Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Koch Bros. and the Need to Reclaim Democracy

When I heard about the Koch Brothers' plans to spend close to a billion dollars in the 2016 elections, I was livid. The following facebook rant emerged, which I have slightly modified and reposted below.
I try not to rant much on facebook. I post political pieces, and definitely have a partisan outlook in what I contribute. But this moment deserves a rant.
On Monday Jan. 26, the Koch Brothers announced plans to spend $889 million to influence the 2016 elections. That is close to a BILLION dollars by two individuals and their allies to influence our shared political system for their personal financial gain.
Regardless of your political orientation or personal beliefs about governing philosophy, I do not see how you can believe this is just. This is a fundamental corruption of our democracy and our country. This amount of spending, which is at the SAME LEVEL as the Democrats and the Republicans, destroys any notion that we have a fair system. If you have the money, you can buy the message, control the narrative, control the politicians, and effectively force your agenda into the national debate, public will be damned.
The first act of the new Senate is to approve an oil pipeline that will create 35 permanent jobs. 35 jobs, for a metal pipe that transports some of the dirtiest oil in the world. Is this really the biggest priority facing our country? One might thinking that rising economic inequality, rapid climate disruption, or the stagnating education system might demand a bit more attention. But instead it's a pipeline, which happens to benefit two people in particular - the Kochs.
According to one measure of influence, the Koch's had the same political influence as 515,000 union members due to their spending of $400 million during the 2012 elections. But the Koch influence on our politics isn't immediately obvious because of the secret ways the Brothers spend their money. This ProPublica interactive graphic on Koch "Dark Money" shows the byzantine way that the Brothers spent $264 million through 30+ non-profit entities from mid-2011 to October 2012.

The Koch Brothers are not the only people corrupting our democracy. In many ways, the unfair influence of money in politics has already corrupted politicians so much that the line between "legal bribery" of campaign contributions and "illegal bribery" has blurred. Zephyr Teachout argues that campaign contributions are the "gateway drug to bribes... where candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors' interests... the structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can't even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day."
This has to stop. If you believe in climate justice, if you believe that ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, if you believe that Wall Street is too powerful, if you believe in women's rights, or if you believe that government should actually serve the PEOPLE rather than rich campaign donors, then it's time to get money out of politics. A more progressive future is simply not possible without fundamental reforms in our democracy.
Last week, my friend Katherine and 6 others boldly spoke out at the Supreme Court during the 5th Anniversary of the Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allows virtually unlimited spending by outside political groups (which led to the creation of SuperPACs). Katherine and the protesters were tackled, hauled off to jail, and kept without food for 36 hours. Their story has widely resonated, being published in the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. You can see video of their protest here.
I deeply believe in the potential of this country and of democracy. I deeply believe that people can come together and shape our future, that we can chart a course towards greater justice and peace. But this cannot happen without fair elections. Democracy ceases to exist when the wealthy control the levers of power.
It's time for this movement to get money out of politics.. It's time to reclaim democracy. This won't happen overnight, and it likely won't happen to stop the $889 million in Koch money from corrupting the 2016 election. But we can and must come together to separate wealth and state. With time, we can build the power needed to enact a new Constitutional Amendment, pass new legislation, and change the rules of our democracy. But it starts with us.
If you believe that we need to take back our democracy, sign the democracy pledge of resistance. Then, talk to your friends, your family, your church, your business, your school, and your community. Tell them why you care. Invite them to participate in this movement. 8 in 10 Americans believe we should limit campaign contributions by outside groups. Most likely your friends already agree that we need to get money out of politics. It's your job to get them to act.
Facebook rant complete. Now, back to organizing.

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: stanford.io/1j0RuvS)
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: http://bit.ly/SustainUS2013Fundraiser

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: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/Stand_with_the_Philippines/?dXQRMbb

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: www.facebook.com/events/770707529611909/?previousaction=join&source=1

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: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

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 sustainus.org/agents-of-change-blog.  Stay tuned for more from Warsaw!