Archive for July, 2013

A Nuclear Free World

July 31, 2013

July 30, 2013

By David Swanson

We’ve managed to outgrow or to come within sight of outgrowing cannibalism, slavery, blood feuds, duels, capital punishment, child labor, tar and feathering, the stocks and pillory, wives as chattel, the punishment of homosexuality, and listening to Rush Limbaugh.


We’ve managed to outgrow or to come within sight of outgrowing cannibalism, slavery, blood feuds, duels, capital punishment, child labor, tar and feathering, the stocks and pillory, wives as chattel, the punishment of homosexuality, and listening to Rush Limbaugh. To various degrees, these practices — and many others — have been eliminated or reduced and stigmatized.

While the stupidest practice ever created — the mass killing known as war — remains, we’ve seen most of the world ban poison gas, land mines, cluster bombs, biological weapons, depleted uranium, napalm, white phosphorous, and other disgusting weaponry. But the worst weapon of all remains, and the treaty requiring its reduction and elimination is completely ignored.

We’ve begun learning to avoid long-lasting environmental damage. We try not to poison our fruit trees or our grass or our rivers. But when it comes to damage that lasts longer than humanity has existed, we go right on producing it. And in so doing, we contribute to a slowly building crisis that could soon slip out of humanity’s control and eventually remove humanity from existence. Meanwhile, Pandora’s Propaganda tells us that nuclear energy — the same stuff that proliferates the weaponry — will help the earth’s climate rather than hurting it.

Uh huh. And blood-letting and lobotomy will heal what ails you.

Except that they won’t. And we’ve come to admit and accept that and to move on. We don’t fund lobotomies. Why must we fund nuclear energy? And don’t say: because television can replace lobotomies but will never reproduce Fukushima.

August is Nuclear Free Future Month. Take a look at what Fukushima is like two years after. Here’s a hint: its former residents have to visit it by Youtube too.

Here’s something you can do to help: Set up a screening of this new film: The Ultimate Wish: Ending the Nuclear Age.

The Ultimate Wish is the wish for a world without nukes. This is a film that connects Fukushima to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here we watch a survivor of Nagasaki meet a survivor of Auschwitz. And it strikes us with crystalline clarity that they are both victims of incredible stupidity and cruelty. We completely set aside the fact that the holocaust was created by bad German lies about a master race while the dropping of the bombs was created by good U.S. lies about ending World War II and starting the Cold War. The politics fades, and we’re left with the human species treating itself as even ants would never treat their fellow ants.

In The Ultimate Wish, produced by Robert Richter and Kathleen Sullivan, we see nuclear survivors in classrooms speaking with young people. One teacher asks the students to close their eyes. She drops a single ball bearing into a metal pan, the noise meant to represent all the bombs of World War II, all the bullets, all the grenades, even the two nuclear bombs. Then, to represent the nuclear weapons now in existence, she dumps a whole noisy bag of ball bearings.

A large coalition has issued the following appeal:

Do you want to reach thousands on August 9 with our message on the need for the Obama administration to engage in multilateral negotiations now for a nuclear free future?

Then join our Thunderclap. Watch a brief video and learn about how a Thunderclap works.

Thousands will see the message below on all of our Facebook pages and Twitter accounts on August 9 at 11:02 a.m., the time the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki:

Aug 9 1945 US A-bombed Nagasaki. Pres #Obama: Speak out at Sept 26 UN Nuclear Disarmament Summit! #NoMoreNagasakis

How do you join the Thunderclap? Click on this link and sign up.

And on August 9 the message will automatically be sent to all your friends and supporters.

Not a bad idea, huh? Try to reach some of your non-friends and non-supporters too.

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David Swanson is the author of “When the World Outlawed War,” “War Is A Lie” and “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union.” He blogs at and and works for the online activist organization


Fukushima radiation levels as high as 2011

July 31, 2013

July 29, 2013


Water samples taken at an underground passage below the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant contain alarming levels of radiation which are comparable to those taken immediately after the catastrophe. According to a statement by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the tested water contains 2.35 billion becquerels of cesium per liter, and the radioactive water is now seeping into the sea.


Source: RT

AFP Photo/Pool/Toshifumi Kitamura
Water samples taken at an underground passage below the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant contain alarming levels of radiation which are comparable to those taken immediately after the catastrophe.

According to a Saturday statement by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the tested water contains 2.35 billion becquerels of cesium per liter, and the radioactive water is now seeping into the sea. The findings were also evident from samples taken within a 50-meter radius around the plant.

TEPCO’s specialists have hit a wall trying to solve the problem of the leaking groundwater, which has persisted since 2011. However, unlike then, they cannot tell what the source of the newfound radioactivity is. The current explanation is that the radioactive water that had been left in the underground trench some two years ago is now mixing with the groundwater, which is in turn contaminating the sea.

The current investigation started back in May, when specialists registered a 17-fold hike in radiation levels compared to December 2012. More tests immediately followed.

In July, scientists found high tritium levels — 20 percent higher than just two months before. At the beginning of the month, cesium levels also went up by an astonishing 22 percent from the previous day. The legal limit of 90 becquerels per liter was exceeded by around 22,000 becquerels.

On July 10, scientists warned about possible sea contamination, although they had no evidence at the time.

On Monday, however, TEPCO discovered that radiation levels were rising and falling together with the tide. This has led them to their latest theory — that the leftover trench water from 2011 is indeed mixing with the underground water that flows straight into the Pacific.

The only theoretical solution at this point is to build a wall of liquid glass between the nuclear reactors and the sea, siphoning off contaminated water from the underground trench.

Steam has also been seen emerging from one of the damaged reactors on three occasions, sparking further fears about the state of the wrecked plant.

Meanwhile, TEPCO has had to sustain bad publicity after it was revealed that it delayed publishing the summer study which sparked these newfound fears — which were realized just days after TEPCO reassured the public that the water was safely enclosed. The government has labeled the company’s behavior as “deplorable.”

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Submitters Bio: is Russian television, which actually does a great job reporting on US news too.

Could greenhouse gases turn Earth into Venus?

July 30, 2013

By Tim McDonnell
J.Gabás Esteban
How will the world end? A giant meteor? Zombie apocalypse? Death Star target practice!? One scientist thinks our planet’s death knell is going to be climate change, on an epic, terrifying scale … but, fortunately, not the kind we need to worry about.

The “runaway greenhouse” — which is thought to have happened on Venus in the past — is basically a climate change worst-case scenario: We reach a critical point where the atmosphere is so thick with greenhouse gases that no sunlight can escape back into space, the planet heats uncontrollably, the oceans evaporate completely, and things get, well, pretty uncomfortable, to put it mildly.

“Everything is really quite dead at that point,” Colin Goldblatt, a planetary scientist at Canada’s University of Victoria, says in a chipper English accent. Goldblatt has been working to understand whether a runaway greenhouse could ever happen on Earth. Scientists have long believed that even with extreme greenhouse gas concentrations, our sun simply doesn’t heat the planet enough to trigger this effect. But using a series of custom computer programs that model incoming sunlight, greenhouse gas concentration, radiation absorbed by water vapor, and a host of other physical factors, Goldblatt has revised that threshold down, and in a paper published Sunday in Nature Geoscience says that a runaway greenhouse could kick off with the amount of sunlight we get today.

“What we’re seeing now is that if you pump the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, you could make the planet so hot it would never be habitable again,” he says. Taken to its conclusion, he explains, the runaway greenhouse would produce a new atmosphere with global temperatures around 2,420 degrees F, which would make even the Northeast heat wave of the last couple weeks feel like a vacation into a meat freezer.

