CEOs Against CO2 Top executives hold a finger to the wind and realize it's time to act on global warming
Call it a grim paradox or poetic justice: While Bush officials are insisting that federal action on climate change will hamstring industrial growth in the United States, corporate leaders are recognizing that it's essential to their firms' economic survival.
General Electric, Ford Motor Company, Duke Energy, Exelon, and JPMorgan Chase are among a growing number of Fortune 500 companies that in recent months have voiced support for a federal crackdown on carbon dioxide emissions. In June, executives from firms including DuPont, United Technologies, and the utility giant Cinergy appeared before the House Science Committee to testify in favor of such mandated reductions. In May, GE launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to promote "Ecomagination," an initiative that entails a $1.5 billion annual investment in developing clean-energy technology and commits the company to improving its energy efficiency 30 percent by 2012.
The motive for these corporate crusaders is less save-the-planet than protect-the-bottom-line. GE chair and CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt summed it up best when he announced, at the Ecomagination press event, "We see that green is green" and assured guests that he was launching this initiative "not because it is trendy or moral, but because it will accelerate our growth and make us more competitive."
If a carbon-constrained economy is inevitable, then there's an enormous profit opportunity in developing low- or zero-emission technologies, whether they be fuel-efficient cars, wind turbines, solar panels, or coal-gasification facilities. These are precisely the technologies today's headline-making companies are looking to manufacture.
Regulators are already hitting the American business community. While not ratified by the United States, the Kyoto Protocol treaty on global warming applies to U.S.-based multinationals with facilities in 141 signatory nations.
Domestically, there's also regulatory uncertainty. In the face of federal inaction, cities and states are proposing their own greenhouse-gas restrictions, creating an inconsistent patchwork of standards across the country. U.S. businesses know they will be paying in the end for the Bush administration's head-in-the-sand approach. As Cinergy chair James Rogers wrote to shareholders in a letter last March: "Avoiding the debate over global climate change and failing to understand its consequences are not options for us."
—Amanda Griscom Little
Guinea Pigs Step right up to the Electric Kool-Aid Pesticide Test
In the fall of 2004, posters began appearing in hospitals and health clinics serving families in Jacksonville, Florida, asking parents to participate in the Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study. Under the terms of the chirpily named CHEERS, which was jointly financed by the EPA and the American Chemistry Council, 60 families that regularly used pesticides, brominated flame retardants, or other nasty chemicals in their homes would be rewarded with up to $970, a VCR, a framed certificate of appreciation, and a promotional bib and T-shirt. They would also receive a camcorder to monitor their children's activities and, presumably, record early signs of poisoning such as sweating, drooling, vomiting, and muscle tremors.
CHEERS was canceled in April by then-acting EPA chief Stephen Johnson, but the notion of exposing people to toxic chemicals in the name of science lives on. This summer, the EPA was finalizing a policy that would allow the pesticide industry to submit data from human experiments "unless there is clear evidence that the conduct of these studies was fundamentally unethical."
Congress, meanwhile, has called for a time-out. Appropriations amendments that would ban the EPA from testing pesticides on people or accepting data from privately sponsored human studies passed the House in May and the Senate in June. But opposition from chemical companies is fierce, and at press time it was unclear if the ban would be in the budget bill sent to the president. That's because the EPA's current exposure limits—based on data from lab animals—can be weakened if a manufacturer has human-experiment data to justify higher exposures. The industry, says Rebecca Roose of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has led the fight against the agency's plan, is "pushing for human testing in an effort to bump up the exposure for all of us."
W Watch KEEPING TABS ON WASHINGTON Fishy Science - Why bother learning anything new if you've already made up your mind? That seems to be the philosophy of Dale Hall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest regional director, who in January directed staff biologists charged with protecting endangered species not to use any new genetic data discovered since a species was first listed. Critics of the decision include 163 scientists who called on Hall to rescind the policy. In July, President Bush announced he was nominating Hall to head the agency.
Mess Hall Not content with its exemptions from the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Pentagon now wants to be spared the trouble of cleaning up its messes. The 2006 defense authorization bill asks Congress for reprieves from the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Superfund, and it's not hard to guess why. Thirty-four bases shut down since 1988 are on the EPA's Superfund list, even though the Pentagon has spent $8.3 billion for remediation. A hundred other military sites are also contaminated by toxics such as asbestos, lead, trichloroethylene, and radioactive materials.
FOR THE RECORD
"The term 'roadless' does not mean an absence of roads. Rather, it indicates an attempt to minimize the construction of permanent roads."
