Thursday, December 22, 2011

12/21 and 12/22

On the second day of Hanukkah, my EPA gave to me: cleaner air to breathe and fewer neurotoxin poisoning me...

More than twenty years after the passage of the amended Clean Air Act (which was supported, of course, by many Republicans and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, back in a time when there was such a thing as GOP sanity) gave it the authority to limit emissions of mercury and other airborne toxic pollutants, the EPA finally unveils regulations requiring power plants to clean up their mess:
Congress gave the EPA the authority to limit these toxins — which include mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide — in 1990, but disagreements among federal regulators, industry officials and activists over how best to regulate them have stalled action until now.


The EPA estimates the new regulation’s safeguards — which are slated to fully take effect in three years — will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year by 2016 and will cost the industry $9.6 billion in compliance that year. By comparison, the agency projects reducing these emissions will save between $37 billion and $90 billion in 2016 in annual health costs and lost workdays.
As David Roberts says, this is a big deal:
Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. It will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live.
Yet despite two decades to prepare for these new rules and adopt clean technologies, the big polluters are still stuck in the past and they don't want to change — public health be damned!:
Scott H. Segal, who represents utilities that would be affected by the rule, said the E.P.A. was playing down the costs and double-counting the benefits. “The bottom line,” he said in an analysis of the regulation, is that “this rule is the most expensive air rule that E.P.A. has ever proposed in terms of direct costs.”

He added, “It is certainly the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that E.P.A. has ever attempted to implement.”
I suppose it's true that it is expensive, but that's when you ignore all the benefits. Luckily, despite the slow action from the federal level, many states have already adopted similar rules, so we actually have quite a bit of evidence on how these rules would affect the coal-burning utilities. And guess what? The lights didn't go out. And nope, their economies weren't crippled by the draconian regulations. Instead, coal plants made the necessary adjustments. And now, some of those very utilities who've already installed anti-pollution equipment are pushing back against the usual, discredited Republican lies about the evils and high costs of environmental regulations:
Ralph Izzo, the chief executive of the Public Service Enterprise Group, the parent of New Jersey’s largest electric utility, said his company had spent $1.3 billion to bring his plants into compliance with New Jersey’s air quality rules, which are as stringent as the new federal standards. He said other utilities had had more than enough notice to clean up their facilities in advance of the federal rule announced on Wednesday.

Mr. Izzo said that the E.P.A. action was “long overdue,” and that the Clean Air Act, under which the new standards were issued, provided enough flexibility to allow all power generators to come into compliance without a threat to the electric supply.
The AP decides to investigate the claims of Big Pollution and finds they're bunk, as well:
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is an association of companies producing electricity from coal, said the rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and make electricity less reliable. A study by the group estimated that as much as 12 percent of coal-fired generation would be forced to retire due to the regulation.

But an AP survey of 55 power plant producers found that estimate, and others, to be inflated. The mercury rule, along with another to reduce power plant pollution that blows downwind, will force portions of more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states to retire, and put another 36 power plants on the brink of retirement.

But not a single operator interviewed said the EPA was solely to blame for the decision. And coal is still likely to be the country's dominant electricity source until 2035, according to the Energy Information Administration.

For the older, aging plants, many of which only ran when electricity demand peaked, the rules were the final blow. Coal was already struggling to compete against low natural-gas prices, demand from China and elsewhere driving up its price, and lower electricity demand.

The average age of the units retiring or at risk of shutting down was 51 years old, the AP found. And while they produce enough power for more than 22 million households, experts say they probably won't cause the lights to go out, because in many cases the power is being replaced.
It's worth pointing out again what exactly the benefits of the new regulation are, since the anti-environment, pro-pollution lobby will no doubt seek to hijack the debate over this into one focused solely on costs, costs, costs; as EDF notes:
According to EPA, the new rules will:
  • Prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths each year
  • Prevent up to 4,700 heart attacks each year
  • Prevent up to 130,000 asthma attacks each year
  • Prevent up to 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits each year
  • Prevent up to 540,000 missed work or school days each year
The rules will also provide employment for thousands. The updating of older power plants with modern air pollution control technology will support:
  • 46,000 new short-term construction jobs
  • 8,000 long-term utility jobs
The value of the air quality improvements for human health alone will be as much as $90 billion each year.
And all that doesn't even touch on the benefits provided to wildlife, particularly those in streams, lakes, and other bodies of water where bioaccumulation of these toxins has been a serious issue. As this graphic shows, power plants are responsible for a large amount of a variety of airborne pollutants, so this new rule takes a huge step towards cleaning up our air (and land and water, too).

