Category Archives: Environment

Moving to curtail rights abuses by companies


When it comes to power, think transnational corporations.

Back in March Foreign Policy published an excellent report on the power of the 21st Century corporation, including these observations:

Already, the cash that Apple has on hand exceeds the GDPs of two-thirds of the world’s countries. Firms are also setting the pace vis-à-vis government regulators in a perennial game of cat-and-mouse. After the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act to discourage banks from growing excessively big and catastrophe-prone. Yet while the law crushed some smaller financial institutions, the largest banks — with operations spread across many countries — actually became even larger, amassing more capital and lending less. Today, the 10 biggest banks still control almost 50 percent of assets under management worldwide. Meanwhile, some European Union officials, including Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, are pushing for a common tax-base policy among member states to prevent corporations from taking advantage of preferential rates. But if that happened (and it’s a very big if), firms would just look beyond the continent for metanational opportunities.

The world is entering an era in which the most powerful law is not that of sovereignty but that of supply and demand. As scholar Gary Gereffi of Duke University has argued, denationalization now involves companies assembling the capacities of various locations into their global value chains. This has birthed success for companies, such as commodities trader Glencore and logistics firm Archer Daniels Midland, that don’t focus primarily on manufacturing goods, but are experts at getting the physical ingredients of what metanationals make wherever they’re needed.

Could businesses go a step further, shifting from stateless to virtual? Some people think so. In 2013, Balaji Srinivasan, now a partner at the venture-capital company Andreessen Horowitz, gave a much debated talk in which he claimed Silicon Valley is becoming more powerful than Wall Street and the U.S. government. He described “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit,” or the creation of “an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.” The idea is that because social communities increasingly exist online, businesses and their operations might move entirely into the cloud.

The U.N. ponders a move

Two years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to begin the process of regulating the way transnational corporations impact human rights.

Here’s how the vote went:

  • In favor: Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, China, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam
  • Opposed: Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Montenegro, South Korea, Romania, Macedonia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America
  • Abstained: Argentina, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Gabon, Kuwait, Maldives, Mexico, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, and the United Arab Emirates

The idea has won the support of more than 80 countries, though Obama’s America remains firmly opposed.

The work continues.

From the latest report from the Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations of the United Nations Human Rights Council:

The most egregious business-related human rights abuses take place in conflict-affected areas and other situations of widespread violence. Human rights abuses may spark or intensify conflict, and conflict may in turn lead to further human rights abuses. The gravity of the human rights abuses demands a response, yet in conflict zones the international human rights regime cannot possibly be expected to function as intended. Such situations require that States take action as a matter of urgency, but there remains a lack of clarity among States with regard to what innovative, proactive and, above all, practical policies and tools have the greatest potential for preventing or mitigating business-related abuses in situations of conflict. In the present report, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises outlines a range of policy options that home, host and neighbouring States have, or could develop, to prevent and deter corporate-related human rights abuses in conflict contexts.

>snip<

States should warn business enterprises of the heightened risk of being involved with gross abuses of human rights in conflict-affected areas and clearly communicate their expectations with regard to business respect for human rights, even in such challenging environments. With few exceptions, States have yet to convey their expectations of business behaviour in situations of conflicts. Normally, States would convey such expectations through policies, laws and regulations. For example, in the area of anti-corruption, States in recent years have agreed upon and communicated their expectations regarding standards of business conduct with respect to bribery through international conventions and domestic policies and regulations. However, unlike anti-corruption, the existing legal and policy framework relevant to conflict-affected regions does not have a component that is specifically designed to deal with the problems of business involvement.

This lack of regulatory clarity limits the ability of States to engage or advise business enterprises regarding acceptable conduct in or connected to conflict-affected regions. Therefore, states should review whether their policies, legislation, regulations and enforcement measures effectively address the heightened risk of businesses operating in conflict situations being involved in gross human rights abuses, including through provisions for human rights due diligence by business. They should ensure that their regulatory frameworks are adequate, the applicability to business entities is clarified and, for the most extreme situation, make sure that the relevant agencies are properly resourced to address the problem of business involvement in international or transnational crimes, such as corruption, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Abby Martin interviews one of the measure’s architects

In this, the latest episode of Abby Martin’s series for teleSUR English, the San Francisco Bay Area native interviews a diplomat who played a seminal role in shaping the UN panel’s mandate.

