How a powerful US lobby group helps Big Oil to block climate action

Protesters demonstrate against fracking and neighborhood oil drilling in Los Angeles May 14, 2016. Much of the oil industry's political power lies in the century-old American Petroleum Institute. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)
Protesters demonstrate against fracking and neighborhood oil drilling in Los Angeles May 14, 2016. Much of the oil industry’s political power lies in the century-old American Petroleum Institute. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

When Royal Dutch Shell published its annual environmental report in April, it boasted that it was investing heavily in renewable energy. The oil giant committed to installing hundreds of thousands of charging stations for electric vehicles around the world to help offset the harm caused by burning fossil fuels.

On the same day, Shell issued a separate report revealing that its single largest donation to political lobby groups last year was made to the American Petroleum Institute, one of the most powerful trade organizations in the United States, and the one that drives the oil industry’s relationship with Congress.

Contrary to Shell’s public statements in support of electric vehicles, API’s chief executive, Mike Sommers, has pledged to resist a raft of Joe Biden’s environmental measures, including proposals to fund new charging points in the US. He claims a “rushed transition” to electric vehicles is part of “government action to limit Americans’ transportation choice.”

Shell donated more than $10 million to API last year alone.

And it’s not just Shell. Most other oil conglomerates are also major funders, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, although they have not made their contributions public.

The deep financial ties underscore API’s power and influence across the oil and gas industry, and what politicians describe as the trade group’s defining role in setting major obstacles to new climate policies and legislation.

Critics accuse Shell and other major oil firms of using API as cover for the industry. While companies run publicity campaigns claiming to take the climate emergency seriously, the trade group works behind the scenes in Congress to stall or weaken environmental legislation.

Earlier this year, an Exxon lobbyist in Washington was secretly recorded by Greenpeace describing API as the industry’s “whipping boy” to direct public and political criticism away from individual companies.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and strident critic of big oil’s public relations tactics, accused API of “lying on a massive industrial scale” about the climate crisis in order to stall legislation to combat global heating.

“The major oil companies and API move very much together,” he said.

Whitehouse said the oil and gas industry now recognizes it is no longer “socially acceptable” to outright deny climate change, and that companies are under pressure to claim they support new energy solutions that are less harmful to the environment. But that does not mean their claims should be taken at face value.

“The question as to whether they’re even sincere about that, or whether this is just ‘Climate is a hoax 2.0,’ is an unknown at this point,” he added.

Shell has defended its funding by saying that while it is “misaligned” with some of API’s policies, the company continues to sit on the group’s board and executive committee in order to have “a greater positive impact” from within. The petroleum firm claims that its influence helped maneuver API, which represents about 600 drilling companies, refiners and other interests such as plastics makers, toward finally supporting a tax on carbon earlier this year.

With Biden in the White House and growing public awareness of global heating, there are signs API’s influence may be weakening as its own members become divided on how to respond.

The French oil company Total quit the group earlier this year over its climate policies. Shareholder rebellions are pressing Exxon and Chevron to move away from dependence on oil. Top clean energy executives at Shell quit in December over the pace of change by the company.

API is also fighting a growing number of lawsuits, led by the state of Minnesota, alleging that the trade group was at the heart of a decades-long “disinformation campaign” on behalf of big oil to deny the threat from fossil fuels.

But despite threats to API’s lasting influence, Whitehouse argues the trade organization represents the true face of the industry. Instead of using its considerable power to push for environmentally friendly energy laws, API is still lobbying to stall progress, with the oil industry’s blessing.

“Their political effort at this point is purely negative, purely against serious climate legislation. And many of them continue to fund the fraudulent climate denialists that have been their mouthpieces for a decade or more,” Whitehouse said.

Banking on disinformation

Since API was founded in 1919 out of an oil industry cooperation with the government during the first world war, it has evolved into a major political force with nearly $240 million in annual revenue.

Its board has been dominated by heavyweights from big oil, such as Rex Tillerson, the Exxon chief who went on to become U.S. President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, and Tofiq Al Gabsani, the chief of Saudi Refining, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Aramco oil giant. Al Gabsani was also registered as a lobbyist for the Saudi government.

API also hired professional lobbyists, including Philip Cooney, who went on to serve under George W Bush as chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality until he was forced to resign in 2005 after tampering with government climate assessments to downplay scientific evidence of global heating and to emphasize doubts. Shortly afterward, Cooney was hired by Exxon.

API came into its own as the realities of the climate crisis crept into public and political discourse, and the industry found itself on the defensive. The trade group, which claimed to represent companies supporting 10 million jobs and nearly 8% of the U.S. economy, played a central role in efforts to combat new environmental regulations.

In many cases, API was prepared to carry out the dirty work that individual companies did not want to be held responsible for. In 1998, after countries signed the Kyoto Protocol to help curb carbon emissions, API drew up a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign to ensure that “climate change becomes a non-issue”. The plan said “victory will be achieved” when “recognition of uncertainties become part of the ‘conventional wisdom'”.

Much of this is the basis of several lawsuits against API. The first was filed last year by the Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, who accuses the group of working alongside ExxonMobil and Koch Industries to lie about the scale of the climate crisis. The suit alleges that “previously unknown internal documents” show that API and the others well understood the dangers for decades but “engaged in a public-relations campaign that was not only false, but also highly effective” to undermine climate science.

The city of Hoboken in New Jersey is also suing API, claiming that it engaged in a conspiracy by joining and funding “front groups” that ran “deceptive advertising and communications campaigns that promote climate disinformation and denialism.”

The lawsuits allege that API funded scientists known to deny or underplay climate changes, and gave millions of dollars to ostensibly independent organizations, such as the Cato Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute, which denied or downplayed the growing environmental crisis.

“API has been a member of at least five organizations that have promoted disinformation about fossil-fuel products to consumers,” Ellison alleges in Minnesota’s lawsuit. “These front groups were formed to provide climate disinformation and advocacy from a seemingly objective source, when, in fact, they were financed and controlled by ExxonMobil and other sellers of fossil-fuel products.”

A turn toward denial

It wasn’t always this way.

When Terry Yosie joined API in 1988 as vice-president for health and environment, the trade group had spent years funding scientists to research climate issues after hearing repeated warnings. In 1979, API and its members formed the Climate and Energy Task Force of oil and gas company scientists to share research.