Seems like a pretty strong case for regulation, but if there's one thing we can expect, it's that Big Coal and their friends will continue to spend millions lobbying for less stringent rules:
Amy Poszywak at SNL Financial reports that lobbying among the largest U.S. power companies topped $11 million in the third quarter of 2011 (the latest figures available) and that expenses have been high all year.

The lobbying done by energy corporations was intended to shape and defer rules coming from the Environmental Protection Agency (often under court order) that would cut air pollution, redefine coal ash as a toxic waste, and upgrade coal plants' cooling water systems to avoid killing fish.
In light of this intense lobbying effort, along with a mixed environmental record by the Obama administration so far, it's truly an act worth praising:
The decision compensates, at least in part, for the White House’s lamentable decision two months ago to reject stricter health standards for smog. That and the administration’s failure to give full-throated support to climate change legislation last year had disheartened many of the president’s environmental supporters.

The administration can now legitimately point to three measures that will almost certainly lead to cleaner power plants and vehicles, more breathable air and fewer greenhouse gas emissions: a ruling in July setting new limits on interstate emissions of sulfur dioxide, the main acid rain gas; a landmark deal announced in November aimed at doubling automobile fuel efficiency by 2025; and, now, the new mercury rule.

Given the long history of drought in here in the Southwest, and with a hotter, drier climate looming (and, actually, already here), water resources here in the desert are going to be under increasing stress. Adapting to the approaching mega-drought will require many changes, and as Peter Gleick and a colleague from the Pacific Institute point out, Australia's recent history with long-term drought provides us with some potential solutions:
The southwestern U.S. bears some resemblance to parts of Australia before the drought. Both include arid regions where thirsty cities and irrigated agriculture are straining water supplies and damaging ecosystems. The Colorado River no longer flows to the sea in most years. Water levels in major reservoirs have steadily declined over the past decade; some analysts project that the largest may never refill. The U.S. and Australia also share a changing global climate that is increasing the risk of drought.


Even in the midst of the drought, Australia moved forward with plans to restore water to severely degraded aquatic ecosystems. The government has continued with plans to restore rivers and wetlands by cutting withdrawals from the Murray-Darling river basin by 22 to 29 percent. It has committed $3 billion to purchase water from irrigators to restore ecosystems. Regulators introduced water markets in the hope of making farms more water-efficient and reducing waste. Despite efforts to phase out subsidies, the government announced more than $6 billion in aid to improve irrigation infrastructure and make it more productive.

The southwestern U.S. states would do well to push for these kinds of reforms before a similar disaster strikes. They need to tackle difficult policy issues, such as development of water markets and pricing, expansion of water efficiency and productivity programs, elimination of government subsidies that encourage inefficient or unproductive water use by cities and farms, and agricultural reform. As the climate continues to change, smart water planning may help ease the impacts of unexpected and severe shocks that now appear inevitable.

Speaking of water, our infrastructure problem in this country gets worse by the day, and has severe consequences for delivering and treating water:
The drinking-water systems, just under half of which are publicly owned, supply 264 million people. The wastewater treatment facilities supply about 225 million people, but they are so prone to failure that 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage are discharged each year, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2004.

The E.P.A.’s 2010 estimate of the capital cost of modernizing this infrastructure was $91 billion, the report said, but financing for that purpose amounted to only $35 million. If systemic neglect continues, it adds, that shortfall will only increase.

“The growing gap between capital needs to maintain drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure and investments to meet those needs will likely result in unreliable water service and inadequate wastewater treatment,” the study said.

The GOP's anti-environment, anti-regulation, anti-reason-and-sanity stance has now gone so far that the affected industries themselves are objecting to the GOP's nonsense:
The rider may have advanced GOP talking points about light bulb “freedom of choice,” but it didn’t win them many friends in the industry, who are more interested in their bottom line than political rhetoric.

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them.

After spending four years and millions of dollars prepping for the new rules, businesses say pulling the plug now could cost them. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has waged a lobbying campaign for more than a year to persuade the GOP to abandon the effort.

Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and “allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement,” said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.

A very interesting new report in Science that should be a must-read for those of you interested in sustainable development. It's not all about technology; building capacity matters — and is achievable:
A continued focus on technical solutions to rangeland problems by national or international research bodies assumes that technology is the driver for progress. We argue, rather, that here human development is the driver and technology provides the tools. Human development provides the vision, desire, and opportunity to improve lives, and technology can then serve evolving aspirations. This process was best illustrated by the groups at Liben using available technology once they felt confident and financially secure. More recently, group members have begun to use mobile phones to acquire electronic information on livestock prices and early warnings of drought.