So is it time to forget about rising sea levels and start to look for a new planet to inhabit before ours boils into the next Venus? Not quite. Goldblatt expects this kind of transformation to take place in about a billion years, regardless of human activity. The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide needed to tip the scales — about 30,000 parts per million, according to Goldblatt — is far beyond what humans are capable of contributing. Indeed, that’s about 10 times what CO2 levels would be even if we quickly burned through all the remaining fossil fuels. (Right now we’re at about 400 ppm, which is already bad.)

“There’s no evidence that human action could cause this,” Goldblatt says.


In other words, we’re not going to see this kind of extreme climate change no matter how obstinate Congress is about taking even the most basic climate action. Still, Goldblatt is convinced that this type of runaway greenhouse is how Earth (at least as we know it) will eventually bite the dust; the sun’s rays get stronger over geologic time, meaning the required greenhouse gas threshold will get lower. Eventually, enough water will evaporate and clog the atmosphere so that incoming sunlight won’t be able to escape back to space. And then?

“This is how the world will end,” he predicts.

The fact that humans aren’t likely to be around to see the runaway greenhouse doesn’t mean Goldblatt’s findings are fully esoteric. He insists that while popular debate around climate change tends to focus on predictions for the next hundred years or so, getting a full picture of how the climate works means taking the long view … a much longer view.

“One hundred years is like watching two or three frames of a movie,” he says. “If we look at a billion-year timescale, we get to see the whole movie.”

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Tim McDonnell is a Climate Desk associate producer. Read more of his stories here or follow him on Twitter.

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Orange you ready for a tall glass of GMOs?

July 30, 2013

By Nathanael Johnson
Grygory Weil
It’s rare that us lowly eaters experience any personal gain from genetically modified food. But over the weekend The New York Times published a long piece by Amy Harmon that made the benefits of genetically modified oranges explicit.

That benefit? Having any oranges at all. An insect-spread disease, which turns oranges green and sour, is spreading throughout the world. Harmon quotes one scientist as saying:

People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice.

That may be a bit of an overstatement: Orange groves are succumbing fast, but growers are fighting back.

Growers in Florida did not like to talk about it, but the industry’s tripling of pesticide applications to kill the bacteria-carrying psyllid was, while within legal limits, becoming expensive and worrisome. One widely used pesticide had stopped working as the psyllid evolved resistance, and Florida’s citrus growers’ association was petitioning one company to lift the twice-a-season restrictions on spraying young trees — increasingly its only hope for an uninfected harvest.

Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, is trying a different strategy: genetically modifying orange trees to resist the disease. It looks like he has succeeded. But Kress is haunted by the possibility that no one will want to drink his genetically engineered OJ.

“Will they believe us?” he asked himself for the first time. “Will they believe we’re doing this to eliminate chemicals and we’re making sure it’s safe? Or will they look at us and say, ‘That’s what they all say?’”

At least one reader did believe it. A New York commenter with the handle Ancient Astronaut wrote:

Genetically modified foods concern me, but I have to say that I’d prefer tested GM food over food soaked in pesticides any given day of my life. Genes, after all come from nature; chemicals don’t.

Aside from the fact that chemicals do, in fact, come from nature — everything in nature is made of chemicals! — this seems an apposite example: When people are faced with a problem, and genetic modification is one of several choices for dealing with that problem, we might just pick it. It’s a lot tougher to swallow when we have no choice, and the only benefit we see is to the bottom line of agribusiness.

Of course, many, many, other commenters weren’t convinced. As I read, I began to develop an inkling of an objection myself. It’s not as though this disease came out of nowhere. Kress is in a rush to find a quick fix and save his business, but the rest of us are under no such obligation. Sure, the proximate cause of citrus greening is a virus bacterium, and that begs for a cure. But it’s worth slowing down long enough to ask what the ultimate source of this problem is — and whether there might be a larger solution.

To see the bigger problem, you have to understand that the orange is a pure product of human modification. Harmon writes:

The orange, for its part, might never have existed had human migration not brought together the grapefruit-size pomelo from the tropics and the diminutive mandarin from a temperate zone thousands of years ago in China. And it would not have become the most widely planted fruit tree had human traders not carried it across the globe.

The orange is an utterly domestic fruit. That means there’s no pool of wild oranges to tap for new genetic variations. Orange seeds are usually genetically identical to their mother, making them hard to breed. And growers fill their groves with clones, each grafted onto a hardy rootstock. It would be hard to design a system more felicitous to disease.

As one friend put it, the impulse to reach for genetic engineering seems “lazy.” This friend, a scientist, thought it better to rethink the system, to look to polyculture (many species in a field) rather than monoculture (one species repeated over and over). In this case, we may need genetic engineering to get oranges to survive in any kind of agriculture because its genetic lineage is so narrow.

The point is that a lot of the resistance to GE food comes from the perception that it’s a solution, not to our problems, but to the problems of unsustainable agriculture. And so far, that perception has been mostly correct. There are exceptions, though, as detailed in this article by Paul Voosen (which, by the way, inspired Harmon’s piece).


The other big objection to Harmon’s piece was that people didn’t trust agribusiness to handle this technology. As another commenter put it:

I’d feel a lot better about GE food if I felt it was being tested properly by people without vested interests.

Even though the testing described in the piece is fairly extensive:

And when the E.P.A. informed [Kress] in June 2012 that it would need to see test results for how large quantities of spinach protein [to be genetically engineered into orange trees] affected honeybees and mice, he gladly wrote out the $300,000 check to have the protein made.

It was the largest single expense yet in a project that had so far cost more than $5 million. If these tests raised no red flags, he would need to test the protein as it appears in the pollen of transgenic orange blossoms. Then the agency would want to test the juice.

That’s a lot of testing, in my humble opinion. And yet, it’s conducted in a way that does not inspire confidence (i.e. companies in charge, confusing language, as I wrote about here).

Harmon does a nice job of addressing (and knocking down) many of the more unsophisticated arguments against GM food in this piece. Reading between the lines also offers a glimpse of the more legitimate complaints: People want to be able to weigh the costs and the benefits, they want crops that aren’t just a crutch for an unsustainable system, and they want an independent regulatory apparatus. There’s more to this than primal fear.

Update: I ascribed citrus greening to a virus — it’s actually thought to be a symptom of a bacterium. Sorry about the goof.

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Flood, rebuild, repeat: Are we ready for a Superstorm Sandy every other year?

July 30, 2013

By Kate Sheppard
Yuko Shimizu
Two months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City, Battery Park is again humming with tourists and hustlers, guys selling foam Statue of Liberty crowns, and commuters shuffling off the Staten Island Ferry. On a winter day when the bright sun takes the edge off a frigid harbor breeze, it’s hard to imagine all this under water. But if you look closely, there are hints that not everything is back to normal.

Take the boarded-up entrance to the new South Ferry subway station at the end of the No. 1 line. The metal structure covering the stairwell is dotted with rust and streaked with salt, tracing the high-water mark at 13.88 feet above the low-tide line — a level that surpassed all historical floods by nearly four feet. The saltwater submerged the station, turning it into a “large fish tank,” as former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair Joseph Lhota put it, corroding the signals and ruining the interior. While the city reopened the old station in early April, the newer one is expected to remain closed to the public for as long as three years.

Before the storm, South Ferry was easily one of the more extravagant stations in the city, refurbished to the tune of $545 million in 2009 and praised by former MTA CEO Elliot Sander as “artistically beautiful and highly functional.” Just three years later, the city is poised to spend more than that amount fixing it. Some have argued that South Ferry shouldn’t be reopened at all.

The destruction in Battery Park could be seen as simple misfortune: After all, city planners couldn’t have known that within a few years the beautiful new station would be submerged in the most destructive storm to ever hit New York City.