Yosie, who moved to API from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, controlled a $15 million budget, part of which he used to give workshops on climate change by EPA officials and other specialists.

“I brought them together in front of oil industry senior-level executives for the sole purpose of making sure this industry had some understanding as to what other significant stakeholders thought about climate change, where they saw the issue evolving, what information they were relying on,” he said.

When Yosie left API in 1992, he believed the oil lobby group was still serious about addressing the growing evidence of climate change. But a year later, it disbanded the task force at the same time that Exxon abandoned one of the industry’s biggest research programs to measure climate change.

Yosie believes that confronted with the true extent of the looming disaster, API and the oil companies ran scared, choosing instead to pursue an agenda informed by climate denialism.

“As the climate issue began to move from the periphery to the center stage, I think there was a collective loss of confidence in the entire industry, a fear that this was not a debate that was winnable,” he said.

API and its financial backers founded a front organization, the deceptively named Global Climate Coalition, to drum up purported evidence that the climate crisis was a hoax. In the late 1990s, the GCC’s chairman, William O’Keefe, was also API’s executive vice president, a man who falsely claimed that “climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, gas and coal is steadily warming the earth”.

API and the GCC led attacks on Bill Clinton’s support for the Kyoto protocol with a “global climate science communications plan” that misrepresented the facts about global heating.

The relationship between API and big oil remained exceptionally close throughout. Exxon’s chief executive served on the lobby group’s executive committee for most of the past three decades, and the two worked together in promoting denialism over the climate crisis.

The focus of API’s efforts was on Congress, where it led the industry’s opposition to policies, such as the 2009 cap-and-trade legislation to control carbon emissions.

“Most of the funding for the Republican party, and probably a very considerable amount of the big dark money funding behind the Republican party, comes out of the fossil fuel industry,” said Whitehouse. Last year, API indirectly gave $5 million to the conservative Senate Leadership Fund to back Republican candidates — many of whom question climate science — for election, and to the campaigns of members of the energy committees in both houses of Congress.

Growing public disquiet, and the departure of oil-friendly Trump from the White House, shifted the ground for API. In March it launched a Climate Action Framework, which for the first time endorsed policies such as carbon pricing. It also stated its support for the Paris climate agreement.

API called the plan “robust,” but others noted the lack of specifics, and its sincerity was called into question when an Exxon lobbyist was caught on camera earlier this year saying that a carbon tax will never happen and that support for the measure was a public relations ploy intended to stall more serious measures.

And between API’s lost support from Total, and the Shell executives who resigned in December over what they regarded as the company’s foot-dragging on greener fuels, there are signs of shifting attitudes within the industry itself.

Shell and BP have said they will continue to review their support for API. Shell said that where it disagrees with API’s position, the company “will pursue advocacy separately”.

However, Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is skeptical that there has been any significant change in direction.

“I think it’s fair to say that API and its prominent member companies have a broadly shared goal, which is to keep the social license of the oil and gas industry operating, and therefore enabling them to continue to extract oil and gas for as long as possible, as profitably as possible,” he said.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/how-powerful-us-lobby-group-helps-big-oil-block-climate-action

Climate change evidence ‘unequivocal,’ some impacts irreversible, report says

A man sits on a stranded vehicle on a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, China, July 22. (CNS/Reuters/Aly Song)
A man sits on a stranded vehicle on a flooded road following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, China, July 22. (CNS/Reuters/Aly Song)

 A future of rising temperatures and extreme weather — stronger and more frequent storms and heat waves, combined with intense drought — is unavoidable in the coming decades, according to a new report by an international panel of scientists. But the direst outlooks can still be averted, the experts said, if the world’s countries stop burning fossil fuels and take other immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

The report, released Aug. 9 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the group’s first review of climate science research since 2013. The IPCC provides periodic assessments on the science behind and risks related to climate change, as well as reports on possibilities for mitigation of and adaptation to impacts.

No region of the Earth has escaped the effects of climate change, and even if emissions were immediately reduced to no more than the amount that the Earth’s soil, plants and oceans could absorb naturally, some of the impacts already set in motion would be irreversible within centuries or millennia, the report says.

Although the scientists did not analyze the heat waves, flooding and wildfires that have struck the United States, Europe and Siberia in recent weeks, the events are consistent with their findings about Earth’s warming climate.

“The report clearly shows that we are living the consequences already of climate change everywhere, but furthermore, that we will experience further and concurrent and multiple changes” with each fraction of a degree of additional warming, Argentinian meteorologist Carolina Vera, one of the report’s authors, said at the virtual press conference where the report was presented.

Coming less than three months before the next U.N. climate summit, COP26, to be held Nov. 1-12 in Glasgow, Scotland, the report adds even more urgency to the already critical international climate negotiations.

“The grim and disturbing findings of the … report only reinforce the message of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ — we must do everything we can, and now, to protect and defend Our Common Home,” Bishop John Arnold, chair of CAFOD, the Catholic Church’s aid agency for England and Wales, said in a statement.

Neil Thorns, CAFOD advocacy director, added that the report “is clear it’s an urgent fight to keep below 1.5 degree warming and avoid the destruction that entails, especially for those living in poverty.” He urged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to lead nations at the climate summit to commit to radical actions to change the planet’s course of warming.

In preparation for COP26, countries were given until July 30 to submit revised targets for greenhouse gas emissions, but only 110 of the 197 countries that are parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change met that deadline. Several major emitters, such as China, Saudi Arabia and India, were among those that did not submit new targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Nevertheless, delegates from all countries signed off on the new IPCC report, indicating that they accept not only the dire warnings, but also the “unequivocal” conclusion that the sharp rise in temperatures and in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution is due to human activities.

“It is indisputable that human activities have caused and are causing climate change,” Chinese climate scientist Panmao Zhai, co-chair of the working group that prepared the scientific report, said at the press conference. “What’s new in this report is that we now have a much more advanced understanding of the connections between the emissions we release and the rise in global surface temperature, and the change to weather and the climate we are seeing around the world.”

Nevertheless, he said, humans still have “a chance to stop the negative climate trend [by] the middle of the century,” especially by curbing the use of fossil fuels and stopping deforestation, which is a major source of emissions in tropical countries.

