Supporting a Fast for Families

December 04, 2013

Fast4FamiliesI was honored to meet some real heroes yesterday on the National Mall. Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union, Dae Joong Yoon of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, Cristian Avila of Mi Familia Vota, and Lisa Sharon Harper of the Christian social-justice group Sojourners. All four had gone for 22 days without food in an attempt to galvanize Congress into moving forward on immigration reform.

I also had the privilege to meet labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder with César Chávez of the National Farmworkers Association (later the United Farmworkers of America), who participated in a portion of the fast.

I've written before about why the Sierra Club supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. There's no excuse for forcing millions of people to live outside the prevailing currents of our society, where they are frequently exploited and where they often suffer the worst effects of environmental pollution.

Having risked their health to make their point, the original four long-term fasters have now passed their vigil on to new advocates. They've also been joined by thousands of other citizens in shorter solidarity fasts. The immediate goal is to persuade House Speaker John Boehner to at least allow immigration reform to be brought to the floor (the Senate passed its own bill on June 27).

Although the current Congress has an unmatched record of un-achievement on practically every major issue, there's still time to contact your representatives and let them know that you want to see immigration reform brought to the House floor. Time is running out, though -- Congress is only in session for a little more than a week.

The Road Ahead (and Some Bumps Along the Way)

November 21, 2013

Between the devastation in the Philippines, deadly floods in Sardinia and Vietnam, and the COP 19 UN climate change summit in Poland, the last ten days or so have delivered more than the usual collection of global stories on climate and energy issues. But a lot was going on here at home, too, and those stories speak both to why we need a 100 percent clean energy future and the road that will get us there.

Even if they weren't a threat to our climate, fossil fuels would still be dangerous enough to make getting rid of them a good idea. A week ago today, a small town in Texas had to be evacuated after a construction crew accidentally drilled into a 10-inch liquefied petroleum gas pipeline owned primarily by Chevron. Thankfully, no one was killed by the resulting massive explosion. The incident was a reminder that both fossil fuels and the pipelines used to transport them are by definition "accidents waiting to happen."

It was also sobering last week when CBS News reported that the tar sands pipeline TransCanada is building from Oklahoma to Texas appears to be rife with defects like bad welds. This is the same pipeline that President Obama was talking about in March of last year when he boasted he had directed his administration to "cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority." Priority or not, the 125 faulty sections of pipeline that TransCanada is being forced to replace are ample evidence that the company is too irresponsible to be allowed to complete the entire Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross the U.S. from north to south carrying toxic tar sands crude that is more likely to spill, more toxic in the air and water, and nearly impossible to clean up.

Fossil fuels are inherently dangerous, but it's especially frustrating when that danger is amplified because of bad decisions by people who should know better. Last week we had an especially egregious example of that when the EPA caved in to the state of Kentucky's request to weaken clean water standards for selenium pollution from mountaintop-removal coal mines. The standard Kentucky wanted -- and which the EPA approved -- is even weaker than a similar one that George W. Bush's EPA proposed but ultimately withdrew after strong objections from government scientists. This was new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy's first ruling on coal, and she failed miserably.

Don't worry, last week also brought some very good news. The Tennessee Valley Authority will retire coal-burning generating stations at three locations in Alabama and Kentucky, which brings the total number of announced coal-plant retirements to 154. And in Colorado, the final tally of ballots in the town of Broomfield made it official (pending one last recount) that all four fracking-moratorium measures in that state passed.

Of course, the essential complement to taking dirty fuels out of the equation is adding more clean fuels in their place. Last week, Pennsylvania, one of the states most ravaged by fossil fuel drilling in recent years, saw major progress on that front, too, with the introduction of a bill in the state legislature that would almost double the renewable portion of its energy generation (going from 8 to 15 percent) by 2023. If the bill passes, Pennsylvania will close much of the gap between itself and neighboring states like Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, which have all adopted renewable energy goals of 20 percent or more in the next decade or so.

