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Supreme Court permits Baltimore suit against energy companies to continue

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A court case between the city of Baltimore and a group of energy companies will be permitted to continue after the Supreme Court earlier this week rejected the latter’s attempt to freeze the case. The litigation, which the city initiated in 2018, alleges that the energy companies are liable “for their direct emissions of greenhouse gases” and the damages they’ve caused the city and its residents.

No explanation accompanied the Supreme Court rejection, but Baltimore is considering it a victory, since its case against companies including BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, and Citgo can now continue. Though the ultimate decision of where the case should be heard may end up being more significant than the high court ruling.

The energy companies’ request to halt the case is part of their broader legal fight to move the case from state to federal court. The companies hope to establish a precedent in which climate cases are largely heard by federal courts, where “climate-related cases have been largely decided in the companies’ favor,” reports Climate Liability News. In a recent article on the Supreme Court’s rejection of the freeze, New York Times columnist Adam Liptak points out that cases in state courts disadvantage big corporations because cities have a “home-court advantage before local judges.”

The strategy of choice among big energy companies is to appeal to the federal courts — in this case the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals — that its cases belong there, then request a stay on the state case while the appeal is decided, citing the costliness of multiple concurrent cases. The recent New York Times article elaborates on the one-two punch:

In the Supreme Court, the energy companies argued that the issues in the case require adjudication in federal court.

“It is difficult to imagine,” they told the justices in court papers, “claims that more clearly implicate substantial questions of federal law and require uniform disposition than the claims at issue here, which seek to transform the nation’s energy, environmental, national security and foreign policies by punishing energy companies for lawfully supplying necessary oil and gas resources.”

Letting the state court suit move forward in the meantime, the companies said, would subject them to needless litigation expenses. Baltimore responded that such costs did not amount to the sort of irreparable injury that would warrant a stay of proceedings while the question of the proper forum is resolved.

It’s not the first time the energy companies have tried to remove the case from a state court. In June, a federal court in Baltimore ruled that the defendants’ attempt to push the case out of local courts was “improper.” A similar request lodged to the circuit court while it still decides on the legitimacy of the defendants’ appeal was also denied.

With the appellate court still deciding if the case can be elevated to the federal level, the final arena is undecided. If the battle between Baltimore and the energy companies remains in a local court, the implications for future cases are substantial, paving the way for court battles with energy companies at the local level.

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Supreme Court permits Baltimore suit against energy companies to continue

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Climate activists have their next target: The DNC debates

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

No city better embodies the challenges of climate change than the setting for the first Democratic debate in June. At least 10 candidates who meet the DNC’s set of polling and grassroots fundraising criteria will take the stage in Miami, a city that will face the threat of encroaching seas on a daily basis in the next 25 years. Many of the climate activists who have spent their time recently urging presidential hopefuls to embrace the Green New Deal and reject donations from fossil fuel industries are preparing for their next battle: pushing for a future presidential debate focused entirely on climate.

Environmental and progressive groups including 350.org, Greenpeace, Sunrise movement, Credo Action, and Friends of the Earth plan to ramp up campaigns in the coming weeks and months calling on the Democratic National Committee, as well as the major networks and individual 2020 candidates, to dedicate one of the dozen official debates to a subject that has never gotten its due in primetime.

“We’re seeing a shift in people’s consciousness,” Janet Redman, Greenpeace USA’s climate program manager, told Mother Jones. “We need to see that starting to be reflected in our politics—that it’s not an isolated set of incidents or phenomenon. The public is craving politicians to have a conversation on this. They want to know real solutions.”

It’s not the first cycle activists have tried to persuade the DNC to give climate change some attention in the debates. The DNC itself doesn’t control the questions that are asked—that’s up to the networks that wind up partnering with for the events—but there have been debates focused on broad themes like national security and the economy. But through a combination of bird-dogging, protests, online campaigning, and the increasing prevalence of climate in the national conversation—not to mention burgeoning scientific evidence of its severity and grave consequences—activists have become more ambitious, seeking to have a full 90 minutes focused on the finer points of climate action.

The hyperpartisan nature of the climate debate tends to obscure the fact that there is a huge spectrum of proposed solutions for addressing the problem. “It’s like saying we shouldn’t have a debate on health care because all Democratic candidates agree more people should have access to health care,” says Evan Weber, political director of Sunrise Movement. In the past, when candidates are asked about this at all, the questions tend to be about whether a candidate believes in climate change, thinks of it as a priority, or has any plan for action.

Even now, it’s easy to imagine how candidates will express their commitment to a Green New Deal and deflect specifics with some applause line about climate change as an existential threat, a national security threat, or an opportunity to show American leadership. Moderately talented politicians could avoid addressing the many challenges and paths forward on climate. For instance, beneath the generally universal enthusiasm for the Green New Deal vision, there are huge fractures about whether the traditional gold standard of a carbon tax championed by economists should be included, or how to handle nuclear power, or how to handle fracking and the continued leasing of lands for fossil fuels.

“My fear is there will be some softball climate questions that aren’t specific, aren’t digging deep, [and] therefore make it hard for us to make any candidate who is elected accountable,” Redman says. “What we’re trying to do by focusing on primaries is pulling the entire field of candidates to bolder positions.”

One of those bolder positions would be to force candidates to take a clear stand on where fossil fuel leasing and production fits into their climate plans. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have taken definitive positions saying they would reject new leasing on public lands, but Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris have not shared their opinion on the future of natural gas despite voicing their support for the Green New Deal. Another question would be how climate fits into the candidates’ priorities. Should Washington Governor Jay Inslee make the stage, he is likely to ask other candidates to demonstrate that this is a priority by promising specific action during their first 100 days in office.

Climate has always faced an unnaturally high bar to make it to the debate stage, considered in the past as a niche issue rather than a central concern, despite tens of thousands of Americans losing their homes to fires, mudslides, and floods. That was clear in 2012 when Mitt Romney and Barack Obama appeared at the CNN debate and its moderator replaced a question “for all you climate change people” with one about the national debt. There were no direct questions on solving the climate crisis that cycle, nor were there any questions in the general election debates in 2016 (the Democratic primary featured a little more debate centered around fracking).

But this year is likely to be different. After another year of record wildfires and extreme weather, capped off by alarming headlines from the normally staid Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Democratic primary voters have never been more concerned about climate. According to a Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom poll in March, 80 percent of those polled said candidates should spend “a lot” of time talking about climate change, placing this issue only second to concerns about health care. And the vision for the Green New Deal, when stripped of partisan context, has polled at astoundingly high rates across partisan lines.

