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Leaked Pacific trade treaty draft suggests the planet will pay

Why are these leaders of Pacific trade group nations (gathered in 2010) all smiling?
Wikimedia Commons
Why are these leaders of Pacific trade group nations (gathered in 2010) all smiling?

Back in December, I wrote about the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (a.k.a. the TPP), a trade agreement whose passage is both a firmly stated goal of the Obama administration, and a great nightmare of environmentalists and civil liberties types, for a whole smorgasbord of reasons. Now there's a new development: A leaked draft of the environmental chapter of the TPP appeared Wednesday on Wikileaks.

The main environmental critique of the TPP up until this point was that it would open up the U.S. to lawsuits from companies that had investments in American companies. Under the terms of a draft of the investments chapter, which was leaked back in 2011, any company that did business with the U.S. could argue, under the terms of the treaty, that our environmental laws were interfering with its ability to make money. The lawsuits, which are judged by special treaty-tribunal, don't allow for any sort of appeal, and the records are not available to the public.

Just about every treaty since NAFTA has had an agreement like this, but the U.S. has largely been insulated from its effects -- in the past, it always entered into these treaties with countries that were either too poor to have American investments or just not interested in them. The TPP would include Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand, Brunei, and possibly China. So it would shift a power balance that has, however unfairly, been tilted in the U.S.'s favor.

People had hopes, if not especially high ones, for the environmental chapter. The Obama administration had claimed that it would address some cutting-edge environmental issues. It was also thought to be a fairly pragmatic rehash of a Bush-era bipartisan trade deal drawn up between the U.S., Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Korea. That deal established a mutual agreement between all countries to work together to stop illegal logging, trade in endangered species, and overfishing, and to subject anyone found in violation to trade sanctions until they came into compliance.


Elsipogtog epic: How a tribe’s fight against an energy company caught fire

Laura Brown

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grassroots movement rarely catches the attention of the media until a car is on fire.

There were several cars on fire on Oct. 17, 2013, and for a few days the world was interested in what was happening in a remote part of New Brunswick. Media attention moved on, as it does, but the story it left behind is worth revisiting.

Partly, it's just a great tale -- of how a small First Nations tribe allied with locals and faraway sympathizers to throw a major wrench into a big energy company's plans to explore for natural gas. Beyond that, it's also representative of a host of new regional battles over pipelines, rail networks, and refineries across the U.S. and Canada. They're being fought by small bands of people who, in may cases, do not even consider themselves environmentalists. Together, they have large implications for global energy markets and climate change.


This win against toxic couches will make you love seats

couch love hearts

In 2013, the effort to remove flame retardant chemicals from most of the furniture we sit on scored a big environmental win. But the road to victory was anything but direct. In fact, just two years ago, it looked like we'd never get there.

In the spring of 2011, on what was just another day in the life of the California Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development, a band of scientists, politicians, activists, and policy wonks showed up at a hearing, once again, on the matter of changing California’s 1970s-era fire safety standards. Their argument: Eliminating the requirement that every sofa be treated with toxic flame retardant was not a ploy to make more fires, but one to make babies less stupid.

Since 1975, any furniture sold in California has had to be filled with material that, when exposed to an open flame, resists catching fire for a minimum of 12 seconds. While there were some stuffings, like wool, that passed the test on their own, they were so expensive that most people wanted to do things like wear them on their bodies instead of put them into furniture and sit on them. The polyurethane foam that forms the padding of most sofas did not pass the test. It needed a little help. Specifically, it needed to be soaked in flame retardant.

That is the story of how nearly every sofa sold in California came to contain between four and five pounds of flame-retardant chemicals, many of which had already been banned for other uses. Since California is the 12th largest economy in the world, this is also the story of how almost all furniture intended for sale in the U.S. came to be made in compliance with California standards, whether it wound up there or not.

Read more: Living, Politics


Whole new crystal ball game: What does 2014 hold for rabble-rousers?

crystal ball future fortune

Predicting the future is a tricky business. In 1873, the Decatur Republican predicted that we would all be frozen to death by the year 2011. In 1906, the New Zealand Star wrote that in 2006, "people will be so avid of every moment of life, life will be so full of busy delight, that ... we shall be impatient of the minor tasks of every day. The bath of the next century will lave the body speedily with oxgenated water, delivered with a force that will render rubbing unnecessary." I grew up around  people who were convinced that the world would end in the year 2000. Some of them have never fully recovered from that tremendous disappointment.