Episodes of extremely hot weather have become more frequent and intense since the 1950s, Zhai said. Oceans are also warming, resulting in lower oxygen concentrations and increased acidity, which is already affecting fisheries in some parts of the world. And glaciers, Arctic Sea ice, and ice sheets like those blanketing Greenland are melting.

The report provides a more detailed look at regional impacts of climate change than earlier IPCC assessments. That’s partly because of advances in climate science, French climate scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, who co-chairs the scientific working group with Zhai, said at the press conference.

Since the working group’s last report in 2013, “climate scientists filled in gaps in observations of past climate. They improved climate models and developed new ways to combine many types of evidence,” she said. “As a result, today we have the clearest picture of how the Earth’s climate functions and how human activities affect it. We know better than ever how the climate has changed in the past, how it is changing now and how it will change in the future.”

Since the middle of the last century, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released as a result of human activities have trapped heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the average temperature on land by approximately 1.1 degree Celsius over pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

An initial target of limiting the rise to no more than 2 C by the end of this century was revised downward to 1.5 C as part of the Paris Agreement, but at current emission levels the world is on track to overshoot both those figures, and could surpass the 1.5 C goal within the next two decades.

The new report offers five possible scenarios for future warming, based on at what point in this century, and by how much, humans dial back greenhouse gas emissions. In the scenario that assumes a 1.5 C increase in average global temperature, extreme heat waves that occurred once every decade at the beginning of the 20th century would likely occur four times. With a 4 C increase, the most extreme scenario, they would be almost annual events.

Droughts affecting natural ecosystems and agriculture also increase in frequency and intensity under the various scenarios. Although it seems contradictory, so would the frequency of days of heavy rainfall, because of the effect of warmer ocean temperatures.

The report’s review of regional climate impacts covers all parts of the globe, including continental and subcontinental breakdowns as well as the warming effects on small islands, oceans, polar regions and urban areas. It also includes an interactive atlas that allows users to look at past, present and projected future climate conditions and download data.

Besides the detailed scientific report, the scientific working group published a technical report meant to help engineers design infrastructure to withstand the impacts of a warming climate, and a summary for policymakers. This report will be followed in early 2022 by assessments from the IPCC working groups studying means of mitigating the impacts of climate change and adapting to a warming world.

Although it does not make policy recommendations, the scientific report underscores the urgency of this year’s international climate summit.

“COP26 is very critical,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said at the press conference. “Obviously, the scientist does not tell the politicians what to do, but they provide the very basis for people to have an understanding. And I would encourage that all [people] recall that, as citizens, we have a role in requesting and ensuring that our governments are aware of that science.”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/climate-change-evidence-unequivocal-some-impacts-irreversible-report-says

Climate change: At-risk nations fear extinction after IPCC report

Flooding in the Maldives
Getty Images
image captionCountries like the Maldives are among the most vulnerable to climate change

Nations vulnerable to climate change have warned they are on the “edge of extinction” if action is not taken.

The warning by a group of developing countries comes after a landmark UN report argued that global warming could make parts of the world uninhabitable.

World leaders including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have called the report a “wake-up call to the world”.

But some of the strongest reaction to its findings has come from countries that are set to be the worst hit.

“We are paying with our lives for the carbon someone else emitted,” said Mohamed Nasheed, a former Maldives president who represents almost 50 countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest-lying country and Mr Nasheed said the projections by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would be “devastating” for the nation, putting it on the “edge of extinction”.

According to the latest IPCC report, heatwaves, heavy rainfall and droughts will become more common and extreme. The UN’s chief has labelled it a “code red for humanity”.

The report says there is “unequivocal” evidence that humans are to blame for increasing temperatures. Within the next two decades, temperatures are likely to rise 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, it adds.

That could lead to sea levels rising by half a metre, but a rise of 2m by the end of the century cannot be ruled out.

That could have a devastating impact on low-lying coastal countries, said Diann Black-Layne, ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda, and lead climate negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States.

“That is our very future, right there,” Ms Black-Layne said.

The report comes less than three months before a key climate summit in Glasgow known as COP26.

Boris Johnson, who is hosting the conference, said the report showed help was needed for countries bearing the brunt of climate change.

“Today’s report makes for sobering reading, and it is clear that the next decade is going to be pivotal to securing the future of our planet,” he said.

“We know what must be done to limit global warming – consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance for countries on the frontline.”

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, more than 190 governments agreed the world should limit global warming to 2C or ideally 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

But the new report says that under all scenarios, both targets will be broken this century unless huge cuts in carbon take place.

US Climate Envoy John Kerry said that to reach the targets, countries urgently needed to change their economies.

“This is the critical decade for action, and COP26 in Glasgow must be a turning point in this crisis,” Mr Kerry said.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, who confirmed on Monday that she will attend the COP26 talks, said the report “confirms what we already know… that we are in an emergency”.

“We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis,” she said on Twitter.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-58064485

U.N. climate report depicts fast-warming world where ‘nobody is safe’

Residents wade through a flooded road in the aftermath of Cyclone Kenneth in Pemba, Mozambique, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A flagship U.N. science report on Monday showed no one is safe from the accelerating effects of climate change and there is an urgent need to prepare and protect people as extreme weather and rising seas hit harder than predicted.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), written by 234 scientists, said global warming of about 1.1 degrees Celsius has brought many changes in different regions – from more severe droughts and storms to rising seas.

Those will all increase with further warming, but it is not too late to cut climate-heating emissions to keep temperature rise to internationally agreed goals of “well below” 2C and ideally 1.5C – which would help stop or slow down some of the impacts, the report said.

U.N. officials said the IPCC had increasingly sounded the alarm in its regular reports over the past three decades, but that had not spurred adequate policy responses.

“The world listened but didn’t hear; the world listened but it didn’t act strongly enough – and as a result, climate change is a problem that is here now,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme.

“Nobody is safe and it’s getting worse faster,” she told journalists at the online report launch.

IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said the report provided an improved understanding of climate change and how it is already playing out around the world.

“It tells us that it is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather events more frequent and severe,” he said, describing it as a “valuable toolbox” for negotiators at November’s COP26 climate talks.

All parts of the world are being affected, he added, noting the report contains detailed information on impacts by region, as well as fast-developing knowledge on attributing extreme weather events to climate change.

It also offers an interactive atlas allowing people to check climatic changes where they live.

Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which hosts the IPCC, said current plans by governments to cut their emissions could, if confirmed and implemented, limit global warming to 2.1C.

