IPS Blog

Student Debt Report Captures National Attention

Crushing College Dreams

Indentured Student (DonkeyHotey/Flickr)

IPS’ recent report, “The One Percent at State U” examines the 25 state universities that paid out the most in executive compensation from 2005 to 2012, and found that executive pay at these schools reached an average of nearly $1 million by 2012 while student debt and low-wage faculty rose much faster than national averages.

Since release, the report has garnered significant attention in prominent national media outlets. Coverage has included articles in The New York Times, TIME, CBS Moneywatch, and Bloomberg, and was also featured in Gawker and The Nation.

“Why should students and faculty — and everyone who cares about them — pay close attention to the upward spiral of such salaries?” asked report authors Marjorie Wood and Andrew Erwin in their Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Because according to our research, these highest-paid presidents are more likely to preside over public universities where student debt is growing fastest and the number of full-time faculty is shrinking.”

The report also resulted in a New York Times editorial on May 23, 2014. Using the report’s findings, the Editorial Board concluded: “Confronted with punishing state budget cuts, the public colleges and universities that educate more than 70 percent of this country’s students have raised tuition, shrunk course offerings and hired miserably paid, part-time instructors who now form what amounts to a new underclass in the academic hierarchy. At the same time, some of those colleges and universities are spending much too freely on their top administrators.”

The report and an infographic of its findings have also become important resources to organizations working to eliminate inequality in higher education institutions, including SEIU’s Adjunct Action Campaign, the New Faculty Majority, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, Jobs with Justice, and the Student Labor Action Project.

For more information, or to read the full report, visit “The One Percent at State U.”

Emira Woods Joining ThoughtWorks, Becoming Associate Fellow at IPS

Emira Woods has guided IPS to prominence on issues connected to Africa and the Global South.

Emira Woods has guided IPS to prominence on issues connected to Africa and the Global South.

I write to share with you news about an important transition happening at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Emira Woods, Co-Director of Foreign Policy In Focus at IPS since 2003 and a treasured leader in the movement for global justice, is transitioning her role at the end of May. Emira will be taking a position as Global Client Principal for Social Impact Programs at ThoughtWorks, a technology firm committed to social and economic justice. Emira will maintain an ongoing relationship with IPS as an Associate Fellow.

A steadfast advocate for the African world, labor rights, environmental justice, land rights, food sovereignty, and peace, Emira has led IPS to international prominence during her 11 years as Co-Director of FPIF.

Emira has been instrumental in bringing forward a legal suit and a campaign against Firestone for their abuse of child labor and the environment in Liberia. She effectively lobbied the U.S. Department of Labor for Liberia’s rubber sector to be added to the list of countries with materials produced by child labor, and was also pivotal to the campaign to cancel over $4 billion of odious debt after Liberia’s 26-year war.

Emira led the campaign against the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and succeeded in reducing Congressional appropriations and increasing oversight. She testified as an expert witness for Congressional hearings on global debt and development as well as peace and security in Africa. She also briefed Congress’ Lantos Human Rights Commission on Zimbabwe and Cote D’Ivoire. She organized Congressional briefings on child labor, conflict diamonds, conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, human rights in Zimbabwe, private military contractors, and other issues. Emira also served as technical adviser to the African Union’s Diaspora Summit and provided strategic technical advice to the governments of Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on “vulture funds” and broader issues of debt cancellation.

Serving as an accomplished pubic scholar, Emira has written book chapters, op-eds, and magazine articles on a range of issues from debt, trade and development to U.S. military policy. She has been a regular commentator on PBS’s NewsHour, CNN’s Your World Today, BBC’s The World Today (Weekend), National Public Radio, Al Jazeera and Voice of America. She has hosted a WashingtonPost.com online chat and published pieces in BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine, NAACP’s Crisis magazine as well as the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, New York Newsday, the Nation, the Baltimore Sun, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, among many others. She was listed in Essence magazine’s “Top 40 Influential People Under 40.”

Emira served as visiting lecturer at American University School of International Service, Trinity College Economics Department, and Howard University’s African Studies Department. She also frequently represented IPS as a speaker at conferences and events.

During her tenure, Emira has provided strong, principled leadership at the Institute and in the broader progressive community. She has convened and coordinated numerous advocacy coalitions on Africa and other issues. One of her many strengths has always been “speaking truth to power,” which she has done passionately from the White House and U.S. Congress to Southern governments and intergovernmental agencies — and done it all with a smile.

We are pleased to continue Emira’s affiliation with the Institute, and we look forward to working with her in her new capacity at ThoughtWorks.

The Accessibility of Health Coverage

Handicap Accessibility SignMy friend Brian — who uses a mobility device to move around — can today gain access to more stores than a mobility-impaired person could two decades ago. Thanks to social movements and federal policy changes, many public locations are now required to make their entrances more accessible to those with disabilities.

