How much does climate change cost? Try $1.5 trillion and counting has only started

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Dominica’s capital of Roseau in the days after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Timothy Fishleigh, Caapi Cottage Retreat Center.)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration, and its allies in Congress, are fighting a losing war. They continue to press forward for the development of oil, gas, coal, when the rest of the world understands the implication of that folly. Global warming is the most pressing issue for our time. Period.

The thing is governments really have two choices when it comes to managing the impact on its peoples from global warming: Spend money on trying to reduce the problem; or spend money on cleaning up the catastrophes.

The Trump administration is on the hook for the catastrophe. A report released Monday by The National Centers for Environmental Information pegged the total cost this year at $1.5 trillion, including estimates for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. (And that doesn’t even begin to count the human toll, lost lives, lost jobs, lost opportunity.)

I witnessed first hand the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island of Dominica last month. We keep hearing stories about the power grid being down (similar to Puerto Rico) and you think, why? It’s been months. Why aren’t the lights on? Then you see nearly every electrical pole on the island sideways. The entire grid needs to be rebuilt (or better, rethought) and that’s decades of infrastructure. So the figure of $1.5 trillion is far short of what will be needed. Nearly every electrical line, every other house, the damage was so widespread it’s impossible to overstate. And that’s just one island. Multiple the effect across the region. The planet.

Even the United States.

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The Centers for Environmental Information says there were sixteen weather and climate disasters  with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the country last year. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one severe freeze, eight severe storms, three cyclones, and one extraordinary wildfire. These “events” as the center defines them resulted in 362 deaths.

Turns out 2017 was a record-breaking year. “In total, the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events tying 2011 for the record number of billion-dollar disasters for an entire calendar year,” the report said. “In fact, 2017 arguably has more events than 2011 given that our analysis traditionally counts all U.S. billion-dollar wildfires, as regional-scale, seasonal events, not as multiple isolated events.More notable than the high frequency of these events is the cumulative cost, which exceeds $300 billion in 2017 — a new U.S. annual record.”

A similar report was published by the Government Accountability Office including a recommendation that Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”

But instead of trying to reduce the impact — and the costs of weather-related catastrophe — the Trump administration continues on course for new development of oil and gas. The Interior Department announced new rules that, if enacted, will open up nearly all of the United States coastal waters to more oil and gas development beginning next year.

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, Counselor for Energy Policy at Interior in the news release. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it: “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”

Dominance is such a funny word. How can any nation be dominant in the face of hurricanes that are ever more powerful and destructive? How does energy dominance work when tens of thousands of Americans will have to move because their homes are no longer there because of fire or storms? What happens if that number grows into the hundreds of thousands? Millions? How can we afford to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding what we have now?

A group of elders on the Bering Sea immediately condemned the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. “We told them that in person last October and again in writing, that there were 76 tribes in these regions opposed to this,” said the statement from the elders. “The draft plan implies that Bering Sea communities were ‘generally supportive of some’ oil and gas activity. This is not accurate and there is no evidence of this from Bering Sea communities. For decades, our people have opposed oil and gas activity and we continue to oppose it today. The northern Bering Sea is a very fragile ecosystem. The marine mammals that we rely on use it as their highway and they follow specific migration routes. That is how we know when and where to find them. The noise and vibration associated with drilling will interfere with their sonar and disrupt their migrations. Then we the coastal people will lose our primary food source.”

There is a connection between developing oil and gas and paying the high costs to clean up after a storm. One side of the ledger goes to a few; the oil and gas “industry.” The folks who bought and paid for this administration.

The other side of the ledger is the rest of us. The taxpayers who will foot the bill for this continued folly.

And on the Bering Sea? The folks who live there are one storm away from a tragedy. As the elders put it: “Our people and our way of life are being exposed to danger and we do not understand why.”

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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Tribes respond to presidential withdrawal from climate pact

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A glacier on Mt. Anderson in the Olympic Mountain Range is gone as a result of climate change. Quinault President Fawn Sharp says that’s a clear sign that something is wrong. Four tribes said they would implement the Paris agreement even though President Donald J. Trump said he’s out. (Photo by Larry Workman of Quinault Nation.)

Protecting Mother Earth and tribal homelands

Trahant Reports

President Donald J. Trump announced last week that the United States was pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. That agreement includes every country in the world except Nicaragua, Syria … and now the United States.

The problems related to climate change are  enormous — so the thinking goes — and the best course is a planetary response.

But nearly every government will be involved, including tribal governments.

Shortly after the president’s announcement four Native Nations announced their plans to support the Paris agreement.

“For hundreds of years the pollution based economy has degraded our home,” states Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby in a news release. “We can no longer allow a failed system to continue to destroy the planet.  The Paris Climate Change Agreement reflects the global consensus that we must act together and we must act now.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska said they will fill the vacuum and take aggressive action to protect the places we call home. The tribes said in a news release that climate change touches all aspect of life, from those who have no voice, the salmon, buffalo, seals and polar bears, to those who are suffering the impacts of water loss, shoreline erosion, drought and loss of homelands and waters.

Across North American tribes see climate change, or global warming, as real, human-caused, and something that is changing life right now.

The Quinault Nation is already experiencing an increase in ocean storm surges that requires the Lower Village of Taholah be relocated because of flooding and a potential catastrophe if there were to be a tsunami.

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Quinault President Fawn Sharp. (Photo by Larry Workman, Quinault Nation.)

Tribal President Fawn Sharp said: “We are talking about human lives here, and regardless of who is in office the fact is the federal government is our trustee … This responsibility is constitutionally mandated, and it’s not something the President or anyone else can wriggle out of.”