But that level of temperature rise would still bring many problems, including food shortages, extreme heat, forest fires, sea level rise, a potential “refugee crisis” and negative impacts for the global economy and biodiversity, he added.

As well as slashing emissions, “it is essential to pay attention to climate adaptation since the negative trend in climate will continue for decades and in some cases for thousands of years”, he told the report launch.

One powerful way to adapt, he said, is to invest in early warning services for threats like droughts and floods – but only half of the WMO’s 195 member countries currently have those, fuelling human and economic losses.

There are also severe gaps in meteorological and weather forecasting systems in Africa, parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific, he noted.

RESILIENT INFRASTRUCTURE

Youba Sokona, vice-chair of the IPCC and special advisor for sustainable development at the South Centre think-tank, said the report would help policy makers in Africa improve their ability to understand climatic changes and anticipate what may come.

That would allow them to design more resilient infrastructure, such as larger dams in drought-prone areas or more robust flood defences in cities, and seek finance for such projects, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by video call from Bamako, the capital of Mali.

The report includes specific scientific information on the polar regions, saying it is very likely the Arctic has warmed at more than twice the global rate over the past 50 years.

That has led to more extreme heat events, permafrost thawing and longer fire seasons, while the Arctic could be ice-free in summer at least once by 2050, it said.

IPCC report lead author Dirk Notz, who heads research on sea ice at Germany’s University of Hamburg, said the Arctic was “the early warning system of our planet”, with climate change manifesting earlier and stronger there.

He said policy makers should use the new report to plan for sea levels potentially topping earlier projected ranges.

For example, if building a coastal dyke to protect against 1-metre higher waters this century, it would be sensible to allow for it to be raised to cope with a 2m increase if needed.

“I hope … that both society and policy makers really understand what is at stake here – that we are leaving the comfort zone of our climate system that we’ve been living in for the past thousands of years and moving into completely uncharted territory,” he added.

https://news.trust.org/item/20210809145828-y4cqn/

Big Oil and Gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price

(Guardian Design)
(Guardian Design)

After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, America’s petroleum giants face a reckoning for driving the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes.

An unprecedented wave of lawsuits, filed by cities and states across the US, aim to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels — and covering up what they knew along the way.

Coastal cities struggling to keep rising sea levels at bay, midwestern states watching “mega-rains” destroy crops and homes, and fishing communities losing catches to warming waters, are now demanding the oil conglomerates pay damages and take urgent action to reduce further harm from burning fossil fuels.

But, even more strikingly, the nearly two dozen lawsuits are underpinned by accusations that the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit to suppress warnings from their own scientists about the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and dupe the American public.

The environmentalist Bill McKibben once characterized the fossil fuel industry’s behavior as “the most consequential cover-up in US history.” And now for the first time in decades, the lawsuits chart a path toward public accountability that climate activists say has the potential to rival big tobacco’s downfall after it concealed the real dangers of smoking.

“We are at an inflection point,” said Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.

“Things have to get worse for the oil companies,” he added. “Even if they’ve got a pretty good chance of winning the litigation in places, the discovery of pretty clear-cut wrong doing — that they knew their product was bad and they were lying to the public — really weakens the industry’s ability to resist legislation and settlements.”

For decades, the country’s leading oil and gas companies have understood the science of climate change and the dangers posed by fossil fuels. Year after year, top executives heard it from their own scientists whose warnings were explicit and often dire.

In 1979, an Exxon study said that burning fossil fuels “will cause dramatic environmental effects” in the coming decades.

“The potential problem is great and urgent,” it concluded.

But instead of heeding the evidence of the research they were funding, major oil firms worked together to bury the findings and manufacture a counter narrative to undermine the growing scientific consensus around climate science. The fossil fuel industry’s campaign to create uncertainty paid off for decades by muddying public understanding of the growing dangers from global heating and stalling political action.

The urgency of the crisis is not in doubt. A draft United Nations report, leaked last week, warns that the consequences of the climate crisis, including rising seas, intense heat and ecosystem collapse, will fundamentally reshape life on earth in the coming decades even if fossil fuel emissions are curbed.

To investigate the lengths of the oil and gas industry’s deceptions — and the disastrous consequences for communities across the country — the Guardian is launching a year-long series tracking the unprecedented efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry to account.

The legal process is expected to take years. Cities in California filed the first lawsuits back in 2017, and they have been tied down by disputes over jurisdiction, with the oil companies fighting with limited success to get them moved from state to federal courts where they think the law is more favorable.

But climate activists see opportunities long before verdicts are rendered in the U.S. The legal process is expected to add to already damning revelations of the energy giants’ closely-held secrets. If history is a guide, those developments could in turn alter public opinion in favor of regulations that the oil and gas companies spent years fighting off.

A string of other recent victories for climate activists already points to a shift in the industry’s power. 

Last month, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the decade. The same day, in Houston, an activist hedge fund forced three new directors onto the board of the U.S.’s largest oil firm, ExxonMobil, to address climate issues. Investors at Chevron also voted to cut emissions from the petroleum products it sells.

Earlier this month, developers of the Keystone XL pipeline cancelled the project after more than a decade of unrelenting opposition over environmental concerns. And although a federal court last year threw out a lawsuit brought by 21 young Americans who say the US government violated their constitutional rights by exacerbating climate change, the Biden administration recently agreed to settlement talks in a symbolic gesture aimed to appease younger voters.

For all that, American lawyers say the legal reasoning behind foreign court judgements are unlikely to carry much sway in the U.S. and domestic law is largely untested. In 2018, a federal court knocked back New York City’s initial attempt to force Big Oil to cover the costs of the climate crisis by saying that its global nature requires a political, not legal, remedy.

Other regional lawsuits are inching their way through the courts. From Charleston, South Carolina, to Boulder, Colorado, and Maui, Hawaii, communities are seeking to force the industry to use its huge profits to pay for the damage and to oblige energy companies to treat the climate crisis for what it is — a global emergency.

Municipalities such as Imperial Beach, California — the poorest city in San Diego county with a budget less than Exxon chief executive’s annual pay — faces rising waters on three sides without the necessary funding to build protective barriers. They claim oil companies created a “public nuisance” by fuelling the climate crisis. They seek to recover the cost of repairing the damage and constructing defences.

