CVIndependent

Wed02202019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Don’t be fooled by the precipitation, the snowpack and the wildflowers. When winter ends, it’s unlikely that California’s iconic landscape will sustain the moisture to withstand the scorching summer and fall.

California has yet to recover from the 5-year drought that began in 2012. For four years, record wildfires have ravaged the state, including the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma in 2017, and the Camp Fire last year that wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County. The 2019 wildfire season officially kicks off in mid-May, but California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now.

So what happens when the next big wildfire hits?

State fire officials are already amassing new aircraft that can drop thousands of gallons of bright red flame retardant. Emergency responders are pre-positioning fire crews in high-threat areas even before a fire starts. State officials will no longer second guess the use of wireless emergency alerts that grab people’s attention by making smartphones vibrate and squawk.

The major investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—now plan to shut off power, even where fire risk is minimal, during red-flag weather warnings. It’s considered a public-safety measure of last resort, because a power outage can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The utilities also plan to fireproof California’s electricity grid, a result of their equipment being implicated in so many recent disasters. That includes clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with metal ones, and using drones and weather monitoring stations to gauge danger via wind and smoke patterns.

Yet even these expensive precautions may not ward off the next towering inferno, say fire officials.

“I think we are better prepared,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “The real question is whether or not that’s enough.”


‘A Sense of Urgency’

Part of the problem is that California has been caught off guard by the new climate-driven fire seasons, amplified by longer hot summers and extended droughts. Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have happened in the last five years.

“The fires are behaving so much differently than they have before,” Huston said, noting the new wildfires are “virtually impossible to fight” as they leap mountains and gallop for miles, creating their own weather systems. “You couldn’t have predicted this based on past fire.”

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told state lawmakers on Jan. 30 that climate-change-driven wildfires are happening much faster than anyone predicted. But for the state regulatory agency to enforce safety at the state’s eight investor-owned utilities, Picker said, he would need 15,000 to 20,000 new staff to police every electricity pole and wire. The agency has, roughly, a 1,300-member staff.

The CPUC regulates not only privately owned utilities from telecom to water, but also rail-crossing safety, limos and ride sharing. Historically, Picker’s role has been more like that of an administrative judge than a police chief.

“If you want to get the Legislature to allow me to be a total dictator, and make decisions overnight, I’m happy,” Picker elaborated to reporters afterward. “That’s not what our job is. We are like a technical court. People have to have their day in court. It’s not a fast process. Have you been in a court proceeding that took one day?”

But his answer on the challenges of enforcement frustrated lawmakers, on whom political pressure has mounted with every disaster. The CPUC is not known for swiftness. It took nine years to issue a statewide fire-threat map after Southern California fires, caused by Santa Ana winds whipping power lines, prompted commissioners in 2009 to demand one. It has laid out a two-month schedule just for reviewing fire-prevention plans utilities must submit under recent and hard-fought wildfire safety legislation.

After Picker’s testimony, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, a forensic dentist who represents fire-ravaged Santa Rosa, took to Twitter.

“I want to hear a sense of urgency,” he wrote. “We don’t have time for a standard bureaucratic approach.”


Amassing ‘More Tools’

Ultimately, the fire challenge involves painful long-term decisions such as how to reconcile the acute demand for California housing with the suddenly limited supply of land that isn’t in a high-risk fire zone.

Short-term, Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa is among those who hope incremental improvements might make a difference. He is proposing the commission work with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to improve coordination for turning off power in red-flag weather, alerting residents to evacuate and better targeting crews to fight fires. His Senate Bill 209 would establish an official, statewide California wildfire warning center.

“It would give us more tools in trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dodd said.

Emergency officials also are studying past fires, and preparing. Survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties complained they had little or no warning when the flames flared up at night under dry windy conditions. Local officials opted against sending out a mass alert for fear of causing panic or hindering emergency responders.

“Everybody I talk to in our neighborhood pretty much either had family call or a neighbor knock on the door. I don’t know of anyone that got an emergency alert,” said Patrick McCallum, a higher education lobbyist who barely escaped his Santa Rosa home with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki. “Worse, there were police and fire engines running around, but they were not allowed to put their alarms on.”

In coming weeks, the state is expected to issue clearer guidance to all 58 counties for issuing alerts and warnings to the public across multiple platforms. The new thinking is to over-communicate, rather than rely on the alerts of the 1980s sent over television and radio or ringing landlines.

“It is something people depend on to make decisions in a crisis,” OES’ Huston said.

The state also believes pushing out wireless emergency alerts on smartphones similar to an Amber Alert can now be done effectively without creating chaos. This simple weather warning was sent out to seven counties encompassing 22 million people in Southern California in December 2017 as a precaution after authorities saw dry windy conditions similar to the wine country fire two months earlier:

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay Alert. Listen to authorities.”

This fire season, Californians may see it again.


A Firefighting Air Force

Meanwhile, Cal Fire is beefing up its capabilities. Rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts.

The switch comes at a price; Cal Fire’s expenses now already routinely exceed its budget. Last year’s fire spending set a new record, and the political climate has made the outlays difficult to question.

“That’s expensive, because you’re paying the same amount of money for firefighters whether they’re fighting a fire or sitting waiting for a fire to start,” Huston said. “But you have to weigh that against the potential for loss and the expense of a disaster.”

The state already boasts a formidable firefighting air force, featuring S-2T air tankers that dump 1,200 gallons of flame retardant and Huey helicopters for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

This spring, the Hueys will start to be replaced by more modern Black Hawks, the Army’s frontline utility helicopter. The first one is expected to be ready in May, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

And over the next two years, Cal Fire will add seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Those will be retrofitted to carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“California will have one of, if not the largest, firefighting air forces in the world,” McLean said.


What About the Utilities?

At ground zero in much of the state are California’s investor-owned utilities and their spark-prone equipment. PG&E has vowed to expand power shut-off territory to as many as 5.4 million customers, up from 570,000 today. SCE is focused on better weather monitoring, adding 62 high-definition cameras and 350 micro weather stations as part of a broader $582 million safety plan.

And SDG&E, which has been most aggressive with more than $1 billion in safety upgrades, will continue to replace wood poles with steel poles, hire a helitanker on standby year-round, and contract with firefighters especially trained to put out electrical fires.

Yet there’s no statewide standard for deciding when the power should be shut off. Instead, participating utilities base decisions on temperature, wind, humidity and other factors. SDG&E has been lauded for its proactive use of public safety power shutoffs.

