A Day for Women and the World

July 10, 2014

At the most basic level, the cause of climate disruption is obvious: a rise in heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere because we are burning so much coal, oil, and natural gas around the world. But this basic cause and effect aspect of climate disruption is only part of the equation. The problem is not simply what we are doing; it's also how many of us are doing it. Population growth has had -- and will continue to have -- a big effect on our climate.

Want to know how big? Take this POP Quiz, created with our partners at Population Connection, to test your population smarts. Here's a hint if you're taking the quiz: In the last two decades alone, global population has gone from six to seven billion people. At the current pace, our planet could have 11 billion people by 2050.

Although developed countries like the U.S. are still responsible for the majority of wasteful fossil fuel consumption, developing nations, where most of the population growth is happening, are where consumption is increasing the fastest. For such countries, essential resources like water are scarce, and modern family-planning resources are even scarcer. An estimated 222 million women in those nations would like to be able to plan the spacing and timing of their children but don't have the education, access, power, religious, or cultural permission to use a modern method of family planning.

When women have more children, more closely together, it creates additional challenges -- such as providing food and water for their larger families. In many cases, women spend up to a quarter of their day -- six hours -- just finding and collecting water for their families. Often, they need their children to help them gather water, which keeps young boys and girls out of school and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

To make matters worse, the climate disruption caused by many decades of wasteful resource and fossil fuel consumption in developed countries like the U.S. disproportionately affects people in developing countries, who have far fewer resources to cope with disasters. Women and children fare worst of all: They are 14 times more likely to be killed during a natural disaster than men are.

This senseless cycle needs to end, for the sake of women, children, and our environment. Tomorrow is World Population Day. What better time to take action so that all women -- both here and the world over -- have access to the family-planning resources they need? Yes, it's essential that we curb climate pollution to limit climate disruption, but we can never truly have a healthy planet unless we provide support for healthy women and families.

Join our Google hangout tomorrow with Population Connection, Population Action International, Blue Ventures, and Representative. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to learn more.

The Power of People

July 03, 2014

Everyone has an occasional bad day at work, but it's tough to top the one that Rep. Eric Cantor had on June 10 in Virginia. Overnight, he went from being one of the most powerful figures in Congress to a trivia question: Name the first House majority leader in history to lose a primary. What made the election upset all the more stunning is that it didn't even appear to be a fair fight. Besides being an incumbent, Cantor outspent his Tea Party opponent, college professor Dave Brat, 26 to 1. Brat spent less than $200,000. His 23-year-old campaign manager only graduated from college last year.

What the heck happened? A lot of words have been put together to explain Cantor's defeat, but his loss should remind us of something that's easily forgotten in an era of Super PACs and billionaire donor networks: Real passion and commitment can't be bought. And despite the relatively recent influx of huge amounts of money into our electoral process, passion and commitment (which Brat's Tea Party supporters had in spades) can still win against any odds.

To my thinking, that's good news for the Sierra Club and our allies as we prepare for what looks to be an epic fight over our nation's energy future. At their latest top-secret summit, the billionaire Koch brothers set a goal of raising almost $300 million just this year to roll back progress on clean energy and fighting climate disruption. That might seem like a lot of money. OK, it is a lot of money, but it represents only 0.3 percent of the combined net worth of the Kochs. We are up against some deep, deep pockets.

They're not deep enough to stop us, though. Not if we harness the righteous people power of millions of Americans who aren't willing to stand by while our planet is destroyed. Many of the Sierra Club's most important campaigns, whether it's protecting special places or replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy, have been fought and won at the local, grassroots level. That's not going to change, either.

Of course, that doesn't mean we won't use new tools for grassroots activism -- the Internet and the rise of social media can't be ignored. But the basic principles of organizing people at the local level and winning against much bigger and better-funded opponents are timeless. So, if you're interested in helping us keep winning, I suggest you start by doing three things.

First, if you haven't already, connect with your local Sierra Club chapter. That's where you can find other people right now who want to make a better world. Chances are, they've got at least one local campaign that could use your help.

Second, get some tips and take some inspiration from folks who have already done this stuff successfully. I'm going to suggest three places to get you started, but a rich and diverse literature of grassroots wisdom is out there waiting to be tapped.

  • Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons From the Fight to Shut Down Chicago's Coal Plants, by Kari Lydersen, tells the full story of how Chicago's Little Village neighborhood fought a long and ultimately successful campaign to retire the Fisk and Crawford coal plants. It's a free ebook you can read on your laptop or tablet. The people of Little Village didn't have a lot of political influence, much less money, but thanks to organizers like Kim Wasserman (herself a mom), they never gave up on stopping the air pollution that was making so many of their kids sick.

  • For a concise and practical overview of what it takes to run a grassroots environmental campaign, you can't beat Fight & Win by Brock Evans, who has decades of experience under his belt working on environmental campaigns for the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and others. His "manual for the new eco-warrior" combines both practical advice ("listen hard," "get people over to your place") and killer stories, including the time five people in Camden, NJ, managed to save "two million acres of a beautiful place in Alaska they'd never seen" by answering their phones. This is a book I wish I'd had 20 years ago when I started out as an environmental organizer.

  • And because this is a multigenerational effort, I want to give a shout-out to a book I can't wait to read and give to my kids: Josie and the Fourth Grade Bike Brigade, by Antonia Bruno and her parents, Kenny Bruno and Beth Handman. I read an advanced copy of this book, and it's awesome! Josie and her pals prove that you're never too young to do something about climate change, and show that it's possible to be a do-gooder and have fun, too. If you know any potential elementary school climate activists, they'll be both entertained and inspired by Josie's adventures.

And my final suggestion is a bit of a tease: Watch this space. The Sierra Club is cooking up some new approaches to digital environmental activism that you'll hear more about later this summer. I think you’ll love it. We're going to give regular people even greater access to the power they already have -- power that can change the world. That's a kind of power the Kochs and their pals will never know -- because it's not for sale.

An American Moment

July 01, 2014

You might want to save this date: September 21. Here's why.

Activists working to address the climate crisis have been cautiously cheering President Obama this year -- for telegraphing that he's likely to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and for the Clean Power Plan, an important set of standards that his Environmental Protection Agency has proposed for cutting carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants.

Yet as scientists know, as polar bears know, and as people who've experienced extreme weather know, the nation and the world are still moving too slowly to avert climate disaster.

The drumbeat for urgency is growing, however, and it's not just coming from the tree-hugging contingent. Last week, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, retired hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and other leaders known for keeping an eye on bottom lines released a report called "Risky Business." It makes a sobering case for why the nation cannot afford the economic costs of climate change.

The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has already reached levels not seen since long before we even evolved. The human suffering that results may be incalculable, but the economic consequences are not. The International Energy Agency has estimated that for every year the world delays taking significant action to curb climate change, we will have to spend an additional $500 billion down the road.

At a Senate hearing that many Republicans hoped would undercut the EPA's proposed Clean Power Act, four former heads of the EPA, under Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush testified instead that action is imperative. Noting that businesses and states are already taking the crisis seriously, William Ruckelshaus, who headed the first EPA under Nixon, said: "There is a lot happening on climate. It's just not happening in Washington."

Indeed, our government may be gridlocked by the Republicans who control the House while hamstrung by ties to a fossil fuel lobby that demands utter fealty, but local leaders and the American people are moving forward fast.

Just last year, Al Gore and I stood and watched as then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's history-making plan to stop using coal-fired power by 2025 and replace it with cleaner energy sources.

That was a proud moment for Los Angeles, and Al Gore ended an impassioned speech that day on a hopeful note about the ability of our society to quickly evolve: "If somebody had told you four years ago," he said, "that on this beautiful March day, 60 percent of the American people would say, 'we are in favor of gay marriage,' you would have said, 'no we can't change that much that fast.' But we can, and we did." The same will be true of attitudes about cutting carbon, he predicted.

My guess is that even Al Gore is surprised by how soon his prophecy has become reality. When this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its Clean Power Plan for cutting carbon emissions from power plants, polls found about 70 percent of Americans in favor.

This really is a potentially defining American moment. We cannot let it slip from our grasp, for while momentum is on our side, time is not. And so on September 21, tens of thousands of people will converge on New York City to urge the president to show the hundreds of world leaders gathering in that city for the United Nations Climate Summit, that America is ready to lead a global response to this global crisis.

We're going to make 2014 the tipping point year in the international effort to solve the climate crisis, and contrary to what those who remain corrupted by the influence of the coal, oil, and gas industries would like you to think, the world we're already tipping toward is not one of diminished lifestyle, but one of rare historic opportunity.

