Bringing the Fight for Climate Change Home, Minnesota Style

Shreveport   There’s no real debate about whether climate change is huge threat. You don’t have to believe the science, but you can’t deny what Richard Pryor famously called the evidence available to your “lying eyes.” We see it everywhere around us from the diminishing coastline to earlier Springs and more violent storms. The problem for many people is figuring out what they can do to be effective besides turning down the thermometer, putting out their recycling, sending the occasional donation, and answering the call to march when it’s made. So much of the problem seems global past our reach, so how do we have impact on such a huge crisis locally?

One answer to this question was provided by Kevin Whelan when I was talking to him recently on Wade’s World. Kevin after years as a community organizer and communications specialist with ACORN and others, is now executive director of Minnesota 350, and in our conversation it became clear that he and his associates there are trying to develop an organization and action model that translates the horror of global climate change into local action.

350.org is a well-known campaign and advocacy formation focusing on climate change, started as Whelan described it, by a professor, in this case Bill McKibben, and “seven students.” 350 refers to the level at which carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere passes the critical point at 350 parts per million. It is now over 400.

As Kevin described it, Minnesota 350 is a rarity though. It is not an affiliate of 350.org nor was it organized by 350.org. Rather, there were some activists in Minnesota who saw climate change as a critical issue and wanted to figure out a way to respond to the crisis, and decided to organize and reached out to 350.org and essentially asked if they would mind if they used 350 as part of the name of the organization they wanted to build. So, yes, the website says Minnesota350.org, but that’s more of a website thing than anything else. They are certainly federated and allied with 350.org, but an independent and autonomous operation in Minnesota.

This has translated in recent years to a lot of involvement and organizational action in pipeline fights. They played a key role in opposing a pipeline from the controversial and dangerous Tar Sands area of Alberta, Canada that would have run to Lake Superior, that is stopped for now. They were also heavily involved in supporting the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which galvanized a movement, though thus far has a less happy ending. Kevin movingly described four visits to Standing Rock and how much it meant.

Minnesota 350 has learned many lessons in how to bring this global catastrophe to the level of local action but in talking to Kevin, they believe they need to bring-the-fight-home by figuring out a way to inject the issue into local and state politics, which would also mean holding representatives elected to represent Minnesota in Congress accountable on this issue. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion, and it is worth keeping an eye on Minnesota 350, because we might all need to follow their lead.

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Logistical and Strategic Challenges at Standing Rock

Casey Camp with her two sons (Mekasi Camp-Horinek on the left) at the Reject and Protect event in Washington, DC. (Photo by Garth Lenz for Bold Nebraska and iLCP)

Casey Camp with her two sons (Mekasi Camp Horinek on the left) at the Reject and Protect event in Washington, DC. (Photo by Garth Lenz for Bold Nebraska and iLCP)

New Orleans   The election is over, but there is still a tremendous struggle being waged by the Standing Rock Sioux and a host of allies from tribes all over the country and supporters in a face-off with the pipeline constructors coming ever closer to the embattled and sacred areas. I talked to Mekasi Camp Horinek of Bold Alliance on Wade’s World on KABF, and got a closer understanding of where this fight stands today, both imperiled and a rally cry for many around the country, from his perspective after the last three months he has been part of the occupation.

North Dakota in November can be harsh country on its vast plains and hillsides. My first question to Mekasi had been about the weather. In order to get good enough cellphone coverage for radio, he had climbed to the top of the ridge to call me. He reported there was a dense fog that morning with visibility no more than fifty feet and, worse, there were ice crystals in the fog with the temperature dropping. It goes without saying that adds up to rough weather for an encampment. Having seen news reports of recent standoffs where more than one-hundred were arrested, I asked him how many people were in the encampment at Standing Rock. I was shocked when he responded that 2300 people were staying in the camp. In North Dakota, that’s a small city, even if they are sixty miles south of Bismark. I can’t even imagine the logistical challenges of housing and feeding that number, but Mekasi shrugged off the question, saying that they were getting support from everywhere, people were staying in tents and teepees with wood stoves.

