Friday, December 23, 2011

Fuke Nuke’s Spooks and Kooks

In January 1976, at a meeting at the Washington Sheraton, Ralph Nader introduced us to a spy who had come in from the cold. His name was David Comey and during the Second World War he had worked in OSS, trying to head fake the Third Reich about where the landings would come for the Allied invasion of France. He was a real life spook.

In 1975, the Atomic Industrial Forum had invited David Comey to tell the nuclear industry how it could be more credible with the public. He was a high-priced consultant; not a lobbyist, an historian. Comey gave them his standard answer. To become credible you must tell the truth.

As Comey told us a few months later at this party Nader had thrown, the way the OSS deceived Hitler was by always being accurate in its leaked communications. Sometimes the Allies had to take painful losses in order to gain the Wehrmacht’s trust. But when the final invasion came, on June 6, 1944, it was not at Pas-de-Calais, where Hitler had positioned his SS Panzers, but at Normandy, where his armored divisions were manned by the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). Fake out.

Comey had told the nuclear industry’s spokesmen to become credible they must tell the truth: admit that low-level radiation causes cancer and long-term genetic effects; confess that important safety research has never been done, or done improperly; reveal all the hidden and external costs, both present and into the future; acknowledge there is no solution to the waste issue; and perhaps most importantly, "Talk about the ethics of consuming electricity from fission reactors for 50 years and saddling 20,000 future generations with social and environmental problems."

On that day in 1976 when Nader gathered us at that swank hotel in the District, Comey flipped his speech over and gave the same advice to the anti-nuke stalwarts — ourselves, Dana Meadows, Harvey Wasserman, Pat Birney, Kay Drey, Anna Gyorgy, Tony Roisman and others. He warned us that we didn’t need to embellish the truth. It was our strongest ally. Moreover, it was our ally alone, at that moment. He said he was perfectly confidant that the nuclear industry would never follow his advice, would never tell the truth, and would never be credible.

Fast forward 36 years and we see that Comey was absolutely right about one thing. The nuclear industry has never taken his advice. 

Unfortunately, neither have some of the opposition.
The Radiation and Public Health Project is a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians trying to publicize the links between low-level nuclear radiation and public health. Their programs include The Tooth Fairy Project, which collects baby teeth and charts stored body burden levels by region; the Long-Term Effects Study, that follows the lifetime medical histories of 85,000 tooth donors; and an outreach campaign that involves testimony to state and national regulatory agencies, publications and videos, and commissioned research studies. Their board members include Clinton Department of Energy Undersecretary Robert Alvarez, Reagan speechwriter Karl Grossman, actor Alec Baldwin and Superspokesmodel Christie Brinkley. They are the epitome of a well-greased, inside-the-beltway opposition machine.

They have sponsored 28 scientific studies that have appeared in peer-reviewed medical journals. Most of these are authored by RPHP Executive Director Joseph Mangano. They have made it clear that at least in the USA, the 104 licensed commercial power reactors are not accidents waiting to happen, they are accidents in progress. In November, 2010, they reported cancer incidence rates in the four counties closest to the Indian Point nuclear plant have risen much more rapidly than the U.S. on average, since the early 1990s. “If trends in local rates had equaled U.S. trends, over 20,000 fewer local residents would have been diagnosed with the disease,” the report said.

On December 1st, 2010, a report from the Tooth Fairy Project found a link between atomic bomb testing in the 1950s and cancer deaths in St. Louis. Average Strontium-90 in teeth of Missourians who died of cancer was significantly greater than for controls, which suggests that many thousands of Americans have died or will die of cancer due to exposure to radioactive fallout, far more than previously believed.

Since the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima in March that caused multiple core-meltdowns and radiation releases on a scale not seen since Chernobyl, RPHP has been running on overdrive. In April, Mangano’s team analyzed official EPA data on reactor fallout that drifted to the U.S., and discovered it was 20 times normal background. Levels in Idaho were about 100 times above normal. 

The Obama Adminstration responded on May 3rd by ordering the EPA to stop taking weekly samples, as they did in the aftermath of Chernobyl, and go to quarterly samples, even though the weekly samples showed marked elevations in the preceding month — several hundred times the norm.  In June, RPHP published a preliminary report showing rising infant deaths in North American areas hardest hit. Using CDC data, the researchers found a 35% rise in the Pacific Northwest and a 48% rise in Philadelphia.

Fallout map purporting to be by USNRC is an internet hoax
On December 19, RPHP called a press conference to announce the publication in the January 2012 issue of International Journal of Health Services (Volume 42, Number 1, Pages 47–64) of their completed study: “An Unexpected Mortality Increase in the United States Follows Arrival of the Radioactive Plume from Fukushima: Is There a Correlation?” According to the results, “deaths rose 4.46 percent from 2010 to 2011 in the 14 weeks after the arrival of Japanese fallout, compared with a 2.34 percent increase in the prior 14 weeks. The number of infant deaths after Fukushima rose 1.80 percent, compared with a previous 8.37 percent decrease. Projecting these figures for the entire United States yields 13,983 total deaths and 822 infant deaths in excess of the expected.”

