Peter Ewins, head of the UK Meteorological Office, concurs: “We're now coming clean and saying we believe the evidence is almost incontrovertible, that man has an effect and therefore we need to act accordingly.”
This record-breaking year follows two years of record high temperatures and is part of a trend that can be traced back 20 years. Since 1980, more than two-thirds of US winters have been warmer than average.
As a result, polar regions are experiencing massive changes. The Arctic Ocean ice cover lost an estimated 34,300 square kilometers each year between 1978 and 1996, according to a report released March 6 by the Worldwatch Institute. Ice thickness has also decreased some 40 percent in less than 30 years. Since 1988, three Antarctic ice shelves that together were the size of Rhode Island have disintegrated, and two others are in full retreat.
This gradual global warming is not part of a natural cycle. It is “exceptional and unlikely to be solely natural in origin,” according to an early draft of a report issued in April by an international panel of scientists.
The report was a five-year update by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is sponsored by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization.
As the evidence of human-induced global warming accumulates, some corporations are abandoning their skepticism.
In mid-March, General Motors announced its decision to leave the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry group that fights action on climate change. Texaco announced it would be leaving the GCC in February, although both companies were quick to add that they remain opposed to the international agreements on greenhouse gas reductions reached in Kyoto. Last December, Ford and DaimlerChrysler also opted out of the GCC following earlier departures by BP Amoco, Shell Oil, and Dow Chemical Co.
Meanwhile, greenhouse activists are stepping up the pressure on BP Amoco. Concerned shareholders have been pressing BP to abandon its Northstar project, which would transport oil underneath the Beaufort Sea, northeast of Alaska, via pipes in the seabed.
At the company's April 13 annual meeting, shareholders urged BP to invest instead in its solar subsidiary, Solarex, which is suffering financially. Proponents say the cost of building a large solar factory would be less than the cost of the proposed Northstar project and would help reduce the costs of solar panels.
In a related move, Greenpeace recently bought 500,000 shares of Royal Dutch Shell as part of its campaign to pressure the oil company to build a large-scale solar panel factory.
Celebrating Earth Day
An estimated 500 million people in 180 countries took part in Earth Day 2000 on April 22, one of the largest celebrations ever held. In Washington, DC, 500,000 people gathered to try out clean cars, join in prayers for the environment, and hear vice president Al Gore declare the next 10 years the “environmental” decade.
A mass tree planting in Chili, a mock nuclear power station evacuation in South Africa, and a car-free day in Sydney, Australia, were among the events aimed at drawing attention to clean energy options. The main street of Seoul, Korea, was closed to traffic for an environmental fair featuring a bike parade and environmental art exhibit.
In the Philippines, the Sagip Pasig Movement organized a colorful river procession, including dragon boats, and gave out “awards” to the top 10 polluting firms.
Meanwhile, the Worldwatch Institute released its Earth Day report card, which finds that the destructive trends that sparked the first Earth Day in 1970 continue:
• Large-scale forest clearing and urban sprawl continue to destroy fragile habitat.
• One in four vertebrate species is on the verge of extinction or is now extinct.
• The world's population has nearly doubled since 1970. In that same time period, the share of cropland per person has fallen by nearly half.
• One person in six is chronically hungry.
• Since 1970, use of fossil fuels has released 160 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. By comparison, a total of 110 billion tons were released in the previous 230 years.
The Worldwatch report offers an outline of events – past and future – that could turn the negative trends around in the next 30 years. These include the worldwide rise of citizen groups in response to corporate and government shortcomings, the potential for the Precautionary Principle to play a major role in climate negotiations, and the worldwide spread of micropower – small-scale renewable energy that is increasingly providing off-the-grid electricity in countries from the Dominican Republic to Zimbabwe.
—Sarah Ruth van Gelder
A State Speaks Out
On March 22, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of a Massachusetts selective purchasing law aimed at restoring civil rights to Burma. The law, which was signed in June 1996, imposes a 10 percent penalty on bids for state contracts from companies that do business in Burma.
Supporters see the law as a means to pressure the government of Burma to restore democracy. But the National Foreign Trade Council, a corporate coalition representing 580 US corporations, is challenging the constitutionality of the law, claiming it intrudes on the foreign policy–making powers of the federal government. The Clinton administration also opposes the selective purchasing law.
Meanwhile, the European Union has challenged the law at the World Trade Organization. They argue that trade rules must be based on product price and quality, not human rights issues.
In 1990, Burmese citizens elected pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but the country's military regime ignored the results of the election. International human rights groups and the US State Department report that the regime is guilty of ethnic cleansing, forced labor, and the execution of political opponents. Suu Kyi, now under virtual house arrest, is asking for international sanctions against Burma.
At issue in the Supreme Court is the right of state and local governments to base purchasing decisions on factors such as human rights violations. Community activists are watching the case carefully, because an unfavorable ruling could undermine local government purchasing policies that favor local or minority-operated businesses or processes that are environmentally sustainable.