In all, 30 states now have renewable electricity standards requiring utilities to generate a percentage of their power from clean sources. Someday, perhaps the entire nation will. A bill introduced by Senator Ed Markey would establish such a standard by requiring utilities to obtain at least 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass by 2025. That would put the U.S. in the company of 118 other nations that have already adopted national clean energy targets.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and we won't replace fossil fuels with clean energy based on the events of a single week, either. But the important thing to remember is that, once they happen, clean energy victories are irreversible. No one will tear down wind farms because they are nostalgic for fracking in our watersheds. And nobody will pull down their solar panels because they miss having mercury in their tuna or asthma inhalers for their kids. Because once we leave fossil fuels behind, we are never going back.

A Plea for Climate Action -- and Fast

November 15, 2013

As I mentioned earlier this week, the United Nations' COP19 Climate Change Conference opened in Warsaw this week, hard on the heels of Typhoon Haiyan, which has caused unknown thousands of deaths and left more than half a million people homeless in the Philippines. Haiyan is the second extreme weather event in 12 months to devastate the Philippines.

That prompted an impassioned plea from Philippine delegate Naradev "Yeb" Saño. "I speak for my delegation," he said, choking back tears, "but I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm, and those who have been orphaned by the storm. What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness."

Saño has pledged to fast until the conference delivers concrete action to address climate disruption. Many people at the conference were so moved by Commissioner Saño's speech that they have joined him in his fast, including members of our own Sierra Student Coalition. The Sierra Club supports an individual's right to engage in this very personal form of protest, and we likewise call for immediate action to address the climate crisis.

The real action at COP 19 will start next week as more delegates arrive from around the world. Will the negotiators acknowledge the "madness" of the climate crisis and act accordingly? Click here to send a message to Secretary Kerry urging him to show that the U.S. is ready to lead on this issue.

A Single Tragedy, a Global Crisis

November 13, 2013

There's still a lot we don't know about Typhoon Haiyan and its aftermath, but we know enough: thousands dead and many more still in danger. A staggering 9.5 million people were affected by the storm. Six days after Haiyan hit, rescuers still haven't been able to reach dozens of cities and towns, some of which were virtually obliterated.

Here's what we can do today: Contribute to one of the many relief organizations that are responding to the tragedy.

Was Haiyan the largest typhoon ever to make landfall? Does that even matter? To see how monstrous the storm really was, just look at this image that shows how it would have appeared off the U.S. East Coast. Apologies in advance for any nightmares this gives you.

Ironically, even as the people of the Philippines began the grim job of digging out from the destruction, delegates from nearly 200 nations were gathering in Poland for the 19th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. By 2015, they hope to have an international climate action agreement to replace the now-expired Kyoto Protocol -- with the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 3-4 degrees F above preindustrial levels.

Once upon a time, in a world before storms like Haiyan, Sandy, and Katrina, it seemed reasonable to pin our hopes on a UN climate agreement or on a U.S. cap-and-trade bill. You have a problem, you sign a treaty or pass a bill and consider it solved. We no longer live in such a world. Climate disruption is already killing thousands, and scientists tell us that we're on a path for much worse. There are times when the human race seems like an emphysemic smoker who has a heart attack, pops an aspirin, and reaches for another pack.

Right now, the people of the Philippines need humanitarian aid. But ultimately, we owe them -- and ourselves -- another commitment: We must eliminate the fossil fuels that are -- let's not mince words -- killing our planet.

It's not that we're doing nothing to achieve that goal. We're doing it as individuals by choosing clean energy options like electric cars and solar panels. We're doing it as communities by fighting to retire coal plants or pass fracking moratoriums. We're doing it in our cities, as when Los Angeles committed to replace coal with clean energy by 2025. We're doing it regionally, as when -- just a couple of weeks ago -- the leaders of British Columbia, California, Oregon, and Washington signed the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy to reduce emissions and transition toward renewables. And, yes, we're doing it nationally and internationally, as when the Treasury Department reaffirmed last month that the U.S. will end financial support for new coal projects overseas.

