Do you feel like your doctors and your more annoying friends are always telling you to drink more water? Well, they’re just trying to help. Water is so important for your health! Sadly, water tastes like, well, water. And since Americans eat like 100 pounds of sugar a year, the taste of water just isn’t good enough for us. Even though we are very lucky to have fresh water, we don’t get too excited about it — 20 percent of people say they just don’t like how it tastes (i.e., watery). What we do get excited about are artificially flavored, sugar-free water products.
This does not mean stuff like Vitamin Water, by the way. That has calories, which are almost as gross as water. It means new stuff, like a no-cal Vitamin Water spin-off called Fruitwater. And Mio, which is some tasty stuff you can squirt into water. (YUM.) And Dasani Drops. One of the selling points on the additives, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that they are “simpler to carry in a purse.” OK, next time I tell you I’ve purchased something because it’s “simpler to carry in a purse” please take me out back and shoot me.
Luckily, most Americans remain what the same article refers to as “water purists.” But the number of people who want water with flair is growing — hey wow, so is the likelihood of global apocalypse! Coincidence?
A hidden epidemic is poisoning America. The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them. We can’t escape it in our cars. It’s in cities and suburbs. It afflicts rich and poor, young and old. And there’s a reason why you’ve never read about it in the newspaper or seen a report on the nightly news: It has no name — and no antidote.
The culprit behind this silent killer is lead. And vinyl. And formaldehyde. And asbestos. And Bisphenol A. And polychlorinated biphenyls. And thousands more innovations brought to us by the industries that once promised “better living through chemistry,” but instead produced a toxic stew that has made every American a guinea pig and has turned the United States into one grand unnatural experiment.
Today, we are all unwitting subjects in the largest set of drug trials ever. Without our knowledge or consent, we are testing thousands [PDF] of suspected toxic chemicals and compounds, as well as new substances whose safety is largely unproven and whose effects on human beings are all but unknown. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) itself has begun monitoring our bodies [PDF] for 151 potentially dangerous chemicals, detailing the variety of pollutants we store in our bones, muscle, blood, and fat. None of the companies introducing these new chemicals has even bothered to tell us we’re part of their experiment. None of them has asked us to sign consent forms or explained that they have little idea what the long-term side effects of the chemicals they’ve put in our environment — and so our bodies — could be. Nor do they have any clue as to what the synergistic effects of combining so many novel chemicals inside a human body in unknown quantities might produce.
How industrial toxins entered the American home
The story of how Americans became unwitting test subjects began more than a century ago. The key figure was Alice Hamilton, the “mother” of American occupational medicine, who began documenting the way workers in lead paint pigment factories, battery plants, and lead mines were suffering terrible palsies, tremors, convulsions, and deaths after being exposed to lead dust that floated in the air, coating their workbenches and clothes.
Soon thereafter, children exposed to lead paint and lead dust in their homes were also identified as victims of this deadly neurotoxin. Many went into convulsions and comas after crawling on floors where lead dust from paint had settled, or from touching lead-painted toys, or teething on lead-painted cribs, windowsills, furniture, and woodwork.
Instead of leveling with the public, the lead industry, through its trade group, the Lead Industries Association [PDF], began a six-decade-long campaign to cover up its product’s dire effects. It challenged doctors who reported lead-poisoned children to health departments, distracted the public through advertisements that claimed lead was “safe” to use, and fought regulation of the industry by local government, all in the service of profiting from putting a poison in paint, gasoline, plumbing fixtures, and even toys, baseballs, and fishing gear.
As Joe Camel would be for tobacco, so the little Dutch Boy [PDF] of the National Lead Company became an iconic marketing tool for Dutch Boy Lead Paint, priming Americans to invite a dangerous product into their children’s playrooms, nurseries, and lives. The company also launched a huge advertising campaign that linked lead to health, rather than danger. It even produced coloring books for children, encouraging them to paint their rooms and furniture using lead-based paint.
Only after thousands of children were poisoned and, in the 1960s, activist groups like the Young Lords [PDF] and the Black Panthers began to use lead poisoning as a symbol of racial and class oppression did public health professionals and the federal government begin to rein in companies like the Sherwin-Williams paint company and the Ethyl Corporation, which produced tetraethyl lead, the lead additive in gasoline. In 1971, Congress passed the Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act that limited lead in paint used for public housing. In 1978, the Consumer Products Safety Commission finally banned lead in all paints sold for consumer use. During the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules that led to the elimination of leaded gasoline by 1995 (though it still remains in aviation fuel).
The CDC estimates that in at least 4 million households in the U.S. today children are still exposed to dangerous amounts of lead from old paint that produces dust every time a nail is driven into a wall to hang a picture, a new electric socket is installed, or a family renovates its kitchen. It estimates that more than 500,000 children ages 1 to 5 have “elevated” levels of lead in their blood. (No level is considered safe for children.) Studies have linked lost IQ points, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, dyslexia, and even possibly high incarceration rates to tiny amounts of lead in children’s bodies.
Unfortunately, when it came to the creation of America’s chemical soup, the lead industry was hardly alone. Asbestos is another classic example of an industrial toxin that found its way into people’s homes and bodies. For decades, insulation workers, brake mechanics, construction workers, and a host of others in hundreds of trades fell victim to the disabling and deadly lung diseases of asbestosis or to lung cancer and the fatal cancer called mesothelioma when they breathed in dust produced during the installation of boilers, the insulation of pipes, the fixing of cars that used asbestos brake linings, or the spraying of asbestos on girders. Once again, the industry knew its product’s dangers early and worked assiduously to cover them up.
