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Why South Asian Americans Are Speaking Out About Climate Change

When islands disappear in Bangladesh or crops fail in India, we're not looking at abstract numbers, but at people who may be part of our extended families

On Sunday, I was at the People's Climate March in New York City, learning, sharing, and marching with three generations of South Asian American activists to the beat of dhols (drums). It was an emotionally charged day. I have been working as an organizer within the South Asian community and as a landscape architect for over a decade, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I fully understood how these two identities came together. South Asian Americans embody the dilemma of climate change. Our home countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are among the most climate-impacted in the world, but we live our lives in a nation that's the single biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases.

South Asians contingent at the People’s Climate MarchPhoto courtesy Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice South Asian Americans — whose home countries are among the most climate-impacted in the world, yet who live in a nation that’s the single biggest historical emitter greenhouse gases — embody one of the dilemma’s of climate change.

When the People's Climate March was announced, my group, San Francisco Bay Area-based Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice knew we needed to be there to help amplify voices from the global frontlines and to add our voices and perspectives to the climate justice movement.

Some of us may be America's doctors and engineers, cab drivers and motel owners, but we are defined by more than our professions. According to a 2012 survey, 67 percent of Indian Americans consider themselves environmentalists, and 69 percent would prioritize the environment over the economy. Our values are far greener than many other sections of the American population.

Most of us are also recent immigrants, tracing our roots in the US to after 1965 (when the legacy of racist anti-Asian immigration laws ended in the wake of the Civil Rights movement). That means when there's climate-linked flooding in Kashmir, sea level rise in Bangladesh, crop failures in India, or glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalayas, we're not looking at abstract climate-impacted communities, but at people who look like us, who might be part of our extended families, with whom we share language, religion, or other cultural touchstones.

We make up 1 percent of America, and if activated, we have an …more

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People’s Climate March: Morning After Musings

Corporate apologists are going to be most threatened by the moral message that religious and social justice groups brought to the airwaves.

Sometimes, one has to break from journalistic detachment to emotionally process a historic event. On Sunday, about 400,000 people showed up to the People's Climate March in New York City, more than quadruple the number predicted by march organizers. 

Last night, as I sat on the train back from New York to Washington D.C., I felt a number of emotions when I processed the events of the day. Although I met famous personalities Senator Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben my mind dwelled on the folks I met who are still suffering after Superstorm Sandy, and those who have been fighting oil pipelines in their own backyard, and those have been arrested in nonviolent direct actions in the past few years. I met one person who was fighting a natural gas export facility that I had shilled for as a corporate pollster almost a decade ago.

Ark Makes Way Through Flood of PeoplePhoto by Light Brigading An Ark float makes its way through a flood of people at the People’s Climate March in NYC yesterday. Unlike casting doubt to undermine sound science, it’s much trickier to counter a well-crafted message based on morality, love, and justice.

The People's Climate March is probably my most significant political experience. I think it has the potential to be more significant than Earth Day, which kicked off the environmental movement nearly half a century ago. (Read my previous on-the-ground report from the march here)

As I rode the train home, I felt optimistic. Maybe it is something about trains. For me, they remind me of my time when I lived in Germany where sustainability was an unquestioned value of those of all political stripes, where everyone composted and recycled, and where some days more than 50 percent of energy comes from solar power. The turnout at People's Climate March gives me a genuine hope that we as a society could be on the verge of a paradigm shift. The march brought together 1,574 “partner organizations,” from labor unions to faith groups to various social justice communities. The crowd looked like America in a true demographic sense: it was racially, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse.

But as the train trip progressed I looked out upon rustbelt landscapes and saw what looked like a coal-fired power plant. I remembered that …more

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Nearly 400,000 Marchers Sound the ‘Climate Alarm’ in New York City

Largest climate protest in history draws comparisons to the first Earth Day action in Manhattan 44 years ago

New York City: A massive river of humanity poured through the canyon of concrete called Manhattan this morning as the People’s Climate March kicked off. Advertised as the largest climate march in history, it was predicted that as many as 100,000 people would participate in the event. The actual turnout was four times as much.

Crowd shot of the People's Climate March in NYCPhoto by Annette BernhardtFrom those effected by Superstorm Sandy, to interfaith groups, to scientists and students and ethnic coalitions — every conceivable interest and identity group found its place behind various props, banners, and works of art at the People's Climate March in NYC today.

