David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

Divide and conquer?

It strikes me that Wal-Mart and Arnold Schwarzenegger are doing something similar: trying to peel eco-activists off from the larger progressive coalition. And while two data points don't exactly make a trend, it's something greens should be pondering. Consider: Wal-Mart recently announced some high-profile and fairly substantial sustainability reforms. Meanwhile, as this collection of Alternet coverage amply demonstrates, they continue to screw workers, bust unions, skimp on health care, and drive out local businesses. Somewhere in some boardroom, the calculation was obviously made that the company could afford some sustainability, and that it would help deflect activist attention, but that other reforms would cut too deep into the bottom line. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, has not been perfect on green issues, but has presided over some remarkably forward-thinking reforms, most notably California's landmark auto-emissions limits. Yet, as Kevin Drum points out, for the most part he's been a "standard issue business-pandering Republican." Of course, Wal-Mart is getting bashed now more than ever, and Arnold's very expensive slate of state initiatives just got crushed, so the strategy doesn't seem to be working. But still, it's something to think about: If environmentalists get what they want (or at least some of it), should they overlook egregious misconduct in the areas of, say, labor and healthcare? How strongly do greens stand with the progressive coalition?

Weird science

Kansas School Board redefines science

The Kansas Board of Education has hit on an innovative way to stop the abuse of science: They just passed new science-curriculum standards that "rewrite the definition of science, holding that it no longer is limited to searching for natural explanations for natural phenomena."

Kucinich's resolution

Is Kucinich politicizing science?

Last week, Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced to the Congressional record a Resolution of Inquiry (H. Res. 515), cosigned by around 150 House Democrats, "demanding that the White House submit to Congress all documents in their possession relating to the anticipated effects of climate change on the coastal regions of the United States." (Press release; PDF of the resolution.) The idea, according to InsideEPA.com (as quoted by Roger Pielke Jr. -- I don't have the required subscription), is to put pressure on moderate Republicans, who are increasingly coming around on the climate-change issue. Observers say the ROI will present House Science Committee Chairman SHERWOOD BOEHLERT (R-NY), Rep. VERNON EHLERS (R-MI) and Rep. WAYNE GILCHREST (R-MD) with a critical choice between siding with their party in deflecting attention from the president's climate policies and their environmental records, which have won them praise and endorsements from environmental groups. Their decisions on the matter may prove crucial during their 2006 primaries, where at least one is expected to face a tough fight against a more conservative GOP candidate. What to make of this?

Why environmentalists should embrace economics: Part two

Placing monetary value on eco-resources helps more than it hurts

This is the second part of a two-part essay by Jason Scorse, Assistant Professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Go here to read an introduction and part one. ----- Does this mean private property rights solve everything? Of course not; however, the worst forms of environmental abuse generally occur in areas where property rights and markets are non-existent, or where the market is distorted by perverse subsidies that encourage over-exploitation. Even with enforceable property rights and a solid system of environmental accounting, markets are not perfect and are subject to unintended consequences. Global warming presents a particularly difficult challenge. The atmosphere is the world's preeminent open access resource, and exclusion is impossible. Some of the solutions currently being discussed for long-term climate management are enforceable limits on greenhouse gas emissions through a system of tradable atmospheric pollution permits. While some environmentalists oppose pollution permits on the grounds that they establish a "right to pollute," all industrial activities require some level of greenhouse-gas pollution and tradable permits may provide both the cheapest and most equitable way of achieving targeted reductions (big greenhouse polluters like the U.S. would likely end up buying credits from less-polluting nations). One concern many people express regarding private property is that resources that typically were free or available at little cost to almost everyone are now being "commodified." Common examples include water and botanical genetic resources. While we can all agree that everyone should have access to clean drinking water, the fact is that billions of people, for a variety of reasons, do not. Sometimes the water has been contaminated, the aquifers have been depleted, regions have suffered droughts, or the public agency in charge is corrupt. In addition, water purification and delivery are extremely expensive and entail complex systems of infrastructure and maintenance. Privatization of water systems in many instances can bring much needed capital into areas that lack infrastructure and actually improve people's access to clean water, including the poor. There are other instances where privatization has led to large rate increases and lower levels of access. The appropriate response is to ask why privatization has worked well in some areas and not in others, not to condemn it across the board. (Consider: food is also necessary for life, but no one is waging a battle against farmers who happen to be in the private business of bringing food to your table.)

