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An Epidemic of Opioid Documentaries — Who Is that Stranger with a Camera?

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It’s been more than five years since documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne of Peekskill, NY, released Oxyana. The IMDb description reads, “The ‘Hillbilly Heroin’ epidemic that’s slowly rotting the soul of rural America.”

As the film begins, a harrowing mist rolls over the hillsides and wooded ridges of Oceana, WV , while a lo-fi guitar score hums. When describing the small, rural town and recent events, a local dentist shares, “It’s incredible and amazing and awful, all at the same time,” as he slouches on an examining table. He laments that it became difficult to appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape as complex social and material problems emerged in his community. He felt haunted by its new reality.

He’s right — Oceana’s beauty is complex. Oxyana’s B reels hardly neglect that. At first, the filmmaker nails a distinct “West Virginianness” — the moodiness of low, ambient dream-haze lighting at roadside service shops at midnight, the lull and familiarity of winding back roads and passing by locals sitting on porches at dusk. The grit of the atmosphere and the grit under your fingernails. Coal lurches up impossibly long conveyor belts to be processed, ethereal fog obscures a full moon, and dew coats the windows of broken down 1970s Winnebagos parked between lush pine trees. West Virginia, like most places, is complex, and Oxyana pays careful attention to intimate glimpses of beauty in contraction, albeit peripherally.

Since the film’s release and subsequent acceptance into the documentary film milieu, the concept of the “opioid crisis” as a long-form documentary genre has emerged. Several independent films have joined Oxyana in undertaking the daunting task of documenting events leading up to and as a result of a public health crisis. Many weigh in on factors leading to the emergence of the American opioid crisis, making the normative claim that the monumental rise in licit and illicit opioid use and trafficking in rural American communities is wrought by irresponsible and unethical decisions made by doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

It’s worth noting, however, that not all documentary films are directed by filmmakers who are intimately familiar with the communities they profile, and Appalachian people have long been exploited by visiting photographers and documentarians.

In 1964, and in the wake of President Johnson’s ongoing war on poverty, photojournalist John Dominis captured images of residents of eastern Kentucky communities as a part of a photo series, titled “The Valley of Poverty,” for the contemporaneously popular LIFE magazine. Therein exists an even more uncomfortable reality that poverty tourism was once a common practice in eastern Kentucky.

The “Valley of Poverty” dispatch aimed to illuminate ongoing Depression Era wealth inequality, which was palpably evident in Appalachian Kentucky, but the photos, in many ways, reduced their subjects to nameless stand-ins for the socioeconomic challenges they themselves and their region faced. To Dominis, their valley appeared “lonely,” their homes “ruins,” and their children “urchins.”

OXYANA TRAILER from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.

Indie film buffs will recognize Oxyana’s Dunne as the creator of a breakout short film, American Juggalo, released in September 2011, which debuted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Juggalo functions as a sardonic, searingly funny biopic of the lives of a fiercely devoted subculture of followers of the Insane Clown Posse. A once-underground cohort of hip-hop artists hailing from Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods, I.C.P. boats an extensive discography and a loyal following of fans who immerse themselves in the music’s carnival themed lore and macabre motifs.

The laughs are cheap, however. A few views of the 24-minute long film and it’s nearly blatant that the director doesn’t seem to be laughing with the Dark Carnival. In reality, the film is laughing at a quirky fandom of individuals who are merely observing the working class tradition of finding relief, comradery and joy despite everyday pains and monotony through exploring music and culture.

The Juggalos and Juggalettes show the filmmakers how they cut loose and share with Dunne and his crew that the Gathering is the best weekend of their year. The Gathering of the Juggalos seems … eclectic — for lack of a kinder word — to outsiders. It’s no secret that I.C.P. and their fans have found little else but ridicule from onlookers since the Carnival’s inception. But to the Juggalo “family,” as they lovingly refer to one another, it’s meaningful. And to some, the Gathering is the only place where they truly feel accepted and embraced by a community who chooses to love them unconditionally, despite their status in “the real world.”

