The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Whose Back Yard Should Get a Pipeline?

Weeks ago, I set out to write about the conflict at Standing Rock. I failed, more or less, and wrote something of a stub article. I promised myself I’d cover the topic at more depth, and I have fallen short again. That I’m posting this article a day late is partial indication of that. The fact of the matter is that I usually approach writing this blog as a teacher–albeit one who is often learning the material just now myself–or as a storyteller, and it is not my place to teach this topic. Standing Rock is not my story to tell.
I am not not Native* and five or six hours of research on the Internet is not going to equip me to write as if I were.

I can tell you why I keep wanting to–what’s happening at Standing Rock looks to me like another movement of one of our country’s great fault lines. Yes, the story is about environmental justice, but it is a mistake to see this only as a story about a group of people in need of clean water. Yes, this is a story about race, but the history involved, the mechanisms of oppression, the nature of the injury, are distinct. This is one of the stories that liberal white kids are raised to believe lie safely in the past, but it does not. What is happening at Standing Rock, and why, constitute a giant arrow pointing towards something the rest of us have been trained not to even see. I want to use the resources I have to make that arrow bigger, more insistent.

But Standing Rock is not, strictly speaking, about climate change.
I read an article a while back asking non-Native allies to please keep their focus on the issues of sovereignty and water rights, instead of co-opting the pipeline fight for an anti-fossil fuel agenda. I see a distinction between co-opting and finding common cause, but surely it’s  distinction that can easily be lost and that should not be lost. Yes, I continue to cover pipelines here because oil and gas transportation is part of the climate change picture, but pipeline fights are usually centered around land and water rights, not around climate per se. To ignore the immediacy and centrality of those other causes is to co-opt, to use, other people. To find common cause, one must start by asking “how can I help you?”
A friend of mine recently asserted, on Facebook, that anyone celebrating the most recent anti-pipeline victory is a hypocrite, on the grounds that if the pipeline does not go here it will go somewhere else. NIMBYism, in other words. He is missing the importance of that fault line, the relevance of the ongoing history of American conquest, but otherwise he has a fair point–moving a pipeline and its associated leaks from here to there is not really an improvement unless it triggers a certain very important question.

Should a pipeline really go in anybody’s backyard? How can we construct a society that doesn’t involve picking somebody to throw under the bus of Progress?

I wrote about NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) some time ago, in another context, and concluded that NIMBY is indeed bad when protesters want a problem moved to somebody else’s yard (such as people who prefer a coal plant they can’t see to a wind turbine they can see). But in and of itself, protecting one’s own interests is not wrong.

I tend to think that if anybody really put the matter frankly, this entire fossil fuel project would look like a really bad deal. Hey, let’s destroy whole mountains, pollute rivers, blow up small towns when oil trains explode, gum up birds and fish and poison coastlines when offshore well heads break or oil barges wreck, and warp the atmosphere so that sea level rises and a lot of people have their homes flattened by hurricanes, all so that a small minority of people can get rich and the rest of us can pretend we have a couple of spare planets available.


We, in fact, make this deal by how we spend our money and how we vote and we do it because the chance of any of those awful consequences happening to us are very small. Most of the people who benefit from fossil fuels don’t experience injury from them directly. The costs are borne by a small number of people somewhere else. When those people object, they are called nimbys, basically for not being team players. The logic, it seems, is that what benefits a large number of people is worth the loss of life and livelihood of a few, especially if it’s not clear who those few are going to be–we don’t know where or when the next oil spill will happen, only that it will happen somewhere, sometime. Fossil fuel is like a reverse lottery, where everybody buys a ticket and whoever holds the winning number has their property stolen and distributed to everyone else. It looks quite fair from a certain perspective.

What I did not write about then is the fact that the lottery isn’t random and not all tickets win. Being poor, being Native, being a person of color, even being female, make a person more likely to be poisoned by a pipeline leak, killed by a heat wave, impoverished by drought, drowned by extreme weather, or left to pick up the pieces after a disaster. Conversely, the richer and otherwise more privileged you are, the more of the benefits of fossil fuel use you are likely to personally reap. Fossil fuel use has benefits and it has costs, but he people who pay the costs are seldom the people who see much of the benefits and they are seldom the people drafting energy policy for the nation.

We need to talk about whose back yards get trashed for whose benefit and who gets a voice in making these decisions. We need to acknowledge that anthropogenic climate change persists because fossil fuel still looks like a good deal to a lot of people–and that perception depends on a tacit agreement that the lives of everyone else don’t really matter very much.



*I understand that not everyone who might be called “Native American” actually likes the term. Generally, of course, it is better to be specific, and to say “Lakota” or “Miq Maq,” or whichever Nation one is actually talking about, but when one actually means all people whose ancestors have been on this continent for more than about 700 years…I know people who insist “we are Indians!” I know people who say “we are Indigenous!” And I know there are a lot of people I haven’t spoken to. But it sounds to me as though this is something people disagree on. I chose to write “Native American” because its literal accuracy appeals to me and because I understand it to be generally considered acceptable. If someone wants to correct me on this, please do.

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Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.

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Please Notice

Normally, I might write about the typhoon.

The Philippines have just been hit by another typhoon, known internationally as Hagupit and in the Philippines as Ruby. Normally, I’d devote an entire article to the storm, since keeping track of natural disasters with a climate dimension is one of the things we do here. Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby hit Tacloban, among other places, the same city that was devastated by Supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda  just last year. Because Hagupit was never quite so powerful and thanks to massive preparation efforts this year’s storm was not a catastrophe, but it is still certainly news. It has been downgraded to a tropical storm and is en route to Vietnam, where it could crash straight in to Ho Chi Minh City.

But the United States is also reeling from a series of non-indictments in the highly suspicious deaths of black people. Simultaneously, the climate conference in Lima continues, an obvious must for this blog to cover.

These two seemingly very different topics find common ground in ostensibly representative bodies ignoring and exacerbating social justice.

I will not go over the current racial justice protests, and the reasons for them, in detail here. Readers who do not know what’s happening should consult writers with more expertise in that issue. I will point out that the problem is at least two-fold: one folding is the specific issue of black people being shot, strangled, or otherwise done-in and no one even getting arrested for it; the other folding is that the first one is hardly news, yet major swaths of the American populace (like, for example, me) have only just now started to notice. Even now, many seem to define the problem as the inconvenient and occasionally frightening protests, not the fact that it really looks like black lives still don’t matter in this country. The invisibility of the problem to those who do not experience it directly is absolutely entrenched.

That failure to notice is not exclusive to the issue of American racial violence. Right now in Peru, the world’s leaders meet to discuss the most important issue of our times and they make space to converse with oil company leaders but not the indigenous people of Peru–who are also, not incidentally, fighting for their lives against illegal loggers whom the government does not seem able to adequately control. That these people are being threatened and killed for attempting to protect their rainforest has an odd resonance with the conference in Lima, which intends to offset its rather large carbon footprint by protecting rainforest. Empowering the people who live in the rainforest to protect their homes would seem to be a good way to meet that pledge, but Peru has a poor record of doing that.

In essence, the conference in Lima aims to address climate change using the same political and economic mechanisms that created the problem in the first place–a global structure that prioritizes the needs and interests of the powerful over those of the powerless. That’s not an inherently bad idea, of course; the global structure is unlikely to change any time soon, so it makes sense to work within the systems as much as possible.

But operating from the perspective of the powerful makes it look as though fossil fuel use is a legitimately controversial thing, a good and necessary practice that unfortunately has some bad side effects. The issue looks very different from other perspectives, for example those of many American communities of color. Coal-fired power plants are disproportionately sited in communities of color, which may be why the incidence of asthma in black children is almost double that of American children as a whole. Dense urban cores, where the concrete and asphalt collect and re-radiate heat and few people can afford air conditioning, are also disproportionately black–so a Los Angeles resident’s chance of dying in a heat wave doubles if he or she is black. The seriousness of climate change is just one more thing that the privileged are free to ignore if they want to. Solving the problem depends, in part, on such people giving up that ignorance.

This week is also the occasion of the People’s Summit, an alternative climate conference in Peru that brings together all the people that the delegates in Lima might well forget–indigenous groups, feminist groups, and labor organizations from many different countries. Solving the problem also depends on as many people as possible making so much noise that there is no way their perspective can be ignored.


Cowboys and Indians, Part 3

This is the final post in a three-part series on the Reject and Protect protest again the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in April. The first post described what it was like to be at one of the events of the protest, the second post explained who had staged the protest and why, and this one addresses the media response to this and other Keystone protests.

Part of the reason to stage a protest is always to get media attention for the cause. Rightly or wrongly, perceived public opinion has a big influence on how most of us see the world, and we infer public option largely through the public media. If a tree falls in the forest and doesn’t make the evening news, does anyone care? Maybe not. With that in mind, I was interested to see whether and how the news media covered the Reject and Protest pipeline protest a few weeks ago.

The short answer? Not badly, considering the event was relatively small (perhaps a thousand or so people on Saturday, the day I was there).

The main television news shows did not cover the event, at least not in my neck of the woods, nor did our local newspapers carry the story. It did not make the national headlines. Nevertheless, some impressive organizations, from Fox News to the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera, have at least mentioned the protest. News blogs associated with ABC and NBC covered the story briefly but fairly, and the event also received coverage through various activist sites and more openly editorial TV shows.