Except for one thing: They sort of did know. Back in February 2009, a month before the station was unveiled, a major report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change — which Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened to inform the city’s climate adaptation planning — warned that global warming and sea-level rise were increasing the likelihood that New York City would be paralyzed by major flooding. “Of course it flooded,” said George Deodatis, a civil engineer at Columbia University. “They spent a lot of money, but they didn’t put in any floodgates or any protection.”

And it wasn’t just one warning. Eight years before the Panel on Climate Change’s report, an assessment of global warming’s impacts in New York City had also cautioned of potential flooding. “Basically pretty much everything that we projected happened,” says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, co-chair of the Panel on Climate Change, and the co-­author of that 2001 report.

Scientists often refer to the “100-year flood,” the highest water level expected over the course of a century. But with sea levels rising along the East Coast — a natural phenomenon accelerated by climate change — scientists project that in our lifetimes what was once considered a 100-year flood will happen every three to 20 years. And truly catastrophic storms will do damage unimaginable today. “With the exact same Sandy 100 years from now,” Deodatis says, “if you have, say, five feet of sea-level rise, it’s going to be much more devastating.”

Roughly 123 million of us — 39 percent of the U.S. population — dwell in coastal counties. And that spells trouble: 50 percent of the nation’s shorelines, 11,200 miles in all, are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the problem isn’t so much that the surf laps a few inches higher: It’s what happens to all that extra water during a storm.

We’re already getting a taste of what this will mean. Hurricane Sandy is expected to cost the federal government $60 billion. Over the past three years, 10 other storms have each caused more than $1 billion in damage. In 2011, the federal government declared a record 99 weather-related major disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires. The United States averaged 56 such disasters per year from 2000 to 2010, and a mere 18 a year in the 1960s.

The consequences for the federal budget are staggering. In just the past two years, natural disasters have cost the Treasury $188 billion — nearly $2 billion a week. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which covers more than $1 trillion in assets, is one of the nation’s largest fiscal liabilities. The program went $16 billion in the hole on Hurricane Katrina, and after Sandy it will be at least $25 billion in debt – a deficit unlikely ever to be fixed.

Meanwhile, Washington is stuck in an endless cycle of disaster response. The U.S. government spends billions of dollars on disasters after they happen, but it pinches pennies when it comes to preparing for them. And both federal and state policies create incentives for people to build and rebuild in increasingly risky coastal areas. “The large fiscal machinery at the federal level is cranking ahead as if there’s no sea-level rise, and as if Sandy never happened,” says David Conrad, a water consultant who has been working on flood policy for decades. “This issue is moving so much faster than the governmental apparatus right now.”

Put another way: We’re already deep under water.

How likely is another superstorm?

Odds that New York City will see flooding like Sandy’s again next year are 1 in 10,000. But if scientists’ worst-case sea-level predictions hold, by 2100 those odds will be 1 in 2. For coastal Virginia, odds of flooding like Hurricane Isabel’s are 1 in 100 right now. By 2060, another Isabel could happen every single year.


Some 350 miles south of the South Ferry subway station, on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, is Gloucester County. The red-brick homes and matching sidewalks give the county seat, Gloucester Courthouse, a colonial feel. The county was the site of Werowocomoco, the capital of the Powhatan Confederacy, and just across the York River to the southwest are Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, some of the earliest English settlements in North America. Europeans first settled the county in 1651, and some local families date back just about that far. In the more remote necks on the bay, watermen still speak Guinean, a dialect full of “ye” and other archaic words along with the lilt of dropped r’s and d’s of the greater Tidewater area.

Gloucester County’s population of 36,886 is spread over 217 square miles, with a median household income of $62,000. Historically, most in the region relied on fishing and agriculture, but now many commute over the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge to Williamsburg and Norfolk. A few McMansions have popped up, but they look out of place; I saw one fancy house sitting next to a trailer with a goat roped to the front porch.

Gloucester is one of the biggest losers in the geographic lottery when it comes to sea-level rise — low, surrounded by water, and flat as a billiard table. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel walloped the county, causing $1.9 billion in damage throughout the state of Virginia. And that was just the beginning.

On a warmer-than-it-should-be spring morning, I meet Chris West, a burly tugboat engineer whose gray rancher sits about 120 yards from the Severn River and about three feet above sea level. He’s in his driveway, waiting for a team of contractors to jack his home six feet up in the air. West’s parents built the house 60 years ago, and he’s lived there his whole life.

West, 43, watches as the contractors clear brush and unhook his utilities; soon they will break the foundation, shove giant wooden beams under the house, and crank it up on hydraulic jacks. Then they will stack four wooden piers beneath the structure, like Lincoln Logs, to hold it up as they pour cement for a new foundation six feet higher. West and his dogs will stay at his girlfriend’s house while the house is under construction.

“I got butterflies,” he says.

Raising up the house would have cost West $85,000, but it’s being subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, so he only has to cover around $4,000. So far, FEMA has given Gloucester County $11.8 million to raise 60 homes, and another 59 homes and businesses are in line for a lift. The county also offers residents an outright buyout, but only 17 families and one business have gone that route.

Neither FEMA nor county officials promote the grants as a climate change adaptation program — even if that’s exactly what they are becoming. “Even the naysayers have noticed the increased number of storms,” says Anne Ducey-Ortiz, Gloucester’s director of planning. “Even when people don’t want to deal with climate change, they are willing to talk about increased flooding.”

For West, the reality hit home during Hurricane Isabel. The storm pushed water from the Chesapeake Bay into the Mobjack Bay, then up into the Severn, through his backyard, over the deck, and into the house. He had 18 inches of seawater inside and nearly $30,000 in damage. He spent three and a half months living with his in-laws as he tore out drywall and carpets and replaced all his furniture.

Isabel was the worst storm in this region as far back as most people here can remember, and folks assumed the next one wouldn’t come for a long while. “You think, ’30 more years I won’t be living here anyhow, I’ll be in a nursing home,’” West says. But then just three years later, a tropical storm named Ernesto blew through, bringing the water an inch and a half short of his deck. Then there was Nor’Ida in November 2009, and Hurricane Irene in August 2011, again bringing the water under the deck and inches below the threshold of his back door. Even the average tides behind the house, West reckons, seem almost a foot and a half higher than they used to be.

Tide measurements have found that the sea level along this part of Virginia’s southern coast has risen 14.5 inches in the past 80 years, and scientists expect the rate of increase to double for the rest of this century, adding another 27.2 inches. Meanwhile, the land is getting lower: The earth here has been settling due to the double whammy of a glacial retreat in the Pleistocene era 20,000 years ago and a giant meteor that hit some 35 million years before that. Removing massive amounts of groundwater for paper mills and other industrial uses has aggravated the sinking, much like the aquifer depletion that’s been causing killer sinkholes in Florida. The upshot, says Pam Mason, a senior coastal management scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester: “You take our little two-foot tide and you put one more foot on it, and it starts to make a difference. We’ve gotten complacent. We’ve gotten really close to the edge.”

Ducey-Ortiz says that in a number of areas the county would prefer just to buy out homeowners because, even if you lift up the houses, flooding will submerge the roads, trapping residents and cutting off emergency services. Still, authorities won’t force anyone to move. “You’re allowing people to stay in a hazard area,” she acknowledges. But “in Gloucester, that’s our heritage, that whole Guinea area. To abandon those people, those families that live out there, people who just love living on the water — we want to help them.”

West says he might have considered taking a buyout, but it would have had to be at least $200,000 — what he owes on his mortgage right now. Like most in Gloucester, he elected to stay. “It’s hard to take people out of their home, their true home,” he says. Most of his neighbors, “the only time they’ve left has been in a pine box.”