Mekasi’s organization, Bold Alliance, has refitted one of those barn-shed structures you see for sale at Lowe’s and Home Depots across the country with insulation, solar panels, and a wood stove so that it will sleep six. Willie Nelson funded the first one, and they have twenty being delivered the first of December so that more people can winter at the site, but they are still raising the money for those. Talking over the weekend to Chapman Clark in New Orleans organizing a supply truck to go to Standing Rock at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse this week and one of many around the country doing the same, when I asked him about the huge logistical challenges of this kind of action, he also shrugged in his own way, saying this is now just something that people know how to do in the aftermath of Occupy. Good skills to have!

Mekasi and Bold Alliance have been fighting pipelines from Keystone to Standing Rock. They want the pipeline stopped. In Keystone, a victory securing an environmental impact statement made a huge difference. There has been none at Standing Rock. The big hope is that President Obama’s promise that the Corp of Engineers is looking for another route to avoid sacred areas will be delivered, but construction continues every day, and the Corp report has been postponed, forcing more nonviolent protests. The reaction has been fierce and brutal. Mekasi and his mother were part of the more than one-hundred arrested. They were held for eight hours, even having the bail money available. Many others are still being held without bail. They were put in dog cages in the basement of the courthouse in miserable, inhuman conditions.

This is a fight that deserves more attention and needs huge support. Time to stop with our worry beads and make sure we’re still doing the work.

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Please enjoy Flipside by Norah Jones. Thanks to KABF.

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Fracking Threatening Chaco Canyon

Chaco_Canyon_Chetro_Ketl_great_kiva_plaza_NPSLake Buckhorn    If you don’t know about Chaco Canyon and the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, I hate to be the one to tell you, since it is an incredibly significant archaeological wonder here on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and so fragile and, frankly, spiritual that as a visitor you almost feel both honored to be there on one hand and reticent almost to speak above a whisper until you depart. Camping there you feel the stars are at your fingertips and the quiet is literally unearthly as if the Anasazi or ancient ones are still right at your shoulder. Chaco Canyon is more than 30 miles off of a dirt road off the highway to visit, so few do, relatively speaking. You have to mean to go there. If you do, the rewards are amazing. My partner and I were so moved that a year later after our last visit, we named our son, Chaco when he was born.

For those unfamiliar with the history, there was a time when Chaco Canyon was the largest city within the footprint of the continental United States. Between 850 C.E. or Current Era and 1250 C.E., this canyon in the San Juan Basis was the hub of a 10000 square kilometer Pueblo culture with roads leading in every direction as trade routes within an amazing network. After 400 years, this sophisticated civilization disappeared in an unresolved mystery with speculation ranging from the loss of arable land for crops for the population to discussions about cannibalism.

Now, the continued surge of oil and gas exploration and development, especially through fracking, is muscling in on Chaco Canyon and archaeologists, environmentalists, and Native American activists have been battling against the odds to try and protect this incredible treasure. They need all the help that we can give them.

A map in Science magazine dramatically illustrates the scope of the problem as oil and gas leases discolor much of northwestern New Mexico. In a temporary victory, the Bureau of Land Management created a 16-kilometer buffer around the park itself. Campaigners are trying to push the federal government into making the buffer permanent. Archaeologists are arguing for an even wider protected region. They have identified 200 great houses as far away as Colorado and as far south as Mexico along Chacoan roads five to ten meters in width and theorize that there may be almost as many unidentified and undiscovered.

Many in the tribal communities are divided. Even though wanting to protect the area, the dire poverty of many families makes them easy prey for oil and gas land men and the couple of thousand dollars they are offering to obtain access to their land in order to move drilling programs forward. As Ora Marek-Martinez, director of the Navajo Nation’s Historic Preservation Department says, “The socioeconomic situation is that many of our people had pretty much nothing, no electricity or running water. Everything here is sacred; our spirituality is tied to the landscape. More and more of our communities are saying they are against the drilling.”

The least any of us can do is lend support by signing one of the many petitions to stop the fracking and development in the Chaco Canyon area. One of them is available on the website of the Native Voice Network. 

For those who can do more, please step up so Chaco Canyon can survive for all of those who love it and for those of you who will one day want to visit and share the experience.

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Karnataka Government Becoming Environmental?

Gaur at the sharp boundary between tea plantation and native forest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photos taken by Dr Christopher Young.

Gaur at the sharp boundary between tea plantation and native forest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photos taken by Dr Christopher Young.

