environment


Entry in the Greenpeace BP parody logo contest

This is a constant drumbeat, but think about it: Isn’t it remarkable how transcendently awful BP’s approach to the Gulf disaster has been? At each and every turn, with the stakes impossibly high, BP has always chosen to do the wrong thing. There’s the substance – having no emergency worst-case contingency plans for a blowout, disingenuously refusing to estimate the amount of oil flowing. There’s the politics and image stuff, including CEO Tony Hayward’s lies and self-pity and the platoons of lawyers and PR people trying to keep cleanup workers silent and choke off media attention. It’s been an awesome display of every kind of 21st century corporate dick-itude.

If you’re cynical, then this is merely garden-variety corporate misbehavior, if on a grand scale. But we’re at an interesting pass here. Consider: for years BP has buffed its image with the green sunflower logo and the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, portraying itself as a forward-looking, responsible corporate citizen. This nominally covered its left flank, but more importantly gave it a forward-looking, friendly image. Perfect mainstream mass-market positioning.

Meanwhile, the cult of the free market, which too often means letting big business do what it wants, retained a powerful hold on U.S. politics. (more…)

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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Blasting at a mountaintop removal project, West Virginia

For years, coal companies have destroyed Appalachian mountain peaks while government agencies either impotently bickered or looked the other way. The Bush White House did much to weaken an already weak regulatory system and encourage the practice of mountaintop removal. And for a while, it wasn’t clear if the Obama administration’s stated opposition to MTR was merely rhetorical.

Thursday’s announcement that the EPA will crack down on mountaintop removal should put those doubts to rest. The White House is serious about this, and its approach is firmly grounded in science and the law.

The EPA is focusing on one of the most serious problems posed by MTR: valley fills, which are what the name implies – mountain valleys filled up with debris from demolished peaks. (Destroy a mountaintop, and the “footprint” of destruction will be twice as large because you have to dump the debris somewhere else.) Valley fills have many pernicious ecological consequences. By far the worst is the poisoning of mountain streams with various heavy metals and other minerals liberated from all that crushed rock.

In recent years scientists working for the EPA, other agencies, and universities have devoted serious study to the unique, upside-down environments created by MTR and valley fills, and found that the damage is far worse than previously thought. In January, a group of scientists rounded up the evidence and published a paper calling for a moratorium on mountaintop removal permits.

The EPA’s crackdown is a vindication of this effort, and of science-based decision-making in general. I have to admit, I’m surprised. They were getting tougher – but mostly on a case-by-case basis that seemed to lack the broader agenda that requires White House backing. And given the Obama White House’s caution and moderation, I don’t think anyone expected them to follow through – and, effectively, put a stick in the coal industry’s eye.

But it’s pretty straightforward. Mountaintop removal makes a mockery of laws such as the Clean Water Act. By acting now, the EPA has begun to do its job of enforcing that law. This shows that the environmental regulatory system, purposely degraded under Bush, is getting some of its bite back. Of course, this is just the beginning; we’ll see how it plays out.

Every natural disaster affects the human “footprint” on the planet differently. So it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to compare this past weekend’s Chile earthquake with the Haiti quake. The latter hit closer to a sprawling urban area, and so the death toll is naturally going to be much higher. But on the face of it, the numbers are striking: more than 200,000 Haitiians died, mostly due to collapsing buildings and infrastructure. The Chilean death toll is still below 1,000 and likely to remain much lower than Haiti’s.

Besides the relative luck of geography, there’s a manmade reason for that: Chileans realized they had built their cities on major earthquake faults and their government took steps to prepare for the worst.

Haiti’s earthquake was shallower and closer to a major city, Port-au-Prince, than was the Chilean quake, which accounted for much of the devastation in Haiti. Stricter building codes and better enforcement of them played a major role in reducing the loss of life in Chile, says Andres García, manager of AGR Analysis, a construction and building management company in Viña del Mar, Chile.

