While most Americans understand that climate change is a real threat, they often see it as a problem to be dealt with in the distant future. However, a growing body of data is demonstrating that climate change is already impacting our lives.
Coming on the heels of increasingly alarming UN Climate Assessment Reports, the new National Climate Assessment, released on Tuesday May 6, 2014, quantifies the effects of a changing global climate on the United States. The report is comprehensive, covering all available climate data since the end of the 19th century for the US, as well as future projections obtained by climate models. The report explores the implications of a changing climate across 14 sectors in 8 distinct regions of the country. Given the fact that since the mid-1970s the US has observed between a 1.3oF and a 1.9oF increase in average temperatures, the NCA goes much deeper than making a case for the existence of climate change. Rather than stating that changes are happening, the report describes at great length what is actually changing.
For Americans, this report strikes a much more resonant chord than the ambiguously-worded reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Click on the links above to find out what is going on in your native region, or a relevant sector, and see in real time how climate change is affecting your life. President Obama spent the day of the release in interviews with local weather reporters in an effort to connect the complex global issue of climate change to an average person’s life. On the “Today Show,” the President explained to Al Roker, “Whether it means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires — all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak.”
The report is a sobering view into the study of climate science, and a call to action. The effects of climate change are at the forefront of the report, trumping the traditional “range of scenarios” format of previous publications on the subject. The NCA is accompanied by a beautifully – crafted website. Instead of attempting to explain the findings of more than 300 scientists’ work compiled by a federal advisory board of more than 60 members from both the private and public sector, I encourage you to click around and find out how climate change is affecting your own region and way of life.
The report’s findings are summarized in the following aspects of global climate change:
Summaries for different regions across the nation are discussed in the second half of the report:
Recent high-profile settlements involving some of the nation’s largest banks have consumers scratching their heads. Since 2012, banking giants like Chase and Bank of America have come under fire from regulators in an effort to discourage the kind of egregious behavior that drove the economy to the brink of collapse in 2008. While the sums collected thus far by regulators appear to be huge, they are little more than a drop in the bucket for the megabanks. Have a look at some examples of the fines and settlements these banks have reached so far:
- Bank of America has paid over $15 billion since 2007 to settle claims related to the financial crisis, including $11.6 billion to Fannie Mae in 2012 to resolve repurchase claims related to bad mortgages between 2000 and 2008.
- Since October of 2012, American Express has refunded approximately $144.5 million to 585,000 customers for deceptive marketing regarding add-on products like payment protection and credit monitoring, as well as charging unlawful late fees to customers’ accounts.
- Capital One paid $210 million to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in 2012 to reimburse customers that they deceptively charged for unnecessary services like credit monitoring, generally targeting unemployed people and those with poor credit.
- Last year, Citi paid almost $1 billion to Fannie Mae resolving claims over nearly 3.7 million subprime mortgages it sold.
- In addition to paying $1.32 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over subprime mortgages, Wells Fargo reimbursed customers $203 million for organizing debit charges from highest to lowest, rather than chronologically, collecting excess revenues from overdraft fees.
These are only a few examples of settlements reached by banks and prosecutors. Consumer reimbursement accounts for only a small percentage of the fines paid; most of the time fees were collected by the FDIC and similar regulating agencies. Furthermore, these settlements account for a miniscule fraction of the damage done to the economy as a result of rule breaking or lax regulations and enforcement.
No one believes that the megabanks have learned their lessons, and several are once again engaging in speculative behavior and manipulating markets. For example, several megabanks are heavily invested in manipulating commodities. It was also recently revealed that Wells Fargo trained members of its staff to forge foreclosure documents. Despite continued efforts by regulators to control this sort of behavior, the banks employ massive legal resources to challenge regulations every step of the way.