The greening of San Fran

I knew some cool stuff was going on down in San Francisco, but this report from Clean Edge is pretty amazing. Apparently, when mayor Gavin Newsom said last year that he wanted to implement Clean Edge's recommendations, he wasn't kidding. Joel Makower reports on the past year's progress: The Mayor has named a clean-tech manager, Jennifer Entine-Matz, to coordinate citywide clean-tech initiatives, market and execute San Francisco's clean-tech business attraction strategy, and work with the new advisory council. The Board of Supervisors last month approved a payroll tax exemption for qualified clean-tech companies doing business in San Francisco. Several city agencies are working to create a fast-track permitting program for new commercial buildings that meet the LEED green-building standards. The Mayor recently signed the Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance, which creates a comprehensive system for the city to identify, purchase, and use environmentally preferable products. San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to adopt an ordinance of this kind. There's plenty more -- check out Joel's post and the report. Looks like San Fran is on track to become the country's greenest city, and Newsom is on track to become one of my political heroes.

A different take

While environmentalists are generally inclined to celebrate recent moves by evangelical Christians to hop on the green bandwagon, Andrew Sullivan is concerned about the confluence of two big-government philosophies.

All Giller, no filler

Brown alumni magazine profiles Grist leader Chip Giller

The latest issue of Brown Alumni Magazine (BAM!) contains a long and appropriately adoring profile of our brilliant, witty, and dashingly handsome leader, Chip Giller. My only beef with the piece is this bit: The humor is most visibly expressed in its headlines; when the Bush administration tried to undermine European governments' efforts to test the public-health impact of industrial chemicals, Grist titled its story "No Chemical Left Behind." Um, exsqueeze me, but that is one of our least funny headlines ever. The writer couldn't find anything better than that? For future writers of adoring profiles, may I suggest the stone classic Cattle Star Redactica.

Why environmentalists should embrace economics: Part one

Market mechanisms are your friend

In the July-August issue of Sierra Magazine was an essay called The Common Good, a broadside against the market system and the field of economics generally. It didn't sit well with Jason Scorse, Assistant Professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He wrote an article in response and sent it to Sierra; they passed on it. (Read the background in this post on the Environmental Economics blog.) I offered to run an abbreviated version of the essay. Part one follows; I'll publish the second half tomorrow. ----- Economics is largely the study of incentives, resource distribution, and how institutional arrangements affect behaviors and outcomes -- and therefore, economics is largely the study of trade-offs. Above all, economics is based on simple principles of how people generally act in the real world, not necessarily how we would like them to act. Let us begin with the primary problem surrounding open-access resources. Open-access resources are those for which there are no clear and enforceable property rights and to which it is very difficult to limit access. The world's ocean fisheries and much of the world's largest forests are prime examples. Unless there is some type of agreement by the parties who access the resources to better manage and preserve them, rational individuals acting in their own self-interest will exploit them (catching fish or cutting down trees) until the resources are exhausted. In this way they obtain all the benefits from their efforts while the costs (the ultimate degradation of the resources) are dispersed among the entire population. When large numbers of parties are involved and the geographic area is large, cooperative management is unlikely to occur. This basic logic underlies why 90% of the world's ocean fisheries have either collapsed or are near collapse, and why the Amazon rainforest continues to be cut down at unprecedented rates. So what are the solutions?

Obama mia!

My near worship of Barack Obama is neither unique nor particularly well-concealed. I keep waiting for something to happen to break the spell, to start the inevitable backlash. But every time I hear his name, he's doing something at once politically savvy and substantively admirable. To wit: On Friday, Obama put a hold on Bush's latest nomination to the EPA, and says he intends to put a hold on all future nominees. Why? He's sick of the EPA delaying new regulations on remodeling and renovating in houses that contain lead paint. Despite being ordered by Congress in 1992 to release such regulations by 1996, the agency has delayed again and again. Last year the Bush administration even looked into asking industry to adopt voluntary practices, to avoid regulation. (Shocking, I know.) Obama considered putting a hold on last year's nomination of Marcus Peacock to the #2 slot at EPA, but held off when folks at the agency assured him they would issue regs by the end of the year. Then, last week, they told him they couldn't meet the deadline. So he called their bluff and placed the hold. Then: EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said Friday the agency will meet the Dec. 31 deadline after all. "We're working on doing the rule by the end of the year," she said. "Even one child impacted by lead is one child too many." Obama then demanded that agency officials put that in writing. Nice. Let us count the ways in which this is a smart move: