Monday, March 3, 2014

Youth Dissent to Stop Fossil Fuel Extraction and Ensure a Livable Future

Earlier today, I joined 397 other young people in a civil disobedience action outside of the White House (that's me in the center!). Our demand was simple: No KXL. Through our peaceful protest, we sought to lift up the moral voice of our generation to push for ambitious action on climate. Building the KeystoneXL Pipeline and continuing to expand of fossil fuel infrastructure will lock us into decades of further emissions and a “game over” scenario for climate change.

As I have said in previous posts, we are running out of time to keep climate change under control. Put simply: we need to keep at least 2/3 of global fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming. Global governments have agreed to limit total warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures, and from this target climate scientists can calculate how much fossil fuels we can burn to stay within that limit. The total “burnable carbon” comes to 565 GtC, which is five times smaller than the total amount of carbon in all the world’s coal, oil, and gas reserves (2795 GtC). These numbers are neatly broken down in the info graphic below:

These overall carbon numbers allow us to calculate how the pace of oil consumption matches up with projections for future climate change. The graph below from Oil Change International shows the results. The main takeaway is that the oil industry is developing 22.5 million barrels/day more than that allowed under our climate goals. What this means is that we are on a path towards a 6 degree C rise in temperature, or a "Massive climatic change and irreparable damage to the planet."

Much of this new oil development comes from extreme sources such as the "tar sands" of Canada, which requires new infrastructure like the KeystoneXL Pipeline. And therein lies the challenge. If we're serious about dealing with climate change, we CAN'T burn oil extracted from tar sands. We CAN'T increase natural gas consumption through hydraulic fracturing; there is just too much carbon (let alone methane leakage). We need to rapidly expand low carbon energy. Further delaying this transition is not a choice if we are to ensure a sustainable world.

The young people present at the XL Dissent rally today understand this stark reality. We see further fossil fuel extraction as a death sentence for our future. Once you look at recent climate science and understand the carbon budget, it becomes fairly clear that we need a radical change. Nibbling at the margins won't do it. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need a complete energy system overhaul within the next few decades in order to be net-zero emissions by 2050.

Ultimately, this global transition to zero-carbon requires monumental shifts in policy, with a centerpiece of a high price on carbon. But that's not yet politically possible. So young people have taken to organize in the ways that we can win immediately, through strategic divestment campaigns and by pressuring Obama to reject KeystoneXL. Through these efforts focused on short-term victories, we are building the long-term power needed to shift our political system at all levels of government towards embracing a fossil free future.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

2014: The Defining Year of the Critical Decade to Act on Climate

“All years are important, but decisions made in 2014 will have a striking impact for decades to come. –Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute

While celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2009, as the clock ticked down to a new decade I felt a tinge of apprehension.  The Copenhagen climate talks had just failed, yet the evidence was mounting that climate change was becoming more and more threatening.  As the clock struck midnight and 2009 turned into 2010, I sensed that this was the critical decade.  The next ten years, from 2010 to 2020, would largely define the state of the world for rest of the century.  Scientists have repeatedly warned that unless we peak total global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, we won't be able to stabilize the climate below 2 degrees C of warming.  Can we peak global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020?  Can we figure out a viable global agreement to collectively act on climate?  Can the US enact meaningful climate policy?  All of these questions loomed large for me in 2009 as I thought about the years ahead.

Four years later on this most recent New Year’s Eve, I held a similar feeling to 2009.  But rather than seeing the next decade as critical, I felt something more immediate: that this was the defining year of the critical decade.  The events of 2014 could largely drive global climate policy for the remainder of the decade, and perhaps even beyond.  As Andrew Steer of the World Resources noted in a recent article on stories to watch for 2014, “All years are important, but decisions made in 2014 will have a striking impact for decades to come.” In this post, I highlight the five most important climate decisions relevant to the United States in this defining year of the critical decade.

1) The strength of EPA carbon standards for the power sector:
For the first time ever, the United States is regulation carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.  With climate policy stalled in Congress, President Obama has directed the EPA to regulate carbon emissions through the Clean Air Act.  The first public draft of the proposed rules will be released on June 1.  If ambitious, the regulations will significantly reduce US carbon emissions and help meet the 17% reduction target Obama set out in Copenhagen.  If weak, the regulations will have little impact on US greenhouse gas emissions.

