Friday, December 18, 2009

Recent correspondence

Just before the holidays I received a letter from Gerard Mestrallet, head of GDF Suez, in response to my request that the company switch from coal to solar at Mount Tom. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Mestrallet's letter:

"Because... equipment to control the emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) only exists today in R&D environments and not of the size of an industrial plant, GDF SUEZ instead participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a ten-state market-based effort aimed at reducing CO2. The company purchases allowances to account for any CO2 emitted at Mt. Tom through an auction, proceeds from which are then invested in renewable energy projects, energy efficiency, and other clean technologies."

Yes, cap-and-trade; the darling of the fossil-fuel peddlers and their apologists on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill alike.

As I've mentioned before, relying on cap-and-trade to fix the climate is like relying on subprime lending to fix the meltdown. This video from the Story of Stuff Project and Climate Justice Now! (which I found via the Institute for Policy Studies) explains why cap-and-trade schemes like RGGI do nothing to ameliorate climate change.

In addition to the letter from Gerard Mestrallet, I received an email from Ingrid Nestle, a Green member of the German parliament. I had written to Ms. Nestle about anti-coal activism in Brunsbuettel, where GDF Suez is planning a new coal-burning power station. Although the issue has not been the deciding factor in parliamentary elections, Ingrid Nestle said, the candidates and parties that oppose coal happen to have been successful. And, she explained, the grassroots movement behind the anti-coal candidates is on a winning streak:

In all existing locations that are home to coal power plants in Germany there is heavy resistance towards new coal power plants. The protests are supported by several political parties, citizens initiatives, environmental organizations, churches and trade unions. These protests have in the past resulted in repeated successes; the construction of several power plants fell through. Most recently, the new construction of a hard coal power plant in Lubmin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) was effectively prevented. The Danish energy company, Dong Energy, pulled back all of its development plans after it failed to successfully negotiate licensing procedures, among other factors.
Our counterparts in Germany are winning! This is welcome news, and an inspiring note on which to start 2010. So let's keep the pressure on GDF Suez and its major shareholder, i.e. the French government, to switch Mount Tom from coal to solar.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It could happen here

If you've been watching events in Copenhagen, maybe you're asking yourself "How do we get from protests to power?" It's a particularly poignant question in one-party Massachusetts.

Steven Hill's new book Europe's Promise discusses the way Europe practices democracy, and the twenty-something Green legislator Ingrid Nestle provides one noteworthy example of the difference.

When the people of Brunsbuettel, Germany, learned that energy giant GDF Suez was planning to build a coal-burning power station in their town they made their opposition felt in at least two ways: through demonstrations and through the ballot box. They voted Green in sufficient numbers to send the party's Ingrid Nestle to the Bundestag (Germany's national legislature).

Climate-change activists in Massachusetts can demonstrate, but can they vote for the party that truly represents them? Most of the time the answer is no, because in Massachusetts usually only one party -- the Democratic party -- fields candidates. Germany, in contrast, has learned that democracy is a game for more than one player.

Germany, like most European countries, encourages multi-party democracy by using proportional representation (PR). This ensures that the number of legislative seats a political party gets reflects the proportion of the votes it won in the election. So if a party wins 10% of the votes it gets 10% of the seats. Earlier this year the German Greens won 10% of the votes nationwide and ended up with 68 seats in the 622-member Bundestag.

Is the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature likely to do the Greens (and the voters) the lemming-like favor of switching to PR? Let's not devote too much time and mental energy to pondering that one; not when we have better things to do, like tackling climate change, the recession, and the healthcare crisis.

No, the plurality system -- in all its debate-suffocating, supermajority-perpetuating glory -- is with us for the foreseeable future. The Democratic leadership is not going to change the voting system just because PR is fairer, any more than it's going to enact single-payer healthcare just because it's in the Democratic party platform. By the way, there's a reason they call it a platform: A platform is useful for getting on a train, but when the train leaves the station, bound for Beacon Hill, the platform stays where it is.

Returning to the Greens, could they win seats in the Massachusetts Legislature without PR? Based on the experience of some so-called third parties in other places with the same winner-take-all, single-member-district plurality voting system that we have, I think so.

For example, let's look at Britain's Liberal Democrats. Working within an electoral system like ours, a system biased in favor of the two big-tent parties (Labour and Conservative), the Liberal Democrats have boosted their presence in the UK's House of Commons from a mere six seats in 1951 to today's total of 62. In the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (similar to state legislatures in the US) the Liberal Democrats have become natural coalition partners, sharing government portfolios and helping shape policy.

How did the they do it? Partly by luck, of course, like so much else in politics. But also as a result of planning and foresight: by campaigning around issues their grassroots supporters were passionate about about, from the apparently mundane to the almost esoteric; by building up their base in diverse communities, from blighted inner cities to middle-class suburbs and far-flung Scottish islands; by targeting their resources on winnable seats; by forging electoral non-compete agreements with allied parties; and, above all, by taking the long view.

