At the Front Lines of the Global Transition


Public Opposition, Changing Ecology Sap Strength of Fossil Fuel Industries

Coal consumption is rising in India, and opposition to coal use is too as water supplies drop. Here, mining in Meghalaya. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coal consumption is rising in India. Opposition to mining and coal combustion also is increasing as water supplies drop. Here, mining in Meghalaya. Photo/Keith Schneider

It’s been nearly three years since I traveled in Uttarakhand, India to report on the aftermath of a murderous Himalayan flood that killed thousands of Hindu pilgrims and wrecked at least 10 big hydropower dams. Witnessing that much damage from an ecological event changed how I viewed the power of Mother Nature and the wrath she is exhibiting to human communities.

It’s been nearly two years since I reported on how citizens in Assam, India halted construction of the Lower Subansiri dam midway through completion. The moldering concrete of a dam that was supposed to generate 2,000 megawatts of energy was a convincing display of the power of public protest.

It wasn’t until late last year, while reporting from China, that I recognized that both of the events in India, and other human and ecological barriers to development that I’d seen on four other continents were tied together. Changing ecological conditions are prompting powerful civic responses and together are impeding or halting development of mega energy projects around the world.

Economists and financial analysts are starting to recognize the trends, which are translating into powerful signals of economic distress in the energy, mining, power-producing, and farm industries. A good deal of the distress is linked to the Earth’s shifting hydrological conditions caused by climate change. At Circle of Blue, where I serve as senior editor and chief correspondent, we’ve started a project to report on the relationship of water risks to what the financial community calls “stranded assets.”

Concerns about rising carbon levels in the atmosphere, and competition from natural gas suppliers and renewable energy, dampen demand for coal. Global prices for coal, oil, and minerals have tumbled to near-record lows in constant dollars. Coal-fired power plants are being cancelled across Asia. The largest coal companies in the United States are in bankruptcy.

Almost $400 billion in planned development in Canada’s oil sands region, where water volumes in the Athabasca River are in doubt, have been cancelled, according to an analysis by Wood MacKenzie, a research firm.

Hard rock mineral mines are closing on five continents, and fossil fuel developments all over the world are being impeded because of civic rebellions fueled by fears of disruptions to local water supplies. See the teaser for this powerful new film about the global rebellion occurring around the mining, drilling, and combustion of fossil fuels.

Stranded in the Ground
Taken in aggregate the various signals, like channel buoys frantically bobbing in tempestuous seas, cause bankers and economists to express conflicting views about the severity of the market turmoil and whether the global financial system is sound. For the time being, much of the analysis on the financial losses focuses on the plunge in oil and coal prices, and the potential that a huge portion of the global reserves of oil, gas, and coal will be “stranded’ in the ground to curb climate change.

Robert Kaplan, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve, said earlier this month that banks will suffer losses on energy loans following the collapse in global oil prices, but they will not pose a broad risk to the economy.

“We watch this issue very carefully and we watch related areas of commercial real estate exposure. There will be losses,” Kaplan said in an interview on CNBC. “I don’t think this will be a systemic issue.”

But Mark Harrington, an oil industry consultant, asserted on CNBC in January that defaults on debts in the fossil fuel sector could exceed losses sustained in the 2007-2008 market crash.

“Oil and gas companies borrowed heavily when oil prices were soaring above $70 a barrel,” he wrote on CNBC. “But in the past 24 months, they’ve seen their values and cash flows erode ferociously as oil prices plunge—and that’s made it hard for some to pay back that debt. This could lead to a massive credit crunch like the one we saw in 2008. With our economy just getting back on its feet from the global 2008 financial crisis, timing could not be worse.”

The $16 billion, 4800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power station in South Africa. It's cost, complexity, size, and water consumption may make the plant a potential stranded asset years before its anticipated completion in the early 2020s. Photo/Keith Schneider

The $16 billion, 4800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power station in South Africa. It’s cost, complexity, size, and water consumption may make the plant a potential stranded asset years before its anticipated completion in the early 2020s. Photo/Keith Schneider

The difficulty in gaining a firm understanding of the global risk to world financial markets is due, in no small part, to the sharply accelerating pace of environmental and social change. For much of human history ecological transformation took centuries, and seminal social change took generations. In the 21st century the shift in hydrological cycles is occurring over a decade, and social changes – like the global rebellion over mega industrial projects – develop in just a few years. Global markets respond in weeks in some cases, and overnight in others.