—from the U.S. Interior Department's environmental impact statement on oil development in western Alaska
George H. W. Bush called himself the "environmental president," but his son has even closer ties to nature. In March, two entomologists named a slime-mold beetle after Bush the Younger. Agathidium bushi is in good company: The scientists also named beetles after Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Darth Vader, among others.
BOLD STROKES Pleasantville
Low-impact landscaping isn't just for the eco-purist. Officials in Prince William County, Virginia, persuaded the developer of a new luxury subdivision to incorporate features that reduce polluted runoff—a costly problem nationwide. The neighborhood, called Hopewell's Landing, has narrower streets and shorter driveways (to reduce the amount of paved surface) and makes use of thirsty plants, mulch, and stones that absorb and filter rainwater. All this and walk-in closets too.
Public employees in Washington State now have one less excuse for calling in sick since Governor Christine Gregoire (D) signed the nation's first "green building" law in April. Well-designed structures with natural lighting and good ventilation reduce worker absenteeism, increase productivity, and save an estimated 30 percent on energy costs. The law requires most new or renovated state buildings to meet green guidelines that conserve energy and water and promote recycling. Washington Middle School in Olympia will be among the first to incorporate the new standards, which officials expect will also boost student performance. As one eighth-grader told the local newspaper, "If somehow a building could raise test scores, that would be cool."
Losing the Farm Land-use laws unravel in the greenest of states
Leopards and Rhinos and Pandas, Oh My! Carousels are classic fun. And a learning experience too, when you're straddling a rare white tiger on the Audubon Nature Institute's Endangered Species Carousel in New Orleans. The ride's 60-animal menagerie includes traditional horses as well as vanishing species.
Since the 1970s, Oregon's pioneering land-use laws have been hailed as a national model for containing sprawl and protecting farms and forests. What a difference an election makes. Last November, the state's voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 37, the most sweeping "takings" law in the country. The statute allows property owners to file claims against the government whenever a land-use or zoning regulation restricts use of their property and reduces its value. Officials must either compensate individuals or waive the regulation and allow development to proceed.
More than 1,000 Measure 37 claims are already moving through city, county, and state agencies. Few jurisdictions can come up with compensation, so in the bulk of cases they'll be forced to allow new subdivisions on high-value agricultural land outside designated urban-growth boundaries.
The measure's victory has set a precedent for efforts across the country. Since November, takings legislation has been introduced—but gone nowhere yet—in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Maine. In Washington, opponents of the state's Growth Management Act hope to put a Measure 37 clone on the ballot in 2006. Measure 37's sponsor is also working with supporters in Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.
Over the past decade, courts and policymakers have reaffirmed public entities' right to restrict development that increases the costs of providing government services, and to preserve open space and agricultural land. "It's a recent idea that you should have to pay for the public good," says Elizabeth Schilling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Growth Management Leadership Alliance.
Activists aren't taking Oregon's lurch to the right lightly, Schilling says. "Our top priority is to make sure it doesn't happen anywhere else."
UPDATES CAT TRACKS
In February, a federal judge in Florida sided with the Sierra Club and upheld Clinton-era restrictions on off-road vehicles in Big Cypress National Preserve. The plan limits the vehicles and other motorized transport (such as airboats) to about 400 miles of designated trails and 15 entry points in the 720,000-acre preserve. Riders of these vehicles have cut an estimated 22,000 miles of illegal trails through Big Cypress—almost enough to circle the earth. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that motorized travel disturbs the endangered Florida panther, whose population now numbers only 80 to 100 animals. (See "ORVs Keep Out!", January/February 2003, page 31.)
JUSTICE IN THE JUNGLE
In March, oil giant Unocal settled a lawsuit brought by a group of Burmese villagers who lived near the company's Yadana pipeline. The 15 plaintiffs will be compensated for their suffering—including forced relocation, compulsory labor, torture, and rape—at the hands of soldiers hired to guard the company's operations. Unocal (which at press time was about to be bought by Chevron) also agreed to fund programs to improve healthcare and education and raise other living standards for communities in the pipeline region. (The exact terms of the settlement were confidential.) Washington, D.C.–based EarthRights International helped the villagers file the suit, which was the first of its kind to be settled for monetary damages. Their success should make it easier for other activists to hold multinational companies responsible under U.S. law for their human-rights abuses abroad. About a dozen similar cases are pending in U.S. courts. (See "Lay of the Land," May/June 2002, page 20.)