PG&E’s rollout has been less reassuring.

Two days before the most destructive wildfire in California history ignited, 62,000 PG&E customers in eight counties, including Butte, were warned that their power could be turned off as a precautionary measure. This was sent at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6: This is an important safety alert from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Extreme weather conditions and high fire-danger are forecasted in Butte County. These conditions may cause power outages in the area of your address. To protect public safety, PG&E may also temporarily turn off power in your neighborhood or community. If there is an outage, we will work to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Cal Fire reports the Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8.

PG&E never shut off power. In fact, the utility went on to issue cancellation notifications hours after the deadly blaze started. Sent at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8: “This is an important safety update from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Weather conditions have improved in your area, and we are not planning to turn off electricity for safety in the area of your address.”

PG&E wouldn’t comment on its decision. The California Public Utilities Commission would say only that it is investigating when asked if the state was looking at why the utility didn’t initiate a blackout.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Despite the willful denunciation of proven climate science by the White House and some members of Congress, there is a hopeful awakening in the United States: Young activists are stepping forward to demand a Green New Deal that guarantees climate action, justice and economic security for all.

A Green New Deal would not be a single law, but rather a collection of policies that embody many of the actions needed to expand clean energy, grow job opportunities, reduce climate pollution, improve air and water quality, and enhance the resilience of communities.

In any plan to help us transition from an economy built on fossil fuels to one driven by clean energy, our public lands should feature prominently.

We need a climate plan for public lands that will manage a phase-down of fossil-fuel leasing and production in line with current climate science. At the same time, we must support those communities most affected by pollution and boom-and-bust energy cycles as they transition to the energy of the future.

Climate change is the largest and most-misunderstood problem humanity will ever face. There is no previous situation to compare it to, no successful historical model to reference—and that just makes the issue even riper for the critics who claim it simply doesn’t exist.

During the 24th international climate conference, newly released information confirmed that we are facing a slow-motion global catastrophe. According to a battery of scientific reports from thousands of the world’s foremost experts, we are closer than expected to warming levels that would result in severe, perhaps irrevocable, changes in natural systems.

Winters are shorter; summers hotter and drier; our fishing streams run warmer; and ski slopes stay bare. Coral reefs are dying, and glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park. Life forms on this planet—from pollinators to polar bears—are struggling to create another generation. Closer to home, some human communities are burning to the ground while others are deluged in floods.

We already have the knowledge to avert the worst of these effects, but we lack the collective will to do so. Politicians in the Trump era are normalizing negligence every time they dismiss scientific consensus by uttering, “I don’t believe it.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure is a microcosm of this denial: He spent 21 months in blind pursuit of “energy dominance,” a doctrine that enshrines oil, gas and coal production as the highest use of America’s public lands, regardless of the climate pollution they cause.

Fossil-energy extraction is the preferred tenant on America’s public lands. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, developers can purchase and lock up America’s favorite outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitat for years so that oil developers and mining companies have sole access.

That dirty secret means that public lands are a major source of the nation’s climate-emissions problem. In fact, if our public lands were their own country, its emissions would rank fifth in the world, according to data released by the Trump administration.

We should utilize our already-degraded lands to drive geothermal, wind and solar energy, working in cooperation with local communities while safeguarding our wildlife and wilderness-quality lands. Our elected leaders must eliminate the subsidies and regulatory loopholes that prop up ailing coal, oil and gas producers and permit needless methane waste and other pollution.

We must protect our public lands in large, connected blocks that span the continent to help wildlife species and entire ecosystems adapt to a warming world.

And we should support a just transition to a clean, sustainable economy that puts people to work in jobs that conserve and restore our public lands, including building trails, restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitat and improving facilities at our parks and monuments.

Let’s reimagine the role we want our public lands to play at this pivotal time in history. We all have a say in how our greatest natural legacy is handed down to the next generation.

More than a century ago, early visionaries had the forethought to create America’s vast system of public lands. Now, more than ever, we need the same courageous thinking to address the most pressing challenge of our time.

Jamie Williams is president of The Wilderness Society, which was founded in 1935 and now has more than 1 million members and supporters. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

In Southern Utah, there is a patch of desert heated by infrared lamps. The lamps hang just above the plants and soil crusts commonly found in this desert surrounding Moab.

These lamps help scientists study how temperature increases impact plants and soils living in this already hot desert. On any given day, science technicians can be seen reaching underneath the lamps to measure the size of each grass blade and the number of seeds on each shrub. The information gleaned helps land managers know what to expect from ecosystems as temperatures increase, allowing them to manage for both ecosystem integrity and multiple land uses as climate changes.

During this partial government shutdown, however, the plants are going unmeasured, cutting off the continuous observations necessary for careful science and creating a gap in this long-term data set.

When the government partially shut down on Dec. 21, sending home employees from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service, the important science being done across the country ground to a halt—with consequences extending beyond the loss of plant measurements or the paychecks upon which these employees rely.

In parts of the West, where the economy is tied directly to the integrity of federal lands, using science to understand how these landscapes work and respond to change is essential to the economic well-being of the region. Economic drivers occurring on federal lands such as recreation, resource extraction, grazing and wildlife resources rely on science to inform evidence-based management. While research universities generate some of this science, the shear extent of public lands in the West requires the region to rely on government scientists to provide additional research about how to manage these lands.

The partial shutdown has forced federally conducted science and the science occurring on federal lands into disarray. It has delayed or canceled conferences that are necessary for research and for sharing and learning new information. Applications for research permits on federal lands and the hiring of seasonal or contractual employees has been halted. Scientists who need research funding can’t get it. My own research exploring how nutrients move through desert soils has been impacted. Ongoing work to publish research has been delayed without access to my government collaborators, and decisions about federal fellowships I’ve applied for and am relying on to complete my dissertation research with the University of Texas at El Paso have been put on hold.

In the West, the immediate impacts extend beyond the science and scientists themselves to the volunteers, educators and visitors who are no longer able to engage with the science and science resources the region has to offer. The loss of paychecks and visitors measurably impacts our economy. The unquantified impacts do the same, damaging the science being generated with taxpayer dollars and diminishing our ability to use science to the advantage of our landscapes and economies.

