UVA Prof. Vivian Thomson’s “Climate Of Capitulation” is Essential Reading In This Election Year

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When University of Virginia environmental science professor Vivian E. Thomson researched and wrote her thoughtful account of environmental battles during her years on Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board (2002 to 2010), she could not have known how fortuitously timed her book’s eventual publication would be. But as luck would have it, the just-published Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation (MIT Press) comes out at a particularly opportune moment.

Donald Trump’s election, and his administration’s efforts to dismantle federal climate and environmental protections, means the states have a more important role to play than ever before as the U.S. tries to address the climate crisis. A primary theme in Thomson’s book is the outsized power of the commonwealth’s largest utility, Dominion Energy, over Virginia politicians and regulators. That is also fortuitous, since 2017 appears to be the year when, finally, Dominion’s unhealthy influence over Virginia politics could be a significant election issue. More than 50 candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates this year have pledged to refuse Dominion campaign contributions, as has gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello. And Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline for fracked gas is a significant issue in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Adding to Climate of Capitulation’s uncanny timeliness is Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive directive this month requiring Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to draft proposed regulations to limit climate-disrupting carbon-dioxide emissions from electric-power plants. DEQ must submit its proposal to the state’s Air Pollution Control Board by December 31, just before McAuliffe’s term expires. Electric utilities and environmental groups will be watching that process closely, hoping to influence the final result. And of course the outcome of this year’s gubernatorial race will greatly affect the ultimate fate of McAullife’s effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Another main theme in Climate of Capitulation is DEQ’s lackluster environmental enforcement record over the years, and efforts by politicians of both major parties, including then-governor Tim Kaine, to rein in the Air Board’s efforts to strengthen environmental enforcement. Citing contemporaneous emails obtained from the Library of Virginia’s database, Thomson describes how the Kaine administration, DEQ director David Paylor, and state legislators worked to limit the Air Board’s effectiveness and expand it from five to seven members. According to Thomson, the size increase was specifically designed to weaken the power of the board’s three-member majority, which threatened to run afoul of business interests in pushing for pollution limits well within legal requirements, but significantly more stringent than what DEQ proposed to allow.

With DEQ and the Air Board likely to be in the spotlight for the rest of 2017 and beyond, Climate of Capitulation is must reading for Virginians concerned about climate change and carbon reduction.

Thomson notes that the part-time nature of Virginia’s legislature, combined with a chronically underfunded DEQ, deprives the state’s legislative and executive branches of the technical expertise needed to enforce complex air-pollution laws. As a result, Thomson argues, government officials too often end up relying for technical expertise on the large corporations that are regulated by those laws. The corporations, of course, are more than happy to oblige, and the result is predictable.

Perhaps the most provocative and insightful aspect of Thomson’s analysis is her description of what she calls “the third face of power.” The concept comes from the New York University sociologist Steven Lukes’s “three dimensions of power,” where the third, almost invisible dimension of power is the ability, in Thomson’s words, to shape people’s “perceptions over time without conscious knowledge.” She finds this third dimension of power in Virginia’s “traditionalistic political culture, which devalues public participation and civil servants,” “protects the status quo,” and too often favors corporate interests over citizens. This culture is encapsulated in an expression heard often in Richmond—“the Virginia Way,” although Thomson doesn’t use that term. The Virginia Way sometimes involves politicians in both major parties working to maintain the status quo, especially when that serves to favor large polluters. Thomson says “strong, sustained leadership” is needed to avoid capitulating to such a powerful, inertia-favoring force.

I wish Thomson had devoted more space to fleshing out this dimensions-of-power concept as applied to Virginia, for it seems key to understanding the commonwealth’s slow pace in deploying clean energy and addressing climate change. It further explains DEQ’s failure to take more aggressive, science-based positions that might conflict with powerful polluters’ interests. Inertia and the Virginia Way may not be bad in all situations. But inertia is not our friend in dealing with the climate crisis and multiple threats to clean air and water.

Vivian Thomson has done a great service in describing the sometimes-hidden influences that hinder enforcement of our environmental laws and slow efforts to address climate change. Virginia’s current political leaders, as well those hoping to replace them in this important election year, should read Climate of Capitulation. So should Virginia voters.