But we're still not doing what we already know we need to do quickly enough. In a world where we should be going out of our way to tackle this climate crisis, we're still exporting natural gas, considering tar-sands pipelines, and patting ourselves on the back for figuring out clever ways to drill more oil.

We can take two greater lessons from the horror of Typhoon Haiyan. One, the tragedy that has touched the Philippines today could have happened anywhere on this troubled planet. Two, this is but a foretaste of the misery we will call down upon ourselves if we fail to muster the kind of resolve that Winston Churchill did when called to lead his nation to victory. How will we succeed? By pursuing a 100 percent clean energy future "with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us."

The alternative? There is no alternative.

American Heroes and an American Issue

November 11, 2013

This day is dedicated to honor America's veterans for their service and sacrifice. Really, though, veterans deserve our gratitude every day. So on this Veterans Day, I want both to express that gratitude and to do a little bit more. First, I want to reaffirm the Sierra Club's commitment to helping our veterans (and serving military and their families) to explore and enjoy the land they have served. Then, I want to point out something that's too often overlooked about our veterans.

Every American deserves and can benefit from outdoor experiences, whether it's a local hike or a rugged trek in the mountains. That's a big part of what the Sierra Club is about. And no one deserves it more than our military and veteran community (and that includes families, spouses, and kids). That's what the Club's Military Families and Veterans Initiative is all about. A great way to learn what that means in terms of "boots on the ground" is to check out the blog of Stacy Bare, the director of Sierra Club Outdoors and himself a skier, climber, mountaineer, and, yes, U.S. Army veteran. Stacy knows firsthand how nature can heal the spirit, and his passion is infectious.

By the way, if you're a veteran, you don't have to wait for Stacy's next ice climbing expedition. The Sierra Club offers veterans a 10 percent discount on all of our national and international Outings trips.

From the start, our work with vets and military families has been collaborative, but one particular partner we've gained in the past year deserves special recognition: our federal government. It's no secret that the Sierra Club and the Bureau of Land Management haven't always seen eye-to-eye on every issue over the years, but helping veterans explore and enjoy our public lands is a mission we agree on 100 percent -- we even put it in writing last summer. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is committed to making the outdoors more accessible to vets (you can give her a big thumbs-up on that here).

Although Veterans Day is good time to ask what we can do for those who've served, it's also worth reminding ourselves what they can still do for us. Our veterans are an invaluable and too often under-appreciated national resource. One way many of them are still serving is by helping to build the clean energy economy. The White House reminded us of this last week with its latest "Champions of Change" event, which honored a dozen veterans who are innovating in clean energy and climate action, whether by starting businesses or spreading the word about why we need to leave fossil fuels behind. And, of course, veterans are doing much of the literal building, too, whether it's installing solar panels or working on wind turbines.

It's not just because of their skills that veterans are drawn to clean energy, though. Serving overseas puts energy issues in sharp relief: Our enemies target fuel convoys, and our soldiers are dying to protect fossil fuels. After you've put your life on the line because we need oil to get from point A to point B, you come to feel differently about the alternatives. Here's what Robin Eckstein, a truck driver during the Iraq War, said about the need for clean energy during the White House event last week: "It's not a right issue. It's not a left issue. It's an American issue."

We have no shortage of good reasons to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy. The day when we no longer need to ask anyone to risk his or her life for dirty fuels is the one to remember today.

Winners and Losers

November 07, 2013

With nearly all the results from Tuesday's election now final, those of us fighting for a healthy planet and healthy communities can claim some major victories all across the country. But it wasn't just candidates who won. Election Day was also a big victory for a stable climate and for the thousands of volunteers who put themselves on the front line for a clean energy future.