While the short-term consequences of disruption to federal and federally supported science are substantial, the long-term consequences can be severe. Entire seasons of data collection may need to be canceled due to the backlog of hiring and funding that is likely to occur. Important cultural and scientific resources on public lands face the risk of vandalization or loss without federal employees and volunteers monitoring them. Over the long haul, disruptions in funding for scientists who rely on consistent access to research sites, laboratories, seasonal personnel and volunteers can easily drive top scientists away from working for federal agencies. The likelihood of losing top federal scientists to university or private-sector jobs only grows as the record-breaking shutdown goes on. Without the best minds working to understand our federal lands and pressing problems, our ability to manage and adapt suffers—and so do we.

Out in the desert, the plants and soils are continuing to respond to the heat-lamp induced warming with no one to track their responses. Meanwhile, the average air temperatures for the region continue to climb. As land use and climate change accelerate in the West, we all lose when avoidable shutdowns degrade our ability to understand, manage and adapt to the changing world around us.

In the West, continuity in science matters. Let’s communicate to our elected officials that Westerners value consistent science funding for the betterment of the lands and economies we rely on.

Kristina Young is a scientist living in Southeast Utah. She is a former Wyss Scholar for the Conservation of the American West and the host and producer of the regional science show Science Moab on KZMU. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

“In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys.” —George Orwell

“Who cares whether they laugh at us or insult us, treating us as fools or criminals? The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.” —Adolf Hitler

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the federal government released the second volume of its Fourth National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming increasingly threatens our nation’s environment, our health and our prosperity. When asked the following Monday to comment on the assessment, the product of 13 government agencies and 300 scientists, President Donald Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it.”

That same day, Alex Jones’ conspiracy-fueled website, Infowars, cited a tweet by the president—“Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS—Whatever happened to Global Warming?”—to attack the report, impugning its researchers as potential “connivers for the United Nations’ carbon tax scam … shilling to fund Agenda 21 totalitarianism hysteria.”

And just like that, the president had all the rhetorical cover he needed to justify his anti-environmental policies.

Welcome to Alt-America, a topsy-turvy world of conspiracy theories, half-baked ideas and “alternative facts,” where trolls are real, and news is fake, where facts don’t matter, and lies don’t, either. This shadow realm was a favorite haunt of Donald Trump before he ran for president, and gained greater prominence with his election. We all live in Alt-America now, awash in its alternative realities, propaganda and the kind of doublespeak that George Orwell made famous in his 1949 novel, 1984, so it’s probably a good time to ask how we got here, and where it all leads.

In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, journalist and author David Neiwert charts the emergence of alternative realities and their spread across extremist groups. This, he argues, primed the electorate for the rise of Trump and has buoyed him ever since. Neiwert traces this contingent of the president’s supporters back to the 1990s Patriot movement—a collage of anti-government groups—and the rise of online misogynists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other manifestations of extremism.

From its beginning, the Patriot movement promoted white supremacy, Christian identity and conspiracy theories, fearing FEMA-sponsored concentration camps, black helicopter surveillance, a New World Order and chemtrails. Patriot ideology fractured like light through a prism with the rise of right-wing radio, conservative cable TV and the internet—what David Foster Wallace called “a kaleidoscope of information options.” The more available these options became, the less the public was able to debate the facts. Ultimately, the improbable ideas of paranoiacs made their way into mainstream political conversations, online and at the table.

The Patriots and other fringe groups have since thrived. They have myriad manifestations—Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, sovereign citizens, border militias, constitutional sheriffs—but the movement still draws strength from “a deep vein of anti-government sentiment that had been simmering among conservatives for many years,” Neiwert writes. In August 2016, when candidate Trump suggested that the “Second Amendment people” do something about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he was appealing to this group, showing that once-inconceivable political speech is now viable, even advantageous.

As Alt-America emerged, so did its Western corollary. Neiwert spends two full chapters on Patriot-supported standoffs between the Bundys and the feds. He recalls the racist speeches of Cliven Bundy outside Bunkerville, Nev., where the elder Bundy suggested “the Negro” may have been better off as a slave. Here, Neiwert correctly links the white supremacist roots of the Patriot movement to its resurgence under President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. (Donald Trump’s first foray into alt-politics was his relentless support of the so-called “birther” conspiracy, which claimed President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen.)

Neiwert links this kind of alternative thinking with Bundyism, the ideology that brought about the Nevada standoff; the siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; the illegal “protest” ride of ATVs through Utah’s Recapture Canyon; and the militia-vs.-government conflicts over the Sugar Pine and White Hope mines, in Oregon and Montana.

These are all versions of alternate reality, self-reinforcing and powerful. “The internet made possible alternative universes such as the one inhabited by the adherents of the Patriot movement, or Alex Jones’ conspiracy milieu: constructed of fabrications based on fragments, interacting with others’ shared realities but operating almost entirely within its own framework,” Neiwert writes. “It began as a relatively small world limited largely to a fringe in the 1990s, but was resilient and grew steadily as the new century advanced. In the end, it gave birth not just to the alt-right, but also to the much larger universe of Alt-America.”


Where does this lead? Nowhere good. As journalist and literary critic Michiko Kakutani writes in The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, we now live in a place where “truth increasingly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, facts are fungible and socially constructed, and we often feel as if we’ve been transported to an upside-down world where assumptions and alignments in place for decades have suddenly been turned inside out.”

This helps explain why, she writes, “47 percent of Republicans erroneously believe that Trump won the popular vote; 68 percent believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016; and more than half of Republicans say they would be OK with postponing the 2020 presidential election until such problems with illegal voting can be fixed,” and why “25 percent of Americans believe that the 2008 (financial) crash was secretly orchestrated by a small cabal of bankers; 19 percent believe that the U.S. government had a hand in the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and 11 percent even believe a theory made up by the researchers—that compact fluorescent lightbulbs were part of a government plot to make people more passive and easy to control.”

These falsehoods gave rise to Trump, yes, but Trump is not the water; he’s a big ol’ catfish, and Kakutani gracefully describes the murky pond we all share with him. Some of this mental gunk comes from the passive intake of alternative reality through social media, but some is the active work of populists. One of their more insidious efforts, as Kakutani describes it, is “the populist Right’s appropriation of postmodernist arguments and its embrace of the philosophical repudiation of objectivity—schools of thought affiliated for decades with the Left and with the very elite academic circles that Trump and company scorn.” These efforts “deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception” and have attacked scientific theories as socially constructed, “informed by the identity of the person positing the theory and the values of the culture in which they are formed; therefore, science cannot possibly make claims to neutrality or universal truths.”

