Levees Not War
“The mission here is not accomplished.”

Nathaniel Rich on the “National Crisis” of Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast

10/9/14

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“I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage.” —Nathaniel Rich

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In “Behind the Cover Story,” Rachel Nolan speaks with Nathaniel Rich, a New Orleans resident and author of last Sunday’s powerful and authoritative New York Times Magazine cover story “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”—about how he came to write the piece, and possible consequences if the lawsuit fails . . .

Along the way, Rich hails The Lens of New Orleans as “a fantastic local investigative news site.” We could not agree more. 

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Behind the Cover Story: Nathaniel Rich on the Legal Battle Over Louisiana’s Land Loss

You have lived in New Orleans for some time now. How did you first become aware of the massive land loss in Louisiana?

I was ignorant about coastal land loss before I moved to New Orleans four years ago, but that changed quickly. Louisianians have known about the loss of their wetlands for decades, but relatively few people outside the state seem to be aware of the problem or its scope. This is disturbing because it is a national crisis, endangering the existence of New Orleans as well as a large percentage of our energy infrastructure and shipping trade. It’s not just nature lovers who should be concerned. Anyone who cares about energy independence, trade or national security should be concerned.

Awareness of the issue is growing, however. Several excellent reports have been published in the last few weeks. One was published through a partnership between ProPublica and The Lens, a fantastic local investigative news site. Called “Losing Ground,” it’s a graphic representation of coastal land loss. Another is “Louisiana Loses Its Boot,” by Brett Anderson, published in Medium. Anderson makes the case for a new official state map that would reflect Louisiana’s changing shape.

How did you first hear about this lawsuit, and come to think that John Barry might be interesting to write about?

nathanielrichphoto-articleInline-v2I learned about it when Barry announced the lawsuit at a press conference last July. I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage, but it hasn’t come close to getting the attention of, say, the Keystone pipeline.

Barry is a true obsessive, and I’m drawn to writing about obsession. I was fascinated to see a writer abandon a successful writing career, at least temporarily, in order to devote himself to a cause. In my experience, writers are happiest when they are alone in a small room with their work, so Barry’s decision to sue 97 oil and gas companies seemed to me especially radical, and indicative of an unusual personal commitment.

Oil and gas companies conceded responsibility for 36 percent of the land loss. Why don’t the companies pay for 36 percent of the damage to the coast—at the very least as a P.R. move?

Because nobody is making them. The oil and gas industry did not become the most profitable industry in the history of human civilization by accident. Why would an oil company volunteer to donate millions or billions of dollars when nobody is requiring them to? P.R. campaigns come a lot cheaper than that. Shareholders wouldn’t stand for it. Besides, every oil company has a different level of liability. You need some authority to determine how much each company owes. That’s what the lawsuit intends to do.

Who or what is responsible for the rest of the lost land?

Levees, primarily, mostly those built on the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees prevent flooding, which deposits sediment into the marshes and builds land. Of course without levees you couldn’t have cities in southern Louisiana. This is one reason it’s difficult for the state to press the oil and gas industry for reparations. Historically, Louisiana has pushed aggressively for the construction of levees, which may be an even greater cause of land loss than the canals and wells dredged by the industry. Thousands of dams built on the Mississippi’s tributaries, which reduce the river’s sediment load, are another factor. Then you have global warming. The land is sinking, and the sea is rising. It’s a pitiful combination.

If this lawsuit fails, what does the future look like for Louisiana?

If the Coastal Master Plan is not fully funded, the coast as we know it will be gone. Over the next century the towns and cities will be abandoned. New Orleans, if it continues to exist, will be an island. The coast might be doomed regardless, but the Master Plan at least gives it a fighting chance.

What might this whole fight in Louisiana mean for Bobby Jindal’s presidential ambitions?

I’m not a political analyst, so I couldn’t speculate with any authority about the next presidential election. Nearly everybody I interviewed in Louisiana, however, believed that Jindal’s extreme hostility to the lawsuit was motivated, at least partially, by his national political ambitions. He is in his final term as governor, after all, and he won’t likely run for state office again. Politically he no longer has much to gain, or lose, in Louisiana. But if he wants to run for president, he will need to win the support of big money. The defendants in the levee-board lawsuit include the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil—three of the Republican Party’s top donors. As William Goldman wrote: Follow the money.

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Read “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine (10/5/2014).