Actual seawater radiation plume -- not a hoax.

The only problem with this finding is that it does not pass the sniff test. We know from 60 years of human studies — radium dial painters, Navajo uranium miners, Hiroshima and Nagasaki casualties, children x-rayed in-utero who later developed leukemia, workers at atomic plants, and the atomic veterans of Cold War human experiments — that radiation induces fatalities by transposing nucleoprotein sequences in living cells. It scrambles our DNA. A cell that is damaged by a small dose is more likely to survive and propagate than a cell that is damaged by a large dose. Hence, devices like airport scanners are more deadly than x-rays or working in a nuclear power plant — the curve of cancers is superlinear at low doses.

To produce a cancer, however, is not a quick process. The damaged cell has to divide, pass along its damaged code, and then divide again. For leukemias, which are produced when bone marrow cells are unable to properly code for the production of white blood cells, it takes 5 years from exposure to see the effect. For most soft-tissue cancers, 15 to 20 years of replication is needed before tumors can emerge that are observable and life-threatening. Since cancer growth is exponential, acceleration is rapid once the growth passes out of the latency period. That is the catch-22 of cancer: you can’t treat it until you can observe it and by then it may be too late.

For birth defects, the timetable is somewhat faster. An embryo is a ball of rapidly dividing cells, going from zygote to fully-sustaining mammal in just 9 months. Any corruption in coding shows up immediately if it involves physical structures, and in many cases those will be fatal, either to the fetus or to the infant. More subtle defects — including thousands of genetically-determined immune disorders, from allergies to pre-disposition to exotic diseases — can manifest gradually over a lifetime, or not at all, but be passed intact to offspring, ad infinitum.

Because fallout is inhaled or ingested and hot particles then become resident internal emitters, exposure is ongoing. This is equally true of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and all the nuclear tests of the post-war era, including those being conducted today, openly or in secret. In the case of low-dose, high-impact fallout from Fukushima, we would expect to see:

1.    A spike in be spontaneous abortion, premature birth, and neo-natal deaths in the second half of 2011 and continuing at least through 2012 (depending on rates of ongoing emissions from Fukushima and the ocean currents carrying the radioactive slug);
2.   A spike in observed birth effects in the second half of 2011 and continuing at least through 2012. Depending on the time of in utero radiation exposure, this might low birth weight, stillbirth, sudden infant death, congenital malformations, or brain damage;
3.   A spike in miscarriages in the second half of 2011 and continuing at least through 2012;
4.   A spike in leukemias, especially in children, beginning no sooner than mid-2016;
5.    Increases in thyroid neoplasms in children, beginning no sooner than mid-2016;
6.   Increases in nearly all forms of cancer, beginning around 2026; and
7.   Second generation effects, beginning around 2030, when children born with latent genetic damage have children of their own. We have known since the 1930s that fewer than 10% of latent genetic defects are expressed in any single generation.

Contrast this with what RPHP reports: “deaths rose 4.46 percent … after the arrival of Japanese fallout…. The number of infant deaths after Fukushima rose 1.80 percent, compared with a previous 8.37 percent decrease. Projecting these figures for the entire United States yields 13,983 total deaths and 822 infant deaths in excess of the expected.”
While it is possible to connect the 822 infant deaths to Fukushima by inference, we would want to know how those infants died. How many were killed in automobile accidents, for instance, or home fires? Of those who died from “crib death,” what were the symptoms? How many had observed birth defects?

As for the 13,161 non-infant deaths, those have to be excluded because of what we know about latency in carcinogenesis. Even if that were not the case, we might want to ask questions like how many of the excess deaths could be attributed to suicide as a result of the global financial crisis, or other causal agents that might be suddenly elevated. So, for instance, 2011 was 10 years after the 9-11 attacks, and 6 to 9 years after the dramatic elevation in radioactive airport scanning.

How did the researchers explain the physical mechanisms that could explain such sudden deaths? They said, “Patterns of deaths among persons of all ages strongly reflect patterns among the elderly, who account for over two-thirds of all deaths. For the older population, explanations for excess deaths must be considered after exposure to higher levels of radioactive fallout. If cancer in some patients becomes active again, it may mean they already have cells carrying all but one of the three to four requisite mutations to express cancer. Exposure to radiation (or a toxic chemical) can provide the one final mutation to reactivate a quiescent tumor. Also vulnerable are those elderly with depressed immune status, made worse by exposure to radiation.”

To us, having a very long history with this subject, that seems a pretty weak argument. Threadbare, really. Rather than employing a double-blind, the researchers are fixated on their special causal agent — radiation — as being the only possible weapon at the crime scene.