The graph below shows the stark choice available for the US.  Without strong policy, greenhouse gas emissions will rise (blue area).  With ambitious policy, we can achieve greater emission reductions than pledged at COP15 (green area) and create momentum for continued future reductions.  The strength of the EPA carbon regulations for power plants will be the key determinant what actually happens.

2) The final decision on the KeystoneXL pipeline:
While the EPA regulations are the major policy test for Obama’s stated commitment to “Act On Climate,” the KeystoneXL pipeline is by far his most important symbolic test.  With all of the organizing effort over the last few years on #NoKXL, Obama’s entire Climate Legacy (at least from the Climate Movement) will likely come down to this decision.  And with the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement by the State Department on Friday, the time is short before a final decision.  We should expect a decision to happen before the end of the summer.  It's now up to Obama: will he become the "Pipeline President" or a true "Climate Champion?"

3) The march at the Ban Ki-Moon Climate Summit:
On September 23, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon will convene a Climate Summit of heads of state to increase momentum for an ambitious global climate treaty in 2015.  The last time world leaders gathered solely to discuss climate change was in 2009 at Copenhagen in the disastrous finale of the UN climate treaty negotiations. Ban Ki-Moon told summit attendees that “I challenge you to bring to the Summit bold pledges... and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement through the UNFCCC process.”  

But ambition is not just being proposed inside the UN halls.  Inspired by the nuclear freeze march of over 1 million people in New York City in 1982, campaigners are already working to mobilize on an unprecedented scale outside of the meeting.  This demonstration will be the biggest climate march in world history.  But it's up to climate movement leaders to find the best way to use the Climate Summit as a transformative moment.

4) How climate change fares in the US Midterm elections:
Since the “Climate Silence” of the 2012 presidential election, climate has started to actually matter in electoral politics.  It certainly helps when billionaires like Tom Steyer are bank-rolling campaigns for pro-climate candidates.  But polling shows that the American electorate is increasingly embracing real policy on climate.  Recent work from Stanford shows that in every single state, a majority of Americans believe that climate change is happening and that governments should limit greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from power plants.  Meanwhile, conservatives and the coal continue to deny climate change and brand proposed carbon regulations as a “War on Coal.” 

Percentage of Americans who believe global warming been happening
Percentage of Americans Who Believe Global Warming Has Been Happening (source:
Given the hyper-polarized and gerrymandered nature of Congressional districts, not much is likely going to change in terms of the make-up of Congress.  However, the political perception of climate could see a shift akin to the shift on gay marriage that occurred last year.  According the Jeff Nesbit of ClimateNexus, by the end of 2014 climate denial will no longer be a tenable political position.  Many politicians will still remain that deny the problem and attempt to block progress, but there will be broad recognition that climate denial can no longer be maintained.  This could have big reverberations in midterm gubernatorial elections in swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which could pave the way for climate to be a key issue in 2016.

5) The US pledge for post-2020 greenhouse gas reductions:
This story will probably get the least traction throughout the year, but potentially the most important climate-policy decision will be how the US State Department crafts its reduction pledge for the 2015 climate treaty.  In Warsaw, countries agreed to submit their nationally-determined greenhouse gas reduction pledges to the UN by early 2015.  The US will likely determine this pledge based on its existing policies (most notably the carbon regulations of existing power plants) and the political calculus of future climate policies (based largely on the results of the 2014 midterm elections).  We won’t know the end results of the US pledge until early 2015.  But whatever the US pledges will impact the ambition brought forward by China, Europe, India, and other major emitters.  And for that reason, the US pledge may be one of the most important decisions in the world.

We don't yet know what Secretary of State John Kerr, Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern, and others at the State Department will include in their post-2020 pledge. But organizing from the climate movement throughout 2014 can create the political space needed to put real ambitious in the pledge that spurs the world to act in 2015 and beyond.

A Moral Response for the Defining Year of 2014: #FastForTheClimate
With all of these huge decisions looming, I want to offer two hopeful initiatives that I hope will help to turn the tide on climate throughout this critical year.  The first campaign, #FastForTheClimate, was started by Filipino UN climate negotiator Yeb Sano at COP19 this past November.  Every first day of the month, tens of thousands (and probably a lot more) fast in order to demonstrate the moral urgency of climate change.  I spent yesterday fasting, and intend to fast every first of the month for the entire year.