Despite growing medical knowledge about its effects (and increasing industry attempts to downplay or suppress that knowledge), asbestos was soon introduced to the American home and incorporated into products ranging from insulation for boilers and piping in basements to floor tiles and joint compounds. It was used to make sheetrock walls, roof shingles, ironing boards, oven gloves, and hot plates. Soon an occupational hazard was transformed into a threat to all consumers.
Today, however, these devastating industrial-turned-domestic toxins, which destroyed the health and sometimes took the lives of hundreds of thousands, seem almost quaint when compared to the brew of potential or actual toxins we’re regularly ingesting in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
Of special concern are a variety of chlorinated hydrocarbons, including DDT and other pesticides that were once spread freely nationwide, and despite being banned decades ago, have accumulated in the bones, brains, and fatty tissue of virtually all of us. Their close chemical carcinogenic cousins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were found in innumerable household and consumer products — like carbonless copy paper, adhesives, paints, and electrical equipment — from the 1950s through the 1970s. We’re still paying the price for that industrial binge today, as these odorless, tasteless compounds have become permanent pollutants in the natural environment and, as a result, in all of us.
The largest uncontrolled experiment in history
While old houses with lead paint and asbestos shingles pose risks, potentially more frightening chemicals are lurking in new construction going on in the latest mini-housing boom across America. Our homes are now increasingly made out of lightweight fibers and reinforced synthetic materials whose effects on human health have never been adequately studied individually, let alone in the combinations we’re all subjected to today.
Formaldehyde, a colorless chemical used in mortuaries as a preservative, can also be found as a fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant in, for example, plywood, particle board, hardwood paneling, and the “medium density fiberboard” [PDF] commonly used for the fronts of drawers and cabinets or the tops of furniture. As the material ages, it evaporates into the home as a known cancer-producing vapor, which slowly accumulates in our bodies. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health suggests that homeowners “purchasing pressed-wood products, including building material, cabinetry, and furniture … should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products.”
What’s inside your new walls might be even more dangerous. While the flame retardants commonly used in sofas, chairs, carpets, love seats, curtains, baby products, and even TVs sounded like a good idea when widely introduced in the 1970s, they turn out to pose hidden dangers that we’re only now beginning to grasp. Researchers have, for instance, linked one of the most common flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, to a wide variety of potentially undesirable health effects including thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, and the early onset of puberty.
Other flame retardants like Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate have been linked to cancer. As the CDC has documented [PDF] in an ongoing study of the accumulation of hazardous materials in our bodies, flame retardants can now be found in the blood of “nearly all” of us.
Nor are these particular chemicals anomalies. Lurking in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, for instance, are window cleaners [PDF] and spot removers that contain known or suspected cancer-causing agents. The same can be said of cosmetics in your makeup case or of your plastic water bottle or microwavable food containers. Most recently, Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic chemical used in a variety of plastic consumer products, including some baby bottles, epoxy cements, the lining of tuna fish cans, and even credit card receipts, has been singled out as another everyday toxin increasingly found inside all of us.
Recent studies indicate that its effects are as varied as they are distressing. As Sarah Vogel of the Environmental Defense Fund has written, “New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities.”
Teflon, or perfluorooctanoic acid, the heat-resistant, non-stick coating that has been sold to us as indispensable for pots and pans, is yet another in the list of substances that may be poisoning us, almost unnoticed. In addition to allowing fried eggs to slide right onto our plates, Teflon is in all of us, according to the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency, and “likely to be carcinogenic in humans.”
These synthetic materials are just a few of the thousands now firmly embedded in our lives and our bodies. Most have been deployed in our world and put in our air, water, homes, and fields without being studied at all for potential health risks, nor has much attention been given to how they interact in the environments in which we live, let alone our bodies. The groups that produce these miracle substances — like the petrochemical, plastics, and rubber industries, including major companies like Exxon, Dow, and Monsanto — argue that, until we can definitively prove the chemical products slowly leaching into our bodies are dangerous, we have no “right,” and they have no obligation, to remove them from our homes and workplaces. The idea that they should prove their products safe before exposing the entire population to them seems to be a foreign concept.
In the 1920s, the oil industry made the same argument about lead as an additive in gasoline, even though it was already known that it was a dangerous toxin for workers. Spokespeople for companies like General Motors insisted that it was a “gift of God,” irreplaceable and essential for industrial progress and modern living, just as the lead industry argued for decades that lead was “essential” to produce good paint that would protect our homes.
Like the oil, lead, and tobacco industries of the 20th century, the chemical industry, through the American Chemistry Council and public relations firms like Hill & Knowlton, is fighting tooth and nail to stop regulation and inhibit legislation that would force it to test chemicals before putting them in the environment. In the meantime, Americans remain the human guinea pigs in advanced trials of hundreds if not thousands of commonly used, largely untested chemicals. There can be no doubt that this is the largest uncontrolled experiment in history.
To begin to bring it under control would undoubtedly involve major grassroots efforts to push back against the offending corporations, courageous politicians, billions of dollars, and top-flight researchers. But before any serious steps are likely to be taken, before we even name this epidemic, we need to wake up to its existence.
A toxic dump used to be a Superfund site or a nuclear waste disposal site. Increasingly, however, we – each and every one of us — are toxic dumps and for us there’s no Superfund around, no disposal plan in sight. In the meantime, we’re walking, talking biohazards and we don’t even know it.
The United States and 140 other countries have signed or otherwise associated with the Copenhagen Accord, in which it is agreed that the nations of the world should “hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity.” For there to be a chance — even just a 50/50 chance — of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 (earlier for the developed world) and fall by 9 or 10 percent a year every year thereafter.
