Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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When Pintos Explode in a Good Way

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 1:49 PM EDT

When is an exploding Pinto a good thing? When that Pinto explodes from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds, powered exclusively by electric batteries. Last week, NPR ran a great piece on the National Electric Drag Racing Association, a group of hot rod enthusiasts who are replacing V8s with electric motors in old muscle cars and kicking ass on the racetrack.  "I tore it all down, took the front end down, took the engine," said Mike Willmon, owner of the 1978 Pinto. "The infamous exploding gas tank is gone. Now the batteries take up the back trunk area where the gas tank used to be."
To the extent that their hobby catches on, people like Willmon will be vital low-carbon emissaries to the NASCAR crowd. Sure, Tesla's $100,000 roadster has shown that electric cars can be fun, but taking that message to Joe Sixpack means proving that clean-tech can be done in your garage and can smoke the fossil fuel competition. Clouds of burning rubber, Willmon told NPR, "is the only emissions this car makes."

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce Proposes "Scopes Monkey Trial" to Debunk Climate Change

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 2:39 PM EDT

Stephen Colbert could not have done better. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading opponent of regulating carbon emissions, says it wants a public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. A Chamber official told the LA Times that the hearing would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century."

The Chamber either forgot that the creationists won that fight--though in the long run, the famous 1925 trial over the teaching of evolution, portrayed in Inherit the Wind, humiliated them--or it's attempting the boldest metaphor in the history of climate spin: creationists = climatologists.

Setting aside the fact that the nation's largest business lobby has supported plenty of dumb ideas, let's assume that this isn't really about science. Because there's no way that a half-competent judge is going to rule that 95 percent of climatologists are wrong. Remember the Supreme Court case? The one that said the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon?

No, what this is really about is false populism. Though it's evoking Scopes, the Chamber is actually calling for a "public hearing," a gathering that would surely be more akin to the recent healthcare town halls that were stacked with anti-government nutjobs. What fearmongering and demagaugery did for health care, it could do for climate change!

Or not. My bet is that 90 percent of the Bubbas who'd show up would also be creationists, the people discredited in the first Monkey Trial. Good luck with that, fellas!

ExxonMobil: "Green Company of the Year?"

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 4:03 PM EDT

Editors know that counterintuitive headlines sell magazines. They also know that making wildly exaggerated claims can damage their credibility. Writing a headline is often a balancing act between these two factors. So when you see a magazine like Forbes say that ExxonMobil is "Green Company of the Year," as it did this month, what it's really saying is that it's hurting. With advertising pages way down this year, the magazine feels the need to sell off its long-term credibility with some readers for the short-term gain of boosting page views. That, at least, is my take on what Forbes was thinking. Because there's simply no way that any serious reporter would wrap Exxon in a shroud of green.

Here's Forbes reporter Christopher Helman's argument in a nutshell: By next year, Exxon will become the world's top non-governmental producer of natural gas. Natural gas can replace coal in power plants, resulting in a 40 to 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This would be the most cost-effective way to start addressing global warming. Therefore, Exxon is "Green Company of the Year."

Helman is not wrong, until he gets to the last part. His leap in reasoning is like saying that a military dictator is "Humanitarian of the Year" because he built 10 new hospitals, but failing to consider that he conducted a genocide. If that sounds a bit harsh, then consider the truly abysmal nature of Exxon's broader environmental record:

1.  Exxon has a long history of funding climate change deniers. And despite a 2008 pledge to discontinue contributions to groups "whose position on climate change could divert attention" from the need for clean energy, the company went right on funding them.

2.  Exxon is a leading opponent of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, the very legislation that would begin to price dirty coal out of the market. In May, the Exxon-funded Heritage Foundation released a wildly exaggerated study claiming that an emissions cap will kill millions of jobs and send gas to $4 a gallon (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found middle-class households would pay only $175 a year more in 2020 because of the legislation).  And on August 18th, 3,500 energy workers rallied against the climate bill in a Houston demonstration organized by--you guessed it--Exxon and other energy companies, a leaked memo from the American Petroleum Institute reveals.

3.  The Exxon Valdez oil spill. See dictionary entry for "environmental genocide."

4.  Exxon is an aggressive player in Canada's tar sands, the world's top producer of ultra-dirty oil.

5.  The natural gas pumped by Exxon still contributes to climate change. Indeed, natural gas is currently responsible for about 20 percent of US carbon emissions. Curtis Brainard points out in his own takedown of the Forbes piece in the Columbia Journalism Review:

A recent study by Carnegie Mellon projected that replacing all coal burning with natural gas would significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but not enough to meet scientifically recommended targets for mitigating climate change. Moreover, it’s fairly ridiculous to suggest, as Helman does in the beginning of his piece, that natural gas will replace all coal burning any time in the near future.

Brainard goes on to point out that natural gas is a "bridge fuel," tiding us over until we're able to ramp up lower carbon alternatives. The race to create those alternatives and dominate an emerging global market in clean tech will be the biggest business story of the next decade--a story that Forbes seems to have forgotten.

Of course, the Forbes' approach clearly isn't about putting forth a coherent argument or roadmap to the future. Adding another layer of weirdness, there's an accompanying editorial that argues that "environmentalism is a religion, not a science" and "the very thesis that environmental carbon is bad is a matter of faith, not science." Really? So then why is Forbes hawking a 2,000-word feature on how Exxon is so great at cutting environmental carbon? Probably for the same reason that Exxon is pumping natural gas: Because there's money in it.


