Category: Writings

Marty Nathan: It ought to be a law, and can: carbon fee and rebate

Marty Nathan, a member of  Climate Action Now,  is a regular contributor to the Gazette opinion pages. Here is her most recent column:

By MARTY NATHAN in the Hampshire Daily Gazette  Thursday, April 23, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Most of the climate news from the oceans and the Arctic and California has been grim, with changes occurring around the world even faster than climate scientists had predicted.

But this month, as my mixed-religious family prepared to celebrate Passover and Easter, the two holidays of hope, there was a glimmer of optimism that we might be able to transform our society into a sustainable one. The first was President Obama’s vow, made in the lead-up to the coming Paris conference on climate change, that the United States would cut carbon emissions by 28 percent over the next decade. This was not new news: It had first been uttered following negotiations with China last year. The fact that the Administration has stuck with it, though, shows a spine that has way-too-often been lacking in Washington. And 28 percent is not enough, but it is a portal to deeper cuts, to the 80 percent needed by 2050 to prevent the worst-case climate scenario — global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius with its companion sea level rise, droughts (of which California’s is only a preview) and tipping points to exponentially increasing carbon release.

The second event to be celebrated was the completion of the Iran nuclear agreement, limiting the chance of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and decreasing world tensions. What has that to do with the environment or climate change? A lot. Nuclear energy, weapons and waste are a huge threat regionally, but this agreement encourages a negotiated settlement in the Middle East and throughout the world. And absolutely nothing is more damaging to the environment (let alone humans) than war.

Hope means little in the long run if it does not inspire further commitment to the hard work awaiting us. We must build the institutional structures that will cut carbon emissions quickly. One of the most important climate tasks we in Massachusetts can tackle to propel us to and beyond that 28 percent emissions reduction will be to create a carbon fee and rebate system in the state. What is it and why do we need it?

A carbon fee and rebate system puts a price on oil, natural gas and coal coming into our state. That price is based on the pollution cost of burning it and is paid by the limited number of distributors that send the fuel to the places where it is resold or burned. That added fee is then passed on to consumers at the pump, the electric and gas meter, our oil company bill and products made using this energy.

Why do it? Because increased cost decreases use. To stop climate change (and health-destructive air pollution) we must burn less fossil fuel. People find alternatives — they turn the thermostat down in winter and up in summer. They walk or take the bus, invest in solar if they can, hang out the wash and insulate the house, even when there are not programs to support such energy-conserving choices, much more so when those choices are offered, promoted and subsidized.

It works. It has been adopted in scores of countries around the world and, in one of the best-studied examples, Canada’s British Columbia province, its adoption was associated with a 16 percent drop in emissions over seven years when Canada’s overall emissions rose by 3 percent.

But isn’t it an economy-destroying tax? Well, you can call it a tax if you want but it is more like a user’s fee. At present, big polluters are using our atmosphere as a free dump for a toxic product, in a manner that is destroying our future. Perhaps they should pay for that, which is jeopardizing our health and ecosystem. It is our collective responsibility to stop the abuse of something that belongs to all of us.

Doesn’t it hit those most financially at risk: poor homeowners, renters and low-wage workers having to pay more to travel to their jobs, those for whom transportation, heat and electricity costs are a greater proportion of their budgets?

No. In fact, low- and middle-income people come out ahead in the plan adopted in British Columbia and proposed for Massachusetts. That is because there is an upfront rebate, an equal amount to each adult that, unless you make more than $70,000 a year, more than compensates for the loss in fees. Those who burn the least fuel make out best.

What about the “economy-destroying” business? In the years since the institution of the fee and rebate, British Columbia’s economy has grown faster than that of the rest of Canada. In part that is because a fraction of the fee has been used to offer those sustainable choices — building mass transit, expanding solar, hydro and wind energy and conservation.

Two bills are before the Massachusetts Legislature to establish a carbon fee and rebate system, filed by Sens. Marc R. Pacheco and Michael J. Barrett. Forty-three lawmakers have signed on, including state Reps. Peter Kocot and Ellen Story. That gives us more hope. Let’s build on it.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.

Marty Nathan: Why must shifts to avoid climate change be ‘palatable’ when so much is at stake?

By MARTY NATHAN

The Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, January 15, 2015
(Published in print: Friday, January 16, 2015)

NORTHAMPTON — Caught out of the corner of my ear while sweeping the kitchen floor: “The program for change to prevent climate disaster needs to be inexpensive and palatable enough to be acceptable.” Thus stated a fundamentalist Christian environmentalist to a National Public Radio reporter regarding her work in the church to create a movement to reduce carbon emissions.

