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Could Chuck Hagel, defense secretary nominee, turn out to be a climate hawk?

Chuck Hagel
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
Chuck Hagel: Will his inner climate hawk defeat his inner climate skeptic?

Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, has long been confused about climate change ... and yet concerned about it too. He has a history of obstructing climate action, but also a record of elevating climate as a national security issue. If he's confirmed to head the Department of Defense, he might ultimately show himself to be a climate hawk -- though not one who hews to green orthodoxy or any party line.

Confused Chuck

On the one hand, Hagel -- a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2008 and now co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board -- has professed many views you might associate with a climate denier.

In fact, his name is tied to the Senate's first high-profile repudiation of climate action: In 1997, he cosponsored the Byrd-Hagel resolution calling for rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that it would hurt the U.S. economy and should have required emissions cuts from developing countries. Five years later, he was still enthusiastically bashing the treaty:

The Kyoto Protocol would have eliminated millions of jobs in America. It would have driven our economy downward. It would have eliminated opportunities for investment, such as clean energy technology, in developing countries. It would have driven a stake through any hope of prosperity for America.

In 2001, at the start of the George W. Bush administration, Hagel and three other senators sent Bush a letter asking him to clarify his positions on Kyoto and on regulation of carbon dioxide. As Hagel explained later, "There was talk within this new administration that EPA had the power, through the Clean Air Act, to be able to enforce, in particular, carbon dioxide emissions. We didn't think that the EPA had that power." Bush wrote a letter in response saying that he didn't think the EPA had that power either, setting the course for his administration to do essentially nothing about climate change over its eight years.

In a 2005 interview with Grist, Hagel questioned the causes of climate change:

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Obama vs. physics: Why climate change won’t wait for the president

earth pendulum
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Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.

Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and … we’re still in the midst of “fixing” education, many generations of students later.

Even facing undeniably real problems -- say, discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of age.

Which is not to say that there weren’t millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.

And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change -- the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.

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How one small sentence kicked up a storm of climate controversy

Benjamin Santer.
Benjamin Santer.

When Charles Darwin wrote, "Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die," do you think he thought to himself, “Dude, I'm about to piss a bunch of people off”? Or when Copernicus and Galileo forwarded the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, do you think they were trying to ruffle Vatican feathers?

Well, OK, maybe these guys saw trouble brewing. But another, contemporary scientist didn't. In the mid-1990s, Benjamin Santer authored a chapter in a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that included this sentence: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

Innocuous enough, right? But it would prove to be a pivotal moment for the discussion of global warming. Today, the political cacophony surrounding climate science is so loud that it drowns scientific reasoning like a Jack White solo at a Simon and Garfunkel concert. And much of the noise can be traced back to that sentence.

I recently sat down with Santer, a MacArthur Award-winning researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to get his firsthand account of the day the global warming show went from soft acoustic to power-blasting electric.

“I was blissfully unaware of what would happen at the end of 1995,” he told me. “The only thing I thought about was doing the best possible science and searching for that holy grail of objectivity.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The bizarre and fascinating history of lead in gasoline

vintage-gas-lead-pump-sign
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In the course of reading Kevin Drum's great piece on lead and crime and writing my reply, I started reading a bit about the history of lead in gasoline, and holy crap it's fascinating! The guy who invented Ethyl, the lead-based additive to gasoline, also invented chlorofluorocarbons, which just about destroyed the ozone layer. Mild-mannered chemist Thomas Midgley is basically history's greatest monster. Luckily, he got polio, invented a wire-and-pulley system to get himself out of bed, and then ended up being strangled by it. Seriously!

Meanwhile, workers in the plants that produced Ethyl had hallucinations and went crazy -- according to the plant manager, because they were "working too hard." There are just tons of fascinating details like that. Somebody should make a movie of it. You can read a short, lively account of it here, or a longer, more academic version here [PDF].

Aside from the entertainment value, though, the important thing to note is that there were in fact concerns about the safety of lead additives even back in the 1920s when they were being developed. Big companies colluded with government to cover up and lie about the dangers, thus resulting in untold lost human potential and an enormous crime wave that cost the country billions.

This is the story, over and over. Big money screws the public health and lies about it. The same fight is happening over mercury right now. The same fight is happening over greenhouse gases. The same fight is still happening over lead! We never learn.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Sims’ city: Urban America, as seen by Obama’s former HUD boss

Ron Sims.
Ron Sims.

Shortly after being nominated to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2009, Ron Sims declared, “President Obama has … challenged his Cabinet to prepare for the age of global warming. Success can only come if we transform our major metropolitan areas.”

Ah, those were the days! The following year, the Tea Party would sweep into the House of Representatives. In 2011, Sims, who held a major elected role in the Seattle metro area before his stint in D.C., would retire to Washington state, missing his family and frustrated with the slow pace of change in the nation’s capital.

Today, roughly two years after his return to the West Coast, Sims says he sees progress. Before he went to HUD, as the county executive of King County, Wash., he led the effort to prepare the region for the unavoidable impacts of global warming and worked to weave public health concerns into planning decisions. “We realized that we could predict life outcomes of children, health outcomes of adults, by the zip code they live in,” he says. “If you have a park a quarter mile from your home, your children are not going to be obese. If it’s a half mile away, you begin to see the early signs. But if a park is a mile or more away from a residence, obesity will be a problem. How a neighborhood is designed determines health outcomes.”

As deputy secretary of HUD, responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations, he worked to bring this awareness to decisions at the federal level, arguing for housing, transportation, and environmental policies that emphasized dense, walk- and bike-friendly development rather than car-centric sprawl. And while these efforts hit roadblock after roadblock, Sims says there has been a shift in thinking in Washington, D.C. That, combined with economic and environmental realities, he says, is reshaping American cities.

Here, Sims talks about his work in Washington, D.C., how the bill is coming due for suburban sprawl, and why he believes we may see riots in inner cities.

Q. How much progress has President Obama been able to make on urban policy issues, given the roadblocks put up by Republicans in Congress?

A. There’s a lot of silo breaking. For example, the collaboration between the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Republicans in the House have attempted to put barriers to that, but you know, the fact is, the staff still meet, so there’s a culture created among how you look at urban areas.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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The fight over lead: It’s like all pollution fights rolled into one

sign for leaded gasoline
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Kevin Drum has a fantastic piece in Mother Jones about the connection between lead and crime, as Philip noted earlier. It turns out that the rise and subsequent plunge in violent crime over the last half-century tracks almost exactly with the rise and decline of lead in the environment, mainly due to leaded gasoline. Through various studies, the correlation has been found at the international, national, state, city, and even neighborhood level. And there is copious neurological research showing that "even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ," which makes a pretty strong (if defeasible) case for causation.

It's a fascinating story for all sorts of reasons -- and Drum's been adding more tidbits on his blog -- but as I was reading, the thing that kept striking me is how perfectly the lead fight encapsulates all the promise and perils of pollution fights generally.

We start using something before we understand whether it's safe. We begin to discover it's not safe. Industry obscures the science and viciously battles off regulation for as long as possible, forecasting economic doom. Lots of people get sick and die while they do so. Finally some regulations are put in place. The costs of complying turn out to be lower than anyone predicted. The benefits turn out to be much greater than anyone predicted. The pollutant turns out to be more harmful than originally thought. Despite all of the above, industry continues battling efforts to further reduce the pollutant, while claiming credit for the benefits of reducing it as much as they were forced to.

Over and over and over, this story plays out. Yet with each new pollution fight, it's as though we've never had all the previous ones. (See: chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, smog, phthalates, etc.)

