"I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” -- Thomas Edison, 1931
I’ve been doing just about all I can for the last 10 years to help build the climate movement. For virtually all of that time I’ve done so without much hope that we can defeat Dirty Coal, Oil and Gas in enough time to prevent massive climate disruption.
In all honesty, many times I’ve felt that I was doing this work mainly to be able to live with myself, to know when I die that I have done all I could to try to stabilize the earth’s unraveling climate and the extreme, catastrophic weather that would come with that unraveling.
But over the last month or two, for very specific reasons, I’m coming to see things differently. I’m beginning to believe that the human race has a fighting chance of preventing runaway, catastrophic climate change and, in so doing, open the way for a much more just, peaceful and democratic world.
Why do I think this?
One reason was the Obama victory and the Congressional losses for the climate-denying Republican Party. It isn’t that I expect great things from Obama and the Democrats, especially if left to make energy decisions without any major political pressure; it’s that their winning gives the climate movement, and other movements, openings we wouldn’t have with Republican control of the White House and Congress.
Another reason is Obama speaking more substantively than he has in years about the climate crisis in both his Inaugural and State of the Union speeches.
Then there is the important initiative taken by the national Sierra Club, joined in by 350.org, the Hip Hop Caucus and 165 other groups, to organize the first actual “march on Washington” by the climate movement. And that demonstration was a big success, 40,000 or more determined and high-spirited people on a very cold mid-February day, from all over the country.
There is the on-going development of the No Keystone XL pipeline movement, from the cutting-edge actions of Tar Sands Blockade, to demonstrations taking place when Obama or Kerry leave their offices to speak publicly, to legal action winning initial victories in Nebraska, to over 52,000 people signed up to engage in “peaceful civil disobedience” if Kerry/Obama approve the pipeline, to much more, and much more to come.
There is the emergence of a nationally-connected, impacted-communities-rooted and activist-oriented movement against fracking via Stop the Frack Attack that will likely be organizing a national week of action against fracking in late spring or summer.
And there are the continuing series of polls that show, in part because of all the extreme weather events in the US in 2012, growing numbers--about 2/3rds of the US American people--who support action to deal with the climate crisis.
All of these developments, essentially political and movement-building developments, are evidence that we are winning the “hearts and minds’ battle, at the same time that we are ramping up and deepening the climate movement.
Just as significantly, the last couple of months have made me aware of good news as far as the developing economic and social shift from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.
At the national Stop the Frack Attack conference in Dallas, Texas I was inspired by solar entrepreneur Danny Kennedy’s presentation about how solar energy is poised to take off in the United States (it’s already doing so in Europe, China and elsewhere). Reading his book, Rooftop Revolution, provided a deeper understanding of what is going on: solar panels are becoming more efficient, they are coming down in a big way in price, and there are new ways for people to have them installed that make them much more affordable to many more people. As a result, rooftop solar in the US grew by 76% in 2012. China “recalibrated the target in its 12th five-year plan to 15 gigawatts installed by 2015—50% higher than the previous target.” (p, 22) “Globally, solar is the fastest-growing industry, valued at more than $100 billion. And in the US, it’s the fastest-growing job creating sector.” (p. 24) “The year 2011 marked the first time in history that [Europe, China and the US] invested more money in renewable energy than in fossil fuels.” (p. 28). “I think that history will look back on this period and see that the tide turned in 2010 when fully half of new electric generation coming online globally was renewable.” (p. 102)
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, 49% of new electrical generating capacity in the U.S. in 2012 was from renewables, primarily wind. This has never happened before, not even close. And in January of 2013, ALL new electrical power capacity, 100% of it, came from renewables.
And just today the front-page story in the New York Times Week in Review section, entitled “Life After Oil and Gas,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, details both this economic/social shift and reports favorably on a recent analysis which shows that New York State, “not windy like the Great Plains, nor sunny like Arizona, could easily produce the power it needs from wind, solar and water power by 2030. ‘It’s absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil—we think it’s a myth,’ said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the main author of the study, published in the journal Energy Policy.”
Finally, in an insightful article spreading over the internet by Australian writer and sustainability advisor Paul Gilding, Victory at Hand for the Climate Movement?, some extremely important contextual points are made.
