Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the 'Stonewall' of the Climate Movement?
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the “environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.
Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic Senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole, they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the pipeline—every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you know exactly what you’re getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their Senate caucus—about a third—joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone XL. As the Washington insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate: Senate Democrats.”
Which actually may have been generous to the president. It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change. His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough, that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist on an “all of the above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientist James Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week, simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights. Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able to marry.
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.
Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for Action, for instance—an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org—has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great, but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.
Energy Independence: Last Century’s Worry
So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways, including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).
Recently, I had a long talk with an administration insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.
And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic—from Greenland to its seas—essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing. You’d panic.
There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia, even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last century’s worry. It dates back to the crises set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early 1970s, not long after … Stonewall.
So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been decisive in nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments. But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to follow one’s heart.
Along with some way to make a third party truly viable, we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform—not just a change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see broad new campaigns underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the scientists tell us that we have no hope of holding the rise in the planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.
Of course, climate change activists can and should continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the 350.org action fund is organizing college students for the Massachusetts primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent, Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said, demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might actually start to shake things up.
It will take a while, though. According to press reports, Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”
By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he said, is “going to take people in Washington who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve—not two miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”
That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.
And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head, I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.
The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time. He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.
A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global warming summit he convened in Vermont’s state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”
“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he replied.
And so, down to work.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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