The thing is though, while Brian now has an easier time getting into the stores themselves, he can’t always afford the things that he needs once he gets inside.

When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, it was certainly a step forward in ending discrimination against people with disabilities. Yet, it was not enough to combat the disproportionate poverty and joblessness that people with disabilities experience: In 2011, the poverty rate of working-age people with disabilities — 10.5 percent of the U.S. population — was over twice that of those without disabilities. Two-thirds of that 10.5 percent were also unemployed.

Social welfare programs like Medicaid are meant to help address and alleviate this sort of discrimination — approximately 70 percent of Medicaid funding has been used for services and supports related to disability since the program’s inception. This funding is particularly important, since many people with disabilities face additional costs that others do not, such as expensive monthly medication, long-term services and care, or special equipment.

However, an increasing number of people in poverty who have disabilities will not receive care from social services because their state will not accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the ACA’s new definitions will be qualifying more people for Medicaid, there will be constraints on who actually receives those benefits if its funding is not expanded.

Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the country, is among those that have not accepted Medicaid expansion. Because Governor Phil Bryant turned down approximately $426 million in federal Medicaid expansion funds, nearly 300,000 adults in the state will not get healthcare because they do not qualify for Medicaid under the state’s current rules and do not make enough to afford private insurance.

My friend Brian, who struggled to find an affordable health insurance plan, was lucky to live in Illinois — now that he qualifies for Medicaid thanks to the expansion that Governor Pat Quinn has accepted, he can now actually afford the goods he needs. If only more states accepted Medicaid expansion, others like Brian could have access to a more equitable standard of living.

Brianna Montague is an intern for the Break the Chain Campaign.

Help Wanted: Slow and Expensive Accountant

Photo from Flickr/Paul Townsend

Photo from Flickr/Paul Townsend

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a long-time opponent of CEO-worker pay ratio disclosure, has just gone on record estimating that making this ratio calculation will force American businesses to expend a total of $710.9 million per year. For large companies, the Chamber reports, calculating a CEO-worker pay ratio will take an average of 1,825 number-crunching hours at an average cost of $311,800.

Unfortunately, the Chamber’s projections have elicited widespread ridicule from independent observers. Given this ridicule, it is imperative that corporations like ours demonstrate that calculating a CEO-worker pay ratio will take the maximum possible amount of time and cost.

Successful candidates for our new accounting position must have a track record of delivering slow and expensive work in difficult circumstances. In this case, these circumstances include:

  • Limited scope: The accountant responsible for calculating our CEO-median worker pay ratio does not have to bother calculating our CEO pay, since all publicly held corporations already must report their executive compensation. This work only involves calculating median worker pay.
  • Flexible methodology: Under the proposed Securities and Exchange rule prepared to enforce the new disclosure mandate, companies like ours need only base their median worker pay figure on a sampling of our workforce.


  • Advanced degree in Accounting/Finance.
  • The ability to produce inaccurate analyses in a less than timely manner.
  • Self-starters and individuals with excellent multi-tasking skills need not apply.

Salary and Benefits:
Salary is flexible. To exceed the Chamber of Commerce average, we’ll need to spend more than $311,800 to calculate this number, the equivalent of at least $650 an hour for six months of work. Benefits include generous vacation/unexplained leave time and nap room.

5 Concrete Steps the US Can Take to End the Syria Crisis

This article originally appeared in The Nation.

(Reuters/Nour Fourat)

(Reuters/Nour Fourat)

The civil war in Syria grinds on, and conditions for Syrian civilians—those inside its borders as well as the millions forced to flee to neighboring countries—continue to deteriorate. As global and regional powers not only fail to help end the war but actively engage in arming and funding all sides in the fighting, we in civil society must sharpen our demands for a different position from that of our governments.

The crisis began with a popular call for an end to repression and a nonviolent movement demanding accountability from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the release of political prisoners and detainees. Economic and environmental traumas, including a crippling drought and the slashing of key government subsidies, underpinned the crisis. The government responded with a promise of reform—which went unfulfilled—accompanied by terrible violence. Many Syrian activists and defecting soldiers took up weapons in response, and as the fighting spread, Islamists—many of them non-Syrian extremists—joined the anti-government battle. Three years on, the civil war has broadened into several overlapping but distinct wars, national, regional, sectarian and international.

We must stand with those struggling for equality, dignity and human rights for all Syrians, and on the principle that there is no military solution to the conflict. Further military action will increase the violence and instability, not only inside Syria but within the region and even globally—and will not improve the lives of Syria’s beleaguered civilians.

Read the original article in full on The Nation’s website.

