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Tragedy on the Annapurna Circuit

As increased access attracts inexperienced trekkers, will disaster strike more frequently in the Himalayas?

The night before going over Thorung La, the 17,769 foot pass that would be the high point of our 19 day trek around the Annapurna Circuit, we lounged comfortably at the last major guest house in Thorung Phedi. The next guest house was in Muktinath, about 10 miles away. American pop music filled the large dining hall, almost making me forget where we were – more than 14,400 feet above sea level, high in the Himalayas, surrounded by steep scree slopes and herds of blue sheep. As we sat talking with fellow trekkers who came from points around the globe, our conversation focused on travel, places we had been, and trails we had hiked.

AnnapurnaPhoto by Sean CurrensA hiker gazes at a snow covered Thorung La in February. 

When my friend Blake, who I had met three years earlier thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, invited me to join him on the Circuit, I imagined us huddled around open stoves in candlelit, thatched roof huts with only a small handful of weathered hikers for company. The words themselves – Nepal, Himalaya, Annapurna – seemed exotic, distant and remote, and quixotic notions of a land untouched by the modern world occupied my mind.

In reality, the Annapurna Circuit was a far cry from the romantic illusions that had filled my head in the weeks preceding our departure. Made up of trails stomped out over centuries of travel and trade between villages, the Circuit was only formed as a cohesive “trail” open to recreationists in the late 1970s. Since then, the Circuit has gained a reputation as the ultimate trek, and its accessibility has increased along with its popularity. Today, a rough jeep road parallels a majority of the trail, health care facilities have opened in a handful of towns along the route, Snickers bars and Coca-Cola are available for purchase at just about every wayside and guest house, wi-fi connections are common, and local communities have become quite savvy in their attempts to cater to western clients. The extensive planning process usually required for long hikes – poring over maps, noting water sources, scheduling food drops or resupplies, and coordinating gear – has been practically eliminated. Book a flight to Kathmandu, take a bus to Pokhara, hire a guide and take off.

AnnapurnaPhoto by Sean CurrensTrekkers find a …more

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Berkeley Bellwether: What the Soda Tax in this City Means for the Country

The face of Berkeley vs. Big Soda is the face of mainstream America

At Tuesday night’s Berkeley vs. Big Soda victory party in the heart of downtown, the results rolled in slowly, but spirits were high. Early returns around 8:00 p.m., with only 8 percent of precincts reporting, showed the people beating Big Soda by a huge margin. The margin held.

group photo of soda tax supportersPhoto courtesy Berkeley vs Big SodaThe massive industry campaign to defeat the tax works out to $409 for each vote industry got in its favor. This was a big fail for Big Soda — and an expensive one.

The final tally had the Yes on D campaign winning with 75 percent of the vote, but not for Big Soda’s lack of trying. According to the most recent data available, Big Soda had poured $2.3 million into its fight against this simple and modest tax of one cent per fluid ounce of sugar-sweetened beverages, a proposal that was supported by every single elected official in the city. The massive industry campaign to defeat the tax works out to $409 for each vote industry got in its favor. This was a big fail for Big Soda — and an expensive one.

By last week, the soda industry was starting to unveil its new spin on the impending loss: Berkeley is weird. A win here, Big Soda would like us to believe, is an aberration. With the win locked in, the industry is pushing hard on the “wacky Berkeley” meme. It’s doing so because the other lesson from this resounding vote is that it’s a game changer — a signal of the beginning of a seismic shift in how we treat soda and sugary drinks in this country. That lesson is a huge threat to Big Soda. So the drumbeat of Berkeley weird will continue. After the results were announced, Roger Salazar, a representative from the industry’s campaign told the Associated Press, “Berkeley is very eclectic;” he told the San Jose Mercury News that Berkeley “doesn't look like mainstream America.”

But Salazar wasn’t at Berkeley vs. Big Soda HQ on Tuesday night. Had he been, he would have seen just how wrong he was.

He would have seen the face of soda tax supporters: young and old, African-American, Latino, immigrant — people from all social and economic classes. He would have heard from people like Kad Smith, a recent Berkeley High School graduate, a …more

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The Hangover: Mourning After the 2014 Election

Environmental concerns still not a decisive wedge issue — but there are some silver linings

There’s no sense in sugarcoating it: Yesterday’s election was mostly bad news for the environment and for the US environmental movement. Despite investing close to $100 million in key Senate and gubernatorial races, green groups were unable to elect most of their favored candidates. Politicians antagonistic to environmental protection and climate action will now run the US Senate. At the local level, fiercely fought anti-fracking measures split both ways. GMO food labeling measures failed (once again), though restrictions on GM crops narrowly passed on the Hawaiian island of Maui and in California’s Humboldt County. In perhaps the most significant silver lining of the night, little ol’ Berkeley, CA passed the nation’s first tax on sweetened beverages – overcoming a massive campaign by Big Soda and, in the process, offering some lessons on how to advance an environmental agenda at the ballot box.

