Opinion

The Great Debate

Antisocial genesis of the social cost of carbon

The day after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama committed to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

He vowed to build on “transparency [that] promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the government is doing,” “participation [that] allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise,” and “collaboration [that] actively engages Americans in the work of their government.”

Despite these promises, and despite longstanding requirements of administrative law, the Obama administration is making significant regulatory decisions behind closed doors — without transparency or public involvement. Yet these new regulations could have enormous impact on Americans for generations to come.

The president’s ambitious regulatory agenda to address climate change relies on a “social cost of carbon” (SCC) — an estimate of the monetary value of eliminating one ton of CO2 emissions — to calculate the benefits used to justify a host of regulatory actions and government subsidies. These include renewable fuel and mileage mandates for our cars, water limits for washing machines and dishwashers and less visible rules that will likely affect the price of food and electricity.

Rather than working openly with experts and the public to develop this key metric, the administration quietly released a revised SCC in May as a fait accompli. The new SCC is $41 per ton — almost double the value that the administration set in 2010.

Why “sustainability” should be more than a meaningless buzzword

The term “sustainability” crept into the business lexicon slowly, by way of the environmental movement. It no longer means covering operating costs with profits, the definition I learned at Harvard Business School six years ago. Instead, it’s morphed into a blurry term that fits into whatever suitcase you want it to — a catchall for everything “socially good,” whatever that means.

The term has been used by various groups — with various meanings — for three decades. The Sierra Club first introduced it in the 1970s, during the dawn of the environmental movement. At the time, activists were speaking out against mining, water pollution, and other environmental threats. They defined “sustainability” as an approach to preserving natural resources by creating national parks and enacting legislation that would penalize polluters. In the 1980s, companies like The Body Shop used sustainability to describe their commitment to environmental and human rights, and a corporate focus that expanded beyond profits. For the next 20 years, the term was used by a small group of companies, like Ben and Jerry’s and Eileen Fisher, whose founders tried to incorporate their social values into their business models.

Over the past five years, sustainability has become even more popular, as multinational corporations open new sustainability divisions and chief executive officers at the World Economic Forum wax poetic about its importance. The term has been co-opted, perhaps because Americans, especially Millennials, not only want to buy products that do the job, but also align with their values (like soap that can clean a car without harming the environment). Today 2,500 multinational corporations from 58 sectors participate in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which assesses each corporation’s sustainability using variables such as labor and environmental practices. This index is one of over 25 sustainability indices worldwide, each one with a unique set of criteria — measuring governments’, multilateral organizations’ and non-governmental organizations’ level of sustainability, or their so-called social good.

Amid environmental destruction, China is battling to protect wildlife

Recently my family and I went through photos we had taken in Scotland. These images brought back memories of my fascination with the pristine Scottish natural environment. There are the breathtaking highlands, the sparkling lochs, the magnificent glens and the abundant wildlife. All these reminded me of Liaoning, my home province.

I spent my childhood in Liaoning in northeast China. It resembles Scotland in many ways. It is a vast landscape with spectacular mountains and rivers. Equally well-known is its abundant wildlife. Roe deer and hares are a common sight. Unfortunately, in recent years some wild animals have become a rarity, in some areas, due to overdevelopment and depletion of natural resources.

However, when I was on home leave back in Liaoning earlier this month I was delighted, and greatly encouraged, by the vigorous efforts of local government and people to create a sustainable environment.

Stepping up to the plate to reduce food waste

How many times have you reached into the refrigerator, only to discover the yogurt or fruit juice you were looking forward to enjoying had passed its expiration date?

What next? Did you sling that yogurt into the trash? Pour the juice down the sink? You probably congratulated yourself on a lucky escape. After all, who knows what might have happened had you unwittingly consumed a food a few hours past its “sell by” date?

In fact, it’s likely you would never have noticed. Food date labels are typically unrelated to food safety. They are simply a manufacturer’s suggestions for “peak quality” and a shelf life they set by their own market standards. The dates don’t tell you when your food will spoil, nor do they indicate the safety of food.

The darkness behind fracking’s silver lining

A natural gas pipeline under construction near East Smithfield in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Jan. 7, 2012. REUTERS/Les Stone

Climate change may have reached the point of no return last month.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million on May 19, for the first time since the Pleistocene era, over 2.5 million years ago. President Barack Obama’s historic speech on climate change today highlights his growing focus on this issue for his second term.

Climate scientists have long regarded that 400 number as the symbolic threshold. One step beyond, and it would be virtually impossible to put the brake on human-generated climate change. The bad news escalated last week when the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide rose 1.4 percent in 2012, the largest annual increase on record.

Nature adapts to survive climate change

While the climate change discussion in Washington is moving at a glacial pace, nature is responding to climate change at record speed. The animal, plant and insect kingdoms aren’t interested in public policy. They don’t read political blogs. They adapt because they have to. They must change to survive.

We would be wise to heed the signs.

Animals, plants and even insects are now adapting quickly to shifts in temperatures, often by migrating to cooler climates, modifying their diets and altering breeding cycles.

This is happening at blinding speed in large, complex ecosystems. Throughout most of the 20th century, for example, tree range shift occurred at about 0.4 miles a year. Since 1990, however, climate changes have caused species range to move by an average of 12 miles a year. A 2009 U.S. Forest Service study, tracking 40 major tree species in 30 Eastern states, concluded that tree ranges had moved, on average, more than 60 miles north in less than a century.