Naturally, nuclear power’s proponents could be counted on to seize a propaganda victory from the overblown hyperbole of their opponents. It was like going to an old-timey Liar’s Contest at the county fair. No less an esteemed source than Scientific American weighed in to challenge the champion liar. In their December 20 blog, Scientific American’s Michael Moyer called the Fuke mortality study “sloppy, agenda-driven work.” Rather than agreeing with Mangano that EPA was negligent, not to say nefarious, in halting the monitoring of incoming fallout, Moyer chastised the researchers for relying instead on data from radioactivity in milk, water and air in the weeks right after the Fuke meltdown up until the Obama Administration suspended monitoring. Rather than agreeing with Mangano and lamenting that detailed death certificates won’t be publically available for another 2 years, necessitating resort to less precise raw mortality data from the National Centers for Disease Control, Scientific American chastised the researchers for their entire methodology, which, while thin, is not without some value. 

On December 21 the Big Health blogosphere jumped into the Fuke fray. Barbara Feder Ostrov, blogging from the University of California (which has its own sorry history of human radiation experiments gone awry), lauded Scientific American’s trashing of Mangano and RPHP. Ostrov demanded the Journal of International Health Services, which published the Fuke mortality study, respond to the criticism. The journal’s editor-in-chief Vicente Navarro, professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote her back:
In reply to your questions, this quarterly is a peer-reviewed journal and the paper was reviewed by 2 outstanding scholars in the subject being discussed. We trust our referees’ judgment. We do not publish letters to the editors, but when we receive criticisms we believe merit attention, we publish them asking the authors of the original article to reply if they so wish, publishing the exchange in the same issue and let the readers judge. This is how academic debates should be handled. 
We have invited Mr. Moyer to submit his criticisms published in the Scientific American blog to the IJHS in its entirety as a reprint or in a modified form and we very much hope he will agree. If he does, the IJHS will publish it in one of the next issues with a reply from the authors if they so wish, which I suspect they will. 

Navarro’s solicitation to openly debate was quashed by Michael Moyer, who wrote back:
In short: I'm a journalist, not a scientist. My post is the property of Scientific American, so there's rights issues. My post also argued against both the paper and the claims made by the authors in their press release. And since the authors' strategy seems to be to gain legitimacy for their public claims by the simple fact of appearing in a peer reviewed journal, I didn't want to give them another opportunity to trumpet their success.
In other words, we (Scientific American) are not scientists. We are just bloggers, really. All this scientificy stuff, well, y’all discuss what you want. We have our opinions.

Bottom line: Was the anti-nuke RPHP study and press package over the top? Yes. One simply cannot assume, as Mangano did, that CDC’s observed excess deaths after March 20 are due to Fukushima, and not just a statistical aberration with other possible explanations.

Was the response from the pro-nuke Big Science lobby equally lame? Yes. Mangano acknowledged he was awaiting better data and in the meantime couched his research in cautious, preliminary terms, saying that if the effect of Fuke is as bad as it might well be, we are seeing what you would expect to see now. 

Swirling all around this debate we have the spectacle, in science, as we’ve seen before in politics, of blame-games and posturing substituting for earnest discussion of very serious issues. It supplies still more momentum to the march off the cliff and our own extinction.
More nuclear power plants are being built even as we write this. Nuclear power plants are little more than disguised bomb factories. They kill with impunity while they amass their stockpiles of deadly armaments and even deadlier poisons. Genetically, we could be poisoning future generations with immune impairments that will render them unable to survive in the toxic environments they are being bequeathed. 

In the United States it is a huge industry, and it buys plenty of votes. It lies, it kills, it destroys economies, but it is seldom being publicly exposed. Indeed, the routine security screening involving x-raying broad swaths of the population as they pass though airports and government buildings will, as surely as night follows day, cause a huge spike in radiation-related disease and death in pulses of 5 years, 15 years, 30 years and beyond. 

And, as the RPHP authors point out, all life is sensitive to nuclear radiation exposure, including plants, fungi, insects spiders, birds, fish, and other animals. This is fair game for science and a legitimate subject for policy debate. To obscure that discussion with parlor tricks and unscrupulous advocacy is tragic. 

David Comey must be turning in his grave.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Closing the Ambition Gap

“Let us draw a lesson from nature, which always works by short ways. When the fruit is ripe, it falls. When the fruit is dispatched, the leaf falls. The circuit of the waters is mere falling. The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

Connie Hedegaard, EU Head of Delegation, by Rogan Ward/Reuters
By now no veteran delegate to the UN climate talks would be so foolish as to book a flight home before the first Monday afterwards, knowing that the reason these Conferences of the Parties (COPs) are always scheduled to end on Fridays is so that they can continue working through the weekend to salvage a last-minute deal and avert utter shame. Those veterans with the most experience — Christina Figueres (UNFCCC), Connie Hedegaard (EU) or Todd Stern (USA), for instance — begin, by the end of the second week, to physically resemble zombies, the walking dead. And well they should! They have only two raw cravings: to kick the can a little farther down the road, and for no-one to shoot them in the head.

Marcin Korolec had one of the toughest sleep deprivations. Only three weeks before COP-17 began, Poland ascended to the 6-month rotating presidency of the EU and he had gone from being named, in quick succession, Environmental Minister of Poland to being named EU Council Environmental Minister and a representative for the 27 member countries to the Durban climate talks. Some 90 per cent of Poland’s electricity is generated from coal. Being Environmental Minister of Poland was hard enough.

