Despite the fact that President Obama didn’t even bother to mention climate change in his State of the Union address last night, here in New Mexico the issue is receiving a lot of attention.
Of course, that’s in large part because the state’s new governor, Susana Martinez, has nominated a climate change denier, Harrison Schmitt, to head the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
But that’s not all that’s been happening.
In Martinez’s first days in office, she also terminated members of the Environmental Improvement Board, which had just approved a second new rule setting limits on carbon emissions. She then tried to prevent implementation of that rule, which was passed in December.
But this morning, the New Mexico State Supreme Court ruled that the governor violated the state Constitution when she prevented that rule from being codified.
According to a press release from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represented the nonprofit New Energy Economy in its suit against the governor:
Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels stated, when announcing the court’s decision, the Court did not think it necessary to issue a writ against the Governor or the Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department. “The issue is whether the suspension of the printing of the rules was proper. We will issue a writ against the State Records Administrator. She has a non-discretionary administrative duty to follow the law.”
Just in case you’re interested, by the way, you can view information about contributions to the governor’s campaign here on the website of the National Institute on Money and Politics. Top contributors include these oil and gas companies, mining and utilities companies:
McElvain Oil and Gas
Barrick Gold Strike Mines
NM Rural Electric Cooperative Association
Altogether, oil and gas companies made up the second largest contribution to Martinez’s campaign. All told, she received $807,125 from the oil and gas industry.
It’s no surprise, then, that Martinez would so rapidly oppose emission reductions. The oil and gas industry, after all, has consistently opposed passage of any rules related to the reduction of carbon emissions.
Back in 2009, the New Mexico Environment Department had proposed a rule to the Environmental Improvement Board that would revise greenhouse gas reporting rules.
The proceedings never occurred because the department withdrew its proposal, but someone recently emailed me a copy of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico’s intent to present technical testimony.
Guess who was expected to give two hour’s worth of “expert testimony” opposing the regulations?
Dr. Harrison Schmitt (whose name, incidentally, is misspelled at times within the document as “Schmidt”).
And so here we are, caught within the cycle of trying to deny the reality of human-caused climate change while propping up industry. (And consumers: No, you’re not off the hook. It’s our demand for fossil fuels that drives production.)
I was particularly dismayed to see the comments following a commentary in Monday’s Santa Fe New Mexican, titled “Climate change deniers ignore science.” It’s all too apparent that climate change deniers (heretofore referred to as “industry hacks and paid public relations flaks”) continue to try and deceive an American public woefully under-informed about the impacts of climate change that are already occurring in other countries.
And if you think it’s only places such as the Solomon Islands or Africa dealing with rising sea levels and drought, think again. Not only will the Southwest suffer in the coming years from higher temperatures, decreased snowpack and drier soils, but many coastal states and cities in the US are already trying to anticipate how rising seas will affect them. Consider this recent report from the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force to the state legislature, which notes:
Our climate is changing, causing the world’s seas to rise. Since 1970, the Northeast has witnessed increases in average temperatures of more than 1.5°F. These changes have resulted in warmer winters and hotter summers and other changes in the form of fewer, but heavier, snows and heavier, more intense rainfall and storms. The warming produced by global climate change causes the sea level to rise because warmer water takes up more space, and higher temperatures are melting ice sheets around the globe. New York Harbor has experienced an increase in sea level of more than 15 inches in the past 150 years, with harbor tide gauges showing a rise of between 4 and 6 inches since 1960.
It’s easy to pretend that there is still a debate about the science of human-caused climate change. But let’s face it: There isn’t. States such as New Mexico can either prepare for the future, or be stuck in the past.
I wrote the following commentary for Blue Ridge Press, a national syndication service. (NJToday was one of the places it ran.)
With Feds Failing, Climate Change Action Goes Local
In December, the nations of the world agreed once again to do nothing about climate change.
And just as the science of climate change is more clear than ever, so too, are the politics: Whether led by President George W. Bush or Barack Obama, the United States is thwarting meaningful action on climate change. As people around the world lose faith in the U.S. government, it’s long past time for individual Americans to think rationally—about both science and economics. It’s time to act with compassion toward those whose lives are already being affected by climate change.
Following the closing of the United Nations climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, I shared an airport shuttle with a woman from South Africa. Delegates from every country except Bolivia had just agreed again to delay action on everything from carbon emissions reductions to funding adaptation projects in developing countries, where the impacts of climate change are most severe. She’s disappointed: “They agreed last night that they were pleased to be going home,” she said.