Nothing like that has ever been done. Not even close. No major energy transition has ever moved that quickly. Carbon emissions have never fallen that fast, not even during the economic collapse brought on by the demise of the USSR. Getting to change of that scale and speed is not a matter of nudging along a natural economic shift, as clean energy cost curves come down and fossil fuels get more expensive. That scale and speed seem to demand something like wartime mobilization.
That metaphor gets used a lot. I’ve used it many times myself. But is it apt? And what would it mean to take it seriously? There’s been lots of academic attention to the technology side of rapid, large-scale mitigation, but little attention to the governance side. How could a country engineer such a transition? What powers and institutions would be necessary?
The papers, which are focused mostly on the U.S. but meant to draw lessons applicable to other countries as well, “commence the process of developing contingency plans for a scenario in which a sudden major global climate impact galvanises governments to implement emergency climate mitigation targets and programs.”
Let’s pause right here for a second. This entire project is premised on the notion that harsh climate impacts will eventually spur the public to demand emergency action from governments. That is, to put it mildly, a debatable premise. I’ve always thought people put way too much faith in it. It’s really, really difficult to know what kind of impact would be big or frequent enough to spur that kind of public unity, especially directed at climate change mitigation (as opposed to adaptation). After all, no one will be able to prevent climate disasters within their lifetime through mitigation — the next 50 years of climate change are already “baked in.” So we’re talking about the peoples of the U.S. and the world rallying around emergency measures, wartime sacrifices, on behalf of future generations. I can easily imagine that never happening. And if it does, it’s going to take some kind of shock that I can’t even really imagine.
Delina and Diesendorf acknowledge that politicians will resist adopting a true emergency posture:
Since rapid climate mitigation responses on the scale and scope of warlike mobilisation mean that governments may have to turn away from business-as-usual and predominantly market solutions to place more emphasis on centrally organised and publicly funded activities, politicians are less likely to support emergency climate actions for the fear of losing corporate support and, in countries with large fossil fuel reserves, tax revenues.
Uh, ya think?
Because of political resistance, moving to a wartime-mobilization footing will require serious grassroots pressure:
Unless the climate action movement can exert strong, growing pressure on governments, by means of lobbying backed up with media, public education, legal actions, building alternatives and nonviolent direct action, it seems unlikely that governments will undertake emergency mitigation, even when life-threatening climate disasters occur.
But anyway. For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine such disasters did unfold and there was enough grassroots pressure to force politicians into wartime posture. What would that look like? How would it work?
Delina and Diesendorf take a close look at America’s experience during WWII. (It’s worth digging into the first paper’s section on that topic — there’s lots I didn’t know about the government’s domestic policy during that period.) During that time, the country went from manufacturing almost no war material to manufacturing enough of it to run the world’s biggest military. It was an industrial turnaround of astonishing speed and scale.
The lessons that emerge from that period aren’t ones I’m particularly comfortable with, and it sounds like the authors aren’t totally thrilled with them either. Long story short, what’s required in wartime mobilization is an enormous amount of centralized federal executive authority, an enormous amount of borrowing and taxing, and an enormous amount of labor displacement and retraining. At least temporarily, the economy will be more government-directed than market-based.
Among other things, pulling that off will require some sort of large-scale strategy, a set of goals and programs, that is durable enough to be insulated from the ebb and flow of passing administrations and changes in public opinion. It must be focused on long-term mitigation rather than merely immediate adaptation (which is what all the short-term political pressure will favor). At the same time, however, the mitigation strategy can’t be so rigid that it is immune to public oversight and control. Some measure of democratic control must be preserved.
Delina and Diesendorf recommend the statutory creation of two new institutions in particular:
• A special Ministry for Transition to a Low-Carbon Future as the principal agency of rapid mitigation activities to conduct technical requirement studies, set and enforce production goals [for renewable energy technologies], institute efficient contracting procedures, cut through the inertia and ‘red tape’ inhibiting institutional changes, and serve as the coordinating agency for all transition activities.
• A separate institution, independent of the Executive and the above Ministry, reporting directly to Parliament/Congress and the community at large, to prepare a transition timeline specifying the period when executive control starts and ends; to conduct appropriate checks and balances; to scrutinise government/executive actions, especially those of the Ministry for Transition; and, through legal powers, to ensure that the government/executive sticks to its transition mandate.
So it’s your basic balance-of-powers set-up: a single coordinating agency and a watchdog to keep it honest. The delicate dance here is to hand over extraordinary power to the executive branch on the premise that it can and will be handed back after a set period of time.
Among the many dangers in this approach is that executives are not generally inclined to give up power once it’s been granted them. And it’s not like the climate situation will be any less dire in 10 years, or 20. Once you switch over to wartime government in the face of a foe that cannot surrender and never stops, how do you ever switch back? (The parallels to the “war on terrorism” should be obvious here.)
Delina and Diesendorf acknowledge that the WWII mobilization comparison is not perfect, because climate mobilization will be even more difficult and more complicated. (Whee!) It will also involve state and provincial governments, along with civic and private institutions. It will also, crucially, involve international coordination and enforcement. It will eventually have to go beyond particular economic sectors and address the larger issues of population and consumption. “Getting all these acts done in a coordinated and democratic/participatory manner,” Delina and Diesendorf write, “is definitely a huge challenge.”
You could say that.
