Energy & the Environment

Making Liberal Hearts Bleed in Anytown, U.S.A.

What is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land?

Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land , written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit. His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking...

Under Water Pressure

Nearly 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, the Navajo and Hopi are fighting the coal industry for rights to their land.

(Canadian Press via AP Images)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, center, accompanied by Senator Jeff Bingaman, right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, October 1, 2009, to discuss future activities relating to the Navajo-Gallup water supply project. F ive years after the Wampanoag tribe shared a three-day feast of maize, venison, eel, and shellfish with a hapless group of English separatists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Dutch governor of New York bought the island of Manhattan from the Canarsie tribe for $24 worth of gold. This week, thousands of New Yorkers will fly out of La Guardia for Thanksgiving, and those fortunate enough to do so in the evening will enjoy a spectacular view of the return on that investment; phosphorescent skyscrapers and over a hundred-thousand streetlights trace a real-estate market valued at just under $1 trillion. Nowhere else has the memory of conquest been so thoroughly blotted out, and perhaps as an extension, nowhere else...

Oil: The Bad News in the Good News

(Flickr/Mayhem Chaos)
(Flickr/Mayhem Chaos) An oil field near Bakerfield, California O n Monday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) came out with a stunner of a projection. The United States will replace Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil by 2020, thanks to the unlocking of massive shale oil reserves. With hydro-fracking technology, the U.S. is riding a boom in natural gas as well. Oil production will increase from its current level of about 6 million barrels a day per year to 11 million barrels by 2020. Within a few years, the U.S. will be a net exporter. Pardon me if I don’t rejoice. This good news all but guarantees that the United States government, Democrat or Republican, will turn away from efforts to replace carbon fuels with clean, renewable energy. It guarantees another generation of relatively cheap gasoline for motorists—and an increase in the U.S. contribution to global climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people are still suffering the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy...

Fix the Debt or Save the Coasts?

(Flickr/Chris Amelung)
One of the casualties of Hurricane Sandy is the premise that America’s biggest economic problem is deficit reduction. That’s because the United States just became a much larger version of the Netherlands. Once we get through the election, official Washington may be willing to talk about this. President Obama’s leadership in helping flooded communities cope with the damage nicely positions him to lead an effort to prevent future super-storm damage. As events like Sandy become more common, and the ocean levels rise even in the absence of hurricanes, the communities of the Eastern and Gulf seaboard will increasingly be at risk of regularly being underwater—unless we build a massive system of seawalls, dikes, levees, storm-surge barriers, and pumping facilities, as the Dutch have done for centuries. The immediate damage from Sandy will cost upwards of $50 billion. But looking forward, America’s seaboard cities will need to spend serious money not just on seawalls, but on public...

Weather Underground

New York City has been preparing for climate-borne threats to the transportation system for years.

(Flickr/Wilamore Media)
(Flickr/Marco Derksen) I n New York City, subway service started back up yesterday after Hurricane Sandy flooded seven East River subway tunnels and sent the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) scrambling to inspect hundreds of miles of track along the 108-year-old system. But many of the flooded tunnels, which run from downtown Brooklyn through lower Manhattan, remain out of commission, and the power outage in the Financial District has stopped service in the borough’s lower half, even across the city’s bridges. On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg said it would be unlikely that service was fully restored by the weekend. Regardless of whether Sandy can be linked directly to climate change, it was the type of extreme weather event that will only become more frequent as the planet warms. Old or new, few electricity grids, public transit systems, bridges, roads, or communications networks were built to withstand these challenges. But despite the flooding that occurred during Sandy, this isn’t...

Manhattan, Shaken and Stirred

Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the East Coast—especially New York City and New Jersey—last night. Here's a collection of photos documenting much of the damage.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
New York City is still assessing the extent of the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Over 660,000 people lost electricity—a quarter of a million customers in Manhattan alone. Schools, the stock exchange, and the subway system all shut down as businesses closed their doors and people sought shelter. Here’s a slideshow of images from the storm and its aftermath. Slideshow Witnessing a Superstorm

New York Dispatch: "The Place Is Drowned"

Hurricane Sandy sends a brutal message to the city.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) Lower Manhattan goes dark during hurricane Sandy, as seen from Brooklyn, N.Y. T he high tide at 8:53 p.m. on Monday night, made higher by the full moon, sends the bay 13 feet over the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is flooding; so are the subways tubes that cross the East River. At least 250,000 people are already without power in Manhattan. In the south, distant flashes of light look like explosions, diffused in the howling sky. From my rooftop in Brooklyn, the explosions burn for a long moment, then are gone. A half hour later, the sirens call out, the firetrucks and ambulances race, and I wonder what has happened. Nothing to do but head out into the wind on the bicycle—the ultimate hurricane-adaptive transport to move fast in a city where all public transit is shut—and take stock of the moment, for it is historic: This is the first major hurricane in the age of climate change to strike New York City nearly directly, drive the...


Although the election season has been devoid of climate change talk, Hurricane Sandy makes our role in increasingly extreme weather patterns impossible to ignore.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
This time, the preparations are a little more familiar. We would have had a few gallons of bottled water left over from Irene, but we’d moved and left them behind. Last time, we bought canned stew that, when finally consumed for lunch months later, turned out to be almost too salty to eat. This time, we bought low-sodium chili and canned ravioli stamped with the USDA organic seal of approval, optimistic that it will means the can’s contents are more palatable than Chef Boyardee. We may or may not have procured too many bagels. Is this what climate change feels like? New York City is grinding to a stand-still (although Wall Street will keep working as long as the power is on and the web connections are solid). The city feels drearier, a little more routine than it did during Irene, when the party-hardy resolved to drink right through the hurricane. That storm turned out to be a bust in the city, while upstate flooding ruined crops, took out roads, and caused billions of dollars in...

