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.


Giving thanks is a struggle this year. In the past 12 months we have been struck by three body blows from Mother Nature: the South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the Kashmir earthquake. In each case, the destruction wrought by nature was exacerbated by a lack of foresight and criminal negligence on the part of governments. In each case, the suffering is ongoing. Taken individually, each is a tragedy. Taken together, they are unimaginable. Numbing. Yet we do not have the luxury of numbness, for every day the dimensions of two interlinked crises -- the disruption of global climate and the exhaustion of the world's primary energy source -- become more clear. These crises portend disasters like those we've seen this year, ever more frequent and more severe. Still the world's governments stumble forward with shameful disregard, shackled by habit, by ignorance, by greed, content on some level that they will not have to weather the worst of it. It is a particularly bitter year for those of us in the U.S. We continue to see our nation's reputation and credibility eroded by a series of foreign policy blunders. We are in a position to lead the word to a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous future -- yet instead we find ourselves mired in a debate about the legitimacy of torture. We spurn all efforts to address climate change. We burn heedlessly through the world's remaining oil. We wage war. When confronted with the three epic natural disasters of the past year we have displayed a parsimony that borders on the repugnant. In the hills and mountains of Northern Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of penniless, hungry men, women, and children sleep in tents, their houses and lives reduced to rubble, waiting the coming of a harsh winter that a horrific number of them will not survive. Yet the U.N. has been able to raise less than $300 million to help them -- as much as we spend in a few days in Iraq, a negligible rounding error in our GDP. Already they have begun to die. On 9/11/01, one kind of malaise breached our shores; this hurricane season, another did. Our isolation from the world's struggles, our glorious island, is falling away. We will soon have to accept the challenge of forging a better, more equitable, more sustainable future, or we too will see ours sink into strife and misfortune. So it is difficult to search our hearts for gratitude, in a season of darkness, for bearers of light that seem ever more scattered and overwhelmed. But bearers of light there always are, in governments, in businesses, in schools, in communities across the world. We all know of them. Now more than ever we are called to give thanks for them, to support them -- and to join them. For my part, I am acutely conscious of the blessings I enjoy, my privileged place in a shrinking world. So above all I give thanks for my family, my wife and my two boys, who at the end of every day I spend studying the globe's ill health await me at home with warmth and joy.

Federal court reinstates streamlined permitting process for mountaintop mining

Grim news: Mountaintop mining is once again set to go full steam ahead. In July of last year, a federal judge revoked 11 mountaintop mining permits issued under the Nationwide Permit 21 process by the Army Corps of Engineers. NP21 is a streamlined permitting process meant to govern activities that have minimal environmental impact. Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, being sentient and in possession of his faculties, ruled that mountaintop mining does not fall under that description and that permitting it under NP21 violates the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists hailed Goodwin's ruling as a landmark victory. Today, a federal appeals court overturned it. The three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit -- widely regarded as the most conservative of the 13 U.S. appellate courts -- unanimously ruled that the Corps had in fact acted in accordance with the Clean Water Act. Here's the ruling as HTML and here it is as a PDF. Helluva way to head into Thanksgiving.

Green Gauge Report: Bad news

Here we are on the day before a long holiday weekend. A perfect day to bury bad news. So here goes. The Green Gauge Report is a poll on environmental attitudes, based on 2,000 face-to-face interviews, conducted with a broad cross-section of demographics representative of the U.S. Census, undertaken by an arm of market-research outfit GfK NOP. They do it every year -- though for some reason they skipped 2004. Joel Makower discusses this year's GGR in a post that tries -- one might say 'strains mightily' -- to put an optimistic spin on the results. But from what I've seen (and I've exchanged a few emails with Bob Pares, the guy who ran it), the results are almost uniformly discouraging. Consider this, from Joel's post: Here's a breakdown of the study's five market segmentations for 2005 and 1995 (the numbers don't add up to 100 due to rounding): True-Blue Greens -- the most environmentally active segment of society: 11% of the U.S. population in 1995, 11% in 2005. Greenback Greens -- those most willing to pay the highest premium for green products: 7% in 1995, 8% in 2005. Sprouts -- fence-sitters who have embraced environmentalism more slowly: 31% in 1995, 33% in 2005. Grousers -- uninvolved or disinterested in environmental issues, who feel the issues are too big for them to solve: 14% in 1999, 14% in 2005. Apathetics -- the least engaged group who believe that environmental indifference is mainstream (referred to as "Basic Browns" in earlier Roper polls): 35% in 1995, 33% in 2005. So: basically no change in the last decade in the number of folks genuinely concerned and engaged with environmental problems.

