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Extreme Weather and Climate Disruption Since Katrina

CPR’s Unnatural Disaster report pointed out that current energy policies favoring fossil fuels made it “more likely that there will be disasters like Katrina in the future.” It explained that global climate disruption increases temperatures thereby causing sea level rise, a big threat to the Gulf Coast, and that climate disruption models suggest a shift toward extreme weather events.

Since Katrina, we have certainly seen lots of extreme weather. Perhaps most reminiscent of Katrina, on October 30, 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit much of the east coast, causing widespread flooding, especially in New York and New Jersey.[1] On February 5-6, 2010, an unusually severe snowstorm, labeled “smowmaggedon” buried Washington, D.C. Looking beyond our shores, super-typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest typhoons on record, devastated the Philippines in November of 2013.



[1] See Adam Sobel, Storm Surge:  Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future (2014).

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Katrina and the Democratization of Energy

Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina,[1] Superstorm Sandy,[2] and the typhoon that devastated Fukushima,[3] as well as technical weaknesses that caused the Northeast blackout in October 2003,[4] and regulatory failures that ended California electric industry restructuring efforts[5] share two commonalities.  First, they all affect the energy system at enormous costs in economic losses and in disrupted lives.[6] Indeed, severe weather events are the leading source of electricity grid disturbances in the US with 679 widespread power outages between 2003 in 2012. Those outages have been estimated to cost the US economy between $18 and $33 billion each year during that decade.[7] Second, the economic and social costs of such disasters are so significant because the centralized structure of electricity generation and distribution guarantees concentrated losses upon such occurrences. 

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Ignored Facts, Distorted Law, and Today's WOTUS Injunction

Earlier today, a federal district court judge in North Dakota enjoined implementation of the new Clean Water Rule (also known as the Waters of the United States rule).  And if ever there was a judicial opinion begging for prompt reversal, this is it.  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers put years of effort into that rule, and drew upon an extraordinary number of studies to arrive at their position.  The court pretended—among other errors—that all that effort and evidentiary support simply did not exist.

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Ten Years After Katrina: Government Can Save Lives and Money

With the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, looking back on CPR’s landmark report on the disaster reveals two essential public policy insights. One is that a series of government policy failures resulted in a far worse disaster than would have occurred if government had been more pro-active.  The second is that more effective government requires addressing and resolving what are often difficult policy issues, something that requires an ongoing dialogue and attention to what experts know and do not know about our options.  Today, ten years after Katrina, the country has retreated even further from having pro-active government. Many elected leaders refuse even to discuss what are the appropriate functions of government, let alone what is the preferable governmental policy option. For them, there is simply no justification for expanding the government or even for adequately funding the government that we have. 

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Hurricane Katrina and the Perversity Thesis

In Albert O. Hirschman’s brilliant analysis of conservative responses to progressive social programs entitled The Rhetoric of Reaction, he identifies and critiques three reactionary narratives that conservatives use to critique governmental programs -- the futility thesis; the jeopardy thesis; and the perversity thesis.

The futility thesis posits that governmental attempts to cure social ills or to correct alleged market imperfections are doomed to fail because the government cannot possibly identify the problem with sufficient clarity, predict the future with sufficient accuracy, and devote resources sufficient to “make a dent” in the problem.

The jeopardy thesis argues that “the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.” The jeopardy thesis thus subjects governmental interventions to a cost-benefit analysis and finds them wanting because the gains to the beneficiaries never exceed the costs to society of putting existing social arrangements at risk.

According to the perversity thesis, “any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.”

The perversity thesis is pervasive in conservative critiques of government programs. On any given day, the reader of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is likely to find one or more applications of that thesis. Perhaps the most common target of the perversity thesis is the perennial call for an increase in the minimum wage. As the Journal’s editorial page told us on August 11 in an editorial entitled “Another Minimum Wage Backfire,” minimum wage increases inevitably harm the very low income workers that their supporters foolishly mean to help by providing an incentive to employers to replace low-wage employees with computers or machines.

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New Video from CPR: Scholars Reflect on Lessons Learned (and not) from Katrina, 10 Years Later

Recently, six CPR Member Scholars sat down for an hour-long conversation about the lessons that policymakers have—and have not—learned in the years since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast and stretched our flawed flood-protection infrastructure past its limits. As explained in our groundbreaking report, Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published just weeks after the New Orleans levees broke, the catastrophic consequences of the storm were the product of decades-long failures to protect our most vulnerable neighbors.

In the video below, CPR Member Scholars Alyson Flournoy, Robin Craig, Sheila Foster, Tom McGarity, Sid Shapiro, and Rob Verchick discuss some of the issues raised in our 2005 report, but add new insights building on a decade of research, advocacy, and efforts to promote stronger disaster preparedness and response. They touch on issues of social vulnerability, public health, and political gridlock, but also note important successes and opportunities.

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Bay Experts Debate Effectiveness of Nutrient Management

As readers of this blog and watchers of the Bay restoration process understand, states are under increasing scrutiny regarding their progress, or lack thereof, implementing the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) as we approach the 2017 midpoint assessment. But behind the scenes, a federal-state partnership known as the Chesapeake Bay Program is also tasked with working on the framework for tracking implementation of the Bay TMDL. This framework consists of establishing and improving many guidelines and protocols used to assess the performance of states, sectors, and even the many different best management practices (BMPs) used to reduce pollution. All of the data collected and assessed under this framework is then fed through the Bay Program’s Watershed Model to provide the public and policymakers with the best guess as to how much pollution-reduction has actually been achieved so far. Given the importance of this framework and Model, an increasing level of scrutiny is now also being given to what exactly is going on behind the curtain.