Notably missing in all of this is the PBS Newshour, which has not covered any of the Keystone protests this year, and there have been some major ones. Given their reputation for liberal sympathies (which may or may not be deserved),this is surprising. Could there be something unethical going on? It’s an important question to ask, but in this case the answer seems to be no.

PBS has indeed been accused of climate-denial sympathies in the past, typically for giving equal time to climate change deniers when they cover climate issues. Part of the problem is that David Koch has served on the boards of two member stations and is a major donor. These stations have given the appearance of pulling or altering programs in deference to the Kock brothers’ interests. The Kochs have made much of their fortune from the oil industry and are major funders of the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial organization. Michael Getler, the PBS Ombudsmen, has responded to these allegations at length, and says that there is no evidence that David Koch was involved in any of the relevant editorial decisions.

More importantly, Mr. Getler points out that PBS is a program distribution body only and makes no editorial decisions at all. Member stations are responsible for producing and acquiring programming. That means that while it is possible for a member station to succumb to a conflict of interest (though obviously they shouldn’t), PBS as a whole simply does not have the authority. That means that if the entity that actually produces the Newshour has no conflict of interest then a possible ethical problem exists elsewhere in the system is irrelevant.

As it turns out, PBS Newshour is not produced by any PBS member station, but rather by McNeal/Lehrer Productions, an entity that is in turn largely (but not wholly) owned by Liberty Media Corporation, which is a communications investment company, not an oil company. Could a conflict exist anyway? Yes, of course. Following money around is notoriously difficult and I have not dug very deeply. But lots of things are possible, that doesn’t mean there is any good reason to assert that they are. Let’s not get overly cynical at the expense of anyone’s good name.

In any case, the Newshour does, in fact, cover some climate-related stories very well and has discussed the Keystone pipeline several times over the years. They just haven’t been covering the protests. They cannot cover all possible issues, because of space limitations. The different between them and the commercial news agencies may simply be that the Newshour covers its stories at much more depth and therefor does not have the time to do as many of them. PBS does not necessarily place a lower priority on the protests than its competitors do.

It is possible that mainstream journalists are honestly confused about how to handle climate-related issues. Their training as journalists may predispose them to respect anyone who asserts an opinion on anything. They might not be prepared to identify the difference between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Heartland Institute.

So, obviously, we need to do more outreach in order to teach journalists and other public figures that climate change is of critical importance. And, in the meantime, the protests may simply have to engage in more spectacle in order to get attention. Like, for example, they could try having cowboys and Indians in feather headdresses set up tipis on the National Mall and ride horses through Washington DC.

Oh, wait; they just did that.


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Cowboys and Indians, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on the recent Keystone Pipeline protest in Washington DC.
So, who were the people we joined in DC last week, to march once again against Keystone?

Individually, the people I referred to in my last post are as follows:

  • The two MCs were Dallas Goldtooth, of the Lower Sioux, and Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska.
  • The water ceremony was lead by Casey Camp, of the Ponka Nation. I did not see the ceremony itself, but she did speak to the crowd as well. She was a slim, middle-aged woman of great dignity.
  • Greg Grey Cloud, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, lead the 4 Directions song, which was actually the 6 directions song.
  • John Ellwood, of Bold Nebraska and Pray No XL, was the Protestant preacher.
  • Wizipan Little Elk, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Meghan Hammond and Diana Steskal, of Bold Nebraska, and Eriel Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, all spoke.
  • Steve Tamayo, of the Sicangu Lakota described the art on the tipi (I’ll explain that shortly)
  • Chief Reuben George, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation offered a final prayer
  • Gitz Crazyboy, of the Dene and Blackfoot Nations, offered a closing prayer and next steps
  • The final performer, whom I did not stay to see, was Frank Waln, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The march as a whole was just part of a larger event called Reject and Protect. The leaders of the project call themselves the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and describe themselves as “a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the Keystone XL pipeline route.” That means not only people whose properties are crossed by the route but also, in some cases, people who are downstream of the proposed route or who depend on the aquifer underneath the route. The proposed path for the pipeline has changed over the years; some CIA members initially got involved to protest the pipeline being near them only to have the route moved onto their property as a result of other people’s concerns.

Bold Nebraska,  loosely speaking, the cowboys of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, is an organization of ranchers and farmers concerned with making the political process more diverse and participatory, but Reject and Protect is a major part of theirs. It was not clear to me whether the various Indians of the Alliance were there representing their communities–that is, has the Ponka Nation taken a position against the pipeline in the same way that Bold Nebraska has? The question may or may not even be culturally relevant.