Gilding says, “Considering how long other great social movements took to have an impact – such as equality for women or the end of slavery and civil rights movements – then what’s surprising is not that the climate movement hasn’t yet succeeded. What’s surprising is how far it has come and how deeply it has become embedded in such a short time. And now is the moment when its greatest success might be about to be realised – and just in time.”
Gilding explains that 2012 wasn’t just a year when we saw an increase in extreme weather events worldwide; we also saw institutions of the 1% like the World Bank, IMF and International Energy Agency all make strong statements about the need to shift away from fossil fuels, with the IEA actually saying that a majority of the fossil fuels in the ground need to stay there.
He points to the significance of “a disruptive economic shift already underway in the global energy market. There are two indicators of this, with the first being the much noted acceleration in the size of the renewable energy market with dramatic price reductions and the arrival of cost competitive solar and wind. It is hard to overstate the significance of this as it changes the game completely.
“Of equal importance is the awakening of the sleeping giant of carbon risk, with open discussion in mainstream financial circles of the increasing dangers in financial exposure to fossil fuels. This has been coming for several years because of the financial risk inherent in the carbon bubble. As Phil Preston and I argued in a paper in 2010 and I further elaborated in The Great Disruption, the contradiction between what the science says is essential, and the growth assumptions made by the fossil fuel industry is so large it represents a systemic global financial risk,” he says.
Gilding summarizes what this all means:
- The financial markets are waking up to the transformation logic – if the future is based in renewables and these are price competitive without subsidy, or soon will be, the transformation could sweep the economy relatively suddenly, even without further government leadership.
- This then puts in place an enormous and systemic financial risk – in particular investments in, or debt exposure to, the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry.
- This risk is steadily being increased by activist campaigns against fossil fuel projects (worsening each projects’ financial risk) and arguing for fossil fuel divestment (putting investors’ reputation in play as well).
- In response investors and lenders will reduce their exposure to fossil fuels and hedge their risk by shifting their money to high growth renewables.
- This will then reinforce and manifest the very trend they are hedging against.
- Thus it’s game on.
I’m not enough of an economist or a student who has studied these economic trends to wholly endorse what Gilding says, but what he says has the ring of truth to it. It should be constructively criticized, or built upon, by those who are able to do. It’s a very important article.
All of us who are doing this work need to internalize that we are in a new period for our movement. We should take heart from these recent developments, realize that, as powerful as the dirty fossil fuel corporate honchos seem to be, there are very concrete and practical reasons to believe that their power and wealth is reaching its limits and will soon decline. Let’s keep the faith, step up our activism, bring new people into our ranks and keep broadening and growing our movement. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the light of the sun combined with the light of our people-powered movement.
The day after the November 6 election I wrote about Obama’s electoral victory over Romney, which I was glad for. My column was about the need for the climate movement to “make it impossible for the Obama administration not to speak up and take action on the rapidly deepening and most important issue human civilization has ever faced. The world is crying out, almost literally, for smart, determined and visionary leadership on the climate crisis.”
When I heard a few weeks later that Obama had directed White House staff to come up with proposals for what he should be doing in his second term on climate, I was encouraged. When he finally spoke substantively about climate in his Inaugural speech, I allowed myself to hope that things could well be different in his second four years. When, a few weeks later, he made climate one of the main issues of his State of the Union message, I was glad to hear it, though there was little specificity.
A few days ago Obama gave what the White House billed as a “major speech” on climate and energy in Chicago at the Argonne National Laboratory. In connection with that speech a document, “President Obama’s Blueprint for a Clean and Secure Energy Future,” was released publicly.
Unfortunately, the one, new, specific proposal from Obama in his speech was for the creation of an Energy Security Trust. $2 billion would be spent over a 10 year period--$200 million a year—for “research into a range of cost effective technologies—like advanced vehicles that run on electricity, homegrown biofuels, fuels cells and domestically produced natural gas.” That was it; nothing else, a lousy $200 million a year. And there are very real questions about biofuels and, more significantly, amply-documented, serious environmental and climate problems when it comes to natural gas, particularly because most of it will be produced by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
This proposal in Chicago was consistent with the content of the “Blueprint” document. There are positive things in it for sure, though the general approach is for incremental shifting to a more energy efficient and renewables-based economy. As would be expected with an all-of-the-above approach, there is no serious prioritization of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables.
