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The Troubled Waters of Privatization

Donald Cohen




Photo: Capital & Main

From boiling the soon-to-be-mashed potatoes to rinsing the fruits and vegetables, clean water is an essential ingredient in every household that will be preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

And yet, the absence of adequate federal support means our public water systems are under threat. Over the next 20 years, U.S. water systems will likely require a staggering $2.8 to $4.8 trillion investment, and for-profit corporations such as Veolia and Suez are jumping at the opportunity to privatize America’s water supply so they can pocket a portion of those trillions we’ll need to spend.

A new report released by Corporate Accountability International with Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), shows that promises made by private water corporations fail to materialize or come at the expense of deferred infrastructure maintenance, skyrocketing water rates and risks to public health.

The good news, however, is that cities across the country and all over the world are increasingly rejecting water privatization and are taking back public control of their water systems.

So as we sit down with our families this Thanksgiving, let us all be grateful for the publicly controlled water systems that help us prepare the food for this special holiday. Let’s also be vigilant against the spin created by private water companies that is meant to confuse and obscure who really benefits when companies buy off our water treatment systems.

To download the full report, Troubled Waters: Misleading Industry PR and the Case for Public Water, visit here.


California’s Car Population is Exploding

A new state report says increasing automobile traffic is derailing California’s climate goals.




Researchers claim that even though cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.


A blunt report recently compiled by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finds that Californians are driving more than ever — and unless the state reverses that trend it will not meet its ambitious climate milestones. These include a target of producing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and reaching California’s 2045 carbon-neutrality goal. The report is the first of a series of four-year assessments to take stock of the state’s progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions under Senate Bill 375.

The report estimates that about three-quarters of commuters drive alone to work, a figure that in most regions is staying the same or growing, and that statewide vehicle travel per capita has increased.

The report’s authors say California’s lofty climate agenda is undermined by two factors: a booming economy and the rising cost of housing, particularly in coastal metropolises — with the latter factor causing people to face longer commutes to their jobs. The researchers claim that even as cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.

David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB’s climate change programs, said state and local government investments must make systemic and structural changes to help people do more than just buy cleaner cars.
“All the state, regional and local agencies involved need to up their game,” Clegern said. “It’s not so much that they aren’t working on it, but it’s an effort that needs to be a higher priority, since much of the climate fight will be at the local and neighborhood level.”

He added that a big part of that effort is incorporating mass transit into regional, local and neighborhood planning to provide Californians with options to get them out of their cars.

The report also highlights the difficulty of getting people to abandon automobiles when the only affordable housing options are far from their employment. Targeting housing costs as a key factor in the increased miles driven by Californians, the report states that nearly half of all renters spend more than the recommended 35 percent of their income on housing. Only one-quarter of affordable homes needed for low-income families have been built, the authors say.

The CARB report was released shortly before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the Centennial project, located 60 miles north of L.A., which has been derided by opponents as contributing to suburban sprawl, a car-based lifestyle and fire dangers.

In an email Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for the Tejon Ranch Company, Centennial’s developer, said that the project’s proposed 3,480 affordable housing units make it “the largest commitment to affordable housing undertaken by any private developer in Los Angeles County for certain, and perhaps in California.”

A similar far-flung and controversial proposed development, Newland Sierra, was green-lit last year by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Aruna Prabhala, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Urban Wildlands program, says the argument that developments like Centennial and Newland Sierra will fix the housing crisis is specious.

“In California we say we’re committed to sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction, yet we still approve outdated models of development,” said Prabhala. “Developers present [models like] Centennial as solutions for affordability, but what solves the problem is infill development and housing close to existing jobs — not leapfrog development.”

Governor Gavin Newsom made affordable housing and increased building central to his 2018 election campaign. In the state legislature, several measures aimed at housing affordability are in the works. Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), for example, is planning legislation to encourage low-income housing construction through tax credits for developers.

In the state Senate, an expanded version of the controversial SB 827, which died in committee last year, was introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) in December and is expected to see its first committee vote in March or April. Like SB 827, SB 50 would mandate incentives for denser development near transit centers. Wiener told Capital & Main that the new bill addresses concerns of vulnerable communities by providing stronger tenant demolition restrictions and would encourage housing starts in job-rich areas that don’t have transit options.

Wiener said he was “pleasantly surprised and thrilled” by the CARB report’s conclusions and prescriptions. “It was clear and spoke the truth that our restrictive anti-housing policies are undermining our climate goals. Unless we address our land use pattern, car use and emissions will keep going up.”

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Will California Curb Workplace Lead Exposure in 2019?

Last year Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have tightened scrutiny of the amount of lead absorbed by workers. Assemblyman Ash Kalra has vowed to pursue passage of his measure with 2019’s Assembly Bill 35.




Last September, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2963, authored by Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), which would have tightened scrutiny of the amount of lead absorbed by employees in their workplaces. The measure was inspired by several articles that appeared on this site, written by Joe Rubin.

Assemblyman Kalra has vowed to pursue passage of his legislation with AB 35, which could land on the desk of the new governor, Gavin Newsom. An interactive graph, below, charts the contamination of Exide battery plant employees, while two infographics depict the general effects of lead contamination on workers. Capital & Main will report on AB 35’s progress throughout 2019.




Infographic: Kelly Bergkamp


Infographic: Kelly Bergkamp

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The Fires Next Time: Should California Allow Development in Fire Zones?

After two of the most devastating fires in California history, environmentalists and urban planners question why Los Angeles County, or any county in the state, would approve wilderness community developments.




The Thomas Fire, Ventura County, 2017. (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)

The outgoing Cal Fire director says government officials should consider banning home construction in fire-vulnerable areas.


On December 11 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors greenlit the controversial Centennial project, with only Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voting no. The project, nearly two decades in planning, would bring more than 19,000 homes to a private wilderness area on Tejon Ranch, approximately 65 miles north of downtown L.A.

The proposed Centennial development, covering mostly grassland and some high brush and woodland, straddles “high” and “very high” fire hazard severity zones as defined by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Cal Fire recorded 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres within five miles of the proposed Centennial acreage between 1964 to 2015, and four within Centennial’s boundaries, according to county planning documents.

Critics have said the project will create more sprawl, greenhouse gases and traffic congestion. Others question why Los Angeles County, or any county in the state, would approve a wilderness community just a few weeks after two of the most devastating fires in California history, with one destroying the town of Paradise. A new Los Angeles Times analysis based on Cal Fire data estimates that up to a million structures in California are at high risk because of wildfire.

“The fire behavior we are seeing today is so far out of the norm and getting more extreme every year.”

Donald Falk, a professor with the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, told Capital & Main that fires in the Western U.S. are now hotter, faster spreading and increasingly unpredictable. “Now fires are burning with high energy in places that don’t appear to have enough fuel to support them,” he said. Falk added that the fire threat to homeowners who build in what is often called the wilderness-urban interface will be much greater in 30 years throughout California and much of the West. A 2017 study Falk co-authored projects that by mid-century the burn area in the U.S. will be five times greater than it is now.

