Blue Marble - April 2010

Beyoncé's Beach House Brouhaha

| Tue Apr. 27, 2010 5:15 AM PDT

Matthew Knowles, the manager and father of the pop star Beyoncé, is not the kind of guy who needs a handout from Uncle Sam. His daughter and her husband, the rapper Jay-Z, are reportedly worth $265 million, his record company has sold 200 million albums, and his investments include an entire city block near downtown Houston.  Even so, Knowles is in line for a lucrative taxpayer-backed bailout. A federally-funded disaster relief program is set to purchase his home in Galveston, Texas, which was rendered nearly worthless by damage from Hurricane Ike, for something close to its original value: A cool $425,000.

Knowles' bailout is far from unique. In the name of disaster relief, the federal government routinely subsidizes some of the country's wealthiest and most irresponsible property owners. In Texas alone this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is spending $100 million to buy and demolish more than 750 flood-prone buildings insured by the National Flood Insurance Program, many of them expensive waterfront homes. The land will be permanently set aside as open space.

FEMA argues that the buyout program will easily pay for itself. After all, the NFIP is already on the hook to repair many of the properties, most of which private insurers have long been too smart to cover. In 1993, FEMA realized that repairing similarly flood-prone homes along the Mississippi River was costing more than they were worth. Over the next eight years, a buyout program that targeted some of the swampiest properties achieved a 200 percent return on investment, FEMA says, preventing millions in insurance claims across the Midwest.

But along the Gulf Coast, FEMA's buyouts make much less sense. Here's the problem: FEMA is still insuring new homes that are all but certain to be underwater by the end of the century, submerged by a three-foot rise in sea level caused by climate change.  Until FEMA starts accounting for climate change, its buyout program provides homeowners with a strong incentive to ignore the problem. Why worry about sea level rise when you know that, in the worst case scenario, the government will pick up the tab?

The situation is the screwiest in Texas, where FEMA is undermining the state's own curbs on coastal development. As I explain in today's Climate Desk piece, the Texas Open Beaches Act bans all homes on Texas beaches, even when the beach comes to the home, rather than vice versa.  Knowles' home, which ended up on the beach after Hurricane Ike eroded the coastline, would probably have been removed under the law. Texas' hard-line approach to beach protection is also a low-cost way to force even the wealthiest property owners to plan for sea level rise. But it won't work very well until FEMA stops using our tax money to pay people off.

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Gibbs: Climate and Immigration Not a Question of "Either-or"

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 5:27 PM PDT

It sure doesn't look like the White House intends to wade into the spat over whether climate or immigration legislation should be next on the Senate's list of priorities. "Whichever bill has the support it needs to be passed, that’s what will move first," said press secretary Robert Gibbs at today's briefing.

The disagreement between Democratic leadership and Sen. Lindsey Graham—the lone Republican actively working with Democrats on both issues—threatens to derail negotiations on the administration's two top priorities, following the anticipated passage of financial reform. But Gibbs declined to state a preference on which should go first Monday afternoon.

"I think we can make progress on more than just one issue," Gibbs continued. "You all see this as an either-or, but this administration does not."

Graham: "I Don't Want to Play Politics"

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 4:48 PM PDT

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) indicated on Monday that he doesn't want immigration coming up at all this year, even if it comes after climate and energy. Bringing up another contentious issue like immigration, he said, would threaten the fragile balance he has worked to strike on an energy bill. "I'm not going to roll anything out on climate and energy in an environment where it's dead before it starts," Graham told reporters.

Moving immigration reform now would be premature and would divide both Congress and the country, Graham said. "If you bring up immigration this year ... you have really done damage to immigration reform prospects in the future," Graham told reporters Monday evening, following a meeting with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). "Not only have you hurt immigration, you've destroyed any chance of energy and climate having a snow ball's chance in hell."

Graham, Kerry and Lieberman met to try to calm the storm that kicked up around their legislation over the weekend after Graham threatened to ditch work on climate and energy if Democrats decided to move immigration first. Graham accused Democratic leadership of making a "cynical political ploy" by pushing immigration ahead in the queue. The move caused Kerry to call off the scheduled introduction of their bill today to make time to allay Graham's outrage. But following the meeting, it didn't seem like the South Carolina Republican intended to change his mind any time soon.

