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What We Can Learn from the Deadly Boulder Floods

On Thursday as I was reading about war and peace, headlines about a flash flood in Boulder kept arriving all through the day: “At least 3 dead in Colorado flooding; Boulder ‘overwhelmed with water’” (LA Times), “Flood threat still strong as 3 killed in Colorado” (USA Today), “Boulder flood: 2nd death confirmed, county calls in National Guard to assist with rescues” (Boulder Daily Camera), “Boulder Flooding: Deadly High Waters in Northern Colorado Force Evacuations, Cause Mudslides” (Huffington Post), …

Soon I’ll talk about the flood, but first the warning.

Six years ago, on September 14, I had walked along the Boulder Creek, following the blue discs in artist Mary Miss’ outdoor art installation “Connect the Dots: Mapping the Highwater Hazards and History of Boulder Creek.” Both Mary and I were participating artists (“29 women, 12 men, 10 collaborations”) in what was quite possibly the first comprehensive art exhibition on climate change: “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change.” The exhibition idea was conceived by Marda Kirn of EcoArts; was organized by renowned curator, writer and activist Lucy Lippard; and was presented by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) in collaboration with EcoArts.

My photographs from the Arctic were presented at BMoCA and University of Colorado’s Norlin Library. I also gave a lecture at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), focusing on climate change issues in the far North. In addition to NCAR, Boulder also has the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Marda Kirn told The New York Times that Boulder has the “highest density of climate scientists in the world,” which the Times affectionately mocked in their review of the exhibition, “as if climatology Ph.D.’s were stacked like rolls of paper towels at Costco.” Boulder was indeed a perfect home forWeather Report.

On that September 14, I had difficulty imagining: A deadly flood in that little creek, really?

Mary Miss wrote in her artist statement in the accompanying exhibition catalog:

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The Climate Time Bomb That Will Cost Us $60 Trillion

On July 25 the journal Nature published an article about the “Economic time bomb” that is slowly being detonated by Arctic warming. Gail Whiteman of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, and Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams of the University of Cambridge suggest—based on economic modeling that the “release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea” would come with an “average global price tag of $60 trillion.” The news should have sent a shock wave through the media. But instead, predictably, the public were encouraged to celebrate—again and again, and again—the birth of the royal son.

My first encounter with methane release in the Arctic was in early August 2006. It was a grey, cold day along the Beaufort Sea coast in Alaska. Iñupiaq conservationist Robert Thompson and I were walking along the northwest corner of Barter Island when we came across a rather ghastly scene: an exposed coffin with human bones scattered around it. The permafrost (frozen soil) had melted away and exposed the coffin. Robert speculated that a grizzly bear broke open the coffin and scattered the human remains. What we didn’t see, however, is the methane that was released from thawing of the permafrost.

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How We Can Wrench Independence from the Corporate State

"Within a few years we are going to have more people off the surface of this planet more often, and we’ll have to determine value in that new environment.” —Jill Tarter, chairwoman of the SETI Institute, CNN Money, June 27, 2013

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A Presidential Speech Won't Solve Climate Change -- It's Going to Take Major Demonstrations and Activism by the Public

Before we get teary eyed with joy or scoff with derision, we should take a closer look at President Obama’s June 25 speech on climate change, and set it within the context of his five years in power. This is a position he himself argued for during his speech when he said that we need to “be more concerned with the judgment of posterity” than short–term political considerations.

So is Obama, in the words of World Resource Institute President Andrew Steer, really “resetting the climate agenda” and can we honestly say that “it’s a wonderful thing to see that he is really reclaiming this issue"?

While many other environmentalists, including Bill McKibben of 350.org, are fervently hoping that this is true, history and facts demonstrate otherwise. Obama’s dismal domestic and international track record on environmental issues—it was, after all, he who was the lead protagonist in wrecking the international climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009—and his commitment to U.S. imperial power as a representative of American corporate interests surely point toward the need for a greater and more thoroughgoing critique than a character assessment of the man himself allows for.