Thus far, the DNC has no plans for any issue-specific debates, other than providing a “platform for candidates to have a vigorous discussion on ideas and solutions on the issues that voters care about, including the economy, climate change, and health care,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa emailed Mother Jones. Unlike Republicans stuck in climate denial, “Democrats are eager to put forward their solutions to combat climate change, and we will absolutely have these discussions during the 2020 primary process.”

Greenpeace’s Redman counters that promise “absolutely falls short.”

“I think it’s night and day,” says Brandy Doyle, climate campaign manager for the progressive advocacy organization Credo Action. Grassroots activists and climate campaigners “worked really hard to inject the idea of climate change in the conversation in 2016, to even push for a question on climate change in the debates.”

For activists, the key to forcing these debates is to be able to hold the nominee accountable if he or she wins, which becomes impossible within a general election that will be entirely about drawing a contrast to Trump. “If you can’t articulate the urgency of the climate crisis and your vision for addressing it,” Doyle says, “you’re not qualified for president.”

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Climate activists have their next target: The DNC debates

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Why Toledo just gave legal rights to Lake Erie

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This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Lake Erie provides drinking water for 11 million people, and an unusual tactic to protect it was just adopted in Toledo, Ohio: On Tuesday, Toledoans passed the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” in a special election, with 61 percent voting yes on a ballot measure that could allow citizens to sue polluters on behalf of the lake.

“This is the first in the nation in terms of rights-of-nature law being adopted by a municipality over a certain ecosystem, and I think it’s the beginning of more things to come in that area,” said Thomas Linzey, executive director and chief legal counsel for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helped local activists draft the bill.

The ballot measure will amend the city’s charter to establish that Lake Erie has the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The goal of giving the lake legal rights, Linzey said, is for activists to be able to do “a survey of who’s the biggest polluters into the lake” and then bring lawsuits “to stop that pollution,” he said.

Runoff pollution is a major cause of Lake Erie’s algae blooms, which can make water toxic to fish, wildlife, and people. This kind of pollution occurs “when rainfall washes fertilizer and manure spread on large farm fields into streams that flow into Lake Erie,” according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Past problems with Lake Erie’s water quality prompted organizers to think about new ways to safeguard it. Back in 2014, the City of Toledo issued an advisory for residents not to drink municipal water after chemical tests found unsafe levels of an algal toxin. The toxic algae bloom left 110 people sick and nearly half a million without tap water. Ohio even declared a state of emergency.

“For three days in 2014, we lost access to our drinking water, and we didn’t see any action come out of that,” Markie Miller, an organizer for Toledoans for Safe Water, told CityLab. “We wanted to do something for ourselves.”

The concept of giving rights to nature originates, at least within the U.S., from an article by Christopher Stone published in 1972 in the Southern California Law Review: “Should Trees Have Standing? — Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” Since then, the idea has gained traction internationally. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize rights of nature in its national constitution. And in 2010, Bolivia’s legislative assembly passed the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.”

The basic principle is that of legal standing: Under the U.S. Constitution, to have standing, one needs to show direct injury to oneself caused by some entity, and there must be some redress, or remedy, that can be found in court. Activists hope that with these new rights, Lake Erie will have standing in court without needing to demonstrate injury to a human.

The U.S. Clean Water Act addresses point-source pollution, from a confined and discrete source. But a significant percentage of what plagues Lake Erie is diffuse, non-point-source pollution, such as excess fertilizers from agriculture and urban stormwater runoff.

The fact that Toledoans endorsed such an unusual means to combat pollution reflects an understanding that current regulations aren’t sufficient, said Madeline Fleisher, senior attorney in the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Columbus office. “The citizens of Toledo are clearly and rightfully frustrated. I understand why they’re trying novel approaches to try to get those issues addressed.” (As is common in local special elections, turnout in Toledo’s was low; just shy of 9 percent of registered voters cast ballots.)

The proposal has been contentious. The board of elections in Lucas County (whose seat is Toledo) voted to block it from the ballot in the November 2018 election. After several months of debate, the board ultimately voted in December to add it to the February special election because of an Ohio Supreme Court decision, as the Toledo Blade reported. One board member said he still believed the measure was “on its face unconstitutional and unenforceable.”

Opponents of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights are concerned about the costs of litigation for farms and businesses. The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation already pledged its support for a lawsuit farmer Mark Drewes filed in the Federal District Court for Northern Ohio Wednesday, challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

“Farmers want and are working toward improving water quality, but this new Toledo law hurts those efforts. Mark Drewes understands this, and it’s Farm Bureau’s job to back his important actions on behalf of Ohio farmers,” the executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, Adam Sharp, said in a statement.

The suit contends that the measure violates federal constitutional rights, including equal protection and freedom of speech. Additionally, it argues that the bill of rights violates Ohio state law in several ways. For example, it contends that Toledo as a local government cannot override the Ohio state governing structure of Lake Erie, since the Ohio Department of Natural Resources governs the lake under state law.

“One of the biggest challenges that the [Lake Erie] Bill of Rights will have is moving from vision to enactment,” said Cinnamon Carlarne, an Ohio State University law professor. “That is part of a larger conversation trying to advance the role that law plays in protecting ecosystems for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is that we are, as humans, fundamentally dependent on them.”

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Why Toledo just gave legal rights to Lake Erie

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The Pentagon’s new climate change report is missing some important details

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Less than two months after President Donald Trump said he did not believe a federal report outlining the existential threat of human-made climate change, the Defense Department has released its own report on how to manage the “effects of a changing climate.”

As part of the defense spending bill for fiscal year 2018, the Pentagon was asked to create “a list of the ten most vulnerable military installations within each service” in addition to “combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years.” The 22-page report begins with 11 words that contradict the commander in chief’s description of climate change as a “very expensive” hoax. It states: “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue.” Those lines comprise “the strongest part of the report,” retired naval officer David Titley, who once headed the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, tells Mother Jones in an email. But the rest, he says,“is disappointing, primarily because it does not answer the key questions Congress raised.”

For example, Marine Corps bases are not listed at all, even though Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the Marines’ largest base on the East Coast, was devastated in September by Hurricane Florence to the tune of roughly $3.6 billion in damage. Ninety-five percent of the buildings on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida were damaged by Hurricane Michael, yet in the appendix to the Pentagon’s report, Tyndall is not even mentioned as one of the Air Force’s most vulnerable bases.

Other aspects of the report just seem crudely out of date, even though it was submitted a month later than Congress had requested. In November, Naval Base Ventura County in California had to be evacuated due to approaching wildfires, yet in the report, the Navy does not list NBVC or, for that matter, identify a single installation where wildfires pose a “current” threat. Titley thinks the problem is the lack of an “apparent DOD standard for assessing the near- or mid-term climate future and impacts.” One reason for this might be because, according to the report, each military service was “free to select information sources they deemed relevant.”