"Energy and climate is tough. Under the best of circumstances it would be tough, right?" said Graham. "I've got a heavy lift here. So do John and Joe ... I enjoy doing difficult things with serious people that have a chance. But at the end of the day, I don't want to play politics with issues that really do mean a lot to me."

Climate Bill Damage Control

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 1:08 PM PDT

Democrats were in damage control mode Monday afternoon, trying to keep climate and immigration reform—their two biggest legislative priorities after financial regulation—from imploding before they even make it to the floor.

Climate bill cosponsor Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) appeared on MSNBC this afternoon to try to allay concerns that a deal he has been working on for months with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is in peril. Lieberman maintained that Graham is still working with them on a climate and energy bill. "This is his priority," said Lieberman (via the Washington Independent), adding, rather inscrutably, "Lindsey Graham will come back to where he is and never left."

Lieberman also said that he had spoken with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday who said "explicitly" that he remains committed to a vote on a climate and energy bill, and expects it to come ahead of immigration. "He assumes that will be before the immigration reform bill is ready," said Lieberman."He knows our bill is ready and the immigration reform bill is not."

Senate Democratic staffers are also dismissing the dust-up, saying that Graham and the press are blowing the matter out of proportion. "I haven't seen anyone locate any quote by Reid where he said he was going to do one before the other," said a Democratic aide, speaking on background. "Neither of them have 60 votes. Those are the facts. Should that math change in favor of one issue or the other, than we'll obviously take that particular one up first."

Can Reconciliation Rescue the Climate Bill?

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 12:19 PM PDT

When health care reform seemed to be headed for disaster, Democrats got around the 60-vote obstacle in the Senate by using reconciliation. With climate and energy legislation in a tailspin, can reconciliation come to the rescue again?

Yes—but it probably won't happen. And a number of Democrats had a hand in keeping that option off the table.

Last April, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) tagged an amendment onto the budget bill barring the "use of reconciliation in the Senate for climate change legislation involving a cap and trade system." Reconciliation requires only a simple majority vote in both chambers, nullifying the filibuster in the Senate and making it possible for Democrats to pass legislation without any Republican support. Obviously, Republicans like the idea of denying Democrats this option. But 26 Democrats joined Johanns to prevent the use of reconciliation for a cap-and-trade law.

Last week, the Senate Budget Committee reaffirmed that stance, voting 16-6 in favor of an amendment from ranking minority member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that would effectively prevent the use of reconciliation for climate policy. Seven Democrats voted for that measure in committee: Kent Conrad (N.D.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Russ Feingold (Wisc.), Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), and Mark Warner (Va.).

A few Democrats have tried to keep the idea of using reconciliation alive for energy and climate legislation. But it seems like a long shot given how many Dems are on the record as opposing it. Will the departure of the lone Republican working openly with John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a comprehensive bill change their calculation? Hard to say. There are still plenty of extremely contentious issues on climate and energy even among Democrats. Even if Dems changed their mind on reconciliation, the climate bill would be far from a cakewalk.

Climate Chaos: Senators Meeting Soon

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 9:46 AM PDT

Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman are reportedly planning to meet this afternoon with Lindsey Graham in a last-ditch effort to salvage the climate and energy bill the three senators have been working on for months. The legislation, scheduled to be unveiled today, was thrown into chaos this weekend after Graham threatened to abandon negotiations unless Democrats committed to advancing energy and climate ahead of immigration reform.  

Meanwhile, advocates for climate action are trying to figure out whether there's still a chance that the trio's bill—which Kerry has called the "last, best shot" at tackling global warming this Congress—still has a chance or is already dead in the water. Greens were already plenty nervous about the rollout of the bill, as leaks about the draft indicated it would be very friendly to business interests. But if Graham follows through with his threat, there may not be a bill at all. "It's hard to know if this is jockeying for position, or if this is a watershed," said David Hamilton, director of the global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club. "I think we just have to wait a few days and see how it shakes out."

