Ben Stewart on Copenhagen

Between all the demands of life and my stilted attempts to keep up with the news, the climate talks at Copenhagen seemed to slip by with only minimal attention. I knew that the parties had failed to achieve any real progress, but my life kept on rolling by with only a little disappointment that once again the status quo had prevailed.  But when I read this email by Ben Stewart from Greenpeace, I felt angry. And I wondered why more of us are not angry, are not demanding that our leaders go back to the table and actually get something done.  With the hopes of driving a bit more anger, I’ve provided the text of the email here. Take a read…

“The most progressive U.S. President in a generation comes to the most important international meeting since the Second World War and delivers a speech so devoid of substance that he might as well have made it on speakerphone from a beach in Hawaii. His aides argue in private that he had no choice, such is the opposition on Capitol Hill to any action that might challenge the dominance of fossil fuels in American life. And so the nation which put a man on the moon can’t summon the collective will to protect men and women back here on Earth from the consequences of an economic model and lifestyle choice that has taken on the mantel of a religion.

Then a Chinese Premier who is in the process of converting his Communist nation to that new faith (high-carbon consumer capitalism) takes such umbrage at Obama’s speech that he refuses to meet – refuses, in fact, to do much of anything beyond sulking in his hotel room, as if this were a teenager’s house party instead of a final effort to stave off the breakdown of our biosphere.

Late in the evening the two men meet and cobble together a collection of paragraphs which they call a ‘deal’, although in reality it has all the meaning and authority of a bus ticket, not that it stops them affixing their signatures to it with great solemnity. Obama’s team then briefs the travelling White House press pack – most of whom, it seems, understand about as much about global climate politics as our own lobby hacks know about baseball – and before we know it the New York Times and CNN are declaring the birth of a ‘meaningful’ accord.

Meanwhile a friend on an African delegation emails to say that he and many fellow members of the G77 block of developing countries are streaming into the corridors after a long discussion about the perilous state of the talks, only to see Obama on the television announcing that the world has a deal. It’s the first they’ve heard about it, and a few minutes later, as they examine the text, they realise very quickly that it effectively condemns their continent to a century of devastating temperature rises.

By now the European leaders – who know this thing is a farce but have to present it to their publics as progress – have their aides phoning the directors of civil society organisations spinning that the talks have been a success. A success? This deal crosses so many of the red lines laid out by Europe before this summit started that there are scarlet skid marks across the floor of the Bella Centre, and one honest European diplomat tells us this is a ‘shitty shitty deal.’
Quite.

This deal is beyond bad. It contains no legally binding targets and no indication of when or how they’ll come about. There isn’t even a declaration that the world will aim to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees C – instead leaders merely ‘recognise the science’ behind that vital threshold, as if that were enough to prevent us crossing it. The only part of this deal anyone sane came close to welcoming was the $100bn global climate fund, but it’s now becoming apparent that even that’s largely made up of existing budgets, with no indication of how new money will be raised and distributed so poorer countries can go green and adapt to climate change.

Not all of our politicians deserve the opprobrium of a dismayed world. Our own Ed Miliband fought hard on no sleep for a better outcome, while President Lula of Brazil offered to financially assist other developing countries to cope with climate change and put a relatively bold carbon target on the table. But the EU didn’t move on its own commitment (one so weak we’d actually have to work hard not to meet it) while the United States offered nothing and China stood firm.

Before the talks began I was of the opinion that we would only know Copenhagen was a success when plans for new coal-fired power stations across the developed world were dropped. If the giant utilities saw in the outcome of Copenhagen an unmistakable sign that governments were now determined to act, and that coal plants this century would be too expensive to run under the regime agreed at this meeting, then this summit would have succeeded. Instead, as the details of the agreement emerged last night we received reports of Japanese opposition MPs popping champagne corks as they savoured the possible collapse of their new government’s carbon targets. It’s not just that we haven’t got to where we needed to be, we’ve actually ceded huge ground. There is nothing in this deal – nothing – that would persuade an energy utility that the era of dirty coal is over. And the implications for humanity of that simple fact are profound.