“The economic impact of environmental risks is incredibly large already and is now accelerating. Uncertain physical climate change impacts and volatile societal responses to such impacts will almost certainly increase losses across all sectors of the global economy,” said Ben Caldecott, director of the Sustainable Finance Program at the University of Oxford, in an email message. “Given that these impacts are large, growing, and systemic, they can have implications for financial stability. We don’t know whether this might happen and from which part of the financial system.” Read More

Earth Day At 47: Lessons For Sound Development

California Pacific coast at sunset. An oil spill in 1969 that soiled beaches in Santa Barbara was an instigating event for Earth Day. Photo/Keith Schneider

California Pacific coast at sunset. An oil spill in 1969 that soiled beaches in Santa Barbara was an instigating event for Earth Day. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — By now, the 47th observance of Earth Day, the point of summoning people to protect Mother Nature is clear. What started in 1970 as a call to action from the youthful wing of American society has matured into mainstream global operating principles for assuring that human life thrives in the 21st century.

Essentially, that is what the founders of Earth Day anticipated. Earth Day was never just about preventing pollution or conserving imperiled landscapes, though both objectives served as galvanizing ideas for the early annual observances. The organizers correctly predicted that the resource-conserving, waste-reducing, energy-efficient lessons of Earth Day would eventually serve as a development template for nations to succeed.

Natural systems, after all, are powerful. Far more potent, in fact, than mankind’s flimsy transport, food production, electrical distribution, and communications networks. Anybody who tries to switch planes during a mild snowstorm at Chicago O’Hare International Airport knows all about that.

What Happens With Ignorance
What Earth Day’s founders could not have foreseen was how quickly nations would deteriorate by failing to heed environmental values. Mother Earth no longer tolerates wasteful and dirty development paths. Neither do national economies.

Studies of economic performance consistently find that the nations that insist on challenging the Earth’s rapidly evolving environmental conditions are experiencing heightened economic damage — joblessness, social instability, deteriorating health, more poverty, and eroding GDP. South Africa, India, Brazil, Mexico, China, and Russia are visible examples.

One more point. Just as the first Earth Day was inspired by a river that caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio, and a Great Lake that was declared near dead, securing the world’s freshwater reserves is a central goal of Earth Day 2016.

More powerful storms require changes in development strategies around the world. Here, a storm cloud in Indiana. Photo/Keith Schneider

More powerful storms require changes in development strategies around the world. Here, a storm cloud in Indiana. Photo/Keith Schneider

The world recognizes that preventing water pollution is a measure of sound public health management. The world also sees that access to adequate supplies of clean water is an essential economic resource. One reason that American cities have again become some of the world’s most beautiful and livable is the investments made in building new shoreline parks, pedestrian promenades, and neighborhoods along cleaned-up waterways.

Corporate social responsibility executives all over the world spend much of their time today developing new industrial practices that conserve water and use less energy. In California, recycled municipal wastewater, once disparaged as “toilet water,” is now seen as a resource to replenish drinking water aquifers and irrigate cropland. The United Nations last year published its Sustainable Development Goals, a global economic development strategy founded on ecological principles. Access to clean water, and saner water use and consumption, form the basis for 10 of the 17 goals. Read More

Celebrating My 60th

Gabrielle Gray, my dear partner, and me in California, October 2015. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray and me in California, October 2015. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY— I made it. Tomorrow, April 19, 2016 is my 60th birthday. It feels great. Purposeful. Definitive. Fully engaged. Fun.

Turning 60 means you’ve been around for awhile. If I were a kitchen I’d have been remodeled at least three times. If I were a maple tree I’d be 80 feet tall. If I were a blue whale, I’d weigh 150 tons.

Turning 60 means that you’ve learned a few things. You learn that when a woman asks if you’re hungry you don’t say “no.” You head to the fridge and make her a sandwich.

Turning 60 makes you appreciate more the things you didn’t as a younger man — like the color of shutters on a house, or how bike paths are a measure of a city’s quality of life.

Turning 60 means you’re reconciled to life’s episodic bullying, recovered from inescapable misfortune and grief, and made a solemn pact with yourself to keep breathing.

My mother reminds me about how hard I took turning 40. I don’t remember that. I do remember how hard 1996 was, breathing life into a new public interest organization in northern Michigan. I never worked that hard before or since.

Keith Schneider in Cape Town February 2016. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

Keith Schneider in Cape Town February 2016. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

Turning 50 was a party. In fact it was six parties with family and friends in three states.

Tomorrow I turn 60. That’s 21,900 days. As a guy who’s led an examined life it’s entirely pleasing to note that not many of them got away from me. My dearest friends tell me I’m hopelessly optimistic. My family thinks it’s cute. Gabrielle Gray, my dear, dear partner remarked the other day that when she asks me first thing, ‘How are you?’ I always reply, ‘I’m good.'”

I am good. Never better, actually. By 60 it’s plain that the three most important assets in life are these: Love. Time. Health. There’s no particular universal formula for acquiring them. I found that good fortune, a bit of discipline, and a sizable portion of motivation are involved.

I’m not planning to alter any of the factors that led me to this point and place. I’m just so grateful for all that life spread before me. I love my family, my friends, my home, my work. I know enough to cherish my days and the people in them. After all, tomorrow I turn 60.

— Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray and Keith Schneider in Cape Town February 2016. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray and Keith Schneider in Cape Town February 2016. Photo/Keith Schneider

Bazooka Radebe Wild Coast Murder Yields No Suspects

A battle for control of a portion of South Africa's magnificent Wild Coast has evolved into one of the most unpredictable and dangerous environmental conflicts in the world. Photo/Keith Schneider

A battle for control of a portion of South Africa’s magnificent Wild Coast has evolved into one of the most dangerous environmental conflicts in the world. Photo/Keith Schneider

Nearly a month after gunmen assassinated Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe, the leader of a community group that opposed a mine and new highway on South Africa’s Wild Coast, the investigation has expanded but no suspects have been identified, according to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, South Africa’s national police unit for investigating corruption and political and organized crime.
“It’s a murder case and we suspect there’s an element of organized crime,” Hlangwani Mulaudzi, the spokesman of the Directorate, told reporters in South Africa.

“There is a task team formed to deal with this case,” Mulaudzi added last week in an interview with Checkpoint, a program of the 24-hour eNews Channel Africa. “There have been huge strides made so far.”

Radebe was attacked on March 22 at one of his repair and storage shops in Port Edward along the Indian Ocean coast, about two hours south of Durban and close to Xolobeni, where a titanium beach mine and freeway are proposed. Witnesses, among them Radebe’s son, said two men, apparently impersonating police officers, arrived after sunset in a white vehicle with blue emergency lights fixed on the roof. Radebe had received a warning about a hitlist prior to the attack. He resisted the gunmen’s order to get in the car and was shot eight times.

Investigators learned that the vehicle had been carjacked with two passengers inside. The gunmen put one of the kidnapped passengers in the trunk and restrained the second in the back seat. Both passengers survived.

The owner of a taxi company raised in the Xolobeni area, 52-year-old Radebe chaired the Amadiba Crisis Committee, a civic group formed in 2007 with hundreds of members who opposed plans to mine the Indian Ocean beach and cross their Pondo tribal lands with a freeway. Radebe and his colleagues were convinced that both developments would wreck the region’s agrarian way of life, and that investments in agriculture, local road repair, and eco-tourism would generate more businesses and jobs that also secured their magnificent coastal homeland.

Conflict Over Development
The Crisis Committee’s steadfast opposition inflamed local supporters of the mine’s Australian developer, Mineral Commodities Ltd., who argued that development would produce economic opportunities. The conflict split Xolobeni as families divided and close friendships dissolved.

The Crisis Committee appeared to win the mining struggle in 2011 when the Department of Mineral Resources revoked the mining license. The 2011 mining license revocation, though, was based on what the department said were weaknesses in the application. The ruling left open the opportunity for Mineral Commodities to restart the licensing process by March 6, 2015. Two days before the deadline, on March 4, 2015, the company submitted a new license application to mine the Indian Ocean beach.

Simultaneously, a year-long reign of violence began against the Amadiba Crisis Committee. Night and daytime attacks on committee members since May 2015 resulted in severe injuries, but were largely viewed as insignificant. Just one attack in December was regarded as worthy of investigation by local officers of the South African Police Service and prosecution by the government. Radebe’s death also fit the era of turmoil engulfing South Africa.

Bazooka Radebe’s death, as well as his funeral, which attracted 3,000 mourners and international television crews, are the most visible events in the furious 10-year struggle. Both events elevated an unpredictable and dangerous conflict over industrial and transportation development on the northern end of South Africa’s Wild Coast to national and international attention.

Xolobeni residents see themselves as heirs to a tradition of stalwart defense of their magnificent Pondo homeland. Like the Pondo tribesmen who spent three years battling Apartheid-era restrictions from 1958 to 1961, members of the Amadiba Crisis Committee vow to block development of their free-flowing rivers, open grasslands, and undeveloped Indian Ocean coast.