Hamilton pointed out that Graham "certainly appeared serious." However, Graham's been able to wring a lot out of this bill, including major investments in nuclear power and increased offshore drilling. It's not clear how many of those concessions would survive if he walked away. Hamilton added that the South Carolina senator has also invested a lot of political capital in the bill. "It's hard to believe that it would all just end up on the kitchen floor."

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Will the White House Intervene in Climate Spat?

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 6:16 AM PDT

With the fate of climate and energy legislation in peril, will the White House intervene to save one (and possibly two) of their top legislative priorities? It doesn't appear so, at least not yet.

The Obama administration so far is staying out of the Senate squabble that kicked up this weekend when Lindsey Graham, the lone Republican working with Democrats on a climate and energy package, threatened to walk away from negotiations if the Democratic leadership followed through on talk of pushing an immigration reform bill first. Climate and energy bill co-authors Graham (R-SC), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) were supposed to unveil their legislation today, promising unprecedented industry support. The rollout was delayed in hopes of salvaging bipartisan backing for the bill. The White House has declined to state a preference on which issue moves first—climate or immigration.

"There's no either-or between energy and immigration reform," Larry Summer, Obama's chief economic adviser, said on CBS’s Face the Nation yesterday. "Senator Reid, for whatever reasons he has, will in the Senate choose the legislative calendar."

White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner issued a statement of continued support for a bipartisan bill on Saturday, but she didn't make any comment on timing, short of saying the White House still wants comprehensive legislation this year. "We believe the only way to make progress on these priorities is to continue working as we have thus far in a bipartisan manner to build more support for both comprehensive energy independence and immigration reform legislation," she noted.

"We have an historic opportunity to finally enact measures that will break our dependence on foreign oil, help create clean energy jobs and reduce carbon pollution," Browner continued. "We're determined to see it happen this year, and we encourage the Senators to continue their important work on behalf of the country and not walk away from the progress that's already been made."

The fight to pass legislation on the already contentious issue of climate and energy got uglier this weekend. Some intervention from the top might be necessary if the work Graham has been doing with Kerry and Lieberman is to be salvaged.

Why Your Allergies Are Getting Worse

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 2:30 AM PDT

Ah, spring. Flowers! Lawn sports! Baby birds! Lots and lots of snot. Yes folks, this year's pollen counts, especially in the southeast, are through the roof, and as our intrepid reporter Kate Sheppard wrote between sneezing fits last week, a new study from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) suggests allergies will likely become even more fierce if the planet continues to heat up.

Researchers found that not only is spring coming earlier, making for a longer allergy season, but warmer weather allows hickory and oak, two of the most allergenic tree species, to thrive almost everywhere in the US. Another factor: Some plants, such as ragweed, are actually making more pollen as the environment changes. "As trees that use the wind to pollinate undergo stress from heat or lack of water, they begin to produce more pollen to compensate," explained NWF climate scientist Amanda Staudt. Scientists have already observed this phenomenon in cities, where C02 levels are an average of 30 percent higher than in suburbs and rural areas. "Cities are where we’re seeing increased pollen production," explains Demain.

Hayfever's not the only allergic reaction that could worsen with climate change. Sometimes, pollen from certain plants can exacerbate food allergies to related plants, says Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska. People who are genetically presdisposed to fruit and nut allergies, for example, may find that increased exposure to birch pollen makes their food reactions worse. Similarly, more ragweed pollen could aggravate symptoms in people allergic to melon. Also on the horizon: more aggressive poison ivy. A Duke university study found that poison ivy plants exposed to CO2 produced more potent urushiol, the allergen that causes the famous rash.

So is there any chance we'll adapt by becoming less allergic to all that pollen? Probably not, says Demain. "We don’t become more resistant to allergies with exposure, there's evidence that we actually become more allergic. We've actually seen more and more people with allergies for the past 30 years." So what's the solution? Ultimately, the only way to fix the problem is to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, says Staudt. In the meantime, since I'm not wild about the prospect of staying inside all allergy season long, here are three things we allergic people can do to sneeze less:

  • If you have a garden, choose plants with bright flowers. These are usually pollinated by insects, not the wind, meaning the pollen is generally too big to get into our nasal passages.
  • Urge your city officials to plant female trees, which don't produce pollen.
  • If you live in the city (especially one of those listed below), get out to the country every once in a while. (Some cities, like Albuquerque, New Mexico, have actually enacted ordnances against planting certain kinds of highly allergenic trees, though it's not clear how effective these rules are in lowering the pollen count.)

