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Hurricane Harvey’s Toxic Legacy

How Big Oil amplified the storm's impact on public health and the environment

Yesterday, the Governor of Texas warned that the bill for reconstruction after Superstorm Harvey could be as high as $180 billion. To put this into perspective, this is much worse that Hurricane Katrina.

It also does not include the hidden huge impact on local health and the environment from the toxic release of dozens of chemicals from the state’s petrochemical infrastructure — from refineries, chemical plants, and toxic pits.

photo of hurricane harvey aftermathPhoto by Coast Guard News Texas's refineries pose an added risk to public health and the environment in the event of extreme weather events, which will become more frequent with climate change.

Brock Long, the Head of the Government’s Disaster Management Agency, also told CBS News that Harvey should be a wake-up call for local officials. “It is a wake-up call for this country for local and state elected officials to give their governors and their emergency management directors the full budgets that they need to be fully staffed, to design rainy-day funds, to have your own stand-alone individual assistance and public assistance programmes,” he said.

The disaster should also be a wake-up call to the climate-denying President that unless he acts on climate, there will be more Harveys.

It is a wake-up call to the media to accurately report the disaster, including how climate change fuelled its intensity. It is also a wake-up call to the oil industry in so many, many ways.

On a national and international level it shows how our continuing dependence on fossil fuels will drive more extreme weather events. On a regional level it shows how ill-prepared the fossil fuel industry — and wider petrochemical industry — were to an event like this, despite decades of warnings.

Instead the fossil fuel industry’s complacency, malaise, self-regulation ,and capture of the political system are all to blame too. They have led to a system of peril.

Antoine Halff is director of the Global Oil Markets Research Program at the Center on Global Energy Policy, at Columbia University, notes in the Financial Times:Like Katrina, Harvey shows how exposed the US energy sector remains to the risk of weather disruptions. As global warming raises the threat of catastrophic weather events, this vulnerability may be rising.”

Ironically, since Katrina, the US oil industry has become more vulnerable to climate disasters, rather than less, buoyed by the shale boom.

“One of the unexpected consequences of the US shale boom is the rising co-vulnerability …more

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Pollution Levels in Bolivia Plummet on Nationwide Car-Free Day

Yearly event offers opportunity to do environmental education, encourage physical activity

Air pollution levels have plunged in cities across Bolivia as the country marked a nationwide car-free day in which all non-emergency vehicles were banned from city streets.

As Bolivia’s middle-class population has increased over the past 10 years so has the number of cars clogging city streets. The car-free event started 18 years ago in Cochabamba, one of Latin America’s five most polluted cities, and has gradually taken root across the country. By 2011, it had become so popular that Bolivia’s legislature declared a yearly “Day of the Pedestrian and Cyclist in Defence of Mother Earth.”

photo of zebra in boliviaPhoto by Flickr Micaelegaymer In Bolivia, young people dressed as zebras help direct traffic. Every year, Bolivia has a car-free day to celebrate pedestrians and cyclists and honor the earth.

“Air pollution drops by 60 to 70 percent because 70 percent of our air contaminants come from vehicles,” said Soledad Delgadillo of Cochabamba’s municipal government. “The difference in air quality is noticeable. It [pollution] drops to almost zero when normally it can rise as high as 100 parts per cubic meter,” said Jorge Martin Villarroel, director of the environmental charity PAAC.

Cochabamba now has three pedestrian days a year, including the national day, while Bolivia’s highland city of Potosí recently set up four.

In Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, the 2017 pedestrian day was also used to promote participation in sports. “We have so many blockades and demonstrations, we want to encourage a positive citizen takeover of the streets,” said Jessica Nieto from the city’s government.

“Pedestrian day complements the zebras who defend walkers’ rights,” she said. The zebras are young people named after pedestrian crossings who are hired to dress as the animals and calm traffic in the free-for-all that is La Paz.

As 70 percent of Bolivia’s urban workforce are employed informally, vendors of every kind flood the streets in cities nationwide on pedestrian day. “Our biggest problem is the spike in consumption of drinks and food packaged in plastic bags and disposable containers,” Delgadillo said.

Families love it. Jesus Romero, who lives on the northern edge of Cochabamba, said: “We really enjoy that it is so quiet and peaceful without any cars around, and that’s there’s space in the streets for the kids to play.”

Deyanira López, 14, highlighted another benefit. “Our city is very beautiful but you just don’t see it because of all the cars,” she said.