Adapting to climate change isn’t about saving the environment, she says. It’s about economics and survival. But the American people tell their leaders not to act, she says. In a democracy, after all, elected leaders carry out the wishes of citizens.
That wasn’t the first conversation I had in Cancún with someone baffled by U.S. behavior. Time and again, whether riding the bus, standing in security lines, or eating dinner, I met people from across the world who asked me what is happening in America.
They do not understand why the U.S. government has for 20 years challenged a binding international agreement to cut carbon emissions, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and help developing nations deal with drought, rising seas, or floods that destroy infrastructure. People from Senegal, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Panama, Columbia, India and across the European Union asked me why the American people don’t care about climate change.
Despite the actions of my government, I try to explain that many Americans do care about climate change.
States like California are trying to lower greenhouse gas emissions and create incentives that help both businesses and regulators by reducing emissions and boosting the clean energy economy. A new rule in New Mexico ensures that soon the state’s polluters will have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by three percent a year from 2010 levels. And the state approved a separate proposal paving the way for participating in a cap-and-trade plan under which 11 states and Canadian provinces have agreed to establish a regional, market-based emission reduction program.
In November, eight municipalities—Boston, Cambridge, Grand Rapids, Florida’s Lee County, Flagstaff, Miami-Dade, San Francisco and Tucson—received funding from a nonprofit organization to participate in a program to help local governments prepare for climate-change impacts that are already occurring. Connecticut, Maine, Colorado, and Florida already have statewide action plans to deal with climate change; others are studying its impacts and economic consequences.
In the United States, the significant action on climate change—whether state laws mandating the use of renewable energy or municipal improvements to public transportation systems and bike routes—is happening at a local level. But it’s not nearly enough. Citizens need to urge the federal government to act. And we each have work to do within our own lives.
Speaking during the UN’s opening ceremony, the chair of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, said that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal. But he also pointed out that lifestyle changes can contribute to climate change mitigation.
In other words, individual choices matter. Each of us can cut our consumption of electricity and fossil fuels. Consumer choices matter, as do investments in companies that act responsibility and reduce their carbon footprints.
Most of the people I met in Cancún have already accepted that the U.S. government will never lead on climate change. But they still wonder why the American people fall for the histrionics of industry-funded climate change deniers when the science of climate change is clear. They are waiting for Americans to pay attention to the rising seas, the Amazon’s burning forests and the glaciers melting from mountains across the globe. They are waiting for citizens to demand that the United States become a responsible member of the international community.
But they’re not going to wait for long. That became painfully clear to me as I headed toward the airport with my fellow South African passenger.
“Everyone used to want to be like America,” she said. “I think that is not the case anymore.”
Laura Paskus reported from COP 16 in Cancún as an Earth Journalism Network 2010 Climate Media Fellow. EJN is a project of Internews, an international media development organization. This is the project’s first year bringing U.S. journalists to the UN climate talks.Comment on this column at www.blueridgepress.com.
Unfortunately between my deadline and press time, New Mexico’s new governor nominated a climate change skeptic, Jack Schmitt, to the head of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
To understand why that’s an alarming prospect for the state, read an open letter to Schmitt on the brand-new blog, Puckerclust. That blog, run by Mark Boslough, is dedicated to “shining a spotlight on climate denialism.” Boslough’s letter is excellent, and everyone should go read it.
Gov. Martinez has also terminated all but one member of the state’s Environmental Improvement Board–which passed the greenhouse gas emissions reductions rules I mentioned within the commentary.
Then on Saturday, I learned of Martinez’s nomination to lead the state’s Environment Department–that is, the department in charge of protecting the state’s water and air quality and of regulating and inspecting pollutors.
According to Democracy New Mexico, nominee F. David Martin is an adjunct associate professor in the Petroleum Engineering Department at New Mexico Tech. He is also the former director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center.
Yesterday, I was emailing with a friend of mine about the radical shift here in New Mexico, and she wrote: “Wow! Is NM trying to get in a race with TX to the bottom? We have a chicken poultry scientist–how to grow a chicken in a box kind of science–as head of our enviro. I think you guys topped us.”
Many people to the right of center argue that environmental regulation thwarts economic growth. But in Texas–where drilling is rampant, environmental protections lax and the state has even opposed the US Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases–the state is running a $25 billion deficit over the next two years.
At any rate, I didn’t mean to write this long a post, but the last line of my commentary seems especially relevant to me this weekend. I have a heavy, heavy heart with the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ and others in Tucson, and the murder of nine-year old Christina Taylor Greene.
It’s easy to feel angry or fearful when something like that happens. And I’m glad I already had a new mantra in place for 2011: “I choose love, I choose truth, I choose love.”
I’m not being naive or idealistic. Nor does acting out of love mean backing down from a challenge. As I explained to my daughter recently: Stand up for what’s right, but do so because you love the person or place or thing you are protecting, not because you hate the “bad guy” or the system or the force that is causing harm.
Let’s face it, this has been a difficult beginning to the year. But I woke up this morning believing that love–for our homelands and landscapes and for one another–offers the only true way forward. That’s true whether we’re talking about Americans finally understanding how climate change is already impacting people across the globe, ensuring environmental protections here in New Mexico–or coming together as a nation in a time of crisis.
Last month, in a story about climate change for the Santa Fe Reporter, I posed the question: Will politics trump science when it comes to New Mexico, too?
Yesterday, it became clear that answer is “yes.”
To back up a bit, I wrote that SFR story while in Cancun for the United Nations climate talks, where the United States government had thwarted action on climate change–for just about the 20th year in a row. (No, sadly, I’m not exaggerating.)
But back home in New Mexico, the state’s Environmental Improvement Board had just passed a second proposal related to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
The two proposals were by no means perfect–and the state still had a long way to go in terms of realistically cutting emissions. But it was a step forward. A step forward urged by people who care about the state, and passed by people who understood that the climate is already changing and those changes are going to impact the future of the state. Members of the EIB made a decision based not only on the environmental impacts of climate change, but on the economic impacts of not doing anything about the problem.
But on Tuesday, the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Steve Terrell wrote that New Mexico’s new governor, Susana Martinez, terminated all the appointed members of the EIB–because they had voted to approve the state’s participation in a regional cap-and-trade program.
According to Terrell, Martinez sent a letter to members that read:
Thank you for your service to the State of New Mexico by serving on the Environmental Improvement Board. This letter is to inform you that I am removing you as a member of the Environmental Improvement Board. Your removal is effective immediately.
(The press release he mentions is not yet on the governor’s website, but perhaps it will be soon.)
Now, just in case you’re one of those folks who think the EIB members (and anyone who cares about dealing with climate change) are just a bunch of enviro-crazies running around kissing rabbits and hugging trees–and hell-bent on destroying the state’s economy–check out this report from Sandia National Laboratories (one of the state’s two nuclear labs and a place not necessarily known for its radical or liberal tendencies): “Executive Summary for Assessing the Near-Term Risks of Climate Uncertainty: Interdependencies among the US States.”
In that report, released in May, Sandia estimated the economic impacts of climate change on a national and state-by-state level—and found that policy makers are taking economic risks by not addressing climate change.
We determine the industry-level contribution to the gross domestic product and employment impacts at the state level, as well as interstate population migration, effects on personal income, and consequences for the U.S. trade balance. We show that the mean or average risk of damage to the U.S. economy from climate change, at the national level, is on the order of $1 trillion over the next 40 years, with losses in employment equivalent to nearly 7 million full-time jobs.
You can find the New Mexico stats on page 20. Go read ’em for yourself. And then decide if the new governor’s move was a smart one.
(And just FYI, here’s a link to a story from 2008, laying out some of the impacts we’re already experiencing in New Mexico.)
I’ll continue to blog on a more personal level on this site, but you can also read my newsier reports from COP 16 over at the NMI site:
On my bus ride to the COP 16 press conferences this morning, I sat next to a delegate from Senegal. We exchanged the usual pleasantries—Who are you with? Where are you from? How are things going for you in Cancun?—and then got down to the business of talking about COP 16.
“Will President Obama come, do you think?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think he’s planning on that.”
My answer was based on a conversation with an American who works for an NGO in the US a few days earlier. “What’s he going to do?” he asked me, laughing when I said I thought that at the very least it would be a nice gesture to the Mexican presidency . “What’s he going to do? Say ‘Hey guys! What’s in this door?”
