Saturday, September 26, 2009

Can Copenhagen Deliver on its Promises?

We are already witnessing the beginnings of a barrage of saturated media coverage about climate change and the upcoming Copenhagen conference. By the time the COP15 Conference at Copenhagen arrives it might be the only item in the news all over the world and that is good. We need to take some meaningful measures that could get us to move in the right direction. Who knows, we might even avoid the apocalypse.
The failure to reach an agreement to adopt an effective and clear plan of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be a major setback to the environmental efforts to avert a catastrophic climate change, an increase in temperature greater than 2 degrees Celsius. Sea level will rise, major ocean currents would be disrupted, monsoons and hurricanes will increase both in their frequency and intensity, crop failures will become more common, desertification will increase; life as we know it will become disrupted. What is at stake is surely the greatest challenge that civilization has ever faced and a successful Copenhagen meeting is a must.
Yet if we are to act as dispassionate observers of this process we will have no choice but to note the major logical fallacy upon which Copenhagen is built. The issue is not whether the world can afford not to decrease its GHG emissions; it can not. The real issue though is whether Copenhagen can deliver us out of this self inflicted quagmire? How can it possibly do that when we even refuse to look into the root cause of this problem? Anthropogenic emissions are simply the product of human economic activity and no one is proposing that we limit economic growth. The position at Copenhagen is nothing else but an exercise in a combination of major logical fallacies such as “argumentum ad populum” combined with “argumentum ad baculum”; a false argument based on the appeal to the majority and to fear.
Let me explain. One of the major efforts that the nations, represented at Copenhagen, will confront is that of reducing car emissions. It is widely believed that the move to hybrid engines and electric plug-in vehicles, in addition to more efficient engines, will turn out to be a major contribution in achieving the sought reduction in carbon emissions. But would it? The world produced over 70 million new vehicles during 2007 but under the best estimates all the hybrids and electric plug-in will not amount to more than 2 million units a year by 2015. If these numbers hold then that is a miserly 2% of the new cars, not to mention that China and India alone are slated to replace the United States as the number one producers of vehicles in the world. Emissions from China and India, both of whom are neighbours of Bangladesh, will not be regulated. Climate change is the largest infringement on the sovereignty of Bangladesh and yet it goes on each day of the year without firing a bullet or creating a political standoff. Even if we are to assume, as unlikely as it might be, that by 2020 one fifth of the newly manufactured in the world each year would be powered by either a hybrid or an electric engine, what about all the raw materials that has to be mined and processed in order to build all of these cars not to mention all the tires, spare parts, accidents and highways that they will generate and require? Would supplying all of these resources by “developing” countries be without a carbon footprint?
A more efficient car is a welcome development but a more efficient car will be useless in reducing the human impact on the ecosystem unless we are to simultaneously build fewer cars and consequently fewer garages, less highways, less spare parts use less resources and conserve our natural capital.
It is not sufficient to set up a goal. We must set up a goal accompanied by a workable plan otherwise the goal would best be classified as a wish. Imagine ,if you will, that all the water bottling facilities in Fiji ; whose products are shipped to North America and the rest of the world; are to become totally powered by energy acquired through either thermal solar , photovoltaic or wind turbines, would that then make the consumption of such water environmentally friendly? You decide.
As you can see from the above the need to cut down on GHG’s and carbon emissions is not questioned. What is at stake is our ability, or rather inability, to accept that climate change is nothing more than a manifestation of a systemic failure and such failures demand a total redesign of the system. If we cannot understand this most basic of all facts then all our efforts, as well intentioned as they might be will be for naught.

A podcast of the above can be heard at:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clean Water Act: Is It Time For A New One?

The following post is copied (with permission) from Although ENV111 does not emphasize specific environmental problems, I urge you to read the attached especially if you plan to attend the panel discussion on September 22nd at 6:00pm. Please visit the blog for many other interesting and informative articles.

Friday, September 18, 2009
Imagine No Pollution

The Future & the Failed Clean Water Act

Copyright 2009, John Cronin

The Clean Water Act has failed. It is time for a new law.

There is a mistaken, popular belief that the central purpose of the 1972 Clean Water Act is to bring to justice the bad guys who are polluting the nation’s waters.

The Clean Water Act was written to create a global market place based on American innovation that would end pollution in our lifetime, and “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.”

But a list of the law's failed policies reads like an indictment of the law itself.

The first policy goal on the first page of the Clean Water Act is the elimination of the discharge of pollutants by 1985.

The law also sets a goal of making the nation’s waters fit for sports and recreation, and for fish and wildlife by July 1983.

It calls for management plans to end pollution from runoff, protect watersheds, and enhance water resources, in keeping with the 1983 and 1985 goals.

It requires the cessation of toxic discharges in toxic amounts.