Murders in the forest

Since Apr. 26, a crusading forestry activist, a muckraking journalist and a 14-year-old girl have been killed in Cambodia because they tried to safeguard the country’s dwindling land reserves. They are all victims of a decade-long battle over Cambodia’s ecological future, a fight that in the past two years has turned more bloody and corrupt. Their deaths offer the world a stark vision of how crony capitalism has replaced totalitarianism as the threat to human rights in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the price of a human life pales in comparison with a blank check.

I worked at the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh for one year (2011-2012), covering the oil business, land evictions, the environment and forestry. That’s why I was with Chut Wutty, the nation’s foremost forest conservationist, on Apr. 26 when he was killed. On the third day of an investigation into illegal logging in Cambodia’s Cardamom mountains, we stopped at what Wutty said was a military-controlled illegal logging outpost. There, he was shot dead during a confrontation with soldiers who were protecting the site and preventing us from leaving. A soldier was also shot dead under mysterious circumstances in the firefight, although Wutty did not fire any shots. When the murderers began concocting a cover-up, a colleague and I were threatened with death. “Just kill them both,” they icily said within earshot of us. After six hours of paralyzing fear and pacing at the scene of the murder, we were transferred from police custody into the care of our editor in chief as night fell.

We were lucky. Less than three weeks later, government security forces fatally shot 14-year-old Heng Chantha during an armed siege against villagers resisting a land eviction by a well-connected agricultural company.

Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: What would Rachel Carson say now?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, the pesticide DDT was very much on my mind. My assistantship in 1953 involved research on the evolution of DDT-resistance in fruit flies. It quickly became clear to all of us in this research group that the broadcast use of pesticides was a losing and dangerous game. When I attempted to raise butterflies in New Jersey in the 1940s, bringing food plants in from nature usually resulted in the caterpillars dying. In those days, widespread spraying of DDT to control mosquitoes coated much of the countryside with poison. In the lab it was easy to use selection to make flies impervious to DDT in some 10 generations, or, in contrast, so susceptible that they would drop dead at a whisper of that “miracle” chemical’s name. Evolution of resistance tended to make continuous use of any pesticide inefficient. The usual response of the chemical industry was to recommend increasing the dose or to substitute more toxic compounds, making pest control even more expensive and dangerous.

That was well understood by evolutionists early on, but it took a marine biologist and talented writer, Rachel Carson, to bring the pesticide problem to public attention and, incidentally, to launch the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring, published in September, 1962, was a brilliant book, but also one that appeared when the time clearly was ripe. The public seemingly had been primed by publicity about radioactive fallout, fears of pesticide residues on cranberries and the thalidomide scandal, the latter enhanced by pictures of infants born with distorted limbs. Carson suffered from the drawbacks of being a female scientist before science’s gender gap began to dissolve, and from lacking a PhD and a professorial position. Despite those “handicaps,” she had the science about as right as it could be at the time.

Carson was subject to a storm of vicious attacks by the combined public-relations machines of the chemical industry and agribusiness, and even from scientists in the industry and entomology departments of some universities. Typical was the much quoted statement of Professor Robert H. White-Stevens, a poultry scientist of Rutgers University: “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” The assault began even before Silent Spring was published. A public-relations campaign against Carson and trumpeting the safety of pesticides was bankrolled by the National Agricultural Chemical Association (NACA). Virtually all of the attacks were without merit. Carson withstood them all, even though she was struggling with metastatic cancer. I met her once only briefly, and then she was gone.

Yes, there are things the Rio summit can accomplish

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was marked by optimism and hope, but much of the buzz about the upcoming Rio+20 meeting is skeptical and cynical. Critics say the Rio process has been unduly bureaucratic and hasn’t lived up to its goals. They are branding Rio+20 as a failure before it has even begun. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are sitting it out. Some even say that in the radically decentralized Internet Age, the days when government leaders or U.N. bodies can set global agendas by fiat are long gone.

True, the Rio process itself has sensibly evolved away from government decree and turned toward the private sector to build a green economy that can implement sustainability on a global scale. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important things governments can do to make Rio’s goals a reality.

Many global businesses now recognize sustainability and equity as the only acceptable model of growth, and have adopted sustainable management of global supply chains as the “new normal.” In the years since the first Earth Summit, businesses and NGOs like ours have been working to scale up sustainable resource use and engage producers and communities worldwide. Unilever and hundreds of other global businesses are committed to sourcing 100 percent of the commodities they use from farms or forests independently certified by organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, the Forest Stewardship Council and commodity roundtables. Certified producers conserve resources and forests, protect habitats and biodiversity, and put livelihoods and communities on a sustainable, equitable footing.

Mystery of the disappearing bees: Solved!

If it were a novel, people would criticize the plot for being too far-fetched – thriving colonies disappear overnight without leaving a trace, the bodies of the victims are never found. Only in this case, it’s not fiction: It’s what’s happening to fully a third of commercial beehives, over a million colonies every year. Seemingly healthy communities fly off never to return. The queen bee and mother of the hive is abandoned to starve and die.

Thousands of scientific sleuths have been on this case for the last 15 years trying to determine why our honey bees are disappearing in such alarming numbers. “This is the biggest general threat to our food supply,” according to Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program.

Until recently, the evidence was inconclusive on the cause of the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) that threatens the future of beekeeping worldwide. But three new studies point an accusing finger at a culprit that many have suspected all along, a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

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