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Show Exposes Dark Forces Behind Trump 2020 Campaign

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Josh Fox, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind “Gasland,” the documentary that started the global anti-fracking movement, is bringing a new message to audiences across the country with The Truth Has Changed, a live theater-based project that sounds the alarm on the right-wing disinformation campaign working to secure President Trump’s reelection. Commissioned by legendary documentary producer Sheila Nevins for HBO as a solo performance to inspire grassroots action, The Truth Has Changed traces Fox’s personal arc from 9/11 to present-day America to tell a story that is both a warning and a prescription to save our democracy—and the planet.

I talked to Fox about this new project and the dark forces working to spread lies and misinformation to influence the 2020 presidential election.

Reynard Loki: Your films have been about the environment, and the fight to save it from climate change, fracking, pipelines, the activists at Standing Rock. How has your previous work led you to your new live performance-based project, The Truth Has Changed?

Josh Fox: That’s a great question. It started with an intriguing proposal from HBO. They said, “We know you do theater. We know you’ve been on the road for 10 years bringing your films to people. And you in a live setting is a part of the show, right? It’s not just that people come out to see your films. They come to see you, so how about you do a one-man show that brings that reality to the people?” And that was an assignment from Sheila Nevins when she was at HBO. And I said, “Absolutely; I’ll try this.” And then I started to really think about it, and at first, it was kind of a reporter’s notebook, but to be honest, what I really zeroed in on was the fact that for the last 10 years, the oil and gas industry has made a huge effort to discredit my work and discredit all of the people who spoke about how bad fracking is. And this is very similar to the campaigns of climate denial, which hinge on widespread misinformation and then spreading disinformation and propaganda, smear and lies.

RL: Can you describe the effort to discredit your work?

JF: Big names in conservative smear campaigns were following me all around the country. [Steve] Bannon. Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart. Filmmaker Phelim McAleer, whose pro-fracking documentary “FrackNation” attempted to refute my own documentary “Gasland.” Conservative activist James O’Keefe. GOP media strategist Fred Davis. These high-profile right-wing charlatans clearly did opposition research on me. They collected all this data on me and figured out how to attack me personally. They tried to get inside my psyche to unnerve me. And they did it in a very specific and deliberate kind of way.

RL: What exactly did they do?

JF: They created hate emails specifically designed for my personality. There were tweets threats; there were death threats on Twitter. They highlighted my life in the theater, my hairline, the fact that my family’s Jewish; they found out that I had quit smoking several years ago, but they found a picture of me with a cigarette in my hand online from the past, and they ran that as a pro-fracking TV ad in Ohio saying, “This environmentalist is a smoker.” They followed me around the country for years. They booked shadow tours of our films. They tapped into ethnic and regional stereotyping. And then they tried to paint me as some kind of rich, intellectual, New York City liberal, which is not the case. They flung all of these stereotypes at me. They gathered all this information about me—my background, my ethnicity, my age, my race, where I live, where I went to school, how much money I made, what I had done in my previous life before the films.

RL: Are you saying that those techniques used against you are similar to the current disinformation campaigns we’re seeing today? Could you have been a kind of beta test for this data-based approach to spread propaganda?

JF: Absolutely. Basically, what Steve Bannon did to me from 2010 to 2015, he did to the entire American electorate in 2016. In developing “The Truth Has Changed,” I made two startling realizations. One was that the people who ran those campaigns against me had a very strong hand in influencing the 2016 election: Steve Bannon, who was running Breitbart when all these attacks were happening against me, took over the Trump campaign and his team profiled the electorate in the exact same way. This connection led me down two trails in my own life. The first looked back to my own personal history as a grandson of Holocaust survivors. I have an intimate knowledge of how white supremacy works, how the Nazi playbook operates, and feel a sense of intergenerational trauma. The second trail looks to the present time and the future, to how the same techniques that were used in a smear campaign against an individual through Google, Facebook, data collection, [and] addressable ad technology, which enables advertisers to selectively segment audiences to serve different ads, are used to influence a massive amount of people. And instead of just following one person around and knowing one person’s data—mine—now they know the personal data of tens of millions of people, and they use that information to create highly personalized ads according to different personality types.

RL: How important was big data to Trump’s victory in 2016?

JF: During the 2016 election, CNN called political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica “Donald Trump’s mind readers” and his “secret weapon.” They gathered up to 5,000 data points on more than 220 million Americans. And they used that data to tailor ads specifically toward people’s personality types to influence their thinking. The same folks are currently rallying white supremacists all across the world and are making a bid to get Trump reelected in 2020. Their digital campaign created 5.9 million different ad variations in 2016, versus just 66,000 ads created by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was so key to Trump’s victory that Trump’s digital campaign manager Brad Parscale is now his campaign manager.

RL: So in The Truth Is Changed, you’re connecting big oil and white supremacy to big data—and how these forces are working together to influence the 2020 election.

JF: Yes, we’re talking about Bannon and the white supremacy movement. We’re talking about Trump’s former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, before that, was the head of ExxonMobil and the oil and gas industry, which has brazenly taken over the government. We’re talking about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and their collection of the personal data of billions of people around the globe. Together, they have created a situation in which big data, big oil and white supremacists powerfully influence the way the United States government operates. And certainly, in the 2020 election cycle, we’re going to have a very hard time figuring out what is true. I think we’re going to see the largest smear, misinformation and disinformation campaigns in the history of any election. So in The Truth Has Changed, I’m taking a deep dive not only into the smear techniques of big oil and how they work from a new technology perspective, from psychographics to addressable ad technology, but going into how that is now how we run elections in America, and then we’ve entered the age of misinformation because right now it’s very hard for people to tell what’s true.

RL: Do disinformation campaigns rely on gullibility?

JF: No, I wouldn’t say that at all, not with the state of our education system right now. This entire project starts with a high school girl in the front row of one of my films putting her hand up and asking me, “Josh, how do we know what’s true?” She said, “You say all these things about how fracking is bad, and climate change is real, but then we can look online, and we see that people are saying that the opposite of this is true. So how do we know?” She’s not gullible. She’s trying, but can’t figure out the difference between a persuasive argument that is true, and a persuasive argument that is false.

Friends of mine send me fake things all the time because it appeals to them. I’ve sent fake things out accidentally because they appeal for my sensibility. And it’s not only that these ads say things like, vote for Donald Trump, he’s a nice guy, or he’s a tough guy, or he’s a strong guy, or he’s a compassionate guy. It’s often taking people who are upset with the Democratic Party and funneling them toward, for example, Jill Stein, when they might otherwise vote for Hillary Clinton. And a lot of people will get really mad at me and say, “No, no, no, Jill Stein represents what I believe in.” But if you’re in Pennsylvania and you’re voting against the Democratic platform, which Bill McKibben, Cornel West and I helped write and which has real progress in it, and that vote then gets siphoned away to put Donald Trump in office, then you’ve been manipulated. These disinformation campaigns often take the most deep-seated things that are really important to you and turn that into their own political gain. People are assuming that there is some kind of standard for truth because there always used to be. But last year, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress and declared that political candidates no longer had to abide by any kind of standards of truth, they abandoned a century’s worth of journalistic integrity. And they are arguably the largest news publisher in the world.

RL: In the face of all of this, what can we do to suss out truth from lies?

JF: We always have to check for accuracy. The pursuit of the truth is not something that can be done easily, and it never has been. However, we are now seeing the standard-bearers of journalism consistently undermined, and they themselves also make mistakes and who are also subject to manipulation. The New York Times publishes things directly from State Department press releases constantly; it’s maddening. Today, people need to work harder to get to the truth. But beyond that, we must control and own our own data, because if someone knows you really well, it’s really easy for them to manipulate you.

Take, for example, the 1988 presidential election that pitted incumbent GOP Vice President George H.W. Bush against Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis. [Those who are old enough] probably remember the Willie Horton ad, a racist ad put out by the Republican campaign against Michael Dukakis, and it obviously caused a huge wave of controversy and anger because it was racist. But it only caused that level of controversy because it was visible to everyone. Now you can run 1,000 Willie Horton ads. You can run 10,000 Willie Horton ads. You can run a Willie Horton ad supposedly put out there by a fake Black Lives Matter page, and no one would ever know. So if you put out a racist ad and only racists can see it, it causes absolutely no controversy, but it’s deeply effective in rallying people. And a lot of the times people don’t even know that they’re racist. So you might have things happening to folks on an unconscious level, on a deep psychological level that they’re not aware of. But the internet knows. If you’ve got 5,000 data points on somebody, you know them on a very intimate level, you know their psychology, you know what they’re afraid of, you know their sexual orientation, you know their medical history, their age, their race. So your campaign to win them over becomes very effective.

RL: So, how do we get to a point where owning your personal data is a human right? Is this ever going to happen?

JF: There have to be laws, and those laws have to be in line with the current technology. We’re currently working with the New York State Senate to create a new slate of laws. There’s a privacy law in California that’s just recently been passed, but there’s some dispute as to how companies are supposed to comply. And so there have to be laws about data privacy that we can campaign for, but the Democrat campaigns must also address this issue. The New York Times recently reported that the Democrats have no strategy to stop this wave of misinformation. But they need to understand that how they handle misinformation is going to be the difference between tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of votes in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Florida. So the Democrats have to get really serious about this issue—and they have to address it really fast. I’ve appealed to the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other campaigns, saying that this is really serious because it’s about to happen—and it’s going to happen worse than it’s ever happened before.