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 Photo of Nathaniel Rich by Meredith Angelson for The New York Times.

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Highlights from “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” in The New York Times Magazine

10/6/14

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYT“The idea of making the industry live up to its legal responsibility is not going to die.”John M. Barry

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 6, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” Aside from the cover of Time, a story does not get much more prominent coverage than a cover article in the magazine of The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich, who has written intelligently and sensitively about New Orleans (see here and here), now gives an overview of the environmental reasons why the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) last July filed a suit against nearly 100 oil and gas corporations for failing to honor the terms of their licenses to do business in the wetlands of Louisiana and have caused catastrophic environmental damage to the state’s land. Rich also profiles the leader of that lawsuit, author and environmental activist John M. Barry, who was until recently the vice president of SLFPA-E, and the unprecedented efforts of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with the help of compliant or fearful legislators, to kill the lawsuit in the state legislature rather than let it work its way through the courts.

Read All About It—And Restore Louisiana Now

Following are some highlights from “Waterworld.” We hope you will forward this post, or the article itself, and also check out John Barry’s new foundation, Restore Louisiana Now. We also urge you to join us in pressing the Jindal administration and the Louisiana state representatives to support efforts to make the oil and gas industry pay for the damage it has done and to restore the critical wetlands that act as a buffer against hurricane storm surge. Scientists say about every 2.5 square miles of wetlands absorbs a foot of storm surge. The oil and gas industry has already conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss—but they have not paid for damages. Jindal’s plan, apparently, is to let industry off the hook and to let the Coastal Master Plan for restoration to fall on the taxpayers—a curious position for an anti-tax politician.

This politically ambitious governor, who imagines he has a chance at becoming president of the United States, continues in his efforts to bend the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (intended to be politically independent) to his will. The lawsuit’s attorney has requested that a federal judge rule on the constitutionality of a controversial bill, pushed for and eagerly signed by Jindal, that would kill the lawsuit. The judge will hear that motion, along with motions filed by oil companies to dismiss the suit, on Nov. 12.

From “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”

Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Canals dredged by the energy industry south of Lafitte.The land loss is swiftly reversing the process by which the state was built. As the Mississippi shifted its course over the millenniums, spraying like a loose garden hose, it deposited sand and silt in a wide arc. This sediment first settled into marsh and later thickened into solid land. But what took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85. . . .

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. . . .

A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States. . . .

When John Barry met with Congressman Bobby Jindal (2006): In Washington, where Barry lives for part of the year, he met with a freshman representative from the state’s First Congressional District, which includes much of southeastern Louisiana: Bobby Jindal. He begged Jindal to demand action from the White House [following Hurricane Katrina]. New Orleans couldn’t count on its mayor, or on the governor, he said; the city needed a hero on Capitol Hill. After speaking for two hours, Barry recalled, Jindal said that taking a leadership position on Hurricane Katrina “didn’t fit his timing for running for governor.” (Jindal, who declined to comment for this article, was elected governor in 2007.) “I left in total disgust,” Barry said. . . .

The state did have a plan in place to rebuild the barrier islands and coastal wetlands. Originally published in 2007 and revised in 2012, the so-called Coastal Master Plan was endorsed by scientists, as well as the oil and gas industry. . . . The state, however, had not figured out how it was going to finance the Coastal Master Plan. The main source of funding would be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits, which is expected to be as much as $20 billion. That would leave about $30 billion.

Barry believed that other oil and gas companies should also contribute. His argument was simple: Because the industry conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss, it should pay its part: $18 billion would be a start.

near Myrtle Grove, La.[Barry] knew that nearly every company that has operated in the marshes since the 1920s has used permits obliging them to maintain and repair any environmental damage it caused. In 1980, Louisiana began adhering to a federal law that required companies operating in the marsh—a list that includes ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Chevron and Koch Industries—to restore “as near as practicable to their original condition” any canals they dredge. After consulting with legal experts, Barry became convinced that most companies never filled in their canals and that the state had failed to enforce the law. In fact, many of the projects listed in the Coastal Master Plan called for plugging canals that should have been restored years ago. . . .

“Louisianians who make money in oil buy politicians, or pieces of politicians, as Kentuckians in the same happy situation buy racehorses. Oil gets into politics, and politicians, making money in office, get into oil. The state slithers around it.” These sentences, written by A. J. Liebling in 1960 at the dawn of the deep-water offshore-drilling era, seem quaint when read today. Louisiana no longer slithers in oil; it drowns in it. It is also high on natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing. And at some point along the way, the state, which has the oil and gas, ceded political control to the industry, which needs the oil and gas. . . .