The Moment for Climate Justice

A wind farm outside Cape Town, South Africa. A new African energy initiative in the U.S. Congress promotes an appropriate mix of power solutions in Africa, but it leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels. (warrenski/Flickr)

A wind farm outside Cape Town, South Africa. A new African energy initiative in the U.S. Congress promotes an appropriate mix of power solutions in Africa, but it leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels. (warrenski/Flickr)

This week, the House will vote on the Electrify Africa Act. This bill directs the president to draw up a multi-year strategy to strengthen the ability of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to “develop an appropriate mix of power solutions” to provide electricity, fight poverty, and “drive economic growth.”

Because of strong pressure from climate justice advocates, some positives—such as integrated resource planning and decentralized renewable energy—are named as a part of that mix. But because it still leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels, the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect people or their environment.

And the debate over Electrify Africa continues as the Senate drafts a companion bill.

Powering Fossil Fuels

Behind both pieces of legislation is a White House initiative announced last summer called “Power Africa.” It frames President Barack Obama’s approach to energy investment on the continent, which has been condemned by environmental justice groups. It’s an “all of the above” energy strategy that favors the fossil fuel companies that are destroying the planet and corrupting Washington.

Proponents of Electrify and Power Africa have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent, which has many African activists wary of a resource grab. Executives from companies like General Electric—which according to Forbes has recently pivoted its attention to the continent—have appeared on the podium with President Obama to applaud the policy.

At a March Senate hearing on Power Africa, Del Renigar, Senior Counsel for Global Government Affairs and Policy at GE, even noted that one of the company’s “most significant efforts to date has been focused on the privatization of the Nigerian power sector.” He lauded the potential of Power Africa to help “reduce the obstacles” to negotiating deals for power projects. And some backers of dirty energy are attempting to use the initiative to weaken the existing environmental safeguard policies of national development finance institutions such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

The backers of keeping dirty energy in Power Africa like to portray their opponents as privileged elites who want to keep Africans “in the dark” by denying them electricity and industrialization, while keeping their own lights on.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The real concern here is that U.S. taxpayers will wind up supporting African energy development that caters to corporate industrial zones and natural resource exporters, leaving the majority of Africans in rural and neglected urban areas still without access to power and exposed to dangerous pollution.

An OPIC proposal to finance the Azura Edo gas plant in Nigeria is a recent case in point. Areview of project documents and site visits by Environmental Rights Action Nigeria found that the plant will not provide any new energy access, even to villages immediately adjacent to the project, nor will families displaced by the project receive adequate resettlement compensation. Project developers did not consider any renewable energy options. Instead, the plant will use open-cycle gas turbines supplied by GE—a technology more polluting and less energy efficient than closed-cycle turbines. Yet this project is considered part of Power Africa.

A Global Climate Justice Movement

In Africa, the United States, and around the world, there is a growing outcry against the ravages of coal and other fossil fuel pollution, which sickens and kills—with the burden falling hardest on the poor, elderly, and children.

A climate justice movement with a clear vision for a clean, equitable energy future is making itself heard. The drivers of this movement are people living on the front line of dirty energy in poorer countries and in low-income neighborhoods in wealthier nations like the United States. They understand firsthand the effects of dirty energy pollution and climate chaos, and are champions of innovative forms of clean rural and urban electrification—not only in the Global South, but just as urgently in the heavily polluting Global North. In fact, an international campaign to demand climate justice, representing over 100 groups in developing and developed countries, has called for efforts to ensure “people’s access to clean, safe, and renewable energy sources.”

In Africa, climate justice activists are speaking eloquently about a new economy for Africans and everyone else that leapfrogs fossil fuels and delivers electricity to hundreds of millions of people through clean energy and energy efficiency.

Augustine Njamnshi, Policy Coordinator of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance in Cameroon, asserts that “the transition must be just as much as it must be swift. There must be clear measures to ensure ‘climate jobs’ are created—jobs and livelihoods that are necessary for the shift to low carbon, climate resilient, and equitable development pathways.” Innovation abounds in these areas, but policy incentives still tend to favor fossil fuels over clean energy.

Another dynamic group, Earthlife Africa, is opposing coal-fired plants in South Africa, which they argue will create far more environmental problems than energy benefits. Like most environmental justice groups, Earthlife couples that opposition with bold proposals for an alternative energy future. They are promoting studies about the job benefits of a renewable energy strategy. And they argue that, with the right policies, 50 percent of all South African electricity could come from renewable sources by 2050.

African climate justice groups have documented how large-scale energy projects tend to serve big corporations and the wealthy. According to the South Africa-based NGO Groundwork, residents pay up to seven times more for their electricity in that country than major corporations do. Meanwhile, pollution from the country’s dirty energy system results in massive health costs to the state.

The climate justice movement also points out that those most responsible for the problem should be the ones to help pay for real solutions. And that means divesting from dirty-energy corporations and investing in renewable energy systems that put people first. Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop, recently wrote that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporationsfinancing the injustice of climate change.”