“Climate change is the definite direct cause of many other challenges as well, not just for us here at Quinault but for all citizens,” she said. “When a critically important glacier that’s thousands of years old totally disappears in a matter of a few years, it’s a sure sign that something’s wrong. And that something is man-caused climate change. The same goes for the massive algal blooms and the, warm areas and acidification problem in the ocean, the increased forest fire danger, slide and erosion  problems, invasive species  and low flows in our area rivers. These are very serious problems.”

Last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded $8.7 million for tribal climate change projects for 63 tribes. But more than 200 tribes applied for the program and the Trump administration says it is ending all federal spending on climate change programs.

The president said that withdrawing from the agreement will support more energy resource development, including a revival of the coal industry. And a couple of weeks ago Vice President Mike Pence toured a working coal mine on the Crow Reservation promising new jobs. But that might be an impossible dream. The job losses in the coal industry have more to do with the low price of natural gas and changing global markets.

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II says his tribe is actively moving away from fossil fuels. “Indigenous communities around the world are among those being most quickly and severely affected by climate change. Regardless of the official position of the United States administration, we will continue to stand together in agreement with the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” Archambault said. “Our tribe is actively working to move away from fossil fuels and we continue to battle those who disregard our efforts to protect our water and lands.”

People living in Alaska are also already seeing impact of a warming planet. “Alaska tribal governments are living with the early but significant effects of climate change. Our traditional knowledge learned over millennia within our aboriginal lands leaves us with no doubt that immediate action to reduce the impacts of climate change is our duty as sovereign indigenous governments,” states Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson, “such, we will seek to participate in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”

This might be a moment for tribes to engage in global diplomacy. In the news release, Sharp said: “When we get a seat at that table people in this country who understand the climate change problem might be able to convey their concerns through us at the international level. We might also be able to sign on to the Paris Agreement. We are looking into that possibility. So it is possible that even though the US has backed out of that historic agreement, the tribal governments  from throughout the country could help fill the void,” said President Sharp.

 

 

Challenges to Dakota Access Pipeline are shifting into new shapes, new fronts

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President Donald J. Trump says the Dakota Access Pipeline is not even controversial. Yet the challenges to that project are taking new form. (Photo via YouTube)

 

Could there be a day, one day, without oil?

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration has been in office for less than a month — and already the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is again proceeding. Company officials say oil will be flowing by June.

Yes, there is a flurry of activity around the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that has cost more than $3.8 billion to transfer oil from North Dakota to markets in Illinois and beyond.

But every action to build the pipeline is met with many more reactions to stop it. The fight about this pipeline — and the broader issues it represents — is far from over.

Of course some days it does not seem that way. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the final easement for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River and complete the project. The Corps also withdrew its ongoing environmental review, citing President Donald J. Trump’s executive memorandum. But that begs a huge question for the courts: Can a president do that? Is an order from the president (along with previous environmental findings from the Corps) enough to satisfy the law? That question will be sorted out by the courts.

But there are many other challenges to the pipeline.

A press release from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said if the construction is successful “the tribe will seek to shut the pipeline operations down.” The tribe has also called for a march next month in the nation’s capital.

“Our fight is no longer at the North Dakota site itself,” said tribal chairman Dave Archambault II. “Our fight is with Congress and the Trump administration. Meet us in Washington on March 10.”

In addition there remain water protectors near the construction site itself (as well as a massive cleanup of where people were camping in flood-prone areas).

What’s clear about the “what’s next?” is that the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline is taking a very different form. And it’s also a new start because there will be many more actions as the administration and oil-related companies move to restart the Keystone XL pipeline, or in Canada, the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Then President Trump lives in a world where none of this is a big deal. “I don’t even think it was controversial,” he said. “I haven’t had one call.”

Then the White House wasn’t taking calls. So the Center for Investigative Reporting and its Reveal News has created a new phone number to solicit voice mails from the public about what they would tell the president. It’s 510-545-2640. This is your opportunity to sound off.

Another challenge is financial. Many individuals, tribes, cities, and companies are pulling their money from the banks who finance the Dakota Access Pipeline. But that’s really just the beginning of the actions ahead. Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide, points out to investors how much capital is lost by companies that operate without consent from the community involved. A cost she has pegged at somewhere between $20 million to $30 million a week when there are operational disruptions. “The time it takes to bring oil and gas projects on-line has doubled over the course of the past decade due to community opposition, creating significant financial loss,” Adamson writes. More investors are learning about that financial risk and even more need to understand  what’s at stake.

“The movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is wreaking financial havoc on the companies and banks involved,” Adamson writes. “In August 2016, Energy Transfer Partners reported ‘it could lose $1.4 billion in a year if delays continue … Even a temporary delay would mean loses of over $430 million.’ ETP is attempting to raise new debt. This could mean that the banks are ramping up pressure on the company to repay their loans out of concern DAPL will never be finished. In November 2016, Energy Transfer Partners announced a merger with sister company Sunoco Logistics in order to raise much needed cash to finish construction. Energy Transfer Partners’ own shareholders are filing a lawsuit to block the merger, alleging conflicts of interest.”

Like I said: The financial challenges are just beginning.

I also have a big idea I want to toss out. One that could have significant financial implications. So we know the project will take some 30 days to complete. And about three weeks to actually transfer oil from North Dakota to the end of the pipeline. (Updated: Company officials told the U.S. District Court that oil could begin flowing in less than four weeks.)

What if on that day, the day the oil reaches markets, there is a Day Without Oil. One day. It take a massive organizational effort. But why not? What if every ally of Standing Rock, every community that has its own Standing Rock, every one who is concerned about water, takes a day off from oil? Either walk every where that day — or just stay home. Do what it takes to remind the companies, and the government itself, who’s really in charge of the economy.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com