Reject and Protect itself actually lasted from April 22 to April 27. The march was just one activity of this larger encampment of tipis on the National Mall. Other activities included multiple prayer services and ceremonies, presentations of documentaries, meetings with various officials, other demonstrations (there was one at Senator John Kerry’s home on the 25th), songs and stories, and the decoration of a tipi for President Obama.

This last was no snarky protest but a genuine and generous gift. The canvas tipi cover served as a backdrop for the talks and performances on Saturday, galloping with horses and the hand prints of many people, among other symbols. It is a true work of art, designed by Steve Tamayo and carried out by him and by many other people. He explained some of its symbolism, but he never explained exactly why giving this gift is supposed to sway Obama’s mind. Perhaps the idea is simply to say “we are here, we are people, and you cannot ignore us.”

The march I participated in was the delivery of the tipi cover to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which had agreed to accept on behalf of Barack Obama.

As I said last week, climate change per se was hardly mentioned by any of the organization leaders, though many of the marchers carried signs and shouted slogans that referred to climate, and of course an oil pipeline has everything to do with climate change. One way to look at this intersection of climate and other issues is the way I chose last week; by supporting these people in their fight for clean water,we can also fight for the climate as a whole. But there is another way to see exactly that same connection.

The climate issues that affect all of us means threatened drinking water to some. Polar bears make fine and accurate poster-children for the dangers of climate change, but they are a little remote for most of us to really make a priority of. Athabaskan children watching their parents die of bile duct cancer, which is super-rare except among people who live near tar sands extraction–that brings it home a bit more. And, unlike polar bears, the cowboys and Indians are perfectly capable of calling B.S. on feel-good green-washing that does not actually solve their problem.

One of the chants the organizers brought to the march was a simple call and response; they shouted “climate!” we shouted “justice!”

As long as fossil fuel remains the dominant energy source of the globe, somebody is going to be in the way of extraction, transport, and processing: Appalachian communities devastated by mountain-top removal mining; people able to light their tap water on fire because of fracking; killer smogs caused by coal smoke; or land and water poisoned by oil spills from trains, pipelines, tanker ships, or well-heads. If the stuff does not travel by pipeline through Nebraska, it will travel by rail-car across the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Unless it does not travel at all.

My favorite of all the signs I spotted on the march was a simple red octagon on a stick reading “STOP the GLOP.” Because that’s really what this comes down to. Every kilowatt hour generated by fossil fuel, every gallon of gas, every piece of plastic, means GLOP in somebody’s life. Climate change itself–extreme weather, sea level rise, acidifying oceans–is also a form of glopping up lives, generally the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. The fossil fuel industry and the various government bodies involved in regulating that industry may be sincere in their willingness to minimize the damage, to route pipelines and other oil infrastructures through the least vulnerable places available, the fewest people’s lives possible, but those few people who are directly affected have a right to object to being treated as collateral damage.

Of course, rare to vanishing is the choice that does not make somebody’s lives harder. Shutting down the fossil fuel industry, for example, would destroy a lot of livelihoods, leave unemployed a lot of people who cannot afford it. Part of the job of government is to make decisions about who gets the short end of the stick because, in almost all cases, somebody has to for the greater good.

The question is, is perpetuating the fossil fuel industry really for the greater good?

Is fossil fuel and all it has wrought really worth continuing to glop up somebody’s life? If not, then rather than trying to reroute the pipeline or try to get the cowboys and Indians to simmer down, or arguing that transporting oil by train is worse (which may be true but is beside the point), perhaps our energy is better spent in stopping the glop and figuring out something better to do instead?


Cowboys and Indians, Part 1

This is the first of a three-part series on the most recent Keystone pipeline protest in Washington DC. While this article focuses on the experience of being at the march, future articles will focus on the organization that lead the march, the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and on the media reaction to the Keystone issue.

Spotting two bald eagles while on the way to a protest in Washington DC has to be a good sign.

We, my husband and I, knew that various tribal groups were staging a protest against the planned Keystone XL pipeline. Its route crossed their lands, making the probability of eventual oil leaks a direct existential threat to them. We didn’t know who, really, had organized the protest, what the specifics of their concerns were, or what their other plans were. But we agreed with them that oil pipelines are bad and Native sovereignty is good, so we were happy to show up.

We drove as far as the first subway stop but used public transportation from there. It seemed the right thing to do, considering, although work being done on the track meant we had to go part of the way by bus. Once on the Mall, we had a little trouble finding the actual protest. Some tipis were evident–an unusual sight, and clearly related somehow, but we couldn’t see any crowd. What sounded like the notes of “Amazing Grace” floated up and out of the little group of peaked tents, played on what sounded like a musical saw. Nearby, a small group labored around a square event tent and a small stage, but nowhere were there any crowds. Nothing happening. So we walked on, towards the Washington Monument. The day was warm and sunny, the sky nearly cloudless, and tourists walked here and there just as though nothing special were going on. Had we gotten the day wrong?


