OBAMA’S ENVIRONMENTAL TEST: On August 26 the State Department released its final environmental impact assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline, concluding that it would have “no significant impacts” on its natural surroundings, and downplaying the potential for increased greenhouse gas emissions. On the question of potential oil spills, the report predicted between “1.18 to 1.83 spills greater than 2,100 gallons per year” for the entire project, adding that “crude oil spills are not likely to have toxic effects on the general public.” In a statement, the Sierra Club called the report “an insult to anyone who expects government to work for the interests of the American people.”
The actual number of spills from Keystone XL, which would run from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, is likely to be much higher than the report claims. There have already been fourteen spills along the existing Keystone pipeline since it began operating in June 2010, and the first independent analysis of the pipeline project, released this past July by John Stansbury at the University of Nebraska, calculated that there was the potential for ninety-one spills over the next fifty years.
Contrary to administration claims, Stansbury also presented spill scenarios that would most certainly have toxic effects. A worst-case spill at the Platte River crossing, for example, would cause benzene—a human carcinogen—to travel unabated down the Missouri River for several hundred miles and affect the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people. A worst-case spill in the Sandhills region of Nebraska would contaminate 4.9 billion gallons of drinking water.
With the environmental impact assessment virtually guaranteeing that the State Department will approve the Keystone XL project by the end of the year, environmental activists are placing their bets on President Obama to stop it. His administration “can’t get the climate science right,” said author and activist Bill McKibben, who has led days of peaceful protest outside the White House, “but maybe they can get the politics right.” GEORGE ZORNICK
LINKING CLIMATE AND CONFLICT: An article published in the August 25 issue of the respected science journal Nature has attracted global media attention for claiming—for the first time, according to its authors—a clear connection between the instability of modern societies and the global climate.
The authors used the shift between El Niño events—when ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are unusually high, causing a climate shift in dozens of countries—and periods of cooling known as La Niña as a proxy for a changing climate. By comparing data on the occurrence of El Niño events and the onset of civil disputes in more than eighty countries—mostly low-income countries in the regions of the moist tropics and arid subtropics—they concluded that warmer than average climate contributed to conflict in 21 percent of all civil conflicts since 1950 and raised the likelihood of new conflicts breaking out in tropical countries by 3 to 6 percent.
The findings are compelling, but there is reason for pause. The paper raises more questions than it answers, not least about the assumptions and generalizations at the heart of the analysis and the use of La Niña years as a basis for comparison. The decision to restrict the analysis to incidents of “civil dispute between a government and another organized party,” excluding unrest such as riots and genocide, is particularly curious. Conflicts exacerbated by climate, like the tensions over resources in Kenya’s Turkana province, frequently occur independently of political organizations. Arguably difficult to record, such conflicts would fall outside the parameters of the authors’ chosen data set.
Nevertheless, the findings are thought-provoking and prompt another question, which might be more instructive as temperatures rise: how did so many countries apparently susceptible to El Niño, and vulnerable to conflict, maintain peace? NATASJA SHERIFF
THE METHOD TO HIS MADNESS: Former Vice President Dick Cheney promised that when his 565-page memoir, In My Time, hit the shelves on August 30, “There are gonna be heads exploding all over Washington.” But just as Hurricane Irene proved to be a tad less destructive than predicted, so Hurricane Cheney proved to be less explosive than promised. Most of the objections came from fellow conservatives who took issue with “cheap shots” (Colin Powell) or with a lack of humility so sweeping that Cheney failed to note that “the great fact of those eight years [of his vice presidential tenure] is we went to war—big war, costly war—under false pretenses” (George Will).
Cheney wants to sell a lot of books, but it’s not the royalties that concern him; the former Halliburton CEO clearly doesn’t need the money. So what is Cheney after? Vindication? Not exactly; the book makes little real effort to prove its prime assertion: that Cheney is always right—about weapons of mass destruction, about wars of whim, about torture, about tax cuts for the rich.
Cheney’s real goal is to reclaim the position he has held for decades: that of an indispensable and unquestioned conservative counselor to whom Republican presidents turn for don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts advice. From the days when he conspired to keep then–Vice President Nelson Rockefeller off Gerald Ford’s 1976 ticket (very possibly costing Ford the presidency), to his defense of Ronald Reagan’s constructive engagement with South African apartheid and the crimes of Iran/Contra, to his efforts as secretary of defense to privatize the military (and enrich Halliburton’s subsidiary KBR), to his elbowing aside of former friends and colleagues to claim the vice presidency, to, finally, the period when he essentially governed the United States from an undisclosed location as George W. Bush’s prince regent, Cheney has been the GOP’s tough-guy in chief. And anyone who thinks he does not hope to reprise that role as a counselor to a President Rick Perry or Mitt Romney does not know Dick Cheney. In My Time is his 2012 campaign autobiography. He is running for a place at the side of the Republican he hopes will take office in 2013. There are still wars to gin up, corporations to enrich and levers of power to grab. Cheney’s purpose, beyond partisanship and ideology, has always been to assure that his hands are gripping those levers. JOHN NICHOLS