Tag Archives: climate change

The Manchin Dilemma

There is ample reason to detest Joe Manchin: in a closely divided Senate, he has single-handedly defeated much of Biden’s agenda–including the President’s efforts to combat climate change and voter suppression.

Manchin has been a critical and  mostly reliable vote for Biden’s judicial nominations, but a stubborn obstacle to passage of several measures that are absolutely central to the Democratic agenda, and popular with voters.

What makes his obdurate opposition worse is that it clearly isn’t motivated by principle. If his consistent obstruction was the result of philosophical conviction–part and parcel of a considered political ideology, no matter how wrongheaded–it would still be incredibly frustrating, but the anger would be different.

What infuriates policy wonks and party strategists alike is recognition that , with Manchin, it’s all about the money. (He evidently raised his children with the same self-serving values; his daughter’s fingerprints were all over the Epi-Pen scandal.)

As the New York Times reported,  the Grant Town power plant is

the link between the coal industry and the personal finances of Joe Manchin III, the Democrat who rose through state politics to reach the United States Senate, where, through the vagaries of electoral politics, he is now the single most important figure shaping the nation’s energy and climate policy.

Mr. Manchin’s ties to the Grant Town plant date to 1987, when he had just been elected to the West Virginia Senate, a part-time job with base pay of $6,500. His family’s carpet business was struggling.

When developers approached Manchin, he helped them clear what the Times calls “bureaucratic hurdles.” He then went into business with them.

Mr. Manchin supplied a type of low-grade coal mixed with rock and clay known as “gob” that is typically cast aside as junk by mining companies but can be burned to produce electricity. In addition, he arranged to receive a slice of the revenue from electricity generated by the plant — electric bills paid by his constituents.

The deal inked decades ago has made Mr. Manchin, now 74, a rich man.

If the story stopped there, it would be troubling enough, but it doesn’t.

While the fact that Mr. Manchin owns a coal business is well-known, an examination by The New York Times offers a more detailed portrait of the degree to which Mr. Manchin’s business has been interwoven with his official actions. He created his business while a state lawmaker in anticipation of the Grant Town plant, which has been the sole customer for his gob for the past 20 years, according to federal data. At key moments over the years, Mr. Manchin used his political influence to benefit the plant. He urged a state official to approve its air pollution permit, pushed fellow lawmakers to support a tax credit that helped the plant, and worked behind the scenes to facilitate a rate increase that drove up revenue for the plant — and electricity costs for West Virginians.

Records show that several energy companies have held ownership stakes in the power plant, major corporations with interests far beyond West Virginia. At various points, those corporations have sought to influence the Senate, including legislation before committees on which Mr. Manchin sat, creating what ethics experts describe as a conflict of interest.

Now that he has found himself in a position to cast pivotal votes in an evenly divided Senate, Manchin hasn’t hesitated to block legislation intended to speed the country’s transition to clean energy.  When the war in Ukraine led to calls to boycott Russian gas,  Manchin joined Republicans who are agitating for production of more American gas and oil to fill the gap.

Manchin’s protection of the Grant Town plant can’t be defended by claiming it helps West Virginia residents, either. As the Times article notes, while the power plant continues to pay Manchin handsome dividends, “it has harmed West Virginians economically, costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in excess electricity fees. That’s because gob is a less efficient power source than regular coal.”

The bulk of Manchin’s income since entering the Senate has come from one company: Enersystems, Inc., which he founded with his brother Roch Manchin in 1988, the year before the Grant Town plant got a permit from the state of West Virginia.

Enersystems Inc. is now run by Mr. Manchin’s son, Joseph Manchin IV. In 2020, it paid Mr. Manchin $491,949, according to his filings, almost three times his salary as a United States senator. From 2010 through 2020, Mr. Manchin reported a total of $5.6 million from the company.

Manchin will remain in a position to defy science and undermine his President and his party so long as the Senate remains equally divided. Meanwhile, the GOP is pulling out all the stops to keep Democrats from voting and their votes from being accurately counted.

 

Progress!

In the wake of the most recent, terrifying climate report, I think it’s important to look at the positive side of the policy ledger.

Although there is plenty of data on the “dark side” (what I sometimes think of as the OMG side), there is also a lot of evidence of progress. (At least what I consider progress; the “take me back to the 1950s” folks will undoubtedly disagree.)