Juggalo’s dialogue reveals that, most of all, these people are genuinely happy, belting out the ubiquitous “whoop whoop” refrain each chance they get, and maybe — as bystanders — we shouldn’t knock it until we’ve tried it.

Watch the short and you’ll notice that Oxyana begins with Dunne’s newfound curiosity of Juggalo culture. Oxyana‘s opening scene is a short dialogue between the film crew and a man living in Wyoming County, WV, who had just lost a loved one. The man’s account becomes the focal point of the film, sharing intimate truths about the many ways opioid use has shaped his recent life. While holding an autographed shirt with I.C.P.’s hatchet man logo, he shares that it was his loved one’s “pride and joy.” He reveals that he recently lost him to an overdose and was struggling with his loss, holding on to a memento that was special to him in life.

I.C.P. has thousands of loyal followers across the U.S. It seems fairly innocuous that a 30-something man would be a member of the “Juggalo family.” I wondered if the filmmaker found the dialogue to be meaningful enough to be an introductory scene because it was such a palpably relatable depiction of loss. It calls the viewer to remember the longing and heartbreak associated with holding onto the last remnants you have to hold after losing a loved one. On the other hand, Dunne has made a career of mocking I.C.P.’s fans and their subculture, directing a narrative that their beloved cultural markers are garish, obnoxious, and honestly, trashy.

Juggalos gather at the National Mall for the Juggalo March in 2017. Photo by Blink O’fanaye on Flickr.

He chose to begin a long-form documentary that investigates the social and cultural conditions of a southern West Virginia community experiencing unforseen hardships with an “easter egg” Juggalo reference, and honestly, it’s difficult to ignore. Could it be that the scene reveals that Dunne was unintentionally othering his Appalachian film subjects in the same vein that he mocked the Gathering? The subject revealed a special vulnerability that comes with grieving. And I couldn’t ignore the place the scene had in context with Dunne’s earlier work.

The pain of Oceana’s residents is real. Dunne and producers show bleary-eyed, unfiltered accounts of the way opioid addiction has moved through their lives. However, the scene was an uncomfortable reminder that Oxyana’s narrative was never in the hands of those living in Oceana, West Virginia, no matter how well-intentioned its filmmakers were.

Over the past ten years, a documentarian has visited my own hometown to create a similar project.

The documentary trailer features B reel footage—supplemental footage used as “filler” between the main shots—of people intravenously using heroin as often as landscapes. The documentarian periodically visits East Liverpool, OH, to collect material for a documentary and photo-series “project.”

A voiceover explains that there’s nothing worthwhile here. People come here to die.

It’s clear that the filmmaker joins Dunne in conveying a similar message communicated by Oxyana: East Liverpool, too, is hardly more than a community in crisis.

The project offers “industrial de-evolution” as a wholesale diagnosis of our community’s problems without historical context of which of East Liverpool’s native industries no longer function or what led production to a halt. Glum, dreary footage and stills of buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes barely look like the same places I grew up.

My classmates, neighbors and people my mother taught as a high school teacher are depicted wearing outdated, tattered clothing, posed lifelessly in cluttered rooms of working-class homes. Images of the community are devoid of joy. Stereotypical misrepresentations of what people and cultural landmarks in our region look like abound. The systemic issues that these communities face are specters that render the community entirely dysfunctional.

Although I’m not an expert on the function of the “gaze” in art and film, it’s clear to me that the documentary filmmakers and photojournalists that visit Appalachia from elsewhere enter our communities with preconceived notions about who lives here and what struggles we face, effectively leading to inaccurate reporting and their own unconscious social distancing from their subjects.

In spite of everything, I don’t find it difficult to find beauty in places like Oceana or East Liverpool. Like other Appalachian communities, our relationship to more than a century of the presence of extractive industries in our region has compounded complex social problems, which over time have led to the public health crisis symptomatic of the emergence of a new extractive industry: pharmaceutical companies.