The U.S. Congress and the White House would both do well to heed his call and allocate resources to contribute to the energy revolution that Africa and the United States so desperately need. It’s not a fossil fuel revolution, but instead one rooted in clean alternatives that come from the remarkable innovations of people working together.

Fossil Fuels: The Tide is Turning



On the same day that the federal government released its National Climate Assessment which summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, Stanford University trustees voted to divest their $18.7 billion endowment of coal stocks, the largest in a growing group of funds to partially divest from fossil fuels.

The message in the National Climate Assessment was clear: Climate change is upon us and it has already dramatically transformed our national landscape along with our weather. The time for delay on action is over.

The message from Stanford students was equally clear: It’s time for universities to act and divest from all fossil fuels. “Fossil Free Stanford, along with over 400 student campaigns across the country, maintains the goal of divesting from all fossil fuels,” the students wrote in their online statement. “Stanford’s coal divestment alone will not be enough turn the tide on climate change. We call on university administrators across the nation to follow Stanford’s lead and begin the process of divestment.”

Stanford students have worked for several years to build student, faculty and trustee support for an effort to divest their endowment of all fossil fuels. While Stanford has taken the first step in purging its investments of coal stocks, Deborah DeCotis, the Stanford trustee who chairs the investment responsibility committee, conceded that this was not the only step the university was prepared to take: “This is not the ending point. It’s a process. We’re a research institute, and as the technology develops to make other forms of alternative energy sources available, we will continue to review and make decisions about things we should not be invested in. Don’t interpret this as a pass on other things.”

The determination of Stanford students to divest their university from fossil fuels echoes some work several of us at the Institute for Policy Studies launched together with other groups in 1997, when we began to urge the World Bank to divest from all fossil fuels.

Last year, the World Bank issued its own report on climate change, “Turn Down the Heat,” which warned that the planet is on track for a four-degree Celsius temperature rise by 2100. Along with many scientists, the Bank fears that such an increase would be incompatible with civilization as we know it. At the very least, rapid global warming — and the storms, droughts and other extreme weather it would unleash — would render the bank’s mission of alleviating poverty and fostering sustainable development impossible.

It is surprising it took them this long to come to this conclusion. It was in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, when the scientific community warned that a climate crisis was imminent, that the World Bank was charged with the task of marshaling the funds to address the emergency. But instead, over the next two decades, the Bank invested roughly $48.8 billion — not in clean energy, but in dirty fossil fuel projects in the developing world. Over the same time period, the Global Environmental Facility, housed at the Bank, invested only $3.5 billion in climate change mitigation projects.

In 2005, our researchers calculated that from 1992 to 2004, the World Bank had financed fossil fuel projects around the world that would release the equivalent of almost two years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetimes. Our research found that virtually none of this financing would meet the energy needs of the planet’s poorest two billion people, nearly all of whom lived without access to electricity. Instead, the projects would power export-oriented heavy industry and urban areas — and bolster the bank accounts of wealthy corporations like Exxon and Halliburton.

Pressured to conduct its own review, the Bank issued a 2004 report that showed that the global poor were actually harmed by the Bank’s fossil fuel investments. The 2004 report further urged the Bank to stop financing coal immediately, to get out of oil by 2008, and to rapidly ramp up its investments in renewable energy sources. The Bank’s Board of Directors voted to ignore these recommendations, with the exception of setting modest targets for renewable energy lending.

Fast forward to June 2013, when President Obama made a major announcement on climate action in Georgetown, stating that public financing of coal — such as financing via agencies like the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank) — should end.

We were the first organization, together with Friends of the Earth, to document the significant climate impacts of the Ex-Im Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s fossil fuel investments in 1998. That research resulted in a lawsuit filed by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the City of Boulder challenging both of those public financial institutions with violations under the National Environmental Protection Act, for not calculating the cumulative emissions of their projects on global climate. Obama’s statement took that research and legal action one step further and called for an end to almost all U.S. government funding of coal overseas. The White House statement said:

“…The President calls for an end to U.S. government support for public financing of new coal plants overseas, except for (a) the most efficient coal technology available in the world’s poorest countries in cases where no other economically feasible alternative exists, or (b) facilities deploying carbon capture and sequestration technologies. As part of this new commitment, we will work actively to secure the agreement of other countries and the multilateral development banks to adopt similar policies as soon as possible.”

Shortly after Obama made this statement, other international financial institutions followed suit: First the World Bank, then the Ex-Im Bank rejected a coal burner in Vietnam; the European Investment Bank pledged to get out of most forms of coal; and then the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development followed along with the Nordic countries and the United Kingdom.

The recognition by all of these banks, and now by some university trustees, is abundantly clear: Coal is part of a bygone era. Coal kills, and — in an era of rapidly warming temperatures — it is time to seek other energy alternatives. But divesting from coal is not enough: These banks and universities must divest from all fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the tide is turning. And hopefully it will turn more rapidly than our own tides will rise.