When Trump says he doesn’t “believe” the U.S. government’s own climate assessment, he is asserting that his belief is what matters. It’s a common mode now, feeling over fact, part of mainstream Republican thought, and easy to spot. Consider the following exchange, recounted by Kakutani, between CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota and GOP operative Newt Gingrich, at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” Gingrich said, in defense of Trump’s law-and-order remarks. “People are frightened. People feel that their government has abandoned them.”

When Camerota pointed out that statistics showing that the country was more safe, not less, weren’t “liberal numbers,” but rather compiled by the FBI, Gingrich countered: “No, but what I said is equally true. People feel it.”

Here, then, is the real danger. Right now, we live in a country not only fueled by raw emotions, but steered by them as well. This can be dangerous on either extreme of the political spectrum, but today it’s coming from far-right populism. People feel that immigrants are taking jobs, that America is unsafe and sullied. They believe that America was once great, with its white ruling class and people in their proper places. They feel afraid, and so have thrown open the door to authoritarianism. This distortion permits the president to co-opt terms like “fake news,” or to attack journalists as “enemies of the people,” invoking, incredibly, a term used by Lenin, Stalin and the genocidal leaders of the Khmer Rouge, at no political cost. It emboldens a president who lies for the “same reason that Vladimir Putin lies,” according to journalist Masha Gessen: “to assert power over truth itself.”

Suddenly, comparisons to 1984 (Amazon’s best-selling book in the month before Trump’s inauguration) cut too close for comfort. Kakutani quotes 1984 at length, as it describes how “the party and Big Brother exert control over reality” by controlling speeches, statistics and records, so that “no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. … Thus history is continuously rewritten.”

Compare that fiction to reality, Kakutani suggests, when, after Trump’s Inauguration, “changes were being made to the climate change pages on the White House website,” as environmental activists “were frantically trying to download and archive government climate data—worried that it might be destroyed or lost or hidden by a hostile administration. Some of their fears were realized later in 2017, when the EPA announced that its website was ‘undergoing changes that reflect the agency’s new direction,’ including this Orwellian phrase: ‘updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership.’” Thus history is rewritten.

That was more than a year ago, a very long time in Alt-America. Today, the president doesn’t need to scrub information from his government’s websites. Why bother? The Fourth National Climate Assessment was required by law and therefore unavoidable, undertaken in good faith by public servants and scientists who still believe in facts and reality. None of that matters, though, because “I don’t believe it” is the only fact the great leader needs.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News, where this piece was first published.

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump

By David Neiwert

Verso

464 pages, $16.95 (reprint edition)

The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

By Michiko Kakutani

Tim Duggan

208 pages, $22

Published in Literature

On this week's peppermint-scented weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World talks to the conservative on all those Sunday morning news shows; Jen Sorensen tries to get into the festive holiday spirit; The K Chronicles rejoices in the innocence of kids; Red Meat deals with illnesses from the kids; and Apoca Clips is redacted.

Published in Comics

On this week's pumpkin-spice-flavored weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World watches how conservatives respond to an extinction-level event; Jen Sorenson fears a taxing day at the polls; The K Chronicles enjoys some youth baseball; Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy and Li'l Kayne babble; and Red Meat prepares for a big date.

Published in Comics

“Fake news” is not a new thing. In Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, Project Censored’s vivid cover art recalls H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The situation today may feel as desolate as the cover art suggests.

Censored 2019 is a book about fighting fake news,” editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff observed in the book’s introduction. In the end, they argued that “critical media education—rather than censorship, blacklists, privatized fact-checkers, or legislative bans—is the best weapon for fighting the ongoing fake news invasion.”

Project Censored’s annual list of 25 censored stories, which makes up the book’s lengthy first chapter, is one of the best resources one can have for such education.

Project Censored has long been engaged in much more than just uncovering and publicizing stories kept down and out of the corporate media. Over the years, it added new analytical categories, including sensationalist and titillating Junk Food News stories. But through it all, the list of censored stories remains central to Project Censored’s mission, which, the editors point out, can be read in two different ways: “As a critique of the shortcomings of U.S. corporate news media for their failure to adequately cover these stories, or as a celebration of independent news media, without which we would remain either uninformed or misinformed about these crucial stories and issues.”


1. Global Decline in the Rule of Law as Basic Human Rights Diminish

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017–2018, released in January 2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016—the month before Trump’s election.

Fundamental rights—one of eight categories measured—declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries’ scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The United States ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers and deepening discrimination.

Fundamental rights include the absence of discrimination, the right to life and security, due process, the freedom of expression and religion, the right to privacy, the freedom of association and labor rights.

“All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement,” Yale professor of history and law Samuel Moyn told The Guardian the day the index was released. “Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalising economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality.”

This reflects the thesis of Moyn’s most recent book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Constraints on government powers, which measures the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second-greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the United States saw the greatest deterioration, the World Justice Project stated in a press release. “While all sub-factors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power—based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures—declined most markedly,” the press release stated.  

The United States also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination.

The four Nordic countries—Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden—remained in the top four positions. New Zealand, Canada and Australia were the only top 10 countries outside of Europe.

“The WJP’s 2017–2018 Rule of Law Index received scant attention from U.S. corporate media,” Project Censored noted. The only coverage they found was a Newsweek article drawing on The Guardian’s coverage.


2. “Open-Source” Intelligence Secrets Sold to Highest Bidders

In March 2017, WikiLeaks released Vault 7, a trove of 8,761 leaked confidential CIA files about its global hacking programs, which WikiLeaks described as the “largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” It drew significant media attention.

But almost no one noticed what George Eliason of OpEdNews pointed out.

“Sure, the CIA has all these tools available,” Eliason pointed out. “Yes, they are used on the public. The important part is (that) it’s not the CIA that’s using them. That’s the part that needs to frighten you.”

As Eliason went on to explain, the CIA’s mission prevents it from using the tools, especially on Americans.

“All the tools are unclassified, open-source, and can be used by anyone,” Eliason explained. “It makes them not exactly usable for secret-agent work. That’s what makes it impossible for them to use Vault 7 tools directly.”

Drawing heavily on more than a decade of reporting by Tim Shorrock for Mother Jones and The Nation, Eliason’s OpEdNews series reported on the explosive growth of private contractors in the intelligence community, which allows the CIA and other agencies to gain access to intelligence gathered by methods they’re prohibited from using.

