Surround the White House: Protesters join hands against Keystone XL

The Occupy Wall Street movement spread from the streets of New York City, September 2011, sparking in towns and cities across the country. The fire of protest caught wind and raced through hundreds of cities across Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, culminating with the 15th of October demonstrations held in 82 countries. The cry from thousands of occupy protesters is simple, varied yet united. Each protester brings their personal grievances to the table but they all agree. Those elected to protect the interests and well being of the masses aren’t doing their jobs.  All too often those with economic and monetary muscle are able to swing the legislative tides in their favor.

In addition to the many issues of social inequality being protested by Occupiers around the world, are the issues of reckless public endangerment by large energy and oil companies. A key issue among these “Occupy Environmentalists” is the Keystone XL pipeline poised to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Keystone XL pipeline, meant to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Texas, is a possible danger to air and water supplies in the states it passes through. Furthermore the process of refining oil harvested from the tar sands (bitumen) generates 2-4 times more greenhouse gasses per barrel, and 10-45% more greenhouse gasses with the combustion of the final product. The United States consumes 25% of the world’s oil and yet only processes 3% of the total conventional reserves. Advocates for Keystone XL claim that the pipeline is in the Nation’s interest and that it would provide energy security for the United States.

The environmental concerns over this pipeline have rallied protesters to surround the White House. Participants in Surround the White House, formed a circle around the White House on Sunday, November 6th in an attempt to dissuade the Obama administration from signing off on the construction of the proposed pipeline.   

Key environmentalist, Bill Mckibben, was the master of ceremonies for the rally, which took place in the hours between 1:30 and 5:30 pm.

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Uniting for Change: Environmental Activism Against Deregulation

Mohondas Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Man has been a student to change over the course of his existence. As we come to understand ourselves as a unique species on this planet, our ideas change and then our ways of living. Some changes have come about subtly, but change has also been fought for and come about violently. There have been so many moments in history when a group of people have recognized the prevailing structures to be wrong or unjust, and then acted collectively. Power in numbers has always been understood as a determining factor in conflict. Traditionally though, it has been the militaristic threat of greater numbers. In this last century we have come to see that with some guidance the collective voices and actions of a people can carry a different kind of power without violent action; it is the power of righteousness.

Also in this last century, we have come to understand in great detail, the physical properties of the world we are born into. It has become clear that this industrial chapter of human existence coupled with a population explosion (so to speak) has strained our planet and continues to do so. We now realize (on a large scale) that our atmosphere is damaged. The planet is gradually warming, sea level is rising and fragile ecosystems are suffering. So, like many times before people have risen to the occasion to try and set things right. But environmental activists have always had their work cut out for them. The numbers have not always been on the activists’ side, nor have the politics.

The U.S. Government has a history of environmental regulation followed shortly thereafter by unannounced deregulation. The early 20th Century seemed promising for the future of America’s ecosystems. Areas of dense population were forced to face the consequences of aggressive industrial activity and high rates of consumption because it was literally right in their backyard. The Rivers and Harbors act of 1899 prevented the dumping of waste into “navigable” waters, and was a precursor to a solid twenty years of legislation aimed to conserve, preserve and protect our land. However since the Rivers and Harbors act of 1899, there has been a Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, Clean Water Act of 1977 and a Water Quality Act of 1987. If you check the track record of the Clean Air Act you will see roughly the same number of amendments and re-attempts. After all of that, the air and water within so many cities and small communities is far from clean and in some cases it is poisonous or lethal. This indicates a severe neglect to enforce these regulations, but perhaps “ignore” is a better word, as business interests become political interests and visa versa.