Depending on who funds your research, bisphenol-A is either a dangerous contaminant or no big deal. A University of Missouri developmental biologist recently reviewed 125 published studies about the chemical, which is used in many common plastic containers, and noted vast discrepancies in their results. More than 90 percent of the 114 studies conducted by government-funded scientists found evidence of harmful developmental and reproductive effects in animals, such as early puberty, reduced sperm counts, and brain damage, at low doses; none of the 11 studies funded by chemical companies did. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2003, page 16.)
Pastoral Duty A Honduran priest who stands up to the powerful timber industry becomes a target—and a hero
Man of the people: Father Tamayo with parishioners. - (photo by Christian Lazen-Bernardt)
Backed by local mafias, illegal loggers have the run of most of Honduras's forests. But in the country's remote heartland, a short, bespectacled Catholic priest has kept them largely at bay. Followers of Father José Andrés Tamayo Cortez have blockaded timber operations and marched twice on the capital en masse to protest unregulated logging and the officials who look the other way. Their demonstration last summer led to a government investigation of the National Forestry Agency and the resignation of its general manager.
Tamayo's success has won him international acclaim: This year he was awarded a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. It's also made him a target for the drug traffickers and crime bosses who profit from illegal logging. Three members of Tamayo's organization, the Environmental Movement of Olancho, have been killed since 1996, and the priest has received death threats.
Though the legal logging limit in Honduras is about 500 million board feet a year, the actual harvest of mostly pine trees is up to 60 times greater. Much of it ends up in the United States, the world's largest importer and consumer of timber and wood products. The Olancho region, where Tamayo has made his home for the past 20 years, has lost more than 6 million acres of forest. Eroding topsoil and water shortages have led to dried-out crops and, in turn, to poverty, delinquency, and emigration. With no contracts or permits governing most of the logging, the community receives nothing for its loss.
Now that Congress has approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), these problems will likely multiply. Soon a free-trade zone will extend from Canada to Costa Rica (excluding Belize), giving companies more power to challenge environmental regulations, and governments less power to set them. That may make it far harder to enact the reforms Tamayo is seeking: a moratorium on industrial logging in the region until a sustainable forest policy is created and enforced, and finished products—not just raw material—are made in the community. "For each tree that they cut down, there is less life in the nation," Tamayo says. "For each tree that they steal, there are more people in poverty. They are taking the dignity of the people along with the wood."
Field & Flack The White House gets the journalism it pays for
For the third time this year, the Bush administration has been caught planting flattering stories about itself, this time in the hook-and-bullet press. In May, the Department of Agriculture admitted it paid freelance writer Dave Smith at least $7,500 in 2003 to write articles about how the department-administered Farm Bill, passed in 2002, benefits wetlands, wildlife, and sportsmen. Two of the articles appeared in Outdoor Oklahoma, one in Washington-Oregon Game & Fish.
Smith didn't write anything inaccurate. Given the source of his paycheck, however, he knew not to criticize the department's Natural Resources Conservation Program, which, in part, aids agribusiness and encourages the destruction of prairies. Smith says he told the magazines of his federal connection, but only one noted it.
Such stealth propaganda may be on its last legs. President Bush has proclaimed that government promos should be duly identified. For his administration, good environmental coverage has always been hard to come by. Now the Bush crew won't even be able to buy it.
Loan Gridlock How the inflated cost of urban housing fuels sprawl
Should you stay in the city, where high-density development often makes living an ecologically virtuous life easier, or move to the suburbs, where homes are cheaper? It's a tough choice for many environmentalists. And it may be a false one.
Common mortgage-lending practices make urban living artificially unaffordable. Most homeowners devote about 55 percent of their income to housing and transportation costs combined. Families in suburban areas spend 30 percent on their homes and 25 percent or more on their cars. Those in urban neighborhoods with good transit spend a mere 10 percent getting around but 45 percent on their homes.
But mortgage bankers rarely allow housing payments to exceed 30 percent of income, so urban abodes are "mortgage unaffordable" for many buyers. The mortgage industry's view steers buyers to the suburbs, indirectly increasing air pollution, traffic, and sprawl.
Scattered efforts are being made to level the playing field. Mortgage giant Fannie Mae provides small "Smart Commute" bonuses—about $10,000 in additional purchasing power—in 40 urban communities. In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority provides a boost of up to $90,000 for people who buy near transit stations.
Ideally, the mortgage industry would add the percent of income saved by urban transit directly to the 30 percent of income it uses to calculate loan payments. With that change, buying where transportation is inexpensive would be the fastest route to affordable housing.
—Patrick H. Hare