So what's the point of recapping the climate change movement in 2013 for you? You read about it already, back when it happened, and it went something like this: divestment, pipelines, Climate Action Plan, divestment, protesters arrested, Keystone, climate talks in Warsaw, divestment, protesters protesting, divestment, TPP, Obama.

What does the future hold for the climate change movement in 2014? These are my guesses, and I'm curious what yours are. If you have a better (or just different) one, add it in the comments.

“Save the Planet” becomes just another way to say “Join my socialist revolution”

Read more: Climate & Energy


Pollen angels: The E.U.’s ban on bee-killing pesticides begins. Will it help?

A honeybee on a flower

On April 29, the day that the European Union voted to ban three of the most widely used pesticides in the world, I was at an insecticide industry conference in England having having tea and cookies. The ban on clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam -- collectively called neonicotinoids --  would begin on Dec. 1, and was specifically aimed at seeing if this class of pesticide was indeed making honeybees too stupid to find their way back to the hive, as some studies suggested. Delicious snacks aside, the mood in the conference room was apocalyptic. The panic persisted despite the fact that the …

Read more: Food


Sudsed: The FDA steps down a long road toward banning antibacterial hand soap

contains triclosan
Jack Black's Stunt Double

Earlier this month I wrote about the upcoming FDA monograph on triclosan, that plucky little disco-era chlorinated aromatic compound whose antifungal and antibacterial properties made it the hottest additive around for anyone afraid of germs/decay. Were you a seller of hand soap or toothpaste, looking to make your product seem even more awesome by saying that it was "antibacterial" rather than just regular "soap" and "toothpaste?" Add triclosan. Were you selling something that you didn't want mold to grow on, like a mattress, or makeup, or a cutting board? Add triclosan to it. Now, after years of pressure from activists, …


Obama’s green record: Some small victories, one gaping flop

Shutterstock / White House

When Barack Obama took the oath of office for the first time, the day began with a faint electric hum in the air -- as though the neighborhood I lived in was a sound stage and all of us, going about our daily routines, were on the verge of bursting into collective song. This was not far off. By the time night fell, a brass band had appeared and a dance party was in full swing. One of my last memories of that night is of a man dressed as Dick Cheney dancing in the middle of the street with a man dressed as a disco ball.

People were already voicing doubts that Obama could do much. Other people wondered exactly what mattered to this new president, what would he fight to accomplish.  Hope was just one word, and there was a lot that we hoped for.

As 2013 winds down and we approach the longest night of the year, the question arises again: What, Mr. President, have you been doing for the environment? We now know what pretty much everyone suspected, which was that the Obama administration deliberately delayed implementing environmental regulations in the years before his reelection, on the grounds that it might keep him from winning a second term. But 2013? 2013 looked like it might be a magical year. This was the first year of Obama's last term as president, and it was hard to not experience that expectant feeling again -- as though perhaps, just perhaps, he would walk into a phone booth and come back out dressed like Captain Planet.

If you're talking to policy wonks like Jonathan Chait, who wrote a long and thoughtful article this May, Obama has done more for the environment than we realize. Obama didn't get enough credit for legislation like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Chait argued, which put a $90 billion subsidy into green energy. American wind-power generation has doubled, solar power has increased sixfold, and the move, Chait wrote, "transformed the Department of Energy, previously a sclerotic backwater charged mainly with overseeing the nuclear-weapons cache, into a massive new engine of cutting-edge environmental science."


Happily ever NAFTA: New trade pact could boost corporations and harm environment


I grew up around the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was all grownups talked about in Detroit: the Sound of NAFTA. Although not much rhymed with that phrase, the hills were indeed alive with the sounds of grouchy tool and die workers, complaining that all of our jobs were going to Mexico.

As a kid, I found it hard to see what was so exciting about jobs. My dad worked in a tool and die shop with bad ventilation and no heat, and every winter he would come down with a case of bronchitis that was one order of magnitude worse than the last. But it didn't matter what we thought, anyway. George Bush Sr. was for NAFTA, and Bill Clinton was for NAFTA, and the only guy who wasn't was Ross Perot -- which is always a sign your cause is in trouble.