Already, people across America are finding well-paying, meaningful jobs building the wind turbines and installing the solar panels that will let us walk away from the dirty 19th-century fossil fuels that are making us sick and wreaking havoc on our planet's climate. Already, investors are profiting from the technological innovation that is creating an era of clean energy prosperity, while communities that have long borne the brunt of fossil-fuel refining and burning are demanding an energy future that does not perpetuate sacrifice zones in places like Wilmington, Detroit, and Houston.

Every day, more people recognize the obvious course we need to take. And on September 21, the cross section of people rallying at the People's Climate March will state the obvious more loudly and assertively than ever before in New York City and around the country.

Thriving in the Great Outdoors

June 30, 2014

Note: My coauthor for today's post is Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.

For the 10th consecutive year, the president signed a proclamation declaring that June is Great Outdoors Month. This is to encourage us to get outdoors and enjoy our natural heritage. While the president certainly wants Americans to enjoy themselves, there's an even more compelling reason to take that advice -- it could save your life.

We’ve all heard the statistics about how much exercise we need and how little of it the majority of Americans get. This trend is especially worrisome among children, who routinely while away their summers indoors playing with electronics.

That’s where the Outdoors Alliance for Kids comes in.

OAK is a national coalition of more than 70 organizations working together to connect children, youth, and families to the outdoors. The Sierra Club and the American Heart Association proudly serve on the steering committee.

We believe the health of current and future generations, as well as the health of our planet, depends on fostering personal, direct, and lifelong relationships between humans and nature. To do that, we'll need not just the health and environmental sectors but also the recreation, transportation, education, built-environment, urban planning, and business communities to pitch in.

Currently, only 1 in 5 Americans lives within half a mile of a park. This problem is especially severe for low-income communities and communities of color, which are far more likely to be "recreational deserts." In some urban areas, it's not safe to be outdoors, whether because of deteriorating infrastructure, crime, or poor air quality. People in these communities have higher rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases, including heart disease.

One of the easiest ways to bring kids -- and everyone else -- nearer to nature is to bring nature nearer to them. Vacant lots can be converted into pocket parks and gardens, particularly in park-poor communities. We can invest in trails and greenways to increase connectivity between natural areas. Studies have shown that communities with safe sidewalks, green spaces, parks, and public transportation are at a lower risk from cardiovascular disease than those that do not have those resources.

We can also prioritize protecting natural areas that are accessible to urban areas -- what the Sierra Club calls "nearby nature." These are places that a family might reach on foot or by public transit for a picnic or an hour-long stroll -- rather than after an hours-long car drive. Such nearby nature spaces might also have more amenities, such as toilets; trash and recycling barrels; picnic tables; accommodations for the disabled; and interpretive multilingual signs, guides, and programs.

The president may be able to issue a proclamation, but the responsibility for getting outdoors and staying active rests with all of us. We can advocate in our own communities for access to natural spaces. And we can make sure that we and our families are getting active outdoors wherever possible. Not sure how to get started? Find a Sierra Club outings group in your neighborhood and visit the American Heart Association's website for tips on staying physically active.

Enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer is every American's birthright -- no one should be denied the opportunity to exercise it.

The Power of a Plan

June 25, 2014

In his 19th-century curmudgeon's classic, The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined a plan as "the best method of accomplishing an accidental result." When the EPA released its "Clean Power Plan" this month for reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the agency was clear about the results it expects by 2030: Cutting carbon pollution from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels, while also reducing other air pollutants (which by themselves cause thousands of premature deaths) by 25 percent.

Maybe you've heard that this plan is momentous -- a real game changer. Or maybe you've heard that, by itself, it's not nearly tough enough to get us where we want to be by 2030. Actually, both of those things are true. This plan really is a big deal and it's the payoff for years of hard work by dedicated activists. And, yes, it can and should be made even stronger -- and we're going to keep working to make that happen. Because the plan focuses on action at the state level, the Sierra Club is particularly well positioned to do that, too.

So, kudos to the EPA. But you know what? We've already seen some important results from this plan that -- if not quite "accidental" -- were by no means a sure thing, either.

