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The Big Circus Tent: Industry Hucksters Get in on Global Warming

Andrew Christie

Did you hear? Genetic engineering will curb global warming!Liquefied natural gas will curb global warming!

Nuclear power will curb global warming!

All of these claims are from actual press releases, or ripped from the day's headlines, or ripped from a headline placed over a press release by an accommodating news editor or syndicate.

The success of an idea in its travels through the public marketplace can be measured by its corruption; the eagerness with which it is seized upon and bent to the ends of its appropriators. When Social Darwinism perverted Darwinism into "survival of the fittest" as justification for late 19th-century predatory capitalism, that was the surest indicator that the theory of evolution had become widely accepted.

Now it's global warming's turn. Human-caused climate change has become a star ascendant in the marketplace of ideas, which means we must all be prepared to unhitch the wagons of Very Bad Ideas that will increasingly attempt to hitch themselves to that star. Even before this week's landmark Supreme Court ruling forcing the federal government to admit that CO2 is a pollutant, P.R. consultants were obviously hipping their corporate clients to the fact that if you need to distract public attention from certain aspects of your product, there's nothing hotter than global warming.

So: Will genetic engineering curb global warming?

In a new study sponsored by Monsanto Corp., world's largest manufacturer of genetically engineered crops and the pesticides necessary to grow them, the authors found that GE crops allow farmers to engage in "no-till" farming, in which the CO2 normally released into the atmosphere by plowing stays in the soil, and that the need to use fewer pesticides translates into less petroleum burned. Out went the press release.

The report's authors are biotech industry consultants; their degrees are in economics; their conclusions bear an uncanny resemblance to statements in Monsanto's 2004 "Global Challenges" corporate report, available on the Monsanto website. Not mentioned in either report: No-till farming works just fine in conventional farming when used in conjunction with crop rotation and cover cropping. The "less pesticides" claim is a wash, the lesser use of other chemicals canceled by greater use of glyphosate - an herbicide and likely endocrine disrupter whose use has tripled in the last ten years due to the increasing popularity of Monsanto's genetically engineered crops.

Also not mentioned: The least pesticide-intensive farming method of all is organic farming, locally grown and locally sold (less fossil fuel burned in transport), but that option rules out genetically engineered crops, the pesticides manufactured for them, and Monsanto's profit margin, so that particular curb to global warming didn't make the cut in the Monsanto-funded study.

"Not only will large-scale use of biofuels and genetic engineering technology not help to alleviate climate change, they may in fact exacerbate the problems of global warming while also causing environmental degradation, social inequality and poverty, particularly in developing countries," said Teresa Anderson of the Gaia Foundation at last November's UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

So: Will liquefied natural gas curb global warming?

We are told its needed to ward off the construction of more coal-fired power plants, a primary offender in CO2 emissions. Domestic natural gas combustion emits one-third the GW emissions of coal.

Not mentioned: Domestic natural gas is not LNG. Liquefied Natural Gas is transformed to its sub-zero liquid form and pumped into a tanker, shipped across an ocean, and re-gasified in port. The entire process emits huge amounts of CO2, virtually wiping out the gas-vs.-coal emissions advantage of domestic natural gas. It also has an unfortunate propensity to explode with the force of a modest-size atom bomb in the event of a mishap, i.e. exposure to air or sea water.

Also not mentioned: Energy efficiency and decentralized renewable power production can displace far more coal-based energy than can gas-fired plants, and cheaper.

The oil & gas lobby is on an LNG terminal building binge with no process in place to evaluate if we even need LNG, or to compare different LNG terminal proposals. That would have changed last year in California -- and likely everywhere else soon thereafter -- if state legislators had passed Senate Bill 426, Informed Choices for LNG in California. Industry lobbyists killed it. Apparently, ensuring a transparent public process in the approval of LNG terminals would not be a good thing for their client.

So: Will nuclear power curb global warming?

By now, everyone has heard that nukes are the way to go. And there's a reason why everyone's heard this. On March 14, in an exhaustively detailed, widely disseminated PR Watch article ("Moore Spin: Or, How Reporters Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Front Groups"), Diane Farsetta illustrated how "years of effort -- not to mention millions of dollars -- have been invested in nuclear power's PR rebirth as 'clean, green and safe'." The industry has been industrious in the use of false fronts and well-compensated sock puppets like Greenpeace renegade Patrick Moore.

Not mentioned when the nuke folks do their dance: Nuclear power is far from emission-free, uranium enrichment producing chlorofluorocarbon gas, a greenhouse gas 10,000 times more potent than CO2, and uranium mining requiring the increasing consumption of fossil fuel to go after what will become increasingly scarce deposits of steadily lower grade ore. Not to mention the five-decades-and-counting head-scratcher of where to put the growing mountain of high-level radioactive waste, deadly for 100,000 years.

Not to mention that, according to MIT, it would take 1,000 new reactors to make a dent in CO2 emission reduction, at a cost of upwards of a trillion dollars, producing exponentially more waste with nowhere to go, God's gift to nuclear proliferation.

Also not mentioned: The aforementioned ability of decentralized renewables and energy efficiency to beat out coal and gas-fired power plants applies to nuclear plants, too. Per the Rocky Mountain Institute, $1 of energy efficiency eliminates seven times more climate change emissions than $1 of nuclear power. Ten cents worth of micropower -- low- or no-emission energy production for individual buildings or communities -- displaces up to ten times more coal-fired kilowatts than does ten cents of new nuclear power.

The success of the nuclear lobby's disinfo campaign has cost us all dearly.

As the RMI reports: "In 1990, a study by five national laboratories concluded that increasing R&D budgets by just the cost of building one nuclear power plant ($3 billion spread over twenty years) could, by the year 2030, enable renewable energy to provide a half to two-thirds of the total energy then used in the United States."

The moral of all these stories: Eternal vigilance against the corporate imperative is the price of a livable world. Beware legislators who are in favor of reducing green house gas emissions if those emissions are reduced in a way -- the least effective, most expensive and dangerous way -- that redounds mightily to the benefit of nuclear utilities. Beware of touts pushing reduction of emissions by tightening the grip of the fossil fuel economy via LNG. Beware the corporation that invites you to contemplate the CO2 it's not emitting in the course of peddling biofuel byproducts of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the world's most destructive form of animal farming, or while implementing a business model of genetically altering and patenting the world's seed stocks so as to take full ownership of the food we eat.

Big Ag, Big Oil & Gas, and Big Nukes all want us to believe that we need them, and nothing else but them, to fill our bellies, light and heat our homes, and get us where we're going. That we do not need them -- much less the high costs and growing peril which their aid entails -- is a thought not to be thunk.

A particularly plaintive cry against the thinking of that thought was heard on February 9, the first day of Congressional hearings on global warming.

When told of the new UN report that pegs industrial livestock agriculture as the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) parried with questions about dinosaur flatulence. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) whipped out a one-liner (stolen from Business Week columnist Eric Peters): "Does [it] mean to stop this increase in methane we've got to put catalytic converters on the backs of cows?"

Yes, global warming deniers have been reduced to fart jokes.

The root of their objections is embodied by pundit George Will, who frets over the prospect of damage done to economic growth by moves to curb global warming, harming "the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-being - better nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet's climate?"

How much reduction, indeed? The EPA estimates that "reducing smog from trains and ships could provide more than $70 billion in health and environmental benefits within 20 years while the cost of compliance would be $2 to $3 billion over the same period." (The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2007). No one's noticed any slowing in the economic activity of the torrid wind and solar power industries, where wind turbines and solar panels cannot be fabricated fast enough to keep up with demand. According to the New York Times, "venture capitalists have begun pouring billions into energy-related startups," with "lawyers, accountants, recruiters and publicists all developing energy-oriented practices to cater to the cause...of transforming the $1 trillion domestic energy market while saving the planet." (That would be wealth-creation, Mr. Will.)

Curbing the worst of climate change requires an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050. That scary number translates to an eminently do-able 2% cut per year for the next 43 years, hence the Sierra Club's 2% Solution campaign, and co-sponsorship of "Step it Up" events across the country on April 14, the first national day of climate action. The work of making different, better decisions about the energy we use at home, at work, and as a nation starts now.

This means change, and lots of it. It means largely re-localizing the goods we buy, the food we eat, the energy we produce, and the way we live. And localization is in every way the polar opposite of the corporate imperative.

That's the source of Peters, Rohrbacher, Sensenbrenner and Will's fear and loathing. And, of course, it's the only thing that will save us.

One of those things is Community Choice Energy Aggregation. This little-known law, passed several years ago by several states, allows communities to gain local control over their electricity supply. In California, one such fortunate state, Marin County's CleanTech Partnership notes that implementation of Community Choice means their county "will have the opportunity to access new funding to expand its renewables mix, dramatically increase local investment in alternative energy and conservation technologies, and cut global greenhouse gas emissions."

The solutions are coming from those who are looking into a future that combines centuries of traditional knowledge of the living world with Amory Lovins' soft energy paths toward a sustainable society. Sly attempts at status quo substitutions, as well as the outright objection to the need to do anything different, are coming from living fossils, a final flatulence before the dinosaurs who designed, dominated and defended the twentieth century's mad fling with profligate consumption and waste finally pass from the scene.

Andrew Christie is a member of Sierra Club California's Energy & Global Warming Committee

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