“The fire behavior we are seeing today is so far out of the norm, and getting more extreme every year, that the conventional notions of what it means to be fire safe may quickly become outdated,” he said.

Falk isn’t the only expert sounding the alarm about development. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, outgoing Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said government officials should consider banning home construction in fire-vulnerable areas, such as canyons lined with flammable grass or tinder-dry chaparral, so that homeowners, firefighters and communities “don’t have to keep going through what we’re going through.”

Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for Centennial’s developer, the Tejon Ranch Company, claimed in an email that the planning is “focused on minimizing fire risk and maximizing fire defense” through stringent fire codes, fire resistant buildings and placement of fire hydrants.” Homeowners must also clear brush around their properties and, because the community is master planned, Tejon Ranch Company officials say, all of its homes will be built to the same specifications and surrounded by fire-resistant landscaping and open space. Power lines, a frequent cause of fires, will be buried.

Tejon Ranch’s Centennial project and similar developments epitomize dueling priorities in California.

Zoeller also noted that, while Centennial sits in an area mapped as a higher fire risk, “There have been no fires on the site in the last 15 years and only four in the last 50 years.”

Tim Piasky, CEO of the Building Industry Association, L.A./Ventura Chapter, said that projects like Centennial would go a long way toward addressing the state’s housing shortage, and he asserted that 18 percent of the homes in Centennial would be set aside as “affordable housing.” And as for fire danger, “Centennial doesn’t provide the fuel for fire as other areas did, and people will have an easier way to get out.”

The Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, proved that grassland does burn if conditions are right. And urban planning critics contend that in the worst case, up to 60,000 people — double Paradise’s population — would have to evacuate Centennial on short notice.

Centennial’s plan has been peer reviewed by experts at Wildland Resource Management and has been reviewed and approved by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. But that doesn’t assuage J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Rose said his and other environmental organizations might sue to stop the project. “The California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] prohibits Centennial to go forward unless public benefits outweigh environmental costs. And in our view the price on people, wildlife and our wallets outweighs any benefit of this project.”

There is precedent for stopping such a project. Earlier this month, a Kern County Superior Court judge determined that all approvals for another Tejon Ranch Company project, Grapevine, in Kern County, be rescinded because they did not comply with CEQA. The court had previously cited Kern County for failing to study the full environmental impact of that project.

Centennial and similar developments epitomize dueling priorities in California, which in this case include the need for housing and the need to mitigate wildfire danger to residents.

Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said developers’ promises to use modern building and safety practices to reduce fire risks lead to a false sense of security.

“Wherever we build, fire follows,” Miller said, adding that human infrastructure itself — barbecue pits, electricity lines — is risky. “There is no such thing as fireproofing a house. The Thomas Fire in Ventura torched new homes that were built to a stringent code.”

Miller added that municipalities are generally reluctant to stop development projects like Centennial, because “housing starts is a barometer — but a false barometer — of economic health. City and county zoning offices have been greenlighting these projects, even when they see the Cal Fire [fire risk] maps. They have the information.”

In Southern California, some communities have been slowly buying up land to create more open space and prevent development where cities meet wildlife. Monrovia, a city 20 miles northeast of downtown L.A., in 2000 put a measure on the ballot to raise taxes to pay developers for fair-market value of hillside land. The tax brought in $10 million, with a matching grant from Governor Gray Davis and different pots of money to fill in the rest, to reach $24 million to purchase 1,416 hillside acres. Gloria Crudgington, a community activist at the time of the ballot measure and now a Monrovia city councilwoman, said the tax was not based on fire danger, but rather on quality of life issues. “We didn’t want to ruin views and hurt wildlife. But now we see that keeping the land open could prevent fire disasters too.”

Voters of Flagstaff, Arizona, have shown that citizens can, beyond buying back the land, take ownership of reducing wildfire risks. Reeling from two 2010 fires and post-fire flooding, in 2013 Flagstaff taxed itself by passing Proposition 405, a $10 million bond to prevent fires by thinning woodland in the Coconino National Forest surrounding the city.

Miller and Falk both say California’s housing crisis could be addressed by building up, rather than out, with infill developments. University of California, Santa Barbara wildfire specialist Max Moritz has suggested California could avoid some of these developments by creating a state building commission that would refuse to rubber stamp new community developments in the wilderness. Right now, no such commission is on the drawing board.

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Is a New Toxic Danger Threatening California?

PFAS compounds are found in clothing, carpeting, furniture, food packaging, non-stick cooking products and fire-fighting foams. They’ve been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

Dan Ross




PFAS compounds have been detected in water sources throughout California, including, background sources say, the groundwater at LAX.


There are many well-documented threats to California’s drinking water resources, but the latest has sprung to prominence only relatively recently, and has regulators and lawmakers scrambling for a response.

The potential “magnitude of the problem” is why the state must act more urgently “to try to understand this quicker and better,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), potentially toxic chemicals found with increasing frequency in drinking water systems across California and the nation.

“I have half a million constituents in my district, and the majority use a water system with less than 10,000 connections,” added Garcia. The bulk of the drinking water monitoring for PFAS chemicals thus far has targeted large systems serving 10,000 or more people. What’s more, many are concerned about the possible impact on poor communities already disproportionately affected by unsafe drinking water. Garcia’s suburban Los Angeles district is comprised of mostly blue-collar Latino communities.

The maximum detection of PFAS variants at the Navy’s China Lake site was 727,273 times what is considered a safe exposure level.

PFAS compounds are a class of chemical found in a long list of everyday items, including clothing, carpeting, furniture, food packaging, non-stick cooking products and fire-fighting foams. They’re persistent, meaning they biodegrade extremely slowly, hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.” And they’ve been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

PFAS compounds have been detected in water sources throughout California, including, Capital & Main has learned through background sources, the groundwater at Los Angeles International Airport. A recent Union of Concerned Scientists report also identified 21 different California military sites where PFAS compounds have been detected in the drinking water or groundwater, sometimes at levels more than 100-times the safe limit advised by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Kern County, the maximum detection of PFAS variants in groundwater was eight million parts per trillion (ppt) – 727,273 times what is considered a safe exposure level.

“The hard part is getting it out of the groundwater,” warned Patty Kouyoumdjian, executive officer of the Lahontan water board, the district in which China Lake is situated.

One reason why experts are so concerned about PFAS compounds is the sheer number of them – some estimates put the figure at more than 4,700 variants. PFOA and PFOS are two of the more ubiquitous ones. At the federal government’s urging, industry phased out these two specific compounds in the 2000s, but they’re still widespread in the environment, along with many others PFAS compounds.

While these chemicals have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s, the federal government has been criticized for long down-playing the problems they pose. Part of the problem lies in a decades-long effort by some chemical manufacturers to suppress negative scientific data. And even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a health advisory in 2016 for PFOS and PFOA, at a September 6 Congressional hearing the agency faced repeated criticism for continued lax leadership on the issue.