Perhaps the only topic touchier than whether people should abandon their homes is why the problem even exists. West has heard of global warming, but he’s not entirely sure it’s responsible for the rising water. “Nobody knows, I don’t think. Everybody speculates,” he says. Local authorities rarely, if ever, speak the words “climate change.”

“I wouldn’t want to turn some positive influences off by coming up with a political term,” said Paul Koll, Gloucester County’s building official. “I am really conscious of not labeling it anything so I don’t shoot myself in the foot.” Two years ago, when leaders in neighboring Mathews County broached the subject of sea-level rise, Tea Partiers packed meetings warning of an environmentalist plot to “put nature above man.” They linked a proposal to build dikes to a United Nations sustainability plan known as Agenda 21, which has inspired a number of conspiracy theories among far-right activists.

Never mind that the Middle Peninsula, made up of Gloucester and five other counties, expects up to $249 million in new climate-related costs by 2050, a figure that doesn’t even include potential damage from storms like Isabel or Ida. The American Security Project, a Washington think tank, projects that climate impacts could cost the state a whopping $45.4 billion by 2050, with extreme storms alone putting $129.7 billion worth of property at risk.

Yet Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell phased out a Governor’s Commission on Climate Change after taking office in 2010. His attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli (who won the state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination in May), has spent a good deal of his time in office seeking to prosecute former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann for his work on historic temperature records. And when state lawmakers requested a study on sea-level rise, Republican state Delegate Chris Stolle retorted that the term was “left-wing.” (The Legislature settled on “recurrent coastal flooding.”) And Virginia is better off than neighboring North Carolina, where lawmakers last year explicitly refused to consider scientists’ current projections in coastal building decisions.


Just as New York City planners had data showing that a superstorm could devastate the city, the federal government has plenty of data on the climate cliff — the looming budgetary catastrophe from emergency spending. In January, the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee released a draft of its latest report, warning of the “high vulnerability of coasts to climate change.” The report optimistically added that “proactively managing the risks will reduce costs over time.” But with congressional Republicans actively derisive of climate science, the odds of that are not great.

The closest thing to a federal effort to mitigate climate risk may be the 25-year-old FEMA grant program that pays for the house raisings in Virginia. But most of the money is designed to kick in after a disaster, to prevent recurrence — and it doesn’t take into account whether houses in the floodplain are viable in the long term. Still, it’s more proactive than the lion’s share of FEMA’s post-disaster spending, which allows people to rebuild in high-risk areas as if a storm or flood will never happen again.

I visited Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) in his office the day after the $60 billion Sandy relief package passed the House, nearly three months after the storm. He wasn’t happy with it. “What Sandy illustrated is both the increasing vulnerability — and the costs and consequences,” he told me. “But we really didn’t condition the recovery on making sure that we minimize people going back in harm’s way.”

A slight, bookish lawmaker whose lapel often sports a bright plastic bike pin, Blumenauer has been Congress’ loudest critic of disaster policy. Even the Sandy package, he notes, had no incentives to consider climate change as part of rebuilding plans. If Blumenauer had his way, the federal government wouldn’t rebuild any of its facilities in the floodplain — no post offices, no office buildings. Counties that get disaster relief would be required to enforce better building and zoning codes. And the feds wouldn’t pay to keep rebuilding homes exactly as they were before a storm.

“In the aftermath of a disaster, the instinct is to reach out to people, to try to help them,” he adds. “And so many people, their first instinct is to just go right back. It is devastating to look at all the things we do that keep people anchored in very dangerous places.”

True, he says, it’s hard to challenge people’s yearning to rebuild. But at some point, lawmakers need to start thinking about the next cataclysm. “Before the next big wildfire, before part of the coast washes away, before the predictable unpredictable storm hits, what are the principles we’re going to have?” Blumenauer asks. “What is going to be the condition of federal assistance?” With that in mind, he has been trying to expand mitigation programs for years, with limited success. Under the 1988 Stafford Act, 15 percent of the emergency relief funding Congress allocates to FEMA must be used for mitigation, but that money is only allocated after disaster strikes.

I asked Blumenauer if it’s even practical, in the long run, to raise or relocate all of the homes that need it. “It’s expensive,” he says, “but it’s a fraction of what we’re routinely spending.”

Why, then, do we keep spending more? One reason is that most disaster spending doesn’t actually show up in the federal budget; it’s treated as “emergency spending,” which isn’t included in regular appropriations. So while fiscal hawks in Congress leave disaster preparedness programs chronically underfunded, disaster relief is treated as a budget freebie. The obsession with deficit reduction — codified in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which capped federal spending as part of the debt ceiling debate — has reinforced that trend. “You lowball it so you can spend the money elsewhere, but then you come in with the disaster supplemental, which is free money,” Blumenauer says. Congress has had to pencil in extra funding for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund in eight of the last 10 years, after the appropriated amount fell short of the actual need. And it keeps happening; the Obama administration’s proposed 2013 budget, for example, shaved 3 percent — $1 billion — off the Disaster Relief Fund.

Chronically underfunding disaster spending is shortsighted in the extreme, says Blumenauer. “We’re just cannibalizing programs,” he says. “We save arguably $5 for each dollar we invest.”

Just as disaster relief funding ignores the fact that today’s disasters are tomorrow’s normal, the NFIP is virtually designed to ignore dramatic changes in weather and flood patterns. Created in 1968, it was made to help people in the most flood-prone areas acquire insurance — policies that private insurers were not willing to underwrite. In 1973, flood insurance was made mandatory for anyone who had a federally backed mortgage in an area considered at risk for a 100-year flood; those already living in those areas were grandfathered in at heavily subsidized rates. Today, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America estimates that homeowners covered by federal flood insurance pay just half of the “true-risk cost” to insure their properties. In the highest-risk areas, they pay just a third.

No surprise, then, that the federal insurance program is now $25 billion in the hole. In the Sandy supplemental spending bill, Congress upped the program’s borrowing authority by $9.7 billion, to $30.4 billion, to meet new claims — money that is unlikely ever to be paid back. And because the subsidy is so great, there’s no incentive for private insurers to enter the market, says Frank Nutter, president of the trade group Reinsurance Association of America. “If you had a program that is fiscally sound, you’d probably find more insurance companies willing to write the risk,” he says. “They wouldn’t be competing with a government program that is underpricing the risk.”

The other problem with subsidized insurance is that it encourages people to build — and stay — in high-risk areas, since they’ll be bailed out even if they incur disaster after disaster. It’s what economists call a moral hazard, a circumstance that encourages people to engage in risky behavior because the costs are borne by others.

“In many cases,” says water consultant Conrad, “we’ve removed the most important element in our marketplace that forces the responsibility on the decision maker him- or herself.” Conrad has been documenting the flood insurance program’s problems since 1992. In 1998 he found that “repetitive loss” properties — those that had more than $1,000 worth of damages from a storm two or more times in a 10-year period — made up 2 percent of insured properties but were responsible for 40 percent of what the program was paying out. For 1 in 10 of those properties, the program had paid claims that totaled more than the house’s market value. (In response, in 1999 Blumenauer introduced the “Two Floods and You’re Out of the Taxpayers’ Pocket Act,” which never made it out of committee.)

The NFIP has long been a sore spot for both environmentalists and small-government conservatives. “It has been a very long-term subsidy for development in places where we simply shouldn’t be developing at all,” says Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, a libertarian think tank based in Washington. “There are areas that we’ve developed that probably shouldn’t have been developed in the first place, and wouldn’t have been if we had private insurance, or even actuarial rates in a public program.” But reform has been tough — because every attempt at change meets firm opposition from politicians representing flood-prone districts, and from local governments that rely on coastal properties for property taxes and economic development. “Every time they’d try to raise the rate, there would be a roar from up on Capitol Hill,” says Conrad.