Seth Heald received a master of science degree in energy policy and climate from Johns Hopkins University this month. He is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

 

Shareholder vote shows growing unease over Dominion’s role in climate change

Dominion 2017 Ped Bridge

Black curtains are visible inside the pedestrian bridge over Marshall Street leading to the Richmond Convention Center (background on the left). They were installed to block shareholders’ view of protesters lining the sidewalk outside Dominion Resources’ 2017 shareholder meeting last week. Photo credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

A stunning development occurred during Dominion Resources’ annual shareholder meeting in Richmond last Wednesday. But as shareholders, board members, and company officials left the meeting, no one yet knew about it. What’s more, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage also missed it, focusing instead on the company’s name change to Dominion Energy. (To its credit, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot did break the story two days later.) Dominion’s hometown newspaper didn’t just bury the lede; it overlooked it altogether. And therein lies an interesting tale.

What was so stunning? Simply this—some 48 percent of Dominion shares that were voted supported the resolution of a major shareholder, the New York State Common Retirement fund, calling on the company’s board of directors to report on how the company will deal in coming years with the fact that the world needs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to an extent consistent with limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The resolution’s full text is available on p. 60 of Dominion’s 2017 proxy statement.

Understanding why the vote on this resolution is stunning requires some context.

Shareholders have been submitting resolutions for at least eight years urging Dominion’s board to face up to global warming and the company’s role as a major carbon polluter contributing to that warming. In the past, some resolutions have gotten favorable votes as high as 24 percent, while others have been in single digits. Many large investors routinely follow the company board’s advice, and Dominion’s board always recommends a “no” vote on any environment- or climate-related resolution. Getting favorable votes is an uphill battle when a company’s powerful board is working against you.

That’s why the 48 percent vote for the retirement fund’s resolution this year is so huge. The total value of the nearly 198 million shares voting for the resolution was $15.5 billion, based on Dominion’s May 9 closing stock price.

“The vote by Dominion’s shareholders speaks volumes,” said New York State comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the state’s retirement fund. “This is a wake-up call for the company to be responsive and explain how the Paris Agreement’s worldwide effort to rein in global warming will impact its business. Shareholders need to know what steps Dominion is prepared to take to address climate risk.”

But there’s still more to the tale. The stunning vote spike didn’t become known until hours after the meeting, and even then only to those who knew where to find the results and had a calculator handy to compute the vote percentages. That delay was no accident, but the result of Dominion’s efforts to keep the news from coming out during the meeting.

Until a few years ago, Dominion announced vote totals on shareholder resolutions during each meeting. That’s easy enough to do, since virtually all votes are cast in advance, and literally just a handful are cast on paper ballots collected during the meeting. But as favorable vote percentages on shareholder resolutions crept upwards over the years, Dominion discontinued the practice of announcing vote counts during the meeting. Instead it now reports only whether the resolutions got more than 50 percent of the vote. So this year it was simply announced during the meeting that the four shareholder resolutions on the ballot failed to get a majority of votes. End of story; nothing more to see here, folks.

By law, however, Dominion must report the actual shareholder vote totals to the Securities and Exchange Commission for public disclosure. It did so in the afternoon following the meeting, and put its SEC filing on the company’s website. Those who thought to look for them and knew where to look could find the vote results. Then, with a calculator or spreadsheet they could compute the vote percentages.

Dominion’s quiet move to prevent shareholders (and reporters) attending the meeting from learning the vote totals until later in the day is part of a pattern of subtle and not-so-subtle company efforts to tightly control messaging at its shareholder meetings. The control efforts have evolved each year as more shareholders have questioned the company’s environmental and climate record during meetings, and as demonstrators have begun to appear regularly outside to protest.

The company’s control effort reached somewhat absurd levels this year, as shareholders had to show their drivers’ licenses and admission tickets at four separate checkpoints before gaining entry to the meeting. As shareholders crossed an elevated pedestrian bridge across Marshall Street from the parking garage to the Richmond Convention Center, they found black curtains temporarily set up on floor stands to line the glass walls of the bridge, serving no purpose but to block any views of demonstrators on the street below. Then, when shareholders descended an escalator to the hallway outside the first-floor meeting room, they also found a long line of temporary stands of more black curtains. They were about eight feet high—just enough to block views through the wall of windows facing Marshall Street, where protesters had gathered on the sidewalk. This served to cast a bit of a funereal pall over the hallway, as shareholders drank coffee and ate Virginia ham biscuits before the meeting.

But enough about the voting process and window curtains. Understanding the true significance of the big vote spike for the retirement fund’s climate resolution requires a brief look at how Dominion addresses, and fails to address, the climate crisis. Dominion occasionally talks up its reductions in carbon intensity in electricity generation over the years. That’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity. And the company touts new solar projects, which are growing, but not nearly fast enough to catch up with Virginia’s neighboring states or to reduce carbon emissions on the needed timetable.