Research approaches affect observations and conclusions. Our action-oriented process perturbed this social system, revealing the potential of women as leaders and entrepreneurs. Changes in gender roles have been rapid. Survey research lacking perturbations describes the status quo. In such studies, men are often identified as pioneers of livelihood diversification with women overlooked.

Development scholars can strive to broaden the academic agenda by including more societal engagement as part of project research design. This can generate reliable scientific knowledge, as well as build human capacity at multiple levels. Our experience confirms that careful strengthening of human, social, and financial capital can rapidly improve lives and help transform communities in remote, harsh environments where the technical options to boost productivity remain elusive.
SciDev's coverage of the paper highlights the fact that technology has a role in development, but isn't the sole answer:
Korbinian Freier, from the Sustainability and Global Change research unit at the University of Hamburg, Germany, said: "I think that it is a good study that shows the importance of capacity building in pastoralist development — but technology can also play a tremendous role … development depends on an interaction between the two."

Freier said though that technologies change how pastoralists interact with each other and their environment, which can lead to new problems and conflicts.

"Capacity building and developing social agreements are vital first stages in successful pastoralism in areas of degradation, where coordination of land use is needed to maintain the environment. All technological elements to improve pastoralists' lifestyles have a precondition of social intervention," he concluded.
Geographer Ed Carr says some similar things (not specific to this new study, but generally) in an interview with Yale Environment 360:
e360: At the same time, though, in your book you talk about how the community in Ghana you worked in has already been adapting for decades, if not hundreds of years, to environmental change.

Carr: Absolutely. To me, one of the most important and fascinating things that comes out of my experience is that people are enormously capable. More remarkably, they’re really capable with access to very limited resources, while managing serious economic and environmental instability, and have been doing so for quite some time. The example I give in the book is their crops. About 80 percent of the crops in a year are not African domesticates. These folks have managed to integrate crops from all other parts of the world slowly but steadily and have been able to work without soil or crop science the way we understand it, and still have functional ecosystems that provide them with food and seem to be somewhat sustainable.

e360: In your book, you write that, “the single greatest misconception shaping contemporary views of development and globalization is the idea that the problems of poverty in the developing world are the result of the absence of development.” Can you explain?

Carr: When we look at the global poor, when we look at people living on a dollar a day, there’s this assumption that development does no harm. That is to say, we couldn’t make things worse for these people so we ought to be trying everything all the time. That’s sort of the Jeffrey Sachs logic, that we have to be doing something and not just sit here. But this fails to grasp the ways in which people are already doing great things to make a living and in fact a nonproductive intervention could undermine those things and do real damage.

NYC greens its zoning requirements.

Palm trees, shade, water use and UHI.

Rortybomb suggests a saner approach to the student debt problem and paying for college:
According to Pew Charitable Trust’s website subsidyscope, the deductibility of student loan interest alone costs taxpayers $1.4 billion dollars. Instead of taking $1.4 billion dollars and directly making college cheaper, students take out massive amounts of student loan debt and we alter the tax code to make that debt $1.4 billion dollars cheaper.

This is an example of what Suzanne Mettler calls “the submerged state,” a pattern where the government has, as she says, “shunned the outright disbursing of benefits to individuals and families and favored instead less visible and more indirect incentives and subsidies, from tax breaks to payments for services to private companies. These submerged policies…obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the market.” Instead of directly providing public options, we subsidize the purchasing of private goods, often using the tax code.

Let’s take the case of student debt and the tax code. How much would it cost to make public colleges and universities free? Rough estimates (quoting Jeffrey Sach’s latest book) put the price of free public higher education at $15-$30 billion, which fits other estimates I’ve seen.

Now what are the costs of how we subsidize higher education through the tax code? There’s already the $1.4 from the interest exemption. Also from subsidyscope, there’s the exclusion of employer-provided educational assistance ($1.1 billion), exclusion of interest on student-loan bonds ($0.6 billion), exclusion of scholarship and fellowship income ($3.0 billion), exclusion of tax on earnings of qualified tuition programs: savings account programs ($0.6 billion), the HOPE tax credit ($5.4 billion), the Lifetime Learning tax credit ($5.5 billion), parental personal exemption for students age 19 or over($3.4 billion), and state prepaid tuition plans ($1.75 billion). There’s also the stimulus’s American Opportunity Tax Credit($14.4 billion) and some part of the deductibility of charitable contributions (education) ($4.9 billion).

Even without the last two, that’s $22.75 billion we are paying through the tax code to make college tuition and student debt more manageable. This amount is in the middle the range of the cost of just making public high education free. Now these aren’t equivalent — much of what is spent through the tax code will be biased more towards private and professional schools, which are more expensive. But this also isn’t anywhere near the full extent we subsidize student debt (a government creation from 1965).