The EU Council is beset by a string of crises, to which Korolec will be flying back after Durban. While he was away an emergency EU meeting failed to summon more than a few weeks’ funding for failing banks, putting the Eurozone banking system at the edge of collapse. At the end of the 8-9 December EU summit in Brussels, only 17 of the 27 EU countries were ready to participate in a new fiscal compact. EU’s major lenders have themselves begun to run out of assets. Even bedrock German banks are now showing stark deterioration in their core capital ratios. Banks and sovereigns are having fire sales of assets, including gold, but even if they could raise €1 trillion of funding it would only meet the needs of averting Italian and Spanish defaults. After Italy and Spain, there are 25 more dominoes to fall. Is it any wonder that banks are using bailout money to buy credit default swaps against the sovereigns who are bailing them out?

Todd Stern, USA, with Chinese Head of Delegation,
Xie Zhenhua, vice director of China's National
Development and Reform Commission
The monster the Eurozone is dueling is the exponential function, which was driven up on cheap, abundant high-quality energy, and is now declining, just as those supplies are. Peak Money may have been hit in mid-2007. Total bank holdings worldwide are around 10 to 11 trillion, down from 31 trillion in that year. The lending power of banks is halving about every 3 years now.

The total face value of world money — including over-the-counter derivatives, like hedge funds and credit default swaps, is about $708 trillion. The U.S. has total debt and liabilities of over $116 trillion, although much is hidden, so these numbers are very sketchy. What we know of amounts to $1 million per taxpayer. Marked to market, guessing who will get haircuts and who will be paid, those claims are probably worth less than $20 trillion, or about $175,000 per taxpayer. Compared to the Eurozone, which will have to issue $16 trillion in bonds to bridge its current crisis, the US looks like a safe haven.

Familiarity with the exponential function served Korolec well in his COP-17 role. Consumption of fossil fuels and concentrations of greenhouse gases have tracked an exponential curve over the past 150 years. CO2 is responsible for 7 of the 33 degrees of the greenhouse effect that keeps Earth habitable for life. Burning half of all mined hydrocarbons caused a 40 percent increase in CO2 (from 280 ppm to 390 ppm). Burning the other half, drawn from inhospitable places like the tar sands, oil shales, deep water and Arctic basins would increase the temperature by well over 9°F, even without cascading tipping points like permafrost and methane clathrates. That’s well beyond a margin that could shelter most terrestrial life-forms, to say nothing of warm-blooded mammals such as ourselves.

While it is by no means certain that Korolec gets this yet, the connections between the collapse of the global financial system and the collapse of the global ecological system may dawn on him sooner than most. The tone in Durban was existential. The lack of ambition in the EU agenda was criticized by Bolivia, Venezuela and others in terms that resonated like a funeral dirge for humankind.

The bright spot in Durban was an array of fresh faces of youth, from all over the world, who, miraculously by the standards of most international governmental fora, were welcomed as full Civil Society participants with delegate badges and the opportunity to make a presentation at the meeting of ministers. It came as no surprise that in her address, Youth’s representative, Anjali Appadurai from Coquitlam, BC and The College of the Atlantic, brought the house down, not the least because when she finished a very moving and well-delivered speech to the assembled nations and was receiving a standing ovation, she called “Mic Check” and received a further standing reply from her colleagues and others so moved, in which she led chants of “We’re running out of time!” and “Get it done!”

Ironically, some things Ms. Appadurai said in her address showed in sharp relief the fault lines running through the talks and why no deal had yet been reached to steer the world away from its head-long lurch to oblivion. “Common but differentiated and historical responsibility are not up for debate,” she said.

Breaking that down from the UN-speak that infects such meetings, “common but differentiated” responsibility derives from the wording of the original Kyoto treaty, which effected a compromise between South and North, the developing versus industrially developed stakeholders.

Indian Delegate Jayanthi Natarajan
For the North, who had to own up to “historic responsibility” of purchasing century-long industrialization at the expense of the atmospheric commons (not to mention soil and mineral degradation, exhaustion of fossil fuels, ruinous destruction of habitat and biodiversity, and the socially devastating effects of capitalism and globalization), emissions reductions were a hair-shirt, worn to atone for their sins. 
Under the Kyoto regime, each “developed” nation was prescribed a target percentage reduction of its greenhouse gas pollution based on its 1995 emissions level and its capacity to effect reductions. “Developing” nations were essentially given a pass. Since they were not responsible for the problem to begin with, they pleaded with the growth junkies at the UN that they required the methamphetamine-like injections of pure stuff – coal, gas and oil – to “catch up” with Europe and the USA in consumer culture and its spendthrift, glamorous lifestyles as seen on TV. Their “common but differentiated” burden would be a free pass to pollute. Instead of having targets of reducing their actual emissions, they would have targets based on percentages of what their emissions might one day become, were they as wasteful as say, the United States, Australia or Canada.