A few states have taken tougher action than what the federal government recommends. These include Minnesota, which has actively tracked and tackled PFAS contamination for over 15 years. By comparison, California “needs to do much more to protect its residents from exposure to these toxic PFAS chemicals,” said Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics’ executive director.

According to Jeff O’Keefe, chief of the Southern California section of the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) Division of Drinking Water, PFAS contamination in California “is not looking as widespread” when compared to these other states. Nevertheless, state agencies are still figuring out the breadth of the problem here.

In response to the 2016 EPA health advisory for combined PFOS and PFOA of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), 12 California public water systems have tested above that threshold, and have taken steps to treat their water or take the source off-line, said O’Keefe. Earlier this year, however, the ATSDR released a draft toxicological report that found PFOA and PFOS risk levels were seven to 10 times lower than this EPA standard.

Between 2013 and 2015, as part of a federal monitoring program, all large community water systems in California and a select number of smaller ones were tested for six different PFAS chemicals. PFOS and PFOA compounds were detected in 68 different wells above 40 ppt and 20 ppt, respectively. Some systems performed voluntary monitoring, which yielded 297 separate PFAS source detections.

This July, the SWRCB took an important step towards an enforceable drinking water threshold for PFOA and PFOS when it established a non-mandatory interim Notification Level of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS.

If California water agencies choose to test to these levels, they’re required to report the results to their governing boards and to the State Water Board. The state also encourages them to report the information to customers. But agencies are not required to treat the water in the event of a Notification Level exceedance.

Many experts urge haste in the state’s response to the emerging problem.

Even though “we’re still at a rudimentary stage” when it comes to understanding the full human health implications from exposure to these chemicals, the whole PFAS issue is a “cause for grave concern,” said Amy Kyle, a former associate adjunct professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

One of the characteristics of PFAS compounds that make experts like Kyle especially concerned is that, unlike other persistent toxic chemicals that have posed major health risks in the past—like the once ubiquitous pesticide DDT, now banned—PFAS compounds are water soluble. “They get in the water and travel as fast as it does,” said Kyle.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly all Americans carry trace amounts of PFOA and PFOS in their bodies. As part of a state biomonitoring program, blood samples were taken from 430 L.A. County volunteers earlier this year, and tested for 12 different PFAS compounds. The results are expected to be publicly available early next year.

Assemblywoman Garcia said that an important next step is comprehensive monitoring of all water systems, large and small, including those in her district.

Before all water systems can begin testing to the new notification level, however, more laboratories need to be accredited to new federal testing standards. The state is currently in the accreditation process, said Jeff O’Keefe. “Once we get the labs certified and we expand our knowledge of the occurrences statewide at these lower detection limits, we’ll get a better handle on it,” he added.

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L.A. Gas-Fired Power Plants on Hold as DWP Considers Greener Alternatives

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has paused the rebuilding of three aging power plants to study whether they should continue using natural gas — or could take the leap into renewable energy as soon as possible.




Scattergood power plant. (Photo: Trekandshoot/Getty Images)

By signing into law Senate Bill 100, which sets a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electric power generation by 2045, Governor Jerry Brown not only solidified California’s ongoing transition from fossil fuels, he numbered the days of the state’s gas-fired power plants.

But some new gas plant projects are still on the table. In the South Bay of Los Angeles County three aging plants — Scattergood, Haynes and Harbor — had been slated for replacement with gas-fired generating units that don’t use ocean water. In 2009 the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) required all gas-fired plants that use ocean water to cool them (called “once-through cooling plants”) to be phased out, due to the danger to aquatic organisms.

But last year the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) paused the rebuilding of those three plants to study whether they should continue using natural gas, at least for a few years, or could take the leap into renewable energy as soon as possible. An independent report on the consequences of not rebuilding gas-fired plants, the LADWP told Capital & Main, is due in February.

Energy watchers say it’s not a sure thing that the agency will abandon plans to rebuild these plants to use gas power, despite the state’s 2045 carbon-free mandate and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City Plan. One reason, experts say, is the need to protect electric reliability in this densely populated region; another, and possibly more significant one, is bureaucratic inertia.

Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, said that some gas plants will be needed for years to accommodate for the occasional mismatch of supply and demand when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing.

“Location is important,” Wara said. “You can’t replace a gas plant on Santa Monica Bay with solar farms in the desert yet.”

The other reason LADWP might embrace the status quo – gas power – is the industry’s risk-averse mindset, Wara added. “Change is risky to utilities,” he said.

Evan Gillespie, Western Regional Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said he hopes LADWP will “clearly state the problems” to the public of taking all gas power off line in the short term, but also enlist green energy companies to show the utility that battery storage for renewables, though costly now, could be cheaper in the long term.

“We want to see RFPs [requests for proposals] to test the market to see how far clean energy can go to replace these plants, rather than the DWP doing the market analysis,” Gillespie said. “I think the clean energy developer community has a penchant for more creativity and they’re inclined to turn over more stones.”

Gillespie, like Wara, said LADWP doesn’t need to retire all three plants now, and that Scattergood, which finished rebuilding one of its units last year, could “let that run for a decade or two” but that the utility should draw the line at starting construction on any more gas-fired units.

LADWP’s initial estimate for rebuilding the three gas-fired plants was $2.2 billion, with a scheduled completion of the final phase in 2029.

The Grayson Power Plant in the inland L.A. suburb of Glendale, is the fourth, and last, gas-fired power plant in the state that might be rebuilt to use fossil fuel. But renovation plans for it, too, were put on hold earlier this year, spurred by intense public pressure, so that the Glendale Water and Power utility could look at renewable alternatives.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is moving headlong into renewables.  In June,  the company requested approval of four energy storage projects that would replace three gas-fired power plants it manages. The utility also plans to replace a gas plant in Oakland with batteries and multiple solar panels.

LADWP, the largest public utility in the country, could follow PG&E’s lead, Gillespie said. “Replacing two gigawatts of gas with energy storage isn’t easy [for LADWP] but it isn’t impossible.”

Responding to a question about a possible move toward renewable energy, LADWP spokesman Joseph Ramallo said in an email that the department’s planned study would provide a “detailed assessment of a comprehensive set of alternatives” to gas-powered plants and would determine how much the department could reduce natural gas while maintaining system reliability.

In the wake of the 2000-2001 energy crisis, California commissioned many natural gas plants. Wara said that for the next two decades the 200 natural gas plants connected to the grid will be decommissioned, one by one, shuttered by market forces or regulators in a game of “musical chairs.”

A recent independent analysis conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that California could immediately retire at least 28 of the 89 natural gas plants in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) territory without affecting the stability of the electric grid.

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Why Was Climate Change Omitted From Colorado’s Debate Over Fracking?

Co-published by Westword
The total absence of climate change discussion in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering the state’s intensified floods, droughts and wildfires.




Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Over eight debates between gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton, Colorado’s press corps mustered just three questions about climate change.


Co-published by Westword

It is no overstatement to say that Colorado’s Proposition 112 and Amendment 74 were two of the most significant and far-reaching climate change measures in America’s entire midterm election. But don’t blame yourself if you didn’t know that. While the initiatives sparked a pitched battle about the fossil fuel industry just as scientists were issuing a dire warning about climate change, that term — “climate change” — was largely absent from the state’s political conversation in 2018, even though some local officials say climate change could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the near future.

While Colorado’s oil and gas industry was asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” it sponsored an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues.

Oil and gas corporations spent roughly $40 million to oppose 112, which would have mandated larger distances between fossil fuel extraction sites and schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods, and likely restricted some fossil fuel development. Some of that money also went into promoting 74, which would have empowered those same oil and gas companies to sue towns that try to restrict drilling and fracking. While the industry offered a smorgasbord of arguments in its campaign — it would defund schools, it would kill jobs, etc. — those criticisms were all based on one central premise: that the setbacks measure would allegedly ban all new oil and gas exploration.

Had climate change been a central topic of conversation, that assertion could have boomeranged on the industry — proponents could have argued that an all-out ban was in fact urgently needed in light of a recent United Nations report warning of a full-fledged dystopia if new fossil fuel development is not halted. And they might have found a receptive audience: Recent polling from the University of Colorado has shown that 70 percent of Coloradans say they are at least somewhat concerned about climate change — and that survey was done before a summer of climate-change-intensified wildfires.

Even though Prop. 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that it represented an important front in the climate change battle.

However, the Colorado press corps barely mentioned climate change in its coverage of the fight, and groups pushing the proposition never made climate change a central argument in their campaign.

An analysis by Media Matters found that out of 12 Colorado newspaper editorials about 112, just one — that of the Boulder Daily Camera, which endorsed the measure — even mentioned climate change. News coverage of 112 focused alternately on the health and environmental hazards highlighted by activists and industry doomsaying about its economic and budgetary implications, but reporting on fossil fuel-related carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change was almost nonexistent.

That was true not only of the fight over 112, but of the state’s wider political discourse. Over eight debates between governor-elect Jared Polis and opponent Walker Stapleton, the Colorado press corps mustered just three questions about climate change, accounting for less than 10 minutes of discussion during eight and a half hours of debate.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association was sponsoring an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues. And as a backup measure to defang any potential climate arguments, the industry also ramped up its production of promotional PR asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” as COGA insists. That assertion relies on the public never realizing that it’s only true in comparison to burning coal, but not actually true overall: Natural gas is a fossil fuel, so carbon is emitted when it is burned — no matter what COGA tries to insinuate.

The defeat of an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.

That context, though, is rarely noted in a political arena that has long been dominated by armies of fossil fuel lobbyists and millions of dollars of fossil fuel campaign spending. This year, much of that money was spent on ads designed to narrow the debate to one primarily about jobs and economic impact, thereby precluding 112 campaigners from broadening the conversation to one about the climate change dangers of fossil fuel extraction. Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112, was boxed into making arguments only about better protecting the public health and safety of those living near fracking rigs, and to defensively insist that the measure wasn’t an actual ban.

In a media environment that was already erasing climate change from the conversation, there was no space for them to more straightforwardly argue that dramatic reductions in fossil fuel extraction are necessary to address climate change.

“What the polling is showing is that if people are really convinced that it’s an outright ban, they aren’t going to vote for it,” Colorado Rising’s Anne Lee Foster told Capital & Main when asked why climate change wasn’t a more prominent part of the campaign. “It’s not about what the actual percentage [ban] is, it’s proving that they have been blowing this out of proportion the whole time.”

At times, 112’s proponents ended up publicly asserting that the measure would not significantly reduce fossil fuel extraction at all, even as climate scientists argue that’s exactly what’s necessary.

“The oil and gas folks out there will still be able to do their thing,” said Mark Williams, a former Democratic congressional candidate, at a Longmont town hall where he promoted 112. “My concern is you have all these operators that are out there that are trying to make a quick buck, [but] Colorado does not have strong enough regulations.”

There’s no guarantee 112 would have been more successful had the proponents tried to focus the fight on climate change; the oil and gas industry’s success in defeating an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.

However, the total absence of the issue in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering not only the IPCC report, but also the state’s own specific struggles with the effects of climate change. After all, leading scientists say that climate change is already intensifying Colorado’s floods, droughts and wildfires. And although COGA has demanded that “natural gas must be part of the climate change conversation,” many of those scientists disagree.

“There is more than enough carbon in the world’s already developed, operating oil, gas, and coal fields globally to exceed 2°C,” wrote a group of 26 climate scientists in a July letter to California Governor Jerry Brown, urging him to immediately halt the approval of all new oil and gas drilling. “There is simply no room in the carbon budget for any new fossil fuel extraction.”

“Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None,” said climate scientist Will Steffen, when asked earlier this year what the U.S. needs to do to help avoid global catastrophe. “That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new.”

This is why even though 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that its potential to somewhat reduce that extraction represented an important front in the climate change battle.

In a guest column for the Denver Post, former NASA scientist James Hansen encouraged Coloradans to vote for 112 because it would “help prevent climate change by making oil and gas harder to access.” Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called for a nationwide ban on fracking, also endorsed the measure on climate-related grounds. And toward the end of the campaign, founder Bill McKibben promoted the measure as part of his organization’s nationwide push to combat climate change.

But by that point, the industry’s PR machine was already skilled at suppressing any discussion of climate change and transforming every 112 argument into economic alarmism. An editorial in oil magnate Phil Anschutz’s Colorado Springs Gazette was emblematic: In attacking McKibben, it didn’t even bother to mention climate change, much less address his substantive argument.

Instead, its headline simply screamed, “Out-of-stater comes to kill Colorado jobs.”

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The Climate Summit’s Inconvenient Truth: People Need Jobs

Co-published by Fast Company
Much of the recent gathering in San Francisco involved corporate and government backslapping — noble but too easily mocked.

Judith Lewis Mernit




Photo by Judith Lewis Mernit

Co-published by Fast Company


Amid the swell of protesters demanding California put an end to oil, and a police force growing irritated with their monotonous chanting (“I’m going to be singing that one in my sleep,” said one officer), I met Theodore Hunt. It was not a chance meeting. Earlier, on the first day of the Global Climate Action Summit at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, I had rented an electric-assist bike to get to a lunch meeting, navigating the downtown streets by way of Google Maps with my iPhone in the bike’s basket. In a rush to lock up the bike outside the restaurant, I left my phone behind.