Food, Livelihoods, and Bridging Race and Class Divides

Egleston Farmers Market

Egleston Farmers Market (Photo: Mike Steinhoff/Flickr)

The Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET) is a Transition Initiative in the diverse urban neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in Boston, Massachusetts. Our program is dedicated to strengthening community resilience and transitioning to a new economy, and from our inception, we’ve emphasized economic or “pocketbook” issues relevant to the average person. One of the first potlucks we held in the community, “Rising Costs of Food and Fuel – And What We Can Do About It,” was a learning moment for many when folks began to connect issues like climate change with the rising costs they were experiencing. People were inspired to build community resilience in the face of these global trends. This gathering, along with many others, catalyzed work to increase access to fresh healthy food in Jamaica Plain, create new kinds of livelihoods, and bridge historical race and class divides.

Food Web

We imagine that a huge sector of the new economy will be the production of local, organic, healthy food through a low-carbon food system. This system will require lots of skilled work and workers, and we’re helping people reskill as well as increasing access to local food and creating jobs through the Egleston Farmers Market, Boston Food Forest, JP Yard Sharing, Egleston Community Orchard, and Festival Gardens. Our food work has also helped bridge some of JP’s historic divides. For example, the Plaza Meat Market in Egleston Square, a Dominican-owned and operated corner store rooted in the neighborhood’s immigrant Dominican community, has expanded its clientele by carrying locally-sourced cuts of meat, as well as local eggs, milk and butter. JP NET activists put its owners in touch with local suppliers and helped crowd-source new customers. In another example, through JP NET’s Egleston Community Orchard neighbors have come together to reclaim a city lot that had been vacant and trash-strewn for the past 30 years. The lot now produces free food for all in the diverse neighborhood – and includes apple trees, blueberries, raspberries, red currants and raised beds. The orchard strengthened relationships among 100+ neighbors, supporting peace and helping heal community grief after a shooting on the street. As we’ve grown, our food work has grown too. We’ve since established JP’s first winter farmers market, which has since become a year-round market. The market caters to JP’s immigrant communities and is the only one in JP to accept “food stamps” and is working with a local hospital and health centers to introduce coupons to make the produce even more affordable to low-income residents not accustomed to shopping locally. And now the Boston Food Forest is breaking ground on its flagship permaculture education site, showing how to do companion planting from the ground to the canopy to maximize food production and create lovely public space. Food Forest activists are in talks with city officials about other land parcels that could be linked into a network of edible forest gardens and orchards with the hope of weaving a scattered-site Boston Food Forest throughout the city that is cared for by local neighbors.

Sustainable Livelihoods

In the new economy, how will we spend our time? How will we provide for our needs and ensure that everyone gets to live well? We envision a world where livelihoods are safe, support dignified lives, and the work is also meaningful and purposeful. JP NET focuses on quality jobs and new forms of livelihoods that are place-based, sustainable, and reduce race and class inequality. We’re working with several existing “livelihood businesses” “(i.e., businesses that support their owners, but are not poised to grow forever) to help them transition and flourish. For example, J&P Cleaners is an existing dry cleaner owned by first generation immigrants from Central America. Like all dry-cleaners, they use perchloroethylene, a highly toxic and known carcinogen, in their dry cleaning process. With support from the Commonwealth’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI), we are assisting J&P to relocate, transition to becoming Boston’s first exclusively “wet cleaner,” and expand their market. In addition to helping existing businesses transition to a cancer-free new economy, our New Economy Enterprise Hub is incubating new enterprises with an aggressive import substitution strategy, taking advantage of the procurement needs of anchor institutions. For example, local hospitals and nursing homes are major purchases of food, cleaning services and other supplies. We are working to source more of their supply chain from local businesses and providers. We are simultaneously exploring partnerships with local banks to create a “linked deposit program” to leverage locally-focused loans and provide bridge capital to emerging businesses. Through conversations with community members over the years, we know there is a felt need to create a mechanism for “non-accredited investors” (i.e., non-wealthy investors) to move their money to community investments and strengthen social enterprise. Economic resilience is multivalent, and JP is full of people with great ideas for building it. JP NET supports and “catalyzes” lots of this work. Our Community Leaders Fellowship gives young entrepreneurs experience leading projects that build social and community capital, for example:

  • Time Banking – We’re working with the local Time Trade Circle (a 900 member Time Bank) to strengthen alternative systems of exchange to prepare for further economic downturn.
  • Emergency Prep – We’re strengthening neighborhood resilience and networks of mutual aid by bringing people together, block-by-block, to better prepare all of us for short- and longer-term emergencies.
  • Local Business – We’re collaborating with local business owners to create a network of locally owned and independent businesses.
  • Boylston Street Public Art Corridor – We are coordinating a mural contest, working with a local school to paint a new fence, and talking with neighbors about a place-making “intersection repair” to add public art to the Boylston Street corridor leading from the train station up the local main street.