It was in the 1960’s, a time of changing culture and changing attitudes towards the powers that be, when grassroots environmentalists decided they must take matters into their own hands. A Boston College article on American environmentalism describes this movement, “The approach of modern environmentalism transformed from top-down control by technical and managerial leaders into bottom-up grassroots demands from citizens and citizen groups.” Among other environmental disasters of the time, it was a burning river in Cleveland that sparked a series of nationwide campaigns and protests. The heart of this grassroots movement lay with the youth, in a number of universities across nation. The very same demographic that caused such a stir in their relentless uprising for social justice in Vietnam and on the civil rights front, was simultaneously fighting for environmental responsibility. It was a very unique generation that seemed to embody the equality of all mankind and a connectedness to the natural world. It was also a generation that refused to be ignored. A youthful foundation of activists and environmental NGO’s were the spark that encouraged another string of federal regulation throughout the 1960’s aimed to protect and clean up our air, water and wilderness. In fact, activists were involved in the drafting of the renewed legislation.

The modern environmental movement went from grassroots to mainstream when on April 22, 1970 an estimated 20 million people across the nation took to the streets to celebrate the environment and demand its preservation on the first ever Earth Day. The movement was commended by political affiliations of all kinds (at least publicly), and brought a somewhat underground issue to the forefront of discussion. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was the one to initiate and organize this massive celebration. He would later receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton for his memorable efforts. It is said that Earth Day of 1970 was the reason that the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency the very same year.

An environmental activist’s work is never done though. Even after tightened regulation and the creation of the EPA, under the radar violations have gone unnoticed or ignored. Reagan himself dismissed the science tying acid rain in Canadian territory to heavy pollution from Midwestern industrial areas; subsequently denying the EPA funding for further research into its effects or possible prevention. New York Times published an article in 2009 on severe neglect of  clean water laws and the lack of consequence, “In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times…However the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment.” Lobbyists and large political action contributions buy a free pass form congress members allowing corporations to act as they please. On the political front there is a polarization of belief in the extent of global warming. Even though scientists everywhere have verified the effects of global warming, conservative ideals that have a large stake in congress continue to dismiss the issue. The government is now forced to cut funding to agencies of lower priority; the Republican Party believes the EPA to be on that list.

As long as democracy is the prevailing force in this country, it is the people who yield the greatest power. We are becoming much more environmentally conscious both in culture and in industry. Our collective actions to reduce a disproportionately large carbon footprint will make a difference simply because we are trying. Yet if hybrid cars and solar panels replace that grassroots spirit of activism, how much change will we really see for our future. We must remain vigilant of the activities of big business and the politics that support it. If anti-environmentalism is confronted in a unified manner then, as history shows, changes will be made for the better.

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Thousands of Students Gather for Climate Solutions

powershift-youth-climate-votersThousands of youth voters who helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 are turning their energies toward pressuring the president and Congress to take a stronger stance on climate change and clean energy.  This past weekend through Monday, 10,000 students and youth met in Washington, DC for PowerShift 2011—a national summit and training focused on empowering young people to implement solutions to climate change. 

Though participants came from all over the country and from many different backgrounds, there were some common themes that emerged again and again.  Perhaps most important was the growing feeling among youth organizers that the president they helped put in office has done an underwhelming job addressing the crisis of global warming.

PowerShift included in-depth trainings on organizing and activism, as well as a multiple rallies and demonstrations where thousands of youth called on policymakers to stand up to the fossil fuel industries.  Participants heard from speakers as diverse as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who represents a government agency, and climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who is being prosecuted by the federal government for peacefully disrupting an oil drilling auction. 

Many speakers joined in criticizing Congress and the Obama administration for not doing enough to prevent climate change.  Green jobs activist and former White House adviser Van Jones compared President Obama to a student who could be getting A-pluses in school, but in practice is only getting C’s and D’s.

This critique of the Obama administration set PowerShift 2011 apart from a similar conference held two years ago, called PowerShift 2009.  At the time of the 2009 PowerShift event, President Obama had just recently taken office and hopes were high that the federal government was finally going to pass ambitious climate legislation.  Several keynote speakers came from federal government agencies—including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who spoke about protecting public lands from fossil fuel exploration. 