Hunt was my savior. When I called my number on a borrowed phone, he answered, and promised to leave the phone for me later at the office of the bike company. But the office was far, and I needed my phone, so instead I tracked him down using an iPad and the Find Your iPhone app. When the tiny phone icon showed up at a building across the street, I scurried down three flights of escalators, borrowing phones along the way to sync up my coordinates with Hunt. Cops, security guards, random strangers — by the time we all spotted a tall African-American man on a bright red bike waving from across Third Street, it seemed all of San Francisco had become invested in our saga. When Hunt and I made the handoff and I hugged him with gratitude, a small cheer went up.

It was a magically reassuring moment during an international gathering of climate activists, elected officials and corporate leaders who had come here committed to holding the United States to the terms of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Trump and his administration be damned.

Much of the summit was simple corporate and government backslapping — noble but too easily mocked. What does it matter if General Electric presents its climate ideals when the corporation refuses to back down on plans for a new coal plant in Kenya? Starbucks might have banned plastic straws, but emissions still accumulate in the long lines at its many drive-throughs. And McDonald’s? Really?

For protesters outside the fences, maintaining global temperature below the point-of-no-return threshold means that, in some cases, entire industries have to be shut down. “We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground,” the noted author and climate warrior Bill McKibben has written. “If we don’t—if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them—we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments.”

The problem with that strategy is that with those industries, oil and coal, come many thousands of well-paying, often union jobs. “Climate strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a speech on opening day, “fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis.” The issue of the climate versus jobs will be used by the foes of both labor and clean energy to divide the country, Trumka noted. It already has.

In the near term, if oil extraction were to suddenly come to an end in California, 30,000 people would lose their livelihoods, and thousands more will be out of work in places where industries depend on California oil. In the long term, jobs wouldn’t be available to a new generation full of people like Theodore Hunt — smart, honest and capable, but not necessarily pre-armed with the privilege and educational credentials to parlay those qualities into a six-figure job. Hunt, who is 28 and single, told me he works as much as he can: As a mechanic servicing the city’s network of electric bikes, he can earn as much as $800 on a busy week. If he meshes his maintenance duties with a food-delivery service, like Uber Eats, he might make $1,200 in a week — a decent living wage almost anywhere besides San Francisco, where he can’t afford to live.

But the big weeks are rare, and if Hunt gets sick, or injured, or takes a mental-health break, he doesn’t get paid at all. He belongs to the 8.5 percent of California workers whom the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center calls the “unincorporated self-employed.” He gets paid when he delivers a meal or services a bike. He does not get paid when he stops to eat lunch. If he wants health insurance, he must buy it himself.

Hunt likes his job: The hours vary, he gets to be outside, he interacts with people. Like so many other “green” jobs, Hunt’s is many times more pleasant and safer than mining coal, or working on an oil rig. But it’s not a steady living on which to buy a house or support a family.

Nor is installing solar panels on rooftops, a job that generally pays $14 to $20 and hour, rarely with benefits. Trumka told the summit that 4,000 megawatts of solar had been installed in the San Joaquin Valley over the last two decades. “Fifteen million job-hours of union work, at union wages and with union benefits, made that possible,” he said. But once those plants are built, it takes only a few people to keep them operating, and no one has to mine the fuel. The same math applies to wind farms: Once the turbines are up, most of the work is done.

Paul Getsos, national director of the People’s Climate Movement, has spent more than a decade thinking through what it means to bring the labor movement into the climate fight by way of a just transition for workers. He organized in disadvantaged communities around the Obama administration’s stimulus package. Later, he assessed green jobs for the Center for Community Change, and found that “the promise of ‘green jobs’ wasn’t fulfilled for a lot of communities. There’s a very narrow view of what a ‘green job’ is.” The solution to the worker-transition conundrum for a 100 percent clean energy economy is to expand that definition. “Manufacturing electric cars is a ‘green job,’ said Getsos. “Rebuilding infrastructure in North Carolina to keep people safe from coal ash — that’s a ‘green job.’”

Retrofitting homes and business to use less energy is also a green job — and one of the best, according to Getsos: “[Energy efficiency] is one of the areas where there is access to new jobs that don’t require higher education.” It’s also ripe for job growth. In New York City, a mandate to retrofit the city’s buildings — which account for two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions — will yield 17,000 jobs between now and 2030.

Energy efficiency isn’t a big field in some of the smaller towns where dirty fossil-fuel plants exist. In Centralia, Washington, where a coal plant employing 300 workers making $80,000 a year will begin shutting down in 2020, environmentalists and labor negotiated an agreement with the city and the plant operator, TransAlta, to invest $55 million in worker retraining and community development in exchange for an expedited permit to build a natural gas plant on the same site. (Natural gas isn’t perfect, but for the climate it’s better than coal.)

Legislators could also intervene with laws granting benefits and collective bargaining rights to people like Theodore Hunt. As smart technology expands further into transportation and utilities, some necessary jobs will become more fluid for employers and less rewarding for workers. California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has introduced two bills over the past few years to give contract employees workers’ compensation benefits and the right to form and join unions, and Assemblymember Evan Low last session brought up a bill that would guarantee contract workers portable benefits. None have yet made it to the governor’s desk.

“We can’t just say ‘green jobs’,” Getsos said. “We need to say green jobs, good jobs and worker access.”

Those principles might be as consequential to the clean-energy economy as are the protesters’ demands.

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Young Activists’ Lawsuit Seeks to Phase Out Fossil Fuel Emissions

Environmentalists are hoping that a trial, due to begin October 29, will explain to the public how the government has known for decades about the dangers of fossil fuels but failed to act on this knowledge.

Gabriel Thompson




The lawsuit would expand the doctrine of public trust–which is normally reserved for resources like land and water–to the atmosphere.


In August of 2015, lawyers representing 21 young people, aged 8 to 19, filed an ambitious lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Oregon. They argued that the federal government, by allowing and encouraging fossil fuel emissions, had violated “fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty and prosperity”–a burden that would fall heaviest on coming generations.

The lawsuit, spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene-based environmental organization, seeks to force the government to phase out fossil fuel emissions. In response, the Obama administration filed a motion to dismiss, as did representatives of the fossil fuel industry, including the American Petroleum Institute. Both motions were denied. In 2017, the new Trump administration took the rare step of petitioning for a “writ of mandamus” to ask that a higher court—in this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—order the District Court to dismiss the case. That petition was rejected in March, and a second petition was rejected in July, setting the stage for what promises be a monumental trial that will begin October 29.

The case, Juliana v. U.S., takes its name from lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student who once marched 1,600 miles from Nebraska to Washington, DC to demand action on climate change. When she was 15, Juliana co-filed a separate lawsuit, also supported by Our Children’s Trust, against Oregon’s governor that sought the creation of a climate emissions reduction plan. In 2015, an Oregon Circuit Court ruled against Juliana and Our Children’s Trust; they have appealed the decision.

Our Children’s Trust has pending legal actions in nine states on behalf of youth plaintiffs.

At the center of these lawsuits is the concept of the public trust doctrine, which posits that the government has a duty to protect the natural resources that a society needs to survive. But these suits add a twist by expanding the doctrine–which is normally reserved for resources like land and water–to the atmosphere, based on a theory pioneered by University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood.