The Bay Program’s experts are housed within six “goal implementation teams” or GITs. The Water Quality GIT is further divided into 14 work groups that focus on different sectors, pollutants, or other subject matter of interest. While many of these groups have been active for years, there has been a recent surge of interest in their work as a number of important decisions are coming up that will affect the way that future progress is measured. And given that the agriculture sector is the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay watershed, the work of the Agricultural Work Group is of particular interest to clean water advocates right now.

The Nutrient Management Panel is about to make final recommendations to the Bay Program’s Agricultural and Watershed Technical work groups. These recommendations include the amount of credit that will be assigned by the Model for agricultural operations that submit a nutrient management plan. Unlike many actions and BMPs that a state can claim pollution reduction credit for (such as a wastewater treatment plant upgrade, a stream buffer installation, or the creation of a rain garden), a nutrient management plan is merely a piece of paper, unable by itself to prevent any pollution. The question is how much credit should the submission of that paper be worth within the Watershed Model?

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CPR Announces Appointment of New Board Members: Alyson Flournoy, Alice Kaswan, and Alexandra Klass

Board Pleased to Welcome New Members with Expertise in Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Conservation and Energy Infrastructure

The board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform today announced the appointment of three new board members: Alyson Flournoy, Alice Kaswan, and Alexandra Klass.

Alyson Flournoy is the Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and a Professor of Law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Professor Flournoy's scholarship focuses on environmental ethics, decision-making processes under environmental and natural resource laws, and on the intersection of science and law. Her most recent work focuses on the importance of identifying the values that are embedded in the nation's environmental laws and policies. Since 1990, Professor Flournoy has served as a Trustee of Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE), one of Florida's longest established and best respected conservation groups. “CPR’s synthesis of environmental justice, administrative law, the regulatory process and public accountability is a model for good academic citizens everywhere. I’m excited to work with the Board as they continue to guide CPR in its mission of holding the powerful to account,” said Flournoy.

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How Much Longer Will it take for OSHA to Protect Workers from Deadly Silica Dust?

Thousands of U.S. workers die every year because of on-the-job exposure to unsafe levels of crystalline silica, a toxic dust common in the construction, sandblasting, and mining industries. Even at the current legal limits, inhaling the tiny toxic particles poses a significant risk to workers of silicosis—an incurable and fatal disease that attacks the lungs—and other diseases such as lung cancer, tuberculosis, chronic kidney disease, and autoimmune disorders.

If you’re exposed to silica dust at work or know someone who is, you’ve probably been following news about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) proposed rule published in September 2013 to strengthen the existing standard by cutting in half the permissible exposure limit and imposing medical monitoring requirements. By OSHA’s own estimates, the rule would prevent almost 700 deaths and 1600 illnesses every year, which is a primary reason why CPR considers the silica rule among the top 13 essential regulatory actions the Obama Administration should complete before leaving office.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the close of the rulemaking docket for the proposal, but OSHA hasn’t made any apparent progress toward finalizing the rule. Rather, OSHA is now two months behind on its self-imposed June 2015 deadline for completing a review of the comments, testimony, and other evidence submitted on the proposal.

So, what’s the holdup over at OSHA? Given that the rule’s several decades in the making, it’s fair to expect that OSHA would keep the public apprised of its status. But the agency hasn’t uttered a word, leaving those of us waiting to celebrate at the finish line wondering if they’re even still on the track.

The best-case scenario would be for OSHA to announce immediately — today, even! — that it has sent the draft final rule over to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review, and then for OIRA to clear the rule promptly and without any weakening changes. Although Executive Order (E.O.) 12866 executive review authorizes OIRA to waive review for any reason (or no reason at all), there’s no obvious instance where OIRA has chosen to do so for a rule it has categorized as “significant,” such as the silica rule. Thus, this hypothetical proceeds on the assumption that OIRA would conduct a review, but ideally, would complete it within the 90-day time period set forth in the E.O. Under this scenario, the new silica standard could be finalized and in effect no later than January 2016, and most of the new requirements could be enforceable by July 2016.

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The Clean Power Plan and Environmental Justice: Part Three

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I blogged about environmental justice and the Clean Power Plan. My first post considered how stringent targets and the right incentives could lead to significant aggregate reductions that will indirectly lead to reductions in co-pollutants that have a disproportionate impact on of-color and low-income communities. Friday, I examined the plan’s distributional effects and its provisions requiring community engagement. Today, I’ll examine provisions intended to help overburdened communities benefit from a transition to genuinely clean energy, and then I’ll draw some conclusions based on the issues discussed in all three blog posts.

Co-pollutant impacts are not the only environmental justice issue. Rising energy costs are a serious concern for poor families who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy necessary to stay warm in winter and, increasingly, to stay cool in summer. In addition, justice questions arise as we consider who will benefit from the lower costs and jobs created by clean energy and demand-side energy efficiency.

The Clean Power Plan addresses concerns about rising costs and about the distribution of energy-efficiency benefits. The Clean Energy Incentive Program, which will provide matching federal allowances for investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, targets the energy efficiency incentives exclusively to investments in low-income communities. By helping households reduce energy use through energy efficiency programs, poor households’ energy bills can stay the same or be reduced, notwithstanding potentially higher energy rates.

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