The “Blueprint” reiterates Obama’s commitment to the originally-Republican approach of “all-of-the-above” as far as where the US is going to get its energy. It is self-congratulatory for all of the “responsible oil and gas production” that has “increased each year” under Obama. It projects US support for nuclear power exports. It calls for “doubling” renewable electricity generation over the next eight years which, given the fact that it doubled between 2009 and 2013, would mean an actual slowing down of the rate of renewables growth over the rest of the decade.
Given the acceleration and deepening of climate disruption, as seen by the growth of extreme weather events worldwide, a record-smashing reduction of Arctic sea ice in 2012 and an apparent acceleration in the rate of annual growth of carbon in the atmosphere, these approaches don’t come close to reflecting the urgency of our situation.
But what is most troubling about “Blueprint” is that it continues the Obama administration’s “all-in” approach to fracking and natural gas. This includes a plan for a “streamlined system for oil and gas permits” for new drilling. Once again, as Obama has done in the past, it describes gas as a “nearly 100-year resource,” which is inaccurate, essentially gas industry PR. It projects a measly $40 million for “research to ensure safe and responsible natural gas production” (please!!!).
Presented as a major bulleted item in bold letters, it “commits to partnering with the private sector to adopt natural gas and other alternative fuels in the Nation’s trucking fleet. . . The President is committed to accelerating the growth of this domestically abundant fuel and other alternative fuels in the transportation sector.” And finally, it projects that, internationally, the U.S. will help other countries develop their oil and gas and “work to help countries with unconventional natural gas resources [shale gas] to identify and develop them safely.”
It is beyond ironic that the Obama administration put forward this very problematic approach at the same time that the United States and the world are seeing a dramatic increase in wind and solar energy production. The day before Obama’s speech, the Solar Energy Industries Association released a Solar Market Insight Report for 2012, which reported that US photovoltaic solar installations—rooftop solar—grew 76% in 2012 to reach 3,313 Megawatts. It reported further that “the U.S. accounted for 11% of all global PV installations in 2012, its highest market share in at least fifteen years.”
A recent article at Grist.org quoted from a Bloomberg report on projected solar growth worldwide in 2013: “New solar generating capacity expected to be installed around the world in 2013 will be capable of producing almost as much electricity as eight nuclear reactors, according to Bloomberg, which interviewed seven analysts and averaged their forecasts. That would be a rise of 14 percent over last year for a total of 34.1 gigawatts of new solar capacity, thanks in large part to rising demand in China, the U.S., and Japan.”
And check this out: for 2012, as far as new electrical generating capacity coming on line in the US, just about half, 49% of it, was from renewables, primarily wind. This has never happened before. In January of 2013, all new electrical power capacity, 100% of it, came from renewables, again primarily wind. (from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “Energy Infrastructure Update.”)
These hopeful developments make Obama’s “major speech” on climate look downright timid and weak, at best.
It is clear that the climate movement must rise up, refuse to be chumped, as Van Jones advised us on Feb. 17 in DC. And we are doing so. Over 52,000 people, so far, have “pledged, if necessary, to join others in my community, and engage in acts of dignified, peaceful civil disobedience that could result in my arrest in order to send the message to President Obama and his administration that they must reject the Keystone XL pipeline." Actions around the country, including at the White House on Thursday, are taking place this week as part of a Tar Sands Blockade week of action. And we’re just getting rolling. “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
There are two major events being organized by the US climate movement over the next month.
The first and most immediately significant event is what is being described (accurately) as the biggest climate demonstration in US history, taking place February 17th in Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of people have already signed up indicating their intention to take part, and momentum is building.
This action was called by the Sierra Club soon after the November elections. The official call to action that went out in December came from them, 350.org and the Hip Hop Caucus. Since that time close to 100 organizations have endorsed it, mostly environmental and climate groups but also including the League of Women Voters, MoveOn, the Nebraska Farmers Union, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen and United for Peace and Justice.
The demonstration is happening on President’s Day weekend, on purpose. The major target is President Obama. He is being called upon to give real content to his inaugural call for action on climate, to lead practically on this urgent issue, and, most specifically, to permanently reject the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline.
The tar sands, without question, has become a “line in the sand” for enviros, climate activists and most progressives in the US and Canada, and we are having a real impact.