The legal outcome of the trial is impossible to predict, but advocates for stronger climate action, like professor Wood, are excited about the opportunity the trial presents to explain to the public how the government has known for decades about the dangers of fossil fuels but allegedly failed to act on this knowledge. In a 1965 address to Congress, for example, President Lyndon Johnson said, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

“It is of paramount importance that the American public understand what government’s role is in causing the climate catastrophe,” Wood said in a recent interview with 350 Eugene. “Because if the American public doesn’t understand how it is caused, it won’t take action towards a solution.”

Jacob Lebel, another of the youth plaintiffs, grew up on a farm in Oregon. “Years from now, Trump and his cabinet—they won’t be the ones dealing with starvation and refugees and resource wars and all that stuff,” Lebel told KQED last year. “We’re the ones who are gonna be dealing with that. As young people, we think about that every single day.”

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Former EPA Official Finds Hope in the Middle of the Climate Crisis

“Those of us who’ve been working on environmental justice and climate justice,” says Mustafa Ali, “understand we’re talking about housing, transportation, the environment, public health and jobs.”

Judith Lewis Mernit




Mustafa Ali photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM.

“Because the current administration is so anti-science, so anti-environment, so anti-climate, people who weren’t paying attention before are paying attention now.”

Until he resigned last year, Mustafa Santiago Ali served as the Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he’d worked since 1992. Under the direction of the agency’s first administrator of the Office of Environmental Equity, Dr. Clarice Gaylord, Ali helped begin the EPA’s effort to recognize and address the disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities situated closest to industrial polluters, communities where people — often people of color — live in poverty. He worked with the Clinton administration on Executive Order 12898, which established a federal program to address environmental justice in communities of color and low-income communities, and in 2007, he went to Capitol Hill to work as a Brookings Institution Congressional Fellow with Rep. John Conyers. He returned to the agency the next year, and stayed until the Trump administration proposed cutting nearly $2 billion from the EPA’s already meager $8.2 billion budget, and a leaked memo revealed plans to eliminate the Office of Environmental Justice that Ali had helped found. (Congress ultimately rejected the cuts in the current federal budget, passed in March of 2018).

Ali is now the Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization for the Washington, DC-based Hip Hop Caucus, a national nonprofit that joins the hip hop community to the civic process of politics, social change and the environment. At the recent Climate Reality Conference in Los Angeles, he spoke on a panel of environmental justice advocates, which included Catherine Flowers and mark! Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. Ali had audience members join hands and reaffirm their collective power to effect social and political transformation. I spoke with him afterwards in the over-air-conditioned lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center.


Capital & Main: You spent 24 years at EPA, beginning when George H.W. Bush was still in office, and stayed through the second Bush administration, too. How did you weather other more conservative administrations?

Mustafa Santiago Ali: When I started, at the end of [then-EPA Administrator] William Reilly’s administration in 1992, we were really blessed that there was a lot of energy around environmental equity, which became environmental justice. A number of the leaders had gotten together in 1991, through the first National People of Color [Environmental Leadership] Summit in Washington, DC, and put together a set of recommendations before they began to engage with the federal government. One of those recommendations was the creation of an Office of Environmental Equity/Environmental Justice. Those recommendations drove a lot of work that happened in both Republican and Democratic administrations in the early days.

We began to move forward on the creation of the environmental justice small-grants program during the first Bush administration. In the transition to the Clinton administration, we were able to move things forward because an executive order came that I was blessed to be able to work on. Out of that executive order came the interagency working group, which means there are now 17 federal agencies – back then it was 11 — and a couple of White House offices that have distinct responsibility for environmental justice.

There had been successes under all of those administrations. There were challenges in that certain administrations were more tied into business and industry. But all of them made progress before this administration we’re in now.

So even Bush II. They had an office to doctor studies done by scientists within Fish and Wildlife, for instance. But you’re saying there was still progress on environmental justice then?

There was. It was incremental, and I don’t want to oversell it. But without a doubt, it existed. No one ever talked about eliminating the Office of Environmental Justice under Bush.

How hard was it for you to leave?

I had to struggle with it. I prayed, I talked to my parents, I talked to my mentors. There were a couple of times I was going to jump out right at the beginning [of the Trump administration]. Maya Angelou has that great quote about how when someone tells you who they are, believe them. But there’s always that thing, you know, maybe they’ll have a road to Damascus moment. Maybe there’ll be this transition. But it wasn’t going to happen. That was being overly hopeful.

I knew the policies they were moving forward on literally could kill people. I knew that, because even when things are moving in a somewhat positive direction, people are still very vulnerable. And I knew that these folks, they just didn’t care about all of these leaders, these grassroots leaders and others, who sacrificed everything to try and strengthen environmental laws, to try to get real enforcement actually happening. They’ve put into their own reports that they know their policies are going to kill people – especially people of color.

Enforcement of environmental crimes is almost non-existent.

I knew that was coming. They were very clear about what they wanted to do around air pollution issues. And since I led the inter-agency working group, I knew that the cumulative effect is that more people were going to get sick and more people were going to die.

You’ve addressed in your career an overlooked part of environmental justice: the impact of natural and man-made disasters on disadvantaged communities. We saw it in Katrina, in Harvey, and we saw it in Irma and Maria. There are vulnerable people who suffer a disproportionate share of the impacts of these events.

The reason for that — we saw it in Hurricane Maria, all the lives that were lost — is if you don’t have a specific focus and understanding of the additional impacts that happen in vulnerable communities, you can’t protect folks and help them recover. Flint, the BP oil spill, the hurricanes — we can go down the line in terms of disasters. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about low-income white communities, communities of color or indigenous communities. You’ve got to be thinking, What are the additional things we need to do to help those people?

The Trump administration has been trying to weaken many regulations for chemical facilities and hazardous waste facilities that were written to protect the public. That will also affect vulnerable communities when disasters happen.

They’re actually extracting wealth from these communities. Lots of times people think, Oh, these communities in Appalachia. These communities in the Rust Belt. What wealth is there? But when [industries] continue to put these [dangerous facilities] in these communities, housing values plummet, while everyone else’s are going up. So you’re taking wealth from these communities.

In the same way, when people say climate change isn’t real, that means [those communities] can’t invest in renewables. That means that communities in the Rust Belt that really need new jobs never get a chance at them. So once again you are taking wealth away from these communities.

How do you get those people to care — the people in the Rust Belt, for instance, who may not understand how they’re being harmed by these policies? You tweeted a story about people in Kansas whose water had been contaminated for seven years, and the state health department knew about it but didn’t bother to tell them.

That was intentional. It was intentional because sometimes we’ve set up these barriers in our country around environmental justice. That’s a shame. It’s about those black people, brown people, maybe indigenous people, and white brothers and sisters [who] sometimes don’t think they’re going to be impacted also. When we don’t help everybody understand that these impacts affect everybody, then we allow people to put these boxes around it and say, “Well, I care, but that’s something that’s happening to these other folks.”