I know we greens are partial to hyperbole. We use language as a bludgeon to direct attention to the crisis we’re facing, and you’ll hear much more of it in the coming days and weeks. But really, it’s no exaggeration to describe the outcome of Copenhagen as an historic failure that will live in infamy. In a single day, in a single space, a spectacle was played out in front of a disbelieving audience of people who have read and understood the stark warnings of humanity’s greatest scientific minds – and what they witnessed was nothing less than the very worst instincts of our species articulated by the most powerful men who ever lived.

I will leave the last word to the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who would have given voice to the insanity of Copenhagen better than I ever could, and whose poem Requiem is perhaps appropriate at this moment: ‘When the last living thing, has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice floating up, perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, “It is done. People did not like it here”.

Beware the Seven Sharks!

The financial sector is a mess, but this is only a symptom of a larger set of problems. It’s been awhile since I posted anything, but the craziness of the past few days and months has motivated me to write. The walls are coming down around our ears and it’s nearly impossible for an average person of reasonable intelligence to make sense of it all. Even while financial companies are coming unglued, the golden parachutes are floating lazily overhead sending the heads of many financial institutions clear of the carnage created at their hands.

As reported this week by Bill Moyers, Rich Fuld the CEO of failed Leman Brothers earned $354 million in the last five years. The chairman of Merrill Lynch who has been on the job only nine months pocketed a $15 million signing bonus. His predecessor, Stan O’Neil, retired with a package of $161 million after an $8 billion loss in single quarter. Bear Sterns Chairman James Kane sold his stake in the company for $60 million after the company collapsed and was sold at bargain basement prices. And the heads of Fannie May and Freddie Mack are fighting to keep combined severance packages of $24 million.

But the problems we are facing are much larger than the greed of CEO’s on Wall Street, although many of them can probably be traced back to that same motivation that has driven so many short sighed individuals. Kevin Phillips reports in his book “Bad Money” that there are “Seven Sharks” in the economy that we must beware of. Oh and by-the-way, Phillips states that when the US is heading into a recession there are usually two or three big things we are worried about not seven. This gives you a sense of the scope of the problems we are facing.

The first shark is the financed economy. We have shifted from a nation that makes things to a nation that buys things. The financial markets represent 21% of our economy and the manufacturing sector has fallen to 12%. This gives the financial sector a huge amount of power over the economy resulting in the bailouts you’re seeing every day. And while this industry has created a huge amount of wealth for a small number of people, it has provided little value to the middle class even while siphoning off the money from pension funds and if the powers-that-be have their way, social security.

The second problem is our massive debt, both public and private. Government debt alone accounts for some $9.7 trillion. This breaks down to $31,723 for every man, woman and child who is a citizen of our country. Is your family ready to write a check to cover this?

Nearly $4 trillion of this debt has been added during the last two terms of George Bush. What have you gotten for your money? And it’s not all from the Iraq war, not even close. The war has added about $588B to the debt so far. I don’t know where all the other money has gone, but the lost revenues from the Bush tax cuts are likely a big piece of the puzzle. Why is this not being talked about during an election year?

And this is just the public debt. If we add up the debt from corporate America and consumer debt with credit cards and mortgages we have to tack on another $35 trillion. That totals nearly $45 trillion in total debt, or nearly 340% of national GDP. The only other time this number was so large, and it was smaller then, was in the 1920’s and 30’s. Dare I mention the word depression?

The third shark is the collapse of home prices, another thing that this period has in common with the Great Depression. And while my home in San Francisco has so far been isolated from this trend, most experts are predicting a 15-20% decline in home prices across the board. We met with our real estate broker yesterday to explore the possibility of refinancing to a lower interest rate and she explained to us how even people with credit scores of 800+ are often having difficulty getting loans. With all the troubles in the financial markets, banks aren’t willing to lend out any money even to strong buyers, this practice will take its toll on housing prices even in the best of markets.

