At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Trump Exit From Paris Climate Agreement Is Infuriating and Dangerous

A husband, father of three sons, and grandfather, Harikrishna is the prosperous head of a family farming operation entirely in ecological and economic balance with its region. He opposed construction of a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo/KeithSchneider

BENZONIA — June 1, yesterday, was miserable and infuriating. President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It was a decision as foolish and dangerous as the one George W. Bush made on August 6, 2001, when he tossed aside the intelligence briefing — “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” — that warned of an imminent and monstrous Al-Qaeda attack.

My thoughts on why:

First, I’m heart sick that the president abdicated America’s responsibility to set a high standard and help lead the work of solving a planetary crisis. But I’m not surprised. I travel the world. I spend a lot of time reporting overseas. It was plain to me several years ago that the disorder in Washington and the doctrinaire policymaking in most states were fracturing the authority and unity and opportunity that the world admired about the United States. China and India are more than capable of leading the council of nations in reducing carbon emissions. The American century is over. Rejecting the Paris Climate Agreement, approved by over 190 countries, is more proof of that.

China’s consumption of coal is falling and its economy is growing. Here, construction in Shenzhen. Photo/Keith Schneider

Second, I find the president’s case against the Paris Agreement outrageous. Almost every point he made yesterday is wrong. To cite the agreement as a threat to the American economy because it tilts economic advantages to India and China flat out ignores real world conditions. To assert that the agreement provides space for China and India to increase coal consumption brushes aside what is actually happening in the world.

A core element of China’s strategy to clear its dirty air, solve serious water scarcity, and add to economic strength has been to cancel 300 coal-fired power plants and build the world’s largest clean energy manufacturing sector. China’s coal consumption is declining. It’s economy is growing.

India also is idling coal-fired power plants. India’s coal imports are falling. India’s new national energy plan sets a target of generating nearly 60 percent of the country’s electricity, around 275 gigawatts, from wind, solar, biomass, and small hydropower plants by 2027. That’s 225 more gigawatts than India currently generates from renewable energy sources. It is the most ambitious clean energy development plan in the world outside China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged early in his administration to “achieve energy security for India based on clean fuels.”
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Farewell To My Dear Friend Andy Feinman

Andrew Feinman, Lake George, NY. June 2015. Photo/Keith Schneider

Andrew Feinman, my dear friend, died on May 11 at the age of 61 following a long struggle with prostate cancer. It amazes me to write that sentence. It’s confounding.

Andy Feinman is life to me. His life. Mine. His birthday in April followed mine by five days. Our lives tied together for 56 years. All that trust and knowing. His big heart and fabulous big brass section laugh. His distinctive mix of stubbornness and tenderness. Andy’s death came too soon for his family and his friends. Like everyone who loved him as a brother, I’m adrift. It’s like a mountain mined from the landscape of my life.

I was privy to a lot of what made Andy tick. He and I met in kindergarten at Highlands Elementary School in White Plains, New York. We were five years old. We lived two blocks apart. On our bicycles we roamed the quiet streets of a neighborhood of tall trees and stable families. We played tackle football in the big front yard of Andy’s house on Soundview Avenue. He could not get enough of his brother Bob’s record of an English farting contest. Andy and I spent too much time trying to emulate its sounds of grand flatulence. Harriet, his wonderfully loving mother, called us the “gruesome twosome.”

One of Andy’s gifts was truly inhabiting his deep friendships, and conferring to each of them unique properties. My relationship with Andy was about development and progress. We liked to check the performance boxes of our years. How we were doing. With his other close friends he liked to party hard, or carry on, or be wondrously serendipitous. With me, he wanted to share honest evaluation of how we were faring in life. Kind of a periodic life experience report card.

Andy and Mary, Lake George, June 2015

We invited each other into the various rooms of our souls. Our professional ambitions. Our array of insecurities. Sessions with therapists. The various frustrations, especially early on, of finding – and in my case – sustaining durable relationships with a mate. In our occasional periods of unexpected turbulence we encouraged each other to be resolute.

A Man in Full
Andy married well. His wife Mary, and sons Nick and Reuben, were his core. He was a superb husband — thoughtful and aware and steady. He was a great father — proud and respectful of his boys and completely dialed into what they are about. I occasionally had the chance to spend time with all the Feinmans. Andy had good reasons to be proud of his family.

Andy was well-educated, earning his undergraduate degree in communications from Syracuse University, and his Masters in business administration from Tulane. I spent long weekends with him on both campuses in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. He matured a lot between the two universities.