But Dominion has plans to increase its total carbon-dioxide emissions over the next fifteen years. And what the company never, ever does, is link its plans and its planned future greenhouse-gas emissions to what climate science tells us is needed to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, as I wrote last year, Dominion executives studiously avoid even mentioning climate change in public, even when the topic is right in front of them, begging for attention. George Mason University climate-communication expert Edward Maibach and coauthors reported last year that silence on climate change can lead to more silence, in what they call a “climate spiral of silence.”

Meanwhile, while publicly silent about climate, Dominion still belongs to and supports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has a long track record of misinforming state legislators about climate science and working to block meaningful action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

That’s why the 48 percent vote for the retirement fund’s resolution is so huge. Shareholders owning nearly half of the Dominion shares that were voted last week told the company’s board of directors and management that they need to start publicly talking and seriously thinking about climate change, and to explain how they will operate a business that is consistent with the need to keep global warming under 2 degrees.

Perhaps Dominion’s board believes, as at least one Dominion executive does, that climate change is an overblown issue that is pushed by “warmists,” that there’s been no global warming for fifteen years, and that global warming (which by the way isn’t happening) may not be human-caused. Such a belief would allow the board to ignore this shareholder vote, and assume that in future years the resolution will never get a majority vote because climate change concerns will go away as more people see climate change as a hoax. But maybe Dominion’s board, or at least a majority of its members, know better and will listen to the wake-up call delivered to them last week.

As I left the meeting I passed again by the black curtains in the convention hall windows and on the pedestrian bridge over Marshall Street. Just as Dominion used curtains to block views of protesters, its executives seemingly wear blinders to avoid looking at (and talking about) climate change. It’s past time for the blinders to come off and for Dominion’s management and board to look around at the wider world out there.

On May 22, Seth Heald will receive a master of science degree in energy policy and climate from Johns Hopkins University. His final paper in the program was about climate silence and moral disengagement. He is a Dominion Energy shareholder, and chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter.

Sen. Mark Warner’s tolerance of climate disinformation

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CREDIT: VIRGINIA STUDENT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSOCIATION

 

Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator Mark Warner cast a vote this week that will come back to haunt him in coming years. It will also haunt our commonwealth and nation in future decades and centuries. Warner voted to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to be Secretary of State.

Tillerson, sad to say, may not be the most extreme or unqualified of President Trump’s cabinet nominees. One can hope that Senator Warner will vote against some of the worst of the worst, such as climate-science denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has pledged to unravel bedrock environmental protections like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

But opposing one or two other Trump nominees won’t excuse Senator Warner’s vote to make Rex Tillerson Secretary of State.

Tillerson’s former company has spent millions of dollars over recent decades to promote climate-science denial, to the detriment of many millions of vulnerable people all over the world, including many here in Virginia. ExxonMobil’s climate-denial promotion has been documented in academic studies, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is investigating ExxonMobil’s role in promoting climate-science disinformation.

To his credit, Virginia’s junior U.S. Senator, Tim Kaine, brought out Tillerson’s connection to climate-science denial at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. Tillerson dodged Kaine’s questions. Following the hearing Kaine tweeted: “It’s shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company’s role in funding phony climate science.” Kaine voted against confirming Tillerson.

By all accounts Tillerson has personal virtues. He’s an Eagle Scout who long supported and recently headed the Boy Scouts of America. He was once a good juror in a criminal case, as one of his fellow jurors recently explained in The Dallas Morning News. In many respects Tillerson is an upstanding Christian who contributes to mission work to help others.

But his former company’s longtime, immoral promotion of climate-science disinformation will harm exponentially far more people than his personal good deeds have helped.

There’s a term to explain how people like Tillerson can be good Boy Scouts, jurors, and churchgoers while also doing great harm that will cause great suffering to others. It’s called “moral disengagement.” The concept is explained in detail in a recent book by emeritus Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura, titled Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves. Bandura describes several mechanisms by which corporate polluters try to distance themselves from the harm they cause. They use front groups to do their dirty work with politicians. ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel companies do that through groups like the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes science misinformation to state legislators.

And Bandura notes that corporate polluters themselves promote scientific disinformation as a mechanism of moral disengagement. That is precisely what ExxonMobil has been doing for years, as Senator Kaine noted at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. These lies and half-truths have real consequences for real people, here in Virginia and around the world.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann (formerly of UVA) has said that history will judge harshly those who promote climate-science denial. But, Mann added, “history will be too late.”

Senator Warner hasn’t himself promoted climate-science denial, but he just voted to make someone who has our nation’s Secretary of State.