(He was referring, by the way, to last year’s meetings at Copenhagen, when Obama walked into a private meeting of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.)
At any rate, the gentleman from Senegal and I spent the rest of the bus ride talking about what’s happening on the ground in Senegal (rising temperatures, increasingly long episodes of drought) and what Senegal was hoping for from COP 16 (perhaps some progress on adaptation.)
Despite the fact that everyone who knows anything about the climate change negotiations knows that the United States has been holding up progress for almost 20 years now, many people don’t acknowledge that fact in polite company.
As an aside, the US certainly doesn’t acknowledge reality during its press conferences. Last Friday, I listened to Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, say things like:
The key here in Cancun—the watchword—is balance, genuine balance….Balance, in my judgment is the key to unlock the door to a strong set of decisions here in Cancun followed by a ramped-up Fast Track [Climate Finance] process in 2011 that will lead to elaboration and a fully operational set of decisions that could be done next year in South Africa….I think we can get there as long as countries do not seek to become stumbling blocks, to slow down progress.
In the final moments of the bus ride—its’ a long one—I brought up my home country’s actions. He nodded. “Yes, yes.” We spoke a bit more about the United States and the excuses we have used to avoid taking action on climate change. One of the things people in other countries keep hearing—and believing—is that US inaction is a matter of politics. Now, it’s true that Republicans by and large are awful on the issue of climate change.
But let’s face it: The Democrats didn’t support climate change legislation either. Not to the extent to make it a reality. And really? Action on something like climate change—when the science is clear, the impacts are likely to be severe and the the actions beneficial also in terms of public health and the environment—shouldn’t have anything at all to do with politics. Am I wrong to think that?
Back home, we argue about politics (Although I won’t argue anymore. Talk to the hand unless you’re talking about campaign finance reform.) Many also think of climate change as an abstraction or something that’s open to debate or worth thinking about perhaps in the future. But for many of the people I’ve met in recent months—from the Solomon Islands, Maldives, Africa, Nepal, and even places such as Columbia and China—climate change is real. It’s happening. And the United States is actively ensuring that nothing happens to confront that reality.
As we were getting off the bus, I wanted to say something to this gentleman.
But quite honestly, I don’t know what I might have said, save for goodbye and good luck.
I have a story in yesterday’s American Independent; it’s sort of a primer on the climate talks:
I’ll be posting more news stories and blog posts, but if you really want to keep up with COP 16, you should visit the Earth Journalism Network website.
There, my fellow fellows will be posting links to their news stories, photographs and radio pieces. (Scroll down to the column on the left, titled “Stories produced by Earth Journalism members.”)
And if you’re a reporter, be sure and check out the tools and resources section of the site.
I spent all day Friday in press conferences; and despite all the grim and frustrating news, was pretty excited to actually make it back to my hotel before dark. I harbored the irrational fantasy that I just might take a short walk on the beach before the sun set.
I exited the shuttle bus from Moon Palace and was rushing through the Cancun Messe to reach the other shuttle bus back to the hotels, when I walked straight into a small demonstration in front of Hall C. (The negotiations and press conferences are being held at the Moon Palace, but everyone has to go through security at the Cancun Messe building, which also hosts side events and exposition booths from various countries, NGOs and companies.)
I stood and listened for just a few minutes until a UN event coordinator stopped the peaceful demonstration, explaining that while he could have helped them find an appropriate venue, the middle of the Cancun Messe was not such a place.
I had just a moment to speak with Justice Dave Vinod Shankar who, along with a caravan of 20 citizens from India, is trying to raise awareness of the effects people still suffer today from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the plant and exposed hundreds of thousands of people living nearby. Estimates of people killed following the gas leak range from about 2,200 to more than 15,000.
Speaking of Warren Anderson—who was chairman of Union Carbide in Dec. 1984 and has refused to appear for trial in a criminal case filed in an Indian court—Vinod Shankar called for justice:
He has been declared an absconder. Declared an absconder by the courts. As a law abiding citizen he should surrender.
We don’t want him to be convicted without trial. But he must face the trial.
If his name is in the report, and the prosecutor calls him to be prima facie of the case—when eight Indians have been sentenced, and they are rotting in jail—why should he not even face the trial?
For background on the recent conviction of eight Indians, see this BBC report:
The tragedy continues in Bhopal, he noted. The second generation of Indians living near the scene of the accident have been born with deformities. And they deserve justice: “It’s not a question of sympathy or doing mercy on anybody,” he said. “It’s a question of sharing empathy with the person.”
As the crowd dispersed, I had only a moment to speak with a second man in the caravan. Just because the Bhopal leak happened a long time ago doesn’t mean there aren’t still damages, he said. “Justice delayed is also justice denied.”
Yesterday, I traveled with other Earth Journalism Network fellows to Xyatil, an ejido (community farm) about three hours from Cancun. I won’t have time to to add explanations to the pictures for a few days, but some of you have emailed, saying you wanted to see more pictures than the one I posted on Facebook last night.
While covering environmental issues in the American Southwest over the past eight years, I’ve come across the folks at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity more than a few times. So I was particularly interested to check out their side event at COP 16 on Tuesday. The event, which they co-sponsored with 350.org, also featured author and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben.
I’ll admit this: I’m a fan of McKibben’s. I appreciate his writing, but beyond that, I’ve always been struck by the fact that he seems like a good man—one who is generous with his talents and time.
And so it was sobering to listen to him talk tonight, and to see how tired he looks. Who isn’t tired while at the COPs? And of course, he’s been keeping up an intense travel schedule. But his exhaustion seemed deeper than that—and twice I noticed him holding and shaking his head, including once when the CBD’s climate science adviser Shaye Wolf was discussing the impacts of melting sea ice on the Pacific walrus.
McKibben, who turns 50 next week, opened his remarks with an apology for speaking too frankly. He noted that after years of attending these conferences, he’s become more impatient every time—and struck by the “air of unreality” that surrounds the negotiations.
This air of unreality is especially stark in Cancun given how brutal this past summer was for so many people, he said. Not only does Arctic sea ice continue to melt, but Russia experienced a tremendous heat wave—one that prompted the Kremlin to cease grain exports and cause a spike of prices on markets worldwide—and almost a quarter of Pakistan’s lands were submerged beneath flood waters. Those were just the obvious weather events; the dramatic ones that grabbed headlines.
Indeed, climate change is happening. And for some, its impacts are already unbearable.
“We’re already in a world of hurt, and we’re already doing things we can’t sustain or deal with,” he said. “And it shows the institutional—I’m looking for a more polite word— insanity of talking about a two degree rise in temperature on the planet as if it were some kind of goal for which we should strive.”
(For those who might have forgotten, in 2009, some world leaders accepted a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures as a goal.)
“If we’re already melting the Arctic, what should that tell us?” he asked, adding: “We can’t be sitting here having strategies on how to get more carbon in the atmosphere and call it good; we need to be figuring out strategies for figuring out how to get it out of the air.”
Because, let’s face it: The two degree goal is impossible. Countries such as the United States aren’t making any carbon emissions reductions. And worldwide, carbon emissions continue to rise. The planet isn’t stopping at two degrees, thanks to our activities. Just this week, in fact, the Royal Society published a report about what a four degree rise in temperatures will mean.
During their discussion, McKibben and his fellow speakers touched upon the unwillingness of the United States to act on a national or international level to address climate change. But they also talked about some of the ways in which progress can happen. There is movement within the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions. And as the Center for Biological Diversity has proven over the years, the Endangered Species Act is oftentimes an effective way to protect the habitat of imperiled species.
But let’s face it, folks: The United States lacks the political will to do much of anything on climate change. And for the most part, the public is disinterested in pushing politicians to tackle this global emergency.
There are a lot of people working hard to turn both those ships around—to influence political leaders and to educate the public—but for the most part, Americans just don’t seem to care about climate change. After all, its worst impacts so far are affecting people in distant places. Places such as the Seychelles.
During the question-and-answer period following the talk, a gentleman toward the back of the room stood and introduced himself.
“We will continue to be as noisy as we can until the water covers our heads,” said Seychelles Ambassador to the UN, Ronald Jumeau. “And even when the water is over our heads, when the bubbles pop, you will hear us yelling.”
But Jumeau had something else to say: Thank you. He was thanking the Americans in front of him for trying to get the United States to “see sense” on climate change.
Jumeau went on to explain that when countries agreed to two degrees as a target, they wrote off the small island states whose shores are already being inundated with rising waters. “Rather than doing that, we argue, look at what it takes to save the most vulnerable and then work up,” he said. “If you save us, you save everybody—that’s the bottom line.”