You can donate to relief efforts for the victims of Haiyan here.
But Harvard University President Drew Faust has rejected the idea, without responding to student requests for a public forum on the issue. In doing so, she turned her back on the institution’s mission: truth.
The fossil fuel industry, supported in some part by the Harvard endowment, has stooped to a particular form of political manipulation that poses a direct, existential threat to the purposes of academia. They fund and disseminate climate disinformation and corrupt our democracy in order to undermine political will for solutions. They have, with an alarming degree of success, prevented our institutions from acting on the basis of what our brains know about the dire, objective reality of our circumstances on the planet. They are at war with the truth.
By investing its assets in fossil fuels, Harvard is feeding a conscious and cynical strategy to separate human agency from knowledge and reason. The direct target of this strategy is the essential good that Harvard exists to serve: the unique human capacity for rational action based on intellectual discovery.
President Faust argues that divestment would have no practical effect. Harvard’s share of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies is too small to matter, she calculates.
This analysis sells Harvard short. Calibrating the potential impact of divestment based on Harvard’s share of the capitalization of coal and oil companies is a bit like judging Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil rights based on the physical proportion of the segregated facilities in the South that she occupied when she sat in the front of the bus. At stake here is truth – the institution’s purpose – and our capacity to act upon it. If Harvard won’t stand up for that, who will? And if Harvard did stand up for that, how big a blow would that strike for truth?
Faust worries that divestment would be inappropriately political. But investing in fossil fuels is every bit as political as choosing not to. By shunning divestment, Harvard is not just missing an opportunity to shed light; it is financing darkness.
The illumination that Harvard could offer now by divesting would be clear and penetrating. The controversy surrounding the issue adds the wattage needed to make a dent in the prevailing darkness. If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, its more conventional academic contributions to climate solutions will gain a sense of integrity and hope that would surely increase their effectiveness.
What the world needs from academia right now is no more or less than what’s emblazoned on Harvard’s crimson shield, the institution’s motto and purpose: “Veritas” – truth – and the courage to take a stand for it.
Above, I focus on a specific reason why academic institutions in particular should divest from fossil fuels – because such investments directly undermine truth, their mission.
But President Faust’s statement rejecting divestment reads like a compendium of popular misconceptions and evasions about divestment in particular and climate action in general. Faust has offered sort of a non-deniers’ manifesto for shirking climate responsibility, so a thorough response would be something of a handbook for the opposite… if I get time.
In the meantime, and in case I never get to it, Jeff Spross has an economical debunker: Harvard’s Four Reasons For Not Divesting From Fossil Fuels, And Why They’re All Wrong.
Joe Romm follows up with a specific response to one of Faust’s most insidious arguments – the idea that divestment is hypocritical because we consume fossil fuels. This particular mode of tail-chasing is a maddeningly potent deterrent to climate action. I hope to focus on it soon. Says Joe: The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels
For a wonderfully thorough fiduciary case for divestment, from former Reagan SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, see: “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries”
And whatever else you do, don’t just sit there, DIVEST: “Extracting Fossil Fuels from your Portfolio: A Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment.”
Whatever happened to morning in America?
The party of Ronald Reagan just drips with malaise every time they talk about climate. With the horrific reality of climate consequences now overwhelming the denial machine, their posture is subtly shifting from steadfast ignorance to a passive slouch.
The new face of climate irresponsibility is futility, ineffectuality, collective national impotence: Even if we tried, it wouldn’t matter, because Asia’s emissions would overwhelm any progress we make.
Of course it’s not just about climate. With the government shutdown, ineffectuality is now the prevailing zeitgeist. But when it comes to climate solutions, the reign of impotence is especially lethal. The climate crisis calls for bold, effective, concerted action at all scales. If you don’t believe that’s possible, then you’ll have a hard time getting pumped about climate solutions. And the opponents of climate policy, ever loyal to King Coal and Big Oil, are doing their damnedest to convince us that collective public action is kaput. That they would pummel us into thinking we are collectively worthless is a measure of both their cynicism and their desperation. It’s un-American – not in the McCarthyist sense, but in that it runs deeply contrary to the American exceptionalism that defined Reaganism and that has enjoyed bi-partisan political consensus ever since. (You know, “Americans, not American’ts.”)
Senator David Vitter brandished our collective impotence in a written question to me, following up on my testimony on national climate policy imperatives in the Senate Environment and Works Committee in July. (Questions from Senators Boxer and Vitter, and my full written responses, are here.) His question and an excerpt from my response are below.