“Chile has been building according to the best standards in the world for at least 20 years,” García says. “As the technology and techniques have gotten better, the rules have gotten stricter. And that’s what has minimized the loss of life this time around.”

All this seems pretty obvious from a civics lesson standpoint. Yet if you look at the United States, we’re in considerably worse shape prepping for earthquakes and other disasters. Our infrastructure is falling apart, as the American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly noted, which of course means a lot of important stuff is more likely to collapse or implode in the event of disaster. The West Coast has earthquake-resistant building codes, this report from the Institute for Business and Home Safety notes, but not so the Midwest, which is overdue for a quake from the New Madrid fault.

Why such a patchwork? Because disaster planning is not a national priority. In some ways, this makes sense: the United States covers a vast and varied landscape. Conditions and risks vary widely. In Chile with earthquakes, or with the Netherlands and floods, there’s a clear top-down rationale. Not so here.

The problem is, though, that the footprint of potential natural disasters is getting larger, in the U.S. and abroad. And as that expands, so does the onus on the federal government. There’s more sprawl and development covering a wider area than before. Much of it is in disaster-prone areas, close to coastlines, fire-prone forests and fault lines. In America, people like to live close to nature, and nature isn’t shy about biting back. Around the world, the advent of the mega-city has put more people and buildings over fault lines than ever before in human history.

Add into this the potential effects of global warming on sea level, storms, and fire regimes, and the risks grow even more. That is, beyond capacity of U.S. states and localities, or developing world nations, to absorb.

In an age of austerity, a few more mega-disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina – which cost more than $100 billion in federal aid – will really put the hurt on the federal budget. Modest up-front improvements in building codes and other forms of “disaster mitigation” can save billions on the back-end.

But there are all kinds of obstacles. Our government and politics are famously dysfunctional, and there’s a powerful and renewed strain of sentiment that holds any government action in contempt. The Chile situation should be a reminder that governments are, occasionally, quite useful.

Like many people on the East Coast, I spent a lot of time last week shoveling snow. When I came inside, I then had to endure a secondary storm of nonsense about how the winter weather disproved global warming, humiliated Al Gore, et al. This was, in turn, much-commented-upon, most incisively by Grist’s Dave Roberts, who concludes that the inability of many journalists to point out the ridiculousness of snowstorm-climate change denialism is a symptom of the profound ills afflicting traditional journalism.

Well, yeah.

But what’s really going on here? It’s not just that the press is stupid, or timid. With the fracturing of the political and media landscape, there are no sources of universally-accepted authority any more in American life (except – Oprah?). This has driven political reporters ever deeper into a cocoon of their own construction, one with no objective reference points, because all of those are disputed by somebody, somewhere. So we end up with traditional journalistic “objectivity” with the actual objective realities edited out. It’s genius, really. Reporters privilege the political process itself over policy, over science, over common sense. Political advantage, or victory, is what matters. Everybody likes a winner, after all.

When climate doubters win, though, the results are objectively disastrous. It’s pretty clear the world is lurching toward environmental disaster, and temporizing over snowstorms isn’t helping. And the doubters won quite a lot over the past few months, as this Washington Post story details, with denials and doubters seizing on the “climategate” emails and lately on mistakes in the supposedly-bulletproof IPCC report.

It ought to be possible for media outlets to separate the genuine scientific issues here from the political ones. It doesn’t take that much effort.

In the case of Snowmageddon, for example: it’s impossible to attribute a single weather event to global warming, or to the supposed lack thereof. But as Bill McKibben notes in this piece, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere has risen 4 percent since 1970, which would tend to produce wetter weather in some areas. That’s useful information, even without a cause-and-effect relationship established.