Without a unifying standard, the report simply provides a “number of anecdotes to daily base and humanitarian operations, most of which are driven by routine weather events or tsunamis and earthquakes that have no connection to climate change,” he says. “Congress will likely not be amused by this report.”

They weren’t. House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (a Democrat from Washington state) blasted the report Friday morning as “half-baked” and “inadequate.”

“The Department of Defense presented no specifics on what is required to ensure operational viability and mission resiliency, and failed to estimate the future costs associated with ensuring these installations remain viable,” Smith said. “That information was required by law. The Department of Defense must develop concrete, executable plans to address the national security threats presented by climate change. As drafted, this report fails to do that.”

Representative Jim Langevin (a Democrat from Rhode Island), whose amendment to the 2018 spending bill mandated the creation of the report, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the report. “It is unacceptable that the Department has ignored the clear instructions provided by law, and it is unacceptable that our service members and readiness will suffer as a result.” Senator Jack Reed (also a Democrat from Rhode Island), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services panel, said: “The report reads like a introductory primer and carries about as much value as a phonebook.”

The Pentagon has long been in an ambiguous position when it comes to acknowledging and preparing for climate change. More than other federal agencies in the Trump administration, DOD has been less likely to skirt past the impact of global warming, given the persistent impacts of drought, wildfires, and flooding on military installations in the United States and abroad. But as an institution that treasures its reputation for transcending partisan politics, DOD has strayed away from emphasizing climate change in its internal documents.

One year ago, the Pentagon released another congressionally mandated report about climate change — that time, a survey of the ways climate change had affected thousands of global installations. Shortly after the release of the report, the Washington Post found out that staffers had removed nearly two dozen references to climate change from an earlier version. “Those and other edits suggest the Pentagon has adapted its approach to public discussion of climate change under President Trump,” the Post reported.

Even as Defense officials have become more careful with their rhetoric, they have actually increased their efforts to account for the effect of climate change in certain crucial ways. A warming Arctic has created new opportunities for conflict with Russia and China, something the Navy has become more conscious of in internal strategic guidance. In a recent piece about the Pentagon’s slow efforts to prepare for climate change, Jonathan White, who succeeded Titley as task force director, told Mother Jones: Tying things to climate change could invite a scrutiny that was undesired.”

If anything, the Pentagon’s reluctance to deal in specifics may lead to more work for the department down the line. Representative Langevin noted: “I expect the Department to reissue a report that meets its statutory mandate and rigorously confronts the realities of our warming planet.”

Read the full report here.

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The Pentagon’s new climate change report is missing some important details

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Facebook got into hot water for hiring this PR firm. The EPA was another one of its clients.

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Newly obtained emails reveal that officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were misleading about the circumstances under which they hired a Republican opposition research firm known for its aggressiveness and willingness to sling mud. They also show the inner workings of a government press office hijacked by political operatives who adopted a combative attitude to the press, seeking to generate rosy headlines from sympathetic outlets while simultaneously lashing out at reporters and whistleblowers who criticized the agency, including by planting negative stories about them.

The EPA’s hiring of Definers Public Affairs stood out in the staid world of government contracting, where any appearance of explicit partisanship, of the kind the organization specializes in, is studiously avoided. Definers’ reputation as partisan and hyper-aggressive has recently helped embroil Facebook in scandal after it was revealed that despite trying to project an inoffensive and bipartisan image in Washington, the Silicon Valley giant had secretly hired the firm to disparage its Washington critics. The lines of attack included spreading supposed evidence showing that opposition to Facebook was fueled by liberal donor George Soros.

After Mother Jones revealed the existence of the EPA’s $120,000 Definers contract in December 2017, the agency’s press office fought back, claiming the contract had been awarded through the agency’s Office of Acquisition Management after a competitive bidding process based solely on cost considerations.“The contract award was handled through the EPA Office of Acquisition Management and was $87,000 cheaper than our previous media monitoring vendor while offering 24-7 news alerts once a story goes public,” then-EPA Spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told Mother Jones last year.

This is not completely true.

It is only one of the findings that appear in thousands of pages of internal EPA emails reviewed by Mother Jones that contradict the reasons Wilcox said the contract had been awarded. Moreover, the emails provide a detailed picture of how the Trump administration immediately and aggressively tried to realign the agency and route taxpayer dollars for partisan purposes. The campaign to undermine environmental enforcement and oversight at the EPA has not ended simply because Scott Pruitt and several of his staff have left the agency.

“One of the main reasons that we have a corps of career government contract personnel is to keep the political people away from giving the taxpayer money out to political cronies,” Charles Tiefer, a professor of contract law at the University of Baltimore, explains. “Politicizing the award of contracts by mugging the career people is the definition of corruption. What the political people made the career people do this time was more like a banana republic than the United States.”

For the Trump administration, politicizing government practices is the norm. But the EPA, an agency that some conservatives, including Scott Pruitt, believe should be eliminated, has long provided a special window into how far the administration is willing to go to assert overt partisanship and override recalcitrant career staff in ways that alter the daily work of government.

Definers was one key piece of that strategy inside the EPA. The Virginia-based PR firm has worked for political and corporate clients alike — Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee, the United Arab Emirates, and America Rising PAC — promising them its “full-service war room,” manned by Republican staffers who bring a unique approach of “intelligence gathering and opposition work.” In fulfilling that mission, Definers was caught filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the emails of EPA career staffers who spoke out publicly against Pruitt.

Definers is linked to a deeply interconnected network of conservative political groups run by Joe Pounder, a former campaign staffer for Rubio who has been described as “a master of opposition research,” and founded by Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager. It lists the same Virginia address as the America Rising PAC and America Rising Squared, a nonprofit that has sent staff to ambush and film environmental activists like Tom Steyer and Bill McKibben. On its website, America Rising Corp. — a separate entity from American Rising Squared, which doesn’t have to disclose donors — describes itself as “an opposition research and communications firm whose mission is to help its clients defeat Democrats.” The news aggregator Need to Know Network, which purports to “work with partners and organizations to provide content that is unique and original to our audience,” was founded by Pounder and other operatives and shares staff and offices with Pounder and Rhoades’ other political entities.

Obtained by the Sierra Club from a FOIA request, the EPA emails show that the press office was interested in Definers and working with NTK from the start, disregarding the cost and concerns about the uncompetitive bid raised by career staff. While one group sought a $120,000 contract, another posted flattering coverage of Pruitt.