I realize that fasting by itself will not lead to any political change, but I believe that it provides a great starting point to talk about climate.  More that other tactics, I hope that fasting can highlight the moral injustice that those most impacted impacted (the poor in the least industrialized countries) have also contributed the least to the problem. This is a fast done in a spirit of solidarity, for as Yeb Sano says in this note on the movement, "Fasting for the Climate is Fasting for humanity."  If you are interested in joining this monthly fast, find more information here from the Lutheran World Federation, one of many partner organizations  in the movement.

Yeb Sano and young protesters fasting for the climate at COP19 in November.
Launching a New Initiative for a Year of Action: Climate Action Lab
The second initiative I want to share is "Climate Action Lab," a new program I am working full-time to create that will incubate youth-driven campaigns to push for ambitious domestic action on climate change. It will take groups of 8 to 10 committed young activists, put them together in a house (with expenses covered!) for three months, and help them run campaigns pushing for tangible policy change on climate. Climate Action Lab will be inaugurated with one house this spring, followed by a national expansion this summer.

A couple SustainUS friends and I started Climate Action Lab because we believe that empowering young people to lead is one of the best ways to push for deep emission cuts in the US. Climate Action Lab fellows will fight for aggressive carbon pollution standards at the national and state levels, since both the President and governors will be essential to bring about strong climate policy. If we're successful, we’ll slash US emissions and build the political will needed for ambitious global action on climate. As this blogpost shows, we have less than a year to change the course of history. So we're planning to make the most of it, and have the time of our lives while doing it.

The Avaaz 2009 action factory.
Photo of the 2009 Avaaz  Climate Action Factory, an inspiration for Climate Action Lab.
2014 will be an incredibly exciting year for action on climate.  I'm incredibly grateful to be part of this fight, and I invite you to join by supporting #FastForTheClimate, Climate Action Lab, or any of the other numerous campaigns pushing for climate justice throughout this defining year.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two Immediate Things You Can Immediately Do for Action on Climate in 2014

Dear friends,

Happy New Year! Hope you all had joyful celebrations last night with loved ones to welcome 2014. While I sent a full life update last week, today I'm sending a quick e-mail with two immediate actions you can take help us to all act on climate in the new year:

1) Donate to the SustainUS Holiday fundraiser.  
This scrappy youth climate organization means the world to me.  I joined SustainUS for the Rio+20 delegation in 2012, and I fell in love with the insightful and compassionate people that make up the organization.  I now serve as the SustainUS Campaign Strategy Coordinator, and I recently led the SustainUS delegation to Warsaw.

SustainUS is a lean, all-volunteer organization, and we squeeze the most we can out of every single dollar.  For one more day (January 1 only!), a generous donor has agreed to match all of the contributions.  So your donation will be doubled if you give today.  Whatever you can offer, it will make a big difference for our work in 2014.

If you can give, please contribute to SustainUS here:

2) Join in the #FastForTheClimate today and every first day of the month.  
In November, Filipino climate negotiator Yeb Sano fasted for the entire duration of COP19 to call on the world to "Stop the Climate Madness" by reducing carbon emissions and increasing aid to the poorest countries bearing the highest cost from climate disasters.  In 2014, Yeb and thousands of other activists around the world who will #FastForTheClimate on each first day of the month. 

I'm joining Yeb and many others in the #FastForTheClimate effort by not eating today.  I'm under no illusions that this will directly lead to the policy change that the world needs.  But I do believe that the act of fasting will help build up my spiritual capacity to endure this fight.  Fasting also helps to remind me top those that are less fortunate than me, especially those already suffering for climate-related weather disasters.

Five SustainUS members participated in the #FastForTheClimate during COP19, and I am excited to continue this effort.  I highly encourage you to consider joining, even if just for a day.  Click here to read more about the inspiration for SustainUS joining in #FastForTheClimate during COP19, then sign up to join the days of fasting in 2014.

As always, I'm incredibly grateful for your support. Happy New Year; let's make 2014 really matter.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

On Christmas, Some Reflections on Hope and the Climate Justice Movement

"It's best to not confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a psychological attitude toward life. Hope goes further. It is an anchor that one hurls toward the future, it's what lets you pull on the line and reach what you're aiming for" and head in "the right direction."   - Pope Francis

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”   - David Orr

Amidst the busy Christmas festivities of family, presents, and food I took some time to reflect on what the holiday means to me.  The Christmas story is a tale of Love and Renewal, but most of all it is a story of Hope.  The Hope of a savior, the Hope of peace on Earth.  To me the world often appears cruel and capricious, with widening social and economic divides, accelerating climate change, and a discourse where cynicism is the norm.  Yet the story of Hope offered at Christmas still holds promise, and in difficult years ahead, I believe that the virtue of Hope can be one of our greatest assets.

Today is also my 24th birthday.  There is nothing particularly significant about this change of age.  But it feels meaningful to me, in some ways serving as a marker of a loss of innocence.  Reflecting back on the past year, I feel as if I have come to terms with some hard truths about the dysfunction of our political system and the difficulty in building meaningful political power.  I’m no longer optimistic that we’re going to find ways sweeping legislative solutions to inequality, climate change, or other major challenges.  And with these doubts arising, I have been searching for more authentic forms of Hope.

I came of age politically in early 2008, during the primary campaign of Barack Obama.  The then-Senator and had many inspiring qualities, but the thing that most captured my imagination was the vision of Hope that surrounded his candidacy.  For me, “Hope” came to symbolize a profound renewal in our country’s politics and policies.  This call for Hope, along with the slogans of “Change” and “Yes We Can,” called for a shift in our priorities, an elevation of concern for the common good over individual wealth, power, and desires.  Many of us projected our vision of hope onto Obama, believing that his rhetoric would quickly translate into concrete change.  When that did not happen, we were deeply disappointed.

For me, the biggest disappointment in the promise of “Hope” in the Obama administration has been on climate change.  In his first Presidential campaign, Obama spoke of “ending the tyranny of oil” and of this being “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”  But within the first two years of his Presidency, the US failed to pass major climate legislation and the much-hyped Copenhagen climate talks failed to deliver a fair, ambitious, and binding treaty.  With the victory of the Tea Party in 2010, the chances for comprehensive climate legislation all but disappeared.

As tragedies wrought by extreme weather this year clearly demonstrated, climate disruption is already here.  From Hurricane Sandy to Typhoon Haiyan, from the wildfires in Colorado to the droughts in Texas, communities are already dealing with the impacts of our changing climate. I once saw climate change as a concrete and winnable challenge, something we could “Stop” or “Confront” and emerge victorious.  I now see the climate crisis as a slowly unfolding pattern, something that will continue to exacerbate the current struggles to achieve sustainability and social justice. It’s not something that will suddenly be solved, no matter what policies we pass, technology we develop, or treaties we negotiate.

Climate-fueled disasters are going to continue to get worse, because the climate system has a long delay (about 30 years) between CO2 emissions and resulting increases in temperature.  And as the IPCC, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the National Academy of Sciences, and many other expert scientific bodies have repeatedly warned, we are rapidly running out of time to prevent truly catastrophic warming.  If we honestly assess the climate trajectories, we are likely heading towards a world totally different from the one in which we now live, with vast  areas of productive land turned to desert, widespread collapse of species and ecosystems, wars fought over resources, and generally increased social strife.  We need to act urgently, both to reduce our current greenhouse gas emissions and transition the world’s energy systems, and to prepare for the inevitable stresses to come resulting from further climate disruption.

But even as the threat posed by climate change continues to grow, our political leaders appear largely paralyzed.  Half of the US Congress (at least on the House side) doesn’t even acknowledge that the problem is real.  The UN climate process is slated to conclude with a global treaty in 2015, but each new round of negotiations still features setbacks and broken promises.  It’s hard to be upbeat about the prospect of having a political breakthrough anytime soon.

