Environment

Biden drilling report blasted as 'shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters'

Climate campaigners and other progressive critics on Friday called out the Biden administration for a new U.S. Interior Department report about leasing public lands and waters to oil and gas companies, slamming its proposals as far too weak given the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The report—prepared in response to President Joe Biden's Executive Order 14008—recommends adjusting royalty and bonding rates, prioritizing leasing in areas with known resource potential, and avoiding regions where drilling conflicts with conservation, historical and cultural resources, recreation, and wildlife habitat.

"Releasing this completely inadequate report over a long holiday weekend is a shameful attempt to hide the fact that President Biden has no intention of fulfilling his promise to stop oil and gas drilling on our public lands," said Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones in a statement.

Despite the president's campaign pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing for public lands and waters, the administration last week auctioned off 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. In response to legal action from Republican state attorneys general, a federal judge ruled in June that Biden could not pause new leases.

The administration's legal obligation to hold lease sales has not stopped climate campaigners from accusing the president of failing to deliver on his promises to tackle the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency.

"A minor increase in the royalties paid by climate polluters will have zero impact on combating the climate crisis," Jones asserted Friday, "and will in effect make the federal government more dependent on fossil fuels as a source of revenue."

"This shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters is a clear sign that, when it comes to climate action, the White House does not actually mean what it says," he added.

Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, was similarly critical, according to Reuters.

"These trivial changes are nearly meaningless in the midst of this climate emergency, and they break Biden's campaign promise to stop new oil and gas leasing on public lands," said Spivak. "Greenlighting more fossil fuel extraction, then pretending it's OK by nudging up royalty rates, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland acknowledged the climate emergency in her statement about the report.

"Our nation faces a profound climate crisis that is impacting every American. The Interior Department has an obligation to responsibly manage our public lands and waters—providing a fair return to the taxpayer and mitigating worsening climate impacts—while staying steadfast in the pursuit of environmental justice," she said. "This review outlines significant deficiencies in the federal oil and gas programs, and identifies important and urgent fiscal and programmatic reforms that will benefit the American people."

However, as The New York Times noted, "the long-awaited report was nearly silent about the climate impacts from the public drilling program," which frustrated climate activists.

"We expected the agency to do a programmatic review of the entire fossil fuel leasing program that takes into account not only the environmental harms of drilling at the local and landscape level, but also the impact on the global climate crisis that we're in," said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"And that had never been done before," Hartl pointed out. "The agency had never taken a cumulative look at the harm that would come from burning the fossil fuels that would come out of these leases. If you wanted to accomplish what the president had promised, this was the best mechanism to achieve that promise."

As Collin Rees, U.S. program manager at Oil Change International, put it: "Interior's leasing report reads as if it was written in the 1990s, and does little more than confirm what advocates and other branches of government have been saying for decades."

"The report is woefully inadequate and contains almost no new insights, despite arriving more than six months later than promised," he continued. "The government's royalty rates and bonding requirements are far too low and lead to public money subsidizing Big Oil's profits while our federal lands and waters suffer egregious harm."

"But President Biden promised to end the leasing program entirely due to its deadly threat to the climate," Rees said. "Interior's recommendations fall far short of that goal and ring particularly hollow days after the largest lease sale in U.S. history."

"Secretary Haaland and President Biden must end all federal leasing and permits for oil and gas extraction," he added. "Anything less is unacceptable and a damning failure of their climate promises and responsibility to future generations."

Kyle Herrig, president of the government watchdog Accountable.US, urged Senate Democrats to follow the lead of their House colleagues and ensure reforms to the leasing program are included in their version of the Build Back Better budget reconciliation package.

"The Interior Department's report makes it abundantly clear that under the current oil and gas leasing program, taxpayers and the environment are losing out while Big Oil profits handsomely," he said. "Lawmakers should be prioritizing Americans' best interests, not wealthy oil and gas companies' bottom lines."

"If Congress is serious about combating climate change and protecting our nation's cherished public lands," Herrig added, "senators must ensure bold reforms to the nation's public lands leasing program are included in the Build Back Better Act."

How the 'near-term reality' of climate change will lead to 'warfare,' conflicts and 'political instability'

As climate change continues to accelerate, disasters will become more common — from floods, hurricanes and tornadoes in humid places to wildfires and droughts in areas known for dry heat. One of the results of all this severe weather, according to the Daily Beast's Mike Pearl, will be an increase in wars and military conflicts.

"Climate-related warfare is a near-term reality — not some far-off boogeyman — according to leading defense thinkers and military strategists," Pearl reports. "They are still talking about the importance of fighting climate change, but they're also making plans to fight other human beings because of climate change. So, where will these climate-related battles take place?"

Pearl continues, "Some people argue they already have, with controversial academic reports claiming recent conflicts were directly spurred by the effects of climate change. Other military advisers and strategists have identified specific new wars that could erupt in Asia, Africa or the Arctic."

The journalist points out that according to the think tank The Atlantic Council, conflicts could emerge as Russia and China look for new shipping routes through areas around Greenland, Iceland and the Arctic Circle. But Matthew Rendall, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, believes that Syria and Somalia will be more likely climate battlegrounds.

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Rendall told the Beast, "They are already hot. Most of them are also a lot poorer. As a result, they're more likely to suffer acute resource shortages, mass migration of refugees, and political instability. Moreover, China and Russia have nuclear weapons. They may quarrel over the Arctic, but they are unlikely to fight World War III over it — that would just be too costly."

The international climate summit sidelined a central issue for cutting emissions

The impact of agriculture on climate change is significant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agriculture sector is responsible for 10 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, after transportation (29 percent), electricity production (25 percent), industry (23 percent), and commercial and residential usage (13 percent). However, according to Peter Lehner, managing attorney for EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, the EPA estimate is "almost certainly significantly quite low."

Lehner argues that most analyses exclude five unique sources of emissions from the farming sector: soil carbon (carbon released during the disturbance of soil), lost sequestration (carbon that would still be sequestered in the ground had that land not been converted into farmland), input footprints (carbon footprint for products used in agriculture, like the manufacturing of fertilizer), difficult measurements (it is harder to measure the carbon emissions of biological systems like agriculture than it is to measure the emissions of other industries that are not biological, like transportation), and potent gases (like methane and nitrous oxide).

Regarding that last source: Focusing on carbon dioxide as the main greenhouse gas often ignores powerful planet-warming gases that are emitted by agriculture and that are even more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane, which is emitted by the burps and farts of ruminants like cows and sheep, has up to 86 times more global warming potential over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide (and also impacts public health, particularly in frontline communities). Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of fertilizer runoff, has 300 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide (and also harms plants and animals).

"Most other studies, including by the [United Nations (UN)] and others, say that agriculture contributes much closer to 15 or 20 percent or more of world greenhouse gas emissions," Lehner points out.

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Disappointingly, agriculture was not a central topic of discussion at COP26, the international climate summit that recently concluded in Glasgow, Scotland. "Despite [the] huge impact to ecological systems and climate," writes Suzannah Gerber, a nutrition scientist and fellow of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—a research agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—"specific high-level talks about agriculture comprised less than 5 percent of all official negotiations and less than 10 percent of side events, favoring the less controversial topic of renewable energy."

