Nafeez Ahmed reports: A stunning new report compiles extensive evidence showing how some of the world’s largest corporations have partnered with private intelligence firms and government intelligence agencies to spy on activist and nonprofit groups. Environmental activism is a prominent though not exclusive focus of these activities.
The report by the Center for Corporate Policy (CCP) in Washington DC titled Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage against Nonprofit Organizations draws on a wide range of public record evidence, including lawsuits and journalistic investigations. It paints a disturbing picture of a global corporate espionage programme that is out of control, with possibly as much as one in four activists being private spies.
The report argues that a key precondition for corporate espionage is that the nonprofit in question:
“… impairs or at least threatens a company’s assets or image sufficiently.”
One of the groups that has been targeted the most, and by a range of different corporations, is Greenpeace. In the 1990s, Greenpeace was tracked by private security firm Beckett Brown International (BBI) on behalf of the world’s largest chlorine producer, Dow Chemical, due to the environmental organisation’s campaigning against the use of chlorine to manufacture paper and plastics. The spying included:
“… pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.”
Other Greenpeace offices in France and Europe were hacked and spied on by French private intelligence firms at the behest of Électricité de France, the world’s largest operator of nuclear power plants, 85% owned by the French government.
Oil companies Shell and BP had also reportedly hired Hackluyt, a private investigative firm with “close links” to MI6, to infiltrate Greenpeace by planting an agent who “posed as a left -wing sympathiser and film maker.” His mission was to “betray plans of Greenpeace’s activities against oil giants,” including gathering “information about the movements of the motor vessel Greenpeace in the north Atlantic.” [Continue reading...]
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes: American scientists have made an unsettling discovery. Crop farming across the Prairies since the late 19th Century has caused a collapse of the soil microbia that holds the ecosystem together.
They do not know exactly what role is played by the bacteria. It is a new research field. Nor do they know where the tipping point lies, or how easily this can be reversed. Nobody yet knows whether this is happening in other parts of the world.
A team at the University of Colorado under Noah Fierer used DNA gene technology to test the ‘verrucomicrobia’ in Prairie soil, contrasting tilled land with the rare pockets of ancient tallgrass found in cemeteries and reservations. The paper published in the US journal Science found that crop agriculture has “drastically altered” the biology of the land. “The soils currently found throughout the region bear little resemblance to their pre-agricultural state,” it concluded.
You might say we already knew this. In fact we did not. There has never before been a metagenomic analysis of this kind and on this scale. Professor Fierer said mankind needs to watch its step. “We really know very little about one of the most productive soils on the planet, but we do know that soil microbes play a key role and we can’t just keep adding fertilizers,” he said.
The Colorado study has caused a stir in the soil world. It was accompanied by a sobering analysis in Science by academics from South Africa’s Witwatersrand University. They fear that we are repeating the mistakes of past civilisations, over-exploiting the land until it goes beyond the point of no return, and leads to a vicious circle of famine, and then social disintegration.
Entitled “Dust to Dust“, the paper argues that the erosion of soil fertility has been masked by a “soup of nutrients” poured over crop lands, giving us a false sense of security. It said 1pc of global land is being degraded each year, defined as a 70pc loss of the top soil.
Once the top soil crosses a crucial threshold, the recovery rate plunges. Chemicals can keep crop yields high for a while but the complex ecology beneath is being abused further. Yields have already fallen 8pc across Africa as a whole. The paper calls for a complete change of course as the “only viable route to feeding the world and keeping it habitable.” [Continue reading...]
Bloomberg News reports: Canada is blessed with 3 million lakes, more than any country on Earth — and it may soon start manufacturing new ones. They’re just not the kind that will attract anglers or tourists.
The oil sands industry is in the throes of a major expansion, powered by C$20 billion ($19 billion) a year in investments. Companies including Syncrude Canada Ltd., Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp. affiliate Imperial Oil Ltd. are running out of room to store the contaminated water that is a byproduct of the process used to turn bitumen — a highly viscous form of petroleum — into diesel and other fuels.
By 2022 they will be producing so much of the stuff that a month’s output of wastewater could turn an area the size of New York’s Central Park into a toxic reservoir 11 feet (3.4 meters) deep, according to the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit in Calgary that promotes sustainable energy.
To tackle the problem, energy companies have drawn up plans that would transform northern Alberta into the largest man-made lake district on Earth. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Suncor Energy, Canada’s top petroleum producer, announced on Thursday that it would expand its oil production in 2014 by 10 percent in another sign that the Obama administration’s delay in approving the Keystone XL pipeline extension is not holding back growth in the western Canadian oil sands fields.
“We’re set for a strong year of continued production,” Suncor’s chief executive, Steven W. Williams, said. The company announced a capital spending program of $7.45 billion for 2014, $477 million more than it had forecast earlier this year.