Climate protest in front of Capitol building.Photo by Blaine O’NeillRepublicans have won control of the US Senate, though Democrats will still have the numbers to mount a filibuster.

Senate Goes Red. Maine and Florida Stick with Environmental Enemies.

The top headline, of course, is that Republicans have won control of the US Senate, though Democrats will still have the numbers to mount a filibuster. Climate science denier Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma will now chair the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, while Lisa Murkowski from the petro state of Alaska will chair the Energy and Commerce Committee. Republicans are already promising/threatening to pass a bill approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and you can expect a push to open up more oil and gas drilling on public lands. For the next two years, green groups will be forced to play defense on Capitol Hill.

During the last several months, environmental groups and Tom Steyer’s NextGen Super PAC picked four key Senate races in which they sought to make climate a wedge issue – and the results were mixed. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen held on in New Hampshire, and a rising climate hawk, Democrat Gary Peters, won in Michigan. But greens lost two other important races. In Colorado, conservationist scion Mark Udall lost to Cory Gardener, who ran in part on a platform celebrating the oil and gas boom in Colorado. EPA-hater and Agenda 21-conspiracy theorist Joni Ernst beat Bruce Braley in Iowa.

Environmentalists also suffered losses in important …more

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A Grassroots Effort to Stop Fracking in Santa Barbara County

Local activists' ballot initiative to stop intensive oil production fights against millions from the oil industry

A block from Rebecca Claassen’s home is a sliver of paradise. Mountains stoop nearly to the water’s edge. Lanky palm trees pitch gently in the breeze. Herons stand statue-still in the dunes. Rebecca has stolen a few moments with her daughter here at Carpinteria State Beach, 12 miles south of Santa Barbara.

Down time with family is a rarity for her in the last four months. Today, 3-year-old Hazel Claassen takes advantage, giggling as she tacks up and down the beach, stopping to inspect a dead bird, get a feel for a fistful of sand, and cart rocks from one pile to another.

Rebecca ClaassenPhoto by Sarah Craig/Faces of FrackinglRebecca Claassen has put her life on hold to fight for Measure P, a ban on fracking and similar techniques in Santa Barbara County.

Soon Rebecca will drop Hazel at day care and Rebecca will be on to the office. She’ll respond to a flood of emails, rally volunteers for weekend activities, and call residents to get the vote out for what has become an all-consuming cause: Measure P.

Measure P will appear on the ballot in California’s Santa Barbara County on November 4. And it seeks to ban “high-intensity” petroleum operations in unincorporated areas of the county. This includes the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as well as acid well stimulation and steam injection.

The Santa Barbara Water Guardians, of which Rebecca is a leading member, filed to get Measure P on the ballot in mid-March. The group, along with 300 volunteers, gathered 20,000 signatures in 25 days to earn the measure a spot on the November 2014 ballot.

“We started making calls in July and have talked to nearly 20,000 voters and knocked on probably 20,000 doors,” Rebecca tells me over an orchestra of voices in the campaign office just a week before Election Day.

The issue is a big one in Santa Barbara County – especially for the oil industry, which has responded with checkbooks blazing to try to defeat the ballot measure. Less than a week before the election, Rebecca’s contingent of Yes on Measure P has raised $352,000, while No on P has tallied a whopping $5.8 million. Most of the opposition to Measure P has funneled through Californians for Energy Independence, which gets its money from oil companies, …more

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Do Non-Native Fish Have a Place in the Sacramento Delta?

Human intervention has so irrevocably changed the delta that it’s now a “novel ecosystem,” say researchers

Speeding down a channel of the Cache Slough, an appendage of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, biologist Matthew Young deftly navigates our small research boat, which is sitting rather low in the water. Dressed in construction worker orange waders and a jacket, his curly brown hair protruding from under this green knit hat, Young, a marine biologist and a Delta Stewardship Council science fellow, is full of excited energy, which is remarkable considering both that it’s 4 a.m., and he and his team of researchers have three 12-hour days of fish sampling in the Delta ahead of them.

Sacramento Delta with birds in the skyPhoto by mhall209/FlickrThere’s some research to suggest that many non-native species are an intrinsic part of the delta today.

