Archive for the ‘Energy, climate, and environment’ Category

Double Deja Vu

Author: Gary Hart

 If you live long enough you often see events seem to recur.  In 1979, as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory subcommittee of the Senate Environment Committee, I conducted the Senate’s investigation of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, including flying in a military helicopter over the plant when, we found out later, the reactor was critical.

The subsequent investigation and hearings led to major reforms in operations and oversight of the nation’s existing reactors.  But it all came back with the Fukushima nuclear crisis the last few days.

Even before Fukushima, and despite the emerging consensus favoring renewed attention to nuclear power as a partial solution to global warming, no new reactor construction applications have been submitted.  The problem with nuclear power is not simply one of safety.  It is one more of economics.  So long as we depend on OPEC oil supplies, OPEC can drop its prices and make multi-billion dollar plant investments uneconomic overnight.

In the spring of 1991, I was invited by the Libyan government in secret to negotiate an arrangement with the first Bush administration whereby the PanAm bombers would be turned over to us in exchange for the opening of negotiations leading toward normalization of diplomatic relations.  There were days of serious discussions in Geneva and then in Tripoli.  It came to nothing because the Bush administration turned down the offer and we had to wait several years to finally get the bombers.

While in Tripoli for three days I spent a good deal of time with an English speaking young minister.  A high official in the Italian government told me thereafter that he was “the most dangerous man in the world.”  It turned out to be Moussa Koussa, Libya’s current foreign minister who just defected to the West.

It makes one wonder what further recycling of history may occur.

Fiction in Foreign Policy

Author: Gary Hart

The 21st century is wasting no time in letting the U.S. know we don’t run things anymore, in case there is anyone left who thought we did.  From Tunisia to Oman everyday people are rising up, in almost every case against governments with whom we were friendly or whom, in the case of Egypt, we heavily supported financially.

These lessons work both ways.  We are about to get a really profound lesson from a government we have opposed for fifty years–Cuba.  Future students of American history will be scratching their heads about this case for decades to come.  Our embargo and refusal to normalize diplomatic relations has nothing to do with communism.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, with China since Nixon, and with Vietnam despite our bitter war there.

No, Cuba was pure politics.  Though it started out to be a measure of an administration’s resistance to Castro’s politics, it very soon became a straight-jacket whereby first-generation Cuban-Americans wielded inordinate political power over both parties and constructed a veto over rational, mature diplomacy.

That is about to end.  And wouldn’t you know it is ending because of…oil.  In an important report a few days ago, the Center for Democracy in the Americas ( documented major oil exploration and production plans off Cuba’s northwest coast in the Gulf of Mexico.  Guess who is helping develop this major project.  China.  It is building a state of the art drilling rig, according to Italian design and paid for by the Spanish state oil company (welcome to globalization), which will then be towed 10,000 miles to Cuban territorial waters. 

Because of our Neanderthal policy toward Cuba, the U.S. will neither profit from the production nor will it be in a position to apply its post-BP experience to make the exploration environmentally safe–though it is 50 miles from Florida’s coastline.  This is both sad and embarrassing. 

Second generation Cuban-Americans are finally beginning to change their community’s attitudes and make it clear they no longer are interested in holding the mighty U.S.’s foreign policy toward a tiny nearby country hostage to their parents’ anger.

Everyday people in North Africa and the Middle East are taking control of their own destiny, largely without our help.  Maybe this new generation of Cuban-Americans will do the same to straighten out one of the U.S.’s strangest foreign policy detours in its history.

Even so, why does it always have to be about oil?

It is quite possible that the greatest human challenge in this century will be how or whether we humans can fairly share what belongs to all.  Aristotle stated the issue: “…what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.  Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest.”  Garrett Hardin summarized this issue for the present age: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”

Our economic system is built on the proposition that markets allocate resources best.  But what is true of private resources may not also be true of public resources, those we hold in common.  The conservative response to this is, of course, privatize all public resources.  Twenty years ago this was accomplished in Russia and about a dozen and a half oligarchs ended up with most of the public assets.

In the industrial age we let private interests allocate our most precious public resources, our air and water, and we see how that worked out.  In this century we are now competing with the rest of the world as to how and whether together we can prevent carbonization of our very climate from fundamentally altering life on earth. 

Every man for himself would be a (more or less) rational approach to life…if men and women were merely economic creatures.  But there is also such a thing as moral man.  And it is moral man (and woman) who confront the necessity of protecting the commons and preventing a tragedy brought on by greed. 

We will either learn to live together and protect and preserve our common resources or our children and future generations–with the exception of the very wealthy–will have to learn how to perish separately.  And the prospect of a world of all against all may not even prove to be that attractive to the children of the very wealthy.