Suncor, which is based in Calgary, produces oil and gas around Canada, and has operations in North Africa and the North Sea. But its oil sands operations are the main driver for the company. In the most recent quarter, its oil sands output rose 16 percent from the year before for a record of 396,000 barrels a day, nearly 20 percent of the country’s total oil sands production.
The company said it expected its oil sands production to increase again next year to 430,000 barrels a day.
Reports of increased production are coming even as Canadian oil executives are privately questioning whether the Obama administration will ever approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which it has been considering for more than two years.
The extension is intended to transport more than 800,000 barrels a day of oil sands output to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coast, but environmentalists have made stopping the pipeline their top priority since emissions from oil sands production are higher than for most crude oils consumed in the United States.
But over the last several months, oil companies have sought to go around the dispute by announcing plans for three large rail loading terminals with the combined capacity of transporting 350,000 barrels a day.
The companies are poised to quadruple rail-loading capacity over the next few years to as many as 900,000 barrels a day, whether or not the Keystone pipeline is built. [Continue reading...]
It’s long been reported that rail transportation of oil was already making the construction of Keystone XL an issue of questionable relevance in relation to the environmental consequences of oil sands production, which makes me wonder why so much activist energy was focused on the pipeline. Was it simply because “stop the pipeline” is such an easy rallying-cry?
Ironically, the dangers posed by rail delivery of oil are probably far greater than those posed by Keystone XL as an accident in Alabama earlier this month made all too clear:
BBC News reports: More than 200 million people around the world are at risk of exposure to toxic waste, a report has concluded.
The authors say the large number of people at risk places toxic waste in a similar league to public health threats such as malaria and tuberculosis.
The study from the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross calls for greater efforts to be made to control the problem.
The study carried out in more than 3,000 sites in over 49 countries.
“It’s a serious public health issue that hasn’t really been quantified,” Dr Jack Caravanos, director of research at the Blacksmith Institute and professor of public health at the City University of New York told the BBC’s Tamil Service.
The study identified the Agbobloshie dumping yard in Ghana’s capital Accra as the place which poses the highest toxic threat to human life.
The researchers say that the report has not been hidden from governments, and they are all aware of the issue.
Agbobloshie has become a global e-waste dumping yard, causing serious environmental and health issues Dr Caravanos explained. [Continue reading...]
A striking example of exposure to toxic waste appears in “Shower,” a short film made in Aleppo, Syria:
Every morning, Muhammed, 9 years, starts his journey towards landfill sites in his hometown of Manbij, near Aleppo. He searches for combustible, edible, or fit-to-wear materials. We join Muhammed in one of his daily journeys to find flammable materials to use for cooking and boiling water for bathing. In the afternoon, he comes back to his family with useable refuse and combustible materials. He awaits his turn as his mother baths his younger siblings.
Muhammed is just one of thousands of Syrian children who had to leave school and resort to vagrancy. Those children had to collect garbage because their families had been reduced to poverty by the Assad regime’s systematic policy of starvation and continuous targeting of civilians.
The New York Times reports: Unable to find a country willing to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons, the United States is considering plans to place the chemical components of the weapons on an barge where they would be dissolved or incinerated, according to senior American officials.
The two systems under review are intended to destroy the precursor materials that are designed to be combined to form chemical munitions. Syria’s smaller arsenal of operational chemical weapons would be destroyed separately, officials said.
Officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is operating in Syria to locate and identify the weapons, would monitor the destruction, which would be carried out following safety standards set by legislation in the United States and the European Union, according to officials familiar with the proposal. Officials did not say whether any chemical residue would be dumped in the ocean.
The system could be operational in 75 days.
The seaborne options have received more serious consideration after Albania on Friday turned down an appeal by the United States to destroy the weapons on its territory; the decision followed street protests by thousands of Albanians. Norway rejected an earlier request, saying it did not have the expertise or the facilities to destroy the weapons. The issue caused a major political dispute there as well. [Continue reading...]
I’d like to live in a world where people prize culture and the environment more than their personal possessions; a world in which people are not afflicted by the disease of materialism; a world in which people do not strive for the false freedom of absolute autonomy but can see in mutual reliance, shared strength; a world which invests in people’s creative capacities while tempering their destructive propensities. In other words, a world so far removed from the one in which we live, that it’s extremely difficult to discern a path that might lead from here to there. And before that path gets found — if it ever does — we are much more likely to cause irreparable damage to the planet through our insatiable appetites.
Hitting the breaks on carbon emissions may, with the help of nuclear power, be a goal far easier to attain in the short run than the radical transformation of human values that will be necessary for long-term sustainability.
Rachel Pritzker writes: Last week a leaked draft of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that climate change will have severe ramifications for the global food supply, making it harder for crops to survive and leading to rising food prices.