RL: Should we be allowed to sell our data?

JF: That is a fascinating question. I don’t know if I have a real clear answer. I mean, it’s being collected by your action, right? Everything you buy, everywhere you go, everything you search for, all things you know and all the things you don’t know, all that data goes in, and the algorithm learns what you personally crave and what you personally lack and what you really want in life, so that’s a digital map of your dreams, your insecurities, your life. And it is sort of like you’re on the road, right? It’s your digital biography. Do you own your movements in the world? It’s a very interesting question. I imagine there are some benefits. So, for example, if you’re on Instagram and you’re a man, and you’re constantly getting ads for feminine hygiene products, they’re an annoyance; they’re not useful to you. So perhaps you want to get ads that are more tailored to you. And of course, the way the news works these days is the news gives you back things that you agree with and that you want to see and that you want to read because there’s so much information out there. This does backfire upon you because, at that point, you end up being manipulated by the fact that now interests that are foreign to you and nefarious to you and harmful to you can start to target you.

RL: How has the truth crisis impacted the climate crisis?

JF: They go hand-in-hand. We get our terrestrial proof from the Earth. The planet is empirical data. Climate change deniers are saying that the empirical data that’s coming from the Earth is not true. Where do they say that? Principally, they say that online, which is its own “planet,” the cybersphere. It’s a planet that doesn’t exist on Earth. It exists by its own rules and has its own set of priorities. And if you leave terrestrial Earth, yeah, you can make it wherever you want. So when you’re in that cybersphere, it reigns true whenever you feel like on that particular day, for whomever is willing to pay for it.

The tobacco industry originally started doing this. They started to say things like, “Smoking is good for you.” And they created all this bogus science and fake reports that said, “These cigarettes are fine.” And what they were trying to do is sow confusion in people and stave off regulation. The exact same technique has been used by the oil industry.

RL: Why is the truth crisis such an urgent matter?

JF: It’s so important because the further we get away from the terrestrial planet as our source of empirical reality, the closer we come to being evicted from the planet like climate change, and that is those same forces, the oil industry and the conservatives that are forcing us to an unlivable world. This is an emergency because of the climate. It’s also an emergency because we’re seeing right now the reemergence of white supremacists and Nazis on this planet, and they are taking over. Right-wing authoritarian governments are sweeping elections across the earth, and they’re doing so primarily by using Facebook and WhatsApp and by lying directly to the public. Sixty-eight thousand fake Twitter accounts helped push the recent Bolivian coup. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s recent election, 88 percent of the conservative parties’ advertisements were misleading. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was elected with the help of fake news messages sent via WhatsApp, a messaging app used by 120 million Brazilians, saying that his opponent was a criminal. Obviously, there’s Donald Trump, who had 5.9 million ad variations using Cambridge Analytica. There’s also Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Narendra Modi in India. There are dozens of examples. So you’re seeing right-wing, authoritarian, racist regimes cropping up all over the world. And in 2019, Steve Bannon raised $100 million for his white supremacist project in Europe.

So what is really dangerous about all of this is the two-headed monster of the rise of white supremacy, Nazism and racism on the one hand and on the other hand, climate change denial and the fossil fuel industry. And these are linked, and these are linked in the persona and in many actions by the Trump administration. In 2017, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil turned Secretary of State, created a contract between the State Department and Cambridge Analytica, and their mission was to influence elections all across the world. Big data and big oil running American diplomacy. And that continues to this day.

RL: Why should people see The Truth Has Changed?

JF: Because this is a chance to rally for the truth. It’s the chance to rally for a new America. This project concerns itself with the oil industry, the world at war post-9/11, climate change. We’ve seen the United States get closer to war with Iran. We see Australia on fire, and authorities there must battle misinformation campaigns contending that the fires were caused by arson and not climate change. We know that we’re watching the extinction of countless species in real time. We’re in an emergency.

At every single performance of The Truth Has Changed, there will be activists in the room who are campaigning on these issues, and that’s what we need to do. We need to set the record straight. We need to say climate change is real. We need to say fracking is bad, we need to see Donald Trump as a racist and say that is not who we are as a nation. So we have to take our country back, and this is our effort to try to fight back against this wave of lies, smear and misinformation.

The Truth Has Changed opens at New York’s Public Theater this January and will tour across the United States. For more information, visit internationalwow.com/tthc.php.

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s “Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016.” His work has been published by Truthout, Salon, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

Democratic Congressman Urges Trump To Keep Pruitt

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

As EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faces mounting scrutiny for ethics violations, including the misuse of taxpayer funds and cozy relationships with the industries his agency is meant to regulate, at least one Democrat actually wants Trump to keep Pruitt right where he is.

In a Saturday morning tweet, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) joked that President Trump should reject the calls for Pruitt’s dismissal (which now include at least 20 members of Congress, three of them Republicans), because Pruitt is “such a great symbol of the corruption and fraud, waste & abuse in your Administration.”

The congressman also asked Trump to “do more toxic rallies” that include Pruitt, saying that Pruitt’s continued presence will help the “Dem wave” that “continues to get stronger.”

The scandals swirling around Scott Pruitt, who served as Oklahoma’s attorney general before joining Trump’s cabinet, are so numerous it’s hard to keep track of them. Pruitt has reportedly demoted or reassiged EPA staffers who were critical of him; splashed out on premium flights and lavish hotel stays; rented a Washington, D.C. condo from the wife of a natural gas lobbyist for just $50 a night; and hired a full-time, 20-person security detail that has cost taxpayers millions.

On Saturday evening, Lieu took another jab at Pruitt in a tweet asking House Speaker Paul Ryan if Lieu could “get a multimillion security detail when I go to Disneyland this summer.”

Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affiairs Committee, isn’t really serious about keeping Pruitt on. He was one of 64 Democratic members of Congress who signed a letter Friday demanding that Trump fire the EPA chief.

In an appearance on MSNBC Saturday, Lieu called Pruitt a “deeply paranoid person,” citing his huge security detail (three times the size of his predecessor’s part-time detail) and his creation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office. “This is a person that is the epitome of fraud, waste and abuse … there’s no reason why he should remain at the EPA,” Lieu said.

Watch Lieu’s interview on MSNBC:

h/t: Huffington Post

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

Of Course Trump Looked Directly At The Solar Eclipse Without Eye Protection

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

President Trump, First Lady Melania and their son Barron were standing on a White House balcony to view Monday’s eclipse. In a segment of Anderson Cooper’s coverage on CNN, the Trumps were shown looking up at the sky in protective sunglasses. Moments later, they took off the glasses. Melania put on her normal sunglasses. And then President Trump looked back up at the eclipse—without any eye protection.

Here’s Trump looking at the eclipse while wearing the protective eclipse glasses:

(Screen Capture/CNN)

Then, just seconds later, he looks back up at the eclipse—without the glasses:

(Screen Capture/CNN)

For days, health professionals, public officials and media outlets have been drilling home the warning that looking directly at the sun—even during a solar eclipse—can burn your eyes, even after a quick glance. What’s more, your retina doesn’t have pain receptors, so they can be scorched without your even realizing it. And the damage can last a lifetime.

“I have one patient in his 60s who looked at the sun through a telescope when he was 9 years old and still has a central block in his vision,” says Russell Van Gelder, MD, former president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and chairman of the ophthalmology department at the University of Washington Medical School.

A group of friends from Portland issued their own warnings, saying they experienced partial blindness and “20 seconds of burning” when they looked up at a solar eclipse more than half a century ago.

“We didn’t know right that second that we damaged our eyes,” said Roger Duvall, 70, said in a phone interview Sunday with Philly.com. “At that time, we thought we were invincible, as most teenagers do. …We had looked down at the ground and you’re still looking at part of the eclipse like it’s imprinted in your eye.”

Several presidents have had to deal with eye problems. Abraham Lincoln started wearing reading glasses at 47, when he was diagnosed with presbyopia. Teddy Roosevelt’s left retina became detached during a boxing match, causing blindness. Woodrow Wilson also went blind in the left eye after his third stroke. Poor eyesight kept Ronald Reagan out of combat duty during World War II. George H.W. Bush was diagnosed with early glaucoma in his left eye.

So if Trump damaged his retinas by looking directly at the solar eclipse, he wouldn’t be the first president with a serious eye issue. But he’d be the first in which the diagnosis was sheer stupidity.

Reynard Loki is AlterNet‘s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

Did Macron Just Convince Trump To Reenter The Paris Agreement?

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

The friendship between the United States and France goes way back—all the way to 1775, when France secretly began sending supplies to the Americans during the Revolutionary War. In fact, France was the first ally of the new United States. (Of course, it helped that France was pretty angry at Great Britain over the territory it lost during the French and Indian War.)

Now, almost 250 years later, President Trump has ruffled some French feathers by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, signed by nearly 200 nations to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But newly minted French president Emmanuel Macron wasn’t about to let Trump’s pullout ruin a good friendship—something that was made abundantly clear when the two leaders met in Paris last week.

By many accounts, Macron is a true optimist. Perhaps his youth has something to do with his lack of negativity; at 39, he is France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, and the first to be born after 1958. His predecessor and former boss Francois Hollande said Macron “radiated joy” when he worked for him, an odd statement considering Hollande’s dour disposition. (The Telegraph’s William Langley once called the ex-president “a politician with the personality of bread mold.”)

