Update on my climate activism

The month of my last blog post, in January of 2012, I helped start 350 Madison, the local group of the international climate change organization 350.org.  All of my energies have been directed toward that so I haven't had a chance to blog here very much!  To see what our group has been up to in the last year and a half, check out our website at 350madison.org.

One of my last blog posts here was about the Keystone XL pipeline - I declared it essentially dead, but unfortunately this is a zombie pipeline that just won't die!  While we've been effective at delaying what was once called a "slam dunk" project, there are powerful forces at play in the Canadian government and US fossil fuel industry.  An honest assessment of the risks of KXL, which has to include its effect on climate change, has not been completed.  Instead, the US State Department contracted the environmental assessment out to a company that is a member of the American Petroleum Institute and works with TransCanada (the pipeline company that wants to build KXL).  Not exactly an impartial judge for this project's effects.

So, because the political process is being altered by the power of industry, we're fighting back with people power.  In February 2013, I rode a bus overnight with 150 fellow Wisconsinites to Washington, D.C. for the Forward on Climate Rally - the largest climate rally in US history with over 40,000 people in attendance.  We called on President Obama to lead on climate change, starting with the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline permit application.  Here I am in front of the White House:


Op-Ed on Keystone XL and America's energy future

I submitted this op-ed to the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper today:

President Obama made the right decision in rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline application.  This is a terrible project and for every argument made for the pipeline, a better alternative exists.  

For example, let’s talk about jobs.  The only independent jobs study, by Cornell University, found that the pipeline would create from 2,500 to 4,650 temporary jobs and several hundred permanent jobs.  TransCanada, the oil company behind the pipeline, has been downright deceptive in its job projections in trying to get the project approved.  Many other opportunities in the energy sector could create thousands of long-term, well-paying positions that would lead us to a clean energy economy.  Obama has already enacted two such policies - mercury emissions rules and Energy Department loan guarantees for wind and solar projects - that will create 113,000 jobs.

Do we really want to continue investing in infrastructure that keeps us locked in to a fuel source that is finite, extremely polluting, and comes with continually rising prices through the basic forces of supply and demand?  In contrast, by investing in renewable, infinite energy sources - such as wind and solar - we are transitioning our economy to energy independence and returning our world to a stable climate.

Our energy security would not improve by building this pipeline.  No one involved in this project is claiming the US would get a significant percentage of oil from the tar sands just because it would be piped through our country.  Once pumped from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, the tar sands would be refined and sold to the highest bidder just like any global commodity.  As long as we remain addicted to fossil fuels, we will still need to get a large percentage of our oil from volatile regions like the Middle East - and we will still be susceptible to threats of cutting off our oil supply by the likes of Iran’s Ahmadinejad, as he has been threatening to do in the last few weeks.

We can facilitate the transition to a clean energy economy by placing a price on carbon.  Through the carbon fee and dividend model, as proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Save Our Climate Act (H.R. 3242), fossil fuel companies are taxed for each ton of carbon dioxide their fuel will generate and that money is then returned to American citizens in the form of a monthly check.  This will eventually make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thereby creating clear and predictable pricing signals for the business and investment sectors.  This market-based approach encourages robust investment in clean energy businesses and technologies, creating millions of jobs.  If you want Wisconsin, and our nation, to move forward, call your representatives and tell them that you support a price on carbon.  And Obama needs to hear from us that we don’t want the Keystone XL built along any route, at any time.  We want investment in the future, not the past.


Keystone XL pipeline is essentially dead!!!

This.  Is.  Huge.  What we have just witnessed is true democracy at work.  As of several months ago, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was all but certain to be approved.  The company who's behind the project, TransCanada, was even in the process of moving pipeline pieces to the proposed route as of last week.

Then, today, Barack Obama announced that the proposal needed to go back to the State Department for a thorough re-assessment of the impacts of the pipeline.  This will delay any decision for more than a year, and if done to the standards requested by Obama, should result in tossing out the pipeline plan.  Obama specifically cited the need for the environmental assessment to include climate change effects if the tar sands are tapped (the effects would be catastrophic, fyi).

So what brought about this seismic shift, when the State Department was weeks away from recommending approval?  People power.  In September, 1253 people were arrested for protesting the pipeline in front of the White House.  Then, on Sunday, over 12,000 people surrounded the White House with signs reminding Obama about his campaign promises to take on climate change.  Dozens of congressmen and congresswomen wrote to Obama about their concerns.  Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners declared their opposition to the pipeline.  College campuses around the country held rallies against the pipeline.  And Obama listened to us.


Power for the People

I read a great article today - Power for the People: Energy For the 99 Percent by Kate Gordon on the blog ClimateProgress.  It's definitely worth taking a few minutes to read.  The article lays out the two versions of our future that we have to decide between.  One version is the 'business-as-usual' option, where we continue to rely on fossil fuels and the corporations who provide those fuels.  These corporations are the most profitable companies in the world's history -- in just the first nine months of 2011, they made $101 billion in PROFITS.  Too bad that's not enough for them:
"Today Washington politicians publicly bicker over renewable energy credit programs that will only cost taxpayers $2.5 billion while the oil-and-gas industry quietly pulls in$7 billion in annual subsidies. But even that is not enough for Big Oil. These companies are now lobbying hard for even more federal government support, for even more of the public’s waters and lands to be opened up for drilling rigs or pipelines, and for even fewer health and safety standards to govern those projects."
Climate change doesn't care about corporate profits.  We can't just pay off the laws of physics to delay the intensification of global warming.  Instead, we need to opt for a cleaner, more just, and more sustainable future now, before our world becomes unrecognizable and unable to support us.  It needs to look something like this:
"Picture an America where at least half of our electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar, wave, and geothermal. Sound impossible? It’s not. Other countries, especially in Europe, are already on track to get there.  Germany has set a goal of 45 percent renewable energy by 2030 and Denmark is hoping to be completely fossil-fuel free by then.
In this America the air and water are clean. The oceans and lakes are healthy enough to support a range of uses, from a vibrant commercial fishing industry, to family trips to the beach in summer, to offshore wind production that powers our economic growth. Our most precious public lands are protected from mining and drilling but remain open for recreation and tourism, which alone create 388,000 jobs on Interior Department lands and 224,000 jobs on Forest Service lands."
The most important point about these two futures is that they are being decided right now.  The House of Representatives is trying to vilify the EPA and strip it of its power to regulate pretty much anything.  The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are vastly popular among the public, and yet the majority of the Republicans in the House are trying to undermine our safety to save a few bucks for their political campaign donors.  The approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is another huge game changer in the trajectory our future will take.  Over 12,000 people protested the pipeline at the White House on Sunday.  If you haven't looked into this issue much, please do so here.

Civic action will be necessary if we are to overcome the powerful, well-funded reach of the largest corporations to ever exist.  We need to counteract their selfish, profit-driven interests with the biggest people power movement to ever exist.  Get involved, stay informed, let your elected officials know where you stand, and help actively choose which future you want.


Why Local Wins: Adaptation Action

This post is part of my series on the local actions needed to take on climate change.  Go here to read the introduction.

Adapting to a changing climate is something that every one of us will have to get used to in the coming years.  The locked-in changes that are coming aren't going to be easy to deal with, but if we all work together and stop pretending it doesn't even exist, we can come out the other side with a more healthy, sustainable, and just society.

Change isn't easy.  The climate is changing in ways we have never experienced.  The changes we need to make in response to our climate are going to require cooperation between all aspects of society.  Because it is a necessary change, we should act now instead of reacting later.  We need to truly come together - churches, businesses, schools, and government working collaboratively.  This is the only way that real society-wide change can occur.  Top-down orders from government aren't readily accepted by a significant portion of society, resulting in resentment and rejections, but if all affected factions are included in the decision-making process, the chance of successful change grows proportionately to the level of input they're afforded.  Creating a sense of ownership and investment in one's society fosters a connection to its success.  

The focus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and most Western governments has been on big picture stuff, like the concentration of carbon dioxide in the environment and what the average effects will be throughout the world.  While very important, this focus has abstracted the problem to the point that most people are unaware of how their individual lives and communities will be affected by the coming changes.  Some areas will see more rain, or more droughts, or those by the ocean will need to prepare for rising sea levels, and on and on. The general trend of rising temperatures will have vastly different effects in each locality.  The responsibility to prepare each community will ultimately fall to that community.  Infrastructure decisions are made at the state, county, and city levels, not by international treaties.  For example, deciding the location and height to build a levee in response to projected increases in flood frequency and size is going to depend on that local government getting the most accurate information from climate science.  One encouraging trend is the development of local projection models, as discussed in my previous blog post here, that will allow communities to plan more specifically for their unique challenges ahead.   

If we can get communities involved, city by city, in their own plans for adaptation and reducing greenhouse gases, we will take a big step toward a sustainable future.  Eighty percent of the US population lives in cities.  That means that 80% of the country could enact comprehensive climate policy without having to wait on national politics to finally get a comprehensive plan in place.  Obviously, we need a national plan as soon as possible in order to send a signal to the rest of the world that we will take responsibility and act, but we have waited for this for too long.  We need to act now, wherever we can, and to me that power currently lies at the level of the city.

Grassroots campaigns in each voting district can make this happen - elect politicians who believe in a sustainable future, and hold them accountable to doing just that.


Why Local Wins: Food

This post is part of my series on the local actions needed to take on climate change.  Go here to read the introduction.

The local and sustainable agriculture movement has really blossomed in recent years.  Farmers' markets are thriving, local artisans such as microbrewers, cheese makers, and Slow Food restauranteurs are enjoying great success, and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs have sprouted rapidly (13,000 CSA farms are registered in the US alone).

While this trend has allowed for me personally to imbibe in ridiculously enjoyable amounts of deliciousness in this beer and cheese Mecca called Wisconsin, there's a much more profound reason that I hope the trend continues to expand exponentially.  Local, sustainable agriculture is the way of the future if we are to take on climate change with any hope of success.

The industrial agriculture model from which the majority of our food comes is totally unsustainable.  Because we ship food thousands of miles before it sits on a grocery store shelf for a month and then finally gets eaten, artificial sweeteners and fats are added to avoid food spoilage.  Not only do these additives account for much of the US obesity epidemic, but they also reinforce the monoculture model of agriculture, where corn is king.  The average American consumes 38 pounds of high fructose corn syrup every year - it's in virtually every processed food item we eat.  By only growing one type of crop and by using massive amounts of fertilizers to increase yields, the soil becomes decimated.  Ideally, fields should have time to recover and bring nutrients back to the soil through crop rotation, but in the continual push for higher and higher yields, farmers don't have the chance to do this.  Instead, as the soil in their fields becomes less and less nutrient-rich, they rely on more and more fertilizers, leading to a vicious circle of soil degradation.  

That isn't the worst of it, either.  To make all those fertilizers requires extremely large amounts of fossil fuels, directly increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Combine those emissions with the transportation of food cross-country in semi trucks, and our agriculture sector contributes 31% of all GHG emissions each year.  That's more than any other human activity besides the construction, heating, and cooling of buildings.  

Eating locally and sustainably cuts the transportation emissions, cuts the fertilizer emissions, and improves your health because additives aren't needed.

A common criticism of the organic movement is that it's not affordable for everyone, and that the yields aren't enough to support the entire food system.  First of all, conventional agriculture receives billions of dollars in federal subsidies to keep costs artificially low and to research how to increase yields with that agricultural model.  If those dollars went to organic agriculture instead, the prices would surely be much more competitive.  Then add to that the cost of health issues from obesity and the damage done by GHG emissions on our climate, and industrial agriculture's prices skyrocket.  

In Germany, organic farming has been implemented on a large scale and has been found to elicit the same yields as industrial farming after a 3-7 year transition period.  This amount of time could go down if more research funding were funneled toward organic techniques.

You don't have to start your own organic farm to be a part of this transition, although that would be awesome.  You can decide to put your morals where your mouth is and eat ethically, like my friends Shawn and Lianna describe here.  You can also just plant a garden, like Michelle Obama did in the White House South Lawn, an act echoing the Victory Garden movement that Eleanor Roosevelt started during World War II.  Within two years of Roosevelt's push to plant gardens, 50% of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US were from these household, backyard Victory Gardens.  We can make that happen again.

We all have to eat, so why not do so in a way that is building a healthier, sustainable future?


Why Local Wins: An Introduction

Since the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, we have witnessed international efforts to change the trajectory of our climate crisis.  The process and the results have been frustrating, disappointing, and ineffective.  We have seen large-scale international negotiating efforts fail to bring about a comprehensive international climate change mitigation and adaptation plan.  I feel that continuing these efforts is important, but is beginning to look futile as the years of inaction pile up.

Twenty years of negotiations has led to very little actual change - the Kyoto Protocol has been largely ineffective in actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and in several months that treaty will expire, with nothing to replace it as of now.  Twenty years' worth of relative inaction in climate-change-land has had devastating consequences for the trajectory of our future.  The effects of global warming are now locked in for the next 50 years, as Mark Hertsgaard discusses in HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.  Even if we cut our worldwide carbon emissions to zero as of today (obviously impossible), the amount of greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere will continue to wreak havoc on the climate system.  In order to lower the parts per million to below the 350ppm threshold for a livable world, major changes need to happen NOW.  So, what do we, the concerned public, do when our countries' leaders won't agree on a path forward?

I will be doing a series of posts on what we must do at the local level to start a movement that will:
- lower carbon emissions now, instead of waiting for an international treaty while the problem gets worse
- prepare our communities for the locked-in climate changes to come
- make our leaders unable to ignore climate change and finally act meaningfully on national and international levels
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