Bengaluru       Although the national government in India seems so biased towards business and development that NGOs, unions, and others worry for their future, some state governments seem to be feeling the wind blow a different direction leaving some hope for the future.  The two-year old government in Karnataka, claiming Bengaluru as its largest city, may be one encouraging example.

The local Deccan Chronicle gives the new government low marks on many issues but pointedly in article after article scores them highly on environmental issues including no tolerance towards problems throughout the state in mining disputes.  The scoring must be on a curve though since the previous day’s Deccan Chronicle story on a major study of the Western Ghats, part of the higher ground, watershed feeding Karnataka and several other Indian states, reported the study as a battle of “miners vs greens.”  An earlier report on the ecologically sensitive area or ESA had sought a blanket ban on mining and industrial activity in 69% of the area, while a newer report would only limit 39%, bringing 60000 square kilometers under the ESA and the ban.  The Karnataka government has not agreed to stop quarrying and sand mining yet, citing development needs.

The paper gives the government more consistent good grades on their policies around land encroachment, which can be translated as stopping builders from erecting developments on vital wetlands and lake beds, an issue well understood in Florida, Louisiana, and other Gulf States in the USA.  In one area they have demolished commercial areas and resorts on 140 acres.   Not that they had much choice since a higher court had ordered the action after residents brought a lawsuit complaining of the constant flooding in their houses, particularly during the monsoon season.  The demolitions do not affect residents, so it’s a tricky environmental problem.

Advocates, including Leo Saldanha with the Environmental Support Group, who ACORN India’s organizers see as the benchmark on such issues, argue that the lakes need to be rejuvenated in order to serve as catchment areas and rebuild the water table.  They are demanding a cleanup of all of the concrete debris from the building demolition in order to achieve those results, and worry that anything less by the government will lead to future encroachment or the creation of a dumping ground.  If the lake is unable to once again hold water, then it must be limited to growing trees, not further development, they argue.

Once again the scorecard is not simple, indicating that concerns over the environment and any curbs on development are still difficult even as the current government seems to be doing better.  Protests are continuing by various community organizations in the encroachment areas whose stated aim is to prevent the government from “caving in to the builders.”

Old habits seem hard to break, but the balance seems to be shifting in the state from development at any cost to a recognition that the environment has to be a first priority as well in order to make the growing city of Bengaluru sustainable.

India Greenpeace Funds-1

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Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning

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Bakken Oil Trains: Bombs on Wheels in our Cities

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014. Virginia environmental officials have proposed a $361,000 civil fine against CSX Transportation Inc. as punishment for a 2014 derailment that saw nearly 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil dumped in and around the James River.

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014. Virginia environmental officials have proposed a $361,000 civil fine against CSX Transportation Inc. as punishment for this 2014 derailment that saw nearly 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil dumped in and around the James River.

New Orleans    The Department of Transportation and the Federal Railway Administration along with the government of Canada have issued new rules for oil tankers on trains, strengthening the tank cars and requiring installation of new brakes in coming years.  It is not just because there is so much oil moving from Bakken oil formation underlying Montana, North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan due to shale oil fracking that they have demanded changes, it’s mainly because Bakken oil is more highly combustible so that derailments and accidents have been like wartime explosions creating destruction, havoc, and deaths when they blow.

So, this is all good, right?

After interviewing Nancy Nusser from Public Citizen’s oil and coal project in Texas on Wade’s World, it was clear to me that this is only half the battle, if that.  Public Citizen and their allies in Texas have been campaigning relentlessly to try and convince the EPA, the DOT, or anyone else they can get to listen about the dangers of Bakken oil trains as bombs on wheels going through our cities without warning.

Forest Ethics makes an interesting case as well.  First they argue that, “Oil train derailments are happening pretty much every single month.Aliceville, Alabama; Casselton, North Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia…the list goes on to include deadly derailments like the July 2013 Quebec disaster, which took the lives of 47 people.”  More powerfully they produce a map showing the train routes and note that the blast area on either side of the tracks is 1600 meters recommended for evacuations.  The map is a spider web through Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana of course, but really throughout the entire country given the demand for oil.