“An almost preternaturally sunny demeanour, combined with his winning way with words, has been the new president’s magic formula,” writes Hugh Schofield, the Paris correspondent for BBC News. He also noted that Macron’s “resplendent” personality was going to be “tested like never before.”

Well, Macron may have just aced the Trump test. And he did it by launching a charm offensive that allowed him not only to forcefully address their main point of contention—Trump’s controversial withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement—but to get Trump to soften his climate stance, something no other politician, American or otherwise, has yet accomplished.

In a Sunday interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Macron said he pressed Trump on the possibility of bringing America back into the agreement.

Donald Trump listened to me,” Macron said, according to AP. “He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.” The French president added: “He said he would try to find a solution in the coming months. We spoke in detail about what could allow him to return to the Paris deal.”

During a joint news conference after the meeting, Trump said “something could happen with respect to the Paris accord…We’ll see what happens. But we’ll talk about that in the coming period of time. If it happens, that will be wonderful. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.”

Perhaps France—and for that matter, Europe—has found a “Trump whisperer” in Macron, who also said during his interview Sunday that he believes Trump left the country with a “better image of France than upon his arrival.” (Angela Merkel, take note.)

“Our countries are friends, so we should be too,” Macron said, adding his belief that after their meeting, the two leaders gained a “better, intimate knowledge of each other.”

When they met, Trump and Macron shared a seemingly neverending handshake. Hopefully, they’ll soon be shaking hands to celebrate America’s reentry to the Paris agreement. To Monsieur Macron, we say, Bonne chance!

Watch Trump and Macron’s epic handshake:

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Stephen Hawking Warns Trump Withdrawal From Climate Deal Could Turn Earth’s Temperature To 250 Degrees And Bring Sulphuric Acid Rain

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

In an interview Sunday with the BBC, the celebrated British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement will cause “avoidable environmental damage.”

“We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible,” said Hawking, who is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. “Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees and raining sulphuric acid.”

Trump’s decision to abandon the landmark agreement, which was signed by nearly 200 nations to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, puts the accord in jeopardy, as the U.S. is the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China.

Hawking, regarded by many as one of the greatest physicists since Einstein, has slammed Trump in the past, calling him “a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” In a March interview with Piers Morgan on ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” he said the president should fire Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier who is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent,” Hawking said. “It affects America badly, so tackling it should win votes for his second term, god forbid.”Watch Hawking describe Earth’s possible hellish future due to Trump’s climate denial:

 

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Trump Admin Makes Key Decision That Threatens Water Supply Of Millions [Video]

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reportedly issuing a proposed rule to undo the Clean Water Rule that was enacted in May 2015, under President Obama’s last term. The rule protects the water supply for more than 117 million Americans.

Also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS), the Clean Water Rule puts limits on pollution in the wetlands, rivers and streams that feed the nation’s larger waterways. Those limits are essential for protecting the safety of the drinking water on which millions of American rely.

The rule also safeguards those waters for swimming, fishing and other activities. In addition, the rule helps to maintain the biological integrity of those smaller waterways, in turn protecting wildlife by keeping aquatic ecosystems healthy.

When the rule was issued, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers resolved decades of legal debate among politicians, environmentalists and public health advocates, saying that smaller waterways across the nations—tens of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of streams—actually qualify for legal protection under the Clean Water Act, the primary federal law that protects communities and ecosystems from water pollution. Since then, Senate Republicans have made several failed attempts to overturn the rule, arguing that the rule gives undue authority to the federal agencies.

Now President Trump has made the GOP’s wish a reality, by signing an executive order directing the EPA and the Army Corps to begin the process of repealing the Clean Water Rule, with the ultimate goal of completely eliminating it.

On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt expressed that a proposal to repeal the rule would be sent out by the two agencies. Today’s proposed repeal would not only bring back the confusion and discord over what exactly the Clean Water Act protects, but would make it easier for polluters to contaminate the nation’s waters.

Thaddeus Lightfoot, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney who has nearly three decades experience practicing environmental law, cautioned that this is neither a clear victory for the rule’s opponents, nor a clear loss for its supporters. “The WOTUS rule has been under a judicially-imposed nationwide stay since shortly after it was promulgated and cannot be “withdrawn” by congressional testimony,” he said in a statement to press.

Lightfoot pointed out that even Trump’s executive order acknowledged that the President cannot rescind or revise the rule, a procedure that he said “could take years.” However, while he said that Pruitt’s statement itself “has no immediate legal effect,” he acknowledged the move is “significant because it further signals the Administration intends to significantly reduce the jurisdiction scope of the Clean Water Act,” and that any replacement of the WOTUS rule would be “subject to challenge in the courts.”

Still, the Trump administration’s actions today have drawn fresh battle lines. In an email, Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, warned that they represent Trump’s “first step towards gutting the Clean Water Act itself and the 44 years of water protections that go with it.” He added, “By repealing the Clean Water Rule, Trump will once again put polluter profits ahead of the needs of our communities, businesses, and environment. This is an assault on basic protections for clean water and a massive waste of time and taxpayer money that puts millions at risk.”

“In yet another clear signal that the Trump administration cares little for the health and safety of communities across the United States, the EPA is reportedly issuing a proposed rule to undo the Clean Water Rule that was enacted under Obama’s last term,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in an email. “With each day in office, Trump is firmly cementing his place in history as the worst environmental president to ever hold office.”

The legal challenge against President Obama’s rule has been led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for farmers that has generally been opposed to any climate or environmental regulation that they believe impedes the competitiveness of American farmers. The AFBF has argued that the Clean Water Rule places an inordinate strain on farmers in particular, saying they may be required to apply for federal permits in order to use fertilizer near streams on their property that flow into larger rivers.

On the campaign trail, Trump’s vow to rural audiences that he would rescind the rule was met with cheers. The rule is opposed by other sectors that are responsible for pollution, including the oil and gas industry, pesticide makers and property developers like Trump.

In a statement to press, Hauter acknowledged that the rule was “far from perfect,” but argued that it was “a step in the right direction,” casting Trump’s move as “giant steps backwards in clean water protections, back to the days of massive fish kills and rivers on fire.”

“This proposal strikes directly at public health,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an email. “It would strip out needed protections for the streams that feed drinking water sources for one in every three Americans. Clean water is too important for that. We’ll stand up to this reckless attack on our waters and health.”

Watch Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, talk about the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Water Rule:

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

If You Use One Of These Banks, You’re Helping Fund The Dakota Access Pipeline

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

At a recent Standing Rock benefit in New York City for opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline, co-hosts Mark Ruffalo and Josh Fox were clear about what people should do if they want to help stop the pipeline: Take your money out of the banks that are funding it.

Fox, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker whose 2010 documentary Gasland helped launch the anti-fracking movement, called Wells Fargo, Chase, CitiBank, TD Bank and Bank of America “the biggest fracking sites that we have.” But they’re not the only ones: 17 banks are directly funding the pipeline, having given a total of $2.5 billion to Dakota Access LLC, the subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners developing the pipeline. In addition, according to research conducted by Food & Water Watch, the companies involved in building the pipeline have been extended a credit line of $10.25 billion from 38 banks.

The 17 banks are Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, BayernLB, BNP Paribas, BVA Securities, Citibank (CitiGroup), Credit Agricole, DNB Capital, ING Bank, Natixis, Intesa SanPaolo, ICBC London, Mizuho Bank, SMBC Nikko Securities, Societe General, Sun Trust, TD Bank and Wells Fargo.

The graphic shows which banks are involved in funding the entire Bakken pipeline.

Image © Foodandwaterwatch.org (click to enlarge).

If completed, the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline would transport 500,000 barrels of crude oil every single day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota south to Illinois en route to terminals in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mark Ruffalo, an actor and activist who was instrumental in the successful movement to ban fracking in New York state, was confident that withdrawing money from pro-pipeline banks is a successful strategy. “This is real. We can stop this pipeline by doing this,” he told the benefit attendees, who were gathered at Deepak HomeBase, at ABC Carpet and Home in downtown Manhattan. “You want to know how we can stop it? We stop it by doing this. This is the soft, gooey underbelly of the beast, of the black snake. The more pressure we put on them financially, the harder it is to move forward. It doesn’t mean a damn thing what Trump does.”

Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant the final permit the Dakota Access Pipeline needs to be completed. Instead, officials said, an environmental impact review will be conducted to investigate the possibility of routing the pipeline in a way to prevent it from crossing the Missouri River. While the decision is a big victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its allies, who say the pipeline threatens drinking water supplies, proponents of the pipeline have a powerful ally in President-elect Donald Trump, who said he supports its completion. But without funding from banks, the pipeline is endangered.

But it’s not only the pipeline that the banks—and possibly your money—is funding. Fox connected that money to the official violence being committed against the peaceful Standing Rock protesters and the environment at large. If you’ve got money in these banks, “you’ve got rubber bullets in the bank account that are being shot at these people, you’ve got tear gas that is being sprayed at the water protectors. You’ve got concussion grenades being hurled at your fellow New Yorkers. That’s what’s in the bank. You have an oil spill happening when you put that ATM card in. That has become an act of violence. That is our system.”