If you believe that megabanks should be held accountable for deceiving customers and engaging in self-interested behavior at the expense of our society and natural resources, there are a few things you can do to make sure your voice is heard. First, you can move your account to a socially-responsible community development bank and stop supporting a megabank with your service and account fees – and let them know about it once you do. Second, you can stop using lines of credit offered by megabanks – each time you swipe your credit card, they collect a percentage of your charge. You can find a list of cards from banks that benefit communities and devote a portion of their interchange fees to environmental protection or community development here. And finally, you can take action and tell regulators to keep putting pressure on the megabanks by writing and implementing rules that discourage deceitful behavior. The more you know about what these banks are really up to, the more you can do to make sure they start working for the people and the planet.
Yesterday, Fossil Free Indexes, LLC released The Carbon Underground, a report identifying the top 100 public coal companies and the top 100 public oil and gas companies globally, ranked by the potential amount of carbon pollution represented by their fuel reserves. The report provides a much-needed update to the 2011 Unburnable Carbon report produced by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. The Carbon Underground frighteningly concludes that the carbon pollution of these fossil fuel reserves surpasses their “carbon budget” by a whopping 400%.
“Carbon budget” refers to the amount of carbon pollution that a sector must remain within in order to avoid the most dangerous consequences of global warming that would occur with a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature. The report states that the energy sector’s carbon budget, based on data from the International Energy Association and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will be spent within 22 years — even with emissions reductions of 10%. Moreover, at this level, three-fourths of the reserves will still be in the ground.
The report observes the astounding fact that despite the threats to the planet: “exploration and development of fossil fuel resources continue unabated.”
Investors have an increasingly important role to play in the tremendous shift needed to switch the economies of the world to reliance on renewable energy. The planet cannot sustain the continued burning of fossil fuels and the necessary decline of the fossil fuel industry means investors and the marketplace will face staggering “stranded assets” – assets that have become de-valued and become a loss. The New Abolitionism article in the already-released May 12, 2014 issue of The Nation magazine estimates that stranded assets could equate to as much as $20 trillion globally.
There is no time to waste in terms of profoundly cutting our greenhouse gas emissions. By divesting from fossil fuel companies and re-investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, investors can play an important role in pushing our economy in the direction required. Building on The Carbon Underground, Fossil Free Indexes, LLC will soon release broad market indexes that the average investor can use to divest from fossil fuel companies — for the sake of the planet and to help safeguard one’s personal assets.
In a move embraced by those opposed to the pipeline, just as activists were preparing for this week of actions, the Obama administration decided to extend the review period on the Keystone XL pipeline. It now seems likely that a final decision on whether or not the KXL will be constructed will be made after the November 4 Congressional elections. On April 18, the Administration announced that more time was needed for federal agencies to review the 2.5 million public comments made on the KXL and also to see the outcome of a lawsuit in Nebraska concerning the pipeline’s route. In February, a Nebraskan district court overturned a law that permitted the pipeline and there is no set date for Nebraska’s Supreme Court to address the issue.
The pipeline has been in review by the State Department since 2008. There is more than sufficient evidence to conclude that this pipeline, for the export of tar sands oil, is not in the interest of the American people, nor in the interest of our planet. For those who can come to Washington, DC this Saturday, help us send the “reject and defend” message to the White House. Sign up today here.
One of Green America’s goals is to teach consumers how the businesses you choose to support can have a big impact on the world around you. From the food we buy each week, to the clothes we wear, to the energy we use to heat and power our homes – on almost all levels of the economy, we have a choice between companies that operate with an awareness of the effects of their presence on the world, and companies that pursue the goal of growth over anything else.
And while it is easy to see the negative impacts of massive agricultural engineering companies, clothing companies’ sweatshops in faraway countries, and dirty international oil companies, the financial services industry influences nearly every sector of the economy – often with serious implications for people and the planet. And as banks actually sell very few tangible products, it is more difficult to recognize that our choices can drastically affect our environment and our communities. To give an example, let us look at commodities: the raw materials for nearly every product you can buy.
