What if… Gore had been president on 9/11?

Posted October 26th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Funk from the Swamp

One post I never wrote ponders how things might have been different had Gore been president on 9/11. In this youtube video, he was asked that very question, and answers it himself, adding some perspective on subsequent crises, e.g., Katrina, and stronger warnings now being received about changes in the climate. What is only too clear is that clear warnings were and continue to be ignored.

By definition, disasters are not events themselves, but the lack of capacity to respond to them. What we have now is a fuller picture of a more complex disaster of which 9/11 was only a part – which reveals not only the incapacity but also the unwillingness of the Bush administration to respond, not just to 9-11 but to a whole series of events, meanwhile continuing to be in denial of science, even as the wildfires burn. Cheney can’t even stay awake. Actually it is worse than that – by suppressing science and giving higher priority to missions to mars than to observations of the earth, this administration is actively trying to reduce the capacity to respond to profound changes in our global environment. Had Bush run for office on a platform of privatizing disaster response, he would not have even come close to being elected. Can somebody please tell me why we even have a government, and how it is that Bush came to be perceived as stronger on national security? I don’t know about you but the news this week makes me want to go start a pumpkin riot or something (see next post).

NRC: Nobody Really Cares, and history repeats

Posted July 12th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Funk from the Swamp

A lesson I learned from working on nuclear health and safety issues in the 1980s is that the regulatory process is a sham and that NRC really stands for “Nobody Really Cares” – the GAO finally proved it. Today a Reuters article reports that the so-called Nuclear Regulatory Commission was caught in a GAO sting operation, when they issued a license to a dummy company, to buy enough radioactive material to make a dirty bomb. The GAO investigators never even left their desks. Hat Tip: TPM Muckraker.com

A bit of history: Since my work on the subject was in the pre-internet era, I can’t link to any online documents but this sure brings back memories – of when they issued a license to company that had a criminal conviction, for the restart of TMI Unit 1, which was shut down for maintenance at the time of the accident in Unit 2, i.e., at the time that They Melted It. Subsequent investigation demonstrated that Unit 2 should have also been shut down for maintenance because of radiation leaks from the steam tubes that exceeded the permitted levels. I was an assistant to a couple of attorneys – one of whom, Joanne Doroshaw, intervened in that license proceeding, unsuccessfully, on grounds that character should be a criteria for being licensed to operate a nuclear facility. The other one, Rob Hager, was responsible for writing an Amicus Brief that was signed by 20 State Attorney Generals, who supported Karen Silkwood in the Supreme Court case against Kerr-McGee, on grounds that the appeals court ruling, interfered with their duty to protect the health and safety of their citizens. The appeals court had ruled against Silkwood on grounds that the punitive damages for plutonium contamination found in Silkwood’s house, awarded by a jury acting under state law, was preempted by federal law. Her house wasn’t the only place plutonium was found and the jury didn’t buy it. The Supreme Court sided with the jury. So the NRC then sought to overturn the Silkwood case through legislation. In a memo I dug up at the time via the Freedom of Information Act, the then NRC Commissioner Frederick Bernthal complained that the decision “makes every jury a local NRC.” Exactly! As far as I know, it still stands… We were unable to obtain a memo sent from the NRC to the then Vice-President, George H. Bush, on grounds that it was privileged since it was sent to the executive branch, and pertained in some way to decision-making. So we appealed on grounds that the Vice-President is not a decision-maker, unless it was sent to him as President of the Senate. They didn’t go on record but I received a phone call assuring me that it had been sent to him as President of the Senate…

Then I started organizing the Silkwood Awards, which went to quality control inspectors who had been fired for doing their jobs, and to some local union leaders who had been fighting for participation in decisions about health and safety conditions in their places of work.

What would you trade for some cypress mulch?

Posted June 21st, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Funk from the Swamp

I find it hard to believe that, post-Katrina, it is still possible to peddle cypress from the Gulf coast as cheap garden mulch. If you are equally incredulous, go see the video currently posted on the front page at the Gulf Restoration Network and sign a letter to those responsible. And read this op-ed by John Barry about other trade-offs being made in the Gulf, i.e., national economic benefits we all get at the expense of Louisiana and why coastal restoration efforts should be funded.

