strategies that hold “the increase in the average global temperature to well below 2 degrees C” and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C.”

The Paris accord is momentous for innumerable reasons, not the least of which is because it recognizes, at last, that three powerful and unyielding economic and ecological trends have merged to relentlessly push governments to act. All are prompted by the collision between the resource-abundant development approach of the 20th century, and the increasingly dire environmental conditions of the 21st.

Since 2008, as a correspondent reporting on the global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of diminishing freshwater reserves, I’ve been a frontline eyewitness on five continents to our rapidly evolving circumstances.

By far, the most important change in our circumstances is that Mother Earth is fuming. The planet is pushing back hard, very hard, against mankind’s industrial depradations. Hurricanes drowned two American cities.  Mammoth wildfires race across the West, burning hottest in the fuel-stoked forests where fire was deliberately suppressed. Toxic algae contaminates drinking water drawn from warmer and more polluted rivers and lakes all over the world.

A Rein of Global Disorder
An earthquake this year damaged 14 hydropower dams in Nepal. In June 2013, a vicious flood that scientists linked to climate change killed thousands of people in Uttarakhand, India and wrecked that Himalayan state’s hydropower sector. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, led much of the global civic opposition that helped produce the Paris climate accord. Photo/Keith Schneider
Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, led much of the global civic opposition that helped produce the Paris climate accord. Photo/Keith Schneider

Deep droughts have been especially dangerous. Brazil’s largest city, America’s largest state, and nearly all of South Africa contend now with serious water scarcity. A 12-year dry spell in Australia’s food-producing Murray-Darling basin ended in 2010, but not before it caused the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere to collapse. More than 1 million metric tons of rice vanished from world markets. Australia’s wheat growers, typically the world’s sixth largest exporters, managed to harvest just over half of the 20 million metric tons of grain they normally produced. Both harvest failures contributed to rising grain prices. Recall that the Arab Spring in 2010 was touched off by rising food prices. Continue reading “Earth Pushes Back and Paris Climate Conference Responds”

This Is India — “Maybe Tomorrow”

Much of the world's tea is raised in northeast India. Workers pick tea leaves in a tea garden in Assam. Photo/Keith Schneider
Much of the world’s tea is raised in northeast India. Workers pick tea leaves in a tea garden in Assam. Photo/Keith Schneider

GUWAHATI, India — Beggars prowl the sidewalks of every city I’ve visited — American, Scandinavian, Arabian, Australian, Asian.

Still, there may be no more organized, encompassing, creative, and pathetic beggar culture in the world today than the one that operates in New Delhi, India’s capital.

With 25 million residents, New Delhi is the world’s second largest city behind Tokyo, according to the United Nations. Seven years ago Delhi’s Social Welfare Department reported that nearly 59,000 beggars roamed the city’s streets. More recent unofficial estimates puts the number at four times that figure or more.

By day, beggars work the city’s traffic-swarmed intersections in teams delineated by age, sex, physical infirmity, dress, and territory. At one corner beautiful little girls sweep through the traffic lanes, their eyes sad pools of practiced lamentation, beseeching drivers and passengers for coins. At another it’s little boys squirting through stopped traffic. Young mothers holding infants and wearing street-soiled saris of orange chiffon are common.

So are hijras, India’s transgender third sex. They are castrated men that dress and adorn themselves like women in makeup and jewelry. They shimmy and shake, bat their eyes, and extend large thick-veined hands, the grip of theatrical desperation.

When night descends, a different choreography unfolds. Beggar groups and families recede to their camps in parks, on the medians of busy boulevards, and underneath highway bridges. Mobile shelters made of tree limbs and plastic are erected. Cooking stoves are lit. Children are bathed and fed. Then Delhi’s dark places flicker on, one after another like a ground level constellation. The stars are the blue and white hues of tablet screens. Adults and children, sitting on blankets, gather in sizable circles to watch the digitized flames of their video campfires. TII. This Is India.

Orange producers in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo/Keith Schneider
Orange producers in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo/Keith Schneider

During 17 days spent in India — my fourth trip in two years — I noted other intriguing colors and distinctive textures that describe this great banquet of bedlam and paradox. I call it TII — This Is India. Enjoy.

Much of India's highway network is constructed by hand. Workers in Meghalaya use steel bars to break up the pavement, pounding the black top like warriors with pointed lances. Photo/Keith Schneider
Much of India’s highway network is constructed by hand. Workers in Meghalaya use steel bars to break up the pavement, pounding the black top like warriors with pointed lances. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “This Is India — “Maybe Tomorrow””

Do Republicans Hate Cities? Generally Yes

Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don't support. Photo/Keith Schneider
Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don’t support. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — In the evenings the sidewalks along First Avenue, between 10th and Houston Streets, are a jammed bustle of young people crowded into bars, lined up for tables at good restaurants, or walking fast with heads bowed and faces lit by incoming smart phone texts.

First Avenue, like so many other neighborhoods in New York, is a tableau of urban revival, an example of what happens when smart investments and informed entrepreneurism foster economic and environmental transition. New York City, you may recall, was in such dire shape in the 1970s and 1980s that crime ruled the streets, fiscal collapse was ever-present, and people and companies left in droves. First Avenue in those days was dirty, dark, and dangerous.

New York is not that place anymore, and hasn’t been since the start of the century. New York is an engine of growth and job opportunities, a city with clean air, ample and safe parks, improving water quality, slim people, improving schools, and an attitude of confidence and hope. In all of these attributes New York also resembles Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, Dallas, Charleston, Cincinnati and most other major American metropolitan regions.

In each of these cities job growth is climbing rapidly, crime is stable or declining, unemployment rates are lower than the state at large, and real estate values are heading up, in many instances swiftly. In other measures American cities are a study in improving social conditions and prosperity. Wages are rising. Young adults attend college and are getting married. And, just as First Avenue’s businesses and watering holes are busy with customers, so too are the mercantile streets of big cities across the country.

Oh! There’s one more distinction. American cities are overwhelmingly filled with adults who support Democrats for state and national offices. They are also filled with adults who not only generally believe that the rest of America is getting along better like they are, they have just the scantest idea of the depth of the dismay, the anger, the resentment that people in the far suburbs and rural regions have for cities and their residents.

The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider
The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider

Those divisions now express themselves in dangerous ideas harbored in the Republican party about limiting state and federal investments in transit, education, streets, law enforcement, housing, business loans, and environmental safeguards. But even as they support a risky agenda of tax-cutting and smaller government, many of those very same voters and their families have also chosen you’re-on-your-own results — limited job opportunities, low wages, and hardship.

Nonmetro and metro quarterly employment indices
Continue reading “Do Republicans Hate Cities? Generally Yes”

In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident -- Senator Rand Paul.
Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident — Senator Rand Paul.

BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.

Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.

Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.

There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.

Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.

Bowling Green's new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.
Bowling Green’s new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”

Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.

The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.

In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.

I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”

And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”

Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
Continue reading “In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes”

In Detroit, Scales of Finance and Fairness Have Tipped Over

Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit's geography. Since 1954, when the city's population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit’s geography. Since 1954, when the city’s population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider

On July 18, 2013 Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, acted on the remarkably broad authorities afforded him by an eight-month-old state law and filed a petition to launch the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Orr’s intent, he said, was to reduce the beleaguered city’s operating costs, reduce the cost of servicing the city’s debt, and set Detroit on a fresh course to redevelopment and prosperity.

During a news conference that evening, Detroit’s elected one-term Mayor Dave Bing stood meekly by Orr’s side and offered his reluctant support: “This is very difficult for all of us,” Bing said. “But if it’s going to make services better off, then this is a new start for us.”

In the more than 13 months since the bankruptcy petition was filed it’s become steadily clearer who’s better off in Detroit and who is not. The owners of small and medium-sized businesses that have invoices still to be paid by Detroit are not. They could receive 30 cents on the dollar or less on the outstanding balances.

The city’s 22,500 retired employees are not. They will experience pension cuts. About half the city’s general employees agreed to cut their pensions almost 5 percent, slash their health benefits 90 percent, and receive no cost of living adjustments. The other half – retired police and firefighters – will receive full pensions, but accepted a 55 percent reduction in cost of living adjustments and will receive only a small cash stipend to offset the cost of their new private health insurance plans.

Thousands of residents, many of them jobless and impoverished, also are not better off. They face losing their water again as a 37-day moratorium is lifted today and Detroit’s water department resumes cutting off water to property owners who are either $150 in arrears or 60 days late in paying their utility bills. Some 83,000 residences and businesses are said by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to owe $90 million to the utility.

“There’s lots of reasons why people have fallen behind,” said Baxter Jones, a city resident. “Some of my friends have had their water turned off. Some people that I know that have had to take their kids different places to wash up. It’s very, very sad when you think about it because there’s so many different reasons why you need water.”

But there’s another group, largely composed of professionals from outside Detroit and outside Michigan, who’ve benefitted enormously from the Detroit bankruptcy, pocketing tens of millions in city payments  from the circumstances that led to the pension reductions and water shutoffs.

A Shrinking City Under Emergency Rule
Detroit’s bankruptcy trial is scheduled to start Tuesday, September 2, in U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom at the U.S. District Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Over the next eight weeks or so, the trial proceedings are expected to reveal just how much “better off” the big banks financing the city’s new debt and financial obligations — as well the lawyers, bankers, accountants, and consultants involved in the deal-making — will be from rearranging Detroit’s fiscal operations.

Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider
Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

An examination by Circle of Blue of the reports, exhibits, studies, and court orders filed with the federal bankruptcy court yields a disturbing and unassailable conclusion:  While unionized employees lost jobs and substantial portions of their pensions and benefits, and thousands of Detroit’s poorest residents are severed from water supplies and sewer services the nation’s biggest banks are making $6 billion to $7 billion in new bonds available to refinance city debts, a move that should reduce interest payments.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in transaction fees will be collected by bank officers. Traders selling the bonds could collect hundreds of millions of dollars more. And the regiment of lawyers and accountants handling the deals and managing the bankruptcy, at fees that range from $500 to $1,000 an hour, are collecting over $8 million a month for their services and expenses. Continue reading “In Detroit, Scales of Finance and Fairness Have Tipped Over”