It establishes a sweeping domestic and foreign policy on water designed to protect life and health here and abroad.

Indeed, the enormity of the Clean Water Act’s failure can be measured in lives. The law directs the Secretary of State to assist other nations in eradicating their water problems to “at least the same extent as the United States does under its laws.” But since the Clean Water Act was enacted, as many as 100 million people, mostly children in the developing world, have died from diseases related to water pollution. The Pacific Institute estimates that between 36 million and 70 million will die by 2020.
On the Hudson River, where I live, thousands of tons of municipal and industrial wastes are dumped annually. Sewage overflows are commonplace and people routinely swim near industrial and municipal outfalls. At least 7 major fish species are in decline and health advisories about toxins in fish have been in place for 34 years. At least one city has a drinking water intake within two miles of its sewage plant discharge, and another has an intake 35 miles downriver of a PCB Superfund site. As with most places in the nation, there is no regular monitoring or investigation of illnesses likely to have been induced by water contamination.

How was the Clean Water Act supposed to prevent such things?

It promised massive, continuing funding of research and development to transform the science and technology of pollution abatement and treatment worldwide.

It promised permanent capital funding of publicly owned municipal treatment facilities.

And it created a permit system to halt pollution. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System was supposed to accomplish precisely what its name says: systematically eliminate the discharge of pollutants.

It would be an exaggeration to say that these programs, and others in the law, have come to naught. But it is accurate to say that there is no date by which their goals can be accomplished -- and, obviously, no longer a date by which those goals must be reached.

We are left with this absurdity: the priority objective of the Clean Water Act today is to eliminate pollution 24 years ago.

It is not possible for EPA or the states to create a sense of purpose about clean water when the milestones of the Clean Water Act, the nation's most ambitious environmental law, came and went two and a half decades ago. A law that has been substantially unchanged for more than a generation cannot intelligently address “best available technology.” The EPA cannot even design new clean water programs and initiatives that are meaningful, since the very time line on which they would be founded is impossible, unless you own a time machine.

The United States needs a new Clean Water Act with new goals and milestones to take the place of the old, failed ones. The law must embrace, encourage and reward 21st century innovation. There should be generous incentives to exceed the requirements of law. It should create a brain trust of the most innovative minds, from research universities and private corporations in particular, charged with creating a pollution elimination marketplace that will equitably serve the entire planet. It should foster methods and technologies that are more effective, more robust, and cheaper to operate and maintain; expensive, antiquated technologies are enticements to violate the law. Unlike its predecessor, a new Act should make a priority of ecological and human health.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not need a new law to take substantive action on international water crises, and fulfill her obligation under the current law. More than 1.2 billion people live without potable water -- a statistic that should be unthinkable in 2009. Secretary Clinton can and should make global water assistance a priority of her portfolio. (See my posts on Iraq and Kenya.)

We need a vibrant, 21st century Clean Water Act that that will create a new sense of national and global purpose about water. Water is fast eclipsing climate change as a universal, environmental priority. Had the United States the political will to carry out the purposes of the original Clean Water Act it would today be a global leader on water issues, just when the world most needs it.

Can we imagine no pollution, as the courageous drafters of the 1972 Clean Water Act did? First we must swallow hard and admit that their original effort failed. Only then will the Congress and the president muster the courage to imagine that mission once again with a new, and better, Clean Water Act.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It Is Time To End GDP Fetishism

