One-Hundred-Year Storm

photo of house with flag over fence
A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

With another hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast this weekend (Delta? does that mean they ran out names for this year? Yes, yes it does), the NYRB reviews a new book about New Orleans – Katrina: A History, 1915-2015:

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

It’s all one story – the land development, the discovery of oil, the expansive canal digging, the sinking, the demolished wetlands, the unprotected infrastructure at risk from large storms exacerbated the very activity of said infrastructure – that bleeds out into a completely understandable loss of civic faith. A few get rich, many suffer, told and re-told over and over again, from slave markets to oil refineries. Katrina, a long time in the making, can but remind us of other slow-motion catastrophes coming due just now.

[Night on] Earth Day

Let’s just take a look back at this little episode, shall we? Yes, we shall:

A massive deepwater oil spill is nearly as likely today as it was in 2010, experts warn, 10 years after the disastrous explosion of BP’s rig in the Gulf of Mexico that caused an environmental catastrophe.

The blowout killed 11 workers and spewed 4m barrels of petroleum into the ocean for 87 days before it could be capped, devastating marine life and polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline. Thousands were put out of work in oil, fisheries and tourism.

But experts say an incident of similar scale could happen again and has been made more likely by the Trump administration’s decision to loosen Obama-era safety rules. Those standards had grown from an independent commission’s damning findings of corporate and regulatory failures leading up to the spill.

Frances Ulmer, who served on the commission and is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said the government and industry have not made sufficient changes to prevent or respond to another mammoth spill.

Sufficient changes. Just what might those those be? It isn’t me walking to work (I do), or building a solar charging station for the car (we are). Those things are those things and they make my life better as they ease some pollution in my local community. But they’re not going to save anything – only collective action will do that. Governments working together to re-assert control that has been systematically ceded to corporations for the purpose of pillage and profit. Reigning in the unaccountable and including the costs of externalities in the price of everything we can buy are the things that will begin make a difference. The reduced economic activity of the past six weeks should give us a little hint of what is required if we had to cram for the test. If we [all] decided to start studying a little everyday, it would mean different political leaders, building codes, transportation alternatives, land development regulations, and prices than the ones we have today. How many of these are possible in the near term?

There’s an election in November.

Image: A man lays oil-absorbent boom as oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacts Cat Island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in 2010.
Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Tilting a Unlevel Playing Field

exxon-cardChoose your metaphor, but on the other side of decades-long collusion charges, professional climate change deniers in Congress want answers about the groups, people and states with the temerity to seek answers:

Following a months-long standoff between the House Science Committee and state attorneys general conducting an investigation into Exxon over climate change denialism, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has called a hearing to affirm his right to subpoena the state officials overseeing criminal investigations.

Smith, a noted climate change denier, has made repeated demands that the attorneys general and several environmental groups turn over their communications about Exxon, accusing them of embarking on an “unprecedented effort against those who have questioned the causes, magnitude, or best ways to address climate change.” The attorneys general, as well as the activist groups, have refused to comply with the committee’s requests, setting up a battle over subpoena power.

In a June statement, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), said that Smith’s demands were “not about legitimate oversight,” but that the committee was “harassing” attorneys general investigating Exxon.

While Smith has previously conducted investigations into the executive branch and scientists funded by Congress, now the chairman has issued subpoenas to two state attorneys general conducting a criminal investigation. He made a wide-ranging request for communications the states had with each other, environmental groups, and the federal government about an “investigation or potential prosecution of companies, nonprofit organizations, scientists, or other individuals related to the issue of climate change.”

Can you say protecting the rights of the accused not to even be accused? Check the fine print in the Bill of Rights, I think we missed something. Oh, and Smith – chairman of the House Science Committee. Orwell was piker.

Misleading Investors

gas-pump-climate-changeI guess if that’s how we’re going to see things. But it would be better to state at the outset that every instance of disbelieving, climate change skepticism rises from the deliberate misinformation campaign devised by fossil fuel extraction companies when their own research began to tell them that the delicious smell from the kitchen was their own bacon frying:

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released the results of an investigation that found one of the world’s largest coal companies had misled the public and its shareholders about the risks climate change could pose to its bottom line.

After several years of investigations, Schneiderman reached an agreement with Peabody Energy that won’t require the company to admit it broke the law and does not entail a fine or other penalty. Instead, Peabody must file revised shareholder disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission with new language acknowledging that “concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion…could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities.”

The agreement comes just days after Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, kicking off an investigation into whether the oil giant has misled investors and the public about the basic science of climate change for decades. Exxon has denied any wrongdoing. While the two investigations have some similarities, Exxon could face tougher penalties than Peabody, said Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas programs at Ceres, an investor advocacy group. The allegations against Exxon stretch back much further in time and could potentially be more serious, so the attorney general could pursue more aggressive action against the company, Logan said.

The Exxon practice is the actual real story here, one that goes back to the late seventies. The companies were no fools; they invested their own money in real research because they wanted to know the truth. They just decided that it was more important that you didn’t know. And that you questioned any attempts by the government to reign in your freedom. They even gave you a few things you could say.

Framing the practice of climate deception as ‘no duty’ to be truthful with investors may make it seem like a victimless crime, we’re all adults here and all’s fair in love n’ bidness, but c’mon.

What Exxon Knew

Consider the names we’ve had for it already: the greenhouse effect. Global warming, and it’s corollary, AGW. Climate change. Treating a planet warming from CO2 like a parlor game, and especially by using the tobacco industry, to see how long we can maintain our ignorance up to and even about whether anything can be done about it takes special effort. And Exxon has had their best people on it since the 70’s:

There’s a sense, of course, in which one already assumed that this was the case. Everyone who’s been paying attention has known about climate change for decades now. But it turns out Exxon didn’t just “know” about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company’s tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO2 readings over the ocean. By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company’s management committee that there was “general scientific agreement” that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO2; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, we would increase temperatures two to three degrees Celsius. That’s just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day. “Present thinking,” Black wrote in summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Those numbers were about right, too. It was precisely ten years later—after a decade in which Exxon scientists continued to do systematic climate research that showed, as one internal report put it, that stopping “global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion”—that NASA scientist James Hansen took climate change to the broader public, telling a congressional hearing, in June of 1988, that the planet was already warming. And how did Exxon respond? By saying that its own independent research supported Hansen’s findings? By changing the company’s focus to renewable technology?

That didn’t happen. Exxon responded, instead, by helping to set up or fund extreme climate-denial campaigns.

It’s not enough to know this, nor to merely compare it to the efforts of Big Tobacco. It will require a systematic dismantling of Big Oil because as presently organized, only it will decide when or if anything is to be done. Listen to the presidential candidates on the right. Big Oil’s work has been done and done well. The best tactic – accuse your opponents of what you yourself have been doing – remains operable. The charge that scientists support climate science because it brings in big grant money is not only laughable in terms of the profits realized by research scientists in the energy companies employ, not to mention by candidates for higher office.coalcan2

As much as they blame other forces, it is rapacious capitalists that threaten capitalism, though the misery is amplified by the fact that so many canaries will have to be tried and executed before we understand how dangerous the mine is.

Via Erik at LGM.