At the beginning of this year, The Guardian ran a story about progress against climate change during the preceding year. Granted, in 2021 we saw a number of climate disasters and what the article called “a grim prognosis from the world’s top experts.” Granted, too, some of the harm is probably irreversible. But as the article documented, a movement to fight climate change is gaining momentum.

As the UN secretary general declared in August, the urgent need to curb carbon emissions marks a “death knell” for the fossil fuel industry.

For decades, Americans were told that standing up to powerful oil and gas companies wasn’t possible. But the reality is that everyday people are making a difference in the fight to cut emissions. These grassroots victories also show that the people who have been made most vulnerable by fossil fuel extraction, including Black and brown communities, already have solutions on hand.

What were some of those victories?

After a nine-year, highly-contentious organizing battle, students with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard succeeded in pushing the university to divest all of its $42bn endowment – the largest in the world – from fossil fuel-related companies.

That victory wasn’t limited to Harvard. Both Boston University and Wellesley University also divested from fossil fuels in 2021.  With respect to Wellesley, divestment was the product of “a decade of student activism from campus groups called Renew Wellesley and Fossil Free Wellesley.” The victory also wasn’t limited to universities: Boston’s mayor signed an ordinance in late November that will require phasing out the city’s investments in fossil fuel, tobacco, and prison industries by 2025.

It’s worth noting that all of these decisions were the result of activism by the young people who are often inaccurately excoriated for their lack of civic engagement.

The Guardian also enumerated several community victories.

In Memphis, Tennessee, a majority-Black neighborhood was able to stop construction of a 49-mile underground pipeline that was slated for approval in mid-2021.

In the north-east, the Delaware River Basin Commission secured a moratorium on new drilling permits. The historic fracking ban covers some 14,000 square miles of the river’s basin.

The board of supervisors for Los Angeles county voted–unanimously–  to scrap new and existing oil and gas drilling projects.

The new rule is slated to impact Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country, which is surrounded by many majority-Black neighborhoods. In April, a pipeline in the oil field spilled 1,600 gallons of oil just a few hundred feet from the nearest playground.

It is heartening to see these victories by minority neighborhoods and young activists, but it is even more significant to consider what the Guardian calls “shareholder revolts.” A primary example occurred when hedge fund activists won election to three of the 12 voting seats on Exxon’s board

The activist hedge fund Engine No 1 staged an upset victory in electing three new directors to Exxon’s board after disgruntled investors hoped to push the oil giant toward a greener future.

Meanwhile, Chevron faced opposition from the Dutch activist campaign group Follow This, which led a shareholder revolt in voting to force the company to implement tougher emissions targets.

Why it matters: Mark van Baal, who founded Follow This, said the shareholder rebellions mark a “paradigm shift” for investors and a “victory in the fight against climate change”.

There were other important victories:Indigenous groups negotiated the return of stolen lands in Maine and Minnesota to halt destruction to the environment; a Dutch court ruled that Shell has to reduce its emissions by nearly half within this decade; and 16 of those young people who are routinely dismissed were victorious plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Montana contributed to the climate crisis and violated their constitutional rights. The judgment requires the state to implement a plan to reduce emissions.

Addressing climate change–and many of the other challenges we face– requires that we change the culture–and culture change is a slow and inevitably incremental process. The term “culture wars” is apt–those who recognize the imperatives of our modern, globalized world are facing the hysterical resistance of  people who want to go “back,” or at the very  least, cling to the cultural status quo. As a friend once put it, changing the culture is like turning a tanker mid-ocean–neither quick nor nimble.

It’s easy to focus on the barriers to progress, but it’s important to recognize the progress, too.

 

Could This Work?

A couple of weeks ago, a commenter posted a YouTube video from February of 2019, in which actress Jennifer Lawrence introduced viewers to a nonprofit organization called Represent Us.

You really need to click through and watch it, because the summary I’m about to provide is incomplete, and doesn’t do it justice.

The basic premise upon which the organization proposes to function is that mending American democracy must come at the state level–that only when we end corruption in a sufficient number of states will we be able to move the federal government and federal courts in a positive direction.

The video was made in 2019, and I haven’t heard anything about this effort in the intervening years, but according to its website, the organization remains active. It’s harder to tell whether–like so many other efforts to salvage the American Idea–it has failed to energize enough people to get the job done.