“It gives us a great opportunity …more

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In Conversation with Dolores Huerta

The United Farm Workers co-founder discusses environmental racism, Standing Rock, and her new biopic

The United Farm Workers are remembered for their groundbreaking grape boycott during the 1960s to force California growers to negotiate better working conditions and wages for the campesinos laboring in the fields. But as Dolores — the new documentary about UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta — reminds us, the union also pioneered the fight t against environmental racism. While organized labor and environmentalism are sometimes at loggerheads, this 97 minute nonfiction film shows that when it came to banning spraying DDT and other dangerous pesticides, the UFW proved: “Si se puede!”

photo of Dolores Huerta Photo by Why Tuesday, Flickr

Co-executive produced by musician Carlos Santana, Dolores is an exciting, award winning biopic about one of America’s most iconic female, Latina, labor leaders — one who realizes that protecting the planet also means defending workers and their families from environmental degradation. The film recounts Huerta’s heroic struggle alongside Cesar Chavez to organize Hispanic agricultural laborers so those who feed America would have improved standards of living. Covering Huerta’s long march literally and figuratively, on the journey to justice — Dolores includes archival footage, news clips, and interviews featuring Bobby Kennedy, Gloria Steinem, George McGovern, Angela Davis, and many others. President Obama is shown bestowing the Medal of Freedom upon Huerta at a 2012 White House ceremony.  

Dolores is directed by Peter Bratt, whose brother is actor Benjamin Bratt. Bratt and Huerta were interviewed in person for Earth Island Journal  at  a movie theater in Los Angeles. At 87, the inspirational Huerta is still fighting the good fight.

Ed Rampell: There is a segment in the documentary Dolores that deals with environmental racism and environmental justice. What is that?

Dolores Huerta: Number one, this is Mother Earth and we are supposed to protect Mother Earth. We’re supposed to make sure that the food we eat is safe. When you consider that the farm workers were not given toilets in the field — and I would like to remind people that when food is picked and put into a box, it doesn’t go to the carwash, it goes directly to the consumer and the supermarket — and yet the growers would not give the farm workers water to wash their hands in or toilets to go to. We can think about what an obscenity that is and the cruelty that was visited upon the farm workers, especially the women.

And then the pesticides. Unfortunately [some] are still being sprayed upon farm workers. In fact, …more

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Malawian Farmers Adapt in the Face of Climate Change

Government is encouraging climate smart practices to increase yields and improve resilience

Kenson Mulapula is an exceptional farmer. While most of the neighboring households are struggling with acute food shortages, he has enough maize to last his household the next six months. In Lunzu, an area outside commercial hub of Blantyre, Malawi, his success stands out, especially as farmers begin to contend with the changes wrought by climate change. It’s no surprise that resilience of the 52-year-old’s agricultural practices is attracting other farmers too.

image of Malawian farmerPhoto by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima Malawian farmer Kenson Mulapula next to compost mounds on his land. Composting is one of several climate smart practices Mulapula has implemented.

“It has been a tough two successive farming seasons with flood and then drought, [and we have] seen complete failure of crops here,” Mulapula says." However, I have been able to harvest enough for my household thanks to climate smart agriculture techniques I use.”

Malawi has not been spared from the early impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are already affecting the southeast African nation, particularly the agricultural sector. The El Nino weather phenomenon, which has been impacting southern Africa for the past two years, is exacerbating the situation. In 2015, for example, unprecedented flooding washed away thousands of hectares of crop fields, most in the densely populated southern part of Malawi, affecting more than 200,000 people. Earlier this year, severe drought left over 8 million people in need of emergency food in the central and southern provinces of the country.

In response to these changes, agricultural experts — mainly Ministry of Agriculture extension workers who are assigned and stationed in a specific agricultural extension region — are engaging local farmers, training them in climate smart agriculture practices. These “lead” farmers help train others in climate smart practices their communities. These practices are popularly known as Mleranthaka in the local vernacular.

Climate smart agriculture refers to an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural development under the new realities of climate change. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines it as agricultural practices that sustainably increase productivity, enhance resilience (adaptation), reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, and help with achievement of national food security and development goals. The principal goal of climate smart agriculture, according to the FAO, is food security and development. Productivity, adaptation, and mitigation are identified as three interlinked pillars necessary for achieving these goals.

Mulapula is a lead farmer in his area. He explains that one big difference …more

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Making Eco- and Animal-Friendly “Meat”

Dutch “butcher” is on a mission to compete with industrial meat production

At first sight, it seems to be a regular butcher’s shop. The scales on the counter, the knife, the cutting machine — it’s all there. The cooling section presents a mouth-watering bonanza for barbecue-lovers: sausages, hamburgers, meatballs, poultry kabobs. Even tuna and calamari are available. What more do you need for a great cookout?

image of Dutch butcherPhoto by Bart HomburgVegetarian "butcher" Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer, makes popular meat-like products that are entirely plant-based.

Yes, you can indeed cook out with the culinary delights that Jaap Korteweg offers in his concept store in The Hague. However, no animals are harmed here; all the food is plant-based. “Made from soy beans and peas, lupin seeds and cereals,” the 54-year-old farmer explains as he gets a package of ‘Little Willies’ English breakfast sausages from the refrigerated counter: “One of our latest and most popular products!” he proudly reports, pointing out the round logo, which says De Vegetarian Slager, the vegetarian butcher.

“Meat must become an ancillary item on our plates.”