This year Secretary Salazar not only failed to make the speaker list, he was strongly criticized at PowerShift for opening more than 7,000 acres in Wyoming to coal mining.  Author and activist Bill McKibben blasted that decision, saying it would make as large a contribution to global warming as building 300 new coal plants.  On Monday more than a thousand PowerShift participants marched to the Interior Department’s headquarters to protest this and other pro-fossil fuel policies.  Twenty-one activists were arrested for acts of civil disobedience.   

About the only high-profile figure in the Obama administration who has managed to stay in climate activists’ good graces is Lisa Jackson, who as head of the EPA is enforcing Clean Air Act regulations on carbon and toxic air pollutants despite strong opposition from industry.  Yet there are signs the president might respond if youth voters push him hard enough to take action.  President Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting between eleven youth activists and White House staff on Friday afternoon.  Young organizers, including PowerShift co-organizer Courtney Hight, urged the president to push for clean energy and reductions in carbon emissions, and not to invest in dangerous energy sources like nuclear power, coal, and natural gas.

Other highlights from PowerShift included a spontaneous demonstration that shut down a BP gas station, and a rally of thousands outside the national headquarters of the US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s biggest funder of anti-climate politicians and policies.  In his speech to PowerShift participants, Bill McKibben criticized the US Chamber for being the single biggest roadblock to reducing global warming emissions, and for urging the EPA not to regulate carbon. 

Trainings that took place over the weekend at PowerShift were focused on preparing participants to return to their home states ready to continue fighting for a clean energy future.  With disappointments from the last year, such as the failure of the US government to pass climate legislation, the youth movement’s relationship with the Obama administration may be permanently changed.  Now PowerShift participants have returned home to channel the same energy that helped elect a new president in 2008 into fulfilling the dream of a carbon neutral world.

Photo credit: Abby Rose

Young Girl Scout Activists Hope to Save Rain Forests by Removing Palm Oil From Cookies

A key ingredient in Girl Scout cookies is palm oil, the production of which is responsible for widespread rain forest destruction. Much of the palm oil supplied for Girl Scout cookies is produced by food giant Cargill in Indonesia.
Cargill has been accused by critics of having a disregard for  environmental issues and human rights in its palm oil manufacturing processes. However, beyond Cargill-specific critiques, palm oil in general is responsible for enormous environmental and human rights abuses, including the following:
• Palm oil plantation expansion is the leading cause of rain forest destruction in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and the Solomon Islands. 
• Palm oil is on the US Department of Labor list of global commodities linked to slave or child labor.
• Rain forest and peatland destruction is responsible for 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with Indonesia being the third largest emitter after China and the United States.
• Palm oil is a key ingredient in every type of Girl Scout cookie, except for one.
In response to the environmental and human rights concerns stemming from the Girl Scouts’ usage of palm oil, two young Girl Scout activists have spent years trying to convince their organization to eliminate palm oil from Girl Scout cookies. The two activists, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, have been petitioning the Girl Scouts to take action on this important issue. To date, no decision has been made to remove palm oil from Girl Scout cookies.

Obama Challenged to Put Solar Panels Back on the White House

By: Nick Engelfried

September 3, 2010

Next week, a group of college students from Unity College in Maine will join environmental activist and author Bill McKibben on a three-day journey to the nation’s capital.  Their goal: convince President Obama to re-install solar panels on the White House roof.  Through leading by example at the White House, organizers of this “solar road trip” say the president can encourage the rest of the country to do what it takes to avert the worst effects of global warming.

Solar panels were first installed on the White House in 1979, by President Jimmy Carter.  Carter, whose administration also helped pass numerous initiatives to stimulate investment in renewable energy, encouraged all US residents to take simple steps that could save energy at home and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. 

In a now-famous incident, the solar panels were removed from the White House when President Ronald Reagan took office years later.  For the solar road trip, McKibben and student organizers with the climate activism group have retrieved one of Carter’s original panels from Unity College, and will take in person back to the White House.

“We’re challenging Obama to put solar back on the White House,” writes co-coordinator Jamie Henn.  “I mean, seriously, if we could do it 31 years ago when bell bottoms were in style, we should definitely be able to do it now.”