I had two competing reactions to that video.

The first was triggered by the imminent victory of the pro-fetal-life movement, which will overturn (explicitly or by eviscerating) Roe v. Wade. That will return the issue to the states, and in a “best-case” scenario, will activate a significant percentage of the 60% of Americans who want Roe retained and send an impressive number of them to their respective statehouses. If that happens–if voters in large-enough numbers are sufficiently enraged and motivated–the state-level reforms identified in the video are much more likely to occur.

That scenario is the optimistic one. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my optimism is at death’s door.

Over the last few months, I’ve had multiple discussions–with my children, with friends, with former colleagues–about the state of American and global governance. Attitudes ranged from deep depression to resigned acceptance, but virtually everyone I’ve talked to believes that–as one person put it– America is over. Democracy has had its day.  Autocrats  and their fearful and tribal supporters are on the ascent worldwide.

Of course, none of this may matter in the end, thanks to our unwillingness to confront climate change when we could have moderated its effects.

It’s hard to argue with this gloomy analysis.

When I look at the collection of deranged and incompetent people serving in Congress, when I think of the millions of people who cast their 2020 vote for a man whose terrifying inadequacies and mental illness were impossible to miss, and the large numbers who still believe in the Big Lie and QAnon…when I think of the state-level lawmakers focused on protecting the “rights” of nutcases with guns but who are unwilling to protect citizens from a pandemic (not to mention the culture warriors willing to die to “own the libs”) …It’s really hard to envision a happy ending.

If any of you can talk me off the edge, I’m listening…..

Preparing For Climate Change

A week or so ago, I suggested that it was time–past time, actually–to rethink federalism. Not to dispense with it, but to reconsider which governance tasks should be left to state and local governments and which must be tackled at the federal (or even global) level.

The problem with nationalizing too many issues is that sending authority to Washington effectively demoralizes local activists working on those issues. If the only people who have authority to do X or Y are far removed, the result is likely to be those feelings of powerlessness I’ve been writing about.

The problems with keeping too much local control over issues more properly addressed at the federal level include lack of impact and incentives for all sorts of mischief–see vote suppression..

There are also an increasing number of issues where we need all hands on deck. When it comes to overwhelming problems like climate change, even enlightened national/global efforts will require equally enlightened local measures. And individuals really can affect local decision-making.

A recent report from Inverse highlighted the resilience efforts of five cities, providing an “instruction manual” of sorts–a delineation of local measures that can make a positive difference. As the article noted, despite the grim evidence of impending climate catastrophe,

 there are a few cities whose leaders have taken proactive measures to adapt their cities and protect their residents from the climate crisis. These cities serve as models for how we can modify and strengthen our built environments, reduce human suffering, and protect urban centers from the effects of a warming planet.

Fukuoka, Japan has been adding green spaces, including parks, community gardens and green roofs. It decides where to site those spaces based on surveys of windflow through the city and other measurements to determine the most effective places to plant trees and maintain parks. These green spaces reduce extreme heat and help absorb water runoff during periods of intense rainfall.

Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is growing plants along railways to absorb flooding and reduce heat, and developing ‘water squares’ that can absorb rainfall and ease the stress on sewage systems.

Ahmedabad, India (a city of 7.2 million that I’d never heard of) was included for its “cool roofs” initiative.

This entails using eco-friendly building materials — such as coconut husk and paper waste — and cheap lime-white paint to deflect sunlight away from buildings. This keeps residents cool. According to Madan, cool roofs reduce indoor temperatures lower by 3.6 – 9° F.

Copenhagen, Denmark has pledged to become the first city to go fully carbon neutral by 2025. It has made substantial progress toward that goal: 49 percent of all trips in the city are by bike, and 98 percent of the city’s heating comes from waste heat from electricity production. Seawater cooling measures have removed an estimated 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the city’s atmosphere.

Here in the United States, Chicago, believe it or not, was one of the five cities cited in the report. Chicago made the list because is was an early adopter of green stormwater infrastructure, and a developer of urban vertical farms.

In 2014, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city developed a $50-million, five-year green stormwater infrastructure plan with the aim of reducing basement flooding and water pollution and improving environmental quality and climate resilience.

Some of the key features of Chicago’s plan included capturing, storing, and filtering water through green techniques rather than channeling it into storm drains; investing in permeable, or more water-absorbent, pavement to reduce flooding; compiling rainfall frequency data to better predict flooding; and offering resources on green design to maintain water runoff and reduce flooding through rain gardens and natural landscaping.

The city also plays host to one of the world’s largest urban vertical farms, which grows vegetables in a 90,000-square-foot facility. Chicago made this urban vertical farm possible by changing its zoning laws.

The linked article not only highlights these cities, but includes suggestions for how other urban centers might emulate them.

We are finally, if belatedly, recognizing the threat posed by climate change, and large numbers of citizens–especially but not exclusively young ones–are coming together to combat it. Working at the local level on measures targeted to the specific threats faced by those localities can not only help ameliorate the effects of an over-heating world, it can give citizens an opportunity to work together to effect important changes.

Ultimately, the ability to actually do something–something that clearly matters– to work with our neighbors to ameliorate a threat we all face (and that, increasingly, we all recognize) can help us overcome the extreme polarization that has paralyzed our government.

After all, there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together.

 

Time To Rethink Federalism

I used to begin my classes in Law and Public Policy with what I call the “constitutional architecture,” the structures of U.S. government. As I would tell students, the Founders had divided authority both vertically and horizontally–through Separation of Powers and Federalism.

Most graduate students were familiar with those terms. Undergraduates generally knew that we had three branches of government, although the term “Separation of Powers” was less familiar to them, but very few could define federalism–the division of jurisdiction between the federal government and the states. Both mechanisms were intended to provide “checks and balances”–to limit the power of the central government.

The world we inhabit is very different from the world that confronted the nation’s founders. We still need federalism–but it is past time to review and adjust the current divisions of authority among local, state and federal levels of government.

A number of those divisions are still useful and should be retained. State and federal governments have no reason to assume responsibility for handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, to choose a couple of examples, but other current assignments of responsibility no longer make much sense. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, it’s an invitation to misconduct–an invitation that  state-level lawmakers eagerly accept.

In a number of areas, there are awkward pretenses of state “sovereignty” where contemporary realities mean none really exists. (Think of federal highway dollars that are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits. Or the similar “strings” attached to federal funding.) 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are an increasing number of issues, including but certainly not limited to the threats posed by climate change and the pandemic, that must be addressed globally.

Then there are the increasing tensions created by legislators in red states who want to be free of the constraints imposed by the Bill of Rights.

The GOP has never gotten over its original resentment over incorporation–the odd word for the doctrine that nationalized the Bill of Rights. That process was premised on the 14th Amendment principle that fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights should be a “floor”–that a citizen in Alabama should enjoy the same basic rights as a citizen of New York. States are able to enlarge on those rights, but–at least until Donald Trump managed to pack the Supreme Court with rightwing ideologues–they have been forbidden to retract them.

There are multiple reasons to revisit the division of authority between the nation’s state and federal governments. I realize that any effort to do so would be met with alarm–much as we’ve seen with calls to eliminate the filibuster that currently prevents the Senate from actually governing. We humans are creatures of habit: we become accustomed to the world we have grown up with, and assume that the structures of whatever society we inhabit are just “the way it is.” (A great example: the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman.” That’s demonstrably false. Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage. But it was true within the confines of their limited experience.)

A recent guest essay in The New York Times pointed to the undeniably negative effect of our current federalism on public health.

Tennessee and North Carolina are both digging out from catastrophic flooding, while parts of Louisiana were flattened by Hurricane Ida, and most of New Orleans remains without electricity. Ida’s remnants also brought even more rain to areas of the South and beyond that were already dangerously waterlogged.

In the Utter Failure to Understand What “Pro-Life” Really Means tournament, normally a very close battle in the red states, Texas is currently uncontested: Its leaders just made it easier to carry a gun and harder to end an unwanted pregnancy in the same week.

Finally, in the Colossally Botched Medical Emergency competition, it’s neck and neck across the region as Republican governors double down on efforts to block mask and vaccine mandates, along with every other pandemic-mitigation attempt made by people who are not allergic to science.

The author points out that every single one of these disasters is a public health emergency that red state governors have worsened “in every way imaginable.” (A recent NBC poll confirmed that politics has played havoc with public health. It found 91 percent of Biden voters vaccinated opposed to 50 percent of Trump voters.)

 Citizens’ health and safety– and the extent of their civil rights–  should not depend upon their state of residence.