Young checks his list of locations and glances down at his GPS system. We coast up to the first spot, nudging the boat into the tule reed bank. Volunteer Nicole Aha lowers two sets of dangling metal wires that protrude at slight angles off the front of the boat. The electrofishing conductors have an uncanny resemblance to an octopus or those claw machines you see in supermarkets. Young flips the gas-powered generator on and signals to Aha to begin sending electricity into the water by pushing down on a pedal that completes the circuit, not enough to harm the fish, but just stun them instead.

Within a few seconds a few fish float to the top. Aha, wielding the 12-foot net, enthusiastically scoops them up. She passes them to me and I transfer the fish into an ice chest full of water. About a minute later, Young cuts the generator and we all eagerly peer into the ice chest. “Ooh, look a Mississippi silverside,” Aha says excitedly.

We record the species and size of the fish collected, descriptions of the habitat, the depth of the delta, and water temperature, among others. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and then Aha and I brace ourselves on the bow of the boat and Young jets off to our next location.

The purpose of Young’s research is to examine this part of the delta to determine how fish populations are doing. His hope is to determine if the decline of native species is due to non-native species or some other esoteric change in the delta, namely a change brought about …more

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Climate Hawks Vote Swoops onto the Election Scene

With a shoestring budget and grassroots mindset, new super PAC hopes to elevate climate change in November elections

By now, chances are you’ve heard of Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager turned avid climate activist. He’s thrown upwards of $50 million into the November elections via his super PAC, NextGen Climate, and has made plenty of headlines in the process.

VotePhoto by Theresa Thompson Climate Hawks Vote backs climate hawk leaders, defined as "those who prioritize and speak on the climate crisis."

It’s easy to get excited about Steyer. He is a living, breathing model of self-transformation, a man who made his fortune investing in dirty industries, and then did a complete 180, divesting those funds and becoming an outspoken critic of the fossil fuel industry. He brings money (i.e., power) to the environmental movement, something that has long been in short supply. And though he may not be able to outspend the Koch brothers, he can at least give them a run for their money.

It is the magnitude of his wealth and power, however, that gives some climate activists pause. Steyer is, in many ways, a one-man show. He swooped onto the environmental scene, and with little environmental or political background to speak of, has been able to get meetings and make allies that most climate activists can only dream of. There is no question that Steyer is fighting the good fight, but he is fighting on a battlefield that excludes everyday Americans (and even most one-percenters).

Enter Climate Hawks Vote, a small-scale, donor-funded PAC that provides something of a counterpoint to Steyer’s NextGen. Although both groups share the aim of elevating climate change in politics and government, Climate Hawks Vote is exclusively a grassroots organization, with a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Founded by RL Miller and Hunter Cutting earlier this year, Climate Hawks Vote relies on grassroots activism, rather than deep pockets, to back climate hawk leaders, defined on the Climate Hawks Vote website as “those who prioritize and speak on the climate crisis.”

The idea for Climate Hawks Vote was born in 2013, when Miller got wind that Brian Schweitzer, former Governor of Montana, might be running for the US Senate. “I was deeply bothered by the idea of a Democrat who is good on many other aspects of Democratic [Party] values but who also is an open cheerleader for coal,” Miller said. “I had …more

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IPCC: Rapid Carbon Emission Cuts Vital to Stop Severe Impact of Climate Change

Most important assessment of global warming says solutions to cutting carbon are available and affordable

Climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and the natural world unless carbon emissions are cut sharply and rapidly, according to the most important assessment of global warming yet published.

The stark report states that climate change has already increased the risk of severe heatwaves and other extreme weather and warns of worse to come, including food shortages and violent conflicts. But it also found that ways to avoid dangerous global warming are both available and affordable.

Billowing smoke stakePhoto by Dave SizerCarbon emissions, such as those from coal-fired power plants will have to fall to zero to avoid catastrophic climate change, the IPCC says.

“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message,” said the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, attending what he described as the “historic” report launch. “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” He said that quick, decisive action would build a better and sustainable future, while inaction would be costly.

Ban added a message to investors, such as pension fund managers: “Please reduce your investments in the coal- and fossil fuel-based economy and [move] to renewable energy.”

The report, released in Copenhagen on Sunday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is the work of thousands of scientists and was agreed after negotiations by the world’s governments. It is the first IPCC report since 2007 to bring together all aspects of tackling climate change and for the first time states: that it is economically affordable; that carbon emissions will ultimately have to fall to zero; and that global poverty can only be reduced by halting global warming. The report also makes clear that carbon emissions, mainly from burning coal, oil and gas, are currently rising to record levels, not falling.

The report comes at a critical time for international action on climate change, with the deadline for a global deal just over a year away. In September, 120 national leaders met at the UN in New York to address climate change, while hundreds of thousands of marchers around the world demanded action.

 “We have the means to limit climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC. “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change.”

Lord Nicholas Stern, …more

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