When I spoke with Senator Bernie Sanders earlier in morning, at a point when anyone would have been thrilled with 100,000 marchers, he was grinning ear to ear: "Success has been achieved. This is already a huge march. Best of all, many young people. We are going to send a loud message to Koch Brothers and their billionaire backers," he said.

Today’s event was the result of months of organizing and the participation of over 1,574 “partner organizations”  — from labor unions to faith groups to various social justice communities  — each of which turned out their members en masse. About 550 buses brought 25,000 people from all over the country. Many others took trains in, and then of course, there were the locals.

We marched today to send a very loud and clear message that citizens across the world are demanding action from their governments on climate change. Two days ahead of a United Nations Climate Summit in the city, marchers (including no less than the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) hope to reinvigorate the climate movement and add momentum to the climate talks in Paris next December, where a binding global treaty on climate is supposed to be concluded. A similar effort failed in 2009 in Copenhagen. The stakes are high.

Earlier in morning, marchers assembled along 27 blocks on Central Park West, from 59th Street to 86th Street. The assembly zone felt like an ecosystem with countless niches. From those effected by Superstorm Sandy, to interfaith groups, to scientists and students and ethnic coalitions, every conceivable interest and identity group found its place behind various props, banners, and works of art.

At the …more

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“Love Will Save This Place.”

Why we still need wilderness in the era of climate change

This article originally appeared at The

Trust the academics, God bless ’em, to confirm the obvious.

This summer the journal BioScience reported that global climate change has eclipsed biodiversity conservation as the top environmental concern among philanthropies and scientific researchers, as well as in media coverage. The shift is hardly news: A glance at the websites of the leading environmental organizations reveals that global warming is the central issue for most campaigning outfits. Over the past fifteen years, as reports about the scope of the climate crisis piled up, much of the green movement has pivoted from a focus on wildlands preservation to human self-preservation.

Forward on Climate ProtestPhoto by Steve RhodesClimate change activists protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in San Francisco.

Environmentalists’ urgency will be on display today in New York City as crowds gather for the People’s Climate March. Organizers are hoping to recruit more than 100,000 people to rally in Manhattan on the eve of a climate summit at the United Nations, with similar demonstrations to take place worldwide. Greens hope the global day of action will highlight the recklessness of the carbon barons and their political sock puppets, and jolt global leaders into action to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

By coincidence, the People’s Climate March will come just two weeks after the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act. That law is one of the signature accomplishments of the American environmental movement. It marked a sweeping extension of the national park philosophy by establishing a legal definition of wild places as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The anniversary should be an occasion for celebration, yet conservationists find themselves in something of a defensive stance. The wilderness ideal is experiencing a “midlife crisis,” The New York Times declared this summer. Drawing two-dimensional lines on a map appears insufficient for the multi-dimensional threats of an overheated and overcrowded planet. Federal land managers are struggling with whether to manipulate wilderness areas to save certain plants and animals, while advanced technologies erode the wild’s remoteness and isolation. The once-solid certainties about the value of wild nature are melting under the glare of a hot, new sky.

Environmentalists are having to figure out where (or whether) wilderness fits into civilization’s twenty-first-century survival kit, a question that is forcing a split among the green …more

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All Aboard the People’s Climate Train

Activists tackle big-picture questions while traveling across the country for Sunday’s big march in NYC

On an Amtrak train hurtling east toward New York City, a wall is festooned with bright-colored sticky notes announcing workshops and discussion groups: “stories and photos from the Tar Sands Healing Walk,” “Fukushima,” “stories and photos from Keystone XL,” “green sustainable regenerative building;” “near-term human extinction, i.e., 2030,” “Typhoon Haiyan.”

Conversations in the lounge car and across the aisle take on big questions: the culture of materialism, consumption, and profit; how much coal we burn reading a book; getting money out of politics; Wall Street, fossil fuels divestment, and the green economy.

People's Climate Train at RenoPhoto by Bob BennettThe first People's Climate Train in Reno, NV. Two trains from San Francisco carried hundreds of activists across the country for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

Welcome to the People’s Climate Train, one of two trains that departed from the San Francisco Bay Area on September 15 and 16 carrying hundreds of activists across the country for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

I boarded the second People’s Climate Train in San Francisco along with a small but diverse group of 18 activists. We have been joined by dozens more along the way. The mood among the activists is upbeat and engaged, but realistic about the prospects of the mass mobilization delivering significant change. With some of us coming from as far away as Hawai‘i, we have committed to a long, fun-but-wearying trip to help pump up the numbers and volume in what all hope is the biggest climate change protest in US history.

Nobody here expects one big march to change everything, yet there is a palpable urgency about the need for sweeping changes in how we live and do business as a society. As we traverse eye-popping landscapes — towering rocky mountains, deep gorges sliced by white-capped river waters, yellow-orange bursts of early autumn foliage — our conversations navigate a more distressing terrain: ecological devastation and First Nations’ resistance against the tar sands mines in Alberta; the maddening persistence of Big Coal and Big Oil amid an exponentially worsening climate crisis; and a culture and economy of consumption that enables and encourages it all.

The train ride is “a great reminder of what we’re going to New York for,” says Sonny Lawrence Alea, a recent environmental studies graduate from San Francisco State University. “This …more

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“A Weekend to Change the Course of History”?

Beyond appealing to powers-that-be, climate justice movements need to focus on creating systemic change to address the climate crisis

A Weekend to Change the Course of History. That is how the call-to-action for the People's Climate March taking place this coming Saturday, September 21, begins. The appeal goes on to suggest the weekend will be used “to bend the course of history.” This raises some questions critical to climate movements. How do we make that bend? And in what direction? In other words, what understandings and methods of social change inform the New York mobilization, and where do we want it to lead? These are urgent questions. The scale of the New York mobilization and the concentration of resources for the march demands that we put such questions firmly on the table.

Climate MarchPhoto by cactusbonesPosters advertise the People's Climate March on the streets of New York City.

The answers hinge on what we understand the nature of the problem to be. There are two general kinds of problems: surface and systemic. Imagine a house. Surface problems would include paint peeling, a leaky faucet or even flooring that needs replacement. All of those repairs can be done within the structure of a home. In the political realm, surface problems might include road decay, wasteful government spending or the lack of green spaces. Systemic problems go deeper. They would include a cracked foundation or rotted support beams that are so severe that fixing them would entail fixing the structure itself — or building an entirely new home. Racism and sexism are such problems. It isn’t enough (or even possible) to integrate schools or create policies for pay equity; the very structures that support these systems must be challenged for them to be addressed.

Climate change is also fundamentally a systemic problem. The climate crisis has emerged from the structures of our society, particularly capitalism, and their arrangement of values.

There are a wide variety of activities planned in New York and I know that many environmental and climate justice groups involved in the march understand the systemic nature of the climate crisis and are articulating community-based, power building strategies. I believe this approach is essential. However, I worry that the surface-level politics of the big environmental (and other) organizations and a march and rally to pressure heads of state focus on surface-level approaches, and could drown out those voices calling for systemic change.


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Governor Brown Sign’s Historic Groundwater Legislation

Trio of bills may put California on the path to groundwater sustainability

California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in centuries, yet until yesterday, it was also the only western state without a statewide water management plan. That changed on Tuesday, when Governor Brown signed into law three bills that call for extensive oversight of the state’s groundwater resources, thus enacting the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Effect of the drought on Uvas ReservoirPhoto by Don DeBoldWater levels are low in the Uvas Reservoir, as shown in this March 2014 photo.

The three-bill legislative package to improve groundwater sustainability was passed by the state senate and assembly in August at a time when the drought was raising serious questions about California’s ability to sustain adequate groundwater levels.

Water rights have long been considered property rights in California, leaving landowners with full discretion about how much groundwater they pumped from the land. Due to this, some water basins have suffered from overdraft, with more water being pumped out than could be replaced through natural processes. The closest the state has previously come to regulating groundwater is to encourage local agencies to adopt their own groundwater plans.

Taken together, the bills — AB 1739 (sponsored by Assemblymember Dickinson, D-Sacramento), AB 1319, and SB 1168 (both sponsored by Senator Fran Pavley, D-Angoura Hills) — will work off of the existing local management structure while also laying out a comprehensive statewide water management scheme. “We have to learn how to manage wisely water, energy, land and our investments,” Governor Brown stated in a press release regarding the legislation. “That’s why this is important.”

SB 1168 directs local agencies to develop sustainable groundwater management plans. These plans must contain measurable objectives to achieve groundwater sustainability within 20 years. The bill also classifies state water basins as either low-, medium- or high- risk based on risk of overdraft. Low-risk basins are monitored, but otherwise generally left alone. Medium- and high-risk basins trigger action at the state level to improve basin sustainability.

AB 1739 dovetails with SB 1168, providing for state intervention and interim management when local agencies aren’t satisfying management requirements.  In a signing message, Governor Brown emphasized that the State’s primary role will be to provide guidance and technical support to local authorities, rather than to intervene.

"I think this truly is …more

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