A former employee of the EPA’s Office of General Counsel told Mother Jones that the “whole notion that the agency is using a group like Definers and [NTK] and manipulating the media coverage of its activities” in ways the public isn’t aware of could have violated Congress’ appropriations law prohibiting the EPA from using funds for propaganda and publicity purposes. “Somebody reads a story and thinks it’s a straight news story, when in fact the agency is putting out misleading information that’s very offensive and probably violates the Appropriations Act,” the former staffer said.

Jahan Wilcox, a senior strategic adviser in its press office, came from the world of political operatives, working for Rubio’s presidential campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee before being tapped by the EPA. Wilcox did not return a request for comment, nor did Definers or NTK. The EPA’s normal operations have been affected by the government shutdown and also did not return a request for comment.

Shortly after he was appointed to the EPA in March 2017, Wilcox made his first contact with NTK. “With the 100 Days of the Trump Administration coming up, we were curious if Need To Know (NTK) news would like to report on the accomplishments of Scott Pruitt and the EPA?” he emailed Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising PAC and managing editor for NTK the month he arrived.

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NTK, working off a set of talking points about the EPA’s intended rollbacks provided by Wilcox “and other stories out there,” wrote the story: “How Scott Pruitt is Reshaping the EPA in the First 100 Days,” which the EPA in turn shared on social media as laudatory coverage of Pruitt. Wilcox forwarded the story to his colleagues, adding, “I know huge.”

From January to November 2017, NTK ran about two dozen positive stories about Pruitt. One included him on a list of “3 Possible Replacements for AG Sessions if he Returns to the Senate.” Others attacked critics, like in “Dem Senator Files Bogus Complaint Against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt,” and touted wins, like in “Pebble Mine Settlement Huge Win for Jobs, Trump, and Pruitt.”

The EPA faithfully pushed the stories out on its social-media feeds and in its news clips. “Still waiting on us to tweet out this story from NTK,” Wilcox emailed the comms staff regarding May story “Pruitt Promises to Put States Back in the Driver’s Seat on Regulations.”

When Pounder approached the EPA on May 19, he identified himself in the memo he sent to Wilcox pitching Definers as a potential vendor as the president of America Rising Corp. Wilcox and other political appointees immediately warmed up to the idea of hiring Definers, and they pushed EPA career staff to hire them. Career EPA staff raised concerns about the contract, including that it had not gone through a competitive bidding process, but the political staff dismissed those concerns and pressured contracting officials throughout July and August 2017 to complete the deal.

As the months dragged on without Definers being hired, Wilcox and other political staff repeatedly questioned career employees about the holdup.When told that the effort to hire Definers had slowed because the company wasn’t even registered as a federal contractor and seemed reluctant to do so, Wilcox forwarded the explanation to Pounder. Shortly after, Pounder sent Wilcox a screenshot showing that the company was now officially registered.

According to these emails, the costs associated with the contract were hardly discussed because there was no competitive bidding process. Political appointee Liz Bowman, the EPA’s top spokesperson, complained at one point that George Hull, one of their career colleagues who was responsible for overseeing the contract, “has been dragging on for weeks and weeks.”

“I don’t care how this happens but we need to make this happen as quickly as possible,” Wilcox emailed Hull in June. Hull replied at another point: “We cannot move forward without going through a competitive bidding process,” including a presentation about the product. Wilcox at first dismissed the importance of a demonstration, saying: “I know the quality of their product.” Pounder eventually spoke with a career staffer about the service.

Tiefer acknowledges that while there might have been a legitimate need for a clipping service, Wilcox or any other political staff should not determine the contracting requirements. Career employees are required to vet potential contractors, and Tiefer says he doubts that, given Definers’ background in aggressive political opposition work, the company would have been chosen without interference from the political appointees.

“I have been teaching government contracting for over 20 years, and I have never seen a political operative firm getting a government contract,” Tiefer says.

Wilcox also was in touch with NTK throughout this period. He emailed Bechdel about an exchange with Eric Lipton of the New York Times, who had reached out to the EPA to confirm details for a story in October 2017. The EPA responded with neither a confirmation nor denial, instead linking to other outlets. Wilcox then framed the story for NTK. “You can report that the New York Times is calling USA Today ‘Fake News,’” he wrote. “Let me know if you are interested in this.” Bechdel passed on the pitch.

Finally, in early December, the EPA formally approved the Definers contract for $120,000. As soon as Mother Jones broke the story, the EPA faced mounting questions about the nature of the award. When Mother Jones sent questions to the EPA last year, Bowman immediately emailed Pruitt Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and Enforcement Adviser Susan Bodine, claiming she knew “exactly where this leak came from.”

As Definers and the EPA faced calls for an Inspector General audit and for a Government Accountability Office investigation, the EPA and Definers decided it wasn’t worth the negative publicity. Five days after the report, and six months after Wilcox first advocated the contract, the EPA and Definers mutually agreed to cancel it. Definers said it would forgo contracts under negotiation with at least four other government agencies, including the Department of Education. By then, Pruitt’s trickle of controversies — chartered and first-class flights, a private phone booth, a 24/7 security detail, blurred lines between campaigning and government business — were already becoming regular headlines.

When the mounting investigations into whether he exploited his government position for other gain became too much of a liability, Pruitt resigned from the administration and was replaced by Andrew Wheeler in July. The EPA press shop saw high turnover as well. Wilcox resigned within days of Pruitt’s departure, and was most recently working for Wisconsin Republican Leah Vukmir’s unsuccessful campaign to defeat Senator Tammy Baldwin.

But others from Pruitt’s time remain, and even though the EPA’s media tactics may not be as aggressive as they once were, some of its earlier strategy still continues.

That was clear in late November, when the Trump administration released a thoroughly vetted National Climate Assessment, authored by 13 agencies including EPA scientists. Wheeler responded to the report with a dog whistle, arguing that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Obama administration told the report’s authors to only look at the worst-case scenario of global warming. The echo chamber kicked in: By the end of the day, the Koch-funded Daily Caller had supposedly proven Wheeler’s point (in a story disputed by the report’s authors), and the EPA blasted it out as a “Fact Check” news alert.

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Facebook got into hot water for hiring this PR firm. The EPA was another one of its clients.

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California’s battle against climate change is going up in smoke

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Just a few months ago, climate activists in California were celebrating an impressive victory: New data showed that the state had brought greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels, four years earlier than planned. The win, a cut of emissions to 429.4 million metric tons (the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road) was the result of steady decreases in emissions most years.

“California set the toughest emissions targets in the nation, tracked progress and delivered results,” Governor Jerry Brown tweeted. The next step was to cut emissions another 40 percent by 2030 — “a heroic and very ambitious goal.”