Because President Obama is walking the walk on his 2009 Copenhagen pledge to reduce emissions, U.S. international credibility on climate action was boosted overnight. Most notably, we had the first indication ever from China that it was considering capping its own carbon emissions -- an announcement that came the day after the EPA rolled out its plan. An important climate summit is happening in Paris next year, and this plan puts the U.S. in a better position to help secure an agreement.

Here at home, the plan has left the fossil-fuel lobby (and the politicians who take their marching orders from the Koch brothers) flailing for a credible response. Many cited a discredited report from the Chamber of Commerce that wasn't even based on the EPA's actual plan. Apart from the Tea Party choir, their sermons fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the plan has drawn considerable support from non-fossil fuel industries and businesses, including some utilities. I think there are at least three good reasons for that. First, the EPA bent over backward to make its plan fair and flexible. Second, the reality of climate disruption has long since been accepted by businesses that can already see its effects on their bottom lines. Third, as the EPA's own analysis shows, these standards not only are a cost-effective response but also will generate new economic opportunities and thousands of jobs.

Most exciting of all has been the response of those who will be most affected by this new plan: the American people. Overwhelmingly, that response has been positive. Polls (including one a week ago from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News) have found two out of three Americans supporting the new standards. Best of all, in at least one poll, a majority stuck to that view whether they were Democrats, Republicans, or independents.

But, getting back to long-term results, do I think that by 2030 we will achieve the results the EPA is aiming for with this plan? No. I think we'll do far better. By 2030, clean, renewable energy will be playing a much bigger role in our economy than the EPA is guessing, and that transformation will multiply the already significant public health, economic, and climate benefits we're expecting from these carbon pollution reductions.

Should that be called an accidental outcome? If so, then it's a happy one.

You can submit an official comment on the EPA's new Clean Power Plan here.

Partners for the Future

June 06, 2014

I was honored to be invited to speak to the United Auto Workers in Detroit at their convention this week. Even though the Sierra Club and the UAW have been working together for years, some people don't know we're natural allies.

Here are some other things you might not know about the UAW:

As far back as 1949, the UAW led the call for building smaller cars that would cost less money and burn less fuel. It also led by being the first major union to support the civil rights movement. It provided the bail money to get Martin Luther King out of that Birmingham jail cell. And it provided more than half of the funding for the 1963 March on Washington.

The UAW was the largest contributor to the first Earth Day back in 1970, and its support went far beyond the merely financial. It was also a major supporter of the fight against apartheid -- when Nelson Mandela came to this country after gaining his freedom, one of the first places he went was to Detroit to thank the UAW.

More recently, the idea for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, which provided Tesla with a $465 million capital infusion at a critical time and enabled Ford to upgrade five plants, came not from the government but from the UAW.

Our shared history shows why the UAW and the Sierra Club have a lot in common. But in my speech to the members of the UAW, I also wanted to talk about why the broader labor and environmental movements are natural allies:

"We have shared values. Justice, of course. Fairness, absolutely. But also, the value of responsibility. The belief that we can and we should work together for the common good.

"And let's be honest: Not everybody shares these values. Not everyone believes in shouldering this common responsibility. They tell us that we can't afford to be fair. They try to tell us that we can't afford to do what's right for workers and for the environment. They tell us that there's no way we can meet the challenge of fighting climate change and creating jobs at the same time -- that acting responsibly will cost us jobs.

"Think about it. Why do they say these things? Because they're afraid. They're afraid of innovation that will create jobs, create more fairness and less economic inequality. They fear this kind of change, and they fear the future. And they want to hold back the future for as long as they possibly can."

By the way, that fear came through loud and clear in criticism by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of the carbon safeguards that the EPA announced this week. Fortunately, it's been drowned out by the voices of millions of Americans who are excited to see such a significant step to address climate pollution, as we trade fossil fuels for a future that's powered by clean, renewable energy.

The automobile industry will help shape that future -- as we rethink, reengineer, and start building the vehicles that run on that clean energy. The advanced technology of those new cars will create still more jobs, even as we meet the new 54.5 mpg fuel-efficiency standards. Those are standards that the Sierra Club backed, of course, but they would not have happened without the support of the United Auto Workers.

So, yes, the future is already happening -- but that doesn't mean we can take it for granted. Because there is another, darker trend in this country.

Economic inequality in the U.S. has grown from a gap to a Grand Canyon. Big corporations -- including the biggest polluters on the planet -- have gained immense new power and influence. The richest one percent are grabbing virtually all of the economic rewards, while leaving the rest of us behind.

We can't let them steal our future, too. Our Blue Green Alliance, which unites 14 of our country's largest unions and environmental organizations, is determined not to let that happen. We are committed to reversing the unfair economic policies of the last 35 years that have eroded the rights of workers, driven manufacturing offshore, and lowered union representation. Together, we will spread the good word that investing in clean energy and clean technology generates more than three times as many jobs as does spending the same amount within the fossil fuel sectors.

Years of working on the transition to renewable energy with our partners in communities across the U.S. has taught us this: As we grow our clean energy economy, we cannot rely on the market alone to respect or create healthy communities. It is no consolation to families that have lost their sole means of livelihood or have suffered from years of underemployment to learn that some new jobs were created making solar panels in China, or even in the next state over.

That means we not only need strong and just pollution standards like the one announced this week, we also need policies that create good jobs for affected workers and communities. And we need corporations to treat their both workers and the environment with greater respect.

Only then can we build a future that works for everybody, with millions of good jobs, economic fairness, environmental justice, healthy communities, and a stable climate.


Score Another One for Wilderness

May 20, 2014

For more than a century, presidents have been using the Antiquities Act to save our national treasures, and President Obama's just-announced designation of the Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico shows exactly why this law is so indispensable.

At nearly 500,000 acres (making it by far the largest monument that President Obama has designated), Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks is packed with history, from archaeological sites to Billy the Kid's Outlaw Rock, to training areas for the Apollo space missions. The canyons and jagged peaks of the region's mountain ranges are both beautiful and unique.

My family and I experienced that beauty firsthand last November when we hiked the Dripping Springs Trail together with many of the folks who've been working for years to gain this protection.


It's estimated that the new monument will attract enough new outdoor recreation and tourism to give a $7.4 million boost to the local economy. No wonder the designation received strong local support across the board -- from business owners to elected officials to residents.

As Howard Dash, a member of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Action Team of the Rio Grande Chapter's Southern Group, told me: "In Las Cruces, our team has worked hard for the designation of the national monument. It was through the Sierra Club's support that we were able to focus that effort to make it a reality. Las Cruces will be a better place for it."

Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks is the eleventh national monument designated by President Obama under the Antiquities Act and, in every instance, his administration has bent over backward to get input from nearby communities and to select places that are rich in both cultural and natural heritage. In other words, the Antiquities Act is being used exactly as intended.

That fact, however, didn't keep the current U.S. House of Representatives (already notorious for being the most anti-conservation in decades) from attempting to snatch failure from the jaws of success. Earlier this year, in a close vote, the House passed a bill that would gut the Antiquities Act.

Obviously, anyone who loves wild places and wants to see them protected, knows that's a terrible idea. Many excellent candidates for national monument protection, such as Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds, Arizona's Grand Canyon Watershed, and Utah's Greater Canyonlands, are still waiting. But the repercussions of losing the Antiquities Act would reverberate beyond the loss of new monuments. Remember when our national parks were closed because of the federal government shutdown? Fourteen of those national parks were reopened with funding from state governments because the states couldn't afford to lose the substantial revenue the parks generated for nearby communities. Of those 14 parks, nine were first protected as national monuments -- thanks to the Antiquities Act.

Without the Antiquities Act, it's impossible to say exactly how much poorer our national heritage would be, but there's no question it would be poorer, not just for us, but for every generation that follows. President Obama deserves a lot of credit for using the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act to protect special places like Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks, and for using it exactly the way it is supposed to be used.

Of course, anytime that Congress decides to use its own considerable authority to protect public lands, I'll be the first to stand and applaud. In the past five years, though, that's happened exactly once, which puts the tally at Obama 11, Congress 1. During this 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, wouldn't it be nice to see a closer score?