Launched in 2010 as a project of the Institute for Policy Studies which has provided support for a part-time coordinator and in 2013 helped us raise the resources to hire a full-time community organizer, JP NET now involves over 2,000 neighbors and closely collaborates with local businesses, main street districts, community development corporations, youth-based organizations, environmental and social justice non-profits, city and state agencies, and elected officials. In 2012, JP NET co-founded a growing regional network of community resilience and transition groups collaborating across New England. In addition to multilingual educational forums, networking events, and potlucks regularly convening 60 to 150 people throughout the year, we also host an annual “State of the Neighborhood” with 320+ neighbors and key elected officials. JP NET is dedicated to strengthening community resilience, with equity and sustainability as our guiding values. If we are to have a new economy that works for everyone in harmony with the planet then we believe everyone has a part to play in the transition.

Electrifying Africa – But at What Cost to Africans?

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

A liquefied natural gas carrier near Sea Point, South Africa. (Derek Keats/ Flickr)

As families in the United States steel themselves for the possibility of another sweltering summer with rolling blackouts triggered by high demand for air conditioning, it’s a good time to remember that many families throughout Africa work and live in buildings with no electricity. In areas that do have the utility, frequent power outages are a constant reminder of the need for dependable access to electricity.

In June 2013, U.S. policymakers announced two initiatives aimed at increasing electricity production in Africa. President Obama launched Power Africa, an initiative that makes a $7 billion U.S. commitment to the energy sector in six African countries. And Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced the Electrify Africa Act — which is expected to pass in the House mid-week by unanimous consent — which sets a goal of providing access to electricity for at least 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Both initiatives place increasing investment by U.S. companies in Africa at their center.

Africa is home to almost 600 million people without electricity, all of whom struggle to meet their basic needs as a result. Access to power translates into refrigerating vaccines, keeping food from spoiling, studying after dark — the kinds of activities that can dramatically improve basic health, education, and economic opportunity.

While rhetoric around the two U.S. initiatives is about reducing poverty and improving Africans’ quality of life, the approaches being outlined seem likely to lead to large, climate-polluting, centralized power projects — not the decentralized, renewable energy systems that are the most efficient and cleanest means of reaching Africa’s poorest families.

Decentralized, renewable energy sources are best for the rural poor.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that universal energy access can be achieved by 2030 with significantly stepped-up investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, it would require an extra $19 billion a year, and money pledged by the U.S. government could be a strong down payment.

The IEA also notes that the majority of the additional investment needs to go to small-scale mini-grid and off-grid solutions — which are more efficient at delivering electricity to people in rural areas, where 84 percent of the energy-poor live — and not to centralized power plants. Small-scale systems produce energy at the household and community level from renewable sources, including micro-hydro, solar, wind, and biogas.

So an energy access win for the poor is also a win for the environment. By developing clean energy instead of burning fossil fuels, decentralized renewable systems help curb greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change. That’s important because if left unfettered, climate change is predicted to wreak havoc across Africa.

Africa will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

According to the World Bank, climate change is likely to undermine the development gains made in recent decades, pushing millions of people back into poverty. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the leading global scientific body on climate change — notes, warming on the African continent could be some of the developing world’s most severe, reaching one-and-a-half times the global average.

Droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change are expected to significantly compromise agricultural production and access to food in Africa. Yields from rain-fed agriculture could drop by 50 percent in some countries by 2020, and crop revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100. Food insecurity and exacerbated malnutrition in turn will compromise human health.

Sea level rise is anticipated to threaten the 320 coastal cities and 56 million people living in low-lying coastal zones around the continent. And the cost to African nations of adapting to a warmer world could amount to between 5 and 10 percent of their gross domestic product.

“All of the above” means dirty and clean power.

While Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act do include language about developing “an appropriate mix of power solutions, including renewable energy,” proponents of these policies have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent.

Natural gas, in particular, is front and center. While gas is sometimes talked about as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, it can be even more polluting than dirty coal when methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide) is released during its production.

In other words, gas is no “bridge fuel” between energy poverty and the clean power that every person deserves. Once Africans are locked into natural gas infrastructure, they’re locked into 40 years of increasing emissions—and four more decades of global warming’s impacts.

Continued fossil fuel expansion threatens U.S. climate policy.

The push for natural gas is so forceful that one of the U.S. government’s strongest climate policies to date — the cap on greenhouse gas emissions at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) — has come under fire.

OPIC’s cap — an outcome of a 2009 legal settlement with environmental groups over the agency’s practice of lending to large, destructive oil and gas projects — forces a 30 percent greenhouse gas reduction across its portfolio over 10 years and a 50 percent reduction over 15 years.