And while renewable energy supporters cheered the fact that the Glasgow Climate Pact is the first UN climate agreement to explicitly mention "coal" and "fossil fuels"—something that the fossil fuel industry fought hard against in previous summits, and that China and India managed to water down in the current agreement—the pact makes no mention of the words "agriculture" or "food."

Meat Is Murder—for Animals and the Environment

Forests continue to be clear-cut to make room for farms, such as factory farms—which supply humans' appetite for meat—and plantations that produce the world's most used vegetable oil: palm oil. And while deforestation and methane emissions were main topics at COP26 (resulting in pledges to reduce both), agriculture—which is intimately linked to deforestation and land-use change—was relegated to a sideline topic. "Unlike forest, finance and transport—that got the feted 'title of a day' at … [COP26]—agriculture was taken up as part of 'Nature Day' on a Saturday," reported Richard Mahapatra for Down to Earth. "Outside the venue, thousands protested against a gamut of things, including step-motherly treatment to food systems that have been a major source of greenhouse gas… emissions."

Within agriculture, producing meat is the main climate problem: Plant-based foods account for 29 percent of the global food production greenhouse gas emissions, while animal-based food accounts for almost twice as much—57 percent—with beef being the main contributor. "Every bite of burger boosts harmful greenhouse gases," said the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). "Research shows that if cows were a nation, they would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter," according to UNEP. "As humans, meat production is one of the most destructive ways in which we leave our footprint on the planet."

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And many, many more human footprints are on the way. By 2050, the human population is expected to reach a staggering 9.9 billion people. (Today, there are 7.7 billion people on the planet; just 50 years ago, the global population was less than half that number.) To ensure global food security in 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that food production must increase by 60 percent.

A More Sustainable Future Is Plant-Powered

Animal-based agriculture is ultimately a poor way to feed a skyrocketing human population. "Farming animals is notoriously inefficient and wasteful when compared to growing plants to feed humans directly, with the end result that 'livestock' animals take drastically more food from the global food supply than they provide," writes Ashley Capps, a researcher specializing in farmed animal welfare for A Well-Fed World, an international food security organization advocating for the transition to plant-based agriculture.

"This is because in order to eat farmed animals, we have to grow the crops necessary to feed them, which amounts to vastly more crops than it would take to feed humans directly," writes Capps. "To give one example, it takes 25 pounds of grain to yield just one pound of beef—while crops such as soy and lentils produce, pound for pound, as much protein as beef, and sometimes more."

Switching to plant-based agriculture would help prevent food shortages, hunger and even famine at a time when climate change is creating food insecurity across the globe. Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, had warned during the Saudi Green Initiative Forum on October 24 that failure to stem the climate crisis "would mean less food, so probably a crisis in food security."

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A Well-Fed World points out that "[c]limate change is a hunger risk multiplier, with 20 percent more people projected to be at risk of hunger by 2050 due to extreme weather events. Unfortunately, the world's most food insecure populations are also those disproportionately harmed by climate-related events, including increased heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis and flooding."

Climate, Conflict and COVID-19: A Perfect Storm

"A perfect storm of conflict, climate crises, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising costs for reaching people in need is causing a seismic hunger crisis," warns the World Food Program, the food assistance branch of the UN. The agency has recently launched a public appeal to the world's billionaires to donate $6.6 billion to save 42 million people across 43 countries from famine.

"Concurrently replacing all animal-based items in the U.S. diet with plant-based alternatives will add enough food to feed, in full, 350 million additional people, well above the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food waste," according to a 2018 study by an international team of researchers published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors note that the results of their study "highlight the importance of dietary shifts to improving food availability and security."

The dietary shift from meat to plants is something that UNEP has underscored as a way to combat climate change and increase the efficiency of our food system. In their Emissions Gap Report 2021, the agency noted that—in addition to switching from the combustion of natural gas to renewables—"behavioral changes such as reduced consumption of cattle-based foods and reduced food waste and loss" present a significant opportunity to reduce methane emissions. "[F]ast methane action, as opposed to slower or delayed action, can contribute greatly to reducing midterm (2050) temperatures," the report states.

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COP26's Missed Opportunity

In many ways, this behavioral change is already underway, as veganism is on the rise. "It can be difficult to get an accurate picture of how many vegans there are in the U.S., but one survey found a 300 percent increase in vegans between 2004 and 2019, amounting to about 3 percent of the total population or nearly 10 million people," notes Sentient Media, a nonprofit animal rights journalism organization. Still, even though there has been a steady increase in plant-based diets, meat consumption is hitting record levels, aided by carnivores in low- and middle-income countries where incomes are on the rise, like India and China.

Considering the growing interest in plant-based eating, the COP26 negotiators missed an opportunity to make dietary and agricultural changes a main thrust of the global climate solution. "Without positions and main messages from COP26 leadership, the need to address the climate change contributions from diet will not be able to gain ground," writes Gerber. In the UN-managed "Blue Zone" at the Glasgow Science Center, for example, while COP26 attendees were presented with mainly animal-based food choices, only 38 percent of the menu was plant-based, as opposed to the earlier promise of ensuring "50 percent plant-based offerings within the Blue Zone."

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (which will help avoid the worst impacts of climate change), the world must achieve net zero emissions by 2050. To meet this goal, the COP26 organizers listed four distinct strategies: accelerate the phase-out of coal; curtail deforestation; speed up the switch to electric vehicles, and encourage investment in renewables.

They would have done well to add a fifth: transition the world to a plant-based diet.

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Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

Manchin, Sinema chase after Republican mega-donors and betray their impoverished states

While President Joe Biden is attempting to undo four years of Trumpish and decades of inequality, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are being rewarded by Republican mega-donors for the precise purpose of blocking that, blatantly and unapologetically. Along the way, the $6 trillion jobs, economic equality, tax the rich, and climate change plans got whittled down to $3.5 trillion and then down again to $1.75 trillion while Democrats played whack-a-mole with these two and, to a lesser extent, their conservative Democratic House counterparts. When one made a demand that was satisfied, the other would pop up with their own demands, dragging the process out and singlehandedly fanning the flames of "Dems in disarray" reporting.

The whole point of this exercise for the two of them, it appears, is to open up the Republican donor spigot. That's were the really big political money is, and courting it is so much easier than doing the necessary work it takes to amass small donor donations. Like showing up in your state, holding town meetings, and being accountable to the people who put you in office. Besides, going to London and Paris in search of checks is so much more fun.

Both have been feted by Texas donor G. Brint Ryan at his $18 million mansion in Dallas. He advised the former guy on taxes during the 2016 campaign and says of Manchin and Sinema that they are "out of step with their party, but I tend to believe that they're in the right." He has a tax consulting firm and one of is partners, Jeff Miller, is a "close political adviser" to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Ryan and his firm are all-in on the two turncoats according to the Times: "In the days around the fund-raisers at his home, Mr. Ryan, his employees, his company's political action committee and a relative's law firm combined to donate nearly $80,000 to Ms. Sinema's campaign and more than $115,000 to Mr. Manchin's."

