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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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Now’s the Time to Get National Forest Planning Right

The US Forest Service’s decision on how three California national forests will be managed could have far-reaching implications

Conservationists across the country have their eyes on California’s southern Sierra Nevada as the US Forest Service decides how the Sequoia, Inyo, and Sierra national forests will be managed over the next several decades. What comes of this long and drawn out planning process, which will last several months, could have long-term, far-reaching implications for our water supply, recreational opportunities, wildlife, air quality, forest and fire management, and economy —not just here, but on all our national forests and the communities that live by them.

Sequoia National ForestPhoto by john Fowler The Sequoia, Inyo, and Sierra national forests are among the most treasured landscapes in the Sierra region.

These three forests are the first out of the gate to implement new forest planning rules that were adopted in 2012 after many controversial and failed attempts to update the existing regulations which date back to 1982.

Conserving the wildlife, scenic beauty, and clean water offered by California’s national forests is crucial to sustaining the lifestyle Californians enjoy and depend on — especially robust outdoor recreation economy. The national forests serve as the state’s single largest source of clean water, providing nearly 50 percent of our water supply. These lands, managed by the Forest Service, also support about 38,000 jobs and draw millions of visitors to the Golden State each year.

The Sequoia, Inyo, and Sierra national forests are among the most treasured landscapes in the Sierra region. The combined four million acres of these forests are home to a wealth of natural wonders. From majestic giant sequoia groves to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, to world renowned wilderness areas.  This is a land of superlatives. All kinds of wildlife call these forests home, including the rare Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, California’s state fish, the golden trout, the northern goshawk, Yosemite toad, black bear, great gray owl, and many more.

The outdoor recreational opportunities in these forests benefit local businesses and provide important sales tax revenues to local governments. Each year more than 4.3 million people visit the forests of the southern Sierra, making them an anchor for important recreation-based economies in Inyo, Mono, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, and Mariposa counties. With more than 3,150 miles of hiking trails and ample opportunities to ski, bird watch, camp, picnic, hunt, fish, ride horses, and …more

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Costa Rica Still a Hotspot for Birders

Travelers flock to the Central American nation with high hopes of seeing rare and beautiful birds

On an overcast day in the middle of Costa Rica’s green season, the boat floated down the murky Río Frío (cold river) along the border of Nicaragua. Large trees, seemingly pulled from a Dr. Seuss book, lined the waterway, casting shadows along the water’s edge.

This was my first trip to Costa Rica, a 2013 journey to catch sights of as many exotic species as possible. I went into the rainforests, cloud forests and unique water environments like so many other camera-toting tourists. I was looking for a sloth, those adorable, smiley mammals that have become a must-see in this Central American locale. If no sloth were ready available, a caiman alligator would do, maybe even a Baird’s tapir or fer-de-lance snake (at least from a safe distance). I was not naïve enough to think that a jaguar sighting was in the cards.

Resplendent_Quetzal_Costa_Ricaphoto by myheimu, on FlickrBirders travel to Costa Rica to catch sight of the resplendent quetzal and other birds.

However, rather quickly, and especially along the bubbly highway of the Río Frío, I realized that Costa Rica’s bird species are far greater an attraction than anything with four legs or no legs at all. After 10 days of touring, visiting some of the usual jaunts like the area around Arenal Volcano, Monteverde and its cloud forest, and the beachside tranquility of Manuel Antonio, my bird list had grown voluminous. From the resplendent quetzal, a transfixing bird I found in the Monteverde region, to a female anhinga swiveling its neck into an “S” shape on a dead tree up north, the discoveries were relatively easy to find. They were breathtakingly stunning for this inexperienced birder, almost to the point where I wanted to ask the howler monkeys to quiet down so I could focus my eyes on each bird’s plumage.

My new obsession for these winged creatures is an obsession shared by many other travelers. Richard Garrigues, author of The Birds of Costa Rica from Zona Tropical Publications, has been birding since he was 16 and living in suburban New Jersey. He chased his birding dream all the way to Costa Rica, where he’s been living for more than 30 years. “I just happened to stumble into tourism here in Costa Rica,” Garrigues said recently. “Never thought about writing a book either.”

He now …more

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