The little encampment of tipis and the stage and the event tent and the few people around them were it. We returned there and joined the small, gathering crowd and wandered around for a while between the musicians on the stage (no musical saws among them) and a press conference conducted in front of one of the tipis and entirely hidden by a small, tight crowd. Most of the tipis were plain, or nearly so, though one was brightly painted. One had no covering at all, just a cone of bare poles. In among the tipis was a small wooden wagon with hoops of wood arching over its rectangular back. A covered wagon? Except it had no cover. It was elaborately carved but empty. There were no people available to explain these obviously meaningful objects, no sign whether any of these tipis were simply props or actually inhabited–were people camping on the national lawn? –or what the symbols on the tipi coverings or the wooden wagon were. Red-vested volunteers moved here and there and a modest crowd swelled slowly. Some of the people wore buttons bearing the letters CIA, referring, as we learned, to the Cowboy Indian Alliance. Others carried long bamboo poles hung with red flags printed with odd, angular symbols that turned out to be the brands of ranches along the proposed pipeline route. A man wearing a tuxedo and a pig mask carried a globe and a sign reading “Oil Pig.” We drifted towards the stage.

The speeches began around eleven, before we all stepped out on a short march to the Museum of the American Indian and back. The day finished back at the tipi encampment with more music and dancing.

It was curious, moving through an event created largely by Indians. The entire rally was subtly but definitely based on different cultural assumptions than I am used to. I felt somewhat out of place, not an intruder but a guest. That seemed about right.  Most of the people who spoke began and ended with a few phrases in languages other than English, and no one bothered to explain what they said or why because they were speaking largely to people who already knew. Curiously, a lot of people spoke with the same soft accent, whether they were Lakota, Dakota, Ponka, or Dineh-Athabaskans down from Canada where the tar sands are. Sage smoke drifted across the crowd.

I thought of asking questions, though I know some Native American cultures frown on questions. My husband thought I should ask, because anyone at such an event should be prepared to explain themselves, but I did not ask because I thought perhaps these people wanted to assert their right not to explain, to be the majority for once. One of the emcees politely asked anyone in the crowd wearing face paint to please wash it off. He said those designs are culturally specific; he said those designs are war paint and this was a peaceful gathering; he said you have to earn the right to wear those designs and not just anybody could do it.

The rally began with a prayer, as many events do. A man sang to the six directions (the extra two are up and down) while an older woman used a jar of water from the Oglalla Aquifer and a bucket of soil from the proposed pipeline in some small ceremony. The crowd turned to each direction as the singer addressed it and the song washed over and through us. The elm trees had just released their small seeds and the ground was busy with them. DC’s famous cherries were just leafing out, their flowers spent. I kept thinking I almost understood the words of the prayer-song, almost had it already memorized, since I heard it echo syllable by syllable in my mind. But of course I had no idea.

But the Cowboy Indian Alliance is not just Indians and the next man to offer an opening prayer was a Protestant Christian preacher, a white man and a farmer. He is part of a group called Pray No KXL and has committed to pray every day for God to direct the United States Government to do the right thing. He prayed in English, using the same kind of phrasing, the same rhythm, that my brother-in-law (also a preacher) uses to say table Grace, but this man’s version of Christianity seemed inclusive and almost animist. He assumed everyone prayed to the same God in their own ways and he spoke of God as the breath present in all our lungs, as the power that receives animals and plants when they die and creates them again. He spoke of repentance and thanksgiving and asking God to guide President Obama and Secretary Kerry.

Most of the farmers and ranchers who spoke were women; their men, as they explained, were back at home working, since it is branding season in Nebraska. As the “cowboys” of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, these women represented a culture far more alien to my experience than were the Native prayers. Farming is in my family, but not cattle. I’ve never been to the Great Plains, and I certainly haven’t studied their culture in school. These smiling, passionate women were a revelation. They spoke of living on the land for six generations now, of recognizing specific creeks as the source of their livelihood because that’s where the cattle drank, of building a barn inside the pipeline (could I possibly have heard that right?) to keep the oil from flowing. They spoke of trespassing surveyors, oil company representatives who lied, and a governor who threatened to call out the National Guard when the ranchers refused to let the pipeline cross their land.

In almost none of this did anyone mention climate change. Those few who did were not Indians and did not seem to be ranchers.

Climate change is inherent to the KXL pipeline debate, of course. The tar sands crude it is supposed to carry has a huge carbon footprint and there is enough of it that tar sands oil could keep the price of petroleum too low for renewables to be able to compete.  The pipeline is only one of the many routes that fossil fuel can travel from ground to sky and it isn’t even the only pipeline–other pipelines are already in operation carrying the same crude oil. But KXL has become something of a line in the sand for the anti-climate change movement, a rallying point for the nearly forty percent of the American population who passionately object to its construction. As a rallying point it is somewhat arbitrary, but then lines in the sand usually are. It’s just important to draw the line somewhere at last.

But for these cowboys and Indians, opposing Keystone is not arbitrary. It is not about climate change per se. For them, the issue is water.

The issue is that the pipeline route crosses rivers and streams that water their crops and their game and themselves. The pipeline crosses the Oglala Aquifer, the vast underground resource that feeds much of American agriculture. Pipelines leak; the pipelines that already exist are already leaking, some causing dramatic environmental disasters. Sooner or later, the Keyston XL pipeline, if built, will leak also, and if that happens it will destroy these peoples’ livelihoods, their health, and the health of the land that they love.

Climate change, of course, will be no picnic for the cowboys and Indians either. The central part of the United States is likely to become more prone to drought and that could hurt agricultural production there, especially since the current use of the Oglala Aquifer is already unsustainable. But for them, water pollution from crude oil is clearly the more immediate danger.

Maybe this is why only about a thousand people showed up, in contrast to the tens of thousands we joined over a year ago–that protest had a clear focus on climate change and the support of big-name climate activists, like Bill McKibbon. I have not yet looked into the question formally, but my husband and I follow a lot of large environmental groups online and we don’t remember seeing anything about this week’s protest from most of them. Maybe they didn’t see this as their issue so they didn’t bother to get involved and get the word out?

If true, their reticence is a strategic mistake.

The atmosphere and its steadily rising carbon dioxide concentration is a problem for all of us; the climate warms for the just and the unjust alike. But by the same token, climate change is a bit abstract. It is hard to get angry about a problem that develops gradually, hard to organize a battle against a billion tiny tailpipes leaking poison all at once, especially when we also have rent to pay and kids to feed and other, more concrete, demands on our attention. The ubiquity of the problem saps our commitment and confuses our stratagems. Yet there are fulcrum points, places and people and events that hurry fossil fuel into the sky. The pipeline route is one of those critical places. And these people whose drinking water is threatened are the ones who will put themselves in front of the pipeline to stop it, even if all else fails.

If the rest of us show up when these people need it, they’ll be able to stop the pipeline for us. And maybe then the next group of people who find their homes and lives threatened will be willing to stand up and fight back, too, knowing that thirty thousand people will show up in DC to support them. And the next, and the next.

And we could win this.




Blast From the Past

This article was originally posted on the CEI website a year ago. It seems timely to repost it.

It was a cold day in Washington DC, on February 17th, the day of the first major march and rally against climate change. Some might find the cold weather ironic, but of course, climate is not weather but rather a pattern of weather. In recent years, the pattern has gotten scary. The raw, spitting wind doesn’t deny the reality of climate change, and it couldn’t keep tens of thousands of impassioned people away.

At issue, front and center, is the proposed extension of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline, both because of risks associated with the pipeline itself and because of what the pipeline could mean for the entire issue of climate change going forward. This is one of those rare cases where the decision of a single person really could be pivotal; the one person in question is President Barack Obama. The entire rally was organized simply to ask him not to sign a permit.

The Keystone Pipeline currently carries crude oil from the Canadian tar sands deposits south as far as Oklahoma, but the owner, TransCanada, wants to increase capacity and build several new sections, including one section that would reach to the Gulf of Mexico, in Texas. This project, the Keystone XL, or KXL, requires a permit signed by the U.S. President, because the work crosses a national boundary. President Obama has previously rejected the application because of concern over environmentally sensitive areas, but he encouraged TransCanada to reapply after adjusting the route. TransCanada already has the state permits it needs, and has already begun work on portions of the project that do not require the Federal permit, so Mr. Obama’s signature is currently the only thing they are still missing.

Rerouting the pipeline does not resolve the concern, however, because an oil spill does not have to be in a particularly sensitive area to be very bad. Any oil spill is a problem, and the oil KXL would carry is from the Alberta tar sands, which is, for various reasons, dramatically more toxic than ordinary crude oil. TransCanada does not have a very good safety record; the existing Keystone pipeline has leaked at least fourteen times in the past three years. Last summer, another TransCanada pipeline, one that had been in operation less than six months, exploded.  But while TransCanada could improve their safety record, they cannot remove the threat of accident completely. As one of the speakers at the rally, Chief Jacqueline Thomas, pointed out, “oil will spill, it’s just a matter of when.” No matter how low the risk of accident gets, as any Lottery player knows, if enough people take a chance day after day for long enough, sooner or later the unlikely thing is going to happen. Even more important for many is the economic impact of more Canadian oil. Sooner or later, the world is going to have to transition away from fossil fuel, but a cheap supply of Canadian oil could mean the end of funding for American innovation in sustainable technology. That would mean America gets left behind, or, worse, that the transition does not happen at all, not until supply problems or worsening climate problems force the issue.