At Syracuse, Andy was a young lion in full celebration mode. He seemed to know every person at every party. His appetite for fun was immense and his stamina was otherworldly. He could sing every tune and dance with grace, and style, and ease.

The gruesome twosome many years later. Purchase, NY, September 2016

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Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like

Former Philippines Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during one of her helicopter tours of mine sites. Photo/Keith Schneider

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — On June 20, 2016 Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, asked Gina Lopez to join him in Davao City for an extended conversation about the condition of his country’s land and water.

It turned out to be an eventful encounter. The glib, rough talking, 71-year-old strongman former mayor of Davao City sought help from a 62-year-of woman known inside her wealthy family as the renegade daughter, and outside as an incorruptible foundation director and maverick environmentalist. As head of her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Lopez led one national campaign to ban open-pit mining. She organized another to clean up a portion of the filthy Pasig River that flows through Manila just to prove it could be done.

When the meeting concluded Duterte extended Lopez an invitation to direct the weak and corruptible Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She accepted. On July 1, the day after Duterte’s inauguration and with his enthusiastic support, Lopez launched environmental compliance audits of the country’s 41 big hard rock mineral mines that eventually resulted in shutdown or suspension orders against 26 mines. She reviewed government approvals for 339 proposed mines and issued show cause orders to cancel 75 of them. In the last week of April the DENR banned new open-pit mines. The order came seven years after Costa Rica banned new open pit mines, and a month after El Salvador banned all mining.

And all the while during her 10 months in the post Lopez planted bamboo to clear the nation’s waters of pollution, and invested in environmental restoration projects that produced new jobs for indigenous communities. Lopez also started a joint police-military-prosecution task force that curtailed illegal logging and jailed offenders.

Rarely has an environmental officer in any nation so aggressively challenged the industrial community. Not surprisingly Philippine business interests mounted a ferocious counter attack within the Congress and the Duterte administration, which includes several cabinet members close to the mining industry. Two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, owned by mining companies, editorialized against Lopez and her enforcement measures.

The Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Luzon island is a target of 50 mine proposals. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lopez In Office 10 Months
A skilled organizer, Lopez proved to be tenacious. She countered with frequent tours of towns affected by polluting mines, and inspected dozens of mine sites by helicopter. Her exploits were covered in the media and on Lopez’s Facebook page that kept hundreds of thousands of Filipinos informed about the value of the closure orders. Read More

Out Of Disruption Rule-Breaking Leaders

Regina Lopez, Philippines environment secretary, who is requiring her country’s mining industry to follow the law. Photo/Keith Schneider

MANILA -In the era of disruption, diplomacy is an overt union of business and odd statesmanship. Here in Manila news that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to visit the White House leads all the TV news and newspaper front pages. Trump in return accepted Duterte’s appeal to visit the Philippines for a meeting of SE Asia leaders in the fall.

Both leaders could care less whether they are criticized for supporting Duterte’s bloody campaign to eradicate drug trafficking, which produces a dozen dead drug dealers and users a day, and a surprising toll of dead police officers too. The Duterte drug war is popular here. Taxi drivers, sales clerks, restaurant workers, and young professionals tell me they have misgivings but they also stopped fearing their commutes home at night.

What’s important to the two presidents is business. Trump’s licensed name (for $5 million, according to news media accounts) graces a 57-story, $150 million residential tower that is about to open in center city Manila. The tower’s developer is Jose. E. B. Antonio, principal of Century Properties, a Trump confidante since the 1990s, and now also Duterte’s special envoy to Washington.

What’s so striking is how, in this age of uncommon ecological, economic, and cultural chaos, the emerging global figures are writing new operating rules for political and government behavior. The results come in all flavors. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi is passing carbon taxes and shifting his country away from coal. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who led Britain out of the European Union, is now the country’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off his coast. Rodrigo Duterte’s quality of life initiatives include bloodying drug traffickers and waging war against his nation’s ruthless and ecologically ruinous mining and logging industries.

Taken together all of these global government figures have a common link. They are breaking the old dishes in the political cupboard. And they are doing it with such conviction and authority that the sound of crashing political porcelain is much louder than the feeble brush strokes of the old power elites trying to maintain order and sweep up after them.