One peculiarity about the fight over the lawsuit is that few industries are in greater need of coastal restoration than oil and gas. The next major hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will put at risk billions of dollars of industry infrastructure—refineries, oil tanks, terminals and pipelines. This is why the industry endorsed the Coastal Master Plan. A second oddity is that Jindal, a hero of the anti-tax faction of the national Republican Party, who last year tried to eliminate the state’s corporate and income taxes, has now put himself in the position of allowing the largest single bill facing his state—for the balance of the Coastal Master Plan—to fall almost entirely upon taxpayers.

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Check out Restore Louisiana Now, and see the video  from the Coastal Conservation Conversation held at Loyola University on August 20 (highlights video clips here). Thanks to Ms. Anne Mueller of The Lens, a major sponsor of the Conversation.

Also, see Nathaniel Rich’s new piece in The New Republic, “Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming (too bad the state is being destroyed from within),” and his review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books, “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Land Loss in 1984 compared with 2014

1984–2014

 

Map source: Jamon Van Den Hoek, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Map note: Land areas are derived from Landsat imagery. Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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Louisiana’s Vanishing Wetlands and “Most Ambitious” Enviro Lawsuit Featured in New York Times Magazine

10/3/14

John BarryThis weekend you’ll want to go to your nearest newsstand and buy a copy of the Sunday New York Times and go straight to the Magazine for an article of major importance. The cover shows an oil industry “shortcut” canal sliced through Louisiana’s Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, overlaid with the words “Every Hour, an Acre of Louisiana Sinks into the Sea. Who Is to Blame?” The article, by Nathaniel Rich, focuses on the “high-stakes fight [that] has broken out over who is to blame—and who should bear the astronomical cost of restoring the coast” as the Louisiana wetlands continue to vanish into the Gulf of Mexico. Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land. Every day, 50 acres.

Rich spends quality time with John M. Barry (right), the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East that filed an historic lawsuit in July 2013 to force about 100 oil and gas companies to pay for damages to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. (Click here for more about the lawsuit; see also “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” on our Environment page.)

We’ll have more to say about this well-written article in the next few days—just wanted to alert you that it’s coming, and to urge you to “read all about it,” and spread the word. Buy the Sunday paper—help keep the presses rolling.

Nathaniel Rich, by the way, a novelist, is the son of New York magazine contributing writer and former New York Times columnist Frank Rich. In July Nathaniel reviewed Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books in a fine piece titled “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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The People’s Climate March Is This Sunday, Sept. 21

09/19/14

Peoples Climate March Sept

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If Greenland melts, seas will rise 23 feet.

Greenland + Antarctica = 38 feet. Or more.

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.”Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried—if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”  —“IEA Sees ‘Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years’” (LNW, 1/21/12)

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A Matter of National—Indeed, Global—Security

We hope you’ll come to the People’s Climate March in New York City this Sunday, Sept. 21. The more, the merrier. If you feel powerless, you are not alone. But don’t we have more power to change things for the better when we join together? The Climate March is timed to get the attention of the thousands of United Nations delegates in New York for the General Assembly (Sept. 16–Oct. 7), and, even more to the point, for Climate Summit 2014:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders, from government, finance, business, and civil society to Climate Summit 2014 this 23 September to galvanize and catalyze climate action.  He has asked these leaders to bring bold announcements and actions to the Summit that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015. Climate Summit 2014 provides a unique opportunity for leaders to champion an ambitious vision, anchored in action that will enable a meaningful global agreement in 2015.

Logistics: Marchers gather at Columbus Circle and on up Central Park West between 59th and 86th Streets. March begins at 11:30 a.m. Click here for more information about transportation, how you can volunteer, etc.

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Click here to see the video Disruption, an unflinching look at the devastating consequences of our inaction in the face of climate change—and gives a behind-the-scenes look at a part of the effort to organize the People’s Climate March.

