On any given day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has the power to throw the environmental movement into complete disarray.
Tucked into a nondescript neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the court isn't well known to the public, but it's often called the second most important court in the United States. It has particular significance to the environmental movement because of its exclusive jurisdiction over regulations involving vital environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
In the early stages of the modern environmental movement, great progress was made through enterprising lawsuits brought by groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund to enforce the protective mandates of those landmark environmental statutes. But the challenge is different now, with judges on the bench seeking to derail, not enforce, these fundamental safeguards. How environmentalists respond to this threat could dramatically impact the success of the movement in combating 21st century environmental threats such as global warming.
Things are going to get a lot warmer around here. And everywhere.
Even if the entire global economy woke up tomorrow morning, drank its coffee, and swore off fossil fuels, our future would still unfold at higher temperatures than our past. You can dream up wisecracking variations on "Hot enough for you?" and "Getting hot in here!" all day -- believe me, we have -- and that fact would just sit there, staring dejectedly at you and refusing to crack a smile.
Here at Grist we looked at the news, eyed the calendar, and decided that it's time to turn our gaze in the thermometer's direction. Our theme of the month for May is Hot and Bothered -- which is not just how we feel about what our carbon emissions are doing to the climate, but also, increasingly, how we're all going to feel about what the climate is doing to us.
Here's some of what we're working on this month:
Not so hot? Not so fast
Perhaps you've heard the statistic that's been going around suggesting that the planet has not, in fact, grown any hotter for 15 years? We'll untangle what's true in this claim, what's not, and why it's not a "get out of jail free" card for climate-change deniers. (Hint: It may well have to do with oceans.)
As summers just keep getting hotter, which American cities are the most screwed -- and which best placed to ride out the rougher weather?
Last year, they burned an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. How much worse can they, will they get? And why do we keep making our homes in places likely to be threatened by them?
All summer, our handy-dandy 50-state map will track wildfires, droughts, storms -- all U.S. disasters that are potentially related to rising temperatures. By autumn, we'll have a record of all the scars this season will have wrought on our landscape.
Now you see it
We're putting together a stunning gallery of before-and-after shots of those places where once, there were glaciers, and now, there aren't.
Don't just sweat there -- do something??
As warming trends continue, so does the rising chorus of can-do optimists who argue that we have the technical capacity -- and perhaps the moral obligation -- to geoengineer our way out of the climate mess. Can humankind somehow pull down the Earth's shades? Should it? Grist, along with Earth Island Journal, is hosting a live discussion on this question this Thursday in Berkeley, Calif., at 7 p.m. Join us for "Hack the Sky" if you're nearby!
These and other stories await you during Grist's Hot and Bothered theme for May. Got other ideas along these lines? Tell us below in the comments, or on Twitter or Facebook.
But not all beers are created equal, so in the name of fearless truth-telling, I spoke to brewers and beer experts from across the country, traveled to a distant land known as Soho, and of course, drank plenty of beer. I did all of this in hopes that you, the public, might be better equipped in evaluating the virtuousness of your brew.
When BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, it hemorrhaged roughly 210 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. We know now, thanks to recent court hearings and settlements, that all this happened because oil-company managers were cutting corners on safety, and the federal government’s monitoring system for offshore drilling was broken.
We also know that it wasn't the first time oil companies had spilled in the Gulf. What we don’t know -- and probably never will -- is how much oil has been spilled. Even now, three years after the Deepwater disaster, many spills go unreported. And now we’re learning that even when companies report spills, they sometimes try to deceive regulatory agencies and the public into thinking their spills caused no harm to Gulf waters.
Several people have asked me what I think of Jonathan Chait's new column in New York magazine: "Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President." Apparently some folks are quite upset about it and think it's terrible, though I'm not entirely sure why.