It was the word “palatable” that grabbed my attention. Whose palate, and who is formulating what we are being asked to swallow?

I ask because what is “palatable” to most people — clean air, a beautiful and safe environment where children can play, healthy food on the table, safe drinking water, heat and light for our homes, friendship and family, meaningful work — is not enough and sometimes is antithetical to the palates of CEOs of some major industries.

Case in point, the stunning defeat of the expanded bottle bill ballot initiative in November, when more than three-quarters of voters rejected extending the 5-cent bottle deposit to cover non-carbonated beverages, water, iced tea, juice and sports drinks.

The present bottle bill is the most successful recycling and litter-prevention program in Massachusetts, causing more than 80 percent of covered items to be returned versus 23 percent for uncovered bottles, including those that were the subject of the November ballot initiative.

Our open spaces are littered with these eyesores and municipalities must pay to clean them up. Our seas are scattered with huge flotillas composed of plastic pellets from their breakdown, a toxic soup lethal to hapless sea creatures.

As several friends have said to me, the expanded bottle bill seemed like a no-brainer. Palatable if not downright delightful socially and economically.

But corporations spent massively on an ad campaign to refashion the issue. A redeemable deposit became a “tax.” The overall economic benefit ($7 million per year predicted in savings from litter cleanup) was advertised as a burden to taxpayers. “Costs to beverage consumers will go up!” In fact New Hampshire, the only state in New England without a bottle bill, boasts higher beverage costs than Maine, which has New England’s most extensive law.

Who shaped the public discourse? Of the $9.1 million spent on opposition to the bottle bill, $8.7 million came from the American Beverage Association and Nestle’s. (Local shoppers please note: $300,000 was spent by Stop & Shop.) Until the last minute this was 10 times that spent by environmental groups.

The corporate interest was to profit from their beverages. Seems that they figured that the added cost of deposits might prevent some from buying something that in the case of bottled water comes out of the tap. They successfully set about reshaping our palate, or at least how we perceived what we were biting off. It was a successful hornswoggle — and an important lesson for those of us, who are most of us, about who cares about the future of our planet.

Last week, the Republican-led House passed a bill to permit construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline to carry tar sands from Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be shipped to consumers in Asia and Europe. The mining of the tar sands has despoiled vast areas of wild Alberta, and carrying the diluted bitumen through the pipeline will endanger groundwater, farmlands, aquifers and endangered species along its route with spills that may be impossible ever to clean up.

Those are the local impacts. It is the climate effect that makes it unpalatable to us all. Tar sands oil requires four times more energy than oil to produce, is much dirtier to burn and the vast quantities that would be released led NASA scientist James Hansen to call it “game over for the climate.” Yet it is being presented as a “job creator” (actually fewer than 50 permanent positions) and a vehicle for U.S. energy independence (though the oil will be shipped overseas). We are again being sold a lemon dressed as a piece of cake.

What is the price of that transformation? In 2013 major corporations (led by the Chamber of Commerce at $95 million and Shell, Marathon, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips together at over $23 million) spent $178 million in lobbying for the pipeline, dwarfing the less than $5 million scraped together by such high flyers as the League of Women Voters and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The destruction of our planet’s future for corporate profit should suit no one’s palate. Let’s spit it out and look for alternatives that nourish us and our environment.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.

Marty Nathan: Climate Change and War

I was digging compost yesterday and wheel-barrowing it past my backyard chickens to the front yard vegetable garden and found myself thinking essentially the same thoughts that I put down on these pages in 2011. Then I had openly pondered the tremendous destruction wreaked by war and militarism – at that time in Iraq and Afghanistan – and how its climate effects dwarfed any paltry action to mitigate climate change I might take.

Fast forward three years: Last month in the same week that 400,000 people marched in New York City to demand that President Obama take leadership in international negotiations on climate change by implementing carbon reduction by this country, jets began roaring over northern Syria and Iraq in the official opening of a new bombing war against the Islamic State.

The Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Syria) is easy to hate – their beheading of journalists and mass killing of local people are detestable. It must be noted, though, that the bombing only began seriously after the Islamic State had gained control over the oil wells in Northern Syria and Kurdistan. It is a persistent irony.  The US is again waging war burning oil to maintain control over oil.

The US military is the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world and the largest institutional greenhouse gas producer. Estimates are that it spews 100 million tons of greenhouse gases a year from tankers, jets, aircraft carriers and bases around the world, though the numbers are hard to pin down.