But our communities are not defined by the social problems we have no fault in generating, just as individuals and lives are not defined by their struggles with addiction and recovery. Most of all, Appalachian people should have the agency to direct new and extant narratives about their communities and those that do create seminal, revelatory works that uncover truths that would have been otherwise slighted by others.

As a long-form documentary genre focused on the opioid crisis and its cultural reverberations emerges, it becomes evidently clear that those that irresponsibly visit the region, who mistakenly engage in inaccurate reporting and misrepresentation of subjects, contribute to longstanding stereotypes about people in the region, leave and profit from their findings just might have more in common with exemplars of extractive industries that have shaped the Appalachia we know.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

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Local Newspaper Closures Polarize Voters, Choke Political Progress

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Photo illustration via PixaBay, Creative Commons

As local newspapers shutter across the country, the residents residing in those counties without sources of local news are forced to rely more heavily on national media outlets that report political news primarily through the lens of the perennial two-party political conflict.

study that was published in the Journal of Communication reveals that these communities are becoming increasingly polarized politically, which has broad implications for both voters and legislators.

“Residents of cities without sources of local news are losing their ability to hold their political representatives accountable in ways that encourage ethical and effective representation,” said Johanna Dunaway, professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M. “And the more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government.”

With Joshua Darr, professor of communication at Louisiana State University, and Matthew Hitt, professor of political science at Colorado State University, Dunaway conducted the study that finds local newspaper closures are helping to polarize voters by contributing to increases in straight-ticket, party-line voting in those counties where they shuttered. Their study, “Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior,” also explores the implications of those findings.

Evidence of increasing political polarization of the public is shown by this and other studies, and one contributing factor is that voters without local news options are more likely than usual to vote on the basis of party identification alone. Concurrently, the void left by defunct local newspapers creates opportunities for political parties to employ tactics that help replace objective sources of information with their highly polarized perspectives.

Are the days of crossing party lines at the local level over?

Historically, voters have recognized that many local issues fall outside political party ideology, and they have crossed party lines in local elections when their legislators were achieving positive results for their communities. The legislators cultivated this personal vote by granting interviews and sending press releases to their local newspapers to inform their constituents of their achievements. They made their re-election appeals and claims of credit in their local media markets, and their local reporters held them accountable by covering how well they served their districts, Dunaway said.

Without local newspapers, communities lose the venue where legislators cultivate the personal vote and journalists hold public servants accountable in ways that encourage good representation. Residents of these communities are forced to rely more on national news outlets that only have the resources, at best, to comprehensively cover national governmental institutions and their leadership.

National coverage of other members of the U.S. Congress typically is limited to occasions when they behave as mavericks, engage in scandalous behavior, say something outrageous or become the targets of outrageous accusations, Dunaway said. The politicians at the state and local levels generally do not appear on the radars of national news outlets at all.

Photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons

Voters without local newspapers are less influential with their legislators

Catering to the national market, national media outlets cover legislative leaders in terms of whether they support or oppose their respective political party ideologies. So, as national media dominance increases, and with it, political polarization, legislators have more incentive to respond to the needs and preferences of their political parties than to those of their districts, leaving their constituents to pay the price when those interests are in opposition.

And the reality is that these legislators already often consider how national media will portray their actions and responses more than they consider how their constituents will receive them. Therefore, residents of counties without sources of local news are losing influence with their legislators because of the increasing political polarization, likely brought about, at least in part, by growing national media influences.

Growing political polarization diminishes effectiveness of legislators

Political polarization also hampers the ability of legislators to compromise, which encourages legislative gridlock and makes achievements of any kind, whether for political parties or districts, more unobtainable, which is the scenario currently playing out in Congress. The legislators shift their focus away from the common ground found in regional needs and become more beholden to the polarized national agenda, which diminishes their effectiveness as representatives.

“Replacing local media with national alternatives and the resulting increase in political polarization has broad implications for everyone,” Dunaway said. “If the information we get about politics is reduced to national party politics, the local issues that affect us most will be neglected by voters and politicians alike.”

Dunaway and the other researchers examined split-ticket voting in statistically similar counties as an indicator of either adherence to or departure from hardline political party ideology. They found a 1.9 percent drop in split-ticket voting in presidential and senatorial elections in counties where local newspapers closed. In elections research, where fluctuations of 1 percent are considered substantial, this difference is dramatic.

This article was first published at Texas A&M Today and was republished by the Daily Yonder with permission.

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Vaccination Laws: What the Rest of the U.S. Can Learn from Appalachia

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Lacey Walter, of Kennewick, Wash., holds a sign that reads "Vaccines, the more you know, the more you No!" as she takes part in a rally held in opposition to a proposed bill that would remove parents' ability to claim a philosophical exemption to opt their school-age children out of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Amid a measles outbreak that has sickened people in Washington state and Oregon, lawmakers earlier Friday heard public testimony on the bill. Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

For decades, two Appalachian states have been national leaders in an unexpected area: vaccinating children against contagious diseases.

In 2000, measles was eliminated as a major public health threat in the United States. But because measles still exists in other countries, it’s occasionally brought here. And as American parents opted out of vaccines for their children in larger numbers, outbreaks have crept up in places where high numbers of people remain unvaccinated.

Now, less than six weeks into 2019, 84 cases of measles have been confirmed in 11 different states. Fifty-five of those cases are in Washington state, where health officials have declared a state of emergency. As states like Washington evaluate how best to move forward, they may be surprised to find themselves looking to another part of the country for help: Appalachia.

West Virginia and Mississippi are not generally considered leaders in public health. Dangerous professions, high poverty rates, rough terrain, water contamination and pollution have left much of Appalachia struggling with rates of cancer, addiction, overdose and premature mortality higher than the rest of the country. On many health metrics, West Virginia and Mississippi rank towards the bottom. But when it comes to inoculating schoolchildren against dangerous diseases like measles, polio and whooping cough, they are consistently the best in the country.

At a time when other states are struggling to contain outbreaks of preventable diseases, Mississippi and West Virginia have been national leaders in preventing these outbreaks altogether. Why? Because Mississippi and West Virginia have the strongest vaccination laws in the United States.

Vaccines and Their Efficacy

The efficacy of some medical procedures can be debated. Vaccines are not among them.

Vaccines protect people in two ways. First, they protect the individuals who receive them, by inoculating them. Second, when vaccines are successfully administered to a large percentage of the population, a herd immunity develops. Herd immunity protects the people who truly can’t get vaccinated, like infants not yet old enough or people undergoing chemotherapy. When a high enough percentage of the population has been inoculated, herd immunity protects those more vulnerable members of our society.

Vaccines are largely considered one of the greatest public health discoveries of modern history. The CDC estimates that vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born since 1994. The World Health Organization credits vaccines with preventing 2-3 million deaths every year from a variety of diseases, reducing measles mortality by 84 percent and bringing us closer than ever to eradicating polio worldwide. Vaccinations have already entirely eradicated smallpox and rinderpest.

Vaccines are safe and medical science has proven that the most recent argument against them–that they cause autism–is false. This false claim can be traced back to one, now discredited, paper, by a man named Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield and his colleagues made headlines worldwide when they published a paper arguing that vaccines caused autism. Eventually, the paper would be retracted and Wakefield and his colleagues would be found guilty of ethical violations, scientific misrepresentations and deliberate fraud; but by that time, the damage had already been done and has had a lasting global impact.

People around the world continue to contract preventable diseases, sometimes because of lies about the safety of vaccines. In a tragic 2015 case, a Spanish boy named Pau died of diptheria after his parents refused to have him vaccinated. Pau’s parents later said they felt they had been “tricked,” had not been properly informed about vaccines, and felt tremendous guilt over the death of their son.