Most common discussions, by all kinds of media outlets all over the world, of the concept of social welfare of a particular society never fail to mention the state of the Gross Domestic Product, the GDP. This all popular macroeconomic variable has grown, despite its enormous shortcomings, to become a metric of what it was not designed to be in the first place. Very simply stated, the GDP is a money measure of the value of final goods and services that are produced by a particular society. Note that the concept does not pretend to say anything about the level of welfare but is only the summation of all what is produced without even deducting the damage that ensue from such levels of production and consumption . A simple common example might help illustrate this absurdity. If during a particular year, the number of expensive medical procedures undertaken in a state increases then the overall size of its GDP increases also. So if the GDP is such a good indicator of the social level of welfare then why not promote cigarette smoking in order to increase the incidence of lung cancer which will keep the surgeons busy and lead to a large rate of growth in the GDP? Of course such a policy would be rejected by all. But isn’t this exactly what we do when we allow firms to dump their toxic wastes into rivers and when we encourage workers to commute long distances from where they reside to their place of work. The concept is rife with problems that are too many to list and that economists and environmentalists have been pointing out for decades chief among them is the inability of GDP per capita to say anything about the all important income distribution. Wouldn’t it be more important to learn who had access to the increased output rather than to just say that output went up? It has often been the case that the all the growth in the GDP accrues to a small group of privileged economic class when ¾ of the population has in reality lost ground.
Environmentalists in general and environmental economists in particular have been in the forefront of an unremitting attack on the method of assembling national income statistics and in particular the GDP. These efforts have been helped over two decades ago by the work of Amartya Sen, the Noble laureate in Economics, through his pioneering work on how to measure poverty and social well being. His work has led, among other things, to the increasingly popular Human Development Index by the United Nations. The HDI ranks countries by creating an index that takes into consideration the level of GDP per capita but combines that with measures of literacy and life expectancy. As a result it becomes possible to rank a country with high literacy rate and a high life expectancy above one that enjoys a higher GDP per capita but lags in the other two indicators.
Two days ago Joseph Stiglitz, another Noble laureate in Economics, a Professor of Economics at Columbia University and an ex Chief Economist of the world Bank has joined ranks with the above group of advocates for a change in National Income Accounting. He called, in his capacity as a member of a group advising president Sarkozy of France, upon world economic leaders to “avoid GDP fetishism and… to stay away from that.” What a welcome message during these perilous economic times in a world that is clearly not sustainable. Bravo Dr. Stiglitz.
So what are the implications of such a change? You tell me. Is a growing GDP, accompanied by a growing poverty rate, inequitable distribution of income , larger public debt, higher unemployment, less electric power, a construction boom for the super wealthy, privatized public beaches, low minimum wage, environmental degradation in all fields and rampant corruption a sign of social justice and better social welfare?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Real Global Commitment To Slow Down Climate Change

There is unanimity that climate change poses an enormous challenge to our specie. That is no longer debatable. But assessing the enormity of the problem is one thing and doing something meaningful about it is another. History is replete with examples of catastrophes that were hastened because of our inability or unwillingness to act. Every aspect of environmental degradation from climate change to desertification, from overfishing to deforestation, from population growth rates to malnutrition , from overproduction to overconsumption, from diminishing biodiversity to the unabiding trust in economic growth, from unjust distribution of income to neo imperialism, from unsustainable practices to the rejection of intrinsic value and from the conviction that the whole of creation was meant for our own whimsical use to the strong belief that humans are hard wired to be selfish is a vivid demonstration that “Homo Sapiens” ( wise humans) we are not. Yet we pretend that we are and furthermore we make believe that we are earnestly looking for a solution.
The upcoming COP 15 at Copenhagen scheduled for December 2009 was supposed to demonstrate our earnest desire in finally seeking a solution that is commensurate to the existential challenge of keeping climate change within an increase of 2 degrees centigrade. Well don’t hold your breath. The UN Development Chief Helen Clark has just issued a statement preparing us for the upcoming disappointment. She declares: “"If there's no deal as such, it won't be a failure. I think the conference will be positive but it won't dot every 'i' and cross every 't'." That does not make you very confident in the quality and commitment of international governance does it?
Kyoto and Copenhagen are about one issue only. If we believe, truly believe that climate change must be stopped and that it is essentially the result of human activity then we need to act and act promptly. Global calamity is about to strike and we have no one to blame but us. The Pogo Cartoon said it best over forty years ago” We have met the enemy and he is us”.
So what is the US, the worlds largest economy, doing about this problem? The US seems to have finally accepted the idea that it is its duty, nay its obligation, to reduce its carbon footprint since it is the greatest contributor to the anthropogenically produced carbon since the onset of the industrial revolution. Give the Obama administration its due credit. It plans to submit a plan to reduce the US contribution to the worldwide carbon emission through a cap and trade program. The proposed reductions are no where close to what they should be but they are greater reductions than what the previous administration has been willing to commit to. Under the proposed system of Cap and Trade the government will set a total level of emissions and issue against that standard permits. The emitters cannot collectively exceed the level mandated by the government but they are free to trade these permits among each other as they see fit. That does not sound so bad except the reduction in overall emissions is no where as major as the challenge dictates that it should be. The other problem, and may I suggest that this is just as major if not even more so, the government plans to give away gratis, for free, these permits to the corporations that pollute instead of auctioning these permits and raising the 100’s of billions of dollars that they are worth. Think about it, instead of asking the polluter to pay we are asking the already burdened tax payer to subsidize pollution. That is madness. But why would anyone give away for free that which is worth billions? Well we have already answered that question. Homo Sapiens we ain’t neither are we rational or even committed to the idea of biodiversity and sustainability.
And finally Iet me say that the US is not the only obstacle to finding a solution to climate change. China, India ,Brazil and Saudi Arabia are even more adamant that they do not have to apply any restraint to their level of economic activity, let the health of the global ecosystem be damned. One can easily add Russia and Indonesia to the group of countries that have to be dragged to adopt proforma carbon emission reduction targets. (The combined emissions of the above seven countries is over 56% of global carbon emissions). Enough said about our real concern for sustainability and biodiversity.