Tokata Iron Eyes, a 13-year-old water protector who came to New York for the benefit, asked attendees to be vocal about taking their money out. “When you are pulling your money from the banks, be sure to be public about it because we need that message to spread. … They’re paying for the traumas and the atrocities that children have to witness. I’ve had to see my mom be arrested, taken away from me. I’ve had to see my aunts and uncles on the front lines being beaten and maced. That’s something that no kid should have to see, but that’s what these banks are paying for.”

Fox suggested recording the event. “When you walk into the bank, and you have your livestream going from your iPhone or whatever, or you just take a selfie with your banker, and you say, I don’t want my money to be supporting these pipelines. I want the bank here to know.”

Ruffalo advocated a harsher tone, suggesting the following statement as you withdraw your money: “I’m taking every dime out of this bank if by the 21st, you guys haven’t made a formal statement to take the money out of this brutal, bloodless, taking of our health and the health of our future generations.”

The call to withdraw money from the banks follows a letter signed by more than 400 environmental, human rights and other social organizations from more than 50 countries demanding that the banks pull their financial support from the project. The campaign is working: More than $45 million has been divested from the Dakota Access Pipeline so far, according to the activist group DefundDAPL. And the figure continues to rise as more people withdraw their money.

In an article last year, 350.org founder Bill McKibben put it bluntly. He said that although “most Americans live far from the path of the Dakota Access pipeline,” if you keep your money in one of these banks, “you inadvertently helped pay for the guard dogs that attacked Native Americans as they tried to keep bulldozers from mowing down ancestral grave sites.” McKibben suggested that withdrawing money from these banks is more effective than campaigning against the companies building the pipeline.

“Many of these banks may be vulnerable to pressure,” he said. “For one thing, they’re eager to appear green: Bank of America, for instance, recently announced plans to make all its bank branches ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2020.”

Instead of keeping your money in pro-fossil fuel banks, consider credit unions, which are nonprofit cooperatives that pool deposits so that members can borrow at low interest rates and generally invest in local projects. Another type of bank worth looking into is a community development bank, which often invests in socially responsible projects. In New York, Fox recommended Amalgamated Bank. If you’re on the West Coast, check out Beneficial State Bank, which supports local communities and the environment. Native American Bank, which is run and operated by Native Americans, is another option. For a list of alternatives, check the DefundDAPL website.

Watch the video “Who’s Investing in the Dakota Access Pipeline? Meet the Banks Financing Attacks on Protesters,” by Democracy Now:

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

IMAGE: Dakota Access Pipeline protesters square off against police near the Standing Rock Reservation and the pipeline route outside the little town of Saint Anthony, North Dakota, U.S., October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Obama Protects Waterways Before Trump Crashes The White House

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

On Monday, the U.S. Interior Department finalized a contentious rule to protect rivers, streams and forests from the negative impacts of surface coal mining. The Stream Protection Rule is the first update to the department’s regulations in 33 years, and is one of the Obama administration’s last major moves to protect the environment. Specifically, the rule was established to “avoid or minimize impacts on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources,” according to the DOI.

“The responsible rule released [December 20] represents a modern and balanced approach to meeting the nation’s energy needs,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said on Monday. “Regulations need to keep pace with modern mining practices, so we worked closely with many stakeholders to craft a plan that protects water quality, supports economic opportunities, safeguards our environment and makes coalfield communities more resilient for a diversified economic future.”

The stronger guidelines force coal firms to steer clear of mining activities that endanger streams and drinking water sources. Additionally, companies are required to restore ecosystems to their original state once mining activities have ceased in the area. Over the next two decades, the rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, according to the Interior Department.

While it is a major victory for environmentalists, the rule, which has received strong opposition from the coal industry, will likely be one of the first to be targeted by President-elect Trump, who made many promises to sustain the nation’s declining coal sector.

Both senators representing West Virginia, the second highest coal-producing state after Wyoming, oppose the new rule. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, underscored a demand she made to President Obama to “not move forward with any more rules and regulations as you are going out the door.” Joe Manchin, the state’s senior senator and a Democrat, said, “I remain unconvinced that this jobs-killing regulation is necessary or substantiated, particularly when you consider state and federal regulations already in place.”

One industry-backed study claimed, with scant evidence, that the rule could result in the loss of 5,000 jobs nationwide, reported West Virginia’s Metro News. But in its press release announcing the rule, the DOI stated, “Economic impacts were thoroughly analyzed and the final rule is projected to have a negligible impact on the coal industry overall.”

“This rule takes into account the extensive and substantive comments we received from state regulators, mining companies and local communities across the country,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider. “We traveled the country, visited many mines, and met with many of the people who work and live in coal country to make sure we wrote the best rule possible—one that is both economically achievable and protective.”

“This updated, scientifically modern rule will make life better for a countless number of Americans who live near places where coal is being mined,” said Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, a branch of the DOI that developed the rule. “We are closing loopholes and improving our rules to more completely implement the law passed by Congress.”

Though environmentalists largely cheered the new rule, some found fault with some of its provisions. Neil Gormley, staff attorney at Earthjustice, said that while Monday’s actions “includes several long-awaited improvements to current regulations,” he noted it was unfortunate that the rule also “eliminates the Reagan-era stream buffer zone, a strongly worded safeguard that prohibited harmful activity within 100 feet of streams. States have frequently refused to enforce the stream buffer zone, and the coal industry has long sought its repeal.”

Despite the steady decline of the coal industry, Donald Trump made the plight of out-of-work coal miners a central theme of his candidacy, though he was short on actual policy recommendations. “We’re going to get those miners back to work,” he said during his victory speech in May after securing the GOP presidential nomination. “Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania…they’re going to start to work again.”

Activists are prepared to fight Trump’s expected rollback of environmental protections, particularly those opposed by the coal industry. Jenifer Collins, associate legislative representative at Earthjustice, said her organization is committed to ensuring that “the commonsense protections for Appalachian communities are not rolled back by members of Congress, who would rather use the region as a partisan football than provide meaningful protections. We will also push the Department of Interior for stronger action and oppose any attacks by the coal industry. Clean water cannot be sacrificed for the sake of profits for big business.”

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

IMAGE: Delegates from West Virginia hold signs supporting coal on the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo

5 Ways President Trump Spells Doom For The Environment

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet

If the world’s governments don’t prevent the planet’s surface temperature from increasing more than 2°C, then life on Earth will become a difficult proposition for many humans, animals and plants. Glaciers will melt, sea levels will rise, crops will fail, water availability will decrease, and diseases will proliferate. Some areas will experience more wildfires and extreme heat; in others, more hurricanes and extreme storms. Coastal cities and possibly entire nations will be swallowed by the sea. There will be widespread social and economic instability, leading to regional conflicts.

Considering that the U.S. is the world’s second biggest emitter behind China, accounting for 16 percent of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions, the climate decisions President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress make will be critical for future generations. But he has shown no sign that he’s remotely interested in tackling what climate scientist James Hansen calls “humanity’s greatest challenge.”

Contrary to the view of the international scientific community, Trump has called climate change a “con job” and a “myth.” In 2012 he tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He cited cold winter weather as evidence that global warming isn’t real, tweeting during a 2014 winter blizzard, “The entire country is freezing—we desperately need a heavy dose of global warming, and fast! Ice caps size reaches all time high.”

So, what could America’s newly elected climate-denier-in-chief do to undermine action on the climate threat? Here are five ways President Donald J. Trump could spell doom for the planet.

1. Dismantle the EPA.

Trump said would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon that has become the nation’s main federal lever for mitigating the impacts of climate change. “Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace,” he told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace in October of last year. “Every week they come out with new regulations. They’re making it impossible.”

When Wallace asked him who would protect the environment, Trump replied, “We’ll be fine with the environment. … We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.” During the GOP presidential debate on March 3, he hammered the EPA again, saying he would “get rid of [EPA] in almost every form. We are going to have little tidbits left but we are going to take a tremendous amount out.”

But he has since backtracked, saying in September that he’ll “refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.” Still, his more moderate tone should offer little solace for environmentalists. Last month at a roundtable in Boynton Beach, Florida, he committed to cutting EPA regulations “70 to 80 percent.”

The person currently running the EPA working group on Trump’s transition team—and a leading candidate to become the agency’s next administrator—is Myron Ebell, the director of energy and environment policy at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, who the Financial Times called “one of America’s most prominent climate-change skeptics.” Ebell, whose work has been funded by some of the nation’s worst polluters, like Murray Energy, the nation’s largest coal mining company, said, “I would like to have more funding [from big coal] so that I can combat the nonsense put out by the environmental movement.”

2. Reopen shuttered coal mines.

Among all fossil fuels, coal is the dirtiest. When it’s burned, it produces more pollution than oil, gasoline and natural gas. And though we burn 8 billion tons of coal every year to fuel around 33 percent of the nation’s electricity generation, the industry has been slumping in the face of low natural gas prices and sluggish growth in electricity demand.

In January, the coal industry received a major blow when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a federal moratorium on the issuing of new coal mining leases on public lands across the U.S. as her department conducts a review of the program, the first in more than three decades.

The death knell of the coal industry has been good news for environmentalists and renewable energy advocates, but a Trump regime may breathe new life into coal. One of his top candidates to replace Jewell is oil industry executive Forrest Lucas, co-founder of Lucas Oil.