The views of others would be welcome on this question: If climate is changing in ways that will adversely affect the planet, is this a moral issue?

Let’s assume for purposes of this question that there is a “tipping point” beyond which heating of the climate cannot be reversed and that this change will bring about mass migrations, rise in coastal water levels, upheaval of crop patterns, drying up of major water sources, and so forth.  Assume further that populations in both democracies and autocratic regimes are not responding to arguments having to do with science, politics, policy, international treaties, and the range of debates now surrounding the climate issue.  They are not responding for two basic reasons: the debate is too complex and remote; and they feel helpless about it in any case, even if they took time to understand it.

For those of us who accept the warnings of senior military figures that this is an international security issue of major, historical proportions, what can be done?  Perhaps the whole climate issue is being managed on the wrong plane.  Perhaps the issue isn’t about us.  Perhaps the issue is about our children.  Perhaps public opinion and sentiment can be activated by this argument: we do not have the moral right to risk damage to the planet our children will inherit.

Veterans of this blogsite know that its author is transfixed by the fact that the preamble to our Constitution sets out the purposes for the creation of the United States as being goals and principles “for ourselves and our posterity.”  The Founders were looking into the future.  They wanted this great experiment in republican democracy to last.  Yet today we live in a culture that principally thinks only of itself and only of today.

So, whatever one’s religion, and whatever one’s politics, we all ought to agree that we have no right to endanger our children.  It has always seemed to me to be a vastly underplayed card in the world of global politics that one common denominator unites all mankind: we care about our children.  It is as fundamental to human nature as any other attribute.  That being the case, could we not agree that, while scientists continue to refine the data and seek concurrence, and diplomats continue to negotiate treaties, and politicians continue (hopefully) to educate their constituents, we are accountable to generations born and unborn for this planet, and that we have a moral duty not to damage it by heating the climate or detonating nuclear weapons.

It has been wisely said that we do not own the earth: we take it from our parents and hold it in trust for our children.  When all is said and done, and we are called upon to account for our lives on earth, this may well be the standard we must meet.

Weighing Risk, and Justice

Author: Gary Hart

In the second half of the 20th century major technologies, mostly having to do with energy production, emerged.  These included offshore oil drilling platforms, giant tanker transportation, and nuclear power plants.  Almost all energy production facilities, such as hydroelectric dams, tar sands, experimentation with oil shale, coal production, and so forth, also got much bigger.  Economies of scale was the usual justification.  If you are going to the trouble of drilling a mile or more down in the ocean or building a nuclear reactor, you got more bang for the buck by doing it on a grand scale.

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and now Deepwater Horizon, showed that with high production comes high risk.  High risk ventures such as these in the U.S. are licensed by the United States government.  Certain standards have to be met to obtain both a construction and an operating license for a nuclear power plant.  Presumably, some standards of safety and efficiency are also required for an offshore drilling permit.  British Petroleum had a five-story tall “fail-safe” apparatus on the ocean floor to prevent a well blow out.  It failed.

The U.S., and possibly all advanced nations in the world, require a public policy that authorizes high-risk ventures, ones whose failure produces catastrophe, only after very serious requirements are met: every system that might fail must be clearly identified; every system to respond to failure must be thoroughly tested and demonstrated; every technical and human response to failure and catastrophe must be drilled, tested, and proven; every operator must maintain highly-skilled emergency response teams at every facility around the clock; all levels of government emergency response must be integrated, drilled, and ready (including emergency evacuation of civilians); the costs of catastrophic failure must be included in the public record; a large emergency response fund must be maintained by the operator (that is to say, every operator must be self-insured); well-trained government monitors must be at every high-risk facility around the clock and have instant communications access to emergency response teams and senior government officials; and licenses to construct and operate these massive facilities must be signed by cabinet-level officials who personally assume responsibility in cases of catastrophic failure.

This final measure would certainly sober up those, including “drill, baby, drill” politicians, who might have their names on the line.  Right now we do not know what officials in the U.S. government finally authorized Deepwater Horizon, what safety measures its drilling permits required, what tests of the “fail-safe” apparatus were conducted, what plans, if any, BP and government agencies had for catastrophic response, and a host of other questions.

The alternative, of course, is to accept the risks of major failures, more Deepwater Horizons, as the way the world works.  Stuff happens.  Public memory is short.  Rare brown pelicans are expendable.  Gas in our tanks is not.  Gulf fishermen are on their own.  Besides, offshore drilling, massive coal extraction, and nuclear power plants create jobs.  Get rid of government, eliminate regulations, let free markets work, accept risk, forget catastrophies.  What are a few Deepwater Horizons in the great scheme of modern life.