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More from LNW about Climate Change and Extreme Weather

Here Comes the Flood  (5/23/14)

IEA Sees “Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years” (1/21/12)

Wrath of God? : Global Warming and Extreme Weather (5/24/11)

Polar-Palooza and the Singing Glaciologist  (2/11/09)

Penguins Are Melting (1/23/09)

Diagnosis of a Stressed-Out Planet  (10/29/07)

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Further Reading

Bringing the Noise on Climate Change  (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker)

What’s the deal with this U.N. Climate Summit?  (Ben Adler, Grist)

What climate marchers have learned from anti-nuke organizers  (Ben Adler, Grist)

National Climate Assessment Report 2014 (“A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.”)

U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods  (NYT 5/6/14)

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt  (NYT 5/12/14)

This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like  (Mother Jones, 5/12/14)

Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise  (Mother Jones, 1/31/13)

The Arctic Ice Crisis: Greenland’s glaciers are melting far faster than scientists expected  (Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, 8/16/12)

12 things the Obama administration wants you to know about climate change  (Grist.org on the National Climate Assessment)

Just 90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions  (Mother Jones, 11/20/13)

What Climate Change Will Do to Your City: By 2300, these iconic cities [New Orleans omitted] could be underwater

150 Years in 30 Seconds: Sea Level Debt Sinking U.S. Cities  (ClimateCentral)

Climate Change @ WhiteHouse.gov

NextGen Climate.org

A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change

Obama’s Climate Betrayal  (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 30, 2011)

Top 10 Signs We Are Living in a Warming World, 2011 Edition  (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 12, 2011)

Two Degrees of Disaster  (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Nov. 11, 2011)

Copenhagen Climate Summit: Five Possible Scenarios for Our Future Climate  (Guardian, Dec. 18, 2009). With talks in Copenhagen descending into chaos, the prospects for stabilising temperatures ‘dangerous’ levels look increasingly slim. Here are five possible scenarios for our future climate.

Science Museum Unveils Climate Change Map Showing Impact of 4C Rise  (Guardian, October 22, 2009). A new map of the world that details the likely effects of a failure to cut carbons emissions has been developed by Met Office scientists.

International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2011

United Nations Climate Change Conference web site

Text of 12-paragraph Copenhagen Accord

Dot.Earth  (Andrew C. Revkin’s climate change blog @ NYT)

Global Climate Network

Grist.org

And read these writers’ excellent, fact-based environmental reporting: Fiona Harvey (Guardian), Elizabeth Kolbert (New Yorker), and George Monbiot (Guardian)

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Join the People’s Climate March in NYC Sunday, Sept. 21

09/17/14

People’s Climate MarchYou’re Invited—Step On Out

“There’s a world to march for—and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn’t march.”  —“Why We March: Stepping Forth for a Planet in Peril ”

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Spread the word and make plans to join the People’s Climate March in New York City this Sunday, Sept. 21  (use our Facebook and Twitter icons below). Organized in part by author and activist Bill McKibben—with support from more than 1,000 groups—the march is timed to get the attention of the thousands of United Nations delegates coming to New York for the annual meeting.

More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march—environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups—which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.

Logistics: Marchers gather at Central Park West between 59th and 86th Streets (map here). March begins at 11:30 a.m. Click here for more information about transportation, how you can volunteer, etc.

The organizers are pushing hard to get everyone involved. Coordinator Paul Getsos says “our march has been endorsed by the largest union in New York City, the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] and by the two largest unions in the country, SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and NEA [the National Teachers Association].”

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In a report on the march for The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard writes:

Planning and decision-making for the People’s Climate March has followed a participatory, open-source model that recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests. “Anyone can contribute, and many of our online organizing ‘hubs” are led by volunteers who are often coordinating hundreds of other volunteers,” said Jamie Henn, the Strategy and Communications Director at 350.org. The initial idea for the march grew out of conversations early in 2014 involving the following groups, many rooted in New York City: 350.org, the Sierra Club, SEIU Local 32BJ, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Align Alliance for a Greater New York, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE and Avaaz.

“To Change Everything, We Need Everyone”

The Nation reports that the People’s Climate March “is also departing from the usual script by downplaying participation by celebrities and politicians. Instead, it will have more representatives from communities that have suffered the wrath of climate impacts address the crowd and brief the press.” One such person is Alexis Smallwood, who lived in Far Rockaway, Queens, until it was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

Echoing comments by New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina, Smallwood, a 30-year-old African-American, said she is joining the march because “it’s been hard in our community to get back home after the storm. There are no jobs out here, public transportation is coming back, but slowly. Now they’re raising rents, which is hard because our community has a lot of elderly and disabled folks on fixed incomes.”

