Columnist Marty Nathan: Locust swarms and the climate emergency

  • In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, two Samburu men who work for a county disaster team identifying the location of the locusts, are surrounded by a swarm of desert locusts filling the air, near the village of Sissia, in Samburu county, Kenya. AP

Published: 2/5/2020 5:00:43 PM

When this column started, not many years ago, it was focused almost entirely on trying to stop the cause of climate change, because the effects of global heating were not yet obvious or frequently encountered.

Now, I find climate-linked disasters reported nearly every day. The most recent is the worst swarm of locusts to hit East Africa in decades. Millions of locusts are destroying crops in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, an area where already more than 11 million people are food insecure.

Rapidly warming waters in the adjacent Indian Ocean brought some of the heaviest rains on record to this large, usually dry region. The rain and heat created the conditions for “exceptional” breeding of the locusts. Many farmers lost all their crops and hunger threatens the region.

The new NAFTA

Despite the increasingly obvious crisis, the federal government is doing its all to increase the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. A big hit is on its way with Trump’s new version of NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Crafted with heavy input by the American Petroleum Institute, the new deal promises to further balloon emissions and fossil fuel profits by increasing importation and burning of tar sands oil in the United States, ramping up U.S. gas and oil drilling in the Mexican waters of the Gulf, allowing corporations to override any environmental or community protections Mexico might impose, reducing the cost of specialty steel used in making pipelines and supporting the export of our excess fracked gas into Mexico to maintain prices.

Gas exports to Mexico have increased seven-fold in the last decade, causing a 30% boost in price that allows fracking to be profitable.

For the last three years, recognizing that the White House and congressional Republicans were firmly supporting fossil fuel company profits, those who care about our future have been forced to focus on state and local government policy.

State legislation

Up to the last couple of weeks, the fight in the Massachusetts Legislature has been to pass three strong and workable bills that would meet the challenge posed by climate science in a manner that benefits poor and working communities: H.2836/S.1938 call for 100% renewable energy powering all our needs for electricity, heat and transportation by 2045; Rep. Benson’s H.s2810 would put a price on fossil fuels in our state while protecting poor, rural, working- and middle-class consumers and investing proceeds in green energy projects; and environmental justice bill H.4264 that would codify the right of all people to equal protection and meaningful involvement in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws.

With these three we cover the bases: investing in renewables and conservation, making the price of oil and gas begin to reflect their true social costs and ensuring that those communities least responsible and most affected by the crisis don’t pay the burden of fixing it.

Then in his recent State of the State message, Gov. Charlie Baker surprised many by calling for net-zero carbon emissions for the state by 2050 and the adoption of his Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), a cap and trade system proposed for Northeastern states that would distribute emissions allowances to diesel and gasoline distributors that would limit their ability to pollute.

On the surface, “net-zero emissions” sounds great. The problem is it does not necessarily mean that Massachusetts will stop putting greenhouse gases in the air by 2050. It means emissions minus whatever offsets the state deems acceptable (which may mean unverifiable investments in Amazonian forests) must equal zero, while the state may continue polluting as usual.

It does not, unlike the 100% renewable bill, require shutting down or even avoiding the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure. It doesn’t legislate building new Massachusetts wind turbines, increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard for electricity production, or lifting the net metering cap so that folks with rooftop solar can get a fair return for the electricity they produce. Instead it sets the state up to play a dangerous pollution shell game.

And TCI has been predicted to cut at most 19% of transportation emissions in the decade that climate science has dictated that we must cut 45% of all emissions for a 50% chance to maintain our temperature in the survivable range. Too little too late.

This was followed last week by the Senate’s rapid passage of three bills constituting a climate package. It is large and complicated, but its most prominent features suffer from ambiguity that will invite inaction.

It calls for net-zero emissions by 2050 with every five-year emissions guideposts.

A mandate for putting a price on carbon pollution, either through cap and trade like Baker’s TCI or through a fee and rebate as proposed by Benson’s House bill. Economywide implementation is not due till 2030.

Too many loopholes

Though there are many laudable initiatives in the Senate package, there are too many loopholes to allow celebration. Like Baker’s “net-zero,” it does not mandate the necessary building of clean renewable energy and leaves it to the executive to structure the program. Thus, it too may ultimately rely on unreliable offsets and greenwashing to fulfill goals.

And the carbon pricing section is not only vague, but way too slow and potentially unjust. It will be up to future governors to structure and implement and will not ensure that low-income people don’t pay an undue share of the financial burden. Will the price on fossil fuels be anywhere near enough to decrease their competitiveness and their use? And we must wait until 2030 for complete application?

We are in a climate emergency. As a friend quipped, “This is like responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 by saying we will get around to building bombers in 10 years.”

You have a say in this. On May 7, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the House Telecommunication, Utilities, and Energy Committee will hold a “conversation” at Turners Falls’ Shea Theater. They hold the reins on the advancement of the 100% renewable and carbon pricing bill. Go. Tell them that we demand passage of substantive legislation to stop climate change.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician, mother and grandmother and serves on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She may be reached at
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