In a 2016, report for The Nation, Shorrock estimated that 80 percent of an estimated 58,000 private intelligence contractors worked for the five largest companies. He concluded that “not only has intelligence been privatized to an unimaginable degree, but an unprecedented consolidation of corporate power inside U.S. intelligence has left the country dangerously dependent on a handful of companies for its spying and surveillance needs.”

Eliason reported how private contractors pioneered open-source intelligence by circulating or selling the information they gathered before the agency employing them had reviewed and classified it; therefore, “no one broke any laws.” As a result, according to Eliason’s second article, “People with no security clearances and radical political agendas have state-sized cyber tools at their disposal, (which they can use) for their own political agendas, private business, and personal vendettas.”

Corporate media reporting on Vault 7 sometimes noted but failed to focus on dangerous role of private contractors, Project Censored pointed out—with the notable exception of am op-ed in The Washington Post in which Shorrock reviewed his previous reporting and concluded that over-reliance on private intelligence contractors was “a liability built into our system that intelligence officials have long known about and done nothing to correct.”


3. World’s Richest One Percent Continue to Become Wealthier

In November 2017, Credit Suisse released its 8th Annual Global Wealth Report which The Guardian reported on under the headline, Richest 1% Own Half the World’s Wealth, Study Finds.

The wealth share of the world’s richest people increased “from 42.5 percent at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1 percent in 2017,” The Guardian reported, adding that “the biggest losers … are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents.”

“(Despite being more educated than their parents), millennials are doing less well than their parents at the same age, especially in relation to income, home ownership and other dimensions of well-being assessed in this report,” Rohner Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner said. “We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high-demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the ‘millennial disadvantage.’”

“No other part of the wealth pyramid has been transformed as much since 2000 as the millionaire and ultra-high net worth individual (known as UHNWI) segments,” the report said. “The number of millionaires has increased by 170 percent, while the number of UHNWIs (individuals with net worth of $50 million or more) has risen five-fold, making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders.”

There were of 2.3 million new dollar millionaires this year, taking the total to 36 million.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000,” The Guardian reported. “Collectively these people, who account for 70 percent of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7 percent of global wealth.”

“Tremendous concentration of wealth and the extreme poverty that results from it are problems that affect everyone in the world, but wealth inequalities do not receive nearly as much attention as they should in the establishment press,” Project Censored noted. “The few corporate news reports that have addressed this issue—including an August 2017 Bloomberg article and a July 2016 report for CBS’s MoneyWatch—focused exclusively on wealth inequality within the United States. As Project Censored has previously reported, corporate news consistently covers the world’s billionaires while ignoring millions of humans who live in poverty.”


4. How Big Wireless Convinced Us Cell Phones and Wi-Fi Are Safe

Are cell phones and other wireless devices really as safe we’ve been led to believe? Don’t bet on it, according to decades of buried research reviewed in a March 2018 investigation for The Nation by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie.

“The wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did; it also borrowed from the same public-relations playbook those industries pioneered,” Hertsgaard and Dowie reported. “Like their tobacco and fossil-fuel brethren, wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products. … On the contrary, the industry—in America, Europe and Asia—has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quacks, and that consumers have nothing to fear.”

Their report comes at the same time as several new developments are bringing the issue to the fore, including a Kaiser Permanente study (published December 2017 in Scientific Reports) finding much higher risks of miscarriage; a study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology, finding increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor); and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France that nine out of 10 cell phones exceed government radiation safety limits when tested in the way they are actually used—next to the human body.

“The wireless industry has ‘war-gamed’ science by playing offense as well as defense, actively sponsoring studies that result in published findings supportive of the industry, while aiming to discredit competing research that raises questions about the safety of cellular devices and other wireless technologies,” Project Censored summarized. “When studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage, industry spokespeople have pointed out that the findings are disputed by other researchers.”

While some local media have covered the findings of a few selected studies, Project Censored notes, “the norm for corporate media is to report the telecom industry line—that is, that evidence linking Wi-Fi and cell phone radiation to health issues, including cancer and other medical problems, is either inconclusive or disputed. … As Hertsgaard and Dowie’s Nation report suggested, corporate coverage of this sort is partly how the telecom industry remains successful in avoiding the consequences of actions.”


5. The Washington Post Bans Employees from Using Social Media to Criticize Sponsors

On May 1, 2017, the Washington Post introduced a policy prohibiting its employees from criticizing its advertisers and business partners—and encouraging them to snitch on one another.

“A new social-media policy at The Washington Post prohibits conduct on social media that ‘adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners,” Andrew Beaujon reported in The Washingtonian the next month. “In such cases, Post management reserves the right to take disciplinary action ‘up to and including termination of employment.’”

Beaujon also cited “a clause that encourages employees to snitch on one another: ‘If you have any reason to believe that an employee may be in violation of The Post’s Social Media Policy … you should contact The Post’s Human Resources Department.’”

At the time, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents the Post’s employees, was protesting the policy and seeking removal of the controversial parts in a new labor agreement. A follow-up report by Whitney Webb for MintPress News highlighted the broader possible censorship effects, since prohibiting social-media criticism could spill over into reporting as well.

“Among The Washington Post’s advertisers are corporate giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America and Koch Industries,” Webb wrote. “With the new policy, social-media posts criticizing GlaxoSmithKline’s habit of making false and misleading claims about its products, inflating prices and withholding crucial drug safety information from the government will no longer be made by Post employees.”

Beyond that, Webb suggested it could protect the CIA, which has a $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the Post four months after that contract was signed.

“While criticism of the CIA is not technically prohibited by the new policy, former Post reporters have suggested that making such criticisms could endanger one’s career,” Webb noted.

“Corporate news coverage of The Washington Post’s social media policy has been extremely limited,” Project Censored noted.

It’s part of a much broader problem, identified in Jeremy Iggers’ 1998 book, Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and The Public Interest. Iggers argued that journalism ethics focused on individual reporters completely missed the larger issue of corporate conflicts whose systemic effects fundamentally undermine journalism’s role in a democracy.


6. Russiagate: A Two-Headed Monster of Propaganda and Censorship

Is Russiagate a censored story? In my view, not exactly. This entry seems to reflect a well-intentioned effort to critically examine fake-news-related issues within a “censored story” framework. It’s important that these issues be raised—which is one reason why I suggested above that Project Censored add “fake news” as a new analytical category to examine annually along with its censored stories list, “junk food news” and “news abuse.”

