Kavanough clinches right-wing majority on Supreme Court, another step toward Republican domination

Kavanaugh clinches right-wing majority on the Supreme Court,
representing another step toward Republican domination
Bob Sheak, October 9, 2018

The dismaying significance of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation as an Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday, October 6, 2018, is that it further consolidates right-wing control of the court. But that’s only part of a larger story. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is another step in the unfolding eclipse of democracy, as all branches of the federal government have been already falling under the increasing influence of the Republican Party and their allies.

The Republican Party already controls the White House, both houses of the U.S. Congress, and the majority of state legislatures. It enjoys the massive support of the Koch Brothers network of billionaires, most corporations. industry trade associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Trump has rallied tens of millions of most white Americans, especially white men, to his banner and they seem unperturbed by, for example, his unending lies, his disrespectful behavior and statements about women, his apparent gross misrepresentations about his personal wealth, his tax cuts favoring big corporations and the wealthy, his efforts to eliminate Obama’s Affordable Care Act with no concern about the access and affordability of health care for millions of vulnerable Americans. The Republican Party has in some states limited political opposition by using gerrymandering, accompanied by voter suppression laws, and, in some cases, have made it difficult for citizens to vote by reducing the number of voting places, limiting early voting opportunities, and keeping those with felony records (after they have served their time) off the voting rolls altogether. On this topic, see Zachary Roth’s book, The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy, or Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, or Anthony J. McGann, et.al., Gerrymandering in America: The House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the Future of Popular Sovereignty.

To top it off, they have the Supreme Court in their pocket – and for generations to come.

Agencies in the executive branch being reshaped in favor of right-wing interests

Before turning to the principal focus of this essay on the Supreme Court, there is another aspect of the Republican/Right-wing domination of the political system that is worth a few thoughts about the federal bureaucracy. Trump is using the presidency to appoint people to his cabinet and to authoritative positions in the agencies that make up the executive branch of the federal government who have no prior experience, no interest in what the agencies have and are accomplishing, and whose mandates are to reduce the budgets, programs, and personnel (e.g., by not filling vacancies) in these agencies.

In his new book, The Fifth Risk, award-winning journalist Michael Lewis documents that Trump and his appointees typically have no idea of and little interest in learning what the agencies do – or how their work is often of vital to the public interest. Their mission is ideological, that is, to cut budgets that do not serve their corporate and wealthy supporters and to do so without any interest in or understanding of the consequences. There has been a lot of media coverage of how the EPA has been affected as Scott Pruitt worked to eliminate environmental regulations and stifle any agency work related to climate change. But, as Lewis cogently argues, the problem is not limited to this agency. He examines in-depth some of the innovative and important programs going on in the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which, among other things, oversees the National Weather Service.

Take the Department of Energy, which has a yearly budget of $30 billion and about 110,000 employees, with responsibilities for maintaining and guarding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, providing inspectors internationally to ensure that nuclear-bomb materials do not get into the hands of terrorists, cleaning up the world historic mess left behind by the U.S. manufacture of 70,000 nuclear bombs in places like the Hanford site in the state of Washington, and developing programs to shape “Americans’ access to, and use of, energy.” Trump and his appointees have no interest in learning from the thousands of experienced and skilled people who work for this agency. If anything, they want less regulation of and more government support for fossil fuels, less support for renewables, more government money spent on “modern” nuclear weapons, a policy of selective intimidation toward countries like Iran and North Korea who have or could have nuclear weapons, and scorn of international efforts to deal with the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Here’s some revealing examples from Lewis’ book of just how diabolical the process is with respect to the Department of Energy. Two weeks after the election, Trump created a “Landing Team…. led by, and mostly consisted of, a man named Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, which, upon inspection, proved to be a Washington, DC, propaganda machine funded with millions of dollars from ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.” Lewis continues: “Pyle himself had served as a Koch Industries lobbyist and ran a business on the side writing editorials attacking the DOE’s attempt to reduce the dependence of the American Economy on carbon” (p. 38). Then Pyle was replaced by “a handful of young ideologues who called themselves “the Beachhead Team,” who mainly ran around insulting people and who believed “that everything that government does is stupid and band and the people in it are stupid and bad.” Finally, former Texas governor Rick Petty was picked and confirmed by the Senate to head the DOE. Lewis notes that at his confirmation hearing, “Perry confessed that when he called for its elimination [during his earlier presidential bid] he hadn’t actually known what the Department of Energy did – and he now regretted having said that it didn’t do anything worth doing” (p. 47). But Lewis wondered whether he knew anything now. Former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told Lewis that Perry has spent only “minutes, not hours” with him to learn about the agency. A DOE staffer told Lewis in June 2017: “He’s never been briefed on a program – not a single one, which to me is shocking” (p. 48)

—————————-

Before Kavanaugh – already a right-wing Supreme Court

The partisan thrust of the Supreme Court existed prior to Kavanaugh’s nomination and conformation. The editorial board of The New York Times offers a concise overview of how the Supreme Court was already a partisan, right-wing court even before Kavanaugh was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The title of the editorial: “Brett Kavanaugh Will Fit Right In at the Pro-Corporate Roberts Court” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/22/opinion/brett/kavanaugh-supreme-court.html).

They make their main point in these words: “Under Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. the court has given big business a leg up on workers, unions, consumers and the environment — and will do so even more aggressively if the Senate confirms Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s choice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.” Well, as we now all know, Kavanaugh has been confirmed.

However, the Court was already a right-wing dominated, partisan court for some time. Indeed, this is undisputedly the case under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. since 2005. Indeed, this was not always the case. There were a series of court decisions prior to Roberts ascendance to the court, mostly going back before Reagan, that supported the rights of workers, women, minorities, and the need for laws that protect the environment. There have been few such decisions during the Roberts’ court. Given the composition of the Supreme Court, such laws will most likely be further weakened or terminated in coming years.

The board makes it clear that the right-wing justices on the Roberts’ Court have done what they can to further strengthen corporate power and that the addition of Kavanaugh will cement this trend.

The evidence.

“Corporations won the power to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns in the 2010 Citizens United decision. The owners of businesses have earned the right to cite their personal religious beliefs to deprive workers of reproductive health care. At the same time, the justices have made it harder for employees and customers to sue big businesses by allowing corporations to require mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts people are forced to sign if they want jobs or want to buy goods and services. The court has also made it easier for polluters to get away with poisoning the air and water.”
The NYT editors point out that many such corporate-supportive decisions had been decided by “five conservative justices” who have “shown no restraint in rejecting judicial precedent and in substituting their own judgment for that of lawmakers.” Most recently, “public sector unions with contracts covering nearly seven million workers” were struck a severe blow to their continuing existence” in a 5-to-4 decision made in June 2018.The decision struck down “a unanimous 40-year-old decision that state governments and unions had long relied on.” The case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees “held that government workers covered by union contracts do not have to pay fees for collective bargaining expenses if they are not members.” While not directly involving businesses, the decision “will hurt all workers because benefits won by unions often establish benchmarks that help improve wages and working conditions even at companies without unions.”
————————
Author Bill Blum offers some additional examples of the corporate bias of the Roberts’ court.

“…the Roberts court not only opened the floodgates to corporate money in elections [via the Citizens’ United Decision] but time and again has acted to shield companies from liability for defective and dangerous products (Reigel v. Medtronic Inc.), and reduce the financial risks of environmental pollution (Baker v. Exxon). The court has also made it increasingly difficult for women and exploited minorities to bring anti-discrimination class actions (Ledbetter v. Goodyear), and undermined the power of organized labor (Know v. SEIU).”

Blum also refers to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota Law Review that “found that the Roberts court’s five conservatives rank among the nine most pro-business justices in the past 65 years.”
———————–
“The Roberts Court Protects the Powerful for a New Gilded Age”

This the title of an article by law professor Jedediah Purdy that also appeared in The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/28/opinion/sunday/supreme-court-kennedy-roberts.html).

Purdy sees an increasingly conservative pattern in Supreme Court decisions in recent months and years that undermined unions, supported Texas’ gerrymandering, opened the gates to unlimited corporate campaign spending, reduced the reproductive rights of women, reduced access to Medicaid, reversed recent marriage-equality decisions, supported Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, and made it more difficult for workers to bring changers against employers for wage theft.

Take the example of unions. Purdy writes, “Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has consistently issued bold, partisan decisions that have been terrible for working people. Like the NYT editors, Purdy also refers to Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, decided on Wednesday [June 27, 2018].” In this decision, “the Supreme Court ruled “that public-sector unions may not charge nonmembers ‘agency fees’ for contract negotiation and other services that affect all employees in the same workplace, members and nonmembers alike.” Justice Elena Kagan dissented in this decision, arguing that it “allowed employees to opt out of paying union fees while getting the benefits of representation risks starving the unions of resources, leading to ineffectiveness and collapse. Moreover, knifing unions at a time of intense controversy over state austerity budgets and widespread teachers’ strikes suggests, as Justice Kagan wrote, that the court ‘wanted to pick the winning side’ in these fights by ‘weaponizing the First Amendment [free speech], in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.’”

Here are other examples from Purdy’s article.

Regarding “wage theft,” Purdy refers to a court ruling in Epic Systems v. Lewis in which “employees claiming wage theft – their employers trimmed paychecks by undercounting hours – could be forced to bring their complaints individually to private arbitrators hired by their employers, rather than bring a class action in court.”

Regarding mandatory arbitration as a way of stifling labor – “In 1992, as the Supreme Court began to allow arbitration to enter employment relationships, only 2 percent of non-unionized companies-imposed arbitration on their workers. Today the figure is 54 percent and sure to grow because it conveniently ties the hands of disgruntled or mistreated workers. These cases have replaced a majority of employees’ legal protections with a system of private agreements that replicates the unequal bargaining power of workers and companies. Arbitration agreements will become only more important as “gig” employers such as Uber devise their contracts to get around labor law.”

Regarding health care: “In 2012, in its first ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the court hamstrung Congress’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility from the very poor to the working poor by effectively making expanded coverage optional for states. About 2.2 million people are uninsured as a result, nearly 90 percent of them in Southern states whose economies have always relied on low-cost labor. About half of those left out of the Medicaid expansion are black or Hispanic.”

Regarding campaign contributions: “The 1970s court also returned to its old habit of dressing economic power in constitutional principle. The dominance of the very rich in American politics is often attributed to the Citizens United decision of 2010, but that case only amplified a 1976 opinion, Buckley v. Valeo, in which the court shredded post-Watergate campaign-finance regulation and announced that private individuals could spend unlimited sums on candidates (including themselves). When the Roberts court used the First Amendment to protect corporate (and union) political spending in Citizens United, it was extending a longer-running trend. This is part of what Justice Kagan means when she observes that the conservative majority is weaponizing the First Amendment.”

If Purdy has his way, the court would be making very different decisions that it has. He writes: “we need campaign-finance laws that limit the influence of wealth and treat citizens as equals. We need a labor law that helps workers organize in new kinds of workplaces, such as home health care and the gig economy. We need antitrust law that can wrestle with the new quasi-monopoly power of platform-based companies such as Amazon and Facebook. We need forms of social caretaking and security that are even stronger and more universal than Obamacare.”
————————-
Kavanaugh is replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy – no moderate

Andrew Cohen, a senior editor at The Marshall Project and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, makes the case that most – not all – of the decisions made by Justice Anthony Kennedy were with the four conservatives justices (https://newrepublic.com/article/149449/anthony-kennedy-no-moderate).

Cohen reminds us that Kennedy was nominated by President Reagan, then confirmed by the Senate, in 1988. Ideologically, Cohen says, Kennedy could only be considered “moderate” when contrasted “to conservative flamethrowers like Thomas, Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Neil Gorsuch.” Kennedy did vote with the liberals on the court occasionally, in deciding against capital punishment where the defendants had intellectual disabilities or where a juvenile had committed the homicide. Kennedy also supported same-sex marriage and, to quote Cohen, “has largely hewed to the Court’s precedent in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which updated and modernized the constitutional right to an abortion first announced in Roe v. Wade.” All these precedents are now likely to be challenged and overturned with the addition of Kavanaugh to the court.

Mostly, however, Kennedy’s conservative leanings came to the fore in most of the decisions he cast. Cohen gives some relatively recent examples, starting in 2006.

“In 2010, Kennedy sided with his fellow conservatives and moneyed interests in Citizens United v. F.E.C, a case in which the Court for the first time recognized that political spending was a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy wrote that decision, equating corporations with people, and the grim effects of it on our politics are everywhere around us: from the dark money flowing into campaigns around the country, to the extension of “corporate” rights into other areas of constitutional law.

“In areas like religious freedom, Kennedy earlier this month sided, gingerly, against a gay couple who were discriminated against by a Colorado baker who refused to bake them a same-sex marriage wedding cake. Yes, the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v.Colorado Civil Rights Commission is an obvious compromise and not the blow that religious activists had hoped it would be; but when you pair it with the Court’s ruling in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, in which Kennedy again sided with his conservative colleagues, it’s not hard to see where this area of the law is heading. It’s headed sharply to the right, at a pace that now will accelerate in Kennedy’s absence.

“So, too, will the partisan push for voter suppression accelerate. Five year ago, Kennedy sided with his fellow Court conservatives in Shelby County v. Holder, a case that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Countless citizens either already have been or soon will be disenfranchised as a result of that ruling, one of the worst in the court’s long history. Nothing Kennedy has done since 2013 has suggested he has any remorse or regret over how Republican lawmakers around the country reacted to that ruling. Not for nothing, Kennedy also helped spur modern-day voter suppression when he signed onto a 2008 ruling out of Indiana, Crawford v. Marion County, which endorsed voter ID laws now used by Republicans to disenfranchise the poor, the elderly, students, and minority voters.

“And don’t forget the guns. Kennedy has voted with the majority in the two seminal gun rights cases of our time. In District of Columbia v. Heller he signed onto Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision, recognizing for the first time a personal right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. And in McDonald v. Chicago he voted to apply that newly-recognized Second Amendment right to state laws through the Fourteenth Amendment. In each instance, the vote was 5–4; in each case, Kennedy voted with the gun lobby and for a view of gun rights that Justice Warren Burger, a Nixon appointee, once called “one of the greatest pieces of fraud” he had seen infect the courts.

“He was a consistent voter for employers over employees, for corporations over consumers, and against unions—right down to one of his final votes in the public sector employee union case the Court decided Wednesday in another 5-4 vote in which the conservatives prevailed. He was also a regular voter for police and prosecutors over criminal suspects or defendants, even though he was troubled by prison overcrowding and the persistent overuse of solitary confinement. Right down to last week, in the Fourth Amendment case titled Carpenter v. United States, he was an ardent supporter of government surveillance at the expense of individual privacy rights.

“For a judge who has held so many key cases in the palm of his hand over the past decade, for someone perceived by so many as having so much power to shape the course of American law and history, he may have saved his lamest response for last. In Trump v. Hawaii, with religious and racial discrimination rife, all he could muster was a vote for the Trump administration’s travel ban and a mealy-mouth concurrence in which he implored federal officials—who repeatedly have ignored the Constitution—not to ignore the Constitution. He ended thus with a whimper, unwilling to check the implementation of the Trump administration’s bigotry into policy and practice.”

——————————-
Enter Kavanaugh

“a corporation masquerading as a judge”

Ralph Nader describes Kavanaugh in unqualified terms as “a corporation masquerading as a judge” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/09/06/stop-brett-kavanaugh-corporation-masquerading-judge). He writes: “With Kavanaugh, it is all about siding with corporations over workers, consumers, patients, motorists, the poor, minority voters, and beleaguered communities.” When his overall judicial record is considered, “Kavanaugh could be the most corporate judge in modern American history.” Nader refers to “[t]wo meticulous reports on his judicial decisions, one by the Alliance for Justice (AFJ) and one by Public Citizen demonstrate that for him it’s all about corporations uber alles.”

The AFJ finds that “Kavanaugh has repeatedly ruled against efforts to combat climate change and the regulation of greenhouse gases. He also repeatedly ruled against protections for clean air. He has repeatedly sided with the wealthy and the powerful over all Americans. He has fought consumer protections in the areas of automobile safety, financial services, and a free and open internet. Kavanaugh has also repeatedly ruled against workers, workplace protections and safety regulations.”

Public Citizen’s report provides some details on Kavanaugh’s judicial record, namely, that he “ruled 15 times against worker rights, 2 times for worker rights. On environmental protection, he ruled 11 times for business interests and 2 times for the public’s interest. On consumer and regulatory cases, he ruled 18 times for businesses and 4 times for consumer protection interests. In the area of antitrust or anti-monopoly, he ruled 2 times for the corporations and zero times for market competition.”
———————-

Getting him confirmed quickly

Legal expert Marjorie Cohn identifies some of the reasons why the GOP was so eager to confirm Kavanaugh (https://truthout.org/articles/five-reasons-why-the-gop-is-rushing-to-confirm-kavanaugh). She argues that it was principally because they wanted him confirmed before the court’s new term begins in October. She also agrees that the upcoming mid-term elections in which Democrats had an outside chance of taking control of the Senate was a consideration. But, she contends, the press for a decision on Kavanaugh’s nomination to the court has more to do with the cases on the Supreme Court’s docket. Specifically, “Republicans are hoping to ensure the outcome of several hot-button cases, including those involving double jeopardy, immigration, age discrimination and the Endangered Species Act.” She continues: “Moreover, there is the possibility that the Supreme Court could also decide to take up additional cases affecting gerrymandering, gay and transgender rights, and the separation of church and state.”

Very importantly, there is a pending case involving arcane provisions in the Constitution regarding “double jeopardy” that has relevance for President Trump personal legal situation and with his authority to pardon others or even himself in instances where they are found guilty in federal court.

Cohn writes: “Potentially most consequential for Trump is the case of Gamble v. US, which could affect his ability to pardon his associates, and even himself. On June 4, 2018, Trump tweeted, ‘I have the absolute right to PARDON myself.’

“The pardon power, located in Article II, section 2 of the Constitution, says, “The president … shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” It limits the president’s pardon power to federal offenses.

“In Gamble v. US, the justices will decide whether prosecuting a person in both state and federal courts for the same crime violates the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, ‘No person shall … be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb …’

What’s at stake for Trump? “If the Court follows its long-standing precedent, Trump could exercise his pardon power in federal proceedings but not in subsequent state proceedings for the same offense. Even if Trump were to pardon Paul Manafort, who was convicted of fraud in federal court, New York and Virginia state prosecutors could still bring charges against him.” And if Trump is ever “charged in a federal prosecution and he endeavored to pardon himself, the state of New York could then file criminal charges against him regarding the same matter.” Under such circumstances, as the law now stands, “Trump would be powerless to pardon himself in the state case.” However, now with Kavanaugh and a solid right-wing court, the justices are poised to “narrow the scope of the Double Jeopardy Clause” in way to reduce the right of state authorities to file criminal charges.

Kavanaugh to the rescue. Cohn notes that “Kavanaugh has said a sitting president should not be ‘distracted’ by having to answer to a civil or criminal case, notwithstanding the Court’s ruling in Clinton v. Jones. He has demonstrated extreme deference to presidential power and would likely vote to limit the criminal exposure of Trump and his associates.”

Cohn gives four other examples of how Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court will advance right-wing causes. On immigrants’ rights, the court is going to decide “in Nielson v. Preap whether the government can detain immigrants for the duration of their deportation proceedings, without a hearing, because they have past criminal records.” We can expect that Kavanaugh will support the government’s right to detain immigrants in these situations. Why? According to Cohn, “Kavanaugh’s record demonstrates contempt” for the rights of immigrants.

There are other pending cases before the Supreme Court regarding age discrimination, the endangered species act, gerrymandering and more. Kavanaugh’s record on the federal bench indicates that he “favor employers over employees,” favors economic development over wildlife habitats, and favors restrictions or additional requirements for voting rather than fewer.

In her conclusion, Cohn writes: “Republicans know that Kavanaugh would provide a reliable vote against immigrants, workers, voters, and gay and transgender people. He would deliver a dependable vote for employers, private property and church-state bonding. The GOP can also rest assured that Kavanaugh would do his best to immunize Trump from criminal liability and enable him to continue their mean-spirited, right-wing agenda.”

—————————-

Corporate-funded lobbyists pressed for Kavanaugh’s confirmation

In a report for The Intercept, Lee Fang reports on a wave of lobbying that pressed for the Senate confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (https://theintercept.com/2018/10/04/brett-kavanuagh-supreme-court-confirmation-corporate-regulations).

According to Fang’s research, “Business groups with interests before the U.S. Supreme Court have orchestrated a multifaceted campaign to pressure the Senate to swiftly confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court. The advocacy reaches across the influence economy of Washington, D.C., with the largest corporate lobbying groups and billionaires working in concert with Republican operatives to elevate Kavanaugh to a lifetime posting atop the judiciary.

“Few businesses, however, have stamped their names on the effort. Most major corporations and wealthy donors are instead using 501(c) nonprofit groups that do not require donor transparency to air upward of $15 million in reported advertising spending in order to convince the public to support Kavanaugh’s nomination. Other conservative groups contributing to the ad war have not disclosed how much they are spending, likely bringing the total much higher.

“Among the groups publicly campaigning for Kavanaugh to be confirmed are the giants of pro-business lobbying — organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. Lesser-known, business-funded political groups, such as the Republican Attorneys General Association, are also spearheading campaigns. Meanwhile, a host of industry groups — funded by many of the same corporate interests that fund the larger lobbying organizations — are eagerly waiting for Kavanaugh to be elevated and rule on cases that will affect their businesses.

What is Kavanaugh’s appeal?

Fang gives us the answer. “Kavanaugh has ruled against consumer rights, against labor organizers, and against class action lawsuits — a record that places him squarely in the Fortune 500’s corner. The Constitutional Accountability Center, after analyzing key rulings on workers rights, corporate regulations, and multinational corporate liability, found that Kavanaugh “has sided with corporate and business interests even when consumers, workers, and regulatory agencies had the text of the law and precedent on their side.” Similarly, the progressive consumer rights group Public Citizen analyzed Kavanaugh’s decisions and found that the judge sided with big business in 76 percent of cases brought before him in the D.C. circuit.

“Likewise with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest pro-business lobbying federation in the country, which represents firms such as Dow Chemical, Prudential, ExxonMobil, and Goldman Sachs. The group has long challenged environmental and financial regulations on the basis that regulators acted beyond the limits of statutory authority. The powerful lobby announced in August that it would mobilize support for Kavanaugh, claiming it would score support for Kavanaugh as a “key vote” in evaluating members of Congress. The Chamber spends tens of millions of dollars every election cycle against lawmakers who cross them on major votes.”
——————————-
What’s the upshot?

We don’t have to guess about the role Brett Kavanaugh will play on the already highly partisan Supreme Court. If there is hope for progressive change, it will not come from, or be facilitated by, this court (https://www.thenation.com/article/democrats-must-stop-pretending-the-court-apolitical).

The future rests on whether there are forces abroad at all levels of the society, from communities, to states and regions, to nationwide, that can be mobilized and unified around democratic, egalitarian, and environmentally sustainable values and goals. It’s not yet clear how this could happen. The odds do not appear very good. And yet the next chapters of our national story have yet to be written. The door on meaningful change has not been closed. And it’s awesome at times when we hear inspiring voices of what could be coming from many thousands of places across our land.

Reigning in Climate Change?

Reigning in Climate Change?

Bob Sheak, September 28, 2018

Governor Jerry Brown recently joined with others to convene the Global Climate Action Summit in September 12-14, 2018, in San Francisco. The purpose: to boost international efforts to keep the earth’s temperature from rising to no higher than 2 degrees Celsius, a measure that is believed to be a point at which irreversible and catastrophic climate changes will occur. (See Joseph Romm’s discussion of the 2-degree measure in his book, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, pp. 151-159). Those attending the Summit included officials from state and local governments, from non-profit organizations, experts from academia, and corporate executives. While the Summit was filled with good intentions and though it wound up on a high note, there are reasons to question whether it will have the political impact that will move humanity toward a stable and sustainable climate. One lingering question, among many, is whether we in the U.S. and those in other capitalist economies can find ways to live compatibly and sustainably with nature in an economy that requires unending growth.

The disconcerting evidence: the transformation of the earth’s climate continues unabated

What the scientists say

The scientific evidence is overwhelming that human-caused, increasingly disruptive climate change is occurring. There are multiple books, an increasing body of scientific research, and a host of in-depth journalistic articles based on authoritative sources that confirm the existence of the phenomenon. Most climate scientists have long endorsed the evidence-based proposition that the climate is changing and that it is happening at an accelerating rate.

Andrea Germanos reports that last November nearly 17,000 scientists from 180 countries issued a warning to humanity about the advanced and unfolding disruptive changes in the “biosphere” in a letter published in the international journal BioScience. (2017). Unless humanity, that is the world’ governments, set about making transformative changes in their societies soon, the scientists believe that the best evidenced indicates that there will be “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” The scientists are especially troubled by actually observed trends, that is, of rising greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, agricultural production, and the sixth mass extinction event underway” (http://commondreams.org/news/2017/11/13/over-1500-scientists-just-issued-second-notice-humanity-can-we-listen-now). With respect to agriculture, they are referring to the dominant agriculture system that relies on chemical fertilizers that degrade soil, generates carbon emissions, and overutilizes and contaminates water sources.

 Wikipedia, the on-line public encyclopedia, has an overview of the scientific position on global warming/climate change.

“Several studies of the consensus have been undertaken.[1] Among the most-cited is a 2013 study of nearly 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers on climate science published since 1990, of which just over 4,000 papers expressed an opinion on the cause of recent global warming. Of these, 97% agree, explicitly or implicitly, that global warming is happening and is human-caused.[2][3] It is “extremely likely”[4] that this warming arises from “… human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases …”[4] in the atmosphere.[5] Natural change alone would have had a slight cooling effect rather than a warming effect.[6][7][8][9]

“This scientific opinion is expressed in synthesis reports, by scientific bodies of national or international standing, and by surveys of opinion among climate scientists. Individual scientists, universities, and laboratories contribute to the overall scientific opinion via their peer-reviewed publications, and the areas of collective agreement and relative certainty are summarised in these respected reports and surveys.[10] The IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was completed in 2014.[11] Its conclusions are summarized below:

  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia”.[12]
  • “Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years”.[13]
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear.[14]It is extremely likely (95-100% probability)[15] that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming between 1951-2010.[14]
  • Without new policies to mitigate climate change, projections suggest an increase in global mean temperature in 2100 of 7 to 4.8 °C, relative to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 to 7.8 °C including climate uncertainty).[18]

Wikipedia reports that all national or international science academies and scientific societies agree with this scientific opinion on global warming. “No scientific body of national or international standing maintains a formal opinion dissenting from any of these main points.” Furthermore, evidence from the prestigious National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) indicates that the hottest years on record are all recent years: 2015, 2016, 2017, and, by all the current evidence, 2018 (https://www.ecowatch.com/hottest-four-years-ever-259119422.html).

The consequences of global warming

Consistent with this evidence, there are a growing number of severe weather events each year, including wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. The snow-ice covers in the polar regions are shrinking, coral reefs are dying, water tables are falling, desertification is spreading, and the oceans are warming and undergoing massive acidification. Some of the changes intensive the problems. Extensive deforestation is reducing one of the earth’s most important “carbon sinks,” that is, the ability of forests to take carbon out of the atmosphere. And there are other examples. As the ice/snow sheets in the arctic are reduced, more of the sun’s ultra-violet rays are retained on earth rather than reflected into space. There is also the danger that as the permafrost in northern regions (e.g., Siberia) melts that enormous volumes of methane will be released into the atmosphere. Bill McKibben made the prescient argument in 2010 in his book eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet that the earth’s climate system had already been transformed in ways that made life as we know it increasingly precarious.

The initial international responses in the 1990s

As the scientific evidence mounted on climate change in the 1980s and early 1990s, a global treaty on the environment was approved at the United Nations by all the world’s leading countries. It is called United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was formally agreed upon at the Conference of the Parties (COP) at the June 1992 Rio Earth Summit. According to Joseph Romm, “The goal of the treaty was to set up an international process to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] interference in the climate system” (Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know). It was acknowledged that “the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs” (p. 150). It followed that, though controversial, the “developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” This has not yet happened, as of twenty-six years later in 2018.

There have been subsequent COP gatherings in most years. In 1997, the countries gathered in Kyoto, Japan, and negotiated “the Kyoto Protocol, which set targets and timetables [but] only for the emissions of rich countries.” While almost every industrialized nation ratified the Protocol, the United States did not. The agreement failed in reducing global emissions, due to “the absence of the United States coupled with rapid growth in developing countries’ emissions post-2000, particularly China’s,” and “overall global emissions continue to grow.” But over the years the most momentous meeting came in December 2015 at the twenty-first meetings of COP.

A commitment to action by the nations of the world

 Representatives from over 160 countries convened a two-week conference on November 30, 2015, in Le Bourget in Paris – and other countries not in attendance expressed their support. The principal objective of the conference was to achieve for the first time a legally binding and universal agreement on climate from all the nations of the world. Binding! Each of the nations were asked to submit specific targets and timelines for reducing their respective emissions. The hope was that, in the aggregate, the global temperature would be kept below 2 degrees Celsius (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_United_Nations_Climate_Change_Conference).

Even before the conference, 180+ countries had made such commitments to develop specific targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and timelines. President Obama read a statement to the nation, saying that the Agreement was an unprecedented achievement of historic proportions and it’s taking humanity in the right direction toward a carbon-free global environment. He also acknowledged that ultimate success depended not only on the signatory nations’ willingness and capacity to follow through on their initial pledges but also on their ability to go beyond these pledges (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/12/12/statement-president-paris-climate-agreement).

There was a lot to be thankful for. The world’s leaders supported, in principle if not action, the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Most nations had identified, or were expected to identify, specific targets for emissions reductions. There was a framework and process in place for monitoring the process. However good the initial intentions, the targets have not yet been translated into the promised action. The famous climate scientist James Hansen expected as much when he said that “There is no action, just promises” (https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/cop21-father-of-climate-awareness-james-hansen-denounces-paris-agreement-as-a-fraud-a677171.html).

Craig Welch writes in a piece published in the National Geographic reporting that according to two important scientific evaluations of the emission-reduction targets submitted by the nations, the targets will not achieve their goal of keeping the earth’s temperature below the 2-degree target. Here’s what Welch wrote.

“Before arriving in Paris, 187 countries, representing more than 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, submitted plans to reduce their emissions in coming decades. [However] [t]hose plans come nowhere close of reaching the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees – let alone 1.5 degrees [as recommended by James Hansen and other climate scientists]. In fact, analyses by two teams – one in Germany, one associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – say the plans, if followed, would lead to between 2.7 or 3.5 degrees of warming” (http://news-national-geographic.com/2015/12/151212-Paris-climate-change-agreement-fossil-fuels/#VmyojCdAAK.twitter). In this eventuality, the climate disruptions (e.g., severe weather events) we now experience would become more frequent and more destructive, leading to vast numbers of environmental refugees, failed states, violence, and widespread poverty.

Falling short

In a recent article published in the New York Times, Brad Plumer reports that, limited to begin with, “most national governments are falling short of their promises to curb greenhouse gas emissions” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/climate/california-climate-summit.html). To make matters worse, Plumer adds, “the Trump administration has been pushing to roll back many of the most prominent federal climate policies” at the Environmental Protection Agency and all agencies in the executive branch that have any influence on energy/environmental policies. Then, on June 1, 2017, Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement.

Especially bad climate news continues under Trump

Timmons Roberts identifies the reasons that motivated Trump to do this in an article for Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2018/06/01/one-year-since-trumps-withdrawal-from-the-paris-climate-agreement). The president believes that the claims about climate change are a hoax and dismisses or ignores the massive scientifically-derived evidence to the contrary. He dislikes international agreements of any sort and, according to Roberts, had “developed a posture that asserted American dominance and unwillingness to be influenced by foreign governments.” Trump promises coal miners that he will rollback Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. His decision was political in other respects as well, including his close relations with “radical right-wing organization funded by the fossil fuel industry [which] influenced his campaign, the transition into the presidency,” and his administration continuously. Roberts adds: “his cabinet, top advisers, and appointees are direct transplants from fossil fuel companies and the think tanks organizations they fund.” And his decision and general views on climate change and his fossil-fuel oriented energy policy are in line with the position taken by the Republican Party and Republicans in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Responses to Trump and the reality of the climate crisis

Brad Plumer reports in the article referred to above that there was an almost immediate response to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. He writes: “Hours after President Trump announced last year that the United States would exit the Paris climate deal, a broad group of governors, mayors and business executives declared that they would uphold the agreement anyway and continue tackling global warming on their own”(https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/climate/california-climate-summit.html).

There were two developments or reactions that were given added momentum or that were forthcoming.

States, local governments, and even some corporations have taken or plan steps to reduce carbon emissions.

California’s Governor Brown signed a bill on September 10, 2018, Plumer writes, requiring the state “to get 100 percent of [its] electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2045,” while also setting “a goal of putting 5 million electric cars on the road by 2030” and “dedicating $2.5 billion to vehicle rebates and charging infrastructure.” Other states, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington, are taking similar steps. But as of now, according to Plumer, “[o]nly 16 states and Puerto Rico have actually promised to uphold the Paris agreement. Most of those states are led by Democrats, and efforts to persuade Republican-led states like Ohio or Texas to join have been largely unsuccessful.”

There is also some positive activity at the city level. In more than “70 cities have signed onto a goal of buying enough renewable power to offset all of their electricity consumption, though many mayors are now pondering how to pull that off.” At the same time, while many power plants now burn natural gas and renewables rather than coal, there are still a lot of emissions from “cars and trucks, farming, and industrial sectors like cement and steel.” And, when you consider the full story of natural gas, from the mining of silica, to the transportation of the silica, chemicals, and water to fracking sites (all materials used in the extraction of natural gas from deep in the ground), to leaks in the pipelines and flaring of gas, to the drilling for the gas [and oil], to the pipelines that convey the gas to power plants and other production sites, to the burning of the gas in power plants, to the transportation of wastes from the fracking sites, there is a tremendous amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, emitted into the atmosphere. For example, Sharon Kelly reports for Desmogblog on a new study that finds “methane leaks from oil and gas are 60 percent higher than EPA estimates (https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/06/21/methane-leaks-oil-gas-60-higher-epa-estimates-science-study-edf).

There is some positive news on the corporate front. Plumer notes that “dozens of Fortune 500 companies including Google, Apple and Wal-Mart have voluntarily invested billions of dollars into building new wind and solar farms to power their operations.” But the great majority are doing nothing or nothing of real significance.

While there is some laudable activity, the U.S. is overall not doing so well. Plumer writes that “the United States is still falling far short of its Paris Agreement pledges.” He refers to a study in June of this year “by the research firm Rhodium Group [which] estimated that the country was on pace to get only about halfway to former President Barack Obama’s promise under the pact to cut America’s emissions at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” This already limited goal was not being achieved.

The Global Climate Action Summit

 Another response to Trump’s policies, as reported by Plumer, came from California’s Governor Brown, who organized a meeting, dubbed the Global Climate Action Summit, to bring “an array of governors, mayors and business executives from around the globe “to promote their successes in cutting greenhouse gas emissions locally and to encourage one another to do more. Representatives from other countries were in attendance, as Plumer reports.

 Governor Brown met with Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief climate negotiator, and announced plans for California and China to work together on zero-emissions vehicles and fuel-cell research. Later in the week, several blue-state governors met behind closed doors with the environment ministers of Canada and Mexico to forge new partnerships on issues like electric vehicles and curbing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.”

“There was no shortage of announcements at the meeting. Cities like Tokyo, Rotterdam and West Hollywood signed joint pledges to only buy zero-emissions buses after 2025. Companies like Walmart and Unilever rolled out new programs to limit deforestation in their huge supply chains. Dozens of philanthropic groups committed $4 billion over the next five years to fight climate change.”

According to the Summit’s website, there were four highly optimistic goals.

#1 – It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action. – This was accomplished.

#2 – It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.

#3 – The decarbonization of the global economy is in sight. Transformational changes are happening across the world and across all sectors as a result of technological innovation, new and creative policies and political will at all levels.

#4 – States and regions, cities, businesses and investors are leading the charge on pushing down global emissions by 2020, setting the stage to reach net zero emissions by midcentury.​​ Summit (https://www.globalclimateactionsummit.org/about-the-summit)

While the Summit included only a relatively small number of actors, given the global aspirations of the Summit, the organizing premise was lofty, that is, “if a handful of leading-edge states, cities and businesses can demonstrate that it’s feasible — and even lucrative — to go green in their own backyards, they might inspire others to follow suit. That, in turn, could [it was hoped], make it easier for national leaders to act more forcefully.” Governor Brown and the other participants wanted also to let the world know that there were groups outside of the Trump’s government in the United States that would speak for the nation on climate policy. And, indeed, there is now a U.S. coalition, at least in name, consisting of “16 states, Puerto Rico, hundreds of cities and nearly 2000 businesses” that “has vowed to press ahead with climate action and ensure that the United States meets former President Barack Obama’s Paris pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.”

Brown and other Summit leaders also hoped that their gathering would generate momentum “around action on clean energy and global warming as United Nations climate negotiations are scheduled to take place in Poland in December (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/15/climate/california-climage-summit.html). However, it is expected to be a contentious meeting, as government officials from over 180 states attempt to “finalize a ‘rule book’ for implementing the Paris Agreement,” while taking up complex and controversial issues “like how to track and verify emissions cuts,” and how many nations will decide “whether to strengthen their national pledges on climate action, which are currently far too weak to avoid drastic warming.” There were preliminary negotiations in Bangkok this month (September 2018) that “fell into disarray… as poorer countries accused wealthier nations, including the United States, of reneging on their promises for financial aid to fight climate change.”

There are other concerns. Researchers associated with the Governor’s efforts released a road map, Plumer writes, “for what it would take to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.” He continues: “It entailed a rapid transformation of the world’s energy system (measures such as banning the sales of gasoline vehicles in many cities within a decade) that went far beyond many of the proposals made in California.” He adds:

“Those states and cities would have to pursue ambitious new policies, like retrofitting hundreds of buildings to make them more energy efficient and plugging methane emissions from landfills, to get closer to the target. They would also have to persuade several other states beyond the blue coastal enclaves to join them, the report found.

“For example, mayors from dozens of the world’s largest cities promised to cut the amount of trash they send to landfills in half, build more carbon-neutral buildings and encourage walking and cycling in their cities over the next few decades. But how well these mayors follow through remains to be seen.”

 Grassroots critics raise questions about Gov. Brown’s record and the authenticity of the summit

In addition to the doubts about whether the Summit’s coalition will be effective nationally or internationally, Oliver Milman covered protests outside the conference hall in a story for The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/13/san-francisco-global-climate-action-summit-protests). He reported that thousands of protestors “attempted to barricade entrance at the summit and criticized Jerry Brown for allowing over 20,000 drilling operations” in the state. They claimed that “he has largely abandoned certain neighborhoods to pollution from oil and gas drilling operations. California’s Central Valley has some of the worst air quality in the country. Across the US, sicknesses linked to air and water pollution are disproportionately felt by people of color, who are far more likely to live near power plants, landfills and other toxic sites.” Milman writes further: “Activists chanted ‘Tell Jerry Brown to keep it in the ground’ and held signs reading ‘Don’t drill’ and ‘We’re drowning’. There were scuffles as police attempted to remove several protesters who chained themselves to the gates of the conference building in downtown San Francisco. Inside the venue, protesters interrupted a speech by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, by chanting: ‘Our air is not for sale.’”

Something must be done

It remains questionable whether the next COP (Conference of the Parties) meeting, or any subsequent international meeting, can be successful in reducing carbon emissions enough to keep the earth’s temperature under the 2-degree goal. As indicated in this essay, some of the evidence indicates that many nations are failing to fulfill their promises to reduce emissions. In the United States, the second largest carbon emitter, Trump and his Republican and corporate allies are by and large pushing fossil fuels and environmental deregulation. While the renewables part of the U.S. energy system is growing, fossil fuels still provide the lion’s share of energy, while the transportation system and the U.S. military still run overwhelmingly on gasoline, and while homes and buildings are air-conditioned with electricity generated largely by coal and increasingly by natural gas. While many U.S. citizens tell pollsters that they are concerned about the environment, it is not a high priority for the majority of Americans, and it is not likely to be an issue that figures prominently in the upcoming mid-term elections scheduled for November of this year.

In one of his terrifically informative reviews of recent research on the human-driven cataclysmic climate change and the multitude of dire environmental effects that accompanies it, Dahr Jamail offers the following discomforting introductory statements to his most recent post of September 25, 2018 (https://truthout.org/articles/brace-for-impact-as-the-climate-end-game-has-arrived).

“…the impacts of runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) will assuredly continue to worsen.

“In one of the more important recent scientific studies, published in the journal Science, researchers warn that ACD could cause many of the planet’s ecosystems to become unrecognizable.

“’Our results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity,” reads the abstract of the study.

“Stephen Jackson, the lead author of the study, told The Washington Post, “Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about.”

“This summer’s extraordinary heat wave across the Northern Hemisphere was and is in no way an anomaly. Another recent study warned that there will be at least four more years of extreme temperatures. This means temperatures are expected to be warmer than expected, even above and beyond the abnormal warming being generated by ACD.

“Given the fact that there are already places in the Arctic where the ground no longer freezes, even during the winter, this does not bode well.

“Another recent report, What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk by Australian researchers with the independent think tank National Centre for Climate Restoration, is blunt about the fact that we are rapidly leaving the safe zone for human habitability on the planet. They note that ACD poses an ‘existential risk to human civilization,’ with dire consequences unless dramatic actions are taken toward mitigation. The paper also points out how climate research, including the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has consistently underplayed these risks and leaned towards conservative projections. The paper even goes on to call the IPCC ‘dangerously misleading’ regarding its low-ball predictions of accelerating ACD.

“’Climate change is now reaching the end-game,’ the foreword to the report reads, ‘where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.’”

Is there a way forward that will cut carbon emissions enough?

If we are to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming/climate change, or what Jamail calls anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), there has to be an awakening to the problem of the citizenry in the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, Brazil, Russia, India, Australia, and elsewhere, accompanied by the education and mobilization of citizens to change politics as usual and realize that hyper consumption, unlimited economic growth, and vast military spending must end. And there must also be a compelling vision of what it is that can replace the current system. You can find, as an example, such a vision in the work of James Gustave Speth, Carla Santos Skandier, and Johann Bozuwa, titled “Taking climate action to the next level” (https://thenextsystem.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/2018-09/Climate_Final-for-web.pdf). In their introduction, they provide an overview of their position. If you have time, read the report for the specific proposals and supporting evidence. From the introduction:

“We need to start implementing energy interventions today in key points of the system with the aims of deploying renewable energy and energy efficiency, and changing our political economy to one that is truly just and democratic.

“Three groundbreaking and complementary interventions…could start transforming the power structures that promote and enable our problematic energy and economic systems: Quantitative Easing for the Planet charts ways to halt fossil fuel extraction and dissolve entrenched opposition from major fossil fuel companies at the federal level; Public Ownership for Energy Democracy investigates opportunities for putting electricity generation and distribution back into community hands while enhancing democratic governance starting at the local level; An Anchor Strategy for the Energy Transition spells out how large mission-driven energy consumers can help build community systems and local demand for renewable energy sources, jobs, and investments, creating alternatives to today’s extractive economy.”

Theirs is a radical proposal that runs counter to current policies that favor private-sector solutions. They recommend, among other changes, considerable nationalization: (1) “the government should secure control of fossil fuel reserves [and keep them in the ground] by promoting a federal buyout of the top U.S.-based, publicly-traded fossil fuel companies,” and (2) the “transitioning of energy utilities to public ownership” [encouraging the use of renewable sources of energy]. There is little reason to think that such changes are about to happen. Nonetheless, it’s useful to think about large-scale proposals for change away from the status quo that, by all the scientific evidence, takes us toward extreme disorder and misery. In the final analysis, radical change is what is needed. There is little doubt that the future will be shaped by necessity. The question is who will determine what is to be done. Governor Brown should be given credit for taking a modest step in the right direction. But a lot more is needed.

The Vietnam War: no justification, no happy ending

The Vietnam War: no justification, no happy ending

Bob Sheak

Oct 4, 2017, Sept 21, 2018

I wrote this essay awhile ago in response the the Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary on The Vietnam War. I thought then, and now, that his attempt to offer a “balanced view of the war” in which both side were said to be responsible and the US policy was advanced by honest mistakes by well-meaning US leaders was inaccurate. U.S. foreign/military policies since then (and before in many instances) have continued to reflect US economic and political interests rather than the interests of people in the societies the US has attacked. It is now caught up endless wars and threatening yet new wars. It’s important to continually make efforts to unveil the truth about these policies, based unfortunately on misleadingly notions that US foreign policy reflects the desire to advance democratic and altruistic values – or the unwitting but understandable and forgivable judgments of US leaders.

——————————————-

The 18-hour, 10-part, documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick aired on the Public Broadcasting System in September. It cost $30 million to produce and reflects ten-years of investigative work by the documentarians, who were “assisted by their producer Sarah Botstein, writer Geoffrey Ward, 24 advisers, and others,” according to Nick Turse (https://theintercept.com/2017/09/28/the-ken-burns-vietnam-war-documentary-glosses-over-devastating-civilian-toll).

There is no doubt that The Vietnam War is a remarkable, creative work that will stir emotions and memories about the U.S. involvement in that war, a war that began for the U.S. in 1955 and lasted until 1975 when negotiations with the North Vietnamese closed the final chapter on U.S. military engagement in that country.

The documentary will ignite multiple opinions on why the war was fought, how it was fought, and why it ended as it did. Nonetheless, as historian and war veteran Andrew J. Bacevich writes, the documentary embodies a high quality of production, a seamless narrative, “cutting from the war zone to the home front (theirs and ours) and back again,” a surprising amount of footage on the North Vietnamese, and “a soundtrack consisting of pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s,” many of them expressing a yearning for peace and an end to the war  (http://thenation.com/article/the-vietnam-war-past-all-reason). Reflecting the widespread appeal of the documentary, the book based on it is already a best seller on Amazon.

Burns and Novick made the film to provide an authoritative factual and visual documentation of that war, to present multiple – in their view equally – valid viewpoints on it, and to bring some closure to and national reconciliation about the bitter and divisive debate that beset the nation during the war and since then.

In my reading of recent commentaries on Vietnam, and despite all of the laudable aspects, the film has some notable shortcomings. I’ll just touch on a few of them.

“All sides suffered equally”

The war, according to Burns and Novick, was “begun in good faith, by decent people” and that it was “a tragedy,” wrongly implying, according to Basevich, that all sides suffered equally. Frank Joyce reminds us that it was the US that invaded and bombed Vietnam, used its air force to spray millions of tons of Agent Orange onto forests and crops, dropped napalm bombs on civilians, and whose troops massacred women, old people and babies and dump their bodies into mass graves (https://www.alternet.org/documentaries/ball-o-confusion-comin-your-tv-ken-burns-pbs-series-vietnam-gives-its-corporate). Joyce continues:

“Truth: The United States government invaded Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; not the other way around. Before that, the U.S. provided financial and military support to the French war to keep Vietnam a colony. Any suggestion that the U.S. was somehow the victim of the war is not just wrong, it is yet another example of the moral confusion for which our nation pays a far greater price than we are willing to admit.”

There is no doubt that both sides paid heartbreakingly high prices for this war. The costs to the US were immense. Out of the 2,594,000 personnel who served in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans died, 153,303 were wounded and 1,643 ended up missing, according to Alan Rohn (https://thevietnamwar.info/how-much-vietnam-war-cost). Brian Handwerk reports that studies such as the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, conducted in the 1980s, found that some 271,000 veterans of the war may still had full post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD (http://www.smthinsonianmag.com/science-nature/over-quarter-million-vietnam-war-veteransstill-have-ptsd-180955997).

And the economic costs for the U.S. were staggering. According to Rohn,

“The Department of Defense (DOD) reports that the United States spent about $168 billion (worth around $950 billion in 2011 dollars) in the entire war including $111 billion on military operations (1965 – 1972) and $28.5 billion on economic and military aid to Saigon regime (1953 – 1975). At that rate, the United States spent approximately $168,000 for an “enemy” killed. However, $168 billion was only the direct cost. According to Indochina Newsletter of Asia Resource Center, the United States spent from $350 billion to $900 billion in total including veterans’ benefits and interest.”

But for the Vietnamese, civilians as well as combatants, the devastation and casualties of the war were by most conventional measures greater than they were for America. Lawrence Wittner reports on some of the evidence.

“…the people of Vietnam paid a very heavy price for their independence from foreign domination.  Some three million of them died in the American War, and another 300,000 are still classified as MIAs.  In addition, many, many Vietnamese were wounded or crippled in the conflict.  Perhaps the most striking long-term damage resulted from the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange (dioxin) as a defoliant.  Vietnamese officials estimate that, today, some four million of their people suffer the terrible effects of this chemical, which not only destroys the bodies of those exposed to it, but has led to horrible birth defects and developmental disabilities into the second and third generations.  Much of Vietnam’s land remains contaminated by Agent Orange, as well as by unexploded ordnance (UXO).  Indeed, since the end of the American war in 1975, the landmines, shells, and bombs that continue to litter the nation’s soil have wounded or killed over 105,000 Vietnamese — many of them children (http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/05/18/the-vietnam-war-after-40-years).

In his Intercept article cited earlier, Nick Turse adds some numbers to Wittner’s summary, citing research done by Harvard Medical School, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, and a Vietnamese government estimate. According to these sources, 5.3 million Vietnamese civilians were wounded, 11 million civilians were driven from their lands and made homeless at one time or another, and as many as 4.8 million were sprayed with toxic defoliants like Agent Orange.

Highlighting how Vietnamese civilians paid a very high price during the war, Turse reports the following.

“War is not combat, though combat is a part of war. Combatants are not the main participants in modern war. Modern war affects civilians far more and far longer than combatants. Most American soldiers and Marines spent 12 or 13 months, respectively, serving in Vietnam. Vietnamese from what was once South Vietnam, in provinces like Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, as well as those of the Mekong Delta – rural population centers that were also hotbeds of the revolution – lived the war week to week, month after month, year after year, from one decade to the next. Burns and Novick seem to have mostly missed these people, missed their stories, and, consequently, missed the dark side of the conflict.”

Turse continues:

“To deprive their Vietnamese enemies of food, recruits, intelligence, and other support, American command policy turned large swathes of those provinces into ‘free fire zones,’ subject to intense bombing and artillery shelling, that was expressly designed to ‘generate’ refugees, driving people from their homes in the name of ‘pacification.’ Houses were set ablaze, whole villages were bulldozed, and people were forced into squalid refugee camps and filthy urban slums short of water, food, and shelter.”

Turse spent a decade gathering evidence for his book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. His investigative work for the book is based not only on archival research but also on many visits to Vietnam and interviews with Vietnamese peasants, officials, and others. In his article he provides the reader with glimpses of what it was like to be a Vietnamese civilian during the years of the war, especially while under numerous US bombing and artillery attacks. By the way, Turse refers to Pentagon figures for January 1969 alone, when “air strikes were carried out on or near hamlets where 3.3 million Vietnamese.” What did he learn from his interviews?

“They talked about homes burned again and again and again, before they gave up rebuilding and began living a semi-subterranean existence in rough-hewn bomb shelters gouged into the earth. They told me about scrambling inside these bunkers when artillery fire began. And then they told me about the waiting game.

“Just how long did you stay in your bunker? Long enough to avoid the shelling…but not so long you were still inside it when the Americans and their grenades arrive. If you left the shelter’s confines too soon, machine-gun fire from a helicopter might cut you in half. Or you might get caught in crossfire between withdrawing guerrillas and onrushing US troops. But if you waited too long, the Americans might begin rolling grenades into your bomb shelter because, to them, it was a possible enemy fighting position.”

Bear in mind that, in the first years of the escalated war, Secretary of State Robert McNamara and other top administration officials held the view that “victory over the Viet Cong was to be achieved by quantifiable ‘kill ratios,’ to reach the elusive tipping point where the insurgency could no long replenish its troops,” according to Reed Richardson (http://commondreams.org/views/2017/09/28/ken-burns-vietnam-war-object-lesson-failures-objective-lens). Richardson continues: “This approach hard-wired incentives to secure a high ‘body count’ down the chain of command, with the result that US soldiers often shot civilians dead to pad their tallies and thereby move up in the ranks.”

 Why did the US escalate the war, first in supporting the French colonialists, then in supporting and propping up an unpopular puppet president and government in South Vietnam after having sabotaged a national election that would have kept Vietnam undivided, then through a US-planned overthrow of that president, followed by an enormous escalation of the US military involvement in the war, both in the number of troops and the scale of the bombing?

 Why did President Johnson authorize an escalation of the war?

In the final analysis, it was President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not only to continue the war in Vietnam but escalate it – again and again – to the point where there were over 500,00 US troops in the country by the late 1960s and a scale of massive bombing greater than even during WWII. Nick Davies reports, “The US dropped more high explosives on Vietnam than the allies used on Germany and Japan in the second world war” (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/22/vietnam-40-years-on-how-communist-victory-gave-way-to-capitalist-corruption).

Bacevich points out that Burns and Novick do not attempt to answer the question of why Johnson followed this path, despite having deep reservations. Here’s what Bacevich writes on this important question.

“Their lack of interest in this central issue [that of Burns and Novick] is all the more striking given the acute misgivings about a large-scale US intervention that Lyndon Johnson repeatedly expressed in the fateful months between late 1964 and early 1965.” …. The anguished president doubted that the war could be won, didn’t think it was worth fighting, and knew that further expansion of US involvement in Vietnam would put at risk his cherished Great Society domestic-reform program. He said as much in taped conversations with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his friend Georgia Senator Richard Russell, among others. Despite his reservations, Johnson – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – somehow felt compelled to go ahead anyway. Yet Burns and Novick choose not to explore why exactly Johnson felt obliged to do what he did not want to do.”

Bacevich offers his own generalized explanation on why the U.S. continued and then escalated the war. It was because “a brain-dead national security establishment [was] unable to conceive of political alternatives to escalation; a fear that admitting military failure will exact unacceptable political costs, whereas the costs of perpetuating an unwinnable war are likely to be tolerable; and, perhaps above all, the iron law of American exceptionalism, centered on the conviction that Providence summons the United States to exercise global leadership always and everywhere, leadership having long since become synonymous with a willingness to use force.”

Misconceived US policies prior to the US escalation.  Prior to the US escalation in 1965, the US governments under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson hoped that a South Vietnamese government would emerge that would win the support of the south and carry the war successfully against the enemy largely with its own troops and, of course, US weapons, a small number of special forces, and military advisers. However, as historian Alfred McCoy writes in his new book, In the Shadows of the American Century, the US supported Ngo Dinh Diem from 1954 to 1963 because he was an anti-communist, even though his regime had only “a narrow political base within the army, among civil servants, and in the minority Catholic community.”

Among other misbegotten policies, the Diem regime resisted the implementation of rural reforms that “possibly could have won him [Diem] a broader base among the country’s peasant population” (p. 67). The regime was plagued from 1960 to 1963 by Buddhist riots in the cities and spreading communist rebellion in the countryside. In these pathbreaking years, McCoy writes,

“…the US mission in Saigon tried every conceivable counterinsurgency strategy to eradicate the Viet Cong – bringing in helicopters and armored vehicles for conventional mobility, deploying Green Berets for unconventional combat, building up regional militias for localized security, and constructing ‘strategic hamlets’ to isolate eight million peasants inside fortified compounds theoretically controlled by Diem militia. Nothing worked. By 1963, the Viet Cong had grown from scattered bands of fighters into a guerrilla army that controlled more than half the countryside” (pp. 67-68). During this period, “the country…collapsed into further military coups and countercoups that crippled army operations. Over the next thirty-two months, Saigon had nine different governments and a change of cabinet every fifteen weeks – every one of them incompetent, corrupt, and ineffective” (p. 68).

The U.S. government’s justifications for the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1965

The escalation was precipitated by a lie involving what is referred to as “the Tonkin Bay incident.” But there were also deeper reasons having to do with how the U.S. government conceived of America’s geo-political interests in the “cold war.” First, consider the lie.

The Lie

In an article titled “The Truth about Tonkin” for the Naval History Magazine, Lieutenant Commander Pat Patterson identifies the evidence.

“Questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents have persisted for more than 40 years. But once-classified documents and tapes released in the past several years, combined with previously uncovered facts, make clear that high government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public about events that led to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War” (https://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-02/truth-about-tonkin).

Patterson’s evidence is impressive.

“Nearly 200 documents the National Security Agency (NSA) declassified and released in 2005 and 2006, however, have helped shed light on what transpired in the Gulf of Tonkin on 4 August. The papers, more than 140 of them classified top secret, include phone transcripts, oral-history interviews, signals intelligence (SIGINT) messages, and chronologies of the Tonkin events developed by Department of Defense and NSA officials. Combined with recently declassified tapes of phone calls from White House officials involved with the events and previously uncovered facts about Tonkin, these documents provide compelling evidence about the subsequent decisions that led to the full commitment of U.S. armed forces to the Vietnam War.”

Wikipedia provides a concise summary of the incident (https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_incident). The Gulf of Tonkin lies off the coast of North Vietnam.

“The Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnamese: Sự kiện Vịnh Bắc Bộ), also known as the USS Maddox incident, was an international confrontation that led to the United States engaging more directly in the Vietnam War. It involved either one or two separate confrontations involving North Vietnam and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The original American report blamed North Vietnam for both incidents, but eventually became very controversial with widespread claims that either one or both incidents were false, and possibly deliberately so. On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, while performing a signals intelligence patrol as part of DESOTO operations, was pursued by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats of the 135th Torpedo Squadron.[1][5] Maddox fired three warning shots and the North Vietnamese boats then attacked with torpedoes and machine gun fire.[5] Maddox expended over 280 3-inch and 5-inch shells in a sea battle. One U.S. aircraft was damaged, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, and four North Vietnamese sailors were killed, with six more wounded. There were no U.S. casualties.[6] Maddox “was unscathed except for a single bullet hole from a Vietnamese machine gun round”.[5]

“It was originally claimed by the National Security Agency that a Second Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 4, 1964, as another sea battle, but instead evidence was found of ‘Tonkin ghosts’[7] (false radar images) and not actual North Vietnamese torpedo boats. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, the former United States Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the August 2 USS Maddox attack happened with no Defense Department response, but the August 4 Gulf of Tonkin attack never happened.[8] In 1995, McNamara met with former Vietnam People’s Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp to ask what happened on August 4, 1964 in the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident. “Absolutely nothing”, Giáp replied.[9] Giáp claimed that the attack had been imaginary.[10]

“The outcome of these two incidents was the passage by Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by ‘communist aggression’. The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.

“In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there were no North Vietnamese naval vessels present during the incident of August 4.

To complete the story, the Wikipedia account of the incident describes Johnson’s response to order the bombing of North Vietnam and the U.S. Congress supported his decision through a joint resolution.

“President Johnson, who was up for election that year, ordered retaliatory air strikes and went on national television on August 4. Although Maddox had been involved in providing intelligence support for South Vietnamese attacks at Hòn Mê and Hòn Ngư, Johnson denied, in his testimony before Congress, that the U.S. Navy had supported South Vietnamese military operations in the Gulf. He thus characterized the attack as “unprovoked” since the ship had been in international waters.”

Then the U.S. Congress acted.

“As a result of his testimony, on August 7, Congress passed a joint resolution (H.J. RES 1145), titled the Southeast Asia Resolution, which granted President Johnson the authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. The resolution gave President Johnson approval “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”[42]

The US and the Cold War

Robert Freeman addresses this issue in his article “Choosing Quagmire: The Essential Context of Vietnam” (http://commondreams.org/views/2017/09/30/choosing-quagmire-essential-context-vietnam). The context was the Cold War, “the 45-year conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that began at the end of World War II.” The U.S. government had convinced itself in the 1950s-1960s that it was losing this war, though this was overblown and perhaps served the military and international interests of the U.S. administration, the Pentagon, and national security establishment.

Still, there were reasons to justify the U.S. government’s paranoia about the Soviet threat. First, the Soviet Union had done the bulk of fighting to defeat Hitler, losing 70 men for every one the U.S. lost in World War II,” though the U.S. military, government, and media paid almost sole attention to the military achievements of U.S. and allied forces and stoked an American mythology of the war. Second, the Soviet Union had – and continued to have – a powerful military force. The Soviets finished the war “with control of more than 150,000 square miles of Eastern Europe – Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria.” Third, economically, the Soviet Union’s economy had done well during the Depression and continued to grow after WWII. There was never mass unemployment in the Soviet Union. So, the “communist” system during the 1950s and 1960s still posed a seemingly viable alternative to the system of capitalism in the U.S. Fourth, the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space and launched Sputnik in 1957.

Freeman summarizes: “In other words, in light of its military record, its basic organizing system, its economic accomplishments, and even its scientific achievements, the Soviet aura of power and prestige at the end of World War II was at an all-time high. If the Cold War was to be a contest of rival systems, it was not at all clear at the outset that the U.S. and its system would prevail.”

At the same time, Freeman points out, the US “was the only major combatant in World War II that had not been physically devastated by the fighting. Its industrial systems were enormously boosted by wartime production. It enjoyed the protection of two vast oceans. Its economy was by far the largest and most dynamic in the world. It had the world’s largest air force and navy and held a monopoly on the atomic bomb, not to mention a demonstrated willingness to use it.” Despite all this, the U.S. “the managers of the emerging American empire managed to convince themselves, or at least their people, that they were at risk, and they responded accordingly.”

The end of the old forms of colonialism

There was an additional reason for U.S. cold-war policy, and that was “the global movement of anti-colonialism that began at the end of World War II.” Freeman makes these points.

“Between 1945 and 1965, more than 100 new nations came into existence through this national independence process. It’s easy to see why. The Europeans had bankrupted themselves, both morally and financially, by starting not one but two World Wars within just 30 years. They could not plausibly retain their imperial domination of the developing world any more.

“So, developing world countries which made up most of the world were now in play. Would they be picked up by the Americans or would they go to the Soviets? It was literally going to be the greatest land grab in the history of the world.  From the beginning, however, it looked to be going badly for the U.S.

“India gained independence from Britain in 1947. It immediately declared itself socialist and put itself into the Soviet camp.  In 1949 when the communists won the civil war in China, American fear turned to panic.

“The Soviet Union, India, and now China, together representing 4/5ths of the land mass of Asia and more than half of all humans on the planet, had thrown in with the Soviet side. It really looked to the U.S. like it was losing the Cold War. This was the impetus for McCarthyism in the 1950s. But worse was still to come.

“First, in the Korean War, the U.S. could only fight the Soviet-backed North to a draw. The mightiest military on the planet could not win. Then, when the European imperial states would not give their colonies independence, the colonies began to go to war to achieve it, just as the Americans had, in 1776.

“Indonesia fought a bloody war to secure national independence from the Dutch. Kenya fought an eight-year war with England to gain its independence. Angola fought the Portuguese for 13 years to win its freedom. And so on throughout much of the developing world.

“And when they did go to war, since the capitalist European states would not give them their freedom, the colonial states sometimes turned to the Soviet Union for help.  This is what happened in Cuba.  The U.S. refused to recognize the revolution that overthrew the grotesquely corrupt Fulgencio Bautista so Castro turned to the Soviets for help.

So, Freeman argues, Vietnam was a part of a larger upsurge of nationalist revolutions that were changing the political-economy of the globe, and U.S. leaders decided that they would not let Vietnam fall into the Soviet camp. At the same time, it is clear that Ho Che Mein, the leader of North Vietnam and the most popular figure in the whole of Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, was a nationalist most of all and wanted Vietnam to be an independent country. However, when faced with a U.S. policy that was antagonistic to his leadership, he turned to the Soviet Union for assistance and got it. It went like this.

“…in February 1946, the president of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, approached U.S. president Harry Truman, asking for American help in evicting the French, much as the French, ironically, had helped the Americans evict the British 170 years earlier. But Ho Chi Minh was a communist, and the U.S. was engaged in the larger, life-and-death planetary war against communism. So, Truman turned Ho down, and helped the French instead.”

“And so, with nowhere else to go, Ho turned to the Soviets for help, to fight not only the French but, eventually, the Americans as well. This was the “original sin” that poisoned the U.S. position in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. It is what made it impossible for the U.S. to ever “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.”

Whither Vietnam?

Despite the devastation, Vietnam has managed to make some uneven economic progress in rebuilding its economy and country in recent decades, becoming more and more ensconced the capitalist global economy in the process.

Historian Lawrence Wittner offers these upbeat observations of contemporary Vietnam from his research and a visits to the country.

“Traveling through Vietnam during the latter half of April 2015 with a group of erstwhile antiwar activists, I was struck by the transformation of what was once an impoverished, war-devastated peasant society into a modern nation.  Its cities and towns are bustling with life and energy.  Vast numbers of motorbikes surge through their streets, including 4.2 million in Hanoi and 7 million in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  A thriving commercial culture has emerged, based not only on many small shops, but on an influx of giant Western, Japanese, and other corporations.  Although Vietnam is officially a Communist nation, about 40 percent of the economy is capitalist, and the government is making great efforts to encourage private foreign investment. Indeed, over the past decade, Vietnam has enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world.  Not only have manufacturing and tourism expanded dramatically, but Vietnam has become an agricultural powerhouse.  Today it is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and one of the world’s leading exporters of coffee, pepper, rubber, and other agricultural commodities.  Another factor distancing the country from what the Vietnamese call ‘the American War’ is the rapid increase in Vietnam’s population.  Only 41 million in 1975, it now tops 90 million, with most of it under the age of 30 — too young to have any direct experience with the conflict.”

Wittner adds:

“Vietnam has also made a remarkable recovery in world affairs.  It now has diplomatic relations with 189 countries, and enjoys good relations with all the major nations.”

“Victorious in war but defeated in peace”

It would be nice to end on this positive note. However, Wittner’s observations miss deeper realities of contemporary Vietnam. In an in-depth article published by The Guardian, Nick Davies (cited earlier) writes:

“In spite of losing the military conflict, the Americans and their allies [South Koreans] have returned with the even more powerful weapon of finance, forcing the Vietnamese down a road they did not choose. Now, it is their leaders who are telling the biggest lie of all” (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/22/vietnam-40-years-on-how-communist-victory-gave-way-to-capitalist-corruption).

Davies describes the immediate post-war situation in the mid-1970s. The US left Vietnam in a state of physical ruin, with devastated roads, rail lines, bridges and canals, paddy fields littered with high explosives and Agent Orange, two-thirds of the villages in the south destroyed, orphans roaming the street, and a heroin epidemic. The new government “estimated it was dealing with 10 million refugees; 1 million war widows; 880,000 orphans; 362,000 war invalids; and 3 million unemployed people.” The country was having to import rice. The US never delivered on the $3.5 billion reconstruction payment agreed to at the Paris negotiations ending the war. The US imposed a trade embargo. Vietnam’s socialist project began to collapse and its initial policies failed to give peasant farmers incentives to produce. By the late 1980s, “the leadership was forced to allow the peasants to start selling surplus produce, and so capitalism began to return.”

Then the shift to more capitalism occurred with some rapidity. By 1994, “the US was appeased and lifted the trade embargo,” and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund began to help. By 2005, “Vietnam was part of the global capitalist economy.” State-owned companies were sold to private investors. In 2006, it was given membership in the World Trade Organization.

In the process, however, inequality and corruption increased. Some evidence: “Transparency International last year [2014] reported that Vietnam is perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, doing worse than 118 others and scoring only 31 out of a possible 100 good points on the index.” And further: “A 2012 report of the World Bank notes that ‘inequality is back on the agenda.’ Between 2004 and 2010, income of the poorest 10% of the population fell by a fifth, it found, while the richest 5% in Vietnam were not taking nearly a quarter of the income.” And then “millions of farmers have been driven off the land to make way for factories or roads.” Hundreds of thousands of workers have been made redundant “as the private owners of the old state-owned companies set about cutting costs.” Now an increasing number of Vietnamese workers try to get by in the informal sector of the economy, with no protection against exploitation by employers. Healthcare and schooling are no longer free.

Final thoughts

If the US had supported Ho Che Minh after the Vietnamese had defeated the French colonialists in 1954, the history of Vietnam may well have turned out differently. Vietnam could have started out with a popular president, rich farm land, rivers, and forests, and a political culture based on egalitarian values. Today, such an option seems more remote than ever. Much of what I’ve written here is missed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. They hoped that their documentary would help to heal the divisions in the U.S. and bring a kind of reconciliation between the Vietnamese and US peoples. But, in trying not to take sides, they fail to help viewers understand the depth and terrible long-lasting consequences of what the US did to Vietnam. The documentary also fails to grasp the larger geo-political dynamics that limit the options of small countries in the global capitalist economy.

The specter of fascism and the future of democracy

The specter of fascism and the future of democracy

Bob Sheak, September 16, 2018

 

Carl Boggs, professor of social sciences at National University in Los Angeles, has written extensively on the U.S. power structure, identifying three crucial centers of power, including the mega-corporations, the presidency and executive branch of the government, and the military-industrial complex. They are pivotal, he maintains, in determining the major economic, political, and military policies for the United States and, through media, public relations, think tanks, and various experts, in shaping the society’s culture. They represent a power structure that is inimical to democracy, has always limited democracy, and is in the process of further diminishing it.

In his most recent book, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads, Boggs opening sentences capture the thrust of his analysis: “In this book I argue that the United States, the most exemplary liberal democracy in the world in terms of reputation, is well along the path to a new type of fascism, or what might be called a ‘fascist equivalent – ruled by a modern power structure that is increasingly oligarchical and authoritarian, not only politically, but economically and culturally” (p. 1). Boggs does not argue that the US is fascist yet, but rather that there are structural and other developments that are moving in that direction.  He refers to “a merger of historical forces that seem to be gaining momentum: corporatism, super-patriotism, militarism, imperialism, racism” (p. 2).

Boggs tells us that he is intellectually indebted to C. Wright Mills, a famous sociologist from the 1940s-1950s, who published a path-setting book titled The Power Elite in 1956, “where he explored the rapid growth of the freewheeling corporate sector with a confluence of state, business, and military interests” and how these developments were “already subverting liberal-democratic institutions” (p. 2). Boggs contends that the power of these institutional forces has grown immensely since Mills’ book was published. He puts it this way.

“What Mills found during the 1950s has surely expanded and deepened since: state, corporate, and military power has become more concentrated and integrated, the big-business and banking sectors impacting all realms of American society, beginning with government where Congress, the White House, state legislatures, federal agencies, parties, and elections have been colonized and reshaped by stupendous networks of wealth. Corporate interests were able to decisively influence policies, laws, and public opinion through a complex matrix of lobbies, think tanks, PACs (political action committees), and the media” (p. 2).

Friendly Fascism?

Boggs’ research leads him to find that fascism can have different manifestations, depending on the conditions in a given society. The principal implication is that, if fascism comes to the U.S., it will be rooted in the history and reflect the specific conditions that prevail at the time. Citing Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism (1982), he suggests that “a distinctly American fascism is destined to be of a more ‘friendly’ type, without major social disruptions, systematic terrorism, paramilitary actions, Mussolini-style demagoguery, or outright attacks on the Constitution” (p. 11) – and that elements of liberalism will co-exist with right-wing authoritarianism (p. 10). For example, there is no large-scale fascist (or neo-fascist) movement or party” in the U.S. today. But, to reiterate, there are other troubling signs.

The troubling signs

Why is it important to consider all this? It’s important for those who value democratic values, the constitution, the importance of an independent judiciary, the rule of law, an informed and engaged citizenry, and social justice because these values and institutions offer us the potential protections against the abuses that inevitably follow from an economy and government increasingly dominated by the rich and powerful, and they offer us opportunities, however slim, to help create a better and sustainable alternative. Unless we understand how power in the higher circles of the society operate, we will not be able to identify, let alone effectively address, the great economic, political, international, and environmental challenges that threaten us here and across the world.

Power becomes more and more consolidated at the top

Boggs argues that the situation has become so dire that we now confront a system that is becoming more and more fascistic, that is, a situation marked by such tendencies and trends as follows. Democracy and its basic values are being eclipsed. Corporate power is becoming more concentrated in a fewer corporate and seems increasingly unassailable. Right-wing forces, with support from the rich and major corporations, control the major institutional levers of state power. Republicans use their power to control the legislative process, rig congressional districts, and suppress the vote. The Supreme Court and the federal judiciary are becoming increasingly politicized and dominated by ultra-conservative justices.

The domestic and global scope of American corporate and state power has no parallel. The “integration of corporate, state, and military power is more advanced in the U.S. than anywhere except perhaps China.” The American power elite, Boggs observes, “now possesses more leverage across the globe than any ruling groups in Europe, Asia, Latin American, or elsewhere” (pp. 151-152). It has accumulated vast wealth and power within the existing domestic institutional arrangements so that “there is no need to resort to a single-party dictatorship and terror under a supreme leader” (p. 152). The major media pay little critical attention to these situations, unless they are celebrating them. All of this “co-exists with many formal structures and norms of Constitutional democracy – a ‘democracy’ to be sure,” where party competition, elections, and legislative activity still exist but have been steadily undermined by the wealth and power of ruling elites (p. 156). Sadly, Boggs writes, “corporations, Wall Street, federal government, the military, educational system, surveillance network…are systematically and unapologetically authoritarian, never much impacted by voting results” (p. 175).

Quoting from Sheldon S. Wolin’s book, Democracy, Inc. (2007) on the last point, Boggs writes: “One cannot point to any national institutions that [today] can be accurately described as democratic…” Congress, the presidency, court system, parties, state agencies, workplaces, schools and universities, and of course the military” (p. 7). A turning point for Wolin was “an enlarged ‘power imaginary’ that surfaced during and after World War II.” This was manifest in the following: “War mobilization, superpower ambitions, nuclear politics, the security state, and permanent war economy all served to extend the boundaries of power, eroding constitutional limits while feeding into statist, corporate, and imperial authoritarianism – the very stuff of historical fascism” (p. 7).

There is another recent book that serves to document the concentration of power not only in the U.S. power structure but internationally as well. Peter Philips identifies 389 individuals who lead and/or are associated with “the most important networks of the Global Power Elite.” They are “the core of the policy planning nongovernmental networks that manage, facilitate, and protect the continued concentration of global capital,” “providing the ideological justifications for their shared interests and establishing the parameters of needed actions for implementation by transnational governmental organizations.” The title of the book is Giants: The Global Power Elite.” The benefit of the book is that it provides the names of the individual, their bios, their connections to mega-corporations and to important nongovernmental organizations, and how they are continually thinking and planning about how to protect and advance their interests within capitalist political-economic systems. It is anti-democratic in its essence and coordinated thrust.

The military keeps growing

The military continues to grow, and does so in support of corporate interests abroad, unending, destructive, counterproductive wars and interventions, and at the expense of other non-military domestic programs. It has grown amidst “a process of global expansion, development of a Cold War ideological consensus, and narrowing of elite political culture binding Democrats and Republicans to a common international agenda.” At the same time, “the political and popular culture grew increasingly militarized, visible not only in foreign policy but in the media, high rates of crime, gun mania, and the world’s largest prison system” (p. 116). There is hardly a sports or pubic event that is not begun without patriotic songs and symbols.

By 2016, Pentagon “spending consumed more than half of all discretionary spending – at nearly one trillion dollars dwarfing expenditures of potential rivals such as Russia and China.” It “employed more than three million people worldwide, held fully 80 percent of the federal inventory, operated more than 800 bases in dozens of countries, and possessed a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the planet several times over” (p. 118).

Weapons makers profit exorbitantly by leading the world in unfettered foreign weapons sales – providing the means that fuel disorder, violence, repression, and wars across the globe (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/16/donald-trump-gunrunner-for-hire).

There are other costs, as spending on the military is one of the principal sources of the climbing national debt and comes at the expense of  reduced spending and “austerity” in “social programs and public infrastructure, as spending “devoted to missiles, planes, ships, and guns” take precedence over spending for “roads, water and power facilities, bridges, public transportation, and education” (p. 118).

Despite this awesome military force, the elites who make up the power structure worry about losing military preeminence in the world. U.S. elites are concerned in recent years about nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Boggs refers to R. J. Lifton’s concept of “nuclearism,” or the “ideology of U.S. nuclear power…would allow the world’s dominant warfare state to set its own international rules and norms promoting its supposedly unique set of virtues, including the ‘American model’ of corporate globalization” (p. 125). But, also importantly, the U.S. military is mired in costly and catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, has extended provocatively NATO military forces in Eastern Europe on the border of Russia, is involved in dangerous naval operations in the South China Sea with China, supports Saudi Arabia’s military onslaught on Yemen, is expanding its present in Africa, allows US arms producers to sell by far more armaments to other countries than any other nation, and is making outer space the new battleground.

The huge military is said by to be a force for peace. In realty, it has done little to promote peace and has been stuck in unauthorized wars that have ravaged countries, killed and uprooted millions of people, created the conditions for the spread of “terrorist” groups, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars along with many tens of thousands of American casualties, men and women, who have fought in these wars. The published work of Andrew J. Bacevich in such books as The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism or Chalmers Johnson’s book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. Among other proposals, Johnson writes that “[w]e need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing army and deal much more effectively with the long-term wounds our soldiers receive and the combat stress they undergo.” And “we must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives” (p. 196). In his recently published book, A Nation Made by War, Tom Engelhardt offers an apt summary.

“…we’re truly in a new American age, whether of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats or of the generals, by the generals, and for the generals – but most distinctly not of the people, by the people, and for the people.

“After all, for more than sixteen years, the US military has been fighting essentially failed or failing wars – conflicts that only seem to spread the phenomenon (terrorism) they’re supposed to eradicate – in Afghanistan, Iraq, more recently Syria, intermittently Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s generals have been quietly escalating those wars. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more American soldiers and special ops forces are being sent into Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait (about which the Pentagon will no longer provide even inaccurate numbers); US air strikes have been on the rise throughout the region; the American commander in Afghanistan is calling for reinforcements; drone strikes recently set a new record for intensity in Yemen; Somalia may be the next target of mission creep and escalation; and it looks as if Iran is  now in Washington’s sniper scopes” (p. 146).

But it is all good for the Pentagon in increased budgets and power and for the arms producers in profits.

Programs created to have wide benefits are attacked and citizen participation declines

To reiterate, social-welfare programs are being eviscerated, along with environmental and consumer protections. There is increasing inequality in all aspects of the society, trends that go back to the 1970s, especially arising during the years of the Reagan administration. Citizens are increasingly detached from community and political activity and preoccupied with private worries, how to pay the bills, debt, entertainment, consumption. Boggs refers to signs of how vigorous democratic politics have declined, as evidenced by how “widespread and dynamic participating, institutional accountability, broad access, issue knowledge and awareness, sense of political efficacy – have sharply declined in recent decades.” Forty to fifty percent of the electorate don’t vote in presidential elections and sixty percent or more who don’t typically vote in mid-term elections. And, Boggs points out, “[r]ecent history shows…that counterforces to the political establishment – social movements, alternative parties, community enclaves – have not been sufficiently durable to challenge the status quo” (p. 165).

It should be noted, however, that there is robust activity in the civic culture and that such activity demonstrates that resistance to the power elite has not come close to being eliminated, though it has not been particularly successful either. But it exists. On this score, Henry Giroux writes in his recent book:

“While Trump attempts to expand its alt-right social base under its authoritarian hierarchy, forces for grassroots resistance are mobilizing around a renewed sense of ethical courage, social solidarity, and a revival of the political imagination. We see this happening in the increasing number of mass demonstrations in which individuals are putting their bodies on the line, refusing the fascist machinery of misogyny, nativism, and white supremacy. Airports are being occupied, people are demonstrating in the streets of major cities, town halls have become the sites of resistance, campuses are being transformed into sanctuaries to protect undocumented students, scientists are marching en masses against climate change deniers, and progressive cultural workers, public intellectuals, and politicians are speaking out against the emerging authoritarianism. In a number of red states, middle-aged women are engaged in the ‘grinding scutwork of grassroots organizing’ while addressing the big issues such as ‘health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money politics, education, and the environment.’ Democracy may be in exile in the United States, and imperiled in Europe and other parts of the globe, but the spirit that animates it remains resilient” (American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, p. 306).

A private-public system of surveillance is massively expanding

There are ominous signs and the power elite has consolidated enormous control of the society’s principal economic, political, and military sectors. In addition to the fascist tendencies already discussed, our privacy is in danger of being eclipsed by an ever-more sophisticated state surveillance system augmented by large communications corporations. Julia Angwin offers an insightful analysis of this phenomenon in her book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. And Yasha Levine documents the historical and contemporary influence of the military in creating the internet and how tech-industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon now collect massive amounts of information on millions of Americans in the book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. The internet can be used for good or bad. On the one hand, Levine writes:

“Today, we live in a troubled world, a world of political disenfranchisement, rampant poverty and inequality, unchecked corporate power, wars that seem to have no end and no purpose, and a runaway privatized military and intelligence complex – and hanging over it all are the prospects of global warming and environmental collapse. We live in bleak times, and the Internet is a reflection of them: run by spies and powerful corporations just as our society is run by them. But it isn’t all hopeless.”

On the other hand:

“Not all surveillance is bad. Without them, there can be no democratic oversight of society. Ensuring oil refineries comply with pollution regulations, preventing Wall Street fraud, forcing wealthy citizens to pay their fair share – none of these would be possible. In that sense, surveillance and control are not problems in and of themselves. How they are used depends on our politics and political culture” (p. 274).

Under the current power arrangements, however, there is every reason to believe that most of us have lost control over our personal information and live in a world where we have little privacy. David Gray looks at how use of the internet technology by corporations and the federal government is now little protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in his book The Fourth Amendment in an Age of Surveillance. The Fourth Amendment was designed to guarantee a basic degree of security against threats of unreasonable governmental intrusion.” However, it is increasingly irrelevant today and fails to address issues related to the electronic media. Gray writes:

“…in a recent ranking compiled by Privacy International comparing surveillance practices and privacy protections among nations, the United States landed at the very bottom, earning the designation ‘endemic surveillance society’ along with Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Russia, China, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom” (p. 6).

Boggs points to the enormous expanse of the government’s intelligence/surveillance systems as follows.

“…the system has expanded to include no fewer than 17 federal agencies along with hundreds of state and local bodies charged with homeland security, surveillance, espionage, covert operations, and everyday law enforcement.”

“…American surveillance entities vacuum up billions of electronic transactions daily, enabling them to locate and observe millions of people through cell-phone activity, social media transactions, and Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates. The NSA in turn shares part of its voluminous information with such intelligence-oriented bodies as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, CIA, Defense Information Agency (DIA), IRS, and multiple layers of state and local police forces.”

He continues:

“The NSA, moreover, has worked closely with such corporations as Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, and Google, all central to the smooth functioning of American communications technology. The agency has produced a massive watch list, identifying more than a million potential ‘threats,’ entered into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) and Terrorist Identities Group (TIG).”

“…in 2013 alone, the NSA collected more than 125 billion telephone items and 97 billion pieces of computer data from around the world, much from (theoretically exempt) American citizens….” (p. 183).

There are additional concerns stemming from the current power structure. Dissent is fraught with risks, though not yet systemically quashed. More and more government functions are privatized, the infrastructure deteriorates, and ecosystems are degraded and depleted in record numbers, while increasingly cataclysmic climate change unfolds with little restraint on corporate polluters in the context of an unplanned and increasingly unregulated, profit-first capitalist economy.

Fewer constraints on the power elite amidst the “war on terror”

 Since 9/11, constraints on U.S. power have further diminished, Boggs contends, “as the War on Terrorism perpetually legitimates the imperial state, cloaking its naked drive for economic and geopolitical advantage behind the wounded innocence of avenging victim, as in the case of Germany following its World War I defeat and then added humiliation at Versailles” (p. 7). And the ascendance of Trump to the White House, along with a right-wing cabinet, the systematic assaults and diminution of the federal bureaucracy, the undermining scientific research and environmental protections and attacks on the science itself, the ruthlessness of the Republican Party, the concurrence of most segments of the corporate community, and a cult-like following of tens of millions of Americans – all indicate that the U.S. has more fascist elements and tendencies than ever before. Boggs notes: “The sad truth is that popular movements, local organizations, and third parties ultimately constitute the only hope for challenging, possibly reversing, the seemingly relentless fascistic trends identified through this book. Such resistance will be the last line of defense in a world of unprecedented crises, overwhelming challenges, and potential disasters” (p. 179). But this line has yet to reverse the growing concentration and consolidation of power.

Reactionary Populism gains new life under Trump

 Along with all the rest, the right-wing political forces have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Boggs points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).

Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of “the white power movement” in the U.S. in her brilliant, but disturbing, book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.

“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.

“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).

And they thrive.

“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).

The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.

The Democratic Party falters

While there are policy differences that divide the Democrats from the Republicans on “secondary or tertiary” issues like immigration, gay marriage, abortion, both parties, Boggs contends, support “modern capitalism and the warfare state” (p. 159). Though it is important to recognize that in the Democratic Party there is a progressive caucus that sets it apart from the Republicans on most issues. Certainly, progressive Democrats strongly support civil rights, progressive taxes, the need to regulate the economy and break up some of the mega-corporations, less spending on the military, immigration reform that provides for pathways to citizenship and honors international laws on refugees, the need to rachet up support for renewable forms of energy, and the vital importance of government spending on infrastructure, housing, education, job training, and other policies that provide benefits to ordinary Americans. And Obama and his administration should be given credit for signing the international agreement in Paris in December 2015 aimed at limiting greenhouse emissions, the advance of federally-binding fuel-efficiency standards for cars, vans and light truck, and in the successful multilateral agreement signed with Iran, the UK, France, the EU, Germany, Russia on banning Iran from ever developing nuclear bombs.

And it’s uplifting to follow Bernie Sanders political involvement in the U.S. Senate and in support of progressive candidates across the country. He is one of the political leaders who will help us to envision what can and must be done in the pursuit of truth and a more democratic and just society and world. Here is a sample of what he says in just published article.

“The truth is, however, that to effectively oppose rightwing authoritarianism, we cannot simply go back to the failed status quo of the last several decades. Today in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, people are working longer hours for stagnating wages, and worry that their children will have a lower standard of living than they do.

“Our job is to fight for a future in which new technology and innovation works to benefit all people, not just a few. It is not acceptable that the top 1% of the world’s population owns half the planet’s wealth, while the bottom 70% of the working age population accounts for just 2.7% of global wealth.

“Together governments of the world must come together to end the absurdity of the rich and multinational corporations stashing over $21tn in offshore bank accounts to avoid paying their fair share of taxes and then demanding that their respective governments impose an austerity agenda on their working families.

“It is not acceptable that the fossil fuel industry continues to make huge profits while their carbon emissions destroy the planet for our children and grandchildren” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/09/13/new-authoritarian-axis-demands-international-progressive-front).

But it’s also true that Obama and the Democratic Party generally supported the bail-out of the big banks in 2008, allowed the banks to sell its junk assets to the Federal Reserve. They supported increased military spending, military engagements throughout the world, drone warfare, an energy policy that included oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and were weak on poverty, public job creation, raising the minimum wage, single-payer medical insurance. They remain tied to big money for campaign contributions. Obama did little to reach out to peace groups, unions, or other civic organizations. His trade proposals, like the TPP, had “bad labor laws and practices, few if any consumer or environmental protections that can be enforced in courts of law, and precious little freedom of speech” (Ralph Nader, To the Ramparts: how Bush and Obama paved the way for the Trump presidency, and why it isn’t too late to reverse course, p. 165).

Is avoidance of the political/economic/military reality a better option?

Given the enormity of the challenge and the awesome power of mega-corporations, the imperial presidency, and the military, such an analysis that highlights their awesome power may have the effect of undermining citizen and collective activism and efforts by people to support the kind of changes that are necessary. The reality of a power elite may be too much to contemplate. One may respond by coming to the belief that there are no effective ways to orchestrate a political strategy that will lead to systemic/structural changes. The odds of making such changes do indeed appear unlikely now. If this is the response, then there will be those who become fatalistic and become or remain politically and intellectually disengaged. Or the response may be to focus one’s energies on how in some limited local way one can contribute. Or focus on an important single issue. And such efforts will not, by themselves, be enough. Local and regional efforts will and are occurring, but such efforts alone have not and will not change the existing power arrangements and the attendant policies that are diminishing democracy, fostering ever-greater inequalities, impelling a militarized foreign policy and war, and threatening all of us here and around the world with more environmental devastation.

My approach seeks truth, even when it is disturbing and does not reveal, or readily reveal, a clear political path to a better world. But it does help to confront the realty of our situation and such information is a necessary element in the efforts to challenge the power and retrograde policies of those who now have it.

 

 

Trump and his allies enjoy huge financial benefits amidst harmful and unsustainable economic and environmental trends

Trump and his allies enjoy huge economic benefits amidst harmful and unsustainable economic and environmental trends

Bob Sheak – September 2, 2018

Trump twitters in delight that recent economic news about a “strong” economy will increase the chances that the Republicans will hold onto the Senate and the House in the November midterm elections, and that any movement to impeach him will go away. Indeed, there is some good news, though it occurs amidst overall economic conditions that are troublesome, if not worse. The good news, according to some of the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other authoritative sources, includes the following examples: economic growth is robust in the second quarter of 2018; unemployment is low; jobs, including manufacturing jobs, are being added to the economy; the stock market remains at record levels; and oil and gas production is way up thanks to fracking, making the US less dependent on foreign oil. Trump is also probably uplifted by how his own businesses, over which he still has final say, are thriving and how generally the rich, “superior” people like himself, are getting richer. (See Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, for a richly documented historical analysis of the roots on this Social Darwinist view of how the rich think they deserve their wealth and privilege because, they claim, they are smarter and work hard than the rest of us and because society would collapse without their leadership.) Another point to keep in mind. One cannot fully understand the economy without grasping how the economy and polity are tightly intermingled.

It’s all good news for Trump

In the meantime, Trump is touting the good economic news. In a report published by Newsmax on Friday, August 24, 2018, a few of Trump’s tweets are quoted as follows:

“Our economy is setting records on virtually every front – Probably the best our        country has ever done.”

“Our country is doing phenomenally well.”

And, you betcha, it all has to do with him. According to Newsmax, Trump warned that if the Democrats regain control of Congress and attempt to impeach him, the economy would tank. He is quoted as saying on “Fox and Friends” “…if I ever get impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor because without this thinking, you would see numbers that you wouldn’t believe in reverse” (https://www.newsmax.com/politics/trump-economy-twitter/2018/08/24/id/878512).

Trump and his family reap benefits

 From all indications, the President and his family are doing very well financially. Nomi Prins offers a revealing article at TomDispatch titled “The Empire Expands: Not the American One, But Trump’s” (http://commondreams.org/views/2017/05/02/empire-expands-not-american-one-trumps). She opens her article with these words.

“President Trump, his children and their spouses, aren’t just using the Oval Office to augment their political legacy or secure future riches. Okay, they certainly are doing that, but that’s not the most useful way to think about what’s happening at the moment. Everything will make more sense if you reimagine the White House as simply the newest branch of the Trump family business empire, its latest outpost.

“It turns out that the voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump, the patriarch, got a package deal for his whole clan.  That would include, of course, first daughter Ivanka who, along with her husband, Jared Kushner, is now a key political adviser to the president of the United States.  Both now have offices in the White House close to him.  They have multiple security clearances, access to high-level leaders whenever they visit the Oval Office or Mar-a-Lago, and the perfect formula for the sort of brand-enhancement that now seems to come with such eminence. President Trump may have an exceedingly “flexible” attitude toward policymaking generally, but in one area count on him to be stalwart and immobile: his urge to run the White House like a business, a family business.”

Along with family members put in key positions in Trump’s administration, Trump seems to have brazenly violated federal laws that forbids a president from being personally involved in his own businesses and investments. On this point, Prins writes: “Faced with the dynasty-crushing possibility of selling his business or even placing it in a blind trust, Donald Trump chose instead to let his two older sons, Eric and Donald Jr., manage it…. While speaking with Forbes in March, Eric indicated that he would provide his father with updates on the Trump Organization “quarterly” — but who truly believes that father and sons won’t discuss the family empire far more frequently than that?” The problem with this arrangement is that it opens the door to profit-making opportunities as foreign officials and those representing various business interests attempt to curry favor with Trump by, for example, loaning his businesses money, buying apartments in his luxury hotels, or clearing the way for the Trump organization to build upscale hotels in their country.

Prins continues, pointing out that Trump’s continuing links to his businesses appears to violate sections of the Code of Federal Regulation, most notably “Title 18 section 208” of the code which covers “acts affecting a personal financial interest.” Specifically, the code is violated when there is a personal financial interest linked to the duties of “an officer or employee of the executive branch of the United States government.” Violations of the code put forth in “section 216 of Title 18” specify that violations of the code can result in “fines or imprisonment or both.” Prins gives a number of examples of how Trump and daughter Ivanka are skirting on the edge of the law, and probably going beyond it.

“What that should mean, legally speaking, for a family occupying the executive office is: Ivanka could not have dinner with the president of China while her business was applying for and receiving provisional approval of pending trademarks from his country, if one of those acts might impact the other. To an outsider, the connection between those acts seems obvious enough and it’s bound to be typical of what’s to come.”

And further:

“The family has already racked up a laundry list of global conflicts of interest that suggest ways in which the White House is likely to become a moneymaking vehicle for the Trump line. There’s Turkey, for instance, where the Trump Organization already has a substantial investment, and where President Trump recently called President Recip Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his power-grabbing, anti-democratic victory in a disputed election to change the country’s constitution.  Given Trump business interests globally, you could multiply that call by the world.

“Meanwhile, Ivanka’s brand isn’t just doing business as usual, it’s killing it. Since 2017, according to the Associated Press, “global sales of Ivanka Trump merchandise have surged.” As a sign of that, the brand’s imports, mostly from China, have more than doubled over the previous year. As for her husband, he remained the CEO of Kushner Companies through January, only then abdicating his management role in that real-estate outfit and 58 other businesses, though remaining the sole primary beneficiary of most of the associated family trusts. His and Ivanka’s children are secondary beneficiaries. That means any policy decision he promotes could, for better or worse, affect the family business and it doesn’t take a genius to know which of those options he’s likely to choose.”

“Despite an already mind-boggling set of existing conflicts of interest, ranging from business affiliations with oligarchs connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to the Secret Service and the Pentagon leasing space in Trump Tower (for at least $3 million per year), the Trump family business is now looking to the glorious, long haul. The family is already scouting for a second hotel in Washington. Trump has reportedly used nearly $500,000 from early campaign money raised for his own 2020 presidential bid to bolster the biz. It’s evidently been poured into “Trump-owned restaurants, hotels and golf clubs,” as well as rent at Trump Tower in New York City.”

In an article published in The Guardian, Dominic Rushe reports on a study of how “Trump businesses [are] making millions from political and taxpayer spending.” Rushe’s article reveals how Trump has been enriching himself through his presidency but also even before that during his presidential campaign (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/16/trump-businesses-money-campaign-federal-agencies).

The main source of Rushe’s evidence comes from a report by Public Citizen, a Washington-based nonprofit, which “analyzed all the available records of political and federal taxpayer spending on Trump businesses,” although not all the relevant information was accessible. The title of the report is “The Art of the (Self) Deal: Political and Taxpayer Spending on Trump’s Properties.” Public Citizen’s report “finds Trump’s businesses have raked in $15.1millon from political groups and federal agencies in ‘pattern of personal self-enrichment.’” The report concludes that Trump, his campaign and Republican political committees have diverted millions of dollars to the president’s businesses – spending money on his airplanes, at his hotels, golf courses and restaurants, and even buying his Trump-branded bottled water.” Rushe quotes Alan Zibel, research direct of Public Citizen’s Corporate Presidency Project and author of the report, as follows:

“One of the most shocking is his shameless self-dealing, as exemplified by the continued spending of campaign money and taxpayer dollars to Trump’s own businesses, which he refused to fully divest. Before Trump, this pattern of personal of self-enrichment was a characteristic of third-world autocrats rather than the president of the United States.”

Rushe reminds the reader that “Trump fought off calls to separate himself from his businesses after his election and has declined to release his tax returns, which would give a better accounting of the money he has made as president.” Meanwhile, with the assistance of compliant economic advisers appointed by the president, he and his family do well financially out of the public eye. (See Wikipedia’s list of Trump’s economic advisers at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_economic_advisers_to_Donald_Trump.)

Trump’s economy good for the rich and mega-corporations, not so good for the majority of Americans

 The U.S. Commerce Department released information on August 29 showing that “corporate profits are soaring to new heights thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cuts,” according to Jake Johnson (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/08/30/corporate-profits-reach-new-heights-after-trump-tax-cuts-40-americans-cant-afford). The Commerce Department also found, Johnson reports, that the profits gain during the second quarter ending on June 30 was the largest for this same quarter in six years. The Trump/Republican Party tax cuts reduced the taxes paid by U.S. companies during this quarter by 33 percent compared to the same quarter a year ago. The Wall Street banks were the biggest beneficiary, with a record $60 billion in profits, half of it the result of the reduced taxes and some of the rest from deregulatory reforms. What was good for corporate America was not so good for many millions of Americans. Johnson refers to a study by the Urban Institute that “found that nearly half of the American public can’t afford basic necessities like food, healthcare, and housing.” The two reports together provide, Johnson notes, “a striking picture of America’s two-tiered economy, one that has become even more lopsided in favor of the rich since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.”

There is another boost for the corporations in the offing. Naomi Jagoda reports that “Congressional Republicans are rallying behind potential executive action by the Treasury Department to reduce capital gains unilaterally” (http://thehill.com/policy/finance/399802-republicans-happy-to-let-treasury-pursue-100-billion-tax-cut). If implemented, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wants, it would “result in an estimated $100 billion tax cut, mostly for wealthy individuals.” At the same time, in tune with the Trump/Republican Party’s policy of bleeding of the public sector, Trump has issued an order canceling a 2.1 percent across-the-board raise scheduled to take effect in January for most federal workers, according to a report by Darlene Superville for the AP wire service, which was carried by ABC News (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/trump-cancels-pay-raise-due-federal-workers-january-57504058).

Superville reports that Trump’s intent is to freeze wages next year. He ignores, according to J. David Cox Sr, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, as quoted by Superville, “the fact that they are worse off today financially than they were at the start of the decade.” Cox’s union represents some 700,000 federal workers. They have already suffered cuts since 2011 of $200 billion. Tony Reardon, national p resident of the National Treasury Employees Union and Cox says, “their paychecks cannot stretch any further as education, health care costs, gas and other goods continue to get more expensive.”

Trump makes it up – whatever makes him feel good

Journalists at The Washington Post have been documenting the “false or misleading claims” of Trump through his presidency. On July 31, 2018, they updated their tally, bringing it up to 4,229 such claims (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?noredirect+on&utm_term=.b846026721dC).

Withal, the Republican base is with him all the way

 Newsmax reports that 51 percent were found to approve of how he is handling the economy, citing an AP-NORC poll conducted August 16-20 (http://www.apnorc.org/projects/Pages/Trump-and-the-Trade-Tariffs.aspx). At the same time, there are strong partisan divisions. According to the Newsmax report, the poll found a striking difference on how Republicans and Democrats opine about Trump’s economic performance, with almost 90 percent of Republicans approving but only 23 percent of Democrats. There are also stark divisions over Trump’s trade and tariff policies. “Seventy-five percent of Republicans approve of how Trump is handling trade negotiations with other countries; 90 percent of Democrats disapprove.” And: “…66 percent of Republicans support the president’s decision to impose tariffs, while 62 percent of Democrats oppose it.” If nothing else, Trump must find comfort in the strong support he receives from Republicans on his policies.

 Trump’s “true believers”

Of course, his core grassroots constituencies would most likely support him even if the economic reports were poor. They like his nationalistic rhetoric, his jingoism, xenophobia and talk of a walled-off border, his racist slant and flirtations with white supremacy, his spending on the military, his unqualified support of the National Rifle Association and a no-regulation policy on gun ownership, and his promotion of himself as a “stable genius” who knows more than the experts. On the last point, his rhetoric fits well into a culture in which, for at least 35-40 percent of the population, opinion takes precedence over verifiable evidence. The result is that their adoration of Trump enables them, with the help of right-wing media, to disregard any criticism of him and the unending torrent of lies streaming from Trump’s twitters, rallies, and interviews on Fox News and other right-wing media.

Chauncey DeVega argues that “Trump’s political movement meets the definition of a cult.” He quotes Steven Hassan, “one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject,” as follows:

“Donald Trump fits the stereotypical profile of a cult leader. His followers fit the model as well. Many of them, especially the ones that say, ‘He could do anything and we would still believe him, we would still follow him,’ sound like people who have been indoctrinated into a totalistic mindset.” DeVega continues: “Republicans and other conservatives are increasingly authoritarian and possess a deep disdain for democracy. Research by political scientists and others has revealed that ‘winning at any costs’ – even if that means subverting democracy – is increasingly all that matters for many on the American right” (https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics-heres-how-trump-will-convince-supporters-to-stick-him-even-he-admits-collusion).

THE DARK SIDES OF THE “ECONOMY” – AN OVERVIEW AND SOME EXAMPLES

 This rosy view of the economy from the White House is, however, overshadowed by other evidence that Trump and his supporters do their best to ignore. Most of the economic gains generated by the economy since the Great Recession “officially” ended in 2009 is going to the top 1 percent of the income and wealth distributions. Average wages remain stagnant. Many of the jobs being created do not provide livable wages, security, or benefits. While Americans are buying things, many are accumulating high levels of debt along the way. Particularly disturbing is that the debt situation of college students and graduates, which remains at historic highs. There is also a rising pension crisis, as a growing number of elderly people do not have a pension or savings that give them the financial means ever to retire. Without assistance from their children, most of them will end up working in the temp/gig workforce if they can and being impoverished or close to it whether they find a job or not. In tune with their trickle-down neoliberal ideology of low taxes, deregulation, privatization, and corporate-friendly trade, the Republicans want to make the financial challenges of the elderly worse by partially privatizing Social Security and giving Wall Street brokers the profitable opportunity to charge fees for financial advice.

I’ll elaborate on a few of these problematic situations.

Fleecing the elderly

Following up on the last point, economist Dean Baker had an article on Truthout in which he considers the benefits that Social Security has provided over its 83 years of existence and how it needs to be improved, not privatized (https://truthout.org/articles/retirement-income-in-the-21st-century). The benefits of the system for the elderly have been enormous. Baker points out that it has “lifted tens of millions of retirees out of poverty and provides the bulk of retirement income for most people after they stop working.” Additionally: “It also provides disability insurance to workers unable to work and survivors’ insurance to the families of workers who die at an early age.” The social security system is also “extremely efficient, with administration costs that are just 0.6 percent of the money paid out in benefits each year. By comparison, privatized systems often have costs that are 15-20 percent of annual benefits.” He points out further that it has “a minimal amount of fraud.”

At the same time, “it still does not provide an adequate retirement income” by itself for most elderly beneficiaries. While the benefits from the system keep many people from slipping into poverty, it usually takes additional income from savings, investments, or private pensions sources to maintain a middle-class standard of living. The problem, as mentioned, is that many people enter old age with few savings or investments, and increasingly without pensions related to previous employment. Traditionally defined benefit pensions with guaranteed benefits have increasingly been replaced by401 (k) defined contribution plans that have proven to offer a growing number of retirees little retirement income but lucrative fees for financial advisers.

Baker points an analysis he and his colleagues has done “of data from the Federal Reserve Board,” which “found that savings of all types for the middle quintile of households between the ages of 55 and 64 were just $99,000.” This would only “provide $5,000 to $6,000 a year in retirement. And 41.5% of them have not yet paid of their house mortgages. Baker draws the following conclusion: “The current 401(k) retirement system was designed not to serve workers but rather to give money to the financial industry. Think of it like food stamps for the very rich, but instead of the government handing people $120 a month for their food stamp benefit, they give the financial industry tens of billions each year from workers’ savings.”

Stagnating Wages

Toluse Olorunnipa and Sho Chandra report in an article for Bloomberg on August 28, 2018, “Americans are Making Less Money Despite Trump’s Promises” (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-28/trump-s-promises-to-forgotten-man-undercut-by-wage-stagnation). Trump’s administration promised that tax overhaul would immediately boost wages by $4,000 to $9,000. It is expected that “many Americans” will receive “a boost in take-home pay from the tax cuts, though some ended up paying more in taxes.” Specifically: “About 65 percent of taxpayers will receive a tax cut in 2018, averaging $2,200 from the news law’s individual provisions, while 6 percent will receive an increase of about $2,800, according to estimates from the Tax Policy Center in March.” Note that these are not permanent tax cuts, unlike the various tax reductions for corporations and the rich.

The evidence on wages raises questions about Trump’s upbeat claims. Here the two key findings from Olorunnipa and Chandra. One, “Once the impact of inflation is included, ordinary Americans’ hourly earnings are lower than they were a year ago.” They write: “Inflation-adjusted hourly wages dropped 0.2 percent in July from a year earlier, their worst reading since 2012, according to the Labor Department, amid faster price gains.” Two, a Quinnipiac University poll found that a “majority of voters believe their personal situation has remained the same or gotten worse over the past two years.”

Other evidence on wage stagnation

Here’s what I wrote in an essay sent out in June 2018, titled “What kind of jobs?’ (https://vitalissues-bobsheak.com/2018/06/21/what-kind-of-jobs). Focusing on the lower half of the job supply gives you a glimpse of the how problematic the job situation is. There I quoted from Chuck Collins new book, Is Inequality in America irreversible?

“Half of US jobs pay less than $15 an hour and 41 million workers earn under $12 an hour, or less than $25,000 per year. These workers are disproportionately black and Latino. Most of these low-wage jobs have few or no benefits, including no sick leave, vacation days, childcare, or retirement plans. These are the workers who clean hotel rooms, take care of children and the elderly, serve food, and work at retail counters and as janitors and security guards. This fuels a difficult work-life balancing act for many individuals and working families attempting to survive” (pp. 18-19).

A press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals more generally that “real average hourly earnings” barely increased by 0.3 percent over the previous year, from April 2017 to April 2018 (https://www.bls.gov/news/release/pdf/realer.pdf). The stagnation of wages stretches back to the 1970s. Wages in manufacturing, where the relatively highest nonsupervisory wages can be found, have been stagnant since the 1970s. Robert Kuttner writes: “In January 1979, the average manufacturing wage was $20.83 in inflation-adjusted dollars. In July 2017, it was $20.94” (Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism, p. 191). The percentage of manufacturing jobs in the economy has been declining most years since the 1960s: “Between the 1960s and the current era, US employment in manufacturing declined from over 25 percent of total jobs in 1965 to just under 8 percent by 2016” (Kuttner, p. 191). More recent estimates by the BLS indicate that manufacturing jobs increased from May 2017 to May 2018 by 259,000, or an increase of 2.1 percent (https://www.bls/gov/web/empsit/cehighlights.pdf). We must wait to see whether this trend continues. But there is reason to be skeptical that manufacturing employment will ever climb back to double digits (as a percentage of total employment), let alone to 25 percent. This would require a number of presently unlikely conditions, namely, that corporations like GM, Ford, GE, stop outsourcing their investments abroad, that the US government invest massively in a major infrastructure project, that corporations use the increased billions in revenues from the Trump/Republican Party tax cuts to invest in new or expanded domestic production, that the federal government increase – rather than decrease – support of green technologies, and that government support a National Labor Relations Board that supports the right of workers to join unions and for fair collective bargaining takes a dramatic turn.

 Additional problems with the economy

There are other issues that are dismissed or ignored by Trump and his Republican allies and supporters. The national debt continues to soar, made worse by the Republican tax law that overwhelmingly favors big corporations and the rich, the big increases in the military budget, and the continuing massive, tax-avoiding offshore tax havens where the wealthy and many corporations squirrel away their money. The internationally bestselling book The Panama Papers provides some extensive documentation of the latter point.

The list of the problematic aspects of the economy is long. The health care system is fraught with problems, including high and rising prices for all aspects of the health care system, from primary-care services, emergency care, hospital costs, prescription drugs, nursing homes, medical equipment, plus there are tens of millions of Americans who can’t afford any health insurance, or only insurance with very high deductibles and premiums. Republicans want to privatize and/or cut Medicare and reduce spending on Medicaid, especially for those getting assistance for disabilities. They want to reduce access to Medicaid, food stamps, child care. The country’s infrastructure remains in bad repair. Thousands of cities and towns have lead pipes that transport water laced with lead to residences, schools, restaurants and other businesses. The Trump administration wants to gut spending on public housing and increase the cost to tenants living in such housing. There is concern in many circles that Trump’s tariffs are alienating US allies and leading the country toward economically trade wars that may lead to increases in the prices of many goods and services and the loss of jobs.

The problems are rooted in the system of corporate capitalism

This bad news takes place in an economy dominated by mega-corporations that must continually grow in an unplanned, helter-skelter way, with little or no concern for the many dire or existentially-threatening social and environmental consequences that it spawns.

As discussed, Trump, the Republicans, the corporate community, the rich, Trump’s core grassroots supporters can dismiss or ignore the problematic aspects of the political economy. And, along with the problems already considered, there are other problems that are so serious and fundamental that, if current trends continue, the system will fall into greater chaos, even confront eventual collapse. This is what I have in mind: the increasingly disruptive and catastrophic climate change that stems from the greenhouse gas emissions of our fossil-fuel based energy system, the depletion of vital resources, and the increase in toxic-ridden, degraded environments. These are huge topics, but there is a large body of articles, research, and books that documents them. I considered some of the evidence on climate change in a recent post (https://vitalissues-bobsheak.com/2018/07/30/heating-up-the-planet-an-update). Here I’ll give one example of the problem of environmental degradation that is a consequence of our fossil-fuel dominated energy system.

Fracking for oil and gas and its impacts: a booming but unsustainable part of the economy

Fracking is the name given to a complex technology for extracting oil or gas from shale rocks that are buried deep in the earth. The full name for the process is horizontal hydraulic fracturing. It involves pumping an enormous volume of water, along with silica sand, and chemicals, down through a well bore hole into the earth at high pressure through a vertical and horizontal pipe system. It has enabled mining companies, including some of the largest oil corporations like ExxonMobil and Chevron, to tap oil and gas veins that a decade or so ago were inaccessible.

Vince Beiser offers a concise summary of the process:

“By shooting a highly pressurized mix of water, chemicals, and sand into a well bore [hole], drillers shatter the surrounding shale, spider webbing it with tiny cracks through which the hydrocarbons flow. They need the sand to keep the cracks open, holding fast against the pressure of the surrounding rock that wants to close them back up” (The World in a Grain, p. 120).

The fracking process has greatly increased the amount of oil and gas produced domestically. Beiser points out that “American shale gas production totaled 320 billion cubic feet in 2000; in 2016, the number was 15.8 trillion.” North Dakota, one of the centers of U.S. shale production, saw its “annual oil production nearly quintuple” in 2016 from what it was ten years before.

There are major problems associated with fracking.

Recent research finds that there are significant amounts of methane gas leaked from the pipes carrying the fracking fluids to the bore hole. Sharon Kelly, “an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia,” who “has reported for The New York Times, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal and a variety of other publications reports on a peer-reviewed study that was published in the journal Science. The study found that, each year, “oil and gas industry operations in the U.S. are leaking roughly 60 percent more methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere than previous estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which relied heavily on self-reporting by the industry” (https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/06/21/methane-leaks-oil-gas-60-higher-epa-estimates-science-study-edf).

Kelly quotes Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University professor emeritus of engineering and vice president of Earthwork’s board of directors: “This study confirms the growing body of peer-reviewed science indicating oil and gas extraction’s methane pollution makes it as harmful to climate as coal burning’s carbon dioxide pollution.”

Once the oil or gas is released from the shale rock, the pressure in the pipes forces it up the pipes to the surface, bringing with it water contaminated with all sorts of toxic materials.

With respect to this wastewater as well as the high volume of water that is necessary in the fracking process. Sharon Kelly reports on the findings from a Duke University study, namely, that high volumes of water are required in the fracking process and the process produces a massive amount of wastewater (https://truthout.org/articles/fracking-wastewater-spikes-1440-in-half-decade). Her central points are as follows.

“Between 2011 and 2016, fracked oil and gas wells in the US pumped out record-breaking amounts of wastewater, which is laced with toxic and radioactive materials, a new Duke University study concludes. The amount of wastewater from fracking rose 1,440 percent during that period.

“Over the same time, the total amount of water used for fracking rose roughly half as much, 770 percent, according to the paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

“Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a statement. “After more than a decade of fracking operation, we now have more years of data to draw upon from multiple verifiable sources.”

“The researchers predict that spike in water use will continue to climb.

“And over the next dozen years, they say the amount of water used could grow up to 50 times higher when fracking for shale gas and 20 times higher when fracking for oil — should prices rise. The paper, titled “The Intensification of the Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing,” was based on a study conducted with funding from the National Science Foundation.”

The Duke University paper is based on data collected from “over 12,000 oil and gas wells representing each of the major shale-producing regions in the U.S. Some of the regions are already experiencing declining water sources. Kelly gives the example of the Permian Basic in Texas and New Mexico, “where underground water supplies are already taxed by residential and agricultural demand, and where fights over water use are brewing.” She notes: “On average, a Permian Basin well used 10.3 million gallons of water in 2016, according to a San Antonio Express-News investigation earlier this year — more than double the average per-well demand just a few years ago.”

At the same time, the volume of wastewater produced by fracking is soaring. Referring again to Texas and New Mexico, she quotes Ryan Duman, A Wood Mackenzie senior energy analyst, who describes “how in parts of Texas and New Mexico, wells can produce up to 10 gallons of wastewater for every gallon of crude oil.” He says the volume of wastewater being produces is unprecedented. And, to repeat, this wastewater is toxic, containing “high levels of “corrosive salts, naturally occurring radioactive materials, and fracking chemicals whose identities are considered trade secrets and which even the US Environmental Protection Agency can’t list.” Colin Leyden, “senior manager for state regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund,” says “[t]here aren’t water quality standards or even approved analytical methods for most of the chemicals we known are a concern in produced (or waste) water.” A national study by the EPA in 2016 “found that fracking not only generates vast amounts of wastewater but also has polluted drinking water supplies in areas nationwide.”

The wastewater is often injected into deep wells, often in abandoned mining shafts. There it is suspected “of playing a role in causing earthquakes across the U.S., [and] also linked by scientists to the emergence of massive sinkholes in parts of Texas.” The sinkholes are a danger to “residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of ground water.”

The upshot is that fracking is in some ways a boon to the economy, that is, if the only consideration is how it adds to the U.S. production of oil and gas. However, it comes with enormous environmental costs linked to greenhouse gas emissions and increasingly disruptive climate change, an enormous demand for water in places where water scarcity is already a problem, and the creation of toxic wastewater that is disposed in ways the cause additional negative environmental impacts. There is also mounting evidence of fracking’s harmful affects on the health of people, pets, livestock, and food, as analyzed by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald in their book, The Real Cost of Fracking. They interviewed families who “live near industrial fossil fuel operations [fracking] in… Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, North Dakota, Arkansas, and New York.” Further, they interviewed “former employees of the fossil fuel industry and concerned citizens throughout the country referred to us by people whose water and air had become severely affected, whose animals were dying, and whose lives were being turned upside down by the oil and gas industry.” What they heard again and again:

“Water dispensers and water buffaloes have replaced water sources.”

“All of my puppies were born dead.”

“I have no calves this year.”

“My vet can’t figure out what’s happening to my animals.”

“We had to leave our home to escape the bad air.”

“I had no choice but to leave my goats and pigs behind.”

“I leased to keep my land, but I lost my farm.”

“We all have headaches, nosebleeds, and rashes.”

“I’d move out, but I can’t afford it.”

“We are not living; we are merely existing” (p. 11)

What’s the point of this essay? The pursuit of truth

Given the multi-faceted problems with our capitalist economy situation, our responsibility as progressives and leftists is to search out the best, most authoritative evidence to rebut the narratives of the right-wing political forces arrayed around Trump and to hope that such evidence reaches enough Americans to have a political impact. Trump and his right-wing allies focus selectively on the economy in ways that support their narrow economic interests and right-wing ideology. If they are left unchallenged, then we face a future that continues to benefit the few, while creating hardships for the majority and massive environmental – existential-level – devastation. Lee McIntyre concludes his cogent and disturbing analysis of our increasingly “post-truth” society in his book titled Post Truth with these words: “It is our decision how we will react to a world in which someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Truth still matters, as it always has. Whether we realize this in time is up to us” (p. 172).

For further analysis of alternatives, check out: https://vitalissues-bobsheak.com/2018/06/21/what-kind-of-change.

Lead poisoned children in Flint and other Communities: A problem that doesn’t go away

Lead poisoned children in Flint and other communities: A problem that doesn’t go away

Bob Sheak

August 19, 2018

 

Anna Clark has written an in-depth account in her newly published book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, of how the residents of Flint, Michigan, came to be affected by lead-poisoned water. Her analysis describes how the problem emerged over time and, when the first cases of water poisoning surfaced, how government officials resisted efforts by community groups to have the government address the problem. There is also another newly published book on the Flint story by Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician whose practice is located at a hospital in Flint. She and her colleagues were among the first people to gather evidence documenting directly the link between lead-poisoned water and harmful health effects. The title of her book is What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. Both authors reconstruct the historical, political, and racial contexts in which the truly heart-rending and horrific story unfolds, and where it stands at the first part of 2018.

Hanna-Attisha’s book is uniquely valuable because it gives the reader an insider’s view of a physician and her colleagues treating children, some of whom have high levels of lead in their blood. On the basis of an analysis of the medical records, she and her team were able finally to produce evidence that demonstrated that the problem was widespread in Flint and having harmful, irreparable, health effects. Combined with other evidence of the problem, a point was reached that government officials could no longer continue to claim that the water was safe. To reach that point, however, it took many months of efforts by residents, an engineer, an EPA official, a journalist, and a score of others to force the Michigan state governor and other government officials to acknowledge the problem and to take some belated corrective actions to address the problem.

What makes lead so dangerous

The ingestion of lead has long been known to have harmful effects. Clark reviews the history of what is known about it, tracing it back as far as ancient Egypt. She describes why lead is so harmful focusing here on children but pointing out that adults – people of all ages – are also at risk from exposure.

“Once in the bloodstream, lead disrupts the normal operation of a child’s cells, particularly the way that they produce energy and communicate to the nervous system. Lead accumulates in the teeth, bones, and soft tissues…small, sustained exposures can build up to a severe amount of lead in the body. This can cause brain swelling, fatigue, anemia, vomiting, abdominal pain, irritability, aggressive and antisocial behavior, slowed growth, hearing problems, learning disabilities, diminished IQ, reduced attention spans, kidney failure, seizures, coma, and, in extreme cases, death” (p. 84).

The conditions in Flint

While the federal and Michigan state governments were late in acknowledging the problem and then in providing some material assistance to Flint, the problem remains one where thousands of families still do not have safe water to draw from their taps and the cost of the poisoned municipal water is among the highest in the state. In the meantime, Flint residents still rely on bottled water. There is also the dispiriting reality that the children and others who drank the lead-laced water at home, at school, in restaurants, at workplaces have harmful levels of lead in their bodies and will suffer the effects for the rest of their lives. The research is hardly reassuring. Hanna-Attisha puts it succinctly: “Lead exposure has been linked to almost every kind of developmental and behavioral problem, including school dropout rates and criminality” (p.155).

Not only in Flint

It is a problem that is not limited to Flint but one that affects thousands of communities across the United States, mostly cities, and particularly the areas within the cities where low-income people and African Americans live. After the Flint crisis made the news in 2015, a report by USA Today in March of 2016 found that “tests for cities, rural subdivisions and even schools and day care centers serving water to 6 million people have found excessive and harmful levels of lead” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/11/nearly-2000-water-systems-fail-lead-tests/81220466).

In December 2016, Jerica Duncan reported for CBS News on a study of public health records by investigators at the Reuters News Agency that there “3,000 neighborhoods in America where children suffer from lead poisoning” from lead-tainted water. Duncan quotes Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City who said: “It’s a very pervasive toxic chemical and there’s absolutely no level of lead in the human body which is safe” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lead-poisoning-children-neighborhoods-us-flint-michigan).

Hanna-Attisha adds to this information. “There are an estimated six to ten million lead service lines in the country – many of them in older, low-income, minority-populated urban areas. And there are millions more fixtures with lead.” The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) was added as a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1991 and is designed specifically to protect residents from lead poison and other toxins. However, the “LCR did not require that the lead service lines or fixtures be systematically replaced.” She adds: “the LCR still did not deal in any way with lead exposure in daycare facilities and schools that get their water from a public water system” (p. 158).

The deeper roots of the problem

The Flint story and the problem of lead-poisoned water-systems in cities across the country are a manifestation of a larger problem, namely, of how our governments prioritize the interests of the affluent and rich and of corporations over other interests, certainly including the interests of those who have limited income, especially when they are black and brown. It is one of many problems that Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party in Washington and states like Michigan with Republican governors and/or legislatures want to ignore or to which they offer only the minimal responses, hoping that the problem recedes from public attention. And there is little doubt that it is a problem that the mostly white political base of Trump and the Republicans do not care about, or that most fiscally-strapped cities or towns care to address.

Hanna-Attisha offers the following assessment of the deeper roots of the lead-water crisis like the one in Flint. She writes:

“The crisis manifested itself in water – and in the bodies of the most vulnerable among us, children who drank that water and ate meals cooked with that water, and babies who guzzled bottles of formula mixed with water. The government tried hard to convince parents that the water was fine – safe – when it wasn’t. But this is also a story about the deeper crisis we’re facing right now in our country: the breakdown of democracy; the disintegration of critical infrastructure due to inequality and austerity; environmental injustice that disproportionately affects the poor and black; the abandonment of civic responsibility and our deep obligations as human beings to care and provide for one another. Along with all that – which is a lot already – it’s about a bizarre disavowal of honesty, transparency, good government, and respect for scientific truth” (p. 13).

While I agree with what Hanna-Attisha writes, I formulate the fundamental problem somewhat differently. In my studies, I find the roots of the problem can be traced back to our form of capitalism, dominated by mega-corporations, and the power of the rich undermine democracy and foster a culture that systematically fosters divisions among people and reduces empathy for our fellow citizens. This is a system that subordinates everything to profit and that is ravaged by deep-seated institutional racism. The outcome, and the relevance for Flint and cities across the US, is that more and more people and ecosystems are harmed and thought of as disposable or, at best, not worth much assistance.

There was resistance

At the same time, one of the uplifting implications of the Flint story as told by Anna Clark and Hanna-Attisha are that people will trust their own experiences despite what government officials tell them and speak out especially when their children’s health is endangered, making it difficult for government officials to ignore or dismiss their plight. And, as in the case of Flint, sometimes the victims of government malfeasance will receive the support of experts and journalists who document the problem, educate the public, influence government officials, and win, with and for the people, some redress of the harm that has been done.

The Flint Story

The city flourished economically in the 1930s up to the 1970s. It was the home of General Motors and a hundred other manufacturing businesses in the city, producing a wealth of products. Clark notes that Flint “had one of the highest per capital incomes in the nation” (p. 3). The city’s school system was “nationally renowned. It was at the same time a highly segregated place, to which nonetheless African Americans were drawn from southern states to Flint by the availability of jobs, though they were typically kept out of most jobs and shunted into the lower-paying, more demanding and hazardous ones. And systematic and sometimes violent residential segregation limited the housing options of African Americans.

By the early 1970s, Flint – and the country – also benefited from the passage of the environmental laws like the Clean Air Act. The Water Act helped to reduce the amount of toxic wastes being dumped into rivers like the Flint River (p. Clark, 28). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to enforce the laws. Then, in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was passed into law, laying “out minimum quality standards and developed assistance programs to help drinking water systems meet them,” though it “depended upon utilities to self-monitor and self-report.”

The economic decline

However, along with cities across the Midwest, a process of deindustrialization unfolded, as manufacturing corporations closed their operations in Flint and other cities, moved to the South to avoid unionized labor, taxes, and regulations, and then subsequently moved to Mexico and later to China and other countries in South America, Asia, and elsewhere.

By the late 1970s and over the next decades, Clark writes, “…GM closed most of its plants in the city and eliminated almost all the local auto jobs. Smaller companies followed suit or simply shut down for good.” The city’s population steadily declined. Without jobs, some residents moved out of the city to the suburbs, some abandoned their homes, city revenues fell, the city’s debt increased, and the public schools and city services were underfunded (p. 8). On top of these developments, funding from the state was reduced. Clark writes: “…between 1998 and 2016, Michigan diverted more than $5.5 billion that it would ordinarily go to places such as Flint to power streetlights, mow parks, and plow snow. Instead the state used to plug holes in its own budget.” This meant for Flint, “a loss of $55 million between 2002 and 2014.” She adds that this “amount would have been more than enough to eliminate the city’s deficit, pay off its debt, and still have a surplus. But the money never came….” The economic situation in Flint was made even worse by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 that was rooted in a mortgage crisis in which thousands of people lost their homes, accompanied by “a major restructuring of the auto industry, and a crippling drop in tax revenue” (p. 5).

Adding to the misfortunes of Flint, the city was also strapped with an aging infrastructure. For example, Hanna-Attisha writes:

“Flint had miles and miles of old pipes underground that needed repair and replacement. In 2014 the city pipes were leaking between 20 and 40 percent of their load, which meant residents and business owners had to pay for those water losses. The average annual Flint residential water bill in 2015 was $864 – about $300 more than in any other city in Michigan. In fact, it was the highest in the nation” (p. 80).

Fewer resources available for environmental protection and other state programs

 The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) “lost almost a quarter of its salaried employees” and its drinking water office and lab were similarly affected, losing “8.7 percent of its budget over the course of a decade…while the lab lost 43 percent of its full-time staff” (Clark, p. 161). And, in general terms, the state’s ability to manage and address the issues besetting the cities and towns of Michigan deteriorated. According to Clark, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan last in its State Integrity Report Card.

 Some community efforts to deal with the damage

The pastor of the Joy Tabernacle Church, Rev. Alfred Harris, launched programs to fix up neighborhoods. Clark writes: “They covered over the vacant windows and doors ‘to take the abandonment look away,’ helping people to imagine what a healthy Civic Park could look like. They paid young men to mow lawns and board up empty homes…. The church created the Urban Renaissance Center to serve as a social ministry for single parents, seniors, ex-offenders-recovering substance abusers, and anyone else who walked in the door” (Clark, p. 6). And, Clark also reports that the University of Michigan’s Flint campus and Habitat for Humanity started to work alongside the church.

The state takes over.

Community action was hardly enough, given the scope of the city’s budget problems facing Flint and the weak economy. The first emergency manager was appointed by Republican governor John Engler in 2002. It’s important to recognize that the emergency-manager policy is undemocratic in that it replaces elected officials with unelected ones and that the policy reflects a right-wing ideological remedy that puts the financial responsibility of debt-burdened cities on local government and citizens. The emergency manager is “an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid grounds” (Clark, p. 14). Emergency managers have mainly, if not only, the negative mission to cut city expenditures to balance the budget, often privatizing city utilities and schools in the process. There is nothing in the emergency manager’s mandate or in the capacity of an emergency manager to address the basic problems of business and corporate abandonment of the city, to invest in the schools, hospitals, police and fire services of the city that have gone underfunded for decades, let alone to address vast infrastructural problems. Ideally what is called for is what Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates call in the title of their book “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” requiring massive assistance in job creation, infrastructure renovation, support for unionization, higher minimum wage, low-cost housing construction, and higher taxes on the affluent and rich. But this is not in the political cards now. Flint was largely on its own – and governed by an unelected manager.

Clark writes: “The governor [Engler] appointed Ed Kurtz, a local resident and the president of Baker College, as the first emergency manager.” “The city then [in 2002] had 125,000 people, 8.3 percent unemployment, a deficit growing close to $30 million, and the dubious distinction of being the largest community in the state to get an intervention” (p. 125).

Kurtz “implemented new code enforcement measures for buildings and homes, cut the pay for the mayor and council members, and eliminated the health, dental, and vision benefits for most city officials. (Two years later, he reinstated some of the pay.)” There was more. He reduced contributions to pension system, “temporarily shuttered recreation centers, closed the ombudsman’s office, and worked with the largest union to agree to a 4 percent pay cut.” He also positively “approved more than $1 million for sewer and road improvements and raised water bills by 11 percent.” After almost two years, “Kurtz recommended ending the emergency” (125-126)

But then in 2011, while the economic and financial problems of Flint continued unabated and had been worsened by the economic recession of 2007-2009, the Michigan governor appointed another emergency manager was to take charge of Flint’s government. Clark writes that the emergency management system, as embodied in Public Act 4 and signed by Governor Rick Snyder, became one of the most expansive laws of its kind.” The goal was to reduce the city’s deficits through austerity measures. Under the new law, the emergency manager “for the first time, could reject, modify, or terminate contracts and union agreements.” Additionally, local governments were expected to pay the salaries of emergency managers (126). There were racial overtones in the new emergency process. “The communities affected,” Clark writes, “were nearly always majority black, including Flint. By 2017, 52 percent of Michigan’s black residents and 16 percent of Latinos had lived in cities governed by unelected authorities. Only 2 percent of white people had the same experience” (127).

It looked as though there would be a reprieve from the imposition of the emergency manager in November 2012, when the majority of Michigan citizens voted to overturn Public Act 4, with “[s]eventy five of Michigan’s eighty-three counties” supporting the revocation. However, the vote was nullified when the legislature passed a nearly identical version of Public Act 4 and Snyder signed Public Act 436 in December (128).

 The Water crisis and the options for Flint

 As the citizens of Flint suffered through their many travails, the safety and health of the city’s water system was of little concern. There is important history here. The city’s water had been supplied by The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for nearly fifty years, dating back to the spring of 1964 when the city had a population of nearly two hundred thousand residents, plus hundreds of industrial plants. The water supplied by the Detroit system came from the freshwater of Lake Huron. Clark describes how it worked. The Detroit water department drew water from Lake Huron, then treated and pumped the water for Flint at a plant near the shoreline of Lake Huron, delivering the water through a 120-inch pipeline to another pump station. She continues: “From there the flow was pushed through a smaller [service] line until it reached the city’s kitchen sinks. Flint’s own treatment plant, which it had used to treat its river water before joining the DWSD in the 1960s sat idle. It remained on hand only because the state required a backup water source for emergencies” (p. 14).

By 2013, there were three possible options with respect to the city’s water. One option was to continue using the Detroit water and find ways of subsidizing the water bills of residents with low incomes. Flint’s own government could not afford to do this without going further into debt, something that the emergency manager would not allow. And the state and federal governments had no interest in subsidizing Flint city or its residents, which would have conflicted with the right-wing ideology then prevalent in Michigan and increasingly in the U.S. Congress.

A second option was for Flint to join with neighboring communities to finance the building a newly planned water system operated by the Karegnondi Water Authority to pull 85 million gallons of water per day out of the Great Lakes. It was conceived as a way to bring costs under control and to be independent of the Detroit water system. When completed, the system, as touted by developers, would deliver raw untreated water, requiring Flint to reboot its old retired water treatment plant. Flint’s emergency managers gave the city’s mayor and council the authority to make the decision, and they moved to support going ahead with this option. Michigan’s state treasurer approved the plan (Clark, p. 17).

This was an option that did not make financial or ecological sense, although there were companies that stood to make profits from the project. Clark puts it this way. “It was also strange [project], since it involved building an entirely new drinking water system in a state that already had more than any other” (161). Furthermore, the terms of arrangement were punitive. Clark gives the following example: “If Flint should miss a single one of its annual bond payments, the KWA could seize the city’s treatment plant, plus 25 percent of its state revenue-sharing money, and it could also force the city to levy to get its share of the money” (165).

There was opposition from regional and national environmental groups who wanted to see more efficiency and conservation built into any water system being considered. The project promised none of this. And the cost was prohibitive, estimated at $300 million (162). However, state officials favored this plan and, as Clark reports: “So the state arranged a work-around: Flint’s share of money for the construction of the KWA was given a pass so that it did not count against the debt limit” [already reached], though it would add to the debt and would have a significant impact on the cost of the water (163). From a financial perspective, this option seemed counter-productive, to say the least.

This brings us to the third water-system option available to Flint, that is, to use water from the Flint River and to treat it at the City’s old water treatment plant. Indeed, this became the only option, after the decision was made to leave the Detroit water system and to join the planned KWA alternative which, as pointed out, would not be operational for several years. According to Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University, the KWA project also “effectively obligated the City to use the Flint River as the interim source of drinking water during the KWA construction” (Clark, 164).

The Water from the Flint River: Is it safe?

Officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality maintained the water was safe and announced the results of its first tests in May 2014, one month after Flint switched to the Flint river for its water, saying that, while the Flint River drinking water had residual chlorine and bacteria in it, the levels did not “violate the legal standards” (Clark, p. 32). But Flint residents were not convinced.

Early concerns of citizens

 Clark reports that “neighbors grew alarmed at the water that flowed from their kitchen faucets and shower heads. They packed public meetings, wrote questioning letters, and protested at city hall. They filled clear plastic bottles from their taps to show how the water looked brown, or orange, and sometimes had particulates floating in it. Showering seemed to be connected to skin rashes and hair loss. The water smelled foul. A sip of it put the taste of a cold metal coin on your tongue” (pp. 1-2).

Hanna-Attisha describes the experience of LeeAnne Walters and her young sons. “Just a few months after the water switch in 2014, Walters noticed that her three-year-old-twins, Gavin and Garrett, broke out in red bumps after they were given a bath. Gavin had immune deficiencies and was especially prone to problems. If he soaked in the bathtub for a long time, a scaly rash would form across his chest at the waterline.” The family members also experienced abdominal pain and bizarre hair loss (p. 55).

Another early indication that there was a problem with the water came in October 1,2014 when the local General Motors plant stopped using Flint water after workers noticed that the water caused corrosion in engine parts. (See Laura Orlando’s article, “Is Your Water Worse than Flint’s in the April 2016 issue of In These Times.)

The authorities said not to worry

“[T]he authorities,” Clark writes, ‘said everything was all rights and you could drink it, so people did.” Later: “Residents were advised to run their faucets for a few minutes before using the water to get a clean flow. As the months went by, the city plant tinkered with treatment and issued a few boil-water advisories. State environmental officials said again and again that there was nothing to worry about. The water was fine” (p. 2).

The gathering of evidence to prove the authorities wrong and that the water is poisoned

 But the situation did not go uncontested. There were a few people who became involved in the Flint water crisis whose contributions turned out to be crucial in producing the evidence that demonstrated finally that Flint’s water was poisoned with lead and that the evidence from the Michigan state environment agency and EPA was wrong. In the absence of the evidence collected independently of the government, government authorities would still be claiming that the water is safe.

The first efforts to document there is lead in the water

 Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, was one of those people who made vital contributions in the process of refuting claims by government officials. He is a long-term critic of the EPA and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) over their lack of interest in polluted drinking water systems. One of his projects for years had been on the problematic water system in Washington D.C., where he compiled evidence to show that the system was polluted with lead. Edward’s research showed there was high levels of lead in the water and he found “a correlation between the lead-contaminated water and a spike in fetal deaths and reduced birth rates” (pp. 107-108). In 2010, Clark writes, “a bipartisan congressional investigation into the D.C. lead-in-water crisis confirmed what Edwards and frontline community organizers had been arguing for years.” However, despite the evidence, nothing was done to fix the problem, And no one was held accountable. Hanna-Attisha makes the following points.

“Not only did nobody get punished for the D.C. crisis, some were promoted. What you need to know tonight is that, basically, scientists and activists tried to prove that children were harmed, but they couldn’t get the health data to show it. Lead was in the D.C. water for years. More lead than you could imagine” (p. 46).

But there were serendipitous outcomes in the Flint story, stemming initially from the publicity surrounding Edward’s involvement in D.C. and from the activism of a Flint resident who contacted him. This was LeeAnne Walters, whose family had been affected by the water. She had already been active in questioning officials and in refusing to accept their claims that the water was okay. As indicated earlier, she and her children were suffering from various rashes and other unusual symptoms. Her physician discovered that the lead levels in her twin boys had “soared” compared to tests done before the switch to Flint River water; however, he did not identify the cause and offered no meaningful solution.

As LeeAnne Walters searched for information on the water-related problems, she ended up calling Miquel Del Toral at the Chicago office of the EPA about her concerns. According to Hanna-Attisha, “[h]e personally arranged to have an independent test of the tap water in Walter’s home” (p. 38). Toral then leaked an 8-page report that indicated the lead levels in the resident’s water were high, contrary to what the MDEQ’s more general testing allegedly showed, and that the service line leading into her home was made of lead. He also noted that the city’s water testing was unreliable and that there was a lack of corrosion control, causing lead to break off from the service lines into the water going into homes like the home of Walters (pp. 111-112).

The matter of corrosion control

Still, the officials at the MDEQ insisted that the water was safe. And, another important point, the staff at the Flint water treatment plant were told that corrosion control was unnecessary, even though the river water “was more corrosive and difficult to treat than lake water.” Clark explains the importance of having corrosion control in Flint.

“Because America’s infrastructure is generally quite old, large systems are required to add corrosion control treatment to the water to keep the pipes from disintegrating. It extends the life of the pipes and, because it prevents metals from fouling the drinking water, it helps to protect public health as well” (p. 33).

The corrosion control treatment in municipal water systems is used in “about half of all American water companies, including the Detroit system. This involves adding orthophosphates, a corrosion inhibiter, to the water at the treatment plant. The orthophosphates “create a protective coating that helps keep metals from leaching into the water as it flows through the water mains (the large pipes that run under the street, carrying water to a neighborhood) and the service lines (the smaller pipes that branch off the main, connecting to individual dwellings).”

Without corrosion control treatment, the pipes are eaten away, especially when they are old and most especially when they are exposed to corrosive water, treated with chlorine or chlorides.” In such situations, the lead pipes eventually start to disintegrate and flakes of lead wash into the water. Corrosion is the result of large amounts of chlorides in the water that “break down the metals in water mains, service lines, water heaters, household appliances, and plumbing fixtures.” High chloride levels in the river water came from road salt (sodium chloride) used on Michigan roads as a deicer and from the chloride from agricultural runoff and wastewater. In addition, in Flint’s case, “the treatment plant added still more to the mix by using ferric chloride as a coagulant for the water” (p. 34). The high levels of chloride in the water made the “pipes rust, flake, and leak” (p. 34).

Opponents collect more evidence

LeeAnneWalters pursued the issue further, next contacting Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech. He gave her instructions on how to test the water for lead. Following his instructions, she collected thirty samples of the water from her home. The bottles were properly sealed and passed onto EPA’s Miguel Del Toral, who dropped them off at Edward’s lab in Dunham Hall at Virginia Tech. Edward’s lab analysis showed that “the lowest level tested at 300 parts per billion; the highest was more than 13,000 ppb; and the average was 2,000 ppb…. Even the low test far exceeded the federal action level…. the worst lead-in-water contamination that he had seen in more than twenty-five years” (110). Even at this point, officials at the MDEQ remained unpersuaded.

A reporter covers the story

Enter Curt Guyette, who had been a reporter for the Metro Times, a Detroit alt-weekly that was distributed in Flint until, under new conservative ownership, he was fired in 2013 (Clark, p. 113). He then “signed on as an investigative reporter with the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the only branch in the country to have a journalist on staff” (113). The position was supported by a Ford Foundation grant.

Guyette teamed up with Kate Levey, a local documentarian, to make a short film called Hard to Swallow: Toxic Water Under a Toxic System in Flint” (115). Flint neighbors in the film, like Melissa Mays, “said that she and other neighbors had heard for years about the pollution in the Flint River and they were also concerned about high water bills. LeeAnne Walters appeared in the film, recounting what she had learned from Miquel Del Toral and Marc Edwards, namely, that, as Clark reports, “the change to a more corrosive water source, without adequate treatment, caused the protective coating in the city’s pipes to break down. This led to her son’s diagnosis. She showed his medical report on camera….” (115-116). In addition to the film, Guyette wrote a story on July 9, 2015.

The story was picked up by Michigan Public Radio, headquartered in Ann Arbor. Its programming reached about 450,000 listeners each week. The radio coverage of Flint’s water included an interview by Lindsey Smith with Brad Wurfel, a principal spokesman for MDEQ. Wurfel continued to claim that LeeAnne Walter’s “situation was an outlier and not representative of Flint homes.” Wurfel insisted that there was no compelling evidence that “there is any broad problem with the water supply freeing up lead as it goes in homes” (pp. 117-118). Hence, state officials, including the governor Snyder, continued to dismiss the evidence from Marc Edward’s lab tests of LeeAnne Walter’s home. Clark writes: “The MDEQ kept pointing to its test results of 169 water samples [later determined to be manipulated], which, it claimed, were proof that there was nothing to worry about. On its side, the community had samples from LeeAnne Walters’s home that had been analyzed by Virginia Tech, plus a smattering [of tests] from other residents who had requested free tests from the city” (131). For many months, the MDEQ went on insisting that its data were valid and rejected evidence that showed otherwise.

More evidence collected

The next crucial step in gathering evidence came from Curt Guyette. As Clark relates it, he had access to grant money at the ACLU that could be used for expert research. He had the idea of using the money to pay for 100 samples of the water from residences, though it would only take 50 samples to represent a valid test. Edward and his students would analyze the samples. Each test, Clark reports, would cost $70 (p. 132). In the meantime, Edwards obtained “an emergency stipend from the National Science Foundation.” In his application for the stipend, Edwards wrote, as quoted by Clark:

“An independent citywide test could ‘help inform the current policy debate regarding strategies for dealing with cities that have gone bankrupt, as well as the discussion of access to safe and affordable drinking water as a basic human right” (p. 132).

The decision was made to use the money from the NSF, because it had the reputational link to pure science. Guyette became instrumental in finding the means to collect the samples. He contacted the Coalition for Clean water and one of its leaders, Rev. Alfred Harris. Guyette also recruited 30 students “who formed what became the Flint Water Study group” (p. 133). They “distributed three hundred sampling kits to the organizers in Flint, conducted tests at businesses and homes while visiting the city, and planned tests in Detroit to compare different water systems.” Grad student William Rhoads hosted an instructional video on YouTube that showed the coalition how to collect samples and volunteers passed on their training to their neighbors. The process was methodical, “breaking down the city by zip codes as they coordinated deliveries and pickups” (pp. 133-134). Remarkably, Clark reports, “In a little over two weeks, the coalition distributed all 300 of the lead-sampling kits to Flint residents and collected back 277….” (135). She continues:

“Analysis of the kits showed that the poison was spread across the entire city. The study confirmed what should have been obvious: when corrosive water moves through lead pipes and plumbing, and it isn’t treated with corrosion control., a lot of lead ends up in the water. That’s especially true if the pipes are old, leaky, oversized, and cross long stretches of vacant land” (136).

“…the water samples had 26.79 parts per billion of lead in them, well over the federal action levels and nearly three times the safety standard of the World Health Organization (10 ppb). All ages, all income levels, and all ethnicities were affected by contaminated water, but not evenly….The highest tested sample came in at 1051 ppb, and in a couple of hard-hit zip codes, one in five home had high lead” (136).

Presenting the evidence to the public, but state officials are not swayed

On September 15, 2015, activists, scientists, professors, students, preachers gathered outside Flint’s city hall to “formally present findings from the citywide water test” (Clark, 138). Edwards (and his team) estimated that “the amount of lead in the water of about five thousand Flint homes exceeded standards set by the World Health Organization.” Zip codes in the central belt of the city had the most lead, with many samples exceeding 100 ppb. Flint’s water had high levels of lead, with an overall measure of 27 ppb, which is “almost twice the federal action level, that is, the level at which the government is expected to intervene in ways to ameliorate the problem. There was “excessive lead in every zip code (p. 139).

The state again was not moved to seriously address the problem. Clark writes that the state “tapped an unnamed donor to purchase fifteen hundred faucet filters” (141), but still refused to accept the evidence that Flint’s water contained unacceptable levels of lead.

The breakthrough

The next crucial, and finally compelling, links in the efforts to find or create evidence that state officials could not ignore came from pediatrician Mono Hanna-Attisha, and her friend, Elin Betanzo, a hydraulic engineer with prior experience working on water issues for the EPA in Washington D.C. They were to become the crucial final links in making that case that the Flint water was dangerous to the health of those who used the water, it was an emergency, and that the government had an obligation to address the problem.

Hanna-Attisha worked at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, where she trained medical students and treated some of Flint’s poorest families (Clark, 143-144). As the water crisis unfolded, her objective was to gain access to the medical records of the children in Flint and in the rest of the county. After many tries, the Genesee County Health Department released its blood-lead data in the form of individual patient files, one file for each patient. Flint City is in Genesee County. The pediatrician also obtained data from the state to reanalyze. Once the data were in hand, Hanna-Attisha and her research assistant “sorted through 1,746 test results for Flint children and 1,640 records for children elsewhere in Genesee County.” Betanzo and Edwards helped to clarify some of the methodological questions and how to organize the data for public presentation.

Going public with the new evidence

Hanna Attisha presented the findings from this analysis at the Hurley Medical Center on September 24, 2015, to about sixty people. She stated that, since the water switch in April 2014, “there was not only more lead coming out of Flint’s taps, but also much more lead in the blood of Flint’s children.” And, moreover, “In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under age five with high blood-levels had jumped from 2.1 percent to 4 percent.” In the two zip codes with the highest blood-lead levels, both with large African-American populations, the percentage was 6.3 percent. She advised mothers to breast feed rather than use formula, which required water (Clark, 145).

State initially rejects the new evidence, but then accepts it

But the state still refused to accept the new data and insisted Hanna-Attisha’s data were unscientifically manipulated to create the appearance of a problem where none existed. Clark writes: “A spokesman for Governor Rick Snyder alleged that she had ‘spliced and diced’ the data. Brad Wurfel called her claims ‘unfortunate’” (145). It seemed momentarily that the standoff would continue and there would be no assistance from the state or from the federal government. However, journalists at the The Detroit Free Press helped break the stalemate. The newspaper got access to the data the state’s own test data, and, in a stunning report, showed that the MDHHS [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] was misinterpreting its own findings. “The state’s own numbers showed that Flint’s blood-lead levels had worsened since the spring of 2014” (147).

Then, on October 1, 2015:

“Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, began communicating with Hanna-Attisha. Her staff compared the two studies and the agency’s epidemiologists revisited their research…. her staff had come to agree with the pediatrician.” (p. 147).

At a subsequent news conference, Wells made it clear that “the pediatrician working in Flint was right after all.” Clark emphasizes that this “was the state’s first serious accession to what residents had been saying all along: the water was poisonous” (p. 148).

Public officials declare a public health emergency

Then there was a cascade of events. Here is a list of what Clark reports on page 148 of her book.

  • “…the Genesee County commissioners declared a public health emergency, citing Hanna-Attisha’s study, the Free Press report, and Governor Snyder’s cautious concession that ‘it appears that [water] levels could be higher or have increased.”
  • Flint city hall told residents to stop drinking the water
  • “Volunteers were already delivering bottled water to schools that had turned off their water fountains, and over at the Mission of Hope homeless shelter, Reverend Bobby Jackson was running a water distribution site while working to raise the $1,700 that the shelter owed in unpaid water bills.”
  • Genesee County sheriff “began providing inmates housed in a Flint jail with bottled water and with food that required no water to cook.”
  • The State committed $1 million to purchase filters – though there would be no widespread notification campaign about their availability.

Flint is switched back to Detroit water from Lake Huron

Then on October 8, 2015, “Governor Rick Snyder announced that Flint would finally be reconnected to the Detroit system” (153). The bill for the reconnection, $12 million, would be divided among three parties – $6 million from the state, $4 million from the Mott Foundation, and $2 million from the city (154). The governor creates a task force to investigate what went wrong

A week after the switchover to Detroit water, Governor Snyder announced that “five experts in public health, water management, and the environment would come together to scrutinize what had gone wrong” (157). The investigation went on for three months, involving interviews, a study of documents and trips to Flint. The Task Force found that “most of the blame went to the MDEQ for one failure after another, including a culture of ‘minimalist technical compliance’ that took a bare-bones approach to water regulation and public safety.” And it criticized the agency for its attempts to discredit those who were concerned about the water (157-158). There was media coverage.

In November Flint citizens elected a new mayor, Karen Weaver, a psychologist by training who was backed by Flint’s influential church leaders. She declared a state of emergency over the water crisis (159). Two months later in mid-December, Michigan Radio aired an hour-long documentary, called “Not Safe to Drink.” The documentary focused on LeeAnne Walters’s story, and it made good use of what reporter Lindsey Smith called ‘the intimacy of the audio narrative’ while losing none of the technical background. LeeAnne showed Smith her family’s water stash – 40 gallons that they replenished once a week for drinking, cooking, and bathing the twins, filling the rub with one heated pot of store-bought water at a time,” noting that it was a time consuming and expensive process (p. 160).

Finally, Michigan’s governor declares a state of emergency in Flint and apologizes

On January 5, 2016, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency, which unleashed a host of interventions. The declaration “allowed the state to act: soldiers and airmen from the Michigan National Guard arrived in Flint, tramping in their laced-up boots and camouflage uniforms…. In a robust outreach, they went door-to-door to some thirty-three thousand homes, delivering free water, filters, and water-testing kits to residents. They also staffed new water distribution sites – first at Flint’s five fire stations and eventually at nine locations, one in each city ward. Places such as the Masonic Temple in downtown Flint offered free blood tests. A mobile health clinic rolled through town. Governor Snyder also asked President Barak Obama to designate Flint as both a federal emergency and a federal disaster, which would bring still more resources to the city to manage the crisis, including grants and low-cost loans to pay for home repairs and business losses, and recovery coordination from the Federal Emergency Management Agency” (p.167). Obama did declare a federal emergency in Flint (Hanna-Attisha, p. 304).

Some recompense for Flint

In his state of the union address in the winter of 2016, governor Snyder admitted that government had failed Flint. He promised to ask the legislature to allot $28 million in aid to meet Flint’s immediate needs, with $22 million from Michigan’s general fund and the balance from federal sources” (183).

Furthermore, there were two victories from lawsuits that benefited Flint. In one case:“ Almost three years after the ill-fated water switch, a federal judge approved a historic settlement in the class action lawsuit filed by Melissa Mays [one of the Flint residents affected by the poisoned water], the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the ACLU of Michigan….As part of the deal, the state agreed to pay $87 million for the city to locate eighteen thousand lead and galvanized steel water lines and replace them with copper by 2020, at no cost to homeowners….The state was also obliged to put an additional $10 million in reserve for potential cost overruns and emergencies, and to pay $895,000 to cover the plaintiffs legal costs.”

(You can read a detailed list of what the federal judge required at: https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2017/03/28/judge-flint-water-lawsuite-settlement/99731876.)

And, in the meantime (not indefinitely), the state would keep water distribution sites open, per the settlement, unless demand tapered off (p. 190). It threatened to close the sites in mid-2018.The legal settlement to replace Flint’s service lines was “supplemented by an additional $100 million that came through from the federal government, which included a law change that allowed Michigan to forgive the $20 million that Flint owed in water loans, dating back to 1999. This meant that the city would be able to undertake the wholesale replacement of its pipes, both lead and galvanized steel. It was an almost unprecedented public works project. To date, Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, were believed to be the only major cities that had fully removed their aging lead-based service lines” (198). However, as of the summer of 2018, only 800 lead service lines had been replaced.

The other legal victory came in April 2018 “in a partial settlement for a separate class action case, the state agreed to spend $4.1 million to create a school-based screening program for tens of thousands of children who were exposed to the water. Directed by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, it would help determine the health and special education needs of the children, and it would also provide training for school staff to better identify children who may be harmed by lead” (190-191). Criminal charges and indictments

In April, 2016, two officials employed by the MDEQ, “Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby, faced charges of misconduct, neglect of duty, tampering with evidence, and violations of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. They were accused of impeding an investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak [not discussed in this post], which later brought involuntary manslaughter charges. ‘We allege and we will prove that Mr. Busch and Mr. Prysby altered test results which endangered the health of citizens and families of Flint,’[Attorney General] Schuette declared. Busch in particular had falsely claimed to the EPA that the Flint plant had optimized corrosion control, and both men were charged with ordering Michael Glasgow, the utilities administrator, to alter the 2015 report on lead in the city’s water to misleadingly lower the levels.” They were suspended from their jobs.

There were additional indictments in July, when “six state employees were hit with criminal charges, three at the MDHHS and three at the MDEQ.” The charges in these cases dealt with “burying an epidemiologist’s report that showed “a spike in blood-lead levels in Flint’s children after the city’s water switch, deleting emails about the report, ignoring its findings” (192).

There were more indictments. At the end of 2016, emergency managers Darnell Early and Jerry Ambrose were variously indicted for false pretenses, obstructing an investigation, and involuntary manslaughter” (192). In June, 2017, “Nick Lyon, the director of MDHHS and a member of the governor’s cabinet, was accused of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office for ‘taking steps to suppress information illustrating obvious and apparent harms, allegedly allowing a public health crisis to continue. Dr. Eden Wells, the agency’s top medical executive, was accused of misconduct, obstruction of justice, providing false testimony, and threatening to withhold funding from a Flint group investigating the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Later, she too faced an involuntary manslaughter charge” (193).

Hanna-Attisha writes:

“In the past six months [of 2017], more than fifty lawsuits had been filed, and the first criminal charges were announced – against two state officials, Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby in the drinking water division of MDEQ. There were six charges altogether, including misleading the EPA, manipulating water sampling, and tampering with reports. MDEQ received the most indictments and charges. Besides Bush and Prysby, the top drinking-water regulator, Liane Shekter-Smith, was fired” (p. 311-312).

A decision to stay with Detroit water

“…at the end of 2017 Flint decided to stick with the Detroit water department, forgoing the Karegnondi Water Authority entirely. The city was still responsible for the $7 million annual payment for the KWA bonds, but in exchange for signing a thirty -year contract, the Detroit utility – now restructured as the Great Lakes Water Authority, or GLWA – agreed to credit that sum to Flint’s account….The deal, approved by Flint’s council, included funds for relieving high water bills and a promise by the governor to put a city representative on the GLWA board” (197).

Some positive undertakings

Clark closes her book on a positive note. She writes: “New infrastructure was being laid throughout the city. People had better access to health care, thanks to expanded Medicaid and other services.” There was also “a cascade of ambitious investments in Flint. An auto supply manufacturer broke ground on the first such facility to come to the city in about thirty years: the colossal Buick City Complex was being converted into a factory for Lear Corp., which was set to make car seats for General Motors. It would create up to six hundred jobs. Downtown, the historic Capitol Theatre, vacant for two decades, reopened after a $37 million renovation brought its glittering marquee back to life. The Flint Institute of Arts went through an enormous expansion, adding a wing for contemporary crafts and creating a multipurpose maker space where visitors could watch glass and ceramic artists at work” (212-213).And a state grant that, part of the water recovery response, “brought a youth basketball league back to the city after a fifteen-year absence.”

And there was more good news. The first Flint Literary Festival debuted with the theme of ‘Flight,’ featuring Christopher Paul Curtis, a city native and a Newberry Medal-winning author who often wrote about his hometown. And a children’s education center opened on Gladwin Street, in a brand-new facility built on the site of former elementary school. With space for more than two hundred Flint children, it was designed to work with those who had been most exposed to lead-laced water” (213).

It is possible

Both Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan have replaced all their lead service lines (Hanna-Attisha, p. 178).

But some lousy consequences of the water crisis cannot be ignored

As pointed out earlier in this post, lead poisoning may be mitigated in some cases but cannot be cured. Most residents still do not have safe water. And most of the city’s lead-lined pipes remain in place. The sad facts are that all of the 99,000 or so residents of Flint have been affected one way or another by the poisoned public water, and at least 5,000 children have elevated lead-blood levels. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report in February 2017 that argued the root causes of Flint’s drinking water crisis lie in historic and systemic racism and called for the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationwide/midwest/ct-michigan-civil-rights-panel-flint-water-crisis-racism-20170218-story.html#). But now a compromised and weak federal EPA is being gutted by the Trump administration, as it urges budget cuts for the agency (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/07/20/trump-guts-epa-within-watchdog-reports-blasts-agency-related-flint-water) and there is little hope for any significant “truth and reconciliation.” Matthew Kovac poses the question of whether the “Flint Water Crisis [is] a Crime Against Humanity?” (http://counterpunch.org/2017/07/12/is-the-flint-water-crisis-a-crime-against-humanity). All the while, the Trump administration and the Republican Party want to see the issue fade away.

Lead poisoned water is a problem of national scope and little is being done about it in most places. Bear in mind, that the confluence of actors and events that forced government authorities to address Flint’s water crisis is unlikely to happen in many other places. It’s a rare occurrence that unfolded spontaneously and in response to unplanned conditions and events. And, even in Flint, we must remember that the people continue to suffer the effects of lead poison and the lack of clean municipal water. Hanna-Attisha leaves us with a statement that perhaps best summarizes the current reality: “Too many kids are growing up in a nation that does not value their future – or even try to offer than a better one” (p. 324). After all is said and done, Flint is an example for us, good and bad, but one that gives us ideas and examples of what has to be done – if we have a sense of humanity and the common good.

Heating up the Planet: An Update

Heating up the planet: An update
Bob Sheak, July 30, 2018

We are living in a geological epoch of human-generated increasingly disruptive and catastrophic climate changes that pose an existential threat to humanity. The International Union of Geological Sciences is considering the evidence on whether the earth has entered a new geological epoch, one often referred to as the Anthropocene. This is an epoch in which the activities of humans have become the dominant force, an increasingly deleterious one, in shaping the planet. The concept was first introduced by climatologist Paul Crutzen in 2000. Ian Angus, author of the 2016 book facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system, was interviewed about the concept on The Real News. (http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&ltemid=74&jumival=17159). He gives us some context.

“ANGUS: Well, geologists divide the history of the entire Earth, the billions of years that our planet has been here, into various divisions which mark the different stages of life and the conditions of life in the history of our planet. We have for the last 12,000 years been in what’s called the Holocene, that came about when the Ice Ages ended. All the glaciers retreated, and we’ve had 12,000 years of relatively stable climate. Everything’s been very predictable. It’s the period in which agriculture was invented and all large civilizations were born, and that’s called the Holocene epoch. It basically means the area of recent human activity.

“What became clear in the late 20th century to some scientists was that humanity’s activities have become so great that they were actually changing the way that the world functions. Not just changing individual environments or ecosystems but changing fundamental things about the way the world works. Global warming being the best known of those, but of course the destruction of the ozone layer, and so on. So, the Holocene epoch, scientists began to argue, was coming to an end. We had moved out of that period of long-term stability and we’re moving into a very different time.

In short, human activities have come to represent the dominant forces in shaping the earth’s ecosphere. And, insofar as global warming goes, the principal proximate causes stem from the emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. But the deeper causes lie in our political economy, dominated by those who run the mega corporations in a never-ending race for profits, the rich whose thirst for wealth and power is never sated, elected officials who end up representing the few over the many, and a narcissistic President who surrounds himself with right-wing ideologues who reject or disregard the warnings of scientists about global warming. Amidst it all, the problem of global warming and its many effects are accelerating and causing increased devastation of ecosystems and enormous harm to more and more of the planet’s human population and other living things. While the issue of climate change, which at its fundamental level is about global warming, is not an issue that gets much attention in the media or in politics, it is an issue that taking humanity toward civilizational collapse, if not species extinction.

This dire situation was given dramatic confirmation last November when, as reported by Sydney Pereira for Newsweek, 15,000 scientists signed a letter “pleading for humans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, phase out fossil fuels, reduce deforestation, and reverse the trend of collapsing biodiversity.” The letter also said we are running out of time: “‘Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out.” And: “We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all of its life is our only home” (http://www.newsweek.com/how-save-humanity-15000-scientists-urge-action-vast-human-misery-takes-over-709403).

Greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere

Perhaps the most important – and direct – example of human-generated climate change is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide [the most widespread greenhouse gas], methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and ozone. The buildup of these gases in the earth’s atmosphere heat up the planet beyond what is normal, leading to a plethora of increasingly disruptive and catastrophic effects that threaten to destroy the basis for anything like complex social organization while seriously disrupting the lives of many millions of people and worse.

Let’s focus on carbon dioxide, CO2. Joseph Romm writes: “At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) (Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, pp. 1-2). Indeed, he writes, “going back a total of 800,000 years – CO2 levels generally never exceeded 280-300 ppm” (p. 16). Now, as reported by Doyle Rice in USA Today on May 4, 2018, carbon dioxide comprised 410 ppm. Rice cites the Scripps Institute of Oceanography as his source and notes that, according to Scripps, this quantity is the “highest in at least the past 800,000 years.” Be clear, there is agreement on this mind-boggling point by major scientific sources on climate change, with virtual unanimity among climate scientists.

Global temperature continues to rise

According to evidence compiled through 2016 by Al Gore in his recent book, AnInconvenient Sequel Truth to Power, “16 of the last 17 hottest years ever measured with instruments (a practice that dates back to 1880) have occurred in the past 17 years. And the hottest of all was 2016. The second hottest was the year before, and the third hottest was the year before that.” Well, the pattern continues.

The staff at Climate Central report on data for the first six months of 2018 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They write: “Globally, the past four years have been the hottest on record, and 2018 so far is coming in as the 4th hottest. All time record heat has peppered the Northern Hemisphere this summer” (http://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/2018-global-heat-so-far).

NOAA reports on July 2018:

“Record heat felt across the continents. Record-warn YTD [Year to date, June 2018] average temperatures dominated across the world’s oceans, New Zealand and some areas of North America, Asia, and Australia. Europe had its second-warmest June on record, with several countries logging average temperatures among the sixth warmest on record for the month. Africa, Europe and Oceania had a YTD average temperature ranking among the five highest since continental records began in 1910” (http://www.noaa.gov/news/june-2018-was-5th-warmest-on-record-for-globe).

A growing number of hot days

The number of extremely hot days is on the rise, according to Climate Central’s analysis of 244 cities across the country. The chief finding: “73 percent experience more extremely hot days than they did a half-century ago. This is happening in both rural and urban locations. And often there is not much of a breeze to help cool people, ‘meaning the body does not get a chance to recover from the heat of the day which increases the risk of heat-related illnesses like heat stroke’” (http://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/extremely-hot-days-on-the-rise).

There are more hot nights

Along with hotter days, nights are getting hotter as well. Georgina Gustin writes that temperatures are rising during the night around the world. She refers to a 2015 NOAA report: “As the world warms, nighttime temperatures are slightly outpacing daytime temperatures in the rate of warming” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09072018/heat-waves-global-warming-overnight-high-temperatures-impact-health-wildfire-wildfires-agriculture).

The consequence is that homes and people have “little chance to cool off,” so that “when external temperatures stay above 80 degrees, internal body temperatures don’t have a chance to cool.” And, Gustin adds, “If humidity is also high—as was the case in Quebec this week—the body perspires more, but the humidity means sweat can’t evaporate, cranking up internal temperatures even more. Recent research has shown that higher nighttime temperatures can also mean less sleep, potentially adding more physical stress on the body.” There is also an impact on some crops, as “warmer nighttime temperatures also increase transpiration from some crops, drying them out, introducing health problems and lowering yield.” Accompanying the higher temperatures, various molds and rusts on plants like cotton and wheat “are more likely to flourish in warmer conditions.” Higher nighttime temperatures also intensify wildfires, according to the U.S. Forest Service scientists. Gustin quotes Park Williams, researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who says “Warmer nights, especially when combined with dry conditions, can allow fires to continue spreading quite rapidly after sunset.”

The effects of global warming are truly worldwide

There is a lot more being reported from progressive media on the present manifestations of global warming, not so much on mainstream media. For example, Julia Conley writes for Common Dreams as follows: “Climate scientists sounded alarms on Tuesday [July 24] as reports circulated of extreme weather and record-breaking high temperatures all over the globe, with dozens of deaths and thousands of hospitalizations reported in some countries.” Conley quotes Caroline Rance of the Friends of the Earth Scotland: “There is no doubt that the prolonged extreme temperatures and floods we are witnessing around the world right now are a result of climate change.” Rance also believes that the temperature records that are being broken across the globe are “exactly as climate science has long warned, and with devastating consequences.” Here are examples of the effects of unbridled climate change from Conley’s report.

“Greek Interior Minister Panos Skourletis called the wildfires that have killed at least 74 people “a biblical disaster” in an interview with Sky News. The fires began late Monday afternoon near Athens, and have injured nearly 200 and sent thousands of people racing toward the Aegean Sea to escape in boats, makeshift rafts, and even by swimming.

“Entire towns have been wiped out by the blazes, which have been made worse by a recent drought and heatwaves that have sent temperatures into the hundreds.
“In Japan, at least 65 people have been killed in the past week by an “unprecedented” heatwave, according a weather agency spokesperson. Temperatures as high as 106 degrees have sent more than 22,000 people to hospitals—more than any other year since the country began recording cases of heatstroke in 2008.

“In southern Laos, hundreds of people went missing on Monday after flooding caused by heavy rains resulted in a collapsed dam. Thousands of homes were destroyed and an untold number of people were killed as the equivalent of two million Olympic swimming pools of water burst into several villages.
“And in northern Sweden, above the Arctic Circle, more than 50 wildfires have raged in the past several days, forcing dozens of people to evacuate their homes.

“The climate action group Friends of the Earth noted that record-breaking high temperatures have been recorded in a number of other regions and cities in recent days, including the United Kingdom; Ottawa, Canada; Southern California; Ouargla, Algeria; Tibilisi, Georgia; and Sydney, Australia.”

Al Gore’s book, alluded to earlier, is loaded with informative graphs on the pervasive and increasingly catastrophic effects of global warming. Rising ocean temperatures lead to increased water vapor rising from the ocean and contribute to more volatile hurricanes and other severe weather events. There is an unending flow of information on extreme temperatures, draughts, wildfires, floods, mudslides, and storms. Here is another example from Gore’s book:

“The crops we eat today were patiently selected over hundreds of years during the Stone Age. These food crops thrive in the natural conditions in which they evolved. Now that we are changing those conditions, many of these crops are becoming stressed, especially by higher temperatures. And they are not giving us the same yields or nutrient quality” (p. 102).

Temperatures, already high, are projected to go up faster than ever

Given current rising levels of greenhouse emissions, continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels, along with soil-destroying agribusiness, unprecedented deforestation, methane-generating landfills, warming oceans, temperatures around the world will continue going up. In one of his regular in-depth reviews of scientific studies dealing with the changes accompanying global warming, Dahr Jamail finds that ample research indicates that “global temperature projections could double as the world burns” (https://truthout.org/articles/global-temperature-projections-could-double-as-the-world-burns).

The consequences

As indicated, there are already – and increasingly will be – dire consequences. For example, Jamail refers to studies of how high and rising temperatures will reduce food production. He refers to two new studies investigating corn and vegetables, “both published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” which show that “anthropogenic climate disruption” (ACD) “will increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures for the four biggest corn exporters (US, China, Brazil, Argentina) suffering yield losses of 10 percent or greater increases from 7 percent at 2degreeC [Centigrade] warming of 86 percent at 4degreeC.” Another study “showed that global crop yields could be reduced by nearly one-third with a 4degreeC temperature increase.”

The problem is already apparent in the “drying wells and sinking land at the heart of the most productive farmland in the US, the Central Valley of California,” where

“[l]arge portions of the San Joaquin Valley have already sunk nearly 30 feet since the 1920s, with some areas having dropped a staggering three feet over just the last two years. All of this is the result of farmers’ relentless pumping of groundwater to offset the lack of snowpack and rainfall, both of which stem largely from ACD. It is important to note that the groundwater the farmers are using accounts for between 30 to 60 percent of the water that all Californians use each year, depending on how much rain and snow the state gets. The US Geological Survey stated that the pumping and resultant sinking of the San Joaquin Valley is ‘one of the single largest alterations of the [planet’s] land surface attributed to mankind.’”

Jamail gives further examples of the threatening effects of rising temperatures. Here are just a few.

“Nearly 1 billion people across South Asia are at risk of seeing their already desperate plight worsen, according to a recent World Bank Report. The report pins the cause on increasing temperatures and precipitation changes stemming from ACD, if major changes are not made to current global emission rates.

“Baobab trees that live for millennia and are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa are now rapidly dying off, and scientists are pointing to ACD as the cause. A recent report showed that of the 13 oldest baobab trees, four have died in just the last dozen years, and five others are on their way out, given that they have already lost their oldest stems.

“A very disconcerting study coming out of Northwestern University has warned that even slight increases in temperatures could lead to the extinction of bees across the US Southwest in the very near future. Over a two-year period, the study simulated the predicted warmer future climate, and the results are shocking: 35 percent of the bees died the first year, and 70 percent died the second year.

“Adding insult to injury, another recent report warned of something we’ve known for years now: that warming temperatures could increase the spread of bark beetles, which are well-known for how effectively they decimate forests.

“Meanwhile, Atlantic puffins, which were nearly decimated by hunters about a century ago, had made a comeback thanks to a protection program run by the National Audubon Society. But now, according to a recent report, they are likely on their way out again due to ACD impacts.”

“In the US, the Rio Grande River (the fourth-longest river in the country) is vanishing before our eyes. Authorities recently warned that the river likely won’t make it out of Colorado into New Mexico this summer, let alone further down into Texas or Mexico. This means that farmers in the already drought-prone region will be struggling with their crops through a summer of extreme drought.”

“Another report on the ramifications of sea level rise in the US warned that more than 150,000 homes and businesses could face more frequent high tide flooding within 15 years, and the number of homes and businesses impacted by this could well double by 2045. It is worth noting that these projections are not based on worst-case sea level rise estimates, which have thus far themselves not been keeping pace with reality.”

“Wildfires in California this summer have already scorched more than two times the five-year average of land burned this year, and that is only as of July 1.”

“To underscore everything in this month’s dispatch, an international team of researchers from 17 countries recently published their findings in Nature Geoscience, which showed that global temperatures could eventually double those that have been predicted by climate modeling. According to their findings, sea levels could rise by six meters or more, even if the world meets the 2°C maximum temperature rise level set by the Paris climate agreement.”

It becomes increasingly unlikely that global warming and its effects can be curtailed, let alone reversed?

If unmitigated, and mitigation seems less and less likely, the unfolding climate changes threaten to destroy more and more habitats, more and more species, and generate economic, social, and psychological havoc for and massive dislocations of billions of people. This is happening already. Such conditions, under current political and economic arrangements, are likely to continue to unfold and be irreversible. For many of us, this may not be new information, especially for those who pay attention and try to be informed, including those who been active in parts of the broad environmental sustainability movement, or involved in organic agriculture, diets for a healthy planet, renewable energy, and efforts to build resilient communities. We’ll see whether these pro-environmental activities make enough of a difference to forestall system-wide collapse. At the present, unfortunately, they do not.

What is clear is that opportunities for mitigation and the achievement of a durable world are diminishing. According to some researchers, the human species is facing a prospect of extinction if current economic and political institutions are not soon transformed (e.g., Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene). We seemed to be increasingly locked into a political economy that revolves around the profit-first policies of mega-corporations in a capitalist system predicated on the assumption that there is no viable alternative to ever-more growth, regardless of the environmental consequences. The government, most important the federal government, works to advance the interests of the mega-corporations and business enterprises generally, dismissing or ignoring environmental crises. Economic power is translated into political power. Ashly Dawson provides a fitting one-sentence summary of what is happening in our political-economic system in his book, Extinction: A Radical History: “As capitalism expands…it commodifies more and more of the planet, stripping the world of its diversity and fecundity” (p. 13).

Of course, human-generated climate disruption is not the only ominous issue before us. It may be, for example, Trump will foment nuclear war anytime he feels like it and destroy much of human life – and more. This nuclear-nightmare is discussed by experts in the recently published book, Rocket Man: Nuclear Madness and the Mind of Donald Trump. Here the focus is on climate changes.

You can be sure of one thing. Donald Trump doesn’t believe that humans play a significant role in the changing climate, which is contrary to the scientific evidence and to the mounting manifestations of global warming. He is a premier climate denier. Reporting for the Washington Post in March 22, 2016, during Trump’s primary campaign to be the Republican presidential nominee, Brady Dennis points to some of Trump’s statements on the climate. Trump said that he is “‘not a believer’ that humans have played a significant role in the Earth’s changing climate.” On one of the “Fox and Friends” programs in early 2016, he said that “climate change ‘is just a very, very expensive form of tax. A lot of people are making a lot of money.’” Dennis also alludes to the now infamous Trump tweet that climate change is a “hoax…created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Then, at the end of Trump’s visit with the Washington Post editorial board on March 2016, he repeated his basic belief, namely, that “I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.” Of course, Dennis points out, we know that my-facts-are-the-only-facts Trump is unconcerned that his views put him “at odds with the vast majority of the world’s scientists” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/03/22/this-is-the-only-type-of-climate-change-donald-trump-believes-in/?utm_term=.3d7bea7576dc).

In the meantime, Trump and his administration, along with his right-wing supporters in the Republican Party, the rich, the bulk of the corporations, and most of his grassroots supporters either deny that there is human-caused climate change altogether or say that we cannot deal with it now because it would be too economically expensive and disruptive to do so. They also sometimes justify their position by thinking of nature as something humans are destined to control and as a virtually unlimited cornucopia of resources from which to draw for profit and consumption.

Sophia Tesfaye reminds us in a report for Salon (March 30, 2018) that Trump once called global warming a “‘hoax’ manufactured by the Chinese” during his presidential campaign. In then in a tweet on December 28, 2017, he said: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!” Tesfaye also refers to evidence that climate change/global warming denial is not limited to the White House, referring to how “Trump has pushed Republicans to be more extreme on issues concerning the environment, specifically climate change.” She also refers to a Gallup poll, writing as follows.

“Only a third of Republicans said they worry about climate change or even acknowledge that it is already happening, down 3 percentage points from the year prior. Just 35 percent of Republicans believed global warming was caused by humans, compared with 40 percent at about this time in 2017, a few months before Trump took office.”

“In 2017, 53 percent of Republicans agreed that most scientists believe climate change is occurring. That number declined 11 percentage points during Trump’s first year in office to 42 percent in 2018. Just to clarify: A majority of Republicans now reject not merely the idea that climate change is real, but the idea that most scientists believe it is real. That suggests an imperviousness to fact that goes well beyond unorthodox opinion into outright delusion.”

Tesfaye also points out:

“Although last year was the second warmest year on record, behind only 2016, nearly 70 percent of Republican respondents told Gallup that the threat of climate change is ‘exaggerated,’ an increase from 66 percent last year. Only 4 percent of Democrats shared that view.”

Such denialist positions are clearly reflected in the U.S. Congress, where, Tesfaye writes, “more than 59 percent of Republicans in the House, and 73 percent of Republicans in the Senate, doubt humans’ impact on climate change…. During Trump’s first 100 days, the House and Senate voted against environmental protection 42 times. Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt [no longer there], has removed numerous references to climate change from EPA documents, and reportedly ordered staffers to cast doubt on the scientific consensus about climate change and mankind’s role in the crisis.” As a result of Trump’s leadership, “the Republican Party [has] become the only major party in the developed world to reject the science on climate change….”
And, to the detriment of most people, the fossil fuel industry could not have a greater champion that Trump. Steve Cohen of Earth Institute provides a telling summary, pointing out as well that Obama could also be faulted (https://phys.org/news/2018-02-trump-energy-dominance-future-fossil.html).

“The Trump Administration is doing everything it can to encourage drilling for fossil fuels on federal lands and everywhere else. They are reversing regulations on methane release, deep-sea drilling rigs and anything else they can think of to lower the cost of drilling and decrease its occupational and environmental safety. Trump and his folks want to achieve the global macho goal of being the biggest fossil fuel exporter in the world. Big oil exports, big nuclear button, big crowds–there seems to be a theme. In real terms, the policy of encouraging exports of fossil fuels is similar to one that was more quietly pursued as “energy independence” by the Obama administration. According to CNBC’s Tom DiChristopher:

“In substance, energy independence and dominance are not so different. And while the Trump administration has sought to differentiate itself from the Obama White House, its position on U.S. energy exports is very similar in some regards… There is no doubt that Trump touts this revolution more stridently than Obama. But while the messaging is different, U.S. energy posture has not changed much between administrations… To be sure, the Obama administration tried to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. It also stopped issuing leases for coal mining on federal land and scaled back plans for offshore drilling auctions following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But Obama also lifted a 40-year ban on exporting U.S. crude oil in 2015, paving the way for a surge in shipments. Oil and gas industry employment boomed under Obama’s watch, until a protracted oil price downturn led to mass layoffs.”

More evidence on how Trump and his administration are unrelenting and systematic in taking the country and the world toward the edge of collapse

#1 – Cutting the budgets of agencies created to protect the environment.

Brady Dennis reports that the White House is seeking to cut more than $2.5 billion from the fiscal 2019 budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. This represents “an overall reduction of more than 23 percent.” This proposed cut follows how the agency’s personnel have already been reduced by buyouts and retirements and that “staffing is now at Reagan-era levels.” Trump reduced EPA’s budget by 31 percent in 2018, while “cutting 3,200 positions, or more than 20 percent of the agency’s workforce.” ” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/02/12/trump-budget-seeks-23-percent-cut-at-epa-would-eliminate-dozens-of-programs/?utm_term=.c485a84041fb).

According to environmental groups, the goal of the Trump administration is to “gut federal environmental safeguards.” Dennis quotes Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, who said “this budget shows the administration doesn’t value clean air, clean water, or protecting Americans from toxic pollution.” Some EPA programs would be eliminated, others would have their budgets severely reduced. Here’s what Dennis writes:

“The administration’s plan would cut several dozen programs altogether. Among them: funding for state radon-detection initiatives; assistance to fund water system improvements along the U.S.-Mexico border; and partnerships to monitor and restore water quality in the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound and other large bodies of water. Funding for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay would fall from $72 million to $7 million, and a similar program for the Great Lakes would be cut from $300 million to $30 million — although neither would be wiped out.”

With respect to climate change specifically, the Trump budget “would eliminate — or very nearly eliminate — the agency’s programs related to climate change. Funding for the agency’s Office of Science and Technology would drop by more than a third, from $762 million to $489 million. And funding for prosecuting environmental crimes and for certain clean air and water programs would drop significantly.”

#2 – Trump administration eviscerates and dismantles environmental regulations
One of the most impressive decisions of the Obama administration was to increase the federal fuel-efficiency standard and to allow states like California to institute even higher standards.

Now the Trump administration wants to eliminate these progressive initiatives. Juliet Elperin, Brady Dennis and Michael Laris report for the Washington Post on July 24, 2018, that the Trump administration officials “are preparing to issue a proposal within days to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks for six years and challenge the right of California and other states to set their own tailpipe standards.” If actually implemented, it “would amount to one of the biggest regulatory rollbacks of the Trump presidency” (https://www.macomldaily.com/news/nation-world-news/trump-administration-to-freeze-auto-fuel-efficiency-standards/article_781a52af-f82d-596c-8ef3-5127fd3ebc13.html). The pending proposal is based on an analysis by the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environment Protection Agency.

The proposal will recommend freezing miles-per-gallon-standards “at Model Year 2020 levels through 2026,” which “translates into maintaining a fleetwide average of 35 mpg for six years, rather than raising it to about 50 mpg by 2025.” The chief public justification of Trump’s agencies is that higher standards would drive the price of new cars up, making them unaffordable for many people. There is a debate over how much the cost of cars and trucks would rise because of the Obama’s fuel-efficiency standards. But, fundamentally, the move reflects the administration’s right-wing ideology, namely, the desire to achieve wholesale deregulation of the economy and its complete disregard of how carbon emissions from cars and light trucks contribute to global warming.

Furthermore, the agencies plan to “take comment on whether to block California’s right under the Clean Air Act to set its own emissions limit on cars and light trucks and require the sale of a certain number of electric vehicles in the state each year.” According to Elperin and her colleagues, “California, 16 other states and the District are challenging the federal government’s push to revisit the existing emissions standards, which represent the first federal carbon limits on vehicles.” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is quoted: “The Trump administration’s assault on clean car standards risks our ability to protect our children’s health, tackle climate change, and save hard-working Americans money” (at the pump).
Kieran Suckling, executive director and a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, provides additional information on the Clean Air Act and California’s fuel-efficiency policy. When interviewed on Democracy Now on July 25, 2018, about what the Trump administration is proposing, she replied as follows.

“Yeah, this is really outrageous, because the way our Clean Air Act works is it allows states to set standards if they’re higher than the federal government. And so, for 48 years running now, California has had a higher standard. It’s had that through administrations Democratic and Republican, conservative and liberal. No one’s had a problem with it, until Trump. And so, partly, this is his effect—efforts to reduce any attempt to control global warming, but it’s also clearly a personal agenda to attack California, which he believes is just generally a hostile element to him personally, and so, consequently, we have this incredibly irrational act, especially when, for example, you’ve got Barrasso [Republican] talking about state’s rights: “Let’s empower the states.” Well, these Republicans only want to empower the states when the states have a lower protective standard. The second a state has a higher standard, all of a sudden all concerns about state rights go out the window, and we have to go to a federal single authority that’s going to reduce environmental protection” (https://www.democracynow.org/2018/7/25/trumps_war_on_the_environment).

#3 – the privatization of public lands
In the interview on Democracy Now, Kieran Suckling also commented on this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Kierán, what about the record of the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke? You have ThinkProgress saying documents released by the Department of Interior, then retracted a day later, revealed the agency officials dismissed evidence that public lands provide numerous benefits in favor of prioritizing fossil fuel interests, along with ranching and logging, and then CNN reporting Zinke is meeting with people that are not on the public record. For example, met with Congressman Chris Collins, a New York Republican, who was the first in Congress to endorse Trump’s presidential candidacy. That was according to the official calendar. But Zinke’s calendar didn’t show who else was in the room: three representatives of a company that do business with the National Park Service—one of about of a dozen instances uncovered by CNN of Zinke’s calendar omitting who he’s actually meeting with.

KIERÁN SUCKLING: Yeah. Zinke, I think, is going to go down as one of the worst interior secretaries in history. And his actions are very, very similar to what Scott Pruitt was doing over at EPA before he was forced to resign. And that is that he’s aggressively trying to avoid all environmental laws. He’s meeting with industry groups constantly and then hiding that, rather than simply admitting to what he’s doing in public. And the agenda is always the same: You know, what can he do to allow public lands to be destroyed? What can he do to allow more oil and gas drilling, even if it’s polluting local communities, poisoning children? It’s really a disaster.

He has turned this agency, which is supposed to be in charge of America’s land, air, water and species, into a handout program for industry, and then going so far as to just erase all this from his calendar, from his meeting notes, to take decisions from lower officials who are trying to do their job and erase all references to issues which harms their agenda. And in particular what you’ll see is that protecting public lands, especially on national monuments, is really good for local economies, but instead they’ll erase all that information and say, “Oh, this is hurting local economies.” And it’s not just immoral, it’s illegal. And it’s the reason why this agency gets sued so much.

#4 – Opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Here is more of what Kieran Suckling had to say on Democracy Now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And staying on the Interior Department and Zinke, the department has also commissioned an expedited environmental review of the impact of leasing part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now, this is a decades-long battle that the industry, the oil and gas industry, has not been able to win. What is happening here? And what could be the potential impact of this new expedited review?

KIERÁN SUCKLING: Yeah, this is very concerning. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off the coast of Alaska, has been sought after by the oil industry for many, many decades now and has always been stopped, because it’s such a crown jewel of environmental protection, and there are so many other areas available for drilling. So, Zinke now has expedited efforts to review proposed drilling up there, brought on millions of dollars of new money, which apparently don’t exist to do anything else in government, more staff, and he wants to push through, at a very rapid clip, a decision to open this up to more drilling. And he’s throwing all the environmental standards, review processes out the window. And I think it’s partly because he knows time is limited up there for him, and he wants this to become his legacy, the guy who opened up America’s biggest, most important wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

#5 – Loading the Supreme Court with right-wing justices
The Trump administration is systematically filling the federal judiciary with “conservative” justices. This means that his pro-corporate, pro-rich, anti-regulatory (e.g., little regulation of fossil fuels) will be further consolidated with the capture by Trump reactionary agenda of the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court. See a current, list as of July 29, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_federal_judges_appointed_by_Donald_Trump. Currently, the news is about Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to fill an opening on the Supreme Court. Basav Sen, who directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes:
“Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh isn’t just a likely vote against Roe, or an enabler of brash executive authority. He’s also a vocal supporter of a conservative legal ‘philosophy’ that’s designed to block action on climate change” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/07/19/brett-kavanaugh-would-be-a-disaster).

Sen gives these examples to illustrate his concerns.

“As a D.C. appeals court judge, he argued against the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and wrote the majority opinion striking down the EPA’s attempt to regulate hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are potent climate pollutants used in cooling applications. He even wrote a majority opinion overturning EPA regulation of air pollution that crosses state lines.”
Kavanaugh believes that Congress, not the courts, should be responsible for environmental regulation, that is, as long as Republicans control the U.S. Congress. As it now stands, Congress is controlled by Republicans who support unregulated markets (profits) over the environment and tend to reject the scientifically-established facts that global warming is an significant threat.

#6 – Reducing support for programs to assist low-income countries in dealing with the effects of climate change

In an article in July 7, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, Natalie Meade reports on how the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are cutting support for programs aimed at assisting low-income countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-cuts-in-climate-change-research-spark-a-global-scramble-for-funds).

Meade describes how the administration is cutting financial support for the Climate Change Adaptation Program, a program, initiated under the Obama administration, to help minimize the impacts of climate change for Central American countries. Similarly, it is reducing the US pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which was created to “among other things, help developing countries invest in renewable and low-emissions technologies. And, in Africa, “the Trump Administration has moved to eliminate all funding for climate-related or environmental projects across the continent.” It also is cutting support for environmental projects in Indonesia, “one of the largest carbon emitters in the world.”

Concluding thoughts

Global warming is not an issue that is likely to sway any election in November 2018 or in 2020. Indeed, we are amid a fossil-fuel boom, which has enabled the U.S. to reduce its reliance on imported oil. The slogan “energy independence” will sit well with many voters. While renewable energy grows in the energy-mix of the economy, it still represents a small portion of all U.S. energy use.

And, very disconcertingly, US consumers are now in the process of driving a lot more fuel-inefficient vans than cars. Consumers want more things at affordable prices, often without much consideration of the environmental impacts. Business interests “develop” every available space and extract every exploitable resource, destroying habitats with little restraint. As temperatures go up, more and more people want air-conditioning, usually from electricity generated by coal or gas. And there are a host of other issues that dominate the news and political narratives.

At the same time, coastal properties will be increasingly vulnerable to rising ocean levels, wildfires will consume more and more forests and destroy many thousands of homes, food prices will be affected by droughts and floods, more and more communities will have trouble accessing fresh water, the air will become more polluted, and the general environmental contexts in which we live will be degraded, faster in some places than others. It is impossible to predict how these conflicting developments will pan out.

However, to address adequately the unfolding and accelerating crises emanating from global warming, there will have to be major transformative institutional changes in our economy encompassing a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, a political party that makes the issue of curtailing global warming a priority, a massive social movement educating and organizing people around the issue (and a progressive agenda), and a majority of citizens who see the issue as pressing and are willing to vote for candidates who prioritize it.