Kennedy and Health Care, Then and Now

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 3:00 PM EDT

One of the great and bitter lessons of Senator Edward M. Kennedy's political career is also the most timely for House Democrats: The need to seize the political moment on health care reform.

Republicans and Democrats have never been as close to fixing health care as they were in 1973, when the Nixon administration was engulfed in the Watergate scandal and eager to change the subject. Knowing that Ted Kennedy would soon introduce a politically potent plan for nationalized health care, Nixon charged Caspar Weinberger, his Health Education and Welfare secretary, with crafting a bill that would "regain the initiative in the health arena." What Weinberger came up with looks positively Marxist compared to the way Republicans are slandering Obamacare: The plan, unveiled in Nixon's State of the Union address, would have required employers to provide health insurance and offered federally-financed coverage to many low-income Americans.

Though that sounds pretty good in the context of Washington's diminished expectations these days, Kennedy publicly opposed it at the time as a potential windfall for private insurance interests. A few months later, he announced his own plan, a single-payer system that would nonetheless preserve a role for private insurers as fiscal intermediaries and providers of supplementary benefits. Presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, believes Kennedy could have negotiated an historic compromise with Weinberger, but gave in to pressure from the labor unions to wait for a better deal under a new administration. (Kennedy later gained a reputation for pragmatism in negotiating bills like No Child Left Behind). "Kennedy said that was his biggest regret," Felzenberg told me today, "because he had a Republican president willing to dance with him."

The death of that era, embodied by Kennedy's passing today, is truly sobering. Kennedy and his labor allies could hardly be blamed for thinking that the tide of progressivism was still on the rise, or that the potential for honest debate was a given. Who could foresee that the GOP, far from chastened by Watergate, would become ever more beholden to Nixon's polarizing Southern Strategy? Or that American pragmatism would give way to the politics of fear, lies, and ideology that we've seen in the recent town halls?

Ultimately, Obama and progressives in Congress will sign on to some sort of health bill; the stakes are too high for them to take a pass. The question is under what terms they'll be able to shore up the effort in years to come. With the political pendulum on an uncertain arc, what cause now for Kennedy's famous optimism?

Sludge & the White House: My Response to the NYT

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 1:53 PM EDT

Yesterday the New York Times' Home & Garden section finally addressed the story that the White House press corps has dared not bespeak: The possibility that sewage sludge fertilizer has contributed lead and other toxins to the soil in the President's vegetable garden.

A few months ago, it was the quaint Garden section that casually broke the news that the White House garden, which had been created by Michelle Obama to the delight of local and organic food advocates, contained 93 parts per million of lead--a level that is higher than natural background levels but not dangerous. The piece led me to wonder if sewage sludge fertilizer, which had been applied to the South Lawn in the past, could be one cause of the lead contamination. That post created a frenzy in the blogosphere as some people made ridiculous claims that the Obamas were poisoning themselves.

Lost in the obsession over lead levels (which the White House now says have been reduced to an extremely low 14 ppm) was much of any discussion about why people should be concerned about eating produce from land applied with sludge. So the Times deserves credit for acknowledging the issue, even if its reporting was surprisingly cursory and a bit misleading.

Taking issue with my claim that sludge was used on the White House lawn for at least a decade, the Times quoted retired White House gardener Irv Williams, who said it was applied only once, in 1985. When I originally reported on sludge, I had left multiple messages with the White House press office trying to reach Williams or anyone else with the gardening staff, but none of them were returned.  So instead, I relied on several stories about sludge and the White House from the '80s and '90s. In 1988, the Washington Post reported that ComPRO was used on the South Lawn "last August." If that's true, then Williams' memory is a bit unreliable. A decade later, the Post reported that ComPRO was being discontinued and that Williams was none too pleased about this. "Meanwhile, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds crew at the White House is preparing for life after ComPRO," the Post reported. "Irv Williams, who has taken care of the White House grounds for 38 years, said they will make due, even though ComPRO has helped the South Lawn." Around the same time, an EPA official told the New Scientist: "The Clintons are walking around on poo, but it's very clean poo." In short, if sludge had long ago been discontinued at the White House, it certainly wasn't the impression being conveyed by government officials.

Why could that be? One reason could be that the EPA was very keen on using the White House example as a PR tool for the selling of sludge to home gardeners and agricultural America. So it's ironic that the spin now seems to have changed directions. In an apparent attempt to counter my message that sludge use by the government was common, the Times added, "And in 1994 President Bill Clinton sent a directive to government agencies telling them to start using environmentally friendly practices for landscaping government grounds, like reducing the use of toxic chemicals."

Really? Then how do you explain what Williams told the Post in 1999, when asked how he would replace ComPRO: "We'll do the same thing we did before we got it--use grass clippings that decompose and regular commercial fertilizer (my emphasis). More to the point, in September, 2007, the EPA adjusted its government procurement standards for the "landscaping products" category to specifically include "compost made from recovered organic materials," including "compost made from biosolids" (the EPA's term for sludge). The standards recommend that government agencies use only compost that meets this definition. 

So contrary to the impression conveyed by the Times, it's pretty safe to assume that sludge--with all of its flaws--is still in wide use by the government. At least the paper's gardening section isn't parroting the of Post's "Ornamental Gardener" column of the late '80s, which described ComPRO as "attractive, hummuslike and easy to handle" and conducive to "ideal conditions for healthy root growth." Instead, the Times reports that good sources of organic matter for gardening include "composted leaves, non-acid peat, and well-rotted manure." But sludge? Don't hold your breath.


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