As if these problems aren’t enough, let’look at the fourth problem and that’s global commodity inflation. Phillips points to oil and food specifically. With gas and milk in a fierce battle over which one can cost more per gallon, people across the globe are having difficulty providing the basics necessities to their families. Isn’t it convenient that we don’t include these necessities in how the government calculates inflation? How long can the government keep up the pretense that inflation is under control?

The fifth shark is, frankly, lousy economic statistics. Phillips warns that we shouldn’t believe either the inflation numbers, the GDP numbers or the unemployment numbers. While there’s a lot of complexity and technical terminology involved here, the long and the short is that over the last thirty to forty years, we’ve seen a kind of Pollyanna Creep. The administrations of both parties have been unwilling to give the truth to the American public. They want the figures to be friendlier, not to get them in trouble. And we’re at a point now where the figures lie enough that foreign investors are starting not to believe them and, probably, with considerable justice. We are at a point that we don’t even understand the trouble we are really in.

The next shark in the tank is peak oil and its effects on the economy. While we’ve seen the prices come down recently, this respite with be short lived. Goldman Sachs is predicting $150-$200 barrel oil this year as the winter heating demand kicks in. How are people on fixed incomes going to keep the heat on and still feed their families? Yet another reason for facing down our dependence on fossil fuels and developing clean renewable solutions that are developed by us and deployed here at home.

But demand is not the only driver, Oil since the Kissinger days has been bought and sold only in US dollars, and the OPEC countries have been investing their petrodollars in US Treasury debt. So historically, our currency has been buoyed by the trade in oil, but those days are ending. We spend $400 billion annually to import the oil we need, and while the conventional wisdom dictates that we got into Iraq to control the flow of oil the result has been a 500% price increase in the last five years. We’ve lost control, and the dollar is on the ropes, which is the seventh shark in the tank.

It’s been a long time since so many difficult problems been arrayed against the American economy. Match this with daily reports about the collapse of the financial markets and we have a very difficult problem on our hands. I’m worried.

My concern is that we get sidetracked by the symptoms and don’t deal with the problems at their root cause. Bailing out the financial markets is a good example. My guess is we will myopically focus on this single issue and lose sight of the larger systemic problems we are facing.

And I just don’t see the necessary leadership in either of our presidential candidates. Will either one have the insight to recognize these problems, speak the truth about them to the American people, and to take on all the many entrenched industries, power brokers, and established financial interests that will most definitely resist change with all the power and money they can muster. I doubt it. These interests are already well entrenched with both campaigns as is evidenced by a recent article by Jackie Calmes in the New York Times.

There has never been a period in anybody’s memory, except very old people who remember the late ’20s and ’30s, where you had so many problems converging. And that’s what makes it frightening. And every time the administration and candidates say that the fundamentals of the economy are sound, that it looks like it’s under control or its half-over, you start to get evidence that, no, it’s not under control, and maybe it’s not even close to being over.

I believe that the people have to get angry and demand that our leaders deal with the fundamental issues at hand. Only by rising up and demanding action can we face down these problems at our door. Only by dealing with these issues at their fundamental roots, can we form a truly sustainable economy and nation. Without a strong fundamental economic underpinning, dealing with global problems like climate change will prove very difficult if not impossible.

Lifestyle Change: Recycled Tissue Products

A few months ago I made a commitment to myself to only buy 100% recycled toilet tissue, facial tissues, and paper towels. With the exception of one box of Kleenex purchased in haste at Walgreens when I had a bad cold, I’ve made good on that promise.

For the most part it’s meant remembering to buy tissue products when I’m at Whole Foods where they sell the recycled stuff rather then just stepping out to the corner store where all I can get is virgin fiber tissue. It’s not been a difficult transition, and I saw the other day that even the corner store is now selling 100% recycled paper towels.