From teleSUR English:

The Empire Files: Bringing Corporations to Justice with Ecuador’s UN Rep

Program notes:

For the first time ever, progress is being made at the United Nations for a binding legal instrument that would hold corporations accountable for human rights violations. Transnational corporations — many with larger economies than the countries they operate in — have enjoyed immunity from charges for destroying the environment and taking human lives. But Ecuador is leading a fight in the UN to create an international treaty and standards that can change this equation. At teleSUR’s studios in Quito, Abby Martin interviews Ecuador’s Permanent Representative to the UN and Chair of the negotiations for the binding instrument, María Fernanda Espinosa, about the need for this step.

DroughtWatch: No change in the Golden State


All of California remains in some condition of drought, with percentages unchanged from last week as the dry season advances.

From the United States Drought Monitor:

BLOG Drought

U.S.: Give land to indigenous people to save it


How incredibly sensible.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Indigenous people are better than governments at preventing forests from being cut and should be seen as a solution, not a barrier to protecting them, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People said on Tuesday.

Indigenous peoples and communities have claims to two thirds of the world’s land but are legally recognised as holding only 10 percent, according to think tank World Resources Institute (WRI).

Without title deeds, indigenous communities may find their land is taken over for major development projects such as palm oil plantations and logging.

“Society thinks that indigenous peoples are claiming land that they shouldn’t be having because it should be used for expanded food production,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But giving indigenous peoples rights to land was a guarantee that forests, which store carbon and contribute to food security would continue to exist, Tauli-Corpuz said.

Quantifying climate change economic impacts


No one doubts [well, except for lots of Republicans] that climate change is upon us, and that it will cause a great many changes to the planet we inhabit.

While we’re all acquainted that things are set to get hotter and drier for most of us, and that seas are rising, those are just some of the broader impacts.

But we many be less aware that profound economic changes lie ahead, and they’ll be very costly indeed.

New research tries to set a price tag on some of them.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Rising temperatures caused by climate change may cost the world economy over $2 trillion in lost productivity by 2030 as hot weather makes it unbearable to work in some parts of the world, according to U.N. research published on Tuesday.

It showed that in Southeast Asia alone, up to 20 percent of annual work hours may already be lost in jobs with exposure to extreme heat with the figures set to double by 2050 as the effects of climate change deepen.

Across the globe, 43 countries will see a fall in their gross domestic product (GDP) due to reduced productivity, the majority of them in Asia including Indonesia, Malaysia, China, India and Bangladesh, researcher Tord Kjellstrom said.

Indonesia and Thailand could see their GDP reduced by 6 percent in 2030, while in China GDP could be reduced by 0.8 percent and in India by 3.2 percent.

Quantifying the Sierra National Forest tree die-off


From NASA’s Earth Observatory:

BLOG Trees

From NASA:

Mass tree die-offs are sparking worries of fire in California’s Sierra Nevada range. An outbreak of bark beetles, along with persistent drought in the state, have caused many evergreen trees to wither and die.

The damage spread rapidly through the mountains in the fall of 2015 after favorable spring conditions (warm and dry) led to a surge in beetle populations, according to Zach Tane, a remote sensing analyst with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The beetles burrow under a tree’s bark and lay their eggs. Once they penetrate the tree’s armor (the bark), they begin to gnaw into its living tissue, the phloem.

“Needles don’t turn red the next day. It’s a slow process of the tree dying, and it has to do with life cycle of bark beetle and how long needles can persist in a green state,” said Tane. “As the population of beetles grows, they can overwhelm the natural defenses of a tree. There’s a tipping point—that’s what happened in Colorado and probably what’s happening here.”

There has never been an outbreak of this magnitude recorded in the Sierra Nevada, according to Tane. The maps above depict some of the damage as observed by NASA’s Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) instrument. AVIRIS is an optical sensor that collects data in 224 spectral bands, ranging from visible blue (0.4 µm) to shortwave infrared (2.5 µm). Researchers can make inferences about tree health from the way the leaves absorb and scatter light.