What Project Censored calls attention to is important: “Corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate has superseded other important, newsworthy stories.”

As a frustrated journalist with omnivorous interests, I heartily concur—but what’s involved is too complex to simply be labelled “propaganda.” On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is a classic, well-defined Project Censored story, which suffers from the attempt to fit both together.

In April 2017, Aaron Maté reported for The Intercept on a quantitative study of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show from Feb. 20 to March 31, 2017 which found that “Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.” Maté wrote: “Maddow’s Russia coverage has dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent), a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent).”

Well and good. But is this propaganda?

At Truthdig, Norman Solomon wrote: “As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia’s ‘attack on our democracy’ that is somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together.”

Also true. But it is not so much propaganda as Project Censored’s broader category of “news abuse,” which includes propaganda and spin among other forms of “distraction to direct our attention away from what we really need to know.” To fully grasp what’s involved requires a more complex analysis. On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is far more clear-cut and straightforward.

In a report for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Robin Andersen examined Russiagate-inspired censorship moves by Twitter, Google and others. A key initial target of this censorship was RT.

"RT’s reporting bears striking similarities to alternative and independent media content, and that is why letting the charges against RT stand unexamined is so dangerous," Andersen noted.

In fact, the government’s intelligence report on RT included its reporting on the dangers of fracking as part of its suspect activity. Beyond that, the spill-over suppression was dramatic: “Yet in the battle against fake news, much of the best, most accurate independent reporting is disappearing from Google searches,” Anderson said. “The World Socialist Web Site (8/2/17) reported that Google’s new search protocol is restricting access to leading independent, left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights websites. The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking.”

There were declines for AlterNet.org (63 percent), DemocracyNow.org (36 percent), CounterPunch.org (21 percent), ConsortiumNews.com (47 percent), MediaMatters.org (42 percent), and TheIntercept.com (19 percent), among others.

“Many people suffer when lies are reported as facts, but it seems that corporate media are the only ones that profit when they reinforce blind hostility—against not only Russia, but also legitimate domestic dissent,” Project Censored noted.


7. Regenerative Agriculture as “Next Stage” of Civilization

The world’s agricultural and degraded soils have the capacity to recover 50 to 66 percent of the historic carbon release into the atmosphere, according to a 2004 paper in Science—actually reversing the processes driving global warming.

A set of practices known as “regenerative agriculture” could play a major role in accomplishing that, while substantially increasing crop yields as well, according to information compiled and published by Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, in May 2017.

“For thousands of years, we grew food by depleting soil carbon, and in the last hundred or so, the carbon in fossil fuel as well,” food and farming writer Michael Pollan wrote. “But now we know how to grow even more food while at the same time returning carbon and fertility and water to the soil

Cummins, who’s also a founding member of Regeneration International, wrote that regenerative agriculture offers a “world-changing paradigm” that can help solve many of today’s environmental and public-health problems. As The Guardian explained: “Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, re-mineralizes soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertilizer runoff.”

“We can’t really solve the climate crisis (and the related soil, environmental, and public health crisis) without simultaneously solving the food and farming crisis,” Cummings wrote. “We need to stop putting greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere (by moving to 100 percent renewable energy), but we also need to move away from chemical-intensive, energy-intensive food, factory farming and land use, as soon as possible.”

In addition to global warming, there are profound economic and social justice concerns involved.

“Out-of-touch and out-of-control governments of the world now take our tax money and spend $500 billion ... a year mainly subsidizing 50 million industrial farmers to do the wrong thing,” Cummins wrote. “Meanwhile, 700 million small family farms and herders, comprising the 3 billion people who produce 70 percent of the world’s food on just 25 percent of the world’s acreage, struggle to make ends meet…. The basic menu for a Regeneration Revolution is to unite the world’s 3 billion rural farmers, ranchers and herders with several billion health, environmental and justice-minded consumers to overturn ‘business as usual’ and embark on a global campaign of cooperation, solidarity and regeneration.”

If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t be surprised. “Regenerative agriculture has received limited attention in the establishment press, highlighted by only two recent, substantive reports in the New York Times Magazine and Salon,” Project Censored wrote.


8. Congress Passes Intrusive Data-Sharing Law Under Cover of Spending Bill

On March 21, House Republicans released a 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. It passed both houses and was signed into law in two days. Attached to the spending provisions that made it urgent “must-pass” legislation was the completely unrelated Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act of 2018, also known as the CLOUD Act.

“The CLOUD Act enables the U.S. government to acquire data across international borders regardless of other nations’ data-privacy laws and without the need for warrants,” Project Censored summarized.

It also significantly weakens protections against foreign-government actions.

“It was never reviewed or marked up by any committee in either the House or the Senate,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s David Ruiz wrote. “It never received a hearing. … It was robbed of a stand-alone floor vote because Congressional leadership decided, behind closed doors, to attach this unvetted, unrelated data bill to the $1.3 trillion government spending bill.” Congressional leadership failed to listen to citizen concerns, Ruiz wrote, with devastating consequences:

“Because of this failure, U.S. and foreign police will have new mechanisms to seize data across the globe. Because of this failure, your private emails, your online chats, your Facebook, Google, Flickr photos, your Snapchat videos, your private lives online, your moments shared digitally between only those you trust, will be open to foreign law enforcement without a warrant and with few restrictions on using and sharing your information, privacy and human rights,” concluded Robyn Greene, who reported for Just Security.

“The little corporate news coverage that the CLOUD Act received tended to put a positive spin on it,” Project Censored noted. “(A glowing Washington Post op-ed) made no mention of potential risks to the privacy of citizens’ personal data, (and a CNET report that) highlighted the liberties that the CLOUD Act would provide corporations by simplifying legal issues concerning overseas servers.”

Because of this failure, U.S. laws will be bypassed on U.S. soil. Greene noted that the CLOUD Act negates protections of two interrelated existing laws. It creates an exception to the Stored Communications Act that allows certified foreign governments to request personal data directly from U.S. companies.

“This exception enables those countries to bypass the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process, which protects human rights by requiring foreign governments to work with the Department of Justice to obtain warrants from U.S. judges before they can access that data for their criminal investigations,” Greene explained. “The version of the bill that was included in the omnibus does include some improvements over the earlier version to help to mitigate the risks of bypassing the MLAT process … two changes (that) are important improvements. … Several other concerns have been left entirely unaddressed.”

“While the bill sponsors did try to address some of the concerns that have been raised, the improvements are not enough to shift the balance so that the CLOUD Act will be a boon, rather than a threat, to privacy and human rights,” Greene concluded.


9. Indigenous Communities Around World Helping to Win Legal Rights of Nature

In March 2017, the government of New Zealand ended a 140-year dispute with an indigenous Maori tribe by enacting a law that officially recognized the Whanganui River, which the tribe considers their ancestor, as a living entity with rights.

The Guardian reported it as “a world-first,” although the surrounding Te Urewera National Park had been similarly recognized in a 2014 law, and the U.S. Supreme Court came within one vote of potentially recognizing such a right in the 1972 case Sierra Club v. Morton, expressed in a dissent by Justice William O. Douglas. In addition, the broader idea of “rights of nature” has been adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia and by some American communities, noted Mihnea Tanasescu, writing for The Conversation.

The tribe’s perspective was explained to The Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.

“We consider the river an ancestor and always have,” Albert said. “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

But that could be just the beginning. “It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world,” Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. Others are advancing this perspective, DeVault wrote: “In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature.”

“A few corporate media outlets have covered the New Zealand case and subsequent decisions in India,” Project Censored noted. “However, these reports have not provided the depth of coverage found in the independent press or addressed how legal decisions in other countries might provide models for the United States.”


10. FBI Racially Profiling “Black Identity Extremists”

While white supremacists were preparing for the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in August 2017, the FBI’s counterterrorism division produced an intelligence assessment warning of a very different—though actually non-existent threat: “Black Identity Extremists.” The report appeared to be the first time the term had been used to identify a movement, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story.

“But former government officials and legal experts said no such movement exists, and some expressed concern that the term is part of a politically motivated effort to find an equivalent threat to white supremacists,” Foreign Policy reported.

“The use of terms like ‘black identity extremists’ is part of a long-standing FBI attempt to define a movement where none exists,” said former FBI agent Mike German, who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice. “Basically, it’s black people who scare them.”

“It’s classic Hoover-style labeling with little bit of maliciousness and euphemism wrapped up together,” said William Maxwell, a Washington University professor working on a book about FBI monitoring of black writers. “The language … strikes me as weird and really a continuation of the worst of Hoover’s past.”

“There is a long tradition of the FBI targeting black activists and this is not surprising,” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson told Foreign Policy.

A former homeland security official told them that carelessly connecting unrelated groups will make it harder for law enforcement to identify real threats. It’s so convoluted that it’s compromising officer safety, the former official said.

“The corporate media (has) covered the FBI report on ‘black identity extremists’ in narrow or misleading ways,” Project Censored noted, citing examples from The New York Times, Fox News and NBC News. “Coverage like this both draws focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such a movement thrive.”

Published in National/International

On this week's mushroom-shaped weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles ponders Donald Trump's fervent supporters; This Modern World looks at yet another Trump tweet cycle; Jen Sorenson predicts Brett Kavanaugh's oath of office; Red Meat offers up some special milk; and Apoca Clips talks to Li'l Trumpy, climate-change denier.

Published in Comics

If Jerry Brown could write the script in which he exits the political stage while still in the spotlight, he could do no better than what’s teed up for him later this week: presiding over the Global Climate Action Summit with a few hundred of his closest fellow leaders in the fight against global warming.

The San Francisco event is a hybrid of various high-level international meetings in which political figures discuss what can be done to address climate change, sign declarations, adjourn and then meet again later, somewhere else.

This summit, which Brown is co-hosting with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a bevy of international officials, aims to advance that staid model by including a broad group of “non-state actors”—mayors, governors and leaders representing regions rather than entire countries.

Brown’s extensive networking will come into play, as will two organizations he helped found. One is the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 200 governments vowing to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

A second grew out of his partnership with Bloomberg: America’s Pledge, a mix of states, cities and businesses that vow to adhere to the emission reductions set out in the Paris agreement.

Perhaps most intriguing is the inclusion of business in the proceedings. Large industries are sometimes shunned as the root of the climate-change problem and not seen as entities offering solutions. Brown’s idea is to invite companies to the table, take advantage of whatever solutions they offer, and then ask them to commit to specific goals for reducing greenhouse gases.

Whether and how such promises come to fruition, and whether any other meaningful actions come out of the summit, are the questions that typically bedevil these talk-heavy, photo-opportunity events.

“It could be a lot of pomp and not much action, but there could also be a lot of good things coming out of it,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

“If your metric for success is how confident are we that this will help us turn the corner—there’s certainly reason for pessimism. On the other hand, you have to keep trying,” Hecht said. “It’s possible that there will be some moment that the corner gets turned.”

Among the invitees are the heavy-hitters of the climate change world: former Vice President Al Gore; Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change; primatologist Jane Goodall; and prominent climate scientists and researchers. And, this being California, a sprinkling of activist movie stars and other celebrities will be on hand, including actors Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, and musician Dave Matthews.

But with business leaders front and center, the summit affords companies a chance to brag about their green credentials. As unusual as that opportunity may be at climate conferences, it’s not uncommon in California.

 In fact, much of the state’s conservation achievements have been driven by business advocacy, according to David Vogel, a retired business and political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His book, California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader, which was published in May, traces the influence of private enterprise in forging environmental and conservation policies.

“The state has carved out a leadership role on climate issues, but influential business leaders have historically supported much of that,” Vogel said, citing steamship companies’ having lobbied for Yosemite to become a national park, in part so they could gain the lucrative trade in ferrying visitors to California.

“Business has certainly awakened to self-interest around climate,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness, and environmental stewardship officer, at Kaiser Permanente, a health-care giant.

Kaiser donated $1 million to help fund the summit, as did the Schwab Charitable Trust, according to filings with the state. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave $1.25 million. Other sponsors contributed as well.

Kaiser set a goal to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent across the company by 2020, which was achieved three years early, she said. Climate change affects the health-care business—both its care facilities and its patients, she added.

“There are business risks associated with climate change—infrastructure where facilities are located, and storm damage. Those are real costs,” Gerwig said, referring to extreme weather and rising seas. “And the number, variety and severity of some of the health impacts of climate change are what’s front and center for our mind, that’s our business.”