During his victory speech after securing the GOP presidential nomination in May, Trump said, “Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania…they’re going to start to work again, believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.”

While it is unlikely that President Trump can completely reverse the steady decline in coal jobs, which has taken place over decades, he can instruct his Interior Secretary to end Jewell’s lease moratorium. He can reverse Obama’s clean air and water initiatives that the coal industry views as job killers. He can push coal subsidies through Congress in the form of direct spending, low-interest loans and loan forgiveness, tax breaks and tax exemptions, and discounted royalty fees for the right to mine on federal land.

3. Pull the U.S. out of Paris climate agreement.

The United States is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China. The nation’s pledge to the Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep the global surface temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, is to avoid 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions between 2016 and 2030. That amounts to about a fifth of the total of all the nations that have signed the accord.

The problem with the Paris agreement is that it is a non-binding treaty; there is no punishment for nations that don’t meet their carbon reduction target. In May, when Trump outlined his energy policy in a prepared speech in Bismarck, North Dakota, he castigated “draconian” climate rules, pledging to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement and withdraw funding for climate-related United Nations programs.

What would happen if Trump pulled America out of the accord, something he could technically accomplish in several ways?

“I think the rest of the world would be less likely to take action on their own part, and do their own share,” said Andrew Jones, co-director of Climate Interactive, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

4. Approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Last November, following a seven-year review, President Obama rejected the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, through Montana and into Nebraska.

In August of last year, Trump tweeted, “If I am elected President I will immediately approve the Keystone XL pipeline. No impact on environment & lots of jobs for U.S.” With Trump set to enter the White House in January, the pipeline plans have been resuscitated as TransCanada, the company behind the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, announced plans on Wednesday to meet with the president-elect’s camp. “TransCanada remains fully committed to building Keystone XL,” Mark Cooper, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement emailed to the Huffington Post.

After conducting environmental impact review, the U.S. State Department said it was likely that the pipeline, which crosses thousands of rivers and streams, including several major rivers like the Yellowstone and Platte, would experience spills.

“I want it built, but I want a piece of the profits,” Trump said in May. “That’s how we’re going to make our country rich again.”

5. Reduce investment in clean energy.

Speaking in November of last year in Newton, Iowa, Trump said “wind is a problem,” calling it “a very expensive form of energy.” However, the fact is that in some parts of the nation, like Texas and in particular Iowa—the state that generates the highest amount of wind power as a percentage of its total energy portfolio—wind energy is cheaper than coal or gas-powered energy.

According to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average rate for new combined cycle natural gas-fired plants (which use both a gas and a steam turbine) going online in 2018 will be around $48 per megawatt hour (MWh). The agency said that the 2018 unsubsidized rate for onshore wind farms will be $51.9/MWh, but with subsidies, that rate drops to $34/MW—cheaper than gas.

Speaking in Fresno in May, Trump said, “I know a lot about solar. I love solar,” but added that there are “a lot of problems with it. One problem is it’s too expensive.”

He’s right on that front, as solar power is pricier than wind, with the EIA projecting the cost for solar in 2018 at $71/MWh without subsidies and $53.5/MWh with subsidies. But abandoning solar installations today will stifle the downward trend in cost: Since 2011, the price of a solar panel has declined an impressive 60 percent.

Today, around 209,000 American workers fill solar-related jobs in more than 8,000 companies. That’s more than double the number of solar workers in 2010. By 2020, the number of solar workers is expected to more than double, with 420,000 Americans employed in the industry. Government subsidies in solar, which was around $24 billion from 2014 to 2018, helped lower costs by at least 10 percent a year.

Together, wind and solar generate less than 5 percent of America’s electricity. But renewable energy advocates argue that we have the technology to move the nation to 100 percent clean energy in the coming decades. “For the first time in human history, we’re actually at a place, technologically speaking, where we can make this transition,” actor/activist Mark Ruffalo told Mother Jones in 2014.

But Trump has signaled the opposite: investing more in fossil fuels and less in renewable energy. The biggest wind power tax credit has already expired, while the most important solar power tax credit is set to expire at the end of this year. Trump is unlikely to renew them.

Is there any hope?

Could President Trump surprise freaked-out environmentalists and be green? If we’ve learned anything this election season, it’s not to be surprised by anything Trump says. On the campaign trail, has has shown he can change his views, for better or worse, or at least be fluid with them—when it suits his purpose.

In May, for example, Politico reported that the billionaire’s application for permission to erect coastal protection at his seaside golf resort, Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland, in County Clare, explicitly cited the consequences of global warming as the main justification for building the sea wall. The zoning application noted that the wall was necessary to protect the course from “global warming and its effects.” And during the first presidential debate in September, Trump denied ever saying that climate change was a Chinese hoax (though his tweet saying that is still on his Twitter feed).

The fact remains that executive power is balanced by Congress and the Supreme Court. “Trump would find himself hemmed in by the built-in limitations on presidential power. One of these is Congress,” said John Sides, an associate professor of public policy at George Washington University. “There are others—including divided government, bureaucratic inertia and public opinion. He would be no different than any other president in this respect.”

Looking past the next four years, there is some promise: Young voters between the ages of 18 and 25 overwhelmingly voted for a non-Trumpian vision.

“I know the youth voted for the future that so many of us yearn for. A future where there is a greater sense of shared abundance and responsibility to one another, our nation and our planet,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, in an email. “This fills me with enormous hope. Without a doubt, the ushering in of Trump is belied by our future generations speaking loudly and clearly that they intend to bring forward a better world.”

Time to redouble efforts

While the Trump presidency gives much to worry about when it comes to the health of the planet, many green leaders joined Horning in striking a hopeful tone, seeking to mobilize more action on climate change and the environment.

“Fear may have won this election, but bravery, hope and perseverance will overcome,” said Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA. She called on those who didn’t vote for Trump to “use this moment to re-energize the fight for the climate and the fight for human rights around the world.”

Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, called Trump’s victory a “major disaster.” In a statement to press, she said:

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration will likely be filled with people who will benefit financially from more fracking, more industrial agriculture and factory farms, and expanded deregulation masquerading as trade policy. The people he has indicated will be in his cabinet are the same people who have advocated policies that are destroying our climate and creating a society marked by stratification and racial prejudice.

But Hauter also offered a motivational spark, saying, “We must redouble our efforts to build a movement that holds our elected officials accountable—and that provides a counterweight to the big business interests that continue to look out only for profits.”

That could mean working more on a local level, where the long arm of Washington, D.C., doesn’t reach, through state- or city-wide initiatives. On Election Day, for example, voters in Monterey County, California’s fourth-largest oil-producing county, passed Measure Z to ban fracking. Golden State voters also narrowly passed Prop 67, which bans grocery stores and selected retail outlets from handing out single-use plastic bags. Voters in Alabama passed ballot measure SB260, a statewide amendment that will end the practice of spending revenues generated at state parks for purposes other than maintaining the parks. Plus, many cities and states will continue their own carbon emission reduction plans.

Environmentalists’ toughest test

Donald Trump’s most enduring legacy as president may be the lasting damage he does to the environment. If you’re concerned about that, the next four years promises to be a rough ride, but now is the time to get involved in the fight for the health of the planet and all the creatures who call it home.

As Greenpeace’s Leonard pointed out, “Millions of people around the world have all the power we need to combat climate change and create a just world for everyone.” While she may be right, that sentiment is set to face its toughest test yet: The 45th president of the United States.

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

IMAGE: A steel factory is seen in smog during a hazy day in Anshan, Liaoning province, June 29, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Exxon Fraud Probe Is Shaping Up To Be The Biggest Bipartisan Climate Battle Ever

Published with permission from Alternet.

On June 24, the DNC platform committee unanimously agreed to call on the Department of Justice to launch a fraud investigation into ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies, which would add to the ongoing Exxon fraud probe by several state attorneys general, first launched by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in November.

The DNC request follows a forum titled Oil Is the New Tobacco, convened June 22 by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. The forum highlighted the worrisome inconsistency between ExxonMobil’s internal process and business decisions regarding its early knowledge of the impact of fossil fuel combustion on the climate and its public campaign to promote doubt, deception and denial of climate science.

These recent moves by Democrats come on the heels of a second round of letters sent on June 17 by 17 Republican members of Congress on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to several nonprofit organizations, including 350.org and Greenpeace USA, demanding documents and information related to their work advocating for climate action and holding Exxon accountable for fraud. The Committee also made similar requests to the state attorneys general working on the Exxon probe.

This most recent House request was not initially made public; however, 350.org and Greenpeace USA responded by the June 24 deadline, reiterating yet again in a letter that they have no intention of complying with the request. All nonprofit groups had rejected the Committee’s first request, which was made on May 18.

In their letter, the GOP legislators again repeated the claim that ExxonMobil’s alleged fraud is protected by the First Amendment:

The Committee intends to continue its vigorous oversight of the coordinated attempt to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution.

However, that claim has already been refuted. In United States vs Philip Morris Inc, the federal government explicitly told the tobacco industry: “False, misleading, or deceptive speech in furtherance of a scheme to defraud receives no First Amendment protection.”

In a June 24 Washington Post op-ed, Robert Post, the dean of Yale Law School, argued that ExxonMobil was abusing the First Amendment:

Despite the efforts of tobacco companies to invoke First Amendment protections for their contributions to public debate, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found: “Of course it is well settled that the First Amendment does not protect fraud.” The point is a simple one. If large corporations were free to mislead deliberately the consuming public, we would live in a jungle rather than in an orderly and stable market.