Furthermore, it’s hard to take someone seriously when that person has presided over the biggest expansion of the security state in U.S. history and relentlessly pursued government whistleblowers with unprecedented ferocity, when they say simultaneously in a climate speech that they are directing the EPA to generate new standards for the regulation of existing power plants in “an open and transparent way.”

With a more systematic, broader analytical framework, unimpeded by misty visions of an Obama rebirth as a climate champion, one immediately recognizes the inadequacy of his Action Plan On Climate Change to keep the planet below the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of average warming.

This needs to be acknowledged, even as we welcome the fact that—after a five–year hiatus, including a re–election campaign where he never even mentioned climate change—Obama has been forced to re–engage with the central issue of our time by the power of grassroots protest, even to the extent of referencing the divestment movement and the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Rather than celebrating Obama’s renewed “commitment” to environmental action, we should recognize it for what it is: After five years of doing all he can to promote fossil fuel production, it’s the first, timid, grudging response of the U.S. state to the growing environmental movement against Obama and all that he represents: the economic, political and military priorities of U.S. imperial power.

The growth of the environmental movement and its threat to U.S. imperial and corporate interests has been well catalogued, tracked and, as we now know, extensively spied upon by the U.S. security apparatus. After reporting on a raft of documentary evidence to this effect, Dr. Nafeez Ahmed writes:

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Arctic Strikes Back: Why Nature May Thwart Shell's Drilling Prospects

Last week as Shell was getting ready to poke the first hole in the Chukchi Sea floor in Arctic Alaska to begin exploratory drilling, I was getting ready to give two talks in Alaska—the concluding lecture of the Next North Symposium at the Anchorage Museum on 9/8, and one at the Noel Wien Library in Fairbanks on 9/11 as part of the Northern Voices Speaker Series hosted by Northern Alaska Environmental Center in partnership with the Gwich’in Steering Committee. While there something remarkable happened over the weekend—perhaps the shortest–lived “beginning” of drilling anywhere. “Only a day after Shell Alaska began drilling a landmark offshore oil well in the Arctic, the company was forced on Monday to pull off the well in the face of an approaching ice pack. With the ice floe about 10 miles away, the Noble Discoverer drilling rig was disconnecting from its seafloor anchor Monday afternoon in the Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles from the northwest coast of Alaska,” the Los Angeles Times reported. There is much more to this story of ice and Shell.

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Resource Wars Connect an Amazon Massacre and Shell’s Arctic Drilling

It has been a painful day for me. Two pieces of news came in this morning: one about the massacre of an Yanomami settlement in the Amazon, and the other about Obama green lighting Shell’s drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Both are about resource wars that lead to killing—humans and/or animals, fast or slow, one to get gold, and the other to get oil.

“A massacre of up to 80 Yanomami Indians has taken place in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas,” The Guardian reported. “According to local testimonies an armed group [illegal gold miners] flew over in a helicopter, opening fire with guns and launching explosives into Irotatheri settlement in the High Ocamo area.”

Survival International, a London–based NGO that works with indigenous communities around the world (over the years I contributed my Arctic photographs for their campaigns) stated in a news release, “Witnesses of the aftermath described finding ‘burnt bodies and bones’ when they visited the community of Irotatheri in the country’s Momoi region, close to the border with Brazil.…The attack is believed to have happened in July, but news is only just emerging.”

Today about 20,000 Yanomami people live in small communities in the Amazon rainforest bordering Brazil and Venezuela. I first came to know about the Yanomami from the remarkable photographs of artist–activist Claudia Andujar. In the 1970s Andujar gave up her career as a photojournalist and embarked on an in–depth photo–essay about the Yanomami people. During this time she was witness to, “one of the most significant cultural dislocations to occur in Yanomami history, when the government began construction of a transcontinental highway in Northern Brazil. Villages were razed to pave roads, and the Yanomami suffered a devastating measles epidemic.” Then, during the 1980s, a new kind of devastation came into the Yanomami homeland, when thousands of garimpeiros, illegal, small–scale gold diggers came to the Amazon to make their fortunes. Twenty percent of the Yanomami died in the 1980’s as a consequence of the gold mining intrusion. Also the mining led to environmental destruction. Following a 15–year campaign, in which Andujar’s work played a crucial role, in 1992, with the help of Brazilian anthropologists and Survival International, the Brazilian government established the Yanomami Park “for protection and use by Yanomami people.”