There is the broadly-based, effective and escalating actions of Indigenous and others groups in Canada and the just-won’t-give-up organizing of Bold Nebraska. There’s the harassing activities of Tar Sands Blockade in Texas and organizing in New England against another potential tar sands pipeline proposed for that area. There is the on-going work of various national enviro and climate groups. And finally, with the replacement at the State Department of Hillary Clinton by former U.S. Senate climate champion John Kerry, big shots at TransCanada and within the oil and gas industry and the conservative Canadian government cannot be feeling so good these days.
Let’s really “make their day” on February 17th, come out in such large numbers that history will record this as a turning point day for the Keystone XL pipeline, all the various tar sands pipeline proposals, the tar sands itself and, indeed, the whole dirty fossil fuel corporate enterprise in North America.
Stop the Frack Attack Convenes
Two weeks after Feb. 17, the no-fracking movement will convene for a national conference right in the belly of the beast of the gas industry, in Dallas, Texas, from March 2-4. Organized by Stop the Frack Attack, the coalition which brought thousands to DC on July 28th last year, this event will be attended by hundreds, not tens of thousands, but it will still be significant. This will be the first major national conference of the movement against fracking that has grown up over the last several years.
As explained at http://stopthefrackattack.org, people from across the US will “attend to share stories, build skills, become better spokespeople, learn about the clean energy alternatives to oil and natural gas, celebrate victories and help build this national movement. We are also organizing a rally on Monday, to welcome the Texas State government back to work and remind them that they work for the people and not the oil and gas industry. . . The Dallas/Fort Worth area represents urban fracking at its worst; as you fly in you can see well pads as far as the eye can see, and once you land you are greeted by a compressor station right outside the airport. Dallas/Fort Worth is also home to many of the oil and gas companies destroying our communities around the country.”
Without question, the problems with fracking will be part of what is said from the stage and printed on the signs and banners of those attending the Feb. 17 DC demonstration. President Obama is in serious need of a wake-up call about how problematic fracking is. So far, he has been an unabashed cheerleader for this polluting and destructive industry, not just for those who live near fracking wells or who drink water downriver from them but for the earth.
Fracking leads to significant releases of methane, a greenhouse gas between 72-105 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere. Recent studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that, in Colorado and Utah, there was a 4% and 9% methane leakage rate, respectively, in areas where there are large numbers of gas wells. These leakage rates alone, not counting other methane released over the life cycle of natural gas, make the gas produced in these areas worse than coal as far as greenhouse gas emissions.
Natural gas, however it is produced, is a fossil fuel that when burned and when released into the atmosphere makes our historic task of reducing atmospheric ghg’s more difficult. The current “gold rush” to produce fracked gas has without question weakened the absolutely essential, urgent need to move from fossil fuels to clean, jobs-creating, renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal.
We need a nationally coordinated, unified movement that recognizes fracking for what it is, that slows and stops the mad rush toward a massive expansion of gas infrastructure intended to dramatically accelerate overseas gas exports, and that works closely with the broader climate and progressive movements to accomplish this absolutely essential goal.
Earlier this year a number of organizations joined together to form the 2004 Racism Watch project to draw attention to racism in this year's Presidential elections. The organizations, representing a wide range of constituencies and interests, vow to expose candidates that resort to racist imagery and policies to get elected, a practice with a long history in American politics.
Racism within U.S. institutions, law and culture is deeply imbedded in the history and reality of the United States going back to the 17th century. And we still have a long way to go. We can see that by what is being said and not being said during the current Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns.
President George W. Bush acts as if everything is just fine, and we all love each other in this wonderful land of hope and opportunity united against the evil terrorists. Democratic Presidential hopeful John Kerry, on the other hand, does talk about affirmative action, black voter disenfranchisement, the idea of "two Americas" and possibly other racial justice issues, but from the reports I've heard, only before black audiences.
But race and racism may become a more public part of the debate before Election Day. There are reports that the Bush campaign is preparing a TV commercial using statements of Rev. Al Sharpton as a foil to undercut Kerry. And Kerry, under pressure from black Democrats, may see the need to take stronger public positions on racial justice.
There is a sordid history going back to 1968 of the two major parties consciously using racism during Presidential campaigns. It was in 1968, with the dramatic spread of the black freedom movement all over the country and uprisings in the cities, and with the emergence of George Wallace running an overtly racist American Independent Party campaign, that the Richard Nixon campaign made a conscious decision to completely abandon the Republican Party's anti-slavery roots.
