Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category


One more chapter in the biggest environmental justice case in history

February 15, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day: a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, has ordered Chevron to pay $9 billion in compensation for damages wrought by Texaco during its time operating in a section of the Ecuadorian jungle about the size of Rhode Island. The case was filed in 1993 and surely won’t end with this ruling, as Chevron has already vowed to appeal. There are further legal complications given that Chevron has no assets in Ecuador and thus any reparations must be enforced by U.S. courts. Still, this is a pretty major step in the right direction.

Want more background on the case? I have two books to recommend: one academic and one photographic. And, of course, an excellent documentary.

Aside from that stuff, my uber-glib summary is: think the Erin Brockovich story, only with worse environmental degradation, worse health impacts, a much more complex legal environment thanks to cross-border issues, and – most importantly – vastly bigger power imbalances between the plaintiffs and defendant.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a breakdown of what the damages are supposed to go towards, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

  • $5.39 billion — To restore polluted soil
  • $1.4 billion — To create a health system for the community
  • $800 million — To treat sick people affected by pollution
  • $600 million — To restore polluted sources of water
  • $200 million — To recover native species
  • $150 million — To transport water from other sites to supply the community
  • $100 million — To create a community cultural reconstruction program
  • Total: $8.64 billion

Plus, I believe, a 10% legal fee that is supposed to go mostly to the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonía, the Ecuadorian organization that has taken the lead on representing the plaintiffs (and also helping organize them, and publicize the case domestically and internationally).


Steelworkers FTW WTF

October 14, 2010

I was in the middle of a busy period of life when a month ago, the Steelworkers submitted a 5,800-page petition urging the Obama administration to file a WTO case again Chinese subsidies for green technologies. I just found out about it today. I got really pissed off.

The way USW is going about this is completely backwards. They’re accusing China of engaging in “illegal practices that stimulate and protect its domestic producers of green technology, ranging from wind and solar energy products to advanced batteries and energy-efficient vehicles.” This is a double whammy. Not only does it reinforce the frame that domestic industrial policy is bad and legitimizes the use of the WTO to attack such policy (and why the hell would USW want to advance that frame?!), it also is a slap in the face for climate activists who would probably like nothing more than to see China, the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, invest in developing cleaner technologies.

To add insult to injury, this is all also completely hypocritical, since USW, as a founding member of the Blue-Green Alliance, would love to see massive U.S. investment in the domestic green economy. It’s a classic case of kicking away the ladder: denying developing countries the policy tools we want to be able to use ourselves.

What’s interesting is the Blue-Green Alliance statement on the USW petition. It’s decidedly lukewarm and avoids condemning China as an enemy engaging in “unfair practices.” I wonder what the politics behind the scenes here must have been like. In any case, I suspect this is a more useful position for progressives to adopt:

Today’s Section 301 petition filed by the United Steelworkers underscores the importance that the United States act quickly to take advantage of the job-creating opportunities of the clean energy economy. Every day America delays action is another day that China capitalizes on jobs created in the production of clean energy technologies that could and should be developed, manufactured, and installed in the United States.

This looks pretty different from USW’s condemnation of China using legitimate policy tools to promote their industries. There’s still the requisite vaguely nativist language, but instead of blaming China for doing what we should be doing, it puts the onus on U.S. policymakers to create our own industrial policy for the green economy – WTO legality be damned. This is a useful frame that USW has undermined: instead of thinking about what is and isn’t legal under the messed up WTO rules, we should be thinking about what policy goals we want to work towards, and if the WTO rules need to be changed to allow them, we should campaign for WTO reform.

(As an aside, interestingly, this week the Brookings/AEI green economy proposal came out, and even if it’s not something progressives can get behind, as Dani Rodrik pointed out, if this isn’t an industrial policy proposal, nothing is. And this coming from AEI!)

USW’s is exactly the kind of stance organized labor needs to not be taking in a modern world characterized by increasing interconnectedness and potentially imminent environmental catastrophe. We need a less provincial labor movement and more of a global working class consciousness in order to get anything done. Somewhere, Frances Fox Piven is saying, “I told you so.”


Chamber of Commerce = delusional extremists?

September 30, 2009

You don’t say!

Flying Whale


Strategic Retreat

August 14, 2009

Damage from Hurricane IvanI’m tired, TIRED of hearing well-intentioned, well-educated, climate-change-believing folks say–four years later–that New Orleans and waterfront Biloxi shouldn’t be rebuilt.  I’m not tired of the conversation at the meta-level–in fact, I think it’s one we should be having more often and more rigorously.  But I am tired of the way in which it’s always framed–as if individual people should recognize that Katrina #2 is inevitable and voluntarily relocate elsewhere.

Regionally, the Mississippi Delta, the Pamlico-Albemarle Basin, and South Florida absolutely need to be in discussion about strategic retreat.  But strategic retreat cannot be an individual-level decision–it’s at least regional, maybe national.  It can only happen when public policies change; when we bring the externalities associated with climate change, natural disasters and eroding coastlines into the system.

The truth is that we are still incentivizing coastal development; we haven’t gotten anywhere close to creating a neutral policy that would allow rational individuals to make a long-term strategic decision without significantly acting against their own near-term interests.  The way the externalities add up right now, individuals will choose against strategic retreat every time.

That has to change.  For new developments on risky land, we need to make the risk-inclined pay a premium.  We need to make it expensive–tremendously so–to live and invest dangerously.  Or, better yet, we need to ban those developments altogether (but I’ll settle for incremental change).  And for the folks who are already there–we need to create a well-organized, thoughtful process with multiple options and a respectful timeline to help them move.

We’ve got to reverse the trend of having the poorest folks, the least-able-to-recover-and-rebuild folks, on the most vulnerable land.  And we’ve got to stop counting on natural disasters to be the catalyst for the conversation.



Americans wise up, start not paying for free stuff

August 13, 2009

I’m talking about water, of course.

…sales of bottled water have fallen for the first time in at least five years, assailed by wrathful environmentalists and budget-conscious consumers, who have discovered that tap water is practically free.

Great news, but this article weirdly misses a huge point. The reporter, Ylan Mui, focuses on opposition to the bottled water industry from environmentalists, citing the amount of oil needed to make all those plastic bottles, and all the landfill space those bottles take up. Mui quotes the NGO Food and Water Watch multiple times as a leading group in the debate. But Food & Water Watch isn’t really an environmental group; their bottled water campaign starts from a broader critique regarding the privatization of natural resources (and also brings in public health and other angles), not just the environmental effects of making lots of bottles. Perhaps that kind of systemic analysis is too much for the Post?

Flying Whale