This is the name of the company Kortewegw founded on World Animal Day in 2010. His goal is to offer even confirmed meat-lovers an alternative that is both eco- and animal-friendly. His specialties look and taste like meat products, yet vegetarians can enjoy them without remorse. No animals need to suffer, and his production does not put extreme stress on the environment as “normal” meat products do: “We need only half as much agricultural surface, and only a third of the water and fertilizer.”

Korteweg was pushed into action by the last outbreak of swine fever that ravaged Europe in the fall of 1997. The Netherlands with their extreme mass livestock farming were worst hit by the disease: With 15 million pigs, matching the number of human inhabitants, it is the country with the highest ‘pig density’ in the world. To keep the disease from spreading like wildfire, 12 million pigs were preventatively killed within 13 months. Only about 700,000 were actually infected. But where to put the millions of carcasses? Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer in the south of the country, was also asked to help out by storing dead pigs in his cooling cells until the animal crematories caught up. “That was the moment I told myself: You don’t want to be a part of this miserable system anymore,” the farmer remembers. His own farm had already gone organic a while before. And, as his wife and four daughters, he …more

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Making the Connection Between Climate Change and Hurricane Harvey

As President Trump visits Texas, it's time to discuss how global warming likely intensified the superstorm

Texas has never seen rain like it. Some forty to sixty inches of rain in some places. Over 9 trillion gallons of water or maybe even more. There has been so much rain that the National Weather Service had to add extra colors to its rainfall map.

image of hurricane harvey rescuePhoto by Texas Military DepartmentTexas National Guard soldiers aid Houston residents during Hurricane Harvey.

Anyone watching the unfolding catastrophe in Texas caused by superstorm Harvey cannot but offer thoughts and solidarity to those affected communities in their hour of need.

You hope everyone reaches safety and stays safe as the waters continue to rise. If you are looking for ways to help, there are simple ways to do so.

But the best response to a disaster is to learn lessons to prevent the next one. No one who has witnessed the horror of losing their home to the ever-increasing flood waters and who is now effectively homeless and who will spend months, if not years, rebuilding their lives, would wish the same on anyone else.

So what are the lessons?

We know that Trump’s visit later today will be a political charade for the news networks. This is a climate denying President who just a couple of weeks before the disaster announced a new Executive Order, which would have unrolled a previous Order by President Obama, which had been designed to improve “climate resilience” and protect critical infrastructure threatened by climate change.

At the time, Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune, said: “This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe.”

Don’t forget Trump has form on this: apart from removing references to climate change on websites and disbanding scientific committees, he had previously told his Administration that the federal government did not need to treat climate change as a national security threat, despite nearly 130 military bases being considered at risk from climate change.

What are the longer-term lessons from Harvey?

The US may never have experienced a storm with so much water as Harvey before, but it will again. And we were warned that this would happen. But the politicians were not listening. They were warned again. But they did not listen. Because this is climate change in action.

We know climate change is making weather more extreme. …more

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Climate Denier Congressman Lamar Smith Contends with New Foe: Declining Voter Support

House science committee chairman has made it his mission to combat environmental regulation

For those keeping score, the “Making [Everything] Great Again” naming committee is on a roll, and, from his perch as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (HCSST), Congressman Lamar Smith is well positioned to keep things rolling. Since 1987, the inveterate Republican politician has held the seat representing Texas’s 21st District in the House of Representatives, a district that includes concentrated liberal pockets near Austin and San Antonio (Smith’s hometown), and part of the conservative expanse of Texas Hill Country. He’s obviously well received by his constituents, but the details of his tenure are even more impressive: from 1988 to 2002, the congressman never won reelection with less than 72 percent of the vote.

photo of lamar smithPhoto by NASA HQ PHOTO, Flickr Congressman Lamar Smith, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry, is facing declining voter support in Texas's 21st District.

The secret to his winning ways? After receiving the Award for Conservative Excellence, Smith stated, “My votes represent my constituents. I continue to stand for liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values, and a strong national defense.” Simple as that — keep your constituents happy, keep your job. Yet, as important as ideology is to attracting voters, campaign contributions are what keep the lights on, and in Texas, donors in the energy business hold sway over anyone seeking public office. True to its big motto, Texas is the nation’s leading energy producer and consumer, responsible for more than one-third of total US oil production and home to one-quarter of proven natural gas reserves. With more operable oil refineries than any other state, the industry generates enormous levels of revenue — last year, it pumped $9.4 billion into state and local government budgets. For politicians, these industrial goliaths present a choice: either advocate for their interests or scrutinize their means of production. Not that it’s that cut and dry, but what is clear is that Rep. Smith forged his alliance long ago, having received over the course of his career more than $700,000 from the oil and gas industry.

As such, Smith’s enduring interest in dismantling regulations geared toward combating climate change can be interpreted as “bought.” There’s nothing conservative about his skepticism of climate science — he is an outspoken denier of the causes and dire expected outcomes of anthropogenic climate change, and since being appointed the HCSST chairman, he has made it his mission to …more

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