In Virginia, one of the nation's most prominent climate deniers was denied the governor's house. State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who wasted taxpayer dollars attacking climate science, lost his gubernatorial bid to the Sierra Club-endorsed Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe wants to cut climate pollution and champions clean energy jobs. That's why hundreds of volunteers from the Sierra Club and other groups hit the phones, pounded the pavement, and did the hard work necessary to spread the word that Ken Cuccinelli's anti-clean energy agenda was too extreme -- and it paid off.

At the other end of the country, four county-council races in Whatcom County, Wash., delivered a huge defeat to big coal companies and a big victory for clean energy. At issue was who in Whatcom will decide whether to build the Cherry Point coal export terminal, which would be a losing deal for regional air and water quality, as well as for the health of our climate. Again, local volunteers went to work, mobilizing to educate voters about the importance of the elections -- and why our four endorsed candidates needed to win. Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by big polluters, all four of our clean-energy candidates are now expected to take council seats in Whatcom.

Moving east, we had some more successes. Three counties in Colorado successfully passed moratoriums on fracking -- stopping gas companies in their tracks by standing up for clean air and clean water. And a fourth county narrowly missed approving a moratorium, losing by just 13 votes, which will in all likelihood trigger a recount. Polluters spent close to $1 million in Colorado to push their agenda but, once again, grassroots activists showed that organizing can still beat big money -- even when outspent 60 to 1.

Progress in the Centennial State wasn't limited to standing up to the drillers. In Boulder, voters rejected a ballot measure sponsored by utility giant Xcel Energy, a company with a history of dirty links to coal and other fossil fuel  industries. Xcel spent more than twice as much as its opponents did -- but climate champions prevailed again, and Boulder can now work to run its own electric system using renewable energy.

Perhaps the biggest message from these elections is that, given the chance, voters will support clean energy and climate action with their ballots. And, as we saw in Virginia, actively opposing climate action is a losing strategy. Although we can be certain that the opponents of clean energy aren't ready give up just yet, it's equally true that those running for office must now decide whether they want to stand with solutions or stand in the way. Those who continue to insist on the latter will do so at their peril.

Unhappy Anniversary

October 28, 2013

A year has passed since Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, slammed into the Eastern Seaboard, causing $65 billion in damage. On the day of this unhappy anniversary, though, we can't really say the disaster is behind us. Thousands of families are still unable to return to their homes. Some people have lost everything, including the hope of getting it back.

The destruction from Sandy wasn't even the only extreme-weather disaster during the past year. Colorado is still reeling from a triple whammy of drought, wildfires, and then unprecedented floods that forced thousands more to evacuate their homes.

What's going on? These terrible events are consistent with what climate scientists have told us to expect from a warmer climate: wetter (and therefore more powerful) storms in some places; hotter, prolonged droughts in others. Our planet is a complicated and surprisingly sensitive system. Radically altering inputs such as the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is like letting a toddler randomly start flipping switches in the cockpit of an in-flight 747. How many switches do you think can be safely flipped? I'd hate to find out.

Although nothing could justify the devastation and heartbreak caused by Sandy in the East or by the fires and floods in the West, there has been one positive result. We've reached a tipping point in public concern about climate disruption. No longer does this issue seem like something that will happen in a distant future and to someone else. Even if we haven't experienced extreme weather firsthand, we know someone who has.

What can we do about it? First, we have to kick that kid out of the cockpit. We need to reduce and ultimately eliminate the carbon pollution that is altering our atmosphere and disrupting our climate. We've made progress, too. Last year, greenhouse gas emissions reported to the EPA by polluters reached their lowest level in almost 20 years. At the same time, clean-energy technologies like wind and solar are growing exponentially -- faster than anyone could have guessed just a few years ago.

And yet, it's still not fast enough. The disaster that is runaway climate pollution won't begin to subside until we stop burning fossil fuels entirely and start running our economy on 100 percent clean energy. We can do that, too, but it won't happen through wishful thinking. We need to act. President Obama's climate action plan, although not perfect, includes the first-ever action by the EPA to limit climate-disrupting carbon emissions from their single biggest source: power plants. While standards for gas plants still need to be strengthened, the new standards would clean up new coal power plants, and the agency is planning to propose similar standards for existing power plants next year.