But the most destructive activity in a climate analysis is war, and the worst form is air war. Jet fuel is a much more potent greenhouse-gas producer, at least twice as powerful as gasoline. Each F-15 fighter jet uses 1500 gallons of jet fuel per hour (and, with afterburners, 14,400 gallons per hour.) Thus one 8-hour sortie puts somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 pounds or 300 tons of climate-changing gases in the air.

By the end of September, the United States had conducted 240 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as 1300 tanker refueling missions, totaling 3800 sorties. It is likely that those numbers have more than doubled since the beginning of October. Bomb explosions themselves are greenhouse gas producers as well as destroyers of people, buildings and nature. The amount of climate destruction from this “limited war” is almost inestimable.

Who cares about composting, chickens and organic front-yard gardens?

Yet as I thought about writing this piece, I found myself hesitating. In 2011 we knew that war was bad. Barack Obama had been elected in great part to stop the war in Iraq, started by a Bush Administration whose commitment to preserving the interests of Big Oil eclipsed any regard for war’s impact on humanity or the environment.

But many of the policies of the Obama administration do have redeeming value, and because of that and the ruthlessness of the Islamic State, there has been little outcry against the bombing. When polled in late September, a majority of Americans supported it, though a majority also believed that it would not work. Reality seems to fulfill that belief: the Islamic State is by no means retreating.

I am a doctor. A clinical evaluation means weighing therapeutic effects vs side effects. Every day I make those comparisons when offering medicine to my patients. What are the chances that it will do more harm than good?

Applying a similar analysis to the air war on Syria and Iraq goes as follows:

  1. Is the bombing effective in turning back the territorial gains of the Islamic State with precision bombing “decapitating the enemy” and making the area safe for Kurdish and non-Islamic State Syrian resistance to advance? Or does it follow the historical course of most air wars with minimal strategic effect on its own if ground intelligence and forces are not adequate? http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/59714/robert-a-pape/the-true-worth-of-air-power
  2. Are the “side effects” worth it?
  3. Untold numbers of civilians have been killed, their deaths tragedies in themselves, but very likely also fueling the Islamic State insurgency.
  4. All of those billions of dollars being spent could have been put to use in education, green housing, energy, agriculture and transportation, and redirecting our economy to the sustainable path it must pursue.
  5. The environment has been the silent victim, at a time when we are becoming acutely aware of its importance and its vulnerability. We can no longer evaluate our actions without considering these effects.

Journalist Thomas Friedman has pointed out that the Syrian Civil War was in part provoked by the economic suffering precipitated by a severe drought in that country, a drought that is most likely – like the one in California – an early effect of global warming. Our burning of oil to control oil in a conflict at least in part created by the effects of burning fossil fuels stretches the irony beyond tolerability.

Other ways can and must be found in the Middle East and elsewhere to deal with conflict. The world depends on it.

Marty Nathan: Recap of Springfield Climate March

On Monday, October 20, Climate Action NOW, Arise for Social Justice, the North End Organizing Network and our 27 other ally organizations in the 2014 Springfield Climate Justice March made history.With our dual-origin march from the Latino North End and Mason Square, we brought over 200 people together on the steps of City Hall for a rally as diverse in its age, ethnicity, race, religion and language as were its speakers. All were there to support the passage by the City Council of the Springfield Climate Action Plan, to mitigate global warming by cutting the city’s carbon emissions.

The rally featured the newly-minted movement anthem “This Changes Everything” performed by songwriter Ben Grosscup, inspiration by Episcopal Bishop Doug Fisher, Mason Square Health Task Force leader Wanda Givens, and Michaelann Bewsee of Arise, and students and activists from throughout the City. Michaelann, Armando Perez of NEON, and Ernesto Cruz spoke of the need to see the resolution for a climate action plan being considered by the Council as the beginning of a process to clean the City’s air leading to lower asthma and emphysema rates, while providing jobs, lower electricity and heating costs, fresh food and safer communities, while   at the same time stopping climate change on the local level. Armando Perez referred to the ideas for the climate change plan that had flowed from community organizing  meetings: increased insulation, gardens, LED lights and solar panels for public housing; more recycling and composting to cut garbage burning; making industry cut its emissions and take responsibility for its pollution; providing usable sidewalks and bike paths particularly in areas like the North End polluted by traffic though their residents own fewer cars per capita than most New Englanders. These are some of the measures that the community will be calling for in our efforts to make the Springfield Climate Action Plan truly a Springfield Climate Justice Action Plan.