But there is another reason I am calling attention to the video. Eric Eckl, a communications consultant who writes a very helpful blog about Water Words that Work, points to this video as exemplary of a good communications strategy. I agree but have an additional reason why. Although the video doesn’t use the term “ecosystem services”, by emphasizing trade-offs between the use of cypress for garden mulch or for protection of the coast – and human lives, and by asking whether one would shred the Constitution for post-it notes, or melt the Liberty Bell for paper clips, it frames the issue in a way that is consistent with that concept.  One comment: a mulch boycott is all well and good for those who garden but, what the video doesn’t tell me is why cutting these cypress trees for mulch is even legal, i.e., who has the rights to control how the wetlands are used and why and what laws need to be changed.

 Ecosystem Services is essentially a frame that allows better connections to be made between ecosystems and human well-being, which was also the mission of the Millennium Ecosystem Asssessment (MA). But it was a laborious case to make because it requires a lot of site specific information to demonstrate the economic significance of what ecosystems produce, the trade-offs being made, and most importantly, what choices and response options are available.  So the result was a bit messy, and most of what was publicly conveyed were scary numbers about ecosystem degradation that didn’t come across as anything new, and was short on specific response options – and other valuable information that was buried in four thick technical reports (and since I was a lead author for a chapter in the report on policy responses, I know where it is all buried). So, so far, the MA has provided more of a framework for research and synthesis of scientific information than it has for communication. But as this framework begins to be used in the context of threats to real people and places, as is done in this video, I expect it will become stickier.

I have also been working with Island Press and the Sonoran Institute on a case study of the Colorado River Delta that uses the MA framework to develop future scenarios for the Delta that highlight trade-offs, and make a case for insuring the continued flow of water to the Delta, which I will say more about when the report is released. So stay tuned. In the meantime, for a fascinating read about the challenge of restoration in the entire Colorado River Basin, and the trade-offs involved,I strongly recommend a new book by Bob Adler, Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems: A Troubled Sense of Immensity. I will try to provide a more proper book review in a separate post but, a key point he makes that is relevant not only in the Colorado Basin, is that it is not just about restoring the river, but also about “restoring the process by which difficult, value-laden choices are made.”

Market failure?

Posted January 30th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Funk from the Swamp

In a measure designed to make government agencies more open and accountable to those they regulate, yesterday Bush signed an executive order that requires federal agencies to identify the “specific market failure” or problem that justifies government intervention, and to get approval from a politically appointed regulatory policy officer before even planning any kind of regulatory intervention or even just preparing regulatory guidance documents. But for anyone who professes Social Darwinism, the market has been wildly successful. And by creating ever more uncertainty regarding the impacts of all of the novelty it generates, and failing to fund scientific research and monitoring that detects any such impacts, as Bush demands scientific certainty, this invisible hand assures that there will never be enough scientific information to justify government intervention to protect public health, safety and general well-being.
A few examples of reduced capacity for scientific research under this administration – according to a recent NAS report, the capacity of all of our earth observing systems is expected to decrease by 40% by the end of the decade and many critical measurements are expected to cease altogether, jeopardizing the ability to forecast weather, hurricanes and El Ninos at a time when changes in climate are affecting global precipitation patterns, and land use patterns changing rapidly as well. Among the earth observing missions threatened with discontinuity is Landsat, which has provided continuous images of the earth for over 30 years – although some steps are now being taken to reduce this risk. Among the reasons is that, “Early plans called for NASA to purchase data meeting LDCM specifications from a privately owned and commercially operated satellite system. However, after an evaluation of proposals received from private industry, NASA cancelled the Request-for-Proposals (RFP) in Sept. 2003.” (link) According to one of my former professors, John Townshend, who chairs the geography department at the University of Maryland – where I watched the launch of Landsat 7 in 1999 – only one bid came in and was rejected because it was deemed too expensive, and because there was not enough cost sharing by the private sector. But he said part of the failure can be attributed to the scientific community, which assumed continuity and did not speak loudly enough when the program was delayed. He referred to it as “going blind.” And then there are the closures of EPA science libraries .
Although I regard this discourse of market failure to be a distraction from the more important problem, of finding agreement on policy goals and how they can best be achieved, whether through public or private means, perhaps it should be welcomed as an opportunity to put aside the games with cost-benefit analysis and get this administration and its supporters to be explicit about what they believe the purpose of government to be. Although placement of politically appointed regulatory policy officers in each agency practically guarantees political interference in science, he could no longer blame the bureaucracy and would have to take responsibility for his policy decisions. In other words, if Bush doesn’t believe that health and safety or disaster response is a government responsibility, he should just say so!