So. Assuming that the climate movement can tie climate impacts together enough to galvanize the public against climate change; assuming politicians can actually be swayed by public pressure into radical, immediate action; assuming that executive power can be expanded and the economy transformed as though it were 1942; assuming that, at the end of the sprint to zero carbon, the federal government cedes back the extraordinary and democratically suspect powers it adopted … well, assuming all that, we’ve got this climate governance thing nailed! Yeeesh.
One final note about this. A political conservative will see this post and think, “Aha! I knew it all along! Liberals are using climate change as a pretense to grow government and increase its power over our lives!”
As an assessment of the motivations and ideology of those fighting against climate change, this is absurd, of course. But as an assessment of what must be done to secure real climate safety, it is accurate. In any scenario where mitigation is big enough and fast enough, government really will need to be bigger and more intrusive. That is very much worth worrying about; getting through this ordeal while retaining the open, democratic character of U.S. government (such as it is, anyway) will be a tough needle to thread.
However, it’s worth noting that eschewing mitigation and instead trying to adapt to a 4°C world will create widespread suffering, migration, and desperation. Those, in turn, will lead to civil unrest and resource conflicts. Guess what governments do in the face of massive disruptions and unrest? They get bigger and more authoritarian!
There’s no libertarian choice here. A huge, global challenge like climate change is inevitably going to mean more government action and intrusion. The choice is, do you want managed big government, with a bounded set of plans and some amount of oversight built in, or do you want panicked big government, responding to migrations, famines, and conflict? I’m not exactly excited about either choice, but the former definitely strikes me as the lesser of two evils.
Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient lightbulbs, calling “sustainability” the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé’s halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans’ Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.
Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.
A study out Monday in thejournal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.
The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to “buy” either an old-school lightbulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL’s packaging that says “Protect the Environment,” and “we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option,” said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.
Gromet said she never expected the green message to motivate conservatives, but was surprised to find that it could in fact repel them from making a purchase even while they found other aspects, like saving cash on their power bills, attractive. The reason, she thinks, is that given the political polarization of the climate change debate, environmental activism is so frowned upon by those on the right that they’ll do anything to keep themselves distanced from it.
“When we’re given an option where the choice is made to represent a value that we don’t identify with or that our ideological group doesn’t value,” she said, “this can turn the purchase into something undesirable. By making [the environment] part of the choice, even though they might see the economic benefit, they no longer want to put their money toward that option.”
This graph, lifted from the report (on the x-axis, -1 is liberal and 1 is conservative), shows the damage the wrong messaging can do: With no messaging, roughly 60 percent of all participants picked the CFL; a pro-environment message boosted support in liberals but cut it sharply in conservatives:
That gap could represent real lost opportunities in the private sector: The EPA’s Energy Star label, for example, perhaps the most prominent label for energy-efficient products, puts greenhouse gas savings front and center in its packaging, and proudly boasts that products with the label help Americans “protect our climate.”
This isn’t just a problem for businesses trying to push energy-efficient products, but also for environmentalists and policymakers pushing to write efficiency or other climate-friendly policies into law, said Jessica Goodheart, director of RePower LA, which advocates for energy-saving practices in the Los Angeles power utility. Goodheart said while tackling climate change is driving force behind her lobbying, she more often finds herself talking about jobs and the economy, especially when addressing small business owners.
“It’s always important to speak to people where they are, and with energy efficiency there are so many positive messages you can use,” she said.
And there’s no shortage of opportunities to roll those messages out: Last week, Energy Department researchers found that rules requiring utilities to use renewable energy were under attack in over half the states they exist in; such laws might have better luck fending off Bachmann-esque fusillades if they refocus their rhetoric around their cost-savings, energy independence, or other benefits, Gromet’s research suggests, especially in conservative states.
That doesn’t necessarily mean green advocates need to somehow cover up the environmental benefits of a policy or product: A study from Stanford psychologists released last December found that reframing environmental messaging in terms of preserving the “purity” of the natural world resonated morally with conservatives.
“There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all message that will appeal equally,” Gromet said. “It’s important to know the market you’re appealing to; there are some messages you may want to avoid.”
If you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious: Most people don’t understand climate change very well. This includes a large proportion of the nation’s politicians, journalists, and pundits — even the pundits who write about it. (I’m looking at you, Joe Nocera.)
One reason for the widespread misunderstanding is that climate change has been culturally coded as an “environmental problem.” This has been, in all sorts of ways, a disaster. Lots of pundits, especially brain-dead “centrist” pundits, have simply transferred their framing and conception of environmental problems to climate. They approach it as just another air pollution problem.
However, there are two features of climate change that make it importantly different from other environmental problems, not just in degree but in kind. And these differences have important public policy implications.
The first difference is that carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants.
To make this clear, let’s use the old bathtub analogy. The faucet is the source of the pollutant. The tub is the environment. And the drain represents the means by which the pollutant exits the environment. The key fact to remember: the damage to public health is determined by the total amount of pollutant in the tub.
Take a familiar air pollutant like particulate matter. We are spewing it into the air from tailpipes and smokestacks (the faucet). It leaves the air through simple gravity (the drain). Most of it falls to earth in days or weeks.
So when it comes to the particulate-matter bathtub, the drain is very large. We can reduce the total level of particulate matter in the tub any time we want; all we have to do is turn the faucet down, or off, and the tub will drain rapidly.
Carbon dioxide is not like that. Once it’s in the tub, it stays there for up to 100 years before it drains out. And the drain in the bathtub (so-called “sinks” that absorb carbon out of the air, like oceans and forests) is comparatively small relative to the enormous amounts coming out of the faucet. And by the way, we’re actively making the drain smaller by cutting down forests and carbon-loading the oceans.