The July massacre wiped out an entire indigenous settlement. Not the first time. One of the worst Indian massacres had taken place in the predawn hours of April 30, 1871, that came to be known as the Camp Grant Massacre, in which nearly 150 Apaches, including children, elders and women from a single settlement in the Aravaipa canyon in Arizona had been brutally killed. Historian Karl Jacoby writes about that incident in his powerful book “Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History.” From the companion website for the book you’ll learn about what Jacoby calls “the most familiar and yet the most overlooked subject in American history—violence against Indians.”

It will take time to figure out the details of the Yanomami massacre, but one thing is for certain, it’s a tragic case of resource wars—gold, in this case. Unfortunately such events will likely increase in the coming decades because much of the last remaining natural resources left on Earth are in lands inhabited by indigenous communities, or underneath oceans on which indigenous communities depend on—Amazon, Arctic, forests of India… Small illegal bands of garimpeiros or big corporations supported by governments will do everything to destroy and displace human and nonhuman communities to extract those resources.

Resource wars connect the Yanomami of the Amazon with the Iñupiat of the Arctic. On August 30, the Obama administration gave Shell the green light to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean—Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Alaska. Shell’s spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger is still sitting in Bellingham, Washington, waiting for the US Coast Guard certification. The administration couched their approval with a soft phrase, calling it “preparatory work.” What that means is that Shell will now begin drilling, but won’t get to the hydrocarbon layer until Arctic Challenger is certified and in place, which is expected to happen soon.

I have written extensively about Shell’s Arctic drilling since May 2010 that you can read here. Here is the key concern: the Obama administration, Shell, and the media are all focused on minutiae to distract the public from the real issues, which at its most basic is the fact that the administration has not done an Environmental Impact Statement on the Arctic Ocean drilling, and no one knows how to clean up a spill from underneath the ice, in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

As I write this, on the table, I have two books. The first one is: “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Resource Assessment Final Report: Baseline Study of the Fish, Wildlife, and Their Habitats, Volume 1.” It is a 392–page report with chapters titled: “Soils and Vegetation,” “Birds,” “Mammals,” “Fish,” “Human Culture and Lifestyle,” and “Impacts of Further Exploration, Development and Production of Oil and Gas Resources.” Despite the fact that the Reagan administration gagged federal scientists to promote Arctic drilling, his administration did publish this extensive report in 1986. I learnt a lot about the Arctic Refuge ecology from that report.

The second book is: “Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope.” It is a 288–page book published by the National Research Council, a division of the US National Academies with chapters titled: “The Human Environment,” “The Alaska North Slope Environment,” “History of Oil and Gas Activities,” “Future Oil and Gas Activities,” “Effects on the Physical Environment,” “Effects on Vegetation,” “Effects on Animals,” “Effects on the Human Environment,” “Filling Knowledge Gaps,” and “Major Effects and their Accumulation.” Despite the fact that the George W. Bush administration gagged federal scientists and manipulated major scientific reports to promote Arctic drilling, his administration did publish this extensive report in 2003. It was the first of its kind and remains the most scholarly publication about the cumulative impact of oil development on Arctic tundra. Both reports are about the terrestrial environment of Arctic Alaska. Nothing like that exists about the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas which is home to more than 10,000 endangered bowhead whales, more than 60,000 beluga whales, nearly 4,000 threatened polar bears, tens of thousands of seals and walruses, and hundreds of thousands of sea birds, to name a few species. The Iñupiat people of the Arctic coast depend on the Ocean that they call “the garden,” for their economic, cultural and spiritual survival.

