Screwed Locally and Globally on Climate Change

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), the agency in charge of the Delaware River as it winds through four states, conveniently sidestepped taking responsibility for overseeing the cumulative effects of the many natural gas pipelines being built around or through the Delaware River watershed by saying, essentially, “that’s not our job.” It’s a tried-and-true political maneuver. But, if it’s not the job of the DRBC, then we are really screwed here in the Delaware River Valley. That means it’s not anybody’s job to look after the aggregate environmental degradation in the watershed and threats to human (and animal) well-being caused by the standard procedures of the natural gas industry, operating as they do without need to comply with the Clean Air or Clean Water Acts. Oh well, I guess they can monitor themselves.

The DRBC did however give the go-ahead to two controversial projects: a $1.2 billion electrical transmission line through 72 miles of Delaware River watershed connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania substations, and a $6.4 billion project to expand the Philadelphia airport- by filling in 130 acres of wetlands. Wetlands mitigate the effects of disastrous storms like Sandy, which we can expect more of, thanks to climate change. But you can’t charge for prudence.

Every time I revisit the airport expansion, the numbers get bigger. There’s the usual amount of cheerleading for this project, from the usual cheerleaders- the ones that brought you casinos and the expanded convention center. And I’m sure they all stand to make piles of money. Airport director Mark Gale promises jobs and revenue and a more efficient airport. Let’s hope any of that is true. US Airways Vice President Micheal Minerva questioned the proposition back in 2010, so some pretty smart people see things differently. The project now only needs permission from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (an oxymoron under Corbett) and the US Army Corps of Engineers, so consider it a done deal.

And here, in microcosm, is the problem with solving climate change. There’s too much money to to be made doing the same old same old. There’s no incentive to change, I mean, unless you like breathing the air and drinking the water. But apparently that’s just not as sexy as the old “jobs and revenue” line that gets trotted out by every fill-in-the-blank financially interested party to defend every project that will add more carbon to the atmosphere.

The sticking point with climate change is it’s not an environmental problem, primarily, but an economic problem. The entire world’s economy revolves around carbon-spewing technologies. And until the kingpins controlling the resources that keep this economy running figure out how to make money in changing, there will be no serious change. Period, the end. Too bad about the air and water.

The natural gas industry is big in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and is grossly unregulated. The prize the industry promotes is replacing oil with natural gas – liquified natural gas, to be precise. That way cars keep running, factories don’t have to retool, there’s no need to worry so much about rapid transit, and hey, natural gas is clean, they say, kind of like clean coal (not). Tar sands development in Canada continues at a breakneck pace, although it may not go as smoothly as envisioned. GE recently announced plans to expand “natural gas highway” partnerships and the US government issued a report last week that makes the case for exporting natural gas, which the US now has in surplus. Sure it’ll drive up domestic natural gas prices, but ultimately… jobs and revenue. So that’s the plan, a natural gas superhighway and exporting the stuff so other countries can build natural gas superhighways. Good old, same old thing.

And nary a word about the hit to the earth’s warming climate of these “clean energy” technologies. According to the International Energy Agency the world cannot afford to burn two-thirds of all identified fossil fuel resources. All that new carbon alone will doom the planet. It has to stay in the ground. So what the heck are we all talking about? “Jobs and revenue” is beginning to sound like the ditty Nero might sing as Rome burns.

Earlier this month, countries of the world met in Doha, Qatar under the auspices of the United Nations, to continue their nearly 20 year conversation about what they could or should do concerning climate change. Twenty years of talk and no action. Why? Because there’s way too much money to be made doing nothing, and besides, say some, carbon regulation is not the UN’s job.

When ordinary people have a concern about the impacts to their well-being of an industry, they naturally turn to their elected political leaders. So it’s disappointing when those leaders aren’t that interested in protecting public health. Susan Rice, current UN Ambassador, whose name is being floated for Secretary of State, has over a million invested in the Keystone Pipeline, a deal that needs – surprise! – a permit from the Department of State to proceed. It’s hard for politicians to care about whether you can breathe air or drink water when they’re so busy toting up their own return on investment.

I’m not against jobs and revenue but I’ve come to highly value breathing air and drinking water. The only force in the world capable of ultimately winning out over all this prevailing wisdom about jobs and revenue and the incredible boon of “clean” fossil fuels is sustained direct action by people. For real change, people will have to push harder, because politicians can talk forever, if you let them.

This is the conclusion many activists have come to across a variety of campaigns like Greenpeace, the Tar Sands Blockade and the new student movement to force colleges and universities to divest themselves of their fossil fuel investments, to name a few. It’s surely going to get hotter – literally and figuratively – before health and well-being win out over jobs and revenue.




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