The results have been notable. By 2011, the agency’s renewable energy finance had risen to nearly $1 billion, about a third of its total commitments that year. By contrast, the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) — OPIC’s sister organization — steadily increased investment in dirty energy, with fossil fuel funding doubling between 2011 and 2012.

Unfortunately, some development groups say that to achieve energy access for Africa, OPIC’s hard-won greenhouse gas cap has to be weakened. For instance, a lobbying document [PDF] from the ONE campaign highlights how the Electrify Africa Act “unlocks OPIC’s investment potential by requiring OPIC to revise its existing policy on the carbon emissions of its investments to permit significant investment in the electricity sector of the poorest and lowest pollution-emitting countries.”

Ironically, the impacts of doing away with this policy — more greenhouse gas emissions and fewer renewable projects focused on access — would only come back to hit communities in Africa even harder as climate change intensifies.

Who stands to gain by busting the cap?

If large, centralized fossil fuel production won’t particularly help poor Africans access energy — and would exacerbate climate change, which in turn threatens development on the continent — why would anyone want to bust the greenhouse gas cap at OPIC?

For one possible explanation, look no further than the oil and gas fields recently found off the coast of Africa. Big reserves mean big money, and the business of extracting and processing new oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa will be lucrative.

It’s OPIC’s job to help U.S. companies gain a foothold in emerging markets like these by providing finance. And by doing away with lending restrictions on climate polluting projects, OPIC is free to grease the wheels for mega-deals between U.S. fossil fuel companies and African interests.

One of those companies appears to be General Electric, which recently signed a tentative deal with Ghana to build a power plant likely to be fueled with natural gas from the Jubilee offshore field. (Perhaps not uncoincidentally, G.E.’s CEO traveled with Obama on his Africa trade mission.) According to Forbes, G.E. has recently pivoted its attention to Africa and is marketing power generation products like natural gas engines to African companies. Not surprising, then, that Ex-Im chairman Fred Hochberg called Power Africa a “$7B plan to power up General Electric” on Twitter.

Helping to bring electricity into the homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces of tens of millions of people living on the African continent is the right thing to do. The United States can support energy access through public finance — raised from innovative sources like a financial transaction tax and by ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies — and by directing the $7 billion Obama promised to decentralized, renewable energy systems. That would ensure that we’re spending our money to benefit African families, not U.S. energy companies.

Africans deserve to live full, dignified, productive lives free from dirty energy and safe from the climate disaster it promises. U.S. policymakers and taxpayers can power Africa best by protecting the planet and securing future generations.

This post has been updated from its original version posted on September 16, 2013.

A Roadmap for Survival

Originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Survival requires a rapid decarbonization of energy and a massive rollback in fossil fuels. (Samira/Flickr)

Survival requires a rapid decarbonization of energy and a massive rollback in fossil fuels. (Samira/Flickr)

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and our addiction to fossil fuels is to blame.

That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of an authoritative new UN report published on April 13th. Emissions have not only continued to increase, but have done so more rapidly in the last 10 years. While the growing reliance on coal for global energy supplies is chiefly to blame for the latest increase, the broader picture is that “economic growth has outpaced emissions reductions.”

The new report, entitled Mitigation of Climate Change, is the third in a series of blockbuster surveys from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body tasked with reviewing the work of thousands of scientists and experts to establish the “current state of knowledge” on climate change and its impacts. The first report—The Physical Science Basis—once again established with overwhelming certainty that the climate is changing and greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are primarily responsible. The second report—Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability—warned that climate change would have a catastrophic impact on food supplies, hitting the world’s poorest people the hardest. It also documented the increased risks posed by floods, droughts, and damaged ecosystems as a result of climate change. The mitigation report models scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A final synthesis of all three elements will be released in October.

The IPCC is not tasked with recommending what should happen next, but it maps out the terrain upon which the battles over what should be done are fought. A full “underlying” report, running to a thousand pages, is prefaced with a 30-page “policymakers’ summary” written in often impenetrable bureaucratic jargon. That’s a result of how the IPCC works: hundreds of authors (272 on the mitigation report alone) review thousands of scientific papers to produce the underlying report, and then representatives of the 195 governments that participate in the IPCC are asked to approve the summary report line by line.

It’s a wonder that anything manages to emerge from this labyrinthine operation, and it’s to the credit of the many authors that they have managed to clearly chart some of the contours of the challenge we face in addressing climate change. The results are clearest in the case of fossil fuels, with the IPCC mitigation report making perfectly clear that we cannot continue to rely on coal, oil, and (over the long term, at least) gas and expect to avert dangerous climate change.