The arc of the moral compass bends toward justice.

It is universally acknowledged that the United States is a capitalist economic system embedded in a democratic republic political system. When both system function smoothly, few question this arrangement.

But when one system or the other malfunctions, fingers are pointed and blamed is shifted…all according to one’s ideological beliefs. Take the British Petroleum/Gulf of Mexico oil spill for instance. The people of Louisiana and the vehicle drivers of the nation were happy to have the oil the offshore facilities produced. Jobs were created in Louisiana and the rest of us had gas for our cars. Both assumed the operator, British Petroleum, knew what it was doing and that the appropriate agencies of the U.S. government were regulating its behavior.

Problems arose, however, when BP’s “fail safe” system failed. Turns out it didn’t know what it was doing. And regulators in both the Bush and Obama administrations weren’t paying enough attention. Now the “free market” disciples are blaming the government, and the critics of corporate excess are blaming BP. The purpose here is not to join one side or the other (though both entities and both systems failed), but rather to encourage both warring sides to consider a new model.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read American history knows that, left to their own devices, corporate interest more often that not put profits ahead of the public interest. (Consider not only British Petroleum but also the operators of the West Virginia coal mine.) Likewise, the same history tells us that, when government relaxes its protection of the public interest and the common good, whether out of lassitude or belief that government should not reign in excessive corporate excess, bad things happen.

A mature society, one that understood both history and human nature, would reach a thoughtful balance that permits private corporate interests to drive economic growth, and make a reasonable profit, under conditions where the public interest, the common good, and the interests of future generations and nature were represented by well-trained, alert, dedicated, disinterested (that is to say, not regulators drawn from the industries they are sworn to regulate), and knowledgeable government officials made fail safe systems work.

This is not an impossible dream. It is how reasonable people behave. It is how a mature nation, which the United States of America should be by now, acts. It is the very least the people of the United States should expect from both corporate interests and their own government.

Nature On Its Own

Author: Gary Hart

One of the perennial questions we ask ourselves is whether all of nature is there for us to use and then discard or whether mankind owes a debt to nature.  Many humans do have an instinct to personalize the natural world in the form of Mother Nature and to see the planet as a complex living thing…the so-called Gaia outlook.  Questions like this are usually raised when a man-made disaster, such as the current Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, occurs.

When we, and much of the world, were agrarians, we took better care of our natural surroundings.  We needed the land and water for nourishment and the air for breath itself…and we still do.  But we continue to pay a heavy price for a century and a half of industrialization, much of it pursued as if the land, water, and air were free goods that would have to somehow heal themselves or that we would leave to our children to clean up.  The industries that poisoned the waterways, soil, and air were almost never around to pay for the damage.

As there are born liberals and born conservatives, I’ve come to believe that some of us have an instinct to protect nature and some do not.  Barring some magical transformation of human nature, that will probably always be so.  But, as mankind makes war on nature as we are now doing in the Gulf, little is heard from the “drill, baby, drill”  crowd, so willing to take risks at nature’s expense recently.  And the president, himself recently converted to off-shore drilling, is now having second thoughts.

As, in a more perfect world, it would be civilized and mature to hold public discourse without the screams and finger-pointing of the day, so it would be helpful if to no one else but future generations and Nature herself to take into account the damage we so casually do in order to drive inefficient vehicles and burn lights in empty rooms.

For a time, as after Exxon Valdez, we will look with sorrow at the oil-coated birds and beaches and sympathize with the out-of-work fishermen.  “How’s that drilly, oily stuff workin’ for ya’ these days,” no politician will cutely ask.  But, not long thereafter, “drill, baby, drill” will return, and with it the scorn for those who think we all might owe Nature a little more respect.

Followers and Leaders

Author: Gary Hart

follow_the_leader_smAs in many things, American citizens cannot decide whether they want to vote for followers or leaders.  While decrying the lack of leadership in America, they punish elected officials who take unpopular, but forward looking stands, by turning them out of office.  Though claiming to want leaders, most Americans vote for followers.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a politician to be both leader and follower.  Let’s consider three examples: climate; defense; and health care.  Suppose a member of Congress is absolutely convinced we are near a tipping point where further increases in carbon emissions could have disastrous consequences for generations to come.  She is also convinced that the most effective way to avoid this catastrophe is a carbon tax or even, for that matter, a system of caps and trades.  The people of her State or district resist any change that would affect the status quo.  She follows the popular will, votes against dramatic change, and is reelected.