The Montreal Effect
Frito-Lay Inc. has announced plans to completely eliminate its use of genetically altered corn. According to Frito-Lay spokesperson Lynn Markley, “There is some consumer concern out there. We felt at this time it's appropriate to ask our growers not to sell us genetically altered corn.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that McDonald's and other fast food chains are also quietly backing off from purchasing genetically modified foods.
"Virtually all the [fast food] chains have told us they prefer to take nongenetically modified potatoes,” Fred Zerza, a spokesperson for J.R. Simplot, a major supplier of potatoes, told the Journal.
The potato in question, Monsanto's Newleaf, is the latest and smallest crop to feel the sting of a growing anti-biotechnology campaign. The Newleaf potato produces an insecticide in its leaves.
These companies are responding to consumer concerns that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could alter natural plants or microbes through cross-pollination and result in a calamitous loss in biodiversity. Critics of bioengineered foods also contend that genetically engineered crops have not been sufficiently tested to guarantee human safety.
Last summer Gerber and Heinz announced they would no longer use bioengineered products in their baby foods.
The announcement by Frito-Lay came just one week after United Nations talks in Montreal resulted in agreement on how to handle GMOs. The agreement, formally known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, allows countries to require the labeling of products containing GMOs and also permits countries to block entry of GMOs if there is “reasonable doubt” about their impact on people or the environment.
“This treaty emphatically establishes that GMOs present different kinds of risks that require particular scrutiny,” said Philip Bereano, a University of Washington professor specializing in technology and public policy. “The agreement is a tremendous victory for the environment.”
How the protocol relates to free trade rules remains to be determined. It is unclear, for example, whether the protocol would protect nations seeking to keep out biotech crops if the issue were brought to the World Trade Organization for resolution. The protocol also fails to specify who would be held accountable if environmental damage were to result from the use of GMOs.
“How the language is interpreted will be determined by the political and social realities of the future,” Bereano says. “But it's a huge step forward to be squabbling over language rather than the principle itself.”
Frito-Lay is monitoring consumer response to its decision; you can share your views at 800/352-4477.
In 1998, the US Department of Agriculture proposed to define the term “organic” to include irradiated foods, genetically engineered foods, and foods grown in soil containing sewage sludge. The responses, numbering more than 270,000, persuaded the USDA to think again.
In March, the Department of Agriculture released a revised definition, and this time, organic activists got nearly everything they wanted.
According to the latest version, the USDA will define as “organic” products that are produced without toxic pesticides and without antibiotics or growth hormones. Factory farm–style confinement of animals will not be allowed, nor will synthetics or chemicals be permitted without the approval of the National Organic Standards Board. The proposal leaves intact pre-existing systems of private and state organic certifiers and allows them to maintain higher standards than the USDA.
Still, the March 8 proposal falls short of ideal from the activists' viewpoint. It has not resolved questions about so-called natural foods, contamination of organic crops by genetic drift from farms growing genetically engineered crops, or who will bear the costs for the USDA oversight.
The official comment period for this proposal ends June 12.
The complete proposal is available at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. Comments can be sent by email to the Web site above or by fax to 703/365-0760
This Old House
At a meeting with the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) in April, the nation's two leading homebuilders agreed to stop using wood from endangered old-growth forests. National protests were called off after the agreement was reached. The announcement by Centex and Kaufman & Broad follows a similar commitment made by Home Depot last summer.
“These agreements signal a trend that is irreversible,” says Michael Brune, director of RAN's Old-Growth Campaign. “A new ethic is emerging in which old-growth logging is no longer acceptable.”
The home-building industry uses 72 percent of the lumber consumed in the US each year. Kaufman & Broad alone builds approximately 22,000 homes annually. Most homes built today contain wood from old-growth forests, including Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar, and mahogany.
Give Fans a Chance
Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon has introduced a bill that would encourage sports leagues to permit community ownership of professional teams, the Institute of Self-Reliance's New Rules magazine reports.
The bill is aimed at the National Football League and other leagues that have made community ownership of teams difficult or impossible. Supporters of community ownership of sports franchises point to the example of Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers, which is owned by its fans. According to New Rules, the loyalty of Packer fans is legendary. Games have been sold out for 30 consecutive years, and the waiting list for season tickets is 36,000 names long.
Cities with privately owned teams, on the other hand, often find they must shell out huge taxpayer subsidies for stadiums and tax incentives to persuade owners to keep their teams in town.
The Oregon congressman's Give Fans a Chance Act would remove the sports broadcast antitrust exemption from any league that prohibits community ownership.
For more information see www.newrules.org
A Colombian judge has supported the claims of the U'wa tribe that drilling for oil on their ancestral land violates their fundamental rights. According to this injunction Occidental Petroleum must halt
all work. (See YES! Spring 99.)
Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore is defending his family's ownership of approximately $500,000 worth of stock in Occidental Petroleum: “I have legal obligations as executor [of his father's will] that are very stringent. If you can find anything wrong with that, please tell me.”
Occidental Petroleum is also a major contributor to the Democratic Party.
While the U'wa people are fighting to save their land, Oxy chairman Ray Irani is fighting his own personal battle. He is suing protestors who have kept a vigil outside his Los Angeles home. According to court papers, Irani is asking for unspecified damages for substantial emotional distress and interference with quiet enjoyment of real property rights.
On April 1, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the dumping of electronic equipment into landfills and incinerators. Recognizing the growing popularity of high-definition television and the increase in flat panel computer displays, the state anticipated that many people will be casting off their old TVs and computer monitors.
The main component of a television and computer monitor display is the cathode ray tube (CRT), a device that is enmeshed in about six pounds of lead to reduce the electromagnetic radiation emissions. Circuit boards and batteries in some computers also contain toxic heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury. In Massachusetts alone, an estimated 75,000 tons of electronic equipment have already been discarded in landfills or burned in incinerators. At the current rate, the figure could reach 300,000 tons by 2005.
The state's Department of Environmental Protection has established six collection centers to accept cathode ray tubes for recycling. The state hopes the ban, along with the establishment of the collection centers, will encourage residents to recycle not only cathode ray tubes, but other electronic equipment as well.
Wall Street Conscience
Socially responsible investing (SRI) is experiencing not only a rise in popularity, but also a rise in value. In 1999, SRI passed the $2 trillion mark, with one out of every eight dollars now invested in managed funds that use some sort of social or environmental screen. Seventy percent of these SRI funds were rated as highest performers in 1999.
The success of SRI is due in large part to the growing base of investors, including insurance companies, universities, hospitals, and pension funds. SRI makes use of screens that exclude or include share purchases based on a company's behavior toward the environment, consumers, human rights, and employees.
Investment screening is only one way investors are sending messages about social and environmental issues. In 1999, for example, activist shareholders convinced AT&T, Bank of America, and Bank Boston to establish a maximum pay ratio between the CEO and their lowest paid employee.
Similarly, Baxter International phased out dioxin-releasing polyvinyl chloride, Home Depot announced an old-growth-friendly environmental wood purchasing policy, and McDonald's implemented a policy
of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Investors are also creating positive change through community development banks. The banks operate much like regular banks, but their business is the long-term well-being of low- and moderate-income communities. Since 1974, South Shore Bank has lent more than $434 million to rebuild local communities on the south and west sides of Chicago.
Just days before the launch of a nationwide grassroots campaign, Starbucks agreed to offer its customers fair-trade certified coffee.
Starbucks was to have been the target of a major protest campaign scheduled to take place on April 13 in 30 cities across the US and Canada.
Consumers who buy fair-trade coffee will know that farmers were paid a fair price for their coffee and that farms use organic or shade-grown techniques or are steadily moving toward their use.
As part of the agreement, Starbucks promised to sell fair-trade whole beans at every store that sells whole beans, and will offer fair-trade brewed coffee if customers request it. The company has also agreed to launch a major educational campaign to promote fair- trade coffee.
“The company's sudden decision highlights the increasing power of citizens' movements to hold corporations accountable for their actions,” says an announcement by Global Exchange, one of the human rights group that organized the protests. The announcement also underscores the growing demand for products made in conditions that are not exploitative.
About half of all coffee worldwide is produced by small farmers who receive 30 cents to 50 cents per pound for coffee that sells for as much as $10 to $12 per pound retail. Meanwhile, US companies are reporting huge profits; in 1999, Starbucks reported earnings of $164 million.
Fair trade promoters say they will now turn their attention to companies that have not yet committed to offering socially responsible coffee, including Folgers, Maxwell House, Peets, Diedrich Coffee, Tully's, Barnies, Seattle's Best, and Caribou.
For more information, contact Global Exchange at 415/558-9486 or www.globalexchange.org
DUs into Ploughshares
Four activists from the anti-war group Ploughshares are paying a heavy price for their protests against the use of depleted uranium weapons.
The defendants, including former Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, were arrested December 19 in the first major civil disobedience action taken specifically against depleted uranium (DU) weapons. The protestors were charged with breaking through a fence at a Maryland Air National Guard Base and damaging two
A-10 Warthog jet assault planes by hitting them with hammers and throwing blood on them.
The Warthog planes, used in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and in Yugoslavia last spring, fire up to 4,000 rounds of DU-reinforced shells per minute. When these shells strike a tank, radioactive uranium oxide becomes airborne, traveling for miles. If inhaled, these particles become radioactive hot spots inside the body.
More than 600,000 pounds of radioactive waste were left in Iraq and many tons of DU dust and contaminants remain in Yugoslavia. DU shells are suspected of contributing to Gulf War Syndrome and to the unusually high levels of childhood leukemia, birth defects, and other cancers currently being reported in Iraq.
In a March trial, the Baltimore County Circuit Court granted the prosecution's motion for a gag order, preventing Berrigan and his codefendants from calling expert witnesses and from explaining why they disarmed the planes.
Rather than appearing in court, the defendants elected to stay locked up. “The courts are identified with the Pentagon and the government,” Berrigan said. “There is no way nonviolent defendants can get a serious hearing in this or any other courtroom.”
In making his decision, the judge went well beyond guidelines, sentencing each defendant to pay restitution of $88,622 and to serve 18 to 30 months in jail. In addition, the defendants will be required to post $90,000 cash bail each, should they want to be released pending appeal.
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