Public Citizen’s Nusser made the point forcefully using Houston as an example and noting that schools, churches, and hospitals lay along the route of the tracks. They have been demanding that these bomb trains be rerouted outside of dense urban areas to prevent the most catastrophic tragedies.  Since the DOT and others are agreeing that the tank cars have to be beefed up, all of us might have thought that at the least since most of the existing tank cars date to 1970 that they would provide some kind of protection for us in the meantime, but the new regulations are all silent on that issue.  Living three blocks from train tracks and not far from a switching yard, I was following all of this closely.  Speaking of switching yards, working with the Brazos River Bottom Alliance they are also challenging Union Pacific Railways proposal to build a giant rail switching yard in Mumford in that area.  Sure, it’s good that they didn’t propose it for downtown Houston, but surprisingly there seems to be no environmental impact statements required for such a project, even given the potential risks.

The other key demand ignored by the new standards was the common sense suggestion that the railroads, whether UPR or billionaire Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern, the other big carrier, alert fire departments and other urban first responders so that they are prepared whenever one of these bomb trains rolls through the city.  An early warning system would allow responders to know what the contents were on the train and, though there’s always a hope and prayer that nothing will go awry, such notice would make the response more effective and save lives and property in the event of an accident.  Given how much of railroad operations are now computerized, this would have been a trivial matter to implement, but no such luck.  Nusser was crystal clear that efforts to engage the railroads directly had been exercises in futility.

A little progress is good, but much more needs to be done to keep our cities safe, especially because these train tracks are invariably running through lower income and working neighborhoods where the last thing we need is any more wreck and ruin.

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“Freight Train”  Elizabeth Cotton

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Marching for a Climate Change Turning Point

2014-09-21t181449z_242980738_gm1ea9m064l01_rtrmadp_3_usa-climatechange-march.jpg_1718483346New Orleans    The march in New York demanding action on climate change was hard to get a handle on from a distance.  The Associated Press called the number 100,000.  The New York Times studiously avoided ever giving a number in the aftermath of the march, simply saying there were tens of thousands.  Finally, a week later the Times’ editorial page tagged the number at 300,000.  Between police, press, promoters, and regular people, it’s very difficult to get a handle on facts when it comes to organizing, and when we are looking for the heartbeat of a movement, it’s actually not just a question of engineering, but a way to measure passion, so it is actually very important.  So many mainstream institutions and media are so punctilious about not seeming to support protest that it is virtually impossible to benchmark the truth as opposed to the promotion.

            Talking to Dean Hubbard, national director of the Labor Project for the Sierra Club, on Wade’s World on KABF recently, opened up a different perspective.  Dean said they were astounded by the numbers.   They had expected 100,000 in New York City, but instead they thought the numbers had topped 400,000.  We’ll never know.  He argued, perhaps more interestingly, that the wider footprint of the march could be found in the hundreds of cities throughout the USA that did something on that date and the thousands of cities, large and small, that stepped up to the mark globally.

            President Obama seemed to have used some of this energy to argue more aggressively for action, not only in the USA, which as the worst of the worst, has to be a leader here, but also to challenge China to join the fight as the largest bulk polluter even though we are the greatest per capita polluter.  India, the next in line, seems still unwilling to join the fray.

            It’s Dean’s job to argue that the fight between jobs and the environment is finally reaching détente, and he made the case as best he could, and there’s merit to his argument.  His weakest point might have been the fact that there were 10,000 marchers under union banners in New York City, led by some predictable unions like the Service Employees, but also importantly the giant Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electricians, a critical chink in the armor of the construction trades which have been stubbornly resistant to many environmental arguments with a “jobs are everything” and the devil take the hindmost attitude.  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he supported retrofitting all of the buildings in New York City before he personally joined the march, was a key piece of leadership moving the NYC trades.

            Where Dean and the Sierra Club’s case improved was as he recited the increasing amount of alternative energy development that is replacing standard generation methods, and the number of jobs that are, and will be, produced by such construction, energy creation, and distribution.  It seems impossible to argue whether on the threat of climate change or the ticking time bomb of contemporary resource depletion that no matter the math now or the facts on the ground, that the tide of history is now flowing in the direction of Dean’s argument with the opponents cries simply being the gurgles of dinosaurs on their way to extinction, hopefully not bringing the rest of us with them.

 

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