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Respect Ya Mominem

We will be there, fellow earthlings, and we hope to see you and your friends, too. Invite everyone. There will be at least 100,000 of us, so plan to make friends and influence people. It’ll be fun, and a nice thing to do for Mother Earth. As we say in New Orleans, “Respect ya mominem.” (Illustration by Dirty Coast.)

If you can’t be there, please help spread the word, and click here to see how you can contribute some “spare change for positive change.” Text “change” to 97779 to join in. Click here for PDFs of flyers, posters, etc.

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Further Reading

A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change

National Climate Assessment Report 2014 (“A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.”)

U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods (NYT 5/6/14)

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt (NYT 5/12/14)

This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like (Mother Jones, 5/12/14)

Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise (Mother Jones, 1/31/13)

The Arctic Ice Crisis: Greenland’s glaciers are melting far faster than scientists expected (Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, 8/16/12)

12 things the Obama administration wants you to know about climate change (Grist.org on the National Climate Assessment)

Just 90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions (Mother Jones, 11/20/13)

What Climate Change Will Do to Your City: By 2300, these iconic cities [New Orleans omitted] could be underwater

150 Years in 30 Seconds: Sea Level Debt Sinking U.S. Cities (ClimateCentral)

Climate Change @ WhiteHouse.gov

NextGen Climate.org

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Image by NASA.

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Obama Has Plans for ISIS; Now Congress Must Vote

09/11/14

obama-strategy-isis-videoSixteenByNine1050 2

The Guns of August, September, October . . .

Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy. Statement by the President on ISIL, Sept. 10, 2014

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Happy 9/11, everyone.

We listened closely to President Obama’s speech last night, we have read the transcript, and, like many around the world, we are profoundly uneasy. It is clear that this president is seriously reluctant to get the United States re-involved in Iraq and to start anything with Syria. He and his national security team have drawn up a four-part plan “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.”

(Was somebody saying something about the centenary of the outbreak of the war to end all wars?)

We are nervous, with a sense of dread, at the prospect of more war in the Middle East. We support the president’s preference for diplomatic solutions, for involving as many neighboring countries as possible, and assembling a coalition at the recent NATO summit meeting. It is right to push the Iraqi government to be more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds (as the previous, U.S.-backed prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, was not). It is right to involve neighboring countries in the counterterrorism fight against ISIS; this cannot be the U.S. against ISIS. (That is what they want.)

. . . this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. 

But when the president says “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” we have no confidence that the situation is controllable (see “dogs of war” below). With the new deployment of 475 more service members to Iraq, there will be 1,500 soldiers in Iraq (there were none in early June). As we wrote in mid-June, it’s beginning to smell like early Vietnam. Drone strikes and aerial assaults alone will not suffice, and the troops we’re supposedly partnering with, even the Kurdish pesh merga, are less than reliable. ISIS has captured serious military hardware from the Iraqi army that dropped its arms and fled. Anti-aircraft weaponry could be part of their arsenal. If one of our planes is shot down, and if the crew are taken prisoner, what happens then? The U.S. won’t abandon them on the battlefield.

BBC-mapISIS’s videos of beheading American journalists have (predictably) made the public revolted and angry—even individuals who a month earlier were not inclined to support any more U.S. military involvement anywhere. Now, most Americans say “We’ve got to do something”—and we agree—but it is important not to respond emotionally. We must not go into war angry. ISIS wants to provoke the U.S. into a fight—so did al Qaeda—and this is where the president’s patient assembling of a coalition of neighbors of Iraq and Syria is essential; this must not be a U.S. vs. ISIS (or Muslim) fight. It was good that President Obama made clear, early in his speech, that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ . . . It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. . . . ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

And, let’s not forget, contrary to the neocons’ assertions, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003. (Al Qaeda hated Saddam, a secularist too cozy with the West.) ISIS’s commanders include former generals from Iraq’s army that was disbanded, along with Saddam’s Baath Party, in 2003 by Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer, with disastrous results. These are among the reasons why we feel the U.S. is obligated to try to help clean up the mess—very carefully. (Click here for more background, and see links below.)