This nukespeak has developed its own set of code-words, like the atmospheric parking lot analogy, used so fondly by India. In the parking lot analogy, there are a fixed set of spaces in the sky for us to park smoke. India reckons we have 75% of the spaces taken and 25% remain. This is of course, utter nonsense, because if the atmospheric garage were not already oversmoked by 150 to 200%, we would not be losing so much ice in the Arctic and experiencing such extreme weather everywhere else. But, under India’s rationale, the question is who gets to use the last 25% and can we not agree to apportion that added pollution more fairly, such as by population size or GDP, for instance? In UN-speak, this is called “equity.”

The crippled Kyoto treaty, which is what Ms. Appadurai was so passionate about saving, would only reduce emissions by developed countries by 12-17% in a best-case scenario. Even under the rosiest scientific scenarios the world needs immediate 25 to 30% reductions and 80% by mid-century to have a chance to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century. That’s crucial because beyond 2 degrees we very likely would pass tipping points to 3 degrees and at 3 degrees pass more tipping points leading us to 4 degrees, and so on, all irreversible, all totally catastrophic. Kyoto, as it was structured with common but differentiated and historical responsibilities, gives a free pass to developing countries, including rapidly industrializing Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the BASIC group), to continue enlarging emissions, which, as we have seen in the past few years, quickly wipes out all gains in the developed world and jams yet more smoke into the crammed atmospheric parking lot, every year.

As the final days’ showdown approached, most observers said that Durban would be a bust. We were already labeling it the COP-out of COPs. The EU insisted on a legally binding treaty to follow a brief renewal of Kyoto — one that would bind both North and South to reductions. India and its allies insisted on including the “equity” issue; more passes to pollute. China was ready to concede it had become an industrial country, but it rightly pointed to all the other developed countries and asked, poignantly, which of them had done as much to go green in its development planning? Which of them had found as many new ways to reduce their own carbon footprints as China had?

Venezuela's Claudia Solerno stands on a table to be heard
Friday’s closing sessions gave way to an all-night session, which gave way to meetings throughout the day on Saturday. The South African airline announced it would add more flights on Sunday afternoon to accommodate rebookings, taking away the excuses of those who said they had to leave. As evening approached on Saturday, statements by delegates became more passionate. Claudia Salerno of Venezuela, one of the most eloquent speakers at the conference, stood on a table and waved at the chair to be heard. She spoke in defense of extending Kyoto.

For readers who did not follow our blow-by-blow posts from Copenhagen and Cancún, the background of this is that the United States under George W. Bush had wanted to get rid of Al Gore’s Kyoto climate treaty entirely and did whatever it could to subvert UN efforts to strengthen or extend it. In Copenhagen, President Obama succeeded where Bush had failed, getting COP-15 to sign off on a one-page voluntary pledge system in lieu of legally binding caps. Hillary Clinton had sweetened the deal a week earlier by going to Copenhagen with a promise of $100 billion in public and private money to promote “green” development in the two-thirds world. This bought off a lot of the opposition.

This is actually standard diplomatic procedure for the United States going back to at least the Second World War. Pay any price to get what you want. Money is not the problem.

Norway pointed out that Ethopia would develop without CO2
In Cancún the extortion was formalized into the Green Climate Fund, to be initially managed by the Global Environmental Facility, an arm of the World Bank, which is very experienced at extorting whole countries, just ask Argentina. One of the tasks for Durban, which was never resolved but was kicked down the road, was how to fund the Green Climate Fund and who would succeed GEF as manager. In principle, the Fund is a great idea, because it takes away the rationale for “common but differentiated” passes to pollute. Ethiopia, for example, has said it will effect its development entirely without benefit of fossil fuels. Such a fund could pay for that to happen everywhere. The problem is that GEF is not perceived as a neutral manager, and what Ms. Solerno said seemed to confirm that.

Speaking with stern resolve, tinged with angry indignation, Ms. Solerno said that outside the plenary chamber, during a break, she had been threatened by someone who had told her she needed to abandon support of Kyoto or Venezuela would lose any access to the Green Climate Fund. She did not say who had made this threat, but she said, “Mr. Chairman, I will be heard. I am not less party than parties that are not parties to some issues.” The United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, never having ratified the treaty.

“Mr .Chairman, we are a peaceful country but we do not like threats. We do not like threats from countries that have shown to the world that they are not ready to do anything or to anything else but give money. In the corridor I have received two threats. One, that if Venezuela does not adopt the text, they will not give us the second commitment period. Mr. Chairman, the second commitment period is not for Venezuela, it is for the world. It is to preserve and sustain the rule system. If they threaten me with this fake trade — that we need to actually adopt a weaker regime for the world — they are actually not threatening me, but the world.

“Secondly, and the most pathetic, and the most lowest threat, if we don’t give them their comfort zone, with no rules, flexible, in which they’re going to do whatever they want, when they want — to take us to four degrees — we are not going to have the Green Climate Fund….