Yet when I look out at the climate movement and assess our progress, I feel hopeful.  Not optimistic, because we are still a long ways from where we need to be in order to fundamentally shift power dynamics and move towards a clean energy, low-carbon world.  Hope is different than optimism.  In David Orr’s words, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”  Hope requires active effort.  And in the past year, the climate movement has displayed some fairly active hope.  Here are three such examples:

·         The KeystoneXL Pipeline: This wasn’t even an issue three years ago.  It quickly grew to be the defining symbol of the US climate movement, growing from a call to action to massive civil disobedience to a rally this past February with more than 40,000 people.  We have made this the biggest climate test for President Obama.  And if he fails this test and approves the pipeline, 70,000+ people are committed to resist through further acts of civil disobedience.

·         Fossil Fuel Divestment: A rag-tag bunch of student organizers have mobilized a movement that has put fear in the heart of the fossil fuel industry.  The strategy of divestment isn’t designed to directly erode the profits of major fossil fuel companies (endowments don’t have enough stock to make a major dent) but rather to chip away at the social license of the entire fossil-fuel business model.  And the movement is growing rapidly.  A recent study from the University of Oxford showed that the Fossil Free divestment campaign is spreading more rapidly than any other previous divestment effort, and that “The outcome of the stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.”

·        The turning political tide for climate change: We’re finally (finally!) starting to win elections based on climate change and make the issue matter politically.  Following the “climate silence” of the 2012 election, in 2013 climate suddenly mattered.  It became a defining issue in Ed Markey’s Massachusetts Senate race, won by climate champion Ed Markey.  In Virginia, climate-denier Ken Cuccinelli was defeated by clean-tech advocate Terry McAuliffe.  And President Obama committed major political capital to advance climate policy via the executive branch, unveiling his “Climate Action Plan” that will keep the US on track to reach its Copenhagen pledge of 17% reductions by 2020 (based on 2005 levels).

Is this enough to move us towards achieving a stable climate and a sustainable future?  Not even close.  As former head NASA climate scientist James Hansen says, what we need is a full-scale World War II style mobilization.  We need to grow our movement from 40,000 to 400,000 marching in DC, and then turn out 40 million climate voters (or more) to make climate change really matter politically. 

We also need to figure out much more meaningful ways to support our brothers and sisters on the front lines of climate disruption, from the battered towns of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan to the or devastated boreal ecosystem of the tar sands fields of Alberta.  Dealing with climate change in a just manner means helping those who need help the most, but the climate justice movement still does not have enough power to substantially increase to amount of aid flowing to the places most impacted by ongoing climate disruption

Yet the movement for climate justice is growing.  We are making progress. For the movement, “Hope” is no longer a passive stance with faith placed in Obama.  It is now an active stance, with hope stemming and spreading from the actions of countless organizers and activists around the world.  Our hope has shifted from being focused on our leaders to being focused on ourselves.

Over the last few years I have dabbled in Buddhist Meditation, and one the things I most appreciate about the Buddhist tradition is its focus on individual agency.  A quote from Buddhist teacher Jiyu Kennett nicely captures this spirit: “There is no savior in Buddhism. You have to do it for yourself. No one else is going to meditate for you.” I believe that the same can be said of nurturing authentic Hope, particularly in work related to climate justice. No one else is going to create lasting Hope for you.  You have to do it for yourself.

I think in our hearts, most people in the climate justice movement now realize that there will never be a “grand solution” to climate change.  No matter what happens with US national policy or in the Halls of the UN, we will need to keep fighting for climate justice for the rest of our lives.  Like racism, poverty, and other intractable injustices, climate change isn’t suddenly going to go away.  But this realization shouldn’t overwhelm us; rather, it should strengthen our resolve to keep working, to keep moving forward.

For us to succeed in the long-term work of the climate justice movement, we still do need leaders.  We need wise and inspiring elders, mentors, and friends who can keep us fired up and committed for the long haul.  We need leaders who demonstrate their deep commitment to social justice not just through their words, but through their actions.  For many in the climate movement, Bill McKibben has served as this authentic leader.  Others have found inspiration from Naomi Klein, Tom Goldtooth, James Hansen, and Crystal Lameman. The key thing to remember is that these leaders are not going to save us; these leaders exist in order to help us learn how to save ourselves.