Recent news coverage of the banking industry has revealed that large investment institutions like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have been spending their money on warehouses. As in the large empty buildings where industrial materials, like aluminum and copper are kept before manufacturers buy them to produce goods. Why would a bank be interested in owning a warehouse?
There are a few reasons. When an entity like Goldman owns the rights to its warehouse, it can control the time it takes to process an order from a manufacturer for raw materials. While manufacturers wait for their orders, the banks make trades based on the projected future price of the materials in their warehouses. The catch is that the banks already know how much they have, where it is stored, and exactly when they plan on moving it. They use their knowledge of the location and inherent value of the commodities to make purchasers less “in-the-know” believe that the commodities are worth more. And as the owner of the facilities and the commodities inside, the banks are the ones who overwhelmingly profit from their position in an industry where they really do none of the work.
What is the result of a large investment bank purchasing industrial amounts of something like aluminum and then artificially charging more for it? Companies that use the metal, like Coca-Cola, pay more for the materials they need to make their soda cans, and then they pass this cost onto the consumers. So when you pay a few more cents for a can of coke at the vending machine, you are essentially supporting the monopoly created by the bank that purchased the warehouse in the first place.
So if banks are presently deregulated to the point where they can exert influence upon multiple levels of industry and profit across all of them, where does that leave us as consumers? It leaves us right where we started – with a choice. When we deposit our paychecks at, or use credit from a mega-bank, we are directly supporting activities like monopolistic commodities speculation that inhibit industrial efficiency and raise prices for consumers. And just like purchasing an organic apple, or fair-trade clothing, we can support local financial institutions that abstain from activities that come at a great cost to society. Green America’s Break Up With your MegaBank and Take Charge programs offer information and resources to help you make the switch from a megabank to a local institution that serves people and the planet. Check them out today!
Guest blog post and graphic by Allison Stewart of our Better Paper Project.
I was at a Sustainability in Packaging conference earlier this spring, and it hit home for me that we need better product and packaging development. If we develop products that have no further opportunity for re-use, then we are intentionally making unsustainable products and packages. If we support a circular-based economy – in which products are designed, produced,distributed, collected, sorted, and returned to be recycled and reincorporated into new products – then we can’t continue choosing lightweight but unrecyclable packages (see example below). These lightweight packages sound like great design innovation, but they are ultimately increasing the amount of unrecyclable waste in our landfills.
We are delivering more and more products in disposable, one-time-use, plastic containers and pouches. This trend is a result of lightweighting our packaging to decrease the volume and increase the fill-capacity of packaging. The process of lighweighting is one of the most effective ways to decrease the amount of plastic that is used for packaging.
Lightweighting is seen by most sustainability representatives of companies as the best way to economically invest in sustainability, and most would probably agree to that logic. Lightweighting can increase the amount of packaging that can be produced with the same material, it lowers shipping costs per item, decreases the volume (per item) of packaging going into our landfills, and thus is seen to have a lower environmental impact. The fundamental flaw, however, is that these pouches and containers – regardless of using less resources than previously – are not designed to be recycled or recovered.
I first heard of the idea “Light Weight, Heavy Impact” from McKinsey & Company’s report about the impact of lightweight materials across industries The variety of flexible and hard plastics, aluminum, and other materials used to create lightweight packages make it impossible to recover. These packages are literally “designed for the dump.”
Waste & recycling facilities, municipalities, and consumers are all wrestling with the new challenge of determining what packages can be recycled. For the past decade, most of our waste has been sent to China where Chinese recycling plants have made a lot of money reprocessing our trash and selling the raw materials. Last year they enacted a policy called the “Green Fence,” rejecting shipments of over-contaminated recyclables that don’t pass inspection. As a result of these demurrage charges and subsequently higher shipping costs, many waste and recycling facilities are looking for alternative solutions. The US now ships to India and other countries that accept it, though this isn’t a sustainable or long-term solution.