The two have set personal bests for fundraising this year, Sinema raking in $2.6 million in the first three quarters—"two and a half times as much as she raised in the same period last year"—and Manchin $3.3 million, which is a whopping 14 times as much as his haul from last year. Both are up for reelection in 2024, so this push isn't to save their seats in a difficult midterm election for Democrats. More likely, at least in Sinema's case, it's to try to scare off a primary challenger. She's been on an image-rehab tour for the past week or so. She spent most of the year sabotaging Biden behind the scenes, not making her demands public and earning the wrath of fellow Democrats and particularly the activists in Arizona who get her elected.

Sinema, who has broken her months-long silence in a "rare interview" fluff piece in Politico and another in the Washington Post, is now casting doubt on whether she'll support Biden's Build Back Better bill passed last week by the House. She's raising the same bullshit argument about inflation as Manchin, telling the Post she is "worried about inflation" and saying "new tax hikes could harm businesses."

At least she's talking, even if it is bullshit. Like when her spokesman tells the Times that all that Republican money she's raking in has nothing to do at all with her policy choices. That spokesman, John LaBombard, told the Times that "Senator Sinema makes decisions based on one consideration: what's best for Arizona."

Accountable.US crunched the numbers for BBB and just how much it will benefit Arizona. They look specifically at the fact that Arizona has the largest Native American population in the country—communities that could gain crucial funding through BBB. In total, the bill has at least $5.2 billion to help Native communities, including more than $2.34 billion for Native American health initiatives, including the Indian Health Service; more than $1.67 billion for Tribal housing, infrastructure, and community development; more than $485 million for climate resilience, conservation, and drought relief specifically for Native American communities; $200 million in grants to Native American language educators; and $523 million in other funding benefitting Native American communities, including funding for a Native American Consultation Resource Center. Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, the Diné people, is pushing for the bill.

That's just one part of what the bill will do for the state. The White House breaks down more numbers for Arizona: child care to 430,000 young children, providing help to 90% of Arizona's young families; free preschool to more than 134,000 additional children; additional Pell grant assistance to 112,180 Arizona students; grants for job training to 19 community colleges; an additional 262,000 students getting free school meals; 158,000 uninsured people getting access to health insurance; and tax cuts of as much as $1,500 to 385,200 low-wage workers in Arizona. But Sinema is inexplicably more worried about the extremely wealthy who will have to pay more in taxes.

The White House also has the facts for West Virginia, one of the poorest and oldest states in the union. Right now, West Virginia families with two children pay as much as 22% of their income on just child care every year, about $5,871 on average (West Virginia salaries are not high). That's childcare for 94,170 families—child care that could allow parents to further their educations, or take on new jobs, or start businesses. Only a quarter of the state's children now has access to publicly-funded preschool, and private preschools average about $8,600 every year. An additional 27,753 children would be able to go to free preschool. A whopping 21% of West Virginia's children don't consistently have enough to eat. The bill would give free school meals to an additional 38,000 students in the school year and provide food to almost 205,000 students during summers.

There's a tremendous need in both states, with both ranking in the bottom 10 in the nation for the people living in poverty, Arizona at 43rd and West Virginia 44th. You sure couldn't tell it by the priorities of these two senators.

Alabama Defense industry worker calls for reducing the Pentagon budget to fund 'good green union jobs'

David Story, a resident of Alabama and member of the Machinists Union, works in the defense industry. But in an article published by The Nation on November 19, Story says something that many others with that background won't say —and he argue the Pentagon budget should be reduced in order to fund job-creating green energy programs.

"I live and work in an area of Alabama referred to as 'the Pentagon of the South,'" Story explains. "I'm a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. And I say throwing money at the Pentagon doesn't help workers like me. It's time to cut the bloated Pentagon budget and use those resources where they will actually serve my fellow workers: funding good green union jobs."

In September, Story observes, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $778 billion Pentagon budget — and much of that money, he laments, will "go directly to corporations in the lucrative defense contracting industry."

Story goes on to say that the defense industry is not the major job creator that many Americans think it is.

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"Study after study has shown that spending on the military industry is one of the least effective ways to create jobs," Story notes. "For every seven jobs created by military spending, investments in clean energy would make ten — and in health care and education, even more than that. Those who are using our names to excuse their votes for corporate interests are, in effect, stealing jobs that could be ours."

Story, acknowledges that the transition to a green economy will take some effort, but that effort, he stresses, will pay off later in a big way by creating jobs while fighting climate change.

"The transition may be difficult at first," Story writes. "But in the long run, it's a clear win. More jobs means not only less precarity, but also, more bargaining power, and a stronger union for all of us. Beyond helping workers in our industry, a green job transition is a key step toward ending our nation's permanent war footing and confronting instead the greatest challenge of our time. That's a public good for generations to come."

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How bipartisan mistakes fueled America's decline — as the liberal world order falters

When the leaders of more than 100 nations gathered in Glasgow for the U.N. climate conference last week, there was much discussion about the disastrous effect of climate change on the global environment. There was, however, little awareness of its likely political impact on the current world order that made such an international gathering possible.

World orders are deeply rooted global systems that structure relations among nations and the conditions of life for their peoples. For the past 600 years, as I've argued in my new book To Govern the Globe, it's taken catastrophic events like war or plague to overturn such entrenched ways of life. But within a decade, climate change will already be wreaking a kind of cumulative devastation likely to surpass previous catastrophes, creating the perfect conditions for the eclipse of Washington's liberal world order and the rise of Beijing's decidedly illiberal one. In this sweeping imperial transition, global warming will undoubtedly be the catalyst for a witch's brew of change guaranteed to erode both America's world system and its once unchallenged hegemony (along with the military force that's been behind it all these years).

By charting the course of climate change, it's possible to draw a political road map for the rest of this tempestuous century — from the end of American global hegemony around 2030, through Beijing's brief role as world leader (until perhaps 2050), all the way to this century's closing decades of unparalleled environmental crisis. Those decades, in turn, may yet produce a new kind of world order focused, however late, on mitigating a global disaster of almost unimaginable power.

The Bipartisan Nature of U.S. Decline

America's decline started at home as a distinctly bipartisan affair. After all, Washington wasted two decades in an extravagant fashion fighting costly conflicts in distant lands, in part to secure the Middle East's oil at a time when that fuel was already destined to join cordwood and coal in the dustbin of history (though not faintly soon enough). Beijing, in contrast, used those same years to build industries that would make it the world's workshop.

In 2001, in a major miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization, bizarrely confident that a compliant China would somehow join the world economy without challenging American global power. "Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community," wrote two former members of the Obama administration, "shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States' liking… All sides of the policy debate erred."

A bit more bluntly, foreign policy expert John Mearsheimer recently concluded that "both Democratic and Republican administrations… promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order."

In the 15 years since then, Beijing's exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion annually. By 2014, its foreign currency reserves had surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion — a vast hoard of cash it used to build a modern military and win allies across Eurasia and Africa. Meanwhile, Washington was wasting more than $8 trillion on profitless wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa in lieu of spending such funds domestically on infrastructure, innovation, or education — a time-tested formula for imperial decline.

When a Pentagon team assessing the war in Afghanistan interviewed Jeffrey Eggers, a former White House staffer and Navy SEAL veteran, he asked rhetorically: "What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth a trillion? After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan." (And keep in mind that the best estimate now is that the true cost to America of that lost war alone was $2.3 trillion.) Consider it an imperial lesson of the first order that the most extravagantly funded military on Earth has not won a war since the start of the twenty-first century.