In 2004, Blumenauer did push through a major overhaul of the insurance program, including incentives to raise or buy out houses that had been damaged multiple times. But it took hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and a more deficit-minded Congress, to pass another flood insurance reform bill last year that finally limited subsidies for second homes and for properties that were damaged repeatedly.

Under that 2012 reform, such homes will see premiums rise dramatically over the next five years, eventually bringing 400,000 of the most heavily subsidized properties up to market rates. The new law also lets FEMA buy homes that are considered “severe repetitive losses” at their full pre-disaster price, rather than the 75 percent it offered before.

But perhaps the most significant change in the reform involved maps — specifically, FEMA’s floodplain maps, which determine who must buy flood insurance. Those maps can now for the first time include “future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes.” But there’s a catch: Those changes don’t affect the new flood maps FEMA is currently releasing, the first in 30 years. Floodplain maps issued for New York City and coastal New Jersey in late 2012 and early 2013, for example, don’t account for sea-level rise. Maps for the rest of the country are rolling out slowly, and it’s unclear when they will start including sea level projections.

Back during the Bush administration, in 2007, FEMA began a major assessment of how climate change would affect the flood insurance program, with a projected completion date of 2010. When FEMA finally released the report in June 2013, it included a number of alarming findings. Rising seas and severe weather are expected to increase the area of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, doubling the number of people insured by an already insolvent program.

It took three and a half months to put Chris West’s house up on a higher foundation. When Hurricane Sandy glanced off the Virginia coast just a few months after the contractors were done, everything at his end of the neck flooded, but the water flowed right underneath his house. “I don’t have that worry anymore,” West says, “of being displaced out of my home.” A couple of other homeowners decided that they just wanted to leave; as of May, Gloucester County had acquired 18 parcels of land, but since then, eight more homeowners have signed up for buyouts.

As vulnerable as it is to rising seas, Gloucester is lucky. It has forward-thinking local officials who acknowledge the problem, even if they’d prefer not to talk about the root causes. Gloucester County has earned improving marks from FEMA for trying to minimize flood risks with steps like establishing tougher building codes and requiring all new development to be built at least two feet above flood height. Those initiatives lower the cost of insurance for homeowners, but they also save the federal government money — an estimated $4 in future savings on property damage alone for every dollar spent on prevention.

Skip Stiles hopes an appeal to fiscal sanity is what will finally get decision makers to care about climate. Stiles, 63, is the director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based advocacy group that formed back in 1999 to protect shoreline habitats. Not long after joining the group in 2005, Stiles realized that saving tiny parcels of marsh wasn’t going to help much if the entire coast was wiped out by century’s end. “We started realizing it’s not just the wetlands — it’s the whole freaking economy in this region that’s at risk,” he says.

That, and not that many people care about wetlands. “We said, ‘What do people care about?’ Their homes, their business, their way of life.”

Stiles took me on a ride through Norfolk, highlighting spots that have seen major flooding in the past few years. He pointed to one house where a car floated into the front door during a storm, and another that the owner, tired of dealing with the water, has been trying to sell for months. We drove through the Old Dominion University campus, where a small, permanent lake has formed in the back corner of a huge parking lot. “You can’t pave under water,” he noted dryly, “so this obviously wasn’t under water when this parking lot was paved.”

Stiles left Washington for coastal Virginia after 22 years as chief of staff to the late California Democratic Rep. George Brown, who in 1978 launched the first federal climate change research program. But it was not until he saw Norfolk’s frequent flooding that he realized climate change, far from a distant threat, was a disaster well under way. “I thought, ‘Oh, the feds are going to fix this,’” Stiles says. “BS, ain’t happening. It’s local government — and man, the politics at the local level.”

So Stiles started showing up at local planning commission meetings, begging officials to stop approving new shoreline developments in the face of inevitable sea-level rise. Back when he began, in 2006, “they looked at us like we were crazy” — coastal land is often the most valuable in a county, and it generates the highest property taxes. But then he stopped talking about climate change and started talking about budgets. “Suddenly it was like a key in the lock,” he says. “What quickly happens is the money you put into those neighborhoods exceeds the property tax you get out. These neighborhoods turn into money pits. There just isn’t enough money to raise all of the structures that need to be raised.”

For Stiles, it doesn’t matter whether local officials will actually utter the words “climate change,” so long as they start dealing with the impacts. “Our perspective is just, ‘Look, get on the bus, and we’ll figure out together where the destination is,’” he says.

It’s all about good, old-fashioned fiscal conservatism, says Conrad, the water consultant: “If this is all done by just pots of money being thrown around, most of the residents will be inclined to just take the money, do what’s immediately convenient, and ignore the elephant in the room, which is that the Atlantic Ocean wants to move inland.”

Matthias Ruth, an economist at Northeastern University who focuses on climate impacts, says the key is to provide a financial return for planning ahead. “We know that what once was the 100-year floodplain now is the 10- or five-year floodplain. So what we need to do is give the incentives to either fortify buildings, elevate them, flood-proof them, or have a controlled retreat.” Instead, “we pretend it’s not an issue and we put ever more infrastructure into the coasts and ever more people.”

Ruth ticks off the expected costs of climate change on the coasts — seawalls, flood insurance claims, disaster response, not to mention dislocation, stress on communities, and lost social connections. And what if, after a major storm like Sandy, there were an ice storm or maybe another hurricane the following year? “It’s these one-two punches, the cumulative effect that they have on our infrastructure, our social systems,” he says. “What we already see is worrisome, but this is going to be an order of magnitude more worrisome.”

And with every year that goes by without shifting the incentives, both the costs and the future fiscal liabilities get larger. Many observers believe that after a major disaster, particularly one of Sandy’s size and scope, there’s a window — maybe six months, maybe a year — for a real shift in direction. Even with Congress frozen in denial, there’s a lot the Obama administration could do: The Veterans Administration could stop underwriting mortgages on homes in flood-prone areas, and the Department of Commerce could deny economic development grants to projects on the coast. The Department of Housing and Urban Development could situate new low-income housing away from flood zones, and the Department of Transportation could build roads where they won’t be under water in the near future.

We’re already spending billions on responding to storms and disasters made worse by climate change, notes Ruth; Sandy gave us a chance to think differently. “Why don’t we take [that money] and invest in infrastructure in ways to overcome the existing inefficiencies and improve quality of life?” he asks. “And then as we do this, reduce the vulnerability. Instead of having this downward spiral, have an upward one.”

In the end, says Stiles, it might be a matter of how many disasters it takes to generate momentum. “I look at these little moments, this incremental progress, but I wonder, ‘Is there enough time? Can we make it?’” he says. “Are there enough of these events coming up, and are we smart enough to catch up with the change that nature is going through?”

This story was supported by a Middlebury College Fellowship in Environmental Journalism and produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Kate Sheppard was Grist’s political reporter until August 2009. She now covers energy and environmental politics for Mother Jones. Read her work and follow her on Twitter.

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Don’t buy the right-wing myth about Detroit

July 29, 2013

WEDNESDAY, JUL 24, 2013 02:00 AM +0900

Conservatives want you to think high taxes drove people away. The real truth is much worse for their radical agenda
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Don’t buy the right-wing myth about Detroit
(Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook)
In the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy, you may be wondering: How could anyone be surprised that a city so tied to manufacturing faces crippling problems in an era that has seen such an intense public policy assault on domestic American manufacturing? You may also be wondering: How could Michigan officials possibly talk about cutting the average $19,000-a-year pension benefit for municipal workers while reaffirming their pledge of $283 million in taxpayer money to a professional hockey stadium?