As recently as 1956 Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower had received the support of 39% of the African American electorate, and, in the words of scholar Manning Marable, "at the time there was a strong liberal wing pressuring the White House to take bolder steps on racial policy." But 12 years later the major issues for Nixon were "law and order," getting "welfare bums" off the dole, and opposition to school desegregation through busing.
The Democrats were "better," but far from good. Clearly responding to Nixon's landslide re-election victory in 1972 against liberal George McGovern, the Democrats nominated Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. Among the controversial statements made by Carter during his campaign was his use of the phrase "ethnic purity" to describe white enclaves and neighborhood schools. He also used the phrases "alien groups," "black intrusion" and "interjecting into a community a member of another race." The Democrats learned to use racism in order to compete for white votes at the polls.
Ever since, a pattern has been followed regardless who the two parties put forward as candidates. The Republicans are out front with their racial demagoguery to the extent necessary for them to win, as in the use of the infamous 'Willie Horton' ad in 1988. The Democrats are weak in their responses or, in some cases, outright copycats. Bill Clinton, for example, in the words of author Kenneth O'Reilly, "calculated that he could not win in 1992 unless he [publicly criticized] Sister Souljah to bait Jesse Jackson [at a Rainbow Coalition conference], put a black chain gang in a crime control ad, golfed at a segregated club with a TV camera crew in tow, and allowed that search for a serviceable vein in [retarded, African American, death row inmate] Rickey Ray Rector's arm."
This history is what brought the 2004 Racism Watch project together. The coalition of groups are committed to draw attention to the expected use of race baiting in the election this year, while working to mobilize a strong progressive vote in communities of color and to defend the right to vote against expected attacks.
Out of this work has emerged a Call to Action signed by a dozen national and southern regional organizations such as the Institute for Southern Studies, the National Youth & Student Peace Coalition, the Independent Progressive Politics Network and the Black Radical Congress for a "Vote for Racial Justice Week" October 18-24. The Call explains, "once again, just like other elections, we're hearing almost nothing about [racial justice] issues from the major Presidential candidates and many other candidates seeking office, so we need to make our presence felt!"
The Call lists a range of issues: racial/class bias in the legal system, unequal resources for public schools, unemployment, the racist "war on drugs," the death penalty, electoral reform, the Patriot Act, immigrant rights, affirmative action and reparations, environmental justice, Native American sovereignty and treaty rights and a new foreign policy. It goes on to urge local groups to raise these issues through marches and rallies, workshops, trainings, candidates' forums, educational leafleting and widespread outreach.
George Friday, a co-coordinator of the 2004 Racism Watch, commented, "Vote for Racial Justice Week is taking place two weeks before the national elections, an important time for citizens to understand and spread awareness about the positions of candidates running for office on important issues."
Organizers are assembling a packet of materials to help local organizers who want to participate in the week. One already produced resource is a leaflet summarizing the positions of all the presidential candidates on key race issues. The results are compiled from the candidates' answers to a survey developed by the organization. When a candidate did not respond to the survey, their positions were summarized from their published statements and policy proposals.
Objectives of the week include the public "coming out" of a national, multi-cultural, anti-racist network, the mobilization of communities of color and progressive whites to cast an informed vote on November 2, and helping to build an on-going, pro-justice movement that understands these issues and supports people of color leadership.
"There's a lot of excitement among our members about this project," said Adrienne Maree Brown of the League of Pissed Off Voters. Kate Zaidan, a leader of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, explained, "We expect that there will be scores of college campuses where local student groups will organize educational or outreach events during the week of action." Many other community-based and issue organizations and local unions are getting involved to advocate and fight for the needs of communities of color in the elections.
The history of racism in elections and the sense in many communities of color that their votes were not counted in the 2000 Presidential Elections has lead many grassroots people of color to lose hope that voting might make a difference in their lives. "Vote for Racial Justice Week" may be one way that they can regain that hope.
2004 Racism Watch is also committed to helping communities of color prepare for whatever the results are on November 2. In the words of George Friday, "To many of the groups involved it is crystal clear that whether Bush or Kerry wins, there will be much work yet to be done for racial justice."