The public nuisance claim, also pursued by Honolulu, San Francisco, and Rhode Island, follows a legal strategy with a record of success in other types of litigation. In 2019, Oklahoma’s attorney general won compensation of nearly half a billion dollars against the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson over its false marketing of powerful prescription painkillers on the grounds it created a public nuisance by contributing to the opioid epidemic in the state.

Other climate lawsuits, including one filed in Minnesota, allege the oil firms’ campaigns of deception and denial about the climate crisis amount to fraud. Minnesota is suing Exxon, Koch Industries, and an industry trade group for breaches of state law for deceptive trade practices, false advertising, and consumer fraud over what the lawsuit characterises as distortions and lies about climate science.

The midwestern state, which has seen temperatures rise faster than the U.S. and global averages, said scorching temperatures and “mega-rains” have devastated farming and flooded people out of their homes, with low income and minority families most at risk.

Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, claims in his lawsuit that for years Exxon orchestrated a campaign to bury the evidence of environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels “with disturbing success.”

“Defendants spent millions on advertising and public relations because they understood that an accurate understanding of climate change would affect their ability to continue to earn profits by conducting business as usual,” Ellison said in his lawsuit.

Farber said cases rooted in claims that the petroleum industry lied have the most promising chance of success.

“To the extent the plaintiffs can point to misconduct, like telling everybody there’s no such thing as climate change when your scientists have told you the opposite, that might give the courts a greater feeling of comfort that they’re not trying to take over the U.S. energy system,” he said.

Fighting the facts 

Almost all the lawsuits draw on the oil industry’s own records as the foundation for claims that it covered up the growing threat to life caused by its products.

Shell, like other oil companies, had decades to prepare for those consequences after it was forewarned by its own research. In 1958, one of its executives, Charles Jones, presented a paper to the industry’s trade group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), warning about increased carbon emissions from car exhaust. Other research followed through the 1960s, leading a White House advisory committee to express concern at “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” by the year 2000.

API’s own reports flagged up “significant temperature changes” by the end of the twentieth century.

The largest oil company in the U.S., Exxon, was hearing the same from its researchers.

Year after year, Exxon scientists recorded the evidence about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. In 1978, its science advisor, James Black, warned that there was a “window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategy might become critical.” 

Exxon set up equipment on a supertanker, the Esso Atlantic, to monitor carbon dioxide in seawater and the air. In 1982, the company’s scientists drew up a graph accurately plotting an increase in the globe’s temperature to date.

“The 1980s revealed an established consensus among scientists,” the Minnesota lawsuit against Exxon says. “A 1982 internal Exxon document … explicitly declares that the science was ‘unanimous’ and that climate change would ‘bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate.’ “

Then the monitoring on the Esso Atlantic was suddenly called off and other research downgraded.

What followed was what Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the report America Misled, called a “systematic, organised campaign by Exxon and other oil companies to sow doubt about the science and prevent meaningful action.”

The report accused the energy companies of not only polluting the air but also “the information landscape” by replicating the cigarette makers’ playbook of cherry picking data, using fake experts, and promoting conspiracy theories to attack a growing scientific consensus.

Many of the lawsuits draw on a raft of Exxon documents held at the University of Texas, and uncovered by Columbia University and the Los Angeles Times in 2015.

Among them is a 1988 Exxon memo laying out a strategy to push for a “balanced scientific approach,” which meant giving equal weight to hard evidence and climate change denialism. That move bore fruit in parts of the media into the 2000s as the oil industry repositioned global heating as theory, not fact, contributing to the most deep-rooted climate denialism in any developed country.

The company placed advertisements in major American newspapers to sow doubt. One in The New York Times in 2000, under the headline “Unsettled Science,” compared climate data to changing weather forecasts. It claimed scientists were divided, when an overwhelming consensus already backed the evidence of a growing climate crisis, and said that the supposed doubts meant it was too soon to act.

Exxon’s chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond, told industry executives in 1996 that “scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect global climate.”

“It’s a long and dangerous leap to conclude that we should, therefore, cut fossil fuel use,” he said.

Documents show that his company’s scientists were telling Exxon’s management that the real danger lay in the failure to do exactly that.

In 2019, Martin Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University, told a congressional hearing that as a consultant to Exxon on climate modelling in the 1980s, he worked on eight scientific papers for the company that showed fossil fuel burning was “increasingly having a perceptible influence on earth’s climate.” 

Hoffert said he “hoped that the work would help to persuade Exxon to invest in developing energy solutions the world needed.” That was not the result.

“Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong, and we knew that because we were the major group working on this. This was immoral and has greatly set back efforts to address climate change,” said Hoffert.

“They deliberately created doubt when internal research confirmed how serious a threat it was. As a result, in my opinion, homes and livelihoods will likely be destroyed and lives lost.” 

Exxon worked alongside Chevron, Shell, BP and smaller oil firms to shift attention away from the growing climate crisis. They funded the industry’s trade body, API, as it drew up a multimillion dollar plan to ensure that “climate change becomes a non- issue” through disinformation. The plan said “victory will be achieved” when “recognition of uncertainties become part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’ “

The fossil fuel industry also used its considerable resources to pour billions of dollars into political lobbying to block unfavourable laws and to fund front organisations with neutral and scientific sounding names, such as the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). In 2001, the U.S. state department told the GCC that President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “in part, based on input from you.”

Exxon alone has funded more than 40 groups to deny climate science, including the George C. Marshall Institute, which one lawsuit claims orchestrated a “sham petition” denying man-made global climate change. It was later denounced by the National Academy of Science as “a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists.”

Drilling down

To Sharon Eubanks the conspiracy to deny science sounded very familiar. From 2000, she led the U.S. justice department’s legal team against nine tobacco firms in one of the largest civil cases filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act, which was designed to combat organised crime.

In 2006, a federal judge found that the industry had spent decades committing a huge fraud on the American public by lying about the dangers of smoking and pushing cigarettes to young people.

Eubanks said that when she looked at the fossil fuel industry’s strategy, she immediately recognised big tobacco’s playbook.

“Big Oil was engaged in exactly the same type of behaviour that the tobacco companies engaged in and were found liable for fraud on a massive scale,” said Eubanks. “The cover up, the denial of the problem, the funding of scientists to question the science. The same pattern. And some of the same lawyers represent both tobacco and big oil.”

