Energy & the Environment

The Once and Future Gov

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
AP Photo/Eric Risberg A merica’s most futuristic governor seems borne back ceaselessly into the past these days. As he shows me around his office on a crisp winter morning, California Governor Jerry Brown points out not just the desk that his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, used during his own term as governor from 1959 to 1967 but also photos of his grandparents and his great-grandfather, who came to California in the gold rush years. “He knew John Sutter,” Brown says. The only two governors in the past half-century who were native Californians, he points out, were he and his father. At 74, Brown has lost little of the intensity that impressed and occasionally discomfited voters during his first tenure as governor nearly 40 years ago. His outfit—an open-collar shirt under a white pullover sweater, blue jeans—may be West Coast casual, his shaved head may call to mind the Zen monks with whom he’s studied, but Brown’s emotional repertoire does not include laid-back, except when he’s talking...

What We'll Be Talking about in 2016

AP Photo/Mark Hirsch
Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet. While the identity of the next Democratic and Republican nominees is important, what’s even more important is what they intend to do if elected. Indeed: the nomination process is important because it’s how parties sort out their differences and make decisions about who they are, and what kinds of public policy they support. Moreover, the nomination process is the best chance for groups and individuals within the party to have a chance of affecting what the party will do if it wins. In general elections with huge electorates, there’s not much one person can do that makes any difference. In...

A Voice for Climate, 40,000 Strong

Jaime Fuller
Drew Angerer/SIPA via AP Images A llison Chin, president of the Sierra Club, knows now is the moment to think big on climate. It’s been a year of “records”: A record number of droughts have hit towns across the country, record temperatures slowly roast the planet, and storms have left record amounts of snow and rain in their wake. Finally, too, a record number of people have conceded that we’re changing the environment for the worse. “Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, businessmen, people of the faith—it’s not just environmentalists that are affected by this,” Chin says. She knows that environmentalists need to be practical—they need concrete demands that all people left adrift by a changing climate can endorse. But facing such long odds and high stakes, how can they be anything but ardent about the environment? Yesterday’s climate rally, which supporters billed as the largest in history, proved a near perfect mix of the practical and the passionate. Facing a chilly February...

Keystone XL: A Year in Review

What has happened with the pipeline in the year since the Obama administration rejected TransCanada's original permit?

Flickr/Bold Nebraska
Flickr/M.V. Jantzen I t’s been just over a year since the Obama administration rejected TransCanada’s original permit application for Keystone XL. On the surface, it might seem like nothing much has happened. The State Department has yet to release its assessment of the environmental impacts of the new, revised pipeline route, which TransCanada proposed on May 4, 2012, only four months after the initial permit rejection. None of the many attempts by Republicans in Congress to force through approval of the pipeline succeeded, and with the slow fade of Mitt Romney, one of the projects’s self-proclaimed biggest fans, the project’s best chance to pass unimpeded through U.S. bureaucracy was lost. But in this period neither TransCanada nor Keystone XL opponents have been at rest. Construction on the southern end of the pipeline began in August, and protesters, hoping to budge an administration that has turned stalling on environmental action into a specialty, have amped up both their...

It's Worse than the Status Quo

AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File
In the midst of dealing with the fiscal cliff, Congress passed a one-year extension of the farm bill that eliminated funding for almost every even vaguely innovative agriculture policy and kept in place expensive and outdated subsidies that benefit big agribusiness. From the perspective of anyone interested in making change in America’s farm and food system, it was a disaster. “There's much isn’t to be happy about with this extension,” David deGennaro, a legislative analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said. “If you care about conservation, food production, or reforming the farm bill, this is a bad deal,” said Justin Tatham, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior Washington representative for food & environment. “It's worse than the status quo.” “They took all the newer, smaller, but most innovative programs and left them out of the extension,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. At the same time, lawmakers left in...

Fracking versus the Boondocks

Promised Land bills itself as an environmental movie, but it’s far more concerned with preserving Dan Barry-esque small-town America mythology.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File In this April 22, 2008 file photo, a natural gas well pad sits in front of the Roan Plateau near the Colorado mountain community of Rifle. Opponents of a law restricting federal oversight of injecting fluids underground to boost oil and natural gas production hope a new bill and a new administration will tighten regulation of the practice called fracking. T he first sentence of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring proves a good template for most stories about the environment in America: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. … Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change." Promised Land , which opens nationwide today, begins its story about fracking, the drilling technique that’s...

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...

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...

Frankenclimate

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...

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