The brand I’ve been buying the most is Seventh Generation, and I’ve found their products to be a good replacement. I never really knew how much virgin fiber was used in tissue products, but all the major brands until I heard an NRDC representative speak at a conference. Kleenex, Puffs, Charmin, Cottonelle, Bounty, Scott, and Viva all use virgin fiber in their tissue products – I’m avoiding these brands at all costs.

This may sound crazy, but if every household in the U.S. replaced just one box of 85 sheet virgin fiber facial tissues with 100% recycled ones, we could save:

  • 87,700 trees
  • 226,500 cubic feet of landfill space, equal to 330 full garbage trucks
  • 31 million gallons of water, a year’s supply for 240 families
  • And avoid 5,300 pounds of pollution

The numbers are even higher for one roll of toilet paper (500 sheet roll-423,900 trees) or paper towels (70 sheet roll-544,000 trees), imagine how many trees would be saved if everyone began to shop for recycled tissue products.

What are the other trade-offs? The one that’s most important to talk about is softness. The recycled stuff just isn’t as soft as the virgin fiber – why this is I’m not sure, but the big paper companies will tell you this is the number one criteria you and I have for our tissue products and why they do not include any recycled content.

My feeling is that there is a difference between “as soft as possible” and “soft enough.” After several months of use of 100% recycled tissue products, I’m here to report that I’ve suffered no lasting ill effects due to a lack of softness. Even my girlfriend who complained for the first five or six rolls is now on board and making sure we get the recycled stuff.

For more information on what brands to look for as well as more facts on the impact of tissue products, please check out the NRDC web site. They also have this handy wallet card you can print out and take shopping with you.

Supreme Court to Hear Global Warming Case

This is going to be an interesting story to follow. On Monday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will determine if the government must regulate green house gas emissions under the clean air act.

The case was brought by Friends of the Earth US, numerous state (including my home state of California) and city authorities and NGOs. It’s just one of the latest tactics by those who care to chip away at all of the environmental protections that have been undone by the current administration.

The fact that the court is hearing the case at all is good news, because the lower appeals court sided with the current administration saying that the EPA should not regulate green house gasses. So there is something about the decision that they are not happy with.

The key questions being considered by the top court are as follows: First, does the EPA have the authority under the law to limit greenhouse gases? And if it has the authority to regulate, is it obligated to do so in light of growing evidence of the effect of greenhouse gases on climate?

The case is not expected to be argued to sometime this fall with a decision arriving in the spring. Stay tuned! For more check out the SF Chronicle Top court gets case on global warming California’s key law on auto emissions at stake in ruling.

Debate Rages over Gore’s Movie – Science is OK

You would think I’ve had enough of this global warming debate that is raging right now, but I just can’t get enough. On Tuesday the AP put out a story entitled “Scientists OK Gore’s Movie for Accuracy” that describes the results of a poll they took of over a hundred climate scientist including skeptics. Only 19 scientists polled actually saw the movie, but those gave it good marks.

Then today we see the Senate Committee on Environment & Public works issuing a press release entitled “AP Incorrectly Claims Scientists Praise Gore’s Movie” in which they blast the AP and go on to quote the usual skeptics who are on the payroll of large corporations trying to cast doubt on the science behind global warming.

This is getting out of hand. Why is the Senate wasting my tax dollars doing movie reviews? It’s important to note that is was a majority (republicans) press release by the committee – the minority (democrats) were busy introducing green building legislation while this was going on. I’m beginning to think this back and forth ping pong match has little to do with Global Warming and everything to do with politics.

Although with Exxon-Mobile footing the bill to the tune of $8 Million and other big-oil companies chipping in – I guess it’s possible to buy off a senator or two. James Inhofe is the majority leader of the committee that issued the press release, and it’s no surprise that the Oil and Gas industry is his top contributor.

It’s crazy to see them still bringing up this “hockey stick” argument again because this has long been laid to rest scientifically. (not necessarily politically) Even a National Academies Synthesis Report reafirms that the current warming trend is caused by human activity. The Real Climate web site summarizes it nicely.