Donald Trump's presidency brought a growing realization, at home and abroad, that Washington's world leadership was ending far sooner than anyone had imagined. For four years, Trump attacked long-standing U.S. alliances, while making an obvious effort to dismiss or demolish the international organizations that had been the hallmark of Washington's world system. To top that off, he denounced a fair American election as "fraudulent" and sparked a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, functionally making a mockery of America's long history of promoting the idea of democracy to legitimate its global leadership (even as it overthrew unfriendly democratic governments in distant lands via covert interventions).

In that riot's aftermath, most of the Republican Party has embraced Trump's demagoguery about electoral fraud as an article of faith. As it happens, no nation can exercise global leadership if one of its ruling parties descends into persistent irrationality, something Britain's Conservative Party demonstrated all too clearly during that country's imperial decline in the 1950s.

After his inauguration last January, Joe Biden proclaimed that "America is back" and promised to revive its version of liberal international leadership. Mindful of Trump's battering of NATO (and that he, or someone like him, could take the White House in 2024), European leaders, however, continued to make plans for their own common defense without the U.S. "We aren't in the old status quo," commented one French diplomat, "where we can pretend that the Donald Trump presidency never existed and the world was the same as four years ago." Add in Biden's humiliating retreat from Afghanistan as Taliban guerrillas, wearing tennis sneakers and equipped with aging Soviet rifles, crushed an Afghan military armed with billions of dollars in U.S. gear, entering Kabul without a fight. After that dismal defeat, it was clear America's decline had become a bipartisan affair.

Global leadership lost is not readily recovered, particularly when a rival power is prepared to fill the void. As Washington's strategic position weakens, China has been pressing to dominate Eurasia, home to 70% of the world's population and productivity, and so build a new Beijing-centric global order. Should China's relentless advance continue, there will be serious consequences for the world as we know it.

Of course, the current order is, to say the least, imperfect. While using its unprecedented power to promote a liberal international system based on human rights and inviolable sovereignty, Washington simultaneously violated those same principles all too often in pursuit of its national self-interest — a disconcerting duality between power and principle that has afflicted every global order since the sixteenth century.

As the first hegemon that didn't participate in any way in the fitful, painful process of forging just such a liberal world order through six centuries of slavery, slaughter, and colonial conquest, China's rise could ultimately threaten the current system's better half — its core principles of universal human rights and secure state sovereignty.

The Coming of Climate Change

Beyond Washington's strategic failings, there was another far more fundamental force already at work eroding its global power. After seven decades of the profligate kind of fossil-fuel consumption that became synonymous with the U.S. world system, climate change is now profoundly disrupting the whole human community.

As of 2019, following years of bipartisan evasions and compromises (along with partisan Republican denials of the very reality of climate change), the U.S. still relied on fossil fuels for 80% of its total energy; renewables, only 20%. The situation was even worse in China, which depended on fossil fuels for 86% of its power and renewable sources for only about 14%. As energy expert Vaclav Smil explained, the underlying global problem was 150 years of embedded inertia that made the "production, delivery, and consumption of fossil fuels… the world's most extensive, and the most expensive, web of energy-intensive infrastructures."

If there is ever to be a true transition beyond fossil fuels, the world's two largest economies will have to play a determinative role in it. In the meantime, the picture is anything but cheery. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose by a staggering 50% from 22.2 gigatons in 1997 to a peak of 33.3 gigatons in 2019 and, despite a brief drop at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, are still rising. Significantly, China accounted for 30% of the world's total in that year, and the U.S. nearly 14% — for a combined 44% share of all global greenhouse gasses.

At the 2019 Madrid climate conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that, if current emissions continue, global warming will reach as high as 3.9° Celsius by century's end, with "catastrophic" consequences for all life on the planet. And at Glasgow two weeks ago, he renewed this warning, saying: "We are digging our own graves… Sea-level rise is double the rate it was 30 years ago. Oceans are hotter than ever — and getting warmer faster. Parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they absorb… We are still careening towards climate catastrophe."

In the 600 years since the age of exploration first brought the continents into close contact, 90 empires have come and gone. But there have been just three new world orders, each of which survived until it suffered some version of cataclysmic mass death. After the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, wiped out an estimated 60% of medieval Europe's population, the Portuguese and then Spanish empires expanded to form the first of those world orders, which continued for three centuries until 1805.

The devastation of the Napoleonic wars then launched the succeeding British imperial system, which survived a full century until 1914. Similarly, Washington's hegemony, along with its current world order, arose from the devastating destruction of World War II. Now, climate change is unleashing cataclysmic environmental changes that could soon enough overshadow such past catastrophes, while damaging or destroying the global order that has pervaded the planet for the past 70 years.

As wildfires worsen, ocean storms intensify, megadroughts spread, flooding increases drastically, and the seas rise precipitously, many millions of the world's poor will be uprooted from their precarious perches along seashores, flood plains, and desert fringes. Recall for a moment that the arrival between 2016 and 2018 of just two million refugees at the borders of the United States and the European Union unleashed a surge of populist demagoguery, which led to Britain's Brexit, Europe's increasing ultranationalism, and Donald Trump's election. Now, try to imagine what kind of a world of political upheaval lies in a future in which climate change generates anywhere from 200 million to 1.2 billion refugees by mid-century.

As at least a million refugees start to crowd America's southern border every year, while storms, fires, and floods batter coasts and countryside, the U.S. is almost certain to retreat from the world to cope with growing domestic crises. Include in that the inability of its two political parties to agree on just about anything (other than spending yet more money on the Pentagon). Similar and simultaneous pressures worldwide will certainly cripple the international cooperation that has long been at the core of Washington's world order.

China's Short Reign as Global Hegemon

So, when might shifting geopolitics and climate cataclysm converge to fully cripple Washington's current world order? Beijing plans to complete the technological transformation of its own economy and much of its massive trans-Eurasian infrastructure, the Belt and Road Project, by 2027. That projected date complements a prediction by the U.S. National Intelligence Council that "China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030."

By then, according to projections from the accounting firm PwC, China's gross domestic product will have grown to $38 trillion — more than 50% larger than a projected $24 trillion for the American one. Similarly, China's military, already the world's second largest, should by then be dominant in Asia. Already, as the New York Times reported in 2019, "in 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. lost." As China pushes its maritime frontier farther into the Pacific, Washington may well be faced with a difficult choice — either abandon its old ally Taiwan or fight a war it could well lose.

Weighing Beijing's global future, it seems safe to assume that, minimally, China will gain enough strength to weaken Washington's global grip and is likely to become the preeminent world power around 2030. Count on one thing, though: the accelerating pace of climate change will almost certainly curtail China's hegemony within two or three decades.

As early as 2017, scientists at the nonprofit Climate Central reported that, by 2060 or 2070, rising seas and storm surges could flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide and, suggests corroborating research, Shanghai is "the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding." According to that group's scientists, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced there as most of the city "could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area."

Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a report in the journal Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050 and that rising waters will "threaten to consume the heart" of Shanghai by then, crippling one of China's main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp in the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came, possibly as early as three decades from now.