Keep Good Companies

May 13, 2014

My current column in Sierra magazine ("Money Talks, Carbon Walks"), describes how each of us can help build the fossil-free economy by exercising our influence as consumers and investors. Most of us will do that because we believe it's right but, as I wrote in Sierra: "If environmental concerns aren't reason enough to divest from the dirty energy sector, do it out of selfishness, because companies that depend on their fossil fuel reserves for future earnings are simply a bad investment these days."
That gets to a bigger point. Some companies look at the future and prepare not only to adapt but also to thrive. Others can't shake their ties to the past, whether that's digging up fossil fuels or manufacturing buggy whips. Guess which ones have proven to be better long-term investments?
The Koch brothers won't be happy to hear it, but economic success in the future will require a commitment to sustainability -- whether you're talking about clean energy, clean water, or fair labor practices. Companies that haven't figured that out by now are already falling behind, whether they know it or not
We don't have to wonder which companies "get it." A new report from Ceres, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainability leadership, examines the sustainability record of 613 U.S. companies. Together, these companies account for almost 80 percent of the total market capitalization of all public companies in the country.
As the report's title ("Gaining Ground") suggests, the overall trend is positive. Companies are paying more attention to sustainability issues than they were two years ago. Seven out of ten, for instance, have at least some kind of strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. What tempers that good news, though, is that progress is not happening anywhere near fast enough. We're already feeling the effects of climate disruption. The deadline for reducing emissions fast enough to avoid a climate catastrophe is, as they say, nonnegotiable.
It's not too surprising that many of the companies that are furthest ahead of the pack on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting renewable energy are from the high-tech sector. Some of these companies were prompted by direct advocacy by Greenpeace; others were motivated to respond to concerns of shareholders, and the values of their own employees. Each company knows well the importance of adapting to new paradigms. They also use a lot of energy. Increasingly, though, that energy is renewable.
Google has committed over $1 billion to renewable energy projects such as large-scale wind and rooftop solar. These projects will generate far more electricity than it uses for its own operations. Apple Computer recently announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers are powered by clean energy sources.
But the food and beverage sector is the one where the highest percentage of companies has set formal, time-bound emissions-reduction targets. The reason is obvious if you think about it: These companies can already see how climate disruption is affecting their operations. How will you sell coffee if there's no place to grow it? How will you manufacture soft drinks if you can't find the water? How will you serve guacamole if you can't get the avocados?

That's why Starbucks has set goals of reducing its energy consumption by 25 percent and of covering 100 percent of its electricity consumption with renewable energy by 2015. And just last week, Mars, Inc., the maker of Snickers and Uncle Ben's rice, announced that it will partner with Sumitomo Corporation of America on a wind farm in Texas that will generate more power than the company uses for all of its U.S. operations.
In the 21st century, it's already clear that investing in clean energy is essential for companies that want to flourish. But unlike any previous major economic shift, this time we don't have the luxury of letting things happen in their own good time. According to the International Energy Agency, our global clean energy investment needs to be about $36 trillion over the next 36 years if we want an 80 percent chance of limiting the climate warming to 3.6 degrees F.
Can we do it? We have to. And that means doing whatever we can to encourage not just our government (local and national) but the companies that we do business with (and that we invest in) to take action. When a company like GM, Nissan, or Tesla doubles down on electric cars, we need to support that decision, if we can, with our wallets.
The transition to a clean, renewable economy has already started. Our job now is to kick it into high gear.

Reject = Protect

April 24, 2014

On the day that President Obama finally rejects the Keystone XL pipeline, the connection between tar sands development and climate disruption should be only one of the reasons (although it's certainly reason enough). For someone like Obama, whose first real job was as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, the effect of the pipeline and its toxic payload on the people and communities in its path will surely also be a factor.

This week, the president will hear the voices of those people loud and clear, thanks to the Reject and Protect encampment and march on the National Mall. Reject and Protect is being led by  the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" -- a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the pipeline's route. I visited them this week and was both impressed by their determination and moved by how they placed this fight in the greater context of environmental injustice.

It's hard not to be inspired by people like Texas rancher Julia Trigg Crawford, who was there to lend support even though she has already lost her own battle to stop TransCanada from routing part of Keystone XL through her property: "Basically they came in and said a foreign corporation building a for-profit pipeline had more of a right to my land than I did."  

That was echoed by Ihanktonwan Oyate spiritual leader and elder Faith Spotted Eagle, who said, "We stand here as Mother Bears to defend our land, our farms, our ranches, our treaty territory. They are violating our treaty land and our treaty water."

The more time goes by, the more evidence we're seeing of just how toxic tar sands oil really is -- and what its effects would be on those unfortunate enough to live near a spill or a refinery. Of course, if a major spill were to happen on the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the disaster would be both unparalleled and irreversible for millions of Americans.