Seems to me Chait mostly gets it right. He's right that Obama has made much more progress on climate and clean energy than he gets credit for. He's right that Obama has mostly done it through the stimulus bill and a series of low-key regulatory actions, rather than through high-profile "green" fights. In the high-profile green fights that have been had, cap-and-trade and Keystone, Obama has disappointed, and is disappointing, and promises to further disappoint many greens, but Chait is right that the disappointment has unfairly tarred the whole presidency. He's right that greens' harsh judgment is born of a sense of desperate urgency about the scale of action necessary.
And -- perhaps more controversially -- Chait is right that the decisions Obama makes on Clean Air Act authority in his second term are more significant, in carbon terms, than the much more high-profile decision he's going to make on the Keystone XL pipeline. (Glad to see Chait call out NRDC's ingenious proposal to make carbon regulations do serious work at low cost.)
What I think has my friends upset, and where they differ, is Chait's overall assessment: that Obama is therefore "the environmental president." The question here is -- as it is for every historical figure, but especially Obama, and especially on climate -- compared to what?
Send your question to Umbra! Q. Dear Umbra, As you know, university students across the country are petitioning their administrations to divest of fossil fuels. They are eager for support from the older generation of alums, but so far the alums have not done much. As an alum of two schools, I recently realized that one of the best ways that we can help in this effort is publicly to pledge to withhold further donations until our alma mater divests. But we need to spread this "meme" far more widely. How can we do this so that colleges and universities …
Can we all agree that the current energy economy is fundamentally toxic to nature and people? Can we agree that there is no more important task than building a new energy economy, one that supports flourishing human and natural communities? Can we agree that the future energy economy should be powered by renewable sources, not fossil fuels?
One would think that every reasonable person (I’m looking at you, members of Congress) would agree with these propositions. Virtually every energy and climate change activist would immediately say yes. But move past truisms and get into specifics of just how to advance toward this energy future, and consensus breaks down. Remaking the energy economy cannot be accomplished overnight and thus there will be disagreements over strategies and tactics among activists.
In every social change movement, there is friction between incremental reformers and advocates for radical change. Internecine squabbling is inevitable. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that some “green power” activists have gotten riled up -- in a negative way -- by our new book ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, centerpiece of Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Reality Campaign. But it has been a little discouraging.
To be fair, overall reaction to the book and just-launched campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. But a small percentage of the folks who read through ENERGY, whichdepicts all facets of energy production and transport, get bent out of shape by a handful of the book’s roughly 200 photos. Some NGOs we expected to be natural allies have declined to distribute free copies to their activist lists or to policy makers. Some folks have called us to complain.
In 2004, the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka killed eight members of this small fishing family. And yet today, they still fish (either on stilts or in a boat) because they have to do it to survive. The family lives in a small, makeshift hut with a back "window" that opens onto the ocean -- the same sea that gives life also takes it away.
More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington state and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible [PDF].
Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology -- in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”
The process of “fracking” starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This “flowback” fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.
The industry that uses this technology calls its product “natural gas,” but there’s nothing natural about upending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures -- compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more -- have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.
Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry’s sights since 2008. The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn’t have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste “hazardous.” Instead, it uses euphemisms like “residual waste.” In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.
Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners’ complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: “Don’t Expect Protection.”
Last week, I argued that people shouldn't be so gloomy about carbon-trading systems, despite the hue and cry around the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS) right now. One example of a carbon-trading system that seems to be doing just fine is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which currently involves nine states in the U.S. Northeast.
RGGI is pretty modest as these things go. It only covers power plants, and only those 25 megawatts or greater. (There are 211 covered plants at the moment.) Its first three-year trading period ended at the end of 2011.
Thus far, it seems to be working as planned -- better than planned, actually. Over the 2008-11 period, CO2 emissions from covered plants were down 23 percent compared to the three years prior. That's 126 million short tons of emissions eliminated.
In fact, over 2008-11, RGGI power plants came in 33 percent under the cap set by the program. (In 2012, they came in at 45 percent below the cap.)