The danger for the fossil fuel industry is that the parallels do not end there.

The legal process is likely to oblige the oil conglomerates to turn over years of internal communications revealing what they knew about climate change, when and how they responded. Given what has already come out from Exxon, they are unlikely to help the industry’s case.

Eubanks, who is now advising attorneys general and others suing the oil industry, said a turning point in her action against big tobacco came with the discovery of internal company memos in a state case in Minnesota. They included language that talked about recruiting young people as “replacement smokers” for those who died from cigarettes.

“I think the public was particularly stunned by some of the content of the documents and the talk about the need for bigger bags to take home all the money they were going to make from getting people to smoke,” said Eubanks.

The exposure of the tobacco companies internal communications shifted the public mood and the politics, helping to open the door to legislation to curb smoking that the industry had been successfully resisting for decades.

Farber, the Berkeley law professor, said the discovery process carries a similar danger for the oil companies because it is likely to expose yet more evidence that they set out to deceive. He said that will undercut any attempt by the energy giants to claim in court that they were ignorant of the damage they were causing.

Farber said it will also be difficult for the oil industry to resist the weight of U.S. lawsuits, shareholder activism, and shifting public and political opinion. “It might push them towards settlement or supporting legislation that releases some from liability in return for some major concessions such as a large tax to finance responses to climate change.”

The alternative, said Farber, is to take their chance on judges and juries who may be increasingly inclined to take the climate crisis seriously.

“They may think this is an emergency that requires a response. That the oil companies should be held responsible for the harm they’ve caused and that could be very expensive,” he said. “If they lose, it’s catastrophic ultimately.” 

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/big-oil-and-gas-kept-dirty-secret-decades-now-they-may-pay-price

Children in Raqqa still living in ruins four years after battle

A girl wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic sells slippers at an open-air market in the city of Raqqa in Syria [File: Delil Souleimani/AFP]
A girl wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic sells slippers at an open-air market in the city of Raqqa in Syria [File: Delil Souleimani/AFP]

Four years after the battle for the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, children and families are still living in damaged homes with severely limited access to clean water, electricity, and education, a report by Save the Children has found.

Raqqa, once the self-styled “capital” of the ISIL (ISIS) group in Syria, was subjected in 2017 to a heavy air and ground offensive by the US-led coalition to defeat the group and gain control of the city.

At the peak of the bombing campaign, the city faced 150 air raids a day, causing immense damage to the infrastructure and buildings, many of which remain in ruins, according to the report published on Tuesday.

“Children and their families in Raqqa live every day in a ruined city, with limited options, amid drought, pandemic and a Syria-wide economic crisis,” Sonia Khush, the Syria Response Director for Save the Children, said.

Reports estimate that at least 36 percent of the city’s buildings remain destroyed. A drought in northeast Syria has also caused a public health crisis, with a reported increase in waterborne diseases and challenges in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

While thousands of people have moved back to the city, three-quarters of Raqqa’s population rely on aid in order to buy food and other basic goods and services.

Aida*, a widow and mother of four, lives with her children in a severely damaged house that does not have running water or electricity.

The 27-year-old, who fled Aleppo nine years ago, is afraid to let her children play outside.

“I get scared when my children go outside because they might get hurt, so I do not let them go out,” she told Save the Children.

“There is a destroyed building here and I’m afraid there will be something [like a landmine] underneath. You never know. I keep them away from it.”

According to Save the Children, the conflict and its aftermath decimated Raqqa’s education sector, with 80 percent of the city’s schools damaged.

Khush said that while a decade of war has caused a mental health crisis for children and their families, children in Raqqa cannot enjoy basic activities or access services such as playing or getting an education to “find enjoyment in life and prepare for the future”.

“Children are at risk of injury and death even from doing nothing but sitting home in the rubble,” she said.

Khush called for “substantive humanitarian responses” from the international community, particularly from the anti-ISIL coalition members.

“They bear responsibility to subsequently address the consequences of their military action,” she said.

“It is vital that they and all humanitarian donors step up to ensure that basic services are restored and opportunities are provided, to give children the chance of a brighter future after all they have endured over the course of Syria’s conflict.”

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/27/syria-children-in-raqqa-living-in-ruins-four-years-after-battle

Pope Francis to UN chief: World hunger ‘a crime that violates basic human rights’

Homeless man Credit Steve Knutson via Unsplash
Steve Knutson via Unsplash.

Pope Francis described world hunger on Monday as “a crime that violates basic human rights.”

In a July 26 message to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the pope called for a “new mindset” in the battle against malnutrition.

“We produce enough food for all people, but many go without their daily bread. This ‘constitutes a real scandal,’ a crime that violates basic human rights,” he said, quoting from his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti.

“Therefore, it is everyone’s duty to eradicate this injustice through concrete actions and good practices, and through bold local and international policies.”

The pope sent the message to the U.N. chief at the start of the Pre-Summit of the U.N. Food Systems Summit in Rome. The event, held on July 26-28, is seeking to build momentum ahead of the summit in New York in September.

The U.N. estimates that that nearly 690 million people — 8.9% of the world population — suffer from hunger, an increase of almost 60 million in five years.

“If we want to guarantee the fundamental right to an adequate standard of living and fulfill our commitments to achieve Zero Hunger, it is not enough to produce food,” wrote the pope, who returned to the Vatican on July 14 after undergoing colon surgery.

“We need a new mindset and a new holistic approach and to design food systems that protect the Earth and keep the dignity of the human person at the center; that guarantee sufficient food globally and promote decent work locally; and that feed the world today, without compromising the future.”

Pope Francis has consistently highlighted world hunger since his election in 2013.

He made a donation last year to the World Food Programme as the U.N. organization worked to feed 270 million people amid rising hunger caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The pope told the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization in June that the pandemic should spur efforts to create a global food system capable of withstanding future shocks.

In his message to Guterres, who is a Catholic, the pope said: “We are aware that individual, closed, and conflicting — but powerful — economic interests prevent us from designing a food system that responds to the values of the common good, solidarity and the ‘culture of encounter.’”

“If we want to maintain a fruitful multilateralism and a food system based on responsibility, justice, peace and the unity of the human family is paramount.”

“The crisis we are currently facing is indeed a unique opportunity to engage in authentic, bold, and courageous dialogues, addressing the roots of our unjust food system.”

https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/248502/pope-francis-to-un-chief-world-hunger-a-crime-that-violates-basic-human-rights

Asia Bibi wants to be a voice for persecuted Christians around the world

Asia Bibi
Asia Bibi/ Blanca Ruiz/ACI Prensa

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman once sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan but eventually freed, now wants to be a voice for Christians around the world.

Bibi, who addressed the International Religious Freedom Summit on Wednesday via a video message from Canada, expressed her gratitude for people who worked to secure her release from prison, and thanked God for her release. 

“From the bottom of my heart I am very thankful to the Lord, who has rescued me from my sufferings and difficulties,” said Bibi in an address that was translated into English. “He has given me a fresh start and the opportunity to start a new life with my family.” 

Now safe in Canada, Bibi said that she “wants to be a voice for Christian people, Christians in prison, and in difficulties.” 

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death, following an incident in 2009.

Bibi said that while working in a field, another person saw her drinking water from a cup previously used by Muslims, and informed her it was improper for a Christian to use that cup. An argument ensued, and Bibi was reported to a Muslim cleric five days later for her supposed blasphemy. Bibi and her family were the only Christians residing in the area, and had faced pressure to convert to Islam.

She was sentenced to death by hanging for alleged blasphemy. Pakistan’s penal code criminalizes speech that insults or defiles the state religion of Islam, but it is often used against religious minorities and many accusations are reportedly false. Pakistan has among the strictest blasphemy laws in the world, as one of only four countries with the death penalty for blasphemy. 

Bibi immediately appealed her death sentence, but the Lahore High Court upheld her conviction in 2014. She then appealed to the country’s Supreme Court, and was acquitted in 2018. She was then granted refugee status in Canada and moved there in May 2019 with her family. 

“When I was in prison, I was very worried about my children and husband,” said Bibi. “I was not aware where they were and whether they were safe or not.” 

“At the same time, I had a hope in the Lord,” said Bibi. “Thanks to all of the brothers and sisters who prayed and fasted. Because of their prayers, I am now free.” https://cb7cbd6258387a1472a353782699af45.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Bibi explained that her “Christian brothers and sisters worked very hard for my freedom,” and said that she is “very thankful to everyone from the bottom of my heart.” 

“Let us join hands and stand together so we can be a voice for our Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering, and help them out of their situations,” she said. “Like the Lord did for me.”

At the beginning of the video, Bibi described what her life was like in Pakistan prior to her arrest and blasphemy conviction. She said that some of her happiest memories from her village in Pakistan were celebrating Easter and Christmas with her family. 

Pakistan enforced its blasphemy laws 184 times from January 2014 through December 2018, the highest number of any country in the world, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In 2020, there were reportedly 30 Christians jailed on blasphemy charges in Pakistan, including seven on death row. The country has not yet executed anyone for blasphemy

https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/248377/asia-bibi-wants-to-be-a-voice-for-persecuted-christians-around-the-world

Uyghur survivor of China’s detention camps testifies to their brutality

Tursunay Ziyawudun
Tursunay Ziyawudun at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C./ Campaign For Uyghurs | Twitter @CUyghurs

Warning: graphic and disturbing content below. Reader discretion is advised.

A two-time survivor of China’s detention camps in Xinjiang described suffering physical and sexual violence at the hands of camp guards, in her July 14 testimony at an international religious freedom gathering in Washington, D.C.

Tursunay Ziyawudun, 42, of China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, spoke at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. on the morning of Wednesday, July 14. She described how she was imprisoned in camps in the province on two separate occasions. 

“My experiences in these Chinese camps have left indelible scars on my heart,” she said. 

“I have come to see it as my duty to be the voice for those people who are in the camps, those who died in front of my own eyes, and those who are being held unjustly in prison,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion. Her testimony was translated with subtitles.

According to the U.S. State Department, since April 2017 China has set up a network of internment and detention camps in Xinjiang, imprisoning more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, and some Christians. Detainees have been subjected to political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, forced sterilization, and forced labor. 

The current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said that China is committing genocide in the region. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that genocide is occurring there.

The Uyhgurs are an ethnic minority in northwestern China, and are mainly Muslims. Most of the camp detainees are Uyghurs. 

“Millions of Uyhgurs are suffering, and they are alive only because they have the hope and belief that there is justice in this world,” Ziyawudun said. “My people, who have been experienceing a genocide for the past five years, are waiting for help from you and from all of humanity.” 

“I bow humbly before you and once again ask the whole world, and all of humanity, to save my people from this oppression,” she pleaded with audience members. https://b0cde7d4bfda6098e6296dc693a151e9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The summit is a gathering of religious and civic leaders, featuring testimonies of survivors of religious persecution, as well as speeches and panel discussions on promoting religious freedom globally.

Regarding her two stints in the detention camps, Ziyawundun said her second stint “was even more inhumane than the first.” 

Ziyawudun said that life in the camp was lived in a constant state of fear, and that she was able to hear other detainees being tortured. 

“On several occasions, the Han police and guards took me out of the cell and into interrogation, and they beat me,” she said. “They used whatever oppressive methods they wanted.”

The “Han” people are the majority ethnic group in China. Uyghur women have reported that they were forced into marriages with Han men after their Uyghur husbands were taken to the camps. 

One time, Ziyawudun said, she and a woman in her 20s were taken by camp police officers and brought to “a man in a suit, wearing a mask over his mouth.” 

“They raped the young woman,” she said. “Three Han police officers raped me as well.” 

This system of rape was commonplace, as the police “were always taking girls out of the cells like this” and “did whatever they wanted.” 

“Sometimes they brought some of the women back near the point of death,” she said. “Some of the women disappeared.” 

“I saw some of them bleed to death with my own eyes. Some of them even lost their minds in the camp,” said Ziyawudun. 

Her second detention began in March 2018, she said, and lasted for nearly one year. She said that she noticed “many new buildings in the camp” as well as camera systems and armed guards. 

“Sometimes they showed us propaganda films,” said Ziyawudun. “Sometimes they taught us Chinese law, sometimes they taught us Chinese ‘red’ songs, and sometimes they made us swear oaths of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.” 

The Chinese Communist Party alleges that the camps are “re-education” camps aimed at combating terrorism. 

Ziyawudun said she was only able to speak about her experience since she arrived in the United States, through the assistance of the U.S. government and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. 

Another survivor of China’s detention camps, Gulzira Auelkhan, testified before a congressional commission on Tuesday. She told members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that her detention camp had an organized system of forced prostitution and rape.

Auelkhan said she was arrested in 2017 for immigrating to Kazakhstan, and said she was sent to four different camps. She was allowed to leave China for Kazakhstan in January 2019.

In her time in the camps, Auelkhan said she had no privacy and reported being beaten with electric batons if she or others took more than two minutes to use the restroom. Detainees would be punished by being forced to sit in the painful “tiger chair,” at times for 14 hours. If they fainted, guards would douse them with cold water to revive them. Detainees were forced to eat rice, study Mandarin Chinese, and the laws of the Chinese Communist Party.

Also at Wednesday’s summit, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, condemned China’s “genocide” in Xinjiang. 

“Xi Jinping’s genocide includes the forced disappearances of millions of Uyghurs into concentration camps, the forced sterilization of Uyghur women, forced abortion of their precious babies, and state abduction of Uyghur children into orphanages far from home to be reared with non-Uyghur upbringing.  All of this fits the definition of genocide,” he said.

“The Chinese Communist Party is today systematically erasing Islam in western China—bulldozing mosques and shrines, severely throttling all religious practice, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith,” he said.

https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/248372/uyghur-survivor-of-chinas-detention-camps-testifies-to-their-brutality

‘This is just another low-paying job’ say overtaxed U.S. firefighters

Firefighters conduct a prescribed burn in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Oregon, U.S., May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Ilie Mitaru

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, – More than 17 years of fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service has taken a toll on Brian Campbell.

He’s been homeless, once spending months sleeping in a van while fighting fires in the state of Idaho. He routinely is called to drive the engine he captains in Washington state across the country at a moment’s notice to support local crews.

During fire season he spends long stints in the forest without seeing his wife and young children.

Yet his salary is barely enough to get by on – $50,000 a year. Although he loves the job, he’s keeping his eyes open for other work.

“The seasons are longer, and we’re not being treated any better,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview – a view echoed by a half-dozen other current and former wildland firefighters.

As climate change strengthens, bringing hotter temperatures and worsening drought, the United States is entering what experts fear could be yet another devastating fire season.

But 20% of the federal government’s fulltime firefighting positions are currently vacant, according to Kelly Martin, president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

Those vacancies, which Martin attributes to poor working conditions driving firefighters out of their jobs, are leaving communities around the United States more vulnerable, she said.

“With climate change, extreme heat, and drought, we’ve set ourselves up for something I’ve never seen in my career” – a depleting firefighting force at a time of worsening fires, said Martin, who retired in 2019 as chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park.

“It’s too much for understaffed firefighters, with limited pay and benefits, to bear anymore,” she said.

Low pay is a big part of the problem, federal government officials admit, with President Biden calling the $13-an-hour minimum wage for federal firefighters “ridiculously low,” and promising to raise it to $15.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, admitted that “hiring and retaining firefighters has been complicated by our inability to offer competitive wages”.

But the agency is looking at options to “modernize” firefighter compensation, the spokesperson noted in emailed comments.

‘MONETIZED RISK TAKING’

Lawmakers from western states where the fires are fiercest have been eyeing broader changes to the federal government’s role in combating wildfires and say those on the front lines deserve proper safeguards.

“I do think we need to take a look at a range of issues on compensation, including what jobs need to be permanent jobs rather than temporary jobs and what we need to do for health care,” Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The federal firefighting force includes full-time firefighters as well as seasonal and temporary workers who are laid off during the off-season. Those firefighters are in turn supplemented by state and municipal fire crews and in some states jail and prison inmates who are paid as little as $2 a day to cut firebreaks.

For the bulk of federal firefighters, salaries tend to be lower than comparable work with other fire departments, Martin said – and only full-time workers have access to paid health benefits.

The way most firefighters make ends meet is by racking up significant hours of overtime, Martin said, setting up a perverse incentive to work too hard, and possibly get injured or burned out.

“If they pay more, firefighters wouldn’t need to be working overtime to get a livable wage,” she said. “In a perverted way we’ve monetized risk taking.”

One former federal firefighter in New Mexico, who recently left to join a municipal fire department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the low pay and lack of benefits forced him out of his job

“I worked for five years as a seasonal firefighter, starting at $13 an hour, and ending at $15. In the end it was just too stressful to make ends meet, ” he said, asking for anonymity to speak freely about working conditions.

Like Campbell, the firefighter also spent some seasons sleeping in his car, unable to afford rent.

WARNING SIGNS

Firefighting services in the United States have become increasingly in demand in recent years, experts say, as a combination of limited wildland management and climate change has increased the duration, extent and ferocity of the fire season.

2020 study published by researchers at Stanford University found that 50 million U.S. homes are now located in zones that are threatened by fire.

But authorities have not invested in the manpower needed to protect them, despite repeated warnings, said Donovan Lee, who spent 22 years as a federal firefighter, most recently as deputy forest fire management officer at Mendocino National Forest in California.

Before Lee quit last year he served on a task force studying staff retention issues in California. He circulated a memo warning that the Forest Service was “currently losing employees at an alarming rate to employers offering better compensation and overall quality of life.”

“Every year for the last five years it’s getting worse and worse,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “You make more money at McDonalds”

One of the issues Lee spotlighted in his memo was the classification of federal wildland firefighters as “forestry technicians” which means they don’t get the same specialized healthcare provision as city and state firefighters.

In an effort to boost firefighter recruitment, a bipartisan group of U.S. federal lawmakers earlier this year introduced legislation that would require the Office of Personnel Management to reclassify the position from technician to “wildland firefighter.”

The year after Lee circulated his memo, in 2019, the United States experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, with firefighters stretched so thin they, unusually, had to abandon some residential areas to fire.

This year, Washington state – hit by drought and record heat – has already seen a 56% increase in fires compared to the same point last year.

Firefighting units, meanwhile, are still experiencing dramatic attrition.

One hotshot firefighter – the term for a member of an elite firefighting crew – described seeing 16 members of his 20-person team leave over the past three years.

“All of us are concerned about the breakdown of our bodies from carrying 80 pounds and a chainsaw all day,” he said. “After a while the glamour fades – and you realize: this is just another low-paying job.”

https://news.trust.org/item/20210714093414-wpkb3/