Even in some of the disadvantaged communities of color, it can be hard to get people to care. People are busy feeding their kids. I heard Van Jones make the point years ago at the Bioneers Conference that you can’t knock on doors in marginalized communities and scream about how the polar bears are dying. How do you reach out to those people who are already stressed just getting through a day in their lives? How do you talk to them about pollution, let alone climate?

I like to anchor my message in what’s going on in people’s lives. Normally I would talk about how 27 million people in our country have asthma. Seven million kids. Most folks of color in the urban setting can relate to asthma. They have kids or grandchildren or nieces or nephews [with] asthma. Then we have a conversation about, Okay, where’s that coming from? How is this situation being exacerbated? It’s because of pollution that’s coming out of these plants and pollution coming from the backs of cars. Then I link them into, “Well, did you know that there’s currently policy being made that’s going to let more pollution come out, so there’s going to be more health impacts?”

Those of us who’ve been working on environmental justice and climate justice for a while understand we’re talking about housing, transportation, the environment, public health and jobs. So I talk to people also about their vote, not only in the environmental context, but in the context of the violence that continues to happen in some communities. And how your vote makes the decision about who’s the police chief, who’s the district attorney. I bring all that together. Then people are like, “Yeah, I got power. And my power’s tied up in my vote. And the vote will determine the resources coming into my community, and who’s leading that process.”

In California the climate fight on the environmental justice front lines and the legislative space are often at odds. It’s frustrating, because as mark! Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice said on your panel, the frontline communities in the environmental justice fight are where our climate problems begin.

I’ve noticed that [about California]. Legislators can’t do something because of how it will affect business or industry, [but] people in the environmental justice space are saying, “We’re the ones who are going to be affected by pollution first. We’re the ones who have to deal with this first.” [The answer lies in] creating authentic collaborative partnerships.

If we’re in a relationship, it means you care about me, and I care about you. In a good marriage, a healthy friendship, many times you care more about the other person than you do about yourself. We’ve got to get to that. That will get to a greater understanding of how to create a policy that’s truly protective of everyone.

You mentioned that 200,000 people die every year prematurely because of air pollution. Can you imagine if 200,000 people were dying of bird flu?

It would be a public health emergency.

But we don’t move like we would move if it were a public health emergency. How do you convince people who are making the laws that it is?

We’ve got two different dynamics going on. One, we really need to accelerate the creation of renewable energy jobs, to create a just transition for the workers in those industries, and to get new people into that space.

Two, we’ve got to get the money out of politics. We know that’s an even harder fight than getting renewable energy jobs in place. There’s an addiction to that money. I was at Netroots Nation and many of the political leaders who came to that signed the no fossil-fuel money pledge. If you don’t have any accountability to the fossil-fuel world and that money that exists there, then you’re less likely to make decisions based on a monetary thing, and you’re more likely to be basing your decisions on public health.

You say you’re a realist, but also an optimist. What is your cause for optimism right now?

This is an interesting time. I think that our country had to go through this. If we’re going to have real talk, we have to acknowledge that there’s been no administration that’s lived up to what they should be doing on these issues. But now because the current administration is so anti-science, so anti-environment, so anti-climate, people who weren’t paying attention before are paying attention now. Foundations are saying we’ve got to shift our portfolios to better support this work. We have a common destiny that’s tied to this.

Even scientists. I have a science background and it hasn’t always been the case that scientists [were involved in public policy]. There’ve always been good scientists, but it’s not like the larger scientific organizations were saying we need to do more. Now that is happening. For all the craziness the current administration tries to do and does, [it has] also been a catalyst for people saying we’ve got to start honoring each other. We’ve got to start working together. That’s what keeps me going — I see these new relationships forming.

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Michael Mann Says This Summer Is a Big Warning About Climate Change

Many scientists assert that this summer’s intense weather is being fueled by climate change. One of the most prominent is Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, who says the connection between the two is like “the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.”

David Sirota




Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

In late July, a CNN story summed up what was becoming a watershed moment. The cable TV outlet reported that “the summer of temperature extremes just keeps going, with record heat waves this month on all four continents that occupy the Northern Hemisphere.”

And yet for all the heat and wildfires, relatively little media coverage has contextualized the situation with a mention of climate change. The watchdog group Media Matters reported: “Over a two-week period from late June to early July, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 127 segments or weathercasts that discussed the heat wave, but only one segment, on CBS This Morning, mentioned climate change.”

Despite the media blackout, many scientists assert that the intense weather is being fueled by climate change. One of the most prominent is Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, the author of the books The Madhouse Effect and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. In a new podcast, Capital & Main recently spoke with Mann about why he believes this summer is a turning point in the battle over climate change.

What follows is an lightly edited excerpt of the podcast interview. Podcast subscribers can click here to hear the full discussion.


David Sirota: What do you say to those who argue that there is no definitive proof that climate change is directly responsible for intense weather systems like the ones we’ve seen this summer?

Michael Mann: It’s sort of in the domain of the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. We don’t question that link. You know, smoking cigarettes leads to lung cancer and other diseases, because it increases the likelihood of those afflictions by such a large amount that we basically equate it with a causal relationship…

We would not be seeing this in the absence of climate change, so the signal of climate change as expressed in extreme weather is now undeniable…We are talking about floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and superstorms, you name it. We have seen unprecedented events in each of those categories over the last year that we would not have seen in the absence of climate change.

When I say that, I don’t literally mean that the underlying weather event might not have occurred. What I’m saying is the extreme nature of that event would not have been observed…What would have been a bad drought becomes a record drought, becomes an unprecedented drought. What would have been a bad wildfire becomes the largest wildfire in California history…

Wildfires aren’t supposed to happen in the winter in California, and what that tells us is that we’ve now evolved into a state where there isn’t a fire season in California anymore, there’s a perpetual fire season.

Which areas of the United States do you think are facing the most extreme and intense consequences of climate change?

Everywhere essentially along the coast of the United States you have increasing coastal threats because of climate change impacts on sea level rise, hurricanes. As you go inland, you look around, you can’t find a region of the country that hadn’t dealt with a thousand-year flood within the last couple of years…

The wildfires in the west, not just California. Essentially the entire Western U.S. has been afflicted with massive wildfires, drought, and a drought in California that’s now the worst in at least 1,200 years, as far back as the paleoclimate scientists are able to go, and heat waves that have basically crossed the entire country this summer. There’s no region of the country that hasn’t dealt with a record or near-record heat wave this summer.

You would be hard pressed to find a region in the country that hasn’t been impacted by one of those extreme weather events, and of course that’s just the U.S. We can say that now about essentially the entire globe. This is the summer where climate change showed its hand.

If the weather and wildfires that we’re experiencing aren’t a wake-up call to the political system about climate change, what will be?