Congress Must Vote on This

Congress must step up and vote on whether to authorize additional force against ISIS. We want to see some “profiles in courage.” (Click here to contact your members of Congress; let’s bug hell out of ’em.) There is not a single member of Congress—Democrat, Independent, or Republican—about whose reelection hopes and job security we frankly give a damn; we want to see them do their jobs and fulfill their constitutionally required responsibility to declare war (or authorize the use of force). Per Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution:

[The Congress shall have Power . . .] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

Further, the congressional Republicans who have blocked votes on more than 40 ambassador nominations—to Turkey, among other nations—should end their dangerous games and vote already. The diplomatic angle of the anti-ISIS struggle will not work without Turkey’s cooperation; we must have an ambassador now. (For much of this year—this year of all years—the U.S. did not have an ambassador to Russia because of GOP stonewalling. Country first.)

Senator Bernie Sanders makes an excellent point: that ISIS must be resisted, but we have severe problems here in the U.S. that must be tended to—a collapsing middle class, veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are not being taken care of by an underfunded Veterans Administration, and much more. National security begins at home.

Iraq War Is Already Costing $3 to $5 Trillion

Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes estimated the Iraq war would ultimately cost the United States some $3 trillion when all health care costs over the soldiers’ lifetimes are factored in. In 2008 they raised their estimate to $4 or $5 billion.

As noted by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Jason Fields of Reuters has reported that the American airstrikes against ISIS (150 and counting) are destroying millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment the U.S. gave to the Iraqi army—the army we trained for years (“As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” said George W. Bush), the one that melted before the ISIS onslaught this year. Worse, Fields writes,

Now, U.S. warplanes are flying sorties, at a cost somewhere between $22,000 to $30,000 per hour for the F-16s, to drop bombs that cost at least $20,000 each, to destroy this captured equipment. That means if an F-16 were to take off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey and fly two hours to Erbil, Iraq, and successfully drop both of its bombs on one target each, it costs the United States somewhere between $84,000 to $104,000 for the sortie and destroys a minimum of $1 million and a maximum of $12 million in U.S.-made equipment. 

So here is what we want: For every dollar spent on new munitions fired at ISIS, fuel for jet fighters, etc., we want three dollars spent on veterans’ health care (including psychiatric counseling), three dollars on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and five to ten dollars spent on education, housing, and social services.

Because the escalated, re-upped war is being waged in part to make business and shipping conditions safe for the oil industry in and around the Persian Gulf, we want ExxonMobil and all the other U.S.-based oil companies doing business in the Middle East to pay higher corporate taxes—at least, say, 25 to 50 percent higher—and for the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department to enforce timely payment to the U.S. Treasury. The five largest oil firms doing business in Iraq are BP, Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron.

On paper, statutorily, corporations are supposed to pay a tax rate of 35 percent. A 2011 study by Citizens for Tax Justice found that, over 2008–2010,

Exxon Mobil paid an effective three-year tax rate of only 14.2 percent. That’s 60 percent below the 35 percent rate that companies are supposed to pay. And over the past two years, Exxon Mobil’s net tax on its $9.9 billion in U.S. pretax profits was a minuscule $39 million, an effective tax rate of only 0.4 percent.

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There is very much we do not know, but, as far as we can see, the Obama administration has been careful and methodical about using diplomacy, preferring to withdraw troops (not precipitously), not rushing into conflict, and judicious and cautious regarding the super-complicated, internecine snake pit of the Syrian civil war. Just because the president is not exaggerating the threat ISIS poses to the Homeland; just because he is (apparently) not lying to us as some presidents have done (weapons of mass destruction 2003; Gulf of Tonkin 1964), does not mean that the renewal of war in Iraq won’t go badly out of control. They cannot tell us how this will end.

We worry, as does David Corn at Mother Jones, whether the dogs of war can be controlled once they are unleashed. This new escalation of the counterterrorism fight against ISIS is likely to last years, into the next administration. We worry when we consider that the U.S. not always have a president with the patience for deliberation that the current president has. Just look at the attention span and patience exhibited by Obama’s predecessor, and the consequences thereof.

Now, tell us again about the guns of August . . .

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Further Reading

What Obama Didn’t Say  (Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker)

Five Questions About the War Against ISIS That No One Should Be Embarrassed to Ask  (Think Progress)

The Twenty-Eight Pages: A Void in the History of September 11 (Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker)

Levees Not War on ISIS, Iraq, and Syria

Must We? For Now, But for How Long? A Reluctant, Tentative Endorsement of (More) U.S. Military Action in Iraq  (8/10/14)

Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad  (6/17/14)

Congress, Now Is the Time to Vote “Hell No”  (9/4/13)

Here We Go Again  (6/14/13)

Syria Seen as a Backdoor to War with Iran  (5/2/13)

How Many Wars? After Libya . . . ?  (3/26/11)

As “End” of Iraq War Is Announced, U.S. Digs In, Warns Iran  (10/30/11)

How Many U.S. Soldiers Were Wounded in Iraq?  (12/31/11)

As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?  (8/19/10)

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Natl Security Team

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Top photo from The New York Times: pool photo by Saul Loeb; map in middle by BBC.