The pipeline extension would make the fight against climate change much, much harder.

For American participants, the rally and protest march were mostly about climate change as a whole, the KXL pipeline being only the most immediate example of a large and complex problem. Most of the signs reflected this larger concern, their messages ranging from the cute (“I miss snow days” on one side, “hell no, we want snow!” on the other) to the dire (“Is CO2 the gas in the chamber of our future? Are we our own executioners?”). Some signs referenced Hurricane Sandy, or even hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, a natural gas extraction technique that has nothing to do with the Alberta tar sands and associated pipelines, other than being equally scary (“frack you, fracking frackers!” was particularly noteworthy).

But just as the pipeline extension is an international project, so are the protests against it. In Canada, the issue is far more focused on the water pollution associated with both oil spills and tar sands mining. Both humans and wild animals have sustained horrific injuries and illnesses, apparently caused by contaminated oil. Some of this contamination is due to the activities of TransCanada, but other companies, particularly another energy giant, Enbridge, which is attempting to build its own pipeline across Canada for tar sands crude. Recently, a former Enbridge employee revealed serious attempts by Enbridge to cover up the extent of the health problems caused by their spills. Many protesters carried signs supporting the whistleblower’s website, A number of the speakers referred to Enbridge and its ethical violations. Like fracking, Enbridge is not directly related to the Keystone pipeline, but is part of the larger issues that demonstrators hope to address by defeating the pipeline extension.

Much of the contamination is in or near First Nations communities, where the ethical and environmental problems associated with oil extraction are compounded by continuing violations of indigenous land rights. Not surprisingly, these communities are in no mood to believe that this time the oil companies will share their profits with the people whose land they use and damage. Some protestors carried signs supporting Idle No More, a group of women who have taken the lead in protesting pending Canadian legislation that threatens indigenous rights. Several of the speakers at the rally were representatives of First Nations who spoke movingly about their responsibilities to both the land and their people. Chief Jacqueline Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation, and a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance, admitted that this is the first time in her life that white people have really worked alongside her. For many in her mostly white audience, this may be the first time they have engaged in any endeavor with Native American leaders. When Chief Thomas graciously thanked her host nation for allowing her and her colleagues to operate here, she didn’t mean the United States; she meant the tribal group whose traditional lands include Washington D.C. It was probably the first time most of her audience had been exposed to what seemed like a parallel world. When she asserted that, after generations of attacks, “my traditional government system continues to be alive and well, and will continue to be alive and well into the future,” the crowd roared support.

Throughout all this, the sound system was poor, so while most of Chief Thomas’s words were clear enough, some speeches were all but impossible to hear. The crowd remained upbeat, and when other people started cheering we assumed there was good reason and we started cheering, too.  T-shirt salesmen and people giving away buttons and informational literature worked the crowd while a little group of people pushed around a huge skin drum on wheels, pounding on it like a vast heartbeat to the sweet scent of sage smoke. Dry little fits of snow swirled out of the sky, alternating with bright winter sunlight and the periodic flyovers of seagulls and police helicopters, the latter getting headcounts of the crowds. When a helicopter flew over, everyone directed their signs upward and cheered.

The official estimate is 35,000 attendees, though some news stories have included estimates as low at 20,000 or as high as over 40,000 people. From inside the crowd it was impossible to tell how big the crowd was. Once we got moving, marching along a loop from the rally at the Washington Monument, past the White House, and then back to the Washington Monument again, it was also impossible to tell what was going on at the front of the line. Sometimes the whole march would stop in place for a few minutes, and no one seemed to know why. Then it would start again. Sometimes people would start shouting instructions—something to do with which way our signs were supposed to be facing—but nobody knew if these instructions were really coming from the organizers or had gotten muddled by the crowd, and nobody knew what the point of turning our signs at certain times was, anyway.  Given the number of people present, some minor disorganization was probably inevitable, but the mood remained playful and flexible, and from inside the crowd a kind of leaderless, chaotic order began to assert itself. Cheers or chants erupted for no apparent reason and moved like waves along the river of people, often stopping as quickly as they had started. Some of the chants bordered on the silly (“hey, Obama! Listen to the Dalai Lama!”) and some are old favorites for progressive rallies on whatever issue (“The People! United! Will never be defeated!”) but most addressed climate change or the pipeline in a general way. The whole protest was curiously friendly in tone, probably because President Obama has explicitly stated that he intends to do something about climate change. It’s just obvious to everyone that he needs the political support to let him, even to make him, do what he basically wants to do anyway.