When trees die, they lose water and chlorophyll. This allows the cellulose and lignin in the leaves to become more apparent in the 2 to 2.5 µm region of the spectrum (which is invisible to the human eye). AVIRIS gives researchers the ability to distinguish cellulose and lignin from other brown matter like soil. The Forest Service uses data from AVIRIS and other sources to quantify the health of forests and to make projections of wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface, the fire-vulnerable zone where wilderness and human cities and towns meet.

The Forest Service also routinely uses data from Landsat, a satellite that gives systematic, frequent coverage and good spatial resolution (30 meters per pixel). The USFS Pacific Southwest Region Remote Sensing Lab at the University of California, Davis, has developed an advanced analysis system that can automatically extract forest disturbance information from Landsat’s two overpasses each month. The system, called Ecosystem Disturbance and Recovery Tracker (eDaRT), will soon be deployed in California to make tree mortality information more readily available to vegetation managers as they plan forest treatment, restoration, and salvage logging.

Map of the day: June breaks temperature record


From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]:

BLOG Temps
From NOAA:

The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for June 2016 was the highest for the month of June in the NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880. This marks the 14th consecutive month the monthly global temperature record has been broken, the longest such streak in the 137-year record. The global temperature for the first six months of the year was also the highest on record.

Fracking wells linked with increased asthma rates


Fracking, the extraction of shale-trapped of oil and gas by hydraulic fracturing, using water laced with a noxious brew of chemicals injected under high pressure to break up the readily fissile rock and trigger the release of the precious hydrocarbons.

Fracturing has been fraught with problem, ranging from the contamination of drinking water wells to the release of chemically laden water from containment ponds into nearby streams and lakes.

Most infamously, fracking has given us home water taps so loaded with natural gas that a spark gives us a mix of water and flame.

Which leads to a question, expressed in music and animation by students of Studio 20 at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University:

The Fracking Song (My Water’s On Fire Tonight)

Program notes:

“My Water’s On Fire Tonight” is a product of Studio 20 NYU (http://bit.ly/hzGRYP) in collaboration with ProPublica.org (http://bit.ly/5tJN). The song is based on ProPublica’s investigation on hydraulic fractured gas drilling (read the full investigation here: http://bit.ly/15sib6).

Music by David Holmes and Andrew Bean
Vocals and Lyrics by David Holmes and Niel Bekker
Animation by Adam Sakellarides and Lisa Rucker

The fracking/asthma link established

And now comes evidence that fracking also leads to a rise in asthma in nearby residents.

From the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore [H/T to Newswise]:

People with asthma who live near bigger or larger numbers of active unconventional natural gas wells operated by the fracking industry in Pennsylvania are 1.5 to four times likelier to have asthma attacks than those who live farther away, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests.

The findings [open access], published July 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine, add to a growing body of evidence tying the fracking industry to health concerns. Health officials have been concerned about the effect of this type of drilling on air and water quality, as well as the stress of living near a well where just developing the site of the well can require more than 1,000 truck trips on once-quiet roads. The fracking industry has developed more than 9,000 wells in Pennsylvania in just the past decade.

“Ours is the first to look at asthma but we now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells,” says study leader Sara G. Rasmussen, MHS, a PhD candidate in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “Going forward, we need to focus on the exact reasons why these things are happening, because if we know why, we can help make the industry safer.”

For the study, Rasmussen and her colleagues analyzed health records from 2005 through 2012 from the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The study is a joint effort of the Bloomberg School and the Geisinger Health System. Hopkins researchers identified more than 35,000 asthma patients between the ages of five and 90 years. They identified 20,749 mild attacks (requiring a corticosteroid prescription), 1,870 moderate ones (requiring an emergency room visit) and 4,782 severe attacks (requiring hospitalization). They mapped where the patients with these attacks lived; assigned them metrics based on the location, size, number, phase, total depth and gas production of the wells; and compared them to asthma patients who didn’t have attacks in the same year.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading