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The Reign of Error

We had to burn the village in order to save it
—Vietnam War quote

To be is to do
—Socrates
To do is to be
—Jean-Paul Sartre

Do be do be do
—Frank Sinatra

The fur is flying on the climate front. The proposed carbon Cap & Trade legislation sponsored by Henry Waxman and Ed Markey can’t seem to make it out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. If you read my last column, you know why I think it highly unlikely that something like this bill will become The Law in the United States this year or ever. The bogus debate about Cap & Trade and the realities of the existing carbon trading system teach us valuable lessons about contentious but ineffective schemes to combat global warming. National Public Radio’s Living On Earth describes the current Cap & Trade carbon credits trading system.

The carbon credit system was created by the Kyoto Protocol. It’s called the CDM, or Clean Development Mechanism. Here’s how it works: an industrialized country or company producing greenhouse gases can offset its pollution and get credit by bankrolling clean carbon projects in developing nations.

Today I talk about the confused (and confusing) Cap & Trade debate and future CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. I believe we live in a Reign of Error. It’s not quite as bad as “we must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it” as Maximilien Robespierre said during his Reign of Terror when lethal idealism resulted in the death of many innocent people. In 2009 we face another kind of dangerous idealism in the climate debate. I will attempt to clear up what I regard as misconceptions about policies to mitigate global warming, fossil fuels resources, how people actually behave, and what we can expect in the future.

Please do not contact me if you think anthropogenic climate change is not happening. Which word do you not understand? Greenhouse? Or Gas?

Cap & Trade = Smoke & Mirrors

Two debates are taking place as the House of Representatives thinks really hard about carbon Cap & Trade. The first pits the environmentalists against political “conservatives” and those in fossil fuels business. Chevron’s Oreilly Says Carbon Targets Unrealistic typifies this debate (Bloomberg, May 7, 2009).

“Seeking those reductions without any realistic plan to replace that energy is a straight path back to a pre-industrial economy and a standard of living to match it,” O’Reilly said today in a speech in Boston.

Without referring to specific bills or members of Congress, O’Reilly said that talk of cutting emissions 20 percent by 2020 or 80 percent by 2050 “sounds good” but is unrealistic. For example, the 62-year-old Dublin native said, replacing all of the global transportation system with zero-carbon alternatives would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by only 15 percent.

[My note: I don't know where O'Reilly got that 15 percent. I suspect he pulled that number out of his ... posterior.]

“Trading in false hopes and inflated numbers will get us nowhere,” O’Reilly said. “We need to set goals that are both high and realistic.”

[My note: O'Reilly's "high and realistic" is an oxymoron.]

I have little doubt that an 80% emissions reduction would throw us back (in some respects) to an economy resembling that of the 18th century, but our hardscrabble existence in 2050 is neither here nor there for legislators in 2009. The second more entertaining debate is the internecine squabble among environmentalists (Huffington Post, May 8, 2009). Grist’s Dave Roberts has been there, done that—

I find it really hard to believe, but the perennial “carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade” debate is still going on. It goes on and on and on and it never changes. It’s like everyone’s following a script now. I’ve been over this territory so many times that I hardly know what to say any more. So here’s what some other people are saying:

Joe Romm started this off by asking James Hansen to drop his quixotic and politically toxic campaign against the Waxman-Markey climate/energy bill. Kevin Drum chimed in, supporting Romm.

Michael O’Hare responded with a heated defense of carbon taxes (or as he calls them, carbon charges), premised mainly on a basic misunderstanding of Romm’s post…

Ryan Avent says taxes and caps are not that different in effect and only one has a chance of passing, so carbon taxers should STFU. Andrew Sullivan responds that he thinks the tax will work better, and so no, he won’t STFU. Kevin and Ryan both respond to Sullivan, pointing out that he seems to be suffering from some serious misunderstandings about cap-and-trade systems. (In this he has, to put it mildly, plenty of company).

[My note: "Serious misunderstandings" are perfectly understandable. STFU is an acronym used as a verb that means exactly what you think it means.]

Meanwhile, Yale 360 has rounded up a group of “experts” to weigh in on the issue, though several of the purported experts seem to understand very little about the policies and/or the politics at hand. The submissions from Jeffrey Sachs and Roger Pielke Jr., in particular, are so poorly argued as to defy explanation…

I would be crazy to get involved in this dispute, so I won’t, and besides 1) I’m not up on these issues; and 2) I don’t think Cap & Trade as opposed to a Carbon Tax matters one bit, which is why I’m not up on these issues. However, the Romm versus Hansen dispute does deserve comment because it directly addresses the question of how much CO2 in the atmosphere constitutes dangerous human interference with the Earth’s benign Holocene climate. But first I need to explain why Cap & Trade doesn’t matter.

My eyes glazed over as I read the complicated arguments about Cap & Trade permits—will they be auctioned off? or given away?—and potential revenues from a 648 page proposal that likely won’t ever come to a vote in the House. But what about the $20 billion carbon market (from the Kyoto Protocol CDM) that exists now? Is it working? Are Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions going down? I would think this question would be of interest to American policymakers who are—as they always do—arguing about money instead.

In the misleadingly titled EU Carbon Trading System Shows Signs of Working, the New York Times tells us what we need to know (April 1, 2009—April Fools Day!). Also look at Figure 1.

Europe’s controversial trading system to cut carbon emissions is showing faint signs of working, according to analysis of preliminary figures released Wednesday by the European Commission.

Emissions among industries covered by the E.U. system fell between 4 percent and 6 percent during 2008 [from 2.24 billion tons in 2007 to 2.11 billion in 2008] compared with increases of roughly 1 percent in the two previous years, according to analysts who reviewed the figures.

Most of the decline was from falling industrial and electricity production linked to the economic slump. Even so, the size of the decline compared with the increases in previous years showed that some businesses were becoming marginally cleaner as a result of the system, these analysts said.


Figure 1 — EU-27 emissions up to 2006. The black line shows the total emissions. The Times quotes officials as saying that emissions rose 1% in 2006 and 2007 but then dropped dramatically in 2008 due to the economic downturn. Transportation emissions have been rising steadily over the entire period, which completely offsets reductions in other areas. The graph is from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy and Transport. Their data does not show a 1% increase in 2006 as the Times reported.

It makes sense that the world’s economic near-death experience is cutting into European greenhouse gas emissions. Figure 1 shows at least that emissions have not grown since the year 2000, so this data might be construed as one of those famous green shoots supporting Cap & Trade like the ones said to be sprouting in our economic Gardener’s Paradise. Does this interpretation of the data hold up?

The answer is No because a lot of Europe’s carbon offsets are phony.

My first inkling that something was amiss came from the Green, Inc. blog at the New York Times. This is from Do Carbon Offsets Cause Emissions to Rise?

Michael Wara, a law professor and energy expert at Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, has cast new doubts on the efficacy of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, which is the model for a carbon-capping system foreseen in the United States.

Mr. Wara wrote in an e-mail message to Green Inc. that European-based polluters were likely to have bought so many permits from carbon-reduction projects based outside the trade bloc that industries emitted roughly 1 percent more in 2008 than they did in 1990…

Offsets allow companies and governments in the wealthy world to pay developing nations to make their carbon reductions for them.

Living On Earth’s Bruce Gellerman interviewed Mr. Wara, who patiently explained how the scam works. The live radio argument is disjointed, so I have recreated the dialogue for clarity in the quote below. You can always listen to the original interview if you like.

GELLERMAN: Let’s say I have a small electricity power plant in China. I’m using coal, and we’re producing a lot of greenhouse emissions. Someone from Germany has a factory and wants to pay us money to convert to a wind farm. They get the credits, and we stop polluting. Win-win.

WARA: Win-win, in theory. Now, here’s the question, though. What other incentives did you, the power plant owner, have to switch to wind? Very often, it turns out, there are multiple incentives to make that switch. China is becoming one of the largest producers of wind energy in the world. Part of the reason for that … is the subsidy provided by the CDM. But we think a much bigger part of the reason is the incentives and subsidies provided by the Chinese. So without the credits I would have made the switch anyhow.

Someone has to say, this wouldn’t have happened without the credits, or, it would have. And that’s important for a key reason: these credits go to Europe or other countries that have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and they’re used in lieu of emission reductions within those countries. So the reduction happens in China, but it doesn’t happen in Germany. If the reduction in China would have happened anyway, then you’re not entitled to the reduction in Germany.

GELLERMAN: Who makes the decision to grant offset credits?

WARA: Most of the actual evaluation of projects happens – is done by - private third parties that act sort of like a credit-rating agency.The companies being certified as emission credit-worthy, like the one in China converting from coal to wind, pay these third parties. So there’s a conflict of interest.

Wara looked at about 3000 green projects and found that in half of them, it was dubious or ambiguous whether greenhouse gas offsets should have been granted. All this is detailed in his Stanford Working Paper A Realistic Policy on International Carbon Offsets.

Have European emissions gone down since 1990? Wara says No. Do you say corporations would find a way (through strategically placed loopholes) to game the system if a Cap & Trade program were implemented in the United States? No way! Surely you jest! I’ll move on to more serious matters now.

350 Or Bust?

Prominent climate scientist James Hansen recently compared the Cap & Trade proposal to the Temple of Doom made famous by Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movie. His open letter spells out why he feels this way—

My frustration arises from the huge gap between words of governments, worldwide, and their actions or planned actions. It is easy to speak of a planet in peril. It is quite another to level with the public about what is needed, even if the actions are in everybody’s long-term interest.

Instead governments are retreating to feckless “cap-and-trade”, a minor tweak to business-as-usual…

Cap-and-trade is the temple of doom. It would lock in disasters for our children and grandchildren. Why do people continue to worship a disastrous approach? Its fecklessness was proven by the Kyoto Protocol. It took a decade to implement the treaty, as countries extracted concessions that weakened even mild goals. Most countries that claim to have met their obligations actually increased their emissions. Others found that even modest reductions of emissions were inconvenient, and thus they simply ignored their goals.

There is little doubt that a Cap & Trade program would be feckless, as Michael Wara has demonstrated. The whole point of Cap & Trade is to create the appearance of acting responsibly while actually doing next to nothing. In this sense, and only in this sense, Hansen, who supports a stringent carbon tax, has no illusions about what is going on. Hansen’s objection, however, is based on his view that avoiding dangerous interference with the climate requires a target CO2 level in the atmosphere of 350 ppm (parts-per-million). Unfortunately, that level is now 386 ppm and it’s still rising.

Hansen’s reading of the paleoclimate record in Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? indicates to him and his colleagues that 350 ppm, not the consensus target of 450 ppm, is required to avoid losing the big ice sheets.

Humanity today, collectively, must face the uncomfortable fact that industrial civilization itself has become the principal driver of global climate. If we stay our present course, using fossil fuels to feed a growing appetite for energy-intensive life styles, we will soon leave the climate of the Holocene, the world of prior human history. The eventual response to doubling pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 likely would be a nearly ice-free planet.

[My note: For anatomically modern humans, history began about 195,000 years ago during the Pleistocene, not in the last 10,000 years during the Holocene. Behaviorally modern humans show up about 50,000 years ago in Africa.]

Paleoclimate evidence and ongoing global changes imply that today’s CO2, about 385 ppm, is already too high to maintain the climate to which humanity, wildlife, and the rest of the biosphere are adapted. Realization that we must reduce the current CO2 amount has a bright side: effects that had begun to seem inevitable, including impacts of ocean acidification, loss of fresh water supplies, and shifting of climatic zones, may be averted by the necessity of finding an energy course beyond fossil fuels sooner than would otherwise have occurred.