But there is a choice in how to provide mass higher education. We can either use resources to reduce the price of the good upfront — make college free — or to subsidize the purchase of the good — here through the numerous hoops of the tax code. The amount of money we take from the tax code to try and make student debts and runaway tuition more bearable could be used instead to just provide free public colleges.

There are winners and losers in each case. When we subsidize through the tax code, people who are well off and pay more taxes benefit more. People who can afford support staff, such as accountants and lawyers, are also more likely to understand how to take maximum advantage of these benefits. These subsidies benefit private educational institutions over public ones, as they’ll make private education feel more “natural” while obscuring the role of the government in setting up these markets. They give public college a nudge towards corporatization and privatization.

A new target for the Occupy movement: language. H. Samy Alim points out how language can be used as a tool of oppression:
Occupy Language might also support the campaign to stop the media from using the word “illegal” to refer to “undocumented” immigrants. From the campaign’s perspective, only inanimate objects and actions are labeled illegal in English; therefore the use of “illegals” to refer to human beings is dehumanizing. The New York Times style book currently asks writers to avoid terms like “illegal alien” and “undocumented,” but says nothing about “illegals.” Yet The Times’ standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, did recently weigh in on this, saying that the term “illegals” has an “unnecessarily pejorative tone” and that “it’s wise to steer clear.”

Pejorative, discriminatory language can have real life consequences. In this case, activists worry about the coincidence of the rise in the use of the term “illegals” and the spike in hate crimes against all Latinos. As difficult as it might be to prove causation here, the National Institute for Latino Policy reports that the F.B.I.’s annual Hate Crime Statistics show that Latinos comprised two thirds of the victims of ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2010. When someone is repeatedly described as something, language has quietly paved the way for violent action.

But Occupy Language should concern itself with more than just the words we use; it should also work towards eliminating language-based racism and discrimination. In the legal system, CNN recently reported that the U.S. Justice Department alleges that Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, among other offenses, has discriminated against “Latino inmates with limited English by punishing them and denying critical services.” In education, as linguistic anthropologist Ana Celia Zentella notes, hostility towards those who speak “English with an accent” (Asians, Latinos, and African Americans) continues to be a problem. In housing, The National Fair Housing Alliance has long recognized “accents” as playing a significant role in housing discrimination. On the job market, language-based discrimination intersects with issues of race, ethnicity, class and national origin to make it more difficult for well-qualified applicants with an “accent” to receive equal opportunities.

In the face of such widespread language-based discrimination, Occupy Language can be a critical, progressive linguistic movement that exposes how language is used as a means of social, political and economic control. By occupying language, we can expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.As the global Occupy movement has shown, words can move entire nations of people — even the world — to action. Occupy Language, as a movement, should speak to the power of language to transform how we think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision the future.

Swallow a pen? It might still be able to write some 25 years later.

Call 719-266-2837. Please. Do it. This is probably the GREATEST THING EVER, and that's no hyperbole.

And finally, Heather's Happy Link of the Day: writers and cats.


  1. Sorry I'm a bit late in reading this, but I have some comments!

    The connection between drought in AZ and Australia is interesting. In my class with Hallie and Rimjhim last semester, we frequently compared our case study of AZ cotton farmers to the situation in Australia, where it is increasingly realized that agriculture may no longer be tenable (due to both drought and salinization). But Australia seems to be waaaay ahead of us in terms of social and economic research on climate change, and policy.

    Also, the stuff on capacity building and technology is really interesting. After learning about innovation theory, it seems obvious that any new technology is first adopted by users with the most resources and capacity to experiment. What I don't understand is why development initiatives aimed at the poor consistently ignore this, thinking more like, "if we provide the technology, they will adopt it." There are a million reasons for users not to adopt a technology!

  2. Wait, stakeholders need to be involved from the start? And social entrepreneurs sitting in the US can't solve the problems of the urban poor without actually engaging with the urban poor? Perhaps those supposedly concerned with development who come from the fields of engineering, economics and business can't simply rely on their case studies, statistics, and design "solutions" from the comfort of their offices/labs without ever setting foot in the areas they wish to help or speaking with the people they think they're helping?

    Reminds me of this piece from The NYTimes a short while ago:

    "The $300 house will fail as a social initiative because the dynamic needs, interests and aspirations of the millions of people who live in places like Dharavi have been overlooked. This kind of mistake is all too common in the trendy field of social entrepreneurship. While businessmen and professors applaud the $300 house, the urban poor are silent, busy building a future for themselves."