This report, scheduled for publication in March, provides the latest evidence of the dramatic impacts that the shifting climate is already beginning to have on the planet and on human societies.
Clearly, climate change is a global challenge unlike any other we face, which is why I, along with a small but growing number of progressives, support a unique and potentially surprising solution to it.
It is time for policymakers to recognize that nuclear power must be a robust part of our nation’s energy plan to reduce carbon emissions.
These may seem like strange words coming from a liberal whose family has been active in progressive politics, and who grew up on a Wisconsin goat farm in a home heated by wood fires. Like many of my fellow progressives, I care deeply about the environment and the future of our planet, which is precisely why I do not think we should be reflexively shutting the door on a technology that may be able to help address global climate change.
Energy production is the largest single contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Some people believe that we can solve climate change by reducing global energy demand and switching to solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. But, as I’ve seen first hand in Latin America, people in the developing world are consuming an increasing amount of energy as they seek to live the modern lives that we in the West enjoy. As a result, studies show that energy demand is actually poised to triple, or even quadruple, over the next century.
As much as we might instinctively prefer renewable energy sources like solar and wind to meet this energy demand, last year solar provided a mere 0.1 percent of America’s electricity, while wind provided just 3.5 percent — and that is after at least $34 billion was funneled into clean energy projects from the Obama stimulus package.
Meanwhile, 19% of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear power plants; that number rises to 60% among clean energy sources.
We need all the help we can get from renewable energy, but it’s a risky bet that wind and solar alone will be able to provide 100% of America’s energy, let alone meet a global energy demand three times the size it is today. [Continue reading...]
Elizabeth Kolbert writes: Late last week, a Web site that claims that there is no scientific consensus on global warming published a leaked draft report on the impacts of global warming. The leak was apparently intended to embarrass the authors of the report, which is the latest installment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, it seems mostly to have had the opposite effect: what the leaked document shows is just how dire the impacts are likely to be. The report was the lead story on the front page of Saturday’s Times, under the two-column headline “Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.”
“Many of the ills of the modern world — starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease –are likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change,” the Associated Press observed in its analysis of the report.
Technically, what got leaked was a summary of the second part of the I.P.C.C.’s Fifth Assessment Report. (Part one, released in Stockholm in September, focussed on the geophysics of climate change and asserted with virtual certainty that human activity “has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”) The I.P.C.C. doesn’t conduct any research of its own — its conclusions are based entirely on already-published scientific papers — so it could be argued that there was no real news in the latest document. The force of the report comes simply from assembling all the data in one place; the summary reads like a laundry list of the apocalypse — flood, drought, disease, starvation. Climate change, the group noted, will reduce yields of major crops by up to two per cent each decade for the remainder of this century. (One of the reasons for this is that heat waves, which will become more common as the world warms, depress the yields of staple crops like corn.)
Since the global population is projected to grow throughout the century — to eight billion by 2025, nine billion by 2050, and almost eleven billion by 2100 — this is obviously rather bad news. At the same time, the incidence of flooding, drought, and general weather-related mayhem will increase, and already-vulnerable populations will be pushed closer to the edge, or, quite possibly, over it. Conflict is bound to ensue. Climate change “will increasingly shape national security policies,” the report warns.
Meanwhile, as bad as things look for humans, the prognosis for non-humans is, in many ways, worse. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Canada’s rush to exploit its tar sands and shale gas resources will destroy the environment “as fast as possible”, according to Noam Chomsky.
In an interview with the Guardian, the linguist and author criticised the energy policies of the Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
He said: “It means taking every drop of hydrocarbon out of the ground, whether it’s shale gas in New Brunswick or tar sands in Alberta and trying to destroy the environment as fast as possible, with barely a question raised about what the world will look like as a result.”
But indigenous peoples in Canada blocking fossil fuel developments are taking the lead in combatting climate change, he said. Chomsky highlighted indigenous opposition to the Alberta tar sands, the oil deposit that is Canada’s fastest growing source of carbon emissions and is slated for massive expansion despite attracting international criticism and protest.
“It is pretty ironic that the so-called ‘least advanced’ people are the ones taking the lead in trying to protect all of us, while the richest and most powerful among us are the ones who are trying to drive the society to destruction,” said Chomsky. [Continue reading...]
Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century. You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future. And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert. And that isn’t all.
From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in. In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.” Huzzah and olé!
And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice? After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth? Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.) All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.
There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground — or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.
Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom Engelhardt
X-ray of a flagging presidency
Will Obama block the Keystone pipeline or just keep bending?
By Bill McKibben
As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.
Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.
The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south. The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.
MSNBC reports: Between 2002 and 2005, U.S. forces shot off 6 billion bullets in Iraq (something like 300,000 for every person killed). They also dropped 2,000 to 4,000 tons of bombs on Iraqi cities, leaving behind a witch’s brew of contaminants and toxic metals, including the neurotoxins lead and mercury. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian-born toxicologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, is studying the health impact, and her early findings are worrying. Last year, in a study published with Iraqi colleagues, she reported staggering increases in birth defects in the heavily bombarded cities of Basrah and Fallujah. The increases started in the early 90s, after the bombings of the first Gulf War, and continued right through 2011.
In Basrah, the group’s analysis of hospital records revealed 16-fold increase in birth defects among babies delivered between 1994 and 2003 (from 1.4 to 23 per 1,000 live births), and another 48% rise between 2003 to 2009 (from 23 to 48). Likewise, a survey of 56 families in Fallujah showed a 50% increase in birth defects between 1991 and 2010, along with an eightfold increase in miscarriages. Neurological defects are now pervasive in both cities. And though the causes are still uncertain, Savabieasfahani has cited lead and mercury as likely culprits. In Basrah, she found that teeth from malformed children contained three times more lead than teeth from normal ones. In Fallujah, children with birth defects harbored five times more lead than normal kids from the same city, and six times more mercury.
“The explosion of bombs creates fine metal-containing dust particles that linger in the air and can be inhaled by the public,” Savabieasfahani wrote in an essay for Al Jazeera last week. “Metals are persistent in the environment and metal-containing fine dust may be re-injected into the air periodically as a result of wind and air turbulence. Iraq is well known for its strong and frequent sandstorms, which can easily render contaminated dust airborne. Since war debris and the wreckage from ammunition and bombs remain unabated in the environment, the weathering process facilitates continuous metal release into the environment.”
Are Basrah and Fallujah just sentinels of a wider crisis? In an initial effort to find out, the World Health Organization has helped Iraq’s health ministry sample birth-defect incidence across eight regions of the country. The survey is reportedly finished, but the findings are still under review in Baghdad. (Our calls to the health ministry weren’t returned.) Whatever the survey turns up, Savabiesfahani is deeply worried about the trends already documented in Basrah and Fallujah. “We can’t wish this away,” she says. “We need immediate efforts to identify and clean up the sources of hazardous waste. We can’t let this fester the way Agent Orange did in Vietnam.” [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: In the sharpest challenge yet to the surge in flaring of natural gas in the Bakken shale oil field, North Dakota mineral owners this week filed 10 class-action lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in lost royalties from some of the nation’s largest oil companies.
Roughly 1,500 fires burn above western North Dakota because of the deliberate burning of natural gas by companies rushing to drill for oil without having sufficient pipelines to transport their production. With cheap gas bubbling to the top with expensive oil, the companies do not have an economic incentive to build the necessary gas pipelines, so they flare the excess gas instead.
Flaring is environmentally less harmful than releasing raw natural gas into the atmosphere, but the flared gas still spews climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The quantities of gas burned are so large that the fires rising above wheat and sunflower fields look like a small city in NASA photographs taken from satellites.
Flared gas has nearly tripled in the last two years in North Dakota, with almost 30 percent of the output in the state burned at wells, producing emissions equivalent to more than two medium-size coal-fired power plants. [Continue reading...]
Sustainable Pulse reports: There is no scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods and crops, according to a statement released today by an international group of more than 90 scientists, academics and physicians.
The statement comes in response to recent claims from the GM industry and some scientists, journalists, and commentators that there is a “scientific consensus” that GM foods and crops were generally found safe for human and animal health and the environment. The statement calls these claims “misleading”, adding, “This claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist.”
“Such claims may place human and environmental health at undue risk and create an atmosphere of complacency,” states Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, chairperson of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) and one of the signatories. “The statement draws attention to the diversity of opinion over GMOs in the scientific community and the often contradictory or inconclusive findings of studies on GMO safety. These include toxic effects on laboratory animals fed GM foods, increased pesticide use from GM crop cultivation, and the unexpected impacts of Bt insecticidal crops on beneficial and non-target organisms,” Dr Hilbeck continues.
In spite of this nuanced and complex picture, a group of like-minded people makes sweeping claims that GM crops and foods are safe. In reality, many unanswered questions remain and in some cases there is serious cause for concern.
Prof C. Vyvyan Howard, a medically qualified toxicopathologist based at the University of Ulster and a signatory to the statement, said: “A substantial number of studies suggest that GM crops and foods can be toxic or allergenic. It is often claimed that millions of Americans eat GM foods with no ill effects. But as the US has no GMO labeling and no epidemiological studies have been carried out, there is no way of knowing whether the rising rates of chronic diseases seen in that country have anything to do with GM food consumption or not. Therefore this claim has no scientific basis.” [Continue reading...]