Senator Vitter: You cited in your testimony a 2011 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) regarding your perception that the world needs to shift away from fossil fuel use. However, that same organization issued an analysis just this year that: “Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow… and… will catch oil within a decade” as the most utilized fuel source. Further, the IEA’s Director stated in 2012 that: “Coal is a staple energy source [and] will remain a key primary energy source and an important part of fostering economic growth and alleviating energy poverty.” Do you dispute these statements – that regardless of policies being considered here in the United States, developing nations around the globe will continue to utilize coal and other fossil fuels in pursuit of their own economic prosperity?
Excerpt from my response:
Relieving “energy poverty” is necessary as a matter of global economic justice, but so is stabilizing the climate. Clean energy sources and energy efficiency can do both. Expanded coal use cannot. Some coal will continue to be used for many years, as the IEA director suggests. But the direction of current and future energy investment is moving, and must move, in a different direction: we will engineer a transition from coal to cleaner energy sources, or face unimaginably grave human consequences from climate disruption – consequences that will fall most harshly on the world’s poor.
I am not an energy forecaster. The purpose of my testimony was not to predict energy market trends, but to suggest a path forward through this difficult situation, a path that is consistent with both the IEA report that I cited, and the IEA quotes in the above question: We must move steadily and unswervingly in the direction of reduced emissions, greater investment in clean energy, and long-term transition away from fossil fuels. This transition can and must be accomplished patiently and incrementally over the course of decades; we simply can’t do it overnight. However, in the short term and from here forward, we (meaning the people who share the Earth’s atmosphere) must categorically avoid new investments in long-lived, capital-intensive fossil fuel infrastructure. We can’t solve the problem by making it better and worse simultaneously. We have to stop making it irrevocably, irreversibly worse, so we can indeed make it better. IEA’s analysis offers mathematical confirmation of this common sense proposition.
Finally, I do strenuously dispute the implication of the final sentence of the question: the implication that what we do as Americans doesn’t matter or affect what happens in the rest of the world with respect to climate solutions. We have emitted more climate pollution than any other nation. And while our contribution to the problem has been substantial, our contribution to the solutions can be even greater. America has an unparalleled capacity to innovate and engineer big solutions to big problems. We can and must pioneer a new, sustainable path to prosperity that doesn’t result in catastrophic disruption of the climate and all the human and natural systems that depend on climate stability. That’s our responsibility as Americans to the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters – the world’s kids, and our own.
It wasn’t finished.
That’s why Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn had not, until yesterday, released the results of an economic study on coal train impacts in Seattle.
But King Coal jerked the puppet strings, and the story turned into a petty political horse-race game, instead of a good public airing of the real economic issues. Now that the study’s out, we can focus on what it actually says….and what it doesn’t. As usual, Sightline’s Eric de Place has got the goods on this.
Even with a very limited scope, the study finds significant net economic harm, including declining property values, increased congestion, and adverse impacts on public health. The study leaves out a great many impacts, including the difficult-to-quantify hit to our civic brand — the competitive edge we’ve honed from our high quality of life, clean energy, and innovative culture.
(A New York Times story this week trivialized this as an “image” problem. We should take exception: building a great, healthy place to live where environmental quality and economic vitality go hand in hand isn’t just our label; it’s our contents, our identity – the “sustainable prosperity” that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce touts as the foundation of its economic vision.)
It also mentions but does not quantify the impact of increased emissions of carbon pollution. Let’s take a stab at that:
The only specific economic modeling done to quantify the impact of Powder River Basin coal export on total carbon emissions found that, for every 140 million tons of coal exported, net consumption would increase by approximately 98 million tons. The Gateway proposal north of Bellingham would ship up to 48 million tons annually, so of that 98 MT increase, about 33 MT would be shipped through Seattle. When burned, that much PRB coal would produce roughly 60 million tons of CO2. The EPAs current estimate of the social cost of CO2 (using the 2020 value and a 3% discount rate) is about $46/ton. So the annual climate impact bill would run north of $2.7 B,b,billion.
Of course, that cost would fall on everyone, globally, not just Seattleites. Should we prorate it for Seattle’s share of the global population? No. On account of the Golden Rule.