Syriana and Gaghan: Two steps forward, one back

There's a short piece in the current Rolling Stone called "Hollywood vs. Big Oil" -- the piece isn't online, though a very positive review is -- about the movie Syriana. It's got some interesting background details, including a few about the financing from eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll's Participant Productions. I'm seeing it on Friday, and I fully expect it to kick ass. And I respect Stephen Gaghan for making it. It's a real public service. But dude ... Despite immersing himself in the evils of the oil industry, Gaghan is not a purist. In fact, he has a confession to make. "I have to get a second car," he says quietly. "You know something? I don't like hybrids." Look, I get that for some reason every mainstream media story about environmental issues has to include some kind of poke at the eco-messengers and how hypocritical they are for not living in huts in the woods. This is what the green movement gets for making personal environmental virtue such an obsessive focus. But why does Gaghan have to play the game? And why a potshot at hybrids, which unlike, say, composting toilets, are perfectly accessible and practical? These little signals matter. I'll try to get some kind of review of Syriana up over the weekend. Update [2005-11-22 12:16:37 by David Roberts]: Well, it appears I was misled (by my own wife!). The opening this Friday is limited -- Dallas and New York, as far as I can tell (Seattle gets no love). It doesn't open wide until Dec. 9. So I guess I'll go see it then. Sigh.

Schweitzer and coal-to-fuel conversion

I confess I'm not quite sure what to make of Montana governor Brian Schweitzer's grand scheme to make the U.S. energy independent with coal-to-fuel conversion. The NYT makes only passing reference to the pollution generated -- "what is new is the technology that removes and stores the pollutants during and after the making of synthetic fuel" -- and Schweitzer seems slightly too pat about the consequences of mining the coal: Mr. Schweitzer said the mining could be done in a way that restored the land afterward. "I call it deep farming," he said. "You take away the top eight inches of soil, remove the seam of coal, and then put the topsoil back in." Yes, because farming has been so kind to the Western prairie ... Naturally, my environmental spidey-sense tingles at this sort of stuff. Will the mining really be done carefully? Will restoration really be a priority? Are the pollutants really "removed and stored" safely? I know very little about the process, technically speaking, and would love to be enlightened by an educated reader. But methinks when it comes to energy extraction in the West, an enormous dose of skepticism is warranted. Still.

Learn to swim

California is in trouble

I know you've all checked out our nifty map showing where the next likely "Unnatural Disaster" will take place. In the same vein, check out this L.A. Times editorial on a possible Cali earthquake and its consequences for the levees that hold the state's elaborate water infrastructure together. Grim. Should a magnitude 6.5 earthquake strike the San Francisco Bay Area -- almost a certainty by mid-century, though it could happen today -- about 30 major failures can be expected in the earthen levees. About 3,000 homes and 85,000 acres of cropland would be submerged. Saltwater from San Francisco Bay would invade the system, forcing engineers to shut down the pumps that ship water to Central and Southern California while the levees were being repaired. This would cut off water to the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. The [Metropolitan Water District] has a water reserve of six months set aside for such a crisis, and it also accesses water from the Colorado River. Multiple smaller water agencies south of the delta, however, have no such reserves or alternate sources of supply. Think of it: 3,000 homes under water; 16 delta islands and 85,000 acres of cropland lost to flood; drought conditions in Central California, followed by drought conditions in Southern California as thirsty people drink up MWD reserves in the first six months of a 12- to 18-month reconstruction period. Nor would the MWD be able to tap into an increased supply of Colorado River water, these resources having long since been allocated to Nevada and Arizona. (Hat tip to Ezra for editorial and to Tool for the headline.)

FOX in thrall to Kennedy and Clinton?

Good grief, FOX's decision to run a special on global warming that accurately reflects the scientific consensus is really driving righties around the bend. In the course of ranting about FOX's inexplicable capitulation to science radical lefties, Cliff Kincaid floats this theory: Some observers think FNC turned its airtime over to [Robert] Kennedy [Jr.] because he may be in a position to help or hurt them. It has been reported that Kennedy wants to run for high office in New York, where FNC parent News Corporation is based. FNC is said to be cozying up to New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the same reason.  Who, I wonder, are these "some observers," and why are they not named? And why must Hillary Clinton play a role in every single right-wing conspiracy theory, no matter what the subject? Ah well. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to contemplate the full ramifications of this wingnuttery.

One-stop shopping

Lots of good stuff stuff in Mike Millikin's week in sustainable transportation.

Chavez will sell oil to U.S. poor

Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, has harshly criticized George W. Bush for his indifference to poverty in the U.S. Now it looks like Chavez planning to rub his face in it:Venezuela will soon begin selling heating oil at discount prices to poor communities in Boston and New York, following up on a promise by President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's state oil company announced.Suffice to say, this is unlikely to warm their already-frosty relations.

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