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Smoke ‘Em Out: Time to Kick Big oil from the Global Climate Talks

The climate movement could learn some lessons from the fight against Big Tobacco

At 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 21, the 400,000 people gathered for the People’s Climate March in New York City took a moment of silence for those whose lives have already been lost because of climate change. The silence swept up Central Park West from Columbus Circle to 85th Street. A quiet fell among the Indigenous activists and solar power advocates, the high school students and octogenarians, all packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Ten seconds, 20 seconds, nearly a minute passed. Then, in the distance, a sound, quiet at first, but growing second-by-second until it surrounded us: shouts, hollers, and whoops sounding the alarm about our overheating planet. People around me cheered and hugged, tears streaming down faces. It was heartbreaking; it was exhilarating. We were not alone. We were legion.

People's Climate March in NYCPhoto by South Bend VoiceThe People's Climate March in New York City in September was the largest expression of popular concern about the climate crisis the world has ever seen. But a march alone doesn’t make history.

Organizers called the New York City march the largest climate demonstration ever. Add to that the 2,646 satellite demonstrations from Berlin to Burundi, and the day’s actions were certainly the largest expression of popular concern about the crisis the world has ever seen.

Of course, a march alone doesn’t make history. To do that will require directly confronting the powerful fossil fuel interests that are central culprits in the crisis. Such a confrontation will, among other things, mean kicking the carbon polluters out of the climate negotiating rooms. A huge task, for sure. But we can take courage, and learn lessons, from the brave public-health activists who took on Big Tobacco.

For much of the twentieth century, Big Tobacco had done what Big Oil and King Coal are doing now: stalling regulation of a product that was killing millions a year. By the 1980s, the outcry against Big Tobacco had resulted in movement at the global level as The World Health Assembly began to develop the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Civil society organizations such as Corporate Accountability International (for which I am an adviser) understood that in order to ensure the treaty had teeth, Big Tobacco couldn’t be involved in its framing. But there were divided camps. Some felt it would be impossible to kick Big Tobacco out of the …more

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New Oil & Gas Industry Intel Network Circumvents FOIA law

Now the public has no way of finding out what kind of information is being circulated among network members or with the federal government

What if the private sector banded together to create its own intelligence sharing networks exempt from FOIA law and public accountability?

In the last decade a number of different industries ranging from financial services and health care to nuclear energy and defense have created what are known as Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs). They allow member companies to share information anonymously without fear that it will be subject to FOIA requests or anti-trust violations. Now the oil and gas industry is getting in on the act.

view thorugh a spyholePhoto by Vince PooleyInformation Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs)created by private industries allow member companies to share information anonymously without fear that it will be subject to FOIA requests or anti-trust violations.

In late June, the oil and gas industry announced the creation of an ISAC. According to the group’s website the ONG-ISAC, “is being created to provide shared intelligence on cyber incidents, threats, vulnerabilities, and associated responses present throughout our industry.” The website explains that the analysis center is built around four core principles, among them, “anonymous submissions” and “protection from FOIA disclosure and anti-trust violations.” This is apparently a hallmark of private sector intelligence-sharing networks, even though they continue to share information with government agencies. An ISAC primer published by Booz Allen Hamilton states, “ISACs operate in a manner to protect members from anti-trust violations and Freedom of Information Act queries.”

David Frazier, the chairman of the newly formed ONG-ISAC and director of information technology for Halliburton, told a cybersecurity website that the group, “Will provide industry participants a secure way to share information and stay connected with law enforcement agencies.” So far, according to the Houston Chronicle, at least 25 oil and gas companies have signed on, with membership rates ranging from $2,000 to $50,000 a year.

The first ISAC was established in 1999 to help facilitate the sharing of information between the financial services sector and the federal government. (The Financial Services ISAC now has some 4,500 members and has obtained more than 250 Secret level clearances for key financial services sector personnel, according to congressional testimony in March). After 9/11 the mandate was greatly expanded to encourage “the development of information sharing and analysis mechanisms” between the public and private sectors. But the private sector was reluctant …more

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High up in the Himalayas, Villagers Live Under the Shadow of An Unpredictable Lake

As glacial lakes around the world grow bigger and deeper, high altitude communities are increasingly at risk from catastrophic flooding

Chorabjor stared at me with gimlet eyes. Why had I come?, he asked through a translator. To learn about Lake Shako Cho, I replied. He signaled me to move closer. I sat down at his side on a low bench covered by a yak hair carpet. A woman brought over a tub of biscuits and placed them in front of us. Chorabjor (who, by local custom, goes by only one name) was until recently the headman, or Pipon, the most powerful man, of Lachen, a village of about 1,000 people, in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, near the Tibetan border. He’s “above the law,” my guide had told me. “The police can’t arrest anyone without his permission.” Such a man, I thought, would surely know about threats to the safety of this region.

Sikkim's Thangu Village, surrounded by the HimalayasAll photos by Dan GrossmanThangu, a small village of about 100 homes in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, is perched precariously below Lake Shako Cho, a glacial lake which is at high risk of breaching.

Lake Shako Cho, upstream from Lachen, is growing, said Chorabjor. The natural gravel embankment holding the contents inside could burst at any time, releasing a tidal wave of water. Thangu, a village of about 100 homes immediately below the lake, would be obliterated. The ensuing flood could also demolish houses here, 11 miles farther downstream, especially those near to the unstable bluffs of the lake-fed river that runs just east of town.

I’d heard of Shako Cho from Christian Huggel, a Swiss geographer who has studied the recession of glaciers in the Himalayas, the Andes and elsewhere. Huggel had published a study showing that this particular lake was at high risk of causing a “GLOF,” or glacial lake outburst flood – a type of flood that occurs when a natural dam holding in a glacial lake fails. Climate change has drastically increased the likelihood of GLOFs, which pose a major risk to mountain communities living near or downhill from glacial lakes.

We are already well aware that global warming is decimating mountain glaciers almost everywhere on Earth. In Peru, glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca have shrunk by 20-30 percent since 1970. Today they’re wasting away by 3 percent per year. In Switzerland, the Alps melted by 12 percent between 1999 and 2008. They lost 3 …more

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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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