We suggest an initial objective of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm, with the target to be adjusted as scientific understanding and empirical evidence of climate effects accumulate. Limited opportunities for reduction of non-CO2 human-caused forcings are important to pursue but do not alter the initial 350 ppm CO2 target. This target must be pursued on a timescale of decades, as paleoclimate and ongoing changes, and the ocean response time, suggest that it would be foolhardy to allow CO2 to stay in the dangerous zone for centuries.

The Where Should Humanity Aim result is not universally accepted among working climate scientists—this is putting it mildly. Nevertheless, climate “progressives” like Bill McKibben (350.org) have unquestioningly accepted it. Does the activist rule of thumb say the more doom the better?

Hansen’s argument concerns the very-long-term sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels (= ~550 ppm). The normal “Charney” sensitivity derived from climate models is around 3ºC. Hansen’s “Earth” sensitivity over centuries or millennia is 6ºC. The greater sensitivity implies a lower CO2 target if we hope to preserve a glaciated Greenland and Antarctica (among other calamities). Gavin Schmidt of NASA GISS discussed Hansen’s result at length at Real Climate. I can not possibly review the main points in a short essay, so I recommend you read that discussion if you are conversant with the climate science or you’re willing to learn. Look particularly at posting #38 from Andy Revkin of the New York Times and the responses of the climate scientists—this goes to the heart of the matter.

I have the greatest respect for Hansen the scientist, but perhaps he has not thought through the full implications of what he is advocating.

Achieving the 350 ppm target in the 22nd century through very aggressive actions we will pursue on “a timescale of decades” lies entirely outside the realm of what is politically (i.e. humanly) possible as I explained last week. Hansen speaks of the “bright side” of a very aggressive approach to replacing fossil fuels, but his “uncomfortable” observation that “industrial civilization itself has become the principal driver of global climate” is the main driver of his policy views. He seems to believe that very-long-term global climate stability (on human time-scales) supersedes all other considerations, including the manner in which all the people alive now will live out their remaining time on Earth.

Thus Hansen appears to be saying that we must voluntarily dismantle our Industrial Civilization in order to save it. I can assure you that humankind will not willingly go down that road. He recently called upon us to phase out coal, plant more trees, and burn wood instead. All the energy humans derived from burning coal amounted to 121 quadrillion (1.21 x 1017) British Thermal Units (BTU) in 2005. Measured in cords, that’s a lot of trees.

It is telling that Joe Romm, in refuting Hansen’s position, unknowingly calls into question whether the standard technological or policy solutions to achieving the consensus 450 ppm target will ever actually work. He is hoisted by his own petard! These solutions are called “wedges” and I’ve included a few of the ones Romm lists.

Wedges are strategies that reduce emissions steadily until they achieve a 1 GtC/year saving — in 50 years in Princeton’s original framework, but for those in a hurry like all of us now are, it must be less.

The bad news about 350 ppm is that you need some 18 standard (50-year) wedges from 2010 to 2060, if I’m reading your paper right — plus a whole lot more after that — just to be on a path to get back to 350 ppm in 2150. The really bad news is that, to achieve your front-loaded reductions from shutting down all traditional coal plants in the next two decades, you need eight of those wedges by 2030.

  • 1.5 wedges of concentrated solar thermal — ~2500 gigawatts (GW) peak. (1 wedge = 1667 GW.)
  • 1 wedge of vehicle efficiency — all cars 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
  • 1 of forestry — End all tropical deforestation.

Here are the impediments Romm lists for achieving eight wedges by 2030.

  • An individual wedge is a staggering amount of carbon-free energy
  • There isn’t political support to do even a single 20-year wedge today.
  • Doing eight such accelerated wedges simultaneously is far beyond the capability of the market on its own no matter how high a carbon tax you impose.

Apparently it has not occurred to Dr. Romm that these steep obstacles to climate progress will exist in 2030 just as they do now in 2009. Are we supposed to believe that what is politically impossible or technologically iffy now will become achievable as time goes on? Why is a 50-year window for ending tropical deforestation more realistic than a 20-year window? If we acknowledge that 20 years is not nearly enough time to get the required concentrated solar thermal, how can we be sure that we will achieve 1667 gigawatts in 50 years, the equivalent of 1667 1 GW coal-fired power plants? We would need to build a 1 GW solar thermal plant each week for the next 32 years.

