Sunday, October 25, 2009

Flagging Popularity

With just 10% of the seats in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the Republicans don't usually rock the boat. In fact, aside from the yawning deficit, mounting unemployment, and soaring healthcare costs, the Massachusetts ship of state is on even keel, so up on deck it's smiles all around. Speaker DeLeo looks satisfied with his tame opposition, and Minority Leader Brad Jones's Ten Percenters show no signs of unseemly ambition (e.g. the desire to win more seats).

But in a startling turn of events on Beacon Hill last week the Republicans filed a bill (news enough, you might say) requiring public-school students to learn "the proper etiquette, correct use, and display of the [U.S.] flag." Not necessarily a bad idea but probably redundant: By the time they reach high school I think most students have worked out that in politics the correct use of the flag is to drape yourself in it.

So that was the big Republican legislative achievement last week. You will recall that last week culminated in the International Day of Climate Action, and thousands of Bay Staters marked the event by demanding political action to bring atmospheric CO2 down to the reasonably safe level of 350 parts per million. What kind of bills would a real opposition party have filed last week?

Here's one suggestion: a bill adopting California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) immediately. The LCFS limits CO2 emissions from energy plants to 500 grams per kilowatt hour, deterring the power companies from burning fossil fuels and enouraging them to switch to genuine renewables. The European Union adopted California's LCFS in 2008 but here in Massachusetts the Democrats are still only thinking about following suit with the process not scheduled to even get under way until early 2010.

A responsible opposition -- a real opposition -- would push the Democratic-controlled Legislature to adopt the Low Carbon Fuel Standard today, with an emergency preamble so that it could take effect immediately. Instead, we get a bill about flag education.

It doesn't have to be this way, but for so long as the only other political party in the Legislature is the Republican party, Massachusetts politics will continue to suffer from an opposition-shaped gap. We can fill that gap with Green legislators, and to get Green legislators we need brave Green candidates who will run grassroots, shoestring campaigns against well-known incumbents with bulging warchests. Any volunteers?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Greens: Fighting for Farmers

If Michael Moore's latest film has got you worried that Congress is giving all our money to the meltdown-makers on Wall Street you can breathe a sigh of relief. It isn't all going to Wall Street; much of it is going to the fossil-fuel industry.

The Environmental Law Institute's recent study (Estimating U.S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources: 2002-08) describes how our senators and representatives coddled the major greenhouse-gas emitters even while the enormity of global warming was growing clearer by the day. The study demonstrates that between 2002 and 2008 the fossil-fuel industry raked in subsidies totaling $72 billion. In other words, even after scientists established the reality of climate change beyond reasonable doubt Congress kept on transferring enormous sums of public money to private entities that willfully damage the public interest.

Seventy-two billion dollars: That's a lot of money. What if we made a similar investment in genuine renewables (not fake solutions like biomass and cap-and-trade carbon gambling programs)? With an investment on that scale we could transform our lives for the better and pull the CO2 in the atmosphere back down toward 350 ppm.

This is do-able. One recent report in Scientific American claims that we can switch from fossil-fuels to 100% renewable energy in ten years, making a clean break with goal, oil, and gas. At the same time we could be investing in organic farming, which is a reliable and productive method of capturing carbon according to another study, this one from the Worldwatch Institute.

Sequestering carbon through organic farming is good news for all of us, and Green politicians need to get out front, leading the demand for greater investment for our region's organic farmers. There are hundreds of organic farmers working the land in our part of the world (e.g. the members of NOFA), fighting climate change and feeding us at the same time. They should be able to count on Greens as active, vocal allies.

Spending $72 billion on coal and oil is the height of fossil-foolery. Let's put that folly behind us, and start investing in the land and the families who farm it responsibly.

Greenwash Gremlin's October Surprise

Two surprises have come my way so far this month. First there was the news from the activists at Stop Chewing Carbon that the proposed biomass-burning facility in Greenfield would produce more CO2 per megawatt hour than the coal-burning Mount Tom plant in Holyoke but would still qualify for taxpayer assistance. Then came the news from Associated Press that Saudi Arabia is looking for public assistance too, just in case the world becomes less dependent on oil.

While stories about energy corporations getting tax breaks and other incentives under the guise of "green energy" may raise my ire they fail to raise either of my eyebrows nowadays. The AP story about Saudi Arabia joining the dole queue, on the other hand, sent both eyebrows upward and nearly triggered a coffee-out-the-nose event. As a forty-something I clearly remember the effects of the 1973 oil embargo and, seven years later, the Saudi government's expulsion of Her Majesty's ambassador to Riyadh in protest at a British TV drama called Death of a Princess, so I have no illusions about the regime. But not even in my most cynical of moods had I ever imagined the oil-rich theocratic oligarchy asking for a hand-out.

The outrageousness of the Saudi request has me at a loss for words, other than to ask myself whether, with billionaires posing as victims and tree-burners dressed up as tree-huggers, Halloween came early this year. But I do have a public-policy suggestion for countering greenwashing here in Massachusetts.

What is the appropriate response when companies tout themselves as green in order to qualify for public funding? Part of me wants to march into court armed with Chapter 26, Section 91, of the Massachusetts General Laws and force them to stop, one by one. After all, what is the point of having a law against false advertising if we don't use it?

The other part of me (the saner part, I think) wants to file legislation that would set sensible conditions for providing electricity in Massachusetts and our neighboring states. My proposed interstate compact would create an incentive for power companies to switch to genuinely renewable energy. How? By prohibiting the fossil-based alternatives.

If a corporation wants to sell power to the people of New England it would have to prove that the power came from a non-fossil source. In other words, the only way an energy provider could do business in New England would be for it to get out of fossil fuels completely and into renewables a.s.a.p. The compact would involve the six New England state governments acting together -- with each state punching above its weight -- to take on the power moguls.

I think it's worth a try. What do you think?