But hey, there are economic benefits too! Take the $5-6 million that the Gateway project developer says would flow largely to Seattle-based firms for legal and public relations work (and nevermind that they’ve already spent at least that much, and that it flows whether the project is permitted or not.) Think of the cornucopia of good things in store for Seattle when they drop that money:
- Some of our best communications professionals will be gainfully employed spinning the heroic yarns that will be required to persuade the Emerald City that hauling coal is good for us. Turning the story about the economic study into a gotcha game on Mayor McGinn is a prime example of the kind of diversions, evasions, and general shenanigans we can expect.
- Brilliant local minds will bring home more bacon by denying the climate consequences of coal export, feeding the ecosystem of climate denial and making it ever-more-difficult to step up to our responsibility for solutions.
- Our legal eagles will be well fed, protecting King Coal’s profits by arguing for the narrowest possible scope of environmental review, and ensuring that under no circumstances will climate impacts be considered.
Yes, all of that counts as economic benefit in the study.
Rev. Kathleen Patton of Longview, quoting Mark 8:36, poses this economic question about coal export “…What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
As you might expect, this impact was beyond the scope of the study.
I’m testifying at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing today entitled: “Climate change; It’s happening now.” I’ll be calling for responsible limits on climate pollution, a fair price for dumping carbon in the atmosphere, and an end to federal support for new, long-term capital investments that lock in dangerous climate disruption (The Keystone Principle.) My written statement is here.
Last month, I testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about coal exports. Seated next to me was a witness representing the National Association of Manufacturers, who objected to the notion that federal environmental analysis of proposed coal export facilities might include consideration of the climate impacts of burning the coal.
He worried that such an evaluation would create a slippery slope, leading to climate impact tests for other products, including corn and toys.
A little bit of common sense should suffice here. The export of corn and toys is not one of the leading preventable causes of catastrophic global climate disruption. The introduction of large amounts of cheap, subsidized, American coal into the world’s fastest growing economies is. So we might want to look at that. As the President said in a landmark of understatement, referring to the climate impacts of Keystone XL, “It’s relevant.”
But the concern raised by the NAM witness is, in at least one respect, legitimate. Because we have no meaningful national climate policy, we are left to ask and answer these kinds of questions on ad hoc basis, leading to outcomes that are surely less efficient and effective than we could achieve with a thoughtful, comprehensive policy. The issue of where and how to ensure accountability for the costs of climate pollution is indeed a very important consideration for climate policy design. But in June of 2013 – 25 years after Jim Hansen first confirmed to Congress that climate change was a real threat requiring decisive and immediate action — we were not having a hearing on climate policy design in the House of Representatives. We were having a hearing on how to expedite coal export.
At that same hearing, the Army Corp of Engineers announced that it would not consider climate impacts in its environmental review of proposed export terminals. This stands in direct contradiction to the principle the President established when he said the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest if it contributes significantly to increased climate pollution.
Ironically, on that same day, the commander of the Corps called for new, stronger standards for levee design and flood protection to cope with climate disruption.
Yup, we can count on the Corps to request larger budgets for responding to climate impacts (as, sadly, they should) but not, apparently, to analyze those impacts in the context of decisions which might prevent them. We are being set up for tons of “cure” at public expense, because we lack the responsible federal climate policies that would provide an ounce of prevention.
Hey, at least today the Senate is having a hearing on the subject!
A focus group participant once said to us: “I don’t think climate change is that big of a deal, because nobody’s doing anything about it.”
This is a remarkable bit of insight. Surely, she deduced, if it were as bad as all that, the responsible authorities would be addressing it with urgency and resolve. That would be a much more reliable barometer of the risk than all the claims and counterclaims on cable news….in a sane world.
We should be able to expect that public institutions and leaders respond to grave threats, guided by objective facts, in order to prevent mass-scale human tragedies. And the fact that we can’t is a truly frightening statement not just about our climate policy, but about the state of democracy generally. Downplaying the risk of cataclysmic climate disruption plays a vital role in the ecosystem of denial – the accommodations, the silences, the tactical retreats, the “soothing and baffling expedients” we all deploy in order to survive and keep moving forward in a world where bold climate action is necessary, but only baby-steps are considered possible. I can only speak definitively for myself (!) but I’m pretty sure it’s sapping our collective sanity.
The President’s speech yesterday punctured that ecosystem of denial, and began to build in its place a culture of responsibility. I’ll get to the specifics in a minute, but consider the psychological impact of his body language: He stepped all the way up to the issue. He took his time. He leaned into it. He treated us like adults. He rolled up his sleeves. He brooked no crap. He told that woman in the focus group, “somebody’s doing something about it.”
And at the risk of being called a romantic (it won’t be the first time), it’s not just any-old-body doing something about it. It’s the President of the United States. It’s the single person on the planet who has the greatest capacity to mobilize for solutions at scale. Let’s face it, we can all do our part within our sphere of effectiveness, but if that person is silent on the matter – as he was for much of his first term – it’s hard to feel very hopeful about our small contributions. Of course he can’t “solve” climate disruption unilaterally, but he has more ability to create the context in which all of our efforts make sense and scale to the problem than any other individual. Until yesterday, he hadn’t done it. And now that he has, I think it will have an impossible-to-measure but profoundly important impact on our work. Not that I’m the target demographic, but I know I’m sitting up straighter.
Now then, on the specifics, a few key takeaways:
First, hey, we’ve still got a long way to go: It’s not a whole new ball game. Vestiges of “all of the above” remain. Irrational fracking exuberance continues. The President is not really pushing Congress to get serious about a national policy that limits and prices carbon. The Copenhagen targets are way too weak. Technically, we’re still screwed (if we choose to live there), so don’t think I’m just swooning because the knight on a white horse finally rode in, OK?
Carbon pollution rules for power plants: You can yap yap yap til the cows come home but until you’re willing to put responsible limits on the biggest source of emissions, it’s just lips flapping. I loved his frame for this – ending free carbon dumping. We of course knew it was coming, and everything depends on how it’s done. (Big hats off to NRDC for shaping the debate with a strong working draft.) But this is very, very big, not just because it reduces pollution, but because it opens the market space for innovation, investment, and deployment in clean energy. The Renewable Northwest Project recently revamped its strategic plan with a major new focus on coal plant retirement, because that’s the biggest market driver going forward. In the Northwest, with the consensus agreement to phase out the Centralia coal plant, we’re demonstrating that we can power past coal in ways that create economic opportunity, build healthier communities, and do right by the affected workers. This is the tough work, the good work, and a whole lot more of it will become possible with responsible limits on climate pollution from power plants.
Keystone: Woah! KXL is not in the public interest if it meaningfully increases climate pollution. And the President will make that determination a dispositive factor in the permit. That is enormous, not just for the KXL decision, but for the principle it establishes. (It gets close to the Keystone Principle.) We’ve seen a lot of fancy footwork among those who claim that KXL won’t increase emissions, none of which passes analytical muster or the common sense test. But the President has nodded to this logic before, so we’ll see. I worry that the test question will be: “Holding everything else in the world constant, how would Keystone XL affect emissions?” The appropriate test would be, “We will do what’s right and necessary to avert catastrophic climate disruption. Does Keystone XL make delivering on that commitment more or less likely, harder or easier?” Only in a world where we have resigned ourselves to climate failure (a world, say, where the tar sands are fully developed and the dilbit travels by other means) is it plausible that Keystone won’t have much climate impact. So, underlying the assertion that KXL won’t increase net emissions is a bitter presumption: Jim Hansen’s “game over.” The President seems to have rejected that presumption, by finally and forcefully saying “Game on.” But if that rejection is to be more than rhetorical, he can’t green-light KXL.
[Note to President and CEQ: Last week the Army Corps of Engineers flagrantly violated the principle you just articulated for evaluating Keystone by refusing to consider the climate impacts of coal export. If that was a statement of Administration policy, it’s contradictory to the policy you laid out today. If it was just the Corps being the Corps, please direct us to a federal partner who can and will cooperate with the states to ensure we get a full, transparent, comprehensive evaluation of all the relevant impacts, including climate impacts. Because this is not going down in our house under the cover of climate darkness. Please advise.]
Efficiency and renewables: Good, solid, meaningful incremental steps forward, nothing fancy or revolutionary. More clean energy. Less climate pollution. Efficient use….it ain’t all that complicated. I will let others who have been working on appliance standards opine on how ambitious this is in the scheme of things.
Reducing methane emissions: It’s vitally important that this is real, not just a token effort to sand the rough edges off metho-mania. Gas has a role to play in the transition, but that role should be limited to meeting peak loads and supporting the integration of more intermittent renewables, and maybe some heavy transportation applications. Simply replacing coal with gas won’t get us much, and it certainly won’t get us to climate stabilization at a livable level. Reducing leakage will help limit the role of gas.