This makes for a very different situation. Even if we cut our emissions by a third tomorrow, we would still be increasing the total amount in the bathtub:
The typical climate-policy targets that get thrown around — reducing emission rates by 80 percent by 2050, for example — are relatively meaningless. They focus on the rate of flow from the faucet. But that’s not what matters. What matters is the amount in the tub. If the tub fills up enough, global average temperature will rise more than 2 degrees Celsius and we’ll be in trouble. Avoiding that — staying within our “carbon budget” — is the name of the game.
The public-policy implications are straightforward: Because CO2 is slow to drain, and the damages are cumulative, we need to reduce the amount of CO2 we’re spewing out of the faucet now, as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Yes, we’ll need new technologies and techniques to drive emissions down near to zero, and we should R&D the hell out of them. But we absolutely cannot afford to wait. There is no benign neglect possible here. Neglect is malign.
The second difference is that climate change is irreversible.
As Joe Romm notes in a recent post, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera slipped up in his latest column and referred to technology that would “help reverse climate change.” I don’t know whether that reflects Nocera’s ignorance or just a slip of the pen, but I do think it captures the way many people subconsciously think about climate change. If we heat the planet up too much, we’ll just fix it! We’ll turn the temperature back down. We’ll get around to it once the market has delivered economically ideal solutions.
This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. [my emphasis]
This is not the time cycle of particulate pollution — days or weeks — it is the time cycle of the Earth’s basic biophysical systems, which move much more slowly. A thousand years is not “forever,” but in terms of human agency it might as well be.
The damage we’re doing now is something the next 40 to 50 generations will have to cope with, even if we stop emitting CO2 tomorrow. And the CO2 we’ve already released has locked in another 50 or 100 years of damage (because of the slow draining). There is no “reversing” climate change. There is only reducing the amount we change the climate.
Both these facts about climate change set it apart from other environmental problems. They also, for what it’s worth, set it apart from social problems like poverty, crime, or poor healthcare. All of those problems are serious; they all have an impact on public health. But they can all be measurably affected by public policy within our lifetimes. They are bad but they are not cumulative. They are not becoming less solvable over time.
This week, food-labor advocate Saru Jayaraman is releasing her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, which relates heartbreaking stories of just some of the 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S. In a chapter called “Serving While Sick,” she tells the disturbing tale of a fast-food worker who had no choice but to come to work with a bad cold since she couldn’t afford to go unpaid. When this worker tried to explain to her manager how perhaps handling food while coughing and sneezing was not such a good idea, she was laughed at. She later wondered how many customers she got sick that day because she couldn’t leave the counter every time she needed to wipe her nose.
As Jayaraman explains, this story is all too typical. Because most restaurant workers do not receive paid sick days, they are coming to work when they should stay home. Remember all the times that, as a full-time salaried worker, you stayed home with a cold, or to take care of a sick child, or just needed a “mental health day”? It’s a perk many of us take for granted, but for workers who handle our food, in jobs where spreading germs is the most risky, calling in sick is not even an option.
That’s in large part thanks to the massive lobbying machine the National Restaurant Association (aka the other NRA). In 2012 alone, the group (designated as a “heavy hitter” by the Center for Responsive Politics, among the 140 biggest donors since 1990) spent more than $2.7 million lobbying at the federal level, and donated more than a million dollars to federal candidates. (State restaurant associations are also very powerful.) The NRA also benefits nicely from the revolving door syndrome: Last year, 31 out of 40 NRA lobbyists previously held government jobs. Among the top issues on NRA’s agenda? Tips and sick leave.
This missive, posted by the NRA last month and entitled “Wage, sick leave, environmental issues top state agendas,” explains the group’s anti-worker focus at the local level. The NRA whines about how Philadelphia’s city council is sure to reintroduce legislation on paid sick leave that would be so onerous that:
All employees would accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked and could earn up to 56 hours in a calendar year. Furthermore, the paid sick leave could be used for anything from being physically sick to caring for a sick family member or friend, or a doctor’s appointment.
The horror. How many NRA and restaurant-industry executives enjoy these very privileges, or better? Locally, worker-rights groups are gaining some traction, with numerous states and cities enacting paid sick leave bills. However, the NRA is also striking back wherever it can. According to this PR Watch story from 2011, the NRA teamed up with the notorious right-wing lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to pass a statewide law in Wisconsin to override a local referendum requiring paid sick days that had passed in Milwaukee in 2008 with more than 70 percent of the popular vote — democracy be damned. Also helping ALEC lead the charge on this issue was Yum! Brands, which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. As PR Watch noted: “The effect of the repeal will be more sick workers at work, making others ill, in order to save or increase profits by corporations.”
This is exactly what the research shows. Results from this 2011 study of food workers (conducted in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) were not pretty: Almost 12 percent (of 500 surveyed) worked while suffering vomiting or diarrhea on two or more shifts. (Previous studies showed only 5 percent of workers.) Factors associated with working while vomiting or diarrhea included high volume of meals served and lack of policies requiring workers to report illness to managers. For those of us thinking we are immune if we don’t eat at fast food outlets or chains, it hardly matters, as independent restaurants are also at risk. The researchers conclude that paid sick days could help. Obviously.
Yet in response to this study, the NRA told CNN: “There is no greater priority for the restaurant industry than food safety.” Really? Then stop lobbying against paid sick leave and start protecting your customers, even if you don’t care about the workers.
A survey conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (co-founded by Jayaraman) found that an incredible 63 percent of restaurant workers reported cooking and serving food while sick. Perhaps less surprisingly, 87.7 percent of restaurant workers reported not having paid sick days.