What more do people need to see? We’ve had what I sometimes call the Cuyahoga River moment, that critical moment when a river caught on fire and that captured the public imagination. It led to Richard Nixon establishing the EPA, the Clean Air Acts, the Clean Water Acts. What is that moment in the climate change debate? How many do we need to have?

This summer, many of us who work in this space think that we’ve finally reached the point where it’s impossible for anybody to credibly deny not just that climate change is happening, not just that it’s caused by burning of fossil fuels and the elevation of greenhouse gases, but that it is already a problem.

We are already suffering the consequences. It’s already costing us far more. The cost of inaction is already so much greater than the cost of taking action. What’s playing out in California of course is sort of Exhibit A in that argument. We are now suffering the consequences, toll on infrastructure, human lives and our economy, frankly. What will it take?

The opponents of dealing with climate change seem to prey on people’s fear of change – they portray aggressive action as so radical that it will completely disrupt and destroy everyone’s lives. Are the changes we need to make really that radical and scary?

Not nearly as radical or scary as the critics would like people to believe. It’s going to require change. Remaking the global energy economy, shifting away from a two-century-long reliance on fossil fuels to new sources of energy? Yeah, that’s going to take action. It’s going to require some sort of market incentives, a price on carbon.

We pay a little bit more right now here in Central Pennsylvania to elect to get all of our power from renewables, from wind, and we’re happy to do that. Most people won’t do that just because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s why you need market incentives to guide people in the right direction.

The irony is that there’s a great degree of projection in that sort of argument from the critics, this idea that we have to make great sacrifice, that it’s going to [harm the economy]. They said that when we acted on acid rain, they said that when we acted on ozone depletion. At every juncture, they said, “This is going to destroy the economy,” and the reality is it didn’t destroy the economy. Instead, it actually saved our environment. At every juncture, they’ve made that argument, and it’s always been proven to be false.

The reason I say it’s projection and misdirection is that they don’t want people to focus on the fact that we are making a huge sacrifice right now. If you look at California, if you look at Houston, if you look at Puerto Rico, if you look at Miami Beach, we are making a huge sacrifice right now in terms of the toll that climate inaction is taking, and they don’t want people to notice that. They want to turn it around on its head, to somehow argue that the steps that we need to take to mitigate that damage and risk are somehow the costly scenario, when the costly scenario is not acting on this problem.

I think many people accept that climate change is happening and that it’s a really dangerous thing, but I also think lots of people feel like since it’s already happening, there’s nothing that can be done to combat it. What do you say to folks like that?

I think there are people of good will, who mean well, who really are frightened and really think that we may be close to if not past of the point no return, and are expressing genuine frustration and genuine fear. That having been said, I think they have been happily co-opted by the forces of inaction, by the forces of denial…This sort of despair and this argument, this defeatist notion that it’s too late to do anything, is in some ways every bit as dangerous and paralyzing as outright denial of the problem itself, because it leads us down the same path of inaction.

Ultimately for that reason, it has been convenient for the forces of denial, who are looking to divide the public, to actually amplify those arguments in a cynical way and provide a voice to those arguments that, “Hey, there’s nothing we can do about it, so why enact any policies to deal with the problem?” I do think that it’s dangerous. I don’t think that those making the argument are cynics or have themselves been co-opted, but I do think that the forces of inaction and denial have happily capitalized on this, and have used it as a way to divide the community of people who do care about this problem and do want to solve it.

A recent study raised the prospect of so-called “Hothouse Earth” – or runaway climate change that is far more extreme than anyone predicts. Do you think that’s a possibility?

James Hansen has been making this argument for a number of years, I think with some credibility. These authors, to me it was just sort of recasting that basic way of looking at the problem. I think it just happened to get a lot of media attention, in part through a provocative headline. It’s real, the threat is real. We have to think about these worst-case scenarios, and if this is true…then it means that not only do we have to stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere, we are going to need to find ways to draw it back down, to bring it back out of the atmosphere over a longer time frame, over many decades, if we want to mitigate the higher-end risk here.

What are the most positive things happening in the effort to address climate change?

Probably first and foremost to me, the re-energization of our youth, the fact that the youth of this country are re-engaging with politics. We saw that in the wake of the Parkland High School shooting, but that seems to have taken. We seem to be going through sort of a tipping point now where the youth of this country have recognized that if they want to protect their future, they have to be involved in the political process. I think that could be a game-changer. To that extent, there is room for political progress here if we see younger folks re-engaged with our politics coming out to vote in this midterm election. That could really make a difference.

Then separately from that is just stepping back and taking a very high-level view of what’s going on here. The world is moving on. We moved on in the 19th century from whale oil. We recognized that something better had come along when it comes to providing energy, fossil fuels, and now we’ve gone through that next transition where we realize the dangers and the risks of our dependence on fossil fuels, and something better has come along in the form of renewable energy and the world is moving on…

There’s an exponential trajectory that we’re on right now. We’d like to see the growth even faster, but it is exponential. We’re moving away from a global fossil fuel-driven economy towards a new renewable energy economy, and I believe there’s nothing that can stop that transition.

Now, the problem of course is here in the United States, we have gone from a position of leadership, relative leadership on this issue under the past administration, to a political landscape where the United States is essentially the only holdout in the global community. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Accord, and if we were to do that, we would be the only country now in the world that’s not committed to Paris.

To some extent the only decision that we will be able to make here in the United States isn’t does the world move on, it’s do we get left behind in that transition. That’s the only thing that we can actually do.

What does our world look like 20 or 30 years in the future, if we are doing what needs to be done to seriously addressing climate change?

I think we can envision a future just in terms of the trends that we see under way, not necessarily just towards electric vehicles. At least in urban locations, we may see the elimination of personally-owned vehicles. We will have a more advanced transportation system, streets filled with Lyft and Uber and automated vehicles potentially.

There are studies that show that if we do that, if we move towards automated vehicles, that sort of system, then that shrinks the footprint of a city down tremendously, because it’s so much area. Take New York. You know how much surface area is used for parking of vehicles. If we can get rid of that, then the populations condense. There’s a smaller spatial footprint. That means less resource depletion…

We will have renewably-driven microgrids. There’s a real question as to whether we will have the sorts of continental-scale power grids that we have today. We may see more decentralized sources of electricity generation. We may all live off the grid, in the sense that we’re not part of a continental-scale grid.

Our food choices, I think we’re going to be healthier in our food choices. I think there’s a movement in that direction.

There are many possible futures, and one can certainly imagine a dystopian future where none of that happens, where we double down on the trends that are under way in the era of Trump, and one can envision a dystopian future like Mad Max, Soylent Green, The Road or Hunger Games. One can’t rule that out, but one can also imagine a utopian future that’s more like the one that I just laid out.

I don’t pretend to know. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, as Niels Bohr once famously said. It turns out it’s not Yogi Berra, it’s actually Niels Bohr, the physicist, who said that. The choice is ours to make, and I’m convinced of that.

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