Now, at nearly 20 years of age, NAFTA is almost old enough to drink responsibly. The number of people I knew who worked in tool and die shops went from everybody to nobody, and while on the whole the consensus has been this is Not Great, it's also been years since my dad has had trouble breathing.

What I didn't realize at the time was that NAFTA was not just about jobs. Chapter 11 of the agreement contained a provision that has had, and has continued to have, major effects on the environment and environmental regulations.

To understand why, look to the province of Quebec, which, two years ago, put a stop to fracking. At first the move didn't seem like much. Quebec's environment minister, Pierre Arcand, said that the province was just going to conduct an environmental review, and that "informative demonstrations" of hydraulic fracturing would still be allowed. But by April, 2012, there was a complete moratorium, the environmental review showed no signs of finishing, and there was talk of extending the ban five years into the future.

Attitudes in Canada seemed to be shifting. "Why does my kid come home from Alberta junior high school social studies saying the oil and gas industry is evil?" Michael Binnion, the CEO of Questerre Energy Corp., complained to Alberta Oil magazine. "I hardly know a senior oil and gas executive who hasn’t had a similar experience."

But Quebec's fracking ban wasn't simply a political move fueled by a cultural shift; it also carried a financial risk. This September, an energy company named Lone Pine Resources sued Canada for allowing the province to tighten its environmental policies, and asked for $250 million. The suit read:

The dispute is in relation to the Government of Quebec’s arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the Enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River, in violation of Chapter Eleven of the NAFTA.

Welcome to NAFTA's unexpected environmental legacy. Chapter 11 is not well known in the U.S. -- its tribunals are secret, and Canada and Mexico are the countries that get sued the most under it. But NAFTA was always meant to be a template for other trade agreements, and since its mid-'90s enactment it has become one. As NAFTA's offspring have multiplied around the world, so have lawsuits like Lone Pine's, where corporations seek damages from countries whose environmental regulations affect their ability to do business.


The billionaire boys’ club: How college students and Wall Street are thinking alike


A year ago, Unity College in Maine became the first school to divest from the energy companies whose bottom line depends on digging up and burning enough coal, gas, and oil to make climate change even worse.

“The campaign has some serious potential,” wrote Grist back then, “but we shouldn’t expect a social movement to coalesce and achieve results in just a couple months -- we’ll only be disappointed when it doesn’t.” The article went on to quote Angus Johnson, an assistant professor at the City University of New York and a historian of student organizing. “If you actually take the apartheid example seriously,” said Johnston, “it’ll be a PR war for the next 20, 30 years.”

A year after the campus divestment movement took off, seven colleges have pledged to divest, as well as 18 churches, 22 cities, and a few major environmental nonprofits, like the Sierra Club. In keeping with Johnston’s remarks about dueling PR statements, the carbon divestment group Fossil Free sent out a public letter yesterday from student groups at Harvard, Brown, Middlebury, and several other universities with especially large investment portfolios, pledging to be even more in their administrations' faces in the year 2014, despite the statements those universities have made over the past year about the impracticality of divestment.

Colleges are institutions well accustomed to deflecting youthful idealism. Students graduate every four years, after all, and administrators don't. But something interesting is happening with the divestment movement. While college administrations are rejecting the protesters' arguments, one significant external group is paying heed -- only its address is on Wall Street, not Ivy Lane. Specifically, three powerful individuals who are capable of commanding attention have begun, in different ways, to make loud noises about the climate: hedge fund founder and billionaire Tom Steyer, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and chair of Goldman Sachs Hank Paulson, and financial media mogul and outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.


The spying game: Companies monitor activists because they can

Chris Goldberg

Back in the '40s, my grandmother lost her scholarship to college after the school found out she had attended a meeting run by a communist organization. Whoever made the call that my grandmother was a communist rabblerouser no longer deserving educational subsidy was clearly acting on bad intel. It would be hard to think of a more terrible communist than my grandmother: She loved playing the stock market.

As someone who enjoys hanging out with both spooks and radicals, I leave a greater trail of troublemaking by proximity than the people who snooped on my nana could have ever dreamed of. Selfishly, I wonder, thehow does this affect me?  The epic growth of Homeland Security in the last decade has also led to a commensurate growth in people trained by federal intelligence agencies working for private intelligence firms. Wal-Mart's internal security department, for example, is filled with former agents from the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other government agencies.

Read more: Politics