As companies continue to designing products and packages without considering the environmental fate, more packaging moves to hard-to-recover, lightweight materials that are designed for the dump. We need to consider the end-of-life of our products from the beginning, and design products with environmental intention. A system built on the idea of Cradle-to-Cradle design would set standards for developing non-toxic, sustainable materials and facilities that design products that can be later reutilized in new products. Biodegradable and compostable packaging will likely play an increasingly important role in a transition to zero-waste.
One strategy frequently discussed for building sustainability into our packaging system is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). “EPR is typically understood to involve a shift in responsibility (administratively, financially or physically) from governments or municipalities to producers as well as an encouragement of producers to take environmental considerations into account during the design and manufacture phases of product development.” (Source: Sustainable Management of Resources. Accessed March 12, 2014 via web: http://epr.eu-smr.eu/introduction).
Many organizations are already working to encourage EPR in packaging legislative action, to bring corporate responsibility into the equation. Canada is leading with and Europe already lead by example.
Canada has years of experience implementing EPR at the national and provincial level utilizing a variety of approaches. There is no national EPR authorizing legislation in Canada; instead, each province or territory is able to implement or pass its own authorizing legislation and regulations. Nearly all provinces and territories have their own programs and authorizing legislation.
EPR is widely used in Europe as a means of preventing pollution and minimizing waste. The European Union (EU) possesses the authority to issue legislative acts known as directives and each member state must “transpose” or create its own laws, if necessary, in order to implement these directives. The EU has issued a number of directives aimed at increasing producer responsibility across Europe. (Examples: https://www.ec.gc.ca/gdd-mw/default.asp?lang=En&n=FB8E9973-1, http://www.eprcanada.ca/, http://www.europen-packaging.eu/policy.html ). And NRDC has awesome infographics that demonstrate how EPR can be an effective strategy in California and other parts of the US: http://www.nrdc.org/recycling/files/green-jobs-ca-recycling-info.pdf.
The Better Paper Project of Green America is participating and working with other non-profits and companies to find sustainable solutions to our packaging challenges here in the US. How we spend our dollars reflects our values, and we tend to overlook the packages that deliver our products. This impact, however, is adding up – and ending up as marine debris and in landfills, as opposed to being recollected for further use. Companies, distributors, consumers, municipalities and government are all involved, and must work together to effectively minimize the environmental footprint of our products and source materials. If you have questions or suggestions about the ways in which consumers can play a part, feel free to share in the comment section below.
Some ideas include: supporting various take-back programs, choosing certified products that are also packaged and produced with end-of-life in mind, encouraging legislative action, working on local zero-waste initiatives, education campaigns, etc.
The latest installment of the U.N’s fifth Climate Assessment Report explores what we must do in order to lessen the negative impacts of a changing climate.
As our understanding of climate change continues to develop, we hear more and more about a few particularly important numbers: to ensure that average global temperature increase does not exceed 2oC by the year 2100, we mustn’t allow the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to exceed 350 ppm (parts per million). Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is about 400ppm, with an additional 2ppm emitted each year. Accounting for population and economic growth, CO2 concentrations are projected land between 750 and 1,300 ppm by the end of the century. To offset the emissions resulting from this growth, we need to substantially cut emissions by 2050 (by 40-70%), and to completely cease emissions by 2100.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released its third working group summary this weekend in Berlin, Germany, as a part of its fifth Climate Assessment Report. Previous working group summaries have tackled the physical scientific aspects of changing climate systems, as well as impacts, adaptations, and vulnerabilities for people across the globe. The latest installment examines the topic of mitigation: the “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.”
There are currently great efforts underway to achieve both goals of greenhouse gas mitigation. Forests are one of our most valuable carbon sinks; trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and use energy from the sun to convert the gas into glucose in a process called photosynthesis. Across the planet, reforestation projects aim to preserve the ecosystem services that trees offer.