Mississippi and West Virginia: Leaders for Decades

Mississippi’s vaccine mandate is the result of a 1979 decision from its highest court, Brown v. Stone. A father challenged Mississippi’s mandatory vaccination law, which allowed religious exemptions if “an officer of a church of a recognized denomination” signed off on it for the parent. He argued the law violated his First Amendment rights by requiring him to be a member of a denomination in order to claim the exemption. In a stunning turn, the court didn’t simply reject the father’s objection—it eliminated all religious exemptions. As the court stated:

“The exception, which would provide for the exemption of children of parents whose religious beliefs conflict with the immunization requirements, would discriminate against the great majority of children whose parents have no such religious convictions. To give it effect would result in a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which provides that no state shall make any law denying to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, in that it would require the great body of school children to be vaccinated and at the same time expose them to the hazard of associating in school with children exempted under the religious exemption who had not been immunized as required by the statute.”

West Virginia’s strict vaccination laws were created by the legislature, not the judiciary, and first appeared in 1872. The state’s laws have  never allowed for a nonmedical exemption.

Despite the documented success of their laws, the debate on whether to weaken them  continues in both states. Year after year, politicians introduce bills that would allow religious or personal belief exemptions–and this year is no exception. To date, however, every proposal to relax Mississippi’s or West Virginia’s vaccination laws has failed, perhaps, in part, because of the overwhelming proof that strict vaccination laws work.

Models for the Rest of the Country

West Virginia and Mississippi took two different paths, but ended with similar results: the highest vaccination rates in the country.

For the most recent school year, 99.4 percent of incoming kindergarteners in Mississippi and 98.4 percent in West Virginia were inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). The national average is 94.3 percent. Doctors estimate that between 90 and 95 percent of a population must be inoculated for the MMR vaccine to be effective.

Far away from Appalachia and Mississippi’s nearly universal vaccination rate is Clark County, Washington. Washington has some of the most relaxed vaccination laws in the country, allowing both a religious exemption and a “personal belief” exemption. Clark County is in the southwest corner of the state, near Portland, Oregon. Only 76 percent of Clark County kindergarteners were fully immunized for the 2017 – 2018 school year.  Only 84 percent had received the MMR vaccine. Clark County is home to 53 of the 55 measles cases reported in Washington this year. At least thirty-four of the sick are children under the age of 10.

In 2015, a measles outbreak originating at Disneyland in southern California resulted in 147 cases of measles spread across eight states and two other countries. Later that year, California changed its laws and joined Mississippi and West Virginia in eliminating religious exemptions to vaccines. In response to the current measles outbreak, lawmakers in Washington have proposed removing their personal belief exemption.

At a time when several parts of the country are dealing with outbreaks of a disease that was almost eradicated, more states would do well to look towards Appalachia for two examples to follow. West Virginia and Mississippi are leading the country in protecting our children from preventable diseases. In the midst of this public health crisis, the rest of the country should look to West Virginia and Mississippi as models of what strong vaccination policies can accomplish.

Jamie Lynn Crofts is a constitutional and civil rights attorney in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law, a former federal judicial law clerk, and previously worked as the Legal Director for the ACLU of West Virginia.

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Capturing Carbon to Fight Climate Change is Dividing Environmentalists

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Environmental activists are teaming up with fresh faces in Congress to advocate for a Green New Deal, a bundle of policies that would fight climate change while creating new jobs and reducing inequality. Not all of the activists agree on what those policies ought to be.

Some 626 environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and 350, recently laid out their vision in a letter they sent to U.S. lawmakers. They warned that they “vigorously oppose” several strategies, including the use of carbon capture and storage – a process that can trap excess carbon pollution that’s already warming the Earth, and lock it away.

In our view, as a political philosopher who studies global justice and an environmental social scientist, this blanket opposition is an unfortunate mistake. Based on the need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and the risks in relying on land sinks like forests and soils alone to take up the excess carbon, we believe that carbon capture and storage could be a powerful tool for making the climate safer and even rectifying historical climate injustices.

Global inequality

We think the U.S. and other rich countries should accelerate negative emissions research for two reasons.

First, they can afford it. Second, they have a historical responsibility as they burned a disproportionate amount of the carbon causing climate change today. Global warming is poised to hit the least-developed countries, including dozens that were colonized by these wealthier nations, the hardest.

Consider this: The entire African continent emits less carbon than the U.S., Russia or Japan.

Yet Africa is likely to experience climate change impacts sooner and more intensely than any other region. Some African regions are already experiencing warming increases at more than twice the global rate. Coastal and island nations like Bangladesh, Madagascar and the Marshall Islands face near or total destruction.

But the world’s richest nations have been slow to endorse and support the necessary research, development and governance for negative emissions technologies.

Bad track record with coal

What explains the objections from climate justice advocates?

The U.S. has heavily funded experiments with carbon capture and storage to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants since George W. Bush’s presidency.

Those efforts have not paid off, partly because of economics. Natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper and more popular than coal for generating electricity.

Only a handful of coal-fired power plants are under construction in the U.S., where closures are routine. The industry is in trouble everywhere, with few exceptions.

In addition, carbon capture with coal has a bad track record. The biggest U.S. experiment is the US$7.5 billion Kemper power plant in Mississippi. It ended in failure in 2017 when state power authorities ordered the plant operator to give up on this technology and rely on natural gas instead.

Other uses

Carbon capture and storage, however, isn’t just for fossil-fuel-burning power plants. It can work with industrial carbon dioxide sources, such as steel, cement and chemical plants and incinerators.

Then, one of two things can happen. The carbon can be turned into new products, such as fuels, cement, soft drinks or even shoes.

Carbon can also be stored permanently if it is injected underground, where geologists believe it can stay put for centuries.

Until now, a common use for captured carbon is extracting oil out of old wells. Burning that petroleum, however, can make climate change worse.

Captured carbon has a variety of industrial uses, including oil extraction and fire extinguisher manufacturing. U.S. Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory

Going carbon negative

This technology may potentially also remove more carbon than gets emitted – as long as it’s designed right.

One example is what’s called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, where farm residues or crops like trees or grasses are grown to be burned to generate electricity. Carbon is separated out and stored at the power plants where this happens.

If the supply chain is sustainable, with cultivation, harvesting and transport done in low-carbon or carbon-neutral ways, this process can produce what scientists call negative emissions, with more carbon removed than released. Another possibility involves directly capturing carbon from the air.

Scientists point out that bioenergy with carbon capture and storage could require vast amounts of land for growing biofuels to burn. And climate advocates are concerned that both approaches could pave the way for oil, gas and coal companies and big industries to simply continue with business as usual instead of phasing out fossil fuels.

Many experts agree that limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius will require reducing the volume of carbon emissions through energy efficiency and renewable-energy generation and CO₂ removal. MCC, CC BY-SA

Natural solutions

Every pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report projected the use of carbon removal approaches.

Planting more trees, composting and farming in ways that store carbon in soils and protecting wetlands can also reduce atmospheric carbon. We believe the natural solutions many environmentalists might prefer are crucial. But soaking up excess carbon through afforestation on a massive scale could encroach on farmland.

To be sure, not all environmentalists are writing off carbon capture and storage.

The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, along with many other big green organizations, did not sign the letter, which objected not just to carbon capture and storage but also to nuclear power, emissions trading and converting trash into energy through incineration.

Rather than leave carbon removal technologies out of the Green New Deal, we suggest that more environmentalists consider their potential for removing carbon that has already been emitted. We believe these approaches could potentially create jobs, foster economic development and reduce inequality on a global scale – as long as they are meaningfully accountable to people in the world’s poorest nations.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Georgetown University and Holly Jean Buck, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of California, Los Angeles

Capturing carbon to fight climate change is dividing environmentalists

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Georgetown University and Holly Jean Buck, University of California, Los Angeles

Environmental activists are teaming up with fresh faces in Congress to advocate for a Green New Deal, a bundle of policies that would fight climate change while creating new jobs and reducing inequality. Not all of the activists agree on what those policies ought to be.

Some 626 environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and 350, recently laid out their vision in a letter they sent to U.S. lawmakers. They warned that they “vigorously oppose” several strategies, including the use of carbon capture and storage – a process that can trap excess carbon pollution that’s already warming the Earth, and lock it away.

In our view, as a political philosopher who studies global justice and an environmental social scientist, this blanket opposition is an unfortunate mistake. Based on the need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and the risks in relying on land sinks like forests and soils alone to take up the excess carbon, we believe that carbon capture and storage could be a powerful tool for making the climate safer and even rectifying historical climate injustices.

Global inequality

We think the U.S. and other rich countries should accelerate negative emissions research for two reasons.

First, they can afford it. Second, they have a historical responsibility as they burned a disproportionate amount of the carbon causing climate change today. Global warming is poised to hit the least-developed countries, including dozens that were colonized by these wealthier nations, the hardest.

Consider this: The entire African continent emits less carbon than the U.S., Russia or Japan.

Yet Africa is likely to experience climate change impacts sooner and more intensely than any other region. Some African regions are already experiencing warming increases at more than twice the global rate. Coastal and island nations like Bangladesh, Madagascar and the Marshall Islands face near or total destruction.

But the world’s richest nations have been slow to endorse and support the necessary research, development and governance for negative emissions technologies.

Bad track record with coal

What explains the objections from climate justice advocates?

The U.S. has heavily funded experiments with carbon capture and storage to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants since George W. Bush’s presidency.

Those efforts have not paid off, partly because of economics. Natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper and more popular than coal for generating electricity.

Only a handful of coal-fired power plants are under construction in the U.S., where closures are routine. The industry is in trouble everywhere, with few exceptions.

In addition, carbon capture with coal has a bad track record. The biggest U.S. experiment is the US$7.5 billion Kemper power plant in Mississippi. It ended in failure in 2017 when state power authorities ordered the plant operator to give up on this technology and rely on natural gas instead.

Other uses

Carbon capture and storage, however, isn’t just for fossil-fuel-burning power plants. It can work with industrial carbon dioxide sources, such as steel, cement and chemical plants and incinerators.

Then, one of two things can happen. The carbon can be turned into new products, such as fuels, cement, soft drinks or even shoes.

Carbon can also be stored permanently if it is injected underground, where geologists believe it can stay put for centuries.

Until now, a common use for captured carbon is extracting oil out of old wells. Burning that petroleum, however, can make climate change worse.

Captured carbon has a variety of industrial uses, including oil extraction and fire extinguisher manufacturing. U.S. Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory

Going carbon negative

This technology may potentially also remove more carbon than gets emitted – as long as it’s designed right.

One example is what’s called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, where farm residues or crops like trees or grasses are grown to be burned to generate electricity. Carbon is separated out and stored at the power plants where this happens.

If the supply chain is sustainable, with cultivation, harvesting and transport done in low-carbon or carbon-neutral ways, this process can produce what scientists call negative emissions, with more carbon removed than released. Another possibility involves directly capturing carbon from the air.

Scientists point out that bioenergy with carbon capture and storage could require vast amounts of land for growing biofuels to burn. And climate advocates are concerned that both approaches could pave the way for oil, gas and coal companies and big industries to simply continue with business as usual instead of phasing out fossil fuels.

Many experts agree that limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius will require reducing the volume of carbon emissions through energy efficiency and renewable-energy generation and CO₂ removal. MCC, CC BY-SA

Natural solutions

Every pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report projected the use of carbon removal approaches.

Planting more trees, composting and farming in ways that store carbon in soils and protecting wetlands can also reduce atmospheric carbon. We believe the natural solutions many environmentalists might prefer are crucial. But soaking up excess carbon through afforestation on a massive scale could encroach on farmland.

To be sure, not all environmentalists are writing off carbon capture and storage.

The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, along with many other big green organizations, did not sign the letter, which objected not just to carbon capture and storage but also to nuclear power, emissions trading and converting trash into energy through incineration.

Rather than leave carbon removal technologies out of the Green New Deal, we suggest that more environmentalists consider their potential for removing carbon that has already been emitted. We believe these approaches could potentially create jobs, foster economic development and reduce inequality on a global scale – as long as they are meaningfully accountable to people in the world’s poorest nations.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Georgetown University and Holly Jean Buck, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of California, Los Angeles

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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