Ending international development loans for coal plants (despite worrisome caveats) is an incredibly positive step, with significant implications for our international posture and for the development of the markets that would drive coal export.
Leading international climate efforts: The announced steps are positive, but it’s a long way from here to international leadership. Maybe soft-pedalling the specifics here is wise. Let us fervently hope that there are deeds to match these words.
Adaptation and resilience. Alas, what else you gonna do?
Talk swirls about some kind of “deal” for the Keystone XL Pipeline. I don’t see it.
Political “realists” say Congress is incapable of passing a serious climate policy, period. That assessment becomes more valid every time the “realists” echo it, so I’m not going there. (I was expelled from their ranks long ago.) But a construction permit for a pipeline is nowhere near enough leverage to remove the obstacles to national climate policy. As a political matter, the President’s opponents want to have the Keystone fight more than they want to win it.
And it hardly seems necessary or wise to “trade” Keystone XL for regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. We already won the latter in the Supreme Court and the President as much as announced his intention to move forward in the State of the Union address. Sure, there’s a range of ultimate outcomes on the CO2 rules; but by the time we know how hard the Administration will really push for strong CO2 regs, this year’s Keystone decision will be long gone. If it’s supposed to strike some kind of political “balance,” it’s only on paper – the real political (economic) constituencies for the pipeline and power plant emissions are different.
Moreover, there’s a principle at stake (the Keystone Principle). It’s neither scientifically defensible nor morally acceptable to continue using scarce capital and time to invest in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure. Regulating climate pollution from power plants is a vital step forward, and potentially a very big one. But in no world where we actually step up to the climate challenge does it justify a big, irreversible step in the wrong direction, like Keystone. There’s no symmetry, no justice there – just political games, and losing ones at that.
I was proud to join a big group of Heinz and Goldman prize-winners – including a bunch of personal heroes – in making the case to Secretary of State Kerry this week. We wrote:
May 8, 2013
The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State
Dear Mr. Secretary,
As recipients of Heinz Awards for our work in environment, energy, and public policy, and the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, we write to you with an urgent appeal to affirm America’s commitment to climate solutions by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
We are deeply honored and humbled to have been recognized for our achievements. But we are acutely aware that despite your best efforts and ours, the climate crisis is now upon us. After a year of unprecedented weather extremes and disruption, this is no longer only about impacts in the future. It’s about social, economic, environmental, and moral consequences, now.
We do not lack for viable solutions. Public and private leaders in America are demonstrating that energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation choices, and a range of other strategies are practical and economic. We are using them to build healthier communities and stronger local economies. We can say this with confidence: sustainable, broadly-shared economic opportunity is possible as we make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and efficient energy systems.
But we cannot make the transition overnight. It will take many decades of patient commitment and investment to complete it. And while “winning” a safe climate future is a long game, we can lose it very quickly — within President Obama’s second term. Continued investment in capital-intensive, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like Keystone XL will “lock in” emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. This is the hard bottom line of the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that without an immediate shift in energy infrastructure investment, humanity would “lose forever” the chance to avert climate catastrophe.
Critics of the effort to stop the pipeline suggest that this is not “the right way” to deal with climate. It is certainly not sufficient, and it would arguably be unnecessary if we had a responsible national and global climate policies. You fought for such policy as a Senator, and we desperately need one. But stopping the pipeline is necessary to ensure that the problem remains solvable — that we don’t become irrevocably committed to emission trajectories that guarantee failure before we mobilize for success.
There is a strain of fatalism among some opinion leaders regarding Keystone (characteristic of prevailing attitudes toward climate generally): “Canada will develop the tar sands no matter what we do.” “We’ll get the oil from somewhere, so it might as well be North America.” “They’ll just find another route.” These objections are neither analytically defensible nor morally responsible. We can’t do everything to address climate disruption, but as the world’s biggest economy and the largest historic emitter, we can and should do a great deal. As a nation with unparalleled capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship, we can do even more. Facilitating accelerated investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is flatly inconsistent with this responsibility, and with the diplomatic effort to build our standing as an international leader and facilitator of global cooperation to tackle the climate challenge.
Keystone XL is a big, literal, conspicuous example of exactly what we must not do if we are genuinely committed to climate solutions. It is a fundamental element — a “keystone” if you will — of the industry’s plan to expand production of this carbon-intensive fuel from 2 million barrels per day to 6 million bpd by 2030. And as significant as its direct consequences are, Keystone XL is much more than a pipeline. It is a test of whether we will indeed, as the President said in his inaugural address, “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
The human consequences of unchecked climate disruption are almost unimaginably grave. We cannot continue to ignore — or, worse, aggravate — these consequences by considering decisions like Keystone outside of this moral context. Approving the permit would amount to affirming moral evasion, at exactly the moment that you and the President have argued so passionately for moral engagement.
We believe in the power and promise of climate solutions. We know they work; we know they are economically viable; and we know we can implement them. We believe it’s time to look our kids and grandkids — the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters — in the eye and say, “We will do what must be done to protect you. We will make this better.”
But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse. That’s why we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
With hope and determination to build a healthy future, and the deepest respect for your leadership,
KC Golden, Policy Director Climate Solutions, 2012 Heinz Award in the Public Policy Category
Lois Gibbs, Executive Director Center for Health, Environment & Justice 1990 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
John Luther Adams, Composer 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Jane Akre, Independent News Group, LLC 2001 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science University of Washington, Department of Biology 2009 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Ralph Cavanagh, Energy Program Co-Director Natural Resources Defense Council 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Terrence J. Collins, PhD, Hon FRSNZ Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Director, Institute for Green Science Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Chemistry 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Anne H. Ehrlich, Senior Research Scientist Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Thomas FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. 2008 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Jerry F. Franklin, University of Washington, College of Forest Resources 2005 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer 2009 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2012 Wallenberg Medal Winner
James Hansen, Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2001 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Richard J Jackson, MD, MPH, Hon. AIA Former Director, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Professor & Chair, Environmental Health Science UCLA Fielding School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Hilton Kelley, Executive Director & Founder Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. NPA Regional Health Equity Council: Chairman R-6 National Partnership for Action (NPA) to End Health Disparities Member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member 2009-2011 2011 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
Joanie Kleypas, Marine Scientist 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Elizabeth Kolbert, Journalist 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Peggy M. Shepard, Executive Director WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. 2004 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor on Environmental Health and Human Habitation Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard University, School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Coal export is kind of like the swimming pool game “Marco Polo”: if you open your eyes, it ruins the whole game.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead emerged as a stalwart defender of the eyes-closed rule last week, urging the White House Council on Environmental Quality to avoid any consideration of climate impacts in federal evaluation of coal exports.
He called assessing greenhouse gas impacts of coal export a “novel use of NEPA as a political opinion piece on global climate change.”
The National Environmental Policy Act is primarily a guide to procedure for environmental analysis, rather than a set of substantive requirements. Its most basic function is to provide decision-makers with a thorough assessment of environmental impacts: Whatever you’re going to do, says NEPA, do it in the daylight.
No, says Governor Mead. Coal export requires darkness. Open assessment of climate impacts would be “novel”, “political.” Using the nation’s pre-eminent environmental disclosure law to analyze the effects of the nation’s biggest fossil fuel development proposal on the nation’s biggest environmental problem would “undermine the fundamental fairness of the process.”
It’s a stunning admission, when you think about it: Governor Mead is all but conceding that coal export cannot withstand an honest evaluation of its biggest impact. It puts the lie to the coal industry’s unsupportable claims that coal export will have no effect on the amount of coal burned in Asia (see distraction 2., in “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, part 4: Field guide to distractions”.)
In a letter to CEQ, Governors Kitzhaber and Inslee called for full disclosure: ”We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future,” they wrote.
And that’s exactly why Governor Mead won’t have any analysis of those impacts. A full, thorough, honest review of the costs and benefits of coal export proposals will sink them. So opponents fight on for light, while Governor Mead champions the only circumstance in which coal export has a chance: utter climate darkness.
To deflect attention from these show-stoppers, coal export proponents change the subject. They propagate arguments to have arguments – to pose, debate, rehash – so as to keep us distracted from forming clear-eyed ethical judgments about coal export.
So you shouldn’t read this post. Really, don’t bother.
….But some of us aren’t disciplined enough to ignore these arguments. We can’t help ourselves; we need to noodle through them. You are one of us if you’ve read this far. So, I offer this annotated, illustrated field guide to 6 of the most popular coal export rationalizations. But remember: it doesn’t matter, because it’s wrong and it’s not us.
1. “If the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point isn’t built, the trains would come anyway and offload in British Columbia.”
This argument is brutal in its fatalism. It basically boils down to: “Well, yes, it sucks, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So, communities from Billings to Bellingham: Lump it.” The argument is, thankfully, wrong, but it’s remarkably persistent - almost as persistent as Eric de Place at Sightline, who just keeps slapping it down. His posts are the go-to resource on the subject. Bottom line: No more terminal capacity, no more coal export.
2. “Coal export wouldn’t increase net emissions; if we don’t ship it, Asia will just use other coal.” Vic Svec, VP of investor relations for Peabody Coal, went so far as to tell National Geographic: “It’s safe to say that not one more pound of coal will be used in Asia because of this terminal.” This argument defies the basic principles of economics. Asia won’t buy the coal unless it’s cheaper than the alternatives, and if it’s cheaper, they’ll burn more. There wouldn’t be compensating emission reductions in the U.S., because coal is already in steep decline here (mostly because it can’t meet clean air standards and gas is cheap). That, in fact, is why the industry is so desperate to beat an export path through our front yard. See and hear:
- Dr. Thomas Power: The Greenhouse Gas Impact of Exporting Coal from the West Coast
- A Battle Over the Future of the Coal on To the Point
- The harder they come: a rough guide to the climate impact of coal export.
3. “Powder River Basin coal is cleaner than the coal that China would otherwise use.”
“Clean” and “coal” never belong in the same sentence. Yes, PRB coal is lower in sulfur, but that’s another reason why they would use more of it. We all deserve clean air, but no one deserves the catastrophic climate consequences of encouraging fast-growing economies to stake their energy future on coal. (If you think carbon capture and sequestration is the answer, then you don’t want to export coal now because it will lock in more coal infrastructure that lacks CCS capability.) See:
- Purple Orca: Our coal is cleaner
- Sightline’s Coal Export FAQ
- Coal export violates Rule 1 for winning the climate game: Don’t lose (see Note 2 on CCS)
Coal export means a few jobs for some, but it’s a terrible jobs strategy for Washington. If ships leaving America loaded with coal pass ships coming from Asia carrying solar panels and wind turbines and flat-screen TVs, who’s getting the jobs? See:
- Dan Kammen: Coal’s no way to make the job market hop
- The Impact of the Development of the Gateway Pacific Terminal on the Whatcom County Economy
- By undermining our values and brand, coal export will cost more jobs than it creates. See: Parts 1 and 3.
This is sort of a microcosm of the whole climate conundrum: If everyone’s responsible, is anyone? I haven’t seen much written on this yet. OK, you talked me into it; I’ll post more on this later. Initial thoughts:
- Before we get into the legal debate, let’s start with common sense. In both sheer magnitude and direct causal relationship, coal export is, as Governor Inslee recently said, “the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint, ….nothing comes even close to it.” It’s one of the top threats globally among projects that would make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. Are we really afraid that the slippery slope of analyzing climate impacts is more dangerous than the slippery slope of ignoring them, while aggressively exacerbating them, as the climate crisis deepens?
- The Keystone Principle is a useful screen here. Shipping wheat may cause some emissions; but it does not materially increase long-term capital infrastructure decisions that lock in dangerous climate disruption. Coal export does.
- The same people who insist that climate impacts must remain outside the scope of the environmental review also argue that there are no climate impacts (see 1. above). Hmmm.
Where exactly do you draw the line? The courts will sort out the legal answer. But there’s a right answer: “Here. Now. Before it’s too late.”
This is the saddest of the diversionary arguments, because it is so exasperatingly true. Having devoted my professional life to those “right” ways of responding to the climate crisis, it’s a poignant reminder of how far we haven’t come yet. And it’s a particularly bitter pill when administered by people who purchase political outcomes to prevent those solutions from happening.
But it’s still a distraction. This isn’t a hypothetical choice between rejecting coal export and adopting an effective global climate treaty. It’s a real, fateful choice between facilitating coal export and…not. Stopping coal export certainly won’t deliver the climate solutions we need. But if we don’t stop coal export (and other major new infrastructure investments that lock-in catastrophic emission levels), then all those solutions will be too little, too late.
I join those who wish we had made responsible policy choices that might have prevented this whole damned fight, and invite them to help us make those choices going forward. But that’s not an answer to the coal export question. We are where we are, and we’ve got an up or down decision to make.
We all need to be part of the climate solution, because we’re all part of the problem. But condoning a massive expansion of global coal commerce – inviting it into our communities, spending public money to facilitate it, squandering our brand on it – would be more than playing a part. It’d be auditioning to star in King Coal’s climate-destroying puppet show.
At the end of part 1 of this post, I proposed that after part 4, ”we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.“ Be it therefore resolved…
Who are we, anyway? We had better decide. Because accepting the coal industry’s plan to turn the Northwest into a mainline for delivering lethal doses of coal into the global energy system would answer the question. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the answer we’d consciously choose.
In Part 2 of this post, I argued that coal export is wrong, because it would materially contribute to fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable (the Keystone Principle). But it’s not just generally wrong. It’s wrong in specific ways that make it particularly objectionable to us, here, now. Coal export would violate our identity, partly because it’s so (did I mention this?) wrong, but also because it’s so, so,….retrograde.
We’re working toward broadly-shared, sustainable prosperity; coal concentrates and removes wealth, leaving poverty and destruction in its wake. We’re about a high quality of life; coal systematically degrades quality of life. The Northwest honors its past and looks forward to a brighter future. The coal industry tears up the past and burns up the future. We have staked our reputation and our economy on innovative technology, clean energy, healthy communities, and renewable natural resources. Coal is the opposite of all that.
Thanks to our abundant renewable resources and sustained investment in energy efficiency, Washington is now in position to become the first coal-free state in the U.S.. Seattle City Light divested from coal in 2000 and completely zeroed out its carbon footprint in 2005. Washington and Oregon achieved agreements last year to phase out our coal plants and we’re moving toward retiring the plants in the Mountain West that serve our energy demand.
So how ironic, how tragic would it be for the Northwest to pull a violent 180 and become North America’s biggest coal depot? It doesn’t just negate our energy strategy. It’s an affront to our vision, our values, our identity as people and communities. Beyond the quantifiable impacts – climate disruption, ocean acidification, air pollution, noise, congestion, public safety, water contamination, etc. – there’s a deeper sense that coal export would be a turnabout, a one-way ticket away from our best future.
That sense comes into sharper and louder focus with each new voice rising in opposition from Northwest communities – and they are legion. Hear them out:
Julie Trimingham of Communitywise Bellingham memorably said to NPR, “It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”
Edmonds City Council member Strom Peterson wrote, “Our futures are brighter and our communities are stronger because we are building vibrant local economies – great places where people want to live, work, shop, and play. Coal export is the direct opposite of that vision.”
Sustainability is a core value, an organizing principle, and a prosperity driver for communities like Bellingham. But what about Longview, a hard-working community known for heavy industry, gritty port operations, and raw log exports? You might think coal export would work for them. But they’ve got something better in mind. Here’s the vision statement from the Cowlitz County Economic Development Plan, “The Turning Point”:
“Cowlitz County will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”
Coal export would bury that vision. Reverend Kathleen Patton, rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church worries, “If Longview winds up becoming a coal-export facility, I really do wonder if that’s the last 135 jobs this town will see. Who else would be attracted to come here? I don’t see how we can justify saying a few jobs here makes it all worthwhile when we’re jeopardizing the health of not just the planet but even the people who are supposedly going to benefit from this export facility.”
Defending the region’s identity against the coal onslaught might seem like a luxury if you don’t have a job. But the Northwest’s commitment to quality of life and sustainable prosperity isn’t just a cultural amenity. It’s one of our most important economic assets, our competitive edge. Our existing job base and our ability to sustain and attract good jobs going forward depend on it.
As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:
“Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource.” And it’s not just fisheries. It’s all the jobs and benefits that flow from the fact that this is just one hell of a fine place to be in so many ways that coal export would defile.
The tribes get the last word; no one speaks with more authority to the power of our regional identity. In a powerful, prophetic ceremony last fall, the Lummi Nation burned a blank check at Cherry Point, a proposed coal export site. Even King Coal doesn’t have enough money to compensate them for losing their culture, their home.
“No deals, thank you,” said Fran James, 88, a revered tribal elder called as a witness to the ceremony. “All of our elders have always told us: ‘Take care of this place.’”
The Northwest will be safe from coal export when we stand as firm and proud for our regional identity as Lummi Councilman Jay Julius: “The Lummi Nation will not step out of the way. We will protect with our every breath the ancient lifeway on these waters and honor our ancestors buried at Cherry Point.”
Click here for Part 1 of this series, “Live onstage in the great Northwest: King Coal’s tragic puppet show”
Click here for Part 2, “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2 – Coal export is wrong”