Climate activists aren’t just focused on the Obama administration, however.  In fact, has challenged heads of state from every country in the world to put solar panels on their place of residence in a symbolic move to fight global warming and encourage renewable energy.  The first head of state to respond was President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a low-lying island nation imminently threatened by rising sea levels.  Nasheed plans to install solar panels on October 10th of this year, as part of an international day of action for the climate.

Yet while momentum is building to put in solar panels in capital cities around the world, the push has taken on a special significance in the United States.  That’s because of the unique role the US plays in international climate politics; while most observers believe a US commitment to reducing greenhouse emissions is essential to a global climate deal, the United States Senate again failed to pass sweeping climate legislation this year. 

After starting out from Unity College next week in a bus powered by biodiesel, solar road trip participants will stop in Boston and New York City to hold events that draw attention to their initiative and highlight the need for nation-wide investments in renewable energy.  The activists hope that in putting solar panels back on the White house roof, President Obama will take up a more active role in weaning the country off fossil fuel dependence and reducing the threat of global warming. 

“Solar panels on the White House will remind every visitor to Washington that every roof in America should have solar panels for electricity and hot water on them,” said’s McKibben. “The President’s panels will do as much good as the wonderful organic garden that the First Lady planted on the South Lawn.”

Photo credit: Wayne National Forest

Community Enrichment Group Finds Solutions to Climate Change

Corvallis Mayor Charlie Tomlinson talks to NICE organizer Chelsea ThawBy: Nick Engelfried
August 31, 2010

Ever wondered what a community-wide transition to a more sustainable future would look like?  This summer one neighborhood in Corvallis, Oregon got to find out.  Residents of close to half the households in Corvallis’ Job’s Addition neighborhood participated in an eight-week Community Carbon Challenge that spurred neighbors to act in concerted fashion to reduce their carbon footprints and their contribution to global warming.

Over the summer the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment, also known as the NICE, recruited college students from throughout the Northwest to help make the Community Carbon Challenge a success.  Originally designed by the Corvallis Community Energy Project, the initiative was intended to bring students and community members together to find solutions to fossil fuel consumption.  Students scoured Job’s Addition, knocking on doors and asking residents to participate in the carbon challenge.  More than 200 people agreed to take the next step, and were urged to choose three new actions they would take to reduce their consumption of energy from fossil fuels. 

Organizers with the NICE, which is dedicated to helping communities in the Northwest live more sustainably, chose Corvallis for their focus during an annual “Summer of Solutions,” partly because the Corvallis Community Energy Project had already begun the work of making city neighborhoods more sustainable.  “This year’s Summer of Solutions was about scaling up the efforts of this community group to accomplish even more,” said Nathan Jones, a NICE organizer. 

Actions neighborhood residents could choose to reduce their carbon footprint included everything from putting a lid on the hot water kettle to prevent wasted energy, to installing home solar panels.  Carbon challenge organizers used an online survey to monitor how many of these steps were actually taken.  According to Jones, residents of Job’s Addition committed to taking more than 600 individual actions over the summer to cut back on carbon consumption and energy use. 

By the end of the eight-week program, five teams were formed in the neighborhood to continue the work of helping the community cut carbon emissions.  While the work of these teams continues apace in Job’s Addition, Jones hopes the next few years will see the NICE expand efforts to other Corvallis neighborhoods and to communities throughout the Northwest.  “I would love to see us organize three neighborhoods in Corvallis per summer over the next three years,” Jones said.  “We hope to work with a total of ten neighborhoods throughout the Northwest next summer.” 

As environmental groups work to phase out polluting power plants like Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, projects like the Job’s Addition carbon challenge could help answer the question of how to replace energy now produced by dirty coal plants.  Large-scale renewable energy projects are likely to be part of what displaces old power plants; but the work of NICE organizers also suggests communities can get engaged in reducing the amount of energy they need to consume in the first place. 

Through gradually weaning neighborhoods off their dependence on fossil fuels, Jones believes communities can make large, polluting power plants not just undesirable, but largely irrelevant.  Sustainability projects may start out with simple energy-saving measures, but could continue to build momentum until neighborhoods and eventually whole cities are producing their own energy with rooftop solar panels and home wind turbines, allowing them to exit the fossil fuel-based energy economy. 

“We want to help communities innovate until we push the need for centralized energy generation and carbon intensive resources out of the picture,” Jones said.  “It’s time to start looking at cities as potential energy producers that can serve as their own power plants and export energy to rural areas.” 

The Summer of Solutions carbon challenge is a testament to the results that come from engaging communities and helping neighbors work toward a shared goal.  During the course of eight weeks, residents of one neighborhood in Corvallis found 600 ways individual actions can reduce consumption of fossil fuels and take a bite out of global warming.  It’s enough to make you think twice about leaving the lid off the hot water kettle. 

Photo credit: Jared Schy, Summer of Solutions organizer

More Groups Using Art for Climate Activism

By: Nick Engelfried 

August 19, 2010
On Tuesday climate activists in Portland, Oregon brought a new and artistic spin to a debate that’s been raging for over a year: how soon to retire the state’s only coal-fired power plant and biggest contributor to global warming pollution.  The action in Portland was just one example of a growing trend in the national and global climate movement.  More and more people and organizations, frustrated with world leaders’ failure to dramatically curb carbon emissions, are turning to art as a medium to express the vision of a sustainable future. 
In many cases students and young people have been the first to seize on paint brushes or canvas as new tools to push for action on global warming, and this was the case during Tuesday’s action.  Students and recent graduates from colleges and universities across the state of Oregon participated in organizing an event that included creation of a seven-foot-long community painting, and a sidewalk rally outside the offices of one of Oregon’s biggest polluters. 
At 8:00am on Tuesday, youth organizers from the Sierra Student Coalition and the Cascade Climate Network set up the canvas in Portland’s Waterfront Park, and invited passersby to join them in painting an image that depicts Oregon’s transition from reliance on the Boardman Coal Plant, to a future powered by clean electricity and renewable energy.  Park users from small children to grandparents stopped to take up a paint brush and contribute a few minutes of their creativity.
At noon event participants carried the completed piece of artwork to the nearby offices of Portland General Electric (PGE), the company that operates the Boardman Coal Plant.  Student activists spoke about the need to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible, and urged PGE to retire its coal plant by 2015 – the fastest and cheapest timescale recommended by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.  While interested bystanders emerged from the building to take a look, the painting was presented in full view of PGE’s windows. 
“The creation of this painting is a metaphor for how we can solve our energy problems,” said Katherine Takaoka, a student and Linfield College who helped organize the event.  “It was made possible by bringing people together, and by working together in our communities we can make the transition to clean energy.” 
This event in Portland was just one of the latest instances when environmental groups and those concerned about a warming planet have taken a breather from reciting facts and statistics, and used art to make the possibility of a better future more tangible.  Over the last couple years, major figures in the environmental movement like author and activist Bill McKibben have urged climate organizers to take up art as weapon of choice – and seen this advice taken by communities all over the planet. 
During an international day of climate action on October 24th of last year, thousands of groups in almost every country on the globe held events to draw attention to the maximum level of carbon dioxide that’s safe for the atmosphere: 350 parts per million.  Many of these actions employed visual art to get the message across, with groups of people forming giant numbers from their bodies and performance artists designing dances with 350 steps. 
Tuesday’s event in Portland was unique because it is perhaps the first example of artistic techniques being employed in the effort to move Oregon away from coal dependence and close the Boardman Coal Plant by 2015.  After months of organizing around public hearings and official meetings, activists engaged in the youth branch of the campaign decided it was time to try something slightly different.  Students from Linfield College came up with the idea of a giant painting, and designed the image template used for the event. 
Photo credits: Mika Hernandez