Fighting fossil fuels, climate crisis, and plastics

The fight over fossil fuels, the climate crisis, and plastics
Bob Sheak, June 3, 2019

There is an emergency of global proportions

We are living in a time when there is mounting scientific evidence validating unprecedented human-caused impacts on all aspects of the environment (biosphere). Everything is being affected, from the climate to the cryosphere, the oceans, the forests, the soils, fresh water sources. Human activities are degrading, contaminating, harmfully transforming, and depleting more and more of the natural world. Bill McKibben reminds us that in November of 2017 “fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issues a stark ‘warning to humanity.’” They predicted that humanity faces “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss” and soon “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory” (Falter, p. 11). He refers to other daunting facts.

“A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with ‘persistent declining trends in productivity….We’ve displaced most everything else: if you weigh the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans account for 30 percent of their total mass, and our farm animals for another 67 percent, meaning wild animals (all the moose and cheetahs and wombats combined) total just 3 percent. In fact, there are half as many wild animals on the plant as there were in 1970…. In 2018, scientists reported that the planet’s oldest and largest trees were dying fast, ‘as climate change attracts new pests and diseases to forests’” (p. 12).

Fossil Fuels: the principal source of global warming

Much of what we have wrought can be traced directly or indirectly to our use of fossil fuels for generating electricity for all sectors of the economy, the gadgets and appliances we use, for heating and cooling our homes and businesses, for transportation in all its forms, and for the nitrogen/phosphorus-fertilizing agriculture system that grows our food while systematically denuding the soil and polluting rivers and the oceans.

The combustion of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, gases that are at the heart of the accelerating and increasingly disruptive climate change and its myriad impacts on the environment (e.g., rising temperatures, the shrinking of ice in the polar regions and on all mountain glaciers, rising ocean levels, changing chemistry of the oceans, the destruction of coral reefs; the increase in extreme weather events; wildfires; species extinction).

The latest scientific research indicates that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher now than in the past 3 million years. According to a report by Jon Queally, the ongoing measurements at Mauno Loa Observatory in Hawaii by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography show that the atmospheric levels of carbon registered 415 parts per million on May 11-12, “a concentration level researchers say has not existed in more than 3 million years” (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/05/13/we-dont-know-planet-co2-levels-hit-415-ppm-first-time-3-million-years).

Queally quotes Jonathan Shieber of TechCrunch who explains the connection between rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and rising temperatures levels, as follows.

“The increasing proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is important because of its heat absorbing properties. The land and seas on the planet absorb and emit heat and that heat is trapped in carbon dioxide molecules. The NOAA likens CO2 to leaving bricks in a fireplace, that still emit heat after a fire goes out.”

In other words, there is more heat from the sun being retained in the atmosphere than before and there are consequently “increases in greenhouse gases [that] have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.” Unless there are all-out efforts to phase out fossil-fuels as sources of energy by 2050 or soon thereafter and replace them with renewable sources and efficiencies that reduces energy use, then global warming will get worse than it is. This is not a new or uninformed warning, but one that scientists have been voicing for decades – and mostly ignored. On this point, a recent article on thelogicofscience reports that the “5 hottest years on record all happened in the past 5 years” (https://thelogicofscience.com/2019/02/07/5-hottest-years-on-record-all-happened-in-the-past-5-years-global-warming-is-real).
Don’t have a lot of time

Global warming is not just something that can be set aside or put off to some future time, as Republicans officials, fossil fuel corporations, and too many others insist that we do. But there is no skirting the vast scientifically produced evidence, unless it is suppressed by the government. It’s been happening, it is accelerating, and there is far too little being done, domestically or internationally, to stop it from engendering an increasingly cataclysmic future. Here’s what I wrote in a previous post, emphasizing how little time humanity has to confront the problem.

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In an article published in Truthout, Ryan Gunderson and Diana Stuart remind us of “two recent projections of catastrophic climate change, namely of scientists’ warning of a runaway “hothouse Earth” scenario and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report detailing the impacts of a 1.5 degree Celsius (1.5°C) rise in global temperatures,” as well as “an increasing number of scientists and activists are calling for a dramatic policy response to tackle climate change. The IPCC specifically calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to prevent the 1.5-degree scenario” and the worse effects of reaching 2.0-degrees (https://truthout.org/articles/the-green-new-deal-must-transform-the-economy).

Joseph Romm adds the following background information (https://thinkprogress.org/green-ned-deal-ocasio-cortez-7c9ac944b37d). “Scientists have been clear about the scale of effort needed for some time,” Romm writes. “In 2013, the world’s leading nations set up a ‘structured expert dialogue’ to review the adequacy of the 2°C (3.6°F) target to avoid catastrophic climate change. In 2015, 70 leading climate experts reported that every bit of warming above current levels ‘will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.’ The scientists also made clear that large-scale changes are necessary: “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.”

Then, in October of last year (2018), “the world’s nations unanimously approved a landmark report from scientists making the same exact point. The scientists warned that world leaders must make sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 — and then take total emissions down to zero by 2050 to 2070 to have any plausible chance of averting catastrophe.” They offered details on their dire assessment, explaining that “energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” would require “system changes” that “are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.” Romm notes: “If that sounds like the Green New Deal, that’s because the resolution is rooted in science.” At the end of his article, Romm cites a leading climatologist, Michael Mann, who in an email to Think Progress wrote: “Climate change is a threat that is both global and existential” and he “applauded Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘bold leadership’ and reiterated that ‘averting disaster will require a degree of mobilization of effort and resources unlike anything we’ve witnessed since World War II.’”

In the meantime, contrary to what climate scientists call for in drastically cutting our use of fossil fuels, a study just released by the International Energy Agency, as reported by Andrea Germanos, finds that U.S. domestic fossil fuel use is way up due to fracking and the export of fracked gas and oil is also rising. (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/03/11/climate-crisis-be-damned-shale-revolution-poised-make-us-net-exporter-oil-three).
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Endless digressions: Trump’s administration attempting to suppress the evidence on global warming

The evidence on global warming from scientific research continues to multiply and it is important in helping to shore up the positions of those who want a more rational and sustainable energy system devoid of fossil fuels. However, the Trump administration is doing its best to undermine and stop government reports that rely on such evidence, so that it is not available for the public or only available in censured form.

The efforts of Trump and his administration on these fronts are well known. They essentially deny “climate change,” tout the virtues of and support fossil fuels, minimize or avoid any discussion renewables and energy efficiency, withdraw from relevant international treaties, populate the White House and executive branch of the federal government with advisers who are climate change deniers or avoiders, and encourage unregulated, market-based policies that encourage the existing oligarchic fossil-fuel dominant energy system . For an in-depth analysis of Trump’s most recent anti-climate-change moves, see the report by Coral Davenport and Mark Landler, “Trump Administration Hardens Its Attacks on Climate Science” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/us/politics/trump-climate-science.html).

Here is a revealing segment of their report.

“The attack on science is underway throughout the government. In the most recent example, the White House-appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, has ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, as had been done previously.

“Scientists say that would give a misleading picture because the biggest effects of current emissions will be felt after 2040. Models show that the planet will most likely warm at about the same rate through about 2050 [with increasingly catastrophic effects]. From that point until the end of the century, however, the rate of warming differs significantly with an increase or decrease in carbon emissions [and a higher rate of cataclysmic events].
“The administration’s prime target has been the National Climate Assessment, produced by an interagency task force roughly every four years since 2000. Government scientists used computer-generated models in their most recent report to project that if fossil fuel emissions continue unchecked, the earth’s atmosphere could warm by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That would lead to drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses and severe health consequences.”

Fossil fuels and plastics: The connection

James Brugger helps to clarify the connection between plastics and natural gas in an article entitled “Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river).

It begins with the extraction of natural gas or oil from the earth. Most of the natural gas or oil that is being extracted in the U.S. is accomplished via hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking. In the extractive process, Brugger points out, natural gas liquids are obtained along with natural gas or oil. One of the liquids is ethane, which is also called “wet gas.” In turn, ethane is “used [processed] to produce ethylene, which then [eventually] gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry.” Brugger adds: “It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.”

The natural gas liquids are transported to a processing plant, where they are separated from natural gas. There are complex networks of pipes that are involved in the transportation from the wells to the processing plant (http://naturalgas.org/naturalgas/transport). The gas is delivered to a “fractionator” [which] refines the natural gas liquids “into their distinct products, such as propane, butane, and ethane.” Some of the ethane is “liquified for export in tanker vessels. The rest of it is broken down by an ‘ethane cracker’ into ‘ethylene’, the basic building block of most plastics.”

What are plastics used for?

They are used in manufacturing “to produce a wide variety of plastics and other products, including toys, textiles, containers, bags, PVC and housewares.” Brugger quotes Dave Witte, a senior vice president at HIS Markit, a global data and information service,” who said that plastics “are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging.” The keyboard I am typing on is made of plastic. Witte also says, “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.” That is, unless these plastics are banned or perhaps taxed in ways that reduce the consumption of plastics.

The environmental, economic, and human costs

While plastics are useful and exist everywhere in our everyday lives, in businesses, in medical services, and so forth, they also pose a growing environmental problem. Jessica Mason reports on some of the costs, focusing on plastic bags (https://truthout.org/articles/barring-plastic-bag-bans-another-alec-law-takes-aim-at-local-democracy).

There are an “estimated hundred billion plastic bags… used in the U.S. annually, but only about 12 percent of them are recycled, making them a significant waste-disposal problem for towns and cities.” In addition, “plastic bag litter often ends up in streams and rivers, where it potentially leaches endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A into the water supply.” In particular, the single-use bags and disposable containers “also threaten marine life and contribute to growing ‘garbage patches’ in the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.” Astonishingly, “by 2050, there will be more plastic (by weight) in the ocean’s water than fish, leading the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment and the Ocean Conservatory to declare, “the amount of unmanaged plastic waste entering the ocean… has reached crisis levels.” There is more. Plastic waste “is already taking a financial toll on fishing industries, urban infrastructure, and tourist economies.” Mason cites a conclusion of the World Economic Institute: “the cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually — exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”

An example – Alabama coastal area

Bryan Lyman reports on plastic pollution in the Alabama coastal areas (https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.org/story/news/2019/04/08/bills-banning-local-plastic-bag-regulations-use-alex-model/3405085002).

Lyman interviewed Casi Callaway, the executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, “which organizes clean-up and protection efforts for Mobile Bay.” According to Callaway, they are pulling an enormous quantity of plastic litter from the Bay. In a one-day clean up along the coast in 2017 they “recovered 96,745 pieces of litter,” weighing “more than 35,000 pounds.” He said the plastic pollution is taking a toll on wildlife, clogging drainage infrastructure (e.g., storm drains). Sea birds and turtles ingest it or get tangled in it.

The Mobile Baykeeper group is part of a state environmental coalition that have organized in opposition to legislation that would bar local governments from banning single-use plastic bags. The Alabama state government is poised to follow in the steps of Texas and Florida and pass legislation banning local communities from taking steps to tax or ban plastic bags. Lyman observes that
the legislation “closely follow the ALEC [model] legislation.”

Plastic contamination in the oceans

Tatiana Schlossberg refers to striking evidence of the pervasiveness of “plastic bits” in the far reaches of the oceans in an article entitled “Trillions of Plastic Bits, Swept Up by Current, Are Littering Arctic Waters” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html).

A group of researchers from the University of Cadiz in Spain and several other institutions, she reports, “show that a major ocean current is carrying bits of plastic, mainly from the North Atlantic, to the Greenland and Barents seas, and leaving them there – in surface waters, in sea ice and possibly on the ocean floor.” The scientists, led by Andres Cozar Cabanas, “a professor of biology,” “sampled floating plastic debris from 42 sites in the Arctic Ocean aboard Tara, a research vessel that completed a trip around the North Pole from June to October 2013, with data from two additional sites from a previous trip.” The plastic fragments, along with plastic fishing lines, film, and pellets, is similar to what is found in “the subtropical gyres.”

On another aspect of the problem, Dahr Jamail writes about the widespread presence of plastic in fish and that “humans are ingesting plastic thanks to ocean pollution” (http://www.truth-out.org/item/35291-not-a-fish-tale-humans-are-ingesting-plastic-thanks-to-ocean-pollution). He writes this stunning paragraph:

“Humans generate more than 300 million tons of plastic annually – an amount equal to the combined body weight of the entire global adult population – and nearly half of the plastic is only used on time before it is tossed away to eventually find its way to the oceans. So, it should come as little surprise that by 2050, it is a virtual certainty that every seabird on the planet will have plastic in its stomach.”

And:

“Recent estimates indicate that upwards of 8 million tons of plastic are added to the planet’s oceans each year, the equivalent of a dump truck full of plastic every minute. That is enough plastic to have led one scientist to estimate that people who consume average amounts of seafood are ingesting approximately 11,000 particles of plastic every year.”

The plastic “is also causing large-scale change to the oceans’ entire ecological system,” according to Miriam Goldstein, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California, San Diego,” who Jamail quotes. In one of her examples, Goldstein refers to “the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre’s eastern section, located between Hawai’i and California [which is a] vast ‘garbage patch [containing] an ‘alarming amount of plastic garbage, the majority of which is comprised of very small-size pieces.” Goldstein key point is that this vast quantity of plastic is not only “leading to early deaths of animals that ingest it, but also that humans ingesting fish with plastic in their systems are at increased risk of cancer and other health issues.” The problem is expected to get worse, since only “five percent of plastics are effectively recycled, and the production of plastics is expected to increase by at least 1.12 billion tons by 2050.”

Plastics and global warming

Sharon Kelley reports that the “plastics industry plays a major – and growing – role in climate change, being driven “largely by the shale gas rush unleashed by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.” According to a report she cites by the Center for International Environmental Law: “In 2019, the plastics industry is on track to release as much greenhouse gas pollution as 189 new coal-fired power plants running year-round, the report found — and the industry plans to expand so rapidly that by 2030, it will create 1.34 gigatons of climate-changing emissions a year, equal to 295 coal plants.” Quoting Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, “humanity has less than twelve years to cut global greenhouse emissions in half and just three decades to eliminate them almost entirely.” A report by the center finds that plastic has long been and continues to be a threat to the global environment, puts human health at risk, and is “putting the climate at risk as well” (https://truthout.org/articles/plastics-industry-on-track-to-burn-14-percent-of-worlds-remaining-carbon-budget).

Two irreconcilable positions

The supporters of the plastic industry want the industry to respond to rising demand, expand its production of plastic, and ignore or dismiss the environmental and health impacts. From this perspective, government’s role is to encourage – not ban or regulate – the production of plastics. Let the plastics industry grow and continue providing the stuff people want, the jobs they need, and the local and state tax revenues that pay for government services and public education.

Proponents of plastics ignore the costs and emphasize the benefits

While plastics are a major source of environmental harm, there are a host of reasons offered by proponents of single-use plastic bags, one of the worst environmentally harmful plastics, to leave them unregulated. They argue that such plastic should not be banned or even taxed, because consumers want them. They also argue that banning such plastic would lead to a loss of jobs and complicate or increase the expense of medical procedures using plastic gloves. They argue it is not a serious public issue because the bags are often reused. Making this an issue distracts the public conversation from more important environmental issues. And they argue that it would be inconvenient for consumers to rely on their own reusable cloth bags because they would sometimes forget them when they shop and are useful in picking up the poop of pet dogs (https://debatewise.org/debates/1011-should-plastic-bags-be-banned).
In the meantime, however, non-biodegradable plastics in bags and other forms (e.g., packaging, bottles, disposable gloves) are filling landfills, poisoning the oceans and aquatic life, and posing health hazards.

The opponents favor regulation and want to see policies that discourage or ban the use of plastic products, and have focused particular attention on supporting laws or proposed laws that would ban single-use plastic bags, while emphasizing reuse (e.g., cloth bags) and recycling of those plastics that can be recycled. Katie Wells offers a wide range of alternatives to grocery bags for shopping, for lunches, and for storage of food (https://wellnessmama.com/105581/alternatives-plastic-bags).

She points out:

“Most plastic bags contain some type of harmful chemical, but plastic bags are one of the worst offenders. Not only do we collectively use and discard over 1 TRILLION plastic bags each year, these bags take 1000 years to fully degrade, releasing chemicals the entire time. On top of that, plastic bags are the second most common ocean waste (after cigarette butts) and they harm thousands of species of ocean wildlife each year (with an estimated 40,000 pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of the ocean!).”

Some movement to ban single-use plastic bags

Jessica Mason (cited previously) finds that from a national perspective, “local governments are in the vanguard in addressing plastic waste.” Indeed, “US cities started experimenting with ways to reduce plastic bag waste in the late 2000s, with cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, adopting small fees on single-use plastic bags. Other cities like Honolulu tried out biodegradable and compostable bags. Still other cities, such as San Francisco, banned plastic bags altogether.” Bryan Lyman reports that “Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers are [were] poised to ban plastic shopping bags beginning March (https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.org/story/news/2019/04/08/bills-banning-local-plastic-bag-regulations-use-alex-model/3405085002).

In September 2018 issue of Forbes magazine, Trevor Nace published a list of hundreds of cities that had banned and/or taxed plastic bags that did not include any cities in Ohio (https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2018/09/20/heres-a-list-of-every-city-in-the-us-to-ban-plastic-bags-will-your-city-be-next/#72a5).

There are also bans that have been instituted at the state level. The Ohio Sierra Club issued a report in December 15, 2017, in which the pointed to how in 2016 “California became the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bags when voters passed Proposition 67. In 2017, Michigan became the seventh state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bag bans” (https://www.sierraclub.org/ohio/blog/2017/12/why-are-so-many-states-banning-plastic-bag-bans).

The realty of powerful well-organized forces

At the same time, according to Jessica’s Mason’s investigation, fossil fuel and plastic-industry interests have been able to stop or reverse local regulation and bans in some instances, urging state governments to pass legislation preempting local restrictions and bans on plastic bags.

Model legislation for these efforts has been adopted by the American City County Exchange (ACCE), an off shoot of “the ALEC [the Koch Brothers’ supported American Legislative Exchange Committee]. The ACCE targets state and local officials. The model legislation is titled “Regulating Containers to Protect Business and Consumer Choice” and includes a resolution calling “on municipal governments not to regulate single-use containers and packaging, such as ‘reusable bags, disposable bags, boxes, cups, and bottles that are made of cloth, paper, plastic, extruded polystyrene, or similar materials…’” ACCE claims that the “free market is the best arbiter of the container,” dismissing how the market has failed “to address the problem of the estimated nearly 88 billion plastic bags that are not recycled annually in the U.S.”

In addition to ACCE, there is a group funded by plastics manufacturers like Novolex, the Superbag Corporation, and Advanced Polybag, called “The American Progressive Bag Alliance (ABPA) that marshals its resources to oppose any plastic bag regulation. Mason goes into detail describing their anti-regulatory activities that, for example, includes warnings such as “city plastic bag bans” are “stepping stones to the regulation of all packaging.” As a consequence, “State bills prohibiting local plastic bag bans were proposed in a number of states in 2015 and 2016, including in Georgia, South Carolina, and Idaho, as well as Wisconsin.” In addition, “APBA has also led an effort to kill California’s statewide ban on plastic bags. The trade group spent $3 million in 2015 on a petition drive in California to force a referendum on a statewide ban on plastic bags, which goes before voters later this year.”

APBA and ALEC members are not alone in opposition to plastic regulation. But there is a common link to ALEC. Mason points out that the American Chemistry Council (ACC), “a member of ALEC’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force,” has been fighting “for years to keep the U.S. hooked on disposable plastic products.” The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is also involved, even though it “purports to be a nonpartisan trade group representing small business interests; however, NFIB primarily lobbies for big corporate interests and almost all of its political contributions support Republican candidates. Its funding sources have included the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.” State chapters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, both ALEC members, have been active in opposition to any regulations on plastics. Mason also mentions that the Koch family fortune is the biggest source of funds for ALEC. This is a fortune that has been built in part by petroleum processing, “which creates compounds that can be used to manufacture plastic bags.” And the Kochs and their allies demonstrate that “there’s little room for local democracy in ALEC’s vision of freedom.”

Plastics in Ohio

As indicated earlier in this post, there are many cities and at least 7 states that have banned plastic bags. Courtney Astolfi writes in an article for Cleveland.com on May 29, 2019, the Cuyahoga County Council passed a countywide ban on plastic bags along partisan lines, with 8 Democrats voting in favor of the ban and 3 Republicans voting against it. Astolfi reports that the “ban will go into effect in Jan. 1, 2020. It was originally proposed as taking effect Oct. 1, 2019, but Simon [one of the Democratic sponsors of the bill] said she pushed the date back to allow retailers time to adjust” (https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/05/cuyahoga-county-council-passes-plastic-bag-ban.html).

“The legislation approved Tuesday,” Astolfi writes, “bans plastic bags and paper bags that are not 100 percent recyclable or made from at least 40 percent of recycled material.” But it reflects some compromises with the Republican minority. It includes exemptions for bags for restaurant leftovers or carry-out orders, bags consumer bring with them, or bags for newspapers, dry-cleaning, meat, pet waste, prescriptions, or partially-consumed bottles of wine.” In a later action, the Council added bags for hazardous materials to the list of exemptions, or “certain chemical bought at home supply stores.”

The Department of Consumer Affairs will enforce the qualified ban with hefty fines for violators, if the ban can stand. According to Astolfi, “First-time violators will be subject to a written warning. Second violations will carry a civil fine of up to $100 and subsequent violations will carry fines up to $500. Violations are defined as each day a retailer doesn’t comply with the ban.”
There are also a few Ohio towns that have banned plastic bags, including Orange Village, the first community in Ohio to enact a plastic bag ban last year (2018).

Republican lawmakers in Ohio poised to undo “local” bans

There are two developments that threaten to nullify any bans on plastics and their harmful effects in Ohio. One is political. The other is economic.

Preemption by the state

The Ohio House is considering a bill (HB 242) that would allow the state to “preempt” or bar local governments in the state from banning or taxing single-use plastic bags. If it passes, it would nullify home-rule powers in the Ohio Constitution. Ohio is not alone in this regard. The Sierra Club informs readers that “Missouri, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida are the other states that have adopted the preemption measures pushed by bag manufacturers and the plastic industry, with legislative model language often provided by ALEC.” (https://www.sierraclub.org/ohio/blog/2017/12/why-are-so-many-states-banning-plastic-bag-bans).

With Republicans in control of both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly and a Republican governor, they are likely to get whatever they want legislatively. Sam Allard reports that they don’t want regulation that hampers businesses, with increased costs and the lack of uniform state-wide regulations. Reps. George Lang of Butler County and Don Jones of Warren County have introduced House Bill 242, a revamp of last year’s House Bill 625to prevent local communities from regulating auxiliary containers like plastic bags (https://www.citybeat.com/news/blog/21069751/ohio-lawmakers-look-to-preempt-local-plastic-bag-ban-again).

The Republican legislation has the support of the Ohio Beverage Association, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and other politically influential business groups, according to Rep. Lang.

An economic boom in the production of plastics

The second development that threatens to nullify efforts to regulate plastics, especially single-use plastic bags, is that Ohio is in the process of becoming a major part of a plastics production hub for the region, which will include parts of eastern Ohio and near Cleveland, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.

James Bruggers (cited earlier) describes what is happening (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river).

Construction of the facilities for the region’s first ethane cracker plant are underway along the banks of the Ohio River in Pennsylvania, another one is planned for western Pennsylvania, three in the planning stages in Ohio, and one is being planned for Wood County, West Virginia.

“Cracker plants take ethane, a liquid natural gas byproduct, and,” Bruggers reports, “‘crack’ the molecules to produce ethylene, a root chemical used to manufacture a variety of plastic products.” The name of the plant under construction in Pennsylvania is “Shell Polymers,” which is “part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell.” Shell is investing $6 to $7 billion in the plant. There are also two Asian companies, PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., that “could announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio.” If the plan is finalized, the plant will be located in Belmont County, Ohio. Officials are not concerned about climate change or other environmental harms of plastics. Rather they want the taxes and jobs that will come with the plants and the contributions from industry lobbyists.

The fuel for these plants would come from the “natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing.” And, Bruggers points out, “The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy [which] described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.” Storage is a necessary component of the plastics hub because cracking plants require “a steady and reliable stream of ethane.” The Department of Energy is in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees for a West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, that has proposed developing storage for ethane.

If plans for 4 or so cracker plants and the storage facilities are completed, ethane production would “total 640,000 barrels per day through 2025, more than 20 times greater five years ago. By 2050, the DOE says, “ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.”

All this would come with a steep environmental costs. Bruggers writes:

“Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.”

Echoing this concern, Brittany Patterson cites a report by the Center of International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, and others (https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/16/as-ohio-valley-ponders-plastics-growth-report-warns-of-threat-to-climate).

The report “estimates production and incineration of plastic this year will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or equal to the pollution of building 189 new coal-fired power plants,” a figure that “will rise substantially over the next few decades as the demand for single-use plastics live cycle could account for as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.” She refers to Shell’s ethane cracker plant currently under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, that is already “permitted to release up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually.” And this is an underestimate because the report does not include estimated emissions from compressor stations or the miles of pipelines involved.

Concluding thoughts

The only apparent way to curtail and reverse the continuing increase in greenhouse gas emissions, concomitant rising temperatures, plastic pollution, and a host of other assaults on the planet is to begin a serious phasing out of fossil fuels and those plastics that are most harmful. The state and federal governments must increase government support for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Serious support for such policies at the state and national levels will require changes to political power that is supportive of a “green new deal.” The Republicans in Ohio and nationally will oppose any such changes. Therefore, a strong political and social opposition must grow to have any chances of ever advancing such an agenda. What kind of changes are necessary?

A majority of voters in Ohio and nationally will have to be educated about the pressing need for these changes and persuaded that there are more benefits than costs in supporting them. That will be hard because fossil fuels and plastics are so important for what people are used to and rely on. The agenda must pay serious attention to programs that help displaced workers to retrain for identifiable jobs and communities that have experienced economic distress when fossil fuel and plastic plants close. Voter support must be given to politicians who are not dependent on corporate lobbyists for their elections and re-elections. And there must be a movement or movements in support of such changes, including an army of skilled and committed organizers, to supplement the efforts and campaign of far-sighted politicians and political candidates.

What’s the likelihood?

The resolution for a green new deal offered by some Democratic members of the U.S. Congress provides one organizing framework, with its focus on phasing out fossil fuels, which if successful, would also eliminate the types of plastic most harmful to the environment and people. This, when coupled with job creation and support for other basic necessities of modern life, would represent major steps toward realizing the best of America’s values.