The mainstream media doesn’t seem to understand this distinction, as media coverage of great leaders often portrays them as Messiah-like figures.  Such was coverage of the initial rise of Barack Obama, and such was the coverage of Nelson Mandela following his death.  Pope Francis now is receiving similar Messianic coverage, with commentators from all over the spectrum speculating on he will steer the Catholic Church in a new direction to confront the challenges of the 21st century.  As a progressive Catholic, I have found it remarkably refreshing and encouraging to see Pope Francis so fully embrace the servant leadership of Jesus and act out authentic compassion. But there is a difference between being inspired by Pope Francis and placing our hope in him to single-handedly reform the Catholic Church. It is an impossible task for one person; the renewal of the Church (or in the case of climate change, the creation of meaningful climate policy and a global transition to low-carbon energy) can only be accomplished by many millions of people stepping forward to create the change they wish to see.

So this Christmas, I invite you to remember that Hope is an active virtue.  The great leaders and teachers throughout history, from ancient religious leaders like Jesus and Buddha to modern nonviolent revolutionaries like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, understood this lesson fully.  They lived out their Hope with every ounce of their being, serving as an embodied example of their teachings.  These examples of active Hope are what I wish to emulate within the climate justice movement.  I turn to the lessons of these great leaders on this Christmas Day, as I work to develop my own source of deep authentic Hope that will sustain me for the long road ahead. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Three Actions To Stand With The Philippines and Call for Action on Climate


I'm at the UN Climate Talks in Warsaw, and I need your help to stand in solidarity with the Filipino people. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, we have an opportunity to take real action on climate change at the UN and and domestically in the US.

I ask everyone reading this blogpost to take three actions:

1) Sign the petition in support of the Philippines and real climate action at the UN:
Please sign this petition in support of the Philippines and Yeb Sano, the Filipino commissioner who gave a rousing speech on Monday calling for real action on climate change at the UN Climate Talks. See below for an excerpt from Yeb's speech:

Sign the petition here:

2) Join the solidarity #FastForTheClimate and donate to relief efforts for the Philippines:
Commissioner Sano has been on a #FastForTheClimate since Monday, committing himself to consume nothing but fluids until the end of COP19 on November 22.

I have chosen to join in the solidarity fast during COP hours (~8 am - 10 pm), and five members of my SustainUS delegation are also fasting.  People all around the world are also joining Yeb in a #FastForTheClimate.  You can join the US facebook event here:

The Philippines also desperately need funding for relief efforts.  There are many organizations collecting donations.  I am particularly a fan of Doctors Without Borders, which is accepting donations on its website:

3) Call on the US to #ActOnClimate and Impose Ambitious EPA Carbon Regulations:
The US has a played a huge role historically in emitting greenhouse gases that drive climate disruption.  To truly stand in solidarity with the Philippines, we must take action domestically to curb our carbon pollution and work to prevent a future where super storms become the new normal.

Given the reticence of Congress, the best way for the US to #ActOnClimate is via the EPA.  With strong regulations on existing carbon emitters, we could reduce carbon emissions up to 26% below 2005 levels within the next decade. Weak regulations will fail to achieve President Obama’s Copenhagen commitment and could derail international climate talks—as the United States already did in the 1990s. Strong regulations, however, will surpass that commitment and could bolster international climate talks that might be the key to preventing catastrophic climate change.

Sign this petition to call on the EPA to impose strong rules on carbon emissions:

Thank you all for your support during COP19. In the words of Yeb Sano, together "We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now... can humanity rise to the occasion? I still believe we can."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

At the Dawn of COP19, The Challenge of Making Climate Matter Politically

COP19, this year's round of the UN Climate Talks, commenced in Warsaw on Monday.
Monday November 11 marked the beginning of this year’s UN Climate Negotiations, COP19, in Warsaw.  I’m here in Poland leading a delegation of 17 people from SustainUS, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young people to advance sustainable development.  SustainUS has been going to UN conferences since 2002, and quite frankly, we’re fed up with being perpetually being disappointed by the conference outcomes.  We know we need ambitious international policy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and we know that what we have right now is inadequate.  And we intend to do whatever we can to break through the stalemate in international climate politics and move towards ambitious global policy.