Meanwhile, increasing temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain, a prime agricultural region between Beijing and Shanghai currently inhabited by 400 million people. "This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future," according to Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a specialist on hydrology and climate at MIT. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of "extreme danger" when a combination of heat and humidity will reach a "wet bulb temperature" (WBT) of 31° Celsius, and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° WBT — where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the very sweat that cools the human body. After just six hours living in such a wet bulb temperature of 35° Celsius, a healthy person at rest will die.

If the "Chinese century" does indeed start around 2030, barring remarkable advances in the reduction of the use of fossil fuels on this planet, it's likely to end sometime around 2050 when its main financial center is flooded out and its agricultural heartland begins to swelter in insufferable heat.

A New World Order?

Given that Washington's world system and Beijing's emerging alternative show every sign of failing to limit carbon emissions in significant enough ways, by mid-century the international community will likely need a new form of global governance to contain the damage.

After 2050, the world community will quite possibly face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the foundational principles of the current global order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the hundreds of millions of future climate-change refugees.

By then, facing a spectacle of mass global suffering now almost unimaginable, the community of nations might well agree on the need for a new form of global governance. Such a supranational body or bodies would need sovereign authority over three critical areas — emissions controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. If the transition to renewable energy sources is still not complete by 2050, then this international body might well compel nations to curb emissions and adopt renewable energy. Whether under the auspices of the U.N. or a successor organization, a high commissioner for global refugees would need the authority to supersede state sovereignty in order to require nations to help resettle such tidal flows of humanity. The future equivalents of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank could transfer resources from wealthy temperate countries to feed tropical communities decimated by climate change.

Massive programs like these would change the very idea of what constitutes a world order from the diffuse, almost amorphous ethos of the past six centuries into a concrete form of global governance. At present, no one can predict whether such reforms will come soon enough to slow climate change or arrive too late to do anything but manage the escalating damage of uncontrollable feedback loops.

One thing is becoming quite clear, however. The environmental destruction in our future will be so profound that anything less than the emergence of a new form of global governance — one capable of protecting the planet and the human rights of all its inhabitants — will mean that wars over water, land, and people are likely to erupt across the planet amid climate chaos. Absent some truly fundamental change in our global governance and in energy use, by mid-century humanity will begin to face disasters of an almost unimaginable kind that will make imperial orders of any sort something for the history books.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

Weapons industry-funded think tank urges Biden not to impose climate regulations on military contractor emissions

A well-known conservative think tank is pushing back against the Biden administration's effort to impose climate regulations that would target military contractors.

According to In These Times writer Sarah Lazare, The Heritage Foundation is slamming the Biden administration's efforts to require military contractors to report federal contract-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Back in October, President Joe Biden's administration began amending federal procurement rules. Under the new provision, federal contractors would not only be required to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, but also their "climate-related financial risk." Contractors would also be required to set "science-based reduction targets."

At the time, Shalanda Young, the acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, released a statement about the Biden administration's planned action. "Today's action sends a strong signal that in order to do business with the federal government, companies must protect consumers by beginning to mitigate the impact of climate change on their operations and supply chains," she said.

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In short, private defense corporations like Lockheed Martin would be forced to reveal "how much carbon pollution its F‑35 aircraft and cluster bombs actually cause," Lazare notes.

Unsurprisingly, the Heritage Foundation strongly opposes the required disclosures. Maiya Clark, the National Defense research for The Heritage Foundation's Center, recently wrote an article published by the conservative Washington Examiner criticizing the proposed changes and describing the initiative as "harmful to the 'defense industrial base' of the United States."

"The additional expense of measuring, reporting, and reducing contractors' greenhouse gas emissions would, in turn, be passed along to their customer: the Department of Defense," Clark wrote.

She also insists the proposed regulations would be unfair to the corporations that would be impacted by them.

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Clark claimed, "adding burdensome regulations to the already onerous Federal Acquisition Regulation would create a difficult or even impossible task for contractors, leading some firms to simply exit the defense market. The largest defense contractors for the biggest programs, like Lockheed Martin for the F‑35 or Huntington Ingalls for the Ford-class aircraft carrier, would somehow have to collect emissions data for their tens of thousands of subcontractors and suppliers."

Despite Clark's arguments, In These Times, pointed out the holes in her piece and highlighted the think tank's financial conflict of interest with defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Referencing statistics from a Center for International Policy (CIP) report published by Ben Freeman, Lazare writes:

Clark leaves unexplained why the financial well-being of a company that manufactured the bomb that killed 40 Yemeni children in a school bus in 2018 should be weighted more heavily than modest regulations aimed at staving off humanity-threatening climate change.

Most importantly, Clark leaves out this critical detail: Lockheed Martin is just one of numerous weapons manufacturers that has directly funded the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation ranks ninth among the top think tanks that received funding from military contractors and the U.S. government from 2014 to 2019. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon were two of those major funders, both of which are among the largest weapons companies in the world and would be impacted by the new regulation.

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Freeman told In These Times that since the Center for International Policy report "was published, Heritage has moved towards full secrecy on donors, and doesn't publish any specifics."

"He is '100%' certain the think tank still receives funding from the weapons industry," Lazare reports.

"If they had suddenly stopped, I'd be shocked," Freeman said.

Lindsay Koshgarian, program director for the research organization, National Priorities Project, criticized the industry's opposition to the climate provision.

"The idea that the military-industrial complex is in danger is laughable," she wrote. "This is an industry that took in $3.4 trillion in public funds in the last ten years, more than half of all military spending during that time. That kind of funding should at the very least come with some accountability."

In the words of Koshgarian: "Climate change is the single biggest existential threat we face, and the military itself is a significant source of emissions. So no, we shouldn't stick our heads in the sand about how much the military-industrial complex is emitting."

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'Lighting the fuse on a massive carbon bomb': Biden rebuked on eve of drilling lease sale

Climate and environmental campaigners on Tuesday took President Joe Biden to task on the eve of his administration's scheduled oil and gas drilling auction of 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico—a move that comes just days after the U.S. leader pleaded for "every nation to do its part" to combat the climate emergency at the U.N.-backed climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Biden administration's first offshore fossil fuel extraction auction— Lease Sale 257—is scheduled for Wednesday morning, and would break the president's campaign promise of "no more drilling, including offshore."

The sale would also mark the end of a pause in federal fossil fuel leases implemented by executive order during Biden's first week in office.

In resuming U.S. lease sale auctions, the Resist Line 3 coalition accused the Biden of "actively selling away our futures."

Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in a statement that "the Biden administration is lighting the fuse on a massive carbon bomb in the Gulf of Mexico."

"It's hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit," Monsell added.

Diane Hoskins, campaign director at the marine advocacy group Oceana, said Tuesday that "continued leasing for dirty and dangerous offshore drilling is a disaster for our environment, our economy, and our climate."

"The industry has already stockpiled eight million acres of unused offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico—more than six times the size of Delaware—and that's before any new leases are sold," she continued. "Getting serious about reducing emissions from fossil fuels must start with ending leasing for more offshore oil and gas development."

According to an Oceana analysis:

Permanent offshore drilling protections for all unleased federal waters could prevent over 19 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That's the equivalent to taking every car in the U.S. off the road for the next 15 years... Permanent protections in all unleased federal waters could prevent more than $720 billion in damages to people, property, and the environment.

"Leases sold today will not produce oil and gas for at least five years and will continue to pollute for another 30 years," Hoskins added. "We cannot afford reckless decades of carbon pollution in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change."

Last week, more than 260 organizations, including three dozen groups representing Gulf of Mexico communities, sent an open letter to Biden following the president's promise in Glasgow that the United States would be "leading by the power of our example" in combating the climate emergency.

"You promised to address the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves, and in Glasgow, you assured the world that your plans to cut emissions are a fait accompli, not mere rhetoric," the letter stated. "Selling more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas development just days after the international climate talks makes a mockery of those commitments."

Although supporters of the president note that a federal judge blocked Biden's pause on new drilling on public lands, he had already come under fire for approving more fossil fuel drilling projects on public lands than either the Barack Obama or Donald Trump administrations.

CBD's Monsell said that the new auction "will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution, and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast."

"Biden has the authority to stop this," she added, "but instead he's casting his lot in with the fossil fuel industry and worsening the climate emergency."

Hoskins said that "instead of repeating mistakes from the past, President Biden must uphold his commitment to end new offshore oil and gas leasing. We urge the administration to immediately reverse course and explore every opportunity to uphold the president's commitment to protecting our communities, our climate, and our economy from the threat of drilling."

"Our oceans can and must be a major part of our clean energy future through renewable offshore wind power," she added, "but we are counting on President Biden to keep his promise to end further offshore oil and gas leasing."

'Inappropriate giveaway of galactic proportions': Outrage over $10 billion taxpayer gift to Bezos space obsession

Progressives on Wednesday slammed what they called a proposed $10 billion handout to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—the world's first multi-centibillionaire—in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act as a "giveaway of galactic proportions" in the face of growing wealth inequality and the inability of U.S. lawmakers to pass a sweeping social and climate spending package.

According to Defense News, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to merge the $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA)—aimed largely at countering the rise of China—with next year's NDAA, which would authorize up to $778 billion in military spending. That's $37 billion more than former President Donald Trump's final defense budget and $25 billion more than requested by President Joe Biden. The NDAA includes a $10 billion subsidy to Bezos' Blue Origin space exploration company.

"Providing Jeff Bezos with $10 billion of taxpayer money would be an inappropriate giveaway of galactic proportions," Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said in a statement Wednesday.

"Jeff Bezos shouldn't receive taxpayer subsidies for his personal projects—period," he continued. "In at least two recent years, one of the richest people on the planet paid no income tax; yet he then demands billions in taxpayer funds for a project that's already been awarded to another company. This is the height of hubris."

"Rather than waste $10 billion on a redundant space contract for Bezos, that money could be used to adequately fund Social Security Disability, Medicare and Medicaid, and the food stamps that many of his own employees at Amazon and elsewhere have to rely on to make ends meet," Appelbaum said.

"Jeff Bezos's business model includes feasting on public subsidies—and the U.S. Senate must not acquiesce to his demands," he added. "Furthermore, until Jeff Bezos changes the way his employees are mistreated and dehumanized at Amazon and elsewhere, no elected official should support the passage of subsidies for him or any of his projects."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has condemned the NDAA for containing $52 billion in "corporate welfare" for Big Tech. Explaining why he would vote against the NDAA, Sanders said Tuesday that "combining these two pieces of legislation would push the price tag of the defense bill to over $1 trillion—with very little scrutiny."

"Meanwhile," he added, "the Senate has spent month after month discussing the Build Back Better Act and whether we can afford to protect the children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and the future of our planet. As a nation, we need to get our priorities right."

The big problems with the climate pledges that came out of COP26

After more than two weeks of negotiations during the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, diplomats from almost 200 nations finally agreed on two major points: ramp up the fight against climate change and help at-risk countries prepare. Specifically, governments agreed to meet again next in 2022 with more robust plans to slash carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030, significantly reduce emissions of methane (which has even more global warming potential than CO2), and nearly double the aid to poor countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. Notably, nations agreed to initiate reductions in coal-fired power and to begin slashing government subsidies on other fossil fuels, representing the first time a COP text mentioned coal and fossil fuels.

Alok Sharma, COP26's chief organizer, called the Glasgow Climate Pact "a fragile win."

Acknowledging the deal is imperfect, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry registered his support. "You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and this is good. This is a powerful statement," he said. "We in the United States are really excited by the fact that this raises ambition on a global basis."

And while the agreement represents a step forward, it has been roundly criticized by scientists, climate activists and representatives from small, poorer nations who will feel the brunt of the climate impacts much sooner than big, richer ones.

Shauna Aminath, environment minister of the Maldives, denounced the final COP26 deal as "not in line with the urgency and scale required." The Maldives has supported life and human civilization for millennia, but 80 percent of the archipelago of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean is poised to be uninhabitable by 2050 due to rising sea levels caused by global warming. "What looks balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time," Aminath said. "It will be too late for the Maldives."

"COP26 has closed the gap, but it has not solved the problem," said Niklas Hoehne, a climate policy expert from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Long before the annual climate chinwag, there was an air of futility about what has been described as our "last and best chance" at securing a livable environment for future generations. How could there not be? The leaders of more than 150 countries have been trying to lower humankind's global warming emissions since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks started more than a quarter-century ago. And since the first summit was held in 1995, global emissions have, instead, skyrocketed.

The summit's host, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who joined activists in invoking the mantra "keep 1.5 alive"—was unimpressed with his guests, saying during the G20 summit (held in Rome in the days leading up to COP26) that all the world leaders' pledges without action were "starting to sound hollow" and criticizing their weak commitments as "drops in a rapidly warming ocean."

Science has put a deadline on us. In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—a limit decided by the Paris agreement—humankind must achieve "net-zero" emissions (i.e., whatever amount we emit into the atmosphere, we must also remove) by 2050. But that target seems highly unlikely. Big polluting nations like the United States, China and Russia not only continue to burn fossil fuels at an alarming rate but also continue to drill for more oil. China—the world's biggest emitter, responsible for more than a quarter of humanity's total emissions—and Russia have pushed their own net-zero targets to 2060. India has pushed it to 2070. That is kicking the climate can down the field, to be dealt with by future leaders. (A quick glance at a graphic created by the Economist showing the quick and steep drop in emissions that China must undergo to achieve its own target underscores the magnitude, and perhaps folly, of winning the war against the climate crisis.)

In the United States, a divided nation has ossified a gridlocked legislature that hasn't passed many game-changing climate laws. Much environmental protection has been exercised through executive actions, such as regulations imposed by federal agencies, which can be simply overturned by the next administration. When a Democrat is in the White House, environmental protection is higher on the priority list. When a Republican is in the White House, it's more about protecting polluters. The country lacks the necessary strong federal and state climate legislation to protect people and the environment from toxic, global-warming pollution, protect fenceline communities (which are often poor communities of color and Indigenous communities) and hold polluters to account.

One of the bright spots of the summit was a landmark $19 billion agreement between more than 100 nations—together responsible for about 85 percent of the world's forests—to end deforestation by 2030. Healthy, intact forests are critical in the climate fight as they prevent around one-third of the world's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

But in a press statement, Dan Zarin, the executive director of forests and climate change at Wildlife Conservation Society, said that the Glasgow Climate Pact "does not mean that the world has solved the climate crisis." He pointed out that even if all the participating nations' pledges to reduce emissions (known as "nationally determined contributions" or "NDCs") were achieved, the world would not hit the 45 percent reduction needed by 2030 to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the Glasgow Climate Pact, countries only agreed to strengthen their NDCs by the end of 2022.

President Joe Biden, who attended the summit, hailed the forest agreement, which aims to restore almost 500 million acres of ecosystems, including forests, by 2030. "We're going to work to ensure markets recognize the true economic value of natural carbon sinks and motivate governments, landowners and stakeholders to prioritize conservation," said Biden, adding that the plan will "help the world deliver on our shared goal of halting natural forest loss."

But activists were less enthused. The forest agreement "is one of those oft repeated attempts to make us believe that deforestation can be stopped and forest can be conserved by pushing billions of dollars into the land and territories of the Indigenous Peoples," said Souparna Lahiri of the Global Forest Coalition, an international coalition of NGOs and Indigenous Peoples' organizations defending the rights of forest peoples.

"[R]eferences to the rights of Indigenous peoples are relatively weak" in the Glasgow text, said Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, a lawyer from the Igorot people in the Philippines and chief policy lead at Nia Tero, a nonprofit advocacy group for Indigenous peoples. Specifically, she said that "[w]e will have to watch closely the implementation of [COP26's] new carbon scheme," referring to the finalization of rules that will manage the creation of the international carbon market, and were part of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

In addition to the lack of Indigenous representation in the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact, people from poorer island nations that are most susceptible to the impacts of sea level rise were also underrepresented at the talks, mainly due to COVID-19 restrictions. Just three out of 14 climate-vulnerable Pacific island states were able to send delegates to COP26, while the fossil fuel industry sent more than 500 delegates.

Ultimately, the climate pledges made by nations do not match the climate policies of those nations. And since the pledges are non-binding, there is no legal stimulus to ensure that actual policies line up with those pledges. "The NDCs are voluntary measures," said Lakshman Guruswamy, an expert in international environmental law at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "There's no way of implementing, imposing, or trying to enforce a non-binding agreement."

No penalties, no legal ramifications, no climate court, no climate police. All people have is civil society. It's up to us "regular people" to stand up, speak up and mobilize; to inspire care for the climate and the environment in young people; and to rethink and retool our own personal behaviors to be in line with the ultimate goals we have for the future. There can be no significant change without both the political will behind candidates who will fight against climate change and public pressure to hold elected officials to their word. What many engaged citizens in the U.S. don't realize is that it's not enough to participate only once every four years by voting in presidential elections. Real change happens when people take an active role in their local communities. It starts at home, with our families, our friends and our neighbors.

Make no mistake: Our personal decisions as consumers play a decisive role in the state of the global climate. "While large oil companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, we consumers are complicit," writes Renee Cho, a staff writer for the Columbia Climate School. "We demand the products and energy made from the fossil fuels they provide. One scientist found that 90 percent of fossil fuel companies' emissions are a result of the products made from fossil fuels."

Sadly, according to a recent poll, even though a majority of people believe that climate change is a serious issue, few are actually willing to change their lifestyles to help save the environment. "Citizens are undeniably concerned by the state of the planet, but these findings raise doubts regarding their level of commitment to preserving it," according to the survey of 10 countries, which included the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. "Rather than translating into a greater willingness to change their habits, citizens' concerns are particularly focused on their negative assessment of governments' efforts… The widespread awareness of the importance of the climate crisis illustrated in this study has yet to be coupled with a proportionate willingness to act."

Even if consumers become more willing to adapt their behaviors to make them more climate-friendly, they are not necessarily knowledgeable as to how to make those changes. "[I]ndividual consumers are not capable of identifying the behavior changes that are really worth doing to help the climate," writes John Thøgersen, an economic psychologist at Aarhus University, in the journal Behavioral Sciences.

Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polling at Kantar Public, which ran the 10-country survey to coincide with COP26, said the poll results contained "a double lesson for governments."

First, they must "measure up to people's expectations… [b]ut they also have to persuade people not of the reality of the climate crisis—that's done—but of what the solutions are, and of how we can fairly share responsibility for them."

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, CounterPunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The seedy politics of our drinking water

Think of it this way: what we don't know will hurt us. And water — yes, water — is an example of just that. Even at a time of such angry political disputes, you might imagine that, in a wealthy country like the United States, it would still be possible to agree that clean water should be not just a right, but a given. Well, welcome to America 2021.

When it comes to basic water supplies, that's hardly an outlandish thought. After all, back in 2015, our government, along with other members of the United Nations, embraced the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, the sixth of which is universal access to safe drinking water. Despite modest progress globally — 71% of the world's population lacked that simple necessity then, "only" 61% today — nearly 900 million people still don't have it. Of course, the overwhelming majority of them live in the poorest countries on this planet.

The United States, however, has the world's largest economy, the fifth-highest per-capita income, and is a technological powerhouse. How, then, could the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have given our water infrastructure (pipes, pumping stations, reservoirs, and purification and recycling facilities) a shocking C- grade in their 2021 "report card"? How to explain why Yale University's Environmental Performance Index ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its drinking water and sanitation?

Worse yet, two million Americans still have no running water and indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely to lack this rudimentary amenity than Whites; Latinos and African Americans, twice as likely. On average, Americans use 82 gallons of water daily; Navajos, seven — or the equivalent of about five flushes of a toilet. Moreover, many Native Americans must drive miles to fetch fresh water, making regular handwashing, a basic precaution during the Covid-19 pandemic, just one more hardship.

"Safe" Water

Washington and Philadelphia are just two of the many American cities whose water-distribution systems, some of them wooden, contain pipes that predate the Civil War. Naturally, time has taken its toll. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that water mains, especially such old ones, rupture 240,000 times annually, while "trillions of gallons" of potable water worth $2.6 billion seep from leaky pipes, and "billions of gallons of raw sewage" pollute the surface water that provides 61% of our supply. Fixing busted pipes, which break at the rate of one every two minutes nationally, has cost nearly $70 billion since 2000.

The U.S. has 2.2 million miles of waterpipes, which are, on average, 45 years old. The EPA's 2015 estimate for overhauling such an aging system of piping was $473 billion, or $23.7 billion annually over 20 years — in other words, anything but chump change. Still, compared to the way Congress allots money to the U.S. military for its endless losing wars and eternal build-ups of weaponry, it couldn't be more modest. After all, the Pentagon's latest budget request was for $715 billion, to which the House Armed Services Committee added $25.5 billion, unsolicited, as did its Senate counterpart. Self-styled congressional budget hawks never complain about our military spending, even though it exceeds that of the next 11 countries combined. So, $23.7 billion annually to renovate an antediluvian water system? That shouldn't be a problem, right?

It turns out, though, that it is. The federal government's share of total investment in updating water infrastructure plunged from nearly-two-thirds in 1977 to less than a tenth of that by 2019. With state and local governments under increasing financial pressure, the funding shortfall for modernizing the water infrastructure could reach a staggering $434 billion by 2029.

Considering where the American water system already falls utterly short, a contrarian could counter that it's not a big deal for a mere two million people in a country of 333 million not to have water directly piped into their homes. But in the wealthiest country on earth? Really? And a lack of easy access to water is hardly the only problem. A substantial number of Americans are drinking (and cooking with) contaminated supplies of it. A 2017 investigation found that 63 million of them had done so at least once during the previous 10 years, or nearly a fifth of the population.

This finding wasn't an outlier. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) discovered that, "in 2015 alone, there were more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act by community water systems" that served nearly 77 million people. And of the total number of violations, 12,000, traced to water providers serving 27 million people, were health-related (rather than monitoring and reporting infractions). There's more. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 21 million consumers received water that didn't meet federal standards; and Time reported that 30 million did in 2019.

The Flint Saga and Beyond

Occasionally, stories about unsafe drinking water do make the headlines, as happened with Flint, Michigan. Once a prosperous city, Flint was slammed by a post-1970s wave of de-industrialization in the Midwest and now has a poverty rate of nearly 39% (and 54% of its population is Black). By 2013, facing its massive budget deficit, a commission appointed by the governor devised a cost-saving measure. The city's water supply would be switched to the Flint River, pending construction of new supply lines from Lake Huron. That river, however, had long been contaminated by waste from factories, paper mills, and meatpacking plants along its shore, as well as untreated sewage.

Residents began complaining that their water smelled and tasted bad, but were regularly reassured that it was safe. Testing, however, revealed lead levels that far exceeded the EPA-stipulated maximum because the water hadn't been treated with anti-corrosion additives to counter contamination. (There is, in fact, no "safe" level for lead, a toxic metal, but the EPA requires remedial action if 10% of water samples show concentrations exceeding 15 ppb, or parts per billion.) Flint's water also contained trihalomethane, a carcinogen, as well as dangerous E. coli and legionella bacteria. A scandal ensued.

Flint, as it turned out, wasn't alone. The NRDC reported this year that "dozens of cities have been found to have dangerous levels of elevated lead" in their water. Another of its studies concluded that the drinking water of 186 million people (56% of Americans) had more than one part per billion of lead, the maximum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and that 61 million Americans used bottled water from sources that exceeded the Food and Drug Administration's five ppb maximum, while lead levels in the water of seven million others exceeded the 15-ppb EPA threshold for mandatory corrective measures.

In 1986, Congress banned the future use of pipes that weren't "lead free," but didn't require the replacement of existing ones. Even today, as many as 12 million lead pipes still serve households in this country and scientists generally regard the EPA's lead limit as far too lax and its testing requirements and reporting standards as too permissive. Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that local governments and utility companies have regularly opposed tougher regulations for lead-pipe replacement.

Eliminating lead water pipes entirely in this country would cost up to $50 billion. Though that's a lot of money, it's hardly unaffordable. In fact, the American Jobs Plan proposed $45 billion for that task, though the separate bipartisan infrastructure bill cut it to $15 billion — again illustrating that penny pinching applies to threats to Americans' day-to-day well-being, but not to our militarized conception of national security.

Other Contaminants

Lead isn't the sole contaminant in our drinking water.

  • In farming communities in California's Central Valley and in the San Joaquin Valley, increasing amounts of uranium — associated with kidney damage and a greater risk of cancer — have turned up in the local drinking water, including private wells, which aren't regulated by the EPA, but are used by migrant workers. A 2015 Associated Press investigation found that a quarter of San Joaquin Valley households were then using drinking water from private wells containing "dangerous amounts of uranium." Moreover, one in 10 of the Valley's community water systems contained uranium levels that exceeded federal and state limits — and there's no reason to believe that has changed in the last six years.
  • The rise in fertilizer use — fivefold since the 1950s — to boost crop yields and its runoff has increased the nitrate levels in drinking water. High levels of nitrates, which have been linked to various forms of cancer, birth defects, and thyroid disease, have been found in 4,000 public water systems in 10 states supplying 45 million people, especially in the West and Midwest. In more than half of these places, the contamination seems only to be increasing. The EPA's maximum concentration level for nitrates is 10 milligrams per liter, but studies reveal that the risk of birth defects and cancer increase even when people consume water containing half that amount.
  • Arsenic, a known carcinogen, is another hazard. A 2020 Columbia University study found that, though the average concentration of arsenic in the water supply, nationwide, fell by 10% between 2006 and 2011, concentrations exceeding the EPA's maximum of 0.01 milligrams per liter were far more likely in smaller communities that use groundwater and are disproportionately Hispanic. A U.S. Geological Survey report, which focused on wells providing drinking water, noted that there were "dangerously high levels of arsenic, potentially exposing 2.1 million people" to health risks in more than half of all states.
  • Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in numerous products, including non-stick cookware, pizza boxes, firefighting foam, and waterproof apparel. However, they remain unregulated by the EPA despite being associated with a range of health risks. Worse yet, these "forever chemicals" take thousands of years to break down. Scientists estimate that the tap water of 200 million Americans contains PFAS concentrations that put them at risk.

The Bad News for 2021

Since the early nineteenth century, enormous progress has been made toward providing Americans with abundant, clean water. And water-borne diseases like cholera, which still kills close to 100,000 people worldwide every year, and typhoid, which claims as many as 161,000, have essentially been eliminated in this country (though there are still 16 million annual cases of acute gastroenteritis traceable to contaminated water). So, yes, water in the U.S. is generally fit to drink, but given this country's economic and technological resources, it's scandalous that the problems that remain haven't at least been substantially mitigated.

To understand such a failure, just consider our politics, which, in the wake of recent elections, only seem to be growing worse by the day.

Since the 1980s, the public sphere has been dominated by a narrative that portrays just about anything the government does, other than profligate spending on the U.S. military, as financially reckless, intrusive, and counterproductive. Instead of creating a compelling message to persuade Americans that many valued public benefits, ranging from land grant colleges, the Internet, Social Security, and Medicare to the national highway system and medical research breakthroughs, owe much to government policies, too many Democrats continue to run scared, fearful of being labeled "big-government-tax-and-spend liberals."

Add to this the outsized political influence that big money exercises through copious campaign contributions — all but limitless thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions — and pricey lobbyists. (Yes, unions and public interest groups lobby, too, but for each dollar they spend, corporations spend $34.)

Companies that, for instance, produce perchlorate, a chemical found in U.S. water supplies that's used in rocket fuel and munitions and is harmful to iodine-deficient pregnant women and fetuses, have paid lobbyists to fight stricter regulations for years. Not coincidentally, the EPA, which has been monitoring perchlorate since 2001, has yet to set mandatory limits on it for drinking water, though it continues to consider a "roadmap" for doing so. Similarly, the seven largest producers of PFAS spent $61 million in 2019 and 2020 on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. In 2018, there were only two firms lobbying against tougher PFAS regulations; a year later that number had increased to 14.

The EPA sets maximum drinking water levels for 90 substances, but hasn't (except in a few instances where Congress mandated that it do so) added more since 1996 even though its "Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List" now contains nearly 100 additional substances. This shouldn't be a surprise. Companies that oppose tougher regulations have political access and clout. Political appointees to important EPA posts often hail from those very industries or the lobbying groups they bankroll. Scientists paid by industries have weighed in, lending an aura of legitimacy to special-interest pleading.

Water policy is rife with scientific complexity, but the legislation and regulations that shape it are hashed out in the political arena. There, the deck is increasingly stacked — and not in favor of the average consumer. If the Republicans take back Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024, my small suggestion: have a nice cool glass of ice water and relax. What could possibly go wrong?

Copyright 2021 Rajan Menon

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.


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