“Mr. Chairman, the issue on your text is how do we see the future. My country has made all these efforts to resist this merchantilist vision that pretends to save us, putting a price on the most sacred, which is our future, and the future of our children, and the future of our world. And I believe that future as many think, some believe it costs $100 billion dollars. Here we are not selling Kyoto for $100 billion dollars. The fate of this world is not worth it. $100 billion dollars…. The ethical position and the integrity of the completely flooded Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is not going to be sold for $100 billion dollars. We need to stop this farce, this lack of shame by some delegates.”

In the evening, hoping to salvage some deal from the year-long negotiations, President of COP-17 Maite Nkoana-Mashabane convened an informal “listening session.” “It is your choice what history you want to make,” she said.

Huddle in final Indaba
She reminded delegates of the ways that the Zulu people came together in a spirit of Ubuntu, compromise for the betterment of the whole, in sessions called indaba, gatherings with the purpose of debating a matter of grave importance in an attempt to find common mind or a common story that all the participants can take home with them. After hours of statements from delegates, ranging from impassioned pleas from island countries to outrage over equity issues by India’s Jayanthi Natarajan, at 2:40 AM on Sunday, she asked for a 10-minute “huddle” to permit delegates who seemed the farthest apart to meet and attempt to resolve their differences. That huddle continued for close to an hour, but then, remarkably, it did produce results. India, which had vowed to block consensus, was persuaded to rejoin by a change of wording from “a legal outcome” to “an agreed outcome with legal force.” Venezuela was given both a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol and the Green Climate Fund. The US, hoping desperately to kick the can past the current election year, was saddled with a new framework that would eventually, by no later than 2020, bind both it and China to a common reduction regimen.

As she gaveled the COP to a close, Nkoana-Mashabane said “Climate change is the common problem which affects all of us and the Durban Platform is the story we will take home with us. Our intention with indaba was to restore trust in the multilateral system and to enshrine transparency and facility within our party-driven process. The decisions we have taken here are truly historical and include the following: amendments to the Kyoto Protocol, decisions on the LCA, the Green Climate Fund and the future of the climate change regime…. At the outset we asked you to show leadership in action and to think beyond your national position. You have clearly demonstrated your commitment and resolve to achieve the broad and balanced result that we can all be proud of…. We have once again saved tomorrow today.”

Whether tomorrow was really saved today or whether that was mere rhetorical flourish is a judgment we can leave to historians. Among the accomplishments however, was creation of a process to address the “ambition gap.” This is UN-speak for the willingness of the major polluters to take halfway measures — the United States is sticking to the 3% reduction goal by 2020 over 1990 levels Mr. Obama proposed in Copenhagen — while lacking the spine to raise ambitions higher. Lots of side events, meetings and studies have outlined abundant economic and social benefits waiting for those who devote the final hours of their dwindling fossil sunlight to making the transition to 100% renewables, but few outside China, Iceland and Denmark are really displaying any such ambition. The critique most heard of the Kyoto renewal was that it locked in this “ambition gap” for at least another 5 years.

So it was that the most remarkable document emerging from Durban was FCCC/CP/2011/l.10-GE.11-71657, Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

The Conference of the Parties,

Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties, and acknowledging that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions,

Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,

Recognizing that fulfilling the ultimate objective of the Convention will require strengthening the multilateral, rules-based regime under the Convention,


Further decides that the process shall raise the level of ambition and shall be informed, inter alia, by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the outcomes of the 2013–2015 review and the work of the subsidiary bodies;

Decides to launch a workplan on enhancing mitigation ambition to identify and to explore options for a range of actions that can close the ambition gap with a view to ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties;

Requests Parties and observer organizations to submit by 28 February 2012 their views on options and ways for further increasing the level of ambition and decides to hold an in-session workshop at the first negotiating session in 2012 to consider options and ways for increasing ambition and possible further actions.

The heavy rainstorms that blocked view of the full moon over Durban gave way to sunrise as the delegates wended their weary way back from the final plenary this morning. A mere 24-hours earlier it had seemed most probable that COP-17 would be a total bust. Whether the can could be kicked down the road for even another year was in considerable doubt, because with an impending failure of resolve, even the multilateral process itself was threatened. Now, with the rays of the sun, came fresh rays of hope. There is no legally binding regime in place yet, but the resolve has been taken to create that, and to raise the global level of ambition.

“The good news is we avoided a train wreck,” said Alden Meyer for Union of Concerned Scientists, who only a day earlier had been forecasting a likely failure. “The bad news is that we did very little here to affect the emissions curve.”

That is something for Marcin Korolec to think about on his flight back to Poland this afternoon. So far, the EU has been plagued with half-measures that lack the ambition of a debt jubilee, cap and share, local currencies backed by carbon credits, or even serious regulation of multinational vulture banksters that exploit vulnerabilities in the system to feather their own nests. Might it be possible to get all the stakeholders into an indaba, huddle up, and with the spirit of Ubuntu, raise the EU Council’s level of ambition?

Nelson Mandela once explained Ubuntu this way: “A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

------ Remarks of Anjali Appadura, Youth Delegate ------ 

“I speak for more than half the world’s population. We are the silent majority. You’ve giving us a seat in this hall but our interests are not on the table. What is it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbies, corporate influence, money?