But covering the globe in trees is not enough to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere, especially when economic growth depends on burning the fossil fuels that emit so much of the gas. Between 2000 and 2010, the IPCC reports, the “contribution of economic and population growth to CO2 emissions has outpaced emission reduction from improvements in energy intensity.” The panel cites the increased use of coal as a cheap, abundant energy source in developing nations as the cause of the reversal of the long-standing trend of gradual decarbonization of the world’s energy supply.
With ever-increasing demand for modern goods and services in countries where the population is growing at a rapid pace, restricting fossil fuels would cause significant immediate damage to highly vulnerable communities. The only way to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by our energy infrastructure is to update it – to find a viable substitute that can meet the demands of a world literally packed with people without contributing to carbon emissions. The developing world is waiting for wealthy countries to lead the way, starting with the U.S. And as a country that already has the technology available to make this possible, the remaining impediments to clean energy are largely political. The United States needs a new approach to make financing available for the expansion of solar, wind and other clean energy sources.
That’s why Green America is promoting the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014. Sponsored by US Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Doris Matsui, the CEVB Act of 2014 would issue United States Treasury bonds that would be available to all Americans for purchase. The funds raised from the sale of the bonds would go directly towards tax credits that clean energy industries, like wind and solar, as well as energy efficiency projects, depend upon. You can do your part to make the long-term investments needed to ensure that we won’t have to burn fossil fuels for much longer. Call your Representative, tell him or her you want to invest in a clean energy future, and urge him or her to co-sponsor the bill today.
Today, US Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Doris Matsui, along with 15 original co-sponsors, introduced the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014. The bill is now before the House of Representatives, and not a moment too soon.
The Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014, or CEVB for short, is modeled after one of the most successful fundraising efforts in US history. In World War II, millions of Americans purchased over $185 billion (over $2 trillion in today’s dollars) worth of Victory Bonds issued by the United States Treasury, in order to fund the war effort. The bonds allowed citizens to invest directly in the materials and technologies needed to achieve victory in one of the most destructive wars in human history.
Today, however, we face different problems – a rapidly changing climate, rising sea levels, and more intense weather events like Hurricane Sandy put our infrastructure and economy at risk. Our outdated energy systems continue to inefficiently burn fossil fuels, and the extraction of these fuels continues to degrade ecosystems across the planet. Renewable energy and energy efficient technologies are a promising solution to these crises, but a lack of funding makes them unappealing to industrial-scale investors.
The United States also risks losing its position as a clean energy leader. China, Germany and other nations are outspending the US in the clean energy race and are already seeing the benefits of increased jobs and plentiful clean energy.
Clean Energy Victory Bonds, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, will allow any American to invest in a clean energy future for as little as $25. The sale of the bonds is projected to raise up to $50 billion, which would leverage an additional $100 billion from private investors. The money raised would fund essential tax credits to renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal, as well as energy-efficiency programs. Continued support of these industries will reduce the demand for fossil fuels, reduce the amount of CO2 poured into the atmosphere, and create at least 1 million well-paying jobs that cannot be shipped overseas. With oil companies still receiving massive government subsidies, a fundraising effort of great proportions is needed to level the playing field for clean energy technologies.
If you want to invest in our nation’s energy future by purchasing CEVBs, call your Representative in Congress and tell him or her to co-sponsor the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014. With your help, we can transition our economy from one that relies on dirty fossil fuels to a clean energy economy that provides real opportunities for our citizens, all while protecting our homes from catastrophic climate change. For more information, please visit www.cleanenergyvictorybonds.org.
“It’s something that happens every five to seven years,” Jamie Dimon told his daughter without a breath of sarcasm, writes Bloomberg financial reporter Bob Ivry in his book “The Seven Sins of Wall Street.”
As the United States navigates its way through a post-recession financial environment, our tendency to fall back on old habits makes the term “recovery” questionable at best. While there has been a concerted public effort to address the regulatory discontinuities that brought the global economy to the brink of collapse in 2008, mega-banks continue to use the same financial instruments to gamble with the lives of ordinary citizens. The mortgage-backed securities industry may have been in the spotlight for years, but cousin industries have flourished in its shadows. Here is an example of a new value-creating machine and how it threatens the economy.
Remember how banks were encouraged to sell as many mortgages as humanly possible, no matter what the circumstances? The “junk” or “sub-prime” mortgages, where the borrowers had no chance of making their outlandish payments, were grouped together and sold to investors as bonds. We all saw how well that turned out as soon as homeowners’ mortgage rates adjusted upwards and payments stopped being made; the ripple effect caused people in all corners of the economy to lose money.
Now, in the wake of mass foreclosures, Wall Street has found a new way to make money from the basic human need for shelter. Private equity firms have zoned in on certain housing markets, like in Riverside County, CA, and purchased blocks of foreclosed homes with cash. By doing this, they were able to artificially inflate the price of the housing stock, ensuring that first-time buyers are priced out of the market.
So what will private equity firms do with all of these empty, expensive homes? Rent them out, of course! With the inflated price of housing, however, people are now paying more than 50% of their income on rent in some regions. This leaves fewer dollars for other essentials like food, transport, and health insurance, let alone thousands of other industries that consumers support. With fewer customers, businesses make fewer sales, growth stalls and our nation’s economic output suffers.
But does a weak economy mean reduced profits for Wall Street? Private Equity firms aren’t stupid. There must be something about these foreclosed homes with value-creating capability. Enter “rental-backed securities.” Private equity firms like Blackstone bundle the revenue streams from rental payments into bonds, and then sell them to investors – much like mortgaged-backed securities. Though the first rental-backed securities received a triple A rating by evaluators Moody’s, Morningstar, and Kroll, the question of what will happen if rent payments begin to come up short looms. And with people spending more than half of their paycheck to keep a roof over their heads, it’s more a matter of “when” than “if” this will happen.
While the sale of rental-backed securities is slated to reach $70 billion a year, the wealth created by this industry will be transferred largely from the labor of renters to the far away-landlords on Wall Street. GDP will likely increase, but the purchasing power of thousands of Americans, especially younger, first-time renters, will be significantly diminished.
Rental-backed securities are just one of the ways mega-banks are maintaining their control and oversight of our economy. Despite their omnipresence, there are lots of things you can do to remove your support for practices like these and encourage a shift to a more just and local economy. By moving your accounts from your current mega-bank to a community development bank or credit union, you can be confident that each fee you pay will be pumped back into local causes, and not into the funds of private equity landlords. Green America’s Break Up with your Megabank and Take Charge campaigns offer resources to help you start making the transition to an economy that works for the people and the planet today.
Yesterday the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report that builds an ever more sobering case for drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions and ascertaining how to survive on a warming planet. This latest, authoritative report, with 243 primary authors from 70 countries, discusses (yet again) the dire outcomes we can likely expect over time if we fail to cap carbon pollution.
For anyone needing an additional wake-up call, read this report.
Like me, you may well ask yourself (yet again) – What will it take to slash our climate-warming emissions? How can we allow terrible, climate-induced tragedies to destroy whole communities? What right do we have to cause further species extinction? What kind of world are we bequeathing to our children?
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said at a news conference.
Key themes in the report include the following excerpts from the Summary for Policymakers:
- Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts.
- People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses.
- Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability.
- Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors , often with negative outcomes for livelihoods , especially for people living in poverty.
- Adaptation and mitigation choices in the near -term will affect the risks of climate change throughout the 21st century.
- Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.
- A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate change interacts with other stressors, such as habitat modification, over -exploitation, pollution, and invasive species.
- All aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change, including food access, utilization, and price stability.
- Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economics.
- Transformations in economic, social, technological, and political decisions and actions can enable climate-resilient pathways.
There are many actions we can take to pressure elected officials for policies that cut carbon pollution and that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. Green America’s current action in support of regulating carbon pollution from new power plants is a start. If we take action today, and every day, there is hope.