ExxonMobil and its supporters are now eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate. Raising the revered flag of the First Amendment, they loudly object to investigations recently announced by attorneys general of several states into whether ExxonMobil has publicly misrepresented what it knew about global warming.

Republicans Funded By Big Oil

All 13 GOP Congress members who signed the first letter have collectively received more than $70,000 in contributions from ExxonMobil in the last decade alone. In particular, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), has a long history of attacking climate scientists and maintains strong financial ties with ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies. Since 1998, Smith has taken more than $22,000 in campaign contributions from Exxon, according to Oil Change International’s Dirty Energy Money database.

Steve Horn, research fellow at DeSmogBlog, reported that “$19,500 of the Exxon money has flowed to Smith’s campaign since 2008 alone,” based on data from OpenSecrets.org.

“This latest bid by Exxon and their bought-and-paid-for allies in Congress proves that the House Committee on Science is more committed to sowing misinformation and deception about climate change than to actually acting on science,” said May Boeve, 350 Action executive director, in a statement to press. She addded:

At least half a century ago, Exxon’s executives were warned about the very devastation communities around the world are experiencing today, yet chose to pour resources into sowing doubt and funding an extensive climate denial machine. We know that this is an industry-wide problem, and we will keep spreading the word about all Exxon knew, and keep working to see these climate miscreants held accountable for their role in wrecking our planet and robbing us of a generation’s worth of climate action.

Schneiderman probe

In November 2015, New York Attorney General Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, demanding a wide range of documents in order to determine if the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company lied to the public or investors about the risks of climate change to its future business, based on the firm’s own internal studies. The case is building that the oil giant has been pushing climate denial since the 1980s, when it joined with other energy firms to form the Global Climate Coalition, intended to lobby support from Congress and lawmakers while also working to cover up early evidence that global warming is caused by human activity; specifically, the combustion of fossil fuels.

By March of this year, Schneiderman’s probe grew to a historic coalition of state attorneys general who have joined forces to investigate Exxon and defend President Obama’s Clean Power Plan against attacks from Big Oil. ExxonMobil has strenuously challenged investigations of the state AGs of Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But while Texas U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade rejected the company’s attempt to block the USVI investigation, it was announced Wednesday that USVI Attorney General Claude Earl Walker agreed to withdraw his subpoena requesting four decades of Exxon’s internal documents in exchange for the oil giant dropping a retaliatory suit.

There have been major international governmental and public actions to tackle climate change, such as last year’s Paris climate agreement, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the growing global divestment movement (which recently included a divestment of ExxonMobile shares by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which called the oil giant “morally reprehensible”). Yet the company appears dead set on ignoring calls to address the climate threat: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and Exxon’s board recommended the rejection of every single climate resolution brought to the company’s annual shareholder meeting in May.

Activists, environmentalists and corporate accountability advocates had used that meeting, held in Dallas on May 25, as an arena to call on ExxonMobil to reject climate disinformation, adapt its business to the realities of climate change and take regulation seriously. A similar effort was taken up at Chevron’s shareholders meeting, held in San Ramon, Calif., on the same day. While ExxonMobil is the primary focus of official investigations, the entire oil and gas industry has come under greater scrutiny.

“These multibillion dollar global organizations have potentially bilked the American people out of financial stability, national security, and the health and safety of our future generations by creating a false debate designed to protect their profits,” said Annie Leonard, Greenpeace USA executive director.

Party Politics

While the state attorneys general maintain their ongoing fraud investigation into ExxonMobil, pressure is mounting across the nation for elected officials and candidates to support these and similar investigations. More than half a million people have signed the #ExxonKnew coalition’s petition supporting the fraud investigation, which has been expanding in scope—the Department of Justice recently referred the case to the criminal branch of the FBI. The case is also shaping up to be a pitched partisan conflict on Capitol Hill and beyond.

The National Review accused the attorneys general of “trampling the First Amendment.” Characterizing the Exxon probe as an example of the “authoritarianism” he argues is ingrained in progressivism, Post columnist George F. Will called Schneidermann and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)—who supports using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to criminalize Big Oil’s climate denial apparatus—”garden-variety authoritarians … eager to regulate us into conformity.”

However, the investigations are receiving strong support from leading environmental groups and Democrats.

“These attorneys general are doing their jobs to investigate whether or not this massive fraud has occurred, and we stand with them,” said Greenpeace’s Leonard, in a statement to press. “If Exxon, its allies, enablers, and congressional yes-men are afraid of an open inquiry into allegations of fraud, then the American people should be even more suspicious of what they’ve been up to in the decades they’ve been peddling climate denial. It was fraud when Big Tobacco did it; it’s time to find out if this Exxon scheme was fraud, too.”

Evidence That Exxon Knew

The evidence suggests that, for many years, Exxon attempted to cast doubt on the scientific findings regarding climate change in the public mindset by purchasing newspaper advertisements questioning the science and funding climate deniers through an intricate network of conservative think-tanks, including the American Legislative Exchange Council. The allegations of fraud also stem from a massive trove of internal corporate documents revealing Exxon was fully aware of the dangers to climate posed by the extraction and use of its primary product: fossil fuel.

One damning piece of evidence is an email—written as a response to an inquiry regarding business ethics from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University—unearthed last year from Lenny Bernstein, a climate expert working for Exxon. He wrote, “Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. … This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2.” According to Bernstein, that awareness was seven years ahead of not just other oil companies, but the general public.

“What it shows is that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation,” the director of the institute, Alyssa Bernstein (no relation), told the Guardian.

But Exxon’s knowledge of the impact its business had on the global climate dates much earlier, to a report two pollution experts prepared for the American Petroleum Institute in 1968. The authors, Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins of the Stanford Research Institute, contended that carbon dioxide emissions produced by the combustion of fossil fuels was as critical an issue as the soot and smog that was the primary pollution concern at the time.

“If the earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis,” they wrote.

They regarded the focus on local-based pollution concerns as a case of missing the forest for the trees:

It seems ironic that in our view of air pollution technology we take such a serious concern with small-scale events such as the photochemical reactions of trace concentrations of hydrocarbons, the effect on vegetation of a fraction of a part per million of sulfur dioxide, when the abundant pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, carbon dioxide, and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious worldwide environmental changes.

Robinson and Robbins also noted the view of Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to warn that the growing amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide created by fossil fuel combustion may cause global warming over time. “In summary,” they wrote, “Revelle makes the point that man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climactic changes.”

Adapt or Die

Kathy Mulvey, who manages the climate accountability campaigns at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was one of the many environmentalists, activists and scientists who attended the ExxonMobil shareholders meeting in May. Part of the grassroots activist effort is to get the fossil fuel industry to recognize the choice it now faces: Adapt or die.

“Major fossil fuel companies must also begin to align their business models with a carbon-constrained world, acknowledging the political reality and moral imperative of the agreement made by world leaders in Paris last December,” she said.

The writing is on the wall about the downfall of dirty energy. Nafeez Ahmed recently wrote on AlterNet that signs indicate we are in the midst of the death of the fossil fuel industry:

Although the world remains heavily dependent on oil, coal and natural gas—which today supply around 80 percent of our primary energy needs—the industry is rapidly crumbling. This is not merely a temporary blip, but a symptom of a deeper, long-term process related to global capitalism’s escalating overconsumption of planetary resources and raw materials. … In February, the financial services firm Deloitte predicted that over 35 percent of independent oil companies worldwide are likely to declare bankruptcy, potentially followed by a further 30 percent next year—a total of 65 percent of oil firms around the world. Since early last year, already 50 North American oil and gas producers have filed bankruptcy.

And in April, Bloomberg’s Joe Carroll and Asjylyn Loder reported on ExxonMobil’s historic credit downgrade:

The worst oil crash in a generation has cost Exxon Mobil Corp. the gold-plated credit rating it had held since the Great Depression. … The downgrade will not only raise Exxon’s cost to borrow money but may also erode its status among oil-rich governments as a premier partner with which to do business. As Exxon Vice President of Investor Relations Jeffrey Woodbury said in February, the company’s AAA rating was a key selling point when competing for drilling licenses.

When ExxonMobil had advance knowledge of global warming, it attempted to hide the details from the public and its shareholders to protect its future business. Since then, it has made hundreds of billions of dollars year after year. It appears now there is strong evidence that the company has committed fraud, and even as its profit outlook is grim, it is still trying to dodge reality.

“Half a century ago, Exxon discovered climate change and quickly learned all there was to know well before the rest of us,” said 350.org’s Boeve. “Instead of urging action and becoming a part of the solution, the company’s executives poured their resources into sowing doubt and disinformation among the public. The last twelve months have set record-busting temperatures, yet Exxon is still attempting to distract us from the fight for climate justice.”

Big Oil: Worse Than Big Tobacco?

The unfolding drama has been compared to the Department of Justice’s successful lawsuit, almost two decades ago, against Big Tobacco over fraud regarding the health risks of smoking and marketing its harmful products to the public. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a racketeering lawsuitagainst several major tobacco companies for “fraudulent and unlawful conduct and reimbursement of tobacco-related medical expenses.”