You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time you failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets and you’ve broken promises. But you’ve heard this all before.

We’re in Africa, home to communities on the front line of climate change. The world’s poor’s countries need funding for adaptation NOW. The horn of Africa and those nearby in India needed it YESTERDAY. But as 2012 comes the green climate fund remains empty.

The International Energy Agency tells us we have five years until the window to avoid irreversible climate change closes. The science tells us that we have 5 years maximum. You’re saying: ‘give us ten’. We must stop betrayal of your generation’s responsibility to ours. It’s that you call this: ambition. Where is the courage in these rooms?

Now is not the time for incremental action. In the long run these will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self-interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion.

There is real ambition in this room. But it’s being dismissed as radical, deemed not ‘politically possible’. Stand with Africa. Long-term thinking is not radical. What’s radical is to completely alter the planet climate to betray the future of my generation and to condemn millions to death by climate change. What’s radical is to write off the fact that change is within our reach.

2011 was the year in which the silent majority found their voice. The year when the bottom shook the top. 2011 was the year when the radical became reality. Common but differentiated and historical responsibility are not up for debate.

Respect the foundational principles of this convention. Respect the integral values of humanity. Respect the future of your descendants.

Mandela said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’. So, distinguished delegates, and governments around the world, governments of the developed world: Deep cuts now!!



Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Durban Dollars: TckTckTck Money

A century from now social analysts will look back with angry astonishment at the extent our generation accepted the economists’ fantasy — happiness requires perpetual economic growth. This may have been true once; definitely now it is false.”
— Dennis Meadows, preface to Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies

In the classic novel, Ishmael, Daniel Quinn opined, through a telepathic ape in the title role, that our descent from paradise began when they locked up the food. This week finds us back in the Yucatec Mayan world, where Ishmael’s premise seems self-evident. Food has not yet been locked up, nor, by and large, is it stored. People live simply, quite by intention. They do not preserve, neither do they hoard. Three to five generations live together in compounds of thatched houses with dirt floors. Their roofs last 5 to 10 years, depending on tropical storm intensity in those years. The softwood walls last perhaps 20, and if there are doors and windows, they are typically from tropical hardwoods, maybe centuries old already, and will be reused whenever the rest of the building is renewed.

Most families have neither refrigerators nor root cellars. A ham or a rack of fish may hang, slowly smoking, in the rafters, but that day’s chicken or turkey is pecking the ground just outside, next month’s pig is rooting in a nearby mud wallow, and some chocolate is in the cacao nib stage, drying on some pieces of tin in the sun, probably next to some corn that will become masa flour. Less than an hour’s time spent in the forest or on the river yields a rich meal for the whole family for that day. When evening falls, they will climb into their hammocks and sleep while the smoke from the fire keeps mosquitoes at bay.

This is a non-monetary economy. Fractional reserve banking, currency exchanges and debt are alien concepts. Of course in today’s world those things are not entirely avoidable. Mayan family men might earn something taking tourists into the bromeliad corchal in a canoe, mother will weave baskets to sell in the market, and the children will help carry her corn and woven jewelry to trade for some cooking oil, salt, and other supplies. They will be paid in government money, and that they may store and hoard, although seldom more than a month’s worth. Granted, this affords them the opportunity to buy televisions, cars, and home appliances, but they have rejected that path, observing that it leads to a world they would not want for their children.
In Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies (New Society Publishers 2011), Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer point out that it was not very long ago that most of the world operated this way. The example they use is the !Kung people of Botswana, made famous by their depiction in The Gods Must Be Crazy! In their example, !Kung society gave way to the lure of consumerism, modifying ancient social practices to the modern monetary exchange system. The !Kung went from a sharing people to a hoarding people.

Choices made by any society enable members to attain well-being or to be cast into misery. The choice is always that of an individual, but the social norms and guiding philosophy can conduce towards one result or the other.

For the rural Maya, the community being considered was not merely a single group of humans denoted by geography and culture, but rather the ecological community of all life forms, and generations still to come. What sane economic system would even consider forgetting these, a Mayan might ask. An economist might call what the Mayans are acquiring social, cultural, and ecological capital. To these people, and many others in the intentionally pre-industrial world, they are just good sense.

At the recent Local Future conference in Michigan, Australian economist Steve Keen was asked by the audience, “What should individuals be doing with their savings to build local resilience?” Keen began by giving similar advice to another panelist, Nicole Foss, namely, hold cash, use opportunities to buy distressed assets, and worry more about deflation — “debt deleveraging” — than inflation. He then went on to say that while that might be the best strategy for individuals, it was totally counterproductive for communities, which should be investing in innovation and local green businesses with an eye towards a future of changed circumstances. Individuals taking their money out of circulation and hoarding cash makes a bad situation worse for the greater community. To square those two opposing views, he suggested local currencies.