Most of the domestic climate movement in the United States has effectively ignored the international process since the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations to create a global climate treaty.  In a lot of ways this makes sense, since the challenge of moving US national policy forward seems to be a prerequisite before the world can move forward with ambitious global climate policy.  We’ve been having some decent success in the US, with KeystoneXL still blocked, Obama releasing a Climate Action Plan, and the fossil fuel divestment movement spreading like wildfire.

However, a lot of things are missed by only focusing on domestic climate policy and fighting fossil fuels in the US.  There are obvious dramatic events in the UN, like how the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan has impacted the climate talks and prompted the lead Filipino negotiator Yeb Sano to declare he will #FastForTheClimate until the world reaches a serious climate agreement.  But there is also the underlying math of climate change; most of the future projected GHG emissions are not going to come from the US, so by definition we need international action on the challenge. 

I believe we need to do two big things to make real strides on the issue of climate change:
1) Enact comprehensive climate policy at the national level that puts a price on carbon
2) Create an international framework that incentivizes all countries (including rapidly developing countries like China and India) to pursue ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions

I spent a lot of time over the past several years to trying to figure out exactly what we should do about climate change, asking questions like “What is the science of the problem?  What are the major sources of carbon emissions?  What technologies are available for low-carbon energy?  And what policies can we put in place to transition to these low-carbon technologies?”  But my big realization earlier this year was that the details of how national policy or an international framework can possibly work won’t matter unless climate change starts to matter politically.  Even if we present brilliant climate policy proposals, and even if we craft a deeply compelling narrative around the need to act on climate, we will not see any real world impact without increased political will.

While I have been a climate activist for nearly five years, in June I chose to dive into electoral organizing.  In my experience the thing politicians care about most about winning votes; they will finally take climate change seriously when we prove that it has real consequences in elections.  My most recent electoral campaign, Virginia Climate Voters, we demonstrated that climate does have electoral consequences by turning out young people to vote against climate denier Ken Cuccinelli.  And the lessons we learned through the Virginia election will be used in campaigns in 2014 and 2016 to further increase political pressure and accountability on climate change.  (For an example of our campaign, see the video with climate scientist Michael Mann below):

We also need to increase the political will to act on climate at the international level.  Since the UN does not have elections, a lot of the work to influence negotiators’ and their governments must happen domestically outside of the official COP climate talks.  However, there are concrete steps young people can take while at the UN to highlight the urgency for climate action.  We can shame countries blocking progress (such as through the “Fossil of the Day” award).  We can generate media attention that puts public pressure on decision makers within the UN. And we can serve as a constant moral reminder of what is at stake in this process: our future and the well-being of all generations that come after us.

It’s going to be a crazy next two weeks while at COP19.  My delegation and I will be working long days (we started at 8 am, and I finished this post at 3:30 am), coordinating demonstrations, generating media content, and doing our best to give this round of UN climate talks real urgency.  You can follow SustainUS’s activities at COP19 on twitter via @SustainUSAgents and read our blog at  Stay tuned for more from Warsaw!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Kerry, KeystoneXL, and the Courage Needed to Move Forward on Climate

Less than a year ago on the eve of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, then-Senator John Kerry gave a remarkable speech calling on the United States to display real leadership on clean energy and confront the reality of climate change. In Kerry's own words:
"We have made transformative changes before... We once burned wood, and then we transitioned to relying on oil and coal. We can make the leap to a mix of renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind and solar. Now we need to set our sights on the next transformation. As the old saying from the 1970s goes, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, and the oil age is not going to end because we run out of oil.” Truer words could not be spoken."
Kerry at the UN Copenhagen Climate talks in 2009
Now that Kerry is Secretary of State, he has a chance to accelerate this transformation. Kerry's State Department will make the final recommendation to approve or reject the KeystoneXL tar sands pipeline (ultimately though, President Obama will make the final call).  As Obama's second term begins, rejecting the pipeline is the first major action that he and Kerry can take to show that the US is truly committed to bold action on climate.

The KeystoneXL pipeline would allow for large-scale expansion of extraction of the Alberta tar sands, a region in Canada of former boreal forest that contains a thick, tar-like sand that can be transformed into oil.  As the video below shows, the mining of tar sands results in the complete razing of the forest environment, complete with toxic residue ponds and the release of many cancer-causing chemicals.  Tar sands development also threatens the safety and human rights of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, whose ancestral lands fall within the extraction area.  The Beaver Lake Cree have a legal right to hunt and fish on their land for perpetuity, but this right is threatened by further development.  The tribe is suing the government of Canada to stop further extraction, but prolonged legal battles mean that it will take several years before a ruling.