The Raging Grannies ushered us into the building with song. In the foyer the group spontaneously began the civil rights theme song “We Shall Overcome” and continued it as we filed into chambers. There Dr. Doug Barnshaw of Arise, Sarita Hudson of Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition and students from the Springfield Central High School Enviroteam exhorted the council to pass the resolution. Wilfredo Pastrana spoke through an interpreter about the need for serving public transportation needs of the city and Milta Franco read the Springfield Public Health Council’s resolution in support of the Climate Action Plan.

Historic? As the City Councilors one by one declared the necessity of the Climate Action Plan and funding for an office to implement it, it was a major step forward by the second largest city in Massachusetts to recognize and combat the source of climate change. But historic also in the character of the coalition that produced it: African-American, white, Latino, young, old, upper and lower valley all brought together by common cause. Organizers admit the power of that coalition was crucial to the momentum to take this first step.

All recognize, though, that this is only a first step. Mayor Sarno must approve funding for the creation of the plan and its administrator. Further, the plan must reflect the needs of those most affected by the city’s pollution who just happen to be the city’s poor and working poor. The historic coalition must gain strength in order to carry the task to fruition: a healthier Springfield with reduced carbon emissions.

Marty Nathan MD, Climate Action NOW and Baystate Brightwood Health Center, both march sponsors.

A bus commuter hopes for change

By MARTY NATHAN
Monday, March 24, 2014
(Published in print: Tuesday, March 25, 2014)

NORTHAMPTON — On a recent Wednesday afternoon I packed away my computer and told my Latina colleagues in our clinic in Springfield’s North End that I was off to take the bus home to Northampton. Though only one or two said it, their looks read equally, “You what?” — as if I was announcing plans to jump into the nearby Connecticut River.

Many of them take the bus. They have to. They are paid near-minimum wage, many are single moms who can’t afford a car. And they live in Springfield, so the ride is not a trek.

But I am a doctor. I drive my own car. Why would I make such a choice?

One close friend nodded knowingly, “It’s for global warming, isn’t it?” “Yup,” I responded. Another said, “But you own a Prius!” “I know, but buses are better,” I said as I hurried away, knowing that I was going to have to jog as best as my 63-year-old legs could take me in order to make the next P21 Express to Holyoke, in order to catch the B48 to Northampton. They were left with not uncommon but friendly “Gringos are nuts” musings.

I made it, but just. The bus had pulled out but the driver responded to my frantic wave. I find that drivers are extraordinarily generous and tolerant folks. In the interests of full disclosure, my dad was a Greyhound bus driver and I have always looked at transport workers as some of “my folks,” but it is a real pleasure to find men and women who go out of their way to help harried mothers of babies in carriages with toddlers in tow, elders who can’t speak English and folks like me who, after 24 years of education, repeatedly misread the schedule.

I plopped down after frantically searching for and rendering exact change. I made my transfer in Holyoke and the trip was 50 minutes. Add on the two miles on foot and I have gotten my day’s exercise and made it from work in an hour and a half.

It’s not as fast as driving.

But I have begun to wonder whether speed is not a fair trade for cutting carbon, gaining community and eliminating the stress and isolation of driving.

I did it for the first reason. We are destroying the planet by pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and heating and disrupting the climate and the oceans. The horrible drought in the western U.S. was front page news in the New York Times this month and our food supply is already being disrupted. I am going to admit, though, I figured that my taking the bus would be a sacrifice for my ideals.

Hah. I am no martyr, nor need I be. I read, look at kids, talk to my fellow passengers, plan my evening and watch the Pioneer Valley go by as I leave the driving to someone else.

I often muse on the community part. As Clare Higgins has written in her Gazette column, the Valley is a segregated place and we on the northern side of the “Tofu Curtain” have been cut off from the mainly poor, black, brown and non-English-speaking inner-city residents of Holyoke and Springfield. We whiz on past on I-91 and that’s as close as most of us get. My job means daily contact with poor and Latino men, women and children and I know what they tell me of their lives, I sometimes visit them, and I do my best to support and intervene for them.

But it is a defined role. Being a pedestrian and a bus-rider is something of a leveler. I have found out just why my Springfield elders are afraid to go outside in the winter: the sidewalks are not cleared and I have more than once landed (fortunately) on my backside. Moreover I am likely to get run over when I try to cross the I-91 entrance from Route 20, despite the zebra lines designed to protect me.

And the bus station is jammed and chaotic, without enough seats. It is not an easy thing to get around without a car in our cities.

It needs to be made easier.

Sidewalks need to be cleared as soon as streets.

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