These are fair questions — and the answers to them can be found in the political mythology that distorts America’s economic policymaking.

As mythology goes, the specific story being crafted about Detroit’s bankruptcy is truly biblical — more specifically, just like the fact-free mythology around the Greek financial collapse, it is copied right from the chapter in the conservative movement’s bible about how to distort crises for maximum political effect.

In the conservative telling of this particular parable, Detroit faces a fiscal emergency because high taxes supposedly drove a mass exodus from the city, and the supposedly unbridled greed of unions forced city leaders to make fiscally irresponsible pension promises to municipal employees. Written out of the tale is any serious analysis of macroeconomic shifts, international economic policy failures, the geography of recent recessions and unsustainable corporate welfare spending.

This is classic right-wing dogma — the kind that employs selective storytelling to use a tragic event as a means to radical ends. In this case, the ends are — big shocker! — three of the conservative movement’s larger long-term economic priorities: 1) preservation of job-killing trade policies 2) immunity for corporations and 3) justification for budget policies that continue to profligately subsidize the rich.

Pretending Detroit and the NAFTA era are unrelated

The bait-and-switch on the first two objectives is fairly easy to see.


Detroit isn’t just any old city — it happens to be the biggest population center in the state hit the hardest by the right’s corporate-written trade agenda. Indeed, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the state lost more jobs than any other from NAFTA (43,600, or 1 percent of its total job base) and lost another 79,500 jobs thanks to the China PNTR deal. And that’s just two of many such trade pacts. Add to this the city’s disproportionate reliance on American auto companies which made a series of horrific business decisions, and Detroit is a microcosmic cautionary tale about what happens when large corporations are allowed to write macro economic policy and dictate the economic future of an entire city.

If told, this cautionary tale would likely spark a discussion about revising current trade deals, regulations, public investment and industrial policy in general. That is, it would spark precisely the discussion that the conservative movement and the corporations that fund politicians don’t want America to have. So the right works to make sure that discussion is short circuited by a narrative that focuses the Detroit story primarily on taxes and public pensions.

That is, of course, by design. The less Detroit prompts serious questions about trade policies and the auto industry, the less Detroit can be used as a rationale for changing those conservative, corporate-enriching policies and that industry. Likewise, the more taxes and retirement benefits can be blamed for Detroit’s downfall, the more Detroit’s tragedy can be used as a clarion call by the right to slash both.

Focusing on pensions to protect corporate welfare and tax cuts

That brings us to how this all plays into the right’s push to enact ever more regressive tax cuts, protect endless corporate welfare and legislate new reductions in workers’ guaranteed pensions.

These latter objectives may seem unrelated, but they all complement each other when presented in the most politically opportunistic way. It’s a straightforward conservative formula: the right blames state and municipal budget problems exclusively on public employees’ retirement benefits, often underfunding those public pensions for years. The money raided from those pension funds is then used to enact expensive tax cuts and corporate welfare programs. After years of robbing those pension funds to pay for such giveaways, a crisis inevitably hits, and workers’ pension benefits are blamed — and then slashed. Meanwhile, the massive tax cuts and corporate subsidies are preserved, because we are led to believe they had nothing to do with the crisis. Ultimately, the extra monies taken from retirees are then often plowed into even more tax cuts and more corporate subsidies.

We’ve seen this trick in states all over America lately. In Rhode Island, for instance, the state underfunded its public pensions for years, while giving away $356 million in a year in corporate subsidies (including an epically embarrassing $75 million to Curt Schilling). It then converted the pension system into a Wall Street boondoggle), all while preserving the subsidies.

Similarly, in Kentucky, the state raided its public pension funds to finance $1.4 billion a year in tax subsidies, and then when the crisis hit, lawmakers there slashed pension benefits — not the corporate subsidies.

The list of states and cities following this path goes on — but you get the point. In the conservative narrative about budgets in general, the focus is on the aggregate annual $333 million worth of state and local pension shortfalls — and left out of the story is the fact that, according to the New York Times, “states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies” in the form of tax loopholes and subsidies.”

The mythology around Detroit, then, is just another version of this propaganda.

So, for instance, from the administration of right-wing Gov. Rick Snyder, we are hearing a lot of carping about the $3.5 billion in pension obligations that are part of the city’s overall $18 billion in debt. The focus leads casual onlookers to believe that — even though they on average get a pension of just $19,000 a year — municipal workers’ supposed greed single-handedly bankrupted the city. What we aren’t hearing about, though, is the city and state’s long history of underfunding its pensions, and using the raided money to spend billions of dollars on corporate welfare.

For a good sense of some of the most expensive, absurd and utterly wasteful boondoggles in the Detroit area over the last few decades, read this piece from Crain’s Detroit or see this 2011 article entitled “Detroit’s Corporate Welfare Binge” by Detroit News columnist Bill Johnson. Alternately, recall this is in the heart of a region whose governments infamously spent $55 million of taxpayer money in 1975 (or a whopping $180 million in inflation-adjusted dollars) on one professional football stadium, then spent another $300 million on yet another football stadium, then sold off the original stadium for just $583,000. Or, just note that Detroit is the largest city in a state that, according to the New York Times, spends more per capita on corporate subsidies — $672 or $6.6 billion a year — than most other states.

By focusing the blame for Detroit’s bankruptcy solely on workers’ pensions, rather than having a more comprehensive discussion that includes both pension benefits and corporate giveaways, the right can engineer the political environment for the truly immoral reality mentioned at the beginning of this article — the one highlighted this week by the Associated Press story headlined “Arena Likely Still On Track, Business As Usual For Sports Teams Despite Bankruptcy Filing.” Yes, that’s correct: at the same time government officials are talking about slashing the meager $19,000-a-year pensions of workers who don’t get Social Security, those officials are promising that they will still go forward with a plan to spend a whopping $283 million of taxpayer money on a new stadium for the Red Wings.

Notably, a political environment that encourages these kind of immoral decisions is beneficial not merely to the corporate interests who directly benefit from such giveaways, but also to the Wall Street investors who still own the outstanding bonds that financed some of the subsidies. Taken together, then, a skewed discussion about budget shortfalls that excludes scrutiny of these subsidies and focuses only on worker pensions predictably ends up prioritizing the financial interests of corporate welfare recipients and Wall Street bondholders over municipal retirees.

It’s the same dynamic on taxes. From the right, Detroit is being cited in the discussion about budget shortfalls as proof of the need for austerity. Yet, we aren’t hearing much about why in the face of such shortfalls Snyder just devoted $1.7 billion to a new corporate tax cut that will likely exacerbate the state’s deficit, nor are we hearing much about why state law compelled Detroit to forfeit other desperately needed tax revenues. Again, the goal here is to make sure that the conversation is one that only is about cutting retirement benefits — not one that adds the prospect of progressive tax reform to the debate.

For his part, Kevyn Orr — the unelected “emergency manager” imposed on Detroit by Snyder — insists he will be evenhanded in distributing the pain of the city’s bankruptcy. But with Wall Street bondholders intensifying their push to make sure all the pain is felt by public employees, and with the right’s blame-the-workers narrative preventing any real discussion of corporate subsidies and tax policies, it’s a good bet the $19,000-a-year pensioners are going to bear a disproportionate share of the sacrifice. After all, out of all of this situation’s players — corporations that want public subsidies, bondholders, rich folk who want more tax cuts, right-wing Synder administration officials and municipal workers — the retirees earning benefits just above the poverty line have the least amount of political power.

So, as always, they probably won’t be at the negotiating table. Instead, they’ll almost certainly be where they usually are: on the menu, exactly where the conservative movement wants them.

