It's not a question one tosses off idly. There's no comparison between the U.S. and places like Afghanistan and Iraq, which have lost, as Max Weber put it, "the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force." Yet when it comes to America's ability to protect itself from the vicissitudes of a changing climate, many people are wondering if some kind of third-world putdown might be accurate.
"Why do we allow the U.S. to act like a failed state on climate change?" asks George Monbiot in the Guardian, lamenting the failure of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed in the House today, to achieve anywhere close to the emissions cuts that scientists and European countries say are needed to avert catastrophe. "A combination of corporate money and an unregulated corporate media keeps America in the dark ages."
Over at the Thin Green Line blog, Cameron Scott expands on the idea, construing Weber a bit more broadly. "A failed state is one in which the government can no longer control destructive social forces," he writes. "The forces in question here are the powers of lobbyists to write mistruths into law." One of those mistruths being that we need not feel a sense or urgency about climate change.
Personally, I prefer the definition of a failed state offered by the experts at the Crisis States Research Center, who say, "A failed state is one that can no longer reproduce the conditions for its own existence." A climate that can sustain us is certainly one of those conditions. Even if the U.S. survives the loss of its coastal cities and the Sierra snowpack that feeds California, it probably won't endure the ensuing global resource wars, at least not in its current form.
You can quibble over whether the U.S. is a failed state or a failing state--it really depends on when you think the world has passed the global tipping point and how much we're to blame. Perhaps we're more accurately described as a rogue state. Like Iran, but more advanced. Instead of forcibly preventing the media from covering inconvenient truths, all our ruling elite needs is the death of a pop star. Voila! The debate on climate change disappears, replaced with obeisances to the God of Pop.
Nobody in the mainstream media seems to care that debate has begun in the House this afternoon on the single most important piece of environmental legislation ever. As of 1 p.m. Eastern, there's still no mention of the Waxman-Markey climate bill on the front page of the Times' website; the paper's Caucus blog deems it worthy of a mention but changes the subject halfway through to talk about immigration reform. Climate Progress rues the Reuters headline: "Michael Jackson overshaddows Farrah Fawcett on a sad day."
Meanwhile, Republicans are not being called out for spewing lies on the House floor about the bill's scientific mandate and price tag. Many of them are repeating the bogus claim that the Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would add $.77 a gallon to the price of gasoline in the next decade. That number actually comes from the American Petroleum Institute, which decided to ignore the CBO's real analysis and produce its own. In reality, the CBO found that gas prices in 2019 would be about $.20 higher than they are today. More important, it found that the climate bill will cost the average American the equivalent of a postage stamp per day--and before you count the benefit of energy efficiency savings.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post released a poll showing that 75 percent of Americans believe that the government should "regulate the release of greenhouse gases" from cars and other sources. So presumably, many people would actually care to know that a climate bill is up for debate, and that Republicans are doing everything they can--truth and future generations be damned--to kill it. These guys are the true kings of Neverland. We're missing the one freak show that matters.
In what may be this week's worst amendment to the Waxman-Markey climate bill, a midwestern Congressman has introduced a provision that would ban the EPA from accounting for the full carbon footprint of biofuels.
Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the powerful chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, is expected to attach the amendment before releasing the bill to the House floor, where a vote is expected as early as tomorrow. The change would prevent the EPA from accounting for the way that growing biofuel crops in the U.S. drives food production abroad, causing deforestation that contributes to climate change. Ignoring this "indirect land-use change"--the technical term for a phenemon that can account for up to 40 percent of corn-based ethanol's carbon emissions--would allow the fuel to qualify under the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, making it eligible for government subsidies.
In effect, the ethanol industry is hiding behind the difficulty of calculating its own environmental footprint. Though the EPA has already devised a method to account for the land-use impacts of biofuels, the amendment prohibits the agency from implementing it for six years, at which point the National Academy of Sciences will have completed a study that is supposed to resolve lingering uncertanties with the method.
An obscure executive order issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 has given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the power to approve or deny a massive oil pipeline between Canada's controversial tar sands and U.S. oil refineries.
In the coming weeks, the State Department will decide whether to grant a permit for the 1,000-mile Alberta Clipper pipeline, which would be capable of carrying up to 800,000 barels per day of crude oil--or about 8 percent of net U.S. oil imports--from the tar sands in eastern Alberta to refineries on Lake Superior in Wisconsin.
Under current law--rarely invoked, given that oil imports typically arrive in the U.S. by tanker--the Secretary of State must receive all applications for the construction of "pipelines, conveyor belts, and similar facilities for the exportation and importation of petroleum." If the Secretary finds that granting a permit "would not serve the national interest," she can deny it.
A study of 4,000 "eco-friendly" consumer products found on supermarket shelves found that 98 percent of them make false or misleading claims. The study, presented to Congress earlier this month by the environmental consulting firm TerraChoice, found rampant greenwashing in every product category. Twenty-two percent of the products it evaluated featured an environmental badge, or "green label," that was actually meaningless.
Congress is now debating better ways clamp down on greenwashing. The Federal Trade Comission, which is supposed to prevent the practice, has taken almost no enforcement action against greenwashers over the past decade. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is contemplating introducing a bill that would boost federal oversight of eco-marketing, including product lablels. While one third of conumers rely on labels to decide if a product is environmentally friendly, there is a confusing jumble of 300 competing environmental certification programs that bombards them with competing and misleading claims.