Federal district court Judge Gladys Kessler found the tobacco companies liable for violating RICO by intentionally committing fraud through an elaborate coverup of the health risks associated with smoking, writing in her opinion that the defendants “crafted and implemented a broad strategy to undermine and distort the evidence indicting passive smoke as a health hazard. … [and] attempted to deceive the public, distort the scientific record [and] avoid adverse findings by government agencies.”

ExxonMobil is accused of using the same tactics Judge Kessler deemed fraudulent in the tobacco industry coverup. If the Exxon probe is as similar to the DoJ’s tobacco suit as it appears to be, then Exxon and its Big Oil peers should be prepared to be found guilty. However, the impact of Big Tobacco’s fraud is quite different from that of Big Oil. Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller Sr., founder of the American oil giant Standard Oil Company, from which ExxonMobil was born, recently announced she was divesting her shares in the company. She told AlterNet:

In the large picture, however, tobacco and fossil fuel emissions are quite different. Tobacco kills people one by one. Climate change will increasingly cause events like hurricanes that will destroy large swathes of property, kill numbers of people, make many homeless.

While it can be argued that smoking tobacco is a matter of individual choice, the production and use of fossil fuels is more obviously a social issue. In the long run, producers of fossil fuels will have to lose. The only question is how much the people and ecologies of the world will lose before our economies cease to make the situation worse.

“One thing that occurs to me,” said Bernstein of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics, “is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offense, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity and the future of civilization.”

Photo: The logo of Down Jones Industrial Average stock market index listed company Exxon Mobil is seen in Encinitas, California April 4, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Rockefeller Family Fund to Divest From ExxonMobil, Says Oil Giant Is ‘Morally Reprehensible’

This article originally appeared in Alternet.

It’s been a really rough few days for ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company.

First, on Wednesday, the Rockefeller Family Fund announced it would divest from the oil giant, saying it would “eliminate holdings” of Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM.N) “effective immediately,” asserting that the company associated with the family fortune has misled the public about the risks of climate change.

Because of the long-established threat posed to the planetary ecosystem by fossil fuel extraction and use, the fund said “there is no sane rationale for companies to continue to explore for new sources of hydrocarbons.”

In a letter posted on its website, the fund slammed Exxon’s conduct as “morally reprehensible.” They write:

Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded.

Exxon tried to frame the fund’s move as unsurprising. In a statement, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said, “The Rockefeller Family Fund provided financial support to InsideClimate News and Columbia University Journalism School which produced inaccurate and deliberately misleading stories about ExxonMobil’s history of climate research.”

But Stacy Feldman, executive editor of InsideClimate News, stands by those stories. “Exxon has never specified what is inaccurate or misleading in the series, nor has it requested any corrections,” she said in a statement. “But our investigation of Exxon’s climate duplicity has won five national journalism awards.”

The day would only get worse for the multinational energy firm, as the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered a vote on a shareholder resolution that would require the firm to disclose how climate change—or regulations meant to combat it—would impact the stability of the company’s finances.

The SEC’s move comes just weeks after an investigation by the Government Accountability Project, which revealed that, for years, Exxon had lied to the SEC in its 10-K filings.

“Exxon has done a masterful job of hedging its bets, both by omission and commission: omitting mere mention for many years, and then grossly understating, the vast array of direct and indirect risks it faces as a result of climate change,” said Climate Science & Policy Watch, a GAP program that promotes governmental integrity in the use of climate science. “Even worse, Exxon has overtly and flagrantly overstated possible financial and economic risks associated with regulating carbon and other GHGs, both here in the U.S. and in nations around the world.”

On Thursday, Exxon got even more bad news. New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak called on Acting Attorney General Robert Lougy to join an investigation launched by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. California Attorney General Kamala Harris opened a similar probe.

The investigations just keep piling up. The FBI’s criminal investigation unit is currently conducting an initial review of evidence that Exxon knew about the “catastrophic” impacts of climate change.

While the problems and negative press continue to mount for Exxon, traders remains fairly bullish on XOM stock.

“Even if oil prices would retreat in the upcoming weeks, it is still not the right time to sell Exxon shares,” research analyst Arie Goren wrote Monday on Seeking Alpha. “In my opinion, XOM’s stock is an excellent long term investment. … Although Exxon’s dividend yield is lower than that of the other supermajor integrated oil & gas companies, it is sustainable, in my view.”

But sustainability on the stock market is very different from sustainability in the environment, and ethical investors increasingly want nothing to do with the oil industry.

The Rockefeller Fund’s announcement follows the recent decision to divest by a prominent Rockefeller, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, who serves as the co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. In my interview with Goodwin last month, she noted the patently illogical stance that may undergird the decision-making at Exxon and other fossil fuel firms that continue to put profit above the planet:

From casual observation it appears that there are people with a reasonable sense of morality who steer their companies to do pretty immoral things. Evidently such people erect a firewall between their personal and business ethics.

Goodwin also points out that a more sustainable and sensible alternative to doing business exists:

There is a slowly growing movement to point out the ways in which what is commonly accepted as decent morality is also good for business. For example, the “Porter hypothesis” suggests that good environmental ethics tend to be efficient and cost-saving for business. There is considerable evidence that this is correct. Other kinds of ethics may be less clearly related, positively or negatively, to profits. An important role for government is to create an environment in which socially good behavior does not hurt the company, and in which the kind of behavior that creates what economists call “negative externalities” is not profitable.

In its letter, the Rockefeller Family Fund emphasizes its support for the overwhelming science on the effects of climate change and what must be done to prevent its worse potential impacts:

The science and intent enunciated by the Paris agreement cannot be more clear: far from finding additional sources of fossil fuels, we must keep most of the already discovered reserves in the ground if there is any hope for human and natural ecosystems to survive and thrive in the decades ahead.

“For decades, Exxon has done everything in its power to cover up the impact climate change would have on its business and the planet—those chickens are finally coming home to roost,” said Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org. “Exxon is increasingly caught in its own web of deception. Instead of addressing climate change when they first found out about it decades ago, the company has aggressively pursued a business path that is incompatible with a livable planet. That’s opened them up to divestment, regulation, and now, potential prosecution.”

All of this activity centering around Exxon’s malfeasance suggests that the momentum is growing behind the #ExxonKnew campaign, which is calling on state AGs across the nation to join New York and California in opening investigations into the energy giant.

With total assets at nearly $350 billion, ExxonMobil is one of the world’s biggest companies. It has the resources to change the script; to invest more heavily in renewable energy and green jobs to help move the nation and the world toward a low-carbon future. But will it? As the pressure mounts for the company on multiple fronts, it may have to.

“If Exxon doesn’t show how it plans to adapt its business to a carbon constrained world, it’s time for shareholders to divest,” said Henn. “There’s no other responsible option.”

“Climate change will increasingly cause events like hurricanes that will destroy large swathes of property, kill numbers of people, make many homeless,” Goodwin told me. “In the long run, producers of fossil fuels will have to lose. The only question is how much the people and ecologies of the world will lose before our economies cease to make the situation worse.”

h/t Kyle Moler

 

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter@reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.

Photo: A view of the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas in this file photo from September 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi/Files

Why Southern California’s New Cloud-Seeding Project Has Conspiracy Theorists in a Frenzy

This article originally appeared in Alternet.

California got a brief respite from its historic drought, thanks to a recent wave of storms that swept across the West Coast, filling reservoirs and replenishing snowpack. Grateful residents don’t just have El Niño to thank; part of the rainfall was, in fact, man-made. But there are some who believe something more sinister may be afoot.

Mother Nature gets a boost from science

Now suffering through its fifth year of a crippling drought, the Golden State was done waiting for Mother Nature to do her thing, so officials and scientists took matters into their own hands and revived an old cloud-seeding program to boost the region’s rainfall levels.

In January, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works awarded a $500,000 one-year contract to North American Weather Consultants (NAWC), a Utah-based cloud-seeding company that performed similar work for the county in 1961, to help enhance the region’s rain production.

On the night of March 13, the firm switched on 10 cloud-seeding ground stations strategically positioned across the mountainous areas of northern Los Angeles between Sylmar and Pacoima in San Fernando Valley. The stations targeted cloud formations above Angeles National Forest, where rain would feed into tributaries supplying water to the Big Tujunga, Pacoima and San Gabriel dams. Thus began the first cloud-seeding project conducted by the DPW since 2002.

Ten cloud-seeding locations were selected across Los Angeles County. (image: Los Angeles County Department of Public Works)

Science fiction, minus the fiction

Like so much of modern science, the idea of controlling the weather started in the realm of fiction. But cloud seeding today “actually comes with a lot of science behind it,” said Kerjon Lee of the LA DPW in a recent interview with CBS News’ Carter Evans.

Discovered in 1946 by the American chemist and meteorologist Vincent Schaefer, a self-taught scientist who never completed high school, the principle of cloud seeding is actually quite simple. Particles of silver iodide — or sometimes potassium iodide, liquid propane or solid carbon dioxide in the form of dry ice — are sprayed into a saturated cloud to kickstart cloud condensation, a natural process in which particulate matter acts as nuclei that attract supercooled water vapor, which freezes into ice. Once those ice particles gain enough weight, they fall from their clouds, melt and turn into rain.