But by November, skies across the state were gray. Wildfires were raging, including a blaze which would prove to be the deadliest and most destructive in state history. The conflagrations have set California back: The recent Camp and Woolsey Fires, officials say, have produced emissions equivalent to roughly 5.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, more than three times the total decrease in emissions in 2015. Recently, the Department of the Interior announced that new data shows the 2018 California wildfire season is estimated to have released emissions equal to about one year of power use.

California’s wildfire problem

Of course, wildfires are not new to the West Coast. But the kind of vast, devastating conflagrations seen in California in recent years — this fall’s Camp Fire decimated 153,000 acres in the Butte County area and destroyed almost 14,000 homes — are becoming more common. According to the state’s most recent climate assessment, California could see a 77 percent increase in the average area burned in wildfires by 2100.

All this is bad news for a state committed to decreasing its carbon footprint. But California’s official emissions score will not be affected by the extraordinary amount of carbon released during wildfires this year, because the agency that calculates emissions — the California Air Resources Board — considers wildfires to be a part of the earth’s natural carbon cycle. (The ARB is a regulatory body and, as agency spokesperson Dave Clegern noted, “can only regulate what can be controlled.”)

But the agency is looking into ways to better track carbon emissions from conflagrations. Right now, Clegern says, the ARB uses data including the size of the fire and the kind of fuel burned to estimate its carbon footprint. But, he said, scientists don’t currently have a good way to accurately calculate emissions from disasters like the Camp Fire, which burn residential and commercial properties. While those findings won’t be included in the state’s emissions tally, Clegern said it’s still important to gather the data: “We need to know what goes up in the air when these things happen. Our first mission is to protect public health.”

The increasing size of wildfires in California is driven by several factors linked to climate change, scientists say, including a shift in the jet stream that causes the state to suffer more hot, dry spells. The state’s seven-year drought has weakened forests and left millions of acres highly susceptible to lethal attacks from insects like bark beetle. In recent years, more than 100 million trees are estimated to have died statewide. Dry, dead forests are a fire hazard, and they pose a threat so severe that, in 2015, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency and created a task force to identify areas of particular risk. This January, scientists at the University of California-Berkeley reported that the situation was “compounded by the long-established removal” of naturally occurring, frequent, and low-intensity fires in the state’s forested areas, “a key ecosystem process” in hazardous wildfire prevention.

Aside from preventing deadly conflagrations, protecting forests also means preserving the state’s best tool for regulating carbon emissions. By removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon in soil, branches, and tree trunks, forest have historically worked as a “carbon sink” for the state. But research shows that between 2001 and 2010, tree die-off meant California’s forests emitted more carbon than they sequestered.

Wildfires accelerate this process. Conflagrations release carbon into the atmosphere as they burn and, once the smoke has cleared, leave fewer trees to sequester carbon. In the years following a fire, dead trees begin to release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere. And a recent study also showed that forests which burned at high severity suffered worryingly low regeneration rates. In some places, no trees grew back at all.

But the damage doesn’t end there. When a forest is burned for the first time, “between 5 and 20 percent of the carbon goes up,” explained Nic Enstice, regional science coordinator at the state’s Sierra Nevada Conservancy agency. That’s because even a high-severity fire will not incinerate every tree in a forest. But if a second wildfire ravages through an already-burned area, the dead trees are more readily consumed, resulting in even greater carbon release.

The fire season’s growing effect on the state gives scientists all the more reason to study its emissions. “That’s the kind of issue we’re wrestling with now,” Clegern said.

California’s best hope for reaching its ambitious climate goals may lie in technology and rebuilding the state’s dilapidated forests. The state is relying on energy companies like utility giant PG&E to increase purchases of renewable power and invest heavily in burgeoning industries like electric transportation over the next decade. (PG&E, meanwhile, could be on the hook for billions of dollars in fines if an investigation finds the company’s equipment ignited some of California’s recent conflagrations.) Plans are also underway to push harder on forest restoration efforts: In May, the state announced its Forest Carbon Plan, which included a pledge to double the rate of forest rehabilitation to an average 35,000 acres a year by 2020.

“We know that we have to increase the health of our forests pretty significantly over the coming years,” Enstice said.“What we saw in the Camp Fire, the Rim Fire, the King Fire — these are all out of the normal patterns.”

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Bernie Sanders is the reason why a pro-coal senator is about to take over a powerful energy post

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In a strange twist of fate, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who once fired a shotgun at a climate bill, is expecting to be promoted to a leadership position in a key Senate committee that conducts environmental oversight.

Progressive environmental groups have pressured Minority Leader Charles Schumer (a Democrat from New York) to pick someone, anyone, else to be ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Schumer isn’t the real reason Manchin is next-in-line, though. If filling the position had proceeded through the normal line of succession, it would go to the most senior senator on the committee, and four other senators outrank him. But in the fray of the post-midterms jostling for committee assignments, none of them want the position.

Washington state’s Maria Cantwell, the current top Democrat, has indicated she wants to replace departing Senator Bill Nelson (a Democrat from Florida) as ranking member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation panel. Senators Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) and Debbie Stabenow (from Michigan) want to keep their ranking slots on the Finance and Agriculture committees respectively.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders, who just organized a climate change town hall at the start of a likely presidential bid. He could be ranking member on a committee that oversees the Energy and Interior departments and debates issues related to public lands, energy infrastructure, and the nation’s electrical grid, but he refuses to move from his post on the powerful Budget Committee, where he can stay focused on economic priorities.

“I am proud of the work I have done on the Budget Committee over the last 12 years,” Sanders said in an emailed statement to Mother Jones. “As Ranking Member I have helped fight for budget and national priorities, which represent the needs of working families and not just the 1 percent. I look forward to continuing the fight in the new session for social, racial, economic, and environmental justice.”

Thus far, Sanders hasn’t faced much public pressure to prevent Manchin from getting the post, potentially because the most outspoken groups protesting Manchin have had long standing ties with Sanders going back to his 2016 presidential campaign. Bill McKibben, co-founder of environmental group 350.org, has campaigned for Sanders and spoke at his town hall Monday night. Instead, these groups have done an end run to Schumer and pressured him directly to block Manchin’s promotion.

On Monday, members of the Sunrise Movement, a left-leaning environmental advocacy group, protested outside Schumer’s New York office, calling on him to reject “those who are in the pockets of the fossil fuel CEOs” from overseeing environmental policy. “We’re asking people to do something that’s admittedly difficult but we really want Schumer to step up and do the right thing for his party and these issues,” 350.org policy director Julian Noisecat said.

Democratic donor Tom Steyer and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, both 2020 presidential hopefuls, have also spoken out against Manchin. Inslee, whose campaign would center in part around climate change, is organizing a petition that lays out the argument: “Look, Joe Manchin has been a champion for affordable health care for every American. He’s been a leader on issues you and I care deeply about. But on climate, he’s simply wrong.”

As a leader on Energy and Natural Resources, Manchin would work with Chair Lisa Murkowksi (a Republican from Alaska) who has not been shy about noticing the impacts of climate change in her home state. Even if global warming itself has not been a primary focus of the committee’s interests of late, that could change next year, when Murkowski has said she expects the committee to lead “a rational conversation” on the topic.

Since 2012, the committee has not held a single hearing fully devoted to climate change, in contrast to 2009 when it held nine in that year alone. Most major climate bills, including cap-and-trade legislation, have gone through either the Finance committee or Environment and Public Works, which considers nominees to the Environmental Protection Agency and convenes hearings on topics like air pollution and toxic waste.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s most controversial initiatives, like a draft proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear plants, did not come directly before the Energy panel. But it still dominated the committee’s debate over whether to advance the nomination of Bernard McNamee, an ex-DOE staffer who helped develop the idea, to a position on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Manchin, who has voted in line with Trump’s policies 60.8 percent of the time, originally voted for McNamee’s nomination to advance out of committee, but then switched course and opposed him on the Senate floor. The controversial nominee was ultimately confirmed by one vote.

Coming from West Virginia, Manchin’s close ties to the coal industry are a given. Since his arrival in the Senate eight years ago, Manchin has taken nearly $750,000 in donations from the mining industry and more than $419,000 from oil and gas firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. His voting scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters, which assigns a rating based on a lawmaker’s voters for or against environmental legislation, is lower than all other Democratic senators but higher than all but one Republican.

Manchin’s office declined to comment to Mother Jones, and when confronted by reporters at the Capitol this week, he avoided any mention of the controversy. “Come in and talk to me, the door’s open,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help my country and my state.”

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Progressive freshman lawmakers like incoming New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have expressed concern with West Virginia’s senior senator being granted a leadership role on environmental issues, but some of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate have closed ranks around the nominee, downplaying Manchin’s record and the damage he could do to climate priorities. “I think Joe gets and understands we need to move forward on a diverse set of energy needs,” Cantwell told Bloomberg‘s Ari Natter.

“On climate, we’re going to make decisions collectively as a caucus. Nobody in our caucus has a veto over climate policy — whether they’re a ranking member on a committee or not,” Senator Chris Murphy (a Democrat from Connecticut) told Politico.

But activists argue there’s a lot at stake, especially if Democrats were thinking beyond the immediate legislative session.

“It would be an even bigger concern looking ahead if we do take back the senate in 2020 or in the future,” Noisecat says. “I don’t think that anyone who’s looking at the current makeup of Congress right now believes we can get ambitious climate legislation through both chambers of Congress. [But] Manchin is a huge problem if you want to do that in the long term.”

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Video games consume more electricity than 25 power plants can produce

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A few years ago, Evan Mills’ 14-year-old son Nathaniel wanted to get into gaming. To juice up the experience, he wanted to build his own computer like more and more gamers do. Mills is an energy expert, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so he struck a deal with his son: “I’ll bankroll it if you help me measure the hell out of it and let’s see how much energy this is really going to use.” His son agreed, and they “went at it,” Mills recalls. “We had a power meter and all the tools. And when the results came in — it was jaw dropping.”

“I’m looking at the power ratings, and I’m like, ‘What? This graphics card uses 300 watts? That one uses 500 watts? Is this a typo? This is way out on the fringes.’” In time, the father-and-son team hardly paid attention to the games themselves, instead focusing on their watt meter and switching out hardware and games to see which configurations would make the electricity readings spike or fall.

In 2015, they released a research paper that got picked up by PC Gamer and other outlets, and Mills landed a $1.4 million grant from the California Energy Commission to continue the research. Last week, Mills released another report, titled “Green Gaming: Energy Efficiency without Performance Compromise,” that builds on his years looking into a relatively untouched field of study. Gaming’s “plug load” was long overlooked in part because it fell into the miscellaneous category of non-appliances whose energy consumption was either not understood or assumed to be less significant.

To fill in the blanks, Mills’ research team created a gaming lab with 26 different systems, a host of displays, and all manner of consoles and virtual reality equipment. Over two years, they tested 37 popular games in eight different genres, including Call of Duty: Black OpsSkyrim, and FIFA17. But it was clear early on that gaming’s energy consumption, Mills says, “is not trivial.”

So just how big is gaming’s environmental footprint? Globally, PC gamers use about 75 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, equivalent to the output of 25 electric power plants. (And that doesn’t include console games.) In the United States, games consumes $6 billion worth of electricity annually — more power than electric water heaters, cooking appliances, clothes dryers, dishwashers, or freezers. As the report concludes, “video gaming is among the very most intensive uses of electricity in homes.” And more power means more greenhouse gas emissions: American gamers emit about 12 million tons of carbon dioxide annually — the equivalent of about 2.3 million passenger cars. Games are rated for things like sex and violence, Mills points out, but games and gear are “silent on their carbon footprint.”

What’s more, games’ impact could balloon as their market keeps expanding. “This isn’t the domain of 15-year-old boys anymore,” Mills says. “This is something that two-thirds of American households are engaged in. And what does it mean for the population? It’s a lot of energy and a lot of carbon.” Within five years, the electricity demand for gaming in California could rise by 114 percent, according to the report.

Some of gaming’s energy demand is driven by emerging technologies like virtual reality and higher-resolution connected displays. Cloud-based gaming, in which graphics processing is conducted on remote servers, is especially energy intensive, increasing overall electricity use by as much as 60 percent for desktop computers and 300 percent for laptops.

Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. “There is the potential to save a lot of energy with very little effort and little to no effect with the quality or experience,” says Jimmy Mai, a computer technician and one of the project’s principal testers. An avid gamer, Mai’s job was to set up the equipment every day and then play the games, diving into some titles he’d always wanted to explore, like League of LegendsWorld of Tanks, and The Witcher III (“a beautiful game,” says Mai, who jokes that this was “sort of a dream project”). Gaming equipment “is constantly being revised, becoming more energy efficient, and becoming more powerful in some cases,” Mai says. Mills notes that by simply changing out the lab’s graphics cards and power supply units, his team could reduce its energy consumption by 30 to 50 percent—with no reduction in the games’ performance.

The researchers found that gaming’s electricity demand could fall by 24 percent in the next five years if gamers shifted toward more efficient equipment and change their playing habits. Mills and his colleagues have created a website that outlines steps gamers can take to save energy. For example, there’s a huge range in how much energy different gaming systems use — anywhere from 5 kWh per year (very little) to 1,200 kWh per year (equivalent to leaving a 60-watt lightbulb on for more than two years straight.) Simply switching to a more efficient power supply unit can realize a 13 percent energy savings. And if that’s not enough incentive, the report shows how saving energy will also save gamers money. The annual electricity bill for a “power-sipping Nintendo Switch” can be as little as $5, while a “high-end desktop system run by an extreme gamer” can run up to $400 or more.

Awareness can have an impact, too, says Mills. Even though this entire project began with his son, its findings turned him off from gaming. “When my son saw the carbon footprint, he did lose his interest,” Mills says. For others, like Mai, who often worked in the gaming lab by day and still fired up his own system at night, giving up on gaming isn’t going to happen. (“Jimmy is going to go out in a wooden box gaming,” Mills says.) We’ll just have to find a way to enlist them in the massive multiplayer quest to save the planet.

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Video games consume more electricity than 25 power plants can produce

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Their water became undrinkable. Then they were ordered to pay more for it.

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In Martin County, Kentucky, residents are paying steep prices for water that sometimes comes out of the tap brown and foul-smelling—that is, when it comes out at all. The impoverished rural county is confronting an unprecedented water crisis: Its water system is on the brink of collapse and the Kentucky Public Service Commission has ordered the ailing water district to raise rates and seek outside management.

Nestled deep in Appalachia, home to just under 13,000 people, Martin County was once a booming coal region. Today, the median household income is $29,052, the unemployment rate is 7.3 percent, and 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The demands from the Public Service Commission may not be realistic, given that a county in such dire financial straits may not be able to handle the one-two punch of rate increases and privatization. The problem “has been decades in the making,” says Mary Grant, the director of the Public Water for All campaign at Food and Water Watch, a national advocacy group.

Originally built to serve Inez, the county seat, in the 1960s, the water system was later expanded to include other communities, some of which are in the mountains. Mary Cromer, a lawyer for the Martin County Concerned Citizens group tells Mother Jones,“It was done on the cheap, and it was done very poorly.”

And then disaster struck the already struggling water system. On October 11, 2000, a coal waste lagoon in Martin County broke, spilling more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into 100 of miles of waterways. The pollution, which contained toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, killed the fish and wildlife in the water. The sludge seeped into the water treatment plant, clogging intake pipes, and poisoning the water supply in Martin County and surrounding area.

The federal investigation into the spill ended when George W. Bush took office in January 2001. The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s team of investigators were sidelined when their investigation was cut short by the new administration. Don Blankenship, the chair and CEO of Massey Energy, the now-defunct company responsible for the spill, had donated money to the Republican Party, and halting the investigation was seen as a way to thank him for his support. (Blankenship eventually spent a year in a federal prison for conspiring to commit mine-safety violations in West Virginia, prior to the deadliest mining disaster in decades.) Instead of the eight violations that the MSHA team were pursuing, Massey was charged with only two. The clean-up was superficial; the company scraped up the black sludge and planted grass and hayseed on the land that was affected, but they weren’t responsible for fixing the water system.

The effects of the crisis 18 years ago still haunt the community today. “The pipes are in such bad shape, they can’t get the pressure to reach all of the houses,” Cromer says. The system also suffers from extreme water loss, with 64 percent of their water leaking out before it can be used. Low pressure combined with leaky, aging pipes means that if the water makes it to the taps at all, it often comes out discolored or with a foul odor.

In January 2018, citing financial troubles and the need to let depleted storage tanks refill, the Martin County Water District began shutting off water in the evening and through the night. Some customers complained that these shut-offs had made bathing and cooking difficult, while others said their water was shut off for days at a time. The water board then requested a 50 percent water rate increase to help fix the rapidly deteriorating system.

Two months later, customers reported that their water frequently smelled like diesel fuel and was the same shade of blue as Gatorade. Local officials told residents that the alarming color of the water didn’t necessarily mean it was unsafe, but by then the low-income community often ignored official statements and spent a large portion of their funds on bottled water. One resident told the Los Angeles Times that he spent about $25 a week on water.

Before raising the rates in March, the average water bill was $39.90 for a customer using 4,000 gallons each month. But then, the PSC allowed the water district to issue an emergency rate increase, bringing the average monthly bill to $51.07. “It’s just so unjust that they’re paying for whatever they can’t cook or drink with,” Cromer says. Last week, the PSC granted a permanent rate increase that will add another $3.30 to the average water bill, bringing the total to $54.37. The order also allowed for a temporary surcharge of $4.19 that will pay off the utility’s debt of $1.1 million.

Such an increase in rates will be profoundly difficult for such a poverty-stricken area, where many residents are on fixed incomes. For those on social security, their checks can be less than $800 a month.

On top of rate increases, the PSC also ordered the Martin County Water District to obtain outside management. Water privatization can be alluring because for-profit companies can provide updates to an aging infrastructure, but it does come with some expensive downsides. In 2012, for instance, in order to replace its aging pipes, the city of Bayonne, New Jersey, contracted with a private equity firm to manage its water system. The company replaced the old pipes with new ones, but customers began complaining about water rate increases. According to the New York Times, rates increased by almost 28 percent. “I personally can’t imagine how privatization could work in the county,” Cromer says. “The people there cannot afford to pay a company to come in and make a profit.”

In fact, Martin County has unsuccessfully tried privatization once before. In 2002, the water district hired American Water Services to run its system for nearly $71,000 a month, not counting other expenses. The company left after two years because of nonpayment. “When communities can’t pay [these companies,]” Grant says, “they just cut and run. They’re businesses, not charities.”

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Tom Steyer and the link between hate groups and climate denial

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Before Tom Steyer was a high-profile figure calling for the president’s impeachment, before the attacks directed at him escalated from name-calling to threats and violence, and before the president demeaned him as a “crazed & stumbling lunatic,” the Democratic donor was familiar with being a target for the extreme right because of his prominent work in climate change advocacy.

Last week, Steyer learned he was the intended recipient of one of the 13 bombs mailed to prominent critics of President Donald Trump. It was a violent escalation of attacks on the billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist from those that I had observed early in 2015. At that time, he surpassed Al Gore as the most hated environmentalist in conservative America after spending millions advancing pro-climate candidates in the midterms.

In the days after the attempted bombing, Trump lashed out at Steyer for a critical interview he had with CNN. Then came the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which sharpened the national conversation about the connection between extreme rhetoric and violent actions. Republican defenders of Trump have dismissed the relationship, although there has been a surge in racist and anti-Semitic attacks since he took office.

The link between hate groups and climate denial is complex and anecdotal at best, with little research examining the overlap between the two. But there is enough anecdotal experience to prompt prominent figures who study and advance science and policy to see a connection. In an interview with Mother Jones, Steyer said he sees the intolerance and hyperpartisanship that has marked the GOP as fundamentally connected with the party’s “willingness to directly lie” on climate change science.

“Climate change was really one of the seminal points for the Republicans because they decided they could straight-up lie,” he said in a phone interview. “When you look at the kind of violent and dehumanizing rhetoric that the president has indulged in, it’s entirely consistent with the idea that there is no cost to lying, there is no cost to really attacking the basic interest of the American people. So I think climate was the template.”

These questions about tensions concerning the climate change debate are not as well understood or explicitly drawn as the immigration debate, where George Soros is charged in coded language with pulling all the strings in a vast global conspiracy, as the New York Times reported, to “undermine the established order and a proponent of diluting the white, Christian nature of their societies through immigration.”

But the right’s denial of climate change science nonetheless repeats many of the same patterns that have appeared in other extremist targets, from guns to immigration to abortion. These patterns include the appropriation of Nazi or anti-Semitic imagery, the demonization of funders and prominent advocates, and the distortion of the terms of the debate. Climate change has become another flashpoint for irrational, hateful, sometimes violent rhetoric, and even personal attacks on people who have risen to some prominence as scientists, funders, and advocates.

Stephan Lewandowsky, a University of Bristol cognitive scientist who studies science denial, notes how the virulently anti-government message that has long dominated climate denial discourse shares common themes with people who believe in conspiracy theories writ large. “Science as well as respect for others’ religions or ethnicity are considered establishment norms, just like truth-telling, and hence the people who support (and are incited by) Donald Trump are likely to reject all of those norms,” Lewandowsky tells Mother Jones, “which again would link science denial, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theories as a cluster or related phenomena.”

The appropriation of particular labels, often involving Nazis, has also appeared in environmental debates. Self-described climate change skeptics have rejected being called “deniers,” arguing, as the conservative think tank figure and Trump EPA transition official Myron Ebell has, that the label is meant to tie “some people to Holocaust denial.” But the skeptic side has deployed an even more direct appropriation of Holocaust imagery.

In 2014, University of Alabama-Huntsville meteorologist Roy Spencer suggested on his blog that the best defense against the label “denier” would be to call those who were concerned with rising temperatures “global warming Nazis.” He even used an image of a swatsika on the post to illustrate his point, sparking a flurry of news coverage. His suggestion drew condemnation from the Anti Defamation League Southeast chapter.

In another incident, while talking to a gathering of oil and gas representatives in March, Representative Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican, casually and repeatedly referenced the “Three Percenters,” a movement linked to violent white supremacy that sprung up after Obama’s election, taking its name from the myth that 3 percent of colonists were behind the American Revolution. “You, ladies and gentlemen, are the Three Percenters of the modern era,” he said in remarks first reported by DeSmog Blog, “where wars are fought with monies and strategies and energy.”

Climate change denial extends across a spectrum, ranging from arguments against solutions, to assertions that scientific findings have been exaggerated, but they all tend to return to a central point: Blaming a small number of alarmists for perpetuating large-scale fraud that has convinced thousands of scientists and countries to devote billions of dollars to combating a myth that the planet is warming. The climate-denial world has an even more tightly knit web of industry-connected groups, shown for decades to undermine the science out of self- preservation and profit. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the more far-flung Heartland Institute work to provide a patina of intellectual legitimacy for the same talking points that wind up on Fox News — and on social media.

Though the science itself is nonpartisan, the belief or disbelief in climate change is not, embodying many of the establishment norms that large swaths of the GOP have come to reject, from accepting science to embracing global cooperation as a solution to complex problems. In the same way that the right has transformed Steyer and Soros into all-powerful villains of the left, some climate scientists have long been targets of similar abuse.

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The small world of climate skeptics, who often tend to be older, white, and male, has responded to the mailed bombs with a similar kind of denial they show on the science. Steve Milloy, a member of Trump’s EPA transition team who rejects climate science on his JunkScience blog, suggested the bomb threats were a false flag. “Having a fake bomb addressed to you is the new Democrat status symbol,” he tweeted. E&E News caught a number of prominent climate skeptics advancing a similar line.

“When it comes to climate denial, the No. 1 scientist who is accused of pretty much everything that you can possibly be accused of is Mike Mann, who is accused of single-handedly getting the world’s governments to commit billions of dollars to this hoax,” Lewandowsky says. “[It] is entirely consistent with what conspiracy theorists always do, which is to say they identify a few people who are targets. And then they say they are so powerful that everything in the world is driven through these few.”

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann is familiar with the phenomenon, having been the subject of decades of attacks that reached a critical point when climate scientists’ emails were hacked and dumped on the web in 2009, feeding a media frenzy that gave undue weight to conspiracy theories. Around that time he was named alongside other experts on a neo-Nazi website, Stormfront.

“The same hatred and conspiratorial ideation that is that the center of Trumpism also underlies the poisonous atmosphere that pervades the public discourse when it come to the issue of climate change,” Mann wrote in an email. He has described the harassment he faced in more detail in his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, explaining an envelope of white powder he received and the flood of hate mail and death threats charging him with orchestrating a global hoax.

NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt has also long been on the receiving end of both anti-Semitic and climate change denier hate mail and emails, sharing some of his experiences on his Twitter feed. Social media has amplified and provided a platform for toxic harassment, but “I’m not seeing a commensurate rise in climate denial,” he wrote in an email. “If anything it’s the other way: the denialist positions in prominent speakers are moving towards acceptance of the science — not all the way of course — while still pushing back on solutions. And the out-and-out denial is not getting the audience it did.”

Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech climate scientist and self-identified evangelical Christian, often invokes her faith in explaining the need to act to slow down the progress of global warming. Often prominent deniers invoke their faith to advance fossil-fuel-friendly talking points — think Scott Pruitt, who invoked God to justify burning fossil fuels. Hayhoe, who also finds herself facing harassment for her work, draws on her religion to make a moral case to act on the scientific evidence, not bury one’s head in the ground. A scientist alarmed by the impacts of climate change, she has also observed that the anger surrounding the climate debate may have its roots in similar impulses present in other toxic debates. “I think that right now we’re facing a time of tremendous change in race, gender, socioeconomic status, and privilege. It’s especially frightening if you feel you’re going to lose from the change.”

That fear of change and uncertainty, Hayhoe thinks, is connected to the anger. Replacing coal, oil, and gas, which we’ve used for hundreds of years, with solar panels and wind turbines, is still another example of the unpredictability inherent in change.

“I think we often tend to treat these issues as all separate issues,” she says. “Rejection of climate change and harassment of scientists is a package. It’s not an issue that stands by itself. It goes along with symbols of change, racial issues and gender issues and political.”

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