But there are other aspects of the lead story that resonate as well.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Congress extends farm bill, still manages to screw sustainable farmers

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Is something always better than nothing? In the case of the farm bill extension that was buried in Tuesday’s last minute fiscal cliff deal, maybe not.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls the deal -- which will provide $5 billion in subsidies to industrial-scale corn, soy, and wheat farmers while short-changing local food, organics, and beginning farmers, and decimating on-farm conservation efforts -- “deeply flawed.” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), meanwhile, has referred to it as “blatantly anti-reform,” while the Union of Concerned Scientists calls it “a giant step backward” and “a blow to farmers who want to grow healthy foods and the consumers who want to buy them.” The National Young Farmers Coalition was also “incredibly disappointed with the results.”

Read more: Food, Politics

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The Greenie Pig’s guide to a cleaner, more sustainable 2013

If you're gonna go green, you might as well have some fun with it.
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If you're gonna go green, you might as well have some fun with it.

Each year, the New Year’s holiday brings us more than just a gingerbread hangover and a metric ton of empty champagne bottles -- it serves up a natural opportunity to pause and take stock of our lives. It’s that special time of year when we look back at where we've been and make plans for a brighter future. And it’s no different for the Greenie Pig.

You see, I've learned a thing or two from this year’s worth of green living challenges -- lessons that I've boiled down into five simple guidelines for a cleaner, more sustainable 2013. I think they’ll help me as I embark on another year of eco-experimentation -- and I hope they’ll help you on your own green lifestyle quests.

Read more: Living

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Fiscal fiasco bright spot: 2013 will be a huge year for wind

wind turbines
Finally, some good news for the wind industry.

You have probably heard by now that Congress has voted through a bill that will avert the absurdly named "fiscal cliff." I'll leave it to other blogs to get into the details. (Suzy Khimm has a nice rundown.) I'll also leave it to others to lament the absurd way in which this country is governed. I just want to focus on one bright spot that hasn't gotten much coverage.

Part of the bill was a one-year extension of several stimulus tax credits. Among them was the production tax credit (PTC) that is so crucial to the wind industry and for which it has been fighting over the past year.

One-year extensions are, admittedly, an absurd way to run energy policy. And yes, there are many ways the PTC could be improved -- most notably by transforming it into a system of cash grants. Yes, this fight will reoccur and we'll probably end up with something like the five-year phaseout of the PTC proposed by the (rather hapless) American Wind Energy Association.

Nonetheless, there's more here than meets the eye. To see why, we have to back up a bit.

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Chilling effect: How warmer winters could ruin fruit

shutterstock_55038808
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Think of your favorite fruits and you might think of the warm climates they tend to thrive in. Florida oranges, Texas grapefruit, California strawberries -- and grapes, figs, pears, and apricots. But here's the funny thing: Most fruit trees have to chill. Literally. Unless they’re tropical, trees have what are called "chilling requirements": They need winter temperatures to drop to within a certain range -- usually just above freezing -- and remain there for a set period of time.

This allows the buds to go into dormancy and tolerate harsh winter weather, and to reset themselves for the fruit production cycle to start again when spring comes around.

But what happens when they don’t go dormant because it doesn’t get cold enough outside? As you may or may not have noticed, perhaps depending on your age -- winters are getting warmer. If trees don't get sufficient chilling, they don't fruit. And as some researchers see it, the future of the planet's fruit and nut production is in peril. In fact, lack of chill time has already spelled trouble for U.S. farmers growing tree crops, including pistachioswalnuts, and cherries.

Insufficient cold makes for confused trees, says Eike Luedeling, a climate change scientist who has published studies on chilling requirements and fruit trees.

“You have the buds breaking irregularly and over a long time, so it's kind of staggered -- much longer than it should be -- and ultimately, it results in having a bad fruit set," he says.

Which crops will be affected, as weather patterns continue to change? For starters, Luedeling listed: apples, pears, cherries, walnuts and other tree nuts, pomegranates, and olives. But where exactly the list ends is hard to predict.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food