Romm’s view requires a big leap of faith. Read the Kenneth Boulding quote in my essay The Secretary of Synthetic Biology. Here is part of it, and remember that Boulding said this in 1982.

There is an underlying assumption throughout … that we will solve the problem of the development of large quantities of usable energy from constantly renewable sources, say, by 2010. Suppose, however, that in the next 50, 100, or 200 years we do not solve this problem; what then? It can hardly be doubted that there will be a deeply traumatic experience for the human race, which could well result in a catastrophe for which there is no historical parallel.

If you substitute 2060 or some other far-flung date for Boulding’s 2010, you get Romm’s working assumption. It is now 2009 and we’ve made very little progress in getting those large quantities of renewable energy Boulding spoke of nearly 3 decades ago. What renewable energy we have gotten pales in comparison with the increase in fossil fuels we have burnt since 1982 and continue to burn everyday.

Politics always preserves the status quo as we see with Cap & Trade. We also consistently overrate our technological prowess. We’ve made excellent progress in nifty cell phones, but in energy we’re banging up against the laws of physics and biology, natural resource limits on clean energy, and mathematical chaos (clouds & wind). Those are the scientific and political realities, and such realities do not change over time. I believe we will continue do what works until we can’t do it anymore.

The Fossil Fuels Depletion View

Some of us think humankind will be running low on exploitable fossil fuels in the first half of the 21st century. Resource depletion can change climate change scenarios significantly. I’ll briefly present my version of that story here, my confidence buoyed by the knowledge that such a narrative can not possibly be less reasonable than positions staked out in the global warming debate. Figure 2 and Figure 3 hint at what I’m talking about.


Figure 2 — Taken from The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2 by David Archer and Victor Brovkin. Response of the CLIMBER-2 model to Moderate (1,000 Gton C) and Large (5,000 Gton C) fossil fuel inputs (called slugs). The equilibrium climate sensitivity of the model is 2.6°C. Panel a is Emissions scenarios and reference IPCC SRES scenarios (B1 and A2). Panel b is simulated atmospheric CO2 (ppmv). Panel c is simulated changes in global annual mean air surface temperature (°C).


Figure 3 — Oil production in the B1 Image and A2 ASF SRES marker scenarios. The black/gray line is a plausible oil production scenario for the period 2009-2050. If you don’t believe that oil production might follow this path, read my Are We In the Peak Oil Era? for an explanation of why non-OPEC oil has almost certainly peaked. Also bear in mind that OPEC (Persian Gulf) oil reserves never go down, i.e. produced oil and reserves growth magically coincide every year. Of course the accounting is rigged.

Taking the two graphs together, notice that 1) our excursion above 425 ppm is relatively short-lived in the B1 scenario as shown in Figure 2, panel b; and 2) the B1 Image scenario probably overestimates (by a wide margin) how much oil the world will produce between now and 2050. I’m not claiming this is the whole story, but if the Figure 3 scenario (gray line) is in the ballpark, some B1 pathway (as opposed to A2) looks plausible even if there is more recoverable natural gas & coal than a few pessimists believe. Coal energy peaks in 2040 in the B1 Image scenario, and energy from natural gas peaks in 2050.

Let’s look at a bigger picture. Here are the reasons why I think 450 ppm is a plausible upper bound on how much CO2 will end up in the atmosphere.

