Briefly

Stuff that matters


Shall we sundance?

Sundance is shining a spotlight on climate change this year.

The film festival, running Jan. 19–29 in Park City, Utah, will showcase several films about the environment, including An Inconvenient Sequel, the follow-up to the award-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Like the original, the sequel highlights Al Gore’s climate activism, but with more of a focus on solutions.

The festival will also premiere 13 other documentaries, short films, and special projects concerning the planet. The documentary Water & Power: A California Heist is an exposé on Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the billionaire couple sucking California’s water supply dry. The short film The Diver is about a man who swims through Mexico City’s sewer system dislodging clogs.

There will also be a virtual-reality experience “that turns participants into a tree that is violently chopped down,” the New York Times reports.

Although Robert Redford, founder of Sundance, said the festival stays “free of politics,” it will certainly have a political tinge this year, as it will take place right as a climate denier ascends to the White House.

The festival’s program directors said they decided last summer to focus on environmental films. The goal: “To change the world,” programmer Trevor Groth told the Times with a grin.


Rex marks the spot

Rex Tillerson understands that climate change is happening, unlike his would-be boss.

Senate confirmation hearings began on Wednesday for Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Tillerson was pressed on the issue of climate change by several senators, including Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, who asked Tillerson if he believes that human activity is the cause.

“The increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect,” Tillerson said, demonstrating that he at least knows more about the issue than our future president. But, Tillerson added, “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” This is false.

Tillerson had less to say about allegations that Exxon, his employer for 40 years, knew about the effect of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere back in the ’70s and failed to disclose the risks to the public or shareholders. When asked about it by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, Tillerson punted and said he didn’t work there anymore: “You’ll have to ask them.”

The nominee did acknowledge that it’s important for the U.S. to stay involved in international climate negotiations and “maintain its seat at the table in the conversation.” As for what he would do at that table, he’s not saying. If he wanted to do anything constructive, first he’d have to convince his boss.

You can read more about the hearing here.


The long good-bye

In his farewell address, Obama called on Americans to face the facts about climate change.

Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

[W]ithout some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible. …

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, doubled our renewable energy, and led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.

Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.

Ultimately, Obama’s speech was heavy on his trademark optimism, arguing that we can solve our big problems. He ended with a rousing, “Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can.”

Now it’s up to Americans to carry the ball forward.


PARCHED

California’s drought causes a lot more pain than brown lawns and empty swimming pools.

report released this week by the Pacific Institute and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water found that “low-income households, people of color, and communities already burdened with environmental pollution” have suffered the most from the five-year dry spell.

The long-running drought has hit people across the state in various ways, leading some to put off washing their cars and forcing others to decide between paying their rent or their water bill. But the report lays out how some have shouldered more of the burden:

  • Water shortages were more likely to happen in already disadvantaged communities. In Tulare County, two-thirds of the some 1,600 reported dry wells were in communities with an average household income of less than 80 percent of the state median.
  • Price hikes for water hit low-income households the hardest. For some families, the costs were insurmountable, accounting for more than 5 percent of household income.
  • The drought has sped up a decline in salmon populations in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers, squeezing tribal nations that need fish for income, food, and cultural traditions.

The report offers up a list of recommendations to ease the burden. They suggest creating statewide standards to measure and resolve water supply problems, ending surcharges for basic water use, and protecting salmon habitats.


The Vax Factor

Trump might bring a Kennedy into his administration. Too bad it’s the nutty one.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is respected for his decades of work as an environmental activist, but that’s not why Donald Trump wanted to talk to him. The president-elect is interested in Kennedy’s wrongheaded, conspiracy-driven views about vaccines.

Kennedy said that Trump asked him to chair a presidential commission on vaccine safety and “scientific integrity.” A Trump spokesperson later said that no final decision on a commission had been made.

But the two men do seem to agree on the issue: Kennedy has spread the fringe theory linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, and Trump has embraced the theory, too. “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said. “His opinion doesn’t matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science.”

The science, however, has already been thoroughly debated and scientists have come to a clear conclusion: There is no connection between vaccines and autism.

The consequences of spreading anti-vaxxer nonsense could be dire: More than 130,000 people died from measles in 2015, and the vaccine is the easiest, most cost-effective way to prevent the disease. With a vaccine conspiracy theorist in the White House, vaccination rates could go down.

If only there were a vaccination against stupid.


pizza cut

Canada knows climate change will hit us where it hurts — pizza and man caves.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has graced the airwaves with a series of lighthearted commercials that make climate change personal.

The ads use humor to convey the everyday impacts of climate change — say, a young girl’s struggling snow-shoveling business — and inspire action.

These commercials aim to show Canadians (and anyone else watching, I’m sure) that nothing is safe when it comes to climate change. Not man caves, not Grandpa’s fishing stories, and not even pizza.


Jeffer madness

Jeff Sessions has deep ties to a big electric utility, and that could create major conflicts of interest.

Confirmation hearings began Tuesday for Sessions, the president-elect’s pick for attorney general. In addition to asking questions about the Alabama senator’s racist, homophobic, anti-woman, and anti-immigrant positions, Democrats might want to probe Sessions’ connections to Southern Co., one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S.

The company, worth $47.8 billion, is the senator’s single largest corporate campaign donor, Bloomberg reports; Southern’s PACs and employees have funneled nearly $175,000 to his political campaigns since 1997. If Sessions is confirmed as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he would be in a position to do favors for the company. Southern would be seriously affected by the Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from electric utilities. And a power plant Southern is building in Kemper, Mississippi, is being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sessions has also received campaign contributions from ExxonMobil, which has been accused of hiding its knowledge of climate change from shareholders and the public. There have been calls for the Justice Department to investigate Exxon’s actions, but they wouldn’t get anywhere under Sessions, who last year came out loudly against any such investigations.

As Jamie Henn at 350.org said, “There’s never been such a strident advocate for the fossil fuel industry nominated for the role of attorney general.”


friends with benefits

ExxonMobil could reap as much as $1 trillion under Trump, report says.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released a report Tuesday morning that adds up the many ways in which the incoming Trump administration could enrich the world’s largest oil company.

The report comes a day before Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s former CEO, starts his nomination hearing to be President-elect Trump’s secretary of state.

In that role, Tillerson could do a lot for his former employer. The oil giant has massive holdings in foreign oil reserves and remains one of the biggest investors in the Canadian tar sands, with rights worth around $277 billion at current prices.

As it happens, the State Department is responsible for approving the fossil fuel infrastructure that could bring Canadian tar sands oil to the U.Smarket. Remember the Keystone XL pipeline? It could come back from the dead and get approved by Tillerson.

Tillerson could also undo sanctions on Russia that have blocked Exxon’s projects there, including a deal with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, worth roughly $500 billion.

And then there are the Trump administration’s domestic plans to lift every restriction on extracting oil from public lands and offshore. The CAP report also figures that Trump’s Department of Justice is unlikely to investigate Exxon’s effort to mislead the public about climate change. Tally all the benefits and you get nearly $1 trillion.

So who was the biggest winner of the November election? According to the CAP report, ExxonMobil.


RUNNING ON EMPTY

A massive gas-price hike in Mexico is leading to frustration, violence, and death.

Gasoline and diesel have been subsidized and controlled by the national government, which has kept prices the same at state-run stations across the country, but now that’s changing — and the change is causing chaos.

Starting on New Year’s Day, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto increased gas prices up to 20 percent. It’s part of an effort to bring foreign companies and competition into the country’s state-run energy market.

But significantly raising gas prices in a country that still runs on petroleum means that everything else gets more expensive, too. That’s why farmworkers and truckers are protesting the gas hike by blocking major highways and bringing traffic to a standstill. Uber has already raised its rates. Even weed prices are higher now. There is, of course, a hashtag: #gasolinazo.

Mexican citizens have taken to hijacking tankersrunning over police, and blocking the U.S.-Mexico border in order to show their unhappiness. In response, police have arrested more than 1,500 people and killed at least four.

Peña Nieto insists there’s no alternative to the gas hike — a stance that is further damaging an already unpopular president.