Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

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

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Wielding Stick on Climate, EPA Reminds it Could Regulate CO2 Itself

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 1:44 PM EDT

If the Senate does not pass a cap and trade bill this year—a prospect that seems increasingly likely—the Obama administration may start pressuring legislators by moving to regulate CO2 itself.

Yesterday, as leading Senate Democrats announced they were putting off introducing a cap and trade bill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson let it be known that her agency would probably classify CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act "in the next months," triggering her ability to regulate it without approval from Congress. The so-called "endangerment finding," long sought by environmentalists, was announced in April but has yet to be formalized. It would hypothetically allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases much as it does other forms of air pollution, by capping point-source emissions and fining polluters.

Jackson and President Obama have said that they prefer letting Congress regulate greenhouse gas emissions instead of doing it through the executive branch, a process that might prove more cumbersome and disruptive to the economy. Still, with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans under intense pressure to block or water down the bill, Obama might gain a strategic edge by getting more specific about how he'd tackle the issue if they don't. That could in turn give some legislators political cover, allowing them to tell their corporate overseers and conservative constituents that voting for the bill was in their "best interests"—a way of averting something even stricter. (Indeed, even the hint of the threat has already swayed one prominent Republican, Grist notes).

Would that approach mean much bigger political risks for Obama? Of course. But it might be worth it: By 2012, when Americans realize that their electric bills haven't skyrocketed, gas doesn't cost $4 a gallon, and coal miners are still employed, Obama's stance on global warming might be old news, or even a plus at the ballot box.

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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."

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?

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