Jubilee and Currency Change

Steve Keen told the assembly, “When local currency is formed, what you’ve then got is a form of circulation that can supplant the collapse in the credit-based system.”
“At an overall social level, you are in a debt crisis caused by the finance sector convincing you that being in debt is a good thing. It isn’t really individual fault in taking on too much debt, it’s the finance sector convincing us that debt’s a good idea. Economic theory played a huge role in that. So, I’d see two things as being very useful to do at a social level. One is to organize a modern jubilee, abolishing the debt. [The other, not discussed here, is to Occupy Economics Departments – Ed.].
“There are two ways to go about abolishing debt. One is to actually write it off and say 80% shouldn’t have been lent, we’re writing off 80% of the debt and force the banks to a restructuring and reorganization. It would be quite a bloody process.

“The other is … to give everyone a million dollars, or a large amount of money, and say, ‘If you are in debt, you have to pay your debt down using this million. If you’re not in debt you can hang onto it.’ … Now what that would mean is the banks don’t lose any assets because what goes down in loans goes up in their reserves, so the banks’ solvency wouldn’t necessarily be destroyed. What would happen is their liquidity would drop drastically because they rely on large amounts of debt to get their revenue. So if you suddenly give them money instead of debt, their cash flows will decline dramatically.
“The old way of doing a jubilee used to be behead the money lender and free the slaves. We can’t quite do that any more, as tempting as it might be… Economists really caused this crisis.”
[This whole talk is available online in episode 284 of the C-realm podcast ]

Replacing Debt-based Money

Hallsmith and Lietaer say, “We don’t really need money. We need the things that money can buy. We don’t need financial capital for its own sake if we can obtain the things it buys. The exchange capacity of money is now, and hopefully in the future, one of the key reasons we need it. Money helps us exchange things that are of value to us—like our time and labor —for things that are of value to someone else.”

The problem that both Keen and Hallsmith/Lietaer put their fingers on is that debt-based money has only very marginal utility — for building hydroelectric dams, photovoltaic cell factories, or some other very large, long-term project, for instance. When debt becomes the medium of exchange, however, it takes on a life of its own and infuses every aspect of our lives. It becomes a monster — a juggernaut of cruel mathematics. 

Money is, after all, only a means, not an end. Once we endow it with special characteristics, such as the power over your child’s life or death at the entrance to the hospital’s Emergency Room, what you have to have to pay taxes or tuition, or all that stands between you and your next meal, it becomes something far more sinister. When you add in the necessity for growth to offset the arithmetic of debt service, and you tie national currencies to the interest-and-inflation bandwagon and everyone who handles money finds themselves owing their soul to the company store. Whole nations — Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Iceland to take the most recent examples — find themselves enslaved to debts as ridiculous and unforgiving as subprime mortgages or student loans.

Durban Dollars

Right now, it is illegal in the United States for any individual, group or government to issue any currency that would compete with Federal Reserve notes. So-called “complimentary currencies,” the community money systems invented by Lietaer decades ago, are forced to fly under the radar by disguising themselves to look like something other than currency: PayPal; airline frequent flyer miles; discount coupons; Time Banks; Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS); and similar non-threatening exchange media.

The easiest way for the Federal (and/or State) government to force people out of these systems or otherwise maintain its lock on the food has been to require taxes to be paid in dollars. But therein lies a great opening for the change we all want to see.

What if taxes were required to be paid in, say, carbon credits, not dollars?

Well, the first thing that would happen is that people and institutions (airlines, manufacturers, mine-operators, garbage collectors, hospitals) would have to scramble around in search of carbon credits to meet their tax obligations. Those who could not acquire them by reducing actual emissions would have to purchase the surplus emission reductions of others on a carbon exchange. The value of credits would likely appreciate, considerably. It would quickly become much easier to find additional reductions than to have to purchase credits.

Not to be too severe or to price carbon credits out of the reach of most, the program could be phased in, say by 10 percent per year for 10 years. Bank accounts could be allowed to store carbon credits and to electronically pay them to the government each quarter, which would turn around and issue more, awarding them to anyone who can demonstrate greenhouse gas reductions. Tree planting or other land use changes that sequester carbon — organic no-till, holistic management, biochar, etc. — could also qualify to receive fresh government issue.

Hallsmith and Lietaer, while not going quite this far, propose backing national currencies with voluntary carbon reductions. They are sort of like Obama in Copenhagen, except taking another step. In their plan, consumers could make purchases from participating green businesses and receive electronic credits for anything that contributes to verifiable carbon drops. They can either keep their credits (for later tax payment purchases, or as an investment) or sell their credits to the carbon market and pocket the profit. Participating businesses that sell carbon-reducing goods or services gather the necessary data — the amount of carbon reduction achieved with each purchase— to be stored in a national data bank.

“For example, a consumer could earn a CCU when they take a bus to work in the morning instead of driving their car. They would pay for the trip in dollars, and would swipe their CCU debit card for the carbon currency credit. The transit company would have a standard carbon value for bus riders.”

Whatever the variation, the common elements are these: retire fractional reserve (debt based) Federal currency; open the floodgates to local currencies in all their shades and colors; require taxes to be paid in that which we most wish to encourage; and reconsider what constitutes real wealth. Is it what you see advertised in the corporate media, or is it what most rural Maya just call good sense?





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