Cloud seeding can be done by ground generators, plane or rocket. (image: DooFi/Wikipedia)

Cloud seeding, chemtrails and conspiracy theories

While working as a researcher at General Electric, Schaefer modified clouds above Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains by seeding them with dry ice. But according to the U.S. National Research Council, “the potential legal liability implications of the early experiments led the General Electric Company to discontinue field experiments, and in 1947 to negotiate a contract for further fieldwork to be carried out by the military.” (Schaefer, who received 14 patents over a 20-year period, would continue to study weather modification, publishing a paper two years later about his experiments modifying lightning storms in the northern Rockies.)

Cloud-seeding’s shift from private research to national defense helped fuel conspiracy theories that zeroed in on aircraft contrails, those line-shaped clouds that sometimes form behind aircraft flying several miles above the Earth’s surface. A product of water vapor condensing and freezing around small particles present in an aircraft’s exhaust, these contrails, conspiracy theorists argue, are actually “chemtrails” that indicate the military or some other governmental organization is spraying chemical or biological agents at a high altitude for some mysterious, top-secret reason.

The theory galvanized with the release of a 1996 research paper by the U.S. Air Force about weather modification titled, “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025.” The report’s authors were quite clear about how weather manipulation might one day become weaponized:

The ability to modify the weather may be desirable both for economic and defense reasons. … Assuming that in 2025 our national security strategy includes weather-modification, its use in our national military strategy will naturally follow. Besides the significant benefits an operational capability would provide, another motivation to pursue weather-modification is to deter and counter potential adversaries. In this paper we show that appropriate application of weather-modification can provide battlespace dominance to a degree never before imagined. In the future, such operations will enhance air and space superiority and provide new options for battlespace shaping and battlespace awareness. “The technology is there, waiting for us to pull it all together; in 2025 we can “Own the Weather.”

“So persistent is the chemtrail theory that U.S. government agencies regularly receive calls from irate citizens demanding an explanation,” writes Oliver Smith, digital travel editor at the Telegraph. “Pernilla Hagberg, a Swedish politician, even raised the issue. … Other proponents of the ‘chemtrails’ theory say it is an attempt to control global warming, while some cite far more sinister goals, such as population control and military weapons testing.” In fact, contrails are believed to contribute to global warming by trapping radiation emitted by the Earth.

In 2014, Gawker’s weather blogger Dennis Mersereau offered his own debunking. He writes:

Chemtrail conspiracy theorists use cloud seeding as irrefutable proof that all of their theories are valid, because “look! they’re doing it here, so obviously they’re doing it everywhere and with other chemicals, too!” That’s a huge logical fallacy, but it’s their main fallback and argument, so they stick to it until the bitter end.

Contrails from a Qantas Boeing 747-400 at an altitude of 36,000 feet (image: Sergey Kustov/Wikipedia

Of course, these theories are regularly dismissed by the government, as well as aviation experts like pilot Patrick Smith, who writes in his book Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel:

Some have drawn the connection between contrail presence — though in this case they are “chemtrails” — and illness in certain communities. The vast online docket of photographs and eyewitness accounts does have a certain UFO-sightings tinge to it. If the idea sounds particularly cuckoo, I’ll mention that otherwise reasonable and skeptical people have taken to believing that something is going on, which is often a first sign that it is. That something, however, is probably no more villainous than standard military aircraft on maneuvers, albeit classified ones. If you live beneath one of these chemtrail-prone zones I’d recommend a good telephoto lens to identify what kinds of aircraft are involved. For the rest of us around major cities, all it takes is a decent pair of binoculars to realize the culprit is usually Lufthansa or Delta, and not some shadowy CIA spy plane.

The Los Angeles Department of Public Works actually helped stoke the conspiracy fire in late January, when it decided to notify local residents about the upcoming cloud-seeding equipment installations by taking out a classified ad in the Pasadena Star News. Conspiracy theorists saw the move as a way for the government to be legally transparent, yet virtually conceal the news of its activity.

 

 

On March 12, the conspiracy website Wakeup World published a blog post claiming the American government “quietly” admitted to engaging in “weather modification” activities in a notice buried in the classifieds section of a small California newspaper:

Weather modification, geoengineering, chemtrails; these are all topics that if brought up in most circles today, would garner the speaker the telltale look that most Truthers have become all too familiar with. It is a look that has been ingrained into all who have opted to cast aside their critical thinking for their comforting daily lie. There is a herd mentality that has been established that causes even those on the fence or those interested in “outside the box” ideas, to fall in line while surrounded by the docile mass. So when the government recently released a “Notice of Intent” on page 11 of the Pasadena Star Classifieds, announcing their plan to carry out weather modification in Los Angeles County, it became clear that those blank stares should be turned inward, for some much needed self-reflection and re-evaluation.

Writing on Snopes.com, Kim LaCapria points out that the DPW actually “devoted an entire page to the activity (cloud seeding) mentioned in the classified advertisement [PDF]. That document explained cloud seeding was an anti-drought measure practiced intermittently for more than half a century in Los Angeles.”

The future is now

Even in the scientific community, cloud seeding has long been relegated to fringe science, with the Australian Federation of Meteorology dismissing a handful of so-called “rain-making” weather modification experiments conducted throughout the early part of the 20th century. Even as recent as 2003, the United States National Research Council released a report stating that to date, there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification as it only has 30 percent or less chance of success.

The report assessed the ability of current and proposed weather modification strategies meant to help with water resource management and weather hazard mitigation. The NRC noted the challenge of figuring out exactly how much rainfall would have happened if treated clouds had not been seeded:

[S]cience is unable to say with assurance which, if any, seeding techniques produce positive effects. In the 55 years following the first cloud-seeding demonstrations, substantial progress has been made in understanding the natural processes that account for our daily weather. Yet scientifically acceptable proof for significant seeding effects has not been achieved, and the scientific challenges have proved to be significantly more formidable and complex than perceived initially.

The 1996 Air Force report noted that it contained “fictional representations of future situations/scenarios.” With the increasing number of cloud-seeding programs happening around the world, it’s clear that the future is now. In Maharashtra, one of India’s largest and wealthiest states, a crippling drought now in its fourth year has crushed the region’s agriculture production and taken a severe human toll, with some 1,300 debt-burdened farmers committing suicide during a six-month period in 2014 alone.

One official response to the Indian crisis has been cloud seeding. The state’s revenue ministry hired Koliwad, a Bangalore-based climate modification consultancy, to carry out a three-month-long, $4.5 million cloud-seeding program covering a 100-square-mile area in what is the largest project of its kind ever attempted in the country. Koliwad, in turn, hired Weather Modification Inc., the world’s largest private aerial cloud-seeding company, based in Fargo, North Dakota, to develop a five-year technology transfer program that includes training Indian pilots, meteorologists and Doppler radar technicians how to seed clouds.

Some witnesses of the ensuing storms are under the impression that humans have finally figured out a way to control the weather. But Mother Nature still holds most of the cards. “People in Maharashtra are hoping for a cure-all to drought,” said Patrick Sweeney, WMI’s chief executive. “They come out and dance in the streets when it rains, they hug our pilots and say, ‘Do it again.’ But we can’t guarantee that the clouds will be there — and willing to cooperate.”

Cloud-seeding programs are not used only during severe drought situations. In France, cloud seeding has been used to reduce the damage to crops caused by hail. The strategy has been employed in Indonesia to help eliminate the pollution-heavy haze caused by the large swaths of open burning that are regularly started across the nation. And in the leadup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China launched an aggressive cloud-seeding program to reduce air pollution.

This image explaining cloud seeding shows either silver iodide or dry ice being dumped onto the cloud, which then becomes a rain shower. The process shown in the upper-right is what is happening inside the cloud and the process of condensation to the introduced chemicals. (image: Smcnab386/Wikipedia)

But just as some cloud-seeding programs have been rolled out to combat pollution, some worry about the potential health risks. Opponents point out that exposure to silver iodide can be harmful to mammals, which includes humans. But public health advocates have bigger things to worry about, as the silver iodide toxicity in the atmosphere represents about only 1 percent of industry emissions. “Cloud seeding is absolutely safe,” said Lee, assuring fellow Los Angeleños that the DPW’s plan poses no risk to public health.

A remotely operated cloud-seeding flare site in Santa Barbara County, Calif. (image: Los Angeles Department of Public Works)

Graeme Stevens, director of the Center for Climate Sciences at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is skeptical about California’s cloud-seeding plan, but not in the way conspiracy theorists are. “It is wishful thinking,” he told CBS News. “It’s been shown that under certain circumstances it works, but only in a very marginal way and even then, it would be difficult to prove.”

Los Angeles County officials disagree, contending that their plan will generate up to 15 percent more rainfall. “Based on our 50-year study,” said Lee, “we think we can get an additional 1.5 billion gallons a year.”

That matters to farmers like Mike DeWit, a second-generation rice farmer in California’s Sacramento Valley, who has been forced to oversee steep decreases in active acreage due to the drought and state-mandated water cutbacks. In 2013, DeWit farmed about 1,050 acres. Last year, he was down to between 350 and 380 acres.

But farmers can’t rely on hard-to-prove solutions like cloud seeding. If you work the soil, you must be prepared to handle both feast and famine, and the changing cycles of nature. It’s a principle DeWit fully understands. “We will get rain again,” he said. “And we will have another drought.”

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor. Follow him on Twitter@reynardloki. Email him at reynard@alternet.org.