In her recent article for CNN, Jayaraman explained how the current flu season puts more workers and customers alike at risk. She also stressed that those of us fighting for better food safety laws should be paying just as much attention to worker rights:
If we don’t pay food industry workers decent wages and ensure they receive paid sick days, then no matter how much the FDA regulates the boiling temperature for processing cheese, restaurant workers will keep sneezing on our dinner and food-borne contamination and illness will continue to be a problem.
More than half of all reported U.S. food-borne disease outbreaks occur in restaurant settings. While outbreaks have various origins, according to the CDC, about 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by the highly infectious norovirus, the leading cause of illness from contaminated food. No wonder the CDC recommends against preparing food when sick:
If you work with food when you have norovirus illness, you can spread the virus to others. You can easily contaminate food and drinks that you touch. People who consume the food or drinks can get norovirus and become sick. This can cause an outbreak.
That’s why we need better laws to help workers afford to do the right thing to protect restaurant patrons. Not to mention that food outbreaks are costly to society at large. As Jayaraman puts it: “If we pay restaurant workers a living wage and ensure they can stay home when they’re sick, that means fewer taxpayer dollars on public health emergencies and fewer stomachaches for diners as well.”
Last week, I scolded greenies for indulging in the “cult of the presidency,” being unduly fixated on President Obama’s role in public life. Congress, the courts, state governments, cities, and citizen movements all deserve attention too. We need a reasonable sense of the limitations of the presidency.
On Sunday, The New Republic (newly redesigned!) published an interview with Obama that seems designed to feed me a little crow.
To see why, consider the issues of gun safety and climate change. A half-dozen months ago, both were considered political losers for Democrats. There was broad support for reform, but opposition was far more intense, outspoken, and well-funded.
Then came the Sandys: Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook Elementary. Both were traumatic, galvanizing events with the potential to shift politics (though of course it’s impossible to say in advance how much or how fast).
The Sandys did not have equal effects on the president, however. Obama was, by all accounts, crushed by the shootings:
… his aides described the massacre as having knocked his tightly held interior life into full view like no other event. “I had never seen him like that as long as I’ve known him,” his speechwriter Jon Favreau later toldThe New York Times, recalling the day of the killings, when Obama sat gob-smacked behind his desk.
If there are similar accounts of Obama being powerfully affected by Hurricane Sandy, I haven’t seen them.
Perhaps as a result of his searing and deeply personal experience of the shootings, Obama is taking a new tack on gun safety. He is not working behind the scenes to woo Republican lawmakers in the House. He knows he’ll never get enough of them (too many are gerrymandered into safe, hyper-conservative districts). In fact, it seems he has finally grasped the reality of asymmetrical polarization and become willing to discuss it openly. He says:
There’s no equivalence there [between parties]. In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree” — as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?
And I want to be very clear here that Democrats, we’ve got a lot of warts, and some of the bad habits here in Washington when it comes to lobbyists and money and access really goes to the political system generally. It’s not unique to one party. But when it comes to certain positions on issues, when it comes to trying to do what’s best for the country, when it comes to really trying to make decisions based on fact as opposed to ideology, when it comes to being willing to compromise, the Democrats, not just here in this White House, but I would say in Congress also, have shown themselves consistently to be willing to do tough things even when it’s not convenient, because it’s the right thing to do. And we haven’t seen that same kind of attitude on the other side.
Right. Opposition from the GOP is nihilistic and total. So gun control can’t get done via the “inside game.” How, then, will the president approach it? Here’s now TNR’s editors describe it:
On the day we visited the White House … the president had just finished presenting his robust slate of gun control proposals — so robust, in fact, that the next morning’s newspaper would declare it almost certainly doomed to failure in Congress. But that was the point. On gun control, the president never expected John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to join him on a surveying expedition in search of the mythic land of Common Ground. Compromise was a conversation for the distant future, one he would entertain only after making a muscular argument and creating the political space for his ideas. [my emphasis]
In other words, Obama is fully aware that the political landscape is unfavorable on guns. So he has set out to change that landscape. He intends to do it not by compromising in advance but by leading, putting forward an ambitious slate of policies and arguing passionately for them. “Creating political space.”
This is part and parcel of his broader second-term strategy. On the major issues of the day, he says, “the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act?” He focused too much on the inside game in the first term, he says:
I always read a lot of Lincoln, and I’m reminded of his adage that, with public opinion, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish; without it, you’re not going to get very far. And spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington is an example of the kinds of change in orientation that I think we’ve undergone, not just me personally, but the entire White House.
Interesting! Climate hawks are no doubt thinking at this point, “Gee, I can think of another issue where a real leader could create political space and help mobilize political will by having a conversation with the American people.”
Are Obama’s second-term climate plans in a similar spirit? Not exactly. Politico compares them to a “covert action.” It says the administration will “dribble out executive actions and federal rules over the next four years — the same low-key, bureaucratic approach the administration has taken since 2009.”
In other words: the inside game. A “conversation” it ain’t.
Now. Am I a hypocrite because I’m sweating what Obama says? Perhaps, but only a little. I still maintain the obvious, which is that executive branch power is limited, especially, as Lincoln might remind us, in the absence of public opinion. And I still maintain that the president’s ability to shift the politics of the country via the “bully pulpit” is far more constrained than most journalists, pundits, and activists seem to think.
But Obama’s initiative on gun safety shows that he is willing to take on doomed causes when he feels strongly enough about them. He feels strongly about gun safety. He does not seem to share the same passion on climate. This is all he says about it in the interview:
The truth is that most of the big issues that are going to make a difference in the life of this country for the next thirty or forty years are complicated and require tough decisions, but are not rocket science. … On climate change, it’s a daunting task. But we know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back, although we’d still need some big technological breakthrough.