Each year the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America publishes a list of the most allergenic cities. Here's the top 10 from Spring 2010:

Climate Bill Roll Out Postponed as Graham Threatens to Walk

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 6:10 PM PDT

The state of climate and energy legislation was thrown into disarray Saturday evening as the lead Republican on the bill, Lindsey Graham, threatened to walk away from negotiations over tensions on timing. With bipartisan agreement in peril, John Kerry, the lead Democrat on the bill, pushed off the anticipated roll out of the bill scheduled for Monday.

"For more than six months, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and I have been meeting for hours each day to find a bi-partisan path forward and build an unprecedented coalition of stakeholders to pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill this year," Kerry said in a statement. "We all believe that this year is our best and perhaps last chance for Congress to pass a comprehensive approach. We believe that we had reached such an agreement and were excited to announce it on Monday, but regrettably external issues have arisen that force us to postpone only temporarily."

Graham had expressed anger over the suggestion from Democratic leaders that immigration reform might move ahead of climate and energy legislation. Earlier on Saturday, he told supporters that he would walk away from the bill if Democratic leadership did not commit to moving their forthcoming bill first. Graham quitting his work on the bill would put its fate in question; he's the only Republican publicly engaged with Democrats in writing legislation.

Kerry said he remains "deeply committed to this effort" and that there is "no choice but to act this year." He also praised Graham’s role in shaping the bill, but said he and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would move forward without him. "Joe and I deeply regret that he feels immigration politics have gotten in the way and for now prevent him from being engaged in the way he intended. But we have to press forward. Lindsey has helped to build an unprecedented coalition of stakeholders from the environmental community and the industry who have been prepared to stand together behind a proposal. That can’t change. We can’t allow this moment to pass us by."

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman had expected to unveil a draft of their legislation on Monday, promising unprecedented support from industry groups. But at this point, the bill's fate is uncertain, to say the least.

Graham: Energy First, or I Walk

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 3:27 PM PDT

Lindsey Graham has made his opposition to taking up immigration reform before a climate and energy bill well-known. On Saturday, he made it clear that if Democrats go that route, he's walking away from the work he's done with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a comprehensive package.

The Hill reports that Graham sent a letter to supporters saying that he will be "unable to move forward" with the energy and climate plan they're expected to roll out on Monday if it falls behind immigration on the list of legislative priorities. Graham quitting his work on the bill would send negotiations into a state of chaos; he's as of yet the only Republican publicly engaged with Democrats in writing legislation.

From Graham's letter:

Recent press reports indicating that immigration—not energy—is their priority have not been repudiated. This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year. All of the key players, particularly the Senate leadership, have to want this debate as much as we do. This is clearly not the case.
I am very disappointed with this turn of events and believe their decision flies in the face of commitments made weeks ago to Senators Kerry, Lieberman and me. I deeply regret that election year politics will impede, if not derail, our efforts to make our nation energy independent.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement affirming his commitment to addressing both issues this Congress, noting that they are "equally vital to our economic and national security and have been ignored for far too long." But Reid also made it clear that he plans to move on whichever piece of legislation has the support to pass. "As I have said, I am committed to trying to enact comprehensive clean energy legislation this session of Congress," said Reid. "Doing so will require strong bipartisan support and energy could be next if it's ready."

As for Graham, Reid said:

I appreciate the work of Senator Graham on both of these issues and understand the tremendous pressure he is under from members of his own party not to work with us on either measure. But I will not allow him to play one issue off of another, and neither will the American people. They expect us to do both, and they will not accept the notion that trying to act on one is an excuse for not acting on the other.

What this means for Monday's anticipated roll out of a climate and energy bill isn't clear. "Unless their plan substantially changes this weekend, I will be unable to move forward on energy independence legislation at this time," Graham wrote. "I will not allow our hard work to be rolled out in a manner that has no chance of success."