Almost half of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2010 came from the energy supply sector, with a greater reliance on coal chiefly to blame. Continuing on this course would lead to a rise of up to 5°C (compared to pre-industrial levels) by the end of the century, with disastrous consequences. Averting this catastrophe requires a rapid “decarbonization” of electricity generation and a reduction in subsidies for fossil fuels, alongside measures to soften the impacts of these changes on poor and vulnerable populations. The report also provides succor to proponents of fossil fuel divestment, noting that “mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters.”

At its best, the IPCC report can help us to refocus attention on the practical measures that can make a real difference in addressing climate change. In an insightful section on urbanization and buildings, for example, the report lays out the important role that can be played by tougher codes on the construction of new buildings, regulations to retrofit existing ones, the importance of expanding public transport and encouraging “modal shifts” away from cars and planes, and city planning that avoids urban sprawl.

The IPCC’s overview is more problematic on issues that are more politically contentious, however—notably on how and when to replace fossil fuels. Natural gas power generation is referred to as a potential “bridge technology,” a conclusion that reflects linear thinking about how emissions might decline, but ignores more sophisticated modeling (from MIT, among other institutions) showing how investments in gas displace renewable energy and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Elsewhere in the report, in fact, there is a clear warning that “infrastructure developments and long-lived products that lock societies into GHG-intensive emissions pathways may be difficult or very costly to change.” That must surely include new gas power plants, although the compromises reached in constructing the IPCC summary don’t give space for further dialogue on the matter.

The IPCC’s take on other energy generation options is similarly hedged. The report notes that renewable energy technologies “have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale.” But nuclear power and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) from fossil fuel plants are presented as having potential, albeit with greater caution about their respective safety, storage, waste issues, and costs. That is not so much a neutral expert view on the future of energy generation as it is a reflection of the influence of large private and state-owned utilities in shaping the agenda on these issues. Much of the research the IPCC reviews, after all, is funded by large energy utilities or government research councils that reflect their agenda, and its findings are ultimately reviewed by governments that own (or are heavily lobbied by) the large fossil fuel and nuclear companies. The IPCC reflects the balance of power in struggles over energy. But the battle for clean, renewable energy is happening elsewhere.

The IPCC summary report is also selective in how it treats the global distribution of emissions. Glen Peters, a University of Oslo academic who studies how emissions relate to consumption patterns, took to Twitter to note that “All material on consumption-based emissions and embodied (outsourced) emissions [were] removed” from the summary.

Significant compromises can be seen where international negotiating positions are at stake. With a new global climate treaty expected in 2015, the working group on mitigation was fraught with arguments on how to frame the responsibility for taking global action. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under the auspices of which a new global climate treaty will be devised, is clear that cumulative greenhouse gas emissions are primarily the responsibility of industrialized countries. That same group of countries (which includes the United States, the EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, and a handful of others) has the greatest capacity to act to reduce their own emissions, and should also provide the transfers of finance and technology needed to help the rest of the world reduce its emissions.

The IPCC summary report is broadly in keeping with the UNFCCC framework. It reaffirms the importance of “sustainable development and equity” as the basis for climate policy assessments. The former aspect is essential for developing countries, which argue that climate action should not compromise efforts to reduce poverty or improve healthcare, education, and other services. In this regard, the IPCC notes that “most mitigation has considerable and diverse co-benefits”: reducing emissions can cut air pollution, for example, while renewables can enhance energy security. The controversies are greater on how “equity” is defined, but here the IPCC report clearly references “past and future” contributions, which gives lie to the notion often promoted by U.S. policymakers that only current and future comparisons with competitors like China should be taken into account.

But matters get more controversial in relation to the underlying report and an accompanying “technical summary,” which is peppered with references to “high income countries,” “upper middle-income countries,” “lower middle-income countries,” and “low income countries”—a differentiation that conflicts with how the UNFCCC divides the world. Those divisions, translated into the arena of climate diplomacy, are viewed as an attempt to divide up developing countries in a way that undermines the UNFCCC and opens up key issues of responsibility (and financial or technology transfers) for renegotiation. This resulted in a series of formal objections to the report from, among others, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, India, the Maldives, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Egypt.

More generally, the IPCC’s scenarios for how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions betray a strong Western bias in the report. After all, 70 percent of its authors are from the developed world, and it relies heavily on literature published in developed countries. Negotiations are underway on how to reform the IPCC to better reflect the breadth of global knowledge, but unless academic agendas become less parochial—which starts with research funding at the national level, potentially provided by financial transfers facilitated by an international climate agreement—progress on this aspect is unlikely to happen soon.

Until that time, the IPCC will remain far from perfect. The latest report on mitigation is a clear illustration, offering a partial, compromised, and politically biased map of the potential solutions to climate change. But it remains the most comprehensive map that’s available to us—one that, for all its flaws, codifies the fundamental importance of cutting our addiction to fossil fuels if we’re to have any chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe.

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