Banners offering messages of support for Environment Secretary Gina Lopez are draped on the wall of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources headquarters in Quezon City. A legislative vote that decides her job security occurs on Wednesday. Photo/Keith Schneider

I mentioned this to Gina Lopez, the Philippine environment secretary, who is a rare progressive figure and one of the few prominent women emerging from the disruptive global landscape. Her goal of reining in the ecological chaos caused by Philippine mining companies is novel and clear. The $1.6 billion industry, with its 40 big copper, gold, and nickel mines, has never faced a government official as determined as Lopez. She’s pursuing them with complaince audits, a police-military task force, shutdown orders, and permit revocations.

While I was in Manila this week she even banned new open-pit metal mines. And she’s done all of this with the backing of President Duterte, and without consulting the Philippine Legislature. She has the authority to address a long-standing social and ecological grievance, she says. And since taking office in July 2016 she decided to actually act with righteous zeal on the authorities the law provides.

On Wednesday this week her legislative opponents, as well as Lopez’s supporters, have a chance to weigh in on her performance. A 25-person legislative committee will vote to confirm her appointment as environment secretary or reject her. According to Lopez’s executive assistant, eight committee members are solidly in the mining camp and will vote against her. Twelve votes are solidly with her. Lopez needs one of the remaining five.

The vote is a test of whether the old order — the political influence of the mining industry and its conventional back-slapping campaign-supporting way — prevails over an independent leader who thrives on disruption and has produced a lot of it for resource developers. Or does the new era of disruption, and the leaders that have emerged by inventing new rules of the game, assure Lopez’s confirmation?

My bet is the latter. The momentum of the era points that way.

— Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble

Gina Lopez has pursued an aggressive campaign to convince miners to follow environmental law and to protect watersheds.

Gina Lopez has pursued an aggressive campaign to convince miners to follow environmental law and to protect watersheds.

There is really no puzzle why Gina Lopez is struggling to hold onto her job as the Philippine secretary of the environment. On her first day in the post last July she dispatched inspectors to see how faithfully the country’s 40 large hardrock mines, 27 of them nickel ore producers, adhered to national environmental law and regulation.

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest nickel ore producers and exporters. Global nickel ore prices soared on the news of Lopez’s order, with the expectation that the country’s go-go industry would be shackled. Mining stocks plunged.

In August, with early findings in hand of rampant air and water quality violations, Lopez suspended operating permits for 10 mines, most of them nickel producers. Lopez said her concern for Philippine watersheds, the “madness” of rapacious open pit mining, and the consequences to rural communities justified the audit campaign. “I want to make it clear I have no beef with the mining industry,” Lopez said at a news conference. “But I am vehemently against the adverse effects that may happen, that are happening in some of the situations.“

Lopez then took on coal miners and the coal-fired utility sector, which accounts for over 40 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. She called on her government colleagues to put coal-fired power aside and more aggressively pursue the 7,700 megawatts of renewable generating capacity that were proposed in a 2015 government plan.

“I’m going renewable because it’s for the Filipino people,” she said to reporters. “If they benefit, well, other people can also benefit. My thing to the businessmen, go renewable so you can also benefit.”

The Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi wasn’t so enthusiastic. “We cannot just discount coal,” Cusi fired back.

It is not at all clear, though, how much longer Lopez’s green crusade will survive. Nine months after she joined the Duterte government, Lopez’s mine audit program certainly produced globally important results. With evidence of wanton disregard for safeguards to air and water, Lopez ordered 26 mines closed. She also suspended 75 of the country’s 339 mining licenses.

One of the affected projects is the proposed $US 5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine on the southern Island of Mindanao. Lopez’s orders mirrored similar recent directiives to control mining pollution. In 2014 the National Green Tribunal shut down northeast India’s coal mines in Meghalaya. Earlier this year El Salvador banned gold mining.

Called Before A Review Panel
I first became interested in Lopez last summer when I heard about her appointment and learned about President Duterte’s green streak. In her first months in office Lopez exhibited a passion and fearlessness that is all too rare among the world’s environmental secretaries. With Duterte’s consistent applause her position appeared secure.

But in March, following months of protest from mining executives and other critics, her job security began to be weighed by a high-profile legislative group that reviews presidential cabinet appointments. After two days of questioning, the 25-member Commission on Appointments, which includes legislators backed by the mining industry, declined to approve Lopez as environment secretary.

The Dibagat River exemplifies the magnificent freshwater resources that Gina Lopez is determined to safeguard.

The Dibagat River exemplifies the magnificent freshwater resources that Gina Lopez is determined to safeguard.

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