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 becoming morally and intellectually bankrupt. Three decades later, that ugly process is almost complete.
Standing outside the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue last week, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben looked out over the cheering crowd. "We do not know if we are going to win this fight, but there was not even a fight to win two months ago," he said. The fight he was talking about is the battle to prevent TransCanada from building Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile pipeline that would carry crude oil refined from tar sands in Canada to Texas.
THE QUEST: ENERGY, SECURITY, AND THE REMAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD
BY DANIEL YERGIN, Penguin Press, 804 pages, $37.95
In the 1950s, a cantankerous earth scientist named Marion King Hubbert rose to prominence at Shell Oil and later at the U.S. Geological Survey. Hubbert was an unforgettable human being -- one colleague called him "the most difficult person I ever worked with" -- who loathed politicians and economists, looked forward to the collapse of American democracy, and thought technocrats such as himself should rule the world. He was also undeniably brilliant.
Marlene Orr lives in Ft. McKay, Alberta, a tiny hamlet of two First Nations groups at the center of Canada's tar sands deposits, the largest petroleum reserve outside of Saudi Arabia. Ft. McKay is ground zero for tar sands extraction; the giant Syncrude and Suncor mines are to the south, Total E&P's source is to the west, and Shell's mine lies to the north of town, on the far shore of the Athabasca River.
Every time the Republican Party wins control of the White House or one branch of Congress, the battle to save Amtrak begins anew. Ronald Reagan regularly tried to zero out the Amtrak budget. Under pressure from Democrats in Congress, the elder George Bush reluctantly authorized funds for improving rail service that had been approved during the Carter administration. George W. Bush proposed to spin off Amtrak's profitable Northeast Corridor service and offer it up to competitive bidding. In 2009, complying with legislative requirements, the U.S. Department of Transportation solicited private bids for the Northeast Corridor, but nobody showed up.
As a whole, the GOP doesn't like environmental regulation. In the past few years, though, Republicans in Washington have had little time to act on that animosity: They've spent their energy insisting that climate change does not exist, that if it does exist, it's not humanity's fault or that if it is humanity's fault, dealing with the consequences will cost too much. That was when Democrats had control of both houses of Congress and were pushing to pass legislation to address climate change. After having disarmed the cap-and-trade bill, which passed the House but failed in the Senate, and gained a majority in the House, Republicans are going even further.
It was just three short years ago that most Republicans with Blue State or national ambitions believed we had to address climate change. Today, the list of Republicans who once tried to woo Democrats and Independents just happens to overlap with the list of Republicans who have recently decided -- in the face of consistently worsening extreme weather, no less -- that climate change isn't happening after all: John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Scott Brown, Chris Christie, even Sarah Palin.
Monday, the U.N.'s Framework Conference on Climate Change began two weeks of negotiations in Bonn, Germany, to plan the agenda for the major climate summit in Durban, South Africa, at the end of the year. The talks will set the stage for whatever global agreement will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year. The conference also comes just a week after the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported a record level of carbon emissions in 2010. Following the lead of the U.S., which never signed on to Kyoto, several countries that once supported the Kyoto provisions have been backing away from renewing the protocol.
Even before they began looking for land, Cara Fraver and Luke Deikis had a name picked out for their farm. Quincy Farm, they imagined, would be within 200 miles of New York City and would grow organic vegetables, which they would sell at farmers' markets and to members of a community-supported agriculture group. They didn't know much about farming, but they were accomplished gardeners eager to work a plot larger than their Brooklyn backyard.
There are a few ways to read President Barack Obama's decision to nominate John E. Bryson, the environmentalist-turned-corporate CEO, as his next secretary of commerce. The obvious one is that Obama wanted to find a Democratic Commerce secretary whom Republicans would perceive as, well, friendly to commerce. And given the warm reception by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, Obama seems to have found his nominee.
Despite this spring's ferocious weather, which scientists warn could become more commonplace as the planet warms, climate change denial is en vogue, particularly among congressional Republicans. They claim the science is unsettled, and seek deep cuts in programs that would research and prepare for climate-change.
Seizing on high gasoline prices as an excuse, the Republican House majority passed three bills this month that would dramatically expand oil companies' access to every possible oil reserve on land and at sea. Their colleagues in the Senate, who are attempting to move those bills in the upper chamber, voted Monday to preserve subsidies for the wildly profitable oil industry, arguing that the tax breaks aid production and thus will help lower prices for consumers.
An oil derrick explodes in a fireball. (Flickr/Garlic, Barley)
With instability in the Arab world causing oil prices to surge, and Republicans proposing, with typical venality and idiocy, to solve the problem through either rampant domestic oil drilling or stealing the oil in Iraq and Libya, President Barack Obama is striking a more reasoned tone. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, the president proposed reducing America's foreign oil imports by one-third by 2025.
An aerial shot of the Fukushima nuclear plants (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)
The last few years have brought a great deal of talk about a "nuclear renaissance" and a new bipartisan consensus in favor of building more nuclear power plants. In the hope of striking a grand bargain on climate legislation during the last Congress, many environmentalists were willing to go along with what President Obama and others held up as a sensible compromise: federal subsidies for nuclear power and more leeway for offshore oil drilling in exchange for a carbon cap-and-trade system. But the BP oil spill helped to quash that idea, and the disaster in Japan should bury it. If we are ever going to get global-warming legislation -- and with denialists in control of the House, that's not likely anytime soon -- it will have to be some other way.