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


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.