Bailing out old nuclear plants is bad public policy

Bailing out old nuclear plants is bad public policy
Bob Sheak, May 13, 2019
bobsheak@gmail.com

The Ohio House is in the process of considering a bill, H.B. No. 6, to create the “Ohio Clean Air Program.” It is widely described as a bailout bill being advanced by Republicans to give FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), until last year a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp, a large ongoing stream of cash to keep its two old, uncompetitive, highly indebted nuclear plants in operation. It is $3 billion in debt. While it’s described as a clean-energy bill, it nonetheless includes language that would even make coal and natural gas power plants, the great emitters of greenhouse gases, eligible to reap financial assistance from the state, if they can show that they have made any “improvements” in reducing the emissions of polluting gases, not necessarily carbon dioxide or methane. And it introduces measures that undermine state support for energy-efficiency standards and renewable energy.

A Subcommittee of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Energy Generation Subcommittee, has held a series of hearings on the bill, with both proponents and opponents offering testimony. Dave Simons, co-Chair Ohio Chapter Sierra Club Energy Committee, provides a fitting summary of how the bill is written. Speaking as a citizen at the hearing on April 24, 2019, Simons described the bill as not involving “a careful study and vetting done by experts at the PUCO when making policy decisions like this,” but rather the work of “an under qualified, understaffed, nearly unknown agency operating in the shadows, with little accountability or oversight.” Simons says pointedly, “The Bill is so undefined, poorly written, that pretty much anything goes.” At the same time, given the Republican majority on the subcommittee and in the entire Ohio state government, the bailout of the nuclear plants seems preordained politically. And FirstEnergy Corp and FirstEnergy Solutions will the biggest beneficiaries.

HB6 falls into a pattern of right-wing energy policies across states
The bill is a reflection of a long-term effort by right-wing and industry-backed forces in the country to accomplish at least seven goals related to energy, namely, (1) preserving nuclear power as part of the energy mix, (2) supporting the policy of “energy independence,” which favors fracked natural gas; (3) avoiding costly shut-downs of the nuclear plants, regardless of the environmental and health impacts (unless the public picks up the tab), (4) protecting jobs in the nuclear and fossil-fuel industries to shore up public support, (5) keeping support for renewables at a minimum, (6) continuing to satisfy nuclear plant owners and their allies so that their political contributions keep rolling in for Republicans, and (7) dismissing, if not denying, the vast disruption and harm accompanying global warming. Ohio House Democrats are likely to go along with the bailout, provided the legislation retains something for renewables. Though the political realty in Ohio is that the Republicans in the Ohio House will pass the legislation, with the bailout, regardless of what the Democrats want, and it will ultimately be passed into law. (For the larger context on trends on nuclear policy at the state level, see Sarah E. Hunt, “A Policy Renaissance: Emerging Trends in State Nuclear Policy: https://www.alec.org/app/uploads/2017/09/2017-Center-Point-Nuclear_FINAL_Disclosure_WEB.pdf.).

Travis Kavulla gives us some background on this larger, long-term venture in an article entitled “How nuclear plants are gaming climate-change rules” (https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2019/04/23/nuclear-energy-climate-change-000893). The renewed interest in preserving and extending the life of old nuclear power plants is in reaction to the gains in renewable energy. On this he writes: “For more than a decade, state officials have been adopting procurement mandates to grow the share of electricity needs supplied by solar, wind, and other renewable technologies. Today, such laws are in force in 29 states. As renewable technologies have grown in scale, cost has declined. Indeed, these laws have been so effective at reducing the cost of renewables that it is not readily apparent that such mandates are a necessary driver for decarbonization. A recent report by Energy Innovation, an independent research firm, suggests three-quarters of the U.S. coal fleet could be replaced today by renewables solely for economic reasons.” In the face of the development, “some of the nation’s largest energy producers have started to turn them to their own benefit… In numerous states, companies with large investments in nuclear energy – including Exelon, First Energy, Dominion and PSEG – have lobbied states to reconfigure their clean-power incentives to subsidize existing nuclear plants, rather than the emergent technologies that the laws were intended for.”

These reactionary efforts have had some success. Kavulla says this: “The result is a contagion of subsidies to nuclear power plants that started in Democratic states like Illinois and New York in 2016, spread to Connecticut in 2017 and New Jersey in 2018. Bills to this effect are now being considered by Republican-led chambers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If these measures pass [and this is likely], nuclear interests will have executed a clean sweep of the six northeastern states that have the largest quantities of nuclear generation.” The pro-nuclear-power changes differ slightly from one another, but all “take advantage of green-sounding energy incentives, and they share a basic outline intended to avoid the appearance of a naked subsidy.” They emphasize that nuclear power plants do not produce carbon-dioxide emissions in the generation of electricity and therefore they, like solar and wind, deserve public/government support for their “zero-emissions.” In the end, old nuclear power plants are being bailed out, costumers are paying higher rates, and support for renewables is being questioned or challenged.

The nuclear plants in Ohio

The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant is one of these plants. Journalist Sandy Mitchell writes that Davis-Besse “is located on 954-acre site 10 miles north of Oak Harbor, Ohio, and 21 miles east of Toledo. (https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-753093). The plant opened in 1978, making it the first in Ohio and the 57th commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. It was originally co-owned by Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and Toledo Edison and is named for the chairmen of both companies, John K. Davis and Ralph M. Besse”). Subsequently, First Energy Corp became the owner. Mitchell adds, “Davis-Besse is [has] a pressurized water reactor and produces 40 percent of the electricity used in northwestern Ohio” [and] “The plant contributes over $10 million a year in local and state taxes. Its original 40-year license to operate ran from 1977 until 2017 and then was extended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for another 20 years to 2037, despite its record of accidents and the unsolved, ever-growing nuclear waste problem.

Gar Smith, author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (published 2012),writes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recognized “Davis-Besse as one of the most dangerous reactors in the United States and that “Between 1969 and 2005 this single plant experienced six out of the 34 reported ‘significant accident sequence precursors’ – triple the rate reported at any other U.S. nuclear plant” (p. 147). There have been at least six accidents at the Davis-Besse plant since 2005, according to Sandy Mitchell investigation ((https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-75309). Wikipedia has a summary of information on the “Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station,” including the following notorious example.

“On March 5, 2002, maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole into the reactor vessel head of the Davis–Besse plant. Although the corrosion did not lead to an accident, this was considered to be a serious nuclear safety incident.[2][3] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept Davis–Besse shut down until March 2004, so that FirstEnergy was able to perform all the necessary maintenance for safe operations. The NRC imposed its largest fine ever—more than $5 million—against FirstEnergy for the actions that led to the corrosion. The company paid an additional $28 million in fines under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.[2]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davis%E2%80%93Besse_Nuclear_Power_Stations).”

You can see further details on this near-catastrophic event in Helen Caldicott’s book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (pages 81-83), or in James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (pp. 337-341).

The other FirstEnergy Solutions’ nuclear power plant is “The Perry Nuclear Power Plant.” It is notable because it has one of the largest “boiling water reactors in the U.S.” The Perry plant “sits on 1100 acres in North Perry, Ohio, about 40 miles northeast of Cleveland.” When the plant opened in 1987, it “was the 100th power reactor to be built in the US.” While there have been accidents at Perry and while it is unprofitable and in debt, and while the NRC has included it in a list of “27 reactors most at risk from earthquakes” (Gar Smith, p. 79), the focus of attention in the debate over HB6 has been largely about Davis-Besse.

Getting rid of the albatross of old nuclear power plants

FirstEnergy Solutions was a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. until spring of 2018. All along, FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), which operates generating facilities in several states, had the responsibility of operating the two nuclear plants and a coal plant in Ohio. During this time, FirstEnergy Corp. and FES agreed to a “restructuring” plan to have FES become an independent company and to cut all ties with each other. At the same time, FES, already highly indebted, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 31, 2018 (https://www.utilitydive.com/news/firstenergy-solutions-files-for-bankruptcy-after-pushing-for-doe-energy/520371; and “on March 28, 2018, FES filed notice with PJM Interconnection LLC (PJM), the regional transmission organization, that the three nuclear facilities [the two in Ohio and another one in Pennsylvania] would be deactivated or sold during the next three years. In the meantime, the company assured its customers that “all of the plants will continue current operations” (https://www.fes.com/content/fes/home/restructuring.html).

The coincidence of the restructuring plan and the bankruptcy proceeding reflects the interests of FirstEnergy Corp. FirstEnergy wanted to get rid of this subsidiary, because it is not only unprofitable and encumbered with large debt but has little prospect of becoming competitive. Anya Litvak offers some support for this analysis in an article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (https://wwww.post-gazette.com/business/powersource/2019/03/19/Who-s-afraid-of-FirstEnergy-Solutions-restructuring-plan-Every-government-agency-that-has-seen-it/stories/201903180113), According to Litvak, the restructuring plan cuts “virtually all ties between First Energy and FirstEnergy solutions, freeing the former “from any liability going forward.” Litvak notes that “FirstEnergy Corp. has been trying to separate from its unprofitable, non-utility power generating division for several years, after low natural gas prices, slow economic growth and other factors conspired to push older coal and nuclear plants out of the money.” There are creditors and government regulators that had to be satisfied with the creation of this new company. But the restructuring plan went ahead. As part of the deal, FirstEnergy agreed to transfer “about $1 billion in value” to FirstEnergy Solutions and “waive any claims against it,” or about “$2.1 billion in claims (https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/04/firstenergy-solutions-banruptcy-plan-rejected-by-federal-judge.html). And to sweeten the restructuring plan for FirstEnergy Corp, the company was given “absolution for potential crimes of the past.”

According to Litvak’s investigation, regulators were “shut out of the process.” Government agency officials complained that FirstEnergy provided no information “about the extent of environmental contamination at the sites and that the restructuring plan was “so vague about what rights creditors are forfeiting…they can’t even make a decision whether it’s a reasonable trade . FirstEnergy Corp apparently will go to great lengths to remove FES from its corporation. Why?

It pays off financially

The restructuring plan has been good financially for FirstEnergy Corp. John Fund reports that “FirstEnergy made money after cutting ties with bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions” (https://www.cleveland.com/business/2019/02/firstenergy-made-money-in-2018-after-cutting-ties-with-bankrupt-firstenergy-solutions.html). In 2018, the company’s net profits were $981 million, up from $1.7 billion in losses in 2017. There turnaround stems from higher transmission rates, $2.5 billion in “short-term stock investment in the company by several hedge funds, increased sales, reduced debt, and a $3 billion growth strategy to impress the rating agencies (e.g., to increase transmission lines). But the separation of FirstEnergy Solutions from FirstEnergy Corp. was a factor in making all the rest happen.

It pays off politically

The separation also cleared the way politically. The Republicans in the Ohio House would have had a harder time convincing the public that a bailout for FES was necessary if it was still a part of FirstEnergy Corp. After all, FirstEnergy Corp. is one of the largest corporations in the U.S., making the Fortune magazine 500 list. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, elucidates this fact as follows. “FirstEnergy Corp is an electric utility headquartered in Akron, Ohio. Its subsidiaries and affiliates are involved in the distribution, transmission, and generation of electricity, as well as energy management and other energy-related services. Its ten electric utility operating companies comprise one of the United States’ largest investor-owned utilities, based on serving 6 million customers within a 65,000-square-mile (170,000 km2) area of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.[4] Its generation subsidiaries control more than 16,000 megawatts of capacity, and its distribution lines span over 194,000 miles. In 2018, FirstEnergy ranked 219 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest public corporations in the United States by revenue[5]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FirstEnergy).

Politics and corporate interests drive HB 6

It is a Republican bill. The primary sponsors of the bill are Republicans, Reps. Jamie Callender, of Lake County’s Concord Township, and Shane Wilkin, of southwest Ohio’s Highland County. One of the two plants, the Perry plant, is in Callender’s House district. The House Speaker, Larry Householder, wants the bailout. Jim Siegel reports that Governor “DeWine backs saving Ohio nuclear plants,” despite the opposition (https://www.dispatch.com/news/20190423/dewine-backs-saving-ohio-nuclear-plants-amid-opposition).Jessie Balmert writes that “FirstEnergy’s political action group has donated more than $250,000 to Householder’s campaign since August 2017. The Pac also gave money to the proposal’s sponsors – $13,700 to Rep Jamie Callender’s most recent campaign and $10,000 to Rep. Shane Wilkin’s,” environmental groups say” (https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/04/12/new-fee-bailout-firstenergy-nuclear-plants-environmental-groups-say/3445510002), while Jim Seigel and Mark Williams report that in “the 2017-18 election cycle, FirstEnergy’s political-action committees and executives donated about $1.3 million to Ohio candidates and party funds — more than 70% to Republicans — and spent millions more on lobbying in Ohio and Pennsylvania” (https://www.disptach.com/news/20190506/what-you-need-to-know-about-ohio-houses-energy-bill).

The proponents’ justifications for the bailout

How do they justify the bailout? John Seewar reports on April 20, 2019 for U.S. News and World Report” on the views of Dave Griffing, vice president of government affairs for FirstEnergy Solutions (https://www.usanews.com/news/best-states/ohio/articles/2019-04-20/nuclear-operator-closing-plants-would-be-felt-around-ohio). Griffings says the company needs HB6 to be passed to make the electricity generation playing field equal, because solar and wind sources of non-polluting electricity get energy efficiency and renewable energy incentives while nuclear plants don’t. HB6 will help to make up for this past inequity, Griffing is arguing. Note that Republicans have been trying to undermine these incentives since they were introduced. Griffing claims that there have been upgrades at the nuclear plants that “now allow them to operate more efficiently,” implying they are now competitive in the electricity marketplace. The company does not provide any evidence of what the “upgrades” are or that any of its policies have improved its competitiveness. Griffing strongest arguments are based on what the state will lose if the nuclear plants are shut down. Tax revenues will be lost in the communities where the plants are located, affecting “schools, safety services and programs for children and seniors.”1,400 workers plus suppliers and contractors will be thrown out of work, though Seewar notes there are no job guarantees in HB6. And he contends that electricity rates will go up as supply from the plants vanishes and utilities are forced to import electricity from other states. And, as we’ll see, HB 6 does little to strengthen the wind and solar sectors of the Ohio economy.

Thomas Suddes adds to this discussion in an article headlined “Politics, not dirty-air concerns, drive Ohio House GOP’s Green New Deal” (https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/column-politics-not-dirty-air-concerns-drive-ohio-house-gops-green-new-deal). While it is dubbed a “clean-air plan” that will be “a fair deal for homeowners and renters” who pay FirstEnergy Solutions for electricity, the passage of HB 6 carries a heavy price and in significant ways is just the opposite of a “clean air” bill. The company has no remedy for the nuclear waste accumulating at the two nuclear plants. Clean air credits (cash) would go to any “Ohio electricity producer (whether generating with nuclear fuel, natural gas, coal, wind or the sun) if its plant, or plants, emit no or reduced amounts of carbon dioxide).” But, as already pointed out, coal and natural gas power plants are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. It threatens to cancel the $4.39 monthly renewable-energy and electricity demand charges designed to encourage the development of solar and wind power generation. And the proponents of HB6 warn that if the two Ohio nuclear plants are closed, as FirstEnergy Solutions threatens to do, then 4,000-plus jobs will be directly and indirectly lost, many of them union jobs. Suddes suggests this is a bit hypocritical, pointing out that Republican legislators have not shown “the same degree of urgency for Ohioans in Trumbull (Warren) and Mahoning (Youngstown) counties thrown out of work thanks to General Motors’ Lordstown shutdown. (FYI, total 2018 compensation of Mary T. Barra, General Motors’ board chair and CEO, was $21,870,450.)” When all is said and done, this is a partisan bill that will benefit some Republican contributors.

According to a report by Jim Siegel and Mark Williams, “Supporters of the bill highlight that the plants generate about 90% of the state’s carbon dioxide-free power and support about 4,000 workers directly and indirectly, while the plants’ taxes are important to local communities and schools. About 15% of the state’s electricity production comes from nuclear sources, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. FirstEnergy Solutions warns that electric bills will go up if the plants close. PJM, which coordinates the wholesale movement of electricity in 13 states, says closing the plants is not expected to hurt electricity reliability in the region. However, closures would require the state to import more power generated elsewhere.” (https://www.disptach.com/news/20190506/what-you-need-to-know-about-ohio-houses-energy-bill).

HB 6 – some details

There are now two versions of the bill, the original bill and a newer substitute bill. However the original purposes stand, namely, “to facilitate and encourage electricity production and use from clean air resources, to facilitate investment to reduce the emissions from other generating technologies that can be readily dispatched to satisfy demand in real time, and proactively engage the buying power of consumers in this state for the purpose of improving air quality in the state.” What does this mean?
First version of H.B. 6.

Customers pay more

It means the residential, commercial, and industry customers who buy electricity will see their rates go up. If this bill is enacted, the funding will come from raising the rates of residential customers by $2.50 a month, for commercial utilities by twenty dollars, for smaller industrial users by $250, and for commercial or industrial customers “that exceed forty-five million kilowatt hours of electricity at a single location in the preceding year, two thousand five hundred dollars. According to this version, it was estimated that the rate increases would yield $300 million a year, roughly $160-170 million of which was expected to go to the Davis-Besse and Perry, which are viewed by proponents as “clean air resources” and “zero-carbon emitters.” There is no “sunset” provision in the current bill, which means that unless the state legislature (and governor) acts in the future or unless electricity usage goes down, the new rates will continue generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year and for years to come. Bear in mind taxpayers paid for original construction when the plants were built.

How would the money be allocated or spent? An analysis by the editors of The Columbus Dispatch (April 21, 2019) puts it as follows. “The bill purports to be an impartial boost to cleaner energy because it would reward utilities of any sort for zero-emissions energy. A surcharge on electric bills…would create and fund something called the Ohio Clean Air Program. The program would pay utilities $9.25 for every megawatt hour of energy produced with zero carbon emissions.” Wind and solar would be short-changed, because, as the editors write, “While wind and solar energy are growing in Ohio, the two nuclear plants still account for the vast majority of zero-carbon power in the state, so estimates are that they would claim about half of the $300 million the monthly fees would generate” ((https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/editorial-energy-bill-needs-work-to-be-future-blueprint). Jessie Balmert reports that, while the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants would be eligible for about $169 million of the $300 million Ohio expects to collect in fees…. wind energy in Ohio would be eligible for about $16.4 million and solar could get about $1.4 million, using the plan’s formula” (https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/04/12/new-fee-bailout-firstenergy-nuclear-plants-environmental-groups-say/3445510002).

Furthermore, according to reporter Mark Williams, “[t]he state also would likely create a program to send funding to coal and gas power plants that make emissions improvements,” something far less than “zero carbon,” or no carbon dioxide or methane emissions (The Columbus Dispatch, April 24, 2019, B1, 12). Williams quotes John Finnigan, the senior regulatory attorney for EDF’s US Climate and Energy Program, representing EDF before state public utility commissions on smart grid deployments and energy efficiency matters who referred to the bill as “nothing but a brazen boondoggle of a bailout for a bankrupt business.”

Renewables are undermined by Ohio Republican legislators

Ohio’s Renewable energy law includes “a renewable energy portfolio standards that requires that 12.5 percent of electricity sold by Ohio’s electric distribution utilities service companies must be generated from renewable energy sources by 2027 and each year thereafter (https://www.puco.ohio.gov/consumer-topics/how-does-ohio-generate-electricity). However, Republican legislators have tried to end such support. Dave Simons contends: ““House Bill 6 effectively annihilates Ohio’s middle of the road energy efficiency and renewable energy standards by defunding them.” In written testimony for the Subcommittee on Energy Generation, Neil Waggoner (Sierra Club member) writes that the HB 6 “guts Ohio’s clean energy and efficiency standards while forcing electric customers to pay more each month to bail old uneconomic nuclear plants – all while calling it a clean air program. The idea of this would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that it could become a regressive and destructive law” (https://www.sierra.org/press-releases/2019/04/nuclear-energy-bailout-bill-introduced). The editors at the Columbus Dispatch published a piece on April 21, 2019 (cited above as well) that reveals how HB 6 is a bill that wants to reduce government/state support for renewables (https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20190421/editorial-energy-bill-needs-work-to-be-future-blueprint). Here’s some of what the editors write:

“HB 6 backers say the Clean Air Program and its zero-emission credits are open to wind and solar producers, but the bill eliminates funding to achieve Ohio’s Renewable Portfolio Standards — a requirement that, by 2027, utilities in the state must produce at least 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources. Backers say the standards haven’t worked well enough, but the claim is hardly credible given Republicans’ steady efforts to undermine them. From the time they were approved in 2008, think tanks supported by fossil fuel interests published studies claiming the mandate for renewables would kill Ohio jobs and shrink the economy. Those claims generally were rebutted by reports showing that renewables helped lower customers’ electric bills and generated tens of thousands of jobs.

“A 2014 bill froze the mandates at their then-current level and created a study committee that eventually recommended doing away with them entirely. To his credit, former Gov. John Kasich vetoed two bills that would have done that, and the standards remain in place for now.

“But investment in renewables in Ohio surely has been hurt by the uncertainty created by lawmakers’ hostility to the mandates. As bad or worse, in 2014 opponents of wind power passed a law that essentially shut down new wind development by greatly increasing the required distance between wind turbines and adjacent property lines.

“Yet even against those headwinds, clean energy companies and construction projects added nearly 5,000 Ohio jobs in 2018, bringing the total to more than 112,000 — the third-highest in the Midwest and eighth in the U.S., according to a recent report by E2 and Clean Energy Trust, two nonprofit groups supporting clean energy entrepreneurs.

“Imagine what Ohio could accomplish by actually supporting renewables.”

Substitute H.B. 6.

The Energy Generation Subcommittee released an outline of “Sub. H.B. 6” bill on May 2. A list of the changes can be accessed online through the “Ohio Legislative Service Commission.” Mark Williams reports “The House subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines to refer the revised House Bill 6 to the full Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The proposal was introduced last month as a way to shore up the state’s two financially struggling nuclear power plants, both operated by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions” (https://www.ohio.com/news/20190502/ohio-house-tweaks-bill-that-would-help-firstenergy-solutions-keep-nuclear-plants-running).

Jeremy Pelzer provides a useful overview of the latest version of HB6, which remains at its essence a bailout for FirstEnergy Solutions. In the new bill, there is a “slower timeline to end Ohio’s existing green-energy mandates and replace them with new subsidies for ‘zero-carbon power plants’” (https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2019/05/ohio-lawmakers-seek-to-start-revamped-clean-energy-electricity-surcharges-in-2020.html).The bill takes this into account by lowering the surcharge rates for 2020 to 50 cents per month for residential customers and $15 per month for commercial customers.” This is done because Ohioans will continue through 2020 to pay $4.39 per month “to fund energy-efficiency, renewable-energy, and peak demand programs.” Beginning in 2021, the full surcharge that was specified in the first version of the bill will take effect, that is, “$2.50 per month for residential customers, $20 per month for commercial customers, $250 per month for industrial ratepayers and $2,500 per month for very large power users,” and the state subsidies for energy efficiency and renewable energy will be phased out as they now stand.

There are two big changes. The energy efficiency program will become the responsibility of the electric utilities like FirstEnergy Solutions rather than of the state, if they get state approval, and customers who have had to “opt out” if they did not want to participate in the. Under HB6, customers will have to “opt in,” that is to notify their electric utility that they want to pay a monthly fee for energy-efficiency programs.

If passed, Mark Williams reports, the new surcharge would generate an estimated $176 million in 2020 and $300 million or more in the years thereafter.” Pelzer’s numbers are a bit different. He reports, “The new surcharge would generate an estimated $86 million in 2020, $239 million in 2021, and $306 million annually after that, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission.” Either way, the HB6 will raise $300 million or more a year by 2021 or 2022 from customers, and then continue at this levels in subsequent years.

As before, the new bill will authorize that the money “be awarded in the form of ‘clean-energy credits,’ based on $9 credit per megawatt in reduced emissions, to the two nuclear plants as well as to wind and solar plants, but in much lower amounts, and to coal and natural gas plants if they can document any “improvements” in their operations that have lowered any air-polluting emissions. But, as previously noted, the majority of the funds are expected to go to FirstEnergy Solutions. Pelzer notes that “Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican who has made HB 6 a priority, has said he hopes to pass the legislation in the next couple of weeks,” that is, before the end of May.

Democrats offer an alternative to HB6: “The Ohio Clean Jobs Plan”

Kristin Boggs (D-Columbus), a member of the Ohio House Energy Generation subcommittee, provides some details on this Democratic alternative “clean energy” bill on her government website https://www.ohiohouse.gov/kristin-boggs/press/boggs-dem-lawmakers-propose-ohio-clean-energy-jobs-plan).

It differs from the Republican versions of the bill mainly by emphasizing the need to encourage and develop renewable energy companies that “protect and grow good jobs across the state, improve the health of Ohioans and avoid rate hikes on consumer utility bills.” With respect to jobs, the emphasis is on restoring the promise of “better jobs and brighter futures, and gives the next generation of Ohio workers the opportunity to lead again – in advanced, clean energy jobs that will power our state into the future.” The implication is that these jobs will be in energy sectors such as solar, wind, energy efficiency, not jobs in nuclear power plants.

The alternative clean energy plan of the subcommittee Democrats also includes a priority for non-nuclear clean energy when it calls for the establishment of “a 50-percent renewable energy portfolio standard by 2050, fix setback requirements to encourage large-scale wind turbine investment, and require a 50 percent in-state preference for new wind and solar projects. And there’s more. The Democratic bill want to “strengthen Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency benchmarks and re-envisions the state’s Advanced Energy Standards (AES) to save consumers money and grow emerging sectors of Ohio’s clean energy economy.” Boggs refers to a report that “Ohioans could realize $3.5 billion in additional economic value under updated efficiency standards” [while] “Nuclear power will not save Ohioans money on their electric bills.”

The message of the Democratic alternative is muddled, because along with the strong emphasis on solar, wind, and energy efficiency, the bill seems to include support for some sort of bailout for the nuclear plants, as suggested by the following language: “The plan would re-envision and modernize Ohio’s AES to support nuclear technology as part of the state’s energy future and create Advanced Energy Credits to maintain a 15 percent baseline generation capacity from emissions-free nuclear power.”

The arguments of those who oppose HB6

The arguments are both for why the nuclear plants should not be bailout and why there should be increased government support for renewables, especial wind and solar, and energy efficiency.

In an email sent out to Sierra Club email-lists on April 20, 2019, Harvey Wasserman offers a “preliminary draft talking points for this week’s Ohio nuke bailout hearings [April 24] (solartopia@GMAIL.COM). He lists his talking points into four categories of reasons for opposing the bailout and generally for opposing nuclear energy, but also reasons for supporting wind and solar energy – and I add information supporting energy efficiency.

#1 The first category is on the “physical status” of the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants, which Wasserman says “literally crumbling.” He elaborates with this example: “The shield building at Davis-Besse is swiss cheese…pock-marked with holes caused by moisture getting into cracks, then expanding in cold weather, then melting in thaws. It could easily drop heavy chunks onto vital components.” Though it came into operation in 1978, based on a 1960’s design, there “has never been a comprehensive inspection of DB in its over 40 years of operation by an independent agency to check for cracking, embrittlement, incomplete maintenance.” And, as mentioned earlier in this essay, the plant has suffered numerous accidents. Sandy Mitchell offers a list of notable accidents, as follows:

“September 24, 1977—the plant shut down due to a problem with the feedwater system, causing the pressure relief valve to stick open. The NRC still considers this to be one of the top safety incidents in the U.S.
June 24, 1998—the plant was struck by an F-2 tornado, causing damage to the switchyard and the external power to shut off. The reactor automatically shut down until the plant’s generators could restore power.

“March 2002—damage from corrosion of the steel reactor pressure vessel was found by staff. The damage, about the size of a football, was caused by a leak of water containing borax. Repairs and corrections took two years and the plant was fined more than $5 million by the NRC, which called this incident one of the top five in nuclear incidents in U.S. history.

“January 2003—the plant’s private computer network was infected by a computer virus called the “slammer worm,” causing the safety monitoring system to be down for five hours.

“October 22, 2008—a tritium leak was discovered during an unrelated fire inspection. It was indicated that the groundwater outside the plant was not infiltrated by radioactive water.

“March 12, 2010—two nozzles on a reactor head did not meet acceptance criteria during a scheduled refueling outage. After inspection, new cracks were discovered in about one-third of the nozzles, including one that could potentially leak boric acid.

“October 2011—during routine maintenance, a 30-foot-long crack was found in the concrete shield building around the containment vessel.
June 6, 2012—while inspecting the reactor coolant pump, a pinhole spray leakage was discovered from a weld in the seal.

“May 9, 2015—FirstEnergy operators declare an “unusual event” due to a steam leak in the turbine building. (https://www.tripsavvy.com/ohio-nuclear-power-plants-75309).

#2 – Wasserman’s second category is about the negative “health impacts” of nuclear power. He gives three examples that apply to nuclear plants generally and, by implication to Davis-Besse as well. In his email, he writes that “All nukes emit deadly radiation,” refers to “downwind infant death rates rise when a nuke opens,” and refers to the cataclysmic nuclear accidents and their massive ecological and health effects at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. In another article, Wasserman point to how Davis-Besse continuously “dumps its waste water into Lake Erie between Toldao and Cleveland” (https://www.opednews.com/article/America-s-Hole-in-the-head-by-Harvey-Wasserman-Cuomo_Energy_Nukes_Radiation-10419.997.html). In his book, Nuclear Roulette, Gar Smith offers the following example of how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been negligent in enforcing safety standards at nuclear power facilities, a contributing factor in the accidents, and, implicitly, to make the point that nuclear facilities are inherently unsafe, accidents compound the problem, and poor regulation further exacerbates both safety and health.

“In 2011, the Associated Press published an extraordinary series of reports revealing the extent to which the NRC had become a tool of the very industry it was supposed to be regulating. After spending a year poring over more than 11,000 NRC documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the AP came to a chilling conclusion: ‘Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them” (p. 138).

Joseph Mangano, Executive Director Radiation and Public Health Project, published a report on April 6, 2019, titled “ Rising Cancer Incidence Near New York State Nuclear Power Plants Since Startup of Reactors” (https://www.radiation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/NY-5reactors-April-2019-cancer-report-RJK-majic). He points out that there is good reason to be concerned about the health effects of nuclear power plants, since they “routinely release over 100 radioactive chemicals into the environment/food chain – chemicals only created in reactor operations or atomic bomb explosions. Just one federal study of cancer near U.S. plants has been conducted, a review of cancer mortality trends from 1950 to 1984.”

Mangano uses data from The New York State Cancer Registry to compare the cancer incidence in the counties in which the six nuclear reactors are variously located to the cancer incidence in all other counties combined, which are defined as the ‘control’ area, in which no exposures or much lower exposures from nuclear plants occur…most of whom live over 20 miles from any reactor.” He identifies the counties in which the nuclear reactors are currently operating or counties that are closer than 20 miles from. Two are at the Indian Point plant in Westchester County (started 1973 and 1976). Four others are on Lake Ontario, including one at the James Fitzpatrick plant in Oswego County (1974); two at the Nine Mile Point plant in Oswego County (1969 and 1987); and one at the R. E. Ginna plant in Wayne County (1970).” Except for Nine Mile Point unit 2, the other five reactors “are among the oldest of 98 reactors currently operating in the U.S. A tentative agreement signed by New York State would shut down the Indian Point reactors in spring 2020 and spring 2021. A 2016 law allows electric utilities to increase rates.”

“The registry,” Mangano notes, “provides historical data for five-year periods, according to when cases were diagnosed. Moreover, cases are assigned to the county of residence of the person diagnosed at the time of diagnosis. The earliest data is the period 1976-1980, and the latest five-year period is 2011-2015 (as of April 2019).” He continues: “The registry provides the number of cancer cases for five-year groups, along with the rate (number of cases per 100,000 population). The rates are age-adjusted to the 2000 standard U.S. population, using five-year groups (age 0-4 up to age 80-84, age 85 and over). This adjustment, used as a standard in epidemiological research, ensures an ‘apples to apples’ comparison by period and by geographic area; failure to make such an adjustment would mean that an area with an unusually large percentage of elderly residents (with high cancer rates) would always have higher rates.”

Mangano’s analysis of the data finds that the incidence of cancer goes up in the targeted counties after the nuclear power plants go into operation and that the cancer incidence in these counties are higher than in the rest of New York. Here’s a summary from the report of what he found. “This report is the first of trends in cancer cases near New York State nuclear plants, comparing trends in local county(ies) with the state, for five-year periods, from 1976-1980 to 2011-2015.” He then refers to the results of the study, as follows:

1.Indian Point. In 1976-1980, cancer incidence in the four counties closest to Indian Point was 20.5% BELOW the state rate. By 1996-2000, the local rate was 4.0% ABOVE the state, and since then has been 1 to 4% ABOVE the state. If the local rate had remained at 20.5% below the state rate over the following 35 years, 56,012 fewer cancer cases would have occurred (“excess” cases).

2.Fitzpatrick and Nine Mile Point. In Oswego County, the 1976-1980 cancer incidence rate was 52.9% BELOW the state rate. By 1986-1990, the county rate had surpassed the state rate (2.0% ABOVE); and in the five-year periods in the 21st century, had risen to 12.3%, 8.7%, and 9.1% ABOVE the state. Total excess cases from 1981-2015 were 10,793.

3.R. E. Ginna. In Wayne County, the 1976-1980 cancer incidence rate was 28.6% BELOW the state rate. By 1986-1990, the county rate had surpassed the state rate (7.5% ABOVE), and has ranged from 3.6% to 6.6% ABOVE since then. Total excess cases from 1981-2015 were 5,020.

The findings are “significant and unexpected trends near each of the nuclear plants are not just statistically significant but raise the question of whether radioactive emissions from the reactors have harmed local residents.” That is, there is a need to collect additional evidence to determine the specific links between the radioactive chemical that nuclear reactors release into the air and water and the people who are stricken with cancer. Thus, he writes, “More studies are warranted, and any discussion of the future of New York nuclear plants must consider public health issues, not just financial ones.” Bear in mind that the discussions in Ohio over HB6 lack such information.

#3 – The third category identified by Wasserman is about “environmental impacts. He makes three points. One, the “Cooling towers at Perry and Davis-Besse kill far more birds than modern industrial wing turbines, solar panels, batteries or LED/efficiency.” Two, “Heat emissions from steam and hot water [from the reactors] ‘kill trillions of marine creatures and unbalance Lake Erie’s eco-system; renewables emit no such heat.” Three, “All reactors create both low and high radioactive waste – [and there is] no realistic management plan.”

Coolant ponds

On the second point, Gar Smith has this is say:

“The 104 US reactors operating in 40 of the 50 states [as of 2012] routinely discharge used coolant water into the nation’s major streams, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. While much of a reactor’s coolant water is released as steam (which heats the atmosphere), the remainder – heated up to 25 degrees F over ambient water temperatures and sometimes tainted with radioactive isotopes – is discharged back into local waters, where it wreaks damage on river and water life” (p. 56).

He also notes: “When it comes to producing electricity, nuclear is an extravagantly water-wasting technology” (p. 57).

Global warming increases the chances of accidents.

The nuclear reactors at Davis-Besse and Perry need relatively cool water constantly flowing through them to prevent the uranium fuel in the core of the nuclear reactor from over-heating and exploding. What that have to do with global Warming? Helen Calidcutt makes the point concisely: “Global warming can induce unpredicted and extreme weather events that could heat up the rivers and lakes from which nuclear power plants extract their cooling water. An adequate supply of water itself may also cease to exist as drought conditions take over” (Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, p.86).

Nuclear waste

The problem of nuclear fuel waste is referred to by Wasserman, another serious and growing problem without an adequate solution in sight. This is a problem that would continue even if Davis-Besse was denied the bailout and the nuclear power plants were shutdown, because it would leave the accumulated spent fuel rods there. If the company is bailed out, then it will continue generating waste on top of what is already there. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a “backgrounder” on “radioactive waste,” (https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collection/fact-sheets/radwaste.html). The NRC publication is a useful reminder of how lethal and long-lasting such waste is. Here is some of what the NRC says on the issue.

“High-level radioactive waste primarily is uranium fuel that has been used in a nuclear power reactor and is ‘spent,’ or no longer efficient in producing electricity. Spent fuel is thermally hot as well as highly radioactive and requires remote handling and shielding. Nuclear reactor fuel contains ceramic pellets of uranium 235 inside of metal rods. Before these fuel rods are used, they are only slightly radioactive and may be handled without special shielding.

“During the fission process, two things happen to the uranium in the fuel. First, uranium atoms split, creating energy that is used to produce electricity. The fission creates radioactive isotopes of lighter elements such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. These isotopes, called “fission products,” account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation in high-level waste. Second, some uranium atoms capture neutrons produced during fission. These atoms form heavier elements such as plutonium. These heavier-than-uranium, or “transuranic,” elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay. Transuranic wastes, sometimes called TRU, account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after 1,000 years.
“Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

“High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour – far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once. If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers, they may enter food chains. The dose produced through this indirect exposure would be much smaller than a direct-exposure dose, but a much larger population could be exposed.”
Storage of nuclear waste

How is this waste stored? Robert Alvarez has an answer in an article published for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on August 9, 2017 (http://thebulletin.org/pushing-storage-horse-nuclear-waste-cart-spent-fuel-pool-problem11002). He discusses “the pool problem,” where “[c]urrently, about 70 percent of some 244,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in the United States sit in US power reactor cooling ponds, with the remaining 30 percent in dry storage casks.” The capacity of the US reactor fleet’s cooling pond storage is “maxed out.” The problem, or challenge, is that any situation where the cooling pool would lose a significant amount of water. Alverez continues:
“If the fuel assemblies in a pool are exposed to air and steam, their zirconium cladding will react exothermically, after several hours or days catching fire in burn front, ala a forest fire or a fireworks sparkler…. Such a fire would release a potpourri of radioisotopes; particularly worrisome is the large amount of cesium 137 in spent fuel. Cesium 137 gives off highly penetrating radiation and has a 30-year half-life, meaning it persists in the environment for a long time. It is absorbed and concentrates in the food chain as it if were potassium.”

Alvarez and his colleagues recommend two steps: “a reduction of the density of spent fuel assemblies now stored in these pools, and an expansion of on-site storage of used fuel in hardened ‘dry casks.’” At the same time, Alvarez points out that the “current generation of dry casks was intended for short-term on-site storage…. None of the dry casks storing spent nuclear fuel is licensed for long-term disposal.” The upshot is that there appears to be no efficient, long-term solution to the nuclear-waste problem. Trump and his administration are ignoring the problem: “The trump administration zeroed out a $65 million-line in the Energy Department’ fiscal 2018 budget that would have gone toward improving the safety and security of stored spent nuclear fuel.” In the meantime, “US commercial power reactors have generated about 75 percent of the global inventory of spent nuclear fuel” and all they can do is continue what they’ve been doing. And that’s scary. By the way, it is not an issue that has been raised in the hearings over H.B. 6, as far as news coverage goes.

#4 – This is about the problematic “economics” of nuclear-generated electricity. Wasserman maintains that state regulation that has deterred investment in Ohio’s wind. On this, he writes: “The Legislature’s senseless anti-wind setback is purely Luddite, stopping $4 billion in private investment ready to build northern Ohio wind farms that would quickly and cleanly provide the power now produced by nukes.” The conditions in that part of the state are propitious for wind farms. The land is flat and there is plenty of wind. The farmers on whose land wind turbines would be located “want the income.” Wind farms can be up and running in two years and keep going for 30 years. Investment in renewables will create jobs: “More than a quarter-million Americans now work in the solar industry; more than 100,000 in wind, far more than in coal, oil, or nuclear.
There are other issues concerning current and anticipated regulation.

At the hearing held by the Energy Generation subcommittee on April 22, 2019, Annie Gilleo, Senior Manager, State Policy, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy [ACEEE], gave the following testimony. She opposes H.B. 6 because it makes little sense to support “Ohio’s aging nuclear fleet while simultaneously rolling back the state’s energy efficiency.” She also says that “HB 6 increases electricity rates but “provides no direct benefits in exchange.” But “similarly funded energy efficiency programs save customers money by lowering energy usage and keeping utility system costs down.” She continues: “In 2017, every $1 spent on them created $2.65 in benefits for Ohio families and businesses…. A study by ACEEE found Ohio’s energy savings goals could save customers almost $5.6 billion in avoided energy expenditure and reduced wholesale energy and capacity prices over 10 years of implementation” (https://aceee.org/sites/default/files/on-hb6-opposition-042219.pdf).

Gilleo refers to other benefits stemming from existing energy efficiency programs. “Efficiency improvements in buildings and industry decrease fossil fuel emissions and air pollution. The reduced emissions could help counties working to improve air quality meet national standards. A recent analysis shows that efficiency is a key tool for reducing emissions for a few Ohio counties in particular Jefferson, Lorain, Butler, and Hamilton. These pollution reductions also have significant impacts on the health impacts from energy efficiency, saving up to $1.6 billion in avoided health harms. And efficiency is a major job creator in the state, employing almost 80,000 Ohioans. It accounts for 20% of all construction jobs and 24% of all energy sector jobs. HB 6 could entirely erase these health and job benefits.”

The Ohio Environmental Council also views energy efficiency as something to be given priority in Ohio’s energy policy. The organization defines energy efficiency as “a means to getting the same amount of services we expect when we use energy – electricity or natural gas in our homes, for example – but using less of it to deliver those same services.” Energy efficiency makes our homes, businesses, factories, schools, and home appliances less energy wasteful and more energy efficient (https://theoec.org/energy-efficiency). According to OEC, “Ohio’s Energy Efficiency Resource Standard (EERS) – the state’s requirement on electric utilities to meet a portion of their customer demand through energy efficiency – was established in 2008 with the enactment of Ohio Senate Bill 221.” Under this standard, Ohio utilities “offer discounts and rebates on energy efficient lighting, weatherization, and household appliances.” Customers “can earn a rebate on purchasing an Energy Star refrigerator, or a factory could get an incentive to replace old light with new LED fixtures.” Overall, if the standard is not eliminated by HB 6, the standard is expected to “reduce 22.5% of Ohio’s electric energy use by the year 2027.” And since 2009, the standard “has resulted in over $5.1 Billion in savings for Ohio customers on their utility bills.” The results might have been even better if “in 2014 the Ohio General Assembly [had not] enacted law changes that negatively impacted Ohio’s efficiency standard by creating an opt-out for large industrial customers, and allowed utilities to count efficiency savings” that not improve energy efficiency.

Why are there so few new nuclear reactors being built?

Peter Fairley addresses this question in an article for MIT’s Technology Review on May 28, 2015 (https://www.technologyreview.com/537816/why-dont-we-have-more-nuclear-power). His bottom line is that “it’s just too expensive.” There other concerns as well. The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima added to the worries about nuclear power. The “economics” of the nuclear power plants remains have gone from poor to worse. Fairley refers to a report by the International Energy Agency and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency that found equipment costs had risen 20 percent from 2010 to 2014. He cites evidence from the financial advisory firm Lazard that the costs of generating power from solar and onshore wind had fallen below the costs of nuclear. In the meantime, power from natural-gas-fired plants (increasingly from fracking) is far cheaper than from nuclear power, though be reminded that natural gas is a carbon-emitter. While there are four new nuclear reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, only loan guarantees from the federal government and additional financing support from state regulators made that feasible.

For a rebound to occur, Fairly maintains, the nuclear industry will have “to demonstrate that it can build the enhanced-safety reactors that regulators are mandating, on time and on budget.” There is no indication that this is going to happen, at least when it comes to the construction of the large conventional nuclear reactors. The new reactors being built are “now years late and billions of dollars over budget.” The U.S. Department of Energy and other proponents of nuclear-powered energy have hope that work on the construction of small modular reactors will sooner or later become available and will be a boost the nuclear power industry. On this point, however, Fairley found that “the most mature designs have yet to attract buyers.” He continues this point: “Several leading developers, including Babcock & Wilcox and Westinghouse, have recently scaled back their programs.”

Concluding thoughts

The future of HB6 lies presently in the hands of the Republican Party, its control of both houses of the General Assembly and the governorship. And they have made it clear that, whatever else ends up in the bill, they support a funding formula that will give FirstEnergy Solutions large and continuing financial assistance for an unspecified number of years into the future. And they will do this without any restrictions on how the money will be spent and without any expressed concern about the age of the two nuclear plants and history of accidents, especially at Davis-Besse. They will do it without acknowledging the frequent, if not continuous, harmful leaks of radioactive isotopes into the air, the water contamination in Lake Erie, and the effects on health of workers and local communities. And they will pass HB6 without an independent audit of the nuclear plants. They will do it without a word about the festering problem of nuclear wastes, accepting the assurances of FirstEnergy Solutions that there have been unspecified “upgrades.” And, while they may include some token provisions in the bill in support of wind and solar power to placate their Democratic colleagues, the Republicans in Ohio have a history of doing their best to undermine wind and solar by imposing or freezing regulations that undermine their prospects. And the funding formula under HB6 ensures that little will go to wind and solar. The hypocrisy of these opportunistic free market ideologues is blatant.

But the situation, the result of past corporate and government decisions, does not provide for good options. If the legislators rule against the bailout (unlikely), FirstEnergy Solutions will end up bankrupt and will close the nuclear power plants, jobs and taxes will be lost. The question then would be: Who is responsible for the very expensive and lengthy decommissioning of the plants? Probably Ohio taxpayers. Maybe it would just become another minimally secured sacrifice zone. If the legislators support the bailout (likely), then the customers will pay. What about wind and solar? Well, the Republican legislators have pretty much decided that wind and solar are not viable alternatives to nuclear power at this time.

In the meantime, all this talk about Republican talk about zero-emissions seems a distraction. They generally express little or no concern about the increasingly disruptive climate change and its effects that have been not only well documented by scientists but also by our own experience with extreme weather events, flooding, wildfires, droughts, extraordinary hurricanes, and such. And what is “normal” adds to the problem. We have locally and nationally an energy system that is overwhelmingly based on carbon-dioxide emitting fossil fuels. The transportation system is dominated by gasoline-burning cars, vans, and trucks, and a substantial portion of taxpayer money goes into maintaining the roads and bridges that keep the system operating. Most residences and buildings and businesses are heated and cooled by electricity generated largely by natural gas and coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. Real estate development engulfs every available of profitable space, often devoid of any though to infrastructure. The landfills steadily fill with the wastes culture of hyper consumption that is fostered by endless corporate advertising and products made not to last. While solar, wind, and energy efficiency may not be the whole answer to global warming, there are the only viable energy options available and they need all the support they can get. But, as far as the Republicans are concerned, there is no climate emergency that requires extraordinary government intervention, the economy is just fine, and the more consumption the better and wind and solar don’t quite fit into this conception.

The Healthcare Crisis and a Medicare for All solution

The Healthcare Crisis and a Medicare for All Solution
Bob Sheak – April 21, 2019

The Health Care Crisis is Now

The story of the U.S. healthcare system is best told with documented and verifiable facts. When that is done, the evidence tells us that the U.S. healthcare system is failing in critically important ways to provide accessible and affordable health care to tens of millions of Americans. At the same time, health care costs are going up, while corporations in the healthcare business have been making enormous profits and corporate CEOs extraordinary salaries and bonuses. Consider aspects of the healthcare crisis.

Inadequately insured

According to a report authored by Sarah R. Collins for the Commonwealth Fund (Feb 2019), “45 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 are inadequately insured in 2018 [uninsured + underinsured],” that is over 87 million of 194 million in this broad category, about the same percentage as in 2010, when then President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law (https://www.commonwealthfund.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/Collins_hlt_ins_coverage_8_years_after_ACA_2018_biennial_survey_sb.pdf).

(You can see a summary of the main features of the Affordable Care Act” at: http://kff.org/health-reform/fact-sheet/summary-of-the-affordable-care-act.)

The Commonwealth Fund report is based on data collected by the Princeton Survey Research Associates from “a random, nationally representative sample of 4,225 adults ages 19 to 64 living in the continental United States.” The surveys and reports go back to 2001. Aside from estimating the total number of people who had inadequate healthcare insurance, the chief finding of the most recent report for 2018 is that there has been in a shift in the composition of the inadequately insured. The number of uninsured adults went down from 2010 through 2018, though increased during the first two years of Trump’s reign, while the number of underinsured went up.

The uninsured

Collins reports that the number of people reporting being uninsured went down from 20% of Americans in this category in 2010 to 12% in 2018, when 23.3 million people were uninsured at the time of the survey. That’s good and reflects the effects of the Affordable Care Act, which came into law in 2010. But the estimates vary somewhat from study to study. A recent Gallup survey reported by Dan Witters on January 23, 2019 finds that 13.7 uninsured rate for adult Americans, or 26.6 million were uninsured in 2018, higher by 3.3 million than the Commonwealth Fund estimate (https://news.gallup.com/poll/24634/uninsured-rate-rises-four-years-high.aspx?g_source=link_NEWSV9&g_medium=NEWSFEED&g_campaign=item_&g_content=U.S.%2520Uninsured%2520Rate%Rises%2520to%2520Four-Year%2520High). Other estimates are even higher. In the “summary” that accompanies Bernie Sanders “Medicare for All Act of 2019,” the number of uninsured Americans is said to be “34 million” (https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/medicare-for-all-act-of-2910?id=ODD31317-Ef09-4349A0D40510991EF748&download=1&online=file) The number from Sanders is higher probably because it includes children ages 18 years and younger and elderly Americans ages 65 and older. John Alker and Olivia Pham report on how the downward trend in children’s health un-insurance rates have been reversed in the wrong direction during the Trump years (https://ccf.georgetown.edu/2018/11/21/nations-progress-on-childrens-health-coverage-reverses-course). Here’s what Alker and Pham write.

“For the first time since comparable data was first collected in 2008, the nation’s steady progress in reducing the number of children without health insurance reversed course. The number of uninsured children under age 19 nationwide increased by an estimated 276,000 to about 3.9 million (3,925,000) in 2017, according to newly-available data from the U.S. Census Bureau (Figure 1). The rate of uninsured children ticked upward from the historic low of 4.7 percent in 2016 to 5 percent in 2017 (Figure 2). Both of these changes were large enough to be statistically significant.”

They continue:

“Also notable was the lack of any statistically significant progress on children’s coverage in any state across the country in 2017, with the exception of the District of Columbia. Nine states saw statistically significant increases in the rate of uninsured children in 2017. In order of magnitude of change, they are: South Dakota, Utah, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. No state saw its number of uninsured children decline, except for DC.”

Whatever the exact numbers on the uninsured, they all depict a grave situation for tens of millions of Americans, access to healthcare for whom is severely jeopardized and limited to the use of hospital emergency rooms or no care. Trump is doing his best to make it worse, as I’ll document later in this essay. In confirmation of this assertion, Sarah Kliff reports, “Under Trump, the number of uninsured Americans has gone up by 7 million” (https://www.vox.com/2019/1/23/18194228/trump-uninsured-rate-obamacare-medicaid).

The underinsured

The Commonwealth Fund survey reported by Sarah R. Collins indicates that the number of underinsured adult Americans increased from 26% in 2010 to 33% in 2018, or 64 million Americans in 2018. The underinsured here “refers to adults who were insured all year or part of the year but experienced one of the following while insured: out-of-pocket costs, excluding premiums, equaled 10% or more of income; out-of-pocket-costs, excluding premiums, equaled 5% ore more of income if low income (<200% of poverty); or deductibles equaled 5% or more of income.” This is a conservative measure, as Collins points out, because it does not include “premiums” or copayments or those who were insured but decided not to use the insurance at all because of high copayments. There are a host of reasons that help to explain the large and rising number of underinsured Americans. The overriding reason is that medical costs are rising, while wages and average family incomes are barely changing or declining in an economy with fewer opportunities for stable fulltime employment at decent wages and benefits. As the report puts it: “‘Growth in Americans’ incomes [for most Americans from wages/salaries] has not kept pace with the growth in health care costs.”

Collins identifies additional reasons. People who purchase marketplace health care plans, part of ACA, and all of those who buy plans directly from insurance companies have seen their health care insurance go up, with high deductibles and copays. Also, the ban against insurers excluding people because of pre-existing conditions has had the unintended consequence of increasing healthcare costs, as the number of people “with greater health needs, and thus higher costs, are now able to get health insurance in the individual market.” Trump wants to give states the right to lift this ban. And a last point. Collins reports that employers who provide health care as a benefit to their employees are “asking workers to shoulder an increasing share of health costs.”

Some consequences

There are negative health-related consequences identified in the Commonwealth Fund study for both the uninsured and underinsured, including: not being able to fill a prescription; skipping a recommended test, treatment, or follow-up; not going to a doctor when there was a medical problem; not getting the care of a specialist; less likely to get preventive care; less likely to get cancer screenings. In addition, when the underinsured have difficulty in paying for their medical bills, they sometimes go into debt to pay these bills, while spending less on other necessities like rent or food and sometimes being unable to afford prescribed drugs. The summary to Sanders “Medicare for All Act of 2019” gives the following examples. (You can find links to the bill, the summary, and how to finance it at: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-release/sanders-14-senators-introduce-medicare-for-all.)

“As tens of thousands of American families face bankruptcy and financial ruin because of the outrageously high costs of health care and 30 percent of US adults with private health insurance delay seeking medical care each year due to cost….”

“Today, about one out of five Americans cannot afford to fill the prescriptions given to them by their doctors because we pay, for far, the highest price in the world for prescription drugs.”

More on how many Americans who have health insurance can’t afford to use it

It’s worth repeating the point from Sanders that “30 percent of US adults with private health insurance delay seeking medical care year due to cost.” Helaine Olen authored an article for The Atlantic Monthly on this point titled “Even the Insured Often Can’t Afford Medical Bills” (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/06/medical-bills/530679). Here’s some of what she writes.

“Just because a person is insured, it doesn’t mean he or she can actually afford their doctor, hospital, pharmaceutical, and other medical bills. The point of insurance is to protect patients’ finances from the costs of everything from hospitalizations to prescription drugs, but out-of-pocket spending for people even with employer-provided health insurance has increased by more than 50 percent since 2010, according to human resources consultant Aon Hewitt.”

“At the same time, the most recent Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, an annual survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, found that 44 percent of adult Americans claim they could not come up with $400 in an emergency without turning to credit cards, family and friends, or selling off possessions. When this reality combines with healthcare bills, the consequences can be financially devastating…. A poll conducted earlier this year by Amino, a healthcare-transparency company, with Ipsos Public Affairs, found that 55 percent of those they surveyed claimed they had at least once received a medical bill they could not afford. No surprise, then, that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported earlier this year that medical debt was the most common reason for someone to be contacted by a debt collector.”

Where one lives influences access to adequate health insurance

In an article for Consumer Reports, Donna Rosato refers to another important fact: “More than ever before, if you buy your own health insurance, where you live will determine your choice of health plans and what you will pay for them—and the geographic differences may be dramatic” (https://www.consumerreports.org/health-insurance/cost-of-individual-health-insurance-depends-more-than-ever-on-where-you-live).

Under the Affordable Care Act, states have set up health insurance exchanges on which individuals can buy insurance. This is a large market. Rosato quotes Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who says that “[n]early 20 million Americans buy their own health insurance [and] About 60 percent of people who buy individual health insurance get some kind of subsidy [under provisions of the Affordable Care Act] that reduces their costs.” They other 40 percent are on their own because they “make too much to qualify for financial help.”

There are some state governments that are “passing laws to preserve consumer protections the ACA put in place,” and “are implementing innovative programs to reduce costs for insurers, which can lead to more choice and lower rates for consumers. However, other states are loosening regulations “and are finding ways to sell less costly insurance that doesn’t meet the ACA’s required minimum standards.” The uncertainty in the health care market has been greatly compounded by the Trump administration to subvert the ACA. For example, there will be less support for some people: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees the ACA health insurance exchanges, announced that it is slashing funding to organizations that help people shop for coverage. Nonprofit organizations that provide navigators in states that use the federal Healthcare.gov online marketplaces will be $10 million for the 2019 plan year, down from $37 million for 2018 and $63 million in 2017.

What are some of the effects? One study cited in Rosato’s article analyzes the rate proposals for 2019 of 10 states and Washington, D.C., finding that “the proposed rates represent everything from double-digit drops compared with 2018, to increases of more than 30 percent. In Minnesota, for example, the average premium on the benchmark Silver plan is expected to be 11 percent less this year compared with last, or $552 a month.” Why? “… Minnesota, and a few other states, have instituted reinsurance programs to reimburse insurers who cover sicker, higher-cost customers, which in turn has helped insurers stem premium increases.” By contrast, in Maryland, the average premium on benchmark Silver plans is projected to be 36 percent higher, or $869 a month, in 2019. Insurers there say the rate hikes are necessary because rising premiums are driving out healthier people willing to take the risk of going without insurance, now that Congress has done away with the financial penalty for doing so” [or the individual mandate]. In Iowa, the governor approved a plan “that allows residents to buy something called a ‘health benefits plan,’ which is inexpensive but isn’t insurance at all.” The plan offers limited benefits, caps annual amounts of coverage, and does not require insurers to accept people with pre-existing conditions.

Wait Times – lengthy in many places

Suzanne Gordon has written an in-depth, highly-informative book in defense of the Veterans Health Administration entitled Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope for the Nation’s Veterans (2018). Despite under-funding by the U.S. Congress, a national shortage of primary-care doctors, and attacks by the Trump administration, the VHA continues to provides holistic, integrated care based on a team approach at its facilities, involving active coordination among all those who have any role in a patient’s medical needs and with access to the electronic records of all participating veterans around the country available online at every facility. Wait times at the VHA, overall outcomes from medical treatment, the record of treating those with “mental illness,” and inpatient palliative care are better than in comparable private sector practices. Nonetheless, Trump and Republicans in the U.S. Congress have reduced the funds going to the VHA in efforts to subvert and shrink it. Gordon writes:

“By late 2017 the concept of ‘choice’ dominated the discussion of veterans’ health care and how it should be delivered. Congress was considering multiple bills that would, in one form or another, make the Veterans Choice program [through which eligible veterans could acquire health care outside of the VHA system] permanent and relax its previous limits on using doctors or hospitals outside the VHA. In addition, some members of Congress sought to shrink the VHA’s own health care network by creating a facility closing commission that would insulate Capitol Hill and the White House from unpopular decisions to shutter local medical centers and lay off staff. If that approach gained traction, veterans’ reliance on the private health care industry would increase, regardless of their individual choice, because he VHA services would be curtailed” (p. 353).

Trump’s “choice” scheme when added to his other healthcare reduction policies will lead to increases in wait time as well as increasing costs and fragmented treatment. Consider wait time. Gordon refers to a 2017 survey of fifteen major metropolitan areas conducted by the health-care industry consulting firm Merritt Hawkins, which assembled “broad wait-time information industry-wide” The Merritt study found “that the wait times to get a first appointment with a physician [outside of the VHA] are up 30 percent since 2014, with an average of 24 day, up from 19.4 in 2014.” The study also found that in many parts of the country, “the wait times are far longer than that, especially to see certain kinds of doctors.” Gordon continues as follows. “This is a very serious problem not only in rural areas but also in cities, including ones that are awash in medical schools and hospitals. Residents of the Boston area, for example, must spend an average of 109 days to find a family practitioner who is still taking on new patients and up to a year to get an appointment with a cardiologist. And: “Even patients with good health insurance can face long wait times – particularly for primary care physicians and geriatricians.

The Trump administration is making a bad situation worse

Trump, the Republican Party, and their right-wing allies in the healthcare industries favor legislative measures that would, if they have their way, help the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and other healthcare-based industries to further consolidate their control of the U.S. healthcare system. The results are and will be: overall cut backs of federal government spending on healthcare programs; no letup in rising prices for prescription drugs; a decline employer-supported healthcare benefits; the further evisceration of the ACA; changes in the rules so that states have more and more responsibility for how much to fund Medicaid programs; price increases for Medicare coverage; the continuation of channeling funds away from Veterans Health Administration to for-profit alternatives. The effects will be to exacerbate the healthcare crisis, causing additional tens of millions of Americans to end up without any healthcare insurance, or to be underinsured, or to be precariously insured with healthcare insurance that is very expensive and with limited benefits.

Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein give us a summary of what Trump’s administration has already done and what it plans to do (https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2729989/medicare-for-all-rivals-new-offshoots-old-health-policy-roots).

“…reforms under the Trump administration have moved to shrink the government’s role in health care by relaxing ACA insurance regulations; green-lighting states’ Medicaid cuts; redirecting U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs funds to private care; and strengthening the hand of private MA [Medicare Advantage] plans by easing network-adequacy standards, increasing Medicare’s payments to these plans, and marketing to seniors on behalf of MA plans.” And, “A recent administration white paper… presents the administration’s plan going forward: Spur the growth of high-deductible coverage, eliminate coverage mandates, open the border to foreign medical graduates, and override states’ ‘any-willing-provider’ regulations and certificate-of-need laws that constrain hospital expansion. The president’s recently released budget proposal [for 2020] calls for cuts of $1.5 trillion in Medicaid funding and $818 billion in Medicare provider payments over the next 10 years.”

The authors continue.

“Thus far, the effects of the president’s actions—withdrawing coverage from some Medicaid enrollees and downgrading the comprehensiveness of some private insurance—have been modest. His plans would probably swell the ranks of uninsured persons and hollow out coverage for many who retain coverage, shifting costs from the government and employers to individual patients. The effect on overall national health expenditures is unclear: Cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and the [deregulation and shredding of the] comprehensiveness of insurance might decrease [government] expenditures; however, deregulating providers and insurers would probably increase them.”
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Kimberly Amadeo presents a timeline on the healthcare related actions of the Trump administration, particularly Trump’s executive actions to roll back Obama’s Affordable Care Act (https://www.thebalance.com/how-could-trump-change-health-care-in-america-4111422). Here a few examples.

“On October 12, 2017, President Trump stopped reimbursing insurers who waived deductibles and copayments for 6 million low-income customers.” Amadeo continues: “He blamed Congress for not appropriating the funds to cover these ACA subsidies. A study showed that the subsidy allowed insurance companies to cover 3.2 million people. They would, in turn, provide enough revenue to lower premiums for everyone by 20-40 percent.” However, once the reimbursements were stopped, “insurance companies said they must raise customers’ premiums by 20 percent.” Further: “The Congressional Budget Office estimates Trump’s move to stop reimbursements will cost the government at least $194 billion over the next 10 years.”

On December 22, 2017, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which repeals the individual mandate provision of the ACA in 2019 that required all adult Americans to get health insurance. The Administration hopes that this will remove the incentive for healthy people to get insurance. “The CBO estimated,” Amadeo writes, “13 million people “would drop coverage as a result,” health care costs would rise because there would be “fewer healthy people paying premiums,” “[h]ealth insurance companies will be left with just the sicker people,” “fewer people will get preventive care or treatment for chronic diseases,” “[p]eople without insurance [will] use expensive emergency rooms as a substitute for primary care,” and consequently, “costs will increase for everyone.”

“On January 11, 2018, the Trump administration allowed states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. At least 10 states asked for this permission. They will cut off benefits for ‘able-bodied’ recipients unless they have a job, are caregivers, or are in school, a proposed change that would affect about 6 percent of Medicaid recipients, mainly single adults who don’t have children. The administration also “encouraged states to submit waivers that make other Medicaid changes. For example, states asked to charge Medicaid recipients premiums. Some wish to limit the time recipients can receive benefits. Others want mandatory drug testing.”
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Sarah Kliff reports on Trump administration’s proposed annual budget for FY 2020, released to the public in March 2019, and how it will affect healthcare (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/1/18290422/trump-mulvaney-health-plan-graham-cassidy).The healthcare parts of the proposed budget are “modeled after the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson bill proposed in September 2017” (referred to as Graham-Cassidy). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has analyzed the proposal and “estimated the plan would cause millions to lose coverage.” What does it propose? It would “repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, including consumer protections preexisting conditions and an expansion of Medicaid, that gave millions of low-income Americans coverage.” Additionally, Klifff writes, “The Obamacare subsidies that enable 8.8 million Americans use to purchase private coverage on the health law’s marketplaces would cease to exist.” It would “allow states to give insurers flexibility in choosing what gets covered (and not covered), like maternity care.” Here is more of what Kliff reports.

“The rules around private insurance would change a lot, in a way that is much less friendly to sicker Americans. The mandate that private Obamacare patients not be charged for preventive care visits would go away. Current limits on out-of-pocket spending for Obamacare enrollees would be abolished too, a change that could be especially challenging for those with costly medical conditions.

“In Obamacare’s place, Graham-Cassidy would create something it calls a Health Care Grant Program, which would give states a lump-sum to fund its health care programs. States would also have the option to allow insurers to charge sicker people higher premiums. They could let insurers set higher prices for pregnant women, too (this was common practice before the Affordable Care Act). States could let insurers opt out of Obamacare’s essential health benefits requirements, which currently mandate that health plan cover a core set of services including prescription drugs and maternity care.” The response of states would vary. “States that like Obamacare could try and keep the system running, using the money from their new health care grants. They could keep requiring insurers to charge sick people the same premiums as healthy people, keep the essential benefits package in place, and try to pay for their Medicaid expansion.” But even these states would probably find that quite difficult, “because Graham-Cassidy would cut spending on these programs significantly.”

Such changes would reduce government spending by $230 billion on health care compared to spending under the Affordable Care Act, according to an earlier analysis by the Congressional Budget Office of the Graham-Cassidy proposal. The CBO concluded: “Some states ‘would find it particularly challenging to reach current enrollment levels using the available subsidies,’ and “determined that ‘if this legislation was enacted, millions of additional people would be uninsured compared with CBO’s baseline projections.’ The increase in uninsured would largely come from rolling back the Medicaid expansion. That program, which covers 61 million Americans and has grown significantly under the Affordable Care Act, would face a $1 trillion budget cut over the course of a decade.”

No successful limits on the rising health costs

Despite the ACA and prior efforts to stem the rising costs of healthcare in the United States, the long-term trend has seen a steady rise in national healthcare expenditures. Statista documents that the United States has the highest level of health spending based on GDP among developed countries. In 2019, such spending represented 17.8 percent of the GDP, up from 5 percent in 1960 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/184968/us-health-expenditure-as-percent-of-gdp-since-1960). Spending rose into the 17 percent for the first time in 2009 and peaked at 18.0 percent in 2016 [the last year of Obama’s presidency], declining to the current 17.8 percent with a price tag of $3.3 trillion. Most of the small decline occurred in public spending during the Trump years, while private spending continued to rise. Yusra Murad reports for Morning Consult on estimates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary on projected future spending on healthcare in the U.S. This source indicates that national expenditures on health care will reach 5.96 trillion in 2027, or 19.4 percent of GDP, that is, without significant changes in the healthcare system (https://morningconsult.com/2019/02/20/cms-estimates-annual-u-s-health-care-spending-to-hit-5-96-trillion-by-2027).

Other “wealthy” countries do better

The aging of the population and concomitant increase in Medicare coverage in the U.S. explain part of why healthcare expenditures are increasing, but the power of big insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their price-setting power explains a major part as well. Researchers Gerard F. Anderson, Peter Hussey, and Varduhi Petrosyan at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health conclude that “the higher overall health care spending in the U.S. was due mainly to higher prices — including higher drug prices, higher salaries for doctors and nurses, higher hospital administration costs and higher prices for many medical services” (https://www.sciencedailey.com/releases/2019/01/190107161700.htm).

While the demographics of other developed nations are changing in ways that are like the U.S., they have been better able to keep healthcare costs lower than the U.S., while also devoting more resources to healthcare. I’ve already discussed many of the negative consequences of the U.S. healthcare system, but note here that, among “developed” nations, the United States is last in infant mortality rates, in maternity mortality rates, in life expectancy. (One cautionary note: Virtually all “developed” countries are responding to fiscal challenges and economic difficulties by introducing “austerity” measures that may well affect their healthcare systems in negative ways.)

Some confirmatory evidence

First on expenditures, the researchers at Johns Hopkins find that the U.S. remains a high-spending outlier in terms of per capita health care spending, which was $9,892 in 2016. That amount was about 25 percent higher than second-place Switzerland’s $7,919. It was also 108 percent higher than Canada’s $4,753, and 145 percent higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) median of $4,033. And it was more than double the $4,559 the U.S. spent per capita on health care in 2000 — the year whose data the researchers analyzed for a 2003 study.”

Second, the U.S. system “has less access to many health care resources” than other nations in the OECD organization (i.e., “developed” or “wealthy” countries). The researchers found that in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available in the U.S., there were only 7.9 practicing nurses and 2.6 practicing physicians per 1,000 population, compared to the OECD medians of 9.9 nurses and 3.2 physicians.” Other evidence shows that in 2015 the U.S. “had only 7.5 new medical school graduates per 100,000 population, compared to the OECD median of 12.1, and just 2.5 acute care hospital beds per 1,000 population compared to the OECD median of 3.4.” Further, the researchers point out this: “Although the U.S. ranked second in the numbers of MRI machines per capita and third in the numbers of CT scanners per capita — implying a relatively high use of these expensive resources — Japan ranked first in both categories, yet was among the lowest overall health care spenders in the OECD in 2016.” One the researchers, John F. Anderson, says that “[i]t’s not that “we’re getting more; it’s that we’re paying much more.”

In an article for Modern Healthcare, Harris Meyer also analyzes some of the reasons for why healthcare costs are higher in the U.S. than in Canada and other “developed” or “wealthy” nations
(https://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20180407/NEWS/180409939/why-does-the-u-s-spend-so-much-more-on-healthcare-it-s-the-prices).

Higher administrative costs in the U.S.

Harris opens his article by comparing the medical practice of Dr. John Cullen’s four-physician medical practice in Valdez, Alaska, with Dr. Trina Larsen Soles 12-physician general practice in Golden, British Columbia to help us understand in a concrete way why administrative costs are higher in the corporate-dominated U.S. healthcare system than in the universal healthcare system of Canada.

With fewer physicians, Cullen’s practice in Alaska “employs three full-time staffers who work on insurance and patient billing [and a] fourth full-timer focuses on obtaining prior authorizations from nine private and public insurers.” In addition, “Cullen and his partners often must call and write letters to convince insurers to approve coverage or pay claims.” Cullen, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians, is quoted: “It’s an incredible bureaucratic mess to get anything done for patients.” Larsen Soles, “president of Doctors of BC, which represents British Columbia physicians in fee negotiations, has a very different situation. She and her eight colleagues have “one full-time staffer assigned each day to billing the province’s public medical services plan, its public workers’ compensation plan and its quasi-public auto insurance company.” Further, she and the other eight physicians “don’t get involved in billing or utilization-review issues.” Soles sums it up saying, “I can focus on patient issues, not administrative issues.”

Meyer cites a 2013 Health Affairs study co-authored by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler for additional evidence. I’ve referred earlier to some of Woolhandler’s work on healthcare. She is a health policy professor at Hunter College and a co-founder of PNHP. Woolhandler’s study “found that administrative costs accounted for 25.3% of U.S. hospital spending in 2010, compared with 19.8% in the Netherlands, 15.5% in England, and 12.4% in Canada.”

Higher prices

For additional evidence, Meyer then draws on a study by Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at Harvard, who co-authored an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) comparing the spending on healthcare in the U.S. with “10 other wealthy nations.” Jha concludes that the high relative spending on healthcare system in the U.S. compared to the other 10 is due not only to higher administrative costs but also to “much higher prices for medical services and pharmaceuticals and much higher pay for physicians and nurses.” Thus, it is not surprising that Jha found that “17.8% of GDP in the U.S. went to healthcare versus an average of 10.8% in the other 10 countries.

Meyer gives other examples of the evidence documenting the relatively high healthcare prices in the U.S. MRIs cost twice as much in Kansas as in London, and that makes no sense.” And, another example, “the U.S.’ per-capita pharmaceutical spending was more than twice as high as average spending in the other 10 countries—$1,443 versus $680.” Meyer also cites evidence from The U.S. International Federation of Health Plans, which “reported in 2015 that coronary artery bypass graft surgery cost $78,318 on average in the U.S., compared with $34,224 in Switzerland and $14,579 in Spain,” and that “[a]bdominal CT scans cost an average of $844 in the U.S., compared with $483 in New Zealand, $233 in South Africa, and $85 in Spain. Average payment for an MRI was $1,119 in the U.S., $455 in South Africa, and $215 in Australia. Indeed, virtually everything related to healthcare in the U.S. costs more than other comparable nations. Healthcare executives, and specialist and generalist physicians earn considerably more than their counterparts in the other nations.

Profits and lucrative compensation for CEOs

Just one last example of why healthcare costs are so high in the U.S. In the summary of Sanders’ “Medicare for All Act of 2019, there is a glimpse of an answer. (Go to https://www.sanders.senate.gov for a copy). “The ongoing failure of our health care system is directly attributable to the fact that – unique among major nations – it is primarily designed not to provide quality care to all in a cost-effective way, but to maximize profits for health insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and medical equipment suppliers.” And: “the top five health insurance companies last year [2018] made nearly $21 billion in profits, led by UnitedHealth which made almost $12 billion alone.” “…the top 65 healthcare CEOs made $1.7 billion in compensation in 2017 including $83.2 million for the CEO of UnitedHealth Group, $58.7 million for the CEO of Aetna; and $43.9 million for the CEO of Cigna.” “…last year pharmaceutical companies made over $50 billion in profits. A 2013 study showed that in 2010, the United States paid, on average, about double what was paid in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Switzerland for prescription drugs. Since 2014, the cost of 60 drugs commonly taken has more than doubled, and 20 of them have at least quadrupled in price.”

Moving toward incremental or comprehensive reform of the U.S. health care system

Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein identify the options being advanced by Democrats, and find they fall into two categories, a Medicare for All plan and public-option plans (https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2729989/medicare-for-all-rivals-new-offshoots-old-health-policy-roots). There is a third option as well, that is, proposals to expand Medicare so that it would be available to people under 65 – at 55 or even 50, and then incrementally reducing he age-limit over time to include even younger categories of people. Perhaps, eventually, Medicare expansion would become Medicare for All. In the meantime, however, the present healthcare insurance, pharmaceutical, medical, equipment, for-profit nursing, homes, sectors would continue as major forces in healthcare.

Woolandler and Himmelstein discuss several public-options, “most of which would offer a public plan alongside private plans on the ACA’s insurance exchange. The public-option plans “envision a…plan that would pay Medicare rates and use providers who participate in Medicare.” They see some positive features in these plans, including reforms that would offer additional insurance choices and minimize the need for new taxes because enrollees would pay premiums to cover the new costs.” (Premiums are now $135 a month.) But, according to their analysis, “these plans would cover only a fraction of uninsured persons, few of whom could afford the premiums; do little to improve the comprehensiveness of existing coverage; and modestly increase national expenditures.” They prefer the Medicare for All option, though they worry about whether it will end up increasing healthcare costs. Despite their concern, an analysis by economist Robert Pollin indicates the passage of Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act of 2019 would reduce costs, even while making a more comprehensive array of medical services available to all eligible U.S. residents and to all citizens.

I’ll spend the rest of this essay describing Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All Act of 2019.” The text of the bill is available along with accompanying summaries, there is a companion bill in the House, it has been widely lauded on the liberal/left, given wide coverage by the media, especially online, and has done well in early polls.

Medicare for All – covering everyone and costing less

On April 10, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2019, Senate Bill 1129, along with 13 co-sponsors. Already 63 national organizations and unions have endorsed the bill. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced a similar bill (HB 1384) earlier in March with 100 other co-sponsors. The House bill is being revised to make it consistent with the Senate bill. The Sanders’ bill is 100-pages long and is loaded with subject titles and subtitles, definitions, cross references, and exhaustive detail. The bill can be accessed at Bernie Sanders’ Senate website, along with a summary and a statement how the bill will be financed. There are links to these documents on Sanders’s Senate website as well as in various other online sites (e.g., https://www.commondreams.org/sites/default/files/medicare_for_all_act_of_20192.pdf).

The bill proposes to cover every single resident of the U.S., though it remains for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to flush out the meaning of “resident.” In this first iteration of the bill, there are points that will need clarification or modification. Title X of the bill is about “Transition,” that is the steps to be taken in shifting from the current healthcare system to the new one. The bill says that there will be a five-year transition to go from the present to the new healthcare system. But it lacks clarity and detail on just how this transition will be carried out, as the private insurers are replaced by the Medicare for All system and as eligible residents move from being uninsured or insured to being given universally-available healthcare.

Nonetheless, the bill represents a huge first step in the right direction.
It has helped to spur a serious national conversation. One unexpected effect is that private health insurance (and for-profit hospital) stocks are, as Jake Johnson reports, in “free fall as Medicarefor All gains momentum” (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/04/18/private-health-insurance-stocks-free-fall-medicare-all-gains-momentum). Johnson quotes a Bloomberg report, “Together, the shares of hospitals and insurers lost $28 billion in market value on Tuesday” (April 16), with the slide downward continuing into Wednesday. The plunge affected the stocks of Anthem, UnitedHealth, Centene, Humana, etc., and occurred just a few days after Sanders introduced the Medicare for All bill in the Senate and after he pushed the plan in a “special” program on the right-wing Fox News. Johnson also quotes a tweet from University of California, Berkeley professor and economist Robert Reich who “argued that tumbling insurance stocks are ‘a sign that Medicare for All is real,” and “marks [the] beginning of end of for-profit health insurance’s business model of seeking healthy people and avoiding sick people.” National Nurses United echoed Reich’s message in a tweet as follows: “Insurance industry stocks dropping as the Medicare for All movement heats up—we’ve got some serious people power on our hands!”

#1 – The Anticipated Benefits (mostly quoted from the “summary” of the Sanders’ bill)

Coverage for all.

In the summary of the Bill, the purpose is clearly stated: “The Medicare for All Act will provide comprehensive health care to every man, woman, and child in our country – without out-of-pocket expenses.”

“This legislation will create a federal universal health insurance program to provide comprehensive coverage for all Americans including patient and outpatient hospital care; emergency services; primary and preventive services; prescription drugs; mental health and substances abuse treatment; maternity and newborn care; pediatrics; home- and community-based long-term services and supports; dental, audiology, and vision services.”

What will this bill mean for patients?

“As a patient, all your basic needs are covered. You choose your doctor. No deductibles, no surprise bills for out-of-network services, no copays. If you change jobs, you don’t have to change insurance plan or worry about losing the coverage you and your family depend on. No more worrying about whether you can afford to get the care you need, or how to pick the right insurance plan for your family.”

What will it mean for providers?

“Health care providers can spend more time with their patients and less time on paperwork. A universal health care system will allow the country to invest more resources in provider education and training and make smart investment to avoid provider shortages and ensure communities can access the providers they need.”

What will it mean for employers?

Instead of struggling to provide health insurance to employees, businesses will simply pay a payroll tax – just like they do for Medicare now.”

More Freedom, more security

“Under this bill, Americans will benefit from the freedom and security that comes with finally separating health insurance from employment. That freedom would not only help the American people live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives, but it would also promote innovation and entrepreneurship in every sector of the economy. People would be able to start new businesses, stay home with their children or leave jobs the don’t like knowing that they would still have health care coverage for themselves and their families. Employers would be free to focus on running their business rather than spending countless hours figuring out how to provide health insurance to their employees. Working Americans wouldn’t have to choose between bargaining for higher wages or better health insurance. Parents wouldn’t have to worry about how to provide health insurance to their children. Seniors and people with serious or chronic illnesses could afford the care necessary to keep them healthy without worry of financial ruin. Millions of people will no longer have to choose between health care and other necessities like food, heat and shelter.”

#2 – Will it reduce healthcare expenditures/costs?

From the Sander’s documents

The issue of costs of the Medicare for All Act is addressed in the text of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill and in the summary of it, but there is a lack of detail in this first iteration. This is not surprising for the first draft of any legislation. The issue of costs is discussed in Title VI of the Medicare for All bill, which deals with the “Health Budget; Payments; Cost Containment Measures.” The text does not answer the question with many specific costs estimates, but instead offers in legislative language definitions, what the components of the health budget will be, how the “Secretary” of Health and Human Services will allocate funds among the components, including 1 percent of the budget for “Temporary Worker Assistance” for up to five years following the date benefits first become available.” There is also in Title VI text on how the “Application of Payment Processes Under Title XVIII” will work and a “standardized and documented review process,” how accurate “valuation of services” will be done, and assurance that there will be “internal tracking of reviews,” along with a section on how periodic audits by the Comptroller General will be built into the new healthcare system.

In the 5-page summary of the bill, “Financing Medicare for All,” there are references to two studies that have made cost estimates (no details) and that find the Senate’s Medicare for All legislation would, if implemented, reduce total healthcare expenditures, including reductions in administrative costs and prices for prescription drugs. And there are verifiable generalizations about what the cost savings will be to various groups. Businesses will no longer have to devote resources to employee health benefits. Families will no longer face bankruptcy. Top healthcare CEOs will no longer get multi-million dollar-compensation packages. However, on the specific financing and costs of the bill, the document just lists in bullet-format the financing options. There is again no detailed analysis of how much the Medicare for All Act will cost and who will pay less and who will pay more, except that the healthcare insurance companies will be gone, drug prices will be negotiated, and individuals and families will have no premium, deductibles, or copays and will at the same time of access to healthcare with many benefits..

An economic analysis of the costs of Medicare for All

Robert Pollin and his colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass, Amherst, produced a 200-report in November 2018 on Sanders’ earlier 2017 version of Medicare for All, very similar to the 2019 bill. It documented that, if that bill had been signed into law, U.S. healthcare expenditures would have fallen by 9.6 percent “while also providing decent health care coverage for all Americans” (https://commondreams.org/2018/11/30/depth-analysis-team-umass-amherst-economists-show-viability-medicare-all).

Then, on March 20, 2019, Pollin published an updated analysis in a long article on “The Case for Medicare for All,” published on the “opinion” page of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Pollin writes that if the 30 million uninsured people and 86 million underinsured people (a higher number than citied earlier in this essay) are provided with publically-financed , single-payer healthcare under Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, “the overall costs of treatments would rise by about 12%, from $3.3 trillion to $3.6 trillion.” But “Medicare for All could also eliminate 19% of total health-care of total system costs.” The first source of major savings would come in dramatically reduced administrative costs “in contracting, claims, processing, credentialing providers and payment validation – all of which would be unified under one federal agency.” The second source of major savings “would come from the government negotiating down prescription-drug prices, which would eliminate about 6% of total system costs.” Taking into account the expanded coverage and cost reductions, Pollin estimates that “Medicare for All could operate with an overall budget of $2.93 trillion – nearly 10% less than current spending.” The government already spends “$1.9 trillion for Medicare, Medicaid and smaller public programs.” Therefore, government would have to raise another $1 trillion “out of what businesses and families now pay to private insurers.” Finally, he identifies plausibly how this $1 trillion can be raised, as follows.

#1 – “We propose that all businesses that currently purchase health insurance for their employees be mandated to pay 92% of what they now spend into Medicare for All – saving 8% of their healthcare expenditures. Larger firms that haven’t provided coverage for every worker would pay $500 for each uninsured worker, while small business would be exempt from these premiums. This measure would raise $600 billion.” Then: “After two to three years, this system could make a transition to a 1.78% tax on gross receipts or an 8.2% payroll tax, either of which would generate the needed $600 billion.”

#2 – “The remaining $400 billion would come from two measures: a national sales tax of 3.75% on non-necessities, which would generate about $200 billion, and a wealth tax of 0.38%, after exempting the first $1 million of all families’ net worth for another $200 billion.”

#3 – Pollin and his colleagues also propose taxing long-term capital gains as ordinary income.

Under the Medicare for All plan, families would get comprehensive healthcare coverage, with no premiums, deductibles, or copays to private insurers. The highest income brackets would pay more for healthcare, but most families would pay less or nothing. Pollin gives this example: “Net health-care spending for middle-income families that now purchase insurance for themselves would fall by fully 14% of their income.”

Concluding thoughts

The time for Medicare for All has come – rather late. It is a plan that provides universal coverage and potential costs savings in total U.S. healthcare spending. Thus, it makes economic sense while also advancing and institutionalizing values of fairness and collective responsibility and assuring all of us that we have healthcare. However, as you know the political road to the passage of Medicare for All will not be easy. It threatens the economic interests of powerful private healthcare businesses, raises taxes on high-income individuals/families, upsets right-wing interests in the Republican Party, makes moderate wings of the Democratic party wary, and conflicts with the dominant neoliberal ideology that says government can never do anything right and always makes things worse. This neoliberal view has been challenged by many liberal/leftist economists (e.g., see Mariana Mazzucato’s book, The Value of Everything: Making Taking in the Global Economy). If moderate forces win out, there may be incremental reforms but without expanding coverage much or at all, without controlling corporate price gauging, and with the continuation of rising and unsustainable healthcare costs. If right-wing forces win out, the healthcare crisis will be worse. The battle is on.

The Challenges and Necessity of Phasing Out Fossil Fuels

The challenges and necessity of phasing out fossil fuels
Bob Sheak – April 5, 2019

The Green New Deal resolution was proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) on February 7, 2019, with a nearly a dozen co-sponsors, while in the Senate Edward Markey (D-Mass) introduced a companion measure. There are now over 60 so-sponsors, according to a report by Louis Jacobson (https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2019/feb/12/seven-questions-about-green-new-deal). Natalie Sauer reports for Climate Change News that Democratic presidential candidates “have flocked to back the concept,” but the support ranges “from the bold and radical to the vaguely-worded.” “Having presidential candidates say they are supportive of the concept of doing something like the Green New Deal is amazing, but it’s not sufficient,” Saikat Chakrabarti, head of staff to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, told the Washington Examiner” (as reported by Sauer). “Environmentalists and progressives have begun,” Sauer writes, “to lose patience over wooly assurances” (https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/02/04/democrat-presidential-hopefuls-dont-say-green-new-deal).

The resolution has ignited a flurry of media coverage and a range of responses, from ridicule by the President and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, to cries that is it impractical and may alienate important constituencies from moderate Democrats, to praise from proponents for initiating a process that would have the federal government take climate change and its many deleterious environmental and human effects far more seriously than up to now and take the necessary action.

A resolution is aimed at conveying a sense of the kind of legislation that allows the signatories to go on record on the proposal with the hope it will garner support from other members (https://www.thoughtco.com/sense-of-congress-resolutions-3322308). A resolution is not intended to lead to a new law, passed by both branches of the Congress and signed by the President, but is rather a preliminary or exploratory “framework” for ascertaining the level of support in the Congress and for initiating a process by which the plan can be clarified by hearings, research, expert testimony and other inputs, incorporating relevant evidence to clarify and strengthen the resolution. In this case, the Green New Deal resolution proposes the creation of a “Select Committee for the Green New Deal,” which will have “the authority to develop a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan.” Such a committee has not yet been authorized by Speaker Pelosi. Then, if the 2020 election goes well, specific bills will be created and advanced in the regular legislative processes, culminating in laws and budgets that supporting some or all of the major components of the Green New Deal.

The opposition: examples

Already in campaign mode for 2020, Trump has chortled that he welcomes the opportunity to tell the American people how the Green New Deal is a socialist plot that will end the “freedoms” Americans enjoy and, if ever implemented, will bankrupt the country. To make his case (as usual), the president makes up what the costs of the Green New Deal will be, twitting out that it will cost $100 trillion to implement it and will bankrupt the country (https://truthout.org/articles/whos-behind-trumps-claim-the-green-new-deal-will-cost-100-trillion). If the economy doesn’t tank before 2020, the tens of millions of people who are in Trump’s base are likely to continue their support of him. But there are powerful economic interests behind Trump as well. Sandra Lavelle reports that top oil firms are spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/mar/22/top-oil-firms-spending-millions-lobbying-to-block-climate-change-policies-says-report). And Jessica Corbett writes on how big banks are pouring billions into the fossil fuel industry (https://www/commondreams.org/news/2019/03/20/green-groups-call-out-big-banks-pouring-billions-fossil-fuel-industry). The Koch Brothers network of billionaires will spend more than anyone else through a bevy or organizations to support Trump (and Republican candidates) and prevent any serious consideration of phasing out fossil fuels. For background on the Koch’s influenced, see the documentary on The Real News narrated by Danny Glover (https://therealnews.com/stories/trump-the-koch-brothers-and-their-war-on-climate-science). In an outstanding analysis identifying and refuting arguments levied against the Green New Deal, Lance Olsen documents that an attack against renewables is not new but “was kicked into gear years ago, and the current anti-Green New Deal brouhaha is just a rehash of an old campaign to defend the capital and capitalists aligned around combustion of coal, oil and natural gas” (https://counterpunch.org/2019/04/03/why-all-the-uproar-over-the-green-new-deal). He adds that the what’s new is “that advocates of the Green New Deal take climate change more seriously than ever before, and this is rocking the coal, oil, and gas capitalists’ boat like never before.”

The hopes of proponents

Proponents view the “green new deal” as an incipient plan, now in “draft form” and as a resolution in the House, for not only shifting the economy from an energy system dominated by fossil fuels to one based on renewables and energy efficiency but also for reducing poverty and inequality. It is unlikely that all or many parts of the Green New Deal will emerge as policy proposals ready for legislative action by the 117th U.S. Congress in 2021. It depends on who gets elected. In this post, I focus on the climate-change related provisions, which by themselves call for unprecedented and comprehensive changes. Sauer provides an informative summary of these aspects of the Green New Deal, as follows.

“A draft of the bill currently in circulation commits the US to source 100% of national power from renewable sources by 2030 as well as to build a national, energy-efficient, ‘smart grid”. Also on the table are upgrades of ‘every residential and industrial building [with] state-of-the-art energy efficiency’, along with measures to ‘eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries, including by investing in local-scale agriculture in communities across the country’. Finally, it would invest in green technology research and development and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.”

There are two issues that stand out. The first is that in setting their sights on achieving and U.S. energy based on 100% renewables, the sponsors of the Green New Deal are calling for changes that will lead to the elimination of fossil fuels in the society’s energy system. Sauer’s summary indicates that the sponsors of the plan expect that there will be a need for a host of new legislative initiatives to achieve this goal. Second, advocates recognize that it is important to provide support for workers who are displaced from jobs in the fossil fuel industry, thus requiring legislative action(s) on transitional assistance, re-training, re-location in some cases, job creation in renewables and ancillary industries, along with some formula for where the investment in renewables will go. If one of the goals is “full employment,” then this calls for additional legislation.

The politics

If the plan gains momentum and support from the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, advocates hope that, between now and the 2020 elections, hearings will be held on aspects of the green new deal, that evidence from experts and scientists will be gathered that clarify and build the case for phasing out fossil fuels, supporting renewables, and for the employment measures. There are many media reports that the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are wary of the green new deal, are reluctant to call for a phasing out of fossil fuels and have yet to say whether they support a comprehensive jobs’ bill that includes an employment guarantee. For the process evolving around the Green New Deal to be successful, progressive Democrats who favor the goal of phasing out fossil fuels and the multi-faceted jobs provisions will have to win control or hold a significant number of seats in both the House, the Senate, and have a progressively-minded president in the White House as a result of the 2020 elections.

Proponents are counting on a huge turnout of people who support the thrust of their agenda on the climate-related issues in 2020. Of course, no one can now predict how these elections will turn out. While a few polls that ask respondents on whether they support “the green new deal” find a majority in favor of it, the resolution is still based on a general, rather abstract depiction and understanding of what it stands for. As already noted, there are many details yet to be flushed out. But the changes that proponents want – and that are necessary to avoid further cataclysmic environmental, economic, and social upheavals from climate change – the proposal aimed at phasing out fossil fuels will require multiple bills. Given the enormity of the changes called for, not all the ramifying effects can be readily identified. It is reasonable to anticipate that many voters will be concerned or fearful about such changes that will affect many aspects of their lives. Thus, winning the support of a majority of voters will require an extraordinary and sustained effort by candidates and activists who favor the resolution. They must somehow create and enlarge a movement of activists who are ready to educate citizens about the realty of the climate crisis. And they must be able to convince voters that fossil fuels can and must be phased out without jeopardizing the livelihoods of their lives or and seriously disrupting the economy generally. Furthermore, they must do this while not distracting voters from other parts of the Democratic agenda (e.g., proposals to reform health care, public education, college affordability).

Jeremy Brecher provides a host of ideas for activists on how, beyond ordinary policies, a “climate insurgency” is necessary, with examples of some success stories associated with resistance and non-violent actions against fossil fuel corporations and infrastructure from around the world. See his book: Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual. It will require extraordinary understanding, courage, and commitment for grassroots activists to have a significant effect on voters within the limited time available. Be that as it may, Brecher reminds us that there are many successful movements throughout American history.

The complexity of phasing out fossil fuels

Reducing emissions

It is a daunting just to imagine how all aspects of the Green New Deal related to phasing out fossil fuels can be addressed in our political system, a project that will require interrelated, governmental actions – governmental planning, coordination with companies in the private sector, industrial policies, job creation – to phase out fossil fuels from the economy and everyday life. If advocates of the Green New Deal have the political opportunity as a result of victories in the 2020 elections to move ahead on the phasing out of fossil fuels, what will “the first step or steps” be? And can government action on phasing out fossil fuels occur in a decade, in time to avoid the dooms-day scenario evidenced by recent reports by the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment and the ongoing stream of scientific research findings that document how greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing more frequent severe weather events, the shrinking of ice in the polar regions and on glaciers, rising ocean levels, tens of millions of environmental refugees, increasing conflict over dwindling resources, and so forth.

A lot of things must full in place politically and in preparation for the implementation of the plant to phase out fossil fuels. If we cannot be put on a path to phase fossil fuels soon, then humanity has little hope of avoiding ever-increasing environmental devastation. Economist Robert Pollin identifies the enormous range of changes that are necessary to “stabilize the climate” (https://www.thenation.com/article/think-we-cant-stabilize-the-climate-while-fostering-growth-think-again). Here’s what he writes.

“…executing this green-growth plan is easier said than done. To begin with, energy-efficiency investments in all regions of the world will need to span each country’s stock of buildings, transportation systems, and industrial processes. Efficiency levels will need to rise in office towers and homes (among other places), in residential lighting and cooking equipment, and in the performance of automobiles and provision of public transportation. Expanding the supply of clean renewable energy will require major investments in solar, wind, geothermal, and small-scale hydropower, as well as in low-emissions bioenergy sources, such as ethanol from switchgrass, agricultural wastes, and waste grease. By contrast, expanding the supply of high-emissions bioenergy sources, such as corn ethanol and wood, provides no benefit relative to fossil-fuel sources. Dependency on these high-emissions bioenergy renewables needs to be slashed at the same rate as fossil fuels.

What must be done to phase out fossil fuels, a major part of the climate crisis?

On the one hand, phasing out fossil fuels means that government must take a host of actions to discourage and stop the emissions. For example, it must increase regulations to discourage, if not prohibit, new coal mining; close existing coal operations; do the same with fracking; prohibit drilling on public land (e.g., national parks) and on offshore coastal areas; end government subsidies to fossil fuel companies; perhaps impose a substantial carbon tax in a way that does not burden low-income drivers but focuses on the sources of the problem.

On the other hand, it means supporting renewable energy alternatives like solar and wind, requiring solar panels on all federal government buildings and military installations (when appropriate) and offering incentives and subsidies to automobile corporations to switch rapidly to the manufacture of electric and hybrid cars, solar panels, and wind turbines, as well as support investments in fuel-efficient public transit systems and new energy efficiency standards for buildings. Mounting public relations offenses to foster the divestment of investments in fossil fuel corporations.

The authors of the book, A Finer Future, point out that there is a need for other policies that foster the reduction of materials that now depend on fossil-fuel energy from the steel, cement, plastics, and aluminum sectors of the economy. Using fewer materials from these sectors, which now require fossil fuel energy directly or indirectly, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The authors call for changes at both the manufacturing and consumption ends of the energy system. They want regulations or standards that encourage the “reuse, recycling, extended product life, and remanufacturing.” Material substitution may be feasible in some sectors (e.g., using wood or bamboo instead of steel and cement in construction) (p. 84). By strengthening recycling and reuse targets, the amount of waste going into highly polluting incinerators would drop. They would encourage government to offer “feed-in-tariffs, tax-credits or tax cuts, and green certificates” to promote renewable energy. They would like to see design requirements for new products “for ease of repair and maintenance [and] dismantling” and to have warranties extended for products “from 2 to 3 years to 8 to 10 years” (p. 98).

The federal government has served the public interest on massive efforts before

There are precedents in U.S. history for successful large-scale government economic interventions, most prominently the extraordinary and rapid mobilization of the economy by the Roosevelt government for WWII. Mark R. Wilson reconstructs the history of this mobilization in his masterful book, Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II. Wilson writes: “…the American approach to all-out war mobilization created a balanced, flexible style of government-business interaction, which might well be as effective as the more privatized version that ascended after 1945.” He also writes: “The lesson of World War II is that difficult challenges can be managed successfully with creative approaches, combining contracting with robust regulation and targeted public enterprise and investment” (p. 287). Olsen (cited earlier) refers to two: (1) the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, (2) the Interstate highway system begun in the 1950s. The notion that government is too bureaucratically and politically burdened to provide constructive and innovative leadership is contested by the research and analysis of economist Mariana Mazzucato in her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public VS. Private Sector Myths. In the concluding paragraph of the book, she writes: “This book is an open call to change the way we talk about the State, its role in the economy and the images and ideas we use to describe the role.” She continues:

“Only then can we begin to build the kind of society we want to live in, and want our children to live in, in a manner that pushes aside false myths about the state and recognizes how it can, when mission driven and organized in a dynamic way, solve problems as complex as putting a man on the moon and solving climate change” (p. 213).

Another example. In her new book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, Mazzucato documents, in just one of her examples, how “all the technology that makes the smartphone smart was publicly funded.

Other steps to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere

There are yet other challenges for those who want to serious steps to avoid disastrous climate disruptions. In the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is a need for government to encourage ways to keep emissions out of the atmosphere in the first place, through reforestation projects, wise forestry management and reforestation, as well as through the kind of soil-enriching farming that keeps absorbs carbon rather than emitting it. On the latter point, see Kristin Ohlson’ book, the soil will save us,” for an in-depth analysis of “how scientists, farmers, and foodies are healing the soil to save the planet,” and Brian K. Obach’s book, Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States. The Green New Deal begins to address these issues.

Extracting CO2 out of the atmosphere

There’s more. Howard J. Harzog, a Senior Research Engineer in the MIT Energy Initiative, recommends a method, yet only in its early stages of development, to extract carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere called “carbon dioxide capture and storage” (Carbon Capture). He argues that even if we phased out fossil fuel emissions soon, there would still be a huge quantity of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere over the history of industrial capitalism. Curtailing or eliminating emissions would do nothing to extract the greenhouse gases that are already there. Nonetheless, phasing out fossil fuels is a good, multifaceted initial step or series of steps to curtail and eliminate new greenhouse gas emissions.

A few scenarios

The obvious: Much hinges on what happens in the 2020 elections.

If Trump is re-elected, and even if Democrats win the Senate and retain control of the House, he will be in a position to have a major impact on policy and events through executive orders, emergency declarations, and vetoing legislation coming to his desk from Congress, though Congress may be able to contest and delay (perhaps even defeat) some of his policies and appointments to decision-making positions in the executive branch and to the federal judiciary. There will be, with Trump in the White House, more deregulation (e.g., more surveillance), more privatization (e.g., support for charter schools, corporate ownership of major parts of the highways), more lack of enforcement of laws that are designed to protect the environment, worker safety, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights. There will be further evisceration of the National Labor Relations system.

Oil and gas companies will be given more opportunities to drill virtually wherever they want, exacerbating the already worsening climate crisis. There will be major assaults on the social safety net (e.g., SNAP, Medicaid, housing assistance) and social insurance (Social Security, Medicare). The salaries of government workers will remain stagnant. Trump will further consolidate his base of support, including the right-wing evangelicals who want the end of legal abortions, the gun owners who want maximum freedom to own as many weapons as they want, the white nationalists/supremacists who want harsh immigration policies and the diminution of civil rights, and the law-and-order zealots who like the massive prison system and the high rates of incarceration of people of color. Most corporations (hoping for lucrative government contracts, even fewer regulations, and opportunities to profit from privatization of government functions) and rich people (happy with the highly regressive tax system already in place and the general emphasis on deregulation) will go along.

There will be budget proposals from Trump that, if passed, will continue the increases in the military budget, with the support of many congressional Democrats of a “moderate persuasion.” Trump and his hawkish advisers will give momentum to the new cold war and thus increase chances of nuclear war, by accident or intention. Bear in mind that unstable Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons at his command. Trump will continue to bring media attention to his positions of the moment through his daily tweets, occasional press conferences, and rallies with adoring crowds, the latter reminiscent of the rallies for Hitler in 1930s Nazi Germany. The culmination of all this is that the threat to our already tenuous democracy will move further toward a modern version of fascism. See Jason Stanley’s book, How Fascism Works, for an explanation of the main features of contemporary fascism. Here’s how he summarizes the “myths” that undergird the appeal of fascists.

“The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ based in a romanticized fictional past featuring ‘us’ and no ‘them,’ and supported by a resentment for a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. ‘They’ are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). ‘They’ make their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or ‘social justice,’ and are out to destroy our culture and traditions and make ‘us’ weak. ‘We’ are industrious and law-abiding, having earned our freedoms through work; ‘they’ are lazy, perverse, corrupt, and decadent. Fascist politics traffics in delusions that create these kinds of false distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ regardless of obvious realities” (p. 187).

If a moderate Democrat wins the presidency and Democrats control both the House and Senate, much of what would transpire under a Trump administration would be avoided or diminished. Among many other differences, there would not be fascist-like appeal to the electorate. At the same time, Democrats would be saddled with a $22-$23 trillion national debt that would limit their policy options, something congressional Republicans have been ignoring as they support huge regressive tax policies and military spending that begins to reach WWII levels. Moderates will do their best to make some positive changes in the Affordable Care Act and oppose a single-payer option. They will the do their best to protect the reproductive rights of women and advance other measures to bring equality to women in all spheres of society. They will do their best to limit cuts to the social safety net. They will support “liberal” appointments to policy-making positions and to the federal judiciary. For these reasons and others, a Democratic president of moderate persuasion and a Democratic Congress (with moderates and progressives) will accomplish or try to accomplish some meaningful changes and avoid the wholesale horrors that Trump would bring to the society.

However, a moderate Democratic president and a Congress dominated by moderate Democrats are unlikely to confront adequately the ever-unfolding climate disruption and its effects by taking the paramount steps to phase out fossil fuels. So, if the research findings of climate scientists are valid, and there is no reason to doubt them, it is unlikely that moderate Democratic administration and Congress will have the political will and courage to take on the fossil fuel interests and all the other economic interests linked to them.

There is a third scenario, that is, that the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2020 election is a progressive who endorse the key provisions of the green new deal and other progressive policies (e.g., a single-payer health system, steep reductions in military spending, a full-employment policy). And in the best of political worlds, this president will also have a Congress that is controlled by Democrats, many with a progressive bent. The party platform in these circumstances will be progressive and bold across the board. The big question: Will the advocates of the new green deal be able to focus enough of their attention on the issues most directly related to the climate crisis, and move ahead with alacrity in passing legislation to ramp up renewables while phasing fossil fuels?

Many moderate Democrats, including Democratic leaders in the present U.S. Congress, say that the progressive, pro Green New Deal, scenario is impractical politically (will alienate voters because of its huge potential and unknown impact and thus contribute to defeat in 2020) and economically (will face overwhelming opposition from the rich and powerful and their ability to sway elections with their boundless money and ability to resist, if not sabotage, such efforts ).

While the complexity of phasing out fossil fuels is enormous, there are experts who have done research that we do have the means to replace them in the U.S. energy system. As I wrote in my last post on March 16, titled “The Green New Deal, its critics, its promise,” Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford is quoted as saying: “we have about ninety percent or ninety-five percent of the technology we need” (page 1 of the post). Tyson Stevens also sees at least important reasons for shifting from fossil fuels to renewables including that renewables are already growing faster than fossil fuels, they are better for the environment, and, to the point, they “cost less than fossil fuels” (https://www.amigoenergy.com/blog/renewable-energy-vs-fossil-fuels). Robert Pollin advances the idea of a cost-effective “worker superfund,” arguing that it is practical as well as necessary. “Green growth projects must provide transitional support for workers and communities whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels…. It is a matter of simple justice, but it is also a matter of strategic politics. Without such adjustment-assistance programs operating on a national scale, the workers and communities facing retrenchment will, predictably and understandably, fight to defend their livelihoods. This, in turn, will create unacceptable delays in proceeding with effective climate-stabilization policies. Pollin explains what a worker super-fund would entail

“Well-funded “worker Superfund” policies therefore need to be incorporated into each country’s green-growth program. For the US case, I estimate that a generous Superfund would be in the range of $1 billion per year…. In addition, the impact on workers and communities from retrenchments in the fossil-fuel sectors will not depend only on the support provided through an explicit Superfund budget. The broader set of opportunities available to workers will also be critical. The fact that clean-energy investments will generate a net expansion in employment in all regions of the globe means that there will be new opportunities for displaced fossil-fuel-sector workers within the energy industry. But more than this, the best form of protection for displaced workers is an economy that operates at full employment. In a full-employment economy, the troubles faced by displaced workers—regardless of the reasons for their having become displaced—are greatly diminished simply because they should be able to find other decent jobs without excessive difficulty.

A wild card

Lance Olsen (referred to earlier) reports that there are divisions among capitalists that are bringing some corporate chiefs to support Democratic candidates, perhaps even progress candidate. He gives the example of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change that includes “415 investment firms managing combined assets worth more than twice the size of the entire Chinese economy. The group “told governments to 1 – back away from reliance on thermal coal, and 2 – to give up subsidizing all fossil fuels, and 3 – to get on with putting a price on carbon.” With respect to “the price on carbon,” a lot depends on whether the price is high enough to discourage the use of fossil fuels. Whatever, this is an indication that some corporations are recognizing the need to phase out fossil fuels and perhaps some could end up supporting more progressive Democratic candidates in the months leading to the 2020 elections.

But one thing is clear, namely, that the Trump/Republican or moderate scenarios do not solve the climate crisis. So, if these are the only “realistic” options, we will continue on a path of devastation and destruction, as indicated by such facts as these:

In 2018, carbon dioxide levels were the highest on record, the last 4 years have been the warmest on record, and extreme weather events are affecting a growing number of people (62 million in 2018). (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/03/29/extreme-weather-fueled-climate-change-disasters-hit-62-m-last-year/3304707002).

The choice

I’ll close this essay by quoting the last paragraph from Lance Olsen’s article on how our choices are stark and irreconcilable. It’s either/or.

“Broadly framed, we have two choices. Either we get the rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society that scientists and Green New Deal Advocates are urging, or we get another, more costly, and decidedly unkinder kind of rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society if we allow fossil fuel capitalism to defeat us.”

The Green New Deal, its critics and its promise

The Green New Deal, its critics and its promise.
Is the answer blowing in the wind?
Bob Sheak, March 16, 2019

The green new deal resolution put forward in in the U.S. Congress on December 2018 by representative Alexandria Ocasio and senator Edward Markey represents a first step in not only acknowledging that an existentially-threatening climate crisis exists but also in proposing a legislative process the goal of which is to institute comprehensive government action to reduce carbon emissions, especially from fossil fuels. Additionally, and in the spirit of – though going beyond – the original New Deal of the 1930s, the green new deal resolution includes objectives for full employment, living-wage guarantees, strengthened collective bargaining and workers’ rights, universal health care, transitional support for workers displaced from fossil-fuel-related jobs, protection and enforcement of the rights of tribal nations, and a basic income.

How much will it cost? The green new deal will be paid for by increasing taxes on the rich, through additional government spending as well as tax incentives to encourage private-sector investment in renewable energy, electric cars, and other climate-stabilizing projects. And the price of solar and wind energy is expected to continue to fall as technological progress increases the generating power of the renewables and the storage capacity of batteries. John Cassidy quotes four experts in an article for The New Yorker, all of whom think that zero emissions from fossil fuels can be reached by 2035 to 2050, if the relevant provisions of the green new deal are implemented (https://www.thenewyorker.com/news/our-columnist/the-good-news-about-a-green-new-deal). One of the experts, Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, told Cassidy, “Right now, we have about ninety percent or ninety-five percent of the technology we need.” Jacobson also refers to a study by the conservative American Action Forum that contains figures that are comparable to his own estimates of the costs. According to this study, it would take $10.3 trillion “to create a low-carbon electricity grid, a net-zero emissions transportation system, and to ‘upgrade all existing buildings to higher-efficiency standards. Jacobson continues: “Spread over 30 years, those would be about three hundred and forty billion a year, or 1.7 percent of current GDP.”

The goal of the green new deal resolution is to have specific legislative bills on some or many of these matters ready for congressional action before the 2020 elections. If in the 2020 elections Democrats – progressive Democrats – win the presidency and both houses of the U.S. Congress, there will be opportunities to pass legislation to implement some or many parts of the green new deal. This will depend on the size of the Democratic majorities and how unified the party is. Ideally, there would be action on bills to stem greenhouse gas emissions, such as, taking away subsidies that now go to fossil-fuel companies, introducing much harsher regulations on emissions and a significant carbon tax focused on the emitters, and keeping all oil and gas drilling off public lands and coastlines. Additional steps would be to significantly increase government support for solar and wind and, when feasible, putting solar panels on all government and military buildings, retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient, along with supporting high-speed rail and other types of low-carbon or zero-emission public transportation, encouraging earth-friendly forms of agriculture that enrich the soil, and undertaking major reforestation projects.

From where I stand, nothing is more important that in having the federal government support and advance the proposals embedded in the green new deal aimed at reducing greatly greenhouse gas emissions. It has promise. Ryan Gunderson and Diana Stuart think that “…the Green New Deal elevates the seriousness of climate change proposals and includes bringing the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions in 10 years, increasing resiliency to climate impacts, investments in public transportation and “smart” energy infrastructure, overhauling transportation systems with high-speed rail and zero-emission vehicles, supporting sustainable agricultural practices, and using reforestation to absorb carbon.” , (Ryan Gunderson & Diana Stuart take this position in an article published online on Truthout, March 8, 2019 – https://truthout.org/articles/the-green-new-deal-must-transform-the-economy).

The political challenges

Despite this enormous scope and harmful effects of this crisis, there are presently huge obstacles to advancing the green new deal agenda. The obstacles, and they are formidable, include President Trump who denies the existence of a climate crisis or seeks ways to avoid dealing with it. So far, he can count on his stalwart allies in the Republican Party, the bulk of the corporate community, a compliant “core” voting constituency (e.g., evangelicals of a fundamentalist bent, gun right advocates, those opposed to reproductive rights, white supremacists, those who favor tough anti-immigrant policies), a right-wing media, and an increasingly right-wing judiciary. At the same time, there are moderate Democrats who are fearful that the green new deal is too radical. They are concerned it will cause the Party to lose votes in 2020, and that consequently Trump will be re-elected for a second term, putting him in a position to further advance a neoliberal agenda of lowering taxes on the rich and powerful, deregulation, and privatization, while reducing government spending on programs that benefit the majority of people, raising the military budget, and, most alarmingly, not only ignoring the growing climate crisis but exacerbating through his promotion of the maximum extraction, production, use, and export of fossil fuels.

The reluctance of “moderate” Democrats

Not clear where the voters stand

Polls that survey voters on whether they support the green new deal are encouraging, the public still has little understanding of what it entails or who exactly is advancing it in the U.S. Congress (https://www.ecowatch.com/green-new-deal-voter-support-2623737355.html). Other polls ask respondents whether they believe the climate change is an urgent problem find that a large majority agree it is. But this leaves the question of how much they are willing to give up for programs aimed at mitigating the problem unanswered (https://vox.com/2019/1/28/18197262/climate-change-poll-public-opinion-carbon-tax). The inconclusiveness and ambiguity of the polls is related to why some or many Democrats in the U.S. Congress may not be ready to support the kind of action called for by the green new deal. There is no doubt that candidates and others who espouse the green new deal, even if only those parts of it dealing directly with the climate crisis, have a huge challenge before the 2020 elections to educate and mobilize voters to understand the immediacy, scope and acceleration of this crisis, and how little time there is to take the level of action that is necessary.

The moderate Democrats in the U.S. Congress

Ryan Cooper reports in The Week that political moderates are disinclined to go along with the green new deal (https://theweek.com/articles/826608/big-problem-climate-realism). He writes that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s initial response to the green new deal was dismissive. He quotes it: “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?” And, he writes, “Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) scolded a bunch of children who came to her office begging her to support the Green New Deal, saying ‘I know what I’m doing … it’s not a good resolution.’”

Pelosi subsequently softened her initial response, according to David Remnick who reports that Speaker Pelosi “has found a modus operandi with Ocasio-Cortez, and posed with her (along with Representives Jahana Hayes and Ilhan Omar) for the cover of Rolling Stone” (https://www.thenewyorker.com/daily-comment/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-is-coming-for-your-hamburgers).

Remnick contiunes: “The idea of a Green New Deal has won endorsement from Democratic Presidential candidates (Harris, Warren, Sanders, Booker, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Inslee) and a growing number of senators and congressmen.” But the devil is in the details. Here’s what Remnick writes: “Of course, it is not entirely clear in detailed legislative terms, what exactly they are endorsing. In general, the idea is to pour government money into transforming the economy in ways that might head off the worst of climate change. At this point, the most salient feature of the proposal is a sense of urgency, its conversation-changing radicalism” (https://www.thenewyorker.com/daily-comment/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-is-coming-for-your-hamburgers).

Remnick is sympathetic toward the green new deal and dubious about the stance of moderates.

“There is enormous value in that [the green new deal]. So far, moderation has done nothing to override denialism. In an interview after her primary win, Ocasio-Cortez told me that one of the books she read in college that influenced her most was Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s ‘Why We Can’t Wait,’ which includes his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ There King wrote, ‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and, one might add to winning elections by avoiding the issues.

“I think King had a point,” she told Remnick.

“Moderation, to say nothing of science denial on the right, has certainly done far too little to head off the catastrophic effects promised by climate change in our time. Just before Ocasio-Cortez won her seat, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that, if carbon emissions continue to rise as they are, the world will soon experience immense destabilization, with cities and regions with intolerable temperatures creating tens of millions of ‘climate refugees’ forced to escape spreading deserts. Unique ecosystems and entire species will vanish. The Great Barrier Reef, already in dire condition, will die. Whole industries, like fishing, will diminish enormously. We have already seen the rise of extreme storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires. The window for meaningful change is closing. ‘The next few years are probably the most important in our history,’ Debra Roberts, the co-chair of one of the I.P.C.C.’s three working groups, has said.

“There is no question that the Green New Deal is more substantial in its sense of urgency and ambition than it is in its fine-grained detail. But what has the Republican Party offered, other than a phony restitution of a coal economy and a withdrawal from the Paris climate accord? The recent spectacle of a powerful Democrat like Dianne Feinstein dismissing a group of earnest schoolchildren and students imploring her to support a Green New Deal was maddening to watch. ‘I know what I’m doing!’ she told the kids.

“Agree with Ocasio-Cortez’s solutions or not, it’s to her credit that, in such a short time, she has helped change the terms of the debate. ‘Radicalism pushes the bonds of what liberals will jump on board with,’ Saikat Chakrabarti, the representative’s chief of staff, said. ‘Every major social movement has worked that way.’”

A “hero” of the Democratic moderates

Right now, Joe Biden is leading in the early polls concerned with potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. Given his political record in the Congress, however,there is every indication that he would oppose most or all parts of the green new deal, especially the sections dealing with accelerating a transition to renewable energy. For evidence of Biden’s corporate-friendly record, see Norman Solomon’s article, “Here Comes Joe Biden and It’s Worse Than you Thought” (https://www.commondreams.org/2019/03/11/here-comes-joe-biden-and-its-worse-you-thought) and Andrew Cockburn’s “No Joe! (https://harpers.org/archive/2019/03/joe-biden-record

The case for the green new deal

#1 – The Climate Crisis – scientifically validated

In an article published in Truthout, Ryan Gunderson and Diana Stuart remind us of “two recent projections of catastrophic climate change, namely of scientists’ warning of a runaway “hothouse Earth” scenario and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special reportdetailing the impacts of a 1.5 degree Celsius (1.5°C) rise in global temperatures,” as well as “an increasing number of scientists and activists are calling for a dramatic policy response to tackle climate change. The IPCC specifically calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to prevent the 1.5-degree scenario” and the worse effects of reaching 2.0-degrees (https://truthout.org/articles/the-green-new-deal-must-transform-the-economy).

Joseph Romm adds the following background information (https://thinkprogress.org/green-ned-deal-ocasio-cortez-7c9ac944b37d). “Scientists have been clear about the scale of effort needed for some time,” Romm writes. “In 2013, the world’s leading nations set up a ‘structured expert dialogue’ to review the adequacy of the 2°C (3.6°F) target to avoid catastrophic climate change. In 2015, 70 leading climate experts reported that every bit of warming above current levels ‘will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.’ The scientists also made clear that large-scale changes are necessary: “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.”

Then, in October of last year (2018), “the world’s nations unanimously approved a landmark report from scientists making the same exact point. The scientists warned that world leaders must make sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 — and then take total emissions down to zero by 2050 to 2070 to have any plausible chance of averting catastrophe.” They offered details on their dire assessment, explaining that “energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” would require “system changes” that “are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.” Romm notes: “If that sounds like the Green New Deal, that’s because the resolution is rooted in science.” At the end of his article, Romm cites a leading climatologist, Michael Mann, who in an email to Think Progress wrote: “Climate change is a threat that is both global and existential” and he “applauded Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘bold leadership’ and reiterated that ‘averting disaster will require a degree of mobilization of effort and resources unlike anything we’ve witnessed since World War II.’”

In the meantime, contrary to what climate scientists call for in drastically cutting our use of fossil fuels, a study just released by the International Energy Agency, as reported by Andrea Germanos, finds that U.S. domestic fossil fuel use is way up due to fracking and the export of fracked gas and oil is also rising. (https://commondreams.org/news/2019/03/11/climate-crisis-be-damned-shale-revolution-poised-make-us-net-exporter-oil-three).

#2 – It will require a government effort akin to WWII

Joe Romm agrees with Ocasio-Cortez and Bill McKibben that we need World War II scale action on climate (https://thinkprogress.org/green-ned-deal-ocasio-cortez-7c9ac944b37d). He writes that “fighting climate change requires “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.” This is not a call for “socialism,” but for a massive transformation of the American economy. Here’s how Romm puts it:

“Yes, the WWII effort was massive and sustained and impacted every facet of American life — from energy, transportation, and manufacturing to infrastructure and agriculture. But that did not require ‘socialism.’ In fact, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘labor, business, government, education, and the military’ all worked together ‘by democratic collaboration” to mobilize America for the war effort, as Lt. Col. Thomas Morgan explained in a 1994 article in the journal Army History.’”

He continues:

“‘In nine months, the entire capacity of the prolific automobile industry had been converted to the production of tanks, guns, planes, and bombs,’ historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explained in her 1994 book on the World War II homefront, No Ordinary Time. ‘The industry that once built four million cars a year was now building three fourths of the nation’s aircraft engines, one half of all tanks, and one third of all machine guns.’

“At the center of the mobilization, Goodwin explains, was the War Production Board, which FDR created in 1942 to literally oversee the conversion of our civilian economy to the war effort. As Wikipedia notes, the War Production Board ‘allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production. It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper and plastics.’

“In 1939, war production was under 2 percent of the total GDP, but it hit a remarkable 44 percent in 1944. Over a five-year period, America produced 434,000,000 tons of steel, 310,000 airplanes, 124,000 ships, 100,000 tanks and armored vehicles, 2.4 million other vehicles, and 41 billion ammunition rounds.

“Ultimately, America ended up producing two-fifths of the world’s total munitions during the years 1942 to 1945, arming not just our military, but also helping Britain and the other allies as well.

“Was this unprecedented mobilization socialism? Hardly.

“The board included leaders from labor, business, government agencies, and the military. ‘The WPB worked by democratic collaboration, using negotiation, compromise, delegation, and individual initiative to achieve a common objective…’

“‘This meant production by all elements of the economy in industrial mobilization, while preserving individual initiative and a sense of justice within the limits imposed by the war emergency.’

“Today we have another unprecedented emergency. And we need another unprecedented mobilization.”

Romm turns to the resolution introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey[which] outlines such an effort to combat climate change, including the goal of ‘meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources… by dramatically expanding and upgrading renewable power sources.’ It requires building energy-efficient, distributed, ‘smart’ power grids. It includes ‘upgrading all existing buildings… to achieve maximum energy efficiency’ and ‘spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing.’

“Finally, to the extent both goals are technologically feasible, the resolution calls for ‘working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers… to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector’ and ‘overhauling transportation systems… to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.’

“These may seem like lofty goals but as was the case with America’s WWII mobilization, this is not socialism. It’s survival.”

#3 – It’s organizationally doable

Historian and author Jeremy Brecher picks up on Romm’s ideas and offers some details on the institutional (organizational) requirements of a green new deal. And this requires “bold economic planning, industrial policies, and public investment to guide and facilitate the process” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/02/25/green-new-deal-can-work-heres-how). He offers 18 “concrete ways make the urgently needed climate mobilization a reality.” Here are a few examples.

He sees the need to establish government agencies to oversee the transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The agencies will have responsibility to: “raise capital; implement labor force strategies; organize funding for infrastructure such as transmission lines, railways, and pipelines; fund research and development; set and monitor energy efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, and equipment; train and retrain workers and professionals; set industrial location policies; and coordinate the multifaceted activities of federal agencies, state and municipal governments, corporations, and civil society organizations.” This is not unprecedented. “It is similar in scope to planning the nation’s infrastructure (e.g., interstate highway system) or, as discussed earlier, mobilizing resources for WWII. Among other considerations, it “requires the technical capacity to design and engineer such complex systems” and “requires taking into account a wide range of economic, environmental, and social factors – and maximizing beneficial side effects while minimizing undesirable ones.”

Additionally, government will have the responsibility, using fiscal and monetary policies to “ensure full employment to reduce the fear that climate protection may threaten prosperity.” Furthermore, government will “empower community-led initiatives to install rooftop solar collectors, energy use reduction measures such as residential weatherization, financial mobilization through community-investment funds, and new patterns of consumption such as shared bicycles.” There must be independent oversight of the green new deal agencies, that is, an “oversight agency independent of the executive branch [to] supervise the agencies and report to Congress and the public on their progress.” Brecher says there is currently a “labor reserve of more than 20 million people [at least] who are unemployed, underemployed, or outside the labor market.” They green new deal will need to support training and, when necessary, the relocation of these workers to fill the jobs in the new economy. All workers will be given “the rights…to express action on the jobs and freely, organize, bargain collectively, and engage in concerted action the jobs.”

#4 – There is increasing political and social support and action to stem the climate crisis and related crises

Francis Moore Lappe identifies the positive developments that we may sometimes overlook (https://commondreams.org/views/2019/03/12/green-new-deal-not-choice). Depending on the polls, large majorities of Americans view “climate change” as a significant problem – which is a good start. Furthermore, already “roughly 3.2 million Americans work in the clean energy sector, outnumbering fossil fuel jobs about 3-to-1.” Lappe continues: “These jobs typically pay very well…with energy-efficiency workers earning about $5,000 more than the national medium and solar workers averaging above our $17 national hourly median.” And these jobs are being created across the country, not just in a few locations. In Illinois, citizens passed the Solar for All initiative in December 2016, with the aim “to massively expand solar installations, prioritizing low-cost energy for low-income families.” Already Illinois has “the lowest electricity bills in the Midwest.” In New York state, 150 organizations back the “Climate and Community Protection Act,” which mandates “a fossil-free New York state by 2050,” while ensuring “that resources for the state’s green transition are invested in historically disadvantaged communities.”

#5 – Can’t be intimidated by the taunts of Trump and his right-wing allies

The green new deal is controversial, partly due to the understandable fact that in its first iteration the resolution lacks all the necessary details. But forget about the facts, Trump and the Republicans are opposed to it for ideological reasons and portray it as a “socialist” perpetrated by “crazy” leftists in the Democratic Party. If a green new deal is ever implemented, they say, it will lead to an authoritarian government undermining American “freedoms,” shattering the economy, and taking away consumer access to a host of products and services – like the Soviet Union under Stalin. They reject or disregard the reality of the climate crisis. In the meantime, they support policies facilitating the increased extraction, production, and use of fossil fuels, the primary sources of the unfolding climate crisis and perpetuate the impractical status quo that says unending economic growth based on maximizing profits and hyper-consumption are what will make American Great Again.

Jim Hightower writes the green new deal embodies programs that the people want (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/03/13/its-not-socialism-its-what-the-people-want). Ronald A. Klain, a Washington Post contributing columnist, served as a senior White House aide to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, posits that it is “time for Democrats to stand up and stare down the great ‘red scare’ of 2019: President Trump’s desperate effort to label Democrats “socialists” and the intraparty hand-wringing over whether Trump’s attacks are working (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-will-call-anything-socialism-democrats-might-as-well-go-big/2019/02/22/a78fca9a-354d-11e9-854a-7a14d7fec96a_story.html). Klain argues, “The biggest mistake Democrats could make would be to back away from bold ideas on health care, income inequality and climate change — believing that less compelling ideas can still rally voters while avoiding the ‘socialism’ charge from the GOP. The party’s ‘realists’ are unrealistic in thinking that any progressive policies will be spared the ‘socialism’ label from the GOP, and wrong to worry that this label will do any more damage now than it has in the countless earlier failed efforts by Republicans to campaign on such fearmongering.”

Ed Kilgore points out that the derogatory use of the term socialism is not new in American history (http://nymagazine.com/intelligence/2019/03/will-gops-red-scare-anti-socialism-message-work-in-2020.html). Here’ some of what Kilgore writes.

“Republicans, their conservative media allies, and more than a few Donkey Party apostates, have been calling Democrats ‘socialists’ for a long, long time. The habit really began with FDR, who was generally thought to have introduced a social-democratic strain to American liberalism. His predecessor as Democratic presidential nominee and as governor of New York, Al Smith, said this to a room full of anti-Roosevelt conservatives in 1936:

“Just get the platform of the Democratic Party and get the platform of the Socialist Party and lay them down on your dining-room table, side by side … After you have done that, make your mind up to pick up the platform that more nearly squares with the record, and you will have your hand on the Socialist platform.”

“At least FDR was indeed advocating significant new public policy restraints on private enterprise, if not anything you could really characterize as ‘socialist’ by historic standards. But the same label was applied to virtually every post–World War II Democratic president other than perhaps Jimmy Carter.

“In 1945 the American Medical Association attacked Harry Truman for advocating “socialized medicine” (the same label they would attach to the original Medicare and Medicaid programs as advocated by LBJ). Shortly into the presidency of the resolutely centrist Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee very nearly adopted a resolution calling on all their partisans to begin referring to the opposition as the ‘Democrat Socialist Party.’ And soon after another centrist Democrat, Hillary Clinton, beat back a challenge from that rarest of beasts, a self-identified socialist running a viable presidential nomination campaign, she encountered widespread conservative claims that Donald Trump was the only thing standing between a virtuous America and a ‘tsunami of leftism,’ or perhaps socialist totalitarianism.

“So today, when 2016’s self-identified socialist is the consensus front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination, and when another self-identified socialist, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has become the darling of party activists and a huge national celebrity, there’s no question the GOP’s ‘The Socialists Are Coming!’ rallying cry will become even louder. That’s particularly true because Republicans desperately need to do to Democrats in 2020 what they did in 2016: Make doubts about Trump’s opponent the center of attention, rather than Trump’s own character. No wonder Trump himself is leading the chorus of warnings about “socialism.”

E.J. Dionne, Jr, argues that “Trump’s war on Socialism will Fail” because the label “socialism” has lost its anti-democratic overtones for a growing number of Americans (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-war-on-socialism-will-fail/2019/02/10/b6fe3a6a-2be4-11e9-b2fc-721718903bfc_story.html). He makes the following points. One, “Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won more than 12 million votes in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries running explicitly as a democratic socialist. Some recent polls even have Sanders running ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.” Two, “Young Americans especially are far more likely to associate ‘socialism’ with generous social insurance states than with jackboots and gulags. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are anything but frightening places.” Three, “The 2018 PRRI American Values Survey offered respondents two definitions of socialism. One described it as ‘a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support and access to free higher education,’ essentially a description of social democracy. The other was the full Soviet dose: ‘a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation and communications industries.’

He continues: “You might say that socialism is winning the branding war: Fifty-four percent said socialism was about those public benefits, while just 43 percent picked the version that stressed government domination. Americans ages 18 to 29, for whom Cold War memories are dim to nonexistent, were even more inclined to define socialism as social democracy: Fifty-eight percent of them picked the soft option, 38 percent the hard one.” Four, “Oh, yes, and on those tax increases that conservatives love to hate — and associate with socialism of the creeping kind — a Fox News poll last week found that 70 percent of Americans favored raising taxes on families with incomes of over $10 million. Five, “Trump will still probably get some traction with his attacks on socialism. And progressives should remember that social democratic ideas associated with fairness and expanding individual freedoms — to get health care or go to college, for example — are more popular than those restricting choice.”

The Great hypocrisy: Socialism for the rich

Robert Reich argues that “America is a Socialist Country for the Rich” (https://truthdig.com/articles/robert-reich-america-is-a-socialist-country-for-the-rich). He offers the following evidence. One, in 2018, “the nation’s largest banks saved $21 billion thanks to Trump’s tax cuts, with massive bonuses to bank executives and 4,000 jobs lost to lower-level bank employees.” Two, “banks were bailed out in 2008 because they were deemed too big to fail and have enjoyed an $83 billion a year subsidy since then.” Three, “tax breaks to big corporations like GM got more than $500 million in tax breaks, while it is planning to lay off 14,000 workers and close three assembly plants and tow component factories in North America by 2017.” Four, “corporate executives who run their companies into the ground ‘are getting gold-plated exit while their workers get pink slips.” Reich refers to the example of Sears, which “is doling out $25 million to the executives who stripped its remaining assets and drove it into bankruptcy, but it has no money for the thousands of workers it laid off.” And then there is Pacific Gas and Electric [which] “hurtles toward bankruptcy,” while “the person who was in charge when the deadly infernos roared through Northern California last year (caused in party by PG&E’s faulty equipment) has departed with a cash severance package of $2.5 million. The P&GE’s executive in charge of gas operations when records were allegedly falsified left in 2018 with $6.9 million.” Five, “screw ups don’t lead to punishments, but rewards.” Reich’s gives two examples: “Equifax’s Richard Smith retired in 2017 with an $18 million pension in the wake of a security breach that exposed the personal information of 145 million consumers to hackers.” And “Wells Fargo’s Carrie Tolstedt departed with a $125million exit package after being in charge of the unit that opened more than 2 million unauthorized customer accounts.” Six, the idea that hard work and entrepreneurial talent are the roads to wealth is belied by this fact: “Around 60 percent of America’s wealth is now inherited.” Seven, “Trump has cut the estate tax to apply to only estates valued at over $22 million per couple.” Eight, “As rich boomers expire they will leave an estimated $30 trillion to their children – and many will live off the income of these assets.”

Some concluding thoughts

The advocates and supporters of the green new deal have offered a bold and timely first step to address the climate crisis; indeed, the most comprehensively meaningful response on the subject to receive widespread coverage and discussion. But the green new deal advocates are faced with significant challenges. I’ve discussed some of them already. But the 2020 elections stand out in their importance. The question: Will progressive Democratic candidates for the presidency and congress win enough votes to given them strong enough power to advance the green new deal?

The climate crisis remains for many Americans an abstraction and, even when acknowledged, is often not viewed as a top priority. And if in 2019 and 2020 the economy continues growing, many Americans may be reluctant to support candidates who endorse the “radical” changes required by the green new deal, especially when they have a job and an adequate or better income and are benefitting from “business as usual.” So, as recognized in progressive circles, the challenge is to educate as many citizens as they can about the unfolding climate crisis and the threats it poses to their lives, if not now then soon. Whatever citizens decide, we can be assured that the movements for transformative political action will grow, the issues will become ever more pressing, and, without sufficient action in Washington, the climate crisis will steadily worsen. The big question, then, is not what will make “America great again,” as Trump blusters, but will America survive?

Trump’s militarism: a dead end

Trump’s militarism: a dead end
Bob Sheak – February 25, 2019

Noam Chomsky, world renown theoretical linguist, writer, and critic of U.S. imperialism and political-economy, has warned us many times in his writing that the two greatest threats to humanity are the growing threat of nuclear war and the unfolding and increasingly disruptive climate change. One of his many books focuses entirely on these threats, namely, NuclearWar and Environmental Catastrophe. According to Chomsky, “there are now questions of decent survival that cannot be shunted aside: the persistent danger of nuclear war, and the threat of environmental disaster, already unfolding and likely to become far more severe if we persist on our present course of denial” (p. 79). Of course, his voice is just one of a growing multitude in this regard, but one that is extraordinary in analysis and documentation.

The scientific consensus is broad, involving 97 percent of all climate scientists and a growing, already vast, body of empirically-grounded, peer-reviewed research findings documenting massive climate disruption. Even the top officials at the Pentagon have long agreed that there is a worrisome link between climate “change” and national security. For example, Nicholas Kusnetz reports in an article for Inside Climate News on a new Department of Defense report that “lists climate change vulnerabilities at 79 key military facilities, including risks from wildfires and severe weather, like this 2018 storm that damaged buildings and caused flooding at an Air Force base in Texas,” and that “the Defense Department is taking protective measures against the looming threat” (http://insideclimatenews.org/news/18012019/military-bases-climate-change-risks-wildfires-flooding-defense-department-report-congress).

The DOD released a more expansive climate “vulnerability” report in early 2018. Daniel Ross reports on the highlights for Common Dreams. (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/10/2/us-defense-department-losing-battle-against-climate-change).

The report looks at the impact of climate change on more than 3,500 military installations. The conclusion: “That more than half of these installations are affected by flooding, drought, winds, wildfires, storm surges and extreme temperatures. Drought proved the single biggest challenge to the military, affecting nearly 800 bases. Next up was wind, which affected more than 750 bases, while non-storm surge-related flooding impacted a little more than 700 bases.” Ross quotes Michael Klare, professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, on how the military chiefs view “climate change as a threat to what they do on multiple levels.” Klare is further quoted: “It’s a threat to their bases. It’s a threat to their operations. It creates insurgencies. It creates problems for them. They’re aware of that, and they want to minimize those impediments.” And Ross makes another point, namely, that “climate change has long been on the military’s radar. It was the George W. Bush administration, for example, that required the Defense Department to procure 25 percent of its energy for its buildings from renewables by 2025. Even President Ronald Reagan received military memos warning of global warming. While in 2014, the department published a roadmap establishing an outline to deal with the threats from climate change within the military, as ordered by then-President Barack Obama.” Well, as we have come to know all too well, any acknowledgement of anthropogenic climate disruption ends with the Trump presidency, as we now suffer under the climate-denial policies of the Trump administration.

Trump’s climate-change denial and saber rattling take us to higher levels of danger

The militaristic and climate-denying policies pushed by president Donald Trump and his administration make nuclear war more likely and move humanity toward unstoppable cataclysmic climate disruption. I’ve recently sent out essays on the climate crisis, so here I focus on the military/nuclear issues and consider recent evidence that document that under Trump there is an ever-more ramped up U.S. military force, an increased emphasis on nuclear weapons as one part of this policy, and signs that we are now being led into a new, dangerous period of military antagonisms, if not conflicts, with Russia and China, antagonisms that could easily spill over into military encounters, accidental or intentional, and to outright war, in which case it would likely be nuclear war. Trump’s militaristic stance is premised on the notion that America’s interests are best advanced by maintaining the country’s military advantage, especially in a world in which U.S. power is challenged. (See, for example, Alfred W. McCoy’s book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power.)

Now this goal of maintaining U.S. military dominance in the world did not begin with Trump, but he has embraced the idea as no other president before him. If you are interested in this history, check out John W. Dower’s short and readable book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II. For example, the cold war with the Soviet Union goes back to 1946 and ends in 1991 with the collapse of that federation, while the concept of a military-industrial complex goes back to the 1950s, when then President Eisenhower used the term.

An unstable president with awesome power

We now have a president who is reported to be unstable and maliciously narcissistic, who puts everything aside in his pursuit of political advantage and personal aggrandizement. He believes that he knows more than the generals and seems to love the idea of having a military force that is always growing and able to intimidate or defeat any adversary. He yearns to have big military parades in honor of himself. And, in all this, he is encouraged by compliant cabinet officials and presidential advisers., and if they are not acquiescent, he gets rid of them.

Trump is reported to make decisions on an emotional and uninformed whim. And be reminded he has the authority to start a nuclear war. Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright, two senior scientists at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, point out that the president has the authority to order the launch of nuclear warheads and how he would do it (https://thebulletin.org/how-nuclear-attack-order-carried-out-now11455). Here’s some of what they write.

“If the president is not at the White House or other location with secure communication, he or she would use the so-called nuclear football to order the use of nuclear weapons. The football, or Presidential Emergency Satchel, is a briefcase containing various items, including a book laying out various attack options, from striking a small number of military targets to launching an all-out attack against Russian nuclear forces, military installations, leadership facilities, military industry, and economic centers. This briefcase is carried by an aide who stays near the president at all times.

“The president carries a card—the ‘biscuit’—with a code that changes periodically and would be used to authenticate a launch order. To order the use of nuclear weapons, either first or in retaliation, the president would call the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center—known as the War Room—read the code on the biscuit to confirm that he or she is indeed the president, and specify what attack option to use….
“After confirming the president’s identity, the Command Center would send an encrypted launch order to aircraft pilots, the underground crews that launch land-based missiles, and/or the submarine crews that launch submarine-based missiles.

“For land-based missiles, it would be a matter of minutes from the presidential order to when missiles would leave their silos.

“If the War Room is unable to function during a crisis, the War Room’s role is taken over by Strategic Command.”

This presidential power to launch on command worries the psychiatrists and mental health experts whose views are compiled in the book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Robert Jay Lifton, one of the contributors, includes a reference to a letter he co-authored with Judith Herman that was published in the New York Times in March 2017. The letter, here I quote, “stressed Trump’s dangerous individual psychological patterns: his creation of his own reality and his inability to manage the inevitable crises that face an American president.” Lifton continues: “He has also, in various ways, violated our American institutional requirements and threatened the viability of American democracy. Yet, because he is president and operates within broad contours and interactions of the presidency, there is a tendency to view what he does as simply part of our democratic process – that is, as politically and ethically normal. In this way, a dangerous president becomes normalized, and malignant normality comes to dominate our governing (or one could say, our antigoverning) dynamic” (pp. xvi-xvii).

Adding credence to this assessment, fact checkers at the Washington Post continue to identify a continuous stream of Trump’s lies and misleading statements, totaling 8,459 from January 2017 through February 3, 2019 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?noredirect=on&utm=.e18c543d91c). Then there is the book titled Rocket Man: Nuclear Madness and the Mind of Donald Trump that evolved out of a conference on the “Presidential Mental Health and Nuclear Weapons” which was “hosted by Tom Steyer at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in February 2018.” All but two of the 25 authors, “writing from their diverse perspectives as psychologists, psychiatrists, foreign policy experts, politicians, former military, historians, and journalists, sound a note of extreme alarm” (p. 10). Here is a quote from the Introduction to the book:

“Some authors, like Steven Buser, David Reiss, and Willian Enyart argue that if Trump were not president, he would not be granted a security clearance or pass a fitness-for-duty evaluation to have handle nuclear weapons because of the disturbing behaviors he displays. While others like Lance Dodes, Gordon Humphrey, Jaqueline West, Philip Zimbarod, Rosemary Sword and I [John Gartner] argue that the president is not only unfit, but deeply, diagnosably, and dangerously psychologically disturbed” (p. 13).

Just one last example. Peter Baker and Michael Tackett pinned a story for The New York Times titled “Trump says his Nuclear Button is Much Bigger Than North Korea’s” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/politics/trump-tweet-north-korea.html). These jouralists capture the abnormal and superficial position of Trump on nuclear weapons, but also how the idea of launching nuclear weapons seems nothing out of the ordinary for Trump, who is well-known for saying “everything is on the table.” Here’s what Baker and Tackett write: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Trump has since had a friendly meeting with Kim Jong Un and came away with the feeling that the North Korean leader had agreed to a process that would eventually lead to denuclearization. Subsequent reports found this understanding of the meeting by Trump to be premature and wrong. Trump and Un will meet again this week in Vietnam to continue trying to come to an agreement that would focus on a process to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons and on the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. These seem to represent rational goals, though the hawks in Trump’s administration and Pentagon officials are assuredly going to keep Trump from giving up too much. It remains to see whether Trump will return to his “fire and fury” rhetoric or manage to reduce the chances of war on the Korean peninsula.

Trump is not alone politically

Much of what we know about Trump is deeply unsettling, but what makes it so extraordinarily troubling is that he has the support overall of the Republican Party, most of those in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution, many or most mega-corporations along with the great majority of for-profit businesses, at least one-third of the voting population (25-30 percent of whom have incomes under the median income), the increasingly right-wing federal judiciary, and a compliant right-wing segments of the media. Some of this support is of the fellow-traveler variety, involving military contractors and a host of corporate lobbyists who want for their industries less regulation, more government subsidies, lower taxes, opportunities to privatize natural resources, and a supportive trade policy. There are also those, among ardent single-issue voters, who want maximum freedom to own weapons or an end to Roe v Wade. Some are white supremacists. Some want the “wall” Trump promised. Some are against same-sex marriage and tolerate only traditional marriage and heterosexual sexual practices. Perhaps the overwhelming majority of Trump’s supporters are drawn to his slogan to “make America great again” and join him in the belief that we need to maintain U.S. military superiority.

One of Trump’s main bases of support comes from White Evangelicals. Consider their shift in moral standards, as documented by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann in their book, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported. Here is what they write. “An October 2016 survey by PRRI asked: ‘Do you think an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private lives can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional lives.’ In 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelicals answered affirmatively, while “in 2016, 72 percent said yes” (One Nation After Trump, p. 165). In the 2016 election, they voted overwhelmingly for Trump. According to Sarah Pulliam Bailey:

“Exit polls [from November 9] show white evangelical voters voted in high numbers for Donald Trump, 80-16 percent, according to exit poll results. That’s the most they have voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004, when they overwhelmingly chose President George W. Bush by a margin of 78-21 percent. Their support for Trump will likely be seen as part of the reason the GOP candidate performed unexpectedly well in Tuesday’s election, according to Five Thirty Eight” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/?utm_term=.901bd6702c87).

Whatever their specific interests or patriotic sentiments, all segments of Trump’s multi-faceted base are emboldening Trump and giving him encouragement to do what his ego and impulses tell him to do.

Professor of Law Richard Painter and clinical psychologist Leanne Watt, contributors to the book cited earlier titled Rocket Man…offer a summary of how whacky and dangerous the political situation has become under Trump.

“As the balance of power shifts to the top executive branch, with few or no checks from Congress or, likely, from the Trump cabinet, we believe that the United States is on a path to war that goes beyond occasional strikes in Syria. When presidents decide whether to go to war, the number of people they consult is limited- usually just a few – including the secretary of state and national security adviser. As Donald Trump continues to psychologically dissolve, besieged by unbearable stress and humiliation, it is essential that his inner circle provides a steady and containing environment for the president. By elevating Bolton and Pompeo into his cadre of confidants, we are concerned that Trump is courting disaster, drawing men who exacerbate the darkest elements in his character, rather than containing them” (p. 98).

A militaristic administration in the White House, heightening the risk of war(s)

The Trump and his administration are militaristic. What’s that mean? According to Wikipedia’s conception of the term, it involves four conditions, including (1) the belief or the desire of a government or a people that a state should maintain a strong military capability,” (2) the aim of using “it aggressively to expand national interests and/or values,” (3) “the glorification of the military and of the ideals of a professional military class,” and (4) the “predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Militarism). The danger of militarism in today’s world is that some countries, including most importantly the United States, have the military capacity to start or engage in wars that are more devastating in their effects than ever in human history – and have leaders who lack the wisdom to identify and pursue non-war alternatives.

Here’s an example. The Whitehouse issued a statement on February 5, 2019 titled “President Donald J. Trump’s America First Vision for Keeping Our Nation Safe is a testament to the militaristic mentality (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-america-first-vision-for-keeping-our-nation-safe.). The hallmark of the statement is that the U.S. will achieve “safety through strength.” It boasts how defense spending under Trump’s presidency has set records, including “a record $700 billion last year and $716 billion this year for funding to face new and evolving threats from hostile powers around the world.” These numbers do not include military-related spending in other parts of the federal budget. A “page” in Wikipedia on the “Military Budget of U.S.” points to expenditures that are not counted in the official military spending numbers.

“…many military-related items… are outside of the Defense Department budget, such as nuclear weapons research, maintenance, cleanup, and production, which are in the Atomic Energy Defense Activities section, Veterans Affairs, the Treasury Department’s payments in pensions to military retirees and widows and their families, interest on debt incurred in past wars, or State Department financing of foreign arms sales and militarily-related development assistance. Neither does it include defense spending that is not military in nature, such as the Department of Homeland Security, counter-terrorism spending by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and intelligence-gathering spending by NSA.”

Even without considering these military-related expenditures that bring “defense” spending above the trillion-dollar mark, the U.S. has outspent other nations of the world by a wide margin for years. According to Wikipedia, “As compared with other countries, the United States spends billions more than its closest competitor, China, and more than the next 5 countries, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, and France put together. Military spending is important to the Trump administration and it is unlikely that he has any reason to curb it” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Militarism).

The war on terrorism

The government’s dubious war on terrorism since 9/11, through FY 2019 (as of November 2018), has provided one of the main justification for the high levels of military spending. David Cole, Professor of Law at Georgetown University, provides an insightful analysis of the hawkish government officials who crafted the rationale for this “war” under the presidency of Georgy W. Bush in his book, Justice at War: The Men and Ideas that Shaped America’s War on Terror. According to another source, the Watson Institute on International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the America’s war on terror has cost the country $5,933 trillion dollars and brought with it little benefit or anything like peace (https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar). And the five trillion spent on the war against terrorists is a low estimate, not considering fully the “future obligations for Veterans Medical and Disability FY2020-FY2059.” Here is a summary list of what the Watson Institute’s research has uncovered.

• Over 480,000 have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
• Over 244,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
• 21 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
• The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $5.9 trillion dollars
• The wars have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the US and abroad
• Over 6,950 US soldiers have died in the wars.
• We do not know the full extent of how many US service members returning from these wars became injured or ill while deployed.
• Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been reported as required by law, but it is likely that at least 7,800 have been killed.
• 21 million Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, and Syrian people are living as war refugees and internally displaced persons, in grossly inadequate conditions.
• The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 76 countries [perhaps 80], vastly expanding the counterror war across the globe.
• The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad.
• The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades with some costs, such as the financial costs of US veterans’ care, not peaking until mid-century.
• US government funding of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has totaled over $170 billion. Most of those funds have gone towards arming security forces in both countries. Much of the money allocated to humanitarian relief and rebuilding civil society has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.
• The cost of the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria wars totals about $5.9 trillion. This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars, which will add an estimated $8 trillion in the next 40 years.
• The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases.
• Both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rank extremely low in global studies of political freedom.
• Women in Iraq and Afghanistan are excluded from political power and experience high rates of unemployment and war widowhood.
• Compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq. Some of those alternatives are still available to the US.

Trump loves the U.S. war machine, as indicated by the increases in the military budget and his desire to see the U.S. military retain its global primacy. And, like previous administrations, Trump’s administration it is justifying the “defense buildup” by identifying alleged threats to U.S. national interests all over the place, but especially from Russia, China, Iran, and perhaps in North Korea, while he supports regime change in Venezuela and militarizing the border with Mexico. However, for the Trump administration and Pentagon chiefs, China is now viewed as the greatest threat to U.S. global hegemony. While the media focus on the trade “war,” and sometimes on the bases the Chinese are building in the South China Sea, “the global nature of the growing conflict between Washington and Beijing has yet to be fully taken in.” Michael Klare provides a concise summary of why this is the case (https://tomdispatch.com/post/176528/tomgram%3A_michael_klare%2C_a_long_war_of_attrition).

“The media and many politicians continue to focus on U.S.-Russian relations, in large part because of revelations of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 American presidential election and the ongoing Mueller investigation. Behind the scenes, however, most senior military and foreign policy officials in Washington view China, not Russia, as the country’s principal adversary. In eastern Ukraine, the Balkans, Syria, cyberspace, and in the area of nuclear weaponry, Russia does indeed pose a variety of threats to Washington’s goals and desires. Still, as an economically hobbled petro-state, it lacks the kind of might that would allow it to truly challenge this country’s status as the world’s dominant power. China is another story altogether. With its vast economy, growing technological prowess, intercontinental “Belt and Road” infrastructure project, and rapidly modernizing military, an emboldened China could someday match or even exceed U.S. power on a global scale, an outcome American elites are determined to prevent at any cost.”

Klare continues:

“Washington’s fears of a rising China were on full display in January with the release of the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, a synthesis of the views of the Central Intelligence Agency and other members of that ‘community.’ Its conclusion: ‘We assess that China’s leaders will try to extend the country’s global economic, political, and military reach while using China’s military capabilities and overseas infrastructure and energy investments under the Belt and Road Initiative to diminish U.S. influence.’”

There appears to be too little among American leaders of ways in which U.S. and China interests can be accommodated through peaceful diplomacy. In his national bestseller, Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, Graham Allison considers the historic and geopolitical conflicts that have given rise to the growing tensions between the U.S. and China, and offers “clues for peace,” but worries about whether American democracy has become dysfunctional, with Trump in the White House, “the decline of a public ethic, legalized and institutionalized corruption, a poorly educated and attention-deficit-driven electorate, and a ‘gotcha’ press – all exacerbated by digital devices and platforms that reward sensationalism and degrade deliberation” (p.238). Under these circumstances, the chance that the U.S. will be able to work out peaceful solution with China seem now remote.

The export of arms is booming for US weapons makers

The overseas sales by American arms producers has risen to heights not seen before. Peter Castagno informs us:

“The global arms trade is experiencing its greatest boom since the Cold War, fueled by horrific wars in the Middle East and revitalized power rivalries among China, Russia and the United States. In their most recent report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed a 44 percent increase in arms sales from 2002 to 2017. The United States is the world’s biggest arms exporter by far, holding 34 percent of total market share — a 58 percent lead on Russia, its closest competitor. From 2017 to 2018, U.S. arms sales to foreign governments increased 33 percent, in part due to the Trump administration’s diminished legal restraints on supplying foreign militias” (https://truthout.org/articles/the-arms-trade-is-intensifying-under-trump).

And some of the U.S. weapons deals are facitliated by former public officials in the Trump administration who have left public office to become lobbyists for defense contractors. This revolving door reveals another Trumpian contradiction. “Before entering the White House,” Costagno writes, “Trump asserted his belief in a ‘lifetime restriction’ on top defense officials working for private defense contractors after their public service.”

The militarization of outer space

On Tuesday, February 19, Trump “directed the Department of Defense to begin to form a U.S. Space Force,” as reported by Ledyard King for USA Today (https://www.usatoday.com/news/2019/02/19/space-force-directive/2913033002). The mission of this sixth military branch, separate from the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard, will be “to monitor the heavens and protect the USA from attack” by, as the president put it, the “bad players.” Ledyard notes Trump’s enthusiasm for the space force in one of his tweets: “Space Force all the way!” The initial budget for the program is said to be less than $100 million,” though Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson anticipates the “five-year cost of establishing the new branch at about $13 billion.” The Congress is divided on the idea and will ultimately decide “whether to authorize the creation of a military branch and whether to approve money for the plan.” At present, there seems to be little opposition in Trump’s circles.

And a substantial portion of the public seems to go along with it

There is also considerable support among the general public for the maintenance of a strong military. A recent Pew Research Center’s survey finds that a large majority of Republicans (83%) want a government that defends the country from future terrorist attacks, compared to about half of Democrats (53%). Even more to the point, 65% of Republicans “place top priority on strengthening the military,” fewer than half Democrats say the same (http://www.peoplepress.org/2019/01/24/publics-2019-priorities-economy-health-care-education-and-security-all-near-top-of-list).

Trump and the military on the nuclear weapons front

Trump’s position is that “everything is on the table” when it comes to protecting the United States, and that he, who “knows more than the generals,” will determine when and where the use of nuclear weapons is necessary. His actions as president show a commitment and a cavalier attitude to maintaining and expanding U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. He wants to continue the 30-year nuclear-weapons modernization program started at an initially estimated cost of $1.2 trillion under Obama and rising to an estimated $2 trillion during Trump’s first year. Lawrence Wittner addresses this point and writes: “Thanks to the Trump administration’s plan to upgrade the three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad and build new cruise and ballistic missiles, the estimated cost of the U.S. nuclear buildup rose in February 2018 to $2 trillion” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/11/19/lurching-towards-catastrophe-trump-administration-and-nuclear-weapons).

New Usable Nukes – and more to come

James Carroll reports on one of the new nukes in the modernization process that, he writes, is “the most dangerous weapon ever” to roll “off the nuclear assembly line” (https://truthdig.com/articles/the-most-dangerous-weapon-ever-rolls-off-the-nuclear-assembly-line.).

In January, according to Carroll, “the National Nuclear Security Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) announced the first of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons had rolled off the assembly line at its Pantex nuclear weapons plant in the panhandle of Texas.” The name given to the warhead is W76-2 and “is designed to be fitted to a submarine-launched Trident missile…” More of the warheads will be produced in coming months.

What makes this weapon the most dangerous ever? It’s a relatively small nuke, carrying the equivalent of five kilotons rather than the 100 kilotons of the warheads it will replace. Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists told Carroll that “the W76-2 will yield “only” about one third of the devastating power of the weapon that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.” Carroll reminds us that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed as many 150,000 people and that the new W76-2 could will kill 50,000. The new warheads are referred to as tactical, suggesting that their damage will be limited and will not provoke a larger nuclear war that would be unlimited.

It is the “shrinkage of the power to devastate” that “makes this nuclear weapon potentially the most dangerous ever manufactured,” because it is more likely to be used rather than just being held as a deterrent. The justifying rationale is that such tactical weapons can be used to offset any disadvantage on the battle field or to intimidate with a tactical nuclear strike an enemy, say, China, from attacking U.S. ships in the South China Sea or from forcibly taking over Taiwan. And, to say again, military planners believe that the use of such tactical warheads will not lead to a larger nuclear war. But Carroll fears the production of the W76-2 will set off another nuclear arms race. It does seem to mark the end of a 70-year taboo against nuclear use. Scott Ritter makes this poignant observation: “On Feb. 2, the United States suspended its obligations under the INF Treaty, beginning a 180-day process that, once concluded, will lead to the abandonment of that agreement. Russia soon followed suit. The death of the INF Treaty represents far more than simply the end of an era. It is the end of a process—a mindset—that recognized nuclear weapons for their globe-killing reality and sought their reduction and eventual elimination” (https://truthdig.com/articles/one-minute-to-midnight).

There is opposition to this nuclear policy from a group called “Back from the Brink, as Trump’s military moves hellbent on having the option to intimidate enemies and win wars with tactical nuclear weapons and other military means. The group proposes a counter-policy that entails the following: (1) no first use of nukes, (2) an end to the unchecked launch-authority of the president, (3) no to nuclear hair-triggers, (4) no to endlessly renewing and replacing the nuclear arsenal, and (5) the goal of having nuclear-armed states top producing nuclear warheads on the way to abolishing them altogether. Of course, the Trump administration ignores such proposals.

More Trump on the nuclear front

At one point, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” (implying the use of nuclear weapons). He has unilaterally withdrawn from the multilateral deal to ensure that Iran does not develop the capacity to build nuclear warheads, even though U.N inspectors have found again and again that Iran has adhered to the treaty’s terms. Other signatories from Europe, Russia, and China want the agreement to continue. The U.S. also continues to avow a “first strike” policy on nuclear weapons. Daniel Ellseberg reasons that “virtually any threat of first use of a nuclear weapon is a terrorist threat.” And: “Any nation making such threats is a terrorist nation. That means the United States and all its allies, including Israel, along with Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea.” Ellsberg proposes, unrealistically under Trump, the U.S. government “should announce decisively that there is no ‘nuclear first-use option on the bargaining table in our dealings with Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or any other nation, because we as a people and our government recognize that nuclear first use would be a murderous, criminal action, not a ‘legitimate’ option for the United States, Russia, or for any other country under any circumstances” (The Doomsday Machine, pp. 333,334). Unfortunately, this is not going to happen. There is nothing in what Trump or his administration has said or done that indicates they take such a no-first-use option at all seriously.

U.S. withdrawal from an important treaty to limit nuclear warheads

Michael Klare analyzes some of what Trump is doing in an article titled “Trump is Launching a New Terrifying Arms Race” (https://www.thenation.com/article/nuclear-madness- inf).

Klare focuses on the implications of Trump’s decision on February 2, 2018, to withdraw from the International Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia in six months, a treaty that covers nuclear-capable ballistic or cruise missiles that has focused on European targets. As described by Klare, “[o]nce the treaty went into force in 1988, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed 2,692 nuclear delivery systems – the first time an entire class of such weapons had been eliminated.” The publicly-stated reason Trump gave for withdrawing from the treaty was that Russia had violated the accord by deploying a nuclear-capable ground-launched missile, the 9M729, “that Washington insists has a range in excess of 500 kilometers an accusation that Russia denies.” Moscow acknowledged that it had deployed the missile “but says it does not violate INF restrictions.” Russia also has complaints, insisting “that US MI 41 antimissile batteries deployed in Romania…could be used to launch an offensive ballistic-missile attack on Russia.”

Rather than withdrawing from the treaty, Klare submits that negotiations should have continued, coupled with inspections to determine “if both the 9M729 and MK41 do, in fact, violate the INF Treaty; if so, measures could be taken to bring both countries into compliance. This diplomatic route was not taken, Klare thinks, because “administration hawks, led by National Security Adviser John Bolton have no interest in preserving the arms-control agreement but rather seek to embark on an arms race with Russia and China – a dynamic that will take us into dangerous territory not visited since the Cold War.”

The future now becomes more uncertain and a nuclear arms race appears to be in the offing. Here is what Klare thinks.

“It is also vital to remember why such weapons were banned in the first place: They provide an easy bridge from conventional to nuclear war. Should the United States deploy hundreds of ballistic missiles in Europe and Asia aimed at Russian and Chinese territory, Moscow and Beijing would almost certainly expand their nuclear arsenals and could even adopt a launch-on-warming policy. By precipitating a new arms race in intermediate-range weapons, the Trump administration is returning us to the early 1980s, when any military clash between the major powers – intended or not – could rapidly escalate into a thermonuclear conflagration. The only adequate response to this peril, as in that earlier dangerous era [which led to the original INF treaty], is a massive antinuclear mobilization.”

Trump ignores the fact that most of the world’s nations want to ban nuclear weapons

Lawrence Wittner, whose article was cited above, writes that in July 2017, by a vote of 122 to 1, with nine abstention, nations from around the world attending a United Nations-sponsored conference in New York City voted to approve a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.” He continues: “Although this Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons received little coverage in the mass media, its passage was a momentous event, capping decades of international nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements that, together, have reduced the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals by approximately 80 percent and have limited the danger of a catastrophic nuclear war. The treaty prohibited all ratifying countries from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.” The Trump administration officially supported the prohibition but abstained when it came time to vote on it, along with eight other nuclear powers. None of these countries have any attention of reducing their present nuclear arsenals. Indeed, they are modernizing them.

Concluding thoughts

The challenge for those of us who oppose Trump and what he stands for requires the emergence of a coalition of progressive and radical movements and a transformation of the Democratic Party – all unified around a comprehensive agenda of structural change, one that espouses a foreign policy dedicated to finding ways to cooperate with other countries, that prioritizes diplomacy over war and military interventions, that implements faithfully the provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, that joins the majority of the nations of the world in a commitment to banning nuclear weapons as well as to committing to the support of development aid to poor countries. For an analysis of such a foreign policy, you might try Jeffrey D. Sachs book, A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism.

It’s cold outside but the planet is warming, putting everything at risk

It’s cold outside but the planet is warming, putting everything at risk
Bob Sheak – February 3, 2019

The weather outside in Ohio has been record-breakingly cold at times in January. Bear in mind, though, this is about weather, which is about the local and sometimes regional conditions that exist at given places and times. It can be cold and snowy in some places across the planet, very hot and dry in others, with a huge number of weather variations in other locations. Climate change, the warming of the whole planet, involves a much larger and more encompassing phenomenon that affects and interacts with weather systems everywhere, but that is simultaneously changing vital aspects of the biosphere in ways that undermine the conditions necessary for human life and other forms of life on the planet. The National Geographic encyclopedia defines biosphere as “the parts of the Earth where life exists,” and, continuing, it ‘extends from the deepest root systems of trees, to the dark environment of ocean trenches, to lush rain forests and high mountaintops” (https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/biosphere). According to recent UN and NOAA reports, we don’t have much time to save the biosphere, including humanity, from the massive and escalating “human” assaults that are occurring.

Weather versus Climate

Joseph Romm, one of the country’s most influential communicators on climate science and solutions,” provides an oft-cited distinction between weather and climate in his book Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. He writes: “The weather is the set of atmospheric conditions you experience at a specific time and place. It is hot or cold? Is it rainy or dry? Is it sunny or cloudy? The climate is the statistical average of these weather conditions over a long period of time, typically decades. Is it a tropic climate or a polar climate? Is it a rainforest or a desert?” (p. 31). This distinction is generally useful, but to clarify, the forces that are propelling climate change are affecting local community, regions, countries, and the whole planet.
Authoritative measures that indicate global warming is taking place and rising typically an average of measures taken around the entire planet. Then there are anomalies, or climate phenomenon that are not fully understood. The cold spell that is griped the Midwest and Northeast in January is the result of frigid air coming from a “polar vortex” in the north pole. The National Weather Service describes the vortex as follows:

“The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both of the Earth’s poles. It ALWAYS exists near the poles, but weakens in summer and strengthens in winter. The term ‘vortex’ refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air near the Poles. Many times during winter in the northern hemisphere, the polar vortex will expand, sending cold air southward with the jet stream…. This occurs fairly regularly during wintertime and is often associated with large outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States” (https://www.weather.gov/safety/cold-polar-vortex).

It is not clear to me how – or whether – the polar vortex is influenced by or interacts with climate change, that is, what causes it to expand at times. But the existence of the polar vortex is another indication of how complex the earth’s climate is. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the climate is changing – and growing warmer – in ways that are harmful to life on the planet. This is confirmed by the nearly 100 percent agreement among scientists who study the subject and by the research they conduct. One recent indication of this virtually universal agreement appeared in an article published in the journal Bioscience in December 2017(https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229). The highlight of the article is that 15,364 scientists from 184 countries signed a letter giving “notice” that humanity does not have much time to curtail and reverse accelerating climate change.

The Trend: More hot periods than cold ones

As suggested, the changing climate is producing more and more “extreme weather events.” Romm writes: “while we will continue to have record-setting cold temperatures in places, the ratio of record-setting hot days to record-setting cold days will grow over time, which has been measured” (p. 32). Climate Nexus tracks all this and substantiates Romm’s contention as follows: “Record-breaking high temperatures are now outnumbering record lows by an average decadal ratio of 2:1. Record highs are occurring more often than record lows due to climate change.” And: “In a stable climate, the ratio of new record highs to new record lows is approximately even. However in our warming climate, record highs have begun to outpace record lows, with the imbalance growing for the past three decades. This trend is one of the clearest signals of climate change that we experience directly.”

Other research findings come to similar conclusions. A study published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres shows that “extreme heat events both in the summer and in the winter are increasing across the U.S. and Canada, while extreme cold events in summer and winter are declining,” so that “there are more extremely hot days during the summer as well as more days that are considered extremely hot for the time of year, like abnormally warm days in the winter” (https://phys.org/news/2018-11-extreme-summer-winter.html). And research by Richard Davy published in the same journal finds that “[o]bservations from the last fifty years have shown that the nights have been warming much faster than the days. Analysis of the causes of this more rapid warming at night shows that this is likely to continue in the coming decades” (https://phys.org/news/2016-03-nights-warmer-faster-days.html)

The Greenhouse gas effect

Romm describes this physical phenomenon as follows. “The sun pours out intense amounts of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, including ultraviolet and infrared…. Of the solar energy hitting the top of the atmosphere, one third is reflected back into space – by the atmosphere itself and the Earth’s surface (land, ocean, and ice). The rest is absorbed, mostly by the Earth, especially our oceans. This process heats up the planet.”

Romm continues his explanation, pointing out that certain types of infrared radiation are trapped in earth’s atmosphere by naturally occurring atmospheric gases. He refers to them as greenhouse gases, “including water, methane (CH4), and carbon dioxide (CO2),” and others [e.g., nitrous oxide], which “act as a partial blanket that helps keep the planet as much as 60 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it otherwise would be, which is ideal for humans.” However, various human activities, particularly those involving the use of fossil fuels, have put huge volumes of additional greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere.
[See report by The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions for a full list of greenhouse gases and how much they each contribute to climate change. Carbon dioxide is by far the most prevalent of these gases (https://www.c2es.org/content/main-greenhouse-gases).]
The numbers are striking. According to Romm,

“At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were approximately 280 parts per million (ppm). Since then, humankind has been pouring billions of tons of extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing more and more heat to be trapped. The main human-caused greenhouse gas is CO2, and the rate of growth of human-caused CO2 emissions has been accelerating. Emissions today [2012] are six times than they were in 1950” – and are now 400 parts per million” (pp. 1-2)

The National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) provides some further details on the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere and how the information is collected, as follows:

“Ancient air bubbles trapped in ice enable us to step back in time and see what Earth’s atmosphere, and climate, were like in the distant past. They tell us that levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years [other estimates extend back further]. During ice ages, CO2 levels were around 200 parts per million (ppm), and during the warmer interglacial periods, they hovered around 280 ppm (see fluctuations in the graph [go to source for this]). In 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning, and can be well accounted for based on the simple premise that about 60 percent of fossil-fuel emissions stay in the air” (https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/24/graphic-the-relentless-rise-of-carbon-dioxide).

In his just published book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, the intrepid climate chronicler Dahr Jamail refers to even more stark numbers, writing: “The earth has not seen current atmospheric CO2 levels since the Pliocene, some 3 million years ago.” Furthermore, he writes: “Our planet is rapidly changing, and what we are witnessing is unlike anything that has occurred in human, or even geologic history.” Additionally:

“Evidence shows that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the Earth to warm ten times faster than it should, and the ramifications of this are being felt, quite literally, throughout the entire biosphere.” The signs are readily observable and have been documented by reams of scientific research. Here are some examples Jamail refers to.

“Oceans are warming at unprecedented rates, droughts and wildfires of increasing severity and frequency are altering forests around the globe, and the Earth’s cryosphere – the parts of the earth so cold that water is frozen into ice or snow – is melting at an accelerating rate. The subsea permafrost in the Arctic is thawing, and we could experience a methane ‘burp’ of previously trapped gas at any moment, causing the equivalent of several times the total amount of CO2 humans have emitted to be released into the atmosphere.”

With respect to ice melting, there is further ominous evidence. “In North America, 70 percent of the glaciers in western Canada are projected to be gone by 2100. Montana’s Glacier National Park will most likely not have an active glacier by 2030. The Matanuska Glacier’s ancient ice is, by now, rapidly vanishing. Dramatic changes are occurring even in the planet’s highest and coldest places. Even Mount Everest…is transforming, as thousands of glaciers across the Himalayas will likely shrink by up to 99 percent by 2100” (p. 6).

Among other such climate-relevant facts, Jamail notes, “Seventeen of the eighteen hottest years ever recorded have occurred since the year 2001” (pp. 4-5).

In an article published in the New Scientist, Michael Le Page reports on a new forecast by Richard Betts of the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK. According to Bett’s calculations, the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is likely to rise by 2.8 parts per million to 411 ppm in 2019 (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2191881-carbon-dioxide-levels-will-soar-past-the-410-ppm-milestone-in-2019). The rate of accumulation has risen to this level from “less that 1 ppm a year in the 1950s.” The long-term trend is “remorselessly clear.”

The fossil-fuel dependence

The extraordinary buildup of greenhouse gases stems largely from the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal). We have a society, as do other “modern” societies, that depends on fossil fuels as the primary energy sources. The great majority of us depend on electricity from power plants that burn mostly coal and gas to heat and cool our homes and businesses, on gasoline to fuel the cars we drive or busses we ride, on fossil fuels to make travel and trade between countries by air or sea feasible, on fossil fuels to keep industries producing and distributing the seemingly endless goods and services that we buy. There is more. It takes energy to extract the minerals that are essential for many of the products that industry turns out. It takes oil and gas to fuel the machinery and manufacture the fertilizers and herbicides for most of the farms that produce our food. There are energy-producing alternatives in the form of solar, wind, and geothermal energy and they are growing as a percentage of U.S. energy use. There is a growing organic farm sector as well. However, the evidence indicates renewables and organic farming are not growing fast enough to replace fossil fuels much or lower greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine provides short summary reports on energy. Here is one point from the report that’s relevant to the present discussion.

“The United States gets 81% of its total energy from oil, coal, and natural gas, all of which are fossil fuels. We depend on those fuels to heat our homes, run our vehicles, power industry and manufacturing, and provide us with electricity. Eventually, the degree to which we depend on fossil fuels will have to decline as the planet’s known supplies diminish, the difficulty and cost of tapping remaining reserves increase, and the effect of their continued use on our planet grows more critical. But shifting to new energy sources will take time” (http://needtoknow.nas.edu/energy/energy-sources/fossil-fuels).

In an article published in Washington Post, journalists Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney remind us:

“In October [2018], a top U.N.-back scientific panel found that nations have barely a decade to take ‘unprecedented’ actions and cut their emissions in half by 2030 to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. The panel’s report found ‘no documented historic precedent’ for the rapid changes to the infrastructure of society that would be needed to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above industrial levels” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/energy-environment/2018/12/05/we-are-in-trouble-global-emissions-reched-new-record-high/?utm_term=6aeb414fca63).

Thus far, however, there is too little progress toward meeting this goal or even the higher one of 2.0 degrees. In an article published in The Guardian, Fiona Harvey reports on research that finds “[r]emoving coal from the global energy mix is taking too long, too many forests are still being destroyed, and fossil fuel subsidies are ongoing despite their distorting effect on the market” (https://theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/22/analysis-warns-lack-progress-2020-global-emissions-target). Analysis by the World Resource Institute discloses, according to Harvey, that there is “insufficient progress in agriculture to stop harmful practices that increase carbon dioxide production, and heavy industry is not doing enough to use energy more efficiently.” Consequently, global greenhouse gas emissions are likely to go on rising into the next decades beyond the 1.5C or 2C warming thresholds “that scientists have identified as key to the future safety of the planet.” Harvey refers to some positive developments in the increased use of renewable energy, in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, and in some efforts from the public and private sector. Still not enough.

Caught in a climate quagmire

As the greenhouse blanket thickens in the atmosphere, temperatures rise, and this leads to all sorts of immediate and long-term, some likely to be permanent, climate disruptions and catastrophes. Tom Engelhardt, author and creator of the website TomDispatch, offers the following summary of what we have wrought in an essay titled “Living on a Quagmire Planet: This Could Get a Lot Uglier” (https://counterpunch.org/2019/01/09/living-on-a-quagmire-planet-this-could-get-a-lot-uglier).

“In case you haven’t instantly guessed — and I suspect you have — I’m thinking about what’s happening to the place known to its English-speaking inhabitants as Earth. It no longer takes a scientist or a probing intelligence to know that the planet that welcomed humanity all these thousands of years has begun to appear a good deal less gracious thanks to humanity’s burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By now, no matter where you live, you should know the litany well enough, including (just to start down a long list): temperatures that are soaring and only promise to rise yet more; a record melting of Arctic ice; a record heating of ocean waters; ever fiercer storms; ever fiercer wildfires(and ever longer fire seasons); rising sea levels that promise to begin drowning coastal cities sometime later this century; the coming of mega-droughts and devastating heat waves (that by 2100 may, for instance, make the now heavily populated North China plain uninhabitable).

“Nor do you have to be a scientist these days to draw a few obvious conclusions about trends on a planet where the last four years are the hottest on record and 20 of the last 22 years qualify as the warmest yet. And keep in mind that most of this was already clear enough at the moment in planetary history when a near-majority of Americans elected as president an ardent climate-change denier, as were so many in the party of which he became the orange-haired face. And also keep in mind that the very term climate-change denier no longer seems faintly apt as a description for him, ‘his’ party, or the crew he’s put in control of the government. Instead, they are proving to be the most enthusiastic group of climate-change aiders and abettors imaginable.

“In other words, the administration heading the country that, historically, has been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases is now in the business — from leaving the Paris climate accord to opening the way for methane gas releases, from expanding offshore drilling to encouraging Arctic drilling, from freeing coal plants to release more mercury into the atmosphere to rejecting its own climate-change study — of doing more of the same until the end of time. And that’s certainly a testament to something. Ultimately, though, what it’s doing may be less important than what it isn’t doing. On a planet on which, according to the latest U.N. report, there are only perhaps a dozen years left to keep the long-term global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees centigrade, the Trump administration is wasting time in the worst way imaginable.”

There is so much to say about the increasingly destructive effects of climate change. But, given the importance of immigration in today’s politics, it is worth noting that the disruptive and catastrophic changes accompanying climate change are a factor – and a growing one – in driving people off their land and out of their communities. I discussed this in an earlier post on July 12, 2018 titled “Trump’s legally questionable, ill-advised, and cruel attacks on refugees.” In an article for Inside Climate News, Neela Banerjee offers the following information from the International Organization for Migration relevant to this issue. (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19012019/migration-climate-change-trump-state-department-guidance-diplomats-gao-report).

“…the IOM found that since 2008, an average of 25.3 million people have been newly displaced annually, the vast majority due to disasters rather than violence. In 2016, 97 percent of people fled their homes because of “disasters triggered by climate and weather-related hazards,” the IOM said.

“In the U.S., the national security apparatus has described climate change for years as a “threat multiplier”—the extra pressure that could destabilize countries where resources such as water and arable land are limited and governance is weak. In a 2015 report to Congress, the Pentagon pointed to the Syrian civil war as an example of how climate change can aggravate the fragility of a nation already beset by tensions and unpopular leaders.
“Researchers are now looking into how drought and higher temperatures fueled by climate change might be driving the migration of thousands of people from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua northward to Mexico and the United States. The migration has become a political flashpoint in the U.S., as President Trump’s insistence on funding for a controversial border wall to deter migrants has led to the longest government shutdown in American history.”
Trump and his right-wing allies use their power to stymie any efforts to deal with climate change

Richard North Patterson brings our attention to how Trump and his allies, especially the Republican Party, are using their power to undermine or stop governmental efforts to address climate change (https://huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-trumps-climate-change_us_5c3f9be1e4b04e4f74). Patterson describes their behavior as immoral, that is, they intentionally put their personal and political interests ahead of what are the all too obvious disasters stemming from, in this case, climate change. For one thing, they ignore “last year’s inventory” of climate-related catastrophes:

“Heat waves killed people from Montreal to Karachi to Tokoyo, drought hit the Horn of Africa, the largest and deadliest wildfires in the state’s history swept California, another set of wildfires made the air in Portland worse than in Beijing, and two lethal hurricanes hit the East Coast within a month. Ocean temperatures are rising much faster than previously thought, destroying marine ecosystems, raising sea levels and intensifying hurricanes.”

They ignore as well, that the “Earth’s five warmest years on record have occurred since 2010” and “dismiss the scientific consensus that humans have played a critical role” and are warning that “we are running out of time to avoid the catastrophic” or the proliferating catastrophic events linked to climate change. We are facing increased droughts and changing rainfall patterns that are making “it harder to plant and harvest crops and harder for crops to survive.” And: “The scarcity of drinking water will increase the already intensifying competition for water, and the resultant increases “in mass migration, conflict and a breakdown in overburdened health care systems.”

Patterson identifies the specific aspects of the immorality Trump and the Republican Party embody. They don’t care about “anyone beyond” themselves, their families, and their friends. The don’t think it’s important to protect future generations. They don’t feel any obligation to “help – or refrain from harming – people.” They don’t care that “America is a principal driver of climate change.” The put their “personal profit and convenience above the survival of our planet.” They dismiss or ignore the scientific consensus on climate change and believe what they wish to believe. They do not feel obliged to be a steward for a sustainable environment. In other words, in extreme ways, they support the neoliberal policies that have been part and parcel of the Republican and even mainstream political discourse since at least the Reagan years, policies that buttress corporate power through lower taxes, deregulation, privatization of government programs, massive government subsidies for fossil fuels, no effective legal limits on political contributions, and so on.

The immorality is also reflected in how Trump “seeded his administration with corporate lobbyists bent on gutting strictures on polluters.” How so? “Notably, his initial appointees to run the EPA and Interior – Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke…combined environmental despoliation with personal corruption.” Their mission was to “dismantle environmental protection, suppress scientific reality and portray environmentalists and scientists as ultraliberal hysterics indifferent to American jobs.” When asked about “his own government’s comprehensive National Climate Assessment, Trump said, ‘I don’t believe it.” He radically weakened “major efforts to date against man-made global warming: rules restricting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants.” He “jettisoned Obama’s Clean Power Plan, loosened fuel economy standards, diminished restrictions on methane emissions and terminated Obama’s plan to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons – powerful heat-trapping gases – in air conditioners and refrigerators.”

With all that has transpired, Patterson still believes that there is time to stop and reverse the class-biased, environmentally destructive policies of Trump and the Republican Party. There is time, he maintains, to educate and marshal people to elect representatives to government who would initiate “a transition to clean energy” and to change their individual lives in environmentally-beneficial ways. And he sees the proposal for a Green New Deal going in the right direction, as it proposes that “by 2030, we generate all electricity from renewable sources, build a national energy-efficient smart grid, upgrade our homes and workplaces for energy efficiency, transition our industries away from fossil fuels and create millions of jobs to help effectuate these transformations.”

Where does all this leave us here in the U.S.?

Amidst all the bad news, there are positive developments, as the previous paragraph suggests. Additionally, those who are convinced by the scientific evidence that there is increasingly dangerous and accelerating climate change represent a majority of the population. The big question is whether these forces will be able to combat and turn back the special interests, most prominently reflected in corporate power and rogue administrations like that of Trump’s. In the following paragraphs, I refer to examples of those who are acting or have taken positions that acknowledge and accept the scientific evidence on climate change. This is undoubtedly good, but it doesn’t mean that they will be able to coalesce and press ahead on a strong energy policy that is able to win elections.

The list includes 97 percent or so of all climate scientists, environmentalists representing many diverse orientations, most Democrats in elected office, some minor political parties such as the U.S. Green Party, and hundreds of mayors and city councils that have made commitments to clean energy.

Recent polls find also that a large majority of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, that it is harmful, and that it is the result of human activities. Oliver Milman reports on a Yale University climate communication poll that found “72% of polled Americans now say global warming is personally important to them,” the highest level since Yale started to ask this question in 2008. And “73% of Americans now say global warming is happening, outnumbering those who don’t by five to one.” A smaller percentage, but still a majority of 62% attribute the primary cause of the problem to human activities. And: About two-thirds of Americans believe that global warming is influencing the weather, in the wake of a string of deadly extreme events in the US. About half say the disastrous wildfires in California and Hurricanes Florence and Michael, which flattened parts of North Carolina and Florida, were worsened because of rising global temperatures” (https://theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/22/climate-change-concern-americans-poll).

Even the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies and military chiefs of staff recognize the dire impacts of unfolding climate change. Neela Banerjee reports for Inside Climate News on U.S. intelligence officials, including the National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and directors of the FBI, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency that climate change poses multiple threats to the world. She also refers to recent concerns expressed by the Pentagon (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/30102019/worldwide-threat-assessment-climate-change-intelligence-agencies-national-security).
Banerjee writes: “The nation’s intelligence community warned in its annual assessment of worldwide threats that climate change and other kinds of environmental degradation pose risks to global stability because they are ‘likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.’ The threat assessment refers to:

“Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security,” said the report, which represents the consensus view among top intelligence officials. “Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.”

Banerjee also notes that “In just the past two weeks, the Pentagon, in a report to Congress, described extreme weather and climate risks to dozens of critical military installations” and that “Urban coastal areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Western Hemisphere that could be battered by extreme weather and aggravated by rising sea levels.” And: “It says ‘damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life,’ noting that “last year, Hurricane Michael inflicted an estimated $5 billion in damage on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.”

In an article for Inside Climate News, Nicholas Kusnetz provides further evidence of the military’s concern with climate (http://insideclimatenews.org/news/18012019/military-bases-climate-change-risks-wildfires-flooding-defense-department-report-congress). He writes:
“A new Department of Defense report lists climate change vulnerabilities at 79 key military facilities, including risks from wildfires and severe weather, like this 2018 storm that damaged buildings and caused flooding at an Air Force base in Texas. Credit: Airman 1st Class Marco A. Gomez/U.S. Air Force
A new Pentagon report identifies significant risks from climate change at scores of military bases and says the Defense Department is taking protective measures against the looming threat.”

The Challenges in the United States

Can the diverse interests reflected in the previous section be reconciled in ways that produce a unified political force to reduce, stop and/or reverse climate change and do so before it is too late. This would mean a force strong enough to displace the politically the right-wing and corporate forces that now have so much control over the government and other institutional sectors of the society. But the key is political. As it stands now, there is no unified political force capable of taking control of the government in ways that would truly solve the climate crisis. There are diverse views – and interests – on how to proceed, even within the Democratic Party. Some favor incremental changes that do not alter the basic institutional arrangements of power and wealth (e.g., the Pentagon, intelligence agencies), while others want comprehensive change (e.g., those who call for a green new deal and the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels) or incremental change (e.g., a carbon tax).

Dahr Jamail, has devoted much of his journalistic career to helping to keep us updated on the accumulating research that documents the reality of “anthropomorphic climate disruption.” His articles have been published online at Truthdig for years. Along the way, he has also had to cope with the emotional despair of what he has seen and learned. While he has lost hope that we will be able to curtail our fossil-fuel, commodified, and profit-based economy, he has not given up on the active life he has had. Jamail writes this at the end of a recent article that captures his viewpoint.

“For me, these days, it all begins and end with doing my best to listen to the Earth, with trying my hardest to understand how best to serve, how to devote myself to doing everything possible for the planet, no matter the increasingly bleak prognosis for this time in human history.

“Perhaps if we listen deeply enough and regularly enough, we ourselves will become the song this planet needs to hear” (https://commondreams.org/views/2019/01/15/we-cant-undo-planet-crisis).

He brings together in his new book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, years of experience and knowledge from reading scientific, environmental, and governmental reports, journalistic accounts, combined with interviews with experts and local and indigenous people as he travels around the world to see for himself the effects of anthropogenic climate disruption. Jamail describes how ecosystems in the oceans, on mountaintops, in coastal cities (Miami, Mumbai), in towns in the Alaskan northwest, in the Amazon, in whole countries (e.g., Bangladesh), in forests, and all around the planet are being devastatingly altered by rising temperatures. Here’s a paragraph from the book that captures just one aspect of the predicament in which we humans find ourselves.

“Renown climate scientist James Hansen and some esteemed colleagues ‘published a study showing that even if global temperatures were kept with 2degees Celsius of preindustrial baseline levels, unstoppable melting of the Antarctic and in Greenland is already on track to raise sea levels by as much as three meters by just 2050.” Jamail cites other evidence on sea level rise, showing that the low-lying Mekong Delta in Vietnam is less than two meters above sea level. “At least 30 million people in Bangladesh along with be displaced by a one-meter rise in sea levels.” There is more. “One study shows that sea level rise will expose millions around the world to river flooding, particularly in the United States, Africa, Asia, and Central Europe,” while “the number of people in Asia alone impact by river flooding is projected to increase from 70 million to 156 million by 2040.”

Jamail’s courageous quest for the truth may serve as an example to strengthen and legitimate the resolve of others who are engaged in more politically direct paths than he? In the meantime, don’t let the frigid weather distract you from the realty of climate change and how too many of our elected “leaders” are leading us up a path of no return.

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