In addition to the local environmental impacts and human rights violations of the Beaver Lake Cree, the tar sands are a huge threat to the stability of our planet's climate.  The tar sands region is the second largest store of carbon on the planet, and tar sands oil is is up to 37% more carbon intensive than standard crude oil.  If built, the KeystoneXL pipeline would allow for more tar sands extraction (and thus dramatically greater carbon emissions).  Over the next 40 years, the pipeline alone would be responsible for 7 gigatons of carbon emissions.  Since we're already emitting over 30 gigtatons per year and need to stay below 565 gigatons to prevent catastrophic warming, building the KeystoneXL would move us further down a path of self-destruction.  As the old saying goes, "When you are in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging."

NASA climate scientist James Hansen is one of the most outspoken opponents of the pipeline, arguing that its additional transport capacity for extracted tar sands will lead to greater carbon emissions.  According to Hansen, "The total carbon in tar sands exceeds that in all oil burned in human history, and if the pipeline is built, ways will be found to extract more and more of it, burning fossil fuels during the extraction and destroying the local environment."

Hansen is one of eighteen prominent climate scientists who last year called on President Obama to reject the KeystoneXL pipeline.  Largely because of Hansen's activism, the pipeline has become a rallying cry for the climate activist community, with over 40,000 people attending the recent "Forward on Climate" rally in DC.  And even mainstream commentators are joining the movement to reject KeystoneXL, with TIME's Michael Grunwald declaring "if we’re in a war to stop global warming... then we need to fight it on the beaches, the landing zones and the carbon-spewing tar sands of Alberta."

Over 40,000 people marched during the "Forward on Climate" rally February 17.
One would think John Kerry, an ardent climate hawk, would hold some sway with the State Department's own assessment of the pipeline.  Apparently not.  The State Department's environmental impact assessment released last week claims that the environmental and climate change impacts are manageable.  In a nutshell, the document assumes that the tar sands will inevitably be extracted, and so therefore the additional climate impact of the pipeline is negligible.

At first examination, it is surprising that Kerry's outspoken concern for climate change apparently carried little weight with the environmental impact state.  But maybe that's because the State Department didn't write the report!  Instead, they outsourced the document to a consultancy group called Environmental Resources Management, who was paid by TransCanada (the company building the pipeline) to write the statement.  With the authors having strong incentives to please their client, it is no surprise the outsourced document downplays the climate impacts of the pipeline.

I truly believe Kerry and Obama want to move the United States, and the world, forward on clean energy.  I believe that they want to confront the reality of climate change and deal with the climate crisis in an intelligent and sustained manner.  But with moneyed interest like TransCanada and the larger oil industry pushing for business as usual, an apathetic media, and a largely complacent public (a Fox News poll showed that 70% of Americans support the pipeline), they have limited ability to act.  It will take great courage on their part to reject the KeystoneXL pipeline.  And it will take great courage on the part of climate activists to push Obama and Kerry to do so, while continuing the work of convincing the public to join our cause and support bold action on climate and energy.

KeystoneXL is a symbol of the broader fight for climate justice, a fight that pits young people, the world's poor, communities facing extraction, and future generations against the status quo of the fossil fuel industry. The broader American public has yet to appreciate the injustice of climate change. If we are to move the country, we will need to up the ante and engage in continued civil disobedience to demonstrate moral urgency. But even more importantly, we will need to have the hard conversations with our friends, family, and colleagues about why it is so important to act boldly on climate and transform our entire energy system.

I'll close with more words from John Kerry, these from his first major address as Secretary of State to the University of Virginia.  To me, this sounds like a call to action to push him and President Obama to make the hard choice to reject KeystoneXL and move the country forward on climate.
We need to commit ourselves to doing the smart thing and the right thing and to truly take on this challenge, because if we don’t rise to meet it, then rising temperatures and rising sea levels will surely lead to rising costs down the road... If we waste this opportunity, it may be the only thing our generation – generations – are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy.