Trading the Eagle for a $ Sign

When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.

But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.

Monetizing the environment

Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.” 

Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.

Declaring war against ourselves

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.

Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course?  Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.

What is an eagle worth?

The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem?  Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money?  More environmentally sustainable alternatives.

As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation?  How does our eagle compare with a new resort?

There will be a reckoning

Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.

Stacks displaying LBJ’s presidential papers occupy one vast wall of the LBJ Presidential Library.
Photo: New York Times

Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.

The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.

Policy Weirding: Climate Change and National Security

Will the military drive our national climate change agenda?  Dr. Joshua Busby dropped by a session of the World Spins for an update. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that new regulations on toxic chemicals and soot are to be based on data and science generally available to the public (otherwise known as “pop science”). In the past six months, the EPA deleted climate change from its strategic initiatives. President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, making it the only nation on earth unwilling to voluntarily reduce its carbon emissions, identified as the major contributor to global warming.

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A military weather-tracking station. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Climate Change report.

Whiplash contradiction over how to address changing weather patterns 

Over roughly the same time period, the National Defense Authorization Act identified climate change as a national security issue. The Center for Climate Change and Security published a chronology of over 12 separate concerns raised by senior Dept. of Defense officials, including:

I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

An associate professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Policy and an internationally-recognized expert on climate change policy and national security, Busby remains unperturbed in the face of whiplash contradiction. A veteran of climate research and negotiation, he recommended substituting “climate weirding” for “climate change” to cultivate civil discussion — not so easy in a world where the weather is mentioned in the same breath as terrorism.

 “It’s (climate change) a super-wicked problem, characterized by greed, lots of actors and short-term actions.”

Dr. Joshua Busby

The military perspective: assess and plan for risk   

From a military perspective, the risks posed by climate change are unequivocal. They can be assigned a dollar figure. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest in U.S. history. Damages topped $200 billion, not including cost of calling out the National Guard for the three most expensive hurricanes in recent history — Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Tasked with managing installations from Newport News to Africa and Antarctica, it must contend with rising sea levels, temperature and humidity; agricultural production; and  massive migration.

“In the Arctic, the combination of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and sea-level rise is eroding shorelines, which is damaging radar and communication installations, runways, seawalls, and training areas. In the Marshall Islands, an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of $1,000,000,000 is projected to be underwater within two decades.”

The National Defense Authorization Act

Busby and his team are helping the military pinpoint trouble spots before they occur. Using a composite mapping tool, they identify the countries most vulnerable to a combination of weather, famine, poverty and weak government — India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh. In this way, military can more effectively plan and direct help where it will be needed, as well as measure results over time.

Meanwhile in private sector, opportunity

While the military sees threats, the private sector sees opportunity. Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter, a risk assessment firm recently profiled by NPR, raised $10 million and hired top scientists from the federal government in a bid to help businesses and property owners prepare for a changing climate.

“Hugely important, globally significant, gigantic economic problem, not currently being addressed.”

                                                    Rich Sorkin, CEO, Jupiter

And of course, defense contractor Raytheon forecasts a boon in weapon sales:   “Domestically, the effects of climate change could overwhelm disaster-response capabilities. Internationally, climate change may cause humanitarian disasters, contribute to political violence, and undermine weak governments.”

Want to learn more?

The Center for Climate and Security

Publications

Slides from the presentation

NOTE:  If you haven’t followed NPR and Frontline’s coverage of the economic devastation wrought be Hurricane Maria and the inadequacy of the federal response, I recommend reading/watching it here.  Maria, of course, was the third major hurricane that required federal aid in the fall of 2017.