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 Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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By Abdullahi Alim
The 2008 financial crisis spurred a number of youth movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. A decade later, this anger resurfaced in a new wave of global protests, from Hong Kong to Beirut to London, only this time driven by the children of the 2008 financial crisis.
1. Learn From the Past<p>Young people tend to be comfortable with change. Their instant adoption of technology is an example.<a target="_blank"> However, they may lack an understanding of the more permanent realities – requiring patience and </a>stoicism.</p><p>This wisdom is typically in the hands of individuals who either work within systems or who have accumulated far more tenure. This was effectively echoed by 13-year old activist, Naomi Wadler who <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17Aa6XLZe9A" target="_blank">said</a>, "We can educate our youth a lot better. We're not delving deeper into social justice movements from the past."</p><p>Youth movements that are informed by the success and pitfalls of prior efforts offer a more promising outcome. Take for example, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, co-founded by a 32-year old Alicia Garza.<span></span></p><p>Unlike the civil rights movement of the 1960's, BLM lacks central governance. This means that opponents can't attack its leadership as a means to discredit the whole movement. In the 1960's, this is exactly what happened to the civil rights movement, when critics went after Martin Luther King, stalling the collective efforts of the movement.</p><p>In fact, King spent his final year <a href="https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/04/04/martin-luther-king-jr-50-years-assassination-donald-trump-disapproval-column/482242002/" target="_blank">mired in public disapproval</a> with over 75% of Americans considering him "irrelevant" including 60% of African Americans.</p><p>By studying the legacy of previous efforts, BLM has managed to rally approximately <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/big-majorities-support-protests-over-floyd-killing-and-say-police-need-to-change-poll-finds/2020/06/08/6742d52c-a9b9-11ea-9063-e69bd6520940_story.html" target="_blank">75% of the American public</a>; a feat that will undeniably ensure the longevity of its cause.</p><p>For the youth climate movement, it too must reconcile the long record of activism that predates its tenure. It ought to model itself as an intergenerational movement by giving greater credence to the activists, environmental scientists and <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/juan-manuel-santos-colombia-indigenous-peoples-coronavirus-pandemic-climate-change-environment-nature/" target="_blank">indigenous elders</a> that have fought for climate justice before its inception and ultimately signal the nuance and maturity that would activate allies within systems of power.</p>
2. Become Part of Systems Change<p>From the college campus to the coworking space, you would be hard pressed to avoid the sight of a social impact competition that invites young people to resolve some of the world's most intractable problems.<br></p><p>Unsurprisingly, this often leads to problematic and incomplete solutions. Take, for example, <a href="https://ssir.org/articles/entry/tackling_heropreneurship" target="_blank">an app for African farmers</a> developed by students who have neither farmed nor been to Africa.<br></p><p>Fortunately, there is a growing shift towards empowering young people to better diagnose the systems that uphold inequality. For example, Oxford University hosts the annual <a href="http://www.oxfordglobalchallenge.com/" target="_blank">Map the System</a> competition to celebrate some of the most promising youth-led mappings and the World Economic Forum's <a href="https://www.globalshapers.org/story" target="_blank">Global Shapers Community</a> convenes more than 7,000 young people under the age of 30 to address local, regional and global challenges.</p><p>To achieve systemic change, young changemakers must first unpack systems into <a href="https://wtf.tw/ref/meadows.pdf" target="_blank">three components</a>; elements, interconnections and functions:</p><ul><li>Elements are essentially the key stakeholders in the system. This can include individuals, land or objects.</li><li>Interconnections are the laws and social norms that bind the elements together.</li><li>Functions are the end-goals.</li></ul><p>Take for example, the persistence of sexual harassment in the workplace as a systems issue. The elements in the system would include the victim, perpetrator and other intermediary bodies including line managers and human resource teams. The interconnections could include forced arbitration laws that prohibit employees from seeking public courts and a managerial culture that protects high performing perpetrators and pressures victims into silence. In which case, the ultimate functions (or rather dysfunctions) of the system discourage victims from pursuing action and enable perpetrators and enablers to enjoy the benefits of career progression without due trial.</p><p>Systemic change is about redesigning the interconnections (the cultural norms and laws). In the example above, it involves challenging the use of private arbitrary courts and uprooting a toxic work culture. Reclaiming this intuition opens a pandora's box that ultimately allows for any given system to operate more inclusively.<br></p><p>Today, young changemakers can rely on online resources like <a href="http://systems-ledleadership.com/" target="_blank">Systems-Led-Leadership</a> to analyze any given system of inequality and then direct their unique skills and knowledge towards the most effective intervention.</p>
3. Avoid Heropreneurship<p>Daniela Papi-Thornton first coined the term <a href="http://tacklingheropreneurship.com/" target="_blank">heropreneurship</a> to describe a growing trend that credits social change to the "founder" of an organization or movement exclusively.</p><p>This culture has inspired an entire generation of young change-makers who are swayed by the allure of the "heroic" founder and whose behaviors are validated through youth awards, grants and speaking circuits that glorify a role in the limelight. This pervasive culture undercuts the entire spectrum of actors that really creates social change.</p><p>Social change does not necessarily warrant the creation of a new organization or movement. Change-makers should consider the root causes that perpetuate and uphold inequalities and then map the existing players and solutions. This process might point to scaling up the work of an existing organization or helping a local candidate run for office.<br><br>For young people who wish to create social change, their efforts – while extremely important – may go unnoticed. This is an expectation that needs to be managed.<br></p>
4. Know Your Place<p>In 2016, a political action committee entitled <a href="http://canyounot.org/" target="_blank">Can You Not</a> emerged with the aim of discouraging white men from running for office in minority districts.</p><p>Despite the comical graphics, the campaign highlights an important question for young changemakers, particularly if they advocate for issues that they have not lived: in the quest for social change, can the actions of change-makers unwittingly perpetuate injustices, even as they seek to end them?<br></p><p>In the example above, could the notion of a white man effectively assuming the role of a translator between minority communities and government only reinforce their structural underrepresentation in political decision-making? Could the desire to assume office without lived experience also signal little faith in the leadership of the very communities being served?<br></p><p>A more effective approach to social change may be to encourage such actors to take stock of the unintended consequences of misrepresentation. In doing so, they may come to appreciate the importance of "stepping back" to allow others to "step forward." More concretely, this could result in building trusted relationships with the community and eventually empowering more local voices to consider public leadership.<br></p><p>For young changemakers, it is pivotal that they assess their own standing in a given system and avoid perpetuating the very inequalities they wish to tackle.</p>
Strategic Intelligence: Youth Perspectives. World Economic Forum
A More Targeted, Effective Kind of Activism<p>Social media has played its critical part in providing young people with a vehicle to advocate for social reform.</p><p>Whether it's <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-speech-un-2019-address" target="_blank">Greta Thunberg's speech</a> during the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 or <a href="https://variety.com/2018/politics/features/emma-gonzalez-parkland-interview-1202972485/" target="_blank">Emma Gonzalez</a> rallying crowds for more stringent gun control. younger voices are swaying public opinion and pressuring political systems to operate more inclusively.<br></p><p>The impact of these extraordinary young people is inspiring, but arguably they struggle to provide a course of action for the average young person who is motivated to pursue social change. The inconvenient truth is that social reform is difficult and even more so for a young person who wrestles with challenges related to experience and credibility.<br></p><p>To be more effective, young changemakers must forge greater bonds with late-stage activists as well as potential allies within systems of power. They must also understand the systems that uphold equality and pinpoint the intervention that would most likely inspire systemic change.<br></p><p>Finally, it is pivotal that they invest in a support system and seek to dissolve <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/this-is-how-wellbeing-drives-social-change-and-why-cultural-leaders-need-to-talk-about-it" target="_blank">personal anxieties</a> that may compromise their change-making potential.</p><p>It's time for youth activism to grow up.</p>
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