“Despite the attempts of some commentators to attempt conflate the evidence for the existence of human influences on climate with the validity of a single reconstruction (e.g. that of Mann et al) it is quite clear that the evidence for anthropogenic impacts on climate is quite strong irrespective of whether or not the original “hockey stick” is correct.”

Even so, Inhofe has tried to co-opt this report and twist it to his own means and ends. But you can separate the Myth from Fact on the Real Climate web site. Inhofe is really starting to irk me.

Mislead and Obscure

A friend sent me a link to the article “The Least Convenient Truth” posted on Whiskey and Gunpowder by Jim Amrhein. It’s interesting to read his take on global warming and his misguided proposal about what to do about it. If it’s not already clear, let me state for the record that I definitely disagree with him.

Mr. Amrhein is one of many people drawing political lines around the issue of global warming – lining the left up on one side of the field and the right on the other. I guess it’s inevitable that this happen with Al Gore as the messenger, and the country so deeply divided across political lines. In any case it’s important to remember that whatever the long term effects of global warming end up being, they will affect all of us, our children, and our children’s children with little respect for political affiliation.

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Coal Power Plants = Mercury Poisoning for Kids

If you’re like me you’ve caught some of warnings in the news about being careful not to eat too much fish because of high mercury levels. If you track them back, you would find that in March 2004, the FDA and EPA issued a joint warning to pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers against eating certain types of mercury-laden fish.

These reports tell us that one out of every six American women have so much mercury in their wombs that their children are at risk for a grim inventory of diseases, autism, blindness, mental retardation, heart, liver, kidney disease. That means that 630,000 infants are born in the U.S. every year with unsafe mercury levels. Not surprising when 48 states have issued fish consumption warnings because of unsafe levels of mercury in their waters, and the remaining states don’t have warnings, don’t because they haven’t coughed up the money to test the fish.

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Armed Madhouse

Greg Palast the BBC’s top investigative reporter has just published a new book entitled “Armed Madhouse: Who’s Afraid of Osama Wolf? China Floats, Bush Sinks, The Scheme to Steal ’08, No Child’s Behind Left, & Other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War.”

The book links a broad array of information ranging from foreign policy, campaign shenanigans, and class warfare in a disturbing vision of what is currently happening here in the United States. His critics brand him as a conspiracy theorists, he simply calls himself a reporter.

I heard him interviewed on the Forum radio show and found his insights and the evidence that support them very intriguing. You should take a listen and decide for yourself. I’ve bought the book and will post more once I’ve read it.

Daryl Hannah in a Tree

Check out Daryl Hannah’s video blog to see why she has been tree sitting for the last two weeks in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. I definitely appreciate what she is doing to save this small urban farm in LA that currently feeds 350 low-income families. It’s a unique concept that is being threatened by urban developers. They are trying to create awareness and raise money so that the farmers can buy the land and continue to farm it. Please check it out at dhlovelife.com.

Change Doesn’t Come Easy

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth offers the most articulate and disconcerting depiction of climate change I’ve ever seen, but I doubt it will make a difference.

Americans are busy with work, families, television, shopping and hobbies. Our culture encourages us to have a full life, yet we long for more free time. In contrast, consider the negative connotations associated with the idea of an empty life. If we have nothing, we are nothing. Thoughts and contemplation are not valued equally with activities and possessions. As a result we consume, schedule, and plan filling every minute of every day until there is no time left for anything else.

Making the issue of climate change relevant and raising it above other competing messages is a difficult task. It’s good to see that 100,000 people have pledged to see An Inconvenient Truth on opening weekend. But compare that to the 30 million people who watched the finale of American Idol airing the same day and we begin to see a different picture. It’s understandable in a way. Which story would you rather see? One person’s dream fulfilled today, or a hundred million dreams destroyed in the future?

Continue reading “Change Doesn’t Come Easy”