It’s daunting, it mainly affects people in the future, and we need technological breakthroughs. That doesn’t sound like urgency to me.
So, to summarize: Yes, Obama’s power on climate change is limited and it doesn’t make sense to devote 95 percent of greens’ attention and energy to browbeating him to do more. It is nonetheless true, however, that he’s not doing all he could be doing, nor caring as much as he ought to care, nor talking about it as much as he ought to be talking about it.
By 2080, Russia might witness a vast mammalian invasion, as sub-arctic European animals flee global warming and adapt to a thawing tundra. New textbooks may need to accommodate never-before-seen communities of species as climate change pits predator against predator beyond the Russian steppe. That’s what a group of Swedish researchers predict in a new climate change study published in the journal, PloS One.
“North Western Russia will be some kind of hotspot of species richness,” said Christer Nilsson, an ecology professor, via Skype from Umeå University in Sweden. “Species will be on the move and there will be new combinations of species.”
Red and fallow deer, wild boar, the Eurasian badger, rabbits, mice, and beavers will all be on the move as new tracts of habitable land open up.
In a surprising twist, Nilsson and his team found that most species in the Barents Region, which includes the northern half of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a big chunk of Northwestern Russia, will actually be favored by climate change. Forty-three out of the 61 animals studied will expand and shift their “ranges” — or habitats — mostly in a northeasterly direction, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles.
But no one can predict how all the animals will interact in their new, climate-changed world, and far from helping animals, climate change might force new, and deadly, interactions: “Predators might be in contact with new prey,” Nilsson said.
There might be tough times ahead for the poor little tundra vole, for example, which will need to elude more foxes, badgers, pine martens, stoats, weasels, polecats, and mink. That’s because right now, only 1 percent of the area Nilsson studied is suitable for three or more predators; by 2080, that could increase to nearly 40 percent. That means turf warfare for the mountain hare and the European hare, as both vie for similar habitats.
Two major caveats exist in the report. The findings assume that humans won’t — as we are so often wont to do — get in the way of the mass movement by fragmenting animals’ habitats. And the findings only apply to the “generalists” that can adapt to changing conditions. Those that require very specific habits — the “specialists,” such as the wolverine and the Siberian flying squirrel, are going to have a much tougher time in a warmed world.
Even so, the report found something encouraging: No extinctions predicted in the area surveyed. “We couldn’t find any evidence that any species will disappear, given the climate change predictions we’ve used,” Nilsson said. Nevertheless, vulnerability of those already threatened may increase due to the introduction of new competing or predatory species.
Naturally, a climate report that shows even a glimmer of hope can be latched onto and overblown. Fox News uses Nilsson’s study to declare the “poster animal” of the climate movement, the polar bear, totally OK: “Global Warming Helps Polar Bears.”
Polar bears are north of the area the researchers studied, and are not mentioned at all in the report.
Kevin Drum has a fantastic piece in Mother Jones about the connection between lead and crime, as Philip noted earlier. It turns out that the rise and subsequent plunge in violent crime over the last half-century tracks almost exactly with the rise and decline of lead in the environment, mainly due to leaded gasoline. Through various studies, the correlation has been found at the international, national, state, city, and even neighborhood level. And there is copious neurological research showing that “even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ,” which makes a pretty strong (if defeasible) case for causation.
It’s a fascinating story for all sorts of reasons — and Drum’s been adding more tidbits on his blog — but as I was reading, the thing that kept striking me is how perfectly the lead fight encapsulates all the promise and perils of pollution fights generally.
We start using something before we understand whether it’s safe. We begin to discover it’s not safe. Industry obscures the science and viciously battles off regulation for as long as possible, forecasting economic doom. Lots of people get sick and die while they do so. Finally some regulations are put in place. The costs of complying turn out to be lower than anyone predicted. The benefits turn out to be much greater than anyone predicted. The pollutant turns out to be more harmful than originally thought. Despite all of the above, industry continues battling efforts to further reduce the pollutant, while claiming credit for the benefits of reducing it as much as they were forced to.
Over and over and over, this story plays out. Yet with each new pollution fight, it’s as though we’ve never had all the previous ones. (See: chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, smog, phthalates, etc.)
But there are other aspects of the lead story that resonate as well. For instance, one of the great mysteries in Drum’s piece is why, with the accumulation of so much evidence, criminologists and policymakers have not taken the lead explanation/problem more seriously.
I suspect two things are at work. One, we think of pollution as an “environmental problem,” which we have compartmentalized, both institutionally and mentally. Those are the problems where greens fight industries over public health. The notion that environmental pollutants have material (and large!) effects on crime, family life, population density and migration, economic inequality, productivity, and employment just doesn’t get much attention. We have trouble thinking holistically.
The second reason Drum identifies as “interest groups”:
Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the ’60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.
Environmentalism has always had an interest-group problem. There are always powerful interest groups that benefit from polluting. By contrast, the only interest group that fights for the kind of broad, diffuse increase in social welfare produced by pollution reduction is … environmentalism.
Which isn’t nothing! Organized environmentalism has won a string of victories over various air and water pollutants over the last half-century — victories that are the envy of other countries. But many, many times, it has been stymied for want of powerful, monied interests on its side. The public’s side.