Where defense is concerned, a majority of voters believe the Pentagon budget is too large.  But the Senator from any given State knows that pieces of almost every weapon system are made in every State.  In addition, any vote for reforms in troop structures, weapons systems, or foreign deployments will be subject to the campaign charge that the Senator is “weak on defense.”  Better to follow the popular will than to lead.

Except for the very wealthy, almost all Americans know “something” must be done about our health care system.  They just don’t want any changes that might affect them, even changes that don’t have negative consequences.  How far out in front does a candidate or office-holder get in solving a problem that has refused solution for almost seven decades?

Inability to resolve contradictory wants is a sign of adolescence.  We can’t have leadership if we persist in voting for followers.  It is tempting to conclude that, if Americans truly want leadership, as they claim, that they reward it and not punish it—in effect, that they grow up.

There are ways out of this dilemma.  One is for leaders to become better at educating constituents.  In office my experience was that I could convince skeptical voters of the need for change if I took the time and trouble to explain why they couldn’t have it both ways, why we had to choose between the status quo and the future.  Another was to offer new approaches that the political system hadn’t already produced.  In a surprising number of cases, people would be attracted to an idea or new approach that was neither of the traditional left or right.  A third is to remind people that the big issues of the day do not affect just our generation but have profound consequences for their children as well, that there is a moral component that trumps immediate self-interest.

We are too far along in our history for Americans to continue to believe that they can persist in voting for followers and expect true leadership.

CommonwealthAn earlier comment questioned my use of the word commonwealth as describing all those things Americans hold together—our public lands and resources, our defenses, our air and water, our government, and the list is long.  A commonwealth is described as “a community in which all have an interest.”

Though we are a capitalist economy which respects and protects private property, we also are a commonwealth of all those things in which we all have an interest.  A variation on this ancient notion is the commons.  That word describes not only the British parliamentary house of the people but it also, in early American terms, was the New England green, a common grazing area for everyone’s cattle and eventually a park and meeting place.

As some of my submissions suggest, I’ve always been puzzled by our efforts to leave a private legacy for our children while neglecting our public legacy, the character and quality of our commonwealth and its resources that we also leave to our children.

If a few of us are smart and fortunate, mostly fortunate, we leave large amounts of money, houses and land, maybe yachts and cars to our heirs.  But that private wealth is not worth much if our public resources have deteriorated or been plundered, our climate is warming, our rivers are polluted, or our education and health systems are in decline.  The transfer of massive private wealth does not ensure that our progeny will live in a better nation or world.

So, it seems to me we must all think about our public legacy, our commons and our commonwealth.  That is true of the United States, but in a shrinking world of globalization, information, and necessarily closer inter-national relations, a global commons is also emerging.  Climate and environment are universal.  Security and peaceful trade are of interest to all but the radical few.  International investments, student exchanges, and shared knowledge and research are among the many things the global community has a common interest.

Our leaders and policy makers would do well to focus on the American commonwealth, our public legacy, the global commons, and the “more perfect union…and blessings of liberty” we seek for ourselves “and our posterity.”

Zone of International Interest

Author: Gary Hart

Helicopeters hovering over navy shipFor many years the United States has been the de facto guarantor of world oil supplies.  We maintain one and more recently two aircraft carrier task groups in the Indian Ocean and near the Persian Gulf.  They are there not only to support our forces in Iraq and throughout the region.  They are there, and will remain there, so long as the region produces a substantial portion of the consuming world’s oil supplies.

Someone has to do it, you might say, and that is true.  But does that “someone” always have to be the United States? 

First of all, it is possible for us to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil, roughly 20 to 25 percent of our imports which themselves represent almost 70 percent of our total consumption.  Suppliers such as Canada and Mexico, among others, are reliable.  The Persian Gulf is not.  We can choose to continue to depend on unreliable Persian Gulf oil, but we will do so at the cost of thousands if not tens of thousands of American lives in future Persian Gulf wars and tens if not hundreds of billions of tax dollars in maintaining a third to a half of all our military forces in the greater region permanently.

Instead, a new sense of international responsibility would organize a consortium of oil consuming nations, including much of Europe, that would assume collective responsibility for policing the Persian Gulf oil export routes and sea lanes.  Other nations have navies and they can increase them if we convince them that, free of our dependence, we will no longer underwrite theirs.

To make matters even clearer, a zone comprising much of the Persian Gulf oil production region could be designated something like a Zone of International Interest by the United Nations which would empower the international community to guarantee the continued production and exportation of oil supplies regardless of regional political upheavals.  Even if we are free of our dependence on that region, much of the world’s economy will continue to require its oil.  All the more reason to make the greater Persian Gulf a specially-designated area of international responsibility.

All that is lacking is imagination and leadership.