Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup. In recent weeks, this column has focused heavily on the intersection between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and that will continue as the pandemic sweeps the world. Add to that the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and eruption of protests across the country and it’s an understatement to say that we live in some crazy, scary, and historic times.
With that in mind, this space will continue report on and examine news from an environmental and climate justice lens.
If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.
Trump’s New NEPA Attack
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the bedrock statute referred to by many as the “Magna Carta of environmental law,” is under attack again by President Donald Trump. Trump has proposed a new Executive Order using the impetus of his COVID-19 national emergency order to suspend the law for an indefinite period of time. Trump’s order makes it clear that to him, infrastructure investments are a priority in spite of the pandemic.
NEPA is central to the practice of issuing permits on federal land, or interstate projects like highways and pipelines. The law ensures that agencies take a “hard look” at the potential impacts projects could have on waters, land, and people. That includes impacts on vulnerable people and people of color under the banner of environmental justice.
The executive order allows for the administration to “take actions with significant environmental impacts without observing the regulations,” reads Trump’s order as applied to NEPA, adding that “agencies should take all reasonable measures to speed infrastructure investments.”
As previously reported by The Real News, the attack on NEPA is long in the making and has long sat at the top of the wish list of the fossil fuel industry. President Trump already signed an executive order at the beginning of the year that would severely limit the scope of what gets examined for impacts during the NEPA review process.
But it’s not just Trump. President Barack Obama helped pave the way for the assault on NEPA, too, by signing a bill into law in 2015 to hasten the NEPA review process. That process involves an in-depth environmental impact statement analysis often hundreds of pages long, a public commenting period and/or public hearings for all proposed projects or regulations.
Unsurprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute, the top national lobbying voice of the oil and gas industry, which also lobbied for the 2015 Obama-era legislation, met the proposal with cheers.
“An efficient permitting process is critical to making new job opportunities a reality and advancing infrastructure development for industries across the economy,” Robin Rorick, Vice President of Midstream and Industry Operations for API, said in a press release. “We are in an unprecedented time, and getting energy infrastructure projects approved and moving will go a long way in re-starting our economy while creating well-paying, middle-class sustaining jobs.”
Also unsurprisingly, the proposed emergency order was met with jeers by the climate justice groups, including from Food & Water Action.
“The National Environmental Policy Act is one of our country’s fundamental public health and environmental protection tools,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the group. “Without it, air pollution and drinking water contamination would be rampant from coast to coast – to say nothing of over-the-cliff climate disaster. Allowing the fossil fuel industry to dig, drill and frack unbounded by NEPA amounts to a targeted strike on people of color and low-income communities most likely to be impacted by these hazardous practices.”
DNC Climate Crisis Council
The Democratic National Committee’s Council on the Environment & Climate Crisis, created in the aftermath of the DNC refusing to hold a climate-focused debate during the presidential primary cycle, has released a report laying out its proposals for a climate change policy platform for the Democratic Party.
— Sunrise Bay Area
(@sunrisebayarea) August 22, 2019
The report came out the same day Trump signed the NEPA executive order. The group’s proposals aim to influence the party’s 2020 platform, which will be finalized at the party’s national convention, set to be held virtually or in-person—depending on the status of COVID-19—in August.
It is an ambitious proposal, perhaps because its demands originated from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. Among other things, it calls for:
- A permanent ban on fracking and a move to 100% renewable energy in electricity, transportation, and buildings by 2030;
- Ending fossil fuel subsidies and exports;
- Undoing all of Trump’s attacks on environmental regulations;
- Creating a federal “Transition Task Force” to help workers and communities transition away from a fossil fuel-centric economy;
- Creation of a well-funded and well-staffed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice;
- Shifting subsidies away from Big Ag and toward “the growth of sustainable, regenerative agriculture powered by 100% clean energy”;
- A 100% shift toward electric vehicles by 2030 and a goal to “Align transportation spending with goals to reduce vehicle miles traveled and increase public transit, walking, bicycling, and electric bicycle use.”
“Our platform provides a blueprint for ambitious action to fight the climate crisis and advance climate and environmental justice,” Michelle Deatrick, Founder and Chair of the DNC Climate Council, said in a press release. “It’s a reality that in the United States, climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately harm Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. These policies center environmental justice for frontline and vulnerable communities, urgent climate action, and worker empowerment.”
In many ways, the policy platform proposal resembles the Green New Deal resolution and the call for a COVID-19 economic crisis Green Stimulus package in that it goes beyond what is normally called a “climate” issue. For example, the document calls for universal health care and to abide by treaties signed between Native American Tribes and the U.S. government.
Friends of the Earth Action praised the policy package, particularly for focusing on agricultural practices.
“Agriculture is often left out off of the climate policy table and we are excited to see the DNC Council propose robust recommendations for transforming our nation’s heavily polluting industrial agriculture system,” Kari Hamerschlag, food and agriculture deputy director for the group, said in a press release. “We cannot solve our climate crisis without a dramatic shift away from subsidies for energy intensive monoculture and factory farms and towards diversified, regenerative, organic farming practices.”
But the policy platform also offers a contradiction between the reality of the Democratic Party and the face of the party. Though the platform calls for party elected officeholders not to accept campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, the outlet Sludge recently reported that some of the DNC members who voted against a climate debate to begin with are actually fossil fuel industry lobbyists. There is also no ban on the revolving door, in which those who have worked for these industries leave and work as senior staffers for elected officials. But in Washington, DC and in statehouses, it’s not only from whom one takes campaign money that determines policy outcomes, but also with whom one is friends.
It’s not quite wildfire season in California, and yet wildfire season has arrived. Unseasonably hot early-June weather and unusually windy days for this time of year has created the fuel for fires in places ranging from San Diego County, Los Angeles County, Solano County and beyond. The fires come after May was the hottest recorded in human history.
In San Diego County, over 8,600 acres ignited near Camp Pendleton on June 9, one of the country’s largest naval bases located in the City of Oceanside. Camp Pendleton, surrounded by hills rife with brush that is ripe staging ground for a fire, tweeted that no one was hurt in the fire. The military base admitted that its own training exercises (emphasis mine) caused the fires.
It’s fire season here at Camp Pendleton
— Emma Uslick (@emma_uslick) June 10, 2020
In Los Angeles County, fires also happened at a familiar spot, in close proximity to the Getty Museum. They burned 50 acres of land. In early fall 2019, an enormous wildfire nearly lit the nationally-renowned art museum on fire and the fire became known as the Getty Fire.
Video taken from 405 south bound at the Getty Museum on-ramp pic.twitter.com/f0FDLzUjLq
— Rhoda Nazanin (@rhodanazanin1) June 10, 2020
In the aftermath of the Getty Fire, The Real News went to Los Angeles County to examine the root causes of the fire. The leading causes are the combination of long-term drought and powerful winds amidst hot weather days. Together, they create the perfect conditions to ignite bone dry brush. Climate change, scientists say, leads to those conditions and has extended what the typical wildfire season is to an extra month in length. The conditions have also made the wildfires more intense and harder to fight.
Temperatures reached a record high of 98°F on June 9, the day of the Getty-area fire coined the Sepulveda Fire, breaking the record of 94 degrees set in 1979. In nearby Anaheim, temperatures also rose to 103 degrees, shattering the prior record of 92 degrees set in 1990.
The fires serve as a terrifying forewarning of what likely looms in the months ahead: the novel coronavirus pandemic colliding with actual wildfire season. At a June 9 hearing convened by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Amanda Kaster—Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the U.S. Department of Interior—said wildfire season could be brutal in 2020.
“Following a dry fall and winter, drought has emerged and expanded across California, Oregon, and Nevada,” she said in her testimony. “Mountain snowpack has melted at a faster than average rate. Long-range forecast data predicts overall warmer and drier than average conditions this summer for the West. The combination of these factors is expected to lead to an above normal wildland fire potential across the West this year, especially for Northern California and Oregon.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) concurred, saying “This is going to be a tough year if our predictions are right. And usually those predictions are not too far off.”
At a May 13 press conference, California Governor Gavin Newsom summed up the situation by stating “The hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier,” a trend recently reported in a Wall Street Journal article in comparing how this dry season was drier than those of the past two years. The 2018 wildfire season saw record wildfires, including the literal destruction of the entire town of Paradise, California, killing 86 people and burning down close to 12,000 structures.
As of June 15, 37 brush fires have already occurred in California in June, burning a total of 17,042 acres of landscape.
Brazil’s COVID Chaos
And finally, Brazil. My climate crisis beat colleague Aman Azhar has a new batch of reporting out on deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest and what it means for future pandemics because of reckless environmental actions by the rightwing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Authoritarianism is leading to a chaotic situation in South America’s largest country.
The country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a climate change denier and has sought to defund and dismantle environmental agencies and regulatory safeguards to benefit industrial-scale agribusiness, ruling the country with an iron authoritarian fist. He also has downplayed the risk of COVID-19 by calling it a “little flu.” Yet, now the country is second only to the United States in the Americas as of June 12 for both cases and deaths, at over 772,000 and 39,000, respectively.
Bolsonaro has also advocated fiercely for industrial-scale deforestation of the Amazon for agribusiness and the timber industry. These things make not only the climate crisis worse, but also the coronavirus and the human rights of the country’s Indigenous population. In turn, the practices have led to the deaths of at least 178 Indigenous people who came into contact with these industrial actors.
Brazil’s tropical forest—the largest on Earth—is one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world. That means it absorbs climate change-causing carbon greenhouse gas emissions, though large-scale wildfires in recent years have turned what was a net carbon sink into a net carbon emitter. The industrial deforestation practices, clear-cutting at a rate unprecedented in the country’s history, could make that even worse.
Aman spoke to several experts about these intersecting nightmares and the current sordid state of play in Brazil, piecing together a multimedia package combining written text with video interviews. It’s well worth checking out. And continue to follow Aman’s reporting here at The Real News Network and over on Twitter at @TheAmanAzhar.