And environmentalism has reached its limits with climate change. There are just too many interest groups that stand to lose if emissions are sharply reduced, while the increases in social welfare are (or seem) distant in time and space. That’s what all the “green jobs” and “military green” and “corporate green” pushes have been about: convincing interest groups that they stand to gain. Unfortunately, interest groups that don’t quite exist yet aren’t as powerful as those that have been around for a century. Like Machiavelli said, “there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.”
Another thing in the lead story that resonates: The huge decline in crime was not something anyone predicted when they were fighting against leaded gasoline. What had been shown was that lead screws up young brains, and so they predicted fewer screwed-up brains. But when people have healthier brains, they’re also more productive, and the economy benefits. They also commit less crime, so society benefits. They are also more caring and supportive of their own children, so future generations benefit. Etc. Etc. These are second- and third-order effects, “system of system” effects, which are incredibly difficult to predict beforehand. Doing so requires all sorts of heroic assumptions and educated guesses. Most such effects never show up in official cost-benefit analysis.
That kind of epistemological conservatism is necessary; you can’t make policy based on people’s competing hunches about second-order effects. And yet! Benefits to public health do have these positive knock-on effects. Perhaps we can’t predict them in advance, or fully quantify them, but we can learn from history. We know that public health benefits ripple outward. That knowledge should count when policy is made.
And finally, note that the job on lead is not done. Lots and lots of it remains in our environment, mainly in soil and buildings and homes with lead paint. We could benefit immensely by further reducing it. Drum:
Put this all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of.
And yet, we’re not doing it, not in any serious way. Not only are we not applying the lessons of lead to other pollution fights, we’re not even applying the lessons of lead to the lead fight. Why don’t we learn?
Anyway, enough rambling. Read Drum’s story. It is as clear a distillation as you’ll ever find of glories and dysfunctions of environmental cleanup.
Most people, if they think of the recently departed and extremely conservative Judge Robert Bork at all, think of his failed nomination by President Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court (and maybe his natty facial hair). But Robert Bork deserves credit for more than just inspiring the term “Borked.” He actually deserves credit (or, more accurately, blame) for the domination of our food system by a handful of mammoth corporations. I’m talking about you, Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson, and Walmart.
As we noted last month, farmers feel the brunt of his legacy:
According to a 2007 study [PDF] from the University of Missouri, the four largest companies controlled 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing. In fact, so much consolidation has taken place throughout the food chain that it can be difficult for any one person to fathom the true effects.
But consumers experience it, too. Walmart now earns one out of every four dollars Americans spend on groceries and controls 50 percent of the grocery sales in some cities.
What exactly does Robert Bork have to do with any of this? According to an interview in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog with legal scholar Barak Orbach of the University of Arizona, Bork is considered the father of modern antitrust law, whose “influence cannot be overstated.” Orbach observes that it was Bork’s legal work in the 1960s that transformed the way the government looked at monopolies and mergers, and led directly to the rise of the mega-corporations that dominate industry after industry.
His main “innovation” was the inclusion of the concept of “consumer welfare” in any evaluation of a potential antitrust violation. In short, he believed that if the consumer benefited from the monopoly, through, say, low prices, then there probably was no antitrust violation. What made this radical was that before Bork, big businesses were considered an inherent threat to small business — the legal term was “inhospitality” — and antitrust regulators wouldn’t consider any potential benefit of consolidation.
As Orbach explains to Wonkblog, Bork saw this assumption that all big business was bad as a one-way ticket to socialism. It was the middle of the Cold War, after all:
He said the Russians were about to take over, through antitrust! In 1963 he wrote an article in Fortune called, “The Crisis in Antitrust,” and he, in that article, he’s describing the socialists who threatened free market forces. It wasn’t too far-fetched if you think about it. If you think antitrust is used to suppress competition, then this is a suppression of the American spirit, of entrepreneurship, of free markets. Who does these things? Socialists.
What Bork did was incorporate the “new” economic theory developed at the University of Chicago (aka “the Chicago School”) — which said the free market was the best means to allocate resources in society, rather than government regulators or Congress — into antitrust law. And if the goal of any analysis of a proposed corporate merger or acquisition was “consumer welfare” instead of protecting small businesses, well, it was a small jump to allowing pretty much every merger and acquisition that came down the pike, since they often led to lower prices and increased “efficiency” in the industries at hand.
He was also influential in convincing judges and the government that “vertical” integration, i.e. the way a company attempts to control its entire production chain, was not inherently anti-competitive. Before Bork, deals and mergers that accomplished this kind of thing were rejected outright by judges. Now, such agreements dominate the landscape — a good example being the harsh and heavily restrictive contracts that poultry processors like Tyson and Purdue are able to foist on chicken farmers.
It was Bork’s legacy that led Obama’s antitrust team to realize there was little they could do to attack current monopolists like Monsanto or beef packers without new laws. (I discussed the pullback of Obama’s antitrust enforcement in the food industry last month.)
Nothing is simple, of course. And Orbach observes that Bork’s work did lead to big benefits to consumers — he mentions telecom, finance, and e-commerce as industries that would be much less consumer-friendly today if not for him. But he doesn’t mention the fact Bork also transformed the American table.
Bork’s work also gave us cheap meat and dairy as well as massive quantities of processed food sold at at heavily discounting supermarkets. Some of this was likely inevitable. But Bork was the one to link economics to antitrust and make consumer welfare the primary goal. Maybe some other jurists would have provided a similar legal framework eventually. But without his extremely conservative approach, the antitrust pendulum might not have swung quite so far. At this point, it will take major legislation by Congress to move it back.
Liberals in the 80s believed that America had successfully dodged judicial and legal disaster when Senate Democrats kept Bork off the Supreme Court. But it turns out the damage had already been done.