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BP Found Grossly Negligent in Deepwater Horizon Spill

09/6/14

U.S. Coast Guard:European Pressphoto Agency

Could Be Fined $18 Billion

The fire you see here may be BP’s capital reserves going up in flame.

A federal judge has ruled that BP was “reckless,” grossly negligent, and primarily to blame for the April 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and sent untold millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans on Thursday Judge Carl J. Barbier of the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana apportioned to BP 67 percent of the responsibility, 30 percent to Transocean (which owned the rig), and 3 percent to Halliburton, the cement contractor on the well. Only BP was found to be grossly negligent. (Click here for the ruling.)

Throughout the legal proceedings, BP has maintained that it is not primarily responsible, but that Transocean and Halliburton are mainly to blame. (In related news, earlier this week BP asked a federal judge to remove oil spill claims administrator Pat Juneau for “conflicts of interest”—i.e., he would be too generous to Louisiana residents, too expensive for BP.)

By finding BP grossly negligent rather than merely negligent (a critical legal distinction), Judge Barbier ratcheted up the possible financial cost to BP up to as much as $18 billion in new civil penalties, “nearly quadruple the maximum Clean Water Act penalty for simple negligence and far more than the $3.5 billion the company has set aside” for fines, according to The New York Times. Under the Clean Water Act, The Times-Picayune explains, “the penalty for each barrel of oil spilled is up to $1,100 if a polluter is found to be negligent. That increases up to $4,300 per barrel with a finding of gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

BP, which has consistently downplayed its responsibility and the severity of the catastrophe, claims that 2.45 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf, while U.S. Justice Department attorneys calculate the amount as 4.2 million barrels.

Halliburton has already agreed to pay $1.1 billion in damages to property and the commercial fishing industry, though that settlement has yet to be approved by the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

In a sternly worded, 153-page ruling that includes a detailed timeline of events, Judge Barbier described a “chain of failures” that led to the explosion and oil spill. The New York Times summarizes:

Vital seals and stoppers were left leaky along the casing of the well, the judge found, while BP then skimped on tests that might have shown the problems caused by the shoddy work. When tests were run, the results were interpreted with optimism at best and dishonesty at worst, and several critical decisions made by BP were found by Judge Barbier to have been “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.”

In a central episode, Judge Barbier highlighted a phone call between a senior BP employee on the rig and an engineer in Houston that took place roughly 40 minutes before the explosion. In the call, the two men discussed the results of a pressure test that should have prompted quick action to prevent an impending blowout. BP did not mention this call in its own investigative report, an omission Judge Barbier found suspicious.

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said in a news release, “This is an important milestone in the process of recovering the damages and penalties due to Louisiana. I will continue fighting for the recoveries Louisiana is entitled to for the damages we have sustained.”

BP says it will appeal the ruling.

See also: 

Other BP oil spill–related news compiled by The Times-Picayune

Times-Picayune on what the national media are saying about the BP oil spill ruling

BP Lashes Out at Journalists and “Opportunistic” Environmentalists (Mother Jones)

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Levees Not War on the BP Oil Spill

BP Celebrates Earth Day with Bonfire, Oil Spill: Well Leaks 210,000 Gallons a Day into Gulf of Mexico  (4/26/10)

“Oil-Spotted Dick”: Cheney’s Oily Fingerprints in the BP Disaster  (5/5/10)

BP Oil Flood Brought to You by U.S. Supreme Court?  (6/10/10)

More LNW coverage here.

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Top photo by U.S. Coast Guard/European Pressphoto Agency. Bottom photo (oiled bird on Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island) by Charlie Riedel/AP.

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Come to Rising Tide 9 in New Orleans on Sept. 13

09/4/14

RT9The Tide Rises Again | Everyone’s Invited

The ninth annual Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans will be held on Saturday, Sept. 13, at Xavier University in New Orleans. The keynote speaker will be educator and activist Dr. Andre Perry, formerly of New Orleans and now at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rising Tide website

Rising Tide on Facebook

Click here to register today!