History, and (one can hope) Virginia voters as well, will judge Mark Warner harshly for that.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive a Master of Science degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017. His article on climate change and moral disengagement was published in the May-June, 2016 issue of Environment: The Journal of Sustainable Development.

How can we address climate change if we don’t talk about it?

cncartoons029881-549The Daily Press, Virginia’s fourth largest newspaper, recently ran an ambitious series of insightful articles on climate-change adaptation. The series movingly showed the daily reality of the many Virginians living near the coast, on the front lines of climate change.

The Newport News-based paper serves the Hampton Roads region, with particular focus on the Peninsula and Middle Peninsula. The paper’s readership territory is mostly low-lying, much of it adjacent to or near tidal waters, so there are plenty of sea-level rise and storm-flooding stories to cover. But one thing about the eight articles in the series that I’ve reviewed is odd, and also sad. Not one of them mentions “climate change” or “global warming.” To be sure, “sea-level rise” is mentioned often, along with “coastal flooding.” But the articles avoid mentioning the primary cause of those phenomena—global warming, aka climate change.

The Daily Press series’ focus is hyper-local: articles by six different reporters, each focusing on sea-level rise and other climate-change effects in a particular neighborhood or jurisdiction—Newport News, Carmines Island, Hampton; and York, Mathews, James City, Isle of Wight, and Gloucester Counties. Many residents and local officials were interviewed. The articles’ tone at times is elegiac, as people describe the way things were not long ago, and how they’ve changed for the worse as the waters rise. While climate-adaptation terms like “retreat” and “abandonment” aren’t mentioned, an official in Mathews County notes that property owners are beginning to donate their land to a nonprofit, a trend that he says is likely to accelerate. (Landowners can claim tax benefits for donating their property to qualifying nonprofits.)

In one of the saddest comments, an official in Hampton notes that the city’s building code may need to be updated to prevent houses from getting knocked off their foundations by “wave action.” Sadder yet, a Carmines Island resident says “We’re drowning down here. We need some help.”

The Daily Press deserves great praise for this detailed, ongoing coverage of the climate crisis. This is the type of quality, in-depth local reporting that could earn a Pulitzer Prize. It focuses on human faces in nearby places dealing with a problem that is global, abstract, and too often easy for many Americans to ignore. Every Virginia official from Governor Terry McAuliffe on down, including all members of the General Assembly and our representatives in Congress, should read these articles.

But still, why the climate-change silence? Why not at least mention or better yet analyze the real issue—the underlying cause? True, the articles do frequently use the term “sea-level rise,” a phrase that Republican Delegate Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach once called “a left-wing term,” presumably because he recognizes that rising seas are caused by our greenhouse-gas emissions, which heat the planet, and knows that politicians in his party aren’t supposed to admit that. He received well-deserved ridicule for that comment, and at least some in his party are now willing to utter the expression “sea-level rise,” as long as they studiously avoid linking it to climate change. But when six Daily Press reporters write a series about rising seas and more-intense storms while failing to note the larger climate-change causes, something is amiss.

Perhaps the best clue for what is happening can be found in the comment of Garrey Curry, assistant Gloucester County administrator. He told the Daily Press: “Locally when we talk about sea level rise we try not to get bogged down to the whys and hows. We want to understand the trends.” Left unsaid, and apparently unchallenged by Daily Press reporter Frances Hubbard, was how one can understand the trends and implement solutions if one doesn’t talk or think about, much less act on, the “whys and hows.” Curry in effect admitted that he wants to avoid talking about climate change, apparently because he thinks it is too “controversial.” He of course is entitled to his views, but a newspaper ought not to avoid underlying causes to avoid controversy. Indeed a newspaper’s mission should be to enlighten readers about what’s causing the problems it’s reporting on.

At first I thought another clue explaining the Daily Press’s climate silence might be found in a rather appalling 2014 editorial, in which the paper blasted some local officials for taking climate change seriously. The officials’ crime back then? They had “jumped on the global warming bandwagon” which the paper called “trendy” and “a cult-like fad.”

But in the intervening years, as sea levels (and temperatures) continue to rise as predicted, the paper’s editorial staff seems to have had a change of heart (or perhaps a change of personnel). A powerful editorial this month summed up the findings of the paper’s series of articles on the human costs of the region’s flooding. The editors acknowledged (without mentioning the 2014 editorial): “Our global climate is getting warmer and th[e] temperature is rising faster than it has in the past. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Human activity is the primary cause, or at least one of the primary causes, for these changes.” The editorial concluded: “We are in the eye of the storm, and our region can either take on a leadership role [in addressing climate change] or serve as a cautionary tale.”

Well said. The Daily Press editorial page’s change-of-heart since 2014 gives one hope. But the editorial also noted that the paper got complaints from some readers of the series who “buy into the counterintuitive argument that climate change is either a gross exaggeration or a complete hoax.” In other words, even though the paper’s articles on flooding studiously avoided mentioning climate change, readers predisposed to deny climate science apparently wanted the paper to be silent about not just climate change but also about the flooding itself.

The moral of this story, it seems to me, is that deniers are gonna deny. So there’s little point in remaining silent about climate change, or using euphemisms to dance around the topic, in order to avoid supposed “controversy” about the science. After all, that controversy derives from disinformation manufactured by the fossil-fuel industry and promoted by the front groups and politicians it controls. So better for a newspaper to just be truthful and candid, rather than try to avoid supposed controversy. And being truthful about sea-level rise—telling the whole truth—includes discussing the causes, not just the symptoms.

Michael Allen, an assistant professor of geography at Old Dominion University, made a similar point in the Virginian-Pilot last summer, gently chastising the Norfolk planning department for issuing a report on “resiliency” and “living with the water” while not mentioning “the elephant in the room,” climate change. Allen noted that the city’s Norfolk Vision 2100 plan “failed to acknowledge, even in passing, the causes of our ongoing problem or provide a scientific context to our challenges.”

Climate silence is hardly limited to one newspaper, one government entity, or one political party. Even environmental activists sometimes avoid mentioning climate change when discussing measures that are, in truth, all about climate change. Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has supported the EPA’s Clean Power Plan effort to address climate change, nevertheless is silent on climate when he’s out promoting unneeded gas pipelines that will increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

Researchers at George Mason and Yale Universities released a study in 2016 on what they called “a climate ‘spiral of silence’ in which even people who care about the issue shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it—reinforcing the spiral.” The GMU/Yale report noted that “fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed in the media (TV, movies, radio, newspapers/news websites, magazines, etc.) ‘at least once a week’ … or even ‘at least once a month.’” Some 30% of Americans say they hear about global warming only “once a year or less,” “never,” or they are “not sure.” A just-issued GMU/Yale report found that only about 15% of Americans understand that almost all climate scientists are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. That figure is up from 11% in March 2016, but still is very concerning. This is not a time to be silent about climate change.

A major antidote to the spiral of climate silence, of course, is more and better news coverage of the climate crisis. The Daily Press series presents a curious case of talking eloquently about climate change symptoms while carefully avoiding talking about causes. The paper’s follow-up editorial makes up for that omission somewhat, but the causes of climate change need to be explained in news articles, not just in the opinion pages.

In his classic 2007 book on socially organized silence (The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life) the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel explains that silence is a form of communication that often speaks louder than words. Moreover silence, like denial, “usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that actually beg for attention.” He adds, “ignoring something is more than simply failing to notice it. It’s often the result of some pressure to actively disregard it. By enabling … collective denial, conspiracies of silence prevent us from confronting, and consequently solving, our problems.” (Emphasis added.) There is considerable pressure in our society to be silent about climate change’s causes, originating primarily from fossil-fuel interests and politicians they control who spread lies and distortions about climate science.

Those of us who understand and care about climate change in this post-truth, alternative-fact age must push back against this pressure, and refuse to be silent or use euphemisms to avoid supposed “controversy.” Otherwise we are letting the disinformers control the boundaries of conversation. That’s just what the climate disinformers and their fossil-fuel backers want, and just what our commonwealth and our country cannot afford to let them do.

And finally it’s worth noting another small form of climate silence related to the Daily Press series. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) issues a daily news summary, compiled from newspapers and other media sources around the state. VPAP is a non-partisan project, widely supported, used, and admired by people from all over the political spectrum (including me).

A couple of years ago I noticed that VPAP’s daily summaries relegate articles on climate change and environmental issues to a section titled “Virginia Other,” placed near the bottom of the report. I brought my observation to VPAP’s attention, noting the growing importance of climate change in Virginia and suggesting the topic deserves better treatment than “Other.” VPAP executive director David Poole politely responded, but declined to put climate and environment articles in their own section. The result is that VPAP’s “Other” section sometimes has nothing but environmental and climate articles. And “Other” is where VPAP listed the Daily Press’s articles on climate adaptation.

I noticed them there because “Other” is often the most important VPAP section—and therefore the one I always read first.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive an M.S. degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017.