In the immediate post-War years the Liberals had almost vanished. Back then the standing joke was that the parliamentary Liberal party could caucus in a telephone booth. But they clung on, and in 1964, with the charismatic Jo Grimond at the helm, their share of the nationwide vote climbed to 11% and their number of seats in Britain 635-member House of Commons to nine. In 1974 they won 19% of the votes, which (due to the vagaries of the plurality voting, single-member-district system) translated to just 14 seats.

But by 1997 the Liberal Democrats had 46 seats, and after next year's general election they may well hold the balance of power.

Britain's Greens have yet to win a foothold in the House of Commons, but that looks set to change next year. Thanks to PR, the Green party of the UK already has one member of the European Parliament, Caroline Lucas, and she is on track to make history by winning the party's first seat in the House of Commons.

How did the Greens in Britain get to this point? With a few variations, in a similar way to the route the Liberal Democrats took. Click here for one of the party's election videos, by the way.

Closer to home we have the Vermont Progressive Party, which has eight seats in the state legislature. Like the Massachusetts Greens, the Vermont Progressives are fighting for farmers. In 2006, for example, their bill on GMO (genetically modified organisms) which aimed to protect small farmers from the agri-giants, passed both houses before succumbing to the governor's veto.

What kind of voting system does Vermont have? The same as ours: plurality voting in single-member districts. If the Vermont Progressive Party can win seats without PR, so can our state's truly progressive party, the Greens.

Yes, it could happen here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

German Greens Fight GDF Suez

The town of Brunsbuettel in the German state of Schleswig Holstein is already home to a nuclear reactor, so when GDF Suez announced plans to build a coal-burning power station there as well locals took to the streets in protest. Hundreds of people -- and a lot of tractors -- rallied to send GDF Suez a message. As the slogan says: For you, Money. For us, dirt and disease.

At the forefront of the fight against the proposed coal plant were Ingrid Nestle and Konstantin von Notz (pictured right) legislative candidates for the Green Party. Echoing our German allies, I hope Greens in Massachusetts can crank up the noise against GDF Suez's coal-burning facility at Mount Tom.

Because the entity that owns the controlling stake in GDF Suez is none other than the French government, I have asked the French consul in Boston to pass on a message to his bosses in Paris: Stop burning coal at Mount Tom! I put it more politely than that, of course.

If you would like to add your voice, here's the consulate's email address:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Just a little off the top

After the last posting several Mass Greens readers emailed me to let me know that they were writing Gerard Mestrallet (CEO of GDF Suez, the company that owns the coal-burning power station at Mount Tom, Holyoke) urging him to switch Mount Tom from coal to solar.

If you have written your letter already I extend a big, heartfelt thank you. If my request has slipped down or off your to-do list, here are three more reasons to join the campaign to stop the world's biggest energy giant from burning coal at Mount Tom: Donetta Blankenship and her two kids.

Watching the coal train roll through Amherst on its way to Mount Tom, I have sometimes wondered where the coal comes from. So when I picked up the current edition of Yes! magazine I was happy to learn that there is a way to trace at least some of the coal to its source. I typed in my zipcode and discovered my connection to Rawl, West Virginia, home of Donetta Blankenship and her two children.

Donetta lives with the consequences of Massey Energy's mountain-blasting activities including dust, debris, and a sludge impoundment (a vast pool of toxic waste). Her kids have asthma, and their drinking water contains elevated levels of arsenic, lead, and other toxins. Donetta says,

" [the water] runs out of the pipe like tomato soup; thick with orange sediment."

With mountaintop removal, companies like Massey Energy can mine coal with out coalminers. Instead of paying people a decent wage to go undergound and dig out the coal seam by seam, they just blow the tops of the mountains like the one near Doetta Blankenship's home. First, of course, they cut down and burn all the trees. Then they dump the debris -- rocks and topsoil that used to constitute the mountaintop -- into the streams and river below.

One of the two mountains in the image at the top of this post is Mount Greylock, here in Western Massachusetts. The other is in Rawl, West Virginia. You will notice that the summit of the Rawl mountain has vanished, replaced by a scarred wasteland.

Can you imagine what the Berkshires and the Holyoke Range would look like if we treated them the way our energy-providers treat the mountains of West Virginia? I really don't think we would stand for it, and I think we would fight back. That's what communities like Rawls are doing, demanding an end to mountaintop removal and a switch to clean, renewable energy.

Our electricity comes from places like Rawl, West Virginia, and the ordinary working people of Rawl -- families like Donetta Blankenship's -- are paying the price. One way to show solidarity with their struggle is to demand that GDF Suez switch from coal to solar at Mount Tom.

Click here for a video that shows the impact we are having on the people and landscape of Rawl, West Virginia. But before you click, please set aside 15 minutes to write GDF Suez. Here's the address again:

Monsieur Gerard Mestrallet
GDF Suez
22 rue du docteur Lancereaux
Paris 75392