She cited heat-related illness and the poor air quality that often plagues poorer neighborhoods.

Among the themes to be addressed in panels and seminars at the summit are inclusive economic growth, sustainable communities, and land and ocean stewardship. Some events are open to the public; others are not.

In keeping with the inclusive approach, there will be hundreds of side events, exhibits and tours in addition to the main speakers and panels. There will be much emphasis on environmental justice—how climate change can disproportionately harm low-income communities, many of which are near industrial sites that foul air and water.

The summit is expected to be accompanied by demonstrators—but they, too, are welcomed by at least some participants. A march is planned for the weekend before the conference, with another on its opening day. Greenpeace has docked its ship Arctic Sunrise, which will carry a banner calling for immediate action on climate change.

“I love the collaborative nature of this summit,” Gerwig said. “I don’t care what anybody’s motivation is for action on climate. … Come to the table.”

The official portions of the summit run Wednesday, Sept. 12, through Friday, Sept. 14, at the George R. Moscone Convention Center. Affiliated events will take place all week around the Bay Area.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

As California lawmakers struggled to address an apparent new normal of epic wildfires, there was an inescapable subtext: Climate change is going to be staggeringly expensive, and virtually every Californian is going to have to pay for it.

In the final week of August—just before the Legislature agreed to spend $200 million on tree clearance and let utilities pass on to customers the multi-billion-dollar costs of just one year’s fire damage—the state released a sobering report detailing the broader costs Californians face as the planet grows warmer.

As horrendous as the wildfire situation is, the report made clear that it’s just one line item on a colossal ledger: It could soon cost us $200 million a year in increased energy bills to keep homes air conditioned; $3 billion from the effects of a long drought; and $18 billion to replace buildings inundated by rising seas, just to cite a few projections—not to mention the loss of life from killer heat waves, which could add more than 11,000 heat-related deaths per year by 2050 in California, and carry an estimated $50 billion annual price tag.

“Without adaptation, the economic impacts of climate change will be very costly,” warned the Climate Change Assessment report from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research, noting that the buildup of manmade greenhouse gases has already warmed California by up to 2 degrees since 1900. That bump, the assessment added, could rise to nearly 9 degrees by the century’s end.

And Californians are being hit with a double-whammy because fighting and preparing for climate change also costs money, and the Golden State has embraced an ambitious agenda to combat global warming. For example, Californians pay more for gas in part because of the state’s low-carbon fuel requirement and the cap-and-trade system that makes polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are right now disproportionately bearing the brunt of both some of the impacts (of climate change) and trying to mitigate it ourselves,” said Solomon Hsiang, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the cost of climate change.

As that has sunk in, the reaction has been a mix of pragmatism, panic and political action.

As wildfires laid siege to the state and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of Californians earlier this summer, Brown warned that “over a decade, there will be more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it, more adaptation and more prevention.”

At the time, California had blown through a quarter of the state’s $443 million emergency wildfire fund; in the devastating 4 1/2 weeks since, the fund has been nearly wiped out.

“All that is the new normal we will have to face,” the governor said.

That realization swept through the Capitol again this week, as lawmakers approved a bill to require that all electricity in California come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by the end of 2045.

Senate Bill 100 was hailed as bold move away from climate-damaging fossil fuels—but legislative critics pointed out that California already has both the nation’s highest poverty rate and the highest per-kilowatt cost for electricity.

“I guarantee you: We pass this, and rates are going to go up,” Assembly Republican leader Brian Dahle said during a passionate floor debate. “Californians cannot afford it.”

Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat carrying the bill for 100 percent renewable electricity, dismissed cost concerns as nothing more than the rhetoric of naysayers “who try to undermine our clean-energy climate goals.” The cost of solar power has already dropped significantly and will likely continue to come down further, he said, in the years leading up to the 100 percent renewable requirement. And, his supporters argued, there is also a cost to not fighting climate change—even more fires and floods than would otherwise occur.

Noel Perry, a founder of Next 10, a group that researches environmental and economic policy, says the benefits of California’s climate policies outweigh the costs, because California can demonstrate to the rest of the world what’s possible to fight global warming while expanding the economy with clean technology investments. California’s economy, the world’s fifth-largest, has grown by 16 percent in the last decade while emissions fell by 11 percent, according to a new report from his group.

“In certain instances, it will involve increased costs for some consumers and businesses. But because of how huge the climate change challenge is, we need to address it,” Perry said.

In some cases, the increased costs for fuel and electricity are more directly offset by efficiency standards for cars and appliances meant to help Californians consume less energy. For example, a recent mandate requiring solar panels on new homes in 2020 will likely add $10,000 to the price of a house, but could save homeowners more than $16,000 in energy bills.

In any event, climate costs are no longer abstract. Lawmakers have spent much of this year deep in the political nitty-gritty of who should pay how much for which climate-fueled disaster. The total cost of last year’s catastrophic wildfires still isn’t fully tallied, for example, but some estimates put it over $10 billion, and lawmakers have spent much of the year debating how much of that should be paid by taxptubbsayers, utility companies or their industrial and residential ratepayers.

Under California’s liability law, utilities are liable for damages from any fires sparked by their power lines, even if they weren’t negligent. Cal Fire alleges that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment was involved in 16 of last year’s fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state codes that require keeping trees and shrubs away from power lines. The company says it met the state’s standards. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of last year’s blazes.

The utilities lobbied unsuccessfully this year to change the liability law. But they scored a partial win late Friday night as the Legislature OK'd a plan the wildfire committee advanced allowing utilities to issue bonds to cover damages from the 2017 fires and pass the cost onto their customers—even if the company is found negligent.

Senate Bill 901 would require a review of the companies’ finances before any surcharge is placed on ratepayers, and lawmakers supporting the plan said it would result in modest new charges—roughly $26 per year for residential ratepayers if the companies paid off $5 billion over 20 years. The alternative, they said, was the possibility that the company could go bankrupt, costing customers even more.

Consumer advocates blasted it as a “bailout” for PG&E; lobbyists for industries that use a lot of power said the plan would unfairly burden customers.

Meanwhile, the bill also calls for creation of a new Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery that would decide whether utilities can charge customers for fires in 2018 and beyond, and recommend potential changes to state law “that would ensure equitable distribution of costs among affected parties.”

Translation: Expect a lot more debate in the coming years over who will pay for damages from California disasters exacerbated by climate change.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

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