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Fossil Fuels Yield to Solar and Data in Upstate New York
By Molly Taft
Lisa Marshall isn't your typical activist. For one thing, she's not into crowds. "I don't really like rallies," Marshall, a mom of three from upstate New York, said. "They're a little stressful — not my favorite thing."
Marshall, who has two degrees in earth science, remembers being concerned about fossil fuels when New York activists began to push Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in the early 2010s. But she didn't know the best way to become involved. "At that time, one of the main strategies, which was very effective in New York, was to just show up wherever [Cuomo] was and make sure he had no peace from the activist community until he banned fracking," she said. "It just was very overwhelming."
Then, at one of her first organizing events for the activist group Mothers Out Front, Marshall realized that organizing wasn't just about making noise. "They handed out a form, with what we might be interested in doing [to help]," she said. "The form said, 'Are you interested in research?' I don't want to go to a rally, but research? Sign me up."
The Cayuga power plant
Source: Philip Cohen
The Finger Lakes area of New York, where Marshall lives, has been a key hotspot for the state's anti-fracking movement for years. Local activists were part of an important coalition to convince Cuomo to ban fracking in 2014. Now, as New York state signs its own Green New Deal and sets one of the most aggressive emissions reductions targets in the world, newer local activists are joining with the older guard and further turning the tide on fossil fuels.
Most notably, in Tompkins County, a coalition including Mothers Out Front recently scored a big clean-power win. In May, owners of the coal-fired Cayuga Power Plant, nestled on the shores of Cayuga Lake just north of Ithaca, announced that instead of switching to gas-fired power, the plant will become a data center partially powered by an on-site solar field. The rest of the electricity will come from other power sources. The power plant's owners have asked for an all-renewable allocation from regulators but that decision hasn't been announced yet. At the very least, the shift marks a transition for the location from dirty power producer to clean(er) power user.
Just three years ago, the plant was at a crossroads. The longtime owner of the plant had filed for bankruptcy in 2011, as low natural gas prices began to push up the cost of coal. The state decided to help the plant hobble along on subsidies, which cost taxpayers $4 million per month. And as coal's fate began to decline, the taxable value of the power plant also took a turn for the worse, losing $100 million in value between 2009 and 2014.
In 2016, the plant faced even more hurdles. In February of that year, state regulators denied an application from the owners for more subsidies to power the plant with coal and natural gas, deciding to spend the money requested on transmission upgrades that would achieve the same reliability for ratepayers without adding more fossil fuels to the mix.
But the lure of natural gas was too great. Last May, the plant's new owner, Beowulf Energy, filed another application with state regulators to switch the plant to primarily run on natural gas. Beowulf Managing Director Michael Enright told the Lansing Star that the company thought the switch would save jobs and help the town's tax base.
"I called it a really bad summer sequel," said Irene Weiser, a longtime fracking activist in the region. Weiser, coordinator of the group Fossil Free Tompkins, and other activists had been instrumental in pushing for the transmission upgrades in 2016 and against transitioning the plant to natural gas. "We were having to fight this all over again."
This time around, seasoned activists weren't alone. Since the protests at Standing Rock that fixated the country in 2016, more and more communities across the country have become involved in opposing local gas pipelines and power plants.
"I think there's just been a growing consciousness over the years that we needed to get further away from fossils, including gas," Weiser said.
While helping her daughter research famed environmentalist Rachel Carson for a high school project last year, Marshall connected with Sandra Steingraber, a noted environmental activist in the area. After speaking with Marshall's daughter for the project, Steingraber told Marshall about several local oil and gas projects that could use additional organizing for opposition — and Marshall decided to tell her "mom network" about the Cayuga project.
The fresh energy from Mothers Out Front helped galvanize new voices to speak about the project to the Tompkins County Legislature. "[The legislature] even said, 'We're seeing all these people we've never seen at any meeting before,'" Marshall said. "People were getting up, our people that we mobilized, and saying, 'I've never come to the county legislature before. I would rather do almost anything other than stand here, but I'm really concerned about this.'" In November of last year, the legislature sent a letter to Albany officially opposing the Cayuga plant's proposal to transition to gas.
The activists' argument was also helped by changing market forces. Natural gas enjoyed a streak of no-questions-asked years in the early 2010s, as rock-bottom prices and the boom in fracking made gas the No. 1 choice for power suppliers. But the crashing price of renewables and fast technological innovations in storage have made many analysts and utility companies look towards a fossil fuel-free future.
The looming targets of the Paris agreement, which seeks to limit global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees C, set additional constraints on natural gas. That's because while natural gas emits less carbon than coal, climate and energy experts note that methane emissions from fracking and burning natural gas make it much harder to meet the targets in the short-term. Locking in more natural gas infrastructure, activists say, delays the adoption of renewable energy and would impede the international targets — as well as New York state's new emissions goals.
Ed LaVigne was elected as Lansing town supervisor in 2012, and says his priority is helping the town maintain its tax revenues and its jobs — which means helping businesses like Beowulf stay in Lansing. "As I tell [the company], I say, 'We're the barnacle,'" he said. "'You're the whale. You're going to take us places we can't go by ourselves.'"
But for LaVigne, the company's decision to look to future technologies makes sense. "When I went to pharmacy school in the late '70s, it cost you $100 and a nine-volt battery to have a calculator that adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides," he said. "You now can get them to run off of indoor light and they're free when you open up a checking account. That's how these dynamics have changed. So let's just put the adult pants on and fast forward to see how we can develop these systems."
Regardless of the temporary victory for anti-fracking activists, challenges remain for the project. Data centers are notorious energy sucks: the one planned on the Cayuga site cannot get all of its energy from the solar panels it will install, and it has asked New York regulators for a substantial allocation of clean energy to power the facility. If Beowulf does not get this energy allocation, it will switch back to its plan of powering the plant with gas. And locals are concerned about whether the data center will retrain current plant workers to help them keep their jobs.
"I don't count my chickens before they're hatched," Weiser, the anti-fracking activist, said of the plan. She pointed out that the data center's energy allocation ask is larger than any other facility in the state. "That said, it's an interesting new development."
Marshall is cautiously optimistic — but also heartened — about the power of organizing to transform local politics. "If you mobilize, if you organize and build power and then mobilize that power strategically, that's how all of the important things usually happen."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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