No one can stop the next superstorm, mega wildfire, or 1,000-year flood. But we can get behind stopping the pollution that's disrupting our climate. Tell the EPA right now: We need the strongest possible safeguards against industrial carbon pollution from new coal and gas-burning power plants.

How to Build a Clean-Energy Future

October 24, 2013

By now, we know what to expect if we fail to act on climate disruption: more severe storms, wildfires, droughts, and destruction. To avoid that future, we have to make stopping carbon pollution a priority.

But at the same time, people are also realizing that this is more than an urgent challenge -- it's a fantastic opportunity. We have the chance to do something that's never been done: build a society that is 100 percent powered by clean energy. Instead of being daunted, we should be thrilled.

When he laid out his Climate Action Plan last summer, President Obama touched on both the challenge and the opportunity ("I want America to build that future"). Then, last month, the EPA unveiled one of the most important elements of that plan: proposed safeguards to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants. The new standards are a huge step toward meeting the challenge, but they also show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to seizing our historic opportunity.

The good news is that these safeguards set the first national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that can be emitted by coal-fired power plants, which are our single biggest source of that pollution. Tough standards for carbon pollution will not only address climate disruption but also prevent life-threatening air pollution like toxic mercury, dirty soot, and the smog that triggers asthma attacks, so this is really good news indeed.

The not-so-good news is that the standards reveal the current limits of President Obama's vision. Because the standards do nothing to reduce carbon pollution from natural-gas-fired power plants, they stop short of going "all in" on clean energy. By giving natural gas a free pass, the president's policies haven't really committed to a clean-energy future.

To reach that future, we (and the president) need to do more than move beyond dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil. We need to move beyond pessimism -- the kind of thinking that limits our ambition and our willingness to fight for big ideas.

Once that happens, we'll have reached the true tipping point for clean energy. The change won't be linear: As we get bigger inventories of clean energy, the costs will come down and renewables will go head to head with fossil fuels everywhere -- and they'll win.

We're already seeing that begin to happen in places like Southern California, where a new gas plant was shelved because solar came in cheaper, and in Colorado, where the state's largest power provider plans to triple the amount of solar and wind that's coming online because it's cheaper and more reliable than gas or coal.

Although these carbon pollution safeguards will be a partial victory, the ground we gain will never be lost. That's the great thing about clean-energy progress. Once we leave fossil fuels behind, we will never go back. No one will tear down wind farms because they're nostalgic for fracking in our watersheds. People won’t rip off solar panels because they miss having mercury in their tuna or asthma inhalers for their kids.

Not only are the EPA's proposed new carbon pollution safeguards taking us a step closer to the future we want, they also are building momentum for another, even greater step: proposed carbon pollution protections for existing power plants, which are due in the middle of next year.

You can help. After a delay because of the federal government shutdown, the EPA has begun holding a series of listening sessions across the country to solicit "ideas and input from the public and stakeholders about the best Clean Air Act approaches to reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants." Find out here if there's a session near you. If there is, speak up! Let the EPA know that the only way to go "all in" on a clean-energy future is to put polluting fossil fuels behind us for good.

Fracking: The Other EPA Shutdown

October 16, 2013

Positive news stories during the shutdown of government services were scarce, so it was nice to read this one about furloughed scientists from the Water Protection Division of the EPA in Atlanta deciding to volunteer some of their (unexpectedly) free time cleaning up a local creek. "All of us really believe that our life's work is to protect and restore rivers and streams for people and animals that rely on them -- paid or not," said EPA biologist Lisa Gordon.

Sometimes we overlook that the EPA (and the rest of our government, for that matter) is made up of people who take pride in serving their community and doing a good job. And as I've written before, we need the EPA to have our back when it comes to protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe. If they don’t, we're in big trouble.