Even 40,000 people is not a very large protest, as such things go in Washington. Some events draw over 100,000. But organizers, who include groups such as, the Sierra Club, and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), describe it as the largest climate rally yet. The event was much larger than the crowd in D.C., for there were also coordinated solidarity rallies in at least half a dozen other states, including Florida, the state where Mr. Obama actually was on Sunday. Some states, such as California, had several protests in different cities. It appears public momentum for this movement may finally be growing. There is also an online campaign to ask people, especially those who could not go to the rallies in person, to email the President to ask him not to approve the pipeline. This is his opportunity to prove he is serious about climate change.

And lest anyone think that the cold weather was an ironic touch, it should be pointed out that earlier in the month temperatures were unseasonably warm. On the day of the rally, many of the silver maples and American elms on the mall were blooming. These trees do not produce large, showy blossoms the way the cherry trees do, so perhaps few people not particularly fond of botany noticed, but little, inconspicuous blooms were there, and obvious from the street to all who knew what to look for. Spring is coming several weeks early this year. Again.

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The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news this week.

A district court has struck down a state law that would have allowed the Governor of Nebraska to take private land for the pipeline by eminent domain. This might be a good time to explore why this proposed pipeline is such a big deal.

This pipeline would extend the existing Keystone Pipeline system to make it easier to ship Canadian bitumen crude oil to refineries and ports along the American Gulf Coast. Because the proposed extension crosses a national boundary, its builder, TransCanada, needs permission from the U.S. State Department. So far it has not been about to get that permission, in part because of massive protest on the subject.

So what is all the protest about?

In brief, the issues are pollution, Native sovereignty (the pipeline route passes through culturally sensitive lands in the U.S. and the tar sands mining that would feed the pipeline has been very bad for several Canadian First Nations), and global warming.

Both the State Department and TransCanada have responded to these concerns. The proposed route has been changed. The changes do not go far enough, however, and there have been serious allegations of corruption within the review process.

There are a number of arguments within the larger argument about the Keystone Pipeline. For example, constructing the pipeline would likely create over a thousand temporary construction jobs, plus a few dozen long-term jobs. So one of the arguments within Keystone is the old debate about whether the promise of jobs can and should trump other concerns. But one of the most interesting concerns climate change and pollution.

Pretty clearly, mining the Alberta Tar Sands is a bad idea. The mining process itself is incredibly destructive and the bitumen crude that results is extremely toxic so spills are very dangerous. Tar Sands mining has a huge carbon footprint, so this oil is actually worse for the planet even that other forms of petroleum. And there is a huge amount of oil in those sands, so much that petroleum might become too cheap for renewable energy to compete against. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who has become a full-time activist, has said that fully exploiting the Tar Sands would be “game over” for climate change.

The U.S. State Department does not dispute any of this, nor does it dispute that all these issues are important.

No, the argument that the State Department has offered in favor of approving the pipeline is that Canada is going to exploit the Tar Sands anyway. Since the United States can’t keep Canadian oil in the ground, they claim building the pipeline doesn’t actually make climate change any worse. And this way, we get jobs!

“I’m sorry, officer; he said he was going to rob the bank anyway, so I didn’t think it would matter if I drove the get-away car. And I really needed the money, since the economy’s been bad, you know? I got kids to support!”

But the United States might not even have the power to stop bitumen crude from crossing our lands. Several recent crashes and explosions involving oil trains make that point very graphically. A lot of people are starting to think that maybe allowing the pipeline would be a step in the right direction, that if we can’t stop the oil from flowing, at least we can get it out of railway cars.

This is an understandable conclusion, but it’s wrong.

First, there is no guarantee that oil companies will stop using trains if they get the pipeline extension. They might just use both forms of transportation, especially if production ends up being higher than even the pipeline’s massive capacity. History is full of people announcing that a given resource or a given technology could provide more than anyone could ever use only to be proven wrong very quickly.

Second, there is such a thing as social momentum. If we can stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, then maybe we can stop the oil trains. Maybe, with U.S. and Canadian activists working together, we can stop Tar Sands extraction entirely. Success makes a movement more successful.

To some extent, the Keystone Pipeline has become a symbol, a battle that stands in for the entire war, both with respect to climate change and with respect to the sovereignty of the First Nations. For people who worry if perhaps the rhetoric is becoming a bit over-blown, we should note that drawing a line in the sand is always a somewhat arbitrary act. But lines in the sand are not about location; they are about shifting the momentum of battle. And sometimes, drawing a line in the sand works.