David Sirota
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books “Hostile Takeover,” “The Uprising” and “Back to Our Future.” E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

Due to Global Warming, End Is Virtually Certain for NYC, Boston, Miami, Holland

July 29, 2013

Posted: 07/20/2013 2:10 pm
Climate Change, Economy, Energy, Climate Change, Politics, Miami Environment, Finance, South Florida Rising Sea Levels, Green News

A new article in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is headlined “The Multimillennial Sea-Level Commitment of Global Warming,” and it reports that because of carbon emissions that are virtually certain, on the basis of the lack of policy-response to global warming thus far, sea levels are now set to rise anywhere from around 8 inches to 7 feet within 100 years, and around 5 yards to 10 yards within 2,000 years. The projections are clearer (within a narrower range) for the longer time-frame than for the shorter one. That’s because even if the short-term consequences of heat-rise turn out to be relatively slight, the longer-term consequences are clearer, and will be considerably larger, as delayed impacts kick in.

An interview with the article’s lead author, Anders Levermann, was aired on the PBS radio program “Living On Earth,” during the week starting July 19th. Levermann noted that, as the lead author of the coming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he can reveal that it will be “focusing on the next 100 years,” and that because of uncertainties that are yet to be resolved in such short-term predictions, “the sea level projections that we obtain for different climate scenarios range from 20 centimeters and [to] two meters.” However, beyond that, “two thousand years is what we looked at,” and, “We expect sea level rise of two meters of each degree of global warming that we cause.” The interviewer asked, “That’s on the order … of about 7.5 feet,” and Dr. Levermann answered, “Yes.” That’s 7.5 feet for each and every degree Centigrade of temperature-rise.

So, the question is: How many degrees will the atmosphere heat up? Recently (on 26 May 2013), the journal Nature Climate Change headlined “Uncertainty in Temperature Projections Reduced,” and reported, “increased probability of exceeding a 2 ºC global-mean temperature increase by 2100 while reducing the probability of surpassing a 6 ºC threshold.” Therefore, by merely the end of the present century, there will be at least a 2-degree Centigrade, or around a 4-degree Fahrenheit, temperature-rise. This makes almost inevitable at least a fifteen-foot sea-level rise within no more than 2,000 years.

The “Living On Earth” report also included a map showing “Areas at risk of sea level rise,” and the map indicated that the submersion will be the most devastating along the East Coast, from the middle of Delaware down to the tip of Florida; and also along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. All coastal cities there, plus the coasts around NYC and Boston, will be submerged enough, within 2,000 years, so that, not only will they be deeply flooded, but even minor coastal storms will make them uninhabitable for anyone who might otherwise still be living there.

Economists discount the welfare of future generations, and therefore the welfares of our descendants 2,000 years into the future, and even just 100 years from now, are treated as virtually worthless, in today’s economic cost-benefit analyses.

Economist Richard S.J. Tol noted in his May 2010 “The Economic Impact of Climate Change,” in Perspectiven der Wirtschaftspkolitik, that, “The discount rate is the most important source of variation in the estimates of the social costs of carbon. This is not surprising as the bulk of the avoidable impact of climate change is the distant future.” He went on to say, “Implicitly, the policy problem is phrased as ‘how much are we willing to pay to buy a better climate for our children?’ Alternatively, the policy problem could be phrased as ‘how much compensation should we pay our children for deteriorating their climate?'”

Lawrence Summers and Richard J. Zeckhauser titled their September 2008 NBER working paper “Policymaking for Posterity,” and objected there to the way that the profession was valuing future generations. They noted the extreme impact that current discounting has upon these calculations: “At even a relatively modest 3 percent discount rate, a dollar of benefits a century from now is worth less than 6 cents today. … At the discount rate of 7 percent mandated for use in certain US government contexts by the OMB, the distant future becomes nearly irrelevant, as $100 a century from now is valued less than 10 cents today.” But their “distant future” was actually just a finger-snap in the context of human history. So, in an important sense, we are already near the end of history as the human species has known it.

The reason why future generations are being discounted like that, is that, in current microeconomic theory, people are treated like property, because microeconomic theory started in the 1700s, when the slave trade was very big, and the aristocracy wouldn’t have financed or otherwise advanced the careers, or the publications, of any economists whose works made a theoretical distinction between people and property. Furthermore, financial economics requires future values of investments to be discounted by the expected future inflation rate. Consequently, since people are indistinguishable from property, our descendants are treated like property, and they are discounted for inflation, just as if they were property instead of people. The standpoint of today’s investors is the standpoint of economic theory, and future people are being treated only as investments.

Coal and oil companies, and many other industries, favor existing economic theory as it stands, and do not want it to change. Though the slave traders are almost entirely gone now, the aristocracy still wants to discount future generations, because this permits those investors to make profits today off of people who haven’t yet been born — and who aren’t even around to complain about being abused. But they will be around ultimately; and a few ecologically minded economists, who are a small minority among professional economists (a profession that’s very dependent upon international corporations for their career-success), are trying to change the way these cost-benefit calculations are done. However, this situation simply can’t change unless microeconomic theory itself is fundamentally changed, and few economists have any interest at all in doing that, because international corporations don’t want it.

So, somewhere in time between, say, the years 2100 and 4200, such cities as Boston, NYC, etc., will be uninhabitable. They will be past history. It’s an interesting thought, perhaps – but just a curiosity that’s heavily discounted, so it’s not actually being given much thought. Perhaps it’s not given even as much thought as the beef that a person consumes, which had been a cow a few days before. After all, that beef has a taste, which is enjoyed now. The future is “just the future” — and it’s discounted at compounded annual rates.


Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

TEPCO admits Fukushima-1 reactors leak radioactive water to Pacific Ocean

July 29, 2013

Published time: July 22, 2013 16:33
Edited time: July 23, 2013 14:10 Get short URL
An aerial view shows the No.3 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 18, 2013.(Reuters / Kyodo)An aerial view shows the No.3 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 18, 2013.(Reuters / Kyodo)
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The operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, TEPCO, has admitted for the first time since March 2011 that crippled reactors continue to leak highly contaminated radioactive waters into the Pacific Ocean.

TEPCO had previously denied suspicions that contaminated water had reached the sea, despite the fact that levels of potentially cancer-causing radioactive substances present in ground and seawater samples at the plant had soared.

“But now we believe that contaminated water has flown out to the sea,” TEPCO spokesman Masayuki Ono said at a Monday news conference.

According to Ono, officials suspect that radioactive water leaked from the wrecked reactors, likely seeping into the underground water system before reaching the sea.

Earlier this month, TEPCO acknowledged that levels of radioactive cesium-134 in a well at the nuclear power plant jumped by 90 times in just three days. The company said the levels were at their highest point since the March 2011 disaster.

However, the company’s spokesman insisted on Monday that the radioactive water’s impact on the ocean would be limited.

“Seawater data has shown no abnormal rise in the levels of radioactivity,” Ono said.

TEPCO said that based on water sample tests, the leaks stay near the plant reactors inside the bay.

The announcement has confirmed alarming concerns addressed by Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authoirty (NRA). Earlier in July, the organization stated that it “strongly suspected” contamination of ground waters and possibly the Pacific Ocean.

The head of NRA also said he believed that contamination of the sea has been continuous since the accident in March 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered three meltdowns in the Fukushima plant.

“We would like to offer our deep apology for causing grave worries for many people, especially for people in Fukushima,” Masayuki Ono said.

A Little Basic Math: The Trillions We Waste in ‘Defending’ the US

July 29, 2013

Christina Sarich
NationofChange/News Analysis
Published: Monday 29 July 2013
How much money can we continue to spend on fighting our own self-created monsters?

Article image

Published: Monday 29 July 2013
How much money can we continue to spend on fighting our own self-created monsters?

Article image

Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates argued against president Obama’s aim to cut $400 billion from national security spending, a bloated habit which was to be reigned in over the next 12 years, but let’s look at what the U.S. government has spent on ‘defending’ our nation in just the last decade.

Getting Rid of Fossil Fuel Dependency

We have transferred over $4 trillion of energy-wealth to foreign countries in the past decade in the form of petroleum dependency, and this speaks nothing of the cost of ‘controlling’ the Middle Eastern countries who largely supply the U.S. with its cocaine-like dependency on fossil fuels.

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The cost of securing forces to travel and fight in the Middle East is astounding. According to, tax payers have shelled out more than $814,809,683,000 to fight in Iraq, and more than $645,114,590,000 in Afghanistan. The cost of fighting in the Persian Gulf, is estimated to have cost over $50 billion a year. In a decade, that adds up to $500 billion. If we were to look at this one line item alone, we could install a solar system in every single home in America (approximately 313,915,000 people live in America and presumably not all in individual households), at an average of 86 cents per kilowatt, and with solar cell technology advancing every day, the entire nation could be running off the power of the sun in less than a decade.

Congress recently reviewed an appeal to cut more than $3 billion to fund an ‘alternate engine’ for a Joint Strike Fighter, which members of the Navy, Air Force, and Marines have called unnecessary. Might not $3 billion provide free solar power to some of our nations poorest, not unlike the recent initiative being carried out in Peru, which will provide solar energy to over two million citizens? Or why not give just half of that money to researchers, Vladimir Bulovic and Richard Lunt from MIT who developed a transparent solar cell that can be applied to windows and even paint? I’d pick up a paintbrush tomorrow, if it meant we could stop supporting the petro-dollar, wouldn’t you?

Co-opting Technology for Good Instead of Evil

What about war-technologies, that cost billions to research and develop? Most people don’t realize that nuclear energy was developed utilizing ‘unclean’ energy because the uranium that is derived as a secondary substance from the process is actually perfect for developing nuclear war heads. Nuclear power could be utilized in a ‘green’ way, providing energy without a toxic byproduct, but when thorium was being researched in the 1960’s the U.S. instead chose nuclear energy that created a toxic waste substance they could use to fight wars, not power cities or transportation systems. This is just one example of how positive technologies are turned into products for the industrial-military complex, instead of truly benefiting the people of this planet.

Even information technologies, like the Internet and cell phones could be used for good instead of evil. . . if we will create more information this year than we did in the last 5,000 years alone, might we not use these technologies to educate the masses instead of spy on them, as the NSA and CIA currently do? Yale has open courses now, so does Berkeley and MIT. We have young minds that can develop alternatives to the despotic, dirty technologies and products that are currently running the world. Even a 16-year girl recently developed non-toxic plastic from banana peels. Where are the billions to support projects like these?

Empowering People Instead of Making Enemies

The U.S. also spends billions in counter-insurgency operations in countries like Pakistan to prevent ‘terrorism.’ Car bombings in Karachi and drone attacks in Northern Pakistani cities are almost an every day occurrence. Aside form the priceless cost of human life, these operations create future generations of people who see the U.S. as terrorists themselves.

How much money can we continue to spend on fighting our own self-created monsters? The U.S., among other rich nations, give less than .07% of their total wealth (gross national income) to help support poor and starving countries with international aid. This is congruent with our own policies to support the rich and punish the poor in our own country, but it is also a gross misjudgment in keeping our own country ‘protected’ from the individuals who might easily be swayed to take up arms or bio-terrorism against a country who has shown no heart for the sick and poor in their own war-torn nations. The refugees of wars we have waged are the likeliest candidates to be ‘against’ the U.S., not those we support with education, water supply creation, organic food creation or micro-loans that empower citizens to rise out of poverty.

It doesn’t require even a high school education to figure out that the U.S. can stand to reduce its military spending and place its focus and money on entirely different projects. From Iraq to Rwanda, Vietnam to Afghanistan, we in the U.S. can be seen as a beacon of hope instead of a perpetrator of terror–for our own citizens and the world at large. Might does not always make right, and it is time for a different kind of accounting altogether. Since we can’t seem to rely on our governments and politicians to do some basic math, perhaps we can start by teaching them some ethics.

Stunning letter to Obama from Snowden’s father

July 29, 2013

July 28, 2013

By Richard Clark

Thoreau’s moral philosophy found expression during the Nuremburg trials in which “following orders” was rejected as a defense. Indeed, military law requires disobedience to clearly illegal orders. A dark chapter in America’s World War II history would not have been written if the then United States Attorney General had resigned rather than participate in racist concentration camps imprisoning 120,000 Japanese American citizens


Dear Mr. President:

You are acutely aware that the history of liberty is a history of civil disobedience to unjust laws or practices. As Edmund Burke sermonized, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Civil disobedience is not the first, but the last option. Henry David Thoreau wrote with profound restraint in Civil Disobedience: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Thoreau’s moral philosophy found expression during the Nuremburg trials in which “following orders” was rejected as a defense. Indeed, military law requires disobedience to clearly illegal orders.

A dark chapter in America’s World War II history would not have been written if the then United States Attorney General had resigned rather than participate in racist concentration camps imprisoning 120,000 Japanese American citizens and resident aliens.

Civil disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act and Jim Crow laws provoked the end of slavery and the modern civil rights revolution.

We submit that Edward J. Snowden’s disclosures of dragnet surveillance of Americans under article 215 of the Patriot Act, article 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments, or otherwise were sanctioned by Thoreau’s time-honored moral philosophy and justifications for civil disobedience. Since 2005, Mr. Snowden had been employed by the intelligence community. He found himself complicit in secret, indiscriminate spying on millions of innocent citizens contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the First and Fourth Amendments and the transparency indispensable to self-government. Members of Congress entrusted with oversight remained silent or Delphic. Mr. Snowden confronted a choice between civic duty and passivity. He may have recalled the injunction of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” Mr. Snowden chose duty. Your administration vindictively responded with a criminal complaint alleging violations of the Espionage Act.

From the commencement of your administration, your secrecy of the National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance programs had frustrated a national conversation over their legality, necessity, or morality. That secrecy (combined with congressional nonfeasance) provoked Edward’s disclosures, which sparked a national conversation which you have belatedly and cynically embraced. Legislation has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate to curtail or terminate the NSA’s programs, and the American people are being educated to the public policy choices at hand. A commanding majority now voice concerns over the dragnet surveillance of Americans that Edward exposed and you concealed. It seems mystifying to us that you are prosecuting Edward for accomplishing what you have said urgently needed to be done!

The right to be left alone from government snooping–the most cherished right among civilized people–is the cornerstone of liberty. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson served as Chief Prosecutor at Nuremburg. He came to learn of the dynamics of the Third Reich that crushed a free society, and which have lessons for the United States today.

Writing in Brinegar v. United States, Justice Jackson elaborated: The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

These, I protest, are not mere second-class rights but belong in the catalog of indispensable freedoms. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart. Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government. And one need only briefly to have dwelt and worked among a people possessed of many admirable qualities but deprived of these rights to know that the human personality deteriorates and dignity and self-reliance disappear where homes, persons and possessions are subject at any hour to unheralded search and seizure by the police.

We thus find your administration’s zeal to punish Mr. Snowden’s discharge of civic duty to protect democratic processes and to safeguard liberty to be unconscionable and indefensible.

We are also appalled at your administration’s scorn for due process, the rule of law, fairness, and the presumption of innocence as regards Edward.

The entirety of the letter:


Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I’ve always been more interested in political economics and what’s going on behind the scenes in politics, than in mechanical engineering, and because of that I’ve rarely worked more than 8 months a year, devoting much of the rest of the year to reading and writing about that which interests me most.