Unfortunately, when it comes to hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the EPA has let down its guard. Go to the EPA's webpage on fracking, and the first sentence sounds like it came from a fossil fuel PR flak: "Natural gas plays a key role in our Nation's clean energy future."

Even if you defined "key role" as a dirty and dangerous drilling boom with lax and inconsistent regulation as the result of loopholes in seven major federal laws and regulatory programs, that sentence would still be only half-true. That's because natural gas is unequivocally not part of any clean energy future. As long as we're still drilling and burning gas, we still have at least one foot stuck in the dirty-fuel past.

Far worse than Orwellian website rhetoric about the future, though, is the EPA's failure to respond to on-the-ground harm that fracking is causing to communities right now. Over the past year, the agency has shut down its own fracking-related water contamination investigations in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, in at least one case (Dimock, PA), this happened in spite of evidence from the EPA's water tests that the drinking water was polluted with fracking chemicals.

Next week, I'll join thousands of young activists who care about a real clean energy future at Power Shift in Pittsburgh, PA. One thing we'll be doing is challenging EPA Director Gina McCarthy to reopen the investigations into fracking contamination of local water supplies in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming. You can add your voice to our message here.

The problems with fracking aren't limited to just a few states, though -- they extend across the U.S. and around the world. If you care about the drinking water where you live, you owe it to yourself to join Global Frackdown, which is this Saturday, October 19. The EPA may have taken its eye off the ball, but many good people around the world are refusing to stand by while the oil and gas industries recklessly threaten our drinking water. Global Frackdown Day is a good opportunity to find out who's fighting that good fight in your own community and learn more about what's at stake. 

A Game Without Winners

October 10, 2013

As the shutdown of the federal government drags on, Americans are angry. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching with nervous disbelief as we edge toward defaulting on our debts. And with each additional day the shutdown continues, the damage gets worse.

The national parks, of course, have been closed since the beginning, which has meant both bitter disappointment and increasing economic hardship for millions. But the damage doesn't stop there. We're seeing everything from coal-mining accidents to cancellation of this year's polar climate research to delays in implementation of life-saving clean-air standards by the EPA, along with other parts of President Obama's Climate Action Plan.

We have good reason to be angry, frustrated, and worried. But even if the current crisis is resolved, those emotions will have been wasted if we don't find a way to deal with the underlying problems that have led to this chronic governmental dysfunction. Chief among these is that our members of Congress spend more time pleading with wealthy donors for campaign funds than working on problems that affect the rest of us.

At the same time, Congress has come unmoored from basic democratic principles to the point where a minority can hold the government hostage. To do so by threatening something as radical as defaulting on the federal debt is not negotiation -- it's pulling the pin on a grenade.

The mentality of Tea Party Republicans that brought us to this debt crisis is the same one that exacerbates the climate crisis: a rigid ideology devoid of facts, reason, or any desire to identify common ground.

The recklessness and irresponsibility that we're seeing from Republicans in the House are symptoms of a system that demands reform. If nothing else good comes of the current mess, let's hope it raises awareness of that fact. The solutions need not be radical. In Iowa, a Democratic representative and one of his Republican colleagues discussed adopting redistricting reforms that would encourage more-competitive races. President Obama, too, raised the issue of gerrymandered districts during his press conference this week, as well as noting the corrosive effect of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign spending.

As I noted in my previous post, the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission case currently before the Supreme Court could make things even worse by removing limitations on individual contributions to political campaigns. That's why the Sierra Club and its partners in The Democracy Initiative were out in force this week to call attention to the issue.

The media like to talk about who's "winning" in the blame game. The real answer is that, without real reform, nobody can win. Only by restoring our democracy, will we be free to tackle the real challenges of this century. Congress needs to get its act together. It can start by ending this shutdown and reopening our national parks. Then let's makes sure it doesn't stop there.


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