Let's Talk about Climate, Mr. President

(PRNewsFoto/American Electric Power)
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip) Drought-stricken corn crops bake in the sun as temperatures continue to hover around 100 degrees Monday, July 25, 2011, in Tomball, Texas. Very little rain has fallen across the state this year. About 70 percent of Texas rangeland and pastures are classified as in very poor condition, which means there has been complete or near complete crop failure or there’s no food for grazing livestock. T he night of the first presidential debate, I showed up at a watching party unusually sweaty. It was a heavy, humid night in New York City—too hot for October, reminiscent of an evening in late June. I know that weather’s not climate , but I couldn’t help wondering: without climate change, how likely could it be that a night a few weeks into the fall would feel like this one? Was I experiencing the creep of days hotter than they should be, nights that just won’t cool down? Most Americans, it turns out, are asking themselves similar questions. The latest research from...

Barry Commoner and the Dream of a Liberal Third Party

Obituaries of the environmental populist have dismissed his 1980 presidential run as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that.

(AP/SJV) Dr. Barry Commoner listens to Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel address a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in May 1970. Barry Commoner died on September 30 at the age of 95. The New York Times called him “a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s cause.” Among many accomplishments, his pioneering work on the effects of radiation was a major factor in building public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1970, the first year of Earth Day. He also ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the now-defunct Citizens Party, an episode few on the left remember and the obituaries dismissed as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that. The Citizens Party was an effort to respond to the early signals that the Democratic Party was on the way to...

Invasion of the Climate Deniers

When it comes to climate change, there is one area in which the United States leads all other nations: Our media gives more time and attention to climate deniers than other countries. A recent study from researchers at Oxford University and Birkbeck College took a look at the level of climate skepticism in media coverage in the United States, Brazil, China, France, India, and the United Kingdom. The study, which focused on a three-month period that spanned the “ Climategate ” scandal, shows that media in the United States gives voice to climate skeptics almost twice as often as Britain—second on the list. The graph below shows the number of articles containing voices skeptical of climate change as a percentage of the total: The study also found that while climate critiques ran in most U.S. papers regardless of ideology, right-leaning papers left most of the claims uncontested. For example, the left-leaning New York Times ran 14 opinion pieces that included some form of climate...

Barry Commoner's Legacy

(TIME Magazine)
Yesterday brought the sad news that noted environmental advocate and scholar, Barry Commoner , had passed away. As pointed out in the many tributes to his life and achievements, Commoner was one of the founders of modern environmentalism and embraced a more complex, holistic view of environmental issues. Commoner believed in addressing multiple issues, such as racism, sexism, war, and—most importantly—the failings of capitalism at the same time as environmentalism because they were, and still are, all related issues of a larger central problem. Commoner had four informal rules of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else Everything must go somewhere Nature knows best There is no such thing as a free lunch Decades later, these rules still hold true. The first idea addresses the concept that environmentalism is just one piece of a larger picture. For instance, gender rights are not thought of as a traditional environmental issue. Yet, empowering women is one of the best ways...

Corn, Corn Everywhere, But Not a Bite to Eat

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm with members of the McIntosh family including Don McIntosh, third from right, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Missouri Valley, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa. L ast week, the United States Department of Agriculture released a report on the state of the country’s corn, and the verdict is not good. The report—the first that estimates production based on surveying the fields of U.S. farmers—shows that farmers are on track to produce 10.8 billion bushels of corn this year, a 17 percent drop from last year. This summer’s drought has parched King Corn: some ears have only a few sweet kernels to offer, others droop, brown and defeated. 10.8 billion bushels is still a lot of corn. The USDA report notes that this year’s harvest could be the smallest since 2006. What it doesn’t point out is there are only two years in U.S. history...

Keystone XL’s Beetlemania

How an endangered species barely an inch long could be a big barrier to TransCanada’s pipeline dreams.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(AP Photo/St. Louis Zoo) T he carcass of a passenger pigeon weighed in at exactly the size they preferred. Dead prairie chickens did, too. They aren’t so picky about the carcasses they bury: mammals will do as well as birds, but the bigger the carcass—which allows them to produce and feed more offspring—the better for our friend the American burying beetle. The males find the carcasses and send out hormonal signals to attract potential mates. Coupled up, the largest beetles tend to win rights to a particular carcass, which they roll up, bury underground, and coat with preservative chemicals. When the couple’s eggs hatch in an underground chamber they’ve dug adjacent to their carcass, the larvae have a sumptuous feast ready for them. Once, these orange-marked beetles—the largest of the carrion beetles found on this continent—spread up and down America’s east coast and through the Midwest. But now, no one knows quite why there are so few. Humans may be at fault, edging in on habitats...

Mitt Romney Passes Wind

Flickr/Steve Abraham
Mitt Romney was in Colorado yesterday, where some people aren't too pleased with him. This week he came out in opposition to an extension of the wind-power production tax credit (PTC), which is set to expire at the end of the year. The tax credit helps make wind power competitive and is credited with enabling the creation of thousands of jobs in manufacturing and construction. This is almost certainly not going to be a huge issue in the campaign, but it does reveal some interesting things about where Romney is vis-a-vis the Republican Party. On one side, you have the parochial economic interests of many Republican members of Congress and some very well-heeled Republican economic constituency. On the other, you have the purely knee-jerk reaction of Tea Party types to anything hippies might like. Guess where Mitt comes down? Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee passed an extension of the credit with bipartisan support. The PTC has support from members of Congress from both parties...