A researcher, Dick Forslund has assisted the Amadiba Crisis Committee's work to secure the Wild Coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

A researcher, Dick Forslund has assisted the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s
work to secure the Wild Coast. Photo/Keith Schneider

“The assassination of Sikhosiphi Bazooka has caused a groundswell of opposition, and massive support from civil society organizations all over the country,” said Sinegugu Zukulu, a professional conservationist and a leader of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. “The same can not be said about our government. I think they are hoping to calm things down and continue to push for mining. They have forgotten too soon as history could be telling them about our tribe. In Mpondoland when we say ‘no’ we mean it. We do not change.” Read More

This Is South Africa

Cape Town's water supply starts in this magnificent valley near Stellenbosch, north of South Africa's largest city. Photo/Keith Schneider

Cape Town’s water supply starts in this valley near Stellenbosch,
north of South Africa’s largest city. Photo/Keith Schneider

CAPE TOWN, South Africa
— There may be no other place on Earth where the land unfolds with such breathtaking beauty, where the green waves of KwaZulu-Natal valleys and the purple summits of Karoo desert ridges have such a powerful emotional lease. From the cold blue ocean waters of Cape Town to the limitless highveld expanses of Mpumalanga, South Africa’s geographic magnificence serves to both inspire this nation — and mock its racial divisions, government mismanagement, and misguided carbon-intensive economic strategy.

South Africa has no frilly edges, no centers of juvenile mirth or artifice. There are no enclaves of hyper-intellectual, digitally-driven, fabulously confident venture capitalists investing in online apps that change the world. There are no communities that specialize in making movies like Hollywood, or music like Nashville, or baseball like Cooperstown. One of the country’s most-visited tourist destinations is an Atlantic Ocean island where black activists were imprisoned before they became president. The red carpets that South Africans talk about are not entrances to galas. They are the blood of victims of government-sanctioned massacres.

What South Africa embraces in abundance is passion. Passion for the land. Passion for progress. Passion for 22 years of liberty since the 1994 elections that ended Apartheid. Passion to prove that the endowment of optimism, the allegiance to justice that led to the election of Nelson Mandela as the new republic’s first president isn’t lost in a gout of corruption and cronyism fostered by Jacob Zuma, the nation’s fourth president. “What scares me the most in current day South Africa,” writes Solly Moeng, a communications consultant, in the April 13, 2006 edition of, “is the growing realization that we have placed our fate squarely into the hands of a bunch of politicians who, now faced with the growing prospects of losing much of the power they’ve taken for granted all along, might stop at nothing to retain it.”

The 96-megawatt Jasper solar station in Northern Cape province. Photo/Keith Schneider

The 96-megawatt Jasper solar station in Northern Cape province. Photo/Keith Schneider

Passion steers South Africa’s progress now. In seven weeks of travel, in talking to scores of people of all races and ages in eight of the country’s nine provinces, people expressed their deep frustration about the country’s mounting social and economic turmoil. They displayed a patriot’s commitment to understand the sources of the tumult and resolve them. And everyone marveled at the gifts that God and nature had bestowed on their beloved country.

TISA. This is South Africa. Here are other notable features of South Africa’s distinctive place on Earth:

Love — Though too many black South Africans struggle with numbing joblessness and poverty, and too many white South Africans despair at the diminished state of their country, blacks and whites share the most important human values. South Africans are generous, unselfish, and full of love. Everywhere in South Africa we were invited into homes, hugged and fed, and celebrated as new friends and not as strangers. Our experiences in black communities were especially appealing. Though millions of black families live in informal settlements with limited access to running water and decent sanitation, the grinding conditions seem not to have diminished the communal tribal culture that has developed over centuries. Families live together in two or three homes side by side, whether it’s in informal settlements, on a suburban street, or in compounds of round thatched-roof huts in the countryside. Wherever they reside, black families share resources, and rely on younger adults to care for babies and the elders. Communities also do the same. People gather in groups to consider facts and reach decisions collectively. The communal culture builds trust and produces generous volumes of love that black South Africans lavish on each other and on visitors.

A laid off farmworker with her children on a sugarcane farm in Mongolia. Photo/Keith Schneider

A laid off farmworker with her children on a sugarcane farm in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

Despair — For nearly a century, until the practice ended in 1994, South Africa’s white Afrikaans Apartheid government bullied its black, colored, and Indian communities. Whites occupied the best jobs, the best neighborhoods, the choicest lands. People of the three other races, and especially black South Africans, were confined to designated neighborhoods and regions without liberty to travel, go to good schools, buy land, or seek employment outside of menial labor. The oppression produced viral hatred of government. The election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president in 1994, and the adoption of a constitution that stressed human rights and justice, produced waves of popular optimism about opening a new era of freedom and opportunity fostered by a competent government elected by all of the people. Two decades into the 21st century, though, South Africa is managed by an ineffective and corrupt administration making numerous poor decisions about economic development and social progress. South Africans of every race despise what’s happening to their country. One consequence is that President Jacob Zuma is under siege from South Africans and opposition parties seeking his impeachment. See Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: South Africa archive here.
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