The conference opens at 9:00 a.m. at Xavier University, 1 Drexel Drive, in Mid-City (click here for map), and runs to about 5:00. Pre-registration is only $10 per person, and the public is welcome. Coffee and breakfast snacks are available, and lunch, catered by Lucky Rooster, is served ($10 extra for lunch, please).

Schedule of Panels and Keynote Speaker

9:00 | Registration, coffee warm-up, etc.

10:00 | Panel: Using Mobile Devices to Uncover Seemingly Lost Historical Memory of the Confederacy, Leprosy, and White Supremacy in New Orleans

New Orleans residents, both natives and more recent arrivals, enjoy participating in the city’s collective historical memory. Nevertheless, much of the past remains unexamined and often unknown. This is a panel presentation on digital iterations of South Louisiana’s historical memory. Three online and mobile tours will reveal stories about Louisiana’s past that have been misrepresented or ignored in historical memory. With Jessica DauteriveKevin McQueeney, and Michael Mizell-Nelson, University of New Orleans.

11:30 | Panel: Building Capacity in Marginalized Communities

Presented by the Young Leadership Council (YLC), this panel will focus on the cultural, economic, educational, and social challenges that New Orleans’ most vulnerable communities face, and how the YLC and other such organizations have mobilized vast volunteer-based networks to create, fund, and implement new programming in response to those needs.

Scott Sternberg, Moderator • Curry Smith, executive director, YLC • Kelley Bagayoko, legislative aide to state representative Helena Moreno • Alyssa Wenck-Rambeau, director of finance at New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center • Warren M. M. Surcouf, project manager for Fat City Friends, v.p. of development for the YLC board of directors

Lunch break

2:00 | Keynote Speaker: Dr. Andre Perry

Dr“Education is like water; put down your reform rake.” Rakes don’t organize water very well. Likewise, charter schools, vouchers and lotteries aren’t the proper tools to deal with the root problems of New Orleans education. New Orleans public schools must become a “unified school district” if the needs of children, families and communities are to be met. Getting, private and parochial school parents to believe we’re all in this together has been and will be the essential problem that needs solving.

Andre Perry, Ph.D., is the Founding Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was associate director of the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education in New Orleans and served as the CEO of the Capital One–University of New Orleans Charter Network, composed of four charter schools in New Orleans.

Dr. Perry is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and a columnist for the Hechinger Report on education journalism. He has appeared on NBC, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and in The New Republic. In his book The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (University of New Orleans Press, 2011), Perry illustrates the tensions in post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans. He also contributed a chapter to Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).

3:00 | Panel: Saga at Treme: The Story of How A Quest for Personal Resilience Exposed Incompetence and Waste in Government

City planner Amy Stelly: “Saga at Treme will be presented through PowerPoint and a discussion that focuses on tips and strategies for effectively engaging government through email communication. The session will also feature a discussion with the players who started the ball rolling. They worked to build community support at the grassroots level and have chosen to vocalize their displeasure as our engagement with the City of New Orleans continues to heat up.”

4:00 | Panel: Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans

A conversation among representatives from diverse faith/spiritual communities over how such communities have been instrumental in the recovery of people’s spiritual health and emotional/psychological well-being since the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

Charlotte Klasson, New Orleans Secular Humanist Association • Matt Rousso, Maryknoll Mission Education Office and St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish • Tahera “Ty” Siddiqui, New Orleans Lamplight Circle • Rev. William Thiele, The School for Contemplative Living • Rev. Tom Watson, Senior Pastor, Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries

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More about Rising Tide

Previous featured speakers have included Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina; David Simon (co-creator of HBO’s Treme and The Wire); the actor and activist Harry Shearer; N.O. geographer and historian Rich Campanella; Treme-born writer Lolis Eric Elie, director of the documentaryFaubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; former Tulane professor of history Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans; Mother Jones human rights and environmental reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland; and authors John BarryDave Zirin, and Chris Cooper and Bobby Block.

Click here for a listing of previous Rising Tide programs, with links to videos and more.

Like Rising Tide on Facebook (don’t forget to share!), follow Rising Tide on Twitter (remember to retweet!), and check for programming updates on the Rising Tide Conference Blog or Rising Tide website. Visualize Rising Tide at the RT Flickr site.

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