Now, if you ask the Obama administration if there is a report on the Arctic Ocean similar to the 1986 Arctic Refuge baseline study, the answer you will get would be: “nada,” “zero,” “zilch,” “zippo,” “zot,” “golla [that’s Bengali].” On September 13, 2010, Seth Borenstein wrote in an Associated Press story, “Tens of thousands of walruses have come ashore in northwest Alaska because the sea ice they normally rest on has melted. Scientists with two federal agencies are most concerned about the one–ton female walruses stampeding and crushing each other and their smaller calves near Point Lay, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea. The federal government is in a year–long process to determine if walruses should be put on the endangered species list.” Since then we have heard more than a hundred times that Shell has spent more than 4 billion dollars in their Arctic venture, but have you heard about what’s happening to the walruses? Over the past decade, Arctic warming has very significantly changed the ecological and cultural dynamic of the North and we do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of these rapid changes, yet Shell will drill there now, thanks to the Obama administration.

How is Obama getting away with approving the most dangerous form of drilling anywhere on earth without having done a comprehensive study on the Arctic Ocean to a company that is causing great destruction to the Niger Delta and the indigenous Ogoni people? Allow me to guess. With approving Shell’s drilling Obama has given his boots to the face of the environmental organizations, and us. He has figured he cannot afford to upset Shell (the company might pour too much money to zabbledabble his reelection campaign, thanks to Citizens United), but he can indeed afford to piss off the environmental community, which he believes (my guess) is “wimpy,” because they never challenged Obama, only appealed to him politely, again, and again, and again. Imagine the rage the green groups would have exhibited to a Republican president if she/he had done the things Obama has done: he hasn’t done anything on climate change and didn’t even mention the phrase in his 2012 Earth Day Proclamation—remember his top climate change advisor Carol Browner resigned after realizing she won’t get a thing done under this administration; sold the Powder River Basin of Wyoming to King Coal—a completely unnecessary act;approved the building of the southern half of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and now Shell’s Arctic drilling.

In her testimony in the recently published anthology “Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point” that I edited, Iñupiat elder and community leader Caroline Cannon wrote: “It feels as if the government and industry want us to forget who we are, what we have a right to, and what we deserve. They repeatedly overwhelm us with information, requests, and deadlines, and it seems as if they hope that we will either give up or die fighting. We are not giving up. We must fight.”

The fate of indigenous communities around the world is connected through destructive resource wars. For a long time, dominant cultures had referred to members of tribal communities as “barbarians.” Is a Yanomami barbarian? Is an Iñupiaq barbarian? Is a thug of a plutocratic society barbarian? Time has come to put that word ‘barbarian’ on its head. Indigenous communities are left with no choice but to fight and resist destruction.
 

Obama Is Fast-tracking an Environmental Disaster to Please Big Oil

What do Arctic drilling and drone killing have in common? They are both being decided by Barack Obama without public debate. Also oil is a common ground—drilling will produce it and drones will burn it—to kill people, animals, and habitats. Both issues must be debated publicly. You have read about drone killing, I’ll tell you about Arctic drilling.

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Why the Tar Sands Pipeline Will Be Game Over for Our Planet

Tar Sands Action organized a civil disobedience sit–in at The White House to oppose construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that began on August 20 and will culminate in a big rally on September 3rd. On August 29 I joined 60 religious leaders and other fellow protestors. I was arrested that day. But before I was handcuffed, I addressed fellow activists who had gathered outside The White House with these words:

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Exposing the Environmental Risks at Los Alamos National Labs

The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico is operated by competent people, right? And, is filled with respected scientists who always tell the truth, right? That is the “official story”—the world’s greatest science protecting America—that LANL has been feeding to the American lawmakers, media and the public for nearly seven decades. But now the northern New Mexico community members and organizations are determined to put an end to LANL’s “official story.” They’re building a “new story.” Here is their story.

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India Must Free Human Rights Defender Binayak Sen Immediately

In 1970 Howard Zinn began his now–famous speech “The Problem is Civil Obedience” with these words: “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy–turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.”

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