Already, the Obama administration has heard from more than 2,000,000 people who believe the pipeline would not be in our national interest -- an unprecedented number. Just as important, though, are the individual voices being heard this week -- the voices of Americans who see the health and welfare of their communities under attack. Many of these communities already bear an unfair share of the consequences from fossil fuel pollution. Can we really ask them to suffer even more for the sake of oil industry profits?

There's still time to join the Reject and Protect march in D.C. this Saturday. You can sign up here. Can't make it to the capital? Then join the thousands of people from the around the country who will be simultaneously posting messages of solidarity.


The One Thing to Remember on Earth Day

April 22, 2014

Note: This piece first appeared on Huffington Post as part of its Earth Day celebration.

People sometimes ask me these days why the Sierra Club spends so much time taking on the fossil fuel industries and encouraging wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Shouldn't we concentrate on saving wild places and, you know, taking more hikes?

To answer that, I like to bring up John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Although he died almost 100 years ago -- long before the first Earth Day -- Muir would have loved the idea of a day dedicated to celebrating (and protecting) our amazing planet. He is often remembered for opposing the destruction of wilderness, but Muir, first and foremost, was a celebrant of wilderness. Just pick up one of his books. His enthusiasm explodes off the page. His campaigns to protect the places he loved were fueled by this inexhaustible passion -- and by his conviction that experiencing the natural world could lift any human spirit as it had his own.

At the Sierra Club, we've never stopped believing in the importance of protecting those wild places, and we've spent more than 100 years continuing the mission John Muir started. I've seen wilderness work its healing power on the lives of everyone from returning veterans to city  kids who have never before seen the stars. I can guarantee you that, today, hundreds if not thousands of our 2.4 million members and supporters are not just hiking, they are scrambling up Rocky Mountain peaks, rafting through the Grand Canyon, trekking across the desert, and listening to Steller's jays argue in the boughs of giant sequoias.

But as the Club entered the 21st century, we realized that simply saving the places we loved wouldn't be enough. If we fail to address the threat of climate destruction, we could see much of the progress we have achieved -- John Muir's legacy -- undone.

So we did what John Muir did when he learned that his beloved Yosemite National Park was threatened: We organized. And, over the past decade, thanks to countless volunteers and the support of millions of Americans, we've succeeded in stopping many dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuel projects. We're proud of that work. But it's still not enough.

Here is where we can really learn from John Muir -- a man who loved wilderness so much that he took presidents camping and hiking to share his passion (and win their support). We cannot succeed if we define ourselves solely by the things that we're against. We must be just as effective, creative, and tenacious at identifying and establishing the positive solutions we do want to see. In other words, before we tell a policymaker what they should not do, we need to be sure we have a counterproposal for what they can do instead. I'll go even further. We need to show everyone in America what we can do instead.

That is what the Sierra Club is dedicated to doing today. We want to do for clean energy what John Muir did for wilderness 120 years ago. We want to show Americans -- show the entire world -- what clean, renewable energy can do for this planet we love so much.

There's no shortage of good news about renewable energy -- I see something exciting practically every day -- and each new development is another reason for optimism. That's what we should be shouting from the rooftops this Earth Day. Because if we don't get the message out there that we can turn away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy on a larger scale, then who are the optimists? Think about it. If the only news that people ever hear is that carbon emissions are rising at an alarming rate, or that the effects of climate destruction are visible sooner than we thought, or that our leaders don't seem able to summon the political will to respond, well, then why should anybody have hope? In that situation, the only optimists will be the denialists. If we don't articulate a vision for a prosperous society powered by clean energy, then the only "optimistic" perspective is to deny reality and bury one's head in the sand. And that's a dangerous thing to do when the seas are rising.

So here's what I want everyone to remember this Earth Day: The world is a wonderful place. In just 90 minutes, enough sunlight strikes this planet to provide our planet's entire energy needs for one year. The contiguous United States has enough potential wind energy to provide all of our nation's electricity -- nine times over. Renewable energy has become economically competitive faster than anyone imagined just a few years ago -- in many places it is already beating all fossil fuels and nuclear power on price alone. Our progress toward a prosperous society powered by 100 percent safe, secure, and sustainable energy is unstoppable. We will get there -- the only question is how soon. The answer? The sooner the better.

Got it? Now, make like Muir and spread the word!

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Michael Brune

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