  1. A slowdown in the global economy will reduce emissions in the medium term (2008-2013)
  2. The world’s oil supply will be flat or declining by 2013-2015, which will further impede economic growth thereafter—this is the “peak oil” constraint. (Figure 3 includes tar sands and extra-heavy Orinoco oil.)
  3. Fuel switching (e.g. from coal to natural gas or renewables) will be ongoing but will not follow an exponential growth curve as it has done in its very early stages (e.g. for wind).
  4. If Cal Tech professor Dave Rutledge is correct or in the ballpark, recoverable coal reserves are far lower than the optimistic B1 Image scenario suggests. Rutledge’s analysis is bolstered by 2 data points: 1) coal production on a country-by-country basis (e.g. the UK) has followed a Gaussian distribution; and 2) world coal reserves are actually falling in recent evaluations. Also, the Chinese coal reserves accounting follows OPEC practices for oil (see the note in Figure 3).
  5. Various constraints (environmental, fresh water access, net energy returns/costs, etc.) prohibit the development of most unconventional hydrocarbons (e.g. most shale gas, oil shales, methane hydrates)

Is this story complete? Certainly not, no story could be. As Yogi Berra said, it is hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But some version of this story could come true.

The Reign of Error

The problem for the depletion story is not that it’s crazy. The real problem is that taking resource limits seriously necessarily lies outside the consensus view. The depletion story is politically incorrect. It is easy to see why. Joe Romm’s consensus view promises a transition without significant disruptions. James Hansen wants us to voluntarily disrupt our lives to cut emissions. The depletion story says an involuntary disruption is coming and there’s not much we can do about it outside of adjusting to a lower-energy lifestyle. Taking depletion seriously will never be a popular stance regardless of its validity.

It is fair to say that the usual climate narrative which now holds sway with policymakers does not ever consider limits on producing hydrocarbons. This is a grievous error. The consensus never questions the views of the “authorities” on resources (the WEC, the EIA, the USGS, OPEC). Ironically, but in typical human fashion, these authorities never tire of quoting each other, so we are left with a perpetual, self-reinforcing set of erroneous assumptions that are never challenged in the climate debate. Robespierre aside, this is the real Reign of Error.

The depletion story does not make impossible demands on Human Nature—no 1677 gigawatts of concentrated solar thermal, no burning of billions of trees required. The depletion story takes a realistic view of technology—no dependence on non-existent but essential breakthroughs. The depletion story takes exponential curves seriously—no unlimited growth on a finite planet. So you’ve got to wonder sometimes: who is delusional and who is not?

I do not pretend that the consensus view will change any time soon. I expect the bizarre climate debate to continue in its present form for some time to come. When Cap & Trade is not enacted, we will hear a lot of moaning and groaning. Then it will be back to business as usual in the climate world, which like the funeral business with Baby Boomers retiring, promises to be a growth industry.

I think Frank said it all: Do be do be do.


Contact the author at [email protected]

Editorial Notes: Agree with him or not, Dave Cohen consistently writes essays that do what good essays should do - make you smarter. One thing I would take issue with is Dave's view of the prospect for social change.
Achieving the 350 ppm target in the 22nd century through very aggressive actions we will pursue on “a timescale of decades” lies entirely outside the realm of what is politically (i.e. humanly) possible ... Politics always preserves the status quo
Political systems are fixed, human nature is fixed - so says the conventional wisdom. But remember, our thoughts have been formed by living in a media-saturated society dominated by conservative corporate interests. We're living at the end of an insane period of waste in which approximately half of the world's known supplies of oil have been consumed in a lifetime. "Mine eyes are not of the best," says Shakespeare's King Lear, as he realizes he has lived in a state of delusion and madness. Our eyes are not of the best. Looking over the expanse of history, we see revolutions and evolutions breaking out when least expected, despite the graybeards who had clucked that change was impossible. Consider the history of China in the 20th century. It changed from a feudal empire, to a struggling republic torn by civil war and foreign invasion (Japan), to a far left Communist regime under Mao, to the highly successful amalgam of capitalism and communism it is today. Who woulda thunk it? When the underlying physical nature of our lives change (climate, fuel supplies), economies change and - inevitably - social systems change. Rule of thumb for futurologists: change takes longer to arrive than expected. When it does come, it happens faster and in a more extreme form than almost anyone had foreseen. -BA UPDATE (May 17). EB contributor Dan Bednarz writes: I think this comment [in the last paragraph] captures where we are.

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