In the case of the IPCC, how did mistakes and citations from interest groups creep into the IPCC report? Does this signal a broader “bias” problem? Does that appear merely in the shaping of the report and its language, in the way the authors interpret data and studies, or in the data and studies themselves? Is something truly “rotten in the state of the IPCC”? I’d guess not, because if you drill down almost all the evidence holds up. On the other hand, I don’t want my climate consensus document to contain any spin – give it to us straight! – so it’s not enough to say “move along, nothing to see here.”

But many of these questions and distinctions get lost when this moves into the field of politics and media coverage of politics. The Post itself is a living example of what happens when politics, and the protection of political interests by journalists, interferes with climate coverage. George Will has embarrassed the newspaper with his repeated twisting of climate data and his assertion that climate change is a scientific fad, like bell bottoms. This weekend, the Post featured both the McKibben piece and a column by Dana Milbank saying that because Gore and some unnamed environmental groups went overboard in attributing weather events to global warming, they deserved whatever they got from the other side. Never mind that the other side is wrong on the fundamentals.

These mixed messages are confusing. To an average reader, who may not care much about the details, the impression one gets is of science politicized and contested, with no true bottom line. This is corrosive to the debate over what to do about global warming. The Post can certainly entertain different voices on these issues. But in some ways it appears too deeply invested in the short-term political process and the conventions of political reporting, to consistently separate the real questions from the BS.

Is Avatar stupid? The standard rap is that James Cameron’s movie turns the complex relationships between civilization and nature into a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains battle. It caricatures corporations (and, more generally, capitalism and Western civilization) as rapacious. Nature and indigenous populations, meanwhile, are treated with dewy sentimentalism that discounts the achievements of civilization and the rapaciousness of nature itself.

David Brooks is the latest to take a shot, identifying some implicit racism in Avatar‘s plot, in which a white guy becomes the hero of blue people. (At least he’s handicapped.)

All good points! But there’s something seriously off-base about these critiques.

Here’s what I’d ask the critics: It may be cliched; it may not be even-handed. But does Avatar (in which a corporation and and its army of mercenaries attempt to kill members of an indigenous tribe and destroy their jungle home in order to mine a rare element) get the basic man vs. nature theme wrong?

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If you read only one thing today about climate change, take a pause from all the Copenhagen coverage (the conference lasts nearly two weeks, after all) and take a look at James Fallows’s post comparing the New York Times’s climate email hack story with that of the Washington Post. Fallows argues, compellingly, that the Times does a better job explaining the basics: that the hacked emails don’t cast doubt on the scientific consensus of climate change. If you want the story from the ground up, read the Times. The Post, he notes, casts this as a political story and temporizes a bit on its scientific importance or lack thereof:

In this case one big-time paper, the Post, sticks with “critics contend,” while the other presents a contrast between “decades of peer-reviewed science” and politically-motivated opposition. Moreover, the NYT presents the controversy as something that might get in the way of deliberations in Copenhagen; while the Post presents it as a scandal in which “wonky” emails may not constitute “proof” that climate change is a “lie or a swindle” but still justify introducing “lie” and “swindle” as possibilities.

Not to overdramatize, but: in a way the papers are betting their reputations with these articles. The Times, that climate change is simply a matter of science versus ignorance; the Post, that this is best treated as another “-Gate” style flap where it’s hard to get to the bottom of the story.

I think Fallows is a little unfair to the Washington Post reporters (one of whom, Juliet Eilperin, is a friend). The climate emails do “raise hard questions,” as the story says, about how some climate scientists have been operating, and they have set off a significant political fight. There’s nothing wrong with focusing a story on this. The problem is context. To cover the politics, first you must take pains to establish the scientific – and political – context, otherwise readers will never get the bottom line on what it all means. That is: The fundamentals here are not in serious dispute, though there are unresolved issues and thus fierce intra-academy disputes. The Post goes through the motions on this, quoting scientists on the consensus, but still seems curiously agnostic about what to make of the whole thing. We don’t get